Tag Archives: Switzerland

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.

Matterhorn

Matterhorn

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)?
Excellent.

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?
NO!

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?
YES!

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

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My first 4000’er – Weissmies

This is a story about a trip I undertook to Switzerland and France back in 2005. The purpose of the trip was two-fold. A few years before that trip I moved to the Netherlands to study and I was meeting my parents on summer vacations in Europe, so we were to meet in Switzerland. Another goal was to climb the Mont Blanc. On the climbing trip I was accompanied by my friend Erik Ravenstein, who despite being only 22, was already then an experienced climber, havind ascended among others the Kilimajaro and the Akonkagua. This is part I of the story, about our ascend of the Weissmies, which we used as acclimatization and practice for the Mont Blanc. Part II, the story of our ascend of the Mont Blanc, has been published at http://streettrotter.com/.

Day 1 – arrival
Having met in Geneve, we transfer to the Arolla valley for altitude acclimatization. Me and Erik pitch our tent on Camping Arolla, at almost 2000 meters it claims to be the highest campsite in Europe. The parents prefer to go to a nearby hostel, run, like many hostels and campsites in Switzerland, by a Belgian couple.

Camping Arolla (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Camping Arolla (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Day 2 – acclimatization
After a light breakfast, we hike to the Cabane des Aiguilles Rouges hut, at 2607 m. The climb is a bit difficult, at the hut weather turns to the worse and fog closes in. We descend on the same route, and it becomes apparent that the younger (me and Erik) acclimatize much faster to the altitude.

Day 3 – further acclimatization
Despite warnings by the friendly Belgian hostel-owners (who rahter underestimate our fitness) we go to the Cabane de Bertol hut, at 3311 m. Weather is fair, about 200 m below the saddle there is a small snow field. The hut itself is on the ridge, about 50 m above the saddle, accessed via rock scramble with cables and a vertical ladder. The guide book promises an unforgettable view but all we see are clouds and some hail.

Gliding down from Cabane de Bertol hut (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Gliding down from Cabane de Bertol hut (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Day 4 – to the Weissmies
We move to the Saas-Fe valley, where I rent a helmet and crampons in Saas-Almagell and me and Erik start towards the Weissmies. The most common route to climb the Weissmies is through Hohsaas, and is little more than a glacier hike. The lift brings you there to 3100 m and with an early start you can be back in the valley for lunch. We take the slightly more challenging (and lengthier) approach via Zwischbergen Pass, and at the evening pitch our tent near a creek just above the Kreuzboden hut, at 2400 m.

We start towards the Weissmies (photo: Sergey Afanasyev)

We start towards the Weissmies (photo: Sergey Afanasyev)

Our camp above the Kreuzboden hut (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Our camp above the Kreuzboden hut (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Day 5 – Zwischbergen Pass
Through the Almageller hut, 2894 m, we reach the Zwischbergen Pass, 3268 m. By 15:00 we have already pitched our tent in one of the about 10 stone-built wind shelters on the pass. Right after we set camp, weather worsens, and until the evening its all wet snow, imtermitted with freezing rain. Erik unpacks his brand new crampons that immediately break. Its probably been a while since the Zwischbergen Pass has heard such language. We fix the break using duct tape and it seems to hold (another one for the duct tape!).

Our camp at the  Zwischbergen Pass (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Our camp at the Zwischbergen Pass (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

The Weissmies from  Zwischbergen Pass (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

The Weissmies from Zwischbergen Pass (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Day 6 – Weissmies – my first 4000’er!
We awake at 2:30 but the weather is not looking good – fog. Every half an hour we peek out again, but to no avail – the fog refuses to dissolve. Around 4:00 the first climber of the day passes (runs!) past our tent. Half an hour later 4 or five others pass and we decide to try – there are footsteps in the snow and other climbers on the mountain, so we should be OK.
We put our crampons on and start hiking through the snow fields. The first climber has left giant strides in the snow, he must have been flying upwards. Soon the fog lifts, around 3500 m we move from the snow onto the ridge and see that the clouds are driven by the wind to the pass and above us the sky is clear. The ridge is not difficult (PD) but some climbing skills are necessary and absolutely no fear of heigts! At 3850 m the ridge turns into a snow field, which we hike to the top of the Weissmies, 4023 m, for an excellent view on the Saas Fe valley and the Mischabel range. We reach the top at about 9:00, make a few photos and start our descend, which is quite more technical than the ascent and requires belaying in a few places. By 12:00 we are at the tent and by 18:00 down in the valley. We meet my parents and all settle down in a comfortable hut on the Mischabel camping and take rest for the next day, before boarding the Mont Blanc Express to Chamonix and the “main course” of our trip – the Mont Blanc itself.

My first 4000'er - the Weissmies! (Erik on the left, me on the right)

My first 4000’er – the Weissmies! (Erik on the left, me on the right)

To be continued…

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Europe and USA – same same but different

Europe and the USA are similar in many ways. Both are roughly the same size, have about the same number of states/countries, even the average income is (roughly) compatible. There are differences, too, and many of them. While for most differences a US state and a European country can be found that share some commonality, there are two points on which Europe and the USA are radically different as a whole.

First one is morals. When I turn the TV on, what comes on right after the evening news? I’ll give you a hint – its Dutch TV. Anyone who’s seen a Dutch movie will instantly know the right answer – nude! Not speedos, not topless, no – NUDE. People naked as the day they were born. On mainstream national public channels. And nobody is making a fuss about it. That, I think, is symbolizing the huge differences in morals between Europe and the USA. Nipplegate is just inconceivable in even the most conservative parts of Europe. I seriously can’t think of a European country where an incidental one-second exposure of something that might have been a nipple would lead to public outrage of the magnitude unleashed in Nipplegate.

The other difference is guns. Can you buy a gun in the supermarket in the USA? Yes, you can! In most European countries, gun ownership for self-defence is prohibited. Even the Czech Republic which has the most gun-friendly laws in Europe requires the gun-owner to pass tests about firearms legislation, weapon knowledge and first aid, and a medical inspection. American gun-proponents like to point out that Norway and Switzerland have high gun-ownership ratios. But in Norway, almost all guns owned by civilians are hunting rifles, and to get a hunting license the applicant must complete a 30 hour, 9 session course and pass a written exam. And in Switzerland most guns are government-issued rifles held by members of the military reserve. They don’t even have ammo for those!

Personally, I prefer the European approach to these two issues and I don’t think I would like to live in the USA. Because having the choices, I’d much prefer being surrounded by nipples than by guns. And you?

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The Alps – bite this!

It doesn’t get much more European than the Alps. The great mountain range pretty much defines Europe, stretching over 1200 kilometers and 8 countries, large and small. Careful here – it’s one bite-sized region you may not want to leave.

  • Why go there?
    The Alps have been developed for tourism for the past two centuries and are now filled to the rim with all a tourist can wish for. I mean, seriously, do I need to promote going to the Alps? They are big and diverse though, so don’t underestimate the undertaking of “going to see the Alps”. Its a bit like “going to Europe”. Just cooler.
  • What’s it best for?
    The place to be for a serious adrenaline junkie. If it’s extreme – you can do it here.
  • When is the best time to go?
    Any time. With the amount of tourism infrastructure, you’re guaranteed to have a good time in any season. My favourite time here is May and June, when the mountain pastures are blossoming.
  • How to get around?
    The train network of the Alps is famous for a reason. Use it.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    Can be pricey. Avoiding Switzerland can help a lot though.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    Well, as I said, Switzerland is pricey. But you get serious quality for your money. Just choose a canton or a valley and stay there – the train prices are a real joy-killer.

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Europe’s biggest problem

I have lived in 5 different European countries and visited dozens of others, so I consider myself a bit of an expert on Europe. And of course on Europe’s problems, a topic which has been dominating headlines for the past few years. I know exactly what is the biggest problem Europe has. It’s not the Euro, not the immigrants, not Islam, not climate change. In North or South, East or West, in poor countries and rich ones, large or small, the single biggest problem Europeans in all countries are facing is one and the same. It’s dog shit. Seriously. On a day-to-day basis, the most concerning problem for the average European is how to avoid stepping into fresh (or not so fresh) piece of dog shit.

The issue of dog shit crosses (sometimes quite literally) all borders in Europe. Throughout the years, I’ve seen Europeans of all social backgrounds, skin colours and religions neglecting to commit the simple act of picking up their dog’s shit, and I’ve seen their European neighbours failing to find an adequate answer to this neglect.

Dog shit is a problem that encompasses most, if not all, aspects of society. It’s about the antisocial dog owner, who fails to assume his/her citizen’s responsibility. It’s about their fellow citizens, who, when confronted with the problem look away and hope someone else will do something about it. It’s about taxes and spending – European municipalities have a habit of charging a “dog tax” and spending it on pretty much anything rather than the intended purpose of dog toilets and poop bag dispensers. It’s about public health and safety – the turds are a source of germs and parasites in the air. It’s also about law enforcements – in Rotterdam, where I live, the fine for not clearing your dog’s shit is 130 Euro, but I have never seen the city wardens actually fine someone (and I’ve seen plenty of dogs taking a dump on the streets).

Basically, what it comes down to is that you need to watch where you’re stepping, can’t lie down on the grass in a park and nobody’s doing anything about it. Except in Switzerland, which sort of proves that the Swiss are not a part of Europe but live on a separate continent. But I’m digressing. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve had it with dog shit. I am taking a stand. In the building across the lawn lives a guy who owns a couple of large dogs. You see where this is going, right? Yes, right on the lawn, even though there’s a dog toilet across the street. I’m going to make myself perfectly clear by putting this baby in front of his balcony:

If this sign doesn't help I'll have to buy an air gun

If this sign is not clear enough I’ll have to buy an air gun

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Backpacking gear essentials – the not-so-cheap gear you won’t regret spending an extra buck on

Previously I’ve shared some of my wisdom concerning the cheap backpacking essentials. Well, not all backpacking gear is cheap but then again you’re not rich enough to buy cheap stuff, aren’t you? The Crocs, buffs and earplugs mentioned in the previous post you can get from just about anywhere, and they will do the job. However, I strongly advise to invest in getting the next 3 items from a proper brand. This is where investing in good gear repays itself multiple times, in weight, multipurposeness and durability. Here’s the gear that will make you a bit poorer but your backpacking so much richer:

  • Get the right backpack for you. No one can tell you which backpack you should get. I can, however, tell you which one you shouldn’t get. One that’s too small. All too often I see backpackers with all kinds of things dangling from their backpack, because they don’t have enough space in it to store them. When choosing a backpack, think of what you want to do with it. And then think of all the things you will want to put in it. If you find yourself hanging your sleeping bag, cooking gear, bags with food or any other stuff that does not respond well to getting banged around, wet, dirty or torn – you should get a bigger backpack. Spend some time on choosing your backpack (like these guys do)- its called “backpacking” for a reason!
  • Swiss Army knife – an obvious must have. The exact choice is personal and a difficult one since there’s a zillion models. Mine has to contain a corcscrew and scissors – nothing more annoying than a bottle that won’t open or a broken nail.
  • Zip pants. I never had zip pants, ‘cos I couldn’t find a pair that would sit well without annoying me on every step with that bloody zipper. However, since I’ve found ones that do fit without rubbing on my nerves, I swear by them. Gets you through sticky situations, too. Like that time in Church of the Nativity in Beit Lehem, when they wouldn’t let me into the cave to see The Spot Where Jesus Was Born, because I was wearing shorts. “Shorts? What shorts? Let me zip up my sleeves… Voilà!” Not that there’s much to see down there, but I believe I made my point clear.

Not all holy places are equally sensitive about shorts. Some are zip pants tolerant.

Coming up – last but not least – the more pricey stuff you won’t regret spending an extra buck on.

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