Zermatt, Switzerland

In the tradition of this blog, I’m going to write about a trip that is completely out of season to the time of year this is posted: our Christmas holiday! This is one of several posts I’m planning to write about our trip to Switzerland and the UK this past December.

As usual, our adventures start with an idea by Mum. Zermatt, Switzerland, a picture postcard perfect village in the Alps, is where we were going, and we were going to see snowy mountains.

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Zermatt, Switzerland

Coming from Los Angeles, we packed all the warm gear we had (and bought more) – down jackets, snow boots, long johns, gloves, hats, scarves – and flew via Bournemouth, UK, where we collected Mum and my brother, to Geneva, Switzerland. It was then a two hour drive in the dark to Täsch, followed by a 20 minute train to Zermatt. Because Zermatt is small and car-free, we walked from the train station to the Hotel Butterfly.

Mum had been checking the webcam in Zermatt for about two months, hoping there was going to be snow in the village, but when we arrived there wasn’t even a snowflake.  This turned out to be a Good Thing, because it was already plenty cold enough.

The next morning we decided to go straight up in the cable car and see the Matterhorn. We walked through the village in -6C temperatures and before we’d gone more than ¼ mile the Matterhorn was right there!  While there were machines creating artificial snow on the lower slopes, we could see higher up there was plenty of real snow.

At the cable car terminus we each bought a return ticket for $100 USD (ouch!) to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise – the next mountain across from the Matterhorn – and got in line with approximately one million skiers to board a cable car. Luckily, the cars were only small, so we got one to ourselves, and soon we were climbing high into the mountains.

At the first station, the doors opened but we didn’t get out because we had a really good view of the Matterhorn from where we were sitting.  At the second (or was it the third?) station we had to change cable cars. This final cable car was absolutely packed with skiers. Then finally at 12,739 feet (8,338 meters) we were at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. We peeled away from the mass of skiers and went up to the viewing platform where it was frigid, but the views were spectacular.

It was crystal clear and the visibility must have been 50 miles. We could see the distant mountains, including Mt Blanc, clearly.

After admiring the view for a while we realized we were turning into icicles so we headed down along the long tunnel to the café. We warmed up in a patch of sun and had hot chocolates and coffee.

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Start of the ski run at Glacier Paradise

Since our extremely expensive cable car pass also gave us access to the “Glacier Palace”, we decided to check it out. The entrance was along a long tunnel that winded downhill straight into the glacier. The walls of the tunnel were made of hard ice. When we got to the bottom there were a wide range of ice sculptures on display and, strangely, an ice slide. It turned out the slide was not all that slippery unless you took a flying run at it… which of course, we did.

After satisfying ourselves we’d got our money’s worth, we went back in the cable car (empty this time!) to the mid-station. We had lunch and watched the skiers, then headed back down to Zermatt, running into a wedding on the way back to the hotel.

That evening we went for a walk around the village, comparing the price of glühwein at pretty much every bar in town (answer: they were all 6-10 Euros/glass). We eventually settled on a tiny bar that seated about 10 people, parked ourselves at the counter, and defrosted with 7 Euro glühwein. Then, thanks to my brother remembering to make a reservation, we had dinner at the Restaurant Whymper-Stube, named after the man who was the first to climb the Matterhorn.  This restaurant brings in the entire sitting at once, several times a night. Inside it was so hot that we had to strip down to our t-shirts. Dinner was excellent.

The next morning we left Zermatt (still no snow) then took a quick drive up to Verbier for lunch before Mum and my brother dropped us at the town of Montreux. Read more about that in my next post (coming soon!).

Snow, Massachusetts style

I started this piece on February 18th, 2014 and it’s now time to post it. I wanted a reminder of all the ‘fun’ of snow in Boston for when we’re no longer living here!

I’m writing this as snow is pouring, wait, is that the right word?  Does snow pour? Does it lash?  Whatever it does when it’s falling hard, that’s what it’s doing now.  It’s the third snowstorm for Boston in the space of a week, and frankly I’m getting a little sick of it.

Coming from two countries where snow is uncommon, I was captivated for the first winter. It was fun to see snow falling, to put on my snow boots and crunch through it, and to see the buildings and open spaces transformed.  In February 2013, when Boston had its snowpocalypse, two feet of snow fell.  Cars were buried, and you could sink up to your hips in the drifts by the side of the road.   It was very exciting for us Boston newbies.

Now, after suffering two Boston winters, I’ve noticed some customs and challenges Bostonians face when it’s snowing.

Firstly, The Weather gets top billing on the news. The Storm Team is there to tell you all about it, to show gratuitous images of cars slow-motion crashing, people with umbrellas tilted against the wind, and children sledding and making snowmen.  The forecasters can barely contain themselves as they give snow depth predictors and estimated length of the storm.  This occurs as soon as the word ‘snow’ features in the long range forecast.  “Are you sick of the snow? Well, there’s more on the way,” they say with glee. “Say it ain’t snow” was one of the more amusing headlines I saw.

Aside from entertaining weather reports, the main good thing about a snowstorm is the prospect of a snow-day.  The city managers will not hesitate to pull the shutters down on schools and offices if it looks remotely like the commute will be affected by the weather.  Native Bostonians seem to live for snow days and the school calendars have contingency for a certain number each year.

The next thing that happens when it snows is that everyone forgets how to drive. There are two types of drivers in the snow (not including the ones that refuse to drive).  There are the people who insist on going at 10 mph everywhere – the hybrid-car drivers, those without four-wheel drive, for example; and there are those who insist on still going at the speed-limit (+10 mph of course, this is Boston after all).  The latter group includes the larger vehicles: buses, trucks, articulated lorries, utes, and snowplows.  The faster drivers spray sheets of brown muddy slush into the windscreens of the slower drivers, and so the roads become a battle field.  Drivers in this state are not known as Massholes for nothing.

Bostonians also never clear their cars of snow.  It’s apparently illegal to drive with any snow on your car but that doesn’t stop locals only scraping off one half of their windscreen and part of the back window and driving around with inches of snow covering the rest of the car.  It’s common to see mail vans with six inches of snow on their roofs all winter.  It’s when the snow suddenly dislodges and falls into the path of the car behind that it gets interesting.  Massholes indeed.

There are rules in Boston and surrounds about clearing the snow in front of your property.  It has to be done within a few hours of the snow stopping or by lunchtime if it stops snowing overnight.  This highlights the next custom of Boston snow – the tools people use to move it. There are your standard snow-shovels – with a much bigger scoop than ordinary shovels, and often made of plastic.  There are your machines that suck up the snow and shoot it out of a funnel to the side.  There are the bobcat snowplows to clear long footpaths, and the machines that look like a roadsweeper with a brush from a carwash at the front, which somehow brushes the snow aside.

And then there are the snow-plows proper.

It never occurred to me that plowing the snow as it’s falling, rather than waiting for it to stop, was a good idea.  In Boston, the snowplows work continuously – once the snow is about an inch thick.  The snowplows are not necessarily custom vehicles; they are often just a ute with a plow on the front.  They race (see above) up and down the main streets, sometimes in convoys of up to three, pushing the snow to the side of the road.  You can easily find yourself under a shower of snow, slush and grit if you’re on the footpath when they go past.

Snowplows, while a great idea, have some drawbacks.  Because the road is covered in, well, snow, it’s impossible for the driver to see potholes, manhole covers and any other dints or uneven places in the road. This means unless the road is billiard table smooth (i.e. never in Boston), the plow blade regularly crashes through the tarmac.  You can hear the characteristic rumble of the plow approach – followed by a bang as it hits a bump.  As a consequence the roads are completely ruined each winter.  If you’re unlucky, like us, and live opposite a parking lot, you will also find yourself listening to a chorus of reversing-beeps day and night as the plow tries to get into every corner.

Which brings me onto the next challenge of snow: what happens when it melts.  The snow invariably starts melting to some extent within 48 hours of falling.  Puddles form in several places – in the aforementioned potholes, and in the places where it is backed up by drifts of snow, usually at dropped curbs. The drains of course are all covered with, you guessed it, snow.  So, great lakes form, and when I say lakes, I mean wide areas of slushy, wet, brown water that are impossible to jump and are at least calf-deep.  Snow boots or rain boots are essential.

When the potholes are full of water, walking on the footpath again becomes hazardous.  The roads are narrowed because of the snowdrifts, so cars often cannot avoid the potholes. If you see the characteristic brown spray pattern on the snowbank by the road you’d better wait for the cars to pass unless you want a brown-ice shower.

The sign that winter is nearly over can also be found in snow. According to a long-time Boston resident, when the Storm Team first get their snow prediction wrong – i.e. an anticipated snowpocalypse turns out to just be a light dusting – this is a sign the weather is improving.  Gradually the weather forecasters temper their enthusiasm for snow storms and before you know it, spring is on the way.

Thankfully we’ve had our first false-prediction of the season so I’m hoping winter will be over soon!

Snow day!

Work was closed today because of the snowstorm. In Cambridge it looks like we had about a foot of snow and it’s still coming down. I walked to Harvard Square in the afternoon and here’s what I saw.

2013 Resolution success – First YouTube upload

One of my resolutions in 2013 is to put a video on YouTube.

Today, using Windows Movie Maker and a couple of videos I took on my camera earlier this month, I have succeeded!  The video was taken on February 9, 2013 – the day after the Boston Snowpocalypse.  The snow was 2ft deep and the streets were filled with people digging out their cars.  It was an amazing sight.

Here it is:

“Doing YouTube” turned out to be a very simple process in the end.  Windows Movie Maker, which came with my computer (I assume) was very simple to use.  I was able to easily add the title and credits and could have done a fair bit of editing if I wanted to.  The hardest part was actually sorting out my logins to upload the video (which you can do direct from the Movie Maker program): my Google account was being so helpful and preventing this “suspicious sign-in”… plus I had to create a Google+ account.

So now I’ve done the first one, stand by for more, and better, videos in the future!