Monday, December 20, 2010

Time for Nothing. The horror!

It's that time of year again.

The time when this Frau gets really nervous because she has to do something extremely hard for an American: relax.

Switzerland has done wonders to calm her need to be busy at every moment, but she's still an American at heart and therefore way too antsy to just do nothing.

Still. The Frau is going to try. She is going to pretend like every day is a Swiss Sunday. She hopes you can be a little Swiss this holiday season too.

So, in honor of this strange, relaxing mindset, the Frau will say her holiday greetings, Swiss-style now: Frohe Weihnachten und ein glückliches Neues Jahr. Joyeux Noel et Bonne Année. Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from One Big Yodel.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Happy Talk

Sometimes understanding German makes living in Switzerland more difficult. You hear insults. You hear stupid conversations. And you hear two twelve year old girls asking the Coop cashier how old they must be to buy cigarettes.

When she told them 16, they were very disappointed.

I was disappointed in them. Somehow, I wish I could have imagined that they were asking where the lollipops were.

I miss my little expat bubble sometimes. Living in reality can be much harder. Maybe I should move to the French section. Or better yet, the Romansch section. Everyone would be saying happy things there.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Holiday Spirit

Mountains. Snow. Christmas Markets. What else could you want?

Oh. Maybe the holiday spirit?

That's the one thing that was missing at the Innsbruck Christmas Market. Happy people.

At one store, I was buying a few Christmas ornaments with a friend so I asked for an extra bag. Nicely. In German. The salesclerk then threw the ornaments on the counter, got another bag, and threw them all in the other bag. Excuse me for giving her business.

At another stand, I picked up a wrapped loaf of bread to figure out what it was. It looked tasty and was covered in chocolate and I was considering buying it until all of a sudden I received a scathing lecture from the seller for touching it. I apologized, but this woman kept yelling. One of my friends, who speaks fluent German, stepped in and told this women we were sorry, we just thought her breads looked good and we wanted to see what they were. She kept yelling, "you should know better than to pick things up!" My friend told her that then she should have a "do not touch sign." "No!" said this woman, "It is common sense not to touch things!"

She was still yelling but I wasn't going to take it any more. I wished her a "Frohe Weihnachten" and then I walked off.

Later, we passed her booth and here's what we saw:

Happy Holidays from Austria.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Save money on your rent

Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren

There's something your landlord probably isn't going to tell you.

The interest rates have fallen in Switzerland and therefore many renters are entitled to a rent decrease. The catch? Unlike rent increases (which have happened to us once already over the last four years) rent decreases don't typically happen automatically (unless you have a really nice landlord).

Please do not let language issues get in the way of your rightful savings like I have been guilty of doing in the past. Here are the basics about what you need to do:

1) Check your lease to see what the national reference rate that your current rent is based from (Hypothekarzinssatz). Our lease, from 2006, shows a rate of 3%, which was later raised in 2008 to 3.5%, which increased our rent a lovely SFr 150/month. The rate has just been lowered to 2.75%, so we should (fingers crossed) be entitled to a nice rent decrease.

2) To qualify for your decrease, you must send a letter by registered mail to the people you rent from. But don't worry, the letter is already written for you. You just need to download it and fill in the blanks. To download your letter, click here. As I understand it, you must send this letter within 30 days and every person listed on your lease must sign it. You can visit the renter's association website for more information by clicking here, where you'll also find the letter available in a Word document.

Here's to trying to save money in Switzerland! Good luck. And if anyone has information on where to find these letters in French, please let me know so I can add the links to help our friends on the other side of the roesti ditch.

Has anyone had success with rent reduction in Switzerland? Please share.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Black Sheep Return

Maybe you've noticed. Our friends, the black sheep, are back to being beat up on posters everywhere from the Zurich HB to your own backyard. The vote to deport foreign criminals is back on Nov 28.

Now. Let me get something straight. In principle, I have nothing against the idea that foreign criminals who commit certain kinds of crimes should be deported. Yes, they've broken the rules and why should Swiss people pay to lock them up?


What I have against the whole argument is the way the SVP party presents it. With propaganda. With fear. A fear so great that it makes even non-criminal foreigners like me feel dirty. And a fear that makes its own sweet citizens, my neighbor included, put double locks on their doors and install security systems. All of this in a country as beautiful and crime-free as Switzerland.

I also have a problem with the issue because it includes the word "foreigner". What defines a foreigner? If I have a child in Switzerland and they grow up here, are they a foreigner too? Just because they don't have a Swiss passport? It seems like the foreign criminal issue is just an another excuse to discriminate.

What do you think?

To read more, visit my piece on Fear in Switzerland, over on swissinfo.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It could have been hell. But it was Swiss.

In some countries, things just work. You pay for them. But they work.

Airlines, for example. This weekend, I flew Swiss from Zurich to Nice. Unfortunately, Nice wasn't very nice (it rained almost the entire time I was there) but Swiss was.

We had boarded the plane in Zurich and we were ready to taxi when the pilot realized something was wrong with the plane. In any other country (or with any other airline) this would have meant crazy delays and hassle, turning my weekend getaway into an extended airport stay. But with Swiss, this problem was taken care of like clockwork. "Naturally, we have another plane for you and we will be ready for take-off again in 45 minutes."

Yeah right.

But this is Switzerland. Within 45 minutes, as promised, we were on a new plane, a bigger plane, told we could spread out and make ourselves comfortable (yay, exit row!) and we were ready to take off, arriving in Nice only about 40 minutes behind schedule.

Then the French took about another 40 minutes to get us our luggage. But that's another story. A French one.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Dear Frau: Why is my visa taking so long?

Welcome to another edition of Dear Frau. It’s kind of like Dear Abby, except with an international twist. If you have a question about life in Switzerland, don’t hesitate to contact The Frau. Then maybe your little Frage will be in the next edition of Dear Frau.

Dear Frau,

I'm trying to move to Bern but the process has been halted due to my work visa taking an unheard of amount of time to process. Did you run into any problems like this when you moved there? I keep calling the embassy to find out if it has been accepted, and they just tell me that it's still processing. I'm at my wit's end!

Any other tips would be greatly appreciated as well! I'm really enjoying reading your blog and I'm sure it will be a nice tool for me to use when I finally make it over there.


Visa Vixen

Dear Visa Vixen,

The Frau isn’t sure what an unheard of amount of time is to wait for a visa in Switzerland, except that an unheard of amount of time is normal. I mean, think about it, if good things come to those who wait, then Switzerland is worth its weight in gold. How else could the prices here be so insane?

But The Frau digresses.

Here's the thing: Bureaucracy is slow and stupid on purpose. This is due to one of two phenomenons:

Porn. (It's more exciting than your paperwork.)



Look. In most countries, foreigners finish last. In Switzerland, it’s even worse because Swiss people have a train to catch. They have to go to lunch at noon. They have to do their laundry on Wednesday the 17th or wear dirty clothes for another three weeks. They are tired of being on time. And can you blame them? Punctuality is so ingrained in the culture that they can’t wait to slack. And who better to slack with than the foreigners?

So yeah. The Frau is not surprised that you’re still waiting on the visa. But look on the bright side. In the meantime, you’ll have plenty of time to read past columns of Dear Frau for more tips on moving to Switzerland.

Anyone else out there have advice for Visa Vixen?

Do you read Swiss Info’s Write On blog? For the next two months, The Frau will be blabbing over there as well as on One Big Yodel. God save the Internet. Click here to read the latest, where The Frau takes it upon herself to apologize to the entire confederation.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

What the Swiss think of America

Wow, it's all of America in one big logo, courtesy of the American Bar & Restaurant in St. Gallen. (Note: Believe it or not, the American Bar & Restaurant is actually a Swiss chain--they are also in hotspots like Brütten and Mutschellen.)

Of course, the Frau has been to the American Bar & Restaurant–on her birthday, of course. But you wouldn't expect any less of her, oder? For her first impressions of the restaurant, click here.

Now let's see. What do we have in this fantastic logo?

Football (an Illini player, they have good taste).
Big buildings.
Big birds.
Big rockets.
Big boats.
Big bridges.
Big parks.
And a bunch of presidents that are larger than life.

I'd say they did a good job summing up America. The only thing that could possibly be improved would be the addition of a big lawyer right in the center of it all (did you know a 4-year old can now be sued for negligence?).

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Scary Worldwide: The Band Uniform

In honor of Halloween, I wanted to share something that is a truly frightening phenomenon worldwide: the school band uniform. Pictured above is Baden's version (heads have been chopped off to protect the innocent).

What an outfit. Wow. Makes me feel better about that wool, navy and orange shoulder padded suit that I had to wear in high school.

Note to all band members: I know it's not your fault, but putting a feather in your cap is never a good idea.

Did you wear a band uniform in school and live to tell about it?

Friday, October 22, 2010

That will be 40K please

Dear taxpayer,

That will be CHF 40,000 ($40,000). Please pay by tomorrow. In cash.


Ok. That's not exactly how Swiss taxes go, but essentially, you get a bill from the tax man for a staggering amount and are expected to hurry up and go transfer the money to them asap upon receiving your bill. Taxes are not deducted directly from paychecks in Switzerland, Swiss residents are expected to save part of their paychecks for the big tax bill that comes later, once a year.

Can you imagine this working in the United States? Please. The budget deficit is bad enough.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dear Frau: How much cheaper are prices in Germany?

Welcome to another edition of Dear Frau. It's kind of like Dear Abby, but with an international twist. If you have questions about life in Switzerland, don't hesitate to contact the Frau and maybe your little Frage will be in the next edition of Dear Frau.

Dear Frau,

You’ve discussed grocery shopping in Germany a few times on your blog. But how much can I really expect to save? Will it make up for the cost of my train ticket there?


Curious in CH

Dear Curious in CH,

Good timing. The Frau just went shopping in Germany (Waldshut) again over the weekend. But before we look at a few price comparisons, let’s talk in general. In 2009, Blick am Abend reported that Swiss grocers averaged 33% higher prices than German ones. Since then, the franc has gained on the euro, so the prices in Germany are even more advantageous to the Swiss shopper. I don’t know what your train ticket costs, but let’s take a look at a few prices, using the current euro-franc exchange rate, which is roughly 1 euro = 1.34 francs.

Note: In this example, Migros, Coop, Denner, and Manor are shops in Switzerland. Kaufland and Müller are the shops in Germany.

Note 2: When possible, exact brands have been compared. These are noted with an *.

Two ring binder:

at Migros: 3,50 CHF/at Kaufland: 1,33 CHF

Sesame Bagel:

at Coop: .98 CHF per bagel/at Kaufland: .44 CHF per bagel

1 Mango:

at Migros: 3,50 CHF/at Kaufland: 1,60 CHF

Leerdammer Cheese*:

at Denner: 4,95 CHF/at Kaufland: 2,67 CHF

Poco Loco Salsa Dip*:

at Denner: 2,45 CHF/at Kaufland: 1,33 CHF

Moevenpick ice cream*:

at Coop: 9,90 CHF/at Kaufland: 4,00 CHF

1 kilo chicken:

at Manor: 34,50 CHF/at Kaufland: 13,20 CHF

500 gram broccoli:

at Manor: 2,45 CHF/at Kaufland: 1,33 CHF

Nestle Shreddies*:

at Coop: 4,75 CHF/at Kaufland: 4,00 CHF

Tortilla Chips:

at Manor: 3,95 CHF/at Kaufland: 1,33 CHF

200 Q-tips:

at Denner: ,75 CHF/at Müller: ,33 CHF

Liquid Soap:

at Denner: 1,20 CHF/at Müller: ,87 CHF


Shopping Savings in this example: 55%

Note 3: This example may not reflect an average savings as for obvious reasons, the Frau tends to stock up on things she knows are cheaper in Germany.

Note 4: Prices include local taxes. If you shop in Germany but live in Switzerland, you can have the German taxes refunded, making shopping even cheaper.

Note 5: Remember that you have a CHF 300 spending limit or customs will fine you if caught, average fine is CHF 300 + duty. Also, there are limits on the amount of certain items you can bring into CH, for example, each person is only allowed 500 g of beef. For exact amounts allowed, click here, print it out and take it with you when you cross the border.

Happy shopping.

Do you border shop?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Extreme Angst in Baden

Attention Yodelers,

We have another item worthy of news. Someone in Baden has thrown a pizza box into a trash bin that specifically says: Please do not throw pizza boxes in here.

The nerve. Can you believe someone didn't follow the rules? That a Swiss rule could actually attract the opposite of it? That's the subject in this article, from the 7. October Rundschau. Its title: Extremes.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Um, Please Stop Bauen For Me

The cranes are back.

Here's what's going on around me:

In my building they are revamping a coffee shop to make it into a clothing store.

In the building directly across the street, they are remodeling a clothing store.

In the building directly next to mine, they are remodeling an eyeglasses store.

In the building kitty-corner from mine, they are getting ready to demolish it and build an office building.

Heaven help me.

The worst part is, almost all of these places have big posters up in their windows that say, "Wir bauen für Sie um." (We're building for you.)

Please. You're jackhammering at 7 a.m. You're throwing metal stuff into metal bins. And all that scaffolding is not exactly the icing on the cake.

Look, I've been in Switzerland long enough to know that there's some sick non-existant award for who has the shiniest store/apartment/office/clock tower that everyone is competing for, but just because you want to win, do not claim to be doing it for me. Because the next time one of your customers complains that they're getting wet from my garden hose, I'll just have to say, sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but um, I'm watering for you.

Friday, October 01, 2010

This weather sucks! What should I do?

Hmm. The Frau tries not to be biased, but if you like books, you might want to attend an author reading that she is organizing on Sunday.

As part of the Zurich Writers Workshop this weekend, New York Times Bestselling Author Susan Jane Gilman and University of Oxford Fiction Tutor Amal Chatterjee will be reading from their works on Sunday, October 3, 2010 from 12:30-1:00 p.m. at Schoentalstrasse 8, 8004 Zurich. The event is free and open to the public. Books will be available for sale.

If that's not quite your thing, here are some other indoor options:

Andy Warhol Exhibit at the art museum in Basel.

Choir Festival in Appenzell (not sure exactly how indoors this is).

Funny Laundry performs stand-up comedy in Zurich.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Border Shopping Discussion on WRS

Hi Yodelers,

On Thursday, September 30th, from 18:30 to 19:00, the Frau, a.k.a., moi, will be a guest on The Connectors, a radio show put on by World Radio Switzerland. This week's show will discuss border shopping, which, as you know based on my last post, I quite enjoy.

The station is 101.7 in Geneva or DAB+, Cable & Satellite Across Switzerland. Or you can listen live online. Hope to meet you on the airwaves.

The Frau

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Price of Trust

On Saturday I was surrounded by more aisles and products than I knew what to do with. I found cloves. I found bags of tortilla chips for 1 Euro. I found Moevenpick ice cream for the equivalent of SFr 3,50. I was in heaven otherwise known as the border German grocery store.

As I was unloading the groceries from my cart at the check-out, the cashier said something to me that I couldn't quite hear above the din of hundreds of other Swiss and German shoppers around me.

"Wie bitte?" I asked.

The cashier repeated her statement. I realized that she wanted me to remove my wet umbrella from my grocery cart so she could check that I wasn't stealing anything.

As I picked up the umbrella, all I could think was, wow. I had almost forgotten what it was like to not be trusted.

Switzerland may be high on cost, but unlike its more affordable German neighbor, it is also high on trust. I had forgotten how nice a society of trust is.

I still enjoyed my German-priced Swiss ice cream, though.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Weekend in Switzerland: Flims

Hi Yodelers,

As part of a hopefully-sort-of-regular column on this blog, The Frau will share some weekend ideas in order to prove that really, Switzerland isn’t boring!

This week we’re in Flims. Together with Laax, this famous ski resort is fun year-round. Turquoise lakes. Mountain rivers. And the “oh my God look at that” Rhine Canyon.

Day 1: Train to Chur. Postbus to the Caumasee bus stop where it’s a short hike down to the Cauma Lake (about 15 minutes). Chill out here for a while, take a swim, rent a paddleboat (CHF 15/hour), or just treat yourself to lunch or a snack at the lovely lakeside restaurant. Then it’s about a 45-minute to hike to Conn, where you will find a viewing platform for the Rhine Canyon. Say your exclamations, click your camera, and return to Waldhaus/Flims and have dinner at the Surselva Breau, a small local brewery with a great restaurant and even better beer.

Day 2:
Take the cable car from Flims up to Naraus (21 CHF one-way or 27 CHF round trip) and hike to the Segneshütte. This is a panoroma hike so you’ll enjoy spectacular landscapes, a beautiful waterfall, and a mountain river before heading back down, either via cable car from Naraus, or if you’re there from July-October, you can take the bus back from Alp Nagens.

Other ideas:

Raft down the river

Hike the round-trip Rhine Canyon route

The Alpabzug (cow parade) takes place on the 18th in Flims. Watch the cows come home.

Rent a bike and take it up the ski lift in Flims and bike down.

Where to stay:

Hotel des Alpes in Waldhaus/Flims (right near the Caumasee bus stop and minutes from the torquoise Cauma Lake.) CHF 182/night for a double, including breakfast. It was a nice place, large rooms that included soap. Yes, free soap! Trust me, I celebrated. (Note: this was the cheapest hotel I could find in the area. I'll apologize for Switzerland and their prices now.)

Where to eat:

Surselva Breau. A fun brewery. They let me order both beer and from the kid’s menu. What’s not to like?


To save money on these trips, why not use REKA checks? Hotel des Alpes will let you pay for half your room with these checks and the cable car people in Flims take them too.

Have you been to the Flims/Laax area? If so, please leave a tip. Happy yodeling!

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Party Until the Cows Come Home

Hi Yodelers,

Want to experience one of the classic Swiss events of the fall? Yes you do. September is Cow Party Month in Switzerland. So why not join the livestock parade? September is prime Cow Wearing Flowers And Man Wearing Yellow Knickers month. In German, these festivals, where the cows literally come home, are called Alpabzüge.

To make things easier to figure out, I've put together a list of most of these events over at ACC. Most cow parades are on Saturdays, starting from September 11th. The one you see pictured above is a photo I took of the parade in Urnaesch last year. This is the classic Appenzell event and will take place this year on September 18th. Happy yodeling.

What's your favorite cow parade in Switzerland?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Say Cheese

Americans are often amazed that Europeans don’t smile.

“Tell me again, really? They don’t ever smile?”

“Not at you,” I reply.

They don’t smile at you because you are a foreigner and you scare them. Because if they give you one little smile, you might give them your entire life story. Come on, you know you would. In English. Without bothering to ask if they understood the language first.

And if Europeans don’t smile on the street, it might also be because it is August, 52 degrees, and raining. They aren’t smiling because they are worried that they might not see the sun again until May. I’ve been there. I live here.

But inside their homes, where they have families and sun lamps, Europeans smile.

Now I’m not saying any of this makes sense, I’m just saying that’s how it is. There are plenty of contradictions in American life too. An American isn’t afraid to reveal their entire life story to a stranger, but they would never bathe topless. Does this make sense either? I don't know. But it makes me smile.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The decision to move abroad

Resigning from a job, selling a house and/or car, and leaving family and friends to move abroad can be scary. But I did it in 2006. And now I’m sharing the steps (in the order that they appeared) that led me to work up the nerve to move abroad:

  1. Get fateful email from husband: “I got the offer.”
  2. Google, “Should I move abroad?”
  3. Eat lots of high fructose corn syrup.
  4. Google, “Living abroad.”
  5. Toss. Turn. Repeat.
  6. Wear sunglasses to cover up bags under eyes.
  7. Remember who is president (2006).
  8. Repeat #7. A lot.
  9. Go to work. Stare at vacation balance. Shake head.
  10. Realize looking back and thinking, “what if?” would suck.

If you’re living abroad, what made you decide to go? If you’re not, what’s holding you back?

This post first appeared on my blog about the international writing life, Writer Abroad.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Swiss Version of NASCAR

Yesterday I attended the Aelplerfest in Frauenfeld, a three-day event featuring a Schwingen (Swiss wrestling) tournament, a Hornussen (a strange cross between golf and baseball) competition, and a Steinstossen (rock throwing) contest.

Besides these ah, let's call them "unique" events, the one thing that struck me was that this festival was the Swiss equivalent of NASCAR (Granted, I have not yet attended the International Trucker and Country Festival in Interlaken).

Obviously there was no race track here, but there were huge parking lots filled with a combination of tents, campers, and cars, half-naked men sleeping beside them, and guys drinking beer in the river. People wore their tickets NASCAR style-- as badges of pride--around their necks on lanyards, and they somehow found sitting in the 93-degree sun to watch a bunch of Swiss guys roll around in the sawdust worthwhile. And while I did not find any corn dogs or turkey legs, there was a nice offering of American food, including DoNuts.

I always love a good DoNut.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Register for the Zurich Writers Workshop

Hello Yodelers,

It's about time that Zurich celebrated something other than banking, oder?

Well, that's where I come in. I'm co-founding the Zurich Writers Workshop, which will take place October 1-3, 2010. If you're interested in writing fiction or memoir, this weekend might be for you. You'll learn from instructors like New York Times Bestselling Author Susan Jane Gilman and University of Oxford Fiction Tutor Amal Chatterjee. You'll also get a literary tour of Zurich and you'll eat (what else?--) a lot of cheese. Sound good?

Registration is limited to about 24 participants and will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

For more information, click here. To register, click here. And please spread the word by sharing this post (see buttons below for your preferred choice of social networking options). Danke to all!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Business Class Upgrade on Swiss

I was not looking forward to my 10-hour flight.

"There are no good seat on an airplane," I told my husband.

I was wrong.

There are seats on an airplane that don't involve bruised knees and armrest wars. They are called business class seats on long-haul Swiss flights. These seats allow you to recline all the way, read a newspaper without being handicapped by a mere page turn, and reap the rewards that only a 12 to 1 flight attendant ratio can bring.
I didn't want the flight to end.

I had a four-course lunch, which I could order from a menu, complete with a white tablecloth and food prepared by Hiltl, hand-scooped Moevenpick ice cream in a waffle cone, and non-stop beverage service. I can safely say, that in the 25 years since I started flying, this was the first flight I wasn't dehydrated, squirmy, or impatient.

I don't know how I'm going to return to my regularly scheduled squished state on my next flight, but sadly, I am not a business class regular. I wish I could tell you the secrets of being upgraded, but I have no idea why it happened. I didn't ask. I didn't complain. I didn't do anything. I just boarded the plane with 23B and got handed a receipt that said "seat upgrade to 10B."

And then, with my newfound fortune, I couldn't help but take photos, which, despite my first-class feeling, gave away my true status as an "economist."

Have you ever been upgraded? If so, what are your secrets?

Monday, August 02, 2010

3 Ways to Survive the Next Family Visit

It’s that time of year again, when friends and family can’t wait to descend on their little expat. The problem is, the further you move from home, the longer your visitors come to stay. 

It’s all great and fun for the first few days, until suddenly, you really have to pee and your father-in-law is on the toilet. Again. 

It happens to the best of us. The big blowout where at about day five of their visit, you just can’t quite stand to have these people you (used to) love in your little European apartment anymore. 

I know because I’ve been there. For almost four years, visitors have come and gone while I’ve laughed, cried, and sometimes even screamed. 

Solution? Go on a trip together where you can have separate bedrooms and bathrooms. Below are a few ideas that will fit with various travel styles but still ensure that everyone can enjoy the time without driving each other crazy.

One: Rent an apartment or chalet in the Swiss Alps.

Renting an apartment costs about 1/3 of the price of a Swiss hotel room (average studio apartment cost is about CHF 60/night). The catch? You have to stay a week. Pas de probleme. Your guests are coming for at least that long, right? Yes. It’s time to get them out of your apartment and into someone elses’. Most tourist offices in Swiss resort towns can help you find an apartment that will meet your needs (i.e. two full bathrooms, etc). Or you can visit where there are apartment listings. I just spent a week in an apartment in Bettmeralp, near the Aletsch glacier, and it was wonderful. The apartment was clean and had everything we needed—including a fondue pot.

Two: Go on a Europe Cruise.

Say your family is like mine: a bunch of Americans that have big vacation ideas and even bigger checklists. A Europe Cruise is a great way for them to run around (I mean, see the top sites) while you sit back on board, European-style, with a coffee or glass of wine. Whether you cruise the Danube or the Rhine, go for 15 days or 8, river cruises through Europe can be a relaxing way to spend time with your family. And since you already live in the heart of Europe, they’re easy to get to. One company that offers a good variety of Europe cruises is Viking River Cruises.

Three: Discover your roots.

Many American families have roots in Europe. Heck, they may even call themselves Italians or Swedes even though they are through and through Americans and don’t speak a word of Italian or Swedish. One summer, my family discovered its Italian roots in northern Italy. We found a cemetery, furniture store, and monuments—all filled with our last name. We stayed in a little pension where the owner shared the same last name as one of my father’s cousins. We thought we’d fit right in. But we couldn’t talk to anyone. It was weird. And interesting. And worth it to find out we weren’t exactly as Italian as we thought.

Have you done any of these kinds of trips with your families? Or what do you recommend?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Uh + Oh

A lot of expat life is about making educated guesses. For example, when presented with an oven that has the following three options:



Or Uh-Oh.

I chose Uh-Oh.

The lasagna turned out ok.

You never know.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Take off your Top: Zurich Swim Culture

I didn’t know that the real definition of Frauenbad was topless sunbathing area, but I now am more educated.

Actually, at the Zürich Frauenbad, you get both extremes: from women fully covered in burkinis to women wearing nothing but their g-strings. Personally, I preferred the burkinis. But the men lingering on their little boats (and out on the balcony of the office building overlooking the Frauenbad) were definitely there for the latter.

I guess nothing says you’re in Europe like women sunbathing topless on a river deck and men on little boats in even smaller red speedos staring at these women through matching red sunglasses.

Previously, I had only been to the Frauenbad at night, when it is converted into a barefoot bar open to both sexes.

It’s much more interesting during the day.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How to play the alphorn

I recently had the honor to write a story on the Swiss Alphorn School. I watched as beginners learned to blow their first note, advanced students played in harmony, and cows listened intently to it all.

The alphorn is difficult to play. I tried and failed. All notes are breath controlled. The instrument is 3 meters long. And if you haven’t previously played a horn instrument, it can be tough to make a sound. But when your practice room is a mountaintop and your audience is a cow, it’s definitely worth the effort to learn to play.

Read more about how to learn to play this unique Swiss instrument by reading my feature article, Alphorn school blows students away on

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pool Party

You can tell a lot about another country by going to the pool.

In the United States, just mention the word “lightning” and every local pool will be evacuated by the lifeguards.

In Switzerland, hear thunder, see lightning, and people keep swimming. Like they did yesterday evening during the big storm.

This sums up the difference between the United States and Switzerland in a nutshell: One country is run by the lawyers. And one country is run by the people.

Which kind of government do you prefer?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Paddle Boat on Lake Zurich

On Saturday, I finally did something I've always wanted to do: rent a paddle boat on Lake Zurich.

Somehow, I was able to snag a boat without waiting despite the hot weather. They are not cheap, at CHF 26/hour, but if you think about it, that's really just the price of a Swiss hamburger, so take your pick.

Benefits to renting a paddle boat in Switzerland over the U.S.: (1) you don't have to sign your life away on an insurance form (in fact, you don't need to sign a form at all!), (2) you are not required to wear a life jacket, (3) no one will stop you from paddling to wherever the heck you please, and (4) you can bring beer.

As an American, I really felt free.

Anyhow, as I was paddling (and diving off the boat sans life jacket), I noticed that my paddle boat was inferior to some other paddle boats on Lake Zurich. My paddle boat was not a Mercedes.

Oh Switzerland, you constantly one-up me.

No wonder there wasn't a line for my kind of boat. No one in Zurich would want to be seen paddling so generically.

But I would do it again.

Admit it. Have you had the nerve to go generic in Zurich?

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Dear Frau: Should I Move to Zurich?

Welcome to the latest edition of Dear Frau. It's kind of like Dear Abby, except with an international twist. If you have a question about life in Switzerland, be sure to contact the Frau and maybe your little Frage will be in the next Dear Frau column. And as always, the Frau does not have all the answers and welcomes your solutions to these questions in the comments section.

Dear Frau,

My company would like me to relocate to Zurich. Whilst I am experiencing ‘London Fatigue’ my vision certainly did not include this city. Not even in my periphery.

I speak no German but some French if this might help? Whilst many seem concerned with moving with spouses, family housing and children’s schools my concern is me, myself and I. (Not that I am altogether selfish, truly!) So what it’s like as a single woman living in Zurich? Any recommendations for best areas to live? (Near or in the city, a fruit/veggie market & coffee shop if possible, a gym and green space to go for a run.) And I will miss my gaggle of girlfriends and would be great to meet some friends in Zurich, suggestions for groups to join? I daren’t ask about dating.

Lastly, I have lived abroad before and travel fairly often so know it’s important to be open – but have heard more negatives than positive about Zurich. Cold people, weather, rigid, unwelcoming, etc. that I am needless a touch wary. Would really appreciate a response.


Single in the City

Dear Single in the City,

You’ve got a lot of questions here, so let’s address one at a time.

Will French help? Um, probably as much as English or German will help. The problem with living in Zurich is that Swiss people in Zurich don’t speak French, German, or English. They speak Züri-deutsch, which is really another language entirely. Züri-deutsch is a Swiss German dialect. Swiss German is a secret language, which makes sense for a country with secret bank accounts, but doesn’t make much sense to expats, who try to learn German and then realize they still can’t understand anything without crossing the border.

What’s it like to be a single woman in Zurich? The Frau will just say this: Not only does “Frau” mean “woman” but it also means “wife.” Clearly Fraus are not meant to be single in German-speaking worlds. But look on the bright side—you won’t be taxed extra for being a married woman that works (yes, this is a fact of life in Switzerland. Please tell me why no one is protesting discrimination?).

To be honest, the Frau does not really know what it is like to be a single gal in Zurich, but she has friends that do know and is hoping they will comment here. She does know that one of her single friends dated many Swiss men and found them all boring. I guess these guys didn’t talk much and the Frau’s friend always felt like she had to lead the conversation. But the world has a lot of boring guys. The Frau’s friend may have just been unlucky. The Frau herself has a couple of Swiss guy friends that are so far from boring that they sing Frank Sinatra tunes in strip clubs to earn extra vacation days at their Zurich ad agency. Yes.

Any recommendations on where to live? The short answer: wherever you can find an apartment. Zurich has less than 1% vacancy so it's hard to be picky. The long answer: read Where should I live in Zurich? Be sure to check the comments. And don’t worry about green space and a place to jog. Foot trails in Switzerland are literally outside every doorstep.

Any suggestions for groups to join? I would start a blog and join the Swiss Expat Bloggers. That’s how I’ve met a lot of people. Blog writers tend to be younger and without children for the obvious reason that they have time to blog. There are plenty of other organizations in Zurich for expats, but these tend to be filled with wives of CEOs who have 2.5 kids, eat $50 lunches every day, and spend their time shopping at Prada. There’s nothing wrong with shopping at Prada. If you like purses.

Cold people, weather, rigid, unwelcoming? Cold people: yes, they can seem that way as they don’t usually smile or make small talk with strangers. But if you can get past their hard exterior the Swiss people are generally kind and loyal. Weather: you’ll be fine with it. You come from London. Rigid: yes, do not put your garbage out a minute too early or you will pay the price. Unwelcoming: yes, there is a lot of xenophobia in Switzerland. On one hand, can you blame the Swiss when 20% of their country is foreign? On the other hand, the discrimination against certain kinds of foreigners is outright embarrassing for a country that prides itself on being neutral. The United Nations agrees.

Ok, yodelers, the Frau does not have all the answers. Let’s help Single in the City make a wise decision. Should she move to Zurich? The Frau thinks she should. She thinks there's a reason so many expats come to Switzerland and then never leave. What do you say?

Monday, July 05, 2010

Gardening in High Heels

I am back at Swiss gardening boot camp. Yes. My 75-year-old Swiss neighbor is doing my gardening in her high heels. Again.

Yesterday, she knocked on the door to ask my husband to help her with driving directions but since we all know she has a GPS, this was really just an excuse to get inside our apartment.

Anyhow, after getting the directions, she went onto our balcony and analyzed every bush and plant that needed weeding and every concrete planter that needed shining. Then she started yanking out one of our dead plants by its roots.

“I love doing this,” she said, grabbing at the dead evergreen while never once wobbling on her high heels.

We are now borrowing (not out of choice, mind you) her pressure washer, her hand held weed wacker, and her little garden saw.

Her tools are better than ours, we are told.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Discovering Who I Am

Does living abroad help define you as a person? Before I moved abroad I defined myself like this: one-quarter Italian, one-quarter Polish, one-fifth English, 12.5 percent Danish, 10.5 percent Swedish and seven percent German. That was me. Really.

But while I could easily pass for a European with my name alone, there was, unfortunately, the rest of me. My language options were English or English; I thought all cheese was bright orange; and I wore things like sweatpants – in public.

I had a lot to learn. It wasn't until one day, a few months after moving to Switzerland, that I looked down at my Nikes as I was standing among a sea of stilettos and realized something: I was an American.

Happy 4th of July.

To read more, check out my essay, Hello Heritage, in Swiss News this month.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

American Spirit in Switzerland

The American team won a game. Not lost. Not tied. Won. Yes. So to honor this great accomplishment, my husband and I set up our American flag on a tripod to give Switzerland a little Yankee spirit.

The whole world feels like it's on some strange vacation. Business people fill the streets (and bars) by 16.00. There's a strange phenomenon going around known as World Cup voice (i.e. it means you have no voice). And you can tell who is winning by not even watching the games due to the screams in the streets.

Have you been playing hooky from work? I mean, have you been watching the World Cup?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Anything for Sun (and Sales)

When you live under a gigantic cloud (uh, I mean, in Switzerland), the summer can be stressful. Last week, the sun came out for maybe three hours. And when it did, I was desperate.

“Let’s go for a bike ride,” I told my husband on Friday night, when the sun decided to come out at 7 p.m. after an entire week of rain.

“Now?” he asked. We had just eaten dinner.

“Now,” I said, pointing at the blue sky, “Hurry.”

When you only see a few hours of sunshine a week, you have to get outside when it shines. Fast.

It’s kind of a stressful way to live, never knowing when your next bit of sun will shine.

The Swiss sun makes me drop everything I’m doing when it comes out. Speaking of dropping everything, Migros announced a 10% off sale last Thursday to celebrate the Swiss win. I hurried there. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think I was about to save hundreds rather than CHF 10.

Yep. That’s when you know you’re becoming Swiss: you’ll drop everything for a little sun. Or a 10% off sale.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dear Frau: Save me from the smoke!

Welcome to the latest edition of Dear Frau. It's kind of like Dear Abby, except with an international twist. If you have a question about life in Switzerland, be sure to contact the Frau and maybe your little Frage will be in the next Dear Frau column. And as always, the Frau does not have all the answers and welcomes your solutions to these questions in the comments section.

Dear Frau,

I lovvvvvvvvvvvvve Switzerland. It's beautiful, safe, and clean. But why is it that a person cannot walk down the streets of Bern or Zurich without having cigarette smoke sprayed in their face. I am constantly bombarded by the vile smoke while eating at outdoor cafes, walking down the street, and waiting for a train. What do you suggest I do or say the next time this occurs?


An American Who Lives in and Loves Switzerland

Dear An American Who Lives in and Loves Switzerland,

The Frau is also fed up with living in a cloud of smoke. Or is that fog?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell in Switzerland. The sky is always gray no matter what.


That’s how you tell.

Anyway, the Frau has had clothes ruined, had to change offices, and endured red eyes all so a bunch of Swiss people could voluntarily give themselves cancer.

Even though we Americans learned at a young age that the mere sight of a cigarette might kills us, the Swiss don’t care because despite their habits, they have the fourth longest life expectancy in the world.

Maybe you’ve seen some of them hiking the Alps in that not-so-fresh-anymore mountain air. One of them was once my father-in-law. Sorry. He wanted to be more Swiss.

Anyhow, let’s get to the point. Your question was what to do or say. The Frau doesn’t really know what to tell you because anyone that buys something that clearly says “it kills” on the package is probably beyond help. But here are some things the Frau and her friends have done for the cause, including the various Swiss responses:

Test One: Put up an ad campaign in her Zurich office showing images of non-smokers’ lungs vs. smokers’ lungs with labels matching appropriate employee names with the images.

Response from chain-smoking boss: Laugh. Cough. Laugh. Nice try, but that crap doesn’t work with me. Puff.

The Frau’s response: Fine, she wants a new office.

Test Two: A Swiss friend asked a man smoking a cigar at a soccer game in Basel to please put it out so the Frau could sing the American national anthem without choking.

Response from cigar smoker: Ok. Puff. Put out cigar under seat.

The Frau’s response: The most she’s ever cheered at a soccer game.

Test Three: Gave dirty look to man smoking in train car.

Response: He went out into the hallway and continued smoking there.

The Frau’s response: Bathroom break. The air smelled better there.

Other ways to protest when you get smoked on: Fart. Spit. Spray air freshener.

Fight back, non-smokers, fight back.

The good news is that it has now been many decades since science proved that smoking sucks, so now that an extremely long time has passed, some restaurants and bars in Switzerland are finally listening. Change is good, Switzerland. Really.

And look on the bright side. Those cigarette butts give the street sweeper a reason for being. He needs one, poor guy.

How do you respond to all this Swiss smoke?


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