Being An American From Afar

This Election Day, I wanted to share a few of our experiences as “being Americans from afar”.    We are US citizens and hold US passports, but for the last 1.5 years, we have been residents of Switzerland.

The Swiss flag in Old Town Geneva

What’s that mean for your life in Switzerland?   We have the right to work here, as B-permit holders.   We do not have the right to vote in Switzerland.   Speaking of rights, we also do not have the right to do our laundry, dishes, or make any type of noise outside of the hours of 8am-8pm, including taking out our trash or recycling.  All of these rules are also applicable all day on Sundays and holidays.   But, we feel lucky.  Some apartments in Zurich outline that you can’t flush toilet outside of these times.

What’s that mean for being an American from afar ?   We do have the right to vote in the US even though we are not current residents.  We have the right to pay taxes.  Which Switzerland requires we do to them too.  Funny how everyone is clear on equality on that one.    As non-residents, we cannot bring as many goods duty-free into the States as a US resident can.  Learned that the hard way when importing a suitcase full of Swiss chocolate and stuffed cows.   Also, we don’t get our mail forwarded further than a year which means it lives in no-man’s land.   I wonder how many collectors are after us.

How was voting?  Actually, awesome.  Big kuddos to Mecklenburg County, NC.   I thought that voting abroad would require lots of mail, follow-up, calls, more mail.    But, we successfully registered from afar this Spring, requested ballots this Summer, they arrived in September, and we returned them in October.   An individual called me at home to get clarification on Gabe because we had to register him in Mecklenburg Country prior to the election and his voter card got returned  in the mail [see mail problem above].  After we submitted this form, she confirmed that our ballots were received and counted.   The only downside is that we had to send our ballots in so early that we missed the commentary in the Charlotte Observer, detailing each candidate’s position on the county ballot, that comes out so close to the election.  So, we had to do a lot of our research online.

How was doing your taxes?   Good question….they haven’t been submitted yet.  I’m not sure what takes so long as we submitted them March 1st to the consultants, but they had to request extensions in both the US and Switzerland because they are so complicated.  In fact, after 6 months of them working on it, we got our ‘draft’ for Switzerland last week, which has to be completed before the US ones are started.  It was in French.  We had to have the consultants translate it verbally on a conference call yesterday so we knew that there were errors which they are now fixing.  We knew to expect this….one Swiss ex-pat warned us that he still hadn’t cleared everything up 3 years after his assignment.  Joy.

What else is weird about being an “American from afar”?    I’d have to say that phone #s are weird.   I tend to visit old doctors and service providers when visiting the States.    You should hear the reaction when I cannot provide a current 704 number for their computer.   My phone number in Switzerland is like this:  0041 079 XXX XX XX.   It apparently can’t fit in the computer.  Nor can our address which only has a four-digit zip.   They would rather not see me that deal with the numbers.  It’s a battle.

What is awesome about living in two places?  Health insurance.  It rocks.  And, I love the fact that I can go to a doctor in whatever country I need to based on our situation…as long as they take me as a patient because of our complicated phone #.

Nevertheless, today, as Americans from afar, we are so proud that we are from an amazing country where we have the right to vote for our leaders and our country gives us so much in terms of safety and infrastructure.

From across the ocean, hope everyone has a Happy Election Day!

Clouds Don’t Ruin The Golden Pass

When E-dawg was here, it rained a lot.   I tried to brainstorm ideas for activities in the clouds and rain and one we considered was a scenic train.    However, I wasn’t sure how this would be.    On one hand, you don’t have to get wet at all in order to see the magnificent Swiss countryside.    On the other hand, would the rain ruin the view & visibility?

I Googled it, but didn’t get much information.  Luckily, when we took the Golden Pass, the sun came out for E-dawg and I.   Unfortunately, I never found out the answer.

Twin & Solid knew they wanted to take a scenic train, so I recommended we take The Golden Pass back from Lauterbrunnen, since Gabe had to return earlier to Geneva to get back to work.   That way, we could take our time going back and stop in towns that looked intriguing.   However, the forecast was dreary.   Rain was predicted in every town we were to pass through.   The scenic trains aren’t cheap, so  I posed it as an option to them that we could all ride back with Gabe if they preferred.  The downside would be a 5am departure to go back in the car with him vs. a relaxing and leisurely wake-up.

They decided to roll the dice on the weather.   And, remarkably, we had a great day.   So, for those traveling on Golden Pass, worried about the weather, I’d recommend you just go for it.

Here is a recap of our journey, starting from Lauterbrunnen–>Interlacken Ost–>Spiez–>Zweissimen–>Montreux–>Geneva:

Lauterbrunnen valley. Not promising.

Thunersee….still ominous

Solid admiring the view after Zweisimen

Twin checking out the view before our stop in Château D’Oex

Clouds over Lake Geneva, but still pretty

Wow.  The cloud cover showcases varying blues in Lake Geneva.   Maybe the clouds were a good thing after all?

The overcast Golden Pass train ended up being one of our guest’s favorite days.

 

Related Links:

The Swiss Watch Blog:   Alpine Views in Zweissimen & Chateau D’Oex

The Swiss Watch Blog:   The Golden Pass

The Swiss Watch Blog:  A Springtime ride on the Glacier Express

The Swiss Watch Blog:   All Aboard the Glacier Express

Schwingen In Switzerland:  A Gorge-ous Panoramic Train Ride

A Page from the Swiss Rulebook: The Swiss Kiss

It’s been a year we have lived here and I think that it is only now I am getting used to “The Swiss Kiss”.

When people great each other, they kiss cheeks to acknowledge and welcome each other.

I had some exposure to this when I was working in the US, as a lot of the advertising folks I worked with at our agencies were European.   I just usually followed their lead in what was appropriate.  I do remember it being a tad awkward for us Americans who preferred a shake and we were afraid we’d “mess up” when it came to professional kissing.

Swiss camels perfecting their Swiss kisses.

Living in Europe it becomes more secondhand.    Here are a few guidelines:

–Swiss Romandie (French speaking Swiss) people greet each other with 3 kisses:  left cheek, right, left.

–The French version includes just two kisses – left, right.

–Just barely touch the person’s cheek or the air next to their cheek.  I usually do the air and make a slight smacking sound.

–When in doubt, just watch what other people are doing and follow their lead.

If you are visiting us, I hope you are perfecting your Swiss kisses.

Related links:

Gydle:  how to Swiss Kiss

World to the Wise: Swiss Kiss

Great demo video:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEV60lYHaIM

Discovering Geneva: The Patek Philippe Museum

As I mentioned in a previous post, Geneva benefitted significantly when well-educated, skilled tradesmen found refuge in the city during the Reformation.  One such way is in timepieces, most importantly, the wristwatch.   Due to John Calvin’s strict hold on the city, he did not appreciate any luxurious items being created just for luxury’s sake (for more on this, read about Old Town and the Cathedral).  So, those goldsmiths and silversmiths had to find some practical activity in which to dedicate their talents.  Keeping time was practical.  Thus, how Geneva became known for the wrist watch.

Everyone wants a Swiss wrist watch.  They are known for their exquisite detail, design and reliability.  And, you can’t walk very far in Geneva without hitting a store selling them.  However, don’t get excited about buying a Swiss watch when you visit us.  With the exchange rate and price of goods in Switzerland,  it’s much cheaper to buy your Swiss watch in the US.

Typical landscape of Geneva. Watch store after watch store.

If you like watches, when you visit us, you can tour the Patek Philippe Museum.   Patek Philippe is a brand of watches, based in Geneva.  In fact, the most expensive watch ever sold was a 1933 gold Patek Philippe, for $11 USD million.  Don’t worry – you don’t have to shell out that much cash to get a Patek Philippe.   The cheap versions start at about $10,000 USD.

The museum has four floors of displays on keeping time.   The ground floor contains actual work desks & tools used in the early days.  The top floor, 3rd floor, contains the archives and a library.  The 2nd floor has the antique collection.   The 1st floor holds time pieces from the last 150 years.

When Gabe’s cousin, Couch Surfer , was here, we caught a Patek Philippe visit late Saturday afternoon after her 4:20 train arrived, knowing it would be closed Sunday and Monday.

It was a worthwhile stop.  My favorite pieces were the timepieces for women, discretely designed to look like necklace pendants.   Unfortunately, we couldn’t take photos inside the museum.  However; from this video, you can get a gist of the miraculous pieces contained inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Sunday and Monday, most of the museums are closed in Geneva.  Plan accordingly with your visit if you want to hit museums and tours.

Guests: What to Expect out of a European Hotel

Post by Lauren

We have lived here so long, we sometimes forget some of the fascinating differences of European life.  Today, we’ll examine the European hotel room.

In Switzerland, most hotels that we stay in are owned by families instead of corporations.  It makes for an endearing special stay and you know you are supporting local business.

Some of the differences:

Check in and Check out times – they are usually posted and you need to arrive and depart in these parameters or otherwise, the desk might not be staffed.

Payment – usually always after your stay.  They don’t usually ask for any credit card or ID up front. The Swiss are very trusting.

Language – don’t be surprised if they don’t speak English.  But they are friendly and always willing to help.  Usually its straightforward.  Get key. Return key. Pay.

However, our biggest challenge was in Verbier where we had to understand door codes, access times, etc and I was glad for my French lessons then.  Especially when we couldn’t figure it out and had to ask the reception lady to come give us a demonstration.

Beds – usually a double room has two twin beds pushed together with their own comforter.  Gabe likes this as I am a cover-hog so he is ensured a comfortable sleep in a Swiss hotel.

Image courtesy of booked.net

Bathroom – don’t expect soap or shampoo.  Be surprised to find both.  Sometimes they combine hair/body getl in in a dispenser in the shower.  So, look there before panicking.

One time, we stayed in a place that had no soap, shampoo or towels.  I quickly learned to bring extra in the future, just in case.

I have not found conditioner yet.  Bring your own if you have long hair!

Hairdryers are rare in Swiss hotel rooms.  Check ahead if you require one.

Bath linens – you won’t get a washcloth.  Europeans simply don’t use them.   One of our friends who lives here says “if they want to play that game, I’m just going to wet the entire hand towel”.  And so do we…..

Breakfast – most of the time included in the room rate, but not guaranteed.  It is more likely that it is included in Switzerland than other areas of Europe.

Many small hotels will put your group name or room numbers on your reserved breakfast table.  So, be sure to look for that when entering the breakfast area.  It is their way of ensuring that the tables are used efficiently as they have limited space.

Typically they serve a buffet of cereals, yogurts, breads, cheeses and meats.  Sometimes there are hard boiled eggs. And sometimes they have raw eggs and you have to boil them yourself.

One of my favorite discoveries is Birchermüesli.  Its yogurt with granola and small fresh and dried fruits.  It looks a little gross but it is one of my new preferred Swiss breakfast items.

Image courtesy of lookcook.net

They usually bring carafes of coffee and milk to your table.  Also something to look forward to – they usually heat the milk that they serve.  It is a nice perk.

Typically, you’ll find a small plastic bin on the table.  It’s for trash – for your tiny scraps / papers.  This has been interesting to our guests.  Speaking of waste, it is more proper in Europe to take small portions of food at a time in a buffet type setting.  It isn’t looked upon kindly if you leave tons of food on your plate like is common in the US.

Also, most breakfast rooms have signs indicating all food must be eaten in the dining area. So, it isn’t allowed to grab-and-go for later.  I have been guilty of this in the US with taking a piece of fruit for a snack later.  I feel like it isn’t as frowned upon back home as it is here.

Our most recent guests inquired why they don’t have pancakes, bacon and eggs like they do in America?  Answer:  It is just not their thing.    We haven’t seen this type of breakfast since we left the States unless its in our own kitchen.

However, although slightly different, we hope you enjoy the Swiss hotel experience!

Geneva’s Old Town Train

Post by Lauren

With my feet out of commission, I had been brainstorming ways to show our most recent guests around Geneva.

Luckily there are three tourist trains in Geneva – one that goes to Old Town, Left Bank, and Right bank.   The Left Bank train became my friend last summer when I didn’t know anyone.  It spoke English and was comforting to hear it pass now and then as I was sitting on the lake front.  Good thing I made friends and didn’t have to the rely on forms of transportation for my social life.

Anyhow, on the day that our crew of 5 arrived from the States, we took the Old Town Train.  This particular one starts at Place du Fusterie and winds around the middle of town for 35 minutes.  It costs 10 francs and passes by the following stops:

The little Geneva tourist train

The Statue of General Dufour

University of Geneva

The Reformation Wall

Palais Enyard

Palais de Justice

Bourg de Four*

L’Hotel de Ville

Statue of Pictet de Rochemont

Bust of Henry Dunant

La Maison Calvin

Calvin’s Auditorium & La Cathedrale St Pierre

La Maison Tavel

Le Musee Rath

Le Grand Théâtre

Le Conservatoire de musique

 

I would rate this train a 5 on a scale of 1 – 10.   It was hard to hear the announcements – they were muffled by the street noise.  Also, the website conflicted with the times that were posted at the entry point causing some confusion.   But for my current condition, a moving vehicle that took us by some Geneva highlights** so that I could fill in commentary was a great thing for us.  If you do have guests or if you are visiting Geneva yourself, email the company for confirmation when and where it will pick up the day you plan to take it.

*I have a friend who lives in Old Town. She detests the Old Town train because of the noise it makes passing her window.  I kind of felt guilty taking it but at least we were going in the middle of the day.

**Our guests asked the baggage guy in the airport what there was to do in Geneva.  He gave them a blank stare and said they’d come to the wrong place for activities.  He did mention Old Town was one thing that they should check out.  Good, glad we had this on the itinerary.

 

 

 

 

Expat Advice: The Goods to Bring

Post by Lauren

We have guests coming this week.  It is great to see the familiar faces of our friends and family.  But you know what is also a perk?  TREASURES!

My mother in law is so very sweet to bring a few items we have been coveting.   For those expats who have yet to move, I wanted to share our TREASURE list so that you could maybe be smarter than us and bring a supply with you during your move!

# 1 – ENCHILADA SAUCE

We can get quasi Mexican products in Geneva.  However, they are overpriced and don’t taste the same.

Here are the prices:

6 pack of wheat tortillas or 8 pack of corn tortillas – 6 CHF  / $7 USD

Refried beans – 5 CHF / $6 USD

Black beans – 2 CHF / $3 USD

Guacamole jarred – 6 CHF  / $7 USD

Salsa that tastes like sugar – 6 CHF  / $7 USD

Fajita seasoning that tastes awful – 4 CHF / $5USD

While I have gotten over the fact that making a Mexican dinner at home costs 40 CHF, what is missing is enchilada sauce.  They do not have it at all here!

I have found it is best to buy the cans and put them in Ziplocs and then in my boots and shoes for better success at traveling.  Also, recently, my friend N told me you could buy McCormicks packets to save space.  I plan to stock up on these when we are back in the U.S.

BAKING GOODS

They don’t have the same rules here for baking. Everything I bake turns to S&^^.   For example, take a look at some cookies I tried to make recently with what I thought was cocoa powder.  It wasn’t.

Fail. Icky cookies

I also attempted to use brownie mix from a French grocery store for a cookie exchange.   They turned out awful.  I didn’t have time to make more. I had to beg people not to take what I had brought…I told them they’d thank me later.

So, I recommend that very expat moving to Europe should bring:  Baking powder, Baking soda (like Arm & Hammer), Crisco, Canola oil, Karo syrup & Vanilla Extract to help you recreate any recipes you know and love.

Better yet, pack a years worth of cake mixes, muffin mixes, and brownie mixes so that you can have easy-to-make treats.

COOKING SPICES

They don’t always have similar spices here in Switzerland.  Chili powder being a huge example.   We love making chili in the winter, so a stockpile of chili powder would be something to bring when you move.   I also to use Lipton soup mixes in recipes so I find these helpful to have in Geneva.

We aren’t ranch-lovers, but my friends A & A always stock up on ranch powder when they go home. Also, I know a few ladies from Louisiana who stockpile their special Cajun seasonings.  You are definitely not going to find anything of that genre in Switzerland.

CLEANING SUPPLIES

Bring your gloves, magic erasers and other things you are used to.

TOILETRIES

Makeup, shampoo, toothpaste/floss, and razors are 3 times as much here.   Bring a two year supply of all your favorite items!

OTHER FOOD

We are pretty lucky that we don’t have too many things that we miss from the US.  I know a few folks who are addicted to a certain type of cheetos, or candy bars, so this takes up prime real estate in their suitcases.   For us, I have noted that we have coveted:

–Kashi Almond Flax cereal (Gabe’s favorite).  We saw a empty box in a recycling bin at a hostel in Interlacken and actually tried to go on a mission to find it thinking that maybe it was available.  Unfortunately, some backpacker probably just brought it from the US.

–Stuff for making smores – graham crackers and marshmallows.  Not necessary but good to have around!

–Crystal Light – I know this isn’t good for me but I am addicted. Particularly the Target brand of Margarita Lime.  This is how I make margaritas on Mexican night :)

 

Guests: How Spelling Errors can be Deadly

Post by Lauren

One thing I noticed on my first trip to Europe is that you need make sure to know city names in the native language. Example: when going to Venice or Florence, look for Venezia or Firenze, their Italian names.

This was amplified when we moved to Switzerland. There are 4 official languages, so you always need to know the other versions for each city so you are sure you know where you are going.

To make matters worse, many cities sound the same.

Lausanne sounds like Lucerne a little. When we have had friends come, it has been a tripping point. Wait…are we going to Lausanne or Lucerne? Or are they the same? They are both cities in Switzerland but not near each other at all.

Complicating that with the multiple language concept, Lucerne is French. It is Luzern in English, Lucerna in Italian and Lozärn in Swiss-German. If I saw Lozärn on a train board, I am willing to bet bet I would think it was just a variation of Lausanne.

 

This is Lausanne, not Lucerne.

In fact, in WWII, the British Air Force got confused and bombed Geneva instead of Genoa (Italy) on June 11, 1940 in three successive waves. Four Swiss people died because of the mistake and a dozen were injured. They are noted to have gotten off-position and said, “We thought it was Genoa.”

How terrible to die of a spelling error.

To our visitors, please note Geneva is Genève in French, Genf in German, Ginevra in Italian and Generva in Romansch. We don’t want you to end up in Genoa, Italy.

Guests: How to Tell Time Here

Post by Lauren

A few months ago, I did a post on the metric system and how difficult it is to get used to when you are used to another system.

Another cultural difference is in reading time.

Clock tower in Bern

 

In Europe they use military time most of the time So, I get invitations for lunch at 13:15 and for French class at 14:30.

But, sometimes not. And that makes it really difficult when taking appointments over the phone. When arranging our next rendez-vous, I heard my French teacher say at “à douze heure” [ah-douz-urr] but she really said “à deux heure” [ah-dooz-urr]. One is 12 and one is 2. I asked for clarification once I saw her pencil it into her afternoon instead of mid-day and she quickly told me no one says 12pm, only “midi”. Okay, glad we have that solved.

They don’t use a.m. and p.m. here. I do some copywriting for the women’s club. As a habit, I write things like a certain group meets at 11am and constantly get reminded that it simply doesn’t apply. It’s 11:00. The other day I was tutoring English to a French lady at the women’s home and tried to explain the concept of a.m. and p.m. She commented that it was very odd we had that.

To keep complicating things, dates are listed here in Day / Month / Year vs. Month / Day / Year. So the grocery item marked 12/04/2012 actually expires in April instead of December of 2012. When you have mixed US and Swiss pantry items and medicine, it can get a bit confusing.

How does this apply to guests??
Please note that when filling out any paperwork, doing the date Day / Month / Year is important. Also, when you buy any type of train or airfare, pay attention to the date in this format and the time in this format. This would also be key for buying tickets to a show or museum. An 8:00 ticket would be in the morning vs. 20:00 in the evening. A train ticket on 2/3/12 is March 2nd, not February 3rd.

Guests: How to Ride the TPG (bus/tram)

Post by Lauren

It is likely that we won’t make you ride the public transport by yourself for your first time, but it is good to get a lesson on how it works. Once you know how to buy a ticket and how to go the right direction, it is easy!

Switzerland is so rich they have an Hermes tram

The first thing to know is that you must have a ticket. If you are caught without it, it is something like 100 CHF payable on the spot. If you don’t have 100 CHF, they will walk with you to an ATM.

The second thing is that you do not actually have to show that ticket to anyone unless you are “checked” by a TPG officer (rarely happens). But tuck it in a safe place in case that happens on your journey.

The third thing to know is that you must have change handy to buy a ticket. In Switzerland, everything under a 10 CHF note is in change (see A’s post for the breakdown). If it is not exact change, it gives you a receipt that you can cash in for your change. There are only two offices and the lines are long, so I recommend putting in exact change. Or, you can always give your credit receipts to me as a present.

Here is how to buy a ticket:

Make all your decisions first or some angry Swiss person will get peeved you are taking too long. The Swiss like to buy their ticket right as the train is approaching so that they can maximize the hour, so if you don’t want to get yelled at in French, think about the following:

1. Decide how many separate times you’ll take public transport in the day. If just once or twice, you should just get a ordinary one-hour ticket [A] for 3.50 CHF. If you want to use it a few times, you should get a day ticket so that you can use it all day long.
1. If you are getting a day ticket, check your watch. If its after 9am, you are entitled to a cheaper full day ticket [B] for 8 CHF. If it is before 9am and you still want a regular full day ticket, hit [C] for 10.60 CHF.
2. If you are entitled to a half fare ticket (if you have a half fare card or Swiss Flexi Pass) hit [E] before inserting your money and it will make a reduction. For a one-hour ticket, it becomes 2.50 CHF, 5.60 CHF for a reduced full day and 7.60 for a full day regular.

Then the machine shows you how much you owe, you slip in the change, and voila! out comes your paper ticket. Put it somewhere safe so you can access it if checked.

 

But wait, how do I know where I am going???

You should know the number you want to take by referencing a map, or having us tell you which one to take. The tram runs two ways though so be careful to go the right way. They will be labeled with their end destination. You should reference on a map which direction you want to go, based on where you are. Each tram/bus stop also has the list of stops for each # on a sign that you could look at as well.

Careful that some lines have different destinations to provide frequency during rush hour. For example, the #5 in the northern direction goes to Aeroport usually (the end of the line) but sometimes there is also a #5 Nations. If you are going to the Aeroport (end of the line), don’t get on the Nations #5 or it won’t go far enough.

Here are some others that I know do this:
#12 Palettes and #12 Carouge
#14 Meyrin and #14 Cern
#8 OMS and #8 Appia

What is the difference between a bus and a tram?
They work in effect the same way. You have to hit the red button on the bus to make it stop for you. However, on a tram, it stops every time. You only have to hit the red button to open the doors so that you can exit.

Why do some buses have numbers and some letters?
The numbers travel in town and the letters travel out further into the countryside.

Are there other public transportation methods I can use?
Why yes, you can take the mouettes, the boats. For a one-way, you can buy a ticket simple [D] for 2 CHF that is good for one crossing or riding the bus/tram only 3 stops (usually you ride it more than 3 stops so that is why I didn’t mention it above). Your hour pass or day pass also covers travel on these, if you already have that type of ticket, you are good to go.

Is there anything else I need to know?
Yes….when your stop is approaching, you need to stand up and by the door. If you do not show initiative to exit, the people waiting to get on the tram/bus could end up boxing you in. As the cheerleaders say,” Be aggressive…be be aggressive.”

And…watch your wallet/purse. Pick pocketing is very common in Geneva. Just be smart!