Switzerland – Farmwork, Mountains, and Science

Imagine a stereotypical Swiss chalet. A quaint cottage plopped on the side of a forested hill. With views of the mountains, the inhabitants are treated to the sight of undisturbed nature. Every morning the sleepy surroundings are woken by a rooster’s crow, and every evening the hearth quietly crackles into the night. During the day, animals of all kinds enjoy their fenced, natural playground. Deer prance about on the hillside, sheep stare blankly at the grass, and shaggy humans worry themselves with a fence. This all taking place amidst clanking cowbells and occasional yodeling – background music even the edgiest of SoundCloud playlists can’t provide. Luckily, you don’t have to imagine this wonderful place. It actually exists outside a small village near Bern, Switzerland.

A week after creating my Workaway account, I was contacted by an elderly Swiss lady asking if I wanted to help at her house. Doesn’t it happen regularly? Since I had no other plans at the time, I decided to accept her offer. After leaving Bruno and Ursula in France, I made my way to Switzerland. On the way, however, I’d stop off in Lyon to visit some historical sites.

I stayed in the center of Lyon near China Town. It’s a nice, bustling city subdued with its French attitude. On a hill overlooking a river is Lyons most famous attraction: a Roman amphitheater. It’s a relic worth visiting – especially since the first Roman emperor born outside of Italy was instead born near Lyon. In an effort to condense these articles, that’s all I’ll say about Lyon. You’ll have to ask me in person if you want to know how I found myself in a situation where a duck led to a stolen iPhone.

Then I rode the train to Bern – or rather a small station a few dozen kilometers outside of Bern. That’s where my new Swiss grandma picked me up.

This grandma is the type of person you meet and immediately want to emulate their perception of life. She was always looking for the positive. The overcooked pastry wasn’t ruined, it just “has a little something extra.” Her injured knee wasn’t burdensome, it made “life interesting,” and not being able to walk her dog really was disappointing, but only until she could watch the birds for an hour longer. She was as exuberant about life as her rabbits were about apples.

When it was time for a meal, you’d hear her yodels pierce the mountain air. I can still hear her voice pitching up and down saying “Already ready!” She has many interesting phrases like that. The meals that were already ready were always delicious. And while eating them, she’d casually talk about her childhood and how her life changed first under Nazi occupation then communist takeover – all the while forgetting what language she should use. She might start in Czech, then realize her mistake and switch to French, Swiss German, and then English. It certainly made the stories more interesting. When you’re fluent in that many languages past 70 years old, you get a pass on mistakes like that.

Work

As for the work, it was monotonous fun. Monotonous because it was removing kilometers of fence. Fun because I worked alongside a Belgian lumberjack. It’s impossible to have a bad time with one of those beside you! This particular Belgian was named Yoan. He was a certified lumberjack and tree surgeon (yes, they do exist), and was searching for a job in Switzerland. After meeting Yoan, I quickly realized he wasn’t the stereotypical millennial. He had only just bought a cell phone, he tried not to use electronics, and he once lived alone in a cabin without running water or electricity in Norway for three months – Walden style. Yoan was a nature hippie and proud of it.

Working beside Yoan was great. He taught me the best ways of removing fence posts and rolling up wire, and once I asked him a technical question about his beloved chainsaw and got an hour long response. Yoan rarely tired, and if you gave him enough coffee and chocolate, he’d work from dawn ‘till dusk. In short, he was a French-speaking beast.

The only thing that outdid Yoan was the powered wheelbarrow. The grandma had a motorized wheelbarrow that she let us use to haul the fence materials up the hill (look at the middle picture above to get an idea of the incline). Without that thing, the work would’ve taken much longer. Carrying wet, green treated posts up an inclined hill slicked with deer droppings is a job I happily relinquished to our robotic servant. There were more than a few near tip-overs going up and down the hill, but they weren’t anything mine and Yoan’s combined bodyweight couldn’t handle. And we only stepped in one underground wasp nest, so I’d say that’s pretty good.

After work, there were many fun little happenings. For the sake of brevity, I’ll simply list them:

  • When I walked grandma’s dog every morning and evening, we’d pass by two young cows. Just as we’d go by, they’d react very energetically and start hopping on their gangly legs as gracefully as a young cow does. It’s a hilarious sight.
  • To buy milk, we’d simply go to the farmer 100 meters up the road (see above bullet point). Grandma would give me a pale with some money in it, and in the morning I’d hang it on a specific fence post. Then after the evening walk, I’d pick up the same pale now full of milk. I don’t know how the farmer transmuted the coins to milk, but however he did it, the milk tasted fresh and clean.
  • The chalet had a fallout shelter. It turns out that nearly every Swiss residence has one, and Switzerland has the world’s strictest fallout shelter requirements. It really fits the Swiss stereotype.
  • A week into my stay, we had rabbit soup. I commented on how delicious it was, and grandma responded that “her” meat is always very good. We had been eating fantastic meat meals the whole week, so I smiled and simply asked her to clarify. That’s when she told me she never buys meat. It’s all from the animals she raises. That was a bit of a surprise to me, but not so much as the next day when I heard a strange popping sound, went to the rabbits’ pen and saw a friend of grandma’s cleaning a rabbit with a pistol beside her.
  • Yoan and grandma had plenty of catchphrases. They’re more significant than they seem because I remember them vividly, and they always elicited a laugh.
    • Yoan frequently said (in French), “Keep cool you sack of shit.”
    • Grandma said:
      • “Downstairs” instead of “below.”
      • “Already ready!”
      • “We shall see what will be” when referring to the future.
      • “It is something and something” when referring to a meal.
      • “It is something between the teeth” when referring to a snack.
      • “It makes life interesting” when referring to her increasingly immobile state.

Bern

I went to Bern to learn about Einstein. From 1903 to 1905, he lived there in a small apartment near the Zytglogge clock tower. These years are especially important because this was when Einstein wrote his most famous papers. You can even walk in the apartment where Einstein developed his Theory of Relativity.

Lucerne

During my stay in Switzerland, I also saw three other places worth mentioning. The first is Lucerne. I met a Swiss family there that offered to show me the city and give me a free bed. They showed me their family’s farm in the mountains. And the next morning back at the base of the mountain, they gave me a sack breakfast before I headed to Geneva to visit just a little, underground science project.

CERN

CERN is now a household name because it represents what’s possible through international cooperation. At CERN scientists are delving into some of the natural world’s most mysterious secrets. The research topics span nearly any physics buzzword you’ve heard recently: antimatter, Higgs boson, dark matter, big bang…etc. If investigating science is wonderful, then CERN is where the wonderers do the wondering…and the experimenting.

I scheduled a guided tour of the facilities. The tour started in the visitor center with a brief presentation and a Q&A session with a CERN engineer. Then we headed to the control room of the Large Hadron Collider’s ATLAS detector – the largest and most famous detector. Along the way, there were explanations, diagrams, and models of various LHC components. My brain never had to look far for new information.

It’s impossible to go down into the actual LHC chamber (radiation and cryogenic helium aren’t exactly human-friendly), so the tour instead takes you to CERN’s first particle accelerator. After it was decommissioned it was sealed with thick concrete and sat for decades to dissipate the harmful radiation. Now its radiation levels have dropped to acceptable levels, so tourists can gawk at the ancient machine.

Fun Fact: The inventor of the first circular particle accelerator, Ernest Lawrence, was born in Canton, South Dakota – just a ten-minute drive from where I was born.

In short, CERN and Switzerland are both amazing.