four countries in a day

I took the train from Paris Gare de l’Est to Zuerich and thence along the sleepy shores of the lake into a verdant Alpine valley, through the angles of which became visible an occasional rocky peak streaked with snow. I alighted at Sargans and boarded the bus, crossing the infant Rhine (here scarcely more than a brook) and almost imperceptibly entering Liechtenstein, a land of thumping mountains and clean, upmarket Franco-German cars. Cows stood shading each other from the heat in meadows of white parsley. Two young blondes, one of them in hot pants, got on the bus speaking Russian. The bus driver ran a red light. Here like everywhere, there was a McDonalds.

Arriving in Vaduz, I disembarked and located the tourist office, where I bought a Liechtenstein stamp for my passport at a cost of three Swiss francs – a complete waste of money, but on what else was I going to spend the forty I had taken out of the wall? I thought I’d get a meal, but the cheapest entree was almost 20 francs, so I bought a sandwich from the Co-op and ate it in the road. Then I sat down outside a cafe in a quiet pedestrian zone and drank two glasses of Liechtenstein wine – a Gruener Veltliner and a Pinot Noir, the latter made (or so said the waitress, her hair a crown of Heidi braids) just 200 meters down the road – at a cost of 14 francs 50. Both stood the taste test, if not the financial one.

20110628-122650.jpg Vaduz castle from the streets of Liechtenstein

From there I took a roundabout bus full of sweltering school kids to Feldkirch, a small sweltering Austrian town whose train station claims, in German, an association with James Joyce’s Ulysses. The ticket clerk hailed me with “Gruess Gott!” I asked him when was the “erster” train to Innsbruck; he meticulously informed me about one at 6.00 in the morning, then, noting my confusion, and knowing full well that that hadn’t been what I wanted, paused theatrically for the slightest moment, and decisively said “naechste!” It turned out there was one in half an hour. I bought the ticket and went, still sweltering, for a native Austrian beer, a Goesser, in a small garden near the station. Before I boarded the train I bought another Goesser, from a woman in the station shop with a nose ring and a fulsomely tattooed left boob – the first of its kind I’d seen.

20110628-123041.jpg The Tyrol from the train

The train rolled through deep narrow valleys bursting with woodland, in and out of tunnels. To my left was a woman with a small baby and her friend, conversing in a Slavic language. At one point the friend, I thought, said “Inshallah” – Bosnian Muslims? We arrived at Innsbruck, a medium-sized town full of birdsong and surrounded by mountains, up to a certain height wooded, above which bare vegetation, then bare rock. I was last here when I was seven (a few days after visiting my only previous European microstate before Liechtenstein: San Marino); we stayed here on our way back from Italy to Bad Homburg. I have a vague memory of my father, and something to do with a gate, or a doorway. That was my parents’ last summer holiday together, after 23 years of marriage; it was all over within a year. 42 years later, I try to speak German, but they rumble me for an English speaker and it’s all in English from there on. The table next to me hosts six local women in late youth and early middle age, laughing affectionately at their experiences of the English; they amuse themselves at how, if you slow down enough, you get to be “dead slow”.

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