View from Vitalia: Of wines, timetables and lost phones

The precision, punctuality and work ethic of SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) - both trains and staff - make a foreign visitor feel proud of belonging to human race.

First of all, let me apologise for the pause in 'Views from Vitalia', caused by a combination of health issues and short holidays, albeit, as the readers of this blog already know, holidays to me do not mean luxuriating on a beach and/or stuffing my belly with food and booze (as Buddhists say, everything in moderation, including moderation), but rather snooping around some foreign or home fields, like a puppy out on a morning walk, and trying to sniff out (I mean uncover) some interesting details about the places’ history, technology, folklore and so on that can be later used in books, blogs, features and columns. “A soldier is always a soldier” went a characteristically jingoistic Soviet song. Likewise, a writer is always a writer – and there’s nothing anyone can do about that...

The first of such recent self-generated ‘assignments’ took me to the Perigord area in the south-west of France, where my dear friend Martin Walker, formerly the Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief and now an acclaimed author - the creator of the best-selling detective novel series featuring Bruno Correges, the chief of police in a small fictitious Perigord town, not dissimilar to the village of Le Bugue, where Martin himself now lives.

The Perigord is a truly amazing part of France, home not only of foie gras (a peculiar pate-like product with the fifth highest cholesterol content among all foods) and superb Bergerac wines, but also of the famous Lascaux caves, their walls covered with the truly mind-boggling prehistoric drawings by some hard-working, patient and hugely talented cavemen (“… or women,” I hasten to add, to avoid accusations of political incorrectness).

I am  planning to dwell on the Perigord, in general, and on the new and, allegedly, more humane, technology of foie gras production, in particular, in one of my pre-Christmas ‘Views...’.

But today, I want to share with you one of the most incredible incidents to have happened to me in all my forty-odd years as a travelling scribe. That technology-, or rather transport-related, incident, which had restored my dwindling faith in the humankind (no less!), could have only possibly happened in one country – Switzerland. 

Last September, Switzerland Tourism, the organisation with which I have been collaborating as a travel writer for many years, invited me to taste some interesting wines, produced in Morges & Nyon area on the shores of Lake Geneva. The wines and the technologies of their making were indeed remarkable, and I will talk about them in my next ‘After All’ column for E&T magazine. But here I want to focus again (for I have done it repeatedly in the past) on the unique Swiss organisation called SBB – Swiss Federal Railways.

In several of my After All columns, I have written on the Swiss Railways’ unbeatable punctuality, with precision and frequency of trains made into one of the Swiss citizens’ constitutional rights. I have also mentioned SBB’s state-of-the-art train-timetable brochures (as well as the massive – and now, sadly, defunct – 3-volume Kursbuch, incorporating the schedules for all of  the country’s thoroughly integrated trains, buses, post-autos, boats and chair-lifts). The brochures’ circulation, it has to be said, has gone down somewhat with the advent of online timetables, but the former are still readily available at all Swiss train stations. As a passionate timetable collector, I always pick one up whenever I see it, as I did this time shortly after we landed in Geneva Airport and were wheeling our suitcases towards the eponymous train station only a five-minute walk away. At the aquarium-like SBB station office, I helped myself to two super-compact timetable booklets – for 'Region Geneve-Lausanne' (in French) and for 'Geneva Airport' (in both French and English).

Little did I know how indispensable those two tiny brochures were  going to prove on the very last day of my trip, when – after a long hike in the Alps, followed by a prolonged tasting of a dozen or so wines and consummated with a plentiful lunch (which included the local speciality ‘Malakoff’ – fried cheese balls, originating, allegedly, from the time of the Crimean War), I boarded an SBB train in Morges for the final 41-minute-long  (according to the timetable)   ride to Geneva airport.

I was tired and soon started dozing off in the comfort of the dimly lit air-conditioned first-class carriage, gliding smoothly, almost imperceptibly, along the tracks. I could relax in the knowledge that no matter what happened on our guilty planet during the next 41 minutes, with the exception perhaps of the Earth’s head-on collision with an asteroid, or a sudden outbreak of World War III, the train was going to arrive at the airport 41 minutes later. Not 40 or 42, but exactly 41 minutes later! From my many visits to Switzerland, I knew that arriving ahead of schedule was deemed as reprehensible there (for people as well as trains) as arriving late. It had to be neither earlier, nor later, but precisely on the dot. I will never forget an intercom announcement, once overheard at a large Swiss train station (I think it was Basel): “The train on Platform Three is running ten minutes late, due to an incident in another country.” 

After a busy morning of hiking and wine-tasting, I thought I could do with a 41-minute-long quiet meditation. But before shutting my eyes, I spotted an electric socket above  my seat and decided to charge my Android smartphone. I stuck the charger into the socket (via an adaptor), put the phone on the armrest and went deeply into my favourite metta bhavana – the love-and-kindness Buddhist mediation whereby you wish wellness, happiness and freedom from suffering to the whole universe, including yourself, your friends and loved ones, as well as complete strangers and even your sworn enemies (if any).

Meditation after wine-tasting is never a good idea. Of course, I promptly fell fast asleep. And because I was on a train, and not in a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monastery, where a duty monk is routinely instructed to hit any other monk who falls asleep during meditation, on his back with a stick, no one woke me up until the train stopped  and a loud intercom announcement in four languages brutally intervened in my metta bhavana, or, to be totally honest, just a deep sleep.

I woke up with a jerk, grabbed my suitcase and dashed out onto the platform.

The check-in queue took no more than five minutes. When my turn came, I opened the side pocket of my travel bag to grab the phone and show my e-ticket, emailed by the airline that very morning. The phone was not there. Cold covered my forehead as the realisation hit me: I had left my phone behind on the train!

To lose one’s phone these days is nothing short of a tragedy – not quite like the loss of a loved one or a relative, of course, but close to a major personal disaster, with your whole life disrupted and put on hold.  It is twice as devastating if it happens abroad.

I looked at my watch: about 15 minutes had lapsed since our train arrived at Geneva Airport station, which was its final destination.

Perhaps, I still had a chance...

Having asked one of our party to look after my suitcase, I ran back to the train station, where several red-and-white SBB trains, each looking exactly like the one that had brought me there, were parked. I boarded one and ran towards the first-class carriages, chased by a uniformed platform attendant, or whoever he was, shouting in French that the train was due to depart in one minute. 

It was hopeless. I jumped off and promptly tried to board another waiting train, but was stopped by the same platform attendant who said he would check it for me himself. Two minutes later, he returned with a ... charger, which was not mine, and with no telephone.

“The only thing I could find,” he shrugged and added reassuringly: “Your train must have departed already!”

He then suggested that I checked with the left-luggage office upstairs. “If someone found your phone, they would be likely to take it there,” he said.

I ran upstairs only to make sure that no one had deposited anything – except for some bags and suitcases, no doubt – to the left-luggage office either.

Remembering that my flight back to London was due to start boarding any moment and I hadn’t even checked in yet, I jogged back to the airport where I persuaded an agreeable Swiss Air check-in lady to register me for the flight without a ticket, on the basis of my passport alone (at least, I still had my passport  and therefore was not quite persona non grata).

About to proceed to the Immigration, I looked at my watch and decided that if ran with the speed close to that of sound, I would still have enough time for a final check at the station. In my heart of hearts, of course, I no longer had any hope of finding the irretrievably lost (or so I thought) phone, for which I had already started grieving...

Back inside the station, I was approached by a uniformed SBB official with a crackling walkie-talkie in his hand.

“Is everything all right, sir?” he asked me worriedly, probably alerted by my crestfallen facial expression.

I told him.

“Do you remember exactly which train you were on?” he asked.

“Does it matter? It was ages ago...”

“Please, try to remember,” he insisted.

I suddenly recalled the tiny Geneva Airport timetable booklet, picked up on arrival three days earlier. Miraculously, it was still resting in the back pocket of my jeans.

“Let me see,” I opened the booklet. “Our train left Morges very close to 3pm... Here it is: 14.58, train number 90!”

My interlocutor already had the same timetable on the screen of his portable computer that I had initially mistaken for a walkie-talkie.

“Your train arrived at the airport at 15.39 and then departed again back towards Geneva at 16.02. It was scheduled to stop at Geneva Central for 3 minutes before proceeding to Morges and then to Lausanne at 16.15... What’s the time now?”

I looked at my watch: “16.12!”

“Wait here and don’t move! I’ll be back shortly!” barked out the official. He ran down the escalator towards the platform speaking excitedly in French to his walkie-talkie-cum-PC. 

I was sure I’d never see him again. Fifteen minutes was the longest I could wait for him without missing my flight. And it was exactly 15 minutes later that the SBB official reappeared. His face was beaming, and in his hand he was holding ... goodness gracious!.. my good old smartphone, complete with the charger and even the adaptor!

“Is it yours?” he asked rhetorically and handed it over to me.

“But how... how... did you?..”

“No time to tell you... it’s a long story.  Now you must run to catch your flight!”

I tried to give him a tenner, but he refused point-blank: “This is what we are here for!”

I jogged back to the airport (for the third time within less than an  hour) pressing the phone to my chest – like a father reunited with his long-lost child, and thinking that at times being in Switzerland makes you feel immensely proud of belonging to human race...

So, how did he they do it?

It was only much later that, with the help of the above-mentioned timetables, I managed to recreate the most likely scenario of what had happened.

The official, with whom I had spoken, must have called the attendant on board my recently departed (after about 20 minutes in the station) number 90 train, which was then approaching Geneva Central, and asked him to check the first-class carriages. The attendant must have found the phone and during the train’s three-minute stop at Geneva passed it on to his counterpart on board the Intercity 1 train at the opposite platform which departed Geneva Central at 16.20 and arrived at Geneva Airport at 16.27 to be met by my (and my phone’s) saviour, whose name I did manage to find out in the end.

Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Blendi Berisha, passenger assistance team manager at Geneva Airport station! It will be to you that I will devote the whole of my next metta bhavana meditation wishing you wellness, happiness and freedom from suffering. 

I will also make sure that I do it at home, not on the train, and taste no wines prior to it.     



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