Have you ever tasted tear gas?
If you have to think about it, the answer is no, because if you have you do not
forget the taste of burning as you gasp for more of the foul tasting air.
Ironically we experienced it in Switzerland, the country known for non-
involvement in violent affairs.
While Sandra and I had travelled to the US before, this was our first truly
international trip and we were pretty excited to be going to the Silver Broom in Garmisch
Partkenkirchen, Germany. We decided to take some extra time and visit a few other
European countries, not knowing when or if we would get back to Europe.
Switzerland was a logical place since it was just a hop across the Alps from
southern Germany. That hop did have some interesting twists and turns as we made our
way through the Alps in a rented car. Our marriage has brought together one good driver,
and someone who can read a map without having to drive north so that it is correctly
oriented. So, Sandra did the driving while I made my best attempt to navigate. The
zigzagging mountain roads presented some challenges and tense moments, but after a
stop in St. Moritz we arrived in Lausanne.
This was 1982, a time before the Internet and online booking, before GPS, any
other navigational aid, or cell phones. It was a time when you prepared for a trip by
purchasing a travel book. The first one I bought was “Europe on Eight Dollars a Day”, a
revised version of a book first published in 1957 recommending ways to see Europe on
five bucks a day. Later I purchased another version that upped the amount to 12, or was it
15 bucks a day?
Our budget was not unlimited but we were past having to sleep on strangers’
couches and waiting at the backdoor of restaurants for handouts. The book did provide a
good list of must-see sites, and addresses for reasonably priced hotels. It was a bit of a
challenge to keep things within budget but certainly not at the level advised in the book.
We were shocked at prices in Switzerland, in 1982 two dollars was a lot for a cup
of coffee regardless of how strong it was.
The next thing that had an impact was the ability of nearly everyone to speak at
least three and often four languages; everyone spoke English and Swiss, most spoke
German, and many also spoke French. The ability of people in the service sector to
switch back and forth between the languages was impressive and left me feeling ill
prepared with a mastery of English and a solid background of High School German.
Sandra helped out with what I call cereal box French: that means she could read the
language if English was printed next to it—as on the back of cereal boxes at the time.
We had checked into our hotel in Lucerne and I did not want to waste my time
there; this is a feeling I still have though it was much stronger at the time. I do not believe
life happens in a hotel room. You are always much better off going for a walk to
experience the place where you are staying, and that is what we did. As we made our way
down one of the major streets we had the feeling that things were getting a bit uneasy.
Crowds were gathering and it was not long before there were people milling across the
whole width of the street. The police were coming up behind us and we could not
understand all the directions broadcast from the loudspeakers. A couple of loud pops and
the flavour of tear gas made the message clear, Disperse. We turned and retreated, I don’t
think we were in any real danger and it was not a violent mob, but the order was
unmistakable, such a mass of people gathering was not going to be tolerated and we
found our way back to the hotel much more quickly than we had ventured out.
The drive between Garmisch and Lucerne offered more than hairpin turns and
switchbacks. It took us through St. Moritz, birthplace of the Winter Olympics. We
stopped at several Winter Olympic sites, the proximity of which surprised me, but these
games were held at a time when most of the sports (even hockey) were played outdoors.
It was a time before billion dollars sites like Vancouver or resorts on the Black Sea were
considered. The games were held in places that could facilitate the sports of that time.
Each one of the four spots we visited: St. Moritz 1928, Garmisch PartenKirchen
1936, Cortina 1944 and 1956, and Innsbruck 1964 held a bit of magic for me.
Breakfast was included with all of our hotels, a practice we were not used to from
our travels in Canada and the US to that point. We could not help but be overwhelmed by
the amount of packaging that was included; it was always surprising to see the amount of
garbage left on our table after we finished breakfast. Now I am sure we have caught up
and it would not be a surprise at all, but in 1982 we were bowled over by all the little
packages required for two people to have toast and jam.
Besides being home to several Olympic sites, the area had more than its share of
castles and cathedrals. Suffice it to say that while the first couple of each of these had us
in awe, the magnetic spell soon passed as they fell into the category of ‘Another Castle’
or ‘Another Cathedral’ and we moved on.