Tuesday, February 12, 2008

One last day in Geneva

Wow, tired! What apres-ski? We're not even snowboarding anymore but with all the walking we've done each day I still find myself ready for bed in the middle of dinner each evening. Not a good idea to nod off into a bowl of spaghetti.... Today is our last full day in Geneva, heck it's our last full day in Europe for this trek! Hard to believe it's been nearly two weeks but I'm almost out of clean clothes again so I guess I'd better go home tomorrow. Laundry is expensive here.
Today I am off on foot to explore Geneva some while the other three go get Dalrene new leathers for her bike. Since we're staying somewhat toward one end of the waterfront, I walked down with the others to the middle where the lake drains into the river. It's quite fast moving water which is a little unnerving but it's very clear and beautiful too. I didn't take the time to test the temperature. On our way, we went out on a pier to explore some more where we found some neat bathing pools and a lovely stone beach with nice views of the city and the lake. It wasn't cold enough for the lake to have frozen so there were lots of boats still moored to buoys and docks. I wandered around to the other side of the waterfront to see for myself more closely the famed Jet d'Eau. It's got some neat history to it and reaches an impressive height of 140m with 500 litres of water coming out of the nozzle every second at about 200 kph.

Having some time to myself and time to kill, I took to the side streets without my map to drink in the sights and sounds of this great place. Most everywhere you turn there's something neat to see. I'm rather a fan of carvings and other neat architectural features and was never disappointed at how much of that I found in Geneva. Neat little balconys, details above doorways, dates carved into buildings, gorgeous clocks on towers, you name it. It's not everyone's cup of tea but it made me happy. Soon I found myself back in Old Geneva so I settled down to wait for the slowpokes to join me for lunch by the cafes in the square. After a bite to eat and a hot chocolate for me, we headed off to the Patek Philippe museum. For those like me who profess to know very little about watches, this is a VERY lovely museum (the kind with marble everywhere for example) of VERY expensive and ultra chichi time pieces. Some of them date back to the 16th century with the company itself dating back to 1839. We all got a lot out of our visit and actually left Tony there because he enjoyed it so much.

Back in Old Geneva, we entered an Anglican church which was rather remarkable from the outside because of its many architectural styles. It would appear (my memory is faulty so I can't cite fact) as though each addition through the years was done in a different style for some reason. Very odd looking but quite beautiful inside. Soaring ceilings, immense pillars, gorgeous stained glass windows, enormous pipe organ in an upper loft, endless rows of pews. We ducked into a room off to the side and found the most lovely decor with fun painted ceilings, neat carvings, a smaller organ, heavy drapes and much colour. I really enjoyed our visit there although there was a sign by the entrance asking people not to enter the church during religious services. Maybe it was geared toward atheists?

Some goofing around on a playground adjacent to the church resulting in me feeling very dizzy after the comasickadizzawhirl and a near miss with a puddle on the teeter totter with Sean. Dalrene had a great time watching that one develop. Some more photos and we're off to Manor for last minute chocolate shopping and purchasing of extra luggage with which to drag it all home (NOT me for the record). We scrounged one last dinner at the train station then it was back to our unheated and strangely scented room for the final packing. This took some choreography as our room was not that big but eventually we got it done and turned in for the night, knowing how horribly early the alarm was set for.

Do people seriously rise at 4am on purpose? I thought this was a vacation! Oh right, we've a train to catch. Quick ablutions and linen stripping, then it was load-yourself-like-a-camel time. Off we stumbled and staggered to the train station, groaning under the weight of our luggage. One quick train ride later and it was check-in time at the airport. Only one person had to pay extra for their obese baggage weight but I won't name names. We had an interesting time at security when Sean realized that the coconut body wash he'd bought had been packed in his snowboarding helmet which happened to be in my carry on. It's still in Switzerland although one bottle made it back in the regular luggage. All too soon we were boarding our plane and bidding a fond farewell to a great country and a fantastic trip! Hope to see you again soon :)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Goodbye Zermatt, Hello Geneva~!

U2 sings a song called "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and although we had to get up early on our last Sunday overseas, it was a great day. Bidding a fond farewell to our funky smelling room after our same old breakfast (milk, orange juice, 4 kinds of cereal, 4 kinds of yogurt, rock hard butter, 2 kinds of bread, 4 kinds of jam, stale cheese, 3 kinds of mystery meat: repeat for 10 days), we loaded ourselves like mules and staggered down the steps and slopes into town. Did I really bring this much stuff??!! Unfortunately we just missed the train to Geneva so we settled down amongst our heavy belongings in the cold morning light to wait nearly an hour for the next one. A near miss of our connecting train in Visp caused some brief adrenaline highs but soon we arrived back in Geneva where we'd landed nearly two weeks previously. A bright sunny day greeted us with blue skies everywhere. Heads down in concentration (and pain?), we gritted our teeth and dragged everything to the hostel. Since we couldn't have our room for another few hours (they closed during the day for cleaning), we chucked our luggage in lockers and headed out on foot to take in the sights and sounds of a great city.

There's so much to see and do in Geneva that our 3-ish days weren't nearly enough but knowing how much I really wanted to see the two headed turtle, Sean steered our group to the Museum of Natural History. We stopped at the Museum of Art and History on the way to get directions then were pleasantly surprised at the Natural History one to discover that admission was free because it was the first Sunday of the month. Sweet! These people are smart. Sure enough, I got to see my turtle and after a few hours (plus a visit to the gift shop of course), we were ready to move on. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/09/photogalleries/wip-week45/

From floral clocks to the Jet d'Eau, museums everywhere to Old Geneva, Botanical Gardens, high end shopping, watches, chocolates, government, whew! This place needs a repeat visit, hopefully in the near future. As it were, we found ourselves in the old town with neat cobblestone narrow streets, aged buildings, an immense church and a most excellent spaghetti house. It was here that we imbibed in only our second non-hostel dinner since arriving in my favourite country and the food was great! Having discovered that, of the 4 of us, I possessed the lengthiest exposure to the French language, I would be oft enlisted to help translate both written and spoken French over the next few days. People in Geneva speak primarily French (not surprising given their extreme proximity to France) while those in Zermatt spoke mostly German although they were virtually at the Italian border. Needless to say to those who are worried, English is widely understood and spoken too. Failing that, charades usually work. Satiated and sleepy, we wandered back to our hostel and tried to get the heat working in our room. The people in there now are probably still trying....

Our first full day in Geneva was a bit of a mixed bag. First thing in the morning we faced pouring rain and nearly the same breakfast as Zermatt but we were determined to enjoy ourselves anyway. Donning our best game faces, we set out in the Vancouver weather to get our tour of the United Nations. This was something we were all excited about and it was awesome! Our window of opportunity was small as many museums and public places are closed on Mondays. We lucked out with the U.N. and lined up to get through security while dripping puddles of water on the nice floors. First things first, we killed time in the gift shop (I'm turning into my mother) then set out with our tour guide for a behind the scenes look at one of the most guarded places I've ever been. Such history, such responsibility, such importance, such a nice shade of blue, such expansive use of marble...... amazing! I learned a lot and really enjoyed myself. Even the bathrooms were great.

We'd planned to tackle the Red Cross museum across the street next but after photo ops around the U.N. and at the entrance to the Red Cross museum, we opted to explore the gift shop then go our separate ways. Maybe next time... I set off for the Botanical Gardens while the other 3 headed toward downtown for some exploring of their own. Having been to a great Botanical Gardens in Montreal last July, I had to tell myself that the expansive areas of grey and brown in front of me would be gorgeous in the summer but that as it was only February, I would have to be content exploring the greenhouses. I did see some really pretty set ups and some great flowers indoors. I'd love to go back sometime in the warmer months to see more outdoor plantings. Detouring behind the World Trade Organization building, I set off along the lake under overcast skies to meet the others at the comic book store. Here was a place that sold (among other things) Tintin memorabilia and books, something that has a special meaning in my life. I was happy to peruse the French titles and be flooded with memories by the pictures inside. Heading over to the Manor store (department store with groceries and a restaurant), we got ourselves some yummy pizza for dinner and made good use of the chocolate department. The solution tonight for our heater not working was extra blankets from the front desk.....

Italian attempt number two

While I don't often have "goals" when on vacation, this trip had a few things I wished to accomplish, among which were to ride my snowboard Luna down to Breuil-Cervinia in Italy as well as see the two-headed turtle in Geneva. More on the turtle later.

Saturday, Feb 2 was a momentous day. Not only was it Darlene's birthday (age withheld due to fear of retribution) but it was our final full day in Zermatt. This meant I had one last chance to haul my aching self over the hills and back again. Crack all the age jokes you want but after 5 days of snowboarding at high altitudes, accumulating more mileage than the 3 previous seasons combined not to mention equipment issues, I had a bit of trepidation when we set out. Once we found ourselves at Trockner Steg, Sean opted for the killer T bar lift (having had more experience on it previously than us, he was better able to stay on it) while Darlene, Tony and I took the gondola up to Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, from which we would ride down to meet Sean at Plateau Rosa.

What's that saying about the best laid plans? Ours went slightly awry which put some damper on the day unfortunately. Since the run from MGP started off as a long flat section which we hated, the three of us opted to carry our boards until we reached the start of the inclines. As we set out, we decided to detour to a door set in the snow down the side of the run that we'd noticed on our previous passes. Inside we discovered a long passageway in the ice which led down to a grotto. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grotto Believe it or not, just walking down the passageway caused shortness of breath. We were all feeling the altitude at this point, being more than 12,000 ft above sea level. We explored the ice cave for a while, taking in the warning signs, information about ice fleas (disgusting!) and admiring the ice sculptures. Hiking back to the entrance and panting rather heavily, we rested until able to set out once again along that horrid flat section. Darlene and Tony stopped for some binding field repair at one point so I went ahead to find Sean and a bathroom. Unfortunately we'd taken much longer than we'd planned which kept Sean and his sore leg waiting a rather long time in the cold. In the end, he headed back to Trockner Steg, Darlene went over to Gornergrat to find souvenirs while Tony and I decided we would make an attempt at Italy, this time taking a different route from my last visit over the border.

Off we went along a ridge with some rather steep sections and sharp turns. Neither of us was rushing terribly as we were ok for time and wanted to avoid injury, not to mention we were pretty beat up and tired. At one point I got ahead of Tony and, wanting to rest for a bit, flung myself into the snow at the side of the run, only to discover with a horrible grinding sound that it was rocky underneath the white stuff. This made my landing rather painful when my posterior hit the ground. I directed Tony elsewhere when he caught up to me. Luna has a few new gouges now but she's ok. We got to ride around the edge of a reservoir/lake and down into the trees. Luckily the runs are pretty well marked so we didn't have too much trouble navigating along with the trail map. Stopping for breaks frequently now and to happily let the gaggles of skiiers go by, we gradually made our way lower and lower. Soon we were scraping our way down a nasty icy part then success! we were at the bottom in Breuil-Cervinia, Italy! It was a long arduous journey with some hard painful crashes but totally worth it in the end.

One of the first strange things we noticed was that the village being built on the other side of the parking lot looked a lot like Whistler or Blue Mountain. They're of course modelled after the European style but it didn't look like back in Zermatt. Then there were all the vehicles haphazardly parked every which way in the parking area. During our stay in Zermatt, we'd gotten accustomed to not seeing many vehicles and mostly just the little truck ones so it was weird to see all these cars at the bottom of a ski hill. Nevertheless, we took some photos and staggered toward the gondolas which would take us back to Plateau Rosa. When we arrived back to Trockner Steg in Switzerland to get the gondola down, who should we encounter but Darlene? That girl is everywhere! Back at the hostel it was time to shed our equipment and commence the arduous task of repacking everything in preparation for an early departure to Geneva the next morning. Not wanting to lug any further our remaining groceries which we'd been refrigerating on the window sill of our room, we had some dinner and midnight snacks before calling it a night.

Note to self: update blog more frequently!

They say that hindsight is 20/20 so I'm hoping that writing this part after my return to Canada will go smoothly using said hindsight. Maybe my lime herbal tea will help.

Friday was our second-to-last full day in Zermatt. Since our ski passes allowed us use of the gondolas for 8 out of our 10 days there, Sean and Tony decided to fit in another day of toboganning. Still leery and bruised from my last (literal) run-in with Darlene on sleds, I opted to use the day for emails and photo-taking while she headed into Zermatt for a day on foot. I also sneaked in a bit more sleep time, sometimes difficult to do while sharing a room with 3 other people on different schedules. We won't talk about the snoring.

Since Sean had brought his laptop, we were hopeful for "easy" Internet (Wi-Fi) connection at will. This would not be the case as we soon found out. After an evening of huddling with the laptop on a bench in the cold at the side of a road downtown, across from a packed bar (with free but dreadfully slow wi-fi) full of drunken singing Europeans, we searched for another solution. Granted, the hostel had internet but we didn't want to pay every time if we didn't have to. Another bar and some recycling bins provided temporary fixes until I realized that the phone booths behind the garbage outside the bar would not only provide shelter from the elements but would also allow us a little more discretion and a place to rest the computer. Thus I managed to upload a few photos and post my blog that day, all thanks to Swiss Telecom in a way. You kind of had to be there...

I had wanted to go back up to Gonergrat to take some more photos and since Sean and Tony were up that way sledding, I arranged to meet them at one of the train stations. Since it's two gondolas to get to that station, this meant I had plenty of time to myself, just me and my camera. This must be how I ended up with 1000+ photos from the trip. Got to experiment with my colour settings, try the zoom some more, sing whatever I felt like, look at butterflies, etc. The second gondola I was on ended up being full of Brits plus me. After declining a candy from an old man (yikes! although he seemed harmless), I endured the pompous posturing of the gondola rooster. British, male, older, and skiier. Note at this point I was on foot without any indication of my winter sport preference. He proceeded to "entertain" us with his personal perspectives on blah and blah and blah, then the conversation turned to snowboarders who he condescendingly denounced as "gays on trays". Honestly, I felt so loved as I bit my tongue and found fascination out the window. Jerk.

When I finally caught up to them, Sean and Tony were covered in snow but having a blast on their sleds. Since they had a better knack for staying on them than did I, it's probably just as well it was them against each other. Sean had even taken up riding the sled on his belly, hurtling down the mountain face first which sounded like a lot of fun although I'm certain I would have injured myself somehow. There was plenty of chatter about stuff like run times being cut down and extreme cornering. I got a few photos but the clouds had come in, bringing along a biting wind which I hadn't entirely dressed for so we opted out of Gornergrat and headed back to Zermatt.

Friday, February 1, 2008

I may not be in the tropics but it's warmer here than back home!

So last I wrote Sean, Tony and I were beginning our first full day off since arriving here. Darlene had taken off with her snowboard to find more Canadians and we three headed into town. She seems to have acquired a knack for travelling partway around the world, only to meet people from back home. This has been attributed to the Canadian habits of being polite and speaking to strangers whereas a lot of the other people we are encountering are rather gruff or silent to us, perhaps due to language barriers. So far D has met a family from Toronto, two guys from the GTA, a woman from Waterloo and who knows who else? A pretty low key day was spent by the rest of us. We did some shopping and browsing, got my new snowboarding tool engraved and bought a few more groceries. I love the milk here!! It’s so delicious and creamy and hey, it does a body good. We found the post office too. Did you know you can mail chocolate bars to people? I don’t mean you go to a store, buy a chocolate bar, wrap it up and put postage on it. Nope, instead they have a rack of chocolate bars (100g) with packaging that includes an area to put postage, an address section and a part to write a message. Are these people smart or what? Sorry but I should warn you now that I’m too cheap to send any of these. Coming out of the post office involved some unplanned hilarity. Sean, who was exiting ahead of me, provoked a little yappy dog tied up outside the door but got no reaction so he carried on. As I blithely followed him out the door, the dog took one look at me and began to yap hysterically, causing me to shriek loudly in alarm and leap a foot off the ground, much to the complete amusement of Tony behind me.

Our day of R&R also included a trip to the Matterhorn Museum which is not only located underground in Zermatt but is also very informative and interesting. They’ve designed it as something of an archaeological dig under a little square by the church where you turn left and a bank where I opened my Swiss account to use as a tax shelter. Oops, inside voice. The exterior of the museum is something of a glass dome which contains a gift shop (hey Mum, a gift shop!) and some lockers, then you descend underneath to begin exploring. Upon closer inspection from outside, the dome is actually shaped like the Matterhorn. Unlike a lot of museums I’ve been to, this one had a lot of stuff you could touch which was great. We learned things like an awful lot of people have died trying to climb the Matterhorn and nearby peaks, that Theodore Roosevelt likened his ascent and descent of the Matterhorn to climbing up and down stairs on his hands and knees for 9 hours, that the railway to get to Zermatt came about in 1891, that winter visitors weren’t common in Zermatt until the railway started operating in the winter more than 20 years later. We also learned that the number of visitors to Zermatt dropped dramatically during both world wars, and that the oldest person to climb the Matterhorn was 92 at the time. One of the features we’ve been noticing here is that most of the barns and outbuildings are built off the ground. This in itself isn’t terribly dramatic, especially if you’ve been to Cape Hatteras, N.C. for example. However, the part that interested us was the use of large slabs of stone as part of the pilings on which the structures are built. Think of it as similar to putting up a bird feeder on a pole and below the feeder you put an inverted dome around the pole to deter squirrels from raiding the feeders. We learned that these slabs of stone are designed to deter mice from raiding the grains and feeds stored for animals. Slate roofs are also very popular here. The museum taught us that often these roofs will shift during winter under the load of snow and have to be rechecked each spring. A great museum indeed!

On Wednesday, I had been hopeful to take Luna back to Italy but this was not meant to be. The weather was co-operative (albeit viciously windy up top) but my body was not. In order to snowboard over to Italy, one ascends first to an altitude of over 12,000ft by various gondolas, then rides down to a slightly lower altitude stop which is on the border. The top most Glacier Paradise has numerous dire signs posted to warn people about the extreme altitude and to emphasize taking things slowly. My body has been reluctant to adapt to the altitude changes here, mostly resulting in breathlessness and decreased energy at higher altitudes. My boots have also been causing me discomfort and apparently my day off in running shoes was not enough rest. We’re SO not in Kansas anymore! Anyway, to make a long story short, our group managed to get to the lower Plateau Rosa but at that point I decided it would not be a good idea to try and force myself into Italy with painful feet and intermittent shortness of breath. Instead we rode down further to our oft-visited locale at Trockener Stag. This area seems to have runs that suit both Sean’s carving board and our standard all-around boards since the riding styles for the two types are different. This area also provided me an opportunity to try out a T bar lift for the first time. Not to be confused with a beginner hill T bar lift back home, this one is about 2.5 km long which is great if you ski, torture if you ride a snowboard. Skiiers most often don’t mind the T bar lifts because they basically sit on it and admire the scenery while being calmly propelled along. Snowboarders, on the other hand, need to point their boards uphill in the direction the lift is travelling while their bodies torque sideways yet forward to accommodate their riding stance and the complexities of how the lift is designed. Daunting. Not only was Tony nice enough to try and explain to me how to get hold of it but he also forgave my blonde moment with only a few quiet snickers. A polite fellow on a snowboard with a charming British accent who was trying to master the T bar just ahead of us asked (in English) if we spoke English to which I brightly replied, “Yes. Do you?” Sean treated me to a great guffaw when this story was related to him later. Eventually the Brit grabbed hold of a bar and was whisked away. Some whimpering, a few blind misses and then I was being dragged uphill. With one arm keeping the bar in a stranglehold I worked hard at maintaining my precarious balance. Did I mention that one of the runs intersects the T bar towing line? As in the people coming downhill at high rates of speed with varying degrees of control must wend themselves between the people riding the T bar lift. Tony has a good story about that but I’ll save it for another time. First ride up, I fell off about ¼ of the way along. After waiting for Sean and Tony to ride down, it was time to try again. This time we all made it up to the halfway point which was about as far as we could tolerate. A few runs down and we met up with Darlene to begin the trek back to our hostel, always an uphill climb at the end.

Holy cow, it’s already Friday! Soon (too soon) we will be heading back to Canada and reality. First, however, we had a great night out yesterday. Since Sean tends to sleep until noon, Tony, D and I headed up to Rothorn Paradise, located at 3103m for some daytime runs. The first leg of this journey involves another peculiar train system, this time at an angle of about 45 degrees by our best guess. The station where you load is pitched at that angle and you climb up the stairs until you reach a car that you want to enter. The train descends into the pitched station and when the little gates lift, you can enter the cars where you stand and get pulled up the mountain for lack of a more technical explanation. We were hoping to get a car to ourselves but ended up with about 10 of us, including our boards and a baby carriage. Two women got on with the carriage and we were figuring for full. However, as soon as the announcement came that the doors were closing, some Italian man carrying two pairs of skiis decided he needed to wedge himself in our compartment. Crashing his skiis into the doorframe a few times, he barrelled into one of the baby carriage women, repeatedly saying , “Scuzzi” and effectively pushing her companion out the opposite door. Needless to say, his victims did not feel very kindly toward him and the lady he was shoving released a barrage of French invectives as she fought to maintain her balance and not squash her baby. We three rolled our eyes but he remained oblivious to his ignorance. Two more gondolas later and we were through the cloud covering the valley, gazing out in wonder from Rothorn. Earlier in the morning I had been worried that it might not be a good day to ride since it had snowed overnight for the first time since we got here and none of the town was visible from the windows of our hostel at breakfast time due to low lying cloud. From Rothorn there weren’t many choices of runs to try if we wanted to remain in an area with easy gondola accessibility to descend when ready but we chose right and headed off. Did I mention that on the first gondola up from the train station we saw two little goat-type creatures on the rocks as well as two parasailers who were not on the rocks but in the air? I also broke a nail rather nastily doing up my boots at the top. Too bad I left all my fun bandaids at home. My leadership decision to “go right” would prove to be rather controversial later. Soon we came to another fork and again, I suggested taking the right fork which, according to the trail map, would get us down to a gondola station should we want to take it back up and do another run from the top. Wending our way down with me leading, I came upon a long narrow fairly flat stretch of run no more than 10-12 feet wide. Flat terrain is not snowboarder friendly for the record. This skimpy stretch, which felt 3 inches wide, was cut into the side of the mountain with a precipice plummeting an unknown distance down on the other side. Did I mention there was no snow fence on the cliff side? The run seemed to go on forever so I’ve no idea how long it really was but it was no picnic. I had to hurl myself into the snow on the mountain side at one point to give my burning toes and calves a break (mostly toe edge terrain so much pain involved) as well as to let the other two catch up to me. After a breather we regrouped at the gondola station to plan our next section. We decided to head lower since, although the views were gorgeous, we hadn’t particularly enjoyed our suicide ride along the cliff edge and had no desire to do that run again. Once more we encountered some crazy stuff, this time more flat parts preceded by some seriously steep sections. I like those seriously steep parts but I was alone in my sentiments this time. We headed back to the hostel where Tony departed to find Sean who was riding elsewhere while I hit the showers.

Normally the hostel provides us with dinner but last night we had a special treat. Stopping for some hostel soup first as a snack, we then took a gondola up to Furi (1864m) where we hiked up some ski area to a restaurant that has probably been there for over 100 years. It’s perched up on a steep hill overlooking the valley with great views. It’s such a cool little place, made of wood primarily, with an open fire place by the front door, gorgeous curving staircases, and old pictures of the Matterhorn everywhere. Ambiance indeed. Too bad I hadn’t brought my camera. Four hours later, our 13 course (!) fancy pants dinner wound down and we struggled into our snow pants and outerwear. I nearly fell asleep during the three desserts but the bracing air outside woke me up. We had been expecting to toboggan back to Zermatt but what we hadn’t realized from the wording in the brochure where we learned about this dinner was that we would have had to bring our own toboggans up with us from a rental place in town. Considering the ski run we followed back to town on foot was not lit at all and had sharp drop offs, I’m not sure it’s an entirely bad thing that we didn’t have sleds to ride at high rates of speed in the dark on unknown terrain with only some control. We did find some poles to use as sleds with varying degrees of success so we made good use of those on the steep sections. Luckily Sean had had the foresight to bring a headlamp with him so we weren’t entirely in the dark. Long night but lots of fun was had.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Trains, planes and....sorry, no automobiles allowed!

Zermatt is the end of the line. Literally. The train line stops here and vehicles must be left at the station before Zermatt. I originally thought this to mean there were zero vehicles in Zermatt, until we almost got run over by one of the crazy little taxi vans upon our arrival. There are one or two regular sized buses but mostly there are these little rectangular vans and trucks which act as anything from delivery vehicles to taxis, hotel shuttles to police vans. Seriously, their police van that we saw yesterday looks like a Matchbox toy. We had a good laugh at that. I discovered on Wikipedia the other day that these vehicles are electric because combustion engines are not allowed. Their reasoning is to reduce the impact on the environment; specifically they don’t want pollution to obscure their view of the Matterhorn. The streets are quite narrow here and seem to lack any kind of indicator as to which side of the road belongs to which direction of traffic. If there are pedestrians in your way then you drive around them, missing them by millimetres. I’ve yet to see any semblance of traffic lights, stop signs or painted road lines. Rush hour is when there is a taxi parked halfway on the sidewalk unloading people (think clowns at the circus getting out of the mini car), a taxi coming up behind it and one van coming from the opposite direction. Add to that people wandering down the middle of the road oblivious to traffic and things get pretty entertaining. Haven’t seen any accidents yet which is rather surprising but we have been wondering how these drivers would fare in any major city. Sean told me that these little dinky car vans have horns but they don’t seem to use them. They’ll drive right up behind you and sit there until they can whiz around you or you look to see why your legs are suddenly so bright and move over.

Today is Tuesday Jan 29 and we’ve been here almost a week now. On Sunday we took a break from snowboarding and rented toboggans for a day. However, this was no ordinary tobogganing expedition! First we took a cog railway train up to Rotenboden station at 2815m. For perspective, Blue Mountain is less than 1000m high. We’d decided to double up on the sleds so Sean and I took on Tony and Darlene in the first descent. I should point something out here: these sleds we had rented had no brakes or any pretence of steering mechanism. They’re just wooden sleds that you sit on and go. The toboggan course runs between the ski run and the railway tracks, twisting and turning down 1.5 km to Riffelberg station at 2585m. I soon discovered that my inability to stay on the sled would impede my success at winning any sled races. Round one to Tony and Darlene but, not being ones who give up easily, we took the train back up and lined ourselves up for a rematch. This time the girls were in front steering while the guys helped brake from behind. Brakes came in the form of dragging your feet on the ground and digging in to try and corner at a rather high rate of speed. What I didn’t anticipate was the amount of snow this would blow right back into our faces, not only blinding us to the course ahead but also finding its way into every crevice of our winter wear. With me being in the driver’s seat, Sean and I managed to pull ahead and things looked good. A near miss with an embankment and the subsequent violent braking caused our speed to slow too much on a flat spot. Sean got off to push but before I realized what was going on, I had dug my feet in and Sean ended up pushing me on my face while tipping the sled forward and flying over my head. When we finally reached the bottom of the course, it was decided that I can’t steer or stay on the sled. I didn’t argue. After a few more descents, it was time for Darlene and I to race each other. To make a long story short, I can’t steer, stay on the sled or brake effectively. I lost count of the number of walls I hit or the number of times I cornered sideways only to get violently pitched off the sled into the snow. At one point I was running after my sled for about 100 ft. Near the bottom of the run was a steep section with a sharp left-hander at the end. On the outside of this corner was a snow fence to keep you off the railway. Another sled had crashed into the fence and I entered this section with zero control. To avoid the other couple I slammed on the brakes but crashed into the fence, only to get crashed into by Darlene. 3 sled pile up, zero injuries. Off went the other couple while we untangled ourselves. I managed to get free first and set off to complete the last section of course. Another steep hill, another sharp left-hander and I was done for. It’s very difficult to corner a sled sideways at seemingly 50mph so of course I fell off. What I hadn’t known was that Darlene was headed right towards me until BLAM!! Crash number 2 in as many corners only this time I am sporting a vicious bruise on my left knee and the guys caught it on camera.

Yesterday was our first semi-rest day. Sean is battling a nagging leg problem while my boots make the balls of my feet feel as though they are on fire after a few hours. Tony is holding up pretty well although he’s had some pretty spectacular crashes and Darlene is favouring her neck of late. We slept in and took the morning off. After lunch the guys headed up to Trockener Steg at 2939m while Darlene and I made our attempt to cross over to the Italian side. My one goal in coming here was to ride in two countries and yesterday I accomplished that goal! We didn’t have a whole lot of time but managed to get over the international boundary and down to Plan Maison at 2555m. It’s funny. On the trail map the border is shown as a line of little x figures but there’s nothing in the snow like that. Our first stop in our quest was at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise station, located at 3883m and the distance of 3 gondolas from Zermatt. What a view!! It was a warm, sunny, absolutely brilliant day yesterday with mountains and snow and sun for miles and miles. Turn left, you’re looking into Italy. To the right, you’re looking back down at Switzerland and the teeny village of Zermatt in the distance. It’s like being on top of the world and it’s incredibly gorgeous! D and I made our way down to Plateau Rosa Testa Grigia at 3480m for a pit stop then it was off to ride into Italy just like that. Whoosh! And suddenly I can use more of my mangled Italian language skills. The Italian area that we were in is a kind of bowl with far more bare rock showing between runs, probably because of a combination of sun and wind conditions, but we really liked the runs on that side. With one eye on the time and the other eye on the gorgeous scenery, we had a blast! Darlene had an unfortunate crash involving some dumb snowboarder we named Italian Ken (Barbie crashed out on her own ahead of me but I avoided her) while I slid partway down a run on my butt but it was all worth her sore neck and the snow down my pants. A few gondolas later we were back up to Plateau Rosa to take photos of ourselves literally straddling the border between Switzerland and Italy. There’s a sign on the wall with a yellow line painted across the ground which defines cool in my little world. I’m a little disappointed that they didn’t stamp my passport since I had it with me but whatever.

Today is a full rest day for Tony, Sean and I while Darlene just left the room to head over to Italy again. My feet need a day out of my boots while Sean wants to rest his leg. I’m hopeful to get down to Breuil-Cervinia (2050m) in Italy tomorrow, weather permitting. My trail map shows some pretty good looking runs on the way down there. We were talking last night of attending a fondue dinner up on the mountain tonight which sounds like a lot of fun. Today I’ll go into Zermatt and do some exploring, take some photos, maybe buy some kitchy souvenirs. There’s no shortage of chocolate here but don’t hate me for it. We head to Geneva on Sunday for a few days of sightseeing there before we head home.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

E is for excitement, exhaustion and a most excellent trip

If my beyond tired brain is accurate, today is Saturday Jan somethingorother. We've been in Zermatt, Switzerland since Thurs and are having a great time! It was a long journey here but totally worth it.

Some trouble getting online has delayed this post until now so forgive my tardiness. Last night I was sitting outside in the -5 C evening, borrowing WiFi from a bar across the street downtown which was spilling over with loud drunk singing Europeans. Very interesting human behaviour observation but the connection sucked and kept kicking me out.

Today was our second day riding and as yet there have been no serious injuries incurred by our group. We've since decided to seek sponsorship from Advil next time as not only does it make a nice light snack but also relieves the pain from our sore overused muscles. I say this because these runs are SO not like any in Canada! For example, yesterday we rode gondolas up to 2939m to start our first run of the day. These are REAL mountains!!! And they're so awesome to ride that words don't quite describe. The runs aren't overcrowded like back home and they freakin' go on forever! You're riding in the shadow of the Matterhorn, surrounded by 20something peaks over 4000m high. Today it took me almost an hour to complete one run although I stopped a few times to take pictures.
As we were riding the chairlift up yesterday, we heard a helicopter and noticed a rescue helicopter with two people dangling from the long line. They got put down at the bottom of the crappy terrain park and then the helicopter landed to load the person we assumed had been rescued. How cool is that?? This place is so much more geared to pizza/french fries that it doesn't surprise me too much that the terrain park at Blue is much better than here. We're definitely in the minority as snowboarders. The skiier lady who yelled at me on our first run of the day definitely did not have a soft spot in her heart for snowboarders.
I rode with Sean and Tony yesterday after Darlene went the other way right at the top of the first run and wasn't seen again until almost dinner. As the three of us were on the chairlift back to the top, we noticed a snowboard track traversing the soft powder about 1/2 of the way between two runs then footprints leading back to the first run. We had a very good laugh at the silliness of this goofy person, only to find out later that it was Darlene (by her own admittance) who had done that track. Poor girl. She did meet some very cool people on her own, both from the GTA by coincidence. She also missed my high speed face first wipeout, complete with 1/3 pike, a double barrel roll followed by a full forward summersault.
Wow, fatigue is so prevalent here. Our hostel is seemingly halfway up the mountain as we have to scale a large hill then 3 million stairs after walking 10 minutes through the village. I blame my breathlessness on the altitude rather than my lack of fitness. That's my story and I'm sticking to it! I love the grocery stores here. They have the coolest stuff! We've found some other cool stores too. Very beautiful valley, lots of that alpine architecture that I like. Primarily German speaking here, followed by French and Italian. English trails somewhere in 4th place. Luckily over the years I've been exposed to all four of those languages so I can usually fumble together enough mangled words to translate or make myself understood. I can figure out most labels or at least make a serious sounding wild guess that fools the rest of the group.
The hostel is very nice as hostels go. We have our own room which smells kind of funky now for some unknown reason and they feed us twice a day. We've been buying a bag lunch from there too which is working well, at least until Sean and I rode separately today and he had the lunch. That ended all right for me, eating wise, although Sean and Tony ran into a technical problem as well as a collision. Word has it that the skiier who was at fault got the worst of his run-in with Sean. Complete yard sale was the description used. Right now the two guys and I are at a bar in town because they have free WiFi and we don't have to sit out in the cold trying to hack a crappy connection. However, if I don't come home with lung problems I will be surprised. I always forget how prevalent smoking still is here. Hackhack!

Too bad I can't take home European empties to fund my NZ trip. There's a LOT of alcohol here. Did you know the Swiss make wine? Off to bed if I can scale the monster hill again....... hope to write again soon.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

One more sleep!

Sleep? People do that? Oh yes, the ever elusive act of sleeping long enough and well enough comes into my life yet again.

Last week it was suggested to me that, since Ch is 6 hours ahead, I should try setting my alarm a little earlier each day and going to bed earlier each day. In theory this would lead to a quicker transition once we are in the land of chocolate watches. Why not make my life a little easier while on vacation? I decided to go for it and give it a try. The next few days will tell if the application of this theory was worth it.

Some people already think I'm a little nuts to start work at 7am. I wasn't always like this. Let me point out here that I am not a morning person. Nor am I a night owl. I'm mostly a 3-hours-in-the-afternoon kind of person and the rest of my day is a crapshoot. How I ever managed to train myself to function for a living at that hour is a mystery. But most days I am successful at it with only minimal caffeinated intervention.

The first two days of getting up earlier were ok. A little more dark, a little less sun. Getting to know the night-shift staff better now. The third morning I fell off the wagon. In my own defence it was a Saturday and I didn't have to be anywhere until the afternoon! I did set the alarm for the prescribed 0500. And reset it each time it rang. Eventually I gave up and chucked it somewhere under the bed. I even answered the phone at 0630. And promptly went back to sleep. I finally dragged myself out into my cold bedroom at 7-something. This for me is considered "sleeping in" these days which I admit up front is rather sad.

The earlier I get to work, the more good parking spaces are available. The night shift girls in Health Records are very nice now that they know me on a first name basis. The night shift staff in Emerg greet me heartily although I stare at them blankly before I mumble a reply. Did you know the kitchen staff don't work at 5am? Even the 3 Tim Hortons in the hospital aren't open at that hour. Some days I get home before the mail carrier comes by. There's very little traffic at 0430. Nor was the snow falling at that hour this morning, unlike most other commuters who got dumped on while they crawled their vehicles to work at a more reasonable time.

Did I mention my part-time gig as an insomniac? It seems that some nights while my body is begging for rest, my brain just revs itself up and takes off like a rocket. To do lists, movies I watched, the meaning of life, how I got that groove in the bottom of my snowboard, did I take the laundry out of the dryer? Random thoughts run rampant as the night wears on. I get lots of advice for this problem: "Take drugs (never thought I'd ever hear THAT from my mother!), drink warm milk/chamomile tea/alcohol, get out of bed and go do stuff (makes me cranky to be washing dishes at 3am), count sheep/moguls/cracks in the ceiling, etc..." There is no regular cure. On special nights, I fall asleep fairly quickly but wake up often with random thoughts, weird dreams, wondering if the dog is in or out.....oh wait, I don't have a dog. I fully support the afternoon siesta campaign. Red Bull and I are best friends lately. I've found good use for my caffeinated mints and gum. Tea? Ha! I'm on the hard stuff now. I'm so glad Lori Lori Morning Glory introduced me to the Grande Tazo Chai Soy Latte from Starbucks which happens to be located across the street from work....

I ramble about this because tonight is the last sleep before we leave for Ch! This morning's alarm was at 0400 which, after I vehemently launched the clock somewhere and complained about how hideous those numbers were, was explained to me to be 1000 in Ch. "Yeah", I snarled in reply, "but it's still 4am here!" We're supposed to be at the airport around noon tomorrow to meet Tony's plane from Edmonton before collecting Darlene and boarding our flight to Geneva. Does this mean I'll bring myself one more time to rise like the living dead at 0330? Will I sleep at all or will my head be too excited to rest?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

One last run before we fly

Left cheek: 3, Mountain: 0 That was the final score in Me vs the Mountain last night and I'm not referring to my face.

In the interest of continual board testing and final adjustment making, my friend Sean! and I decided to head to Blue Mountain for one last outing before the trip to Ch on Wednesday. While I knew we weren't headed to the 230 cm base that Fernie currently has (!!!!) I still enjoy a trip to my favourite practice hill whenever I can. Luckily (?) for us, the punishing wind, biting cold, semi-questionable road conditions, and icy slopes meant that the hills weren't too clogged with annoying people. In fact when we got there it looked as though a blizzard had descended on the mountain, kind of like the way Eeyore has a rain cloud which follows him around. I quickly realized that nearly every snow making gun was belting out clouds of the white stuff which brought hope to my heart that any missed landings of mine might not make me whimper with pain.

I've been riding for a few years now and like to think that I've improved over time. Consider the day after I took my first lessons. I was in so much pain from the previous day of repeated falls that it hurt to blink. Speaking was an effort and getting out of bed nearly killed me but somehow I got dressed and lasted another 1/2 day on the slopes before retiring to the hot tub for the next 48 hours or so. And that was in Invermere BC, at Panorama which qualifies as a real mountain in my world, meaning it has decent vertical and sufficient fluffy white stuff (and big horn sheep wandering through town but that's another story). Let me take a second to suggest something: If you are considering to take up snowboarding, no matter your skill level in other sports, TAKE LESSONS and preferably not just from a well-intentioned friend. For a fairly unco-ordinated individual like me who comes from a non-athletic family, the learning curve for snowboarding was steep and painful but the key is to persevere and you will improve. You'll eat a lot of mountain, you'll get great coloured bruises, you might even unintentionally face plant off a jump on a beginner run and crack your goggles from the impact, but keep going and it will get better. I am your example. Oh, and wear a helmet from day one. Riding with a concussion is not much fun.

Last night was also my opportunity to try riding with my hydration pack as I plan to do in Ch. There were some obstacles to getting an insulation piece for it but it arrived this week and I was anxious to try the pack out. I've ridden with a backpack before but found it cumbersome. It also changed my centre of gravity which made getting up and staying up more challenging. I was hoping for better things from the hydration pack and I wasn't let down.

For some reason I've never quite understood, I often encounter gaggles of snowboarders sitting at the top of a run and blocking the way for everyone behind them. Let me clarify: most snowboarders do sit briefly at the top of a run to strap in their loose foot. We need one foot out of our bindings to ride the lifts and I am not one of those who can put their foot back in the binding and do it up tightly while standing. The last time I tried to do so my board kept moving forward and I nearly ended up in a tree. Therefore, I sit. But I don't sit for 10 minutes or so. My butt gets cold and I'm here to ride! I don't get it.

The beginner runs weren't too bad but the snow cover was minimal and patchy. Rather expected I must add, given that last week I could see dirt showing through on their webcams. Soon I retrieved my pack and we headed to the bigger runs. The hardest part about riding somewhat infrequently or in less-than-ideal conditions is the first missed or unexpected landing. Will it hurt? Will this be the time I break something? You can't really prepare for it, you just have to experience it and move on. Sure enough, eventually I caught an edge and went down hard on my posterior. "Ok, slopes are rather icy and hard", thought my body. After the second same landing, this time for an undetermined reason, my lower back started to hurt too. Up and down Sean! and I went, chatting away when we saw each other on the lifts, lost in our own worlds amid the blowing snow and numbing winds while riding down. The cramp I always get almost immediately in my left calf (I ride left foot forward in case it matters) was keeping me company as I rode hard but carefully. To injure oneself now would be asinine, I thought to myself. CRASH! Yep, it's still hard packed icy crap underneath me and that one hurt! 3 times lucky in the same spot is not very comfortable unless you're landing in 3 feet of powder. With neck, back and butt all sore now, I decided to call it a night and went to find my chauffeur with his carving board.

Friday, January 18, 2008

There's no place like home

It's true that there's no place like home but then why leave home to travel? Why venture from your comfortable and familiar surroundings to explore the great big sometimes scary world out there? For me it's a drive. Something inside of me craves to see things I've never seen, do things I've never done, go places I've never been. My list is ever getting longer and, while I often wonder how/if I'll ever manage to cross all those places off it, it excites me every time I do cross off a destination and add another. I hope I never reach the end of my list. It amuses me to think that grade 9 Geography was one of my worst marks in high school yet my passports over time are acquiring more and more stamps. Darn those countries I've visited who didn't stamp my little blue book! Guess I learn geography better by doing than listening to my alcoholic homeroom teacher drone on and on.

Today is January 18 2008 and I leave for Switzerland (the land of chocolate watches says Sean!) on the 23rd. Finally things are starting to get assembled for packing, lists are getting items crossed off and although my to-do list never seems to end I do believe the end is in sight for departure! I'm excited to be going to back to my favourite country (so far), this time for a more extended stay. We're going snowboarding and Luna (my snowboard) is as excited as I am for she has never ridden outside Canada. She doesn't have her own passport but hopefully I can collect some stamps for her. I'm also excited to be exploring parts of Switzerland (Ch I call it) that I haven't yet been to. We'll be staying in Zermatt (get out your atlas, folks! no cheating with Google maps) for about 10 days, mostly snowboarding on the Matterhorn (think toblerone chocolate) then we're off to Geneva to explore the fabulous city for a few days. Oh, and Switzerland has a no extradition treaty (last I checked) so you can't make me come back if I don't want to!


Stay tuned,
p.s. Mum & Dad, please forgive my spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes in these blogs.