One of my favourite comic books is Asterix in Switzerland, in which all the Swiss characters have neat ginger moustaches and wander about with cleaning implements, dusting off everything including the people they're talking to. On my first visit in six years to this notoriously clean country, I'm happy to report that it remains spotless despite the influx of Bollywood film stars and crews (long ago my mother saw Karishma Kapoor sitting in the middle of the road in Montreux, eating chappatis that were being heated beside her on a little portable stove).
Switzerland is the sort of place where everyone is in bed by 10pm. Euro 2008 is happening here, of course, but the most I've seen of it is the odd little sticker saying 'Allez les Bleus!'. The matches must have television audiences, but they're extremely quiet, at least in the little villages of Blonay and St. Légier, which overlook the inverted blue smile of water that is Lac Léman, a.k.a. Lake Geneva, and which look up at the jagged snowy range called the Dents du Midi that hangs suspended in the clouds like a toothy grin.
Of all the things you might expect to see on Lake Geneva—sailboats, swans, swimmers, the odd subversive cigarette butt—possibly the last is a fifteen foot high metal fork standing tines down in the water at the Quai Perdonnet in Vevey. This is the Alimentarium, the Food Museum, before whose entrance they grow twenty types of potato including two blue varieties, and celery, and Quinoa grain. Any questions about where the Alimentarium gets its funding are answered when you walk into the lobby, which is overhung by a vast mobile of food products from Nestle, which is also headquartered in Vevey.
A walk through encompasses the history of food, eating and and renouncing it, interesting taste and smell tests, cooking workshops, the history of chocolate, and the constituents of a balanced diet (which, for reasons I just can't think of, include three cups of coffee a day). One of my favourite items on display is a loaf of bread baked during the famine of 1817. It's half the size of my thumb.
Emerging from the Alimentarium, I decided to sit in the sun on one of the chairs that some clever designer has embedded in the rocks beside the lake. Three people next to me on similar chairs were discussing the menu for a birthday party. One of them said, in rough translation, "Love has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing, but still, come on." It was impressive by the standards of casual conversation and by the lights of the thought I'd just had, which was "Man, my toe hurts." Perhaps being in these lovely surroundings a little longer would have improved the quality of my thinking; after all, just a little further up, the same lakeside path becomes the Chemin Fleuri, where Rousseau once walked.
Food has been a large part of my Swiss experience this time, if you discount the truly dismal servings on Swiss airlines—from a three hour fondue lunch in Geneva's Old Town, to the seafood paella I had during a cooking competition held between several Swiss cantons at the weekly Place du Marché farmer's market in Vevey, to the bread, cheese, meat and wine affairs that constitute most normal lunches and dinners. I expect that when my airplane lands in Delhi next week it will be with a slightly harder bump. I have this dream that suddenly Delhi's markets will fill with fragrant fresh breads and cheeses and the terrific wines of the Valais, all at wonderfully reasonable prices; but I might, as they say, be living in cuckooland.