How to know your teenager
A road trip across Switzerland with a disinterested teenager can lead to greater understanding
We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time.
Vanshika, my 13-year-old niece, hummed these lines softly while we were all sitting in the balcony of my apartment. She was visiting me and my wife Priya in Sweden for a month.
“Wait, isn’t that Deep Purple?" I wondered aloud.
“Yes, maybe," Vanshika replied with teenage inattentiveness, brushing aside my attempt at making conversation. It had been that way since she arrived. Somehow, the Swedish spring weather and its laid-back manner did not appeal to her, and she continually sought refuge in her smartphone.
“Do you know the story behind this song?" I made yet another weak attempt. She remained silent, and I took that as encouragement to continue telling her about how Deep Purple wrote this song in the Swiss town of Montreux after the casino they performed at was burnt down (they burned down the gambling house). Montreux has always had a deep association with music. It hosts a popular jazz festival every summer; this French-speaking part of Switzerland is also the place where Freddie Mercury of Queen chose to spend his last days.
Late into that night I thought about ways to salvage Vanshika’s vacation. I desperately wanted it to be a memorable one! It was then that Priya and I crafted a plan to surprise my niece. It was simple: We would take her to Montreux. Given that Vanshika was gradually acquiring a taste for rock and learning French in school, we hoped she would like this old-time town, with its heavy French influence.
A day later, we were in Geneva, its lake glittering under a promising sun. We drove towards Montreux, past the grapevines of Lausanne’s vineyards swaying in the still nippy wind, and the yachts shilly-shallying in the placid ice-blue waters of the lake. In the distance, Chateau de Chillon rose from the water, shimmering like an apparition. We decided to stop off for a tour of the gothic castle, and found that it looks exactly as a medieval castle should, with its dungeons, turrets and labyrinthine passageways. Outside, tourist couples, mostly Chinese, dressed up in designer gowns and tuxedos, took pictures against the fine-looking Swiss background.
Unfortunately, none of this proved to be attractive to my niece. So we headed to the town centre, fringed by a long curving promenade that runs alongside the lake. Montreux kept us occupied with its lake cruises, food and walks through the old town. Hypnotized by the crispness of the late afternoon sun, we sat eating ice creams, watching the comings and goings on the waterfront.
Not having planned this trip in any great detail, we found the hotels in the town all fully booked, and the Airbnb situation wasn’t too helpful. It would have to be a hostel then. Sleeping in a dorm in bunk beds must surely be a formula for bringing a family close. In the warmth and cosiness of the hostel dorm, Vanshika talked non-stop. “Can we stay here for a few more days?" she asked as we nestled deep into our blankets to catch some sleep. I looked at Priya and winked. First day in Switzerland, and things were already looking up. We had plans to fly back the next morning, but we decided to stay for a few more days. Next morning, Vanshika took the map and occupied the front seat of the car. We drove to where she pointed. “Let’s see Mount Pilatus," she declared, and we complied.
The city of Lucerne is dominated by the vastly impressive peak of Mount Pilatus, old squares, intriguing churches, lakeside promenades, and an impossibly scenic wooden bridge, called Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge), that runs across the river Reuss and is Lucerne’s main landmark. Pilatus was covered in thick tufts of cloud, so we decided to walk around the centre and on the wooden bridge that was built in 1333. After buying trinkets from the pop-up shops on the bridge and wandering on the street, we came to the Jesuit Church.
Unlike the rest of Switzerland, Lucerne is a Catholic city, and this is reflected in the brilliance of this church. We stepped inside for a quick dekko, for I thought the young girl would want to get back again to the flurry of town. But she occupied a secluded bench away from us and sat quietly, away from distractions. As I observed her from a distance, I realized that what I had mistaken for reclusiveness born out of disinterest was perhaps a silence germinating in a deeper place, rumination over the new experiences she was being exposed to in a foreign country every day. Perhaps her fiddling with the smartphone was a way to go back to the normalcy of everyday life that she had left behind in India. As we sat in silence, benches apart and lost in our own worlds, I realized that this trip was educating me about my niece as much as about the places that I was visiting.
Lucerne had none of Montreux’s warmth. The clouds, unthreatening so far, had gathered vehemence. By now, a realization had seeped in that a bit of planning is but a necessary evil. So, we booked an Airbnb for the night. That evening, while it rained outside, we cooked a comforting dinner in the rented apartment. Next morning, the drizzle continued; in fact, the weather would not change for the rest of the road trip, but that didn’t reduce the cheer that our small group had acquired. Despite the reduced visibility, we boarded a cable car to Pilatus, took a longish walk in the woods at an intermediate pit-stop, and then decided to drive on Furka Pass. Furka Pass is a steep climb full of hairpin bends that makes it both scenic and challenging to drive on. Due to bad weather, the pass was closed to traffic. Disappointed, we searched for another road.
The road to Zermatt is interwoven with solitude and magnificent scenery. We drove for hours, absorbing the sights in silence. To reach Zermatt, one needs to either have a clean-energy car—Zermatt does not allow conventional cars—or one can take a train from the nearby town of Tasch. We took the train. Though some of the highest peaks in Switzerland tower over Zermatt, it is defined primarily by the Matterhorn.
When we reached Zermatt, the Matterhorn, unfortunately, was also hidden behind clouds, not even a faint outline of its famous stark, jagged silhouette visible. Disappointed, we walked its main commercial strip street, Bahnhofstrasse, to orient ourselves with the town. We wandered around aimlessly before deciding on our next stop for the night. By now, Vanshika had taken a liking to the Alpine villages, and we looked for a layover in the mountains. An early dinner later, we were back on the road, heading towards our night-stop.
Hours later, the rain began falling hard. The road was slippery, and the steep Alpine climb was bare of traffic. I had lost the way, and to top it, the fuel in the car was running low. Priya and Vanshika slept on the back seat, tired after a whole day of walking on the anguine streets of Zermatt. The few houses that we drove past were farmers’ sheds, padlocked at this late hour. The GPS obstinately pointed downhill, back to where we had come from; there was no one out on the road to help us find the way to the hut in the small village in Hermance where we had booked our stay for the night. I stopped the car. When driving in the Alps, it’s easy to become accustomed to splendid scenery. But in the mix of darkness and rain, when one edge of the road stares into a deep valley, and the other merges into cliffs that rise 300m until they reach forested slopes, the Alpine roads can be scary.
As I waited in silence, a herd of red deer appeared out of nowhere and surrounded the car. Sweat tracked my brow despite the chill in the air, and the anxiousness that had for the last hour been niggling inside turned into fear. I started the car and pressed the accelerator. By now, the herd had occupied the road; they stared right at me, terrified and belligerent. Things could have gone wrong, terribly wrong—but for the hand that rested on my shoulder to calm me. “Turn the lights off," Vanshika whispered. “Don’t drive, just wait. They will go away." I did so. The herd walked towards the car, sniffed it, decided it was harmless, and walked away.
In that moment, I realized with some wonder that my teenage niece was more attuned to nature, more in harmony with her being and surroundings, than I was.
As we drove up the hill, we sighted the solitary hut far up the mountain that was to be our night stay. I sighed with relief. Over the last few days on this journey, Vanshika and I had got along well, we had shared stories and experiences, and I was beginning to understand what it was to be a teenager again.
“So we head home tomorrow?" I spoke, to no one in particular.
“I was thinking," Vanshika said tentatively, “I have never been to Paris. Can we drive there?"
Swiss Air, Qatar Airways, Emirates, Etihad operate hopping flights from New Delhi to Geneva. Air fare starts from Rs50,000 for a round trip. All major car rental companies, such as Avis and Europcar, have offices in Geneva.
A rough estimate of the distance I covered on this trip:
•Lucerne Zermatt: 180km
Switzerland is an expensive country and so are the staying options. We stayed at AirBnB (www.airbnb.com) apartments for 150-200 Swiss francs (Rs10,000 and above) for a night.
If you plan to stay in an apartment and are on a tight budget, cooking is the cheapest option. Must-try dishes include Swiss cheese fondue, a blend made from local cheese (such as Gruyère), wine and seasoning such as garlic, to be eaten with bread or vegetables; and ‘rosti’ (pan-friend grated potatoes with bacon, eggs and cheese).