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!

The Swiss: They are just like us!

You hear so often from us what is different in our ex-pat lives compared to our previous life in America.  This week, I thought it would be funny to do a spoof on US Weekly’s “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” column to show a few everyday examples of the similarities in American and Swiss citizen’s day-to-day life:

When their cats go missing, they post signs! This reads “Little tricolor cat lost. Please call # if you find it. Thank you.”

They don’t like junk mail. This sign reads “No ads/junk mail in this mailbox”

Baby on board sign

They have troops of Boy Scouts looming around town, saving the day.

They have dollar stores. Sort of. This is a 2 Franc store in the Italian part of Switzerland. So, its more like $2.25 store. Close enough.

They send spam on phones too. Not cool.

They advertise about going green.

Their youngsters play beer pong.  Article / photo courtesy of 20 Minutes.

I’ll keep on the hunt of more examples…..stay tuned!

Eu Aceito: The Brazilian Nuptials

The week after the Ohio wedding came a second wedding for the couple in Brazil.  Since D is from Brazil, there was a blessing/ceremony of the marriage for her family members that couldn’t make the trip to the US.

Eight of us, not including the bride and groom, made it to the Brazil ceremony.   Beyond a few Greek weddings, this is the first multi-cultural wedding I have attended, so I thought I would share a few customs we noticed:

1 – Contrary to the USA where people are supposed to arrive a half hour prior to the wedding time to be seated, in Brazil, it is completely normal for the bride to be late.  Guests arrive late in anticipation of it, typically a half hour.  In fact, this wedding started over an hour after the time on the invitation.

The groom waiting for his bride.  Good thing they were already married in the US or he might be sweating it 🙂

2 – Instead of a traditional wedding party where everyone dresses the same, the important people in the couple’s lives are paired up, in duos called padrinhos.  This can be siblings, cousins, or important friends.   They don’t dress in the same bridesmaids dress, or suit, just in what they have chosen.   They stand at the altar, but seats are provided to sit in during the ceremony.

The lovely couple: the brides’s sister Miss L and cousin D. Image courtesy of Miss L’s camera.

3 – While USA flower girls are tiny, flower girls can have more of an age range in Brazil.

The lovely flower girl.  Image courtesy of Miss L’s camera.

4– The parents share a prayer at the beginning of the service.

5 – The weddings are more formal than the normal US wedding.  I actually wasn’t aware of this and had a little confusion thinking we were wearing the same dress as Ohio and didn’t bring anything suitable.  I passed in one of my dresses packed for Rio.     However, 99% of guests were dressed in their best suit and ball gown.

6 – After the ceremony, the samba music starts rocking. They are very talented and their rhythms inspire instantaneous dancing.

The bride’s sister had hired this band as a present.

So instant, in fact, that everyone dances during the appetizers and before the dinner.  And their feet can move!!!  We were so impressed, especially by Awesome Son’s fast footwork.

Bride, rocking to samba.

7 – Similar to throwing the bridal bouquet, in Brazil, the bride throws a cluster of Santo Antonio dolls at the eligible girls.  This Saint, Antonio, is whom you pray to when you want to get married.

Image courtesy of casamento.art.br

D  threw one of these in Ohio.  As soon as it is launched, all the individual saints fly off into the crowd, at least four or five of them.   We Americans thought that it was a pretty neat trick for appeasement of many women who want to be married.  But the little girls got more sad they didn’t ‘win’ the game because they were dolls!

In fact, I had to console one little granddaughter of Aunt Foxy Floridian, letting her know that it was okay….she shouldn’t want a husband quite yet, they are a lot of work!  (just kidding, my love)

8Caipirinhas, the national drink of Brazil, are served in addition to beer and non-alcholic beverages.

Image courtesy of wikipedia

Awesome Son has a caipirina in his hand!

9 – Guests are given sweet cakes called casadinhos, or “marry well” cookies.  They are sweet cookies melded together with a sweet sticky center.  It is said that whomever eats one shares in the same luck as the bride and the groom.  D’s aunts & Mama I brought these to Ohio for everyone to partake.  And they were delicious!!

10 – Things get crazy after dinner at Brazilian weddings.   Dinner was served a little after midnight, and shortly after eating, the sisters handed out fun dress up items for us to “get crazy”.  It was like New Years Eve!

Me and my garb

The groom with his faux tie and hat

Aunt Sensuous Siren

Aunt Foxy Floridian

Everyone convened to a little glass room where a late night DJ was stationed to continue partying until the early morning.  Confetti cannons started booming and everyone danced the night away.

The little glass room was rockin’

It is said that Brazilian festivities don’t stop until all the food and booze run out.  We only stayed until 2:30am  so I can’t personally vouch for this, but I think the rest of the crew got in around 5:00am.

And tradition # 11  didn’t happen. Gabe had read the below custom on this site, so he was disappointed his brother didn’t ride the donkey.

“Very interesting wedding tradition in Brazil is that the groom has to subdue an unruly donkey. In such way he should to prove his worth as a responsible husband. The Brazilians called this custom as Bumba-Meu-Boi. This custom appears only in some parts of Brazil.”

The blog post is named Eu Aceito as these are the vows one would say (like “I do”) in the Portuguese language.  B, the groom, realized a few minutes before the ceremony that this information would be helpful.  He found D’s father who gave his son-in-law a quick lesson on when and what to say during the ceremony!!

Home Sweet Home: Charlotte

While we were in the States for the wedding, I was able to visit Charlotte, the city in which I lived after college (up until Switzerland) as my first stop.  Sadly, Gabe’s vacation is a bit limited, so he couldn’t join for this part.

I landed in the Queen City after a succession of three flights and nineteen hours of travel.  My bags miraculously made it, which surprised me greatly because my connections in Paris and JFK involved lots of running.   So, thanks, Delta.

Driving around the first few days in the States is a typically a combination of good / sad at the same time.   First off, I love driving.  I really miss it when in Geneva, since I don’t how to drive our manual car.  Especially on hills.  I crank the radio really loud and enjoy singing loudly to the English Top-40 songs that play…it’s good to actually know the words and have a change from the same 5 English songs they play on repeat in Geneva.

Other highlights are visiting my friends and hitting the favorite spots.  And doing hot yoga as much as I can to try to burn out of it before I go back to Switzerland.

However, as I am driving around, passing parts of Charlotte make me tear up.    Passing R’s old apartment, my eyes welled remembering all the good times we had as single girls in the city and all our post-work neighborhood walks.    Driving to work to meet coworkers is another source of nostalgia since I worked for the same company for ten years.   “Camping” in my old house, which is now completely empty is another emotional spot .

A stormy night in the Queen City

Since Charlotte was my first city on the trip back to the US, I wanted to share my odd list of things I noticed with “foreigner eyes” back in my old home:

–       Charlotte = Blond + colorful.  The first 4 hours of my first day in Charlotte included a hot yoga class and a sermon at my old church.  Everyone dressed brightly in both places.   And there were astonishing amounts of blond people.   In Geneva, most everyone dresses in black and dark grey.  Occasionally, if they are feeling wild, it can go navy.  And skin and hair colors are of full range, since 50% of the city is made up of foreigners including pretty much every nationality.   I never really noticed this prior….but it was a really overwhelming observation on my first day back.

–       Customer service.  Readers of this blog know that I have my challenges with customer service in Switzerland.  You never ever sub / delete anything from a dish on a menu, or else they would just suggest you order something else.     When I dined with friends  in Charlotte, a few times, they made substitutions or changes.  One friend someone sent something back.  I shrunk back in my chair, awaiting a backlash….but, the waiters could not have been more accommodating.    After our time in Europe, it has become odd to me how much American servers check on their tables or come around for refills.  Since this is not something I am used to anymore, I have this odd paranoia surrounding overly nice servers like they are going to do something crazy any moment.  Weird, I know…..it’s just that I have been reverse-conditioned for Southern hospitality.

–       Related, but customization.  I frequented a few frozen yogurt stores in Charlotte.  I am a huge fan of fro-yo, but even since we left a year and a half ago, there is a crazy proliferation of the little joints….I counted 7 more storefronts than I’d seen.    And all of them allow you to make your own….so you fill the yogurt, and add your toppings, and weigh it, then pay.       Similar to this, in enjoying meals with friends at Bad Daddy’s and going to new Dilworth addition, Crisp, I was able to re-experience the  “build your own burger” and “make your own salad” concepts.  This was familiar before our move, but after living in Geneva for a year and a half, it was unfathomable to me….customers can have it however they want.  This is definitely not part of our Swiss vocabulary.

–       Speed of life.  Everyone is in a rush in the US, running around, jamming things in.  This type of hurried lifestyle is one of my least favorite characteristics about myself that I know I need to improve and I am trying to work on.  It is easier to work on Switzerland where fewer people behave in this manner, so it becomes more normal to take things slow.   However, I noticed myself picking up the pace in the US during my short time and becoming more “efficient” to keep up.   It reminds me that I’ll have to figure out how to bring back the Swiss calmness and lessons learned on relaxing when we move back home permanently.

–       Doing errands is easy in the US.   I know where things are and what type of stores have them.  I don’t have to research where, the address, and bus schedules.  I just hop in the car and go.   The best is that I can keep purchases and future supplies in the car versus schlepping them around all day.  And, I can go in my gym clothes which is a huge no-no in Geneva.

–       Cost.  When a few of my lunches added up to $7  – $10 USD, I gleefully forked over the cash.  These lunch meals would have been 25 -40 CHF in Geneva.  This is why I have only eaten lunch out in Geneva five times in 15 months.  It felt nice to eat out and not feel like I was going to bankrupt us doing so.

–  I still am afraid someone is going to steal my purse.  I never used to be afraid of this in the States, but living in Europe, its a constant worry….after all, most of my friends have caught a hand in their zipped purses at some point or another and a few others have had purses or wallets stolen.   I caught myself looping my leg through the straps while in church and realized I can likely adjust my behavior while home and relax just a little bit.

Thanks for a great visit, everyone!

A cross section of some of the fun visits I had in Charlotte

Le Quatorze Juillet: Bastille Day

As I mentioned, when we booked our trip to Provence, it didn’t occur to us that it was the Bastille Day holiday weekend.    Bastille Day is known as La Fête Nationale.  The equivalent would be our 4th of July Independence Day.

I am sure Paris it must have been nuts, but it ended up being a nice time to visit Provence and the countryside for us.   It’s always fun to see how another culture celebrates.

As we mentioned yesterday on the blog, we witnessed lively music & the running of the bull (singular) in the town square on Friday night, the eve of the holiday.   Saturday night, we had heard there would be fireworks for le quatorze.  Since we missed them living in Geneva for the 4th of July, we looked forward to celebrating with the French for their Independence.

For the evening of le quatorze juillet, we strolled around town a little bit and then had a divine dinner at La Maison Jaune.

St. Rémy in the early evening

Our table on the terrace at La Maison Jaune.  We could hear the music in the square that prefaced the fireworks. 

We concluded dinner with perfect timing at 10:00pm, the time the fireworks were due to start.   We had a general concept of where to walk to view them display, but ended up bumping into a walking parade so we just joined in.  We figured it would be simple enough to find them that way!

Everyone was dressed in their red, white and blue.   The children were dressed adorably, proudly holding their paper lanterns.   Paper lanterns are quite commonly carried for European holidays.  We saw our first last year on la premiere aout, Switzerland’s Independence Day.

We strolled along with the crowd, enjoying watching the celebrations:

When we reached the stadium / park, it was just in time for the commencement of the feu d’artifice (fireworks in French).   We found a nice spot on the edge of the sidewalk and enjoyed.   The show blasted in conjunction with Whitney Houston music, which we found to be a very entertaining addition.     All in all, it was a very nice fireworks show.   Not as big as Geneva’s hour long Fête de Genève production, but a very nice showing for a small town such as Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Fireworks for Bastille Day

This is now the third “Independence Day” we have seen!!   We are grateful for the experience to have witnessed it.

A belated Joyeux Bastille Day to all our French readers !

Just how expensive is Switzerland?

Someone recently asked me “how expensive is Switzerland?”.   Well, an article this year named Zurich as the #1 most expensive city in the world.  Geneva ranked at #3.  Just to put it in perspective, New York City is 47th.

I thought I would showcase some examples.

You think US gas is expensive?  I see all your Facebook posts.  Well, it costs us over 125 francs (150 USD) to fill our car up.

462 CHF = 500 USD.   Our yearly TV tax.  Nope, this doesn’t include cable.  Just for the privilege of watching TV or signing up to pay 100 CHF / month more in basic cable.  You don’t even have to have a TV to get taxed….it covers radio too.

Getting your hair done. Gabe pays 85 francs for a men’s cut. This is like 93 USD. One time, he accidentally got a senior stylist and it was over 105 francs. I have a friend who got highlights at the same salon – 350 francs!!!

When people leave their paper & cardboard on the curb, they put it in a Louis Vitton bag.

Drink menu at a bar near our house, prices around 17-19 CHF.  Add 10% for the price of the Swiss franc, and you are spending a cool 20 spot for one drink.

12.70 CHF = about 14 USD for a Medium Value Meal at McDonalds.

The average window sign in Geneva.  These prices are not unusual on Rue du Rhone: Dress 2230 CHF, Bag 1280 CHF, Scarf 330 CHF, Ties 220 or 180 CHF, Shirt 1500 CHF and Pants 1330 CHF.

One of my favorite sources for expensive deals is Glocals, which is like our Living Social or Groupon.

I know these little Roombas are expensive in the US, but I think its only 200 USD. Here, half off, they are 400 CHF!!

What a deal!!! Half off: Only 69 francs (75 USD) for a mani / pedi!!! I used to pay 25 or 30 USD for both, full price.   Let’s just say I have also never paid to have my nails done here.

How do we live in such a city?  

Here, we only eat out once a week.   Back in the States, we ate out 5-8 times a week between lunch and dinners.   However, the average meal out at a low to mid-range restaurant with a glass of wine costs 80 CHF.  A nice place is 200 CHF.     So, thus the cut-back.

We eat less meat. It’s 3-4 times the prices of the US.  So we have more vegetarian meals.

We don’t buy any clothes here.   The extent of our purchases are a H & M furry hat for me when it was -20 degrees and a pair of boxers that were half off for Gabe.

We don’t buy “stuff”.  The desire is less great here (both their less commercialized way of life and the fact we don’t understand all the ads), but we make due with what we have.  We never go out just to shop or pick up something because it looks cool.

Pretty much, we spend all our disposable income on groceries and travel.  All in all, we don’t actually mind this change in lifestyle.  It will be interesting to see how this changes or stays the same when we return home.

An Impromptu 4th of July Picnic at Genève Plage

Today is the 4th of July.   As I have mentioned, sometimes it can be quite strange living somewhere that doesn’t celebrate your typical holidays.   Gabe is also out of town on business.  Since he doesn’t get US holidays (only Swiss), he had a work trip starting Monday and landing at midnight tonight.

I didn’t want to let the day escape without celebrating.   Luckily, some of the other ladies were up for getting together to recognize Independence Day.

M had suggested Genève Plage (Plage = Beach in French).  She and some of her mom group friends had gotten season passes as it provided a good kid-friendly meet up place, just about a mile outside of Geneva.  I had never been before, so I was excited to try it out and purchased a single entry at 7 CHF.

A view of Genève Plage from the water

So, we found a nice shady spot to spend the afternoon.

Our 4th of July Headquarters

Everyone dressed in fun 4th of July clothes.  The moms of us had to get their kid’s clothing on trips to the US long before the actual 4th of July.   Something that you take for granted!

All the little ones were dressed so cute

Miss Yoga is from Japan, but we were so glad she joined us for our Independence Day celebration.  Check out the yummy food she made, blending Japanese tradition with USA flair.

4th of July bento sushi – white rice, orange crab, black seaweed and little stars!!  Cute and yummy!

Caprese bites and deviled eggs with fish eggs

K made cherry pie pockets, so that they’d be easier to serve.  She pitted the cherries and made them from scratch since ‘pie filling’ doesn’t exist.  They were incredible!  I scored an extra to bring home for Gabe when he got home at midnight.

Cherry pie pockets

I made Red, White & Blue cupcakes.  Mama Mia had brought us some Red Velvet Duncan Hines cake mix in April, and I imported some cream cheese frosting from the States my last trip.  Since they didn’t have blue icing at the store, I just used blueberries.

Red velvet cupcakes for red, white and blue

P having some fun with the cupcake

We also had lots of fresh fruit, snack mix, and nuts to complement the red, white and blue.

After eating, a few of us went swimming.   The beaches in the Mediteranean can be quite different to some who have never seen stone beaches.  I remember when we went to Greece, it was Gabe’s first time seeing one.

Swiss lake beaches are quite similar.   When his family came in March and we went to Hermance, it was also a surprise.  Geneva also has stone beaches, as that is what is natural vs. the sand.  The pro is that you don’t get sandy.  The con is that sometimes it hurts to walk on.  Also, ‘rock’ castles don’t turn out so well.

Stone beach of Genève Plage

Genève Plage has a pool and a waterslide.  It was really busy that day, so I opted to get my thrills jumping off the high dive into the lake.

I did the middle section…the top one was closed.

The water wasn’t actually that cold this year.  Must have been the warm weather we had last week?

As for now, its 8pm Geneva time and I am listening to the rain pour down outside.  I’m glad we got our little celebration in before the storm.   Hopefully everyone back in the US is enjoying their Independence Day.  And a huge shout out of thanks goes out to all our servicemen for all you do to protect our freedom!

Related Posts:  

The Swiss Watch Blog:     Canadienne Buffet: USA Style

The Swiss Watch Blog:     A fantastic 4th of July with Henry Birmingham

Swiss Wife Style:  Party Recap

The Swiss Watch Blog:     Happy Swiss National Day

The Swiss Watch Blog:     Valentine’s Day and Other Non-Events

 

A Page from the Swiss Rule Book: School Differences

Even though we don’t have children, over the past year, I have noticed a few minor difference in schools.

1 – Most of Switzerland doesn’t have school on Wednesday mornings.  It’s a highly debated topic, especially during the most recent elections.  Credit to my friend, C,  for finding this ad which reads, “Everyone hasn’t had the luck of going to school on Wednesday mornings.

There is no school bus.   At least not an organized one.  Most children walk there on their own or take public transportation.    However, I have seen parents waiting with children until a charter bus pulls up:

They go home for lunch.  There is no lunch room.   In fact, Swiss schoolchildren get a two hour lunch break each day to go home and eat.  It’s my theory on why its harder for women to work here.   Teenagers tend to stay out, grab something at the grocery and hang out in the parks.  However, the little ones go home.

They have lots of vaca.  In particular, Sports Week happens in February, just so families can take advantage of the good snow.  If you remember, our friends M & C had to go with the 3rd back up doctor when they delivered their baby girl because the first two were injured going with their families on Ski Week.

Do you know any more school differences?

FreeTown Christiania

I think I first heard about Christiania through one of Rick Steve’s videos.   This little area located in the Christianshavn area of Copenhagen is unlike anything else in the world.

Gabe at the entrance to Christiania

It is a freetown, an autonomous village that has its own laws and governance.  About 1000 adults, 200 kids and 200 dogs live there.   You freely pass through, as this is one of the only requirements that Denmark has for their continuance that it be a public place.

Rhubarbara Streisand at the entrance to Christiania

They only have a few laws:
-no stealing
-no violence
-no hard drugs
-no weapons

Also, if you walk down Pusher Street, they add a few:  no photos and no running.   Once you walk around and notice that everyone is in their own ‘state’, you understand how someone running would upset the mental order.

Image courtesy of Zen Aida – I was too afraid to take photos of even the no photo sign

You might be asking yourself how this came about?   In 1971, squatters took over this area which was previously military.  Back then, the area was quite a seedy place and land values are low.

A view of Christiania residents enjoying the water from our canal tour the day prior.  I didn’t take a photo of the guy  sunbathing in the nude on the dock prior. 

However, it has become quite controversial recently now that the area has become trendy and all the nearby buildings are being refurbished and sold for big buckaroos.   I heard its on the brink and that it would soon likely become extinct.  Thus, I really wanted to visit.

Christiania is located in the green area that forms the triangles.  Image courtesy of ehrasmussentrip.blogspot.com

This was an old boat house and now is condos, just opposite of Christiania. Image courtesy of arc house.

Boat houses converted to modern office spaces, across from Christiania. Image courtesy of Flick River

I was glad we checked it out.   It was interesting how the residents of Christiania have formed their own utopia.   However, it made me realize how important social norms are in establishing what feels like a utopia.   To these folks, this free society was heaven on earth.   For me, I was bothered by the trash and walking down Pusher Street so it was foreign to my concept of a home.

To each his own.

 

Related links:

Rick Steve’s Copenhagen / Christiania video (starts at 1:05) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v57JVVD6-ag

 

 

Switzerland vs. Google

There was an interesting article in the NY Times this week on Google Maps and Switzerland.

If you are familiar with Google’s “Street View” on Google Maps, you know that you can see an image of a building if you have an address.

It’s been pretty helpful for me to use in Geneva to research buildings that I am going to for the first time, so that I’ll recognize them.   It was quite helpful when researching bike shops to find out which ones did repairs.    I couldn’t find an address or a name, but knew what it was next to:

Preliminary research, courtesy of English Forum

Drilling down to Street view of the known address, Auberge de Saviese, to find Hot Point

 

I never stopped to think about how this might be taken by the Swiss, who have a high value on privacy.  As the article suggests, many Swiss citizens don’t have their name on their letterbox to protect their privacy.

I am glad they reached an agreement – I use the application often for seeking businesses.

What do you think of Google Maps?