Sunday, October 9, 2011

Switzerland 48-hour trip report

On the list of exciting and cosmopolitan European destinations Basel, Switzerland does not usually register among them. Nevertheless, that's where I found myself just a couple days before the first WSOP Europe event in Cannes. I was there to see decorated grappler Ryan Hall, one of the most brilliant minds in jiujitsu. For poker players, I've always thought that if Ryan had dedicated himself to poker instead of grappling, he'd definitely be a winning high-limit pro. Ryan runs a school in Virginia and if not for my well-publicized issues traveling to the U.S. to train MMA, I probably would've already gone down to that gym. But thanks to the wonderful people at Immigration and Naturalization Services, we met on the most neutral of neutral territories, as I tacked on an extra flight from Nice to Basel to my Vancouver-Calgary-Frankfurt-Nice journey.

It was my first time in Switzerland, but if Basel (with 400,000 people, Switzerland's third-largest metropolitan area) is a good representation of at least the German-Swiss portion, it's certainly way different than any other European city I've visited. In preparation for the trip, I had read all the stuff about how the Swiss people take a tremendous amount of pride in things, being renowned for quality, precision, professionalism, and following the rules.

Reading all that stuff makes you aware of cognitive bias and makes you want to be careful that you aren't just seeing things through that lens, but it is quite apparent that this perfectionism and pride permeates their culture. In my first meal in Basel, I ordered sparkling water (in English). When I was given still water by a different waitress and corrected her, I was able to overhear a lengthy conversation in German between three of the wait staff, the topic of which was clearly them explaining to my original waitress which was "still" and which was "sparkling" in English.

And it is true that everything is orderly in Switzerland. I feel like you couldn't get hit by a car in Switzerland if you tried. Cars always stop for pedestrians: sidewalk, traffic light, or otherwise. In one instance, I started to cross the street and a delivery truck failed to see me and thus failed to stop for me. It was not like I was anywhere near the middle of the street when this happened and my safety was not jeopardized in the slightest, but the driver made quite the show of gesticulating an apology.

On the same walk, I noticed a large crowd, 40-50 deep, gather around a police car. I walked over to see what the fuss was about, and it was simply a guy being either detained or fined for drinking in public. The guy was just sitting there, still with the beer in his hand, while the cops wrote up the paperwork, but all around, people were staring and laughing. I guess in a place where no one ever breaks the rules, this was kind of a big deal. I also saw a women's shoe store that had expensive, brand-name leather shoes just sitting out on display, unattended. Switzerland is truly, in many ways, just a society of model behaviour.

Does all of this rigid adherence to rules and good behaviour equate to a lesser joie de vivre? It was unclear to me in the 48 hours I spent in Basel. Certainly the people I met at the jiujitsu seminar were very friendly and welcoming. But one guy I chatted with -- a walking, talking contradiction of half-Brazilian, half-Swiss descent named Marco -- certainly expressed the idea that Switzerland is not the most exciting place for a young, single guy. Although it should be pointed out that Ryan and I agreed that the Swiss girls we saw were extremely attractive, which surprised both of us since Switzerland isn't like a Brazil or Colombia with a reputation for gorgeous women. Luckily I remembered to bring European woman repellent uniform: a stained grey sweater, skater jeans and runners.

Switzerland is also shockingly expensive. Evidently, Basel is cheaper than Zurich, which is scary. Paying 5 Swiss francs ($5.40 US) in the hotel for a 500mL bottled water is one thing, but it's even 3.50 CHF at a news stand out in the sticks. A donair (not a particularly good one) was 12 CHF while the sit-down meal with the aforementioned sparkling water ran me 40 (with no appetizer or dessert). I guess in a place where minimum wage is close to $4000/month, they can handle it. I also feel like really high prices only adds to the mystique of quality and perfection, almost as though the idea implicit in the high prices is simply, "we're going to charge you a lot, but we're going to do it right." But that's probably reading too much into it.

Overall, Switzerland was a very interesting cultural experience. As for the actual purpose of my trip: learning from Ryan was great, and I hope one day to get down to his academy. He was a great teacher; highly eloquent, candid, invested and passionate about his sport. The first thing I did upon getting to the airport in Basel was try to write down everything I'd learned. The irony of this trip to Basel was that I booked the trip to Cannes in the middle of my long fight camp because I felt I needed a reprieve from all the hard training. So, of course, what do I do on this trip as soon as I get 3000 miles from home but train grappling?

Anyway, I'm here in Cannes now at last. We have a great apartment, the weather is beautiful, and so too are the people, the beach, and everything else you expect about the French Riviera. Hopefully I can make some big money to continue to feed my MMA habit! (Oops, gotta go: I have to get ready to train boxing with Elky and his trainer.)


  1. Your description of the crowd watching somebody get fined reminded me of the movie "Demolition Man". Have you seen it?


  2. Hope to see you in Basel again...Remo