A Swiss diary – Of greying stewardesses and thirsty cows

A makeshift boat-like tent in a vineyard on the banks of Lake Geneva.
A makeshift boat-like tent in a vineyard on the banks of Lake Geneva.
A live Jazz band on the boat.
A live Jazz band on the boat.

On a Swiss Air flight from Delhi to Zurich last month, as a woman who has opted not to colour her hair and allow the natural process of ageing to determine its colour, I am pleasantly surprised to see a senior stewardess in Business Class briskly going about her work with her hair, styled in a simple ponytail, revealing ample silver strands. I don’t normally travel Business Class; it was just luck of the draw and I had got upgraded. Initially the lady at the check-in counter had tried to bump me off with an attractive offer — a night’s complimentary stay in a swank Delhi hotel and €600 if I volunteered to take the next flight. Not on a holiday, but on an invite from the Switzerland Tourism Department for its annual media event when it unveils its annual theme for the year, the tempting offer had to be declined.

This year Switzerland Tourism is promoting the Grand Tour of Switzerland, a 1,600 km road trip linking the country’s most popular tourist destinations through a stunningly scenic journey.

On the flight I compliment Angela, the stewardess, for not giving in to the stereotyped norms of beauty, and tell her she is making a positive statement with her decision not to allow the ghisa-pita definition of “beauty” to look younger by colouring her hair. She smiles and says: “Yes, my sister couldn’t believe it when I decided to grey naturally two years ago.” She did it seeking relief from the irritating regimen of colouring her hair every week. I told her quite a few Indian women are doing just that, including popular TV anchors. As both of us toast to the 21st century woman’s decision to make her own rules about her personal beauty space, an Indian stewardess on the same flight — younger but with obviously dyed jet black hair — intervenes with an outrageous comment on how “silver strands in the hair of European women look nice but make us Indian women look old.” I sigh and let it pass. At 37,000 ft, at 3 a m, there’s only that much energy you have, even in the J cabin!

Bollywood’s gift to Swiss tourism

I am part of an international media group of 139 journalists from 35 countries Switzerland Tourism has invited for their annual tourism promotion. Thanks to Yash Chopra and later the spectacular success of DDLJ, the Indian market is important for Switzerland, the most expensive destination in Europe for us price-sensitive Indians. But brought up on a Bollywood diet of the picturesque snow-capped Swiss Alps, the verdant green Alpine region, the shimmering waters of Lake Geneva and of course the irresistible cheese and chocolates, not to mention global industry captains oozing economic gyan at the annual World Economic Forum meets at Davos, Switzerland has its own charm for Indian travellers.

The Swiss penchant for punctuality is well known and all of us are familiar with the cliché that you can set your watch by the arrival or departure of a Swiss train, but on this visit, I am blown away by Swiss Tourism’s endeavour to give the visiting journalists a unique experience at Lake Geneva in Lausanne … sorry that should be Lake Leman, the locals hate the “English name Lake Geneva!”

Perfection to the core

After an hour or so of a live jazz band and heavenly music that compels you to jive on your seat, some excellent wine from the local vineyards of the Vaud Canton, we are transferred by buses to the nearby wine-making village of Epesses, which is bang on the shores of the lake. The streets are a little narrow to accommodate so many buses, but even that is taken care of! A police patrol car has been organised to ensure that way is made for the buses. We reach the charming little wine-producing village which has picture postcard quality vineyards nestling close to the shimmering waters of the lake. Here, for a week, Switzerland Tourism has worked to create a few boat-like white tents to seat all of us, ensuring each journalist gets a view of the lake. Very thoughtfully each chair is covered with a blanket in case the evening gets cold! While my European friends swear by the aperitif of semi-cooked fish and the main course of rarely done beef with saffron risotto, I eat up only the rice and pass the rest, till of course the dessert arrives.

But for me, used to stinking loos at the Chennai airport and elsewhere, the takeaway of the evening is neither the spectacular view of the sun going down on Lake Leman, nor the delicious white wines; it is the construction of
toilets of five-star quality at the temporary venue. There is no evidence to show that this is a make-shift facility. Till late evening, there is no hint of stench. I inquire, and am told that “5–6 people were exclusively in charge of cleaning the toilets for the entire evening.”

Army airlifts water for cows

This is not all; only that morning, during a visit to the Jura Vaudois Nature Park, that covers a fifth of this region’s territory — apart from hosting some of the most famous watch brands in its lovely watch museum — while enjoying the cool winds at an elevation of 1,447 metres, we hear a lovely story from our guide. Only the earlier fortnight, having sweated through a historical high of 37 deg C in Vienna and Prague, the last two places an Indian expects to get scorched, it comes as no surprise that Switzerland has had a harsh summer too.

Add to it low rainfall, and the Swiss army had to carry out an unusual operation — airlifting water for the thirsty cows. The Swiss cows play an important role in the economy, producing quality milk for Swiss iconic products — cheese and chocolates — and have to be taken care of. A cow, I learn, needs at least 100–150 litres of water a day to provide optimum milk. This July, with the temperatures rising to a very un-Swiss 32 deg C and the deficient rainfall running off the mountainous region, there was a huge shortage of water for some 200,000 cows of this region — more than the human population of the area.

So Swiss soldiers came to the rescue; installing water tanks in this region of the Vaud Canton, and filling them up with water air-lifted from the lake! But while this ‘Operation Water’ was funded by the Swiss government, when other Swiss Cantons started clamouring for similar assistance to quench the thirst of their livestock, the military made it clear that henceforth the Cantons will have to foot the bill for water ordered for their cows!

We, the visitors listened and watched in fascination and returned home with an even bigger halo about all things Swiss!

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat

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