Yes, I am four months late. But I will squeeze this one in as I prepare the next blog from our recent trip to Spain.
Riki’s family has a place in Guarda, in the Romansh speaking part of Switzerland. That’s the fourth language of Switzerland, which originates from Latin. Yes, a country this small has four official languages, though only something like 30,000 people still speak Romansh and even that has different dialects. For me, Chalandamarz is basically Swiss Groundhog Day, but a month later. And instead of a groundhog, there are a bunch of kids running around with cow bells around their necks to scare away winter. But that’s something special to Guarda. We ventured to the neighboring town to go sledding and check out their festivities and were less than pleasantly surprised at the antics they got up to. In Ftan, we encountered young adults whacking each other on the backs with inflated pigs bladders. A far cry from Groundhog Day, where we just rouse a small sleeping mammal from his quiet slumber.
But first we went sledding on old-school little wooden sleds on 20 minute long runs. My first and only Swiss Alpine sporting adventure thus far.
When we ventured into Ftan after sledding, we were expecting a kids festival, complete with confetti and maybe some Alpine music. But what we witnessed was not even close to that. The kids festival had occurred earlier in the morning and we were there to witness the young adults version. Like I said, pigs bladders.
All in all, the festival in Ftan left me with a bad taste in my mouth. And not because any of the pig intestines got in there, though it was unavoidably on our boots. It was more the cringing/jolting feeling every time someone wound up their arm to smack the inflated bladders at full force into their neighbor’s back. That, was not my cup of tea.
Luckily, the festival in Guarda is much more tame and friendly. We woke up early, donned all of our winter clothes and trudged out into the village to watch the local children ring giant bells and walk around all the fountains chasing away winter. It was more picturesque as well.
Called Fasnacht, not Mardi Gras, it is a pre-Lent carnival found in Switzerland, southern Germany, Alsace and western Austria. Our plan was to check out the difference between the festivals and lucky for us, the main ones nearby were on different weekends.
Fortunately, we were not at all invested in the Super Bowl this year, or the 5 am bus into Lucerne would have been brutal as the game ended at 4:30 am our time. We layered up and donned our only costumes, frog and toad. It’s a far cry from any Mardi Gras costumes from our past, as we downsized our costume box for a costume drawer, which currently only houses the eyes, hands and tongues to complete our reptilian costumes. We thought they were pretty decent, but we were way out staged just on the morning bus.
A little before 6 am, we were in the old part of Lucerne, looking for the Guggenmusige, or improvised masked bands. The bands walk around the area, on apparently no particular route throughout the morning, stopping to play at squares or larger parts of the street. Mostly brass, they play a variety of music, most we didn’t recognize, but they were catchy and fun. The members wear big masks and can sometimes play through them, but mostly have to remove them to play their instruments. We spent most of the morning wandering around, catching tidbits of different bands and admiring the many high quality and beautiful costumes. As far as we could tell, about 50% of people had gorgeous, intricate costumes and about 50% were in animal fur onesies. It’s extremely popular to dress up as a group and there were many families that had themes, which including mini versions for the kids. The costumes overall were better than New Orleans during Mardi Gras, where it is quite common to just wear something ridiculous and clashing, and not so much an actual costume.
Not only were we impressed with the costumes in Lucerne, but the music was more original than we’ve heard in Switzerland so far. We hung around most of the morning watching the bands, found a good spot for the small parade that afternoon and met up with some friends.
Lucerne was more crowded than anywhere we had been in Switzerland (besides one day in Zurich for a techno fest where we got tear gased – but that’s another story). It was great to smile, dance, laugh and join the general shenanigans, something we have missed since leaving New Orleans.
The following weekend we headed to Basel, where the Fasnacht scene is completely different. Not only do they speak a different dialect of Swiss German, but they have a very different celebration.
The Sunday after Fat Tuesday we had gracious hosts who took us to Listal, just outside of Basel. Here, the parade consisted of people in helmets carrying ignited wood down a narrow street and everyone getting slightly scorched as they walked by. At first, we were worried we couldn’t see, as we were at least six people back from the front of the bystanders and I was significantly shorter than most. But as the floats got larger and larger, the fires did too, curling at the tops to almost touch the buildings, the people in front of us were forced to turn away as the floats passed and we were grateful for the human shields. The fires even got large enough to singe the bottom of an arch as the floats went through. But firefighters were there to spray the buildings down as necessary. The pictures aren’t great as it was night and too hot to really expose the camera at times. Riki managed only to get one small hole in his brand new rain coat and my hair only caught on fire twice, though my neighbors were kind enough to slap me across the head before it started to smell too bad.
People stepping back
Shielding Riki from the fire
Fire under the arch
The next morning in Basel, we were once again in for an early start. 3 am this time. And by 4 am we were in the city when all the lights were turned off and the parades started. Bands of little flutes and drums, alit with glowing hats marched down the streets, pulling satirical painted floats. Though we couldn’t understand the politics behind the local floats, there were a few making fun of the good ole US of A, where we could surmise the meaning. As the sun rose, we returned to take a nap and await the start of the afternoon parades.
That afternoon, we found a good spot on a bridge, right in the middle where the two parade routes crossed. From here we were heavily doused with oranges and candy, and I had to be careful to keep my hair covered for fear of an onslaught of confetti, which doesn’t just wash out.
We stayed til the end of the parades and as it got dark, the floats were relit and the people went to warmer places to continue the celebrations.
Overall, we found Lucerne to be a more inclusive event, more welcoming to tourists and outsiders. Basel put on a bigger show though, with massive parades and goodies to throw. The last picture doesn’t convey this well, but we found the Basel shenanigans to be a bit more tame, though maybe they were just confined to the indoors, as the weather was pretty frigid.
A few things New Orleans could learn from Fasnacht: confetti may be a bit better for the environment, but plastic beads are probably easier to clean up, throws of oranges and candy can be just as fun as plush animals and plastic crap made in China, family costumes are cute and make it easy to spot your kids.
I am writing from 11,000 meters in the air, hoping the only baby on the plane, who happens to be seated in our row, will stop screaming soon. But it reminded me that I needed to do a Zurich post, so that’s good I guess. Though, as Riki just pointed out, these parents today have spent the most time trying to calm the baby down that we have ever seen. But to no avail.
Which leads me back to last week when we flew from Barcelona to Zurich. (The screaming has gotten worse)
After 4 great days wandering around Barcelona, we headed back to Zurich for a week of organizing and visiting family. Plane karma strikes again though and we are seated with two boys behind us who quickly discover how to slam the tray tables up and down. Upon takeoff, karma continues. This time in the form of the business class passenger in front of us who has so kindly stowed his cut flowers, complete with extra water, in the compartment above us. As the plane ascends, the bag leaks and streams of water cascade over our heads and onto the boys behind us. Luckily our bags were in another compartment and the woman with a laptop up there rescued it in time. This didn’t help quiet the boys and they were ultimately separated, but not before we started our final descent into Zurich.
We spent the first few days in Zurich planning our stay in Bangkok and figuring out how to squeeze in a side trip to Nepal while my parents are there. We located where we will go in Bangkok to get our Vietnamese visas and our polio shots. We also went to the Zurich city hall to register our marriage. We have yet to confirm that we actually registered, or what it will do for us, but we did fill out some paperwork.
We had lots of family meals and broke out of our meat, cheese and bread habits. Basically, by adding pasta. The food in Zurich is great, except that I have not been able to find peach yogurt (they have delicious peaches though). There are incredible dried meats and so many different kids of Swiss cheese (with and without holes). We took Riki’s cousin, Fridolin fishing in the river in downtown Zurich and to everyone’s surprise, we actually caught a fish!
That evening we went to, and I’m not sure what to call this exactly, but it was a bunch of shops that were open very late and there was music and food. In New Orleans this would have been like white linen night or art for art’s sake. The best part was a Swiss band playing country music while wearing cowboy hats and pin-striped suits. Imagine your typical Swiss banker donning a plastic cowboy hat and playing the banjo. Good music, mediocre vocals, but very amusing.
Saturday, Riki’s sister Chia and her husband Greg arrived in Zurich after a week or so in the mountains. Riki’s aunts, Noggi and Toodle, organized a big dinner for us, complete with champagne to celebrate our wedding and a flowered crown straight from Greece. We managed to coordinate our colors and took this group selfie outside Riki’s grandmother’s house.
Riki has two little cousins not pictured who we enjoyed seeing. They have grown so much since I last saw them 2 years ago. They were not too keen on playing with us (perhaps because my German is non-existent and their English is about as good as any toddler’s) but I think we made an impression. There is now a very attractive bug-eyed helicopter that sticks out its tongue called Julie and a much more handsome cymbal-playing airplane potentially called Riki.
We are beginning our descent into Stockholm where we will meet up with the other side of Riki’s family….and the baby still screams.
I’m not going to bore you with the details of the flight except to say that I have decided there should be a “children’s section” on planes. They used to have smoking sections, why not one for children? Eight children under 8 within 8 feet should not be allowed on a (small) plane. On to the good stuff.
I have been to Spain before. Riki had not. My friend, Cristina, my “Spaniard” as we lovingly refer to her, is from the north of Spain in Oviedo, Asturias. It is a beautiful place, kind of with weather like the Pacific Northwest, mostly rainy, but very green. We got lucky and had a few days of very warm weather. Oviedo is a charming old town, with remnants of an old wall and lots of churches – my favorite. We went into this one, I promise.
We tried vermouth – from a very famous martini place in Oviedo. Not my favorite, but the olive was delicious
The next day we went to an amazing fishing village along the coast called Cudillero. It reminded us of Cinqueterra in Italy, with its steep sides and lack of streets. It has a lighthouse and lots of meandering paths up the mountains where the houses are only accessible by foot. Imagine carrying your groceries up to the top of this.
Next stop, a rocky beach called Playa del Silencio that involved a trek down a cliff. The water was frigid, but Riki and Cristina braved it despite the rough waves.
We picked up our chauffeur for the week that evening, Miguel (the male “Spaniard”),
and had a fabulous dinner with Cristina’s dad, where he lives in Aviles. Heading east the next day, we stopped along the shore at a spot where the water comes through the land and creates a small sandy cove – Playa de Gulpiyuri.
We took a funicular up to the village of Bulnes (population ~50 in the summer, 5 in the winter) where you can see the Picos de Europa – a particularly nice view after an hour and half hike up some pretty steep terrain, where I learned the words for wet rocks – piedras mojadas. Bulnes is not accessible by car and the funicular is a relatively new development. Prior to the funicular, it was only reachable by a hour long hike.
Next stop, Covadonga (also went in this church) where this massive church was built on a tall ledge. Very impressive. It is the area were Pelayo drove the invading Moors back into the mountains, the first victory. I could have this all wrong, but that’s what I remember.
They have a lot of cows here.
We went to a very cool beach that is completely enclosed on the sides, forming a “canal” of sorts before ending our day in Llanes where we stayed at Cristina’s family apartment. Llanes is a beach town and was very crowded with people and shops. Had to have ice cream every night of course.
To end our trip on an educational note, we spent a few hours at the dinosaur museum, along the coast where they have found ancient footprints of actual dinosaurs. I’m a bit skeptical of the dinosaurs with feathers idea as there were no feathers in “Land Before Time.”
I have bad plane karma. It is a fact. Riki says if I bring it up, it only jinxes it, but really its better if I’m prepared for the worst because when its only half bad, that’s better than usual. I bring this up in my first blog ever as I assume there will be some additional ranting in the next few months as we continue across the globe. So be prepared.
We made it to Zurich late Thursday night after some bad and somewhat bad plane karma. Riki’s flight to DC was cancelled and he arrived on the next available flight, 14 hours later. We had a pretty uneventful flight to Istanbul, where we spent 3 hours, mostly trying to see if the Hagia Sophia was visible from the airport. We’re pretty sure it’s not, in case you are wondering. I highly recommend Turkish Airlines. They were very courteous and the meals we had were good for airplane food. They have lots of entertainment available on individual screens and still give out little travel kits of socks, eye masks, toothbrushes and ear plugs. The somewhat bad plane karma came into play on our flight from Istanbul to Zurich. Our assigned seats were the row between an infant in front and two small brothers behind. I never get to sit next to anyone good. There is always a screaming child or a person too large or too smelly to be sitting that close to me. In this case it was screaming kids. The infant wasn’t even that bad. She quieted down after take-off. The two monsters behind us however were a different story. Between the incessant seat kicking and hysterical crying/screaming/laughing, it was a long 3 hours.
But we made it and spent the next two days wandering around Zurich, which is where the ugly ducklings made their appearance.
We visited with much of Riki’s family here in Zurich, including some growing cousins and his sister, who is conveniently in Geneva for a few weeks.
Tomorrow we go to Spain to see my Spaniards in Oviedo and then to Barcelona for the weekend.