Dining Out

With the ever increasing number of restaurants and eateries around Dhaka, there’s no question that dining out is popular. Whether for a special occasion or no reason at all, people like to take a short drive or wander down the road to their favourite place for a meal. It’s hardly an uncommon activity worldwide. But in Switzerland, dining out sometimes takes on a whole new meaning.

“Is there anything in particular you want to see while you’re here?” my friend Mäggi asked, at her house not so far from Zurich.

I said I wouldn’t mind seeing Liechtenstein. There was something appealing about the idea of a tiny country, at 160 square kilometres less than half the area of Manpura Upazila in Bhola and home to just 35,000 people. Liechtenstein is a principality that had somehow managed to retain its independence through centuries of war and upheaval in Europe. Liechtenstein has the highest gross domestic product per capita in the world. Liechtenstein is but part of a valley and a few mountains, with the upper reaches of the Rhine River, just a large stream at that point, serving as the Swiss border. Mäggi agreed to take me there, and we left mid-morning.

Distances are short in Switzerland. To travel ten kilometres is considered a bit of a journey, Mäggi said, and to travel much further than that is likely to involve crossing canton and perhaps even linguistic boundaries within the country. That valley away to the right, she pointed out as we drove along the highway, was the canton of Glarus, while the highway itself was in St. Gallen; and Glarus was the first canton to lower the voting age to sixteen.

Canton boundaries matter in Switzerland, since each raises its own taxes, chooses its own official language and form of local democratic governance, and celebrates its own public holidays. Thus with even a relatively short commute from home to office, it is possible for the office in one canton to be closed for a holiday while the canton at home is business as usual. Some cantons are expensive to live in but good to work in, while others are cheaper to reside in but expensive for employees, since property and income tax rates vary.

Distances, meanwhile, are rather long in Australia. Outside the cities to travel one hundred kilometres is barely worth a thought, so I certainly had no difficulty with the fifty kilometres, about forty five minutes, to Liechtenstein. Fortunately Mäggi is exceptional, and didn’t mind distances either since she likes to travel, and along with the particularities of Swiss living we reminisced about our first meeting, by chance, years before, in the desert of Rajasthan.

And of course distances are never the only consideration. We were also considering that evening’s dinner.

Liechtenstein is a country named after Castle Liechtenstein in lower Austria where the current princely family, the House of Liechtenstein, used to live. Liechtenstein is a political trick, with the land purchased in order to qualify the princely family for a seat at the Imperial Diet, the parliament of the Holy Roman Empire. Liechtenstein was declared a principality in 1719 but the Princes of Liechtenstein, living in Austria, did not set foot there for the next 120 years.

It was unsurprising. We drove across a small bridge over the Rhine and there we were: Liechtenstein. To the untrained eye it looked exactly the same as the Swiss side of the valley. Mäggi had chosen to reach the southern village of Balzers first, home to around 4,000 people, because on a small hilltop in the valley, in the centre of the village, was Gutenberg Castle which dates from the 12th Century.

We walked around the castle’s bailey, the enclosed courtyard, shivering in the winter air and admiring the grey-sky view from its walls. In those identically Swiss shades of verdant green, grey rock and white snow, was the landscape of a valley rimmed by the peaks of the Alps. Of course it was stunning but it could have been just about any valley thereabouts. But on the other hand, it was Liechtenstein.

I couldn’t help but wonder what percentage of the country it was, that was contained in that singular view. It certainly wasn’t all of it since Liechtenstein continues for several mountaintops to the east which were out of sight, but it may have been most of it. I don’t suppose there are too many places in the world where it’s possible to view the best part of an entire country from the one spot.

Liechtenstein is a tax haven with more registered companies than citizens. Liechtenstein was the last country in Europe to grant women the right to vote, which happened in 1984. Liechtenstein is the world’s largest producer of sausage casings and dentures.

From Balzers in the far south of Liechtenstein we continued to the capital, Vaduz, also on the Swiss border but north, in the middle of the country – a distance of 7.5 kilometres. The capital, home to about 5,000 people, was quiet and orderly, and spotless to the degree I always think makes it seem as though nobody really lives there – what could be called ‘showcase clean’. On the hill to the east overlooking the town was Vaduz Castle, the home of Hans-Adam II, the Prince of Liechtenstein.

The foremost attraction in Vaduz is likely the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, the principality’s collection of modern and contemporary art. A few hours passed that way, bringing with it that contemplative mental stillness that usually comes about from taking in the various concepts and imaginings on offer at an art gallery.

By then it was already late. It was dark. An afternoon in Liechtenstein was done and there was only the matter of dinner left to consider.

It’s hardly controversial to remark that Switzerland is expensive. What was perhaps surprising was that it is also expensive for many Swiss. And if you’re like Mäggi and not averse to distances, even distances that might be considered relatively minor elsewhere, then dining out can just as easily mean dining out of the country.

It had made economic sense on a previous day to reach the town of Konstanz, about fifty kilometres northeast of Mäggi’s house and just across the German border, for lunch. A little further, two hours’ drive to the south from her house was the temptation of Italy. But on the day of the visit to Liechtenstein the sensible choice was to take the opportunity to cross into Austria, where, immediately beyond the border post and before nearby Feldkirch town, are a string of restaurants catering to hungry Swiss and Liechtensteiners. And there, for old time’s sake, for a chance meeting in Rajasthan, we chose the Indian place.

In Switzerland, whether it’s for a special occasion or for no reason at all: if you plan to dine out don’t forget to take your passport.

But the question is: What to Eat?

                     Tortillas from Central America?

                                        Bolivian llama steak and potatoes?

                                                                King of the beef steaks, from Argentina?
                                                                                                                      Norwegian venison?

The choice is yours.

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: Dining Out

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