La Scala, Where The Fat Lady Sings

 

 

 

 

 

“The opera ain’t over ’till the fat lady sings.”  Dan Cook (or Yogi Berra, depending on which version of the story you believe)

I grew up in a family of opera fans.  We named our pets after characters in operas.  As a result, I can’t even remember how young I was when I first heard of La Scala.  When we saw the outside, I thought “this is it?”   When it was built in 1778, it houses on the then-narrow street made it impossible to admire the façade. My dad never would have forgiven us if we didn’t do the tour, so we did (and picked him up a little something from the gift shop).  It was impressive.  Note: they want you to purchase the guidebook in the gift shop so very little is labeled in English and almost nothing is put in context for those unfamiliar with opera. Luckily, I’d absorbed enough by osmosis to recognize and understand the significance of some of the more important objects.  Opera lovers will be enthralled.  

Although they say no pictures,  groups of tourists happily snapped away at every available opportunity.   I snapped a few for you, although I tried to be discreet about it.  I didn’t use a flash and even made him cough to cover up the sound of the shutter clicking.  Watch out Boris and Natasha, there’s a new secret agent on the loose.  Actually, judging from the quality of the photos, your jobs may be safe.

The interior is amazing. Opulent and elegant, it is everything that such a legendary and prestigious place should be.  Charlotte has a nice theater and I “make” him go to the opera every year whether he likes it or not.  It’s good for him and the cheap seats aren’t much more than a movie.  Although Charlotte’s and many other theaters are larger, La Scala blows them out of the water. Check out the royal box.  Can you imagine seeing a show from there?  Can you imagine the hijinks that box has seen? Unfortunately, La Scala was bombed during WWII. Highlights of the museum include: The death masks of famous composers like Giuseppe Verdi Franz Lizst’s piano Toscanini‘s baton Verdi’s top hat, portrait, wives’ portraits, and other miscellany that belonged to or depicted the Costumes Ancient musical instruments

Highlights of the museum include:

  • The death masks of famous composers like Giuseppe Verdi
  • Franz Lizst’s piano
  • Toscanini’s baton
  • Verdi’s top hat, portrait, wives’ portraits, and other miscellany that belonged to or depicted the composer
  • Cool portraits
  • Costumes
  • Ancient musical instruments

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Why My Appliances Fit in Barbie’s Dream House

Switzerland is one of the smallest, but most densely populated countries in Europe.  It has a population of approximately 7.3 million, with 173 people per square kilometer.  Here, space is at a premium.  In all other European countries, appliances are 60 centimeters wide. Here, they are 55 centimeters wide.  Why?  Space. There is a lack of it.

When we were looking for apartments, I noticed all the elevators were the same (tiny) size. This appears to be a pretty standard size that is just large enough to fit appliances in one at a time.  Our kitchen is packed like the blocks from a game of Tetris, but it all fits. We are lucky to even have appliances like a dishwasher, oven, washing machine and dryer.

They are also smaller than we were used to in the US and only hold about a half to a third of what our washer in the US did.  It also takes a bit longer to wash and dry a load here, clocking in at about 4 hours. The result, we wear things a little more before throwing them in the wash.

By the way, everything seems larger in the US.  Check out the size of the US toilet paper roll compared to the Swiss role.

It Wasn’t Premeditated, Our Hike Up Rochers-de-Naye

Rochers-de-Naye is the mountain with the rock top on the left, not the bump, but the one with the snow below the rock.

We woke up to a beautiful day. Since it was so clear, we decided to do one of the things that we’d been saving for a clear day so we could enjoy the view.  Our choices were take cable cars to the top of Mont Blanc or hike from the lake in Montreaux to Rochers-de-Naye.  I checked with him to make sure he know the hike meant climbing the mountain behind Montreaux.  Please note the full disclosure (on my part) and assumption of risk (on his part).

We weren’t the only ones who thought it was hot. This guy jumped into the water fountain.

A reader suggested this hike and I wanted to do it because the views at the top are spectacular.   Yeah, we could have taken a cog wheel train up, but where’s the fun in that?  Especially on a hot day?

We spent about five hours…walking up, and up, and up.

On the way, we saw these brave fellows heading down.  In this photo, you can’t see what is beyond the edge.  In fact, it’s almost impossible to see from this vantage point.  That’s because it drops off sharply and precipitously.  If you look on the right of the photo below, you will see a small railing that prevents people falling from the steep rock face.  Yep, that’s where we ran into them.  Impressive.

I’ve always wanted to do a ridge hike in Switzerland.  I thought it would be cool to  look down on both sides.  This trail had a bit of one.  Cool huh?

At the end of the ridge, we finally caught sight of the summit.  Although it looks pretty close, it took us at least another 45 minutes to reach it.  I may have slowed us down by stopping every 10 feet to take pictures of the incredible scenery.

When we finally reached the top, we found snow!  I know, I know.  After several hours of hiking, the bandage on my paw looked about as dirty as the snow.

Yep.  The finger is still bandaged.

 

He was exhausted at the end of the day (and very, very hungry).  I thought it was worth it.  He joked that I tried to kill him.  I’m happy to report that he’s forgiven me.  Either that or he is lulling me into a false sense of security while he plans his revenge.

It was a long, sweaty (especially on his part), but enjoyable hike from Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) in Montreux to Rochers-de-Naye at 2041m (6,709 feet).   At the top, there was snow and unforgettable, jaw dropping views.

They also have Marmot Paradise.  Who doesn’t love these beaver-like animals?   I also enjoyed the Alpine garden with lots of special species of Swiss Alpine plants and flowers. I even saw Edelweiss!

Frankenstein, A Swiss Character?

Once upon a time in Switzerland,  some English tourists spent an unusually cold, wet summer in Switzerland on the shores of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman).  The tourists weren’t just any old tourists, they were the romantics.  They wrote masterpieces, this dunce writes this blog.

English: Portrait of Mary Shelley

English: Portrait of Mary Shelley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One dark and stormy night, the literary group bet that they could write as a gothic fiction novel that was as good or better than the then-popular cheap works.  The others, Lord Byron, Percy Blythe Shelley and Claire Clairmont were all able to come up with a story quite quickly.  Mary Godwin was not.  After an evening of conversation about reanimating human bodies using electrical currents, 18 year-old Mary Godwin dreamt of corpses coming back to life and the image of Frankenstein.  She woke up and wrote a short story about her dream.

Percy Bysshe Shelley imbibed his radical philo...

Percy Bysshe Shelley imbibed his radical philosophy from William Godwin’s Political Justice. (Amelia Curran, 1819) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She ended up marrying Percy Blythe Shelley, becoming Mary Shelley.  He encouraged her to expand the short story into a full-length novel.  It became one of the greatest literary creations of the regency period and the first gothic novel.

Mary Shelley was taken with the area’s beauty, describing color of the lake, “blue as the heavens which it reflects.”  She visited many of the area’s tourist attractions and they feature in the story.

  • Victor Frankenstein is from Geneva.
  • She took the traditional iron tram from Chamonix to the The Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) on Mont Blanc.  According to legend, she used this spectacular, icy landscape as the backdrop for the meeting between Victor Frankenstein and his maker.
  • Victor Frankenstein’s home is called “Belrive.”  Villa Diodati, the manor where Byron, Shelley and company stayed, was originally named Villa Belle Rive.
  • Safie flees to Switzerland.

Romantics Like Byron On Lake Geneva Write Masterpieces, This Dunce Writes This Blog

In the spring of 1816, Lord Byron left England in a self-imposed exile.  His aristocratic excesses, which included huge debts, numerous love affairs and rumors of a scandalous incestuous liaison with his half-sister, made London to hot for him.   He journeyed up the Rhine to Switzerland, ending up in time to summer on Lake Geneva (Lac Leman).

Percy Blythe Shelley, John Polidori, Mary Godwin (who later married Shelley becoming Mary Shelley), and her step-sister Claire Clairmont.  Because my nieces and nephews read this blog, let’s just say they were a bit scandalous.

Wanting to be away from gossipy English tourists, Byron rented Villa Diodati in Cologny on the shores of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman).  Due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia,  the weather turned from the typical gorgeous Swiss summer to storm clouds and rain.  It became known as the summer that never was.

They had an intense summer, staying up late talking.  It was also a productive period for them.  Byron finished the third canto of his epic poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” at Villa Diodati.

On the way back, they stopped in Ouchy for a night.  Freshly inspired Byron and Shelley (who visited with him), immediately began writing.  Byron worked on  “The Prisoner of Chillon” and Shelley the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.”

Who Gets Taken By This?

Who does this?  I guess an idiot is born every day, but really, who does this?  Someone must.  These guys are everywhere.  We’ve seen them all over Europe (usually with too many people crowding around to get  a decent picture).  Now that the weather is better, they are all over the boardwalk in Geneva.

These shell games (also known as ThimblerigThree shells and a peathe old army game) function, more or less, the same way.  The shuffler (aka the tosser) takes bets on the location of the pea or ball.  If a better guesses correctly, they supposedly win double their bet.  If they don’t, they lose it.  Although it’s known as a confidence game, it seems more of a swindle, con or fraud.  It’s hard to catch because The shell game set-up and lay-out is quick and simple, so that in the event of trouble, they pull up the rug, removing all traces of the game in a matter of seconds.

If the shuffler is halfway decent, they can remove the object undetected at will and it is useless to watch the shells or the operator’s hands.  You can’t win unless the operator wants you to.  Usually, most of the players in this shell game  are shills who are all part of the confidence trick.  They have different roles that include: lookout for the police; “muscle” to intimidate marks, and pretending to play the game, enticing the mark into betting.   When someone enters the circle of players, they surround them to discourage an easy exit and keep other pedestrians from interfering.  This crowd also makes it difficult to get pictures.  Sorry I don’t have better ones.

How do they get the money?  You can’t make enough for the several involved to split with bets of a dollar or two.  They try to elicit anger or greed to create heightened situation.  A shill then “discloses” a winning strategy, getting the mark to place a large bet.  It probably doesn’t hurt to have someone distracted and revealing the location of their money either.

The Swiss Army – Ready To Blow Their Country To Smithereens

We have been learning a bit more about the Swiss Army.  It’s more than just fancy knives.  We saw the Toblerone Line, Fortress Fürigen, and learned why Hitler didn’t invade Switzerland.  After World War II, the Swiss didn’t let up.  They continued with their network of secret fortresses and bunkers built into the mountains.

At one point, Switzerland had 15,000 hidden fortresses protecting roads, railways, and mountain passes.  We see evidence of them hidden everywhere.  On hikes, we regularly see doors in the sides of mountains, fake stonework, etc. in the middle of nowhere.  Knowing that they likely concealing something for the military, we stay well away.

Did you spot the camouflaged door?

Most forts were shut after the end of the Cold War.  This was the result of a change in strategy, not a lack of belief in the importance their objective (to remain independent and neutral).  Switzerland decided that if it was invaded, it would probably be for use as a supply line as it has virtually no natural resources.  It’s a sound premise, that’s how Hitler and Mussolini used it during WWII.

To counter this, The Swiss military has wired the country’s extensive infrastructure of roads and bridges to blow.  In fact, they have over 3000 points of demolition!  Its mountain tunnels will be sealed from within to act as nuclear-proof air raid shelters, or blow up too.   In the side of mountains, airstrips are built in with camouflaged doors.  They let everyone know about their plan in the event of a foreign invasion.  It’s a pretty cost-effective deterrence strategy.

Although Swiss armed forces have a purely defensive role, military service is still compulsory (Women can volunteer for most units).  Heck, with a plan like that you need more than just a couple of people around who have practiced how to blow their country up.

Car-Free Towns

Many “old towns” are (almost completely) car free.  Many towns, use a system of passes and barriers to ensure that the streets remain traffic free while allowing residents parking, taxis access and permitting deliveries.

Many streets in city centers are reserved for local business people, residents, city buses, or pedestrians. To enforce this the entry to the street is always marked as such, in the local language and with standard signs, and is often blocked by a couple of 8″ diameter steel posts rising up from the road. Those with permits have a swipe card which lowers the posts momentarily so they can drive through. If you try to sneak through right after someone goes in you might hear a sort of crunching sound as the posts come up under your car. This will be embarrassing and expensive.

Some of the car-free towns we have visited include:

To encourage walking, biking and the use of public transport, many European cities make it hard (and/or costly) to park.

  • limit the amount of parking spaces
  • implement or increase parking fees
  • Fees paid for parking are sometimes used to encourage non-car transportation.

Eliminating parking spaces in Copenhagen has made room for high-quality pedestrian districts and bike paths, while street space once used by cars has likewise been repurposed in Paris for bike sharing and tramways.

Who Is This Betty Bossi Lady?

 

We all know that I am no Julia Child in the kitchen.  When we moved to Geneva, I saw the name Betty Bossi everywhere. I saw recipes, often heard the name and saw prepackaged Betty Bossi items for sale in the grocery store.   I began to wonder who is Betty Bossi?  I thought she was probably a Swiss celebrity chef, like the Swiss Emeril Lagasse, Gordon Ramsey or Jamie Oliver.

Guess what?  The joke’s on me.  She’s not a real person, more of a marketing concept, kind of like a Swiss Betty Crocker.   Since my unfortunate kitchen accident, I’ve sworn off kitchen appliances (especially immersion blenders).   As a result, I won’t be making any of her uber-Swiss recipes that are available on myswitzerland.com.    May you have better luck in the kitchen than I do.

 

Natzweiler-Struthof, The French Concentration Camp

He was surprised to see signs for a concentration camp when we were in Alsace.  Hidden away in the Vosges Mountains, the Natzweiler-Struthof is the only concentration camp established by the Nazis in what is now France.   I went to see it.  Like the Holocaust Exhibit at the British War Museum, other concentration camps or pretty much any other sign of such horror, I found myself disassociating myself from what I was seeing so that I could continue to view the disturbing exhibits.

A camp for political prisoners, including those involved in the resistance movement.  Nevertheless, the death rate was 40% due to the strenuous work (Prisoners worked in nearby granite quarries and in construction projects) medical experimentation, poor nutrition and mistreatment by the SS guards.

As the industrial production requirements of the was increased, Natzweiler developed a system of  up to 50 adjacent sub camps (shown on the map above).  The death rate at these camps was 80%.  I was surprised to learn that one such camp was Neckarelz.  There, they converted an existing gypsum mine into an intricate tunnel system that housed a relocated Daimler-Benz Aircraft engine plant!

Many “Night and Fog” (Nacht und Nebel, a German effort to subdue a growing anti-German resistance) prisoners were detained there.  Suspected resistance fighters just disappeared in night, the Germans held many of them at Natzweiler-Struthof.

The camp holds also a crematorium and a jury rigged gas chamber outside the main camp.   Natzweiler-Struthof gassed more than 80 Jewish prisoners and sent their bodies to the Strasbourg University Institute of Anatomy where anatomist Dr. August Hirt amassed a large collection of Jewish skeletons used in his quest for anthropological evidence Jewish “racial inferiority.”  He was attempting to create a museum in which (in his words) “sub-humans, in which proofs of the degeneracy and the animality of the Jews would be collected.”

Strasbourg University faculty member, Professor Otto Bickenbach, used the gas chamber in pseudoscientific medical experiments involving mustard gas and other vesicants .  Many victims of these experiments were Roma (Gypsies) who were transferred from Auschwitz for use as guinea pigs.  Doctor Eugen Haagen,  the chair for hygiene and bacteriology at Strasbourg University was in charge of medical experiments on the camp.  He conducted experiments on prisoners involving typhus and yellow fever.  The operating room below was the site of many of these “experiments.”

With the Allies closing in, Nazis evacuated the camp sending prisoners on a “death march” in September 1944.  On November 23, 1944, it became the first concentration camp in Western Europe liberated by the Allies.

One of the most unusual and surprising things I saw was art.  Several talented artists (Henri Gayot, Jacques Barrau, Ernest Gillen, Rudolf Naess) were held and the camp and some of their art survived.

Shockingly, neo-Nazis burned the camp museum in 1976.  It was subsequently rebuilt, but important artifacts and buildings were destroyed in the fire.

As disturbing as it was, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to step behind the formerly electrified fences and learn about what happened there.