Paul's Chateau d'Oex Journal

The 1998 Swiss Alpine Hot Air Balloon Festival

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Friday, January 16, 1998

It’s not really possible to draw a line between Thursday and Friday, because it all depends upon when the clocks get reset. When we left New York, it was already Friday in Geneva, and in Chateau d’Oex. At some point, probably at an early stage of our flight, it would have been reasonable to reset a watch to European time. Since I don’t wear a watch, this issue did not present itself and I never had a point when I consciously defined a border between the days.

The flight had all of the surreal qualities that transoceanic flights have. The vast time change, of course, is a major part of it. Suddenly, at a point that one can choose at random, and then unchoose and rechoose, it simply becomes six hours later. Six full hours get sucked into the void, never to be heard from again. Added to the three-hour coast-to-coast time change that occurred between Seattle and New York – nine hours’ total difference! – everything is just thrown out of whack. During this transition, it is possible to live simultaneously, in your mind, in different parts of the day. At home on the west coast, where the day had begun – where I could validly lay a claim to "home time" – people were still at work, perhaps thinking about heading home. In Switzerland, those we would soon be joining had long ago finished their Thursday. They had been asleep for hours and were about to wake up and contemplate heading to the airport to meet us. New York, which we had just left, was somewhere in between; our current location, probably a strip of longitude filled only with water and fish, provided yet another time choice. On the airplane, suspended over the earth, we lived in all of these worlds and could switch among them upon our whim. What an appropriate disengagement, a wiping clean of the slate for the stories that would be written fresh upon it!

We had our dinner not too long after takeoff. Because my seat was way in the back of the plane – Row 39 out of 40 – the crew had run out of meals by the time they reached me. I was therefore treated to an entrée that was Business Class surplus. Somewhat to my surprise, it wasn’t all that good. My impression that American Airlines has the best food in the air was reinforced. (One of the stranger components of this meal was a small green salad with a square of fish on top.)

After dinner, the Kevin Kline movie "In and Out" was shown. I watched it half-heartedly and managed to get a bit of sleep. Through much of the remainder of the night, the video monitors displayed flight tracking information: A map showed our location, and we were kept apprised of local time, destination time and outside temperature. Nothing particularly eventful occurred through the remainder of the flight. In air travel, uneventful is always good.


We arrived in Geneva pretty much on time, around 9:30 Friday morning (just after midnight back in Washington). After a surprisingly long and serpentine walk through a relatively small airport, we passed through the perfunctory Swiss customs process. This went very smoothly, just as it had last summer when I landed in Zurich. After a gendarme’s quick look at our passports, we were off to claim our baggage. I had carried my computer with me on the plane, but I did check a couple of bags. For some reason, mine were among the last to come off the plane.

When we all had collected our luggage, we went out to the airport’s entry area. It had been arranged that some of the Bombard crew members would meet us, and then we would proceed by van to Chateau d’Oex. It turned out that Alf was there to greet us as well, however. He had arrived on Thursday and spent the night in Geneva. Other familiar faces were there, too: Michael (Alf’s pilot) and Tim (a long-time crew member).

When we saw Alf, he was clutching several copies of the latest European Wall Street Journal. Last month, he and his Screwy Tuskers had competed in the annual World Elephant Polo Tournament in Nepal, and a correspondent from the Wall Street Journal was on hand to report on the event. Today’s Journal carried the story on the front page! We wondered if it was also in the U.S. edition of the Journal. I had suspended my subscription for the duration of this trip, so I wouldn’t even have a copy when I got home. But Alf gave me one of his copies of the European Edition, and that would certainly suffice.

Outside the airport, we split up into two different van groups. I went with Alf, Susan and Linda in one of the Toyota Previas; Annie, Cindy, Richard and Rosemary took the other Previa. The crew loaded all of our luggage into a third, larger Mercedes van.

The ride to Chateau d’Oex took about an hour and a half. It was a great drive! I hadn’t actually seen Alf since last August, and this was also the first chance I had to talk with Susan and Linda. The three of us who had just gotten off the flight were a little disoriented in time, but the excitement of our adventure pumped some adrenaline into me. Linda, in a post-flight serenity, languorously drifted in and out of consciousness while Susan, Alf and I chatted about various things.

It didn’t look very wintry in Switzerland: There was no snow to be seen, just rain falling on the green countryside. We drove along the north shore of Lake Geneva, past Lausanne and Montreaux, and then we headed into the valley that would take us up to Chateau d’Oex.

As we climbed to higher elevations, we began to see some small traces of snow, but there really wasn’t very much. The road got narrower and the terrain got rockier, but the ground was still primarily green and the rain continued to fall. Around noon, we pulled into our home for the next ten days: the little town of Chateau d’Oex and the Hotel Ermitage.

Hotel ErmitageThe Ermitage is a small hotel; my initial feeling was that it would be very friendly and cozy. The main floor consisted primarily of a restaurant; above were three floors of rooms. The hotel manager showed us all upstairs and introduced us to our new homes. Linda and Susan would stay together on the second floor, with Rosemary and Richard next door. I was assigned a room on the third floor, right above Linda and Susan, and Alf would be across the hall from me, in his usual room at the Ermitage. Annie and Cindy would stay on the third floor as well, down at the other end of the corridor.

The crew would bring our luggage up to our rooms; we went downstairs for lunch.


Although we had been traveling together for hours and hours, this was the first time we really had a chance to spend any time together. We were fairly tired from the trip and the time change, but the thrill of starting our Swiss adventure was a marvelous stimulant. We all sat around the table – Susan, Linda, Alf, Annie, Cindy, Rosemary, Richard and I – and we got ready for our first land-based meal of the trip.

Alf had been developing a hankering for raclette for quite a while, and he asked the manager if we could all have that. Our group's level of familiarity with raclette ranged all the way from 0 to 10, so some were curious about what this lunch might entail ... but as it turned out, our request could not be honored in any event. "We cannot make it here, with the guest rooms upstairs. Too smelly."

Well, we were left to the menus, which proved to be entirely in French. None of us had a very good command of the language, but we could decipher some of it, and the hotel manager and waiters were able to help bridge the gap. Annie and Cindy wanted the veal they had enjoyed at the Ermitage last year. Through some menu confusion, they received something that was a bit different but still very good. Several of us had a special fish selection – skate – that proved to be quite excellent.

The restaurant at the Ermitage is superb. Of course, we had just been dining on Swissair food, so our frame of reference was somewhat down-shifted, but there was no question that this was an excellent meal. Before our main course, we began with a salad of mixed greens that was just perfect. Indeed, for the remainder of our trip, most of us would begin each of our Ermitage meals with one. The mixture of leaves was superb, the dressing was excellent, and the presentation was perfect. (It’s a shame that we were all too busy enjoying the food to take pictures of the plates, because throughout our stay at the Ermitage, everything looked so beautiful when it was served.)

After lunch we went up to our rooms to settle in. We would be staying at the Ermitage for our entire adventure, so there was no need to live out of our suitcases: We could completely unpack and settle into our new home. There was also time for a nap, if one was needed, but I was still feeling pretty alert, inspired by the new surroundings and a continuous sense of anticipation.

Of course, a top priority for Alf and me was the examination of the phone system for modem compatibility. Alf had been here several times before, and he had some special wires and connectors that had previously worked at the Ermitage. As it turned out, though, a new phone had been installed in his room since last year – a phone with an RJ-11 data port! (That’s a standard U.S.-style modular phone jack, and a virtual holy grail for Internet Junkie Americans Abroad.) There were still some dialing difficulties in getting his Compaq Presario connected to an AOL node, with various dial-out prefixes and city codes and so forth, but the RJ-11 greatly simplified the initial step.

My room, on the other hand, still had the old system, so Alf contributed some of his wiring to me. In the course of his travels, Alf has tapped into a huge variety of phone systems with his computers, and he always packs along the versatile hardware that permits him to do so. While direct plug-in connections are always the easiest, the means of last resort is to have two cables: one that plugs into the computer’s RJ-11 and one that plugs into whatever is in the wall. Alligator clips then unite the two cables. Upon the achievement of success, noting which wires of one attach to which wires of another can make the setup on the next visit go faster. Alf had his notes from last year, and so it didn’t take long before my Compaq Armada was also wired to a dial tone.


Having accomplished our primary priority, we decided to go out and briefly explore Chateau d’Oex before dinner. We rounded up Susan and Linda from their room downstairs, and we walked up the hill into town. The rain had pretty much stopped, but it was still gray and wet.

One mission that many of us had was to change some dollars into Francs. I had almost done so at Kennedy in New York, but the service charge seemed a bit steep. Last summer I had changed money upon arriving in Switzerland, and that had worked well, so I thought I’d do the same on this trip. Of course, I had landed in Zurich alone and made my own way to the hotel there. In Geneva this morning, there were more distractions and I simply forgot to look for an exchange window. Now it was late Friday afternoon, heading into evening, and the banks were closed and would remain closed until Monday.

As we walked into town, though, we found a cash machine on the street. Of course, I was still sufficiently distracted to have left all my plastic back at the Ermitage, so this did me no good. Susan gave the machine a try. No luck. Annie later informed us that Chateau d’Oex is the one place she’s been where none of the cash machines seem to work with American cards. Oh well.

We stopped in a small bar for a drink. It was a very friendly place, with a bright and cheery atmosphere. Indeed, it seemed to be a family bar: There were some parents playing a card game with their children at a nearby table. We sat on stools at the bar, Alf next to Susan and I next to Linda, and we talked. Being at the bar didn’t very easily facilitate group discussion, so we had two separate conversations. I had my first chance to talk at length with Linda. We compared notes and exchanged expectations for the days that lay ahead.

As we got up to leave, Susan’s barstool fell to the floor and the bar’s other patrons exchanged knowing smiles. Strangely, however, Susan, unlike the rest of us, was drinking only spring water. Things are not always what they seem at Chateau d’Oex.

We walked back down the hill to the Ermitage and went to our rooms. While we were gone, there had been another arrival: Hermann, Alf’s friend from Germany, had checked into the hotel. He was staying in the room under Alf’s, near Richard and Rosemary and Linda and Susan. This was my first meeting with Hermann. He’s flown with Alf (and with Buddy Bombard) many times, though. Last year, he was on balloon trips with Alf at Chateau d’Oex and Salzburg.

We all popped into our rooms after agreeing to meet downstairs for an 8:00 dinner. Alf and I dug into our computers briefly to pass the time; everyone else did whatever it is that normal people do under such circumstances. I did take some time to shower and otherwise clean up a bit. Perhaps the others spent additional time on nail maintenance or some related pursuit.

We met downstairs in the small lounge next to the restaurant shortly before 8:00, then we headed into the dining room for dinner. Tonight, the restaurant had prepared a special dinner for us after consultation with Alf’s pilot, Michael. Thus, we didn’t have to concern ourselves with figuring out French menus. Tonight’s dinner proved to be one of the best I have had in my entire life! We began with the Ermitage salads, followed by a main course of exquisitely delicious sea bass, accompanied by white and wild rice. It was pure heaven. A couple of people ended with dessert; most of us had coffee or espresso.

Along with our ample servings of wine, we also had champagne during and after dinner. As we were to learn, Hermann is a veritable "Mr. Champagne": He always ensures that there is plenty on hand wherever he goes, and that nobody’s glass is ever too close to being empty. For tonight, our first night at Chateau d’Oex, it was all quite festive.

At this point, most of us had pretty much been awake since leaving home. How much had happened during this long "day"! The last time I had been in bed, after all, was ’way back at the Sea-Tac Quality Inn. Since getting up, I had crossed the United States, hung out at Kennedy, traversed the ocean, seen a couple of movies and met several fun and exciting new people, read about Alf on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, ridden up the valley to Chateau d’Oex, had a wonderful lunch, nearly mastered Swiss computer connections, walked around town, hung out in a local bar, met some additional people, and had perhaps the best dinner of my life. Is that a day, or what? Well, for purposes of this journal, we’ll call it two days, but it did all happen without any intervening bed time. If every day could be like this, ah, then we’d really have something.

Yet all days, even really long ones, eventually end, and so we all ultimately retired to our rooms upstairs. Our beds were turned down, small chocolates were on the pillows, and we could climb in and savor the experiences we’d had and would have.

Of course, our prospective dreams would necessarily have holes in them, for we didn’t know what would happen in the days ahead. The weather was not particularly cooperative, and other variables could have their effect as well. But that night, I didn’t contemplate those things at all, not for a moment. With all that had happened, it was impossible to worry about anything. That night, the thought never crossed my mind that anything short of perfection existed in the world.


Next: Saturday, January 17

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