Palm trees line a turquoise lake, the sun shines over the mountains and there’s the gentle lilt of Italian in the air. Welcome to Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian canton.
Yesterday was a holiday. There were so many things we could do. We thought about going to Paris for the day, or maybe somewhere in Germany. Maybe stay closer to home and visit Schaffhausen, with its pretty old town and iconic Rhine Falls…
What we actually did, was go and watch a bunch of grown men hold onto one another’s shorts and try to flip each other like tortoises. Welcome to Schwingen, a national sport of Switzerland. I’m a bit unclear on the rules, but the idea seems to be to get your opponent on their back, with both shoulders on the floor, by twisting, pushing, wrestling, hugging or sitting on them. Each competitor wears a pair of breeches with a belt to help the other grip onto them and they employ all sorts of flips and trips to try to win.
It’s Bärlauch, or wild garlic, season and I am beyond excited. You can pick it up in the supermarkets, but it’s much more fun to don the wellies and head out into the woods to pick your own. Much like in the UK, the season runs from March to May, with the middle period yielding the best leaves.
You have to be careful that it’s wild garlic you are picking and not the poisonous and similar-looking Lily of the Valley, but if you can identify it, you can have a foragers field day. It grows everywhere here. We drove five minutes from Basel and were greeted by green carpets of the stuff. Restaurants pretty much serve nothing else at the moment, and everyone has a recipe or two they can recommend. It doesn’t keep that long, so follow the foragers rule of only taking what you need, give it a good wash and whip it up into a quick pesto (with parsley and parmesan), or fry it and serve it with olive oil over pasta.
Or the lack of them.
I genuinely like vegetables. And here you can get some lovely vegetables. Humorously shaped squash that would never make it onto the shelves in the UK. Beautiful tomatoes, fresh lettuce, juicy fruits, all proudly grown here and labelled Swiss. Just don’t try to eat them with your meal.
The side salad is officially NFI in Switzerland. Order a salad and it comes first. Order it at the same time as your meal and people look at you as if you asked to wear it as a hat. I ordered a salad alongside a pizza. The pizza arrived. I could see the salad. Sitting there. Waiting. And everyone ignored it.
I spent two years at school not learning German. I had two lessons a week in which I expressly tried my hardest not to remember a single word.
I didn’t like it (or I didn’t like the teacher); I preferred the romance and gallic sentimentality of French, where you could simply shrug a bit and put on an accent. German was all hard letters and aggressive punctuation. Who needs that anyway?
Me, it turns out. I’m pretty good at nodding and smiling – even laughing – at the right moments. But then the inevitable happens. Someone addresses something to you. It is immediately apparent that you have just been pretending for the last fifteen minutes. It’s awkward.
I will have been in Switzerland for six months tomorrow. This time last year I had no idea that this is where I would end up. It is an adventure. And like most adventures, it has its up and downs. Most days I love it, but there are times when I also hate it (sometimes simultaneously). I’m lonely, I’m bored, I miss MY life and the things I did that made me ME. Because whatever those seemingly seamless expats tell you, at first, it’s HARD. But, you know what? I think that’s ok.
You begin to notice it in summer. The sweet trills of a piccolo float through steep cobbled streets, drifting from an upper storey window and settling on the warm breeze. From another open pane, a different dancing tune begins, winding its way in and out of the initial Narnian notes pervading the summer air.
As summer fades into autumn and winter, groups of people start to meet in mysterious cellars across the city. Up to their elbows in glue, newspaper, paint and plaster, they design and create their costumes. 100 masks left to make; 80; 30; five… A year of preparation and planning for three days in Spring.
Basel does Fasnacht like nowhere else in Switzerland.