Since I may well be the only person within the gravitational pull of this newspaper who has not been a regular international traveler in the past decade, I am somewhat reluctant to try to turn a six-day trip to Switzerland into a column.
But, assuming that at least some of you world travelers have not had the exquisite privilege of a full-body pat down by the TSA — as I did — I figure I might as well forge ahead.
Switzerland, no big deal for most of you. Certainly not for my two kids, the impetus for my trip, who were appearing with the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra at the Montreux Jazz Festival on the shores of Lake Geneva before heading out for six days and six more concerts in Italy. For the boys Montreux, Switzerland, was a nice destination to complement trips they have already made to China, Pearl Harbor, Disney World in Florida, Monterey, California, and several prior tours of Italy.
But for me, a guy who hasn’t left the North American continent since a three-week trip to Greece in 1972 to visit the families of some college roommates, this was a very big deal. I’m such a novice traveler that the first thing on my mind was security.
Anyone who has traveled abroad since September 11, 2001, will know all too well the ordeal of security check-ins, removing shoes, and subjecting yourself to full body electronic imaging systems. At Newark International I was the novice wearing the support bandage on my wobbly right knee. What I presumed were some plastic braces to provide a little extra stability showed up as metal.
As the alarm rang I was ushered off — still shoeless — to a private room with two TSA agents. As directed, I dropped my trousers so that one of them could fully inspect the knee brace, wiping it thoroughly with some sort of cloth pad that was then inserted in small machine that presumably could detect explosive material. He was satisfied and ready to send me back to my shoes, but his colleague reminded him of procedures: “It was metal, so we need to do a full pat-down.”
I will spare the details, other than one memorable quote that sounded like it had been crafted at some TSA sensitivity training session. “I am now going to search your legs approaching the torso. I want you to know that in the area of the torso I will use the back of my hand.” Put more simply: No grab-ass games from these guys. In truth, all the horror stories notwithstanding, the entire process was minimally invasive, and I would rather endure the pat-down than a system with no thorough checking.
Once on ground, I turned my attention to my new “socialist European” surroundings. Switzerland, of course, is not exactly socialist (if it were would Mitt Romney trust them with his hard-earned money?). But it’s enough “un-American” that tea party Congresswoman Michele Bachmann recently claimed Swiss citizenship (based on the fact that her husband is a Swiss citizen), but then renounced it two days later. Perhaps she had heard that the Swiss have one of those “socialized” medical insurance programs, one in which people are required to have insurance.
“European style socialism” notwithstanding, the Zurich Airport was akin to an American theme park. A sleek subway whisked you from the landing area to baggage and customs, with photos of the Swiss countryside flashing on the walls. From the big cities to the small towns, the hotels and restaurants boast every modern amenity — and a few that we in the United States still haven’t mastered. The eco-conscious Swiss have escalators that sit idling until you approach; lights that don’t turn on until you enter the room; toilets with two knobs for flushing, depending on the amount of water needed; signs urging you to throw the towels you use and need cleaned on the floor, leaving the others for the next day; and — my favorite in the Hotel Adler in the old city of Zurich — a card used for room entry that also fits in electronic holder that activates the lights. When you leave you take the card with you and automatically turn off all the lights.
The train ride from Zurich back to the airport left exactly on time, and arrived not a minute late. Even though the train wasn’t crowded, I noticed substantial construction along the way of what appeared to be new tracks. Construction was evident all over the country, with cranes towering over buildings that in the U.S. might instead be surrounded by scaffolding. In one town I noticed a Toyota pick-up truck, fitted out with a small-scale crane, lifting building supplies into a second-floor space above a narrow street.
It probably helps the Swiss economy mightily that the country doesn’t try to be the policeman of the world in two or three different far-flung battlefields at the same time.
Now back in the good ol’ U.S of A. (good, that is, if you don’t look too critically at the interior of the commuter rail car or the subway train), I’m looking forward to seeing the kids and their Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra play some more gigs: Princeton Shopping Center on Thursday, August 2; the Kennedy Center on Saturday, August 4; and the McCarter Theater block party on Wednesday, August 22.
I’ll be there. Hopefully no pat-downs will be needed.