Monday, August 31, 2009

You Never Know What You'll See Inside a Swiss Castle

The Castle in Oberhofen, on Lake Thun, has everything from Louis XVI style garden rooms to Turkish smoking rooms, pictured above. It features a hodgepodge of designs, making it a museum of style, rather than a display of true castle authenticity. If you want to see a castle just like the royals left it, you'll have to head to Canton Aargau to the castle in Wildegg.

But either way, I still recommend Castle Oberhofen. It's two boat stops from Thun, or if you prefer to hike, about a two-hour hike away along the lake, passing through vineyards and forests (and up and down a few hills, as my legs are reminding me today). Just follow the yellow hiking signs to Oberhofen. And then relax and take the boat back.

Friday, August 28, 2009

8 Ways to Save Money in Switzerland, Part 2

Thanks to all who left comments about How to Save Money in Switzerland. Click here for Part Two. Read about my favorite flea markets and second-hand stores as well as the way Migros takes their budget brand just a little too far.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

25 kilometers? A Swiss 4-year-old could do it!

On Sunday, my Facebook status said, "Biked 25 k". One of my friends in the U.S. commented, "wow, what are you training for?"

The answer? Nothing. A 25-50k bike ride is just what thousands of normal Swiss citizens (and even some Swiss dogs) do almost every summer weekend thanks to a program called Slow Up. And they don't just ride on any road--they ride along sparkling blue lakes, through the Alps, and sometimes through multiple countries (there's a Liechtenstein/Switzerland ride every May). Plus, during the ride you get free (yes, I said FREE) apple juice, cheese (wouldn't be Switzerland without it), and granola bars. And participation is free. You won't get any more fun for free in this country.

Despite the fact that Switzerland has about 20 gazillion biking, in-line skating, and hiking trails, they want more. And so almost every Sunday during the summer, the Swiss authorities close off 25-50k of roads from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. and this makes just about everyone happy--with the exception of drivers, that is.

It's amazing to see the level of fitness a normal Swiss citizen has. Biking and in-line skating in last Sunday's Slow Up were people everywhere from 4 years old to 80. A 25k bike/roller blade outing is nothing for most Swiss, evidenced by people doing it pushing/pulling everything from wheelchairs to baby carriages, to dogs in baby carriages. It is quite amazing.

I highly recommend joining one of these events in you're living in or visiting Switzerland. Bikes are available to rent at each event if you don't have one or don't want to bring yours on the train (each Slow Up is coordinated with Swiss public transportation). But don't forget to buy a ticket for your bike if you take it on the train. Bikes don't ride free and the conductor will check.

Next Sunday's Slow Up is along the Bodensee (Lake Constance). Check it out here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

That Foreign Feeling

There's no doubt about it. Sometimes you just want to feel special. As an English-speaking expat in Switzerland, there are times when you don't feel very unique since every Swiss person you meet seems to speak English and also couldn't care less that you're from the U.S., the UK, or South Africa--big deal, they say, they've been there five times.

I almost gave up on feeling exotic in Switzerland, until one day, I met a couple of Swiss guys that had never talked to an American before. In my Swiss News column this month, you can read all about that elusive foreign feeling that I finally achieved three years after arriving in Switzerland. But I have to say, the wait was worth it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Eight Ways to Save Money in Switzerland

Welcome to Switzerland. Land of the most expensive Big Mac in the world. Land where a plate of Chinese food costs the equivalent of $25 (Come on, Chinese food?). Land where two rib eye steaks will set you back $35 at the meat store. Whew. It’s enough to make any former tightwad like me reconsider her Swiss residency. So how has a former American cheapskate survived living in der Schweiz for three years? Read on, my fellow money-savers, read on. Below is part one of a two-part series.

1. Grocery Shop after 5 p.m.
For those of you who work, shopping after 5 p.m. is probably the only option you have, but it’s a smart one. Many stores will add 25-50% discounts to perishable items towards closing time. At the grocery store inside the Coop City in Baden, for example, the clerks go around with their 50% stickers beginning at 5 p.m.--and yours truly is stalking them. This is how I’ve managed to buy 750 g of beef for CHF 3,75, two chicken breasts for CHF 3, and a 1.5 Liter of Fanta for CHF .90. (Yes, even soda is perishable in Switzerland).

2. Buy big items during the traditional sale months
January and July. That’s when I do most of my clothes and home accessory shopping in Switzerland. For example, my husband and I waited to buy some pillows for our outdoor furniture until July and were rewarded with a price of CHF 5 per pillow (originally CHF 40). So we bought seven pillows at Manor for less than the price one. To quote a Guinness ad, “Good things come to those who wait.” And if you hurry, there are still some sales out there left over from July as I write this.

3. Book hotels in Switzerland last-minute using
Planning an overnight trip in Switzerland? Chances are you don’t want to go if the weather’s bad anyhow. I spent a rainy weekend in Locarno a few months back and I wouldn’t have gone except I had booked a hotel and they wouldn’t let me cancel without penalty. So why not wait until last-minute and book your hotel on the Swiss Budget Hotel website, where last minute rooms around the country go for CHF 99 for two people.

4. Border Shop
If you live near a border town, shop there. I’ve written about the benefits of shopping in Germany before and I still go every month or two to stock up on things that are ridiculously priced in Switzerland like tortilla chips. At the Famila in Waldshut, Germany, not only are their Poco Loco tortilla chips tastier than anything I’ve found in Switzerland, but they also cost the equivalent of CHF 3 for a 450-gram bag. A 450-gram bag. Unheard of in Switzerland. And Moevenpick ice cream? We all know that costs at least CHF 10 in Switzerland, but in Germany, the same thing costs the equivalent of CHF 3,50.

Anyhow, I hope these tips will get you started on saving in Switzerland. If you have any tips to add, please leave a comment. Would love to know how to save even more money in this crazy country. Stay tuned next week for Part Two where we'll discuss budget store brands, discount stores (are they really cheaper?) and more.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Making Friends in Switzerland

It's hard to make friends with the locals. But you are not alone--the Swiss themselves find it hard to make friends with other Swiss. One Swiss friend of mine told me that during his first week of work at a new company this summer, not one person asked him if he would like to go to lunch. Wow. And my friend is an outgoing, friendly guy. So if you're an expat wondering what you're doing wrong, don't feel bad. To make friends in Switzerland, you need time.

After all, I am now great friends with my Swiss neighbor. But even she didn't tell me her first name for over an entire year. Instead I continued to call her Frau V, even while I ate raclette in her apartment.

One of my good German friends has also made many efforts to make Swiss friends--and with little success. So you should also know that it's not just the language barrier that's the problem. Many Swiss are content to have three or four good friends and that's it. They don't feel a need to have more and often aren't interested in finding new acquaintances. Of course, there are exceptions to this and I've been fortunate to find a few.

Anyhow, the strange Swiss Friend Phenomenon all makes it very hard for expats, especially those interested in making friends outside of international clubs. I've been here over three years and I can count on one hand the number of Swiss friends that I have. Luckily, when you do make a Swiss friend, they are some of the most loyal friends that you can find. So it's worth the wait. But as most expats living in Switzerland can tell you, the wait isn't easy.

How about you? What are your experiences making friends in Switzerland?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Is Canton Aargau cool after all?

Many people in Switzerland make fun of Canton Aargau. Admit it, maybe you're guilty too. Apparently Aargau has a reputation for being old-fashioned, white-sock wearing, and dreadfully boring. “Why are you living in Canton Aagrau?” former colleagues in Zurich used to sneer, wrinkling their noses.

To be fair, if I had known about the whole stigma attached to living west of sophisticated Canton Zurich, maybe I wouldn’t have given good old Aargau a chance either. But the thing is, Canton Aargau has castles. I should know. I live right below the one in Baden. And when it’s lit up at night, it tends to make even my snobby Zuricher friends admit that maybe, just maybe, at least one town in the state of Aargau is worthy of an apology.

Zurichers don’t want to admit it, but back in the day, they used to come to Canton Aargau, to my little town of Baden to party. Baden was where the party was. Because Baden was a Catholic town, Zurichers would come to escape their wholesome Protestantness and party in Baden’s spas where they sang, danced, and drank all night long.

Today, castles are to Aargau what Armani suit-wearing lawyers are to Zurich. They’re everywhere. And let’s be honest. Which would you rather have a lot of?

Anyhow, in Aargau there’s Wildegg Castle, Lenzburg Castle, Hallwyl Castle, Aarburg Castle (pictured above), and many more. I highly recommend them all. I just visited the Aarburg Castle yesterday and while I gazed up at it with my feet in the green Aare River, I thought, you know what, Canton Aargau deserves better. After all, it's where I call home.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

How to Find (and Lose) a Job in Switzerland

I came to Switzerland as a trailing spouse who never planned on becoming a Hausfrau. I found a job in Zurich. I lost a job in Zurich (thanks, economy!). But that's where you benefit. Because I have become a Switzerland job searching (and losing) expert. I've written about finding a job in Switzerland. I've written about losing a job in Switzerland. I've even talked about it on the radio. Here, I've rounded up all my knowledge in hopes that it might help you:


How to Find a Job in Switzerland
Here you'll find 10 online resources for finding a job in Switzerland. Included are sites especially for those in finance, communications, academia, as well as general job searching sites.

Trailing Spouse Advice on Finding a Job in Switzerland
How I found my Swiss job and tips for finding yours. Hint: start looking before you move.

How to Land an International Assignment
You're Young. You're starting your career. You want to move abroad. What to do first.


Laid off in Switzerland? What to do First.
Five things you should do first upon getting laid off from a Swiss company.

A Three Month Sentence
An essay about getting laid off, Swiss style.

The Living Layoff
A Four-Part Radio Series about what happens when you get laid off but still have to keep going to work.
(email me if you'd like the audio files, blogger makes them difficult to post)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Who Has the Most Expensive Big Mac in the World?

The Big Mac Index is a way to analyze currencies and show how expensive countries are by comparing the price of a Big Mac worldwide. The 2009 index shows Switzerland with the highest priced Big Mac in the world. The price of a Swiss Big Mac is 58% higher than the cost of a Big Mac in the U.S. But thanks to this ad campaign, at least now we know why.

McDonald's in Switzerland only uses Swiss beef.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Why I Spoke Bad German for 3.5 Hours

Yesterday I spoke non-stop German for the longest time in my life. Three and a half hours. It was bad.

I heard myself using the wrong forms of the verb "to have", starting a past-tense sentence with "ich habe" only to realize the verb at the end required an "ich bin" (but by then it was too late to go back and start over), and also partaking in my very favorite habit of leaving off the verb entirely since having to place it at the end of a sentence after words like "because" makes me forget I even need to use a verb in the first place.

Throughout my butcherings of the German language, my German friend spoke to me like I hadn't just said things like "My husband, her have today lunch with girlfriend". Instead, she kept the conversation going, translating my bad German to good.

I don't know how she did it.

But then again, what's a few wrong verbs combined with a hundred misplaced articles when you've perfected more important words like "Super" and "Genau"? Communication always comes down to filling in the blanks anyway. So while I imagined what my friend was saying, she imagined what I was trying to say. It was really a win-win.

That is why I was able to speak bad German for 3.5 hours. Because I finally found someone patient enough to listen for more than two minutes before switching to English. And for that, all I can say is a grateful danke vielmal. Maybe I'll actually get better someday. Because I think all that's between me speaking bad German and me speaking good German is that one person who will actually listen.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Laid off in Switzerland? What to do first.

If you’re reading this and have been recently laid off, don’t worry, you’re not alone. According to recent statistics, unemployment is the highest it has been in Switzerland since the 1990s. And due to a lag behind other economies, Switzerland’s job market isn’t forecast to improve until December 2010.

If you’re a foreigner in Switzerland, chances are you’re going to be let go first. From my experience, the RAV in my town is filled with people speaking High German and bad German, two give-aways that most of us newly unemployed are not Swiss.

Most contracts in Switzerland require employers to give their employees three-months notice upon terminating their employment. This sounds nice, but emotionally, it can be hard to keep working for a company after they’ve let you go—especially if you’re an American like me who isn’t used to the concept (to help you through the pain, read about how I survived my notice period or email me for audio files to a 4-part series I wrote and performed for World Radio Switzerland on being laid off, Swiss Style—yes, my first job after being laid off was to write about the experience).

Anyhow, here are the first five things you should do upon being laid off in Switzerland:

1. Take your official “laid off letter” to your local city hall. They will give you a piece of paper (stamped of course, the Swiss love stamps) that proves you are laid off. (Don’t ask me why the original letter isn’t proof).

2. Start looking for employment. If you can’t prove that you’ve been looking for work during your notice period then you can lose some of your unemployment benefits. (Note: to be eligible for benefits, typically you must have lived and worked in Switzerland for a certain amount of time…at least a year and possibly two. I don’t want to give specifics here for the chances of being wrong since all of these numbers depend on situations and permits). FYI, your current employer is legally required to give you time off for interviews and job hunting.

3. Get a Zeugnis (a reference letter) from your employer. They may let you write it yourself, and if so, learn the “code” words (i.e. use as many adjectives in a row as possible until it sounds utterly ridiculous and then you’ve probably got it right) so you can make sure you sound as great as possible (at least in Swiss terms—I would never show this letter to an American employer—it sounds way too over the top to be real…hmm but then again that sounds like most of Swiss life).

4. Register at your local RAV. You must do this before the first day of
official unemployment. Brace yourself for huge piles of paperwork in a language other than your own. At my RAV, no one speaks English, so maybe you’ll be more fortunate. You must bring the paperwork talked about in #1 as well as your CV, Diplomas, ATM card, Zeugnis, and Permit.

5. Register at the ALK (the RAV will give you these forms after you do point #4).

Pray that unlike me, you fill out all the million forms correctly and actually start getting unemployment checks for your efforts. But if you don’t, look on the bright side, your vocabulary will really improve fast.

Good luck. If you have questions, comments, or something you’d like to know more about on the topic of unemployment in Switzerland leave them below and I’ll do my best to answer or create new posts based on them.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week, How to Find a Job in Switzerland.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Outdoors in Switzerland: Slideshow

Pictured Above: a trail over the town of Ennetbürgen

There's no doubt about it--Switzerland is best enjoyed outdoors. Thousands of hiking trails, hundreds of vineyard strolls, and tens of lake boats await. Unfortunately, some places in Switzerland, like Zurich, get more rain than London, but when the weather cooperates, there's no more beautiful place on earth.

If you need proof or just need help deciding where in Switzerland to go on a beautiful day like today, have a look at my slideshow: Outdoors in Switzerland. It was published yesterday on National Geographic's

Monday, August 03, 2009

Construction Country

I have come to the conclusion that Switzerland is the loudest country I have ever lived in. At this very moment, my roof is being drilled. Whether or not it's actually my roof is not the point, the point is, it sounds like my roof is being drilled and that is not a very pleasant thing to listen to. This drilling started last week, and according to a letter I can sort of read, it appears as though the drilling will keep going until the end of the month.

Of course, they couldn't coordinate the drilling project with the restoration of the clock tower, which just concluded last week after 18 months. Just as I was cheering the fact that this obnoxious project was finally over, I get a letter informing me of another.

Now I don't know, maybe I just had bad luck in choosing an apartment. Because besides being surrounded by non-stop construction projects, I'm surrounded by all night festivals like Carnival and Badenfahrt which force me either to flee the country or feel jet lagged for days.

But the fact is, it seems no matter where you go in Switzerland you see one of two things: a crane or a hole in the ground. And both come with curious Swiss people reading detailed construction project signs as though they were the Magna Carta.

Part of the noise problem stems from the fact that the Swiss have so much money they don't have anything better to do with it than renovate and rebuild things that don't need either renovating or rebuilding. The road in front of my apartment has been dug up and repaved so many times I've lost count. And last year, they replaced all the windows on our building except mine and my neighbor's, so clearly, they were just bored because our windows are just fine as they are.

With the recession hitting Switzerland, you'd think the construction would come to a halt or at least a low roar. But alas, as I sit here listening to yet another day of pounding, all I can think is, please Switzerland, it's time to scale back and cut costs. Or at the very least, spare your residents a free set of earplugs.


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