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Hey everyone, it's me, Chris, and this is some more of
First of all, in my last message, I said I saw a 1 day old calf. Well, with 22 milk cows, apparently the new calf agenda is about twice per month. I got invited to witness the birth of one. That was a very fascinating thing. The mommy cow, Patricia, stood where she normally stands in her normal place - they don't typically move them to some special place. Anyway, Patricia didn't look too happy as she rocked back and forth and stamped her feet. Sometimes she'd lie down and then she'd stand back up. The labor process takes quite a few hours and for much of that, Susan's father, Edward, had to stand there and keep an eye on that. He came and fetched Hp and I when he felt that something interesting was about to happen.
So we waited maybe about 15 minutes and then Edward reaches into Patricia's calf factory and gets the feet aligned. It's bad karma if the feet don't point the right way. And after some more minutes, the feet made a fleeting appearance. At this time, Edward grabbed them and pulled them out a bit and then - here's the interesting part - put some special chains around the feet. These chains were just like the choker chains that you can get for a dog. He wrapped one of the calf's feet so that the chain would bind it tightly. Instead of a leash on the other end of the chain, there was an aluminum handle that could be slid up and down along the length of protruding chain.
At this point, it was apparent that this process was in the style of 2 steps forward, 1 step back, because the calf's feet and most of the chain disappeared again up to the handle on the chain. At this point, Edward would watch Patricia to see when she was pushing. When she was pushing, he would pull on the chains. That's what he said anyway; to me it was magic when he knew to pull. But sure enough, after a few rounds of this, more and more calf leg was coming out.
Then we got to the critical part. Apparently, once the head is out, the rest of the package must come out too, or the calf will suffocate or some other unpleasant thing. Well, it looked like a struggle to me, but I guess it went as smoothly as these things go. Edward was pulling like some kind of tug-of-war match, and finally, rather quickly even, the whole calf, popped out.
It looked like a big stuffed animal that one might win at a fair, but with half of the stuffing missing and soaking wet. And it's sides were working hard to take some dry breaths; I could hear it gurgle with each breath. Edward then wiped it down with hay (which seems to be a popular and relatively effective way to clean farm animals) and pulled it over to the the front of Patricia, where she could get at it. He then sprinkled salt all over it and Patricia went to work licking it.
Apparently a calf can stand up in 30min - 1/2 day. I saw this one up and about 2 days later. The calves get their own special area where they have a feeding tube that is (presumably) loaded with milk. And Patricia looked like any of the other cows 2 days later. Just munching away at the hay like nothing much had happened. That was her 6th calf, so maybe that was true.
So, that was interesting for me. I had never seen anything like that. And while it's easy to imagine the process hypothetically, it's quite interesting to know exactly how all the milk and beef we consume is created.
Well, then next interesting thing I could talk about would be Christmas, or Weihnacht as it is here. I guess that the most profound difference between here and the typical American Christmas is that it was more subtle. In the US, people start worrying (and that is the right word) about Christmas somewhere around, what?, July? anyway, way toooo early. Here they seemed to pay attention to it as needed only in the preceeding week.
It really seemed like January in the US. If you imagine the number of houses with Christmas lights up in the middle of January in the US, that's how many had them up here at all. Take all of the after Christmas sales and commercial promotions and that would equate well to the actual Christmas media and advertising attention. They didn't as a rule play Christmas music in the stores - the same surreal mix of disco, motown, MTV, etc, music as usual. In the USA, there is more than simple decrations, there is a complete transformation of the landscape. That really wasn't how it was here.
Of course, nothing much was open on Christmas (with one notable exception that I'll get to) and in this time in general. I got the feeling that many businesses and factories were closed from Christmas to New Year. I don't know how universal this is, but I got to tag along to pay visits to lots of various relatives.
Ok, here is what I found the most interesting about Christmas here. Many families - and I visited several - had a Christmas tree. Not reallly an American style one, but a little more Charlie Brownish, if you know what I mean. Anyway, that's probably a good thing that their trees were a bit "thinner" since they all seemed pretty aghast at the prospect of using electric lights. That's not a real Christmas tree - real Christmas trees use kerzli - real candles with real flames on them. Having come from the United States of Frivolous Law Suits, I was rather amazed and nervous about this practice. So it seems like most families had a little Christmas tree with real flaming candles stuck to it in some way. The report that I heard was that there was around 300 "incidents" involving Christmas related flame problems in Switzerland. I guess that's not too bad for a country of 6 million.
The nicest little detail about Christmas here is something I've never thought of and something that would surely be popular in the US - and maybe it is and I just don't know - they did a lot of decorating with one of my favorite temporary mediums, chocolate. So instead of those horrid "Precious Moments", plastic, Chinese, Christmas tree ornaments of baby's first diaper change at the McDonalds or whatever stupid theme they might have, why not just have some simple thing made of chocolate wrapped in foil and everyone's happy. We had some very nice little chocolate mice, for example.
One day shortly after Christmas, I was asked if I'd be willing to help with a farm project the next day. Well, of course! I'd be happy to help. So the next morning, I go out there and find out what my job was to be. They were interested in thinning the forest that is at the bottom of a big hill at the south edge of the farm. (I'll note here that I've been told that there are more trees in Switzerland than there were in 1850 - or something like that - anyway, these people had filled up their country long before there was a USA and I get the feeling that they are pretty good at resource management.)
So there was a tractor at the top of the hill with a huge drum winch attachted to it with a big hydraulic blade that it could dig into the ground to get some footing. At the bottom of the hill was the local tree cutting expert and Susan's dad, Edward. They would cut down a tree and hook up the cable to it and another guy at the top would operate the winch and tractor to pull it up to the top.
My job was to unhook the trees at the top and then hustle back down the hill with the cable over my shoulder for the next run. I guess when you have a little reputation as some sort of endurance athlete, these things happen. Anyway, this was relatively gruelling work. Of course, climbing up the hill was hard work - about like climbing stairs. And then pulling the cable back down the hill was usually even harder. The cable runs were from 70 to 200 meters (I'd guess).
I probably did this about 100 times in two consecutive days. These guys worked pretty hard - especially Edward, who was operating his own tractor and winch at the bottom of the hill to help guide the tree out. His runs were much shorter than mine, but he was doing the whole routine by himself too - hook up, back to the tractor, pull the tree, back down to the tree, unhook, hook up main cable, etc. So, anyway, they really didn't take any significant breaks for about 3 consecutive hours, and then at exactly noon- they all stopped and we went to the main house for lunch. Wow, hard working guys eat really well here. I felt like Harrison Ford in Witness during the barn raising scene. And then back out for more work, and then back inside for more good food.
So, despite being EXTREMELY hard work, I enjoyed it and considered it one of the highlight experiences. I never get the idea that I'd want to make a career out of hard work, but I always find it interesting to work closely with the people who really are doing the tough jobs every once in a while.
So I was using Urs' skis and boots, etc, and I skiied down the north hill right in front of the house. This was fine and dandy, even with no good base, but the yucky part was comming back up the hill. Well hiking up snowy /muddy hills in skiboots gets old real quick and I was only good for about 5 runs.
I'll mention that when Susan was younger, she was, apparently, quite a promising racing skier. Her dad really encouraged her to pursue that. They even had a rope lift here for a while. That would be pretty nice. So anyway, this family seems pretty serious about skiing.
So that was fine skiing here on the farm, but obviously left something to be desired. I did find out that Urs' skis were just fine for me. On Christmas day, Susan, Hp and I loaded up Edward's car and headed for altitude. It had actually snowed quite a bit around Christmas and there was good snow on the farm and great snow higher in the mountains. We went to a place called Sörenberg. The snow was fantasic, the weather was perfect - being early in the season, the sun didn't even come up over the mountains much which my skin was happy about. Everything was perfect. I had a great time and there's not much more to say about skiing- you either know the drug or you don't.
And then, after the logging experience, Urs invited me to go to another place, Andermatt. This was near the Gottard pass and near the Italian speaking region of Switzerland. The snow conditions weren't as good here as they were on the Christmas day outing, but the skiing was still incredible and here the mountain views were even more awesome. There were 2 very long gondola rides up to the very top. These big gondolas carried 60 and 80 people and would swing quite energetically after hitting a tower that changed the cable's pitch.
Most of the ski area was well groomed and had decent snow, but if you chose to ski down the precipitously difficult run back down to the base level, there were some challenges. At the lower elevation, the snow was not as good and since this last run was so steep, much of the snow was missing. There were big rocks and grass and patches of ice. Quite an exciting conclusion. I managed to make it down in one piece and I was quite proud of that.
About a week ago, Urs' wife Marlis said that there was a strong possibility that I would be welcome (or tolerated, at least) to accompany her brother on a driving trip to central Italy. And sure enough, that came to pass and at 01:30 in the morning on Friday, Marlis' brother, Franz was ready to go. (Franz is pronouced just like the country between Germany and Spain. - well, if you're English.) Why so horrifically early? Well, we apparently had a tight schedule. So off we went. Franz, by the way, doesn't speak English at all, so that was fun. My German speaking skills were going to get a real workout.
The Swiss have some really fine tunnels. There is a 9 km one along the Vierwaldstattersee (the Lake that Luzern is on) and then we went through the famous Gottard tunnel - 16 km. That's 10 miles of tunnel! And those were just some of the highlight tunnels - there are tunnels all over the place. It's neat to see a house perched on the hillside right over a freeway tunnel entrance. And speaking of that sort of thing, the Swiss seem to have no fear about building on ridiculously steep hills. There are little houses carefully placed all over almost all of the mountainsides. Sometimes there would be a church way up on the side of a mountain that was lit up brigtly - very neat.
Then we got to the Italian border and just like getting to the Mexican border from the US, there weren't really any restrictions in that direction. The next interesting thing was that I was reminded of Chicago - for 2 reasons. 1. There were toll booths. and 2. There were restaurants built on bridges over the autostrade (freeway). Chicago, of course, has toll booths everytime you lose sight of the last one, and I remember seeing those freeway restaurants there too. That theme kept developing really. I have never seen a Europe that was so American as the freeways in Italy. The crappy freeway around Milan could easily have been I-275. The strip malls and real malls were there too in the cities. Big neon signs and a ridiculous amount of billboards (that is, about half as many as the US has.)
And English is cool here too. One big factory or shop or whatever it was had a huge lit sign announcing to the world, "Mister Baby". I had to laugh when I saw that - that's "Mister Baby" to you. But I will say this - they did play songs on the radio that were in genuine Italian. Some other notable big signs that I can remember were Gucci in Milan and about 3 American drug companies, Parke-Davis and some others.
Unfortunately, in addition to being the deep middle of the night, it was also foggy - and I kept seeing signs that mentioned nebbia which I wondered if that was related to the German word Nebel= fog - yup, as it turns out. Anyway, I got to drive - that was part of how I was going to be helpful. I haven't driven in a year and I have driven maybe 50 miles in 2 years. So it was quite, uh, exciting, to find myself driving a stickshift through tiny Italian streets with lot's of cars driven by insane people.
Yes, we got off of the freeway in the morning and started to hunt for the place that we were looking for. It was in the mountains around Sienna. There I was able to see some of the countryside and small towns. Very nice looking in that Mediterrainian way. Somehow, we took a wrong turn - wait a minute! That's no mystery - we took a wrong turn because neither of us spoke a shred of Italian and the map that was faxed to Franz looked like it had gone through the washing machine. So I found myself going down a little oneway street (I had no clue what the signage for one-way was like - and that's sort of important) along with zillions of "late-for-work" Italians. It was like exiting off of I-71 to Marburg just before 1st shift starts at Milacron. So I drove around clueless for a while and then we were back on track. The roads were very twisty and the terrain was very rough. I was taking it easy so as not to roll the car over, etc. When we switched agian, I realized that Franz didn't really have that fear and he was driving like a Dennis.
We were in the right area and we were a bit confused - this would be like finding Dennis' grandmother's house deep in the Smokey mountains. So Franz stops at this ancient looking village (I guess it was genuinely ancient). He goes into a store to ask directions. I'm thinking - you're crazy! Are you hoping to communcate with telepathy? Well, he seemed to sort of figure it out somehow and on we went. He stopped again to ask a guy who had about 50 sheep and/or goats in the road and this guy's response was quite comical. He seemed nice and helpful, but the funny part was how much he was gesturing and being dramatic. It looked like he was playing tennis or something. And I didn't understand a damn thing he said except for duo and tre (2 and 3), but Franz was undaunted and we then proceeded to find the place with relatively little trouble.
So what were we doing? Well, to the best of my limited knowledge, Franz is a landscaper. He specializes in ponds. This property was the summer home of some Swiss guy and this guy wanted a pond. The property was spectacular. There were olive trees and some fruit trees etc. There was the main house which was a fabulous piece of work. Apparently, the rich Swiss guy bought it in a state of ruins and then had it rebuilt to be very nice and modern while preserving the authenticity of it. There was a small house nearby where another Swiss couple lived full-time and attended the place in the absence of the prime owner. So anyway, there was the couple that lived there full time- then later, a Mercedes mini-van (yes, I smirked) shows up with the main owner, his wife, and his architect and his wife and kid. And basically, they spent the whole morning wandering around the property talking about the pond.
When we left Switzerland, it was probably about 50F or so - pretty mild. I was thinking that 700km south (where they grow oranges and kiwis) that it would be warmer than freezing cold - wrong. It was freezing cold. So when we all went inside for lunch, I was somewhat relieved - until I realized that we were all going to crowd into the room with the lit woodstove (the kitchen) and eat lunch. The problem...smokers...3 of the 8 adults were chain smokers. I was definitely a very extended guest and I had to be a good boy, but it was a LONG day in that room. Finally, after lunch- a LONG lunch, they realized that there wasn't much daylight left and they needed to get busy. So back outside again - ahhh - and they went about surveying the potential pond site.
I sort of got the feeling that they thought that I was just a retarded guy (and in German, they wouldn't be far off the mark), so it was kind of frustrating to see them go about planning this rectangular concrete hole in the ground - something I'm somewhat experienced in. Anyway, I do know that in surveying, there is a guy who holds the bar and that is rather an easy job. So I think I managed to make myself slightly useful. I think there would have been a major philosophy problem anyway. My strategy for such a project would have been to figure out exactly what information I needed and then to systematically gather it. I would then use that information (back at the lab) to plan and design the installation. They seemed to want to design it right on the spot and then measure it. For something as mission critical as a garden pond, I guess their method would be more effective.
Another very frustrating thing about the surveying exercise is that they spoke only Swiss-German, of course. I find that the numbers are very difficult to understand. For example, "drew-dreesk" is 33. In real German, it is "dry und dry-sig". You may think that sounds close enough to understand, but imagine lots of numbers flying by (decimal points replaced with kommas, don't forget) and it is absolutely incomprehensible. In fact, Swiss German is really like that in its entirity. The only difference between Swiss German and Dutch, for example, is that the Swiss don't ever write any of thier own language down - they use real German - but it sounds as different, and it is as different. I would really, really appreciate a book that specifically helps English speakers learn Swiss. Not German - that's not what's spoken here.
So that was done and we had some more time back in the little room with some more smoking - this time the architect who smoked the foulest cigs sat right next to me. Gulp. The architect didn't seem to speak any English at all. I got the feeling that the women and the guy who lives there could speak English like I speak French - but they didn't. But the owner of the spread could speak English and boy oh boy, did he want me and everyone else there to know it. And when some Italian guys (who were to do the excavating) showed up, he wanted us all to know how well he spoke Italian. Ok, that's how it seemed to me. Apparently, he was a university professor of insurance. Ya, that sounds weird, but you have to figure, that someone is an academic expert on that and wealth is a natural byproduct.
It was just odd how he spoke English to me when we were "introduced" and then he pretty much just summarized how well he could speak English - ie, nothing helpful in the capacity of a translator and no real interest in me as an interesting person (like "So what's an American doing in the middle of Swizerland and/or Italy?") And then absolutely no English or even any attention from him again until he just turned to me and repeated something he had just told the others (which ironically, I understood just fine) - he wanted me to know that he had a busy schedule and that he was going to be travelling to Belguim et al, on the following day. Weird. And that was it from him in several hours of being around him. Ah...when egos clash...
And then, while I was thanking Gott, they all piled into the double dollar minivan and off they went. I went back to the room in the main house that we had been alloted which had a woodstove going and read (in German) the Michelin tour book for Firenze. We then got invited to eat dinner with the Swiss couple that lived there permanently. They were much nicer and took the little bit of effort to figure out what my situation was. I was speaking German and I seemed to be able to make myself understood. And we were in a bigger room and their cigs weren't nearly as foul as the architect's. So that was interesting. I hadn't slept in over 24 hours and I was a wee bit tired. So when we did finally go to bed, I was dead.
And then we got up at 5:30 and took off again. Franz lost 10000 lire in a cash pay-at-the-pump - I'm bad luck for that; S&Hp lost some money at a pay-at-the-pump while with me too. I think that 10000 lire is about 12 cents or something. No I'm just kidding, but they have some serious problems with thier money. And the weather was a bit better on the way back. The visibility was good so Franz had no trouble driving at about 100 mph for much of the way. When I drove, I was doing about 80. The incredible thing is that there are cars on the Italian freeways going well over 100mph. I know that at least 10 cars passed us at greater than 200kmph (120mph). Crazy. Any time I'd pass someone (doing 90mph) a Porche would instantly materialize behind me and flash it's lights.
And we had no problem at the Swiss border. They pull everybody over for a quick interview, but it seemed to be the same questions they asked at the Canadian border - do you have and drugs, weapons, or unpleasnt stuff like that? In general, are you a jerk? No, ok, have a nice day. And so we made it safely back to the farm and the tranquility of rural Canton Luzern.
And what else have I been doing? I've had two concurrent projects that have just about been completed. The first is my résumé. This might not seem like a big deal to some people, but I have never really needed a resumé and trying to explain why I'm a valuable guy on one piece of paper (even A4 paper) isn't an especially easy trick. And to compound the problem (which is my real specialty - compounding problems) I, of course, can in good concience, use only open-source free software to prepare this silly document. The truly elevated masters of computer science disdain altogether the use of any paper ever. But this seems like one of those times where it might be worth my while to visit reality.
So I found a utility that is massive in scope that was designed to accomodate typsetting books and technical documentation such as scientific journal submissions. And learning that enough for it to do my bidding was a challenge. And then the actual act of compiling my resumé was no easy feat. I am still not delighted with it, but at this point, it would serve the purpose. I think a near future project will be a proper resumé, that is a hypertext, online one.
The other computer project is related to the big picture project that I intended to work on while I was here. The specific sub-project for my visit here was to thoroughly learn and practice using the C programming language - which at this point I know about as well as German; there's a lot of room for improvement. But I have had some trouble getting this project off the ground. My compiler, in the classic Unix tradition, is wildly complex and difficult to master. I had been unable to even compile very simple programs (ok, programs with any .h library such as stdio.h and math.h - very important). I have spent about 2 weeks doing exhaustive and exhausting research into the inner workings of my compiler's command line options. And after two weeks, I have finally found the problem. It turns out that instead of this "cc program.c", I needed to say this "cc -lm program.c". Oh, sure, of course, duh!
Anyway, I am now progressing at full speed. I have already cranked through 10% of the C book that I brought with me - that I spent months selecting in the US. So that's going well now and I hope to have some more significant accomplishments in this area soon. Hopefully the weather will cooperate and turn crappy so I can stay inside and work without feeling totally foolish for letting such beautiful days slip by with out some outdoor activity.
So that's what I've been up to. Still fantastic. Still a wonderful experience that I am constantly thankful to have. Everyone's still extremely nice and I like it more and more here as I learn more and more about the place. I guess that's all, folks.
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|Chris X. Edwards ~ February 1999|