A helicopter ride over Switzerland, France and Italy is a unique way to view three tourist destinations. But while your phone will tell you where you’re flying over, your eyes won’t be able to tell the difference.
by Zahra Sorour
I snapped a quick selfie with my siblings when I heard the helicopter’s roar from far away. I could feel the wind from the chopper rush around my legs, and I had to make an effort to stay rooted to the ground. The air billowed my black-and-yellow cardigan around me. I sprinted toward the landing square and pressed on the ‘record’ button of my camera.
“Don’t go closer, Tsara!” shouted my father’s Swiss friend, Leo. Tsara is how people pronounce my name in Switzerland. I had to hang my camera around my neck; the wind was vicious. My heart beat with excitement and my eardrums beat from the loud noise. I am about to experience a 20-minute helicopter ride over three fascinating European countries: Switzerland, France and Italy.
The pilot landed right on the orange cross that was drawn on the ground and told us to get in the red metallic helicopter. Zeina and Ziad, my younger siblings, jumped next to the pilot. Layla — my youngest sister — my dad, my mom and myself squeezed in the back couch. The pilot passed around headphones and a guy from outside confirmed our belts were fastened well. Leo waved goodbye and smiled, waiting for the helicopter to take off. Whenever we visited Switzerland, Leo was always the one who guided us around the country. This time, we were seeing the country from a helicopter, because seeing from a double-deck bus is just too mainstream.
“Hello everyone. This is Pilot Adrian speaking,” said the pilot as soon as we put our headphones on. “It is my pleasure to have you on board and I hope you enjoy it.” He then started listing some safety regulations but I was too excited to focus. I just pressed my nose to the window and couldn’t wait to take off. “Papa, el mobile 3ady?” I asked my dad through the headphones, making sure that using my phone was fine. All our headphones were connected and that was the only way we were able to hear each other. The powerful air was rushing into the turbine engine, making a sound like gravity being beat into submission.
The helicopter took off smoothly. I thought my soul would feel the air rise. It did not. Buildings were shrinking and shrinking as we flew up. It was early in the morning, and I was not able to see much activity below. “Look to the right,” the pilot advised. The six of us tilted our heads upwards then hovered by the magnificent view of the mountains. The mountains were covered with snow although Switzerland has no snow in August. We were staying in Zermatt, a town in southern Switzerland’s Valais canton. It is well known for skiing and climbing since it is located right in front of the Matterhorn — one of the Alps Mountains. Narrow rivers sparkled in between the snowy mountains. We flew up higher. I got so confused and didn’t know whether to look up or down; each view told a story. I was busy taking pictures too. Lots of pictures.
Buzz! My phone buzzed. I received an SMS message. “Welcome to France! Enjoy your daily internet services on VODAFONE with daily access fees of 20LE offering 5 MB and any extra Mega will . . .”
France? I thought with a laugh. “My stupid phone is locating us in France, guys!”
“Actually, we are in France and that over there is Mont Blanc,” explained Pilot Adrian.
“What, Mont Blanc?” I asked, “the highest mountain in the Alps?”
“Yes,” replied the pilot.
I was over the moon. Well, actually I was over the moon and the skies and the mountains. I looked downward at the mountain; tiny figures appeared, skiing in the snow. The day before I had taken the cable car to the highest peak of the Matterhorn, the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise at 12,739 ft, and built a snowman with my siblings there. It was funny how you could see people up from a helicopter and at the same time another day, you can be standing in their place waving to a helicopter.
I had visited Paris in the summer of 2013 yet it looks nothing like it does from above. I can only see snowy mountains and then some green areas — it looks quite similar to Switzerland. The pilot came closer to Mont Blanc. He hovered in the same position for around three minutes. It felt so cool that I was of the same height of the Mont Blanc: 15,777 ft. I took a photo of my feet with the mountain. Pilot Adrian flew down a few miles and moved forward.
Buzz! My phone buzzed again. “Welcome to Italy! Enjoy your daily internet services on VODAFONE with daily access fees of 20LE offering 5 MB and any extra Mega will . . .”
It was Vodafone once again, this time telling me to enjoy my stay in Italy. “So guys, we are in Italy now!” I thought we would be able to distinguish it from Switzerland and France from up here. Surprisingly not! It was the exact same view of snowy mountains and some green areas. Italy did not look like the Italy we visited a year ago. However, I was absorbed by the climbers down there. It was thrilling how they looked so tiny compared to the enormous mountains. I traced the way up to the top to see how far they are from the end and my eyes focused on a tiny black hut in a huge expanse of white.
“What is that, Pilot Adrian?” Zeina asked.
“That’s the Margherita Hut. It is the place where climbers rest after a long climbing trip,” he explained, pointing at the hut. He added it was named after Italy’s Queen Margherita, for whom the pizza was named when she was unifying Italy in 1899.
I jumped minutes later as Vodafone bleeped a message, reminding me that I was back in Switzerland. “Welcome to Switzerland! Enjoy your daily internet services on VODAFONE with daily access fees of 20LE offering 5 MB and any extra Mega will . . .”
The trip was almost over. Ironically, the helicopter ride looped with the chronological order of my actual visit to the countries: first Switzerland, then France, then Italy and finally again Switzerland. That disjointed trip took me four years. However, this helicopter trip took me four five-minute segments. Looking at things from above takes much less time but it deceives you; you feel that everything is the same. I was lucky to have visited these countries on terra firma first before seeing them from up high, or else I would have thought they were all the same!
This article was originally submitted to Dr. Richard Hoath’s 2016 writing class at the American University in Cairo.