Thursday, October 23, 2008

My Daily Commute (by Train)

Many people in Virginia ask me, "What's it like in Switzerland?"

That is a huge question to answer. So I can break it out into small chunks. How about I describe my commute? Yes? Ok.

Northern Virginians can talk long and passionately about traffic. In Northern Virginia, the population has exploded in the past 2 decades, and the roads have not expanded to meet the challenges of the increased population. The state government in Richmond gladly takes the increased revenue from the growing economy of Northern Virginia, and promptly redistributes this wealth immediately to the impoverished back-water sections of Virginia. Thus, the life of a Northern Virginian can be described as "brief periods of life separated by long hours in traffic. "

There are days when I feel like my life in Switzerland could be described as "memorable periods of life separated by long hours on the train." This is mostly because I live in Bern, and work in Fribourg, and I hardly ever get the joy of driving to work. This would be a commute that most Northern Virginians would reply, "Your commute is 36 minutes by car with no traffic? That's pretty good! I wish I could do that."

Depending on the day and my mood, my commute could consist of many combinations of walk, tram, train, bus, walk; in that order.   I can be enthusiastic about this daily ritual, but after too many days of doing it, it starts to wear thin on me.  I really would like to live 10 minutes from the office for once in my life.  I haven't had such convenience since I lived in South Riding and worked in Chantilly. 

One day in the middle of September, I took along my camera, and documented all the steps along the way.  This was a day when I got out on time, but spent too much time goofing off and taking pictures for your benefit, so my timing on all the connections got messed up.   Let's start. 

I recommend you read through the timeline, then watch the slide show in full screen mode.  There is also a map showing where I took all my pictures along the way, if that can help you visualize. 

7:55.  I have to promptly leave the house at 7:55.  If I leave just a minute later, I jeopadize making the train in Gümligen.  One cool thing about the trains being nearly always on time, is I learn how to cut it close.  If I leave any later, I have to bike to work, or take the tram.  I prefer to have the 30 minute walk along the top of the hill, it is much more scenic, and I get a good bit of exercise, a little time to clear my mind and prepare for the day ahead.  My office has a competition where we track the number of miles we walk, and I have logged over 250 miles since we started in August. 

The trip starts out in a small patch of forest, and has me head uphill past a horse farm.  At the horse farm, there is this big black German Shepard that always comes out and barks at me.  I have yelled at it at the top of my lungs, and that usually stops him from barking at me.  When the mean dog is not around, usually there are two early 20's or teen-aged girls helping out on the farm, and they always say good morning.  Since nobody else is manly enough to do a hike up this hill every morning, I guess I have become sort of a regular thing for them. 

The path takes a steep turn up a gravelly rocky road where cars and motorcycles are not permitted.  There is evidence of regular horse riding, as there are many "road apples" along the way.  Some mornings the hill is more forboding than others, but as I do this commute up the hill more, the hill gets easier.  The hill is steep enough that one could not dream of riding a bike up it, and just simply walking up this hill with a bicycle in hand is also a dreadful thought.  Maybe the Swiss don't think it's so bad; maybe I'm just out of shape, or maybe I am just not used to the hills any more. 

By the time I get to the top of the hill, the gravelly path has joined a small one-lane road which has very little traffic.  Usually I see only one or two cars every morning.  The rest of this part of the journey is a gentle downhill slope which makes the walk to work easier.  Biking back up this hill going the other way is terrible.  I have biked this way home only once, to get home a sloppy sweaty mess, out of breath for a good 10 minutes after arrival. 

8:20. I get to the Schützenhaus der Gemeinde Müri, which has a very nice water fountain for me to get my hydration levels back up.  This is where the forest breaks, and there is either a grey sky above me (the usual scenario), or on this day, the sky turned into a brilliant blue.  There are more cars along here, but not so many that I fear for my life.  The Schützenhaus is where the Swiss, who own guns, do shooting practice.  There is a target range that you can walk under the live fire when they are shooting.  I have never been here when the shooting range is active. 

8:33.  If I make a good enough walking pace, I can grab the S1 line that takes me directly to Fribourg.  The train ride on the S1 is exactly 55 minutes long, and this is the fastest way to get from Gümligen to my office, bar none.  It also is one of the more uncomfortable rides.  The S1 is packed, so I don't get to sit until we get to the main train station, and most of the people get off.  I usually don't take this train.  I really have to walk quickly and not slow down for anything to make the S1 in 38 minutes from my front door. 

8:38. The S2 that goes to Schwarzenburg arrives at Gümligen.  I usually take this train to the Bern main station, where I then take the intercity to Fribourg.  This gets me to Fribourg 8 minutes later than if I was to take the S1.  So if I miss the S1, it is not a tragedy.  I have a back-up plan. 

8:40. If I manage to miss the S1 and the S2, there is a third fall-back.  There is a tram that leaves Gümligen and shows up in downtown.  A very brisk walk after the "G" tram makes it into Bern Zytglogge can get me to the 9:04 train at the main train station. 

This morning, I was so busy taking pictures for you, that I blew it, and missed all three connections.  This almost never happens.  i got distracted by taking some pictures of cows and mountains, and sights along the way, that I didn't realize that I had fallen so far behind schedule.  Oh well. This gives me an opportunity to show you what standing around the tram stop in Gümligen looks like, so you can get a glimpse of my everyday life.  Since I missed all three of the above connections, I also missed the intercity train to Fribourg that leaves at 9:04.  So the commute will take even longer now. 

Most of the Swiss spend their time on public transportation reading the free newspapers.  They are not the paragon of journalistic integrity, but they pass the time.  The articles are written in simple enough German for me to read (I have a really hard time reading the real newspapers, that use lots of words I never learned, and I would spend all my time reading the dictionary to get the meaning of the articles.)  Here, this day's newspaper describes the Stock Market meltdown, and also describes the new uniforms of the Swiss Ski team. 

The tram trip is pretty slow going, and is only a few minutes faster than it would be to drive downtown.  I get off at Bern Zytglogge, where the "G" tram ends.  In order to make the inter city train, I have to walk to the train station, about 8 minutes walk away.  Sometimes, I grab the #3, the #5 or the #9 tram, which all take me straight to the train station.  Since I have a lot of time to get to my 9:34 train, I decide to walk it and show you some of the pictures along the way. For those who don't know the rules of pronouncing Swiss words, "Zytglogge" is pronounced kind of like "TSEET-glock-kah" Along the walk from Zytglogge to the Bahnhof (train station), there are many shops along the way.  A few clothing stores, like H&M, Vögeli, and a butcher/deli.   I never do any shopping, so I don't have much idea what is actually in these shops. 

9:16. I arrive at the main train station.  I have no idea what Bern looked like before the great construction of 2007.  In 2007 through May of 2008, all of this area around the train station was a huge mess of construction and blocked roads, pedestrian paths re-routed, trams stopped.  They managed to finish all the work for the revamped train station just about a week before the UEFA soccer tournament began. 

A part of the massive construction that was done includes a new wing of the underground mall, where they now show some of the old city walls, enclosed in a glass display, showered with pink light.  There is no escaping the worldly influence of McDonald's, as there is one that is never empty right inside the train station.  I get to the train station meeting area, where there is a big blue display showing all of the trains that arrive and depart from Bern.  I already know what train I am taking, as do most of the people here this morning.  There are occasionally tourists studying the departure board carefully, or asking for directions.  There are also the locals waiting around for a friend to arrive; they use this area as a meeting point. 

My train to Fribourg is the nice train.  This train comes once an hour, at the bottom of the hour, instead of the top of the hour.  This is the double decker train, with a very nice restaurant on board.  At 9:04, the train that goes to Fribourg is not nearly as nice, but still much more comfortable than the S1 that stops about a dozen times between Gümligen to Fribourg.  On the adjacent track is the Cisalpino train to Milan.  I have not had an opportunity to take this train yet, but will probably sometime in the next few weeks for a business trip to Turino. 

When the train arrives, there is an orderly shuffle without proper queueing to get into the train.  Many of the Swiss stand too closely to the door, as crowded passengers coming in from Zürich attempt to get off.  Since this is such a late train, it is not nearly as crowded as if I had gotten on this train an hour earlier.  I usually get on the car close to the restaurant, there are usually more seats further up the train, but it is never a problem trying to find a seat toward Fribourg. 

The double-decker train InterCity Express is incredibly quiet and smooth.  There is one car named "the quiet car", which is so quiet you can often only hear the rustling of newspapers.  There are usually tourists who get into the quiet car and inconsiderately start talking.  I seem to be more Swiss every day, as I usually give these rude talkers a very dirty look, but say nothing. 

The train arrives in Fribourg 27 minutes later, but this day, there was a seven minute delay.  In August 2007, there was some sort of landslide that caused the rails between Wünnewil and Flamatt to be unusable.  There has been construction on this line ever since.  In one small place on the line, there is only one track for both directions, which will require us to wait for a service in the opposite direction to pass.  The train I took on this day had to wait, and it caused a seven minute delay. The delay in this direction does not bother me much; especially since I have had so many other delays this morning, what is another seven minutes? 

I exit the train with nearly everybody else. A sea of people exit the train, and walk at an average walking pace down the ramp to the rest of the train station.  At the exit of the station, I hang around at the bus stop. It is usually only a 2 minute wait, but since we were seven minutes late from the rail construction, I waited longer than usual. 

The rest of the commute is not that interesting.  I take an empty bus to the edge of town, and walk another ten minutes to our office.  The morning is started by a fresh cup of coffee, as delivered from our Nespresso machine, which I adore.  This machine is great, especially as it does not give my coworkers the opportunity to be rude and finish off all the coffee in the coffee pot without refilling it.  Insert a capsule, put a cup in place, and press the button, and a great cup of coffee comes out. 

The amount of time I put into the daily commute does start to drain on me.  Emotionally, it has taken a serious toll in me, especially in this past week.  Time can be shaved off here and there; if I take my bicycle from the house to Gümligen, I can do the trip in 7 or 8 minutes.  I have to be walking out the front door by 8:25 at the absolute latest to bike to Gümligen and make the 8:33 S1 train.  In any event, I probably will remember the commute when I think back on my time in Switzerland. I might even look upon it favorably.  However, I will never look back memorably on my Virginia commute by car. 


Miz K said...

Your commute makes me sad!

Florent Guiliani said...

What a commute! Maybe you could use a bike like this one to help you on the walking parts.

I'll start working at Verisign December 1st. I was searching where's located the data center. Now I have a good Idea ;).

Then I can look for a apartment near my future office. This one looks good.

See you soon,