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 Such is my loyalty to loyalty schemes that I even had several defunct and out-of-date ones hiding behind my EHIC card - for airlines and hotel chains - left over from a previous life of business travel.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!