From Paris, we caught a train to Geneva. We saw a lot of gorgeous countryside pass by; on more than one occasion Ben and I commented that once we were outside of Paris, France didn't look all that different from rural Ohio.
More than one person had poo-bahed Geneva; even our guidebook said it would get stale after a day. We thoroughly liked it. From the train station, we made our way to the Manor, a big Swiss department store. Food in Switzerland is super expensive, and eating out at a sit-down restaurant is saved for anniversaries and birthdays- big occasions. The Rough Guide recommended the Manora Cafeteria, a self-service joint with a great reputation for cheap, good food. We did run into some difficulties. What with all our luggage, we were sort of out of place in the department store. Ben kept setting off the security alarms. We finally got up to the top floor and took turns getting lunch. I made a beeline for the Birchermüesli, which, in the eyes (and mouth) of a cereal addict, is just as central to Swiss cuisine as cheese and chocolate. Birchermüesli is cold, uncooked oatmeal soaked in cream and/or fruit juice, mixed with fresh fruit and nuts. It is quite possibly one of the most heavenly-tasting combinations of all eternity. Yum, yum, yum.
After lunch (and after setting off more alarms as we made our way toward the exit) we headed to the hotel. Only we hadn't yet figured out the bus system, so we decided to keep it simple and walk there. Even though the hotel was so far away it wasn't on the map, and even though we had all of our stuff. It wasn't a long way, but it was long enough that we had to stop for a break and I pined for every bus that beat us up the hill. By the time we got there we were completely exhausted, and so my hopes to hit the World Council of Churches were thwarted. I took one look at our slightly-more-expensive yet infinitely swankier Swiss hotel, and suddenly getting to the EcuMecca just didn't compete with the spotless bathtub. As Sylvia Plath wrote, "There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won't cure, but I don't know many of them." The hot bath I took in Geneva cured me of all the anxiety and exhaustion I built up in Paris. Which isn't to say we didn't enjoy Paris- we did. We just enjoyed Switzerland more. :-)
After we'd recovered, we took the bus back downtown, marveling at how much easier it would have been if we'd taken the bus in the first place. We walked to Lake Geneva first, and then made our way over to the older part of town. I tried to no avail to capture some good photos of Calvin's church there, but the light was fading too quickly. We saw the Reformation Wall just after the sun went down completely. There was a chess park at the end of the wall, with large chessboards were painted onto the stone and pawns that came to my waist. Lots of people were gathered there, to play or to watch.
By that time we were up for dinner, so we bussed back to the Manor and had our second meal of the day at the Manora. I think I had a salad and an apricot tart. Again, yum. Though I have to say that I'd take Birchermüesli over a tart any day.
The next morning we slept in a bit (still struggling with the time change), checked out, dumped our stuff behind the front desk, and caught the bus over to the United Nations square, where the offices for all the major organizations are situated. It was practically empty on a Sunday morning, but we found the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum and got in free with our Swiss Passes. It was a good museum, and a nice change from the art museums we toured in Paris. Stylistically, it reminded me of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC; it used multimedia and light in similar ways.
From the museum, we hopped on the bus to head over to none other than the Manora for lunch. Yes, we were three for three at the Manora in Geneva. I had another enormous bowl of the beloved Birchermüesli. Mmm.
We made a quick bus run to the hotel to fetch our things and back to the station to catch the train to Bern. By far, the trip between Geneva and Bern was one of the most beautiful experiences we had. The tracks hug Lake Geneva for quite awhile, and we passed through the lovely city of Lausanne, which is build into the hills overlooking the lake. The city is compared to San Francisco, and it was so picturesque I nearly wished we'd stayed there instead of Geneva. I wish I had photos of the journey to Bern, but the light was all off from the fluorescent lights on the train. But take my word for it: Switzerland is a very beautiful place, even when it's raining when it isn't supposed to. My soundtrack for that leg of the journey was Iron & Wine and The Innocence Mission, and their quietly beautiful songs fit the landscape perfectly.
When we arrived in Bern, we called Nadja (easier said than done; we wasted $5 in franks, and finally gave up and used the credit card to get a line). She arrived a few moments later, and it was so great to see a familiar and friendly face. Nadja is from Rostock, Germany, and I met her when she studied at Claremont School of Theology during my first year of school. Seminary started for me when Nadja, Rosamond, Lara, and I went to the drum circles of the World Music Festival in Santa Monica and danced barefoot in the sand. Nadja had just been in California last fall for Lara's wedding, and we caught up over In-N-Out and smoothies on the pier. She's in Switzerland for doctoral work and an internship at a Parish outside of Bern. Her apartment was just on the other side of the train station; she has a room in a big old house where a lot of seminary types live. We got settled while Nadja cooked a wonderful meal, and then afterward walked to one of her friend's apartments for tea. That night her cousin came into town, and so the four of us crashed in her room.
The next morning we all met up with Nadja's parents-- yes, we managed to descend upon poor Nadja the same time as her parents were in town for a visit. It was so much fun to spend time with them, too- I'd met them while they were in California for a visit. We took a train to Solothurn (pictured below). It was so rainy that day. Nonetheless, we putzed around the baroque labyrinth of the downtown, and pigged out on Berliners (a.k.a. really good jelly doughnuts).
After a couple hours with no relief from the onslaught of unseasonal precipitation (it should have been snowing), we got back on the train and headed to the home of more of Nadja's friends for lunch. They lived on the first floor of an old Swiss farmhouse... it was SUCH a cool house. Again, I wish I had photos, but I would have felt funny asking for permission to take pictures of their kitchen. They served us potato soup and... drumroll please... fantastic coffee. I gushed that it was the best coffee we'd had in Europe, and Nadja's cousin teased me that Nadja's coffee must not have been very impressive (oops!). For the most part, though, the conversation was in German, which was totally fine. Ben and I just sort of hung out, present but amiably silent. At one point I did make a language-transcendent funny. Nadja painted the nails of their three-year-old daughter, and when she was done I held out my hand and said, "next!"
From there we went back to Nadja's to rest up for the big night out: at five, more of her friends picked us up in a big VW van to travel out to their parents' house in the country. They had a dog named Fritz who was one of the most beautiful, calm, gentle labrador retrievers I've ever encountered. I managed to learn "good dog" in German, and just repeated it over and over again.
The house in the country overlooked a valley, and then beyond, the Alps. If it had been a clear day, we're told, we would have seen the quintessential Swiss vista. Oh well.
Nadja had arranged for us to have a homecooked Swiss feast. The host, Heidi, was the mother of her seminary friend. The hospitality was astonishing, people. After the appetizers we moved on to raclette, which is kind of like fondue in that it involves copious amounts of cheese. The dessert... oh, the dessert: vanilla ice cream with homemade berry sauce, and homemade whipped cream. Plus merengues. Ben had two whole helpings of the ice cream concoction, and I had just convinced myself "Hey, it's in Switzerland, when am I going to have another chance to eat homemade mocha merengues" when the SECOND DESSERT COURSE WAS SERVED. Carrot cake. I asked Heidi's daughter if this was Swiss tradition, and she laughed and said it was more like family tradition.
Wow. What a meal, and again, what hospitality.
The next morning we went walking in Bern. Sadly, everything is pretty much closed down on Mondays - not just the museums, but the stores, too. We did walk down to the tourist center where the town bears are kept. Tradition has it that the founder of Bern decided to name the city after the first animal he killed. Hence forth Bern (pronounced "Bear-n" in Swiss) keeps bears. In enclosures that are much too small. I could tell that Nadja was totally embarrassed that her adopted city has such a practice, and she hastily explained that they are currently working on new quarters for the brown bears.
Nadja had some work to do, and so Ben and I continued moseying on our own for the afternoon. It just would not stop raining, and with so much closed it was hard to find places to go. We finally headed back to the apartment, where we joined Nadja and her parents for coffee and black forest cake. After a couple hours of reading (at some point I finished The Memory Keeper's Daughter and started in on Love in the Time of Cholera), we all filed back to the train station for Münchenbuchsee to visit Nadja's church. They were in the middle of an education series on Mennonites, and they were showing a video about contemporary Mennonite & Amish communities. One was located in Bern, Indiana, where persecuted Swiss Mennonites settled. It was a fascinating movie, even though we couldn't understand all of it.
Next up: Zurich.