Switzerland

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The weekend after Italy, and before finals, I journeyed to
Switzerland in a solo, last-ditch effort to see the Alps. 

The fact that I cannot
ski or snowboard was a big bummer. The first big snow had been the day before, making this the
first official weekend the slopes were open — which only magnified my disappointment. It just so happened
that the mountain pass I chose to hike, Grindelwald, was also an extremely
popular series of slopes. Therefore, the train ascending the Alps was full of Swiss winter enthusiasts,
all ready for a day on the mountain. All self-pity aside, the view was absolutely magnificent as the train
snaked up the mountain.

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Throughout the hour
train ride, I gazed out the window, assuring myself that just seeing the Alps
was a privilege, and that I would return one day, in better health to conquer
(“survive” is probably more realistic) the slopes. Disembarking, I followed the athletes up through the town
nestled between two large mountain ridges. After questioning what appeared to be the town alcoholic
where I should hike, he explained that none of the trails would be cleared,
between sips of his rum and coke (10:30 a.m.).  

The road continued up,
and so did I, winding through sleepy suburbs of the classic Swiss lodge-like homes. The view only improved as I
trudged up past families skiing through the streets, towards town. Reaching a miniature plateau, I took in
the sweeping panorama while consuming my very Swiss lunch, which consisted of a
cubed meat and cheese salad, an apple, carbonated water, and a Twix bar.

The way down presented challenges, as it was much steeper than I remembered, and quite icy. Burdened with my backpack full of possessions for the weekend, and with Nike’s on my feet (great traction), I was having trouble staying on my feet.  I slipped a half-dozen times, managing to catch myself just before I ended up on my rump, which provided grand entertainment for the Swiss driving past me, particularly after my “I’m alright” wave. These self-esteem sapping events eventually elicited a functional epiphany. Why not stop fighting the elements and use them to my advantage? The rest of the way down, I would push off and slide a few meters at a time, with my feet positioned as if I were snowboarding. Very effective, and certainly more fun than the alternative.

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While I had managed to
buy my ticket to the Geneva vs. Bienne Biel hockey game, I had not yet booked a
hostel in Geneva. The desire to
sleep indoors, and not outside in the elements, served as my motivation to get
to Geneva before dark. Being the
loyal customer I am, I found a sister hostel to the Interlaken chain and grudgingly
paid the nightly rate, which is twice as high in Switzerland than any other
country I had already visited. Keep that in mind.

Waiting in line at the
Patonoire Palace (thanks France), I noticed that the guy behind me was wearing
a Blackhawks hat. Of course, I
asked him about it and we got to talking. Once Vladimir heard I was planning on sitting in the visitor’s section,
he insisted that I join him and his brother in the first row of the Geneva student section.  How could I decline? 

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Shortly thereafter, he
introduced me to his buddies, and I was a part of it all. Allow me to explain. Swiss hockey games are still hockey,
but they have some crucial differences.

1. Team’s logos aren’t
just represented by an enthusiastic super fan dressed in a stifling suit—they
use the real thing too. Before the
game Geneva released a bald eagle that flew across the rink.

2. Following the European
fútbol model, fans have actual chants and songs that occur throughout most of
the game, led by a student with a bullhorn. Flags, scarves and banners are abundant in the student
section. Students pay 100 francs
for an entire season worth of home games, creating a loyal and youthful fan
base. Perhaps, something to
ponder, Mr. Bettman and NHL owners.

3.  The leading scorer on
each team wears a yellow helmet and a jersey with flames to mark him as
dangerous… awfully similar to the videogame NHL Hitz if you ask me!

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Seeing Patrick Kane, a
Chicago Blackhawk, skate in a European atmosphere was surreal, even if his team
(Bienne-Biel) was the away squad: and I had been roped into cheering for the
home team. I could have sworn that
Patrick and I made eye contact after a whistle. He had just made two Geneva players look silly at center ice
and had proceeded to carry the puck into the offensive zone, setting up a teammate
for a shot. It was as if he was
looking for an imaginary pat on the back, with his “did you see that?!” double nod. From a purely logical standpoint, he must have seen the only American in the house
frantically waving a #88 Hawks jersey in the first row of the opposing
fan section. 

With only 3 minutes
left, the chants became more enthusiastic, as victory became imminent for host Geneva. A Bienne-Biel shot deflected over the
glass and into the protective netting in front of us, falling between the
boards and the railing that held the student section back. My friend Vladimir turned to me and
frantically asked me if I would like to have the puck. I nodded my head yes and watched dumbfounded, as he hopped the railing, sprinted the 10 meters, snatched the puck, and
hurriedly jumped back over into the safety of the crowd, moments before the
security guard could intervene. Smiling, he deposited the puck into my hand and wished me a Merry
Christmas, as students crowded in to get a glance at the already infamous puck.

After the game, my
Swiss buddies continued their hospitality, asking the same security guard how
long it would take for the visiting players to board the buses, and offering to
wait with me for the chance to meet Kane. Considering the wait could be as long as two hours (and how cold Swiss
nights were), I declined to their relief. 

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Despite it being
finals week for them too, they showed me around town, offering me bits of
history and explaining the festival that was currently taking place. After an hour or two of show and tell,
they insisted that I not walk home alone, for fear a group of “Frenchies” would
pounce on the American tourist. Apparently the steep nightly rate did not encompass a safe surrounding
neighborhood. In a group of five,
we walked safely past some loitering “Frenchies,” and Nic flagged down a cab
for me.  Exchanging goodbyes, both
Chris and Nic extended an invitation to stay with their families the next time
I was in Geneva, with plans to lace up and take the ice together. Until next time, Switzerland!

-Steven