18 June 2010

Bern Voyage

A few days ago, with my shiny new go-anywhere-anytime-on-train-bus-tram-funicular-or-boat CFF pass in my wallet, I zipped down to Bern. My excuse for visiting the Swiss capital was to renew my passport, but really I just wanted to make this expensive year's pass ($195 SFR per month) start paying for itself. And I'd never been to Bern and its handsome medieval city center.

The ride from Neuchâtel took just over 30 minutes, during which time I frantically paged through my phrase book hoping to absorb some sense of Swiss German, of which I knew only two words, grüezi (hello), and bitte (please). I tried to memorize the phrase that I knew I'd have occasion to use most, Es tut mir leid. (I'm sorry), but always found during the day that it escaped me in the fluster of the many moments when I needed it. Instead, I relied upon the ever-versatile question, Sprechen Sie Englisch?

Searching for the American embassy, I knew I was close when I saw a Swiss soldier holding a cute little machine-gun. Nearby, an American flag hung limply behind high fences. In front of one door thick with blast-glass stood a line of hopeful young people holding papers. If the American embassy was under attack that morning, it was by cream-skinned Swiss teenagers who probably just wanted to invade Disneyland. 

Unsure where to go, I got in line with them. A Swiss soldier who'd been letting people in the locked door one-by-one soon spied me and asked in perfect English if I were American. I said yes. "I thought so," he said, eliciting smiles from a few of the others in line. 

How did he know? I wasn't wearing a cowboy hat or dorky white running shoes. I wasn't being loud or pushy. I wasn't even yet asking anyone Sprechen Sie Englisch?

Nevertheless, I'm sure I managed to confirm opinions about Americans' sense of entitlement when the guard told me to go to the front of the line. 

Half an hour later, after multiple security screenings, a session under the blinding lights of a photo booth, and impossibly friendly service from embassy staff, I exited with the paperwork for my renewed passport.

Now it was time to see Old Bern. Though the city was founded in 1191, most of it burned to the ground in 1405, and was rebuilt in the stone buildings that I was now walking among. It was downright weird to  meditate upon this, walking the cobblestone and low archways between storefronts full of modern furniture and art and yes the inevitable watches and Swiss Army knives -- and bears.

Bern was named Bärn by founder Berthold the 5th, Duke of Zähringen, because this apparently whimsical fellow decided one day that he'd name his new town after the next animal he killed in the hunt. That Bär lives on today in the town's name and statues, icons and tourist gewgaws around town. Plus there's the newly renovated live bear viewing area, Bärengraben, on the banks of the Aare River. Depending upon your perspective, this attraction is either an honor to the city's fearless namesake or a humiliating pit in which a family of bears including two cute cubs is forever trapped. The day I was there, hundreds of people were voting their conscience with their cameras and oohs-and-aahs.

Anyone feeling guilty about enslaving noble bears can give confession up the street at the tallest cathedral in Switzerland, Münster St. Vinzenz. Like so many European cathedrals, the most inspiring and intriguing personalities hanging around are not the men shuffling about in white collars, but the figures made of timeless stone. 

After communing with these fine creatures for awhile, I was spiritually spent, so moved my observances to a sunny table at a nearby café to sip a beer. Then I jumped on the bus for the train station. Rolling up the street, passing the countless faces, I knew I'd been unfair to the flesh and blood of Bern. But I'll be back in a few weeks to pick up my new passport. Maybe by then I can tell them Es tut mir leid.


  1. I really enjoyed this tour. Thank you. As usual, I am living vicariously through your many adventures. Live on!

  2. Thank you, Mr. Mad Man. Always glad to have you along.

  3. Very interesting, and as usual, well written, tho a long way from Liliha Street. Do you read your email? Hope to hear from you, and keep up the good writing. gt

  4. GT, dear long-lost buddy, I just discovered your note here. Glad you enjoyed my little travelogue. Please feel free to drop in at ExpatCH anytime, and shoot me a note anytime. Yes, I read my email about as often as I inhale. Best to you, Lynne and the kids.