Monday, June 29, 2009

Falling in Love with the Alsace

In the last few years, I've been to a number of old towns in Europe. Unfortunately, after awhile, they all seem to blend to together. So when we headed to the Alsace area over the weekend, I wasn't expecting much.

But the little villages in this area are just charming. I wanted to hug them. People were handing out samples of sausages, wines, macaroons, and kugelhopfs out the windows. And who can resist that generosity combined with half-timbered houses that were all competing for best floral design of the year?

We stayed in Eguisheim (about 6k south of Colmar) at a B&B that wins best value of the year in my book. It is run by Marie-Therese and Albert Bombenger, whose house sits on a vineyard right outside town. And the best part was, they both spoke French and German, so we could communicate just fine. I highly recommend a stay here, and for 42 EUR/night including breakfast, it's the deal of the century in Europe and you'll feel right at home.

I also recommend visiting Kaysersberg and Riquewihr, two other adorable villages in the area.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Reveling in Germany

Every time I go to Germany I can't help but revel in both the language and the prices of things. This has nothing to do with loving Germany over Switzerland, it's just a few things I appreciate when I cross the border.

I understand people. I don't have to ask them to repeat in High German. I meet native German speakers who have the same trouble as I do understanding Swiss German and this makes me feel better-like a cute 90-year old German woman who owns a little pension in Staufen. After I told this woman that I speak German because I've lived in Switzerland for three years, I also mentioned that my German isn't perfect yet because it's hard to learn German in Switzerland. She patted me on the shoulder and laughed, saying it was hard for her to understand the Swiss too, and then proceeded to give me a basket of cherries as a parting gift.

Then there are the prices. In my few days in Germany over the weekend, I had pasta dinners, I had meat dishes, and I had sodas and beers to go with. Each meal I ate would always amount to about 10 Euros (about 15 CHF) and this was in nice restaurants with great food and no smoking allowed. It was bliss. Why, Switzerland, can't you achieve this? I can't eat out here for less than 25 CHF and I have to smell smoke (at least in most cantons) while doing it.

I love a lot that Switzerland has to offer--endless hiking/biking trails, natural beauty, concern for environment, and the possibly the best public transport system in Europe. And while no place is perfect, Switzerland might be close if only it could add a little of what I love about Germany to the mix.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Father's Day

pictured above, Zurich's Landesmuseum

In honor of Father's Day this year, I wanted to post an essay about my father that I was published last year in the Christian Science Monitor to celebrate the holiday. It is called "Dad's Museum Mania," and is all about how I used to have to take a quiz after every museum visit before I could have ice cream.

I can't quite figure out if the Swiss celebrate Father's Day. I know they celebrate Mother's Day, so I would assume they would also celebrate the other half, but I have seen no signs of Father's Day in the stores. Maybe it's another weekend or time of year?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Three Years Today

So I went to pick up a couple of friends from the Zurich Airport this morning when I realized, exactly three years ago today, I was arriving at the airport to live in Switzerland.

It brought back a lot of memories, from lost luggage filled with everything in my life that I couldn't bear to lose (was found the following day), to trying to order a sandwich and not understanding what I was ordering, to the shock over the price of a taxi from the Zurich Airport to Baden (CHF 120)--especially one that couldn't even find where we were staying and left us and 10 bags of luggage on a bridge in Baden to fend for ourselves.

Anyhow, it's all been a wonderful adventure filled with stories good and bad. But I wouldn't trade the experience of living abroad for anything. From seeing most of Europe to understanding what it really means to be an American, it's all a part of the expat package.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hello? Oh wait...

I’ve been living in Switzerland for three years as of this coming Friday. And I still can’t seem to get the hang of Swiss phone etiquette.

The problem is, if I don’t recognize the number of the caller, I’m not sure how to answer it. Should I answer the American way, with just a “Hello”? The professional English-speaker way, with my first and last name? Or the Swiss way, with “Frau X”, said in a tone that’s as threatening as possible?

No matter the decision, it’s usually the wrong one and I end up with silence on the other end while the caller gets over their initial “greeting shock” and tries to figure out how to talk to a crazy person like me.

This morning was no exception. I went with the professional English-speaker version of “hello” and heard nothing but silence on the other end.

Then, after about five seconds, the caller cleared her voice and said, “Frau X?” I answered, “ja” and then, relieved by my one German mumble, she blabbed full-steam ahead in Swiss German.

Finally, when she came up for air, I told her I understand “not so good” Swiss German and could she please repeat everything in High German. After that, all was klar (at least as klar as it was going to get), and just when I was congratulating myself for surviving yet another Swiss phone call, she says, “Auf Wiedersehen, Frau X.” And I know that I’m supposed to answer back, “Auf Wiedersehen, Frau Y.” Except I can’t remember her name because my brain was too busy processing the whole phone etiquette/language thing only to result in being a failure at both.

So I say a simple “Auf Wiedersehen,” leaving out her name and then hang up and curse the phone.

When it comes to the foreign phone experience, I’ll never win. The only thing all of us living abroad can do is continue to encourage e-mail use. It really is the best technology for foreign communication, where we have the two things we need most on our side: time and google translate.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Gambling in Switzerland

The other night, my husband and I were walking home when a Baden Casino taxi dropped a man off in the center of town. He walked in front of us all the way to the UBS, where he took out money and then got back in the Casino taxi. I don't know if gambling is a big problem in Switzerland, but according to a recent article on, many Swiss "gamble their life away."

When I was outside the Baden Casino taking this picture, a guy came out of the casino and asked me for 3 CHF so he could pay the parking meter. I'm guessing he was losing. I only had my camera with me and nothing else so giving the guy money wasn't even an option, but please. This guy obviously had money to throw away gambling so I wasn't about to take pity on him for parking meter change. Besides, the Casino Taxi was parked right in front of us. An ATM was a short ride (or walk) away.

My neighbor is an avid gambler. We just saw her yesterday heading out with her "Casino Tasche", a special purse she uses only for gambling. A few months ago, I went to my first Swiss casino with her as my tour guide. You can read about the experience in this month's Swiss News, or by clicking here.

Have any of you visited a Swiss casino? What was your experience like?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How to Speak "Swiss"

No matter how good my German gets, I'll always be labeled a foreigner in Switzerland. Last week, I was at an "Information Day" for residents of my town, when the woman giving the presentation asked if anyone would prefer she speak in high German as opposed to Swiss German. No one said anything after a second, but finally, just as I got brave enough to say, "Ja", another woman joined me. Immediately, the entire room of people turned to stare at who the two "foreigners" were. I tried to look innocent.

Despite the stigma attached to wanting high German spoken, I was glad I went through the pain since I could understand about 80-85% of the presentation that way. If it had been given in Swiss German, I probably would have been at about 20% comprehension--the languages are that different.

How to speak "Swiss" is a complicated question, but one I've tried to answer in a fun way in the piece "How to speak Swiss" for National Geographic's Check it out. I'd be happy to know what you think. And thanks again to all of my linguistically talented translators for your help with this piece.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Another "Foreigner" Moment

Often in the "Expat Adventure" column that I write for Swiss News, I talk about moments that could only happen when one lives or travels abroad. These are often moments when one feels stupid because of not understanding a part of the culture, language, or situation they find themselves in. Of course, these moments, while stressful at the time, are usually the ones I laugh about most after the fact, and to me, they are the reason living abroad will never get old.

One of these moments happened to my husband and me last week in Sweden. After buying some items from the grocery store for a picnic, we made ourselves comfortable on a bench on the island of Djurgarden. A woman came and sat on the other side of the bench while my husband took out his beverage and took a gulp, only to practically scream bloody murder at what he had just drunk.

"Try this," he urged me, as he coughed and choked his way back to recovery.

What had looked like an innocent fruit juice called "Bob" had actually been a syrup, and the amount my husband had digested in his big gulp probably had enough power to make at least a liter of strawberry juice.

While he turned green, the woman on the bench laughed and turned to me and said in perfect English (as all Swedes do),

"That stuff will last him a long time."

She was right. For the rest of the trip, Bob came with us so we could mix a little in our water at every opportunity. But Bob outlasted us and we had to dump him at the airport before leaving Stockholm. Because no matter how attached to his fruity flavor we'd become at that point, the airport security wouldn't let us take anything but the memory of him back home with us.

Friday, June 05, 2009

What You'll See in Stockholm

Last weekend, I went to Stockholm and this is what I saw:

In case you couldn't guess, H&M is a Swedish company. And not only have they taken over the world, they've taken over Stockholm. One could spend the entire day, going from one H&M to the next without much effort since many are just on opposite sides of the street from each other, like you can see in the last photo. Unfortunately, I couldn't capture the fact that there were actually THREE H&Ms all together on one street corner. So if you love this store, you now know where to plan your next European get-away.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Is Swiss Transportation too good?

photo by Brian Opyd

The Swiss train will bring you to the bus that brings you to the cable car that brings you to that beautiful meadow in the middle of nowhere. Amazing. And all connections will have minimal waiting time. But is this minimal connection time really ideal?

Of course, if you've just got yourself to worry about, five minutes to go from track 54 to track 18 is no big deal. But add a few pieces of luggage, a stroller the size of an SUV, or a group of clueless visitors trailing behind you, and you're just setting yourself up for a world of pain.

The Swiss senior citizens, though, are the champions at tight connection times-probably because they have hiking poles to push through the crowds with. We should all get some of those. They seem effective. In fact, my mother-in-law actually stopped a Swiss train dead in its tracks with a hiking pole. Talk about power.

What do you think about Swiss public transport? On one hand, it's wonderful. On the other hand, I'm out of breath.

Read more at "Swiss Transportation: Almost too good?" on

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Spring Swiss Flower Tours

Ever since I visited the tulip fields in Holland last year I’ve become a flower freak. My father wasn’t shy to point out, that on his visit to Switzerland this May, I took him and my mother to no less than three fields of flowers—all in the middle of nowhere.

The first flower adventure I took them on was to the mustard fields near Wettington. Every May in Switzerland, hundreds of these bright yellow patches seem to appear everywhere around the country. They are to Switzerland what the lavender fields are to Provence.

The next flower adventure was even more remote—the fields of narcissus near Montreux. Although there are specific tours that will take you to see them, they are in French, the website is in French, and like most French things, they aren’t excited about translating them. But since I’m the impatient type and like my information fast and furious, I made up my own tour based on theirs and took my family on a train to Caux. From there, we hiked up about a half hour and finally discovered beautiful fields of these white flowers, which, according to a local, are becoming rarer and rarer as the years go on. If you speak French and want a tour, or just want to wing it like me, the flowers/tours are supposedly around until June 7.

The final flower adventure took place at les Jardins du Chateau de Vullierens. The iris festival here is really in the middle of nowhere but that never stopped the Swiss transportation system. From Morges, you take a post bus (tell the driver where you’re going so he stops at the appropriate stop as you’ll have no clue when to request a “stop” and the busses don’t tell you what the next stops are). It’s worth the bus adventure though, to see the huge fields of irises that are found at this castle. You can order some for your own garden there too. There are hundreds of shapes and colors. The garden is open until June 28 and costs 15 CHF to enter. There’s a cute café there as well that serves fantastic pastries. Be sure to check departure times if you’re taking the bus, as it doesn’t run very often.


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