Tuesday, August 12, 2008

To America (Just Visiting)

A part of my ex-pat contract allows for me to return to the US once a year. Getting me to go back to the US isn't so hard. Getting the brood back is the hard part. Thankfully, the contract says that the family gets a trip home once a year, too. Stacy and the kids took advantage of that, and headed back to the US for a very short summer break.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Week in Saanen

As you may have known, I belong to the glider club in Bern, http://www.sgbern.ch. As you also may have known, the family was in the US for the whole month of July, and I was on business travel to Stockholm and Lithuania for the end of June, early July. Every year, the flying club packs up all their gliders and heads to this little town in the valleys in the southern part of Canton Bern, right on the border to Vaud. That town is Saanen.

The club relocated for four weeks. For three of those four weeks, I was unable to do any flying; being in Stockholm, Lithuania, or being the on-call Systems Administrator at work. During this hectic week of being on-call, I have no personal life whatsoever, and flying is out of the question. So without any ability to make good on the first three weeks of Saanen flying, I tried to cram it all into the last week. I took off a week from work and planned to become the expert Alp glider pilot.

Saturday: Rain. Stayed home and played video games.

Rain. Stayed home and played video games.

Rain, I made some Johannsbeeren Jam.

Tuesday: I show up at the field at 10:20. "Sorry, you had to attend the meeting at 9:30 to fly. Today there are not enough instructors anyway" I did not know about this rule, so I am both heartbroken and disappointed. I do not argue. I drive through Vaud to Fribourg via Gruyeres, and go to work. Too bad, because it was the perfect soaring day. I did my best to not look out the windows, and stayed late at work to avoid seeing the nice weather on the way home. I did manage to get some quality work done.

Show up at 9:30, just in time for the briefing. I would have shown up earlier, but had a tour bus in front of a line of mile's worth of frustrated traffic, all driving slower than they wanted. Once the tour bus stopped, the cars flew out in front of me and I did not see them again. At the field, I managed to get an instructor and fly. More on that in a moment. I took so many pictures that another camera battery ran out of charge. Unfortunately, I could take no more pictures. Fortunately, I got some stunning shots.

I brought along my camping equipment to spend the night. I pitched my tent, in apparently the wrong place, and got a serious yelling-at by one of the locals. Typical. No signs, No nothing. Just tribal knowledge that me, the dirty foreigner had no way of knowing. Sometimes I think this country is inhabited by noise-sensitive accountants. I walk with such soft steps around the Swiss, but always seem to anger them by something I did wrong. Whether its taking out the trash the wrong way, or pitching my tent in the wrong place; it doesn't seem to matter. This is one of the quite frustrating parts of the Swiss Experience. When I go back to America, I promise, I will be much nicer to the foreigners. (The yeller, a club member, later apologized).

The town of Saanen had a big party with beer, raclette and steak and lots of people enjoying themselves. Unfortunately, every time something cool like this happens, work calls. Even though I was no longer on call, I was asked to explain the otherwise unexplainable. I quickly inhaled my pork chop dinner, being greatful that I did not drink too much bear, and spent the next three hours on-line finding out why a.root-servers.net was doing a traffic spike. (That's one of the many things I do, figure out what caused DNS traffic spikes on VeriSign's root name servers).

Thursday: It rained. Again. I did not sleep particularly well, my make-shift pillow was highly unsatisfactory, and I never could get quite comfortable. The ran that fell on Thursday was the sort of long awful depressing rain that turns the most devout tea-totaler to a life of the bottle. Prior to my departure on Wednesday morning, I knew it was going to rain all day on Thursday, but I decided camping through the rain was necessary to flying on Friday. On Friday it would be impossible to be late and miss the morning briefing. Besides, what else was I going to do? Watch TV? Play video games? Go to work? My RC Helicopter was broken, so that wasn't going to entertain me.

While wasting time that rainy day, I ate lunch inside my favorite café in Saanen, looking at the drippy world outside. I later visited The Museum der Landshaft Saanen in the city center. The museum had lots of artifacts from the 18th and 19th century. Many artifacts of the pre-modern era, and it was clear that either those people had lots of religious icons, or the religious icons were more durable and tended to last a few centuries.

The night of camping with a sack of socks and underwear was not a suitable pillow, so part of my day's agenda was to go shopping for a pillow in Gstaad. I found a flowery pillow for the very reasonable price of 10 CHF in a froofy store selling lots of stuff with potpourri. My tent no longer smelled like stinky wet clothes but now smelled of stinky wet clothes and potpourri. Not too bad I guess.

Thursday evening had the Saanenlagerfest. The morning started out with a call for volunteers to snap the ends off of the 18 kilograms of green beans. I volunteered, and sat with 7 or so Swiss ladies in their 60s and 70s snapping or cutting away. They spoke Bärndütsch with each other until one said, "Oh You probably don't understand ANYTHING we are saying!" (in High German). I responded "Nit nüüt" ("Not nothing", in Bärndütsch, which, in case you're curious is "Nicht nichts" in High German).

As is typically the habit, people will be speaking Bärndütsch, and as they scan the room for feedback, once they notice I'm there, they quickly switch to High German. Invariably, three sentences later, they revert back to Bärndütsch without realizing it. Or it becomes a mix between High German, but uses many oops words that they don't realize are not High German. I don't mind. I have to learn it anyway, and it is more rude of me to expect that the whole region conform to my needs, than me to conform to their customs.

When the dinner was ready, the tables were set for us. Each place had a name tag in the form of a Post-It note. Mine was "Pit", which in Bärndütsch, you would pronounce like how you would normally pronounce Pete. If it was "Piet" Bärndütsch rules would dictate that it be pronounced like "PEE-yet." The Swiss always think it is strange when I introduce myself as "PEET", a name they are not familiar with. They expect the German pronounciation of "PAY-ter." The Bernese, and presumably other Swiss Germans like to mess up somebody's proper name to Swissify it. Peter is "Pesha" Kurt is "Kurtli," and so on.

All of the placemats were hand-made for this event. Each place-mat was a spread from the Swiss equivalent of Tiger Beat magazine. Why waste perfectly good paper for a disposable place mat? The corners were carefully cut round, and before dinner, there was a good conversation piece. My page was clearly from a teeny-girl magazine, and describe the different ways you could accessorize for events like "going on a Safari", or "going to the Jungle" or "going to the Beach."

Some of the people to the left had crossword puzzles. My flight instructor, "Pol" (Paul) had a biography of a very beautiful young woman, full-nude. Her particulars were protected with a half of a Post-It note and the word "Zensur" inscribed. I guess the Swiss equivalent of the Tiger Beat magazine has nudity, too. Europeans don't get so freaked out about these things. Everybody had a good laugh about it. The post-it note was flipped up many times. "So! Sy isch Brazillian!" one commented.

The food was excellent. I went back for seconds on the green-beans, but also enjoyed the other stuff that came along with the beans. There was this big hunk of wurst of some sort, dried pears and the dessert was a donated pair of cakes suitable to feed 40. This was a meal to remember!

Of course, the whole thing was in Bärndütsch, and I am really glad I decided to start taking lessons to learn this dialect starting around November of last year. I have finally cut the corner of comprehension, and can understand, for the most part, what the heck these people are talking about.

I'm getting better with this, and if I paid attention really closely, I could make out 70% of what they were saying. We went out for drinks afterwards. Ivan spoke of a tale of living in Thun. He spoke (in Bärndütsch) of people coming from all over Switzerland to a huge conference. The conference featured these people showing off their strange devices. I did not understand what this device was, and I did not interrupt. "there were green ones and big ones and awful ones and ugly ones" He went on for a while. "They were so proud of these awful machines." I smiled and nodded in that way of "I have no idea what you are talking about." I simply lacked the cultural reference to know what he was complaining about. The others at the table roared with laughter. OK, I was pretty left out.

Ivan (who speaks English quite well) stopped and saw I wasn't following, and filled me in with the information I was lacking, with a short lesson in English. Ivan was talking about a Barrel Organ, "Drehorgel" in German. Now I can only imagine how entertaining it must have been to see this conference, with all the goofy different Drehorgeln. After Ivan filled me in, I laughed the same volume and tone, only delayed by the required description of what a Drehorgel was.

Friday: The clouds were too low. The only instructor present at the field wanted to pack up his camper and head home. I packed up my junk and headed home. Finally, some replacement parts came for my broken helicopter, so I put them all together and did some flying for the first time in a month. In case you were curious, the replacement parts were for a broken the rotor hub and lost the fly-bar -- it separated in-flight and is lost in the rose garden somewhere, just before I headed off to Stockholm.

Saturday: No formal flying operations at Bern. Packing up all the junk at Saanen. I spent the day chatting with people in Bern, and had dinner with everybody at the party after the relocation to Saanen. While bored in the hangar, I sat in the cockpit of the DG-300 to get comfortable, and read through the glider's manual (all in German). The evening had a large dinner for a very reasonable price of 5 CHF (somebody donated lots of money to the cause). The food was excellent.

Sunday: I was the Barakenchef, and kept the clubhouse clean while nobody flew. The weather was marginal, and the clouds were gathering for a great storm. At the nearby Gurten mountain, there was a big concert forming. The chief of the days operations warned us sternly to avoid flying over the concert. Although the flight activity was minimal, I managed to convince the Chief Officer to let me do some flying. I got 3 flights in the DG-300. For this club, in order to solo any aircraft you need to have four familiarization flights. I managed to get out three of them.

The DG-300 is a very nice glider, no surprises, easy to fly, is quiet at high speeds, good balance between rudder and ailerons, although I had a tendency to skid. The seating was also quite comfortable. To demonstrate my precision landing ability, I had a hard time seeing the part of the grass field, which didn't help with my ability to prove the spot landings. The chalk and gravel has been overgrown by grass, and is impossible to see clearly on final approach. The third flight was a release at 250 meters on the downwind leg, and the rain was coming down hard as I landed. Operations were canceled for the day as a thunderstorm soon rolled in. We used old windshield wipers to clean off the rain from the wings.

Monday: On a plane to the USA, starting at 5:45 AM. My neighbor was very nice, and so nice that he volunteered to drive me to the airport so early.

Flying Report:
In total: 5 days leave from work, 1 flight in Saanen, lasting three hours. Three more flights in cloudy rainy weather in Bern totalling 41 minutes in total.

Was it worth it? Heck Yeah! Wait till you see the pictures!

View pictures in Map mode

I told my instructor "Pol" to give me a demonstration to flying in the Alps. We towed up to 1000 meters above the airport, to about 2000 meters above sea level. We held on a bit longer, towing up to about 2200 meters, before we let the towplane go. The turbulence was moderate right next to the moutain peaks on tow, but once we were off, things smoothed out.

We sniffed around for lift, but finally settled on a thermal that he was very familar with; that house-thermal that every local instructor knows about. In this case, it was not a house, but rather a restaurant at the top of a ski lift. During the winter, this ski lift would be filled with warmly-dressed skiiers enjoying a Latté on the top of the mountain. On that Wednesday, the ski lift was empty. Too bad, because the Latté drinkers would have gotten quite a show. We circled just upwind of the restaurant, and climbed well above the ridgeline within a few minutes.

We would head south to go see the other mountains near Gsteig more closely. With no lift there, we headed back to our faithful thermal over the Restaurant. We headed back over there a few times, and I even asked Pol to do some of the flying so I could get some pictures.

Of course, these photos don't do any justice to the actual views I experienced.

After about two and a half hours, Pol started craving a cigarette, I could tell. I warned him if I had it my way, we would be flying until sundown. We did a steep approach with a very strangely shaped pattern; a VERY LONG downwind leg, almost a 180 degree turn for a base leg, and a very LONG final approach, with deadly consequences if we landed short of the runway's edge.