Flying with Fritz

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Swiss people are expert at living with nature. Their land, long a mountain fortress, is now a play round… “for big boys,” my friend Fritz adds. Fritz, a dynamo who runs my favorite little hotel in Interlaken, recently broke his collarbone. For the first time, I can keep up with him. He climbs a mountain on his bike just to see the sunset. I’m forever thankful to Fritz (who’s nearly my age) for alpine mountain-biking my son Andy into the ground — and then taking him “flying.”

Parasailing is Fritz’s passion. He is forever nagging me to “go flying.” Flying with Fritz (tandem parasailing) is his sideline. Andy still talks about his exhausting and exhilarating day with riding and flying with Fritz.

As a hotelier, Fritz is tuned into the phenomenon of Indians coming to the Alps in droves. “We love Indians — but they need to learn manners when staying in European hotels. We rent them a double, you turn your back, and you have seven people in the room — cooking curry on the carpet.” Fritz finds you can get out the smell, but not the stains. On regional buses, Indian tourists are so loud they even drown out the Americans.

Fritz explained that Indians are a huge part of Interlaken’s business. They come to see mountain scenes made famous in their movies. Kashmir is now too dangerous for movie production, and romantic Indian movies need mountain wonderlands for lovers to swoon with the maximum melodrama. (There’s even a restaurant now on top of the Jungfrau called “Bollywood.”)

I was with Fritz when a freak hailstorm pulverized Interlaken. It had been really hot. Locals — like squirrels before a storm — sensed it and were nervous. Something big was clearly coming. It got dark. Then…bam! Typhoon in the Alps. I parked my bike just in time to take refuge in the hotel.

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Standing on my balcony, I watched flower gardens hammered into pulp. The road became a river of flowing hail balls, leaves, and flower petals. Fifteen minutes later, we went out to survey the casualties: Fabric on chairs was ripped, an entire wall of old windows was left jagged, birds were stripped of their feathers and knocked silly. Car rooftops were blanketed in dents, and windshields were alligatored. I helped Fritz shovel the hail out of his basement before it melted. He joked, “A greeting from George W. Bush.” And then said it’s no problem–we Swiss are the most insured people in the world.

Of course GWB didn’t cause the violent weather and this is not the first hail storm to ruin a city’s cars. But, to people living close to the weather here in Europe’s Alps, the strange and changing weather is a troubling reality. There is a growing frustration with people who confuse their short term economic needs with the long term needs of the environment.

The next morning, Fritz and I went on a hike. Riding the lift to Männlichen, high on the ridge above Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, we stepped off and into a visual symphony: Before us towered the mighty Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. Fritz, who worked at this mountaintop restaurant as a kid and bikes here for a little fresh air a couple of nights a week, talked of the changes he’s noticed here in the last decade. They’re subtle. Walking by a glacial pond, he recalls how, during his childhood, there would be hundreds of frogs singing. Now there are none.

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We studied a new ski lift being built. Before, they would just build a few towers. Now, a swath is cut right up the mountain as each lift is plumbed with snowmaking gear. Big water pipes stuck out of the concrete foundations seeming to trumpet a new age. You won’t have ski resorts in the future without manmade snow.

Today the Swiss ski industry is in crises: A third of the lifts are losing money, a third are in trouble, and only a third are good business. I pulled out the postcard Fritz gave me. Wiggling it, I saw the glacier come and go. The valley in 1907…filled with ice. The same valley in 2007…dry, with a shrunken glacier hanging like a hot dog’s tongue over the top of the valley high in the distance.

Gazing up at the North Face of the Eiger, Fritz tells me of speed climbers, leaving Interlaken on the early lift, scaling this Everest of rock faces, and getting back to Interlaken in time for a late-afternoon business meeting. Then he gets back onto global warming. As the permafrost thaws, there are more falling rocks, and mountain guides are abandoning once-standard ascents that are no longer safe.

Fritz is typical of Europeans who enjoy Americans enough to be comfortable challenging us with a political discussion. As I send them a good percent of their business through my guidebooks, they are careful not to upset me by angering my readers.

I tell him I believe part of the joy most Americans find in their travels is to be challenged by people who see things differently. I think one thing the Swiss and we Americans have in common is a self-assuredness that can border on arrogance. I asked Fritz how the American guests reacted to his interest in politics and if he saw a change in arrogance. He said there was a spike in arrogance a few years ago but that’s less so now.


15 Replies to “Flying with Fritz”

  1. I love Switzerland and the Swiss are fun people but I sincerely believe the Swiss could teach the Americans everything about arrogance. How arrogant is it to believe that the climate one has lived in for but a few decades is the only climate Mother Earth can tolerate? I happen to live in an area that was once covered with ice 2 miles deep! I embrace climate change. Please do not tell me that the Swiss have not had hailstorms pre-Bush! Arrogance? How about a country that has gilded its bank vaults with gold pulled from the teeth of murdered Jews? Arrogance? How about the Swiss financing world terrorism today with their non-stop flood of looted Iraqi antiquities streaming through the Geneva Freeport (without being inspected) and then receiving valid export stamps! One of the largest looted antiquities laundering cities in the world. Indeed, a hike up the Schilthorn in the early morning from Gimmelwald is like nothing else in the world but please don’t speak to me of American arrogance.

  2. I enjoyed Rick’s comments on the Suisse. As an American who has had the wonderful, life altering experience of living in Switzerland for years, I am fully versed in the discussion of arrogance, on many fronts. Rick often speaks of the mind opening experience of travel and I agree. While discourse can be off putting to some, I enjoy the healthy exchange of ideas and culture. This not only has broadened my horizons but I believe serves my nationality well in dispelling the ugly American personna. Rick, you often write of Interlaken…I encourage you to spend time in other wonderful areas, such as Reideralp….wunderbar!

  3. On our first visit we spent a couple of hours walking around Interlaken. At a sidewalk cafe we ordered a cup of hot chocolate. They delivered a cup of hot milk, and a packet of Ovaltine. I had not tasted Ovaltine since childhood, but as a result of that one cup, for breakfast in the years since I have savored thousands of cups of the favorable stuff. Since my 110 volt razor would not work on the European 220V electricity, in Interlaken, the attractive barber was a blonde with soft, warm hands, and that’s better than 110 or 220 volt, or even 12 volt. I suggested Sweetie go shopping, but Sweetie said, “No, I will sit and watch.” So all that happened was that I got shaved, what did Sweetie expect? Well, what did I hope would happen? In Grindelwald, we thought there was a black and a white goat in the pasture. When the goat moved, we saw the one and only goat was black in front, and white in back, as exact as if it wore white pants and a black shirt. It was a “Cou Noir,” Alpine dairy goat

  4. Get over global warming. It was warmer earlier last millenium. Greenland used to be green. The Great Lakes were glaciers. The climate changes. We’re not the cause — at least of any significant change in climate. Random Swiss people thinking that it was cooler 30 years ago (or whatever they say . . . I though hail in summer was indicative of global cooling) is hilarious. How old is the Earth? Is 30 years a good sample size? Simplistic, Rick? Simplistic is your silly “global warming is real and anyone who disbelieves is an idiot” anti-logic.

  5. Can we all get beyond the belief that we have to stridently denounce an opinion that we disagree with; as if it we didn’t do so, we would be held responsible for the ensuing catastrophe! I don’t always agree with Rick or the opinions that he reports from the people he meets but I read, reflect and ask if they may have a point. Then I just sit back and enjoy the differences. That’s part of what travel is all about:enjoyment and enlightenment; not a need to defend or attack. I certainly wouldn’t hold any one citizen of any country responsible for all the actions of all their citzens anymore that I want to be held responsible for the behavior or attitudes of all Americans. Travel,learn, relax, enjoy, be cool!

  6. While in Murren last year, we sat on the deck of a friend, a longtime resident of the area, while her and her husband pointed out glaciers which were shrinking faster every year. Once gone, they are not going to return ever! To stick your head in the sand and claim that we are only experiencing a natural cycle which will turn around on its own is a disservice to our children and to our children’s children.

  7. We crossed the St. Bernard pass on the border between Switzerland, and Italy, and visited the hospice established by St. Bernard. We found several large St. Bernard dogs on display, and enclosures that held a half dozen puppies. The atmosphere, the surroundings and the equipment were incongruous, not quite what one would expect at this ancient, storied mountain top. The unexpected? In this centurys-old monastery, the pans containing the puppy food were Coca-Cola trays. ====== The Italian border police asked where we were from, then asked, “Do you own this vehicle, or are you renting?” We would expect the police to check further when Californians say they own a French vehicle with German license plates while driving from Switzerland into Italy, but just a smile and a wave. We crossed European borders 227 times. ======= At a bank in Geneva we asked why we should have a Swiss bank account. They almost said, “If there is money to hide, hide it in a Swiss Bank.” That includes us out!

  8. I think global warming is probably very real. However, I’m not a scientist trained in the subject. Just as I think surgery is best left to those who have been medically trained, I also think that the diagnosis and prevention of global warming and/or man-made climate change should be left to those scientists who have been diligently trained in the area. Too often people disagree over global-warming because they see it as a political problem as I deduce Bob Smith’s conclustion to be. Get a life, Bob. Give us information that you’re qualified to deliver…not just some ideas you’ve come up with because you’re agin’ them democrats!

  9. Everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion. This is a travelers’blog, not a political debate. One should keep one’s hatred and hostility at bay. The world is messy enough as it is, from genocide to wars to global warming. Why do we travel? Like John was saying, to learn and relax. To understand the cultural/language/history differences. The world is getting smaller, crowded. If we all try to make an effort to spread the meaning of PEACE and LOVE while traveling, learn from each other, not being judgemental about each other, then we are doing a service to our children and grandchildren. It is not a scary world as we humans make it to be.

  10. In addition to clothes, money, and a passport, the most important thing to take with you on vacation is a positive attitude. It’s amazing how many stupid, ignorant, inefficient, obnoxious people you will meet if you are in a bad mood. ======== Visit the countryside and the market place, exploring towns and cities and talking to cabdrivers, farmers, gardeners, shopkeepers, and your seat mate on the bus or train. There is pleasure in finding yourself in ancient towns and in the lovely countryside, discovering for yourself the joys of meeting people in their own environment. ======= You are there to learn about their home and way of life, so try not to tell everyone that your home and your culture is best, even though you/we are positive that it is.

  11. Hi Jim Humberd, I fully agree with you, and that goes for travels anywhere. I used to travel for a living, and I was usually a grumpy bee-yotch. This week I’m back on a work trip for the first time in a year, and actually volunteering to give people directions and being more pleasant in myself has made a world of difference in this trip. The older I get, the more I realize that what we get out of our short time on this beautiful planet is completely tied to what we put into it. Computers aren’t the only things that put garbage out when you put garbage in. People are that way too. Dare I say it, the environment is too. No one but the Creator knows where the frogs went and why, but when people notice and take care and endeavor to make things better, good things will follow. Just like pneumonia starts out as a little cough, big things always start as little things. Keep on traveling and listening everyone!

  12. Reading your blogs are almost like taking a trip. I’ve loved your shows, and I just had to write today. Setting aside the daunting and despairing argument about global warming, I am reminded of my trip to Interlaken and Grindelwald in-1973. There was a lot of distrust of Americans since this was the Watergate year. I spoke German, so I heard a lot of opinions. But my family worked to offset the “Ugly American” image and we had our daughters, age 6 and 8, to help our case. There were many good conversations over great bread, and the best butter I’ve ever had. Thank you for reminding me of the places I visited, and for your entertaining and informative shows.

  13. My wife & I have visited Switzerland on several occasions to visit our exchange students. What wonderful, friendly people. A funny note. While staying at the home of one of our exchange daughters, her father was really trying to figure out this Yankee. He spent a great amount of time trying to rig a weather-proof canopy for “our” daughter’s birthday party. I put my “Yankee ingenuity” to work and solved his problem for only a few dollars and when completed, he was able to roll it up and put it on his shelf. He really liked saving money! The people are very athletically inclined and not reclined. Walking/hiking is a very popular weekend activity. They are also very interested in discussing politics. This represents a great opportunity to hear an “outsiders” view of American politics. Kodak designed Switzerland just to sell cameras & film! Every American should visit Switzerland if they have only one foreign country to visit.

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