Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Sexagenarian heartthrobs: Sergio, Benoît and Beat

I would like you to meet three of my favourite Swiss. Admittedly, they are fictional characters, so I've never met them in person, but they are no less delightful for that. They are the sexagenarian SBB leisure time testers, Sergio, Benîot and Beat, (SBB is the Swiss railway company). Their mission is to test and report on the wide and varied Freizeit (leisure time) offers of SBB through advertising and infomercials, and their slogan is "für Sie getestet von Sergio, Benîot and Beat," ("tested for you by...," but I like it better in German)you can meet them here.

The Swiss of all ages take their Freizeit very seriously, and enjoy more opportunities for an active, healthy and outdoor lifestyle than I can shake a walking pole at. It's not unusual to see a Swiss 20 years older than SBB's veteran testers setting out from the Hauptbahnhof (main station) kitted out in understatedly expensive outdoor gear with hiking boots, snow shoes or skis. SBB has a different package of leisure time offers every month, based around a theme. In January, it was 'snow festival,' February was 'indoor experiences,' (a bloody good idea given the atrocious weather), and June was watersports. The offers are usually good value and well-designed, combining railfares, entry tickets to an activity or experience, and discounts on equipment hire. For example, in the winter, we went skiing to Adelboden with a heavily discounted rail ticket, money off a day ski pass, and a discount on ski hire.

Together, the SBB testers represent the three main Swiss linguistic/cultural groups. Beat is a down-to-earth and outoorsy German-Swiss, representative of the largest group in Switzerland. Benoît is a preposterously mustachioed French-Swiss in a leather jerkin with a passion for photography. Sergio is the suavely dressed Italian-Swiss from Switzerland's (second) smallest (native) linguistic group*, who seems to get into slightly more than his fair share of mischief. S, B and B star in their own advertising photo shoots and videos, write reviews of the special offers in the SBB's monthly offer booklets, and are thoroughly charming in every medium. The quirky humour of their video reviews in particular is something to behold. You don't need to understand German to enjoy them - my favourite is June's watersport videobut they are all worth a watch and a giggle. In July's video, a love interest for Sergio is introduced, and the Italian Stallion charms his lady with mountain views and a glass of Prosecco (with a little assistance from his friends).

The SBB offers can be combined with our half-fare rail cards for an extra bargain factor, but as well as enjoying my Freizeit, I keep hoping to see the SBB boys out filming for a rail journey that starts at Zürich Hauptbahnhof. So far I've not been that lucky, but if it doesn't work out for me and Greg, I might just give Beat a call...

*with thanks to Greg for added pedantry

Friday, 1 July 2011

Reflections on our first 6 months

On the 1st of January, as we lugged our 10 pieces of luggage from our hotel to our tiny temporary apartment, I don't think I had any idea what we'd let ourselves in for. Perhaps that's for the best, or I might have given it a long hard looking at before jumping in with both feet. Fortunately, I didn't have that foresight, and besides which I have a bit of a penchant for chucking everything up in the air and seeing where it lands. It keeps things interesting (for interesting, see scary).

It's a very common experience for new immigrants to any country to be overwhelmed. I have enormous sympathy and respect for those who make far more momentous moves than ours, often in difficult circumstances, and with so little by way of resources and resilience. For anyone to leave behind friends, families, jobs, a familiar language and culture, and trade a much loved homeland for the insecurity of the unknown takes a serious pair of stones. To do it whilst fleeing conflict, persecution, poverty, or worse, and running into the arms of an indifferent and unwelcoming recipient must be terrifying. For so many people, emigration is a life-changing necessity, not a capricious roll of the dice in search of some greener grass. In comparison, I feel extremely fortunate and spoilt.

It's no surprise that a rather under-prepared and over-eager pair of newly-weds would run into a few hiccups getting settled in. For starters, I had no idea what a headache my total lack of German would be, and even Greg's pretty strong German is no match for the impenetrable Schwiitzer Düütch. Of course I can get by perfectly well in a country where almost everyone speaks English beautifully, but there are so many resources, experiences and interactions that remain tantalisingly just out of reach.

I also had no concept of what it's like to be a trailing spouse. Like lots of expats (mostly women), my presence in this country is defined by my partners's job. I thought I would be able to snap up my own inside of 3 months; needless to say I'm still looking. As a woman who has always worked and been financially independent, it's a big challenge to my self-identity to ask for more money for groceries or to get my haircut. I have an inkling of what the women of previous generations might have felt, albeit in a world where the barriers to entry to the workforce are dictated more by my language skills than my gender. I am discounting the view of one recruitment agent, who insultingly insinuated that because I'm a married woman, I am a ticking time bomb of a baby factory, so I'm not a serious prospect in the labour market. I don't seriously believe that the Swiss view of the role of women is limited to the family sphere, or that employers here are that short-sighted, despite the country's chequered history on gender equality.

Cultural challenges of all sizes have abounded. For a start, absolutely everything is expensive. That's partially offset by Swiss wages, but I've become a lot more savings savvy. I have sensed a mentality that, perhaps in exchange for the high prices paid, things are expected to work. Processes and customer service experiences are expected to be startlingly efficient and well-organised, and so they are. In general, the Swiss seem to be courteous and respectful towards others. It's tricky to gauge that because of course my interactions are extremely limited and I can't understand most of what goes on around me. But I have felt very welcome and in many cases people have gone out of their way to accommodate me.

The small things are also quite quirky. It is normal to greet and make small talk with your neighbours. A serious challenge for me, but a cheery "Guten Tag" can go a long way. We are tucked up in bed at 11pm, which is late by Swiss standards, and by then most things are shut and the TV is rubbish if you stay up any later. The shops are all shut on Sundays, so we do our shopping during the week, or forgo the necessary vittles for a Sunday brunch. Nobody queues for anything, although everyone is generally very polite, and that's quite a thing to get your head around. How do you queue jump in a courteous fashion? At the supermarket, you're expected to pack your shopping bags after you've paid rather than before, and woe betide you if you get that one wrong.

Traditional Swiss culture is embraced and made relevant to the modern Swiss in a way that I never experienced in the UK. An affection for Alpine horns, Gügge bands, traditional dress, yodelling, parades and festivals, and a love of Swiss food and drink are highly contagious things. It helps that all of the above are delicious, engaging and a delight to my limited British range of experience. The outdoorsy lifestyle is also very appealing, with skiing, swimming, cycling, walking and so many other things on offer. Of course I'm generalising, of course there are all sorts of Swiss people, and in Zürich there are international lifestyles of all sorts jostling together. Zürich is probably the most diverse and alternative of Switzerland's cities, and that in itself is a blessing for me.

Although it's been quite a whirlwind, we haven't had any major meltdowns. I'm still sane, Greg's still employed, and we're still solvent. We've successfully negotiated such atrocities as finding an apartment, setting up many kinds of insurance, and hauling all of our stuff over from the UK. We've got phone contracts, bank accounts, cable TV, supermarket reward cards and all the other commercial relationships that facilitate daily life. We've got the basics in place, and we're beginning to enjoy it.

Today we have been living in lovely Switzerland for 6 months. It's been a roller coaster ride, characterised by revelations, unexpected discoveries (good and bad), the language barrier, and a surprisingly high level of culture shock. Occasionally I still catch myself thinking 'oh my God, we live here,' as the enormity of it sinks in. But I also find myself smiling about that, and I'm hopeful that we've made a change for the better.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Rewarding Schemes

I am a collector of reward cards. Not store cards, let's be clear. I'm not completely irresponsible with money. Or rather, I can be, and I know my enemy. But reward cards and loyalty cards, yes please. I love them.

In the UK, my wallet was stuffed full of colourful bits of plastic and paper. The usual high-street reward schemes obviously made the list. My love of overpriced coffees meant I also had one for each of the main chains (10th coffee for free - wheee)! Such is my loyalty to loyalty schemes that I even had several defunct and out-of-date ones hiding behind my EHIC card - for airlines and hotel chains - left over from a previous life of business travel. Even the obscure were given a spot in my collection. I had a card for clocking up free smoothies, one to earn free yoga classes, and even a Nando's card, which still has half a free chicken on it.

On arriving in Switzerland I cleared them all out. My wallet had been so over-full that it was now slack and had a tendency to drop my bank cards onto the floor. Why, I wondered, had I magpied so many? With some, the payback was obvious - a free overpriced coffee is perhaps a trifle, but Every Little Helps in Austerity Britain. With others, I rather unimaginatively used the points to buy Christmas presents and to pay for groceries the week before payday. My favourites were the ones that fed my love of a bargain. Such joy to experience the delicious smugness of claiming my free half chicken, never mind that the chicken itself was usually superfluous to requirements.

But what about the ones that never really earned me anything? The hotel scheme so ungenerous that it would take a lifetime of nights away from home to earn a free stay? The smoothie card at the smoothie shop that was too far away from the office to ever be visited again? Perhaps I have a love for the possible alternate lifestyles that those cards suggest, for the idea of a jet-setting, smoothy-drinking Helen who laughs in the face of coughing up hotel rack-rates and scorns the idea of paying for an extra wheatgrass shot.

My first rather prosaic Swiss acquisitions were for the big supermarket reward schemes. You have to apply for a card using a complicated form that is only available in German, so the arrival of mine in the post was a matter of some pride to me. You hand the card over at the checkout in the normal way, and the points get added to your account in the usual fashion. I'm not sure how or where I can redeem my points yet, but I get a warm and cosy feeling knowing that one day, when my German is good enough, there'll be a tidy little nest egg saved up for me.

Having the requisite bit of plastic also improves the success-rate of supermarket checkout interactions. I can now reply in the affirmative to the formerly dreaded "Kundenkarte?" question, neatly avoiding the risk of an unintelligible reward card sales pitch. Replying in the affirmative to other checkout interrogations is a type of Russian roulette, because I've no hope of understanding what it is I'm being offered, short of saying yes and finding out. The Migros supermarket spent the early spring giving away pointless little plastic bean things called Nanos. No relation the the iPod. Contrary to what the photo below suggests, they are also not in the least bit edible:

The delights of the inedible, non iPod Nanos were lost on me, so I learned to recognise my cue to decline them, after establishing that the children in my au pair friend's family were already awash with the little buggers. More happily, in the week before Easter, the Coop supermarket gave away free bars of milk chocolate with every purchase. Now here was the kind of freebie I could enjoy.

Soon, another cunning ruse to catch me out came along. In early April, I started being asked something by the Coop cashiers after I presented my loyalty card. To begin with I politely declined what I thought was the offer of a bag, mistakenly gesturing to the packable ones that I take everywhere with me. This caused some looks of mild confusion, but as that's a fairly standard response to my attempts at German, I didn't think much of it.

Then there came a day when I was feeling adventurous, (and indeed had forgotten to bring my packable bags with me). I said 'Ja'. And the cashier handed me a strip of small red stamps with pictures of pans on them. I was a bit confused: I certainly couldn't carry the milk home in that! And were these the kind of stamps that hold up queues when paid with in the UK? What was the social etiquette of stamp-paying in Switzerland? Would I be tutted for holding fellow shoppers up, or was it more like the Nandos free-chicken scenario? And if not for stamp-paying, then what the devil *were* they for? Still, they were rather pretty, so I collected them for a week or two without having the foggiest what to do with them.

And then, one day, Greg brought home a little sticker book for them to live in. I devoured the info on the accompanying leaflet, and I think that once our little sticker book is full, I can redeem it for money off Fondue pans and Victorinox kitchen knives. Either that, or I can swap our kitchen knives for money off our groceries. Either way, I'm in.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Fat Bottomed Girl gets back in the saddle

Lately I have found myself clad in unusual, snug-fitting clothing, sweating profusely and grinning like a loon. The more faint-hearted of our readers should be reassured - we have not been exploring the extramarital expat scene, as trailed in an earlier post. Rather, as Queen so aptly put, I Want To Ride My Bicycle...

This all entirely Greg's fault. Those of you who know us well will know that Greg is a serious cycling aficionado of several years' standing. Such is his passion, that when we received our shipment from the UK, the very first things off the lorry were the bikes. Before I had unpacked enough mugs to make a cup of tea for the delivery men, all four had been anxiously unwrapped and checked over like so many equines emerging from a long journey in a horse box. The most thoroughbred of our livery is now quartered in the dining room. Needless to say, it's not mine. My trusty steed, a cast-off of Greg's adapted for my smaller build, is more of an outdoor beast, quite happy to be tethered to the hitching post behind our apartment building and to share a tarp with its stable mates.

In the UK I had been an occasional cyclist of only limited enthusiasm, more Fat Bottomed Girl than aspiring pro-peletonnette. Inspired by the beautiful scenery, and enticed by promises of a nice flat ride around the lakeshore, I was persuaded to get back on my bike for the first time on a sunny Sunday at the beginning of April.

Flat ride my foot. Within 10 minutes of leaving the house I was angrily struggling up a steep hill out of the city, which seemed to go an interminably long time, amid assurances from the front that it wasn't much further. The descent from the top, on quiet roads with views of pretty villages backed by the lake and mountains went some way to mollify me.

I was exhausted by the time we stopped for lunch with a view of the alps, and then we crossed over the lake on the ferry for a longish, but mercifully flat, slog home. Unfortunately, we live halfway up the Züriberg, so another uphill struggle right at the end of the ride was unavoidable. Grumpy once again, I vowed never to do it again.

However, once I'd got over my sunburn and saddle stiffness, we did do the lake trip a couple more times. When Greg suggested a new route over the top of the Züriberg, I hesitantly agreed. "Grounds for divorce," became my mantra as Greg led me up ever steeper roads, I fell off my (stationary) bike in exhaustion, and resorted to walking up impossible hills and gravel tracks.  Let us draw a veil over the remainder of that ride, and move on.

So the lake ride became our standard route. We tried it both ways round, with and without the original hilly bits, and once, inadvertently and unhappily, with an additional hilly bit. Strangely I found the flatness of the main coast road a bit boring, and my heart yearned for hilltop villages and swooping descents. I still didn't want to climb to reach them, but I could see it was a necessary evil, and a change began to creep over me.

Fast forward to last night. When Greg got home from work for our evening ride, I was already lycra-ed up, with a sports drink at the ready and my bike shoes and helmet in my hands. This despite the weather being a drizzly 15C. We did the lake ride in intermittent rain with strong cross-winds. The first big hill seemed fairly easy, and I took heart. Instead of spending the second half of the ride dreading the final hill, I was rather looking forward to it. My enthusiasm waned a bit as the rain come on stronger, and then we hit some major roadworks. We had to weave in and out of the traffic, on slippery wet roads, in the gathering gloom. I was climbing, I was soaking, I was tired, and I was trapped between the steely death of a 4x4 and the equally steely death of getting a wheel stuck in a tram-track. And I was smiling.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Grass is Greener

I remember watching a magazine piece on the television when still in my formative years. I think it was in an episode of Blue Peter or Tomorrow's World. Although it may have been another programme altogether. The piece followed a man on a bicycle trailing a white balloon to collect air for pollution testing. This is my first memory of being conscious of what Switzerland might be like. Clean.

And, by comparison, it is.

Zürich is a large city. It is not spotlessly clean. But it is a lot cleaner than most, if not all, other cities I've visited.

Certainly, the swirling cyclones of litter on London's South Bank or the overflowing bins in Leeds city centre on Sunday afternoons (not emptied since before Saturday's shopping hours) are not to be found.

The bins of a park in Zürich will be overflowing after lunchtime on a hot work day. But by evening they will have been emptied. The streets after a parade or festival event will be covered in litter. But before morning it will have disappeared.

It's not that the Swiss are more clean. Just that there is a lot more clearing up after them that goes on. Street sweepers patrol the streets two or three times a week. And that is despite the low taxes for public services and an outsourcing contract covering most (if not all) elements of public cleaning and waste disposal!

There are two exceptions though: cigarette butts and chewing gum. And both are the result of very popular activities in Switzerland.

As well as the cleanliness, the Swiss are renowned for their recycling prowess, often quoted as the world's leading recyclers.

But is this behaviour a result of interest in the longevity of the planet or a distaste for mass consumption? Perhaps it is. But mostly it is because recycling is free and throwing away rubbish is expensive.

Here is where some policy makers elsewhere should take note. Especially those who want to try and weigh everyone's waste at the point of collection.

Take note of the Swiss approach: charge by volume. Here the rubbish sacks are taxed. By the local council. And you can only dispose of rubbish using one. So there are no anti-social neighbours dumping their rubbish in someone else's wheelie bin.

And the bags are heavily levied as well. A 35-litre Zürisacke costs CHF2.20 (if bought in a pack of ten). That's very nearly £1.60 today (probably about £1.70 tomorrow!). And you can put anything you like in them. There's no snooping into people's bins to check whether they are throwing the right things away. If you are stupid enough to pay to throw something away that you could dispose of for free then it's your own problem.

It's not all sweetness and light however. Whilst it may be free to recycle a range of materials, there is, of course, a system. And not an entirely straight forward one.

Let's start with the easy stuff. Street collections.

Every fortnight, on Tuesday morning, bundled paper is collected. And bundled means neatly bundled. Not higgledy-piggledy.
Garden waste is collected once per week during the Spring, Summer and Autumn if you have bought a permit. Less frequently in the Winter.

Cardboard is picked up on Wednesdays, once every four to five weeks, again, neatly bundled. And textiles once in June and once in November.

If you want to get rid of dangerous materials (such as chemicals, paints, etc.,) then you can take them to a collection point on a given day in October. Free up to 20kg of waste.

Next there's the drop-off points. That covers glass and small metal (tins and cans). Sometimes used cooking oil. These are located on the street at regular intervals throughout the city. But you can only use them between the hours of 7am and 7pm Monday to Saturday. Never on a Sunday and certainly not on a Public Holiday. After all, who would want their Freizeit to be spoilt by the sound of smashing glass?

So, what's left? Plastics? Batteries? Electronics?

Well, supermarkets are responsible for providing free facilities to recycle PET, plastic milk cartons and batteries. And light bulbs, small compressed air canisters and water filter cartridges.
They also tend to have bins and recycling points behind the tills so that you can throw away unwanted packaging at their expense.

As for electronics, as elsewhere, these should be returned to an electronics store for safe and suitable disposal.

And that covers most of it. Except for innovative second-hand sales.
And bicycles!
Although at least the water is clean enough to be able to see them!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The perils of dishwasher maintenance

Recent events that have transpired as a result of my limited German vocabulary are as follows:

1. Buying beeswax instead of wood oil to use on our unsealed Oak furniture. All the tins are labelled in German, and have pictures of wood furniture on them, which is surprisingly unhelpful.

2. Buying and putting dishwasher powder in the dishwasher salt compartment. I didn't realise until I had poured in almost the entire bag, when the lemony smell and copious frothing finally alerted me to my error.

3. Bought a chicken with giblets in it rather than without and then roasted it without removing them. Did not realise until Greg disassembled it to make stock, when the reason for the mysterious bleeding from the supposedly cooked bird became clear.

DIY know-how show-how triumph

Since moving in, it has been my great delight to get stuck into some DIY. It's normal for tenants to provide and fit their own light fittings in Switzerland, so we went to IKEA (IKEA here is just like IKEA everywhere else), and we bought some ceiling roses and lampshades. The first one that I fitted, in the living room, went extremely smoothly. It was a simple case of hooking up the ceiling rose, wiring in the wires, and then hanging the shade from the wire.

The second one in the dining room threw up a problem. The wires were poking out of the ceiling as expected, but there was no hook to attach the ceiling rose to. A quick rifle through our Dorling Kindersly 'DIY Know-how with Show-how' book (highly recommended in general) was not especially helpful on the matter, so armed with optimism and a map, (but fatefully not a dictionary), I set off in search of a hardware store to purchase an appropriate hook widget. I found an extremely helpful and good humoured shop assistant whose English was about equal to my German. Much miming and confusion ensued as we rifled through the shelves of light fittings and fixtures in an elaborate process of elimination. Eventually we agreed that I needed one of these:

As eventually explained by the DIY shop lady's English-speaking teenage son, this terrifying beast must be installed so that the entire clamp part is inserted into a slot in the ceiling. It is then expanded to grip the edges of the hole. One must then fill in the entire hole with polyfiller to create a smooth(ish) finish and leave the hook sticking out of the wall.

I rummaged about a bit in our toolkit, found my electric drill and discovered the plaster saw that we bought to repair the huge hole that Greg knocked into the wall of our last flat in London. It is an ugly-looking piece of equipment and not one to wave about carelessly at head height. I scuttled up the step ladder, donned a makeshift mask and safety glasses (I am all about the safety), and then scuttled down again to switch off the electricity before proceeding.

I drilled, hacked and chiselled a hole about 2 inches by half an inch into the ceiling, bringing down about a kilogram of filthy black plaster dust and ceiling matter. There was a moment when I lost my nerve a bit and had to have a sit down and a cup of tea, but then I got stuck back in again and finished the job. I wedged the hook in, slathered on the poly filler, crossed my fingers and went to have a shower (serious amounts of dust went absolutely everywhere). The result was triumphant, if a bit lumpy:

And three weeks later the light fitting is still up :)

The joys of a flat that isn't mouldy

We have been in our new flat for over a month and it is a dream. It's huge, it's very light and airy and it's nicely finished. Nothing is broken or missing or shoddily done. For all of the following reasons, it is nicer to live in than any of our previous flats in London.

  1. The structure and fittings are sound. The window frames aren't rotten, the bathroom doesn't leak into the flat below, and the bannisters haven't come off the wall. 
  2. The flat is not a biohazard - we don't have wasp, bee, moth or ladybird infestations, it doesn't smell, it isn't damp and the washing machine isn't mouldy. In fact, the washing machine is startlingly clean, thanks to the very particular rules about disassembling and cleaning all its parts at the end of every washing day. 
  3. We have actually spoken to some of our neighbours, and none of them seem to be running businesses from their homes. So, in order of ascending annoyance, no drug dealers, car dealers or dog groomers to contend with.
  4. We can't see (or hear) the West London flyover from our bedroom window. On a clear day, we can see the Alps from the bus stop on the main road.

I have only found two things that I don't like about it.

Firstly, we have so much space that our modest amount of furniture floats about looking lonely in the middle of the rooms. We got rid of quite a few things before we left the UK, and this has been aggravated by the incompetence of our removal company. In exchange for a shockingly large fee, they distinguished themselves by losing an entire bookcase, the shelves for a second bookcase, and a box of crockery. They also broke our third bookcase, and one of our office storage units. To add insult to injury, they managed to misplace the widgets that hold together our double bed and our futon sofa. So we are sleeping on our mattress on the floor. More widgets are in the post, lost in the interminable confusion caused by all the UK bank holidays.

Secondly, the light in the loo is on a movement sensor and a timer. In this way, it is an interesting barometer of digestive health. If you need to wave at it to switch the light back on, then you know that things are not quite as they should be...

Catching up - April 1st

NB - I wrote the below first impressions of our new flat on April 1st but we didn't get our internet connection sorted until mid April, and then I got a bit distracted by various things and neglected the blog for a bit...

Today is April 1st, which as far as I can tell (and much to my relief given my limited German) is not a day of pranks and nonsense here in Switzerland, or at least I have so far avoided being the butt of any jokes. We are still in Lent after all. But it is very sunny and warm and extremely spring-like. The city has been coming alive in the last fortnight, and getting itself spruced up for the summer. Verdant swathes of colourful patio furniture have been springing up outside cafes like daffodils and crocuses. What I took to be storage sheds along the riverbanks have suddenly unfolded into bars and riverside swimming pools, with their attendants seemingly emerging from hibernation within, and blinking at the sunshine. And as in spring the first flies and insects start to appear, so the first coach loads of tourists are beginning to roll in.

Today is also our first full day in our new apartment, which we took possession of yesterday, a much anticipated and exciting event. Spending 3 months together in one room of less than 20m2 has been a true test of our sapling marriage, but I am pleased to report that a divorce is not on the cards. Our new flat is nearly 4 times that size, and we have been rattling about in it not knowing what to do with all the space, and getting separation anxiety when we can’t see each other.  It’s in a quiet and pretty spot near to the University, far enough up on the hill to the west of the city to be scenic, and not far enough round towards the lake to have a lake view or to be pricey. It does however have a mountain view, in that if I lean right out over the balcony railing and twist my head back around I can see a tiny sliver of tree tops and the tip of the radio antennae on the Zürichberg.

The flat has been extremely well kept and is (currently) unbelievably clean. I think it was professionally cleaned before we moved in, but the previous tenants must also have taken very good care of it, because there are none of the usual signs of long-term occupation. No hint of limescale in the kitchen sink, no spot of mildew on the bathroom grout, not a single mucky mark on the skirting boards or definitely no smudges on the flooring. There is also no dust down the back of any of the radiators – something that I didn’t know was physically possible until now. Those of you who are reading this who are prone to cleanliness will probably be reeling with horror, but the flats that we lived in in London have ranged from generally-a-bit grubby to downright biohazard when we have moved into them.

Monday, 14 March 2011


It's carnival season as various communities from Rio to New Orleans to Basel and (less famously) Zürich celebrate the pagan traditions of the change of winter to spring and the Christian traditions of preparing to fast during Lent.

They're a bit strange in the Alemannic folkloric tradition.

Here's an idea of what we happened across in the centre of Zürich yesterday.

For a little more information on the background...

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Money, it's a gas

Helen mentioned "a hefty sum of Franken" in her last post so I thought I'd dwell on that subject a little.

In the UK, my paper cash carrying progression started quite young with crinkly blue notes and mild awe at anything with a '0' on it.

As a student, a purple beer voucher was an aspirational concept and my favourite cash machines were those that allowed me to withdraw ten pounds in two notes.

As a working man, the purple beer voucher played a more frequent role in my life but that is the end of the escalation.

The fifty pound note has remained an almost mythical entity.

And so to Switzerland. Where they love their money. And I don't just mean money in a conceptual, sitting in a bank, way. I mean actual physical money. Cash.

To start with we have the CHF10, CHF20 and CHF50 notes. These are easy to work with. The fifty pound note may be almost mythical but these foreign notes are colourful and reminiscent of money from board games. So the CHF50 note is still quite easy to work with. It's worth about £33.50 today so it's not such a big mental stretch as from £20 to £50.

Next though, we have the CHF100 note. This is worth (quick, do the maths) in the region of £67. That's a lot of money for one piece of paper. But when you take into account the cost of things here and the efficiency of the cash machines meeting your withdrawal request with the fewest possible pieces of paper, it's a common note.

Elsewhere on continental Europe I have asked the nearest cash machine for 50 or 100 Euros and received one note. Then, I have taken that single note to perform a small transaction and received scorn for not having anything smaller with which to pay.

Not so in Switzerland. It is perfectly acceptable to pay, for example, for a packet of chewing gum (CHF1.60) with a CHF100 note. No-one will even blink at this. No-one will scowl at you for draining their cash float.

Then there's the CHF200 note. It's a very light way to carry so much money. Efficient? Yes. Mildly unnerving? Also yes.

But we are not finished yet.

Yes, that's right. That is a CHF1000 note. That is one piece of paper with a value equivalent to about £670. That's scary stuff. Imagine leaving that in your pocket when putting your trousers through the wash!

Although that would never happen here. Money is to be respected. To be carefully stowed in a wallet or purse. No decrepit fivers here.

N.B. no money was harmed in the production of this blog post and all participating notes were obtained purely in the process of paying a month's rent in advance in cash (that was a whole month's rent in a mere eight bank notes!!).

(I'm allright Jack, keep your hands off my stack.)

Thursday, 10 March 2011

House hunt part 2: The denouement

We have found an apartment to move into on 31st March! Given the horror stories that abound on the expat community message boards about the competition and confusion of house hunting, I was expecting, at the very least, to be asked to swap a kidney in return for a tiny garret above a strip club in the red light district. The expat online community, like any other, does attract a few fruit cakes (see Swinging Switzerland post below), so some exaggeration is probably at play. But still we have been exceedingly fortunate and I can only thank Special Providence for smiling down on me (and mention that if He feels like working on a job for me I might give Catholicism some serious thought).

Our new apartment is in 8006, a quiet and leafy area on the hillside above the Hauptbahnhof and near to the university. It has 3.5 rooms (for the uninitiated this is the London equivalent of a medium sized 2 bed flat) and a balcony, is sunny, quiet and pretty (sonnig, ruhig und schön). We will be on the first floor of an old vierfamilienhaus, (not sure how to spell that), literally, 4 family house, a house originally built as 4 flats for families.

This was the first viewing that I went to, and I was a bit nervous. We put on some smart clothes to make a good impression. At the appointed viewing hour there didn't seem to be much competition (just 2 boys looking together, either students or possibly a couple, I couldn't tell). The flat seemed lovely, nice layout and with a nice kitchen, although it was a bit of a blur. Greg got out his super charming German skills and chatted to the landlords, a middle aged Swiss couple, Herr and Frau L, as they showed us round. I smiled and said "Ja" and "schön" when it seemed most likely to be appropriate. When we left, Frau L asked for our surname when giving us the application form, so it seemed hopeful.

We took the form away, translated it all, filled it in and then wrote a rather pretty personal letter explaining our situation to go with our application (this seemed a bit strange to us, but is recommended to make one's form stand out). We sent it off in the post and crossed our fingers. 2 days later we got a phonecall - Herr L offering us the flat and inviting us to a meeting on Saturday afternoon to transact the official paperwork! The meeting was to be on neutral territory at a nearby cafe (of course). We got ourselves smartened up again, and arrived early with a hefty sum of Frankens for the first month of rent in advance.

Herr and Frau L arrived as the church clock struck 3pm. Seats were taken, coffees ordered, and small take made. This went on for quite some time (in German), mostly between the menfolk. Frau L, clearly in charge of operations, then brought us smartly to business and handed round the paperwork (in German). We discussed the Ts and Cs (in German) and handed over the cashola. We were then 'dismissed' by Herr L. Cue an awkward moment as Greg hears an unfamiliar verb and is not sure what we are instructed to do, and I am confused over the social convention for who should pay for coffee and attempt to query this in my poor German. Laughing and relief all round as translation occurs and we are gently but firmly pushed out of the door, without paying.

After this, it was simply a matter of translating the contract, or at least the additional terms and conditions, eventually giving up on some parts, and signing it anyway - it is a standard proforma from a Swiss tenancy/landlord website so we are pretty sure it is safe. We have agreed, amongst other things, to use the washing machine only on Mondays and Tuesdays, and to open the windows for 5 minutes, four times every day to ensure proper airing (although Frau L has hinted that once per day would be sufficient). So now we just have to find 3 months' rent for our deposit (!) and then we can move in.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Sprechen Sie English?

About making another post about language I am afraid.

Helen learning (Swiss) German has been busy and I had have some language learning do myself. However, there can be no book for grammar reading or checking dictionary as I already told was what the rules grammatical are and the vocabulary I know before.

One of the hardest aspects of starting a new job in Zürich has been learning International English. Unlike Americanese this is not a bastardised version of English, rather it is a confusing result of any number of mistranslations. And it varies according to the origin of the speaker.

It is easy to understand how this happens. I have (at least) two similar problems with German.

I really struggle to say 'wann' and not 'wenn' if I want to say 'when'. This is quite problematic, especially in shops and service situations. "I would like a sandwich if there is no mayonnaise in it" begs a response but "I would like a sandwich when there is no mayonnaise in it" can lead to a really long wait.

And whilst in English we use the word 'time' for both instance and duration, in German I often use 'zeit' (duration) instead of 'mal' (instance). It is hard to translate the difference between 'zeit' and 'mal' because we are so used to describing both concepts with the same word. But perhaps it is something like:

Colleague: Greg, are you coming to get some lunch?
Greg: I'm a bit busy today. Next era.
Colleague: [blank face]

This varying use of the English language makes for an interesting mental workout as you can never assume that what you heard is what was meant. And it makes for great confusion in the impersonal assaults that are business emails these days.

But it makes you a bit more humble about your own use of the mother tongue. And a bit more precise. Given my natural tendency to loquacious language this is quite an interesting test.

That said, working with the part of the organisation that sells to and supports customer across Central and Eastern Europe leads to some incredible sentences.

Try this:
  • go to
  • type in (or copy and paste, as you prefer) This sentence really should make sense
  • now copy the text translated into German and paste it over the English sentence
  • now translate it back from German to English.
Admittedly, Babelfish is a notoriously bad translation tool but imagine if that had been a forty-odd word sentence with conditional sub-clauses and complex concepts...

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Expat Encounters/ Swinging Switzerland

Our social life is still a bit limited, and we haven't met many people apart from Greg's colleagues and my German classmates. So we went to an expat drinks night last week to try to make some new friends. Having no idea what to expect, but feeling we really ought to do something, we turned up at a rather smart bar, (feeling rather underdressed), prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. To begin with, conversation was quite stilted and the early arrivals tended to stay for one or two drinks before heading home, but soon people warmed up and were quite friendly. A few of the people I spoke to were really genuine and engaging, but there were also a couple of real fruitcakes in attendance. We swopped tips about house hunting, job hunting, German classes and supermarkets, and it felt like maybe there was some common ground to build from.

As the evening wore on, and the drinks continued to flow, there was a fair bit of flirting in the air and some of the later arrivals of ladies were rather revealingly dressed. Group conversations started to turn into one-on-ones, leaving an ever shrinking pool of those not yet paired off. Not really sure of my social footing, I was chatting away quite happily in a small group, until someone remarked (on learning that Greg and I were there together), that there were plenty of swingers clubs in Zürich if that’s what we were into... and at that point it dawned on me that we were the only couple in the bar! We stuck it out for another drink, and on the way home agreed that whilst it had been great to flex our social muscles a bit, we might give it a miss next week.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Not death, famine, pestilence, war and Fabian (the most popular name for Swiss boys) but the five languages of Switzerland.

Really this is about the use of English in Switzerland but we'll need to cover a bit of background first.

Switzerland has four official languages (you can decide for yourself which one is death, which famine, which war and which pestilence). These four languages are:
  • Swiss German (not German);
  • French;
  • Italian; and
  • Romansch.
Swiss German is distinct from (High) German in more than just dialect. Most notable to the casual observer is the presence of non-German words in common parlance. For example:
  • the hairdresser is a 'Coiffure' not a 'Frisuer';
  • a bicycle is a 'Velo' not a 'Fahrrad';
  • wish someone a good meal with "En guete" (which roughly translates to have a good digestion) instead of "Malzeit!"; and
  • thank someone with "Merci vielmal" instead of "Vielen dank".

French is a language spoke in the part of Switzerland to the west of the Röstigrauben (Rösti ditch) and Italian is spoke in the sunny southern canton of Ticino (over the hills and nearly in Italy).

Romansch is spoken by about 1% of the Swiss population located in parts of south-eastern Switzerland. In fact it is a group of dialects but is officially recognised as a language as it is the closest living relative of spoken Latin.

However, it is the fifth language that is of most interest. This unholy and unofficial half-brother of the four official languages exists for a good reason. Is is not very efficient or cost effective to always use four languages.

If you are trying to shift inventory then designing, producing and placing promotional materials that say
(and a word in Romansch that I can't find online!)
is not a good idea.

A simple sign that says Sale can be understood by all, is cheaper to produce and doesn't take up all that valuable window space used to entice people into your shop.

But beware of thinking that all usage of the English language in Switzerland is so sensible.

In fact, don't think of the use of English at all. It is not like the French adopting English words to create 'le weekend' and 'le parachuting'. This is a (sub)language in its own right - dubbed Swinglish.

The most notable example of Swinglish is the word that the Swiss use to describe what it is to think and behave in a way appropriate to being Swiss - 'Swissness'. An important concept in a country of compromise and agreement.

But there are some occasions where Swinglish provides some confusion and (oft puerile) entertainment for a native English speaker.

Exhibit A is the German for mobile phone - das Handy.

Now, sometimes the Swiss call it a 'Natel' and "mein Handy" doesn't sound quite the same in a Swiss accent. But it's still a bit confusing...


Exhibit B is a popular Swiss German superlative. Through the 20th Century, popular American culture brought words like 'hip', 'cool', 'bad' and 'wicked' to the land of 'super', 'spiffing' and 'ace'. And the Swiss have… 'tip top'.

Exhibit C is the use of the word 'hit' to describe a deal. Remembering that the German language compounds nouns this can lead to some interesting results. Price (Preis) deal is mildly amusing and deal of the day (Tag) a little entertaining. But the supermarket Migros has won my award with this promotion at its cafeteria.


But none of this schoolboy humour can quite prepare you for this range of dental hygiene products. Are you sure you want to put that in your mouth?


Friday, 18 February 2011

Ich mache ein Deutsch Kurs

Thought it was time for an update on my German-learning progress. I started a German beginners course a few weeks ago, and now spend four hours a week at night school bashing my head against German grammar in the convivial company of my classmates. We are a very mixed group, containing 3 Brits, 3 Italians, 2 Serbians, a Slovakian, a Chinese chap who doesn't speak much English, a Nigerian, a Portuguese and a lady from Thailand. Selecting a suitable neighbour to share German dictionaries with is therefore a challenge - the German for vicino (Italian) is nahe, in case you were wondering. Everyone is very nice, and the camaraderie of bewilderment should not be underestimated as a means to bridge our complex language and cultural barriers.

My German has now progressed to the point that I can order a coffee, decline an accompanying pastry, ask how much things cost, exchange greetings with our cleaner and explain that I have only been in Switzerland for 6 weeks so I don't know enough German for anything else. One thing I have not learnt yet, but which is becoming a pressing need, is how to give directions. Apparently I have the sort of face which people like to approach in the street - this is not new news to me, but it throws up some interesting opportunities to cause well meaning chaos. Now that the weather is a bit warmer I am continually waylaid by Swiss people in need of a map. My pointing skills are legendary, however, this week's task is to learn how to differentiate between first and second on the right/left.

Monday, 7 February 2011

The Hunt Begins

Well, it is unseasonably warm in Zürich at the moment (again!).

We were not expecting double digit temperatures in early February and certainly not double digits above zero.

But there is a lovely Spring feel in the air that makes for a great opportunity to get out and explore the city.

It comes at a good time as it is now time to start to find somewhere to live once our three months in temporary accommodation finish at the end of March and it isn't so easy to get a feel for a new city when ten to fifteen minutes outdoors is enough to make the end of your nose freeze!

There are many interesting views on the Zürich rental market on the various web sites, blogs and forums. Most of them contain cautions, warnings and horror stories. But I'm not sure that many of the authors have dealt with the rental market in London.

I think that helps. Certainly as far as prices go. Although the volume of available flats isn't what we're used to in the big smoke.

We are expecting some interesting local curiosities in the rental process. Already we have identified that not only does the rental depend on location, location, location but so does the level of taxation and the cost of health, contents and possibly even public liability insurance. Whilst the taxation differences might be worthy of consideration I have never previously selected where to live based on the cost of insurance products so I don't think I'll start now (although maybe the health insurance).

Wednesday will be our first viewing (well, my first viewing as Helen will be on a plane back to Züri) and I'm expecting to be one of many turning up at 17:00 for the public viewing appointment.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Punk Plane

This is a little belated now but still worth writing about.

Last Thursday I went on my first client visit in my new role. This was a day trip from Zürich to Münster and back via Düsseldorf airport. Not only was it a long day in terms of time and distance but trying to concentrate throughout a four-hour meeting conducted exclusively in German was exhausting. It turns out I did understand some of it but there was an awful lot I didn't.

However, most notable in the day was the journey from Zürich to Düsseldorf in the morning.

I left the flat around seven and it was starting to snow. By the time I got to the gate it was snowing quite heavily (think the weekend before Christmas in the UK) and a couple of inches of snow had settled on the tarmac. More was to come and by now Heathrow (and, to be fair, Schipol, Düsseldorf and Charles de Gaulle) would have shut down for the foreseeable future.

There was a sense of nervousness amongst the awaiting passengers but the word was 'delay' not 'cancellation'. Indeed, when the delay to my flight was put on the departures board it was set at five (yes, 5) minutes. I can't remember being in a airport where a five minute delay was even announced as such.

We boarded the plane a little late and, once the departure protocols had been completed, we got underway.

Now, I've never flown in such conditions before and so what came next surprised and fascinated me. Sorry if this is old hat for some (especially any previously Swiss-resident aeronautical engineers!?!).

The plane taxied not to a runway but to a de-icing pan. At this point a vehicle loomed into view out of the window that looked like a cross between a transformer, a giraffe and a dragon. On a truck was mounted a platform with a cab containing a driver and controls a bit lit a crane. On the front of the platform was a hose on extending tracks. A bit like the ones in this article

First the de-icing truck sprayed the wing with orange liquid to remove the ice that had formed. Then a second spray, this time a green liquid, to prevent new ice forming. Imagine being in a car wash but sitting in a plane, minus the rollers. The outcome looked a bit like a dodgy dyed mohican.

After the spraying had finished there wasn't much to see out of the green/orange window. A surreal experience though. And one that lead to only a forty minute delay by the time we landed in Düsseldorf.

Hydrotherapy Swiss Style

This weekend just past we went to Baden, a short train trip from here, and lazed about a bit in the thermal baths. The sun was shining down on the snowy hills behind the town, and the sky was blue, making the setting rather lovely. There are two hydrotherapy pools, one indoors and one outdoors, and also saunas and so forth (which I decided to give a miss just in case nudity was required). Rest assured that everyone in the main area was appropriately attired, those Swiss present not seeming to go in for skimpy swimmers for either sex. I saw no banana hammocks and only one inadvisably small bikini (see sartorial note, below). However, there were some very hairy backs in evidence, Homo Alpinus clearly being a rugged beast. 

For the uninitiated, the hydrotherapy pool consists of a big swimming pool with a series of high pressure water jets around the edges. The water is toasty warm, and also mineral rich, and the idea is to relax, soak up the minerals, and get massaged by the jets. They start at ankle height and move up as you move to the left, ending up at neck & shoulders, and then they repeat so you get 2 cycles head to toe. This being Switzerland, there is a very organised procedure to follow. Every 90 seconds a doorbell sounds and everyone moves one jet station to the left.  One watches the procession for a little while to identify where the start/finish point is, and then one joins the back of the queue. This leads to a very equitable system of everyone getting evenly massaged all over, twice, but it does feel like being a sausage in a sausage factory! On a sartorial note, to any ladies who come to visit and would like to go to the baths, I strongly recommend bringing a snug fitting and modest one piece (the jets are rather powerful).

However, just as I was beginning to feel unnerved by how organised it all was, I was relieved to observe that teenagers are teenagers the world over. There were 3 who pushed into the line in front of me, and sometimes shared 2 jets and sometimes took one each, causing all sorts of havoc and bunching up behind them. They got many stern looks.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011


Just a link to another page which explains the Swiss-German situation far better than I ever could

Especially fun to click on the sound clip for anyone who speaks any other kind of German (German German, Austrian German...)

And for those wanting the sound of yet more melodious Züridüütsch: and click on "Live hören." Be warned, musical Russian roulette will follow...

Monday, 17 January 2011

Matters Social

The social occasion in question: Greg's work xmas/New Year party

The context: A midweek company dinner for all divisions, wives and partners invited, an international crowd and one rather nervous Helen

Cultural compare & contrast: To help illustrate the experience, below is a summary comparing and contrasting my general UK work Christmas party experience to the Swiss experience. 

Disclaimer: all social observations are based entirely on the author's own field work, and may not be typical or accurate. They are also meant very nicely and with great fondness for both cultures.

Item 1: Greetings

UK: Enthusiastic to friends, polite to colleagues, studious avoidance of eye contact with all others. Expect zero interaction with groups well known for being cliquey/introvert , e.g. finance (both).

CH: On arrival, grab a drink asap. Then greet as many people as possible, regardless of level of acquaintance, through the ingenious approach of toasting glasses, saying ‘prost’ (cheers) and then doing brief introductions as necessary. Any eye contact, accidental or otherwise, is followed with more or less alacrity by a rapidly approaching glass held at chin height. Seems to be no requirement for further lingering or small talk, as there is a whole room of other people to greet. The initial 20 minutes were excruciating, but as the room filled up with the sound of tinkling glasses and multilingual chattering the environment was most congenial.

Top tip: gleaned from one of our essential Swissness books – arrive early so others have to greet you, not vice versa. 

Helen’s top tip: if not especially Swiss/outgoing, get the first apero down you sharpish.

Item 2: Speeches

UK: Tend to be late in the evening and somewhat rambling, depending on level of alcohol consumption. Can cover almost any kind of topic, include injokes, ribaldry and general inappropriateness.

CH: At 7.15pm sharp, lasted almost exactly 15 minutes, 5 in English and 10 in German. The English version was (relatively) clean. It comprised: a warm welcome, including to an impressive number of retirees; a concise summary of the business performance; some techy jokes and a touching 1 minute silence for a colleague who died in service. This was followed by the German version, which lasted considerably longer, was delivered by a Dutchman, and contained a joke rude enough to make Greg blush and refuse to translate it - 

Top tip: I Must and Shall Learn German.

Item 3: Dinner

UK: A blur, with frequent refilling of glasses and much small talk. Can go on for a very long time, with much waiting between courses.

CH: A blur, with frequent refilling of glasses and much (multilingual) small talk. Delivered to a ballet of Swiss precision timing, choreographed by a man wearing very white gloves. Dispatched with German-Swiss efficiency.

Top tip: If leaving the table during dinner, check left and right wing mirrors, signal and manoeuvre, or risk a collision with somebody's incoming main course

Item 4: After Dinner Entertainment

UK: If a disco is involved then expect musical taste Russian roulette. Non-dancers head to the bar for safety.

CH: No Russian roulette about it. Euro-pop and power ballads all the way. A small number of intrepid couples took to the stage (yes really) to do a very square and formal style of quasi-ballroom dancing. We were assured that most Swiss young people attend classes of this kind.

Top tip:  It also seemed to be thoroughly acceptable to sit at the table and chat, or to take an early leave (see departures).

Item 5: Departures

UK: Late, stumbling, taxis, kebabs, 'I love you guys' and big hugs all round, even of people whose names will never again enter one's consciousness.

CH: A general level of sensible tipsiness prevailed, so overelaborate expressions of undying loyalty were not required. Leaving seemed to be acceptable as soon as coffee had finished. Style of leave-taking varied by nationality. The Swiss tendency was to say goodbye to as many colleagues as possible in a slightly more selective version of the Apero routine, in reverse. For all others, there was an awkward cross-cultural clash of hand shakes, waves, and cheek kissing (1,2, and 3 kiss variants in evidence with no way of telling which was coming in to land until the nose bump moment occurred).

Top tip: A general policy of smiling pleasantly and getting in a pre-emptive handshake seemed to deter most would-be cheek kissers.


I (Greg) thought it was about time that I posted something.

It's been two weeks and a couple of days and, although the transition has its challenges, things seem to be going pretty well thus far (knock on wood).

In terms of work it has been a fascinating couple of weeks. It's a new type of role (business analysis in product management) in a new industry (software) serving a new industry (car insurance) in a new working culture in a new city in a new country and partly in a foreign language.

It's been great to have the routine and the social contact to help feel settled in and people have been very helpful. I've been introduced to a range of local lunchtime eateries and educated in some of the local Züri-Tüütsch dialect and generally made to feel very welcome.

That said, there are things that turn the head (it wouldn't be much fun without some cultural differences!).

Last week there was a dog in the office. Just for a day but still, a dog. And not a seeing-eye dog either.

Also last week there was the office Christmas party. Handily held in January it was a great opportunity to socialise a little with new colleagues and to experience at first hand some of the intriguing social mores in Swiss culture and the Apero in particular.

However, today has trumped the lot to date. I arrived at my desk a few minutes before 9am to find a truly surreal sight.

I have never previously worked for a company that engages people to clean the computer equipment. I have worked in offices that were negligible in cleaning the desks but not where people clean the monitor, telephone, keyboard, mouse, docking station and any other equipment lying around.

And I don't mean wipe them over with a damp cloth. I'm talking cleaning chemicals in the type of plastic bottles seen in fancy restaurant kitchens with sauces in. I'm talking toothbrushes with two brushes facing in opposite directions. Add in microfibre cloths and an assiduous attention to detail (including removing the keyboard keys and cleaning under them) and you've got some very clean computer equipment. But that's not it. The staff of the company engaged for this bi-annual activity was entirely made up of women of at least sixty-five and significantly older. All members of the blue-rinse or aggresive auburn brigades. Clicking and clacking for most of the day as they worked their way around the workstations brought to mind the Shreddies Knitted by Nannas advert.

And I thought that the state retirement age (64 for women) in Switzerland was mandatory!!

A great day's entertainment to add to the list of things I'm enjoying about Zürich.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Matters Financial

To help with cultural assimilation I am trying to gradually adopt Swiss attitudes and behaviours. This week I am beginning my Swissness financial training. Specifically, this so far involves:

  • Learn not to tip. Service is included and waiters are well paid. This feels a bit mean to me, the accepted compromise approach is to round things up a bit. Extra Swiss-points are available for grumbling about the bill and look mildly put out at having to pay it at all.
  • Don't pay the full price for any kind of public transport. There will be a railcard or a special deal for everything (and they are generally fantastic value). 
  • Use price comparison websites for everything. I have downloaded an iPhone app which tracks the price of groceries and alerts me, the savvy shopper, to the best deals in my local supermarkets.
  • Buy in bulk. Especially for household products like washing powder. Swiss people must have enormous utility rooms.
  • Never pay for anything in advance. In general, invoices have 30 days payment terms and consumers are trusted with credit a lot more readily than at home.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Out and about

I have been exploring a little this week. The public transport system is a thing of great beauty and efficiency, and for a modest CHF8.20 (about £5) I can go anywhere within the city limits for 24 hours. The network consists of exclusively overground transport, including trams, bendy buses, trains and a cable car – so no more London Underground-induced black bogies for me (Londoners you know what I mean)! Greg tells me that the Swiss have recently bemoaned the fact that 2-3 in 10 of their trains now leave 2-4 minutes late, up from 1 late train out of 10. To me that seems rather wonderful. My favourite so far are the trams for their silent but deadly stealth attacks on unwitting pedestrians. If you come to visit us in Zürich, be warned to look both ways (the wrong way first) when crossing tram lines because they are whispering death. They may look friendly, but secretly they are plotting to take over the city.

Matters domestic

Matters domestic and the language barrier

Having been assigned the role of Haus Frau by the Kreisburo official, I have been getting to grips with matters domestic whilst Greg is out earning the Francs. Challenges have mostly been linguistic, and point to the conclusion that I Must and Shall Learn German – more on this soon, but I am looking into lessons at the local night school.

Firstly, laundry, specifically deciphering the programme names on the washing machine and tumble drier when faced with many German compound nouns. Undeterred, I jotted them all down in my vocab book, and after about an hour of carefully consulting my dictionary I returned to the laundry room triumphant. At this point I discovered the second washing machine, which has the familiar universal symbols instead of German words. However, I am still stumped by Frottierwäsche – the closest I got was rub down, but for a tumble drier label this is a little opaque.

Secondly, lebensmittel – groceries. I have never seen such an abundance of everything edible as in our local Migros (a bit like Sainsburys). The food is familiar, and yet also very different. There are about 10 metres of shelving dedicated just to pickles. The mayonnaise comes in tubes, not jars, the mince comes in bags instead of packets, and there are more kinds of yoghurt than you can shake a big stick at, none of them low fat. The language barrier has led to some interesting mistakes and near-misses: coffee beans instead of ground coffee; and, dishwasher rinse aid instead of washing up liquid (I spotted the latter just before the check out).

Thirdly, the cleaner: we have a cleaner, who comes twice a week, which was somewhat of a surprise when she tried to let herself in whilst I was in the bath – knowing the German for ‘hang on a minute’ would have been helpful. She is very friendly, but speaks little English, and my German is still too woeful to manage more than good morning. We have devised an ingenious system of speaking to each other in our own languages, pointing and making gestures, which is working well – I have procured an iron and ironing board, a tea towel, and 2 more glasses via this method. Much to my great relief, she is also responsible for all of our Abfall (rubbish) and recycling. My attempts to decipher the instructions and collection times have not been fruitful.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Registration: Auslandische Personen

Today we registered as foreign residents in Zurich, which involved going to the Kreisburo (a bit like a ward office), and giving our details and identification to a very friendly and helpful man who put it all into a computer. We were issued with our papers, a guide to Zurich, and very detailed information about recycling and rubbish disposal in our neighbourhood.

I am rather proud and humbled to now have a very important piece of paper that says I am a foreigner resident in Zurich. This unlocks diverse doors of great magnitude, including help finding a job from the employment bureau, registration with a doctor, buying the Halbe Tax (an ingenious rail card that makes all rail tickets half price), getting hold of a Swiss sim card, and many other useful things. I'm also astonished at how easy and friendly the registration process was - no difficult questions, no bureaucratic inefficiency - considerably more enjoyable as a process than registering our intent to marry in Hounslow last year. My occupation was listed as 'accompanying/kept by her husband' - I am reminded that as newly minted, unemployed immigrant anything that makes it easier for me to stay here must be welcomed - being a dependent means I am much less likely to be sent home again when my initial visa expires. But it does feel a bit odd.


Sylvesterzauber is Zurich's New Year street festival and fireworks display, held along the banks of the river and lake. It involves a cheerful mixture of meat, cheese, beer, gluhwein, fireworks, europop and precision Swiss timing. 

For us, Sylvesterzauber involved getting stuck into Gluhwein and Wurst before contemplating dancing to dubious europop at outdoor sound stages. I am far too Englishly reserved to actually participate, but watching the Zurchers of all ages throw some shapes was a joyful and bizarre experience. Maybe next year. 

At precisely 23.45 all of the city's church bells rang out in minutely choreographed unison to mark the end of the old year, and rang in the new one, which was an atmospheric and rather lovely moment. This was followed by the much anticipated (and breathtaking) fireworks display, lasting exactly 20 mins, and including a humorous false finish at about 16 minutes in, which wasn't fooling anyone (except me). 

The Swiss do not go in for the British 'oooh' and 'aaaah' approach to firework appreciation, preferring more exuberant cheering and whistling at particularly impressive moments, with ooh and ahh reserved for use by small children at very pretty bits. There was no evidence of house key jingling, which is presumably only applicable as an accompaniment to Christmas songs rather than as a general sign of approbation - duly noted.

We wrapped up with more Gluhwein, Raclette and Madonna mega mixes before a long walk to a tram home.

Here we are on Munsterbrucke with obligatory glasses of prosecco watching the build up to the fireworks.