Archive | February, 2015

On Zermatt and its quaint, snow covered charm

18 Feb

On Zermatt and its quaint, snow covered charm

Zermatt

We arrive at the tiny Zermatt station and the person at the ticket window there refunds my money and issues me a family pass without any hesitation. In return all I have to do is to fill up a small little form. I am so impressed that I am tempted to take his picture and Tweet it to my followers in India, but I let the feeling pass on account of no free wifi. I danke the man gratefully and step outside, luggage and kids in tow. The sun in Zermatt is strong and the air piercingly fresh, so fresh that my Indian lungs are feeling overwhelmed. Only electric cars and horse carriages are allowed to ply in this village since 1947 and Hotel Zermatterhoff has sent one such horse carriage for us. The kids are ravenous and spotting a Coop supermarket, begin to make their demands. “I am hungry,” wails the younger one. “Please buy me chocolate my tummy is hurting with hunger mamma.” Melodrama runs high in my side of the family and the younger one has inherited these genes in plenty. I leave them waiting by th2014-03-22 17.57.14

2014-03-23 11.12.46e horse carriage and dash in and out of Coop in record five minutes with a bag full of healthy options, much to my children’s dismay.

We are driven down Bahnostrasse (main street), a narrow strip of tiny shops and restaurants and we arrive at Hotel Zermatterhoff. I realize that this distance could have been covered on foot in the same amount of time but then I would have deprived two little girls a chance to feel like Cinderellas, in their own words. Going by the number of ski gear and luxury watch shops along this tiny strip, one could decidedly come to the conclusion that the people of this quintessential Alpine village only need skis and expensive watches in order to survive. St Moritz, from what I can remember, was no different in this regard. There are more watch stores in Switzerland than supermarkets. There’s got to be a limit to obsession with time.

The Swiss clearly thrive on their great outdoors, their peculiar tasting cheese and being on time with the help of branded watches. Of course this leaves them with no time to be effusive or interesting.

I can almost picture a Swiss mother telling her son in German, “Hermann, Bitte bringen US Brot und Käse nach dem Skifahren. Vergessen Sie nicht, Papa und mir eine Hublot und Audemars Piguet bringen.”

“Das letzte Mal, dass du mich Rolex Oyster Perpetual, und ich musste es tragen zu stoppen, weil Maria, unsere Putzfrau trägt es auch.”

I agree with you, it sounds like the mother is planning to viciously murder her husband with her son’s help, but then that is German for you. What she is trying to say instead goes something like this, “Hermann, on your way back from the ski slopes can you please bring us some bread and cheese for dinner. Oh and don’t forget to pick up a Hublot and a jewelled Audemars Piguet for dad and me while you are at it.

Last time you got me that Rolex Oyster Perpetual and I had to stop wearing it because Maria, our cleaning lady wears it too.”

I am pleased to note that the staff at the Zermatterhoff hotel is exceptionally accommodating and courteous and when they fuss over you, they do not give you the impression that they are doing this for gratuity. We are led to our spacious (by European standards) rooms on the top most floor of the hotel. It is only when we walk into the attached balcony that we truly absorb the beauty of this Alpine paradise.

There are tumbledown wooden Valais homes smattered all the way upto the far away slopes and behind them the legendary Matterhorn at 4478 m above sea level.

Towering over the entire landscape in all its snow-covered splendour the Matterhorn commands awe. In days to come, I realize that the Matterhorn glacier changes its hue through the day, stark white in the afternoon, golden yellow in the evening, red at sunset and a frosty blue at night. This explains the obsession of the people of Zermatt with painting and clicking pictures of this peak. Almost everywhere you go in the town you spot a framed picture or a painting of the Matterhorn. As you walk around the cobbled lanes of Zermatt, you will often hear the words, “Look, that is the Matterhorn.”

I too am so inspired by this glacier that I am contemplating putting together a book called 20,000 different ways to look at the Matterhorn and still work up the excitement.

As the sun begins to set, these chalets glow like lanterns against the snow making the vista take on a dreamlike quality.  the chalets at varied heights stacked up in between our hotel and the mountains behind and after dark this scene takes on a magical quality against the midnights skies. There is something about the view that makes my nerves quiver with admiration.

The clamour of the church bells from the church next door from our hotel can be heard on the hour, every hour. My older one begins to complain about it and for the first time in the day, I lose my cool. “You have no appreciation for history. You just want shopping malls!!” I say making a conscious effort to sound condescending. “Why do you have to lecture me about everything. Just because you like these old old cities and churches that cannot stop ringing does not mean that we have to like it,” she challenges me.

I put this back talk to pre-teen behaviour.

Zermatt has two other famous excursion mountains apart from the Matterhorn, Gornegrat and Rothorn.

We find a sunlit table in one of the restaurants in Bahnostrasse and sate our ravenous selves with fondue followed by glace (ice cream).

This village of Zermatt may be tiny but it is not lacking in charm or elderly couples, evidently. That’s right, this place is an extension of my train as there are no young people in sight, only pet dogs and their advanced-in-age owners in expensive furs. So where are all the young people, I wonder. Perhaps they’re all doing their compulsory military service in the Swiss army. Or they could be on the ski slopes.

The next morning, for the price of a human kidney, we buy our passes to take the ski lifts along with the kids and their instructor Luca. Unlike last year, this year I am not going to be able to attempt skiing on account of a terrible leg spasm which I have had since a week now, because I am eighty years old apparently.

Luca tells me the weather forecast for the rest of the week is sunny. This bit of information dampens my mood right away because when you pay for snow you should get fresh snow.

Up on the slopes, I sit like a mountain goat, watching the world ski past me while all I do to entertain myself is to eat potato rosti and take selfies. When I go to the Sunnegga cafe to buy us some water, I discover that wine and water cost about the same. Under such circumstances, it would be sacrilegious to buy water. More importantly, one cannot overlook the fact that fruit provides more vitamins to the body than water and I need vitamins to survive the dry air, the harsh sun and my general joblessness 8000 Ft above sea level.

The cafe where I sat all day waiting for an epiphany

Given that water is selling for 6 Francs a bottle up here, if I decide to give it all up one day and move to the mountains to find my inner self, I could move to the Swiss Alps and look at working part time as a water bearer.

Even though it is only their first day on the skis after a gap of a year, my children are doing well with their lessons and have moved to the higher slopes with Luca in no time. This means I am left behind to listen to profoundly moving lyrics of songs blaring on the speakers at the first level.

“Who do you think you are?

Running around leaving scars?

You’ll catch a cold

From the ice inside your soul.”

My own soul is catching a cold from listening to these words. I decide to bring my laptop along the next day to occupy myself more usefully.

The next morning, I feel like a nerd when I realize that I am the only person boarding the ski lifts with a laptop instead of skis. But if Hemingway were here, wouldn’t he do the same, I console myself.

Up on the summit, I make friends with an immensely likeable girl from New York who was raised in Bombay and now lives in Manhattan with her husband and kids. The world is small indeed for we realize that we dislike the same people in Bombay. She also loves Adele. This in itself is reason enough to take to each other and we decide to meet with our respective families for dinner. The husband has finally reached Zermatt and much as I am looking forward to his company, I am stressing because I will have to plan itineraries for three children now.

Two monkeys on the slopes

The slopes are ideal for skiing but the heat is unbearable for the sun only gets harsher. I check the weather forecast a dozen times a day in the hope that snow conditions will show up, but to no avail. I feel cheated because if I wanted so much sun, day after day, I would have stayed back in Bombay or gone to Dubai. Luca does not get our fascination with cold weather and snow. He is planning to go to Kerala later this year to soak in the sun. “Imagine if you go to Kerala but it is raining all the time and you cannot go to the beaches. This is the same for us. It is just too sunny here. I want my money back,” I tell him.

Evert night we meet up with our new friends at a restaurant or their chalet while our kids play with theirs. It is working out really well really except that we are all having to wake up at 7.00 am daily to be able to make it to the slopes before it gets too hot. This holiday is feeling like a boot camp and I am getting just a bit tired of getting my children ready in several layers each morning and tending to their dry and sun burnt skin through the day. Every time I see them on the slopes after they have finished a round, like an orderly, I run to hydrate them with water and apply more sun block and lip balm on their chapping lips. The husband is also taking ski lessons, he seems to have a natural flair for it. This means I will have to continue to be miserable all by myself. But misery loves food and I am making so many quick trips to the self service cafe that I am on the verge of sending a friend request on Facebook to the girl behind the till who flashes her familiar smile at me now every time I show up with a tray.

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Our instructor is an erudite man and wonderful company. Being Italian, he is also very patient with my children. The older one is committed to following instructions from Luca but I am told that my younger one stops mid slope to dig out gummy bears from her pocket to mix them up with the fresh snow before throwing them back into her mouth. “It’s okay, she is cute, I don’t mind at all” he reassures me.

Since the milk of humanity is flowing so generously in his veins, I am tempted to ask him to keep the children with him for the entire week, till we reach the end of their lessons and his patience. Or he could keep them for longer and I could collect them in Kerela in a few months.

We are headed to Gonnorhea Gornergrat the next day, which is 12200 ft above sea level, to try out new pistes for the kids and new cafes for me. The train that takes us to the top chugs along the most picturesque landscape that I have ever seen, but it fails to inspire my children who are begging for my phone to play games on!

Luca takes the kids for their ski lessons right away and I carry on in the Gornegrat Bahn till the very last stop. When I step out of the train I see an incomparable, indescribable view that makes me want to fall on my knees to thank the universe for keeping me alive to show me such a sight and the Swiss for making provisions to arrive at such a destination without having to physically scale those mountains. Nothing can beat the feeling of standing on top of Europe with a panoramic view of  29 spellbinding Alpine peaks and Japanese tourists around you.

2014-03-20 15.05.03

When I am done taking selfies and sipping hot chocolate I join the kids who are all set to go sledging with me.

Since the husband is busy with his ski lessons, we hire only two sledges. My younger one, who has found her soul mate in Luca, chooses to go sit on his sledge with him and my older one reluctantly sits on the sledge with me.

The slope is steep and bumpy with sharp turns. Luca and my younger one race ahead of us while the older one and I barely manage to keep ourselves from falling off the mountain. We have to adjust our body weight while turning along the curves and my constant instructions manage to confuse and scare the poor child. “Turn to the left or we are going to fall off the edge, turn to the right now, or we are going to bang into the sides……” I go on. The frail creature is bobbing her head from right to left and doing her best to follow my instructions.

The child is sitting in the front and I put both my legs up to go full throttle and before we know it, our sledge has gone off kilter and crashed into the metal pole along the sledging slope. Crash, bang and two bodies go flying off the track and land in piles of snow.

. “Are you alright?” I yell. “Is your nose broken?” Fortunately, the child is wearing a helmet and has survived the fall without any major casualty but she is awfully mad at me. “I can’t believe that my own mother tried to kill me today,” she says hysterically. I am the kind of person who tends to laugh when I am in a state of shock. This of course, does not go down too well with those expecting sympathy. So I continue to lie there, submerged in the snow, my leg is hurting and my arm is numb but I am laughing much to my daughter’s annoyance.

When I finally manage extricating my body from the snow and drag myself to the sledge, the child refuses to sit on it and insists on walking all the way down instead. But the slope is too steep to walk and while we are negotiating, I let go of our sledge because I am a sophisticated person who cannot talk without moving both her hands. Now the sledge is speeding down on its own and the two of us running behind it in what could only be a scene from Mr Bean. The only way to get down now is to slide on our derrieres and that is exactly what we do. Two perfect fools, chasing a sledge on their asses.

As I go to bed that night, I come to the following conclusions:

1.I am less than average at skiing (based on my past experience).

2.I am terrible at sledging (based on my present experience).

3. I am going to stick to walking. That should keep me and other people around me out of harms way.

I realize that walking around in my carefully co-coordinated ski clothes might boost my self-esteem, which, unlike my physical body, is at a very low altitude right now, from watching eighty somethings ski and trek while I sit around like an invalid all day.

The next day, the husband and I hire walking poles to walk around and it has finally begun to snow. The train takes us all the way up to Gornegrat and we walk down snow laden inclines to the Igloo Dorf.

Igloo Dorf

The most amazing sight awaits us at the Igloo where eighties music is playing, skiers are sipping beers outside with snow falling all around them. We sit on stools covered with sheepskin and sip hot wine. The igloo also has bedrooms with a bed, an armchair and side tables carved of ice. I cannot imagine spending a night in such a place under any circumstances but after returning to the oppressive heat of Bombay, I have often fantasized about owning such a bed.

On our way back we stop by for crepes at a roadside stall where for the price of Beluga caviar we buy ourselves apple cinnamon crepes. This is Zermatt for you, where street food costs almost as much as a meal at The Ritz!

It is snowing heavily and the children want to make a snowman. Their father wants to make the most of this romantic weather and finish off some work on his laptop and  I have to do the one thing I dread most – PACK. Later that night, I find the younger one silently crying herself to sleep. “Are you missing Luca,” I ask her. She is too embarrassed to admit. “We will come again and you can meet him then,” I reassure her. “But why are you telling me all this when I am not even crying or missing him” she says with a forced smile.

“If you like, I can ask Luca to meet us for lunch tomorrow before we catch the train to Zurich,” I offer.

“I don’t mind,” she says coyly.

Next day over breakfast she tells me, “Remember I told you I don’t mind last night.”

I nod.

“So is he coming to see us for lunch?”

“He cannot baby as today is his day off,” I tell her.

With a sigh, she digs into her bowl of cereal and continues to eat but her mind is in other places.

The older one and I exchange a smile.

Back in India, Luca and the little one are exchanging voice messages on whatsapp. God bless their founders, for she is too young to be heartbroken.

Two bored kids and one beautiful train journey through Switzerland

18 Feb

Two bored kids and one beautiful train journey through Switzerland

train8

St Niklaus

The children and I are on our way to the airport to catch a flight to Zurich. We have decided to be there at least three hours before departure to be able to take a tour of the newly inaugurated GVK (Mumbai International Airport).

We walk to the Swissair counter, which is fairly deserted at the moment, and we are possibly the first ones to check-in. “You need to hurry up and get to your departure gate as the flight is closing,” the gentleman at the counter warns me. “Whaaaa…t?” I say incredulously. “We are early, what do you mean the flight is closing?”

“Ma’am you are really late. The flight departs in 45 minutes, I only let you check-in because you are traveling with young kids,” he informs me generously.

This should give you an idea that I am a foggy brained person, who gets by in life purely by chance and because of consideration or pity shown towards me because of my “young children”. God bless them.

On the plane, I can hear the conversations between parents and children in on the seats across from me and I am pleased to bits with the realization that there are other politically incorrect parents like me on this planet. I used to think my own style of parenting had glaring flaws in it but the other parents on the plane are threatening to lock up their children or leave them behind on the plane. I am realizing that I am not the psychopathic tyrant my kids make me out to be but an all loving, all forgiving Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music type of mum. I am hoping the mother on the seat behind us continues to admonish her daughter audibly enough for my kids to hear it but she disappoints me by passing out on her seat even before the seatbelt sign is off. It is late in the night and before I know it I am the only dingbat fighting sleep just so I can lose myself vicariously to Downton Abbey on the monitor in front of me.

I stay up all night watching Season 4 of the British drama and by the time our flight lands at Zurich airport the next morning, I find that I have developed a British accent, clipped tones and all. I am also peppering my sentences with old Scottish expressions almost involuntarily along with “Oh golly” and “Dear me!”

Incidentally, the husband is supposed to fly in from Singapore and receive me at Zurich airport, mostly because he thinks I will lose his kids somewhere between Zurich airport and Zurich railway station, both of which are across the road from each other.

The reason we planned this holiday was to be able to spend quality time with each other, far from the sweating crowd of Bombay and the reason we chose Switzerland, in spite of the cold, is because of my love for the mountains. It is the month of March when my children get ten days off from school and after being seduced by the compelling charms of the Alpine slopes the previous year, we have decided to head to the Swiss mountains yet again.

We are to change two trains to get to Zermatt over a five-hour journey. Mr Perfectly Organized aka the husband has already bought online tickets for our onward journey. Not that buying tickets in advance was even required given that the population of this country is only 7.9 million. But we like to err on the side of caution and so we have purchased full fare, non-refundable tickets for the whole family in a single swipe.

The only fly in the ointment is that he has made all these arrangements for two days later than my actual flight arrival schedule, due to some mix-up for which I am partly responsible. Now I have to cover this daunting distance between Zurich and Zermatt with two large bags and kids in tow all by myself. I know, I make it sound like I am a participating cyclist in the Tour de France but I call this situation daunting, not on account of the distance between the two cities but because of my physical proximity to my two unbridled children during this journey. Add to that my inability to multitask and the occasional attention deficit disorder symptoms and you can comprehend the reason the husband is nervous about me chaperoning our children all by myself.

Be that as it may, here I am, buying all of us tickets for a small fortune that can see a family of six through school in a third world country, the exact kind from where Brad and Angelina adopt their children.

Minutes later we are dashing off to look for our platform, which is at the far end and I am concerned that we might miss the train. One crazy lady with two large suitcases and frenzied kids  is seen running up and down Zurich Hauptbhanhofs, Europe’s busiest railway station and then, after identifying the train, finally flinging her kids and luggage into it with Olympic zeal.

The train leaves Zurich almost reluctantly while I sit there catching my breath, congratulating myself on crossing the first hurdle without any visible casualties. The kids are digging into a bag of crisps and I turn my attention to the landscape outside. Everything that I can see feels uninspiring at first. Factory units and industrial looking landscape, pass us by for a few miles and then the train chugs slowly into beautiful Bern.  I greedily take in whatever I can see of Bern from my window…the stunning lakes, cathedrals with gothic spires and unusually narrow and quaint cobbled lanes. It is a picture postcard city all right. I feel a pastoral delight as I look out of the window, nose to glass, and observe the tiny villages with their miniature chalets and churches that appear every now and then on the landscape. I wonder about the simple lives of the inhabitants of these villages comprising of no more than six to eight families. I think about just how awfully healthy yet dull I might have been had fate allotted me such a life.

I take a break from gasping in awe at the sights that are quickly passing us by to look at the faces of my two uninspired children. Rarely will you have seen such bored expressions on a human face. “Don’t look so bored girls, look outside,” I suggest. My suggestion is met with a request for the ipad from the younger one. Thankfully I am not of a highly introspective disposition or the fact that I have spawned kids who are so epically disinterested in nature might’ve bothered me a great deal.

I take a short walk towards the cafe on the train and cannot help but notice that most passengers on this journey are senior citizens. My being there with my children has probably brought the average age down to 75, but other than us, there are no young people in sight. We could have been shooting a Swiss version of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on that train, for all one knew. Except that elderly British women tend to be haughty and rude apart from being plump and/or buxom while the Swiss ones look lean, fit, benevolent and a trifle bored.

stalden

Leaving Bern and Brig behind, we change our train at Visp where quite a few ski enthusiasts and snow boarders board the next train with us. Z and R are exhausted from boredom and bickering now. The train chugs along, towards steeper inclines.

The journey upwards is awe-inspiring even though it is incomplete without chloroform, which I wish I had with me to temporarily sedate the girls, to afford my elderly co-passengers and myself some peace. But in spite of the high decibel conversations followed by disagreements between them, I am getting by on account of the white wonderland scenery around me.

babies2

Ticket inspectors appear quite frequently on Swiss trains and spotting one approach in our direction, I dive into my oversized hobo to dig my carnet to show to the portly man. The gentleman punches our tickets tells me in an concerned manner that I might have been better off had I made the annual Swiss Rail family card instead. “You would have saved a lot of money and also got discount for your family on the ski lifts,” he informs me in a thick German accent. This is because we are in the German speaking part of this country. I tell the kind man in tragic tones, that the gentleman at the ticket window in Zurich did not inform me about any such pass thereby depriving some little boy in Cambodia of education. He empathizes with me and then as a token of his kindness and commiseration he scribbles all over my tickets in German. “I haf ritten here to refunt your money and make you das family pass zat is only half price. Show zis at  Zermatt station, I cannot promise zey vill agree but you must try,” he suggests sincerely. I am so moved by the gesture and his overall avuncular impression that I want to give him a tight hug. I cannot imagine this happening to me anywhere else in the world other than Switzerland and yes, Japan.

Imagine doing that when breathtaking views are passing you by

Like a lazy caterpillar our red train is negotiating around white snow capped slopes dotted with lonesome snow covered chalets and winter-withered trees. An inexplicable feeling of bien-etre’ surges through me. I begin to feel healthier and more cheerful merely by looking at the mountains and can hardly wait for the train to arrive at our destination just so I can step outside and inhale the crisp mountain air.

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