Heidi on the Walensee

Yesterday afternoon we took a train to Walenstadt (about an hour from Zurich), in search of some Swiss culture. We walked through the small town to the lake and hopped on a boat for a dinner cruise. The Walensee has some beautiful, dramatic scenery going on – on one side the mountain is so steep that it appears to plunge right into the lake, while on the other shore you can watch trains weave in and out of tunnels. The views would have been breathtaking, had it not been cloudy and drizzly for most of the ride. We still got a few beautiful glimpses here are there.

After the boat ride, it was on to the evening’s main event: Heidi – das Musical, Teil 2. The large outdoor stage is right next to the lake, set up so the audience can enjoy the spectacular view as part of the backdrop (and also so we had something to look at when the story line started dragging). The musical itself, which was performed in a mix of High German and Swiss German, was OK. It told the story of Heidi in parallel with a story about the life of Johanna Spyri, Heidi’s creator.

I was most amused by the co-marketing going on around the musical. We received free Heidi brand ice cream on a stick just for attending, and there were samples of Heidi brand yogurt available at intermission. And on our way out, we were each handed a bottle of Heidi brand water which – I kid you not – promised to give us “Heidi Power.” Anyone know what that might entail?

Finding Chagall in small-town Switzerland

My trip to French-speaking Switzerland the other week had a purpose (beyond making fun of the newspapers, I mean)– our goal was to find art and look at it. Day one was spent in Lausanne, a lovely, hilly town on Lake Geneva, where after a lovely Middle Eastern lunch my friend Ali and I visited the Art Brut museum. ‘Art Brut’ is a term used to encompass a wide variety of outsider art, created by people who lack formal art training, are mentally ill, or are just a little kooky (as if most regular artists didn’t fall into at least one of these categories). The museum was fascinating, as were the biographies of the artists whose works were on display.

We spent the evening in Lausanne and had dinner with some friends, and then retired to our room at the Lausanne Guesthouse. This hostel (which also has private rooms – I’m much too old to sleep in a room with 20 backpackers) was quite a good deal (for Switzerland). Our room had a balcony with a gorgeous view of the lake, which is where we enjoyed breakfast before hopping on the train to Martigny.

Martigny is a tiny town nestled between a couple vineyard-covered mountains. It’s cute enough, but I doubt it would ever see much tourist action if it weren’t for the world-class art exhibits put on by the Foundation Pierre Gianadda. We were sucked in by promises of a large Marc Chagall exhibit, and weren’t disappointed. The exhibition space was… different. It kind of reminded me of a 1970s American church annex or community center. It was surprisingly crowded for a Wednesday morning, but the paintings were worth it.

The complex also has a large sculpture garden (featuring, among other things, a giant thumb and a giant breast). We wandered through this (the garden, not the boob) on our way to the second building which housed a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit, featuring models of the some of the great artist’s many inventions, including drawbridges, military tanks, and flying machines. His brilliance always makes me drool. And reminds me to practice my mirror-writing.

We headed back into town and had a late lunch under the chestnut trees on the main square of Martigny before hopping on a train back to Zurich. Mission accomplished.

Floating through the city

After two years of cancellation, Zurich’s annual Limmat River Swim was finally able to take place yesterday. The weather was gloriously sunny, making us oh-so-excited to jump in the cool water for a leisurely float through the city.

The event was extremely well organized (as we should have expected). We purchased our 27-franc tickets near the start and then went to the Frauenbad to get ready to go. We placed all of our clothes and other belongings into numbered plastic bags; these bags went onto a boat that beat us to the finish line, meaning our things were conveniently waiting for us on arrival. We were also given numbered wristbands (so we could retrieve the correct bags) and round floaty things to take with us on our swim.

There was an MC broadcasting over a loud speaker system, narrating exciting stuff such as ‘the next group is getting ready to go’ and interviewing participants about whether it was their first time ‘dabii’. When it was time for our group to start, we took our floaty things and jumped in. The river gently carried us in the right direction, and we were left to enjoy the effort-free ride.

Several spectators looked on from the river banks and bridges in places, but mostly it was a quiet, tranquil journey through the heart of the city. We floated peacefully past the Grossmunster, the Hauptbahnhof, and all of Zurich’s other landmarks. It was a lot of fun to see the city from a new angle (unfortunately we don’t own a waterproof camera, so no swimmer’s-eye-view pics).

At the end (which came all too soon), we collected our things and changed out of our bathing suits in the makeshift changing rooms (public buses with the windows covered over). Then we went to find out what free stuff was waiting for us – a souvenir glass, a bottle of Rivella, and a veggie burger (or sausage). And as if that wasn’t enough, we got to keep our floaty things, too.

All in all it was a really nice way to spend a sunny afternoon (and I’m not just saying that because there was free stuff). It’s definitely something I’d do again.

What you can learn from a Swiss newspaper

Do the Swiss more resemble each other or their respective language groups? Despite speaking German, French, Italian, and Romansh, surely the Swiss have some common thread that binds them to each other culturally? Their fondness for yodeling and cuckoo clocks? Their love of melted cheese, perhaps? These are questions that keep me up at night. OK, that was a lie, but I did have a blast noting certain differences on a recent trip across the Röstigraben.

Now I don’t want to brag, but for someone who has never purposely attempted to acquire any knowledge of the French language, my fake French is pretty damn good. I can hold entire conversations in the language (as long as my half of the conversation primarily involves saying ‘oui’ and giggling uncomfortably). And thanks to my knowledge of Italian, English, and Pepe le Pew cartoons, I can read certain French texts with a shocking level of comprehension (and by ‘certain texts’, I mean menus and tabloid newspapers that contain lots of pictures).

Which brings me to my profound observations of the day: the results of a meticulous study of Switzerland’s two largest language groups, as represented by their free morning commuter newspapers (20 Minuten and 20 Minutes). Note: all translations are sloppy and approximate, but I swear I am not making this stuff up. OK, maybe I made a little of it up.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Front page headline

  • German: Swiss alarmed about products from China
  • French: Passive smoking is bad for you, so let’s all smoke first hand instead

Front page photo

  • German: a satellite photo of Hurricane Dean
  • French: a tiny little dog dressed up in a sparkly dress participating in a dog fashion show

‘People’ section

  • German: Oliver Stone will be coming to Zurich to discuss his very serious, depressing movies; Tom Cruise’s bad luck continues as people are hurt on the set of his film, which he probably caused because he’s in that freaky cult and all.
  • French: Mena Suvari may have shaved her head, but at least she still looks hot in a string bikini (with photo); Paris Hilton offered lots of money to appear on Big Brother (with photo)

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Front page

  • German: after years of angry complaints from citizens, the menace that was the ugly Bahnhofstrasse Christmas lights has almost been eradicated, although they will make their last appearance this year (haven’t the people of Zurich suffered enough?)
  • French: Ohlala! John Travolta dressed like a woman! He’s a man, but he’s wearing women’s clothing! Tee hee! Tralalalala!

‘Tendances’ section

  • French: new high-tech sex toy for men (with photos and lots of details)
  • German: um… no such section

‘People’ section

  • German: Important blurb about K-Fed’s up-and-coming acting career.
  • French: Important blurb about K-Fed’s up-and-coming acting career.

So the two sides do have something in common after all.

Fondling food in the darkness

Last night we crossed another item off the things-we-should-do-in-Switzerland-but-haven’t-gotten-around-to-yet list: dining in the dark. Apparently dark restaurants are becoming quite trendy these days, but Zurich’s Blinde Kuh (German for ‘Blind Cow’) was the very first of them.

I found myself giddily excited while anticipating the evening, something which almost never happens to me. We arrived at the church-like restaurant and placed our bags, umbrellas, and cell phones (anything with a light is banned) into lockers in the entry way. In the (well-lit) foyer, we were told to choose our food from a menu projected onto the wall. We were also told our server’s name (Elisabeth), and instructed to call out for her if we ever needed anything once inside. We then lined up conga-style to be led into the darkness.

We were led through one set of heavy curtains to a slightly darkened area, where our waitress and guide paused to let us adjust a bit and talk to us (she started in Swiss German but was happy to switch to High German or English for us). She reiterated that we should call her name and wait for an answer if we needed anything, and to let her know immediately if we didn’t feel well, and she could lead us out. The suggestion that I might be going into a situation that would cause me to feel unwell set my brain into a little panic – why wouldn’t we feel well? Do lots of people not feel well inside? What’s not to feel well about? Do I feel well now?

And then we went onwards, through a couple more sets of heavy curtains, into the dark. We could hear the noises of people eating and chatting away all around us as Elisabeth led us to our table and then one by one to our chairs. We giggled nervously and got a feel for where each of our dining companions were sitting based on the locations of their voices. We felt the table in front of us to discover silverware and napkins (which we all tucked into our shirt fronts to avoid losing – since no one could see how silly we looked, anyway). I kept expecting my eyes to adjust, but of course they never did. The darkness was so all-encompassing that it made me feel claustrophobic, like I was trapped under a heavy blanket that I couldn’t escape from. But just for a second or two. After that it was fun. And dark.

We ordered into the darkness and waited for our food to, well, appear. I could smell the wine as it was put down in front of us. Plates came next, with a few words of description from Elisabeth, but it was awfully daunting to actually start eating. Some people gave up on their forks right away, and just used their hands. I managed reasonably well with my fork, although every once in a while I’d get a little freaked out by the mystery food it delivered to my mouth. I was halfway through my dish of mushroom ravioli before I realized that there was also steamed broccoli and roasted tomatoes on the plate. Surprise!

Once we were ready to go, we had to call out for the waitress several times before she appeared to lead us out. While waiting for her, we came up with various theories as to why she wasn’t responding… was she collapsed in a corner somewhere, but nobody could see her? Had we inadvertently offended her, and as payback she was going to leave us there all night? We decided we wouldn’t start panicking and trying to crawl our way out until we stopped hearing the voices of the other guests around us.

I found myself grateful that we were at this particular style of dark restaurant, where the wait staff is actually blind (and not wearing night-vision goggles so they can watch your feeble attempts to get your food into your mouth) and the room is actually dark (had we just been blindfolded, the temptation to peek at the food or the room would have been irresistible).

The experience didn’t come cheap – our bill came out to around CHF 70 per person for two courses, wine, and water. The food was reasonably tasty – nothing fabulous, but certainly edible. I’d definitely recommend trying it once. Go with people whom you don’t mind touching. Or whom you’re looking for an excuse to touch.

Despite rumors about months-long waits, we were able to get dinner reservations at Blinde Kuh just a week in advance (perhaps because it’s vacation season?). The website also says that lunch reservations are easy to get on the fly, and there’s even a Blinde Kuh bar for those interested in the dark thing, but not ready to commit to a whole meal. There’s a second restaurant in Basel, too.

Zurich turns into one big party

Saturday was Zurich’s annual Street Parade, a gigantic techno party which takes over all of downtown. In addition to the parade with floats blaring out dance music, there were several stages with DJs blaring out dance music, and pretty much every restaurant and bar in the downtown area seemed to have hired a DJ to blare out dance music. I guess what I’m trying to say here is, there was a lot of dance music. Attendees were all decked out in their clubbing finest, and they made it clear that despite recent events, Zurich actually likes bare boobies.

In the afternoon we went out to people-watch, take photos and mingle amongst the 800,000 or so revelers. The atmosphere was for the most part cheerful and drunken, although we did see one fight break out (unfortunately there were others, including a fatal stabbing, during the day). We then met up with some friends to party on into the night (which included a ferris wheel ride, a little dancing, and a whole lot of techno music). Usually we’re not the late-night partying type, but on the rare occasion that the Zurich trams run all night, one just has to take advantage.

It’s such a change to see Zurich be so loud, so colorful, and so dirty. Of course clean up was quick – the clean up crews were out in full force before we even made it home, and the city was back to normal by Sunday afternoon. There is talk about this being the last Street Parade, since the organizers are having difficulty finding sponsors. I certainly hope that’s not the case. Street Parade is definitely my favorite Zurich celebration. What can I say? I prefer hot pink feather boas and sparkly platform shoes to alphorns and old men on horses.

More Street Parade 2007 photos here.

Zurich Public Transport: 0, Mariachis: 2

For those of you following the Zurich trams vs. mariachis story with baited breath, here’s your long-awaited update. According to this morning’s 20 Minuten (which, in addition to The Daily Show, is the source of all my daily news intake), the VBZ has finally relented and pulled the commercial featuring mariachis busking on a tram. The capitulation occurred after complaints from the Mexican embassy. How often do foreign embassies in your country have to complain to the local public transportation authorities?


In other news (also brought to us, naturally, by 20 Minuten), a local woman was kicked out of a Zurich restaurant for breastfeeding. And here I was thinking that this sort of thing only happened in boobie-fearing America. Alas, even the Swiss are now getting offended by mothers feeding their children.

If you take away one message from today’s post, please make it this: breasts cannot hurt you. Even when they’re in your extended visual field, the chances of you catching cooties from them is virtually zero. (OK, so I don’t have any scientific studies to back this claim up. Any scienticians out there looking for a new research study topic?)

Zurich: upcoming events

Just in case you find yourself in Zurich in the month of August, I figured I’d share some upcoming events we’re looking forward to…

Street Parade – Time to break out the peacock-feather pasties, boys and girls! This coming Saturday, downtown Zurich will turn into one great big techno dance party, with floats, costumes, and music thumping louder than your heartbeat. The people-watching is divine. Some more photos from last year’s event to whet your appetite…

Limmat River Swim – this elusive event has been canceled due to inclement weather for the last two years. Given the way this summer has been going, it’s hard to count on it happening this year, either, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. From what I hear it’s really more floating than swimming, and a whole lot of easy-going summer fun.

Lucerne Festival Street Music
– not quite Zurich (but not very far away, either), Lucerne will be filled with free music every evening from Aug 21-26 as the “crème de la crème of the world’s buskers” perform. I wonder if there will be any mariachis?

Doing Dublin

We spent a little time in Dublin at the beginning and end of our trip to Ireland, split up that way so we could take advantage of the direct flights between Dublin and Zurich on Aer Lingus. It was one of my first experiences with European discount airlines (since most don’t fly out of Zurich), and overall I have to say they seemed to have their act together. Everything costs extra: from checked luggage, to advance seat assignments, to beverages and snacks on board the plane. But I found myself not really minding all that, especially since the plane was new and clean and more or less on time. Direct flights make me happy.

Shortly after we arrived we met up with Beth for dinner in the Temple Bar area of Dublin. Temple Bar is the main touristy nightlife district, and was hopping even on a Monday evening. It was great to meet Beth in person, and a fabulous start to our trip. After dinner, I wandered off to find a pint of Guinness, since, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do on your first trip to Ireland, right?

Since we only had one full day for sightseeing in Dublin (and since we hadn’t bothered to figure out what we wanted to see ahead of time), we opted for the hop on – hop off tourist bus. This is the kind of thing we usually avoid, but it turned out to serve our purposes quite well. The drivers provided cheerful, kitschy live commentary (and how can you not love those accents?). We “hopped off” to visit Dublinia, an interactive exhibit about life in medieval Dublin, where we learned fun facts such as that Vikings never actually wore horned helmets (although that didn’t stop them from being sold by the boatload in the gift shop).

After a greasy pub lunch accompanied by some delicious ale, we hopped back on the bus until it reached the Guinness Storehouse, a gigantic, multi-media exhibit dedicated to the glory of Arthur Guinness and the black liquid he brewed. Although we’ve established that I’m not a fan of the drink, the exhibit was extremely well done, and a fun way to pass a couple rainy hours. We cashed in our tokens for free pints at the Gravity bar and enjoyed the panoramic view (and a rainbow) before heading back to the bus to see some more Dublin sites from the top deck. A yummy Thai dinner was followed by a couple pints of tasty microbrew at The Porter House.

Dublin wasn’t as… what’s the word I’m looking for? It wasn’t as cute as I expected it to be. Perhaps too much time living in a pristine city like Zurich led me to notice Dublin’s rough edges more than I normally would have. But I did enjoy it, and it had a good city vibe. Plus, Ireland had several other towns that more than made up for Dublin’s lack of cuteness.

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