Thursday, May 3, 2012

Switzerland and Its Cows

Switzerland is not just noted for its Alps, its chocolates, cheeses, watches and Smurfs (which they think are called Schlumpfs!).  No, Switzerland also has cows.   And as you may know, cows mean a great deal to me.  Of course, they recall for me my happy childhood summers in Vermont.  More than that, the sight of cows floods my being with peace.  These creatures have distilled life down to (well, perhaps, never have progressed beyond) staying alive: eating and processing food, resting and sleeping; and maybe procreating if possible.  Would that I, too, could keep it that simple.  Because I cannot, the sight of live cows (not cartoon travesties) relaxes me like a deep lungful of oxygen.  Therefore, you will have no trouble understanding that my visit to Switzerland in April was joyful.

The cows of Switzerland live luxuriously in emerald green meadows with vistas of snow-capped mountains to contemplate.  Their milk, creamy-rich, is a steady source of income for the Swiss as it forms the basis for their expensive cheeses and chocolates.  This vat is full of cows milk being turned into Gruyere cheese.

As we drove around Switzerland last week, my dear husband had to endure a steady stream of “Look, cows!” exclamations from me.   He even insisted on buying a little stuffed cow for me (her name is Heidi) who went nearly everywhere with us.  Sometimes, she posed with fake cows.  She has a very big silly smile.

Thanks to my dear husband’s wonderful career, we were the guests of some former colleagues of his who unaccountably prefer to live in the middle of Europe and accept a million dollars every year from the Swiss government as a starting point for their scientific research at one of the best technical universities in the world.  The Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) is only about 40 years old but very well funded and growing fast.  We were put up in a hotel next to the campus where we had this incredible view across Lake Geneva.

Another of Switzerland’s riches is languages, of which it has four.  Well, one of them is really more of a mascot than a communication tool (Romansch is only spoken by like 1% of the nation), but practically everyone speaks two of the following and sometimes all four: French, German, Italian, and English (which isn’t a national language but might as well be).   EPFL was founded so that there would be a technical university in the French-speaking part of the country, in addition to ETH (where Einstein worked) in the German-speaking part.  This was lucky for us, because during our stay we were treated to world-class fine dining, mostly French style.

Lausanne lies along the long north side of Lake Geneva, on hills that rise quickly from the lake shore.  In the city, this topography creates neighborhoods where the front door of a house may be at ground level, but its back door could be on the third floor.  Sometimes, the grade is so steep that there are flights of stairs instead of sidewalks.  You get a real workout walking around here.

In the country villages outside Lausanne, vineyards are terraced along these steep hills.  Some hillsides are so perfect for growing grapes that every square inch is terraced and planted with vines.  

We were able to sample quite a few Swiss vintages as our main host is a connoisseur, and very generous to boot.  We had a lovely meal at his home one night.  I snapped this photo of his view of Mont Blanc from his living room!

As he drove us to his house, he pointed out in a neighboring village the small castle which had briefly been the home of the mystery author, Georges Simenon, who wrote several of his famous “Maigret” procedurals here.  Simenon only rented this little place; he was a successful enough writer to buy a much bigger home north of Lausanne (which I failed to visit).  I was already envious enough of this place.

At the suggestion of our host, we drove about an hour north of Lausanne to visit the town and the castle of Gruyeres.  The Swiss weren’t always carefully neutral.  At one time, they fought battles as bloody as any.   Gruyeres was the scene of attacks from other Swiss cities!  One attack was thwarted when the women of the town tied burning brands to the heads of their goats, and drove them at the sleeping enemy! Eventually, the duke or earl (whatever!) lost the battle of finance:  in deep debt, the castle was taken by the nearby city of Fribourg.

Later, the castle was purchased by a wealthy businessman for his artist brother, who invited his friends in to decorate the music room.  The castle is now used by the nation to encourage art, and to reap millions in tourism. 

Wherever we went, we saw beauty up close, and at a distance; in the city, and away.  Concentrating on staying out of wars for more than a century has allowed the Swiss to focus on the art of living.  The Swiss have refined this art in their husbandry of their land and its products, and in their nurturing of their citizens through generous government funding.  To receive the stamp “Swiss”, and thus be most expensive, all meat and poultry must be free-range, grass-fed, and probably entertained by classical musicians.  The Swiss believe such meat tastes much better than feed-lot animals, but they also know that the animals they consume have enjoyed life as much as their consumers.

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