Ducks of the Interlaken
I have two great memories of Interlaken. First, the ducks that tried to kill us. Second, the laundromat.
After seven weeks of rain, camping around Europe in a two-man tent, my wife and I entered Switzerland on a gloriously sunny day. Our first view of the Alps was magnificent, but by the time we reached Interlaken, sunshine was replaced by fog you could cut with a knife.
We claimed a lakeside campsite in tall grass and dragged out the very wet tent. While setting up, I noticed a couple of small round heads poking through the grass. They were ducks – quiet, curious and watching from a distance. Soon, several more heads appeared. A curious audience of Mallards surrounded us. At first they sat there watching, and we thought them cute. We shared leftover bread to draw them closer.
They began to quack loudly in what I assume was duck talk for “More please!” One large fellow stationed himself directly in front of me demanding food. While I reached for more bread, he began pecking at my trousers. I dumped a pile of crumbs in front of him but he continued assaulting my pants. I gently pushed him away with my foot, infuriating him. He began quacking as if I had tried to kill him. Raising his wings he came at me in full duck charge. Taken by surprise, I lost my balance and fell backwards into the grass. Now, four more ducks moved in and they were not friendly.
Then I heard Irene yell and saw her running from a feathery posse. We dove into the tent, pulling up the zippered fly screen not a moment too soon. The first duck hit the screen at full tilt and almost came through it. I pulled the velcro flap down thinking if they could not see us, they might go away.
That didn’t fool them. Dozens of little duck beaks were now poking the tent from all sides. Their quacks said, “We know you’re in there.” We stared at each other and started to laugh. Our first day in Switzerland we had managed to infuriate the local bird population. Was there some sort of Swiss karma we had violated? Were Swiss waterfowl inherently more aggressive than others? We had come for the scenery and chocolate. We got mad ducks.
Two cold hours passed watching small dark indentations poke into the sides of our tent. Warm clothes were in the car and we could not pass the night without them. We formed a plan of action. Irene would throw a handful of bread crumbs out the tent flap while I made a break for the car. This worked at first.
I was racing back to the tent with an armload of fleece when my feet went out from under me and I unceremoniously ate a mouthful of grass for the second time. Looking up, I had a brief glimpse of a snow-covered peak through the haze and two beady eyes with a wide-open beak bearing down on me. I did not want to become acquainted with this duck at his level. I crawled to the tent faster than he could run and tumbled inside. Our clothes were covered with mud, but at least we would be warm.
There was no choice but to wait out a sleepless night. It was pitch black and we had no wish to stumble over a mad duck or worse yet, actually harm one in a blind escape attempt. We were the ugly Americans, hated by the local population. All we could do was sit out the darkness and slip away come morning. Yes, the Red, White and Blue would have to retreat. While the pecking had stopped, the quacking continued. We could hear a steady rustle of feathery bodies patrolling up and down throughout the night. We were under siege.
In the morning, there was not a duck in sight. We pulled down the tent and pointed the car towards town. Besides the mud of last night, we had not washed clothes in two weeks. It was time for hot coffee and clean underwear. Checking the rear view mirror, I saw one small head above the grass. I imagined ducky high fives were being exchanged at that moment. “We got those tourists!”
Five minutes later we found a laundromat. My stuff fit neatly in one washer, but Irene had a favorite parka. She wanted it dry cleaned rather than washed and this facility did just that. She put the parka inside, inserted coins, and settled back with a book to wait.
Twenty minutes passed. I was loading my clean and wet clothes into the dryer while Irene’s parka tumbled. A half-hour later, I was unloading my clean dry clothes while Irene’s parka continued to spin. I read the instructions on the side of the machine but they were in German. Putting on my best helpless tourist smile, I approached the Frau in charge and asked if she spoke English.
I have since learned this to be a mistake in most countries. If a local person speaks English, he or she will usually do so. If you have to ask, it means you are wearing a large sign that says, “Yes, I am an American!” And will be treated accordingly. This lady spoke no English but took pity on me.
I pointed at the spinning machine and then my watch. She nodded knowingly and also pointed to my watch, fifteen minutes from now. Fine. Dry cleaning in Germany just takes a little longer.
More than fifteen minutes later I approached her again. She ambled to the machine, hit a couple buttons, and gave me a big smile. “Not to worry,” this smile said, “Alles in ordinun.” She planted herself down with a magazine and left us to watch Irene’s parka spin merrily away. A half-hour later the parka was still turning, and this time our Frau took it upon herself to give the machine a good whack. Obviously a bit of Teutonic technology was required. No results.
Since enough time had now passed for any reasonable person to be embarrassed, our host did the only decent thing. She disappeared into the back room and emerged shortly with a small tray. She had made Cappuccinos. Patting the seat next to her, she said haltingly, “Husband come, sit!” Irene and I sat and raised our mugs to toast her immaculately clean but ever spinning parka.
Two Cappuccinos and a bathroom visit later, we knew things were going downhill when the lady produced her family photo album. We were trapped in tourist hell. Leafing through shot after shot of smiling cherubs in lederhosen caused Irene to giggle. Not wanting the lady to think we were laughing at her family photos, I tried to explain in my pidgin German we were just tired. I was rescued from this when a large red-faced man entered the room.
The lord of the castle was home. He sized up the situation. Two tourists in his establishment, five empty Cappuccino cups on the table, an open photo album, and Irene’s parka spinning in the machine. Something was fishy in Interlaken.
He took his wife firmly by the arm disappearing into the back room. I would not call what I heard yelling, but that would be close. The man emerged from the room, gave me his best Nordic glare and stepped to the machine. Reaching down, he pulled the cord and it stopped.
I took out the parka. It had never been so clean.