A weekend with the Matterhorn

We spent the weekend in Zermatt with some friends. Zermatt is basically the Daytona Beach of Switzerland, not because there are any beaches, but because it’s a partying resort town full of spring break types (although more likely to be wearing snowboarding gear than a bathing suit). It’s mainly a ski resort (and it’s possible to ski all year round on the higher slopes), but it is popular in the summer, too. The summer high season doesn’t start until June, so about half of the bars and restaurants in town were closed, but we were able to get a fabulous apartment (with a view of the Matterhorn) for the weekend for a great price.

We arrived in the afternoon after a four-and-a-half hour train ride. We checked into our apartment, admired the view, and went to explore the town a bit. We also stopped for some groceries, and were talked into buying a piece of locally-made cheese by the friendly woman at the cheese counter. She neglected to tell us that the cheese was so stinky that it would assault us every time we opened the refrigerator, and permeate the entire apartment before the weekend was over.

We had dinner out on the terrace at Walliserhof on the pedestrian-packed main street. We enjoyed watching tour groups of various nationalities scurry by and played several rounds of Name That Language. The Canton of Wallis is known for speaking a version of Swiss German that even other Swiss can’t understand, but I was beginning to fear that I wouldn’t ever get a chance to hear the local dialect in this tourist-packed town. The locals we did encounter automatically spoke High German to us, assuming (correctly) that we weren’t from around there.

Later that evening our friends arrived from Geneva, and we caught up over drinks and cards. Upon seeing the package of Choco-Köpfli I had brought (I really am addicted to those things), Phil had the brilliant idea to open them up and use them as marshmellowy shot glasses. I had one with amaretto and almost went into a diabetic coma. To be safe, I stuck with dirty martinis for the rest of the night.

By the next day we were starting to suspect that Zermatt’s lack of public trash cans was specifically designed to prevent us (and others like us) from getting rid of the pungent local cheese we had purchased. After brunch in our fishbowl-esque kitchen, we headed up the world’s first underground funicular (or something like that) to Sunnegga Paradise (as Alison pointed out, pretty much everything in and around Zermatt is named something Paradise), where we started our hike. We wandered past several tiny lakes, closed-for-the-season ski trails, and countless marmot holes. We took many, many pictures of the ever-looming Matterhorn, which kindly stayed in view all afternoon (apparently it likes to hide behind clouds a lot).

After four hours of hiking, we headed back to the apartment to get ready for a night out on the town. The surprising highlight of the evening was GramPy’s Bar, which felt like the typical American spring break kind of place except for the entertainer, a slightly androgynous piano-playing ball of energy called Marco. He was insanely amusing, and only got better as the drinks went down. I’m going to have to write a separate post entirely about him.

The next day we rolled out of bed, made brunch out of all the food left in the apartment (except for the stinky cheese), and then headed up on a gondola to admire views of glaciers and Alps. We were hoping to go all the way up to Glacier Paradise (see?), but unfortunately that gondola was closed for repairs. Guess we’ll have to go back sometime.

Zermatt isn’t the most adorable Alpine town we’ve been to (it will be hard for anywhere to beat Mürren), but it did offer nice views of the Matterhorn, good hiking, and more marmots than you can shake a stick at (and we didn’t even go to Marmot Paradise). And I’ll bet it gets a little cuter in the winter, when everything is covered with a couple feet of snow.

Eating vegetarian in Zurich

Zurich is not exactly a diner’s paradise. Like everything else in this city, most restaurants are overpriced. Seeing the prices on a menu, I often get my hopes up about the quality of the food, only to have them dashed by the overly salty and starchy disappointment of a meal that I am later served. Thus I am invariably left to drown my sorrows in some mediocre 9-franc-a-glass (if you can call one deciliter a glass) wine.

Fondue season is long gone, and now Spargelzeit is coming to an end, too. So what’s a vegetarian gourmand in Zurich to do? At most traditional Swiss restaurants, the meatless options are limited to a salad or a lone, overcooked pasta dish (trust me, you don’t want that pasta dish). There’s also often a vegetable and cheese Rösti dish on the menu, but there are only so many fried-potato-based meals I can handle per month.

Luckily, the longer I look, the better options I’m finding. In addition to some decent vegetarian-friendly international cuisines (Indian and Japanese in particular), there are also a couple restaurants in Zurich that cater specifically to the meatless diet. Below are the ones I’ve sampled so far.

Hiltl. This upscale veggie paradise claims to be the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Europe. The menu is extensive and varied, and the service tends to be quite good. There is also a buffet which offers a variety of foods, including many Indian dishes. Its usual location is under renovation (and from the looks of things, will be for quite a while longer), so Hiltl can currently be found in temporary digs just off of Parade Platz. Although the interior is nice, it’s quite crowded and loud during peak times. If you want to eat lunch at 12 or dinner at 8, you’ll need a reservation.

Tibits. The more laid back (and less expensive) version of Hiltl, Tibits also offers an extensive vegetarian buffet. In addition it boasts some impressive tea and juice drink creations, and homemade desserts that at least look pretty good (I have yet to try one). The main drawback in my book is how crowded it gets. If you’re not a fan of sharing a table with strangers, don’t go during peak meal times.

Bona Dea. This vegetarian buffet restaurant in the main train station is OK for a one-time visit, but doesn’t offer enough variety for me to become a regular. Plus, every time I’ve been there it’s almost eerily empty of patrons (pretty much the opposite problem of Hiltl and Tibits). The food isn’t as bad as its unpopularity would suggest, but it’s definitely not something to write home about.

Pot Au Vert. Just across the Limmat from the main train station, this small restaurant offers a limited but creative selection of vegetarian dishes in a hotel-breakfast-room setting. Like most restaurants in Zurich, it’s disappointing for the money, but if you pretend you’re paying only half the price, you end up pretty satisfied. Its opening hours are somewhat limited.

Since not all meat eaters appreciate being deprived of Fleisch at a meal, my ongoing mission is to find more “normal” restaurants that offer a wide vegetarian selection alongside all the Wurst and G’schnätzlets, so that neither I nor my dining companions feel deprived. One of my favorites so far is the Linde Oberstraβ on Universitätstrasse. They thoughtfully mark all the vegetarian dishes with a “V” on the menu. One of my favorites is the Mediterranean salad, which is a very filling mix of lentils, chick peas, tomatoes, feta, and some other stuff. Another big draw of this place is the micro-brewed beer on tap, with offerings that change with the seasons. In the summer there’s also a nice biergarten.

Linde Oberstraβ is part of a group of restaurants that offer the same beer and essentially the same menu, but with individual ambiances (which is why I’m stopping short of calling it a chain). If it’s something bigger, hipper, and more commercial-feeling you’re after, check out the Back & Brau near Escher-Wyss-Platz.

I’m certainly a long way from finished with my quest for my favorite restaurants in Zurich, but at least I’ve managed to find a couple decent places so far. Although I’m not sure it’s possible, next I’d love to find a good Italian eatery. This is not easy to do when you’ve just spent a year living in Milan having your standards for “good Italian food” raised to impossible heights. I think I might give up soon and just hop on a train to spend a weekend south of the border.

Happy Männertag

Sometimes it strikes me as odd that so many religious holidays are state holidays in Europe, given that Europeans themselves are much less involved with organized religion than Americans are. But when it means a day off of work for me (when I am actually working), who am I to argue?

Today is Ascension Day, which seems pretty boring as far as holidays go, at least in Switzerland. No parades, no fireworks… not even some trick-or-treating. The only things that tell me it’s a holiday are the fact that the TV schedule is different and the shops are closed.

In Germany today has become known as Father’s Day. In eastern Germany (where I used to live, in case you haven’t been following along), they take it even further and just call it Männertag (Men’s Day). Starting in the morning, men take over the town, walk around with canes and horns, and get progressively more wasted as the day goes on. Bars, pubs and streets are packed full of embarrassingly drunk men who are shouting, leaning on each other for support, and peeing in alleyways. It’s as if the presence of women is the only thing keeping men from acting like this every day.

So where are the women, you ask? At home cooking and cleaning and doing other womanly things, whatever those may be. My first year living in the east, I didn’t heed warnings and went out for a bit. As I walked down the street, I was alternately cat-called and told to go home and clean. The next year, a friend of mine organized a Männertag women’s barbeque at her place, where we could have our own fun without having to deal with stinking-drunk men. By the time we had to venture out into the streets again to go home, most of the Männer were already passed out. And a good time was had by all. I wish I had pictures to share.

Eurovision mania

It’s like the World Cup, except that it involves only Europe (and Israel and a bunch of former Soviet Republics) and instead of a soccer team, each country fields a singer or a band. And the winner is determined by voting. And there’s no off sides.

The Eurovision Song Contest was ABBA’s big international break, as well as Celine Dion’s (she sang and won for Switzerland in 1988. Don’t ask me what she has to do with Switzerland). I learned to appreciate the fun of watching this event when I lived in Germany, where a group of my friends would get together to watch, critique the bands (and the dancers’ butts), and vote multiple times for our favorite asses acts. There was also usually a lot of Rotkäppchen-drinking involved.

Last night we invited a few friends over, blended up several batches of margaritas (thanks to Ali’s tedious but successful search for bagged ice), and gathered around the TV for a fabulous evening of good old-fashioned Euro pop. Twenty-four acts banged out their performances, and then the home audience was given a few minutes to call in our votes. This was then followed, as always, by the tedious reporting of results live from each country (although we were told that this was nothing compared to the tedium from back in the day, when results were called in over a crackly phone line and repeated in a ridiculous number of languages).

The highlights this year included the German country-western entry called Texas Lightning and the rubber-mask-wearing Finish metal band Lordi (who became the evening’s surprise winners). But the song I annoyingly can’t get out of my head this morning is the sing-songy and repetitive ‘We are the winners of Eurovision’ performed by the Lithuanian group. Damn you, LT United!

I got your codex right here

So we just got back from seeing The Da Vinci Code. I’m assuming it was a completely true story, given that there was no notice at the beginning that told me it wasn’t. Also, apparently, it was based on some sort of book. Have you ever heard of it?

I’m not going to actually review the film, but rather I’ll refer you to the New York Times review of it, which is possibly more entertaining than the movie itself. The only thing I’ll add is that I had no idea that Tom Hanks could be such a bad actor (and yes, I’ve seen Joe Versus the Volcano). We spent intermission (an annoying quirk of Swiss cinemas) debating who would have been better in the role. Our conclusion: almost anyone.

We normally wouldn’t bother to see a movie on opening night, but (1) movies are almost always crowded in Zurich anyway, (2) here you buy tickets for specific seats in a movie theater, and we were able to get kick-ass seats in advance, and (3) I wanted to see how bad The Da Vinci Code was for myself before hearing it from eighty million other people. Success!

Mmmmmm… dark-chocolate-covered marshmallow goo

My new addiction is Negro Kisses Big Dark Kissses, otherwise know as Moors’ heads Choco Heads. I blame Kesha.

Her recent post about French delicacies with questionable names had gotten me thinking about Negerkussen, chocolate-covered marshmallow-crème-filled thingies that I remember from the cafeteria at the university in Germany. At the time they were undergoing a re-branding as something like ‘Schokokussen’, but it didn’t seem to be catching on.

So when I mentioned these German treats to Kesha the other day, she asked me what they tasted like. I had no idea. She told me to go try them, and of course I obeyed. Once in Migros, I was delighted to find that they had them in dark chocolate (my favorite). One thing I didn’t expect: they were yummy!

The only three words making an appearance on the package front are ‘Kisss,’ ‘dark,’ and ‘big,’ ‘party,’ or ‘baby,’ leading me to believe that the Swiss have banished the word ‘Negerkusses’ for being socially unacceptable.

In the interest of journalistic integrity, I decided I should check out what the other major supermarket chain, Coop, had to offer. There I found two brands, both labeled ‘Choco-Köpfli’ (little chocolate heads). One label also said ‘Têtes de moretti,’ which I’m guessing is some French-Italian mishmash for ‘Moors’ heads.’ I didn’t bother to try these, since they only came in milk chocolate. The other brand had an adorable little cartoon character on them, and were pretty tasty, too.

So just in case you haven’t been following along, here’s a little review of what we’ve learned about political correctness in Zurich so far: wearing brown face-paint and dressing up like an Arab = OK; calling a chocolate treat a ‘Moor’s head’ = OK; calling a chocolate treat a ‘Negro kiss’ = not OK. Got that?

What is it with Europeans and shaving their cats?

Today this cat appeared outside my window. At first glance it seemed like a completely normal, adorable little ball of fur. I soon realized, however, that something was amiss. Although its head, tail and legs were all fluffy and normal, its back looked more fitting of a cow than a kitty.

I thought this was just something that our crazy landlord in Bologna did, but apparently it has caught on here, too. I guess people think they are helping their cats stay cool for the summer? Either way, you know all the other (non-shaved) cats are pointing and laughing at this poor creature.

Dresden (the 3rd and final part of my recent Germany trip)

After a few hours in Halle I jumped on a train to Dresden to meet up with my friend Natale, who was eager to see a piece of the GDR after reading Stasiland, an excellent book about an Aussie who explores the East after the wall fell. I warned her in advance that we may be hard-pressed to find authentic East-German experiences 17 years after the fact, but that I’d do my best to dig something up for her. I was thrilled to have someone to talk to about my east(ern) German experience who was actually interested in hearing it.

Despite being pummeled by the Allies and then neglected by the communists, Dresden is a gorgeous city. Certain landmarks, such as the Frauenkirche and the Zwinger, have only recently emerged from extensive renovations (or in the case of the Frauenkirche, being completely rebuilt). The Altstadt is full of large, regal, beautiful buildings, and the Neustadt (which is luckily nothing like Halle’s Neustadt) is full of hip cafes and restaurants.

The one semi-authentic piece of ‘Ostalgie’ (nostalgia for the GDR) we managed to find (in addition to the occasional Trabbi) was a bar called Knast. True to its name, this place gives you a little look into what it was like to be in an East German prison (well, except no one tortures you, and you get to drink beer). But I’m pretty convinced it was almost as depressing as being in the hands of the Stasi.

What was meant to be a couple days of exploring this adorable city unfortunately turned into a couple days in bed sick for me (while Nat shopped, explored, and made trips to the pharmacy). At least we were in a nice hotel that was close to a 24-hour clinic. The doctors and nurses were exceedingly friendly and warm, and they succeeded in making me nostalgic (or rather, Ostalgic) for my time living in this culture, despite my raging fever. It was nice to be an appreciated novelty (American who spoke German and had lived in eastern Germany) instead of a common nuisance (non-Swiss-German-speaking resident foreigner) again, too.

Luckily the antibiotics kicked in soon enough for me to make my scheduled flight home without feeling like complete ass. At the airport gift shop I picked up a couple of bottles of Rotkäppchen and a Dresden shot glass to add to my collection. I boarded the plane convinced that I needed to move back to the former GDR. Now how to persuade the husband of this?

Dresden is probably the most beautiful European city I’ve been to that hasn’t been overrun by tourists yet. As opposed to its neighbor Prague, Dresden just doesn’t seem to make it onto many people’s travel itineraries, probably because you already have plenty of other German destinations on there. For what it’s worth, I really, really recommend it (but not to people who freak out if not everyone they encounter speaks English). I’m looking forward to returning soon.

Home sweet Halle an der Saale

On my way from Berlin to Dresden, I couldn’t pass up the chance to go visit my old home Halle an der Saale, which I hadn’t seen in six years. I don’t have much to report, especially since I was only there for a couple hours, but it was at least worth sharing some photos.

The first thing I noticed on my walk from the train station to the center is that a lot of construction has finally been completed. The tunnel where the neo-nazi beggars used to hang out is gone, and a lot of the roads and sidewalks have been redone. The main square (or Marktplatz) still revolves around the statue of Handel, Halle’s most famous native son, but the soviet-era information booth is gone, and still more construction is ongoing.

Like pretty much every other city in former East Germany, Halle has been constantly under construction for the past 15 or so years. Even though Halle was more or less intact at the end of WWII, the Altstadt (old city) suffered horrible neglect in the GDR, while all construction efforts of the era were dedicated to building up Halle-Neustadt, possibly the most depressing place on earth. Imagine a giant, cold, grey, square slab of cement that is 10 stories tall. Then imagine about 100 of these, all in close proximity to each other, separated only by grey, paved streets and walkways. No trees, no parks, not so much as a red fire hydrant. Neustadt is just like that, only more depressing.

I was lucky enough to live in the Altstadt, in a partially-renovated old building. I say “lucky” because at least when I looked out the window, I didn’t feel like jumping. Although run down, the Altstadt definitely had more charm than Neustadt. The partial renovation of my building had involved adding plumbing to one and only one room in each apartment (the one closest to the central stairwell). Therefore my shower was in the kitchen (where else would it be?). To get to the toilet, I had to actually leave my apartment and go up half a floor to a tiny little room just off the stairwell. While the top of the stairwell was covered, the bottom was completely open, meaning it was damn cold in the winter (the toilet room did have a little heater, but who wants to go out in the cold to turn on a heater five minutes before going out into the cold to use the toilet?). I had constant nightmares about waking up in the middle of the night needing to tinkle, and somehow locking myself out of my apartment (the door locked automatically when shut).

The other reason I was lucky was because I had electric heat in my home. Many people I knew had to literally haul buckets of coal up from the basement each day to heat their apartments and bathwater. Others had to suffer the fumes and black scum left by oil heat.

But back to my recent trip. I met a couple of old friends for lunch at one of our old hang-outs, the Café N-8. Back in the day, it was THE place to be and be seen. Newly opened, it was the only locale in town with such modern décor and glass walls. Plus the bartenders were hotties. We sipped Rotkäppchen (a staple of my diet during my Halle years) and reminisced about the old days, like when the large glass front of the café used to look out onto an unending construction site.

Before I knew it, it was time for me to head back to the station to catch my train to Dresden. This short trip back to Halle brought back so many memories of my life there, in a dynamic city full of fascinating people trying to adjust to the fact that although they hadn’t gone anywhere, they suddenly lived in a completely different country. Obviously this visit inspired me to write about some of my experiences there. Maybe I’ll keep going.

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