Bold and innovative may not be words that readily come to mind when you think of Switzerland. But those words perfectly describe Expo-02 - the country's imaginative national exhibition that just opened at four different sites and runs until mid-October.
Ever wondered what it would be like inside a big, white, fluffy cloud? If you come to Yverdon-les-Bains, about one hour north of Geneva by train, you don't have to wonder anymore.
The expo at Yverdon has created a huge artificial cloud that hovers just above the town's lakefront. Visitors to the expo can climb a tall metal structure built over the lake that gives them the sensation of climbing into a cloud. The structure, equipped with some 33,000 water jets, sprays tiny droplets of the water into the air. A cool mist envelops you as you climb into the man-made cloud.
Barbara Diebert from Berne said she has had that feeling before. "It's like when I go skiing on top of the mountain and I missed the good weather. It is the same," Ms. Diebert said.
Expo-02 chairwoman Nelly Wenger calls the exhibition a big party that Switzerland is throwing to rediscover the world. Organizers expect Expo-02 to draw some five million visitors. Although the emphasis is on unusual exhibitions, Expo-02 also hosts some 10,000 music performances ranging from classical artists to rock and salsa.
Sandrine Mottier is a spokeswoman for Expo-02 at Yverdon-les-Bains, one of four expo sites in western Switzerland. She said the goal of the Yverdon exhibition is to make people more aware of the world around them, their sensory experiences.
"You have to feel something and feeling should be a reflection. You feel something and then when you go out of the exhibition, you think about what you felt in the exhibition," she said.
There is an exhibit that explores the sensation of pain by simulating a car crash that is terrifyingly realistic. Another exhibit at Yverdon explores the wonders and problems of communication. The exhibit shows people speaking in what is called "europeranto, a language that combines all of Europe's native tongues."
The man in the exhibit asks if he can explain himself, while the woman asks what he will explain. But the man, not listening to her, says, "If you will just allow me to speak." The woman immediately ends the conversation by saying, "OK, that's it. I've allowed you to talk."
If you feel like you've lost your senses in Yverdon, you can come back to earth at another Expo-02 site in Murten, one hour to the northeast.
The tiny, picture-postcard town, vividly reconstructs a colorful video presentation of the 1476 Battle of Murten, in which the Swiss defeated a much larger French army.
In addition to allowing visitors to relive the victory at Murten, the exhibit also features members of the Swiss military demonstrating some of the things soldiers do besides fighting, such as rescue and disaster relief work.
Sergeant Bernie Gerber explains the use of specialized video-monitoring equipment that is used in finding victims of earthquakes or explosions. "We have here a camera on this thing and we make a hole and we go through the bottom and look if there are people there, you can move around the camera. There are two [people]: one has the glasses and the other has it here on this monitor. And so you go and search for the people down there," he said.
The Swiss army has helped rescue earthquake victims in Mexico and India. At Expo-02 in the Swiss watch-making center of Biel, an unusual chair-lift transports children into a world of pantomime and labyrinths. And at the expo at Neuchatel, visitors can explore the world of the future, where you can, among other things, register at a hotel by simply recording a digital image of your fingerprint.
Expo-02's organizers have said, so far, most of the visitors are school students on class trips, but many adults, like Fredrich Gesser from Lausanne, are also taking part in the fun.
"I think it is a major challenge to do something now in Switzerland that would interest the people because we have so many things to see on TV that it's really a challenge to find something new. So in some way, Expo-02 is new, is modern," Mr. Gesser said .
Switzerland's national fair is late in coming. It was originally scheduled for eight years ago and then rescheduled to coincide with millennium festivities. However, money problems kept it from starting sooner. But visitors to Expo-02 seem to think the wait was worth it.