Visitors on Parade

I may not be my usual blogging-machine self in the foreseeable future, given that we have visitors signed up for our fold-out sofa for the next 3 weeks straight.

Since pretty much everyone we know who would ever visit us came all at once (in October to our wedding in Italy, back when we lived in Milan), we have had a relatively visitor-free first 8 months in Zurich. That has allowed us to settle in, ski a lot, and supposedly get to know our new home. Given the way I am scrambling for ideas on how to entertain this new parade of visitors, I’m not so sure I’ve accomplished that last part. Especially since our first visitors have an 8-month-old (whose impending arrival they used as an excuse to skip our wedding. The nerve!).

I have no idea how to plan around a baby. Can you take babies to my favorite restaurants? Do babies like zoos? Does it cost money to bring a baby on a tram? Do babies like beer gardens? Given that this particular baby is half Bavarian, I’m thinking that if nothing else, the beer garden will be OK.

If you happen to have any baby-friendly ideas for entertaining guests in Zurich, Dear Readers, please feel free to send them to me. Thanks in advance.

Why do all the teams I like suck at penalty shots?

So we watched the last Swiss World Cup game at El Lokal along with a couple hundred other hopeful Swiss fans. Despite Ali’s and my enthusiastic American-style face painting, things did not go well for Schwiiz. They lost to Ukraine in penalty kicks. We were all sad, especially because it meant there would not be another riot in Zurich.

I guess it’s back to rooting for Italy for me.

Just another weekend in the Alps

This weekend we headed to Flims, a small town surrounded by panoramic Alpine views that are snowy in the winter and cowy in the summer (can you believe spell-check doesn’t like the word “cowy”?).

There is nothing like a trip to the Romansch-speaking part of the country to suddenly make Swiss German sound familiar and understandable. Luckily the locals pretty much all also speak High German, so we were able to get around without a problem. We mostly spent our time there hiking, swimming, and eating/drinking/watching soccer.

Several of the area’s ski lifts are open in the summer to move hikers and mountain bikers to the higher-altitude trails. The areas that serve as ski slopes in the winter double as wildflower-covered cow pastures in the summer. It was amusing to see (and hear) cow bells actually tied around cows necks for once, rather than hanging in cheesy Swiss souvenir shops.

For swimming, there was a gorgeous clear blue-green lake to which one could either hike down or take a small free funicular (which looked more like an outdoor elevator). The water felt as good as it looked, especially after a long day of hiking.

Pizza und Karotten gehören nicht zusammen.

Last night we went to what my friend Ali claims is the best Italian pizzeria in Zurich. Hungry after an afternoon of sitting in a pub watching the US get their butts kicked by Ghana, I entered the pizzeria with reasonable expectations (as an aside – 2 years of living in Italy have kind of turned me into a pizza snob). The pizzas on the menu had authentic-sounding Italian names, and the ingredients listed, for the most part, sounded right (with the glaring exception of quark, listed as an ingredient on a couple different pizzas. I should have jumped ship right then.)

Steering clear of the quark, I ordered a simple pizza verdura. Now you usually don’t know exactly which veggies will appear on a pizza verdura, but chances are it involves grilled eggplant, zucchini, and peppers, and maybe some sort of red lettuce, fennel or arugula. May sound a little strange to people used to American-style pizza, but trust me, it’s always delicious. At least in Italy. Forgetting which country I was in, my mouth watered in anticipation of the pizza.

So apparently there isn’t a lack of baby carrots in Switzerland, as Sara would have us believe. But rather the baby carrots that do exist here are evil and like to show up in all the wrong places. Like on my pizza verdura.

When the Swiss think ‘vegetables’, the only two things that must ever come to mind are frozen carrots and broccoli. As a vegetarian, I am constantly being served dishes with these things. I guess they are cheaper than fresh veggies? Or the Swiss are too busy to prepare fresh vegetables, except to wash lettuce for a salad? The ridiculous part is, restaurant meals cost at least 50% more here than they do in Milan (one of the most expensive cities in the world), but the quality of the food is significantly lower. Even the eggplant slices on my pizza were from frozen! Why do the Swiss put up with this?

When the waitress came at the end of the meal and asked the obligatory ‘did it taste good?,’ I replied simply, ‘Pizza and carrots do not belong together.’

OK, rant over. I think I need a vacation in Italy.

The monks, the Jungfrau, and the mystery trip

This past weekend we were told to pack a bag and show up at the train station at 7:50 Saturday morning. On our packing list was hiking boots, a towel, and clothing for temperatures from -3 to 30 degrees Celsius (26 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit). The mystery trip was organized by the owner of the company where Scott works. Trips to the unknown have been biannual requirements for the employees for several years, but this is the first one where spouses were also invited along.

We were slightly disappointed to find out that the mystery destination was the Jungfrau, one of the highest peaks in Switzerland, only because we had been there before. Surprisingly, most of our traveling companions (who are almost all Swiss) had not. Apparently the Swiss think themselves too sophisticated for the ‘Top of Europe’, dismissing it as a destination for silly foreign tourists (like us).

When we changed trains in Interlaken, our group was joined by a Buddhist monk who was good friends with the organizer of our trip. The monk had a small entourage of monks, nuns, and monks-in-training with him, many of whom were on this trip to find out how they do in high altitude environments. They are planning to climb a holy mountain in Tibet later this year. Their group included a 6-year-old boy dressed in a monk’s robe, with a waist-length braid of hair sprouting from the top of his otherwise shaved head. I was fascinated.

We switched trains a couple more times before arriving at Jungfraujoch, at 3500 meters, billed as the highest point in Europe reachable by train. From there we had sweeping views out over the glacier and the snowy Alps. We had lunch and then wandered through the Ice Palace and up to the Sphinx observation deck for more sweeping views of snowy Alps and glaciers.

I was fine with the altitude (while many of the Swiss and some of the monks complained of dizziness as soon as we arrived at the top). Fine, that is, until we started the uphill hike through the sand-like snow. In those types of situations, my body likes to have oxygen. Although the hike lasted for less than an hour, I felt like I had been walking all day by the time we reached our destination, a small hut decked out with some sweet snacks and beverages for our group. The return (downhill) hike was a piece of cake.

We then took the train down to Kleine Scheidegg, a small skiing outpost that consisted of a couple hotels and a handful of bars. We spent the late afternoon watching a World Cup game in the bar, and then had dinner with the group. Scott and I snagged seats at the monks’ table, as we were curious to learn more about them.

We spent most of the meal chatting with a young monk-in-training from Massachusetts. After learning a little bit about his life at the pagoda and what brought him there, I got to my real question: what’s up with the little kid monk? The answer was not disappointing. Turns out, he is the reincarnation of a monk. How do they know that? One, the master can recognize him. Two, before the old monk’s death, he had gone to a certain woman and asked her to be his mother. So when this woman bore a son, she immediately brought him to the pagoda and put him in the care of the head monk (as had been pre-arranged). And there you have it.

After dinner we caught the second half of the Italy – US game and then fell into bed exhausted. The next day we enjoyed another scenic hike (at an altitude where the air still contained oxygen in reasonable quantities), had lunch, and then headed back to Zurich. All in all, a very enjoyable mystery trip. I hope spouses will be invited along for the next one, too.


Summer in zee City

Remember how June started with below-freezing temperatures in Zurich? I miss that. I really do. As far as I am concerned, we could skip the rest of summer and go straight to ski season right now. But, alas, I don’t control the seasons (at least not yet), so I continue to suffer along in heat that makes me wish I were sitting in the middle of an over-air-conditioned American theater sucking icy cold ice water through a straw. Our teeny-tiny European freezer doesn’t hold enough ice to get me through the day, and of course our apartment is un-air-conditioned. This is about as close as I get to homesick.

As tempted as I am to just go into hibernation until the temperature drops, life keeps pulling me out of bed, luring me with riverside beer gardens, weekend trips to snowy mountains, and non-stop soccer on TV.

I am thoroughly grateful for the entertainment provided by the World Cup this month. We entered lotteries for tickets to a couple matches, but I have recently found myself thinking that it’s much more pleasant to watch them from my couch (with an icy cold drink) than it would be to sit in the sunny, hot stands drinking lukewarm beer. Needless to say, I won’t be too disappointed if we don’t actually get any tickets.

Despite my whining, I am actually trying to make the best of this heat wave. In addition to watching several World Cup matches in various fan-packed bars are restaurants around town, I have been busy sampling other aspects of Zurich’s summertime offerings. One of my favorite activities (if sitting and drinking counts as an ‘activity’) has become gathering up a couple friends and spending the afternoon at one of Zurich’s many waterfront drinking establishments. A favorite is the cool and convenient Bauschänzli, a large beer garden in the middle of the Limmat River in downtown Zurich. With shade provided by giant trees, and a cool breeze off the water, this is a lovely place to escape the heat.

Swimming is another fun pastime for when the temperatures soar. Even on the hottest days, the water in the Limmat and Lake Zurich is cool and invigorating. One can go to one of the various public baths around the city, or just hop in at the many less formal swimming areas. The Frauenbad is right next to the Bauschänzli and offers a pool as well as an enclosed area for swimming in the river itself surrounded by a deck for sunbathing. As its name implies, the Frauenbad is only for women, but there is also a Männerbad in the city, as well as a couple co-ed baths.

Another good swimming area is right next to the Wollishofen boat stop on the lake. The boat to get here is part of the city’s public transportation network, and is free for holders of day, month, or year passes. A short walk down the shore is the Rote Fabrik, a graffiti-covered converted brick factory that contains a restaurant, exhibition space, and a night club, among other things.

While I won’t be turning into a sun-worshipper anytime soon, I am starting to look at the positives. At the very least, Zurich is a whole lot better place to spend summer than Milan (our previous home) was. Not only is Milan a whole lot hotter and muggier, but it has no body of water to speak of (half-dried-up canals don’t count). Hooray for the lake.

¡Que Caliente!

I couldn’t resist sharing a couple photos from our recent night out at the Caliente Latin festival in Zurich. Doesn’t my husband look cute posing with his meat on a stick?

Yet another day trip: Luzern

Last Sunday the weather was gorgeous, so we decided to go explore Luzern. We arrived just before lunch and headed directly to the ‘best vegetarian restaurant in Lucerne’, Restaurant Hofgarten. The food was yummy (if a little heavy on the sauce), and we enjoyed sitting out in the plant-filled courtyard.

Then we went over to the KKL (Kultur und Kongresszentrum Luzern), a large, modern building on the edge of the lake which houses, among other things, a museum and a concert hall. We poked around a bit and then enjoyed an espresso while watching dressed-up people stream out of the concert hall. Then it was off to the Rosengart Collection – a private collection of paintings by 20ith-century masters such as Picasso, Klee, and Chagall, assembled based on the personal tastes of a father and daughter who actually knew most of the artists. In particular, I liked their taste in Picassos.

We then spent most of the afternoon wandering around exploring the rest of the city, including its two beautiful wooden walking bridges and the pedestrian-only old town center. We also walked around on the medieval wall that used to surround the city. We climbed one of its towers and were rewarded with gorgeous views of the city and the sailboat-speckled lake.

We then headed back down towards Löwenplatz, which felt like the tourist-trap center of the city, complete with about a million souvenir shops, tour bus parking, and a restaurant called something like ‘Swiss Town’. We went in to see the Bourbaki Panorama, an ‘amazing’ ‘breathtaking’ 19th-century 360-degree painting of the Franco-Prussian War (the marketing was so funny, we couldn’t resist). The painting itself was OK, and we enjoyed the accompanying exhibit, which taught us a little bit of Swiss history in a relatively painless way.

On the way out we stopped at the bar downstairs for a beer and to catch the first half of the Mexico game on their projection TV. At halftime we headed out to see the giant lion carved in a rock that all our guidebooks claimed was a must. It was right next to Glacier Garden, which was unfortunately already closed for the day. It looked like just the kind of cheesy tourist attraction that would actually be fun to see. It has a hall of mirrors!

Next it was back to the pedestrian area, where we found a cute little bar where we watched the end of the game. By then we were famished, so we headed back to the river to scope out some of the guidebook’s restaurant recommendations. We ended up at a table on the small balcony of the restaurant Zunfthaus zu Pfistern, where we enjoyed the views and the food. Afterwards, we sauntered back to the train station and headed home.

We really enjoyed our day in beautiful Luzern. I’m beginning to wonder if Switzerland has any cities that aren’t adorable.

A Day in Basel

To further my goal of getting to know every corner of Switzerland, I recently rounded up a few friends and took a day trip to Basel, which is about an hour away from Zurich by train (as I’ve said before – one of the big benefits of living in Zurich is all of the cool day trips that are around).

From the train station in Basel, we walked towards the old town. We immediately noticed that, like Bern, Basel was less meticulously clean and orderly than Zurich. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Our first stop was to admire the Tinguely Fountain, a busy arrangement of water-spewing figures that entertained us for at least a good 10 minutes. It also solidified our decision to make the Tinguely Museum part of our day.

Next we stopped for a quick coffee at the trendy café fumare non fumare (Gerbergasse 30). My double espresso was horrible, but the spinach-filled Italian rice ball was delicious.

We ploughed onward through the old town and searched the river bank for the king who was sticking out his tongue at the peasants on the other shore. All our guidebooks mentioned him, but we weren’t having any luck, so we decided to get a little tongue-sticking-out in ourselves. Damn peasants! We really showed them.

Anyway, we finally found the king, and stood mesmerized by his mechanical tongue motions and eye rolls for a couple seconds before crossing to the other side of the river in search of the Tinguely Museum. The walk along the river to get there was longer than we expected, but enjoyable given the beautiful views and charming neighborhoods (not so bad given it was the peasant side of the river).

The Tinguely Museum was tons of fun. I usually enjoy museums, but the squiggly, squeaky, twirly, interactive sculptures that filled this one made it good for visitors with even the shortest attention spans. To set each motorized sculpture in motion, the viewer has to step on a big red button on the floor. The buttons didn’t always work, however, so we always felt special when our step was the one that made things go.

The exhibit left us famished, so we had a quick lunch in the museum’s restaurant and headed out again. We took a tram back towards the center and wandered up to the Münster, which was back on the tongue king’s side of the river. This big Gothic cathedral has a beautiful countyard and a back terrace that offers more gorgeous views across the river.

We then headed down some steep stairs to the river bank for a quick ride across on this little boat attached to a wire which we had seen crisscrossing the swiftly-moving river all day. That brought us conveniently back to a group of riverside restaurants we had passed earlier in the day, so we decided to stop for a beer and to enjoy the view.

Then it was back to the old town again, to explore more little streets and to see the Spalentor, a Gothic gate that dates to 1370. It used to be part of the defensive wall that encircled the city. We were also delighted to come across this guy, who appears to be the beer super hero of Basel.

One of our guidebooks recommended a bar that was sort of nearby, so we headed there for an aperitif. Cargo Bar (St. Johanns Rheinweg 46) was a small, hip, student-hang-out-y kind of place, with a friendly bartender who apologized profusely for his inability to make a proper dry martini (my fault for expecting a dry martini to be, well, not sweet).

Finally it was time for a late dinner at a delicious tapas bar, Spalenburg (Schnabelgasse 2), that we found in the old town. Somehow we managed to eat everything we ordered (which had to have been close to one of each thing on the menu). A mad dash to the train station, and we were on our way home to Zurich. I can’t believe we managed to do all of that in one day. And, we still have to go back to see the many other interesting museums, and to sample some of the yummy-looking (but closed for the holiday) restaurants we saw.

Are you ready for some Fuβball?, Part Zwei: the soccer corral

Last night we decided to go check out the large stadium-like thing that has popped up on Sechseläuten Platz. After a bag search by some unfriendly security guards (who whipped my water bottle out of my purse and into the trash faster than you can say “the ref is blind”), we were allowed into the corralled area. Inside, there were several drink and bratwurst stands, and an imposing wall of stadium bleachers across from a very large screen. It immediately became clear to me what the city was trying to do with this set-up: they were containing the mess. There were piles of trash everywhere – mainly used plastic beer cups and discarded food wrappers. Such rubbish is usually never seen in this pristine city.

We bought a couple caipirinhas at one of the stands and wandered amongst the crowd for a little bit. We sat down to watch the beginning of the Poland-Ecuador game, and noticed the crowd seemed to be pretty evenly split between supporters for the two teams. We ran into Scott’s German teacher, who was there with a Polish friend. A few minutes into the game, we decided to escape the corral and go find some dinner.

After consuming some delicious sushi at the nearby Globus, we wandered around the area and came across a large, outdoor restaurant/bar which was also showing the game on several screens. It was a beautiful night out, so we had a seat and watched a little more of the game. This was a much more enjoyable experience than the big corral had been, since we were in comfortable chairs and drinking out of real glasses. And not surrounded by piles of trash.

Along with many other locales around the city, the corral will be showing all of the World Cup games live. Entrance is always free, but actual seats in the stands costs CHF 10 for all of the Switzerland games and for the finals. And, it is “mit food und drinks”, as announced by a sign outside:

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