Sunday, February 16, 2014

Mountain Dogs of Martigny

When I was a child, I remember reading a book about the St. Bernard dogs from the monastery in Martigny, in the southeastern part of Switzerland.  The book was about one dog in particular, Barry, who worked, like all the dogs at the monastery, with the monks rescuing travelers and pilgrims caught in the snowy mountain passes.  Barry was a special dog because in his few years of working as a rescue dog, he saved over 40 people.
Click here to purchase on Amazon.
Today, I had the chance to go to Martigny (map), the place where Barry is from where the monastery still breeds St. Bernard dogs.  Martigny is located at the valley of the Saint Bernard Pass in the Alps and is right at the convergence of roads from France and Italy leading through Switzerland.  This pass is the oldest known pass used in the Western Alps.  Overlooking the town, is the Chateau de la Batiaz, built in the 13th Century and was strategically located to control the Alpine Pass.
Traditionally, the Great Saint Bernard Pass was part of the pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome, but often travelers would not know how to cross the Alps.  The unfortunate pilgrims would find themselves victims of dangerous avalanches, unpredictable and changing alpine weather, and improperly dressed for the freezing temperatures.
At the base of the mountain pass, sat a monastery.  It was called the Great Saint Bernard Hospice, founded in 1049 AD.  For centuries, the monks who lived here were completely self-sufficient.  The Hospice opened its doors to everyone, offering travelers and pilgrims a place to stay and some food.  Because of Martigny's unique location at the convergence of so many important routes, the hospice would have all kinds of people crossing its doors, including pilgrims, travelers, tradesmen, nobility, and even smugglers all staying under its roof!
Map of Martigny and the Saint Bernard Pass
Because of the dangers of crossing the Alps even in this pass, the monks at the monastery began breeding St. Bernard dogs.  The monks raised and trained the dogs and, every day, took teams of dogs up into the mountains to look for lost pilgrims and travelers.  The teams would rescue those they found and bring them back to the monastery before they continued along their way, either back on the pilgrimage route or wherever else their path may lead.  The dogs are impressive and would blaze a trail through the snow, cutting through the huge drifts with their broad chests.  The dogs could track a person's scent through 20 inches (50 cm) of snow!
You can still see the dogs that are the direct descendants from those that the monks bred.  At the Musée et Chiens du Saint-Bernard, you can learn about the history of the hospice and see the kennels with some of the dogs.  The dogs here are typically less than three years old, but still massive animals who love the attention and belly rubs they get when trainers take them out to show visitors.  Like all big dogs, they love to lean up against your legs, meaning that you have to be prepared for a dog that might weigh more than you all of a sudden crashing up against your legs just to be pet a little more.  So cute, but watch out for the drool!
The museum also had a really great temporary exhibit of Inuit soapstone carvings from Yellowknife, Canada (map).  I've always wanted to go there and see some of these carvings and, if I'm lucky, watch an artist at work.  The collection was pretty cool, and I especially enjoyed the different polar bear carvings.
There is also the ruins of an old Roman amphitheatre just outside the museum's location, at the base of the mountain pass. It was raining and no one was there, so I had the whole amphitheatre to myself.  There are also small remains of temples, civilian living quarters, and thermal baths from the Roman era scattered throughout the town.
The town of Martigny itself is not so impressive or as nice as other Swiss villages, but it was a great stop for the morning.  I feel so fortunate to now be able to see the far-away places that I read about as a child come to life!

Saturday, February 15, 2014


"Look!  There is the mountain you'll never climb! Isn't this fun? NOT!"
Chamonix Fail.  The words to describe this whole day's experience.

Before leaving the U.S. to come to Geneva, I saw this article on The Atlantic talking about a new attraction just build at the peak of Aiguille du Midi in the French Alps called "Into the Void."  It is a glass box suspended over a 1,035 meters (3,396 feet) drop down the side of the mountain's peak.  
Obviously, after seeing these pictures, of course I wanted to go.  So, I found a classmate to go with me, and we purchased tickets from a station in France, routed through the tiny French town of Saint Gervais, to arrive in Chamonix to make our adventure on Aiguille du Midi.  Chamonix is an extremely popular skiing location, and at the height of skiing season (when we were arriving), it was bound to be full of French, Swiss, and British tourists all taking advantage of their holiday breaks in the resort town.  However, this trip was just one dose of crazy after another, leaving not the greatest impression of French organization or tourism in my mouth.  
This is pretty, but it's not even from Chamonix!
The town itself was okay but surprisingly small, empty, and disorganized for supposedly being some mega-popular skiing town in Europe.  When we finally found our main attraction after wandering lost for about thirty minutes (the signs for the tourist office pointed in opposite directions), it was closed "due to wind," even though other lifts were running up the other peaks...AND THERE WAS NO WIND.  The employee told us to just try to come back each day and check (clearly impossible due to having jobs and budgetary restraints and American-style vacation policies).  After a quick lunch at a pizzaria, we turned around and headed back to the train to return to Geneva.  As we were waiting by the platform, I walked over to a small snowbank in the empty lot to climb it to at least feel a small sense of accomplishment from all of this, when I was promptly yelled at and told to get off the snowbank by a French security guard (who had previously been texting on her phone).
All in all, the trip that was supposed to be a nice, fun adventure, turned out to be a waste of time and money.  Although my classmate and I did get to bond about the complete ridiculousness of the situation by coming up with potential posts for Twitter or Tumblr (if either of us had had one of those) to chronicle the experience.  We named it "hashtag Fraaaaaaaance" (to be read aloud in an extra-whiny voice).

  • When you ask the French ticket seller at the train station if your tickets printed with a specific time are transferable or if you have to buy new tickets, and he says "yes" to both questions.  #Fraaaaaaaance.
  • When you make an "early" train, only to sit and wait as the train is repaired.  #Fraaaaaaaance.
  • When conductor announces that the train is fixed every ten minutes, but you leave an hour and a half later.  #Fraaaaaaaance.
  • When the train you paid for does not exist, so instead you are ushered onto a bus by a Frenchman shouting "Chamonix Boooos" in a style very reminiscent of how Ecuadorian busing works.  #Fraaaaaaaance.
  • When the "boos" almost crashes into a sign within the first minute of driving.  #Fraaaaaaaance.
  • When you arrive in a tourist resort town at the peak of ski season and no one knows how to get to the main mountain lift.  #Fraaaaaaaance.
  • When you arrive in a tourist resort town at the peak of ski season and the signs for the tourism office point in opposite directions.  #Fraaaaaaaance.
  • When you finally arrive at the lift you came to see, only to find out that everything is closed "due to wind." #Fraaaaaaaance.
  • When it's closed "due to wind," but there's no wind. #Fraaaaaaaance. 
  • When you try to climb a snowbank in a field in lieu of a real mountain, but are promptly yelled at by a French security guard who is now all of a sudden interested in doing their job.  #Fraaaaaaaance.
  • When you finally find the train back to the station, but cannot find the "boos."  #Fraaaaaaaance.
  • When that "boos" that almost crashed was faster than the train. #Fraaaaaaaance.
  • When you try to see something nice in a mountain town, but there is nothing there, nothing open, and the whole town can be thoroughly walked around in 10 minutes.  #Fraaaaaaaance.

At least the pizza we found on our way back was good.   

And I saw this cute dog in Saint Gervais.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

French Classes in Geneva

Considering that we are going to be living and working in Geneva, my friends and I thought that we should explore opportunities to learn French in the city.  None of us have had any formal instruction in French before, so classes of some kind are definitely necessary.  We found a great deal through the Geneva Interns Association network and enrolled in basic beginner's French.  Classes are twice a week for an hour and a half each.  There are about 12 people in the class, and we all struggle-bus it through together. It's actually a little funny that one of the perks of living and working in Geneva, even with a law school seminar and biweekly writing assignments, is that you don't have law school classes - and here we are, voluntarily enrolling in more classes.  It's going to be quite an adjustment graduating and becoming a "real adult."

French is actually harder than I thought.  In Spanish and Farsi, the alphabet is at least phonetic, so everything pretty much is read and spoken the same way.  Not in French.  Even though the words on the page look similar enough to Spanish or English, with masculine and feminine words as in Spanish and Arabic, the pronunciation is difficult.  Most of the letters are not pronounced, so words that are spelled completely different with different meanings are pronounced the same way.  

Our first class began with learning the difference between subject and object pronouns in French.
Subject Pronouns (sujet)
You (formal/plural)
They (m/f)

Object Pronouns (toniques)
You (formal/plural)
Them (m/f)

Then, we stepped it up and learned the verbs for "to be" (etre) and "to have" (avoir) and how to conjugate them.  We then spent the rest of class practicing moving between the subject/object pronouns and picking the correct conjugation and verb endings for ETRE and AVOIR.  Along the way, we learned some more vocabulary and rules of pronunciation while filling in the blanks for the sentences in the exercises.
Être = To Be

Avoir  =  To Have

Our second class focused on the endings for -ER and -IR verbs, as well as memorizing the endings for a few irregular verbs.  Luckily, the -ER verb endings are for about 80% of the French verbs, so it shouldn't be so difficult to learn, once I get the basics down.  Notice how similar both of these endings are to one another, as well as how within the endings, there are not many differences in pronunciation where you would clearly know what each one is talking about without using the subject.  Unlike Spanish, you always have to have the subject in French (like English, I guess).
-ER Verb Endings

-IR Verb Endings

And now for the irregular verbs!  We did seven of the most common irregular verbs.  The endings tend to look a little similar to the rules, but it's still tricky, tricky, tricky!
Aller = To Go
Je Vais
Nous Allons
Tu Vas
Vous Allez
Il/Elle Va
Ils/Elles Vont

Venir = To Come/Go Back
Je Viens
Nous Venons
Tu Viens
Vous Venez
Il/Elle Vient
Ils/Elles Viennent

Pouvoir = Can/Able to
Je Peux
Nous Pouvons
Tu Peux
Vous Pouvez
Il/Elle Peut
Ils/Elles Peuvent

Vouloir = To Want
Je Veux
Nous Voulons
Tu Veux
Vous Voulez
Il/Elle Veut
Ils/Elles Veulent

Devoir = Must (have to do…)
Je Dois
Nous Devons
Tu Dois
Vous Devez
Il/Elle Doit
Ils/Elles Doivent

Faire = To Do
Je Fais
Nous Faisons
Tu Fais
Vous Faites
Il/Elle Fait
Ils/Elles Font

Boire = To Drink
Je Bois
Nous Buvons
Tu Bois
Vous Buvez
Il/Elle Boit
Ils/Elles Boivent

To practice, I think I am going to try to work on memorizing how to say something new each day and try it out with my coworkers who speak French.  My Genevois colleague already taught me one funny thing in French:
Hilarious.  and Adorable. LE PHOQUE!
French is difficult in the sense that there will be more verb endings to memorize and the pronunciation rules and spelling will be tough to lock down, but after learning Spanish, the rules and structure are not so different.  I think flashcards might help in terms of memorizing vocab.  But there's no way it will be as difficult as Michael Scott learning Spanish in an office-appropriate way:

The Office - Michael Learns Spanish par justintyme4me

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Weekend in the Alps: Grindelwald, Interlaken, Engelberg, and Luzern

This past weekend, four of my fellow classmates and I took our first over-night trip together in Switzerland.  We had a busy weekend planned: Grindelwald, Interlaken, Engelberg, Luzern, then back to Geneva by Sunday night to be ready for work on Monday morning.  We decided to pack very light and to save our money for a night at a hostel, so we left at 6:00am from Geneva for our first stop:

We arrived here around 10:00am on Saturday, February, 1, 2014.  Walking from the train station, everything is surrounded by mountains.  And these aren't the beautiful-but-far-away mountains that we saw in Gruyeres.  These are the real deal - the Alps of the Jungfrau region and we were right in the middle.  The first order of business was to find something to eat for breakfast so that we could be ready for our adventure up the mountain.  We wandered around and found a little cafe connected to a bakery.  It was still too early for the lunch menu (and Europeans have this thing about small breakfasts) so we bought enough at the bakery to tide us over for a little while, then started walking back through the town to get to the Firstbahn station - the base for the cable cars.
In the informal tally that I have been conducting on Swiss culture, my preliminary results are that Swiss people on the whole are either nice or polite, but they do not like it if you break any rules once such rules have been established.  I am adding a new conclusion to my informal study: Swiss people are nice and polite, unless you break a rule....or interfere with their skiing.  In line for the cable cars to the top of the mountain, we were surrounded by a horde of rather pushy skiers all anxious to get through the lifts up to the top of the mountain.  Unfortunately, there was no separate line for tourists and their cameras to go, so we were sandwiched right in the middle of all the skiers who kept pushing and cutting through line to get to the front.
We made it through the cable cars and were able to take one for our group.  About halfway up the mountain, a 12 year old boy hopped into the empty seat in our car so he could get to the top.  He was only 12 years old, but had been downhill skiing since he was 5 years old, spoke French and German fluently, and had a pretty good command of English.  Ridiculous.  
Once we got to the top of the cable cars in Grindelwald (it's a 30 minute ride altogether), we started wandering around the area by the lodge.
Over one of the slopes was a BMW ski event that was being broadcast on the TVs inside the lodge.  The BMW event had nice Swiss music playing, and the music could be heard floating across the snow to the other slopes.
We managed to find some nice spots with a view and despite the cold, had a great time wandering around the top and taking in the mountains.  Check out these amazing views: 

After we made it back down the mountain, we hustled back to the train station to make it to Interlaken before nightfall.

We managed to make it to Interlaken that afternoon.  We took our time walking back from the train station in order to stop at the watch and souvenir stores along the way.  The hostel itself was actually extremely nice - one of the nicest hostels I've stayed at - and it's called Backpackers Villa Sonnenhof.  The employees were so nice and upgraded our split reservation to a 5-person private room with our own shower and bathroom.  The lockers inside the room were spacious and secure, each person had a comfortable bunk bed with a lamp, shelf, and outlet at each bed.  I think that hostel might have been more comfortable than my room in the foyer in Geneva.  
We quickly checked in, got our hot drink tokens, dropped off our backpacks, grabbed a map, then found the bus stop to take us to the lake to the west of Interlaken (we had passed Lake Thun on our way to Interlaken on the train).  As we were sitting at the bus stop waiting, an old woman with a bicycle starts talking to us from across the sidewalk.  We have a quick conversation with her, then as she swings one leg over her bicycle, she tells us, "Tomorrow's weather is supposed to be very terrible.  BYE!" And as mysteriously as she came, she pedaled away and disappeared down the road.
We took the bus as far as it would go to get to the other lake.  We found ourselves at the edge of the small village of Riggenberg and in the midst of a residential area of old wooden houses along the lakeshore of Lake Brienzersee.  You could smell a wood-burning fire somewhere in the distance and through the blue-grey sky, with dusk just starting to fall, you could see little puffs of smoke rising from the chimneys.  We found a gravel pathway behind the houses that turned into a little walking trail.  The trail then opened up into a clearing with a couple benches and a beautiful view of the lake, mountains, and Interlaken on the opposite shore.  The sky was becoming darker now, almost an inky blue, and across the teal-colored water, you could see the lights of Interlaken just beginning to flicker for the night.  The water was so still that we couldn't even hear the sound of waves brushing the pebbly shoreline.  If it had been less cloudy, I'm sure it would have been a beautiful place to watch the stars.
However, the trail was not lit, so we walked back before the sun set completely so that we could find our way back to Interlaken before nightfall.  We managed to find a small restaurant open for dinner where we ate before returning to the hostel for the night.

Engelberg (Mt. Titlis)
Sunday morning, we woke up bright and early to pack up our room, check out of the hostel, and eat breakfast.  It was a pleasant surprise to find that a light covering of snow had settled over Interlaken.  We had to hustle over to the train station where we hopped on a train to Engelberg.
Train in Engelberg
The train itself, like Grindelwald, was packed with people looking to ski and there we were, just wanting to see the mountain from the top.
Engelberg from the Cable Car
The first leg of the journey is a cable car up the mountain from Engelberg (1050 meters; 3,444 feet) to Stand (2428 meters; 7,965 feet).  Then, you hop onto the Rotair - the cable car that rotates the whole way up (only a five minute trip) and takes you to Klein Titlis (3,028 meters; 9,934 feet).  The summit of Mt. Titlis itself is 3,239 meters (10,626 feet).
At Klein Titlis, there is a station with a restaurant, glacier cave (20 meters/65 feet below the surface of the glacier), open chairlift (called the Ice Flyer), the highest suspension bridge in Europe - the Cliff Walk. The Cliff Walk is a metal suspension bridge high on the peak - at 3,041 meters in altitude (9,977 feet) with a 500 meter drop directly below (1,640 feet).
Don't look down.... too late.
Somehow less scary on the Ice Flyer
Heights like that are not my favorite thing ever, but I managed to get over my nerves to cross the bridge (although I got dizzy taking a picture of my feet on the bridge).  The chairlift was cool too, but might have been cooler if you could see more than just the white clouds.  Definitely fun though.  And when we got back, I made a snow angel on Mt. Titlis at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.
The mountain was pretty thick with clouds that day, although the snow was great for skiing (and snow angels).  Even though it would have been pretty great to see the mountain on a clear day, I think that the mountain has a completely different feel in each kind of weather so it was a treat to see the mountains in two completely different ways between Saturday and Sunday.

If there is time, it would be great to go back to Engelberg in the spring to see Mount Titlis on a clear day as well as hike below the mountain at Lake Trubsee and take a boat out on the water.
(not my picture, but I'd like to go when it looks like this too)
Luzern (Back Again)
On our way back to Geneva from Engelberg, our train stopped through Luzern.  Since we still had an evening left, we decided to spend it in Luzern.  The first time I went to Switzerland, as an undergraduate student in 2010, I came to Luzern to visit my cousin and see the town/country.
Luzern on a cloudy summer day in 2010
It was such a memorable trip, and even though my cousin was unable to join us today, I knew exactly where I wanted to go first: to the old wooden covered bridge and then to the lion.
On the Wooden Bridge
The lion statue (Lowendenkmal) is my favorite landmark in the town.  I know the bridge might be the oldest wooden bridge in Europe and all (with paintings from the 1600s that survived a fire in the 1990s), but the Lion, in the words of Mark Twain, is "the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world."  The statue is a memorial for the Swiss guards who died in 1792 during the French Revolution.  The statue itself was designed by a Danish artist (Berthel Thorwaldsen) then carved into the sheer ("شیر" also means "lion" in Farsi!) sandstone face by Lucas Ahorn in the 1800s.  The Latin inscription underneath the statue means, "To the bravery and fidelity of the Swiss."
Lion, Winter 2014
The lion rests in the rock above a shallow pool of water and next to a woodsy park with glacier rock formations and a view over the city.  You can see the lion's strength, pain, and grace in the statue.  Seeing it again four years later, it still speaks to me just as powerfully as the first time I visited.
Lion, Summer 2010
After taking my friends to the lion, we walked back along the river to find a restaurant that was open.  Luzern is definitely more lively at night than some other Swiss towns and cities, but we were wandering around on a Sunday night, meaning our luck was about the same.
We finally found one restaurant open along the water with some good Swiss food.  From the restaurant, we still had about 40 minutes to wander around the Old Town a bit before heading back to the train station to jump on our train for Geneva.  The Old Town was pretty empty, but the fountains were still illuminated, as were the bridges and buildings along the water.  It was a beautiful end to our weekend adventure.
Now, back on the train to Geneva and back to work at 8:00am on Monday - starting French classes tomorrow, so that should be interesting.
Already planning for the next adventure!

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