Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Alternative to Interlaken: Thun

A few posts back, it was discussed that the city of Interlaken is Switzerland's ultimate tourist trap. Hooter's. Japanese Gardens. Loud motorcycles. The town's got everything but the traditional Swiss feeling people go there to find. So what's a traveler in the area to do?

Go to Thun.

Recommended by Romy, in the comment section from the "What happened to Interlaken" post, Thun really is worth a day trip. A Swiss friend from Appenzell also recommended it to me, so with the parents in town, we went last week, and it was wonderful.

Now you won't see Thun in most guidebooks. Usually this is a good sign as the amount of space something takes up in a guidebook usually corresponds to the amount of unfortunate neon signage that you'll encounter when you get there. So I always make it a point to take the less trampled, less written about places.

It's easy to get to Thun from Interlaken and the best way is by boat. (from anywhere else in Switzerland, check the train schedule here)

Get on the boat to Thun (takes 2 hours total from Interlaken). Stop by Spiez on the way and visit the castle there. After peeking around the castle grounds, jump back on the next boat and take it to Thun. On the way, you'll pass by several other gorgeous castles. When you get to Thun, enjoy a restaurant on the river. Afterwards, climb a castle that's so uncrowded that you'll feel like you own it. At the top, enjoy the views of the Alps, the lake, and the river and then stop by a spotless garbage recepticle and throw away that Interlaken-touting guidebook. Now that's what I'd call happily ever after.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Swiss Budget Hotels

I was recently enjoying a long weekend in Lausanne and staying at the lovely Hotel Regina, which, despite the price, is apparently considered a "Swiss Budget Hotel."

In Switzerland, CHF 188 ($174) a night for a hotel is "budget."

As most Americans who have visited or attempted to live in Switzerland know, the Swiss have a very different definition of the word "budget." The Swiss Budget Hotel guide is a great example of this. Here, the hotels listed include places that cost CHF 250 ($230) a night. And I don't know about you, but I find that far from the "budget" I used to know.

Another crazy thing about Switzerland is what people consider a sale. Getting excited about a 50% discount is one thing. But in Switzerland, people get excited about 10% off.

For example, RailAway often has some deals on trips and places within Switzerland, but these involve buying the tickets at the departure station from the counter, which, more often than not, is filled with lines of confused people and usually not worth the 2 CHF I might save on the entrance to the Ballenberg Museum, for example. If I'm going to wait in a line the length of a Swiss bus, then I want to save more than 2 CHF.

When friends and family visit with their American perceptions of "budget", I always find myself apologizing for the high prices. I mean, you can't eat dinner for less than about CHF 50 for two people. But, nevertheless, if I pay CHF 50 for a meal for two now, I remark, "what a great deal." I guess I'm becoming slightly less price sensitive in my old expat status.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Smile in the Sun

Has anyone else living in Switzerland noticed that people are much more friendly when the sun's out?

I did the same hike on Monday that I did today, the only difference was the weather. Today was sunny and warm and almost everyone I passed said "hello". Some even smiled. This was in stark contrast to the hike on Monday when no one I passed even acknowledged my existence.

Is it all in my head? What do you think? To read more on this topic, visit "The Smiling Swiss" on glimpse.org.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Saturday Market in Baden

I hate to admit it, but sometimes I don't make it to the Baden Saturday Market because it only goes until 11:30 and even though I live right above it all, I'm often too tired to make it there after being woken up at 6:00 by the noise of the preparation.

This Saturday, not only did I get there, I did what I had never done before at the Saturday Baden Market. I got something for free. Yes, you heard me right. There was an apero advertised to celebrate the moving of the market from one side of the clock tower to another and apparently this occasion warranted a few men to dress in velvet, fire a canon, and give away free wine, apple juice, breads, cheeses, and vegetables. It was quite the party and I enjoyed it.

But the best part was that now the market is resuming its original, pre-construction (and historically correct) position so hopefully my Saturday mornings (street sweepers aside) will be a little more peaceful. And for that reason alone, I'm glad I made it to the celebration. The whole free part just made it that more special.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Support Writers Worth Day

I'll take a break from Switzerland for a moment to let any writers and bloggers out there know about what's coming up on Friday. May 15 is Writers Worth Day. Spread the word. If you post about it on your blog, you can even win an amazon gift certificate by linking back to Words on the Page, which is a blog about the writing life by Lori Widmer, a veteran writer and editor.

Widmer, founder of Writers Worth Day, says, “Writers Worth Day was established in response to the increasing amount of job postings that offer little, if any, compensation for the amount of work expected.”

While I don't answer postings like this, I'm always amazed at the number of requests I get that ask if I can share my blog posts on another site or write a piece for free in exchange for "exposure." Please. It's one thing if I had something to sell. But it's another when what I'm selling is my writing. These publications and editors claim to have no budget and expect me to feel sorry for them. I don't.

As a writer, I don't work for free. And neither should you. Because it only ends up hurting all of us in the end. Writers make little enough as it is. We need to stand up for ourselves and "just say no." It worked for drugs. It can work for us too.

If you've got a great blog post or a great idea or a great essay, it will sell. You just have to be patient and keep trying. Giving things away for free is not the answer. If someone wants to use your blog material on another site, do what the professionals do and ask for a reasonable syndication fee. Or don't do it. It's not worth it to let dreams of Google Ad money (which will amount to probably 2 cents) get in the way of the future of the writing profession.

I can see it now, the procession of writers becoming IT professionals just so no one will ever ask them to work for free again. All the content we'll see on the Internet will be written by those with a terrible command of grammar but a great appetite for exposure. But the writing will be so bad, everyone will stop reading. And then where will that leave us?

To read more about Writers Worth Day and more about why writing for free is detrimental, visit the official press release.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A New Love for Lawn Art

I used to think lawn art was tacky and stupid, but that was when I was in the U.S., when more often than not, it consisted of a bunch of pink plastic flamingos or a few lighted Biblical figures. This kind of plastic city was considered festive by some, but let's face it, it wasn't exactly subtle and often took the spotlight away from any shrubbery that dared get in the way.

But then there are Gnomes. These little creatures are in a class by themselves. They hide under trees or among flowers and seem much more civilized than a bunch of hot pink flamingos.

Before I came to Switzerland, where gnomes were born in the tiny town of Grafenroda, I never gave gnomes much thought. But now, after seeing them everywhere, I have finally fallen in love with something that could be classified as a decorative garden accessory. With a new found appreciate for lawn art, I bought my own little gnome, who now proudly sits where he belongs, between a pine and some pink geraniums.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Expat Voices Interview

Last week I was interviewed for the Expat Voices column on expatica.com, which is a website for all things expat related. So if you haven't gotten enough of my musings about life in Switzerland on this blog, you can get your fill by reading the Expatica article.

The article is full of all things super thoughtful--like the fact that festival or not, brass bands and raclette cheese really should not be in a tunnel. But then again, life in Switzerland wouldn't be so interesting without a party for every construction triumph. So on second thought, keep the crazy tunnel festivals. Words over 15 letters though, those I could do without.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Zurich's Fall From Grace

Some people like rankings, so for those of you into this kind of thing, the 2009 Mercer report on the cities with the highest quality of life in the world just came out. So let's forget, for a moment, what the heck happened to Interlaken (it isn't even in the top 50, imagine that) and let's talk about what the heck happened to Zurich? It has fallen from its #1 ranking last year to #2 (following Vienna) this year.

Was it the weather? The street sweeper who forgot a cigarette butt one morning? The one delayed train? To try to make sense of the senseless, read more on Zurich's Fall from Grace, by visiting the Raclette Rant, over on glimpse.org. Or, for another expat's take on the disaster, visit Swisstory Blog.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

What happened to Interlaken?

When I came to Switzerland in 2005 as a tourist, I thought Interlaken was God's gift to mountain beauty. So needless to say, I always get a little emotional about going back there only to realize the place is a tourist trap full of fake fondue and plastic signage.

Ok, maybe the fondue isn't exactly fake, but it's not exactly the real deal when you have to stare at a room full of Americans and Japanese photographing their every bite while eating it. In fact, the tourist office in Interlaken has definitely zeroed in on their target audience and installed both a Hooter's Restaurant and a Japanese Garden since I was there last. And you have to give them credit, they know how to give back to those who love them.

"This place really terrible," said my Swiss friend Peter, as we gave up our search for a quaint lunch spot and ate at the Coop Restaurant near the train station instead. And trust me, it takes a lot for Peter to eat at a Coop, which he claims is no different than eating in a nursing home.

In any case, the Coop Restaurant was the best Interlaken had to offer in terms of the tourist/local ratio, so we enjoyed our Coop salad and spaghetti accordingly.

For those of you looking for an Interlaken alternative, may I suggest Mürren or Grindelwald, both which are much less offensive when it comes to restaurant signage and general tackiness.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Mister Switzerland/Schweiz/Suisse/Svizzera is Crowned

If you've lived in Switzerland long enough, you've no doubt heard of the beauty pageants Mister Switzerland and Miss Switzerland. They are really popular events here. Mr. Schweiz/Suisse/Svizzera just concluded this weekend, and involved running commentary in the papers weeks before the actual jury on everything from how much chest hair is reasonable to if a sense of humor is important in the winner.

It's pretty amazing, actually, how hyped it all is, but then again, you can only read so much about Paris Hilton before going overboard, and these pageants appear to be developed to channel some of the attention away from Brangelina and Lindsay Lohan and onto a few good farm boys from Aargau.

This year, I even got wrapped up in the Mister Switzerland thing. It was stupid, I know, but when you're stuck on a train with people coughing in your face, sometimes the freebie paper, "20 Minuten", is your only defense so you read it out of protecting yourself from infection more than anything.

But then, in the middle of blocking yet another Swiss sneeze, it happens. You start following Switzerland's attempt at celebrity making.

I watched the whole Mister Switzerland pageant myself on Saturday night. I was amazed by a few things:
1. The event was actually run in Italian since usually the Swiss seem to ignore that part of the country.
2. Christa Rigozzi, hostess and former Miss Switzerland, spoke Italian and German together like they were one language.
3. The entire audience sang "Happy Birthday" to Christa in English (it was her 26th, in case you cared).

But mostly, I was disappointed by the whole event because the entire broadcast was more like one big informercial for Turkey than a beauty pageant. All we saw in between the guys posing in various suits were clips of them on vacation in Turkey. There was no live talent show. There was no bathing suit competition. Just clips and clips of the guys in Turkey. It got old. There was no drama, unless you count pre-filmed footage of a Swiss farm boy falling off water skis off the Turkish coast drama.

Anyhow, the winner of the whole letdown event was Andre Reithebuch, maybe because he didn't fall off his water skis while in Turkey. Either way, I'm sure you'll be seeing a lot more of him in the year ahead. Like it or not.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Customer Service in Switzerland

So my last post for the Write On blog went up last week and it already seems to have caused some, how shall I put it, emotional reactions. Apparently, the level of customer service in Switzerland is a touchy subject and one that always seems to spark debate. Of course, it all depends on your background and what you got used to growing up.

I have to admit, when I return now to the U.S., some aspects of customer service really seem overboard--like the waitresses that never leave you alone and are way too perky for someone carrying around constant 32 oz refills of soda. Still, I do appreciate other things--like being able to easily return items with no questions asked and sometimes even being given an additional incentive for my "trouble".

What's your take on the whole customer service thing? Would love to hear from you. Visit my last Write On post and leave a comment.


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