Note: I very much enjoyed writing my first travelogue, Talking Tico, on living abroad in Central America. That book is currently in the editing process to find out whether or not it’s actually any good. But, because of the amount of time I spent on it, I’m sure to publish it regardless. I mean, I can’t be that bad, right? (I have the confidence of an incontinent kindergartener.)
I mention this only to explain what’s to follow in this post. For those remotely familiar with me, you know I have a deep love, fascination, and slight obsession with Switzerland. In the spring of 2014, I had the great fortune of traveling the country for two weeks. As a result, I wrote about some impressions I had of their city planning for my then-column at Article 3 and published a cycling video and story with Yahoo! Travel. Even after all that, I still had a mountain of footage to work with and thoughts I wanted to share about those two weeks in Switzerland.
Recently, during a flight to Phoenix for a wedding, I opened up my laptop and started hammering out the beginnings of a travelogue on Switzerland. Below is the introduction to that (potential) travelogue.
Now I can’t say for certain when I’ll get around to finishing this. Talking Tico remains the priority at the moment. Still, I can’t help but constantly turn back to Switzerland. If not the beginning to a travel book on those two weeks, it’s certainly the beginning of something I’ll inevitably be doing on what has become my proverbial Valhalla — Switzerland.
“THE SWISS SPELLING”
Switzerland has dominated my imagination since I first discovered that Swiss blood runs through my veins. Of course, being a typical U.S. American mutt, it’s not purely Swiss. There’s British, Scottish, Irish, German (probably) — a conglomeration of the world’s most fair-skinned nation’s that compromise my DNA. The only deviation is a drop of Hungarian Jewish ancestry.
This is all to say, I’m hardly Swiss in the purest form. I’m not Swiss in that I was born there nor am I Swiss in that my parents are first generation Americans with the language and culture embedded in my upbringing. Rather, I’m Swiss in the same way most Americans cling onto the heritage of a great-great-grandparent and casually bring it up when explaining their surname.
“Joe, is that, B-A-U-E-R?” I’m often asked when someone searches for my hotel reservation or is eager to make a crack about the hockey manufacturer and the one-man terrorist-fighting machine of television glory, Jack Bauer.
“No, ‘E.’ Just B-A-U-R. The Swiss spelling,” I respond, as if “the Swiss spelling” means anything to anyone outside of Switzerland.
No, I did not grow up Swiss. I grew up very American. My home was an exurb — a term reserved for those suburbs constructed even further outside the central city following the initial American urban abandonment of the 1950s. When President James A. Garfield lived here, it was farmland.
Locals, for reasons that remain mysterious, purposefully mispronounce its name of Mentor, Ohio and say, “Menner.” That said, it ultimately resembles any other number of exurbs or townships that are built 20 miles outside of the city off surrounding highways. I have vague memories of when it resembled its more rural roots, our backyard consisting of a dense woodland full of owls, coyotes, deer, and the occasional fox. Suburban sprawl put a swift end to that, obliterating our portal to another world for additional big box cul-de-sac housing.
As if growing up in an American exurb weren’t un-Swiss enough, we drove everywhere. Like most middle-class American families, we had two cars and made nearly all our trips by car. The only walking I did from our house was down the street to the bus stop. We young students always had to make sure to walk on the opposite side of traffic, because there were no sidewalks. In retrospect, this should have been especially concerning considering the winding nature of our street. Young drivers loved to ignore the speed limits (or the fact that there were children walking around) and make-believe they were hitting the final turn of a NASCAR event.
The fact that we drove everywhere was hardly uncommon. The United States was constructed around automobiles since President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act of 1956 that scorched the American landscape (and minority neighborhoods, not coincidentally) with thousands of miles of concrete to fuel the American suburban sprawl. With what sometimes feels like a highway and vehicular lane for every citizen, the United States all but abandoned rail transportation, most of all in the Midwest. This meant family vacations, too, were done entirely by car. Come summer vacation, my parents would pick a geographical direction and simply go. My father, being an avid baseball fan, planned stops around minor league baseball games, meaning that the existence of the Lansing Lugnuts is trivial knowledge I’ll have until my final moment of cerebral activity.
I don’t mean to come off ungrateful. To the contrary, it crosses my mind at least once a day how fortunate I have been in my life to have won the birthing lottery and be blessed with wonderful parents who gave my brother and I the opportunity to travel. It was those early years of travel to the cornfields of Iowa (where we posed in our batter’s stance in front of the Field Of Dreams house) to Montreal that likely kindled my future obsession with travel. For me, there is no greater gift in the world than travel, save something husbandy I should say here about my darling wife.
However, this car-dependent lifestyle likely explains how I grew to loathe the very existence of automobiles. Ironically, had I not been pushed by my parents to travel, I likely would have ended up back in the familiar comforts of Mentor, driving 40 miles a day for my 9 to 5 job. Instead, I visited my brother studying his master’s in Chicago — a city. Cities were those scary places full of people who look different and unspeakable horrors, like… people who look different! There were different ethnicities, languages, people walking, people riding the bus, and people riding the train. Despite fully identifying with Cleveland as the nearest major city to home, I knew about as much about the city as I did igneous rock. They both are things that exist.
My visits to Cleveland were limited to joining my father at Case Western Reserve University where he was an assistant women’s basketball coach (though I’m not sure I even knew at the time that Case was in Cleveland), and attending sporting events. But sporting events, I now realize, can tend to be a highly suburbanized affair in the States. You drive in on highways constructed for American suburbs, follow posted signs to go directly to the stadium with no detours, traffic cops come out to wave you to parking, you park in a parking garage erected solely to store (primarily) suburban cars, and in some cases, walk across a skywalk or skybridge into the stadium. It’s remarkably easy for someone to attend a professional sporting event without actually stepping foot on city sidewalk.
My relationship with cities didn’t change much when I attended Miami University in rural Oxford, Ohio. I drove, as I had everywhere since the incredibly young age of 16 like the rest of suburban America, but never to Cincinnati just 40 minutes or so away. Once I worked as a production hand on a reality show filming in Cincinnati and timidly asked my boss if the neighborhood was safe, as if a Los Angeles producer would know a thing about Cincinnati neighborhoods. All this really did was reveal my inner-ignorance and cowardice.
Visiting Chicago is what really gave me a much-needed kick in the ass. In fact, it’s likely my first train ride was on the Chicago “L” — that elevated steel structure of transportation that proved to be the preferable (and most efficient) mode of transport in the city. How un-Swiss is that? I was 19 or 20-years-old before my first train ride. I’m fairly certain the Swiss give birth on trains and are handed a complimentary rail pass to silence their initial screams.
As my brother left Chicago to chase his then-girlfriend up to the Twin Cities of Minnesota, I followed in his footsteps to chase my dream, albeit brief, of improvisational comedy. Chicago proved to be my truly formative years. With my car sitting in street parking, collecting tickets when I’d inevitably forget to move it across the street, I began to see it as a mental burden. When my mother gently reminded me that I should be paying for my own car insurance, I gasped at the cost and decided it was a financial burden as well. When something mechanical went wrong during the rare usage for a trip back home (though I mostly took Megabus to sleep through Indiana), it became unaffordable. I couldn’t wait to be rid of the damn thing.
During this time, I became infatuated with Cleveland — the actual city of Cleveland. I subscribed to Cleveland Magazine to follow the resurgence of select neighborhoods that had been abandoned by so many in years prior. I rolled my eyes with the release of their annual Best Suburbs issue as I started to see those very suburban abodes as a cancer to what I identified with most. I used visits home as an excuse to stop by in some of the neighborhoods I had been reading about. In these visits, I decided Cleveland — not Chicago or Mentor — was home for me.
I moved back to Northeast Ohio in early 2011 for a magazine job, living with my parents until an apartment opened up in the crowded downtown market. It was during those first few months that I experienced what so many Americans hardly bat an eye at — a vehicular commute. Nothing made me so miserable in my life than those 20 mile drives to work. I’ve been dumped, fired, scolded at, and experienced major surgery. To this day, nothing brings as bitter a taste to my mouth as those commutes. It was always the same thing and always painstakingly boring. I was always exhausted by the time I finally got home after six in the evening. Sometimes I’d call my friend Phil, who lived in the city, as I walked back to my car after work, hoping beyond hope that he’d be up for a beer or something to delay that boring drive back to Mentor. My active lifestyle in Chicago had vanished. For the first time, I looked down and grabbed what felt like a sizable piece of stomach.
This all changed, of course, when I finally got to move downtown that summer. Once there, I decided against paying for the attached garage parking. I worked downtown and had the best access to public transportation than anywhere else in the city. Why would I need my car? So, I left it on the street in the next neighborhood over, checking on it every other day during my three-mile runs. Eventually this proved cumbersome and I wasn’t looking forward to paying insurance on something I never used.
Over Twitter, I connected with someone who noticed that I never used my car. He offered to buy it, noting that his girlfriend lived a good 50 miles away and needed one to visit her. I was beyond excited. I couldn’t wait to be rid of that damn hunk of murderous metal. Since it sold that summer of 2011, I’ve happily never looked back.
Unsurprisingly, my romance with Cleveland began to pass. It was inevitable. I fell into a rabbit hole of reading about urbanism and city planning. I began to learn that the way I wanted to live, car-free and not around cars, was antithetical to how my birth country had developed. Although I could live car-free, drivers in my neighborhood ensured that I couldn’t comfortably, refusing to obey pedestrian crossings and leaving their cars idling during rush hour, filling my lungs with untold amounts of poison all so they could sit comfortably in their climate controlled machine while they slowly navigated their return to the suburbs.
Then I read about the history of how this became the defacto way of life, the segregationist politics at play in the development of American suburbs and how it has disproportionately harmed minorities living in the very urban neighborhoods carved up for highways. Who’s breathing those plumes of vehicular exhaust left behind the average commuter’s jaunt home? More often than not, it’s the marginalized with limited access to public transportation, and therefore, the jobs that have moved to the suburbs. High rates of asthma are not uncommon in highway-adjacent urban neighborhoods as a result.
It made me furious. This was the best the supposed greatest country on Earth could do? Slowly poison its citizens? That is, if you’re lucky to survive the 30-40,000 annual vehicular fatalities on par with gun deaths. Reading those statistics shed some truth on early comparisons of the first motor vehicles with weapons when urban residents protested their inclusion on the streetscape once reserved solely for pedestrians and streetcars.
Coincidentally, it was around this time that I both met my future wife Melanie and traveled abroad for a 10-day trip in Ireland. It had been four years since my last (and first) overseas excursion during college, and I was eager to travel again. So, I threw out the suggestion to a friend of getting the cheapest ticket we could find to Europe, which happened to be Dublin, and we were off only a couple of weeks after I had met Melanie. In Ireland, we traveled exclusively by bus and train — something I couldn’t fathom doing in Ohio much less the United States. The only intercity Amtrak trains we have in Cleveland crawl to a brief stop in the middle of the night alongside one of the nation’s ugliest train stations — literally a small shelter and extended roof over a slab of concrete next to a parking lot.
Traveling to Ireland showed me that it is still possible in this world to live comfortably without a car and among people who don’t inherently expect you to have a car. (If I could cash in the number of audible gasps I’ve received when sharing that I choose not to own a car, I could properly fund Cleveland’s regional public transport.)
This all renewed an old interest in living abroad. And if I was going to live abroad, I wanted to do it someplace that would have meaning for me. This returned me to Switzerland.
FINDING THE BAURS
Jumping back chronologically once more, I first learned of my Swiss roots at some point during my high school career. A family crest hung in our house with our surname stitched beneath a shield and roaring lions. This, I was told, was given to our family by a visiting Swiss relative on my father’s side years before I was born. Email not yet existing, we lost contact over the years as it was presumed that relatives passed away.
Still, I was entranced by this idea that I had Swiss ancestry. Why not cling onto my Scottish or Irish ancestry? Well, it might simply be because I made the Swiss connection first, like a duckling who takes to whatever it first sees. Perhaps I’d be writing this book about my connection and love for all things Hungarian had I stumbled across some reminder of those roots first.
There was also what we call “The Baur Book,” an ancestral breakdown created before the internet by our family friend, Barb, who has more than earned the title of Aunt. Among our other nationalities, the book included birth and death certificates for our Swiss relatives. There was Leon Baur, born in French-speaking Switzerland, though I didn’t know of the country’s linguistic melting pot at the time. From thereon out, I took on a relatively arbitrary admiration for all things Swiss. If they were playing in the World Cup, I’d cheer for them. If Switzerland made the news for one reason or another, I’d grin like a proud relative.
In college, I became determined to find existing Swiss relatives. The internet was everywhere by this point, so I could spend days researching to my heart’s content. I called up my Great Aunt Jeanne, who remembered when our Swiss relative visited with the crest. She gave me some names to run off of, but nothing checked out. The best I could do was find the luxurious Baur au Lac Hotel in Zürich, who quickly confirmed that the founding family had no relation to Americans in Northeast Ohio.
(I cursed our lack of shared DNA at the time, but less so when I saw that FIFA’s corrupt top brass were detained by Swiss authorities at the hotel.)
In the midst of all this research, I began to wonder what it would be like to live there. I began naively emailing gyms across the country, noting my background in fitness and interest in moving abroad. Few responded. Those who did explained just how difficult it would be for a North American to move to Switzerland. Businesses would have to prove to their cantonal office (something like small U.S. States) that they could not find a Swiss person to do the job, then a European, and only then could a North American be hired. Considering how active the Swiss are, they didn’t exactly need to turn to an eager American who couldn’t speak any of the country’s three dominant languages of German, French and Italian.
My interest in researching waned, as most things do over time, and I happily found myself settling in Chicago. Though the Swiss bug would occasionally bite me at random, sending me on a feverish search for opportunities and flooding internet forums for information on how other North Americans managed to make the move to Switzerland. Most were transferred by their U.S. Employer or married into the country. Neither were an option for me at the time.
Then in Cleveland, some time after Melanie moved in with me downtown, I made another effort to find my Swiss relatives. This time, however, I would use strategic quote placement in my Google searches.
I fired off with “Baur” in quotes alongside God knows how many variables of “Switzerland” and “Cleveland” to find something, anything. Finally, my search neared its end. I happened upon an internet forum post from 1999 written by one Christian Baur.
“Hello ! I’m Christian Baur (*1961) and live in Switzerland, in the french part, near Lausanne, Olympic capital. Excuse my bad english.”
Christian continued, listing Baur relatives he had been searching for who moved to northeast Ohio in the early 20th Century. They were all descendants of one Leon Baur, whose brother stayed in Switzerland and eventually led to Christian. I ran the names by my father to make sure they were, indeed, our relatives. It all checked out.
The only problem now was contacting Christian. The email associated with his forum account from 1999 no longer existed. My enthusiastic email bounced back to me like a cold rejection at the bar.
I didn’t lose hope. I was on the trail and had a scent. Hours went by as I searched for what Christian Baur was up to these days. Eventually, I found him and his email through the Lausanne Opera. Is my Swiss cousin an opera singer? I wondered. How cool!
My suspicions were confirmed a short time later when Christian responded, explaining his own search for the Baurs of America. Finally, I found my Swiss family.
Christian must have thought me a small child on Christmas morning. He endured me as I lamented the American vehicular way of life as I hoped he would confirm all that I read about Switzerland being the train capital of the world. Of course since he lived there his whole life, it hardly phased him.
MEANWHILE IN SWITZERLAND
Now the question returned to, if not moving abroad, at least finding an opportunity to visit. I was now working as a contract writer from home, nowhere near the financial bracket that could warrant a visit to one of the most expensive countries on Earth. Instead, I would count on my writing and luck.
Not long after finding Christian, I noticed Swiss Air was running a contest for two roundtrip tickets to Switzerland. All you had to do was write about your familial connection to Switzerland and why you wanted to return.
Perfect! I thought. I’ll string together a tear-jerker that will guilt my way to Switzerland. I really had no shame.
Unfortunately, after submitting my essay with high hopes, Swiss Air suggested I look more closely at the guidelines. The contest was limited to Swiss nationals living abroad who wanted to return home to see family. I, as we’ve already covered, am more Swiss by enthusiasm than I am by nationality.
I was deflated. Swiss Air assured me they would run more contests, but I took it as a friendly customer service sendoff and nothing more. That is, until a tweet came in some months later from Swiss Air.
“Hey! We think you might like this contest,” they wrote with a link attached. It was to a new contest on sustainable transportation. Sustainable transportation! My wheelhouse! The trip included two roundtrip tickets to Switzerland for a three-day stay in Zürich and free public transportation. All I had to do was explain why I was best suited for a sustainable transportation vacation.
I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but I knew it was mine to lose. I mean, they tweeted me. Why bother letting me specifically know if I didn’t have an especially good shot at winning this thing?
My essay focused on my love for the car-free lifestyle, cycling, and strong interest in experiencing Swiss public transportation. For good measure, I copied and pasted my previous essay on my family ties, just to pull on the heart-strings (or guilt) to bring the prize home. As predicted, I won. Swiss Air notified me via email one November morning that a guest and I would be heading to Switzerland.
Melanie had been running an errand when I called her.
“GUESS WHAT!” I shrieked into the phone.
“No way…” she said knowingly.
“We’re going to Switzerland! We’re going to Switzerland!”
“Oh my God, I can’t believe it!”
She returned home moments later to catch me dancing around the apartment, waving my miniature Swiss flag. In true Swiss fashion, chocolates followed shortly thereafter in the mail.
As grateful as I was to head to Zürich, I wanted more than anything to meet my cousin and truly travel the country. So, we decided to extend our trip to Switzerland. When all was said and done, Melanie and I had two weeks planned with two Swiss passes to cover all transportation by bus, rail and sea. We would arrive in Zürich and meet with a representative of SwissTrails, who would fit us on some road bikes for a three-day cycling trek through the Oberland of Central Switzerland. Then, we’d board a train for Lausanne where we could meet my cousin and his wife Valerie at the start of the trip. From there, we’d take another train over to Gruyère and begin our cycling trip with stops in Schönried, Iseltwald, and ending in Lucerne. After a day in Lucerne, we’d board the Wilhelm Tell Express for a mixture of sailing and train travel to end up in the small town of Bellinzona just outside of Lugano in Italian-speaking Switzerland. Then, another scenic train ride that dips briefly into Italy at Domodossola where we’d transfer back to a Swiss train up to the capital of Bern. Here, we’d have the opportunity to meet with author Diccon Bewes (Swiss Watching, Slow Train To Switzerland) before continuing over to Zürich to finish with our Swiss Air weekend.
I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it happened. Two weeks in Switzerland, covered entirely by train and bike in a country where that’s perfectly normal. Finally, I had the opportunity to get a glimpse of life built around people and not cars.
This is a travelogue about experiencing one’s own once in a lifetime opportunity. We all have a dream in mind that, if achieved or experienced, we could die happy. For some, it’s as extreme as climbing the summit of Mount Everest or as simple as seeing a whale in its natural habitat. For me, it was visiting Switzerland (though after those two weeks, I’ve stretched my criteria for a happy death to living in Switzerland).
First, it was about exploring my ancestral roots. Then, it became about discovering whether or not Switzerland could live up to this unrealistic, car-free Valhalla I had concocted in my head. Maybe, as is so often the case, the grass would only be greener so long as Switzerland remained on the other side.
In any event, I had two weeks to find out. Along the way, I share my impressions, experiences, and history learned to better paint a picture of how this fantasy land for so many travelers became what it is today.
I’ve called this Meanwhile In Switzerland, because Switzerland seems to have kept to the backdrop of global society. Whether that has been for better or worse continues to be debated. Still, it’s worth noting that it’s difficult to recall a historic time period when Europe wasn’t in a constant state of war. Meanwhile in Switzerland, their only major fight has been to maintain peace and neutrality both politically and through organizations like the United Nations and the Red Cross. When the car was introduced, many cities across the world bent over backwards to accommodate it at the expense of historic buildings and people. Meanwhile in Switzerland, they’ve often scaled back what concessions they have made to cars in deference to people. I could go on, and I will over the course of the two weeks of travel.
Now, with Swiss precision in mind, it’s time to catch a flight to Switzerland.