So you want to move to Zurich? Have I got some tips for you

Midsummer Night’s Knitter asked me a while ago if I had any advice for someone moving to Zurich. While I certainly don’t feel like an expert on the subject, I suppose I might have some useful things to suggest after 2 years here. At least I should, shouldn’t I? I mean, it would be pretty pathetic if I had spent all this time here and not learned anything useful. So here’s what I came up with:

Read Living and Working in Switzerland. It has its faults (like how it perpetuates scary myths about Swiss apartment house rules) but overall it’s pretty useful info to help you feel more prepared.

If you plan on exploring Switzerland by train (which I highly recommend), consider getting a GA card. This is something I wish we had done, but we didn’t consider it soon enough. It’s an investment, but it pays for itself if you’re a frequent traveler. Plus the money goes to a good cause (Swiss public transportation counts as a good cause in my book – I love it so much I once wrote a poem about it). Plus no buying tickets. Plus when you know the trip is already paid for, you’re more likely to jump off the couch and go get to know a new city or Alp on any given day. If you don’t get a GA, definitely get a half-fare card. These things pay for themselves with one or two trips.

Random grocery advice: sign up for a Migros card right away (they send you coupons for free money!); get outside the big chain supermarkets some and shop at the outdoor markets, your local Reformhaus, and specialty shops such as Asian groceries and El Maiz.

Zurich things to see/do at least once: Street Parade, Sechseläuten, a movie on the lake, the Kunsthaus, the food basement at Globus (the cheese counter has cheddar), the Limmat Swim, the Uetliberg, the zoo, the Christkindli Markt, ice skating, swimming in the lake, a Laughing Lemon class, museum night, the Blinde Kuh, Expovina, an evening stroll down Langstrasse.

Things to see/do on day or weekend trips from Zurich: a cow parade, Murren, Fribourg, Lucerne, Bern, sledding, skiing, Basel, Art Basel, the Matterhorn, Bellinzona, Lugano, Rapperswil, Milan, Strasbourg, Colmar.

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?

When the great art galleries of the world come to Switzerland

Yesterday we went to Art Basel, a large 5-day exhibition of art in – you guessed it – Basel. Around 300 galleries from around the world come and bring work from their hottest, shiniest art stars to display and sell for insane amounts of money.

We arrived at 11 AM, just as the exhibit was opening its doors. We started in Hall 1 of the conference center, which housed several large-scale works (pictured above), pacing ourselves since we knew we had a lot to see that day. By 12 we were proudly ready to move on to Hall 2, where all of the gallery booths were set up.

We browsed through the first row of booths, soaking in the offerings. There were lacquered sculptures, c-print photos, and creative knitting projects. Gold-leafed collages and mirrored concave wall hangings. Abstract video installations and drawings of penises, lots and lots of penises. By 1:30, we were starving, and decided to grab a ridiculously-overpriced lunch out in the courtyard while resting our feet and our brains. Actually my brain wouldn’t turn off, as it danced around full of dreams of going back to art school to learn new techniques and make lots of crazy new things (that would happen to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at events such as this one). I loved art. I was an artist, and I was here in my element, hungry to learn more. Yay, art!

A couple hours and several rows of booths later, my attitude was a wee bit different. I think it could be blamed on over stimulation. Who were these freaks and what made them think these things were art? What was wrong with me that I couldn’t appreciate all this art? And where the hell were the paintings? It was time for another break, so we had some coffee and some cheese quiche, hoping it would revive us.

Later we stumbled upon the galleries specializing in 20th-century artists (otherwise known as Artists I’ve Actually Heard Of), but by then we were too tired to really care what we were seeing. Numerous Picassos, Kandinskys, Schieles and Warhols passed before my eyes completely unappreciated. Not even eavesdropping on the discussions around me by people who were actually buying this art could keep my interest. I was fading fast. We tried taking another break and then plowing ahead, but by then it had all just become torturous. Finally around 7 PM, we made our exit, having seen about 75% of the booths (and appreciating about 10% of them).

Despite the agony in this tale, I would actually highly recommend a trip to Art Basel. But set a timer and leave after three hours or at the height of your artistic appreciation abilities, whichever comes first.

Spargelfest!

That’s right, boys and girls, it’s that time of year again: Spargelzeit. The celebration of asparagus is in full swing in Switzerland. Thanks to a tip from Jack at Laughing Lemon, some friends and I headed outside the city last Sunday to check out the Flaacher Spargelfest (an asparagus festival held on a family farm in the town of Flaach).

We arrived around lunch time and headed straight for the food. We sampled pretty much everything that was on offer: asparagus risotto, sauteed asparagus, cream of asparagus soup, asparagus pizza, asparagus sausage (OK, I passed on this last one). There were even asparagus-shaped desserts (which to my knowledge didn’t contain any actual asparagus).

Then it was on to the tour of the farm. This was conducted by the farmer in Swiss German, but we were still able to follow some of it. We learned that the asparagus seeds are sprouted somewhere else, and then the bundles of live roots are delivered to the farm for planting. They grow into bushes for the first two years, and then starting in the third year the asparagus can be harvested.

The farm grows three varieties of asparagus: green, white, and purple. The green and purple grow above ground, whereas the white are grown in mounds of dirt covered with tarps to keep the light out.

The farmer demonstrated how a white asparagus is harvested, all by hand:

The tour concluded with a demo of the machine which washes the asparagus and cuts each stalk to exactly 22 centimeters. This length is a standard throughout the area, and was decided upon based on the size of the pans most people have for cooking. The is supposedly a farm in Germany that makes theirs 27 centimeters; they sell extra-large pans there, too.

This guy is apparently the farm’s mascot, as he appears on all their signs and on the website. I call him ‘Spargi’. I was really disappointed that there wasn’t anyone at the festival dressed up as a giant white asparagus. At the very least they could have sold hats or dolls or something, but alas there was no merchandising of Spargi whatsoever.

Our last stop was the asparagus shop, where we picked up a couple bundles of fresh asparagus and other asparagus-related paraphernalia. Then we came home and made asparagus for dinner. I’ll spare you the details of the pee-related consequences of this particular day.

Skiing in Davos – a post for posterity

Sunday morning we woke up hideously early and hauled our ski gear to the train station for a day in Davos. On the way there my husband joked that someday we would tell our kids about this last day of skiing ever before global warming made it a thing of the past. So I figured I better write about it so we’d be able to remember.

We took the train to Davos Dorf (don’t you just love the word Dorf?) and then a short bus to the Parsennbahn, which brought us up to a lovely cluster of blue slopes at 2600 meters.

At least it was a pretty good ski day. The snow was the best we’ve skied on all season (and would actually have been some of the best skiing I’d done in my life prior to last year’s fabulous Swiss ski wonderland). Plus it was a beautiful, sunny day, without a cloud in the sky. The slopes were somewhat crowded, which was to be expected on a Sunday, but even so the lift lines were for the most part tolerable.

The bummer is that neither of us feels like we’ve improved at all this year. Not the best way to end a ski career. I guess we’ll just have to cross our fingers and hope for some snow for next year after all…

Colorful Fribourg

This weekend we hopped on a train for a day-trip to Fribourg, a charming town which straddles the Röstigraben. The Swiss city Fribourg (which is primarily francophone today) is known as Freiburg in German, but don’t confuse it with the German city of Freiburg (also a fun place to hang out) or the two other German cities called Freiberg.

Fribourg is one of those quaint old cobblestone-filled European cities that are beautiful to just wander around. We picked up a city map and a suggested walking tour route from the Tourist Info next to the train station, and were off.

Although I’m pretty much at my limit of number of churches one should visit per lifetime, I actually enjoyed Fribourg’s Saint Nicholas Cathedral, which contains some impressive, richly-colored stained glass windows (featuring, among other things, dead babies).

The Espace Jean Tinguely – Niki de Saint Phalle holds a small collection from the two whimsical artists. Although not as extensive a collection as the Tinguely museum in Basel, it’s still worth a visit if you are a fan of either artist.

The weather was alternately cloudy, rainy, and sunny, but we managed to come out OK, ducking into shops, museums, or bars whenever we needed to escape the rain. Our patience was rewarded towards the end of the day, with one of the most vibrant rainbows I’ve ever seen.

Carnival, Italo-Swiss style


After last year’s lackluster parade in Zurich, I was beginning to think the Swiss just didn’t know how to do carnival. I mean, a correct carnival celebration does involve a certain amount of coming out of oneself, public silliness, and, (gasp!) messiness. Oh yes, I’ve heard about how in Basel there is ‘craziness’ in the form of costumed people telling jokes in local dialect in restaurants starting at 4 AM, but somehow that doesn’t exactly scream ‘good party’ to me (although if anyone wants to volunteer to interpret said Swiss German jokes for me one year, I’m there). Shouldn’t celebrations last until 4 AM, not start then?

Luckily the Swiss redeemed themselves this weekend in Bellinzona, the home of a five-day carnival celebration called Rabadan. The parade was a million times better than Zurich’s, with floats dedicated to all kinds of important themes, including (but not limited to) the Swiss Post, Pluto (the cartoon dog, not the former planet), Playboy, CSI, Scooby Doo, and EPO (a form of doping for cyclists, which I had never heard of before – see, it was educational, too!).

The celebrations include parades, confetti, marching bands, costumes, fried foods, drinking, silly-string, and more parades. Sunday’s parade went from 1:30 until around 4:30, after which the various floats and marching bands dispersed to various points around the old town, where they hosted dance parties or gave spontaneous concerts. The streets were covered in confetti, and the mood was light and fun. The woman behind the desk of one of the museums we went to lamented that carnevale made everyone crazy, but we didn’t find it to be such a bad thing. After all, it was only crazy by Swiss standards.

OK, so the costumes weren’t quite as beautiful or elegant as those at carnevale in Venice, but it also wasn’t as painfully crowded as Venice is during this time of year. Plus, Bellizona is a comfortable 2.5-hour train ride from Zurich. I highly recommend Rabadan to anyone who needs a dose of real carnival fun (and don’t worry, you can even be back in time for Zurich’s Fasnacht, which isn’t until the weekend after Fat Tuesday).

More about our weekend in Ticino coming soon…

Liechtensteiny blues

After not leaving the country in over a month, our wanderlust brought us to Liechtenstein on Saturday afternoon. It took about an hour and a half to get there from Zurich by train and then bus. We decided to head for the capital, Vaduz (who knew Liechtenstein was big enough for more than one town?), since it contained a few interesting-sounding museums and such.

We arrived around 1 pm and headed straight to a restaurant that promised Liechtensteinese (is there a real adjective form of this word? Anyone? Anyone?) specialties, which turned out to be strikingly similar to Swiss food: meat, potatoes, sausage, cheese, spatzle, beer. Actually a lot of things about Liechtenstein are strikingly similar to Switzerland: the Swiss Franc is the official currency, High German is the official written language, and an incomprehensible dialect is what they actually speak. Plus it’s generally clean, safe, and orderly, at least from what we saw. Continue reading

Crap skiing at Flims Laax

[For those of you who haven't been following along, we are in the midsts of the warmest and unsnowiest winter in the history of Switzerland (please note that this is just my own estimate, and that I am not a weatherman).]

Not being able to hold out any longer, we finally went skiing today for the first time this season. We knew conditions weren’t going to be great, but we were confident we could handle it. After all, we’ve skied in New England before. How much worse could a Swiss ski resort be?

My wonderful husband did some research on the Swiss ski resorts with the best snow, and based on how long it would take to get to each of them, we decided on Flims Laax, home of the famous Craplift. (Just in case you’re wondering, ‘crap’ is actually the word for ‘peak’ in the local dialect. The locals are well aware of its meaning in English and have learned how to make a buck off of giving us a sophomoric laugh. Also, please note that the title of this post is much cleverer than you originally gave it credit for.)

It was far from a day of perfect skiing. The prevailing snow conditions on the slopes could best be described as ‘solid sheet of the hardest ice you’ve ever attempted to dig your skis into’ alternating with ‘slush up to your ankles’. A couple hours into our ski day it started snowing a little (good) combined with driving wind that closed several of the lifts (much less good). Still, we pressed on, determined to get our money’s worth out of the price we paid for our train-bus-lift tickets. Luckily the crazy winds managed to blow a little powder onto the runs in spots, giving us little teeny tiny reminders of how good skiing can be.

We skied a full day and then retired to the Crap Bar (seriously, it was called that) for a beer before catching the bus/train connection back to Zurich (which takes a little under two hours for the whole trip). Despite the less-than-perfect conditions, skiing reminded me again why, deep down, I really do love Switzerland.

St. Gallen and Switzerland appreciation

This weekend we decided to get out and appreciate some Switzerland. On Saturday we hopped on a train to St. Gallen, a city in the eastern part of the country. We chose St. Gallen because 1) we had never been there, 2) we had heard it was cute, and 3) it was only an hour away by train.

The reports were right – it is a very cute city, with a bustling walking district in the middle of the old town. We passed by dozens of cafes and restaurants that looked like they’d be fun to try, and lamented that Zurich didn’t have such an offering. We settled on a fashionable yet comfy tapas restaurant for lunch, where I thoroughly enjoyed my “artesian” water housed in a bottle designed by Calvin Klein. (The Swiss always overcharge for water – at least this water made an effort to appear worth the extra money.) The food was good, too.

We spent the afternoon wandering around and exploring the old town. There was an outdoor market, several small specialty shops, and even street performers. We went into the cathedral, which was easily the most beautiful church I’ve seen in Switzerland. And let’s not forget Raiffeissenplatz, a square that has been coated with red concrete in honor of a bank. Or something.

It was Three Kings Day, so all the bakeries were pushing their three king’s cakes. These consist of a bunch of sweet buns all stuck together, one of which contains a plastic figurine (I forgot to take a picture, so you’ll have to visit Jill’s blog if you want to see one). Whoever finds the piece of plastic in his or her piece gets to wear a cardboard crown and, assuming he or she hasn’t choked to death on said plastic piece, gets to reign as king for the day. We weren’t necessarily excited to eat one of the cakes (as I recall from last year, it’s not particularly tasty), but I wanted to buy one anyway for us to mush up in our hands until one of us found the figurine. Scott thought that sounded wasteful – can you imagine?

Despite the lack of crappy cake, it was a good day of appreciating Switzerland. The appreciation continued through today, when we went ice skating at the big rink at Dolder. And now, we’re attempting to watch the Swiss version of Pop Idol. It’s mostly in Swiss German, but we’re following along amazingly well. Hooray for our clean and safe host country!

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