The great distance

February 13, 2011 — Leave a comment

On a map Switzerland is deceptively small; nestled there in the alps between five other countries, one of which is so small that most North Americans have never even heard of it (Liechtenstein) and the other seemingly so obscure that it is often confused with a continent in the southern hemisphere (Austria). Switzerland would fit into Canada 241.8 times; that’s if the border in Wallis doesn’t change too much more. This immense size difference makes many Canadian university students think of Switzerland as a country worthy of a day’s visit on their whirlwind tour through the Europe – (Interlaken, one extreme sport, a quick fondue in the evening, a few Toblerones, a new Swiss Army knife and if they have enough cash, a Swatch).

I spent Christmas 2003 with my aunt and uncle in Waldstatt, AR. A friend and his sister came to visit on their way through Switzerland – yup, Euro-trip – and I told my aunt that we were going to go to Zurich together. She asked me for how long we’d be gone for as in how many nights. I said no nights, just the day. She laughed and said that it was too far away for just a day, that one needed to spend at least a night there. I checked the SBB website and saw that we could be there with the train in about one and a half hours. For me and my friend, also Canadian, not bad at all for travelling to another city. So we were off. The only thing we didn’t calculate with was catching the last train from Gossau back up to Waldstatt, which was quite early, so we didn’t stay late into the night, but it was doable. I mean we’re talking about two young guys coming from a country where I would drive 50+ kilometres in a snowstorm to go to the cinema in Ottawa, which wasn’t the fanciest but the closest cinema.

You know you live in a large country when distance isn’t measured in physical length, but in time. If you asked most people where I grew up how far Ottawa was, they would respond with “40 minutes – if you take the highway”. Here in Switzerland distance is still given in kilometres – even between towns long after they have grown together. But they are still not the same place. They are separated by history, tradition and often dialect, which usually comes down to the pronunciation of a word like potato or some such thing.

The enormity of Switzerland started to hit me a few years ago when I was working in Les Sciernes d’Albeuve in canton Fribourg. I was working at a private school high in the mountains above Montreux. On the map Montreux was right beside us, on the train it was 45 minutes away (this past summer I hiked it and it was 6 hours). The fastest connection to Zurich was three hours via Montreux, Lausanne, Fribourg and Bern. How could it take so long? Mountains – you need to go through them or around them and they give Switzerland a great deal of land within its 1858 kilometres of border. Needless to say there were no fun trips to Zurich, for even with the half tax rail card from the SBB it was too expensive and too hard to get to.

Now I live in Winterthur and many ask me how I ended up here. Just the other day a man on the bus asked me what I was doing in this town. Apparently he’d been trying to escape to a place like Kreuzlingen for years, but still hadn’t managed. I told him that Winterthur is great. I’m 20 minutes away from the airport and the rest of the world, 25 minutes from centre of the universe, Zurich, with the S12 and in Schaffhausen and St.Gallen quite quickly as well. I have a GA so I can travel anytime anywhere in the country worry free. Yet with all of this freedom, I’m realising how big this country is. Going into Winterthur from my place in Hegi is already a day trip, Zurich is planned and I’ve been promising to visit friends near Basel for two months, but it just seems so far away, I can’t seem to do it.

I guess I’m becoming Swiss again – Switzerland is huge – forget about leaving the country, leaving my flat is hard enough.

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