This past weekend Stephen and I had a well overdue get-out-of-London holiday. We ventured to Switzerland, land of cheese, chocolate, watches and army knives. It was also our first experience with a budget airline, which is like Megabus in the sky. You only get one piece of hand luggage and have to pay extra for everything — checked bags, food, newspapers — in other words, it’s like flying on an American airline except your plane ticket is really cheap (the cheapest expense of your trip, if you’re headed to Switzerland).
Since EasyJet is a budget airline, it only flies out of middle-of-nowhere London airports. I think it took us longer to get to Luton airport than it took to fly from London to Zurich. We thought we had plenty of time then ended up sprinting out of security for fear of the gate closing, only to find out a gate hadn’t been announced yet. Since EasyJet is no-frills, there are no seat assignments. You’ve seen how anxious people get to get on the airplane when they have an assigned seat, so imagine what it’s like when they don’t. It’s absolute chaos. China should never do open seating because people will die. Literally. We were at the head of the pack when we reached the gate, but then they made Stephen put his carry-on suitcase into the metal will-it-fit test. It did not fit. This is where EasyJet makes some easy money. If you check your bag online, it’s £9. If you check it at the desk at the airport, it’s £20. If you wait until you get to the gate, believing it to be the right size and it’s not, they charge you £30. They also make you wait until everyone has boarded the plane before you can pay for it. So I moved onto the holding area (I can’t call it a gate, there are no chairs or anything, just a big open space with dividers to separate the speedy pass people from the hoi polloi), while Stephen had to wait to pay and be the very last person to board. In the holding area, what started as a organized queue turned into pandemonium when the woman told us to move to the far side of the room so everyone could fit. People started pushing and scrambling to get the closest to the door. “Here we go,” said the guy behind me as the woman got ready to remove the divider and let us outside to board the plane. I felt like I was at the opening of Wal-Mart on Black Friday. “Run, Forest, run!” said the guy behind me as we all made a mad dash to the door. I managed to stay ahead of the pack and secured a window seat and had to continually tell people I was saving the seat next to me. EasyJet also seems to be perpetually 30 minutes behind, so the time you’re scheduled to take off is really when they begin boarding. I guess you get what you pay for. What matters is we eventually got there.
I made a rookie travel mistake on the trip: I went in with expectations. Several of my friends have visited Switzerland and went on about its jigsaw-puzzle-box beauty. We flew into Zurich and then planned to drive to Geneva, visit the auto show, then drive back to Zurich, stopping at Cailler chocolate factory on the way back. When I imagined the scenic drive between the two cities, I saw this in my head:
We could have been driving from Cincinnati to Charleston or Shanghai to Nantong. I was expecting snow-capped Alps, but instead there were a lot of tree-covered mountains, which are the worst type of mountains. We also had high hopes for Geneva. This city at the “foot of the Alps,” with the third-highest quality of life of any city in the world (Zurich is #2), had to be pretty awesome. Instead, to quote Stephen, it looked like 1972 China. Neither one of us were alive in 1972, but I know what he meant. There were a lot of old dirty buildings — the nasty, run-down old, not the historic landmark tourist spot old. Switzerland was letting us down. Plus, it was expensive. Geneva is the fifth most expensive city in the world and Zurich is #8. A Swiss franc is roughly equal to a US dollar. We got Japanese udon soup for dinner, a dish that usually costs around $5 to $8, some dumplings and water and a Coke and our bill was 80 francs. Nothing like a trip to Switzerland to make London seem affordable!
Just as we were about to curse the Swiss and their tree-mountains and 28 franc hamburgers, things got better. The Geneva Auto Show was spectacular — I have never seen so many cars and people in one place, and Stephen got to see world premiers of all his favorite exotic cars. We went into the historic center of Geneva to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where we got a beautiful view of the lake and city, which suddenly looked a lot less like 1972 China. Then we took a different interstate to the chocolate factory and I was able to see actual snow-covered mountains, which I unsuccessfully tried to photograph at 140 km an hour. And the chocolate factory was amazing. They had unlimited samples at the end, which I took full advantage of as my “lunch.” So in short (even though this entry has been anything but), we ended up having a great time in Switzerland, despite the outrageous food prices and lack of postcard scenery. I guess we need to head to Lucerne or smaller Alp villages to get the real prize-worthy snapshots, although we’d probably have language issues (which is material for my next post).