Swiss summer fun

28 07 2010

Summer brings everyone outdoors. It’s warm, beautiful and the days are long. But nowhere does summer entice the population to spend its time outdoors more than in Switzerland. The Swiss have perfected the art of being perfect – clean water, clean air and pristine landscapes – and as soon as it starts to smell and feel like summer outside, the Swiss are off gallivanting through their own personal playground: the Alps.

Now there are about a million crazy things you can do in the summer with the Alps as your backyard (and another million in the winter). I had never heard of most of these so-called “high risk sports” till I arrived here six years ago. Oh sure, usually harmless pastimes like hiking and mountain-biking are popular here, too, but please – only if the path hugging the side of the mountain has a 40% grade, is less than a foot wide and drops off into a deep ravine on one side.

Here’s a short list of stuff I’ve discovered that looks cool, is cool and inevitably ends up claiming a couple of lives every summer. The activities all involve moving vertically somehow, usually from higher ground to lower ground, in a more or less controlled fashion. A good reminder that gravity is a law and not an option.

Base Jumping – This is the craziest of all and the one that is probably responsible for the most casualties. Definition: Jumping from fixed objects. B=building, A=antenna (or tower), S=span (i.e. a bridge), E=earth (i.e. a mountain edge). You freefall and pull the chute just before going splat.

Look ma, no parachute!

Canyoning (known as canyoneering in the U.S.) entails hiking up a mountain and then traveling through its canyons using a variety of techniques that may include other outdoor activities such as walking, scrambling, climbing, jumping, abseiling, and/or swimming. I’ve done this and it’s incredibly fun. Canyoning combines agility, strength and a healthy love of heights – on land, in the air and in the water. Often though, there is only one way out – down. Some important safety information, found on the internet: “There is great potential for injury for the unlucky, the reckless or ill-prepared.”

Paragliding – Jumping off a mountain with a kind of sophisticated parachute (called a “paraglider”) open already. On a pleasant day, paragliders can fly for hours with only the thermal lift to carry them. Their colorful chutes often dot the summer sky across Switzerland and sometimes pose a hazard to low-flying aircraft. Getting one tangled in your propeller can be messy.

Spectacular view

Tobogganing – This is the summer version of the luge in winter. You sit in a plastic or metal tub and careen down a mountain in a metal canal. If you use the brakes you’re a sissy.

Via ferrata – Italian for “iron road” – a form of rock climbing that sends you on a mountain route equipped with fixed wire cables and artificial hand- and footholds. It allows non-climbers to try real mountaineering. One website reminds potential athletes that in order to actually enjoy your outing, you need to be “fearless”.

Rock climbing for beginners

Summer adventure, anyone?

The need for speed

22 07 2010

It’s about time I wrote something about one of my passions in life.

I am an avid and obsessed inline skater.

You may be more familiar with this sport under its colloquial name: “rollerblading”. It continues to be associated with the brand that first began to make and sell this particular kind of skate in the 1980’s. Today, Rollerblade is one of dozens of skate manufacturers but the misnomer has stuck. I have never skated Rollerblade. Today I skate K2.

I first put on a pair of inline skates in July 1993, near Vancouver’s spectacular Stanley Park. Everyone was doing it, it looked so easy, I figured I’d get the hang of it in a snap and be cruising on the Seawall in no time. Radiating naiveté, I took my first tentative steps in what felt like ski-boots on wheels. An amused crowd savored the free entertainment from the sidelines.

Evelynn skates, Vancouver, 1993

As in all endeavors in life, you only need to get up one more time than you fall down. And hell, I fell down a lot that afternoon. The crowd roared. And I kept getting up again.

Taking up skating was one of the best decisions of my life. I’ve discovered that it’s the closest you get to flying without ever leaving the ground;  a full-body aerobic workout without pounding pavement. And it’s a way to simply feel free. During the summer months, I try to knock off a cool 20 km or more every other day, weather-permitting.

About ten years ago I started to race and my competitive skating credentials now include everything from 10 km sprints to full marathons. I know I will probably never actually WIN anything, ever, but the thrill of the chase and the chance to push myself to my physical and psychological limits are what keep me coming back for more. It’s the speed that is particularly intoxicating.

My injury list is mostly harmless – scrapes, shredded skin, bruises and strained joints. Lesson number one was learned early: the street usually wins whatever fight you try to pick with it. There’s been the one or the other collapse due to exhaustion. And I’ve only had to be whisked away by ambulance once – with a season-ending triple compound fracture that required two surgeries, a titanium plate and seven screws to fix. (You should have seen the other guy… yeah, he was fine.)

This year, barring anything serious, I will hopefully peak on the final weekend in September at the Berlin Marathon – a European classic, and one of the five World Marathon Majors. In addition to the 40,000 ascetic sadomasochists who sign up to actually run the 42.195 kilometers through Germany’s capital, about 9,000 slightly more sane skaters also have the opportunity to compete. Our motivation? Fame, fortune, bananas and free beer at the finish line.

Evelynn's skate, Berlin, 2008

It will be my sixth full marathon in Berlin, a city that embraces athletes from wherever they hail and puts on a great show. I have simply not found a better-organized, cooler race, or more appreciative and enthusiastic spectators, anywhere.

As an over-40 amateur, I can only dream of reaching the finish in under an hour and a half.  The professional (female) athletes, 20 years younger than me, complete the circuit in about an hour and 15 minutes. My goal this year is a pretty respectable 1:45:00. In 2008 I came close, missing that mark by a mere 2 minutes. (Or, if you would rather have an even more heartbreaking statistic: 3.5 seconds per kilometer.) The days of a personal best (1:42:32) are probably over – I was still a spring chicken thirty-something the last time I set one of those. But, you know, impossible is nothing, right?

65 days to go. I’ll keep you posted.

A car named “Boinky”

18 07 2010

When I was telling a friend about starting this blog, and about all the stuff I wanted to write about, he blurted: “Sorry, Evelynn, a super action heroine does NOT drive ‘A car named Boinky’!”

Mais non! I beg to differ! Boinky is not just some car. It’s one of the coolest cars on the road.

This love story goes way back and it goes deep.

I first saw a Boinky long before George W. Bush stole his first presidential election. It was the autumn of 1997, in Hambach, France, when “smartville”, the factory that would produce the smart, as the vehicle is officially known, was opened to great fanfare. And I was there to write about it.

At the time, the new funny-looking 2-seater “city-coupé” came in four primary colors: red, yellow, blue and black. The majority of the hundred or so journalists in attendance (including this SAAB-driving pseudo-intellectual) scoffed at the piece of plastic, some of us already taking notes for the stories we planned to write when the car bombed.

Boinky I –  In early 2001, less than four years later, I was eating my words. One winter morning my beloved 13-year-old SAAB decided to leave this earth for the great junkyard in the sky. Life-sustaining measures would have cost me more than a month’s salary, with no guarantees. Suddenly and traumatically, I was wheel-less. Ok, admittedly, it’s easier to be wheel-less in Europe than in, say, Kansas, but still. A friend dragged me to my local smart dealer to take a look… I guess I was intrigued primarily because the car hadn’t bombed (yet), parking space in Berlin was at a premium and gas prices were going through the roof. The best thing about the little black number I found on the lot: it was cheap and they accepted debit cards. Within minutes, she was all mine and all paid for.

Boinky I.

After my big brother saw my new “car” for the first time, he said it needed a name.

“A name?” I asked.

“Yes, a name,” he said. “I think it looks like a Boinky. Why don’t you call it Boinky?”

And with a piccolo of cheap Italian sparkling wine, Bonky was christened. (And sent through the car wash shortly thereafter.)

Boinky, the first, accompanied me through a miserable relationship and a traumatic breakup, and earned its most impressive stripes on an epic journey from Berlin to London and back – about 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) each way.

Boinky II – December 2002. Okay, I admit, I wanted some color in my life. So I moved from black to “bay gray metallic”. Traded in number one and paid the difference on number two – again an amount so small that my debit card could handle it. The second generation had a slightly larger gas tank and cooler headlights. Boinky II’s seven-year reign in my life also saw a couple of significant life-changing events: I quit three jobs, moved to Switzerland, escaped a stalker and met the man who would become my husband, not necessarily in that order.

Boinky II.

Boinky III – April 2010. It was simply time. A bit larger, the redesigned car is now more “grown up”. (Just like me, hee hee.) She was 11 months (and 4,260 kilometers) old when I found her, very slightly used, a sleek, silver number, with a glass roof and 84 horses under the hood (or rather the trunk…a smart’s engine is under the trunk). I’ve taken a step up in luxury, finally indulging in an air conditioner. The requisite cupholder is under the dashboard, where it’s always been, and there’s even a jack for my Ipod (for whenever I figure out how to use it).

Boinky III.

So ladies and gentlemen, when you are sitting in traffic on your throne of an SUV, or in that loser-cruiser of a Minivan, don’t you even dare to snicker at that smart car you see below. We own the coolness factor if not the road. And as soon as BP’s oil hits a shore near you, you might think 40 miles per gallon might be a pretty innovative idea after all.

The magic of Solar Impulse

13 07 2010

Solar Impulse, an innovative aircraft powered solely by solar energy, completed its first real stress test a few days ago – a 24-hour nonstop flight. For those of you not into airplanes, let me tell you that this is a true milestone in aviation history. Something to make you stop and say: “Wow.”

Solar Impulse

The prototype plane with the callsign HB-SIA, which weighs just 1,600 kilograms – less than your average SUV – looks like an over-dimensional dragonfly, too fragile, you might think, to be able to withstand wind and weather at 28,000 feet. HB-SIA’s wingspan is as wide as that of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, and covered with about 12,000 solar cells. The aircraft is designed to fly day and night by saving surplus energy from these solar cells in high-performance batteries that then power the four electric engines.

Solar Impulse is seven years in the making and the brainchild of adventurer Bertrand Piccard (of “Breitling Orbiter 3” fame), and pilot André Borschberg. The plane was conceived, designed and built right here in Switzerland. In a couple of years, Piccard and Borschberg plan to circumnavigate the earth in five days and nights with its technologically even more advanced successor, HB-SIB, fueled only by the power of the sun.

The aviation industry, that most fossil-fuel-dependent behemoth, is once again being shaken up by a couple of guys who said to themselves: “Why the hell not?” Their idea has turned a lot of heads. But I guess all major inventions start out that way – with nothing more than an idea and a vision and a sketch on a paper napkin. The toughest part of invention is getting everyone else to believe that idea is not just a bunch of hokey horseshit.

It’s only been a little more than 100 years since humans learned to fly. And in those hundred years aviation technology has made amazing strides forward in terms of speed, efficiency, reach, ease and comfort. (Okay, point taken… traveling in cattle class is no longer comfortable.) In the scheme of things, a completely solar-powered aircraft is something to get really excited about – for everyone, and not just for pilots and airplane freaks like me – even if the technology is still in its infancy. “When you took off it was another era,” Piccard told Borschberg after his 26-hour flight last week. “You land in a new era where people understand that with renewable energy you can do impossible things.”

I know we won’t be hopping on a solar-powered commercial aircraft in the foreseeable future, and I would guess not even in our lifetimes. So what’s the point of all this, ask the skeptics. Couldn’t we spend those 100 million bucks it is taking to get this bird in the air on other, more useful and practical projects? Well yes, of course. But what Solar Impulse and visionaries like Piccard and Borschberg are doing for aviation and, well, the world, really, is simply to show that IT’S POSSIBLE. And to encourage and inspire all the rest of us.

Now how cool is that?

André Borschberg in the cockpit (July 7, 2010)

Hello world!

8 07 2010

How the hell are you? Oh now isn’t THIS exciting. You’re there and I’m here. And wow, well, HERE WE ARE! Is anybody even out there? Well it doesn’t matter, does it. If a tree falls in a forest, it still makes a sound.

Hello World!

So what do I have to say? I’m not sure yet. And why would anybody want to read it? Hm. Good question. Hoping this project will grow, mutate and mature with time. This blog business is all a bit new for me – I feel like I was born a generation too early for this kind of thing. I’m also a bit out of practice when it comes to writing so some of it might seem a bit rough in the beginning. So not really great prerequisites for a smashing success. But this super action heroine will probably always have SOMEthing to say, even if no one’s listening.

A very good friend who started a parenting blog last year wrote that starting a blog is kind of like giving birth: “[The] moment when theory becomes practice, when – almost literally – the shit hits the fan…an epiphany of self-doubt is born.”

Well my dear IronicMom you are my inspiration. Let us self-doubt together, thousands of miles apart. Starting with nothing – a blank computer screen – and turning it into something substantial is the toughest job of all.