The THINGS take Switzerland

1 03 2012

A couple of weeks ago, some visitors decided to stop by. The timing wasn’t great because I had just started my new job and am also attending university courses for the first time in 20 years. That double whammy had me going to bed at 9pm every night for the first two weeks because I was simply exhausted.

The THINGS, as they are known, belong to my only good Canadian friend, the lovely and hilarious Ironic Mom. She is sending them around the world in place of her 7-year-old twins. (Though I’m sure that on some days she would have been quite happy to send the twins.) On their Excellent Adventure, which started last summer, they have already criss-crossed the United States and Zurich was the first stop on the European leg of their tour.

In addition to my new job, we were in the middle of an incredible cold snap, with daytime high temperatures of minus 15 degrees Celsius (3 degrees F for you Fahrenheit types). So flying and rollerblading – my staple activities when the weather cooperates – were simply out of the question. Actually, anything that required leaving a heated building was rather painful and not recommended.

(Maybe they can stop back here in the summer?)

Other hosts have been very creative with their blog entries about the THINGS’ visit – writing in rhymes and singing in harmonies – I’m afraid all I can offer is a few photos of nothing special in the land of cows and chocolate.

"We’re here!"

"Geez. Looks cold out there."

"SH*T. It IS cold out here."

"Want to go for a hike?" "No thanks, not today."

So to escape Switzerland’s harshest winter in three decades (and as a warmer alternative to any outdoor sports activity), we went to the gym. The THINGS hid in my locker until they realized that it was ME that would be working out… that they were just along for the ride.

"Get out of there, you two."

On the rowing machine…

…the bouncy gym ball…

…and the crosstrainer.

We did venture out into the city one day, and made some more friends (animal and human) in the department store’s extensive Switzerland souvenir department.


… as the salespeople wondered what the hell they were doing climbing into the souvenir kiddie mugs.

To end their visit we made one last stop, at the world-famous Spruengli chocolate store. After all, what do Swiss people need all those cows for, anyway? Because they are the world’s largest per capita consumers of chocolate!

The THINGS knew this, but had to wait till their final day here to partake in the experience.

"Yum, look at all those chocolate cakes..."

"...and the pyramids of macaroons."

The THINGS got enough of the “food of the Gods” to last them till they arrive at the next stop on their world tour. (Trust me.) They are off to the UK next, where I’m hoping Spring has sprung and they get to spend more time outdoors. Watch for further installments of their Excellent Adventure on

Meantime… I have to get back to my new job.

Shoes definitely NOT made for walking.

Whale-watching – sans whales.

20 10 2011

After suffering a professional assault too complicated and sordid to describe here (I will, one day, when I have fully digested it, and spent all the money they threw at me to keep quiet), R. and I decided to get outta Dodge.

Actually our trip to the Left Coast had been planned for a while (like, a week). We felt like we needed some California fresh air before the next dark Swiss winter puts us in a deep-freeze. The fact that my unexpected and untimely departure from my high-power, high-paying, high-profile and high-risk-of-falling-into-disfavor job just happened be on the day before our flight was to depart from ZRH to SFO was, well, a coincidence.

A hint of San Francisco is enough to make anyone positively sick with longing. A few days of wandering the streets and tasting the freedom and you have to pry me from the Golden Gate Bridge, finger by finger.

Paradise, no? Close?

But the highlight of this trip was to be whale-watching in Monterey Bay, about 2 hours south of the City. Monterey is on many peoples’ bucket lists, and migrating whales seem to like the place too. It’s apparently one of just a few locations along the coast where some species of the sea mammal can be seen any time of the year. So we booked ourselves into a 120-year-old bed-and-breakfast and decided to go whale watching.

The day we arrived in town, a brilliant blue sky greeted us. Hundreds of sea lions, comfortably lounging on buoys, breakwaters and the shoreline, barked their welcome. Seagulls the size of turkeys populated the piers and coveted our dinner. Towards the southeast, a wall of fog seemed far too far away to do any damage.

The next morning, we could barely see 50 feet (30 meters) and the temperature had dropped a good 30 degrees F (16 degrees C).

But the intrepid will not be hindered by a little fog and a lot of cold, especially not here in California. (Right?)

40 bucks a head and we boarded the Princess Monterey, headed for the open sea. The outing started promising enough, with dolphins emerging from the grey-in-grey ocean just barely after we left the harbor… The pre-game show had begun. More dolphins, with a couple of sea lions in the mix for good measure. Awww… look at them play… aren’t they cute?

A dolphin, not a shark. (Or a whale.)

Okay, great. ‘Nuf dolphins. Where are the stars? The reason we all came out here in the first place! The giants of the ocean! The magical creatures of the deep! The largest mammals on earth!

Nowhere to be seen. It was like they all got together and decided Tuesday was their day off.

They are unionized, after all.

Three hours later, 40 tourists aboard the Princess Monterey chugged back into harbor – disappointed, freezing and seasick. R. resented having been captive aboard a vessel with a bunch of strangers whose behavior and noise level he could not control. Including the woman whose slobbering, sniffing and severely shedding hound the size of a pony pulled her around the boat. Repeatedly.

(Why would you take a dog whale-watching?)

So much for connecting with nature and learning about sea-life. Sayonara 80 dollars.

When we got back to our car, an acutely observant meter maid provided the perfect end to a miserable day. 35 more dollars for an expired parking meter (by 16 minutes).

Okay, I’ve had enough. Time to go back to San Francisco.

The art of skating on Hollywood Beach

28 12 2010

If you have never been to Hollywood, Florida, I highly encourage you to go. Not to be confused with that… other Hollywood over on the… wrong coast… Hollywood, Florida is a great beach town (an “All-America City” Award winner in 2007) nestled between flashy Fort Lauderdale in the north and metropolitan Miami in the south, between the Everglades in the west and the Atlantic Ocean.

The French Canadians have already discovered this little corner of paradise and judging by the number of Quebec license plates on the streets, it seems that the entire province migrates down here when it gets cold up there, turning it into Chicoutimi-sur-Mer, USA for six months of the year.

The beach promenade, or “Broadwalk,” has got everything you’d want on an ocean boardwalk – including free wireless access! – even if its not actually, you know, made of boards. (Webcam here.) There are cool little restaurants, an old-fashioned band shell, and shops selling all sorts of cheesy, loud beach stuff that looks fashionably out-of-place anywhere but the beach. All that’s missing is a Starbucks franchise.

You can even answer emails on your laptop, if you must.

The promenade has two clearly marked lanes: one for pedestrians and the other for cyclists, wheelchair athletes, skateboarders, and my kind of folks – inline skaters. Altogether, the path is about 25 feet (8 meters) wide and stretches the length of Hollywood Beach – about three miles (5 kilometers).

So true to my nature, I had to take a spin. Happily, I laced up my skates for the first time since singing in the Berlin rain at the end of September. Having survived THAT two-hour taste of hell, it was time to remind myself of what attracted me to this sport in the first place.

Of course I hadn’t calculated on the 30 mph winds coming straight at me from a storm system in the south (didn’t hurricane season end a month ago?) that was sending dark clouds over the coast. Fighting weather is one of the most thankless tasks on earth, let me tell you.

But hey, back in Zurich it was snowing, so I guess I was ahead of the game.

Discounting weather, a second occupational hazard for the skater-in-pseudo-training along the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk is simple human stupidity. As in: individuals oblivious to their surroundings who enter the visibly marked bike path with their brains quite obviously in neutral, if not completely absent and/or non-functional.

Okay – kids on bikes, say, and old people on walkers don’t count. To be fair, they have no idea what they are doing anyway so it is up to the entity moving faster than a snail’s pace to watch out for them.

But it’s the seemingly sensible adults whose erratic and unpredictable behavior is the biggest danger to wheeled athletes just minding their business and quietly doing their laps along the beach. Like human bowling pins, these dense living beings meander into and then stand perfectly still in the middle of a roadway that is not theirs, as if waiting to be picked off for points. These are indeed prime candidates for the Darwin awards.

Free space for free skaters.

Of course, no one would argue that the world would be a much better place if it had a few less French Canadians in it. On the other hand, the last thing I really need is another eight screws in my arm.

So from now on, primarily for my own health and sanity, when on skates, I will hit the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk no later than 7am – early enough to enjoy a glorious sunrise over the Atlantic, and secure in the knowledge that the snowbirds are still snoring away in their overpriced hotel beds, sleeping off their overpriced hangovers and digesting last night’s overpriced poutine.

No, seriously. Switzerland is great.

9 11 2010

Ok, so I insulted a few of my Swiss friends with my last post. And the truth is, there are a lot of things I actually really do like about Switzerland, even if I tend to complain all the time. So, here is my list of the good stuff:

1) The nature – unbelievably stunning in every way. Mountains, glaciers, lakes, you name it. Switzerland has it all. And it’s all very clean, breathtakingly pretty and easily accessible.

"MOO." Even the cows are photogenic here.

2) The geographic location – If you do feel overwhelmed by the picture-postcard beauty of every panorama and have an urgent need to get a dose of a gritty big city, complete with dog poop on the sidewalks and the smell of urine on every street corner, it’s fast and easy to get there from here. Since Switzerland is located at the geographic center of (Western) Europe, you can fly to everywhere else, pretty much, in an hour or two.

3) The trains run on time – Yes, you can actually set your cuckoo clocks by them. On average, 97.43 percent of all Swiss trains arrive and depart within 3 minutes of their scheduled time. Unless there is a massive electricity outage. Since a majority of the population commutes by public transportation, one severed or shorted electrical circuit can bring chaos to the entire country. On a hot summer day a few years ago, trains across the country stood still for four whole hours during afternoon rush hour, stranding more than 100,000 passengers. So just FYI: any hostile power that wants to take over Switzerland doesn’t need an army… a couple of wire-cutters and/or a hungry, suicidal hamster would probably do.

4) High salaries and (relatively) low taxes – Who doesn’t want to keep more of their paycheck at the end of every month? Let’s just ignore the fact that the cost of living here is higher than anywhere else in the world, and the amount of money you spend on a bag of groceries would be more than enough to buy food to sustain an extended family in a developing country for at least six months. You will end up shelling out unbelievable sums to other people for goods and services, to the state, your local community and your canton, but then again an equally unbelievable amount of cash will remain in your pocket.

5) The fact that Switzerland is a tiny, inconspicuous, safe, neutral, friendly, peaceful country in the middle of Europe where the President can get up on a Saturday morning, stick on a pair of dark sunglasses to hide her hangover, and go shopping in the supermarket alongside all the rest of us – without a security detail.


Hangover? What hangover?

Swiss people really have no idea how great it is not to be the target of any terrorist organization. (The Jurassian separatists don’t count.) One day recently R., who is Swiss, and I, who is not, had this conversation:

Me: “What if there was some terrorist attack here? Or if there was an assassination attempt on your President? How would you Swiss people react?”

Him (looking very confused): “Why would anyone want to kill our President?”

Me: “Well, because she is PRESIDENT!”

Him: “Yes but… what would be the purpose?”

Me: “To destabilize the country. Demoralize the population. Exercise gratuitous violence. Bring the reign of terror right into your own neighborhood. There are a million reasons… just go ask Al Qaeda.”

Him: “Um… Sweetie, nobody cares about Switzerland. Nothing like that ever happens here. There would be no reason for it. And besides, our banks manage Al Qaeda’s finances, so they would not be doing themselves a real favor if they started killing Swiss people.”

Switzerland is great, but…

5 11 2010

When my company transferred me to Zurich in 2004, I was ecstatic. I thought I had hit the jackpot – Switzerland had the reputation of a being clean, safe, neutral little corner of paradise. Year after year, Zurich consistently ranks high up in Mercer’s annual “Quality of Living” Survey as one of the top three “most livable cities in the world”.

At the time, I told a work colleague I had purchased the “Rough Guide to Switzerland” in anticipation of my move. He answered sardonically, “Evelynn, there is nothing rough about Switzerland.”

And he was right for the most part. I eased into society with a few little boo-boos along the way, but really, I couldn’t complain too loudly. The Swiss have perfected the art of, well, being perfect.

Is this not...just... perfect?

But over the course of six years, the perfect Swiss have lost a teeny bit of their luster. And I have discovered that while I really do enjoy a very high quality of life here, there are a couple of things that really piss me off. Of course there are many, many worse places on this earth to be. But still.

Here are just five things I really dislike about the Swiss (in no particular order):

1) Schwiizertüütsch – If you thought German sounded bad to the untrained ear, well Swiss German is a further bastardization of language. Fortunately, I learned (high) German at home, and was spared the torture of being force-fed “that awful language” (Mark Twain) in a classroom. But when I arrived here, it took me a full year to figure out what people were saying to me. Swiss German sounds like it stepped right out of the middle ages. And the most frustrating thing about it (for a foreigner) is that there is no ONE Swiss German. Every village has its own distinct dialect (i.e. Züritüütsch, Bärntüütsch, Baseltüütsch…). Any Swiss person can determine the origin of any other Swiss person’s dialect within an instant of them uttering their first word. After six years here I’m just happy I can follow a conversation.

2) Exaggerated honesty – There is a wonderful salad bar at our canteen, you load up your plate and pay for it according to weight. Standing in the checkout line one day, I absentmindedly began to nibble on a crouton. A gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You can’t do that! That’s stealing!”

3) A love of firearms – At last count, there were 218,000 semi-automatic military assault rifles lying around in attics and closets across this pristine and seemingly peaceful country. After being conscripted into basic training, most young Swiss men must serve in the reserves for several years. His (legal, state-sanctioned) weapon becomes his best friend. In public, on public transportation and at home. And after every accident, suicide or homicide involving a military weapon, there are isolated calls that this insanity must stop. Since the beginning of 2010, reservists have been granted permission to store their weapons at an armory rather than at home for their kids to play with. So far, only 452 individuals (or 0.2 percent) have taken up this offer.

Great toy, if it wasn't so lethal.

4) Fondue –  Instructions: Spear diced cube of stale bread with a long two-pronged fork, drown in hot, stinky liquid cheese, attempt to swallow, chase with cherry schnapps (Kirsch). As one American friend says: “It’s not really a meal. All it does is occupy space.”

5) “HANDS OFF MY BANK SECRECY LAWS!” – Ah yes, those gnomes of Zurich, still driving the rest of the world crazy after all these years.

Otherwise, it’s a great country. It has to be or else I wouldn’t still live here and I wouldn’t have married one of them. I’ll write about the good stuff some other time.