Architecture Heals

heal |verb| become sound or healthy again

 If God made Eve from the rib of Adam, He made the Portuguese from the rib of the Atlantic. Our roaring ocean gives the coastline a dramatic beauty that has made us a country of adventurers, poets and Biblical fishers. But you must constantly reign in your love for all that aquatic splendor. As our poet Sophia de Mello Breyner once wrote “as beautiful as each thing is / it holds within a suspended monster” (“Ocean Floor”).

Guincho Beach near Lisbon, Portugal. (Guincho in Portuguese actually means screech.)

Guincho Beach near Lisbon, Portugal. (Guincho in Portuguese actually means screech.)

Through osmosis, we quickly learn the key to survival in agitated waters: deep fight. When a wave comes and is too much, resist the urge of flight. This will only result in the tough tumble of a wave breaking heavily on your back. You’ve got to face it. Go deep. Dive as low into it as you can. Stretched underwater, you’ll feel its shape roll over your body like a triangular wheel as it curls into itself. When you come up, it’ll be behind you. If another wave comes on its tail, dive again. A set of big waves is always followed by a set of small ones. When the small ones come, you can leave. Until then, dive, dive deep.

During my years of law school, there was a constant trickle of Italians coming to Lisbon for a year of architectural studies, something our country is renowned for. We may not have an economy able to buoy lots of major architectural projects (like Switzerland does), but out of the 36 Pritzker Prize winners (the Oscars of architecture), 2 are Portuguese: Alvaro Siza in 1992 and Eduardo Souto de Moura in 2011. On their tails is a whole generation of high-quality contemporary architects. Not bad for a tiny county of 10 million. Back in college, while I’d drag around my massive compendiums of laws, the Italians would slave over their glycerin soap maquettes. They were used to a tamer beast than the Atlantic, so we would teach them about waves. And with them, I learned to look at architecture for the first time. To look with eyes that see.

In 2003, I did my own year abroad in Milan. My father had just passed away and it felt like an unending sequence of massive waves – too close and too many. In the fight or flight dichotomy, diving deep was clearly the task at hand, but I needed a minute to catch my breath and no one seemed to know where the pause button was. Then some friends invited me on a road trip to the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. I discovered there that architecture can heal.

Renzo Piano's Beyeler Foundation near Basel.

Renzo Piano’s Beyeler Foundation near Basel.

The Beyeler Foundation is an art gallery designed by the blue-eyed Renzo Piano. A decade down the road, I have a mental snapshot of the red stone facade baking in the expanding light. A whimsical lime green basin at its feet, tapping on the window just beyond which hung Monet’s enormous Water-lily Pond. It was all so serene. My lungs were filled with air at last – the relief I had so desperately sought. I was back there recently, amidst this very happy phase in my life, and yet the effect was the same. The Beyeler’s beauty was not a fluke – it was objective.

Architecture is not just a backdrop to our buzzing bustle. It has the power to uplift or oppress the human heart fueling all that activity. Most of the time it falls somewhere in the middle in the large neutral demilitarized zone of routine. But occasionally it succeeds at addressing us at the level of our deepest desires – our thirst for beauty, love, belonging, justice. At those moments, that immovable building can move us, an amazing thing indeed.

Zentrum Paul Klee (Renzo Piano) on the outskirts of Bern.

Zentrum Paul Klee (Renzo Piano) on the outskirts of Bern.

A few weeks ago, I visited a very different Renzo Piano museum on the outskirts of Bern: the Zentrum Paul Klee, dedicated to the namesake Swiss artist. Fit into a curvy landscape is a playful squiggly iron facade. You can Google it all you want, but actually experiencing it will awaken even the most dormant of us. I’m no technical expert in architecture – just a sensitive inhabitant – and am always uncertain about a building until I’ve been inside. Under the curves of the ZPK, I felt just disoriented enough to go through the gallery spaces in subtle tension: uncertain of how the space was going to satisfy my needs as a museum-goer, but trusting it would. A sense of direction begins to form only when you let go of pre-conceived notions of how such a space should behave and let it speak to you in its own language. As you become open to its innovative dynamic, you slip into a fresh state of mind. Automatic reactions abandoned. What better state of mind to engage with Paul Klee’s artwork, no?

If – like the ZPK – some buildings are designed to place the inhabitant in a positive state for the activity to be undertaken there, others have the opposite effect. Some are so self-absorbed that anything else taking place in their vicinity feels like an afterthought. I call these diva building. Although I recognize their often innovative value, they wear me out if I have to deal with them for too long. I much prefer a more discreet approach. Luckily, the Vitra Campus provides a little of both and they compliment each other like salt and pepper.

Vitra is a Swiss design powerhouse owned by the Fehlbaum family. Known as the Vitra Campus, it’s factory/ warehouse/ design museum/ showroom in Weil am Rhein, Germany is an excellent example of how the Swiss not only have stellar architects, they also commission stellar architecture. This architectural fairground was born out of an unpredictable combination of circumstances: a fire, a visionary new Chairman and lots of financial clout. The original factory was razed by a fire in the early 80’s, with insurance coverage for halted production of only 6 months. Instead of a bland re-construction, Vitra’s Chairman Rolf Fehlbaum commissioned the well-known British architect Nicholas Grimshaw to build 2 new innovative factory buildings. The only hitch was that the factories had to be up and running when the coverage expired. Despite the impossible deadline, they pulled it off and, with it, the first starchitect buildings were in place at the Vitra Campus.

Frank Gehry's Vitra Design Museum on the left with his factory building on the right.

Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum on the left with his factory building on the right.

For someone who is presently trying her hand at a new career, Fehlbaum’s story is pretty inspiring. He toyed with other professional paths and only really committed to the family company when he was 36. But his vision made up for lost time. Having built-up one of the most complete chair collections in the world (“had me at hello” anyone?), Fehlbaum wanted Frank Gehry to build him a new gallery for it. Since this was to be Gehry’s first European commission, he needed a bigger carrot, so Fehlbaum upped the ante with a new factory and entrance building to seal the deal. Fehlbaum has an eye for talent. It’s no coincidence he was a member of the Pritzker jury for 6 years and that 6 out of the 7 burgeoning architects he commissioned to build on the Vitra site later became award winners in their own right. Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum, as it is now called, is all white rowdy volumes – way too distracting for a museum, in my opinion. It juxtaposes quite sharply (pun intended) with its neighboring buildings, but that’s surely not a coincidence. Although each building on the campus is it’s own, it’s also inevitably a reaction to those that surrond it.

Tadao Ando's Conference Pavillion

Tadao Ando’s Conference Pavillion

SANAA's playful factory facade.

SANAA’s playful factory facade.

One such construction is the Japanese Tadao Ando’s concrete conference pavilion – also his first European commission. Fehlbaum had the initially reticent Ando flown in when the cherry blossoms existent on the site were in full bloom, knowing that these trees have a magnetic appeal in Japanese culture. Ando not only agreed to the project, he built a powerfully discreet conference center positioned so that no trees had to be cut down to accommodate it. Gehry, on the other hand, had all of the cherry trees in the vicinity of his museum cut down so they wouldn’t clutter its facade. He was also none too happy when Ando designed a long narrow pathway leading up to the conference center that ran across the length of Gehry’s building.  This pathway is narrow and oblique with a purpose – it is intended to prepare those heading to meetings by inviting reflection. I watched a passing group as they walked its length and, in effect, their conversations were broken-up. Of course, most of the people walking through here are probably German or Swiss. Us Southern Europeans would probably just walk all over the grass.  As for the other building of Japanese design, the newly opened SANAA factory is sleek and playful with its shiny white curtain-mimicking façade and oval shape. A pleasure to walk by.

The inside of Zaha Hadid's Fire Station (top floor).

The inside of Zaha Hadid’s Fire Station (top floor).

For all its shortcomings, Gehry’s gallery is certainly not more of a diva building than Zaha Hadid’s infamous fire station. I’d heard the stories of the firemen protesting about the open plan bathrooms and impossibly slanted walls, but only when I tried it out for size myself did I give them the credit they were due. I felt lastingly dizzy. Every wall is tilted in some odd direction. I wondered why the bathroom’s paper dispenser had caught my eye so. Then I realized that it was the only thing with right angles in the entire construction. Hadid deserves all of the recognition she has received. She is an incredible innovator and her designs are beautiful, but the Vitra Fire Station – her first commissioned work (despite all the recognition given to her designs) – is totally unfit for purpose. How can you fight fires when you feel sea-sick? Thank God it is no longer a functioning station. My guide at the campus confessed she’d once run into Zaha Hadid at an ArtBasel conference and asked her if she knew people got dizzy inside the building. Apparently, her response was a terse “they’ll get used to it”.

Alvaro Siza's red brick factory building to the right, with its white walkway revealing Hadid's fire station at the end of the road.

Alvaro Siza’s red brick factory building to the right, with its white walkway revealing Hadid’s fire station at the end of the road.

Before you get to Hadid’s building, you have to walk past my compatriot’s warehouse. Alvaro Siza’s construction with its red brick façade is incredibly understated. So much so that Siza has been accused by some of missing an opportunity to shine. Instead, the architect wanted to mark a discreet presence in an already visually noisy campus. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to go inside, but you can see it’s very sophisticated in the details. It requires, however, an unrushed engagement to be fully appreciated – something like getting a conversation started with a wise, but grumpy old man. The only attention-calling element in Siza’s design is the white iron walkway that connects his building to Grimshaw’s aross the road. It’s oddly elevated and has a complex mechanism to bring it down on days of rain when it is actually needed. The reason for this becomes apparent only upon close inspection – if the Portuguese architect had put this walkway cover at a normal height, he would have totally blocked the view to Hadid’s Fire Station. A telling detail of an inconspicuous design.

Herzog & de Meuron's VitraHaus

Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus

In between these larger constructions, you’ll also find tiny design delights such a Jean Prouvé’s gas station, Buckminster Fuller’s dome and Renzo Piano’s one man hut called Diogene. But the building that most takes my fancy is Herzog & de Meuron’s VitraHaus. It looks like an utterly confusing mound of sliced black houses and is thankfully set a bit further apart from the remaining buildings just so you can take it in. This showroom for Vitra’s products is clearly anything but quite, but unlike Gehry’s and Hadid’s constructions, its agitated playfulness is completely fitting to its purpose. The shapes and light frames found within set-off Vitra’s products in an intimate yet fanciful way. The slightly odd workings of the building within make you feel like you’re inside a treasure trove. Sounds good for business if you ask me.

But for all my architectural ranting and raving, nothing can substitute your own experience of walking in, over and around these buildings. And thank God for that. I wouldn’t want to detract from anyone else’s exchange with them. Perhaps one day you’ll need some uplifting and, if nothing else, I’ve given you somewhere to go in this corner of Switzerland. Looking up and around you can fill your lungs with air. And that can be life saving.

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The Air Up There

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Kodachrome spring flowers near Lauterbrunnen

walk |verb| to move along on foot; to advance by steps

A year into our marriage, my husband and I decided to revive our pre-martial dream of going to Patagonia. There was however one tiny glitch: our state of newly-wed, newly-housed bliss had left us in a relative state of financial depletion. Not a problem. As young lawyers, we were spry, resourceful and excellent negotiators. All we needed was a window of opportunity. At about the same time, I got a call from the police. Apparently, someone had broken into my VW Lupo – a tiny blueberry of a car that was too cool to be in production for more than a couple of years. (It touched – not literally, thankfully! – an entire generation of law students at my university.) The police was wondering if I knew about it… given that a week had passed and there were no signs of anyone having touched the smashed glass. The Lupo’s guardian, a stuffed frog named Principe, was clearly growing weary of the task. As I mulled over the situation, I realized that not only did I have the real prince now, but my window of opportunity was right before me, shattered and strewn all over the front seat. We sold the car and in a few weeks were on a plane to Ushuaia. One of the most memorable encounters in my hiking history happened out there in a tiny hiker’s paradise called El Chalten. Luís and I had taken an 8-hour hike to a turquoise glacier lake (Laguna de los Tres) that was breath-taking in both beauty and physical endurance. About halfway through the hike, an odd looking pair appeared on the horizon of our trail, coming in the opposite direction. The trail was narrow and one walked in front of the other. But something was slightly off in their dynamic. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. As the gap between us closed, I noticed a pair of ski poles connected them – each man holding an extremity. That’s when I realized the second hiker was blind.

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Laguna de los Tres – El Chalten, Patagonia (Argentina)

Hiking is walking with a capital W. It is to me what a car ride is to a cranky baby resisting sleep – a place to disconnect from the static and reconnect with myself. It’s a carved-out space where thoughts can begin to settle and pick the words they want to inhabit, instead of lingering somewhere in the soul as a vague gas-like feeling. Feelings in this undefined state cannot be addressed head on and are basically given free-license to haunt us. It’s a bad strategy. It’s certainly no coincidence that a great many writers incorporate walks into their creative routine and that many people advocate walking to untangle knotty problems, to digest life along with dinner and to solidify bonds – my father among them. He was walking alone in the mountains of Sintra when he decided to marry my mother. The chapel he stumbled upon mid-walk was where they tied the knot – or so goes our family folklore. (Incidentally, Luís and I were both baptized in that church and were married there in 2006.) Walking is also a perfect analogy for life where the best things require a little bit of effort on our part. Earn that view. Let your steps turn into a trail and a trail a destination.

Spring in Switzerland has been tight-fisted, so we took advantage of a brief respite and made our way over to Interlaken this past weekend with some friends. Our first walk took us through a picture-perfect valley lined with thin waterfalls crashing down from cliffs the height of skyscrapers. I snapped away at my camera even though I knew it was a hopeless cause. Technology cannot bring you the taste of the faint mist emanating from the falls, the explosive coolness of the Alpine water in your throat, the existential space hung between snow-capped mountain peaks. The air pressing up against your epidermis like a palm of a hand. You feel a little kitsch repeating how beautiful all those Kodachrome flowers are scattered across the fields like that – as if Someone has planted them one by one, which of course they did. Then there is the luxury of the time to be able to walk through it all, to breath it all in, to let it pump through your bloodstream like caffeine. Facebook, Instagram and Google Glass are no substitute for the authentic experience. They can hint at an existence beyond their pixel walls, but they won’t walk the walk for you.

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The valley of Lauterbrunnen – notice the Staubbach Falls in the back.

The next day’s walk ended up turning into an Aesop’s Fable, complete with a moral and an animal embodying a vice/virtue. For an animal, we had Botox – our pampered princess of a dog. For a vice, we had his cowardice – he’s scared of everything from wheels on suitcases to plastic bags. Now, we can add things that fall out of the sky thanks to a group of landing paragliders, that made the little guy projectile-poop and break into a sprint such was his canine terror. No amount of words or lint rollers can describe the 30-minute gondola ride up the Schwarzhorn in the aftermath of this traumatic event. The plan had been to hike up to the idyllic Lake Bachalpsee – a pristine lake perfectly reflecting the mountain summits around it while embraced by lush green meadows. And the weather report seemed to confirm that that was what we were in for. Totally naïve. A meter of snow, a frozen (unreflecting) lake and an overcast sky (despite the weather report) was our prize. Moral of the story: check the webcam as well as the weather report, dummy – don’t you know global warming is making the weather go all musical chairs on us? The Spring respite was clearly over and I felt cheated by the view Google had promised me (not to mention the 114 CHF gondola ticket). But then I remembered the blind hiker. There are four other senses to go on. How would he experience sitting where I was just then? I guess that was moral no. 2: when life’s circumstances suddenly change on us, we can either stick with the now ill-suited initial plan or adapt our dynamic. Perhaps you’ll find a new way to experience things you loved – like the blind guy – pulling that verb tense into the present tense: love. On the way down from Schwarzhorn, I realized I’ve actually written about this blind hiker in one of my stories. He was so deep down in my psyche that I hadn’t realized my character was him, but there he was.

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Luís, Botox and I in front of Lake Bachalpsee – yep, the frozen white thing in the back.

Somewhere in my in-laws attic in Portugal, I still have my first pair of hiking boots – long since retired. I bought them with my dad and they remind me that I’ve walked a long way since then. And I’ll walk a long way still, even though – just now – the weather is a little foggy. But fog is curious thing – even if you can’t see the final destination, you can always see the next step.

A Neuchâtelean Archi-tour – now doesn’t that sound fancy?

creation |noun| the action or process of bringing something into existence

Writers shouldn’t paint, at least that’s the moral I took away from the Centre Dürrenmatt in Neuchâtel. But if they can’t be stopped and you feel exceedingly pressured to showcase their artwork, at least do us the favor of getting a world-class architect on board. You owe it to us to give us something aesthetically pleasing to look at! So my sincere appreciation to the folks that snagged Mario Botta for the gallery where the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s artwork is permanently on display.

I had already gathered from my investigations that this fellow wouldn’t have been the liveliest of dinner guests. Not only were his literary works mostly philosophical crime stories and macabre satire plays, but he also considered a story finished only “when it took a turn for the worst”. And not in a witty Oscar Wilde kind of way. As for the sole difference between humans and wild animals, humans – he said – pray before they commit murder. Perhaps these statements can be better understood if we recall that the author was 18 when the Second World War broke out – although Switzerland was, as always, neutral and therefore not directly involved.

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David Bowie in front of some unfortunate Bowieart.

The inclination of certain celebrities to self-express through painting is a wonderful thing. Truly. All my support goes out to Jennifer Aniston, Beyoncé, Steve Tyler, Michelle Pfeiffer, Slash and Josh Hartnett who all claim to paint. If, however, samples of your tinkering happen to slip into the public arena, please don’t expect us to like it just because you clobbered the Nazi’s in World War II… or you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and have the highest number of covered songs in the world… or you are the very embodiment of glam rock and London’s V&A Museum has recently inaugurated a box-office-record-breaking retrospective of your career. (To be fair, Winston Churchill’s work is discreetly displayed at his Chartwell studio and is not too bad, but Dylan’s horrendous tempera tantrums were recently exhibited at none other than the Palazzo Reale in Milan (http://www.halcyongallery.com/news/bob-dylan-at-the-palazzo-reale-milan) – explain that! Bowie’s unfortunate pieces have their own website and brand (Bowieart: http://www.bowieart.com/default.asp), where it is abundantly clear he takes his art a lot more seriously than I do.)

As for the artwork of the decidedly less famous Dürrenmatt, Francis Bacon was dark, as was Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele and Hieronymus Bosch. And I love them. But their work is to Dürrenmatt’s, like truffles to turds. I can’t shake the feeling that Botta may not have been an admirer of Dürrenmatt’s paintings either. After all, for a space meant to showcase the man’s artwork, all of the tributes in the design are to elements of his literary output.

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The cave-like gallery of the Centre Durrenmatt, complete with skylights and door to the exterior.

With such harsh views, you may be inclined to avoid that stark climb up the Neuchâtelean hills to where the Centre Dürrenmatt is perched. But please don’t. Thanks to Mario Botta, it is a beautiful space with incredible views that are decidedly less harsh than my own about the elaborate wall stains within. Dürrenmatt’s work may be hard to swallow, but at least it has given occasion to some truly remarkable architecture. Beautiful things can spring from bad beginnings.

I am a sucker for good contemporary architecture and the Swiss are surprisingly skilled at it. (I say surprisingly, because industrial ingenuity seems more in Swiss character than aesthetic genius.) Le Corbusier may have preceded the coining of the phrase “starchitect”, but Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (think Tate Modern, the Beijing Olympic Stadium), Peter Zumthor (think Therme Vals, the Brother Klaus Field Chapel) and Mario Botta (Saint John the Baptist Chapel, Spa Tschuggen) certainly came just in time for it. Being fans of architecture and spas, the Swiss have even given rise to a new niche – spachitecture!

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The theatrical balcony suspended over the valley and Lake Neuchâtel.

My first impression of Neuchâtel was marked by the rich yellow hue of the Jura stones found everywhere in the historical center. It’s as if the sun’s dying light perennially lingers on their façades. Back in the 19th century, a visiting Alexandre Dumas said the town looked like a toy sculpted out of butter. In contrast, Botta’s design for the Centre Dürrenmatt is in black slate, a tribute to the author’s dark outlook on life. And just as his literary work digs into the depths of the human soul, so does the space created by Botta resemble an unexpected cave carved into the heart of the mountain. The visitor feels protected and yet illuminated by the light that mercifully pours in from above. The crown jewel, however, is undoubtedly the balcony suspended high over Lake Neuchâtel. Botta called it a stage, the visitor the protagonist.

As I stand out on that balcony gazing down at the vast lake, I feel certain you cannot look at something that breath-taking day after day and not be profoundly affected by it. And yet this beauty failed to permeate the exhibited artwork. Surely, Dürrenmatt must have loved that lake, the Jura mountains beyond it, the green pastures that frame it. Otherwise, he would not have chosen this spot to live. Yet such was the strength of his angst that he chose to dam himself up in it.

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The dam-like wall that delineates the gallery space and supports the balcony above it.

Botta’s design seems to reflect this same perception, with the massive valley-facing wall that both delineates the exposition space and buttresses the balcony. “When I am inside the space,” he said “I also feel the emptiness of the valley, I feel the lake, the city. The wall is like a dam: it holds back an internal energy against the outside world.” Curiously, Botta cut out a door smack in the middle of this dam, as well as vast skylights. This leaves the visitor standing in an exhibition space that is far from the dark empty pit felt in the artworks. The combination of these elements (light, lake and door) make Botta’s building a space of hopefulness – despite the sharp torment of Dürrenmatt’s oeuvre. This is fitting. It gives us a more complete picture. Man cannot live without hope – and that is what, I believe, distinguishes humans from wild animals.

Chewing the Swiss fat

Go Base GVA for this fabulous Open Switzerland  project: http://www.openswitzerland.org/index.php

Go Base GVA for this fabulous Open Switzerland project:
http://www.openswitzerland.org/index.php

conformity |noun| compliance with standards, rules, or laws

Only tourists have fondue when it’s hot and our Swiss permits clearly state we are not tourists. We are temporary residents. With this status comes great responsibility. Not only are all sorts of insurance and registrations required of us, but we are also expected to play the part. My investigations tell me conformity is very popular in Switzerland.

We knew we were cutting it close with our little Gruyères expedition, so we convened to discuss. The weather predictions for Sunday were a big yellow smiley-faced sun, but Saturday the sky was slightly overcast and a light jacket was warranted. Deliberation: we could still go and save face.

Thank God, because fondue is heaven. It is not to be missed – it’s oozy, it’s creamy, it’s a delight. We looked like a mini representation of the UN as we huddled around our Bunsen burner – an American, an Emirati, a South African and 2 Portuguese. (Two? But, of course! This is Switzerland where 12,32% of the foreign population is made up of Portuguese immigrants.) Losing your chunk of bread in the pot is tantamount to national disgrace. Unfortunately, I failed miserably, but Luís did pretty well, so the end balance was neutral – another thing the Swiss hold dear to their precise little tickers.

For dessert, the waitress brought round little wooden tubs of truly decadent Gruyères cream. Those strawberries were a mere afterthought and fooled no one. This last morsel was perhaps overkill. So we resolutely set to work recovering from our traumatic lunch with a stroll around the hilltop. With its one street (complete with cobble stones, fountain, castle and a not at all random Alien movie museum), this little hilltop town is the perfect setting for a modern day Brothers Grimm reunion – come Cindy, come (Rap)Zella, come Comatose Beauty, come Girl from the Hood. Some may call it too touristy. I find it whimsical.

Gruyères - you haven't had Gruyère until you've had Gruyère in Gruyères.

Gruyères – you haven’t had Gruyère until you’ve had Gruyère in Gruyères. (See Gruyères up on the hilltop? See the overcast ski? See the snow in the background? We were totally still in season.

To add insult to injury, we ended the day with a visit to the nearby Cailler chocolate factory in Broc – the oldest brand of Swiss chocolate still in production. The lack of oompa-loompas did not go unnoticed, but we were determined not to let that dampen our enjoyment of the voyage through the sexual undertones of chocolate assimilation in Europe back in the day. Apparently, people couldn’t make up their minds about it. At one point, it was considered such a powerful aphrodisiac that monks and nuns of the 1600’s were forbidden to touch the stuff; while later on, its medicinal powers were thought so effective that noble ladies drank it in church to avoid fainting spells. Thankfully, today the world has converted to chocolate liberalism en masse and we are less depressed, more energetic and have better cardiovascular health for it.

Although the Swiss did not discover the stuff or even bring it to Europe (those pesky foreigners with their colonies did that), they did make a pivotal contribution to the sweet ingestible thing we so adore today: they added milk – an ingredient the Swiss have in abundance. In short, the world will never be the same. So the next time you dig into a Swiss chocolate bar, pause for a moment and thank Mr. Daniel Peter (the first one to mix this concoction), Mr. François-Louis Cailler (whose chocolate has oddly inappropriate pharmaceutical sounding names, such as Femina and Frigor), Mr. Philippe Suchard (whose original shop still sells the goods in Neuchâtel’s Rue Seyon), Mr. Rodolphe Lindt (thank you, thank you for your new line of Lindt Excellence bars), Mr. Theodor Toblr (the pop of the duty free shop). We showed our appreciation to these industrious men through the stamina with which we embraced the chocolate tasting that wrapped up our tour. At this point, I had begrudgingly come to terms with the fact that Willy Wonka (more Johnny Depp, less Gene Wilder) would not be making an appearance, but that didn’t stop me from feeling disconcertingly like Violet Beauregarde as I rolled towards the exit – the part about her being round as a ball, that is, not the blue part.

Coo coo - Moo moo -and cocoa. Nice combo.

Coo coo, moo moo and cocoa. Nice combo.

It was a good thing that sunshine the next day. A 30km bike ride near Neuchâtel was most certainly in order.

Cracking preconceptions – a tough little nut

Roger Federer and Heidi's grandfather - promoting all things Swiss!

Roger Federer and Heidi’s grandfather – promoting all things Swiss! 

ignorance |noun| lack of knowledge or information

This may sound like a non-topic rather than an actual topic, but this blog post is all about what I don’t know. I’m writing about ignorance, the absence of veritable knowledge, those free spaces in our brains where dust tends to accumulate unless otherwise engaged. This is why ignorance is sometimes associated with sneezing fits. Ah-choo!

Truth is, when you scratch beneath the surface, I know very little about Switzerland. I am, however, full of preconceptions – just like everybody else. All of us have preconceptions. We just do different things with them. Maybe we can think about these little devils as a stepping-stone between curiosity and knowledge. In the end, preconceptions are a natural stage of our learning dynamic. The danger is only when we go no further than that stepping stone.  But who wants to be stuck mid-river anyway – stuck in a precarious balance atop a stone meant to be a boost, not a dwelling? I don’t know – maybe you’re the kind of person that likes getting your socks wet. No judgment.

If I had to create an image to represent my own Swiss preconception, it would look something like this: Roger Federer poses for another Credit Suisse or Rolex ad, while walking a massive Saint Bernard… who’s carrying a Toblerone around it’s neck… which matches the Matterhorn in the background… atop which is a sun (actually a massive Gruyère cheese)… and the little flowers at Roger’s feet match the delicately embroidered ones on his Lederhosen. The animated iPad version of this ad comes with the added treat of hearing Federer yodeling “we pay really low taxes and have a great public transport system – bitches!”

Whenever you settle into a new place, there are always high initial costs. In Switzerland, you can add a big fat zero to those costs. Today, for example, I was faced with the questionable and yet highly entertaining Botox Tax: a 120 CHF (about 99 EUR, 84 GBP) doozy to register my bad-ass little friend with the Swiss police (a compulsory bureaucracy that even comes with some doggie bling – a little medallion for his collar.)

As my conversation with the very nice Swiss policewoman progressed, this is what was going through my head: “My stay in Switzerland is temporary. I have provided evidence that I am financially sound. And there are no discernable negative side effects to my pet-owning (assuming I pick-up after my dog and pay for all his needs out of my own pocket, both of which I do). So, exactly what undesirable side effects of my pet-owning are the Swiss being compensated for? What am I not getting here? Hmm, methinks the arguments behind this tax are as holey as the cheese in our fridge.”

And yet what did I say to the nice Swiss policelady?: “Bien sûr, madame. May I pay in cash?”

And what was the stepping stone between these two poles? Elementary. Clearly, my lawyerly habits had caught up with me. If I abandon the premise that rules should be proportional and logical, I feel so much more at peace, so much more able to enjoy the beautiful Swiss mountains. If I forget the general principle of natural law whereby rules should serve man and not the other way around, the splendid Neuchâtel Lake shines so much brighter. And I’d much rather spend my time and energy here hiking and writing, than trying to change that which I cannot change. (Wait, isn’t that the Serenity Prayer? Great, one week in Switzerland and I’m already saying the AA mantra!) Be that as it may, this is my strategy and I’m sticking to it. Who knows, maybe on one of my ambles I’ll even run into Roger walking Toblerone St. Bernard – for us Switzerland will be one massive canine country club. I’ve paid my dues. I hope Toblerone St. Bernard has paid his.

New: country, language, currency

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hope |noun| a feeling or desire for a certain thing to happen

As a storyteller, you need to know when to listen, just as much as when to speak. I am silent now. I am listening.

“Things change. And friends leave. Life doesn’t stop for anybody,” (or so says Stephen Chbosky in The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

Our move from Milan is upon us. We are packed up once more, leaving our car in a state of delicate equilibrium that defies the very laws of physics. The four of us (Luis, Botox, Eclisse and I) are Switzerland bound – a land of hyperbolic rules, where stopping your neighbor from flushing his toilet is a basic human right. Orson Welles put it like this, “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Let’s just say I hope to be setting myself up for a pleasant surprise with my low expectations – it’s strategic.

These physical transitions mark the passing of time in such a measurable way. (Somewhere off in a corner, J. Alfred Prufrock repeats himself. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” he says.) Needless to say, it goes by quickly. The seasons are also changing – which is fitting. The week began by welcoming snow, followed by fresh warm sunshine. Now, of course, it’s raining as if Noah himself were on his way to take us to Neuchâtel by Ark. Man, getting through customs with all those animal passports is going to be a stinker. And I see ever more distant an opportunity to show-off my new Mafalda 86 sunglasses – the ones I’d been dreaming of buying since Milanese post no. 1.

My sister asked me the other day, if I’d miss it in Milan. I’m ok, I told her. I put a lot of life into my days here. Nothing major was left undone or unsaid. I left my writing clam enough to oil open some stiffly closed doors – it was almost always worth it. I engaged with the city again and again despite the occasional kick in the shin. There were also some unexpected acts of kindness. Perhaps this uncertainty was a little trying at times, but that makes me no less thankful for… all the members of the local Botox Fan Club (although I suspect some people joined thinking it was something else), the girls night out with my friend’s long-standing group of girlfriends (including the one that gave me a ride home on her bicycle while I held her spanking new Valentino shoes), the barista at the Design Library that always served-up my third coffee of the morning with a great big Congolese smile, the Florentine police officer that gave me restaurant tips to get me out of the pouring rain, the coffee that turned into lunch that turned into an afternoon with a stranger passionate about her projects, the Damian Lewis look-alike that took it upon himself to see that the we got off the train at the right stop (when no Cinque-Terrese seemed capable of giving us correct information in the midst of a snowstorm), the friend of a friend that bought me a drink (on an evening where we ended up testing the acoustics in Piazza dei Mercanti)… and the list goes on.

A lot of writers will tell you that you should only wrap up your day’s work when you know what you need to write next. It’s fitting then, that I left a few odd bits to be enjoyed (or revisited) if life takes a detour in this direction again. (It already has so twice before, remember.)

Switzerland will have it’s own dynamic – certainly much different from Leicester and Milan. It will also require us to begin looking beyond our stay there. What job opportunities lie at the end of our four-month Neuchâtel stint? In what country? Will I be able to keep writing?

We’ll see. For now, we listen. Easter is upon us – and that is a time for hope.

Cinque Terre - some rays of light at sunset on a stormy day

Cinque Terre – some rays of light at sunset on a stormy day

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