Switzerland has appeared and reappeared in my life several times over in the past 10 years, and for that, I’m deeply grateful. Each time I arrive in this heavenly paradise of snow-capped mountains, pristine alpine lakes, decadent chocolates and oh-so-on-time trains, I feel a sense of escape from the dirty, loud and chaotic world outside this tiny slice of heaven. In 2007, I spent a summer at CERN and tried unsuccessfully to learn French though my knowledge of experimental particle physics became noticeably better. I visited Zurich in 2014, this time with my Company in an attempt to show him – notorious for his California tardiness – how fun being punctual can be (“Look at how everything just works! See how nice the trains are?”). I was able to do some fantastic cycling and trekking into the mountains which is a must if you’re visiting Switzerland, though be prepared to pay quite a bit for the trains out to the mountains from the main cities (it takes about 1-3 hours).
This trip, I got to share the retreat from the every day life with Mom and lil’Sis during their trip to Lorrach. Lorrach is just a 15 min train ride from Basel, 2 hours from Lucerne, and about 1.5 hours from Zurich on the German speaking side of Switzerland. During this trip, we all decided to spend a day in Lake Lucerne and a day in Basel over the weekend. In Lucerne, lil’Sis was exhausted from a week of dancing her butt off at Urban Dance Camp, so we skipped a further trip into the mountains that would have felt like torture to her, as funny as that would have been. Instead, we walked around the city of Lucerne, which was hosting a hoppin’ summer festival all along the lake, playing live music, serving food from all over the world (whoa, that definitely didn’t happen 4 years ago), and filled with happy families eating and drinking throughout the day.
Of course, we managed a little bit of hiking to a beautiful art exhibit just outside a castle-like hotel that was far too fancy for any of us to enter respectably when we finally got to the top (oooh, Switzerland). This included a mile long uphill trek where Mom and lil’ Sis duked it out in the final steps to see who would arrive first. Mom won and proclaimed, pointing her finger at lil’ Sis, who had double-downed with hands on both knees, “This is what a loser looks like!!” And you may wonder where I get my competitive spirit from.
Here, we took some ridiculous photos in the exhibit. I learned that Basel was famous for art museums and had quite a few nice restaurants as well. We were lucky to have gotten into this outdoor exhibit, as it was under construction, but the kind man working on the exhibit allowed us to walk around and pose like crazy tourists. I’m now convinced he let us in so he could watch our silly shenanigans.
The next day, we decided to stay local and tour Basel. Given that it was Sunday in Switzerland, nearly everything was closed except a few bars and kebab restaurants. Lil’ Sis abandoned us the moment she saw her friends, so Mom, my Company and I walked around Basel, along the lake, and watched people float down the Rhine during a hot, sunny afternoon which is apparently one of the most popular things to do in Basel! In the summer, locals go to the store, buy a big plastic bag for their clothes and jump into the Rhine to float downriver. Then, they step out at one of the easier spots for swimmers, put their clothes back on and head to a bar. Also, given that Switzerland is easily one of the cleanest countries in the world, you can pretty much find any public bathroom accessible and easy to change in. It’s pretty fantastic to watch, though we unfortunately all forgot our swim gear to partake.
In Basel, mom tried her first kebab and ate it enthusiastically, proclaiming it was the most delicious “German food she’d had so far.” We unsuccessfully tried to find hot sauce, which doesn’t seem to exist in any of the places we’ve visited in Europe so far. Each time we asked for it, we got a small bowl full of delicious sauce that we ate straight out of the bowl, only after to realize it was the “hot sauce” to put on our kebabs or meals.
At the end of the weekend, I asked Mom and lil’ Sis which European country was their favorite to visit. They have now traveled to Switzerland, France (Paris), Italy (Tuscany), England (London), Belgium (Brussels), Germany (this is a bit skewed since they only stayed in Lorrach which was lovely but quite a small town) and Amsterdam. They both replied very quickly: Switzerland, even just after 2 days. In the past, when friends had visited me during my trips there, they’ve had said the same: Switzerland was a place they fell in love with and could easily find themselves trying to immigrate to (despite the strict immigration rules). Even I, during my summer at CERN, schemed ways I could eventually work there.
But somehow, after this trip to Switzerland after all I had seen in my previous work and as I get older, I couldn’t see myself putting roots down in the country that could easily be one of the most beautiful and livable places on earth. Perhaps irrationally, immigrating to Switzerland would feel like cheating. Inside the mountainous country filled with cheese fondue, countless beautiful walks, and polite people who all speak perfect English, French and German is a perfect haven for relaxing and taking time off from the craziness of the outside world filled with imperfections. It is a clean and beautiful place to recuperate and rest. But that was exactly it: to me, during this trip, running toward the beauty of Switzerland felt like hiding from the real experiences of every other dirty, chaotic and messy place that I felt so committed to engaging with.
There is a big, imperfect world around us, and we – inheritors of this time and this moment – work our best to do what we feel can improve it. Perhaps I have not yet shed this naive idealism from my thinking, but I still feel too young, too ambitious to settle down in a place that felt like a perfect escape every time I visit. If I were to do that now, it would feel like giving up, and I would miss the dirty chaos of life that seems to buzz and throb all around me, inviting me to partake in the uncontrolled dance of pain, happiness and everything else in between. But until I decide to hang up my gloves and convalesce in heaven on earth (if they’d ever even have me), I will always look at Switzerland as the ultimate retreat, the most beautiful place to recover from the every day pains and tediums we face.