Why We Miss Driving In The US

We are lucky to have a car and be able to drive here.  Nevertheless, it is a lot more stressful than driving in the US. The rules, the road signs, the cars, the roads and the other customs are all different.  Because they aren’t yet second nature and we learned in a different environment, driving takes a lot more effort.  We don’t think of Sunday drives here as relaxing.  Here’s why we miss driving in the US.

The signs are different.

  • Speed limit signs are round with a number indicating the speed limit (in k.p.h.).  Unfortunately, we haven’t seen many of them.  More often, we see circular signs with a slash through them.  They indicate that the listed speed limit has just ended.  We would find it much more helpful if the new speed were posted.  These signs mean that the limit reverts to the standard speed limit posted at the borders.

Speed Limit

  • We find this especially difficult because we live mere miles from the French border.  The limits differ in France.  I get the default speeds confused.
  • Due to Europe’s multi-linguality, many road signs have symbols instead of words.  Modifiers (such as, only farm vehicle are permitted) are always given in the local language, which we probably won’t understand.
  • Traffic lights are rarely above the road.  Instead, they are mounted on posts on either side of the road.  I have found myself in the left lane watching the stoplight on the right side (I missed the light for my left turn).  The lights change from red to yellow (before becoming green), giving everyone a change to get a great start off the line.
  • Street names frequently change, at irregular intervals and without warning.  It is even more problematic because there aren’t signposts at intersections.  Street signs are posted on the corner of buildings, just above the ground floor.  This makes them harder to see from the car.  Sometimes they are missing.  Other times, they are in a different language than what is listed in the guidebook.

The rules of the road differ from the US.

  • There is no right turn on red.  Given the may complex intersections, it is understandable (but still slightly frustrating when you are sitting in traffic).
  • The speed limit drops when the road is wet.  What qualifies as wet?  A drop? A rainstorm?
  • Here, yellow diamonds indicate priority.  In the US, priority is generally standard given your location.  Roads here tend to intersect at bizarre angles and turn randomly.  As such, they need a different way to show priority.  They use yellow diamonds (intersecting roads have yield markings).  In the absence of signs, it isn’t the first vehicle on the spot, but the vehicle coming from the right that has the right of way.  Approaching intersections, I constantly worry about whether I have missed a sign…

Customs are different here.

 

  • Standard transmissions are standard.  Although it doesn’t bother us (unless we are stuck in traffic) a lot of our friends miss having an automatic transmission, particularly on hills.

 

  • Radar detectors are epidemic. Rather than seeing a police car roadside or lurking in a median, inconspicuous radar/camera/strobe lights cameras are everywhere.   We live in constant fear of receiving a giant ticket in the mail.  Why a giant one?  Look below at the section on speed limit signs.

 

  • We were astounded the other week when on our trip through the south of France, people didn’t immediately pull over for an ambulance.  Apparently this is common here.   Even so, it was foreign to us.  In the US, drivers are required by law to pull to the right and stop for all emergency vehicles with siren and lights.  By the way, emergency vehicles here sound just like they do in the Bourne Identity movies.

The roads aren’t the broad, straight avenues that we grew up on in the US.

  • Shoulders?  What are those?
  • Good luck finding a straight road.  The roads are narrow, winding and often steep.
  • The German Autobahn doesn’t always have speed limits.  Fun, but not exactly relaxing.  We didn’t get to take full advantage of it because we spent most of our time on the world’s narrowest lanes in construction.
  • Parking spaces are Texas tight.
  • Car-free pedestrian zones all over.  Usually, there is usually a barrier preventing you from driving  in these areas, not that you would want to.  They usually have crazy streets.  You can’t get into them, but getting around them can take a while.

Oh well, at least the scenery is good.  No Entry

  • More problematic is when there is merely no entry sign with words underneath.  These are easy to miss.  Often, they have words underneath describing which cars are permitted to enter…in another language.  They may allow certain vehicles, like taxis or local residents and business owners, to enter.
  • One way streets.  It isn’t just that you have to make sure that you are going the correct way.  The problem is also that if you miss your turn, you can’t change your route easily.  It can take an extra 20 minutes to get back.
  • Roundabouts (aka traffic circles).  Worse with driving in the UK and you have to go them the other way around.

Italian Unification

 

Although Italy has a long and storied history, think the Etruscans, the Romans, etc., it is easy to forget that it has been an independent nation for less time than the United States.  We learned some about Italian unification at the Risorgimento Museum in Milan. Since it was all in Italian, we could do some research after returning home.  Being history buffs, we found it interesting and liked the museum anyway.

Napoleon Bonaparte kicked out the Austrians and the Spanish out of Italy in 1796.  Until then, Italy had not existed a under a central power since the Romans.  It was a collection of city states that had been, for the most part, ruled by foreign powers (Austria, Spain, France).

Initially, Milan welcomed Napolean and built the triumphal arch, the Arco della Pace, for him.  They hoped that he would bring the ideals of the French Revolution (liberty, equality and brotherhood) to them.  In their eyes, he turned out to be just another narcissistic megalomaniac.  To express their dissatisfaction and disappointment, they turned the horses around.  Nevertheless, under Napoleon, Italy experienced it’s first taste of unification and it proved impossible to unring that bell.  It awakened hopes for Italy to become an independent nation.

The movement toward unification grew in the 50 years following Napoleon.  It started out as a revolutionionary movement on the fringes of society.  Since membership in this group (the Carbonari) was punishable by death, it was a secret society.  Understandable.

Giuseppe Mazzini led this professional revolutionary group.  Mazzini traveled extensively, spreading revolutionary propaganda, influencing Italian radicals and revolutionaries throughout Europe.  He was involved in the failed revolution 1848–49.

Giuseppe Garibaldi had a long military career before Victor Emmanuel convinced him to conquer Sicily.  In 1860 with 1,000 volunteers known as the Red Shirts, Garibaldi landed in Sicily, (which had rebelled against Francis II the king of the Two Sicilies), and conquered the island in a spectacular, daring campaign.  He then took Naples, and won a decisive battle on the Volturno River.  This led Victor Emmanuel’s proclamation as king of a united Italy.

Vittorio Emanuele II, king of Sardinia and the first king of united Italy.  He was the rallying point around which the movement coalesced.  These men were so fundamental to the formation of Italy that in virtually every Italian town, you find streets, squares, piazzas and buildings named after Victor Emanuel, Mazzini, Garibaldi and Cavour.

Camillo Cavour (statesman, premier of the Kingdom of Sardinia), pulled a fast one on France.  In a brilliant sleight of hand, he convinced them to drive Austria out of Italy (Franco-Austrian War).  One occupier down, one to go.   He convinced France to take part of Savoy and Nice in exchange for getting out of the rest of Italy.   Clever.

After Garibaldi’s victories and Victor Emmanuel’s coronation, when Tuscany, Parma, Modena, and the Romagna voted for annexation to Sardinia, Cavour sent Sardinian troops into the Papal States, which, with the exception of Latium and Rome, were soon annexed.  And presto, you have Italy.

 

Buon Appetito! Eating Our Way Through Milan

Although we saw some cool stuff in Milan, one of the main reasons to go to Italy is for the food and drink.  They are an attraction in and of themselves and did not disappoint.

We had at least two cappuccino for breakfast every day.  Italians only order cappuchinos until 10:00.  Although italians only drink cappuccino until 10:00 a.m., they pop in for expressos all day long.  If you run into a friend in the street, it is customary to pop into a café for a quick espresso at the bar while you catch up.  Ten minutes later, you’re back on your way.  Perfect for caffeine addicts like us who don’t always like to linger at a table.

Before dinner, Italian tradition is to have an aperitivo.  It is a pre-meal drink meant to stimulate appetite, but seems to be an excuse to go out for a drink, relax and chat with friends.   When in Rome, or Milan…

I loved the Antipasti, the appetizer course, because I usually hadn’t gorged myself yet so I could eat while I was actually hungry.  The food was so good that I did a good amount of eating when I wasn’t actually hungry.  It was so tasty that I just had to eat it.   Who knows when I’d have another chance to taste something like that?

One of his favorites was a cheese plate that included burrata, a fresh artisanal cheese made from mozzarella and cream.  Although people eat cheeses that are older than some of our nieces and nephews, you are supposed to eat burrata within 24 hours after it is made.  Ours came on a plate with fresh buffalo mozzarella and ricotta.  De-lish-us!

In Italy, pasta is usually the next course, known as Primo Patti.  Although they sometimes serve soup, rice,  polenta, etc., it’s usually a rich pasta dish.  Carbalicious.

Secondo, the main course, usually consists of chicken, meat, or fish.  With so many courses, thankfully the portions aren’t too large.  Most Italians don’t eat an antipastoprimosecondo and dolce at every meal, but the selections are always on the menu.  Just because we pigged out doesn’t mean you are required to.

The dolce (Italian for sweet), dessert, ends the meal.  People often order an espresso to help digestion and to finish off a meal.  Plus it gives them more time to sit and talk over food and drink.

Sorry, we couldn’t wait to take a picture before taking a bite out of our daily gelato.  We weren’t the only ones who liked gelato, just check out this cute little guy.  He was going to town on his gelato.  Notice how he is inside the restaurant.

Remember, friends don’t let friends serve each other packaged food.  Viva l’Italia.

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

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.”

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.