January 2013


Travelers often say that after a trip the good things are remembered, and the not so good things tend to fade into the mental background.  I like to call these travel bloopers.  In other words, no matter how well a trip is planned, or how prepared you are, things are bound to go wrong.

In my previous blog post about the incredible Christmas trip to Switzerland and Italy with my family, it was fun to reflect on the beauty of the Matterhorn, reminisce about the carb heaven that is Italian cuisine, and appreciate the bonding time with parents and siblings.  Overall the trip went smoothly, but like any travel experience, there were definitely bloopers.  

To start, when Leon and I met my family at Geneva Airport, we were very jetlagged and had already had a misunderstanding with our shuttle driver who was supposed to drive us to Zermatt. Monsieur Shuttle Driver did not speak any English, so I tried with my best French to explain that my family’s flight into Geneva had been badly delayed and unfortunately they would not arrive for another couple of hours.  I told him that we did not have the new flight number because they had been bumped to a different plane during the layover.  He understood that the new flight was reflected in the old flight number–which it was not–and proceeded to leave in a huff.  Thankfully he came back (after I called repeatedly), and my family arrived safely.

Then came the actual drive from Geneva to Zermatt.  There were a couple of evening trains from Geneva to Zermatt, which usually I would have preferred to take, but with the volatility of flight cancellations and delays I did not want to risk everyone missing the last train out of Geneva–thus the reason for hiring a shuttle service.  Our shuttle driver was an older gentleman, about four foot eleven, and liked to grunt in between bouts of French.  I sat in the front seat of the big shuttle to try to translate as we made our way from Geneva to the Swiss Alps.

Then the blizzard hit.  The drive went pretty well for the first couple of hours, until everything went completely white.  Monsieur grunted more frequently and actually sped up the more it snowed.  Everyone started to get really quiet in the backseat–I think they were all praying.  Monsieur also turned the heat up in the shuttle to the point where everyone was sweating.

We made it closer to Zermatt when the snow was so bad that we had to stop to put snow chains on the tires.  Then began the steady drive up the incline to reach the Swiss villages preceding Zermatt.  Snow trucks were out, diligently trying to clear the roads of the furiously falling snow, but Monsieur seemed annoyed that they were in his way and proceeded to zip past all of them.  This proved a problem when the slope of snow and ice proved too much for the shuttle and we fishtailed.

After my heart returned from my throat to my chest cavity, Monsieur explained to me in fast French that he had special permission to drive us up to Zermatt instead of us having to take the train from the village of Tasch.  It was still snowing heavily, he said, but it would be faster to drive up to Zermatt.

What Monsieur did not account for was avalanches.  When we were one kilometer outside of Zermatt, we came to a dead stop and Monsieur grunted words in French that I cannot repeat here.  An avalanche had filled the road with packed snow and ice and we were blocked from going any further.  This meant that we had to back up, turn around, and head back to the train station in the village of Tasch.  One problem–we had to back up and turn around while the shuttle was on a narrow path overlooking a cliff.  There was also the issue of, say, another avalanche hitting while we were trying to turn around.  Monsieur proceeded to make a phone call while backing the shuttle up, so he was on the phone while the shuttle tires were about six inches away from the edge of the cliff.  When we finally made it to the train station to take the train to Zermatt, my family wanted to both kiss the ground and, I’m sure, kill me.

After the “close encounter of the Swiss cliff kind,” the rest of the Zermatt visit went smoothly, minus it being difficult to sleep at night (thank you loud and drunken German tourists who tried to outsing each other in the middle of the night, in the middle of the street).  The trip to Venice went smoothly as well, and it wasn’t until we had been in Venice for a few days that the next blooper hit.

The next travel blooper involved a lovely thing called food poisoning.  To give some background, Romans make fun of Venetians for having what they consider to be inferior cuisine to theirs.  They say that you can’t get a bad meal in Rome, after all–they don’t say that you can’t get a bad meal in Italy.  Unfortunately Leon and I experienced this firsthand, after eating some insalata caprese at a Venetian restaurant (recommended by locals by the way) that we suspect had been handled with a contaminated knife or something.  We suspected this because the two of us had shared the offender, one caprese, and we both woke up in the middle of the night running to the bathroom.  I’ll spare the details, but let’s just say that having one spouse throw up in the toilet and the other in the trash can will bring any married couple closer together.  

Luckily for me, my husband is a trooper, and after he threw up for the last time we managed to grab our luggage and head to the train station.  Nothing was going to stop us from getting to Rome–even if we showed up green and dehydrated.  Which we did.

The rest of the trip, thankfully, was void of further avalanches or food poisoning.  There were minor bloopers, but those were mainly the result of what I call “the Italian way.”  The hotel helped us make reservations for Alfredo’s, where fettucini alfredo was invented, only to have us show up for our reservation and the restaurant was closed.  As well, Leon and I had to go back to St. Peter’s a second time to see the basilica because the church had been shut down the previous day for a European youth conference (unbeknownst to us).  In Italy you can plan, but you have to then be prepared to change the plan–or forget the plan–at the last minute.

The beauty of travel is that the good times definitely prevail in the mind over the rough times.  Traveling teaches you to be flexible, and one learns quickly that bloopers are just a part of exploring the world.  You also have to learn as you go, though–next time I’ll try to avoid avalanches.  And take more Pepto Bismol in my carry-on.

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Confession:  I might be back in the U.S. right now, but my heart is still in Switzerland and Italy.

After months of planning, it was time to leave for a family trip to Switzerland and Italy for the Christmas holiday.  The itinerary was all planned out, reservations were confirmed, and everything was organized.  To be sure, everyone knew that things would go wrong, as travel often throws curveballs, but we were all ready.  I printed off Google maps for everyone to show our progression from Geneva to Zermatt, Zermatt to Venice, and Venice to Rome.

Leon and I flew to Geneva from D.C. and explored the city while my family headed over from Texas.  It was a brisk day in Geneva, so we walked quickly.  Lake Geneva was lovely, as were the swans that looked up to see if we had any bread or treats with us (we didn’t, so they did not grant us much of their attention).  We walked by the World Trade Organization, a must-see for any international studies major, and shared a big pot of cheese fondue while struggling to stay awake on account of jetlag.

Then it was time to meet the family at Geneva Airport and liaise with the shuttle to drive the three hours to Zermatt, a village in the Swiss Alps at the base of the majestic Matterhorn.  After an arduous drive in a blizzard and a train ride from the town of Tasch (Zermatt does not allow anything but electric cars within its vicinity), we made it to Hotel Schweizerhof and crashed.

Zermatt is a charming village, with a main street known as the Bahnofstrasse lined with little shops and vendors selling fresh bratwurst with hot mustard.  Parents pull their children along on sleds instead of in strollers, dogs wear puffy coats like their human owners, and skis are the footwear of choice.  My family isn’t big on skiing (I tried to ski in Colorado as a teenager and wiped out everyone unfortunate enough to be in my path), but we took the Glacier Paradise lift up one morning to see the Matterhorn up close and personal.

The Matterhorn is magnificent in person, and intimidating as well.  It has claimed the lives of many who dared to climb it–an entire section of the cemetery in Zermatt is dedicated to those who “chose to climb,” and in St. Peter’s Church, where we attended a Christmas Eve service, there are plaques spanning the years naming those who perished on its sharp incline.  When you’re close to the top, the air is thin and the sight is mesmerizing.  I still get a chill looking at the pictures that we took up there.

Zermatt

After encountering the Matterhorn and enjoying the Swiss village life for a few days, as well as having one of the best meals of my life at Stockhorn Grill, it was time to take the train to Venice.  I think that other travelers can vouch for my opinion that traveling by train in Europe is the way to go.  From Switzerland to Italy the view of snow-topped mountains, villages, and rolling hills was a great way to spend Christmas Day.

I had never been to Venice at Christmastime before this trip, and I have to say that I now wholly recommend it.  The city is much less crowded than during peak tourism times in the summer months, and the canals have a sort of foggy haze over them that captures the sparkle of Christmas lights just perfectly.  The city had a completely different feel to it than the other times I had visited–it was quieter, almost sleepy even.  There was still the bustle around Piazza di San Marco with shoppers searching for Christmas gifts and such, but overall the city was calmer.

We spent a few days enjoying Venice, namely having coffee at Caffe Florian, dining at Harry’s Bar, strolling through the winding streets, and perusing the many shops filled with colorful Venetian glass.  The next thing I knew it was time to hop on the train to my favorite city in the world, Rome.

The train from Venice to Rome takes about four hours and was also a feast for the eyes.  There is something about Italy that has drawn me back ever since I first visited back in 2000.  I feel comfortable there.  To be sure, there are dozens of incredible places to visit in the world, but Italy feels more like home than any other.  Needless to say, it was good to be home–in Rome.

The time in Rome flew by, as it always does, and involved several days of what I like to call “Italian indulgence.”  The family diet there pretty much consisted of pizza, pasta, coffee, and gelato.  Although it was pretty chilly weatherwise, one cannot go to Rome without going to Giolitti for gelato.  I made my usual pilgrimage to see my old apartment near Piazza di Spagna, where I had spent the summer in 2004, and had fun reminiscing about running around Italy in my early 20’s.  My family did a tour of the Vatican, threw coins into the Trevi Fountain, took photos of the Pantheon, stopped by the Christmas Market at Piazza Navona, and went inside the Colosseum.  Leon had never been to Rome before, so we went back to the Vatican to tour St. Peter’s Basilica, and were waiting in line only to hear trumpets blast and look up to see the Pope emerge to give a homily.  Always full of surprises, my beloved Rome.

As most travelers can attest, months of planning yielded a vacation that went by way too quickly.  As always, though, it was completely worth it.