Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Halfway Between Clean and Punctual

The longer and longer I live in Switzerland, the more I repulsed I become by the rest of the world’s dirt. While I would never win a cleaning award myself, living in a country where even trash cans shine can’t help but affect you—whether it gets you to keep a spotless apartment (I wish) or heightens your awareness to the mess most of the world lives in.

Anyhow, dirt and punctuality are the topics of this week’s post on swissinfo. Click here to read more.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Weekend in Locarno

I think Locarno is my new favorite Swiss city. This is quite an accomplishment for the "sunniest place in Switzerland", since the entire two days I was there it rained non-stop.

But still. I loved the camellias that covered the town. And even if this year's Camellia Festival was a bit soggy, it was in a beautiful setting at the Camellia Park, right on Lake Maggiore.

There's something so refreshing about the Italian section of Switzerland. Palm trees. The Italian language. The bright rose, yellow, and orange buildings. I need to spend more time there. I wish it was a little closer. It's a little bit far (over 3 hours away by train) for a day trip.

Another highlight of Locarno was the Madonna del Sasso, a bright yellow church on a cliff, which is accessible by a funicular. I recommend taking the funicular up (about SFr 4,50) and then walking down. The hike down is a bit steep, but it comes complete with a waterfall, the church--which you can walk inside-no charge, and palm trees and other Mediterranean plants. And thanks to the rain, I almost felt like I was walking through a tropical rain forest.

A few other tips:


Ristorante la Fiorentina, in the old town (Via St. Antonio 10), is a great place for a dinner. It comes complete with a view of a courtyard filled with palms trees, camellia plants, and colorful Italian-style buildings. Excellent lasagne and chocolate mousse.


Alexandra Hotel (Via San Gottardo 43). The hotel is located in a bright pink Italian mansion. High ceilings, comfortable beds, wooden floors. Nice breakfast. Friendly, English-speaking reception. They also rent bikes for SFr 15 a day. It's about 500 m from the train station, slightly away from the touristy areas, but by no means that far. Bus #1 will take you there. Get off at "Sociale".

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Swiss Police: Stop That Fun

I wrote about those great Native American (or Peruvian or whatever country you prefer to imagine they came from) Flute Bands a couple posts back. No matter where you go in Switzerland, not to mention in Europe, these guys give us a sense of constancy on a continent with an otherwise changing cultural landscape.

So imagine my excitement when these guys appeared once again in the square below my balcony for the second Saturday in a row. I was enjoying some of those great melodies that we all know when all of a sudden, the music abruptly stopped.

I ran outside and looked down and saw the party poopers, otherwise known as The Swiss Police.

My husband, not wanting to miss a rare moment of conflict in Switzerland, ran downstairs and innocently passed by. The police were asking these guys for their "Bewilligung" and these poor musicians didn't know what the heck that was. I guess their Swiss German wasn't up to par, which just goes to prove these guys really are authentic. Whatever that authenticity or nationality may be.

But since these South-North-East-West Native Americans musicians had no permit to show the police, they were sent packing in shame. The screaming children in the square though, were allowed to stay.

I knew I should have bought a CD when I had the chance.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Shopping Insanity on swissinfo.ch

It was Saturday. I went to Migros. That was my first mistake.

As most people living in Switzerland know, the Migros supermarket is a madhouse on Saturdays. Without fail, the entire Swiss population jams itself into various Migroi around the country with no thought about the consequences (which, by personal experience and regulated calculation, involve approximately one bruise per bag of groceries.)

To read more about my psychotic Saturday shopping experience last week, go to swissinfo.ch.

Have any of you experienced the madness that only a Saturday Swiss shopping experience can bring?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Tips from a Bag Lady

How to recycle. How to reuse. How to triumph over your Swiss trash. The April issue of Swiss News features my article, "Tips from a Bag Lady" on what to do with everything from your batteries to your banana peels. Because in the world of recycling, the Swiss are the champions. See how you can become one too. Even without a shiny new red passport.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Coming soon to a town near you.

The Native American Pan Flute Band gets around. Maybe you've seen them in a place near you. They were below my balcony for two hours last Saturday.

I've seen them in Zurich, Lugano, Milan, and Athens. Whether or not they are the same band or a clone of it is irrelevant.

The real question is, how much money do they make?

That's why my husband and I created a time lapse video of the event. In two minutes, you can watch over an hour of Pan Flute footage. How generous are the Swiss? Visit The Raclette Rant on glimpse.org to find out more.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It’s a thief. It’s a robber. It’s a landlord with no regard for tenants.

We used to own a house in Virginia before my husband and I sold it to come live in Switzerland. And lately, I’ve been missing it. The fireplace, the screened-in porch, but mainly the fact that it was ours and no one did anything to it unless we said.

So combine this longing for my own place again with coming home last night to discover dirt and pieces of jagged plastic (some more than a foot long) all over the rug in our entrance room, both of our bathrooms, and our hallway. I could only think one thing—my apartment had been robbed.

But no. Apparently, our landlord decided to replace all the skylights without telling us (except via an unintelligible message on my husband’s work phone around 9.30 am after we had both left for work that day, and which he didn’t discover until late) and just left us to come home and deal with the mess afterwards.

No prior notice. No regard for the fact we might have jobs. Just jagged pieces of plastic and dirt all over our apartment to welcome us home after a long day at work. (Talk about a perfect setting for an American lawsuit—I stepped on a piece of the old skylight this morning while getting out of the shower. Thank goodness I don’t have kids.)

So this weekend will be spent washing the white bathroom rugs that are now speckled, picking up jagged pieces of skylight that we overlooked, vacuuming again and again, probably all serenaded by a few unavoidable curses here and there.

I am shocked by the treatment we have received while renting here in Switzerland. For the price we pay there is really no regard for our rights at all. It doesn’t seem fair to come home to what we experienced last night, with only our neighbor (who works from home) to have the courtesy to come by and reassure us that we were not robbed.

A Swiss friend has helped me to compose a letter in pefect German to our landlord, explaining our shock and asking nicely to please give us advance notice for things like this—but I’m sure it won’t do any good. I’ve also documented the event in photos in case they try to deduct some of our deposit for floor damage where these jagged foot-long pieces have dented and scratched the floor. I don’t know what else to do. Anyone have a suggestion?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Four Ways to Eat at Hiltl in Zurich

Hiltl is one of the best restaurants in Zurich. It's vegetarian inspired food. It's always crowded. And it's always confusing.

At least for me.

Little did I know there were four ways to eat at the Hiltl. So here I am, almost three years into my stint at living in Switzerland and I'm still paying the most I could pay to eat at Hiltl by sitting at a table on the second floor and ordering from a menu. But thanks to my blogger blind date with Kerrin of MyKugelhopf, I am now in the know.

There are four ways (and four pricing methods) to eat at Hiltl. The first, described above, is the priciest.

The next three ways to eat at Hiltl involve getting food from the downstairs buffet. You take either a plate or a plastic container (if you want take out, excuse me "take away"). Fill your plate or container with whatever you want. Then:

If you want to sit on the right side of the restaurant at a table, you weigh your food near the hostess stand, take a receipt, and sit down. I tried this with my plate of food and it cost me SFr 18,50.

If you want to sit on the left side of the restaurant in the bar area, you take your food to the bar, weigh it there, and you can also order a drink from the bar. With the same plate of food this cost SFr 13,00. Hmm.

If you put your food in a plastic container and then decide to stay in to eat, there is no mercy. You will be kicked out because you are not allowed to change your mind. Having put the food in a plastic container, you have not paid for the pleasure of sitting in the restaurant in any place except maybe the toilet. I'm guessing my same food in plastic would have cost SFr 10.

So there you have it. How to eat at Hiltl. Thanks in part to Kerrin of MyKugelhopf, who's not known for being an award-winning travel and food blogger for nothing.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Hiking in Germany

I admit it. I love a good border crossing.

When I come upon one, I always have to snap at least ten pictures of the novelty of having one foot in one country and one in another. Maybe it's dorky, but then again I come from the Chicago area, where the biggest thrill one could have was to drive into Gary, Indiana. Somehow, that one never felt worth documenting as it always involved both a traffic jam filled with trucks and a construction site.

Anyhow, if you love a good border crossing, or are just looking for a fun Sunday hike, try this:

Take the train to Kaiserstuhl. It's a small medieval Swiss town, marked by what every Swiss town has-a clock tower. My guidebook tells me it also has a Baroque Landhaus and a beautiful historic center. No offense, but I don't have much patience for a historic center or a Landhaus when the Rhine is sitting there, just beckoning me to cross over into another country.

Marked by a Deutschland sign and a castle, the other side of the Rhine gave my husband and me a great view of Kaiserstuhl before we set off hiking along the German side of the Rhine towards Zweidlen. (About 5k).

It's a nice, flat walk along the Rhine, where you can revel in hiking in Germany and admiring Switzerland at the same time (or do the opposite--there are trails on both sides of the Rhine).

You'll know when you arrive at Zweidlen, as there is a huge dam there.

Cross it (yeah! another border crossing!) and then walk up the hill and you can take the train back from Zweideln. Or if you still have energy, you can hike another 5K back to Kaiserstuhl on the Swiss side of the Rhine.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Shopping in Germany on Swissinfo.ch

Every time I go to Deutschland to do a little shopping, I can't help but enjoy myself.

Big stores. More choices. Cheaper prices. What could be better?

To read all about shopping in Germany, visit my latest write up on swissinfo.ch

Some prices to consider at the Famila in Waldshut, Germany (a direct train ride away from Baden):

American-sized bag of tortilla chips (no, really it's LARGE!!) = 1,99 EUR
Package of fajitas = 1,99 EUR
Chocolate chip cookies that really taste American (They are called Griesson Chocolate Mountain) = .79 EUR
Honey Nut Flakes Cereal = 1,59 EUR

Read more about the greatness of German shopping here on Swissinfo.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Blame it on the Böögg

Do you ever find yourself apologizing for Switzerland’s weather to visitors?

They always want to know how the weather will be during the specific time they will be visiting.

“June,” they prod me, “it must be nice in June.”

Sadly, my answer is usually the same.

“Sorry. But it will probably be cold. With a 95% chance of rain.”

I hate to be negative. But even most Swiss people agree that their weather is terrible.

To read more about my musings about the generally crappy Swiss weather, visit Blame it on the Böögg featured this week on glimpse.org.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sneakers für Freaks

On Page 21 of today's Blick am Abend newspaper, there's a section showing off colorful gym shoes and their coordinating bold prices.

For any friend or family member back home (hi mom!) that always wonders why I have to stuff my suitcase filled with new running shoes (along with many other various items) in the U.S., these prices will explain it all:

The featured Nikes cost SFr 199-220.
The featured Adidas cost SFr 190-200.

When I was in Chicago three months ago, I went to the Nike store at the Chicago Outlet Mall and bought a pair of Nike running shoes for $32 with tax. Upon coming home, I realized I had bought the wrong size. So I returned them a week later, was given a 20% coupon for my trouble (Customer service. I had almost forgotten about the concept), and bought the correct pair for a total of $25 with tax.

Anyhow, with the going rates in Switzerland for a comfortable pair of shoes, I could have bought six pairs of these Nikes for the price of one in Switzerland. I mean, I know people make a bit more money here, but still. Seems a little freaky to me.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Debut on Swissinfo.ch

Swissinfo.ch is a great source of news about Switzerland for English readers. If you can’t quite piece together an article from 20 Minuten or Blick am Abend, for example, you can just go to swissinfo.ch and find your story there. Auf English. Auf Spanish. Or even auf Japanese, if you prefer.

Swissinfo.ch also runs several blogs, including one in English called Write On, which is written from an outsider’s point of view about life in Switzerland. For the next two months, I’ll be the Write On contributor. You can read my first post by clicking here. It’s about my transformation from a spa virgin to spa snob. And it’s all Baden’s fault.

Further Write On posts will be available every Friday on swissinfo.ch.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Tea at the Carlton. Otherwise Known as My First Swiss Doggy Bag.

I never thought my first Swiss doggy bag would happen at the Carlton’s English Afternoon Tea in Zurich, but there I was, being offered a doggy bag for my uneaten scones.

I wasn’t going to say no. I’m an American and for me, doggy bags are nothing to be ashamed of. I’ve never seen a Swiss person take one. But that wasn’t going to stop me from taking advantage of this novelty, after almost three years of dining out in Zurich, at being offered—for the first time ever in Switzerland—to take something unfinished with me.

The American friend I was with took the concept further and managed to add a small lemon tart to our waitress-produced, aluminum-foil wrapped scones.

“Take the shortbread,” my friend urged me, handing it to me off the three-tiered silver platter.

Sure, it wasn’t so elegant or sophisticated to be stuffing little snacks from our fancy silver platter into a bit of aluminum foil, but then again, I’m neither elegant or sophisticated.

The Carlton Restaurant, on Bahnhofstrasse 41 in Zurich, offers (to quote their brochure) “Very, very british, unser English Afternoon Tea.”

You can have this “very, very british tea”, Wednesday through Saturdays from 2:30 p.m. until 5 p.m. for SFr 34. Since there’s enough food on the platter to even take it with you after the fact, you really can justify the price as it can serve as your lunch as well.

The only thing the tea included that I wasn’t happy about was the cigarette smoke-filled room. Somehow, this part of teatime seemed “sehr, sehr, Swiss” in concept.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Carnival in Basel

I have never been a big fan of Baden’s carnival, probably since I live in its center and can’t escape it, but I really enjoyed Fasnacht in Basel.

For one thing, it had more creative costumes and masks. For another, it actually seemed like the “musicians” rehearsed ahead of time. A Basel local confirmed this. The bands are allowed to practice up to three weeks beforehand in designated areas of the city.

There are two kinds of music at Fasnacht in Basel: traditional and Guggen. I preferred the traditional music myself, which consisted of fife and drum bands in groups from 2-25 who wandered the streets with no shame in running you over should you somehow fail to see or hear them coming.

Guggenmusik is normally too loud and obnoxious for my tastes, as it consists of mainly brass instruments played by large bands from a stage, which during Carnival in Baden, is typically right below my window.

The other thing I loved, besides the lantern display in front of the cathedral that was one part art show-one part political statement, was that the entire city of Basel was carpeted in confetti. I got doused with my own good dose, as it is tradition that unless you buy a Basel Fasnacht pin and display it proudly (the Swiss love festival pins—don’t get me started on them), you are fare game to get covered in confetti.

But the real novelty of the confetti carpet is that it’s so un-Swiss. Normally, even stray leaves are swept up the moment they dare decide to cross with a sidewalk, so the fact that so much colorful confetti was allowed to be thrown about the city not to mention allowed to stay around for more than five minutes before a street sweeper appeared was really something else. I loved it and took many photos of my feet, amazed that they could be standing among such creative clutter and still be in Switzerland.

Sadly, I’m sure by today there’s not a trace of confetti to be found. I’m sure that the street sweepers have done their religious duty. And I’m sure that overnight, Basel has become yet again a city of serious people wearing black coats and walking on perfectly clean sidewalks under a coordinating grey sky.

But at least now I know where to go once a year in Switzerland to find its real spirit—even if the people have to put on masks to be brave enough to reveal it.

Drunk Guy Roams Swiss Public Transport

To read my latest on the Raclette Rant, please visit glimpse.org

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Language in Barcelona

The first time I heard the Swiss German exchange of “Merci” and “Bitte,” (“thank you” and “you’re welcome”) I thought it was as little strange. Having learned French in high school, I associated “merci” solely with the French language. Hearing it used in Swiss German seemed, well, a bit foreign.

But I just returned from Barcelona. There they greet you with an “hola” and thank you with a “merci.” So what do you know—“merci” is a much versatile than I thought and I practically fit in like a local, thanking everyone with it.

In some ways, the people of Barcelona share many of the same issues as the people living in the Swiss German speaking regions. The natives in Barcelona speak Catalan, which seems to be a mixture of French and Spanish. According to a local we talked to, most people speak Catalan and Spanish—since Spanish is required to get around the rest of the country. In addition, English was also widely spoken and it was also advertised heavily by language schools, as you can see above on a placemat we received at a Barcelona restaurant.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Unexpected Switzerland

Short break from Barcelona for the moment.

As some of you know, I am serving as a National Geographic Glimpse Correspondent for this spring. One of my assignments is to create a photo slideshow of Switzerland. For this, I am thinking of showing the side of Switzerland unknown to tourists. One good example is the graffiti art wall in Neuenhof, featured recently by Twissted Swisster. I’m also looking for modern architecture, palm trees, things (or people)that are not the usual mountain/cow /chalet in the snow/skier scenes of Switzerland.

I’d love any ideas you may have from wherever you live or know of in Switzerland that's on the other side of ordinary. If you are Swiss and do something unique and would be interested in having yourself photographed, please let me know as well. Thanks in advance. I'm looking forward to showing off a new side of Switzerland.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Great Tapas Bar in Barcelona

One of the great things about Spain is eating. On our trip, my husband and I went out of our way to find the non-touristy eateries since non-touristy areas equal two things: better food and better prices.

We weren't let down with Sol Soler, located in the Carrer del Planeta in the Gràcia district. Gràcia used to be a separate city in itself before Barcelona became as sprawling as it is today. It's definitely where you'll find the locals as well as plenty of little tapas bars and also a large collection of Turkish food.

Guadi's Parc Güell is also located in the Gràcia district. More on that later.

Barcelona is a little tricky, since the language is Catalan and not Spanish. So they say "Hola," but also "Merci." With that weird combination, we have to say, we felt right at home after dealing with Swiss German. But we found a lot of people spoke English, even the guy running Sol Soler. But either way, you can usually go up to the counter and just point at what you want.

At Sol Soler, I recommend the chicken wings, tomato/olive oil bread (a Barcelona speciality), the tomato tortilla, the Greek salad, and the fried potatoes. Add a couple of beers and you've got a complete meal for two. For under 20 Euros, no less.

It was hard to come back to Switzerland.


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