Morning encounters with noisy goblins

There are times when you are stuck between the devil and the deep sea. On a hot summer day this choice is easy to make. I would take the sea over the devil any day. Sipping a cool drink on beach while the waves of the sea gently lap at your heels,  is a much pleasant alternative to the red skinned, two horned devil pricking you with a pitchfork.

But the choice between pink goblins or noisy ones is a slightly more tricky one…sometimes even a non-choice, as you cannot really avoid any of them. You see, both of them invade into your early morning slumber. The slumber tastes especially sweet on a cold winter morning when it’s -10 degrees outside and just the thought of stepping down from the bed sends a chill down your bones. If you have a daughter, you are bound to run into the pink goblins sooner or later (famously elaborated in my last post). And if you live in Switzerland, then on every last school day of the year before the christmas holidays there is no escape from the noisy ones. Try what you may, they will track you down faster and more accurately than a heat seeking missile.

Switzerland and noise are like chalk and cheese … hardly to be spoken about in the same breath. Yet once a year at precisely 6 AM in the morning, the streets of practically every town in Switzerland turn into a cacophonous orgy of noise, clang and din. Rumor has it that Martians and other funny looking bug-eyed aliens routinely bypass earth on this day for the fear of their delicate spaceship controls being fried off by the high-pitched noises emerging from an otherwise calm alpine nation.

Some of you must be wondering what could the possible source of this noise be? Fret not, as you are not alone. Many theories have been put forward to explain this phenomena over the last few years. Some of the common misconceptions that typically do the rounds are as follows :

  • All the Swiss cows fart in unison on that day
  • The millions of cheese factories have their annual cheese cauldron cleaning day
  • A secret chip implanted in all the cuckoo clocks gets activated and they go off simultaneously
  • The funkily named subatomic particles have a head on colliding party inside the Large Hadron Collider
  • All the swiss watchmakers throwing down their delicate tools with a relief that over the upcoming holidays they will not have to work on those darned minuscule watch parts
  • All the bankers count their gold coins together trying to prove off that ‘My pile is higher than yours’

But as you have guessed by now, these theories as interesting as they may sound, are nowhere near the truth. The real reason that yours truly has discovered is as follows. On the last school day of the year before christmas holidays, the swiss school kids get a license to shock the hell out of poor souls peacefully slumbering in their beds. A typical street scene on that morning looks like this.

All the kids dress up in their warmest clothes, bring out the noisiest substance in their home (which is often themselves) and run to their school in the wee hours in the morning when all is still dark. There they are greeted by the teachers who wait for this day eagerly every year. On this day the teachers, who have suffered all year round at the hands of the kids, have the possibility to give it back to their parents, using their own kids as a means. Carl Jung called this syndrome ‘You oughtta know!‘. Alanis Morissette then famously plagiarized the words of his theory and conjured up a smash hit.

And smash and hit is what the kids have a license for that morning. The otherwise docile kids walk around all the streets banging away at their metallic instruments and screaming at the top of their voices. The louder they clang, the more appreciation they get from their teachers and other kids. The wackier the instruments they use the produce the sounds, the higher up the kids move up on the ‘Cool wall’. If you want to make it big on that day and be a star, old pots and pans banged together will not do. If your dad happens to be a heavy beer drinker or your mom an obsessive tomato sauce freak, the byproducts of their passion can come in very handy that morning as well.

Drunk on the motley sounds gleefully produced by their noisy orchestra, they march on. The procession continues till the time the kids either grow ravenously hungry or their instruments break or every single person in town is woken up and comes out begging and pleading for some peace and quiet. The kids are then rounded up by the teachers and led back to the schools for a hearty breakfast before they are unleashed on their parents for the rest of the vacation.

This tradition has been apparently going on for a few hundred years is lovingly called ‘Schulsilvester’. The intent being to welcome the new year and drive away the old one.  How far that is true is anyone’s guess, but the streets are surely a lively place to be on that morning.

Here’s to a smashing 2012 !

Age old Indian traditions to be observed when spending time on a Swiss mountaintop

The Indian penchant for following traditions is universally recognized. To the uninitiated or the clichéd mind, these traditions may relate to mundane stuff like family values, cultural dabbling in exotic sounding dances, music etc.

Then there are some lesser known, but equally widely followed set of traditional practices that are repeated by us Indians given the first opportunity. Any of us who have had a chance to travel to a swiss mountain top for a ‘sightseeing tour’ belong to this subset and are duty bound by our genes to follow these traditions. Not surprisingly, these practices get amplified in a group larger than 2.

Some of the more prominent ones that I have noticed are as follows:

  1. Drink ‘masala chai’ : A normal cup of tea when pimped with a mysterious combination of spices, whose real recipe is even a more heavily guarded secret than the recipe for Coca-cola becomes the mythical ‘masala chai’. It is rumoured to be the most widely drunk beverage on earth. Statistics compiled by the ICC (International Chai Confederation), estimate that 639.51 million litres of masala chai are consumed every day. Out of this nearly 40% is consumed at the Jungfarojoch train station by thousands of Indian chartered groups who take the treacherous and arduous journey of travelling in the comforts of the impeccable swiss trains over a 5 hour one way trip to reach the one of the highest point in Europe. Upon reaching there, rather than take in the views, the first thing that the groups do is make a beeline for the chai stall. This stall is usually manned by a flustered little swiss girl who stands there wide eyed, amazed by the ability of the horde to polish off multiple cups of this strange beverage. Now-a-days, thanks to technological advances, this privilege can be enjoyed by going to a nice restaurant & asking for just a cup of hot water. Then surreptitiously pouring a powder from a small sachet into the cup and enjoying the Chai for free. All this, while observing the apathy of the steward who is flabbergasted by the sudden conversion of the plain hot water to a steaming brown liquid.
  2. Search desperately for Indian food : A good indian meal and masala chai is a match made in culinary heaven. But this combination can be quite elusive when you leave the fragrant soil of India. But that does not deter the battle hardened Indian tourist from the quest of finding an Indian restaurant in the remotest of the swiss alpine valleys. Research has shown that the median time elapsed between finishing breakfast and starting the search for Indian food for lunch ranges between 7 to 63 mins. All efforts are made by tourist guides to ensure that the itineraries do not take the group more than 2 kms away from an Indian restaurant. The moment this distance increases, withdrawal symptoms appear in forms of nausea or loud grumblings from the stomach that sound like samosas being fried. The tourist guides are trained to immediately recognize these and lead their herds back into the protective circle, lest they should lose their business.
  3. Compare the food to the real thing back home : Now that the elusive restaurant is located and the seats with best views to the mountains are hastily occupied, it is time to get down to business. The best path to an Indian man’s heart is through his stomach. The man’s mom has a perennial lease on that path and no restaurant or chef cooking Indian food in Switzerland can ever hope to better mums’ cooking.  The moment the food arrives at the table, it is polished off in record time. Then it is time to burp and criticize how watery that Dal makhani was, how that Chicken tikka masala really was nothing but boiled chicken pieces thrown in a tomato puree. The conversation does not stop till every dish is compared to how it is made back home or at one’s favorite restaurant down the road from their house. The food just eaten at that Swiss Indian restaurant is emphatically declared to be the worst Indian food ever eaten. But while leaving the restaurant, the various inevitable factions that have been formed in the groups, make secretive plans to return to this restaurant at the first opportunity to escape from the drab swiss food that might be served elsewhere on the trip.
  4. Grumble about the prices – Ofcourse, no trip to switzerland is complete without grumbling about the prices. A few things like Rolex Daytona at 7000 francs or a pair of Bally loafers at 1500 francs are indeed good value. But hours are spent in the Sprungli cafe at Paradeplatz grumbling about the 12 franc sandwich, 7 franc tram ticket or the 5 francs for a bottle of water. Of course after all this grumbling, hundreds of francs are happily spent at the airport souvenir shop stocking up on Swiss farmer bells, all the time gushing about the quality of their craftsmanship (while ignoring the small Made in China tag stuck on them.)
  5. Look for a place to fill up that water bottle – Talking about water, no self-respecting Indian tourist (officially certified as the thirstiest tourists in the world) may be seen in public without a bottle of mineral water . But of-course this is no ordinary bottle of water. This bottle has to be Evian, no other brand. Typically it was bought in a fit of desperation at the Interlaken main station for 5 francs where no free water tap was in sight for miles around. Now that a fortune has been spent on what is essentially a hollow tube of plastic filled with melted snow from the french alps, it needs to be guarded fiercely and full paisa vasooli (derive maximum value for the money spent) needs to be ensured. This bottle will be carried to the remotest and the highest of the alpine peaks, washed & refilled at the first possible opportunity. When the label on the bottle starts to come off after multiple washings, it will be repaired with pieces of tape borrowed from the hotel reception. When it gets left behind at a café, the whole bus or the train will be kept waiting, while an army of kids will be dispatched to find the precious bottle. In the end it will be bid a tearful farewell at the security gate at the airport, where only the most persistent security guard will be able to convince the owner to part with it. But not before all the water is glugged down in a show of proud defiance.
  6. Let screaming kids run riot in a restaurant – This is one tradition which is sadly dying. The good old days of hordes of kids running about in a restaurant, dodging the stewards and bumping into the harrowed old swiss couples sitting there in an unsuccessful search of some peace and quiet  are slowly disappearing. Now-a-days one is most likely to find kids screaming in whoops of delight in crossing the million points mark in Angry birds being played on their personal iPad or fighting over the  earphones. Sigh … another example of tradition falling prey to technology.
  7. Ask for a fondue with less cheese – Now this is as good as it gets. Just because one is on vacation, does not mean that all the money spent in Sharmaji’s weight loss clinic should be wasted. Following the diet plan set by overweight nutrition expert back in Kanpur is a must to ensure that one still fits into the ‘I love Switzerland’ T-shirt bought in Luzern. If that means asking for the bewildered restaurant owner for a fondue with a little less cheese, so be it. After all the customer is king.
While these are the most important and universally practiced traditions listed here, it is possible that some other popular ones may been omitted. Pls be reassured that the omission was purely unintentional. If you have experienced or practiced any others, pls drop me a line and they will be promtly listed here.