Monday, November 26, 2012

The Chandigarh Connection

So what does Swiss money and India have in common? And no, I am not referring to secret Swiss bank accounts and scandals………………

Chandigarh! The back of the Swiss 10 franc note (in use since 1997) carries a schematic representation of Chandigarh’s city center .  Unless you look at it knowing what it is, it’s not easy to link the geometric rectangles, half rectangles and I shapes that one sees to anything but a random computer generated pattern………..but once you know, it falls into place. Much more easily recognizable, is what’s on the other side of the 10 franc note, the image of Le Corbusier. 

A picture who anyone who went to school in India, knows as a familiar figure in text books as the man who designed India’s  ‘first and only planned city’. I always thought he was French and he was by citizenship but he was born here in Switzerland and the Swiss do like to claim him as their own. 

He was born in the little town of La Chaux-de-Fonds (Ok, ok, the Swiss call this less than 40,000 people place a large city) in the Jura mountains near Neuchatel and a hop and a skip from the French border. 
La Chaux-de-Fonds
When we went there last year to see the watch museum for which it is better known, it did not seem different from other towns in the region (except that all the trees in the city are trimmed so that their tops are exactly at 1000m above sea level) but coincidentally, this town has the honour of being the only planned city in Switzerland and is itself built in a chessboard like grid pattern. Maybe some of what became Chandigarh drew inspiration from his childhood town.

For those living in the area or planning  to be, Chaux-de Fonds is celebrating Corbusier’s 125th birth anniversary this year and there are numerous exhibitions, walking tours, book launches and events running till January 2013 and one of his earliest works the Villa Turque  will be open to visitors . Ironically, while his birth town celebrates, newspapers in India have recently been carrying stories of how the house in which Le Corbusier lived for 17 years in Chandigarh is itself in a state of ruin and many of Chandigarh’s buildings are facing a similar fate, neglect and worse still theft. Equally ironically, while Chaux-de-Fonds is a UNESCO World Heritage site, Chandigarh is still to attain that status.

I confess, though always wanting to and despite all the years living in India, I have never managed to go to Chandigarh but at least now I can say I have made the pilgrimage to honor a man whom I have admired since class 6.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The most expensive school in the my backyard!

Le Rosey from the other side of the fence
When we moved from the outskirts of Geneva to the little town of Rolle some 30 km away a few months ago, I was excited about everything except the long and rather expensive train commute to work for me and to school for my daughter.

A colleague offered a helpful suggestion ...that I think about transferring her to the very nice English/French school right in my own little town. Excited about the idea of a neighbourhood school even in this small town of less than 6000 people, I explore further. I realise that the school is just a 5 min walk away, almost my backyard.

I download the prospectus. Oh, oh. Like the disclaimers on cigarette packs, it carries a warning "We would advise you to read the financial conditions below before proceeding with the application".

Ah, dreams meet reality. The school fees alone (forget the extras) ...hold your breath ........CHF 99,300 (105,000 dollars) per year ! More expensive than a university education at Harvard or MIT or indeed the most expensive colleges in the world. Even in the land where everything costs more than anywhere else in the world, this seems a bit over the top.

But then, as I discover; Le Rosey is the most expensive and arguably the most elite school in the whole world! Sometimes called the 'school of kings' , its where the Shah of Iran, the King of Belgium, Aga Khan IV, the Rothschilds studied and where the future king of Bhutan, Hollywood star children and I believe Russian millionaires still do ..........   

Befitting royalty I suppose, the school has 10 tennis courts, 3 football pitches, 2 swimming pools, a shooting ring, an archery range, a sailing centre, an 18 hole golf course, an equestrian centre, a circus tent to amuse the little ones  ...I am sure they also have classrooms of course. And if that's not enough, come winter, the whole school moves itself to a winter campus up in the mountains and closer to the ski slopes! 
A momentary glimpse into the elite world
but these gates shall forever remain closed
As my husband and I and the dog walk past the school gates some evenings, the teenagers that seem to emerge in and out at times seem to look like 'normal' teenagers and i suppose they struggle with homework, acne, and teenage angst too   ..........though in my mind its hard to imagine 'normal' in this insulated bubble world.  

As my morning train glides by the football pitches and archery ranges, I feel relived to be a mere plebeian. And the 1,300 francs I pay for an annual train pass for my daughter to commute to her school in Geneva begins to feel like a wonderful bargain after all. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Swiss Stupa: The Bhutan Bridge

So here we were at a camp near Susten (check the post on Swiss camping sites  ) making our escape from the 5 star luxury and taking a walk through the Alpine woods. Pristine forests, the ubiquitous cows, Swiss hikers with their walking sticks. Every cliché one expects .........until we take a bend in the road that is. Voila that really what i think it is ............

What is a chorten (stupa) doing in the middle of Swiss German countryside? My eastern sensibilities intrigued and excited I venture closer and there in front of me is a long bridge lined with little prayer cloths fluttering in the breeze ............

As I soon discover, this is the Bhutan Bridge,  a 134 meter long, 1 meter wide suspension bridge that traverses the Ilgraben trench in the Pfyn forest in the Valais.  It is quite new, having been built in 2005 as a gift from Bhutan. It was designed by a Bhutanese architect to be in line with the suspension bridges that have historically lined rivers in Bhutan.

It should have been no surprise really. Bhutan and Switzerland share a special bond. Landlocked and mountainous, of almost exactly the same size and similar in their wealth of natural beauty. Despite their vast differences in monetary resources both are among the 'happiest countries' of the world (trivial aside: the happiest country of all is Denmark). Switzerland has been a major source of development aid to Bhutan as it has opened to the world.

The bridge is meant to symbolise friendship and to traverse the Rosti divide as well ...the legendary divide between the German speaking and French speaking parts of Switzerland. Now, I think it would take more than a gently swaying bridge from the east to close that gap!

The incongruities are there ....the picnic table within 10 meters of the stupa and occupied by a family enjoying beer and sausage, the almost total absence of color (white seems to be a Swiss obsession), the original prayer clothes long gone to be replaced by just pieces of cloth .............

But still , as the white cloths flutter gracefully, their sounds mingling with the distant Swiss cowbells in almost perfect melody ...........east, west, German, all seems irrelevant. So much for clichés about Switzerland.
the bridge casting a shadow over the Ilgraben

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Turning Swiss in Scotland

Edinburgh castle from the street where i turned Swiss
I was in Edinburgh last weekend, finding my way from the bus to my hotel. Being somewhat map challenged and also somewhat unable to always tell the difference between my right and left, I found that I could not figure out how to walk 50 m to the right, take the first left after the first light on my right and 200 meters more around the bend  ....oh dear, time to stop and ask for directions.
So here I am on a street called Earl Gray, at the foot of Edinburgh castle and Scottish history, outside a pub called The Red Blazer or some such, stopping a burly Scotsman with a pipe .....and i go "Excusez moi, est la ootel pooaa (The Point Hotel)". Me who, still needs a calculator to convert quatre vingt dix huit into a number, me who still goes to the hair stylist and blithely asks her to please couper mon cheval (horse) instead of my cheveux, me who still begins every conversation in Switzerland with a "Parlez vous Anglais?" ..................

The Scottish gentleman looks at me perplexed. A very identifiably Indian woman, in the heart of Mother England (well ok Scotalnd is not quite England but you get what i mean), attempting to sound French.

"Whats that you said Lassie" goes the poor fellow ...........and i reply with 'pooa, ootel ,poooa ....trying variations in pronunciation trying to sound more French ..........while he says. "lady, you speak English?"

Voila! Reality dawns........I giggle, he looks even more bewildered. I manage to mumble ' Ah, yes, I should speak English, shouldn't I? I mean the Point Hotel, you know, Bread Street' .........I continue to giggle, he continues to look at me with a look of disbelief but points me in the direction I need to go. 

I find my way to the said hotel and as i sit in my room and look out at Edinburgh castle, I realise that Suisse Romandie has really seeped into me. The next time someone in Geneva asks me 'Parlez vous Francais?', I shall proudly say 'Mais, oui. but only in Scotland!'