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

Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road

We rented a car so we could see Ireland’s magnificent countryside.  However, in Ireland, they drive on the left side of the road.    Gabe was a bit apprehensive…mainly about driving a stick.   The worries went away once he discovered the operations for the manual worked the same way, that he wouldn’t have to do that in reverse.  Just remember to drive on the opposite.

He did a remarkable job.  Not that it was easy.

First, the roads were narrow.  Our friend A in Geneva lived in Ireland a few years.  He called them the “sweaty palm roads”.

Yes, this road is for both directions

In addition, you had to watch out for oncoming traffic.  And random farm animals.

Not enough room for two

Watch out…cows!

Kudos to Gabe for keeping us alive!

Traversing Swiss Mountains

After our trip to Lake Como, I am a lot more educated on how to get through, around, and over a mountain.

I remember when we first moved here, when we looked at a map, we were stupefied why there wasn’t a direct route.   It didn’t take long to find out that the reason the roads can’t go straight here is because of the big freakin’ mountains, otherwise known as “the Alps”.

Within our year, we learned about the wonderful Mt. Blanc Tunnel, which can save you a lot of time getting to Italy (and also adding a big dent to your wallet, around $60 USD).   We had used this tunnel to get back from the South of France, and also planned to use it to get to Lake Como.

However, I wanted to stop in Lugano and Bellinzona on our way home, putting us in the South of Switzerland, far from the Mt. Blanc tunnel.   I saw on Google Maps that there appeared to be two ways though.  They took longer but it was worth seeing a few cities in the Ticino canton.  No biggie.

The little yellow circle is where we came into Italy via Mt. Blanc. The other two were the ways we considered coming back into Swizterland.

The week before we left, I mentioned to my PT that we were going to holiday in Lake Como and return through Ticino.

“Are you sure the passes are open yet”?  he inquired.

No I wasn’t sure.   Anytime we’d gone that direction before, we were in a train.   This was to be our first time taking the car and it never occurred to me that in mid May some roads wouldn’t be open.

So, that week, I tried to research this.  Key word – “tried”.   Google Maps would still let me do directions home through the alternative ways.  It hinted that “some roads would be seasonally closed”.   No problem…i’ll just Google it.    Surely they’ll be a key like there is during ski season showing whats open and not.

I found a few message boards but nothing definitive that suggested if passes were open or not.   I did find a map showing that going up from Domodolossa there was a station in Iselle that you could put your car on a train to go through the Simplon Tunnel if the Simplon Pass wasn’t open.

See the little happy car on the dotted line? That means underground car on rail transportation.

I noted this would be a plan that could work.  Although, no information about the cost, schedule, etc.  Do these car trains go every hour?  Only once a day?  Once a weekend?

More research also found that the Gottard Pass was likely closed  since it usually is open until June, but the Gottard Tunnel was open year round.  A few message boards added that the wait could be up to 2 hours on a holiday weekend, creating a queue of traffic on the freeway for 10-15 km back.  Curses!!!

I’ll stop and interject with some basic vocabulary.  I actually didn’t really know this until our adventure this weekend.

Pass = a road that goes over an Alp.  It is likely curvy, amazingly beautiful, and will make you marvel at the wonder of Swiss civil engineering.  It can only be passable when the snow is gone or can be scraped.  During winter, its simply not possible based on snowfall.  Some passes, like Gottard, are only open 2-3 months a year.

Tunnel = a road that goes through a mountain, usually in a direct way, and will make you marvel at the wonder of Swiss civil engineering.  The benefit is that they can stay open regardless of snowfall.  If it is not in Switzerland, its costly.  If you live in Switzerland, you have a 40 CHF highway pass that allows you to do it for free.  If you don’t live in Switzerland and want to use said tunnel, guess what?  40 CHF.

The evening before we left Como, we tried to inquire about the best way home.  Our sweet apartment proprietor even knocked on the door of her neighbor to inquire since he knew more about Switzerland.  They said they’d think we’d be okay on the passes around Lugano and Locarno.  Okay, then…didn’t even know those were in contention to worry about either.    She gave us an internet password and we continued to look into it the evening before dinner. Nothing else was definitive.  Thus, we decided to get to Bellinzona and see how the GPS acted.

During our awesome lunch in a UNESCO castle, we inquired at the desk about how to get back to Geneva.  We mentioned what we knew.   When we said Gottard Tunnel and the phrase, “but we weren’t sure because it is a holiday weekend”, she immediately blurted, “that’s a terrible idea!!”.

So, we were off to the Simplon Pass or Simplon Tunnel   We entered “Iselle, Italy” into the GPS so that we could decide and evaluate the pass.

Gabe hadn’t had Ticino, Lugano or Bellinzona on his list.  He found Lugano average, Bellinzona cool because of the architecture and castles, but driving through the Ticino a 10.    We found ourselves curving around lush tropical mountains, feeling like we were in the Amazon.  Were we really still in Switzerland?      It was exhilarating for me to be in the car.  Luckily, Gabe is an excellent driver, but it was still a bit scary.

I made a little movie to show you what driving on these roads was like. Mom, please don’t watch this.

We crossed back into Italy.   And, two hours later, we reached Iselle.  We weren’t really sure what was happening as it wasn’t evident where to put your car on a train, but there were three cars with Canton of Geneva plates and we decided to follow them.   Crossing back into Switzerland, we saw this sign.

All green.  Thanks, Switzerland.  Would have been really nice to have this information online somewhere instead of having to drive here to verify it.

And again, we were in wonder.

Misty Alps

Lush fields with stone fence property lines

There’s still snow up here. The temperature had dropped from 20 C in Bellinzona to 2 C at the top of the Simplon Pass.

The hubby is a good driver. Thank goodness.

Driving over the Simplon Pass

Descending into the valley on the other side of the Alps

A view of Brig coming down from the Simplon Pass.

We had talked with some friends on the way home who warned us about the Gottard traffic.  We didn’t know they were returning to Geneva back through Ticino or we should have shared our information or lack thereof about the roads.

So, this post was to inform any folks trying to drive from Italy back to Switzerland.   It’s not so easy!!

Castles in the Sky

We took a road trip this past weekend to Lake Como.       When we used to live in the US, you could count Waffle Houses on any given drive on I-95 or similar Southern highway.   Here in the heart of Europe, we can count castles.

Castles are typically on hills.   This is for two main reasons:   1 – so that they could watch over the valleys and know about any incoming intruders and 2 – it is harder to overtake a castle while having to climb a big mountain to do so.

I find it incredible to drive through these valleys and see the castles still towering above.   It is eery to think about what must have happened over the course of the hundreds of years of each castles’ lifetime….the battles, the deaths, the prisoners, the changes in lives that happened.

I thought I’d share a cross section of castles we saw.  Mind you that this is in just one weekend trip!

And of course, had to include our favorite, in Sion:

Related links:

The Swiss Watch Blog:  Castles of Sion

The Swiss Watch Blog: Chateau Chillon

Gratitude Friday: We survived our first year

This gratitude Friday, I wanted to express my thanks for a good first year in Geneva.  Yesterday, marked the anniversary of our move.   We have now seen all the seasons in Switzerland.   An amiable summer, an elegant fall, a mind-curdling winter, and a rainy spring.

 

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that it’s been with ups and downs.  However, the positives of our experience have far outweighed the negatives.

— –We continue to love the travel and our central location in Europe.  Somedays, it feels like we are living inside of a Busch Gardens theme park, hopping around to different countries in a weekend.  The ‘cool’ factor of that has definitely not worn out with us.   This is the best part about our expat experience.

–It is still doesn’t feel like home.  I am not sure it will before we have to leave.   I was talking with a woman the other day who has lived here 26 years and still says she feels like she is still a foreigner.

–We love our lifestyle.  I never feel rushed or stressed.  People enjoy life at a more leisurely pace and it has a positive influence on us. Especially me who needs all I can get of this example.  In fact, Gabe just returned from two weeks in the US and said it was remarkable to see the comparison of  tension &  hurriedness when he was back.  He said at the end of his time, he was starting to walk faster as a result.

–It has been interesting to watch our reaction to culture shock over the course of a year.  I mentioned on a previous post how this is a continual process.   It usually forms as a result of multiple inputs, not just one thing.  We knew that this would happen.  We have heard it would continue 1-2 years.  We’ll outsmart it just as its time to return.

–Knowing the language makes it easier.  My french is still not beautiful and nowhere close to fluent but I can make myself understood in simple conversation and getting things done. I no longer avoid making phone calls / appointments — I tackle them head on.  And it feels good to finally be able to do that.

We are very grateful for this year.

Bon weekend, everyone!

Reason which I wish I spoke better French #241

Gabe just got back from being in the US.   One of the things we do when we go back are all our appointments – hair, dental, doctor, etc.   Before he left, we booked all that stuff for him.

I have slowly started to wean myself off my US appointments.  For all of 2011, I managed to get by with going to get my hair highlighted and cut in Charlotte when I was visiting.  And, with the 350 CHF price tag that a certain popular English-speaking salon has here in Geneva for highlights, I concluded that it might be cheaper to fly back to the US for these services.

Luckily, I found a wonderful hair gal who is super reasonable, so in 2012, I didn’t need to plan any hair-centric transAtlantic trips.

In 2011, I also managed to make two dental visits in during my trips home.   However, I decided, like the hair, it is time to find a more local solution.  So, now I am walking a little better, last week, I made an appointment with an English-speaking Geneva dentist.

This leads us to today’s lesson:

Lesson #1 – just because you find out a doctor speaks English, doesn’t mean their receptionist will.    Oh well, its okay.   I am used to it with my foot surgeon’s office and nurses.  And, I have basic French so while it is not pretty, I can accomplish things like taking an appointment.  So, I asked for a check-up / cleaning.  Success.

And, last week, I went.  And didn’t get a cleaning.   Fail.  Which leads us to Lessons 2 & 3:

Lesson #2 – do not celebrate an appointment as successful until you leave.  As I sat down, I was in awe of how cool the office was.  Everything was pristine and cheerful.   I envisioned how many friends I would tell about how awesome this dental office was.   However, I should have remembered my episode at the pedicurist and not to celebrate too early.

Lesson #3 – which I now know after yesterday, a dental appointment does not constitute a cleaning.   I was greeted by a superbly English speaking dentist who asked me what was wrong.  I presented her with my digital x-rays and just indicated nothing was wrong, that I was just in for a cleaning.  And she responded,   “Well, you should have made an appointment for a cleaning.  This was an appointment for a check-up.”

So my French could have been better.   I think I asked for the equivalent of a house cleaning instead of a teeth cleaning when I was on the phone.  And I was in the wrong assumption that the cleaning / check-ups are combination.   Nope. Separate altogether in Switzerland.

So, take heed, fellow ex-pats.  Maybe your French is better that mine.  But in case you are like me, ask for a “le détartrage” to avoid a little embarrassment.

Next week, I’ll go back for my actual appointment.

Swiss Driver’s Licenses

We officially have Swiss driver’s licenses.   As a foreigner from the U.S, you are permitted one year to get them.  Guess how long it took us?   Yup….. 11+ months.

It is a good thing we got them in time.  If you don’t do it within the year time frame, you have to take a driving test.  With a French-speaking DMV person.  With a stick shift.  No one wants that.  Especially me.

You have to pay 150 francs for the license.  I think the pleasure of taking the formal driving test costs an additional 120 francs or so.

If you are from a country that drives on the left hand side like the UK or Australia, you must take the test to prove you can handle the right hand side.

In addition to the normal stuff (residency card, cash), we also had to prove we had valid driver’s licenses in the US for the past 3 years.   If you don’t have that, you have to take the driving test.

You also have to bring a eye test from an authorized eye doctor with you.  We did this the evening before at our local Visilab.

Even though the entire thing went down in French, it was remarkably easy.     It only took 20 minutes, far less time than I spent in any DMV in the US.

And the DMV people are remarkably happy.  Friend T commented she wanted to work there if she could as they appear as they have a jolly good time having conversation, enjoying coffee and dolling out drivers licenses.   You don’t really see that back home.

Sweet new license

Now all I have to do is learn how to drive a stick shift, and I’ll actually be able to use my new drivers license.

I never thought I’d dread a free foot massage…

…but I do now.   I just got back from physiotherapy, which I have twice a week.   I don’t do any walking in PT yet.  What these appointments consist of is the physical therapist pulling and pushing my big toe joint  in ways it doesn’t want to go yet.  I call it “the most painful foot massage ever”.

The pink is where I would like to move. The blue is where he thinks I should move. I found the screw on clip art. Not sure if my screws are that big or not but I imagine it to be.

Above is a diagram of it.   I figured I’d spare you an actual photo of my feet currently.  Not that they are doing bad….in fact, today marks the 8 week birthday of the new joints.  However, because of the modified way I am learning to walk, they have like 17 blisters apiece from where my tennis shoes rub them differently.   It’s not attractive.  You don’t want to see that on your Thursday morning while enjoying your coffee.

My physio is a Swiss guy and so we spend the half hour of torture talking about the differences in Swiss and American culture in a combination of English and French.  Things like:

-Mexican food – I talk about this a lot. So much so that every time I go, he asks me if I am making Mexican for dinner.  He thinks this is bizarre that we make Mexican.  I don’t think he has every had Mexican.  Or else never been ripped away from a favorite food group and implanted into a new culture who doesn’t have those products.  Or else he’d understand.

-Coca Cola – he asked me if I drink a lot of Coca-Cola since I am from America.  I told him that when I was a kid that I drank a 2 liter a day, but now I refrain from the stuff. I think that maybe I helped build this stereotype up about the US with that comment.

-The state of Kentucky and the fact that people there don’t eat Kentucky Fried Chicken but they did just win the basketball championship.

-Skiing differences between here and the US.

-American politics.  We talk a lot about the election. I find it remarkable that people from other cultures know so much about the US government and current events.  It inspires me to want to soak up knowledge and know more about others.

-How much Swiss stuff costs.  I think everyone agrees with this generalization.

-The different approaches to food in Europe vs. the US and how much Gabe and I appreciate the change of offering and are glad to pay more for better food.   For more on my opinion, read this previous post.

Since I have gained a bit more mobility through PT, I am expanding my exercise routine on the days I don’t have sessions.   Like by doing quasi-yoga.   I call it quasi because all I can do is downward dog and a little “walking the dog”.   But still, its progress!!

I have 5 more weeks until my bones heal and settle.  Here’s hoping for more patience with PT and increased flexibility until then!

 

Rolling….

Post by Lauren

Because of the limited mobility of my feet, it was much easier to ride in a wheelchair for the longer distances when traveling with Gabe’s family.  I have gotten permission to walk up to 30 minutes at a time (at a snails pace) but I am supposed to keep them elevated the rest of the day if I walk that much.  By riding in a chaise roulant (French for “wheelchair”), we didn’t have to stop and take 1000 breaks.  It is also easier for Mama Mia when doing long long days of tours and exploration to ride in the same style.

Hanging out in the courtyard of the hospital where Van Gogh lived / painted.

However, wheelchairs are not common in Europe.  Or so we are guessing by the stares we received while riding in them in the three countries we visited.   Not kidding that people would stop in their tracks and look.  For extended amounts of time.

In Zermatt, we guessed that maybe thought it had something to do with the thought of ski accidents since it is a huge winter sports town.  Maybe it scared them for what was ahead on the slopes the next day.   I joked with Gabe that if someone asked, I was going to tell them that it was a result of heli-skiing on the Matterhorn.

Attracting curiousity in Zermatt

In Milan, as Gabe pushed me along the streets of the fashion capital, we realized that this particular accessory also garnished a lot of looks.

In Nice, an 8 year old girl rollerbladed backwards for an entire minute so she could continue to gawk as we strolled/rolled down the Promenade d’Anglais.  I was worried she might collide and need one herself by the time the viewing was over.

I wonder why wheelchairs aren’t as common in Europe?   Maybe its the difficulty of cobblestones or lack of access to elevators & handicapped bathrooms due to older buildings?

Anyhow, just another culture difference we are learning about.

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!