Saturday, June 20, 2009

Konstance to Arbon

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Konstanz to Arbon

During the night I realized that Charles had Bronchitis. He kept our Syrian roommate up until dawn with the coughing. I was fortunate to be traveling with earplugs and slept like the dead. In the morning, the Syrian guy was extremely understanding but I was somewhat unnerved. The last thing I wanted was to be half way up a mountain with Charles falling apart.

"You're actually going to hike the Alps with bronchitis?" I asked him as he pulled on his socks in the white-washed bunk room.

"Don't worry," he said. "Alpine air cures anything."

It was impossible sometimes to tell when he was being ironic. And deep down I wanted him to hike, regardless. I guess that's why his mother calls me Doctor Death. When it comes to danger, I don't do a very good job dissuading Charles. I made one more half-hearted attempt and then, with a resigned shrug, I dropped the subject.

We had read that we "wouldn't want to miss the breakfast" so it was with no little anticipation that we entered the dining room that morning. What we found was not bad (brie, baguettes, jam, coffee) but certainly not praiseworthy. By North American standards it was the bare minimum. Later, once we had experienced Swiss prices, we concluded that the main reason we "wouldn't want to miss" a free breakfast was not the quality but the affordability. As for the service, it was just about what we were beginning to expect in Zurich. When Charles asked for more hot water in the carafe, the woman at the counter flew into an apoplectic rage. We both agreed that it was high time we left. I stealthily pocketed a baguette and some cheese then we headed for the train.

In the first installment of this serial I detailed several other unfortunate incidents involving Zurich natives. So, before going any further, I want to dispel any notion that I might hold a grudge against the Swiss. I do not. Some of the nicest people I know are Swiss. I am only telling it like it was. Although our troubles were far from over, the further we got from the city the more the people seemed to brighten up.

The Zurich natives, Zurichians if you will, are of a temperament altogether different from the the ordinary Swiss -- except that all Swiss seem to share a deep yearning for the outdoors. While walking back to the train station (no more taxis for us) we noticed a city park full of camping youths. Shabby, hung over, and possibly homeless they were just beginning to crawl out of sleeping bags and tents. Their existence was in stark contrast to the cleanliness of the streets and the orderliness of the architecture. Even so, they were not living in cardboard boxes. It was as if everyone in the city were, in one way or another, grudgingly making the best of what they considered to be a very bad lot. You had to feel a little sorry for them. So close to the mountains and yet so very far away. Even the poorest were pining for the fields, so to speak.

We were later informed that Zurichians are considered terribly rude by their pastoral cousins. Those from outside the city would shake their heads and "tut" when I told them about our first few hours in Switzerland. "Yes, they make a very bad impression on visitors." they would say. Apparently Zurichians are the "rude New Yorkers" of Switzerland.

Glad to be on the move again, we walked back to the train station and grabbed the first train to Konstanz, Germany. Konstanz (also Constance) is a small lake-side city that that shares no land border with the rest of Germany. It should, by proximity, belong to Switzerland. It is so much a part of that country, in fact, that it never had to worry about Allied bombing raids during the Second World War.

Disembarking at the station, we began looking for signs of the trail head. It proved surprisingly difficult to locate. Asking around, nobody seemed to know that there were any hiking trails at all. We were the only hikers in sight and, if Charles had not assured me to the contrary, I might have begun to wonder if we were in the right town. We finally found the marker in a small park. There, by an unremarkable stone tablet, we took our first official steps on our trekking adventure.

It was a very short walk back to the border of Switzerland. In fact, we had only just crossed into Germany on the train a few minutes before. But crossing borders never loses its appeal, even when done repeatedly. Just hopping back and forth over a border can keep me amused for a surprisingly long time. As it turned out, the border guards couldn't even muster the energy to shoo us along. Charles walked right past the booth without even a glance. I, with my enthusiasm for borders, insisted on getting my passport stamped. Once I caught their attention, the border patrol began to show a great interest in me. Note to self, don't talk to any more heavily armed teenagers.

After a few tense moments and a passport stamp, we were again skirting the south western border of Bodensee. AKA Lake Constance, this beautiful spot is a haven for sun-bathers and fresh-water enthusiasts. It is not quite so refreshing for hikers. The hiking trail, sometimes gravel, sometimes sidewalk, shares its purpose with a constant stream of bicyclists. At first we thought everyone was just saying "hi" is Switzerdeutsch, but we soon realized that the hoots and hollers meant "get off our path!"

The day was hot and we could feel it through the soles of our shoes. We had decided to do the 50 kilometer Bodensee stretch in order to say we had hiked all the way from the trail head. This purism would later draw baffled looks from our fellow hikers, and for good reason. There was nothing remotely mountainous or even trail-like about this stretch. Instead we faced miles of sidewalks and gravel paths, and any hiker will tell you that this is terrible for the feet.

By noon we were both hurting. Charles' cough sounded terrible and he had blisters from the heat. I had sore shoulders and a throbbing hip. Over a trail-side lunch of flattened baguette and lukewarm brie, we decided reluctantly to soldier on, preferring to get the lake behind us as quickly as possible. Charles had forgotten his hiking poles on the train in Konstanze and was missing them badly. Later this mishap would save his life but right now it seemed likely to cost us the hike. I didn't yet own poles but had decided to buy some at the first opportunity.

I can now only wonder at the figures we cut as we shuffled past trailer-camper families in their Speedo bathing suits. Between Charles, with his hacking cough, and myself in trousers and long-sleeves -- both of us carrying 40-pound packs, it is no wonder that we attracted some peculiar looks. But this was my first real hike, and only Charles' second. We were on a steep learning curve that we looked forward to leaving behind.

After 29 kilometers, while passing a picnicking area in the town of Arbon, Charles announced that he couldn't go any further. As if to punctuate this statement, he sat on a picnic bench and fell over backwards... not once but twice. The first time he drew gasps from the nearby sunbathers. The second time he actually drew applause. In Charles' defense, the bench was missing a leg. We were just too tired to notice.

We took off our packs and hobbled over to the snack bar. I got a Coke and Charles bought a Swiss "sports drink", an effervescent concoction with the great taste of sour milk. It was this horrible beverage, and Charles' reaction to it, that got us a room for the night. While he was choking it down, I noticed a middle aged couple watching in amusement. They had, no doubt, seen our slapstick entry and were enjoying the continued performance. Margrith and Rudi were their names and they were a Godsend. We had only chatted for a few minutes, in blessed old English, before they invited us to stay the night at their home.

They left us sitting on our bench and biked off to retrieve their car.

I was skeptical that Rudi would return but he did. In minutes we were swept off the street and into the comfortable bungalo of this kindly Swiss couple. The livingroom was done in rustic Swiss fashion: leather, exposed wood, and fur. Rudi explained that they were, themselves, hikers. They understood our predicament and were thrilled to be able to help us out. Margrith, nestled under what appeared to be a wolf-skin rug, talked about their son who was off at college. He was a hiker, too, and they looked forward to his visits, often traveling to the mountains as a family. It was an enjoyable evening, with a dinner of cold cuts, cheese and Swiss beer interspersed with light conversation.

After showers and foot-repair we crawled into bed -- together. There was only one bed. Ordinarily it would have been awkward, Charles being well over six feet tall. As it was, we were too tired to care. I don't even remember Charles coughing that night but he must have been. The next day his bronchitis was even worse.

Next week
Into the Foothills>>

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