Longings from Virtual Travel

Maybe, like me, you have some favorite places on Earth. Switzerland captured my heart as a 25 year-old medical student in 1969. Back than, the world was a tumultuous place. The Vietnam War filled the daily headlines, but I was, mercifully, exempt – having failed my induction physical exam due to limited motion of my right elbow. Ten years earlier, I had tripped while making a lay-up basketball shot and fractured the head of the radius. I never regained full motion. In reality, this has not been much of an impediment, although on x-rays it looks really awful. It made me 1-Y. When I asked what that meant, the medical examiner, an older doctor, said it meant that if they took me, he would start to worry they might take him. From that time on, my graceless spill on the basketball court was known to to my family as “the fortunate fall.” I definitely would not have made a good grunt. [End Digression]

Another consequence of the ’60’s was my erratic academic performance, ranging from all A’s to all C’s, depending on my emotional state. I was thus not accepted to any stateside medical schools. I was, however, accepted to the Faculté de Médicine Université de Lausanne. My journey there in September 1969 was my first trip abroad and I immediately fell in love with the place. The physical beauty, I found, had a highly salutary effect on my normally bleak outlook on life (“gravity is superfluous, the Earth just sucks”). I truly loved the surroundings and felt secure by virtue of a crude SPS (Swiss Positioning System); by reference to distant mountains, one could triangulate one’s location pretty reliably.

This, in turn, led me to a fascination with geography of Switzerland. I found myself often trying to understand the relative location of places. Example: looking south over the Aletsch Glacier from the top of the Jungfrau, (it seemed to extend into distant forever) I wondered where the glacier ended up. Which finally brings us to my literary destination. Virtual Travel.

I have an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset I use mainly for flight simulation. My favorite sim software is Aerofly FS2, which has photorealistic scenery of all of Switzerland. With it, I regularly fly down the Aletsch glacier and arrive in the Rhone Valley at Brig. From there, I usually fly west along the valley, eventually arriving at Lake Geneva and my still-beloved Lausanne. Or, I take a left at Brig and head down the valley to Zermatt and the Matterhorn. Seeing Switzerland from on high remains exhilarating. So much so that it usually triggers intense desires to go there.

My stint at med school in Lausanne turned out to last only 18 months, as my then wife decided to run off with someone else. I dropped out and returned to New Jersey badly wounded. I still remember tearfully looking out the window of the Swissair flight which brought me home, thinking I would never be happy living anywhere else. In some ways, that proved prophetic. I then somehow finished a MS in physiology and a few years later, I managed to get accepted to med school mid-year at Rutgers. A December ski trip to Zermatt was my pre-matriculation reward.

All of which is merely to offer context to my affinity for Switzerland and the ease with which I can feel intense desires to go back once again. Most mornings, I look at webcams in Zurich, Mount Rigi, Jungfraujoch, and Rochers de Naye. My curiosity is such that I try to find exactly the location of the webcams, using various online maps. Google Earth Virtual Reality is free (my animus toward Google is such that I would not use it if I had to pay for it) and a great VR experience.

I am able to ‘fly’ to Mount Rigi in VR to a place called Rigi Rotstock. There, I switch to street view, and see a photograph which clearly shows the webcam at that location. This is an exercise I repeat often, at many locations, with only mixed success. Sometimes, in street view, I can only see the shadow of a pole. It is fun and I have mental notes to look for certain webcams on my next real visit. Last April, for example, I went up to Jungfraujoch (we own stock in the railroad company which goes up from Interlaken) and found the webcam which does a roundshot including the view over the glacier. I find this to be very satisfying, even though it provokes my frequent, unfulfilled longings to head right out to the airport and go for yet another visit.

As I write, my inner entrepreneur is thinking of writing a book along the lines of “Secret, Public Switzerland – Webcams Revealed.” It would have precise maps and photos of as many webcams as possible, as well frames of their fields of view. I wonder if this might sell…? I could even write off the trip…


Author: civil westman

Driven to achieve outward and visible things, I became a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. Eventually, I noticed the world had still not beat a path to my door with raves. Now, as a septuagenarian I still work anesthesia part-time, fly my flight simulator to keep my brain sparking and try to elude that nagging, intrusive reminder that my clock is running out. Before it does, I am trying, earnestly, to find a theory of everything - to have even a brief "God's-eye" view of it all before the "peace which passeth all understanding."

10 thoughts on “Longings from Virtual Travel”

  1. How fortunate to spend that time in a country as lovely as Switzerland!

    I developed a ‘hankering’ for Austria and it was quite a surprise to me. We were traveling in Eastern  Europe and took a swing through Vienna and ended up extending our vacation by ten days.

    In the beginning, I was quite taken aback by the formality of that city from coat check rules at symphonies and reservations at restaurants. Then I visited two museums- the Belvedere with a stunning representation of Klimt and the Kunsthistorisches with its equally stunning exhibits of  artists such as Arcimboldo:

    Spring, from a Series Depicting the Four Seasons, 1573-Giuseppe Arcimboldo-Giclee Print

    I loved the Lipizzaners, Graben Street for shopping and the incomparable Vienna Philharmonic. What struck me most was the pure dedication to beauty and perfection. Vienna’s traditions are special, unique and highly valued by her citizens.

    There is not enough beauty in this world so at the risk of inciting ire among my comrades here, I chose the Vienna Phil as my personal charity because it relies entirely upon her patrons. My patronage contributes to the first chair violinist and oddly enough to the piccolo, because I enjoy its delightful contribution to a symphony.

    I’ll support beauty and the arts as much as I am able to  financially even if it is outside my country. I don’t believe Americans appreciate it as much; that is certainly not a criticism (we provide so much else), but an objective observation.

  2. I did business with many Swiss. I heard many stories about the beauty of Switzerland for years. In 1992 I needed to go there to purchase machinery for my business. I was devastated at my first impression. There was graffiti everywhere. I never got an explanation why and I couldn’t read what ever language it was. Of course this was mostly in the cities. The country side was awesome. I have a feeling the graffiti may have been political.

  3. PhCheese:
    I have a feeling the graffiti may have been political.

    I don’t know about the big cities, but in the little city near me and alongside the main railway line the graffiti is almost entirely “tagging”, although there may be some gang connotations to it which fly beneath my cultural radar.

  4. John Walker:

    I have a feeling the graffiti may have been political.

    I don’t know about the big cities, but in the little city near me and alongside the main railway line the graffiti is almost entirely “tagging”, although there may be some gang connotations to it which fly beneath my cultural radar.

    John “tagging” is beneath my cultural radar.

  5. Whatever possessed you to inquire into being accepted at a med school in Switzerland? Most young people are so devastated at not being accepted at their first or second choice they fold. But you showed some initiative. Did an older relative come up with the idea?

    I am very curious about that part of your story. And I loved the rest of it.


  6. There was an internet game I used to compete in with the sons a few years ago.   I do not recall the name.   It would put you blindly into Google Street View at some random location in the world.   You would choose a direction and then advance yourself down the road until you could make a guess as to which country you were in.   It was great fun.   It was amazing how you could mistake Slavia and Sweden, for instance, on the basis of similar pictorial road signs, or, even finding an English street name would not keep you from guessing Australia when you were in South Africa.   We learned a lot, virtually.   And we learned to distinguish several alphabets.

  7. Carol Sterritt:
    Whatever possessed you to inquire into being accepted at a med school in Switzerland? Most young people are so devastated at not being accepted at their first or second choice they fold. But you showed some initiative. Did an older relative come up with the idea?

    I am very curious about that part of your story. And I loved the rest of it.

    It was in my family stars that I was to become “my son the doctor.” I was driven, internally and externally, but not very mature at the time I initially applied. When I did finally grow up, I did very well and graduated second in my class, having been elected to Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society in my junior year (like Phi Beta Kappa for undergrads).

    Beginning in 1960, I had worked summers as an operating room technician. There, I met an OB-GYN who told me he had gone to med school in Lausanne, Switzerland. I was very naive and asked if he meant Lucerne!! He kindly set me straight and I filed away that info until 15 years later. Recalling the possibility, I applied there when I wasn’t accepted in the US.

    Back then, most Americans who went to Europe to study medicine went to Paris or Bologna, where a US bachelor’s degree was all that was required to matriculate, as they had open admissions. They thinned the herd after 1 1/2 years with a tough exam. Switzerland was different; they employ numerus clausus – which limits the number of students accepted through an admissions process. In those days they took 10 Americans per year in a class of about 150. They took me. I had studied French through high school and college and spoke decently enough to take classes in French with little difficulty. In those days, professors were quite formal in their language, not colloquial, so lectures were understandable. Courses were given ex cathedra – from the chair – so no questions were permitted. The concierge sold espresso and treats at a bar outside the lecture hall between classes. Very civilized. Tuition was a whopping $450 a year. I came back to the US and taught med school anatomy and histology before I was accepted as a med student at Rutgers. The Swiss courses were so excellent that I knew far more anatomy than any of the self-taught Ph.D.’s on the faculty at Rutgers.

    Lausanne was a great place to live and study. Geneva was like a polished jewel. Neither is quite so good today, but still quite OK. Back then $1.00 = 4.35 Swiss Francs. Today is it 1:1, so Switzerland is expensive for dollar-spenders. If I could take my entire family, I would move there in a minute and never look back. Civic virtue lives on there, unlike here. Sad, really.

  8. I’m 10 years your junior but I have some parallels with Switzerland. I had been fascinated by theatrical clowning ever since I saw the Swiss Clown, Dimitri perform at Alice Tully Hall in NYC. I had been working in a circus show at Great Adventure in New Jersey and wanted to devote three years to Scoula Teatro Dimitri located in Verscio in Ticino canton. I auditioned and got in, but there was a 3 month trial period whereby they cut the class of 20 down to ten. The emphasis was Movement Theater, Dance, Acrobatics, Pantomime and Theatre Improvisation.

    I LOVED Switzerland and everything about it. In those days we had no cafes in the USA no chocolate other than Hershey’s and the trains never ran on time. I loved the money and the coins, there was zero crime. You could park your bike at the train station unlocked and ride it home upon returning. Ticino was the only place I’d been in Europe where people didn’t know English allowing me to speak my broken Italian. In Ticino, they had to learn German and French and that was enough. They often responded to me in German, then I’d say I don’t speak German but English. Their face would contort and we’d revert to Italian.

    I had a beautiful experience with other students ( I was the only American) and absolutely loved the teachers and instruction. I was the oldest they would take- 26. It was my dream to pass the cut.

    But I didn’t. I knew I was on the cusp. Being tall, acro was difficult, I’m sure I wasn’t outstanding in any subject just adequate compared to the others.

    I was devastated and it still affects me to think about it.

    I also flew home,  defeated and depressed.    I’m still in ‘show biz’ though even after I gave it up, it became the only way I could make decent money without suffering.

    I went back to visit once. They have a summer theatre series that’s fabulous. Dimitri died recently. He’s a legend.


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