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Zurich city report

The final (for now) city report I wrote for Tales from a Small Planet (http://www.talesmag.com) is about Zurich. Its one of the most expensive places in the world to live in, but Zurich offers an amazing quality of living, that far outweighs the costs.

Zurich 3

What are your reasons for living in this city (e.g., corporate, government, military, student, educator, retiree, etc.)?
Studied at the ETH Zurich.

How long have you been living here? Or when did you live there?
6 months, in 2008.

Was this your first expat experience? If not, what other foreign cities have you lived in as an expat?
Lived in 3 other countries before coming to Zurich.

Where is your home base, and how long is the trip to post from there, with what connections?
Nowadays, it is in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and it takes a 1 hour flight or a night train to get there from Zurich.

What are the special advantages of living in this city/country (e.g., touring, culture, saving money, weather, etc.)?
Switzerland is the most beautiful country in Europe. Period.



What have been some of the highlights of your time in this city/country?
Participated in the SOLA running race around Zurich. Cycled around Lake Zurich. Partied with the Dutch fans during Euro 2008. Climbed several mountains. Actually learned a few things at the ETHZ, too.

Rhine Falls

Rhine Falls

What is the air quality like (e.g., good, moderate, unhealthy, or very unhealthy with comments)?

What is the climate like? Weather patterns?
Winters are moist, and can be snowy. Summers are warm, with regular short thunderstorms in the evenings.

Zurich 1

What kind of insect problems are there, if any?
None that I know of.

Are there any special security concerns?
Avalanches in the mountains.

The Swiss Army is there to protect you, even if it takes a 200-year old mortar

The Swiss Army is there to protect you, even if it takes a 200-year old mortar

Housing types, locations, and typical commute time?
Apartments, mostly. City centre is prohibitively expensive, but public transport is, well, Swiss-efficient.

Is this a good city for families/singles/couples?
Its a fine city for everyone but rather expensive. The price-quality ratio is superb, that is, you get value for money here.

Is this a good city for gay or lesbian expats?
I guess. Haven’t heard of any major issues.

Are there problems with racial, religious or gender prejudices?
The Swiss are not racist. That would imply they discriminate people. They don’t discriminate except between Swiss (=good) and not Swiss (=mwah).

Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city? Comment:
Lots of cobblestones and steep streets. Public transport and buildings are probably fine.

Sunrise at Uetliberg

Sunrise at Uetliberg

What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “secret or hidden gems”?
The Uetliberg rising above Zurich is a wonderful place to watch the sunrise, and then hike along the ridge. The botanical gardens, both the old and the new ones, are lovely spots. The many museums of the Zurich University are quite interesting http://www.uzh.ch/en/outreach/museums.
http://www.spottedbylocals.com/zurich has plenty of other useful tips.

Are gyms or workout facilities available? Costs?
As a student, I had access to the facilities of the ETHZ, and they are magnificent.

What fast food and decent restaurants are available? Cost range?
Everything is available, for an exorbitant price.

What is the availability and relative cost of groceries and household supplies?
Everything is available, but its probably cheaper to shop across the border. Germany is only 40 km away, so many people go there for groceries and many services.

What comments can you make about using credit cards and ATMs?
Broadly available and accepted.

What type of automobile is suitable to bring (or not to bring) because of terrain, availability of parts and service, local restrictions, duties, carjackings, etc?
A supercar, so that you don’t stand out in the crowd. Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Ferrari, that sort of thing.

A good bicycle is a valid alternative to a car here

A good bicycle is a valid alternative to a car here

Are local trains, buses, and taxis safe? Affordable?
Yes, they’re fine. Best public transport in the world, no doubt.

How much of the local language do you need to know for daily living?
At least a bit of German would be quite helpful. The Zurich variant of Swiss-German is exceptionally difficult to understand, so abandon all hopes to learn German while you’re here.

On the other hand, you can learn kayaking right in the middle of the city

On the other hand, you can learn kayaking right in the middle of the city

Size and morale of expat community:
Huge. Over 30% of the population is non-Swiss.

What are some typical things to do for entertaining/social life?
Hiking is huge here. For the Swiss, any mountain that does not involve technical climbing is considered hiking, so that includes summits like the Dom (at 4545 m, the 5th highest mountain in Switzerland). Zurich has a lively clubbing scene.

Switzerland has all the hiking you can handle

Switzerland has all the hiking you can handle

What’s the dress code at work and in public?
Buisness, smart casual-plus. Hiking gear in public.

Are there any health concerns? What is the quality of medical care available?
Excellent medical care is available, but can be expensive. Finding a dentist in Germany is a smart move.

You can leave behind your:
Sense of humor. The Swiss don’t get it.

What do you wish you had known about this city/country prior to moving there?
That I should have moved here sooner.

But don’t forget your:
Alpine skills. And your money. All of it.

Can you save money?

What unique local items can you spend it on?
Chocolate, cheese, kirch (cherry schnapps) mountain summits (guided ascends), Swiss army knives, watches.

Zurich 11

Knowing what you now know, would you still go there?

Recommended books related to this city (title, author):
The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame), Durcheinandertal, both by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

Zurich 4

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How to choose a (small European) country

As the term of my contract at the university is drawing to a close, I begin to ponder on the next move. It is by now obvious we need another place to live. Our small European apartment has been a perfect place for the two of us, and we’ve managed very well to make it suitable for a baby, but with two children rapidly growing up it is becoming rather crowded here. We have few wishes – I dream of a kitchen with room for a dishwasher and the wife has always wanted a garden, even if a handkerchief sized one. The chances of finding an affordable place with a garden in a decent neighbourhood in Rotterdam with our current income are… well, not high. Besides, its not that I don’t like Rotterdam, on the contrary, but the air quality here is the worse in all of Western Europe.

Rotterdam is a pretty cool place to live

Rotterdam is a pretty cool place to live

Leaving Rotterdam – but where to?

Since in order to improve our living quarters we would have to find a new town,  I thought “why not tackle bigger issues, while we’re at it?”. There are many plus sides to living in the Netherlands (more about it in one of the next posts), but I would really like to live in a place where you don’t need to look at the calendar to know which season it is. But where to go? And how to decide? I sat down to compile a set of criteria my (our) new home would have to meet. The goal is to apply “Parkinson’s law for hiring”, and to reduce the number of possible places to move to. When applied right, in the end, the choice will be very, very simple.

Van Nelle factory - a Rotterdam architecture icon that is on the UNESCO World Heritage List

Van Nelle factory – a Rotterdam architecture icon that is on the UNESCO World Heritage List

A properly run country

First of all, I want to live in a properly run country. You may ask “How do you know whether it is run properly?”. And I will tell you it is very easy to tell whether a country is run properly. Simple question – is it safe to drink tap water there? I think it is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. Turns out, it already rules out huge chunks of the world. All of Africa, all of South and Central America and most of Asia don’t have drinkable tap water. What’s left is Western, Northern and a bit of Central Europe, supplemented with the Anglo-Saxon division (USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and the outliers of Asia that only prove how much they do not belong there (South Korea, Japan, Israel, Singapore, Hong Kong and Brunei).

With a pleasant climate

Having thus excluded most of the world, I went on to think about what makes a place pleasant to live in. I mentioned the climate, but how to define what makes a pleasant climate? And I am proud to say I found a way to do it – wine! I will quote this passage from www.earthmagazine.org in full, because it illustrates my point so well (emphasis added):

“Are there ideal weather conditions for growing winegrapes? Although no two vintages in any region are exactly alike, growers everywhere would be ecstatic with adequate precipitation and warmth to grow the vine and ripen the fruit, with no weather extremes (like frost, hail and heat waves) and disease. During the dormant period, this would equate to enough soil-replenishing rainfall and a cool to cold winter, without vine-killing low temperatures but with enough chilling to ensure bud fruitfulness the following year. The spring would be free from wide temperature swings and frost, and have enough precipitation to feed vegetative growth. During flowering, the weather would be cloud-free with moderately high temperatures and high photosynthetic potential to allow the flowers to fully set into fruit. The summer growth stage would be dry, with heat accumulation to meet the needs of the variety and few heat stress events. The ripening period would be dry with a slow truncation of the season toward fall, with moderately high daytime temperatures and progressively cooler nights.”

In other words, a wine-growing area has a properly cold winter, but not a bitterly cold one, a pleasant, sunny spring without the wild mood swings the Dutch springs are so famous for and a dry, warm summer, that gently slides off into a cooler, but still dry autumn. Look at this picture below and you will see that wine-growing areas are primarily in places like Southern France, California, and Southern Australia. Coupled with the clean tap water requirement it already leaves us with preciously little places to choose from. For the ease of further comparison I will exclude exotic wine-growing areas like Sweden or Canada – I am sure you understand that is not what I mean by “a pleasant climate”.

World Wine Areas, image by Denkhenk

Where I speak the language

Next, I decided I want to live somewhere I either already speak the language or where I can learn a language that is widely used. This leaves out destinations like South Korea and Slovenia. Not that I am not open for attractive business opportunities from Japan or Poland, but I am trying to find ways to cut down my list here.  I already speak Dutch, English, Hebrew, Russian and a bit of German and Spanish. French is a language that would be extremely useful to learn as there are so many French-speakers in the world, and Italian gets a wild-card for ease of learning (from hearsay) and its usefulness in enabling you to at least understand French and Spanish (again, hearsay). This trims down the list to France, Spain, Italy, Australia and New Zealand, USA, Israel and the German-speaking countries.

In Europe

The choices become more difficult, as all the above are rather attractive places to live in. But one has to make choices. The USA is out for preferring guns over nipples. While Australia and New Zealand are really fun, living there would take me rather far from my friends and family, almost all of whom live in Europe. Again, given the right incentive, I will sail for Australia and never look back, but I would prefer staying closer to the ones I love. I’ve already lived in Israel and its just too warm there for me. What’s left are “just” France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Austria to choose from.

Close to mountains

If there’s something I love its mountains. Hiking, climbing, canyoning – even just watching mountains makes me happy. Maybe its the years spent in the flatness of the Netherlands that make me want to live within easy reach of a serious mountain chain. And I don’t mean something like the Massif Central or the Ardennes – I mean mountains with glaciers and all. That narrows the options down a bit further – of the mountain chains in the countries that made the short list, only the Pyrenees and the Alps have glaciers. The Pyrenees glaciers are quite small, and since I’m in the business of making choices here, I’ll leave the Pyrenees out for the moment. Its just the Alps then.

Swiss mountain lakes...

Swiss mountain lakes…

And not too far from the family

Coming to think of it, since we’re pretty settled on staying in Europe, it would be nice to live somewhere reasonably close to the family in the Netherlands. That way, we could drive down to visit grandma and grandpa for the holidays, the cousins can come over to us for a long weekend. So not moving away too far – but how far is not too far? My experience is that driving 800 kilometers is about the maximum for a single day without breaking yourself. And there’s a great tool to help with that, called “How far can I travel?“. I’ve filled in “800 kilometers from Rotterdam”, and the nearest place with mountains hits the spot – its Switzerland. Incidentally, its also the country with the highest salaries and the lowest taxes. Cows, mountains and cheese, here we come! The tough part of having to decide where to go has thus being taken care of, all I got to do now is finish my PhD and find a job. Piece of cake.

Matterhorn - a super strong argument for Switzerland

Matterhorn – a super strong argument for Switzerland


Filed under Europe, Work

Mont Blanc

A few days ago, I’ve published here part I of the story of my ascend of the Mont Blanc – the acclimatization climb of the Weissmies. The Mont Blanc part has since been published on www.streettrotter.com, and I can post it here as well.

Day 8 – Chamonix

We arrive by the Mont Blanc Express to Chamonix. The forecast is not encouraging – thunderstorms for tomorrow and what comes next only God knows. We manage to squeeze our tent into a spot on the campsite where at least 200 tents are already pitched on what supposed to be 80 places. Almost everyone here have already tried ascending the Mont Blanc or are about to, and it looks more than anything like the circus is in town.

Day 9 – Desert de Pierre Ronde

In the morning, we leave excess luggage at the camping and go to town to rent gear. At the store, the attendant enquires in a thick French accent “and whitch mounta’n arrre you goin’g to climb” “Mont Blanc”, I answer, in the most casual way I can, enjoyng the disappearance of the smug expression from his face. “Oh la la! In thise shoos and with thise crrrampons? C’est no possible!”, and he runs off to sharpen the edges of my crampons. Good thing I didn’t add it was my second 4000’er and that the first was only three days ago. He might have gotten a stroke.

Erik in the Desert de Pierre Ronde, with Grand Colouir in the background

Erik in the Desert de Pierre Ronde, with Grand Colouir in the background

Geared up, we take the bus to Les Houches, 1100 m, the Téléphérique to Belleveu, 1800 m and the rail to Nid dAigle, 2400 m, and step right into the epicentre of the circus. Some 25 000 people (twenty five thousand!) attempt to reach the summit of the Mont Blanc every year (and dozens die in accidents), and the slopes are filled with climbers and tourists. Mothers with strollers, grandmothers with plastic bags, people in shorts and slippers mix with fully equipped alpinists (like us). Hiking up to the base of the Grand Couloir takes us 3 hours of strenious hike through the so-called Desert de Pierre Ronde. Literally this means “desert of the round rocks”, and its a French idea of a joke. There’s not a single round pebble among the mass of jugged boulders there. We camp near the Tête Rousse hut, at 3187 m, pitching our tent between Scots, Norwegians, Poles and Americans. The view of the Grand Colouir is excellent, and we see people climbing up and down and rocks flying (only down). This is the most dangerous part of the climb, and it is advised to pass early in the day, before the sun melts rocks out of the ice and snow. As night falls, the thunderstorm hits, but darkness, pouring rain and lightnings striking the rock face do not stop people from climbing, even at 2:00 at night.

Day 10 – Grand Colouir

As usual, we rise before dawn. The thunderstorm still rages, so we wait until it clears a bit. Around 9:00 we can finally start our ascend. It really is not that difficult (PD+ at most), but… Firstly, there are the steel cables supposed to make it easier to climb. Unfortunately, their fixing points actually ruin good grips and some of the cables have been there for a long time already, so they almost come off. Secondly, many ‘climbers’ do not pay any attention to what they’re doing, including groping a cable someone else is already hanging onto, which on an almost vertical rock face is really hair-raising. We pass safely and by 11:00 we already set our tent in the snow, above the Aiguille du Gouter hut, 3817 m, burying the pegs as deep as possible and lie down to enjoy the view for the rest of the day.

Our tent above the Aiguille du Gouter hut, at almost 4 km altitude

Our tent above the Aiguille du Gouter hut, at almost 4 km altitude

Day 11 – Summit

We rise at 2:30 and by 3:00 we already join the line of people light up by headlamps and sounding like a slave caravan with all that gear clittering. We are plowing our way up the mountain through the immense snow fields at -10 degrees. Nearby the Bivoac Vallot refuge, 4362 m, the first light reveals the hundreds of people lined up to the top like an ant track. Above the refuge the trail becomes a snow ridge, with horrendous gaps on both sides, hundreds of meters deep. The sun rises, lighting up the sea of clouds from below by the most gentle shade of pink for a brief minute, before flooding the sky and the snow by the brightest light.

Sunrise en route to the summit

Sunrise en route to the summit

The last stretch to the top is the steepest, and the wind is at gale force, being on a snow ridge a handpalm wide at almost 5 km altitude is no joke under these conditions. It is so good we took the time to acclimatize, otherwise these last meters would have been a nightmare. By 6:30 we’re at the top, the view is better than anything else in the world, but we are absolutely freezing up here. Clicking photos until the fingers start losing their grip on the camera, and we’re headed down. About 150 meters below the top and a bit out of the wind we sit together and rest for a few minutes. Going down is easier that up, but tiredness starts taking its toll. On the way down we hike up the top of the Dome du Gouter, 4304 m. Drowned in snow, its the flattest of mountains but it is classified as a separate peak. By 9:00 we are back at the tent. Kick off the shoes, put the kettle on and lie down on the matrass outside the tent in the morning sun — WOW!

Erik on the summit

Erik on the summit

Day 12 – down, down, down

Early start, again — we want to pass the Colouir before the masses. At 3:00 we dig out our tent pegs. The wind almost blows us off the mountain with tent and all. By now we’re working together too good as a team. The tent is already packed but it is still pitch dark, so we have to wait for the first light to go down the Grand Coulouir. Erik has already had enough of this and starts to grumble at whoever came up with the idea of climbing the Mont Blanc. I remind him that it was his idea, that shuts him up. Finally, first light, and we fly down the Coulouir in 1.5 hours. Erik releases the tension by screaming out loud at the Mont Blanc. I can understand his relief; it was already his third attempt here, and just this spring he spent a week alone in his tent under the Colouir waiting unsuccessfully for good weather, dodging avalanches. By 10:00 we are already back in Chamonix, where the guy in the gear store is hugely releived to see us back alive and well. We take the Mont Blanc Express back to Switzerland, to Michabel camping, where the tent frame snaps and breaks. A suitable ending to our adventure.

Michael (and a cup of tea) on the summit

Michael (and a cup of tea) on the summit

Camping rules:

‘Wild’ camping is technically forbidden. But authorities generally ignore the campers as long as they camp out of sight, above the tree line, do not leave trash and do not light fires. The golden rule ‘Leave the place cleaner than it was before you‘ was applied by us throughout the trip.

A word of warning:

The Mont Blanc is a serious climbing undertaking that requires a great deal of fitness, a full set of mountaineering gear and preferably an experienced guide. A fantastic alternative to actually ascending the summit is the Tour du Mont Blanc hiking trail around the mountain. Erik, who has continued climbing since, reaching as high as Mount Everest, would be happy to be your guide on that trail.

A list of GEAR you will most definitely need: 

  • Thermal base layer
  • Fleeces and waterproof outer shell
  • Rigid crampon-compatible boots
  • Glacier-proof sunglasses
  • Helmet
  • Headlight (with spare batteries)
  • Hat
  • Over-gloves
  • Liner gloves
  • Gaiters
  • High-factor sun cream
  • 30 to 50 meters of rope
  • Harness
  • Slings
  • Karabiners
  • Ice axe
  • Crampons
  • Deadman/snow fluke
  • Avalanche beacon
  • A snow probe
  • A shovel
  • Garbage bag — take everything down with you!

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