Mountains, castles, chocolate...What a SWEET trip! - Let Us Be Saints!
Let Us Be Saints!
Alas!  Our first long weekend and our first international trip since being here in Europe!  Yes, Italy was celebrating the 150th anniversary of its reunification, thus a national holiday and no class on Thursday, March 17th.  Since we don't normally have class on Fridays, it meant a four-day weekend, and many of us decided to take advantage of the opportunity to go see some more of this vast world of ours.  Originally we hoped to go to Ireland, since it was indeed the Feast of St. Patrick, but plane tickets were sky-high.  So someone suggested Switzerland and many of us joined on.  We weren't exactly why we chose this country.  It's not a "common destination" for many Bernardi students (there weren't a whole lot of guidebooks in the Bernardi library from this place) nor is it a place of many religious sites (it is a largely protestant country, from which John Calvin and other reformers hail).  However somehow we were drawn to Svizzera and the trip proved an incredible time of rest and relaxation, experience of history and natural beauty, deepened friendships, and appreciation for a culture that is not our own.

We flew Easy Jet, an inexpensive European airline, to Geneva, where we began our adventure.  To our great surprise, the Swiss are timely, orderly, and courteous.  There actually seem to be rules of the road that the Swiss follow!  People actually greet you on the street with "Bonjour!" and you have to pick up after your pets in the park!  These things simply do not happen in Rome, where everyone is in a hurry and everything, from the communion line at Mass to driving down Via del Corso lacks serious organization.  We also found, just moments into Geneva, that playgrounds are abundant, and they have legit equipment too!  (Playgrounds really don't exist in Rome and back in America there are no longer many swings or teeter totters or cool toys like these because of lawsuits and regulations)  We took advantage of these opportunities for fun and recreation, sometimes having to watch the locals to see how the equipment must actually be operated!  It was a good time to bond with some Swiss children, that's for sure! 

I must also pause to explain that Switzerland is quite a melting pot of sorts.  There are three regions, that each speak a different language (German, Italian, French) and I think the food and customs of the region largely mirror that language.  Thus finding "authentic Swiss cuisine" was hard to come by.  We were indeed in the French quarter and got to speak it a bit and sample the crepes and croissants, and boy were they tasty!  I am such a fan of fresh bread now...Italian bread is quite dry but the French know how to make it right!

I was able to do some research prior to the trip and found an English-speaking parish in Geneva, where we got to go to daily Mass, and which sponsored a Mass at the Basilica of Notre Dame on Sunday evening.  It was really an international parish, with people from many countries and backgrounds.  We met a very sweet woman from Ireland (on St. Paddy's Day!) named Clare who had moved to Geneva to work for the United Nations.  We got some lunch at a cute little cafe and then sampled our first taste of genuine Swiss chocolate.  In fact, we even met the chocolatier - Eric himself - who blessed us with a free chocolate bar!  After exploring the harbor and climbing on a huge tree stump, we decided to catch the train to Montreux, where we would be staying for the next few days.  The Swiss train system is incredibly efficient and we met a few more wonderful people during our ride. 

I must say that I am starting to feel very inadequate in my language skills.  In Europe everyone is at least bilingual since you really have to be in order to go anywhere else.  In America, we may study Spanish in school, or French or German, but very few are fluent in this second language.  Though I was able to have a brief conversation with a nice Italian lady on the plane, in Italian, it was also a blessing that some of the Swiss spoke a bit of English.  Finding our hostel that evening proved a bit providential too, because we had a German major (Katie) with us and she was able to find a German-speaker to give us directions! 

Our hostel was just perfect and was located scenically right on Lake Geneva (Lac Lemon).  Hostels are a really unique European invention, where young adults can stay for a cheap price, while traveling.  They often involve large dormitory-style rooms, and have common areas and rec rooms for youth to gather in.  The eight ladies all roomed together and the guys roomed together, with several other guests filling the spaces in their room.  Apart from a rather loud volleyball team next door to us, it was a pleasant experience.  The bathrooms and showers were clean, breakfast was delicious (the butter was just phenomenal AND they had granola!) and the staff were very kind and helpful.  We finished day one (St. Pat's Day, remember?) by eating crepes in an Irish pub in town!

Day two meant exploring Chateau de Chillon, one of the most beautiful medieval castles in all of Europe, located on the shores of Lake Geneva, just a stone's throw from our hostel.  I absolutely loved this walk through history and enjoyed learning about life in the Middle Ages by seeing all the rooms and furniture in this place (ie: grand hall, duke's chamber, latrine, chapel, etc.)  Perhaps my favorite part of the castle was a tower with three windows where one could gaze out and see the lake and the Alps - a breathtaking view.  I also enjoyed a dark corridor where a projector cast shadow images of knights and princesses walking past and posing!  Too funny!  I learned a lot about castle life, such as how the flat walls prevented intruders from climbing up and how the slits and holes in the walls were for various kinds of weaponry.  Afterward we enjoyed a beautiful picnic lunch outside, with the birds hoping to get in on the action! 

After some R & R that afternoon (napping/reading/praying by the lake) we ventured up the mountain, via a steep tram car, in order to catch a view of a good sunset.  It was so much fun to hike around and see the traditional Swiss cottages and to experience the beauty of the natural world.  Seeing Edelweiss on the side of one of the homes made us all burst into songs from "The Sound of Music"!  It was a joyous occasion! 

It was raining cats and dogs our final day in Montreux, but we didn't let that dampen our spirits.  A group decided to climb higher on the mountain we had been on the previous day and Audrey and I rented bikes to bike around Lake Geneva.  It was actually a bit of a small miracle that we were able to go biking after all, since the information booth in town that we had been directed to told us they only rent in the summer.  Fortunately, we were able to find the hostel staff, even though the desk was not open, and they graciously rented us their bikes for the afternoon!  They were nice bicycles and had little bells, which I took much advantage of in dinging and getting people to move out of my way!  :-) 

This bike trip turned out to be a phenomenal afternoon.  Some moments were certainly less than ideal.  I was soaked to the gill, my glasses were covered with water drops, my hands were bitter cold, I was tired, and hungry.  There were many times when I wanted to give up, when my only consolation was the thought of a hot shower and dry clothes.  But then these dreams would be shattered when I realized that I only brought one pair of pants (we had to travel lightly with only a carry-on) and I may have to wear wet jeans for the next three days.  Somehow, though, a little patch of blue began to form in the sky, that gradually got bigger.  Eventually the rain stopped, the sun even came out a bit, and the wind dried my pants!  But before this happened, we had quite a fantastic discovery. 

We were biking along through a cute little town right on the lake, called Saint Gringon, when we came across a sign by the side of the road that said "FRANCE" in big letters and listed some new speed limits.  I immediately turned to Audrey and gestured to the sign.  Are we really in France?  Is this possible?  We began to look around and saw customs bureaus by the side of the road, noticed new license plates on the vehicles, and even observed that the menu prices were no longer listed in Swiss francs but were back in Euros.  Later, when we looked on a map, we confirmed our suspicion that yes, indeed WE BIKED TO FRANCE!!  We would have gone further, but by then the path was gone and there was no shoulder on the busy highway either, so for safety's sake, we turned around.  What an amazing feeling of accomplishment!  And there were no border patrol there either! 

That evening we were seeking a fairly reasonably priced venue for dinner (Montreux is touristy and prices are very high) and we stumbled upon the Jazz Cafe, located on a quiet side street.  Though there was no menu outside for us to compare prices, a man sitting outdoors, who turned out to be an employee, invited us in to take a look and said, "You can leave if you want!"  We were given a cute half booth, with a stool on the other side, which we later found to be for the waiter to sit down and have a conversation!  To our delight found a plethora of options on the menu that suited our fancy and our budget.  When the owner heard that we were Americans he came right over.  He was from Boston himself and moved to Switzerland to work for Nestle.  While here he decided to open his own business and met a Chinese woman who was here for hotel management school (the world's best is in Montreux) whom he later married.  Keith and Sherry, the original man who invited us in who is from Belgium, proved to be great hosts and we had a great conversation with them both, while waiting for the food to cook. 

This cafe had character.  Montreux is known for its Jazz festival every July, so the decor reflected this fabulous genre of music and the menu had some "jazzed up" sandwiches and burgers.  I in fact ordered the "Jazz Burger" which had a fried egg on top - what a unique idea!  Later we were introduced to Tash, a friend of theirs from Russia, who told us some great tales about the cold winters in Moscow, when she had to wear three fur coats!  We ended up staying and chatting for so long that Sherry ended up buying us drinks on the house, so we got to taste the Montreux white wine and Belgian beer (of course he was biased to this).  It was such an incredible evening, and while walking home we were greeted by the most bright full moon I have ever seen, glistening off of Lake Geneva (it was the spring equinox after all!).  What a day! 

Needless to say, we really did not want to leave Montreux, but when Sunday rolled around we knew we had to pack up and say goodbye.  The train took us to Lausanne, which boasts several Gothic cathedrals, some fabulous parks, the lakeside port of Ouchy (no joke!), and the International Olympic Museum (and is the headquarters for the International Olympic Committee).  This last stop was pretty cool - though we didn't enter the museum itself the outside gardens were phenomenal and we enjoyed picking up the world record javelin and trying to reach up and touch the record-winning high jump bar.  Yes, I think it says a lot about Switzerland and its uniqueness as a neutral nation, that is houses this Olympic committee, has a chapter of the UN, and even developed the Red Cross. 

Finally we headed back to Geneva where we got to get our energy out at the park again and visited the phenomenal Basilica of Notre Dame.  It was good to see a Gothic Church, since Rome doesn't have very many!  It was neat to see French saints in the stained glass windows, including St. Francis de Sales, who used to be the bishop of this region!  Since our flight would be very early the next day, we had not booked a hostel.  Thus we spent the night camped out in the Geneva airport - what an experience!  We found a little cove of semi-comfortable chairs that was naturally fenced off and claimed our territory.  Surprisingly, many people had the same idea, and could be found sleeping in all odd corners of this place.  After some homework, back rubs, and a couple rounds of telephone pictionary, we decided to try to catch a few winks.  Most of us had nodded off when around 3 am we were awaken by the loudest snoring any of us had ever heard!  I had no idea such a noise could come from a human being!  And I really don't know how he didn't wake himself up in the process!  We were up, so we decided to explore the airport and play some Egyptian Rat Race in order to pass the time until our flight at 6:30.  We made it back to Rome with a couple of hours to spare before class on Monday!  What a memorable trip!

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