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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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Europe’s academic calendar

Of the past 10 years, I’ve spend 8 studying or working in a university in a small European country. In these years, I’ve learned the tides of the academic calendar quite well. Like the months of the Zodiac, each month of the academic year has its own mascot. The calendar I present here is tailored for the academic year in the Delft University of Technology, but with minor adjustments it is applicable to academic years of most small European countries.

  • September – month of the green freshman
    The September freshman is not only green as an allegory to being a rookie. He or she is also green in the literal sense of the word, due to lack of sleep and intense alcohol consumption during the initiation rituals of the student fraternities. He or she is also greenish because of the fear induced by the volumes and depths of the lecture material.
  • This signpost is especially valid during the month of the flying Asian

    This signpost is especially valid during the month of the flying Asian

    October – month of the flying Asian
    The autumn storms have arrived. The light-weight Asian students are blown off their bicycles en masse by unsuspected gusts, aggravated by the high-rise university buildings.

  • November – month of the first dropout
    By November the results of the first exams are in. And for some students, the ones smart enough to realize they bit off more than they can chew, its time to draw dramatic conclusions.
  • December – month of the drunk professor
    The university structure is highly vertical. There’s the Group, the Section, the Department, the Faculty and the University. And they all have their Christmas drinks and end-of-the-year parties. Plenty of free drinks for the staff, some of whom can be too happy about it.
  • January – month of the freezing African
    In North-Western Europe, everybody’s cold in January. But its especially hard on students from Africa, many of whom have never experienced such conditions before. In January, they realize that “mild marine climate” they read about back home is only relatively mild, and that in practice it means the winter months are filled with sleet storms, the most foul weather known to man.
  • February – month of the winter depression
    In university life, this month coincides with the calendar of the general population. The money has been spent on skiing and après-skiiing, the cold and dark days seem to go on forever and the New-Year’s resolutions have already failed. For students, the depression is aggravated by the results of the mid-term exams.
  • March – month of the Christmas dinner
    Even thought most students already had a Christmas dinner with their parents (on Christmas), many of them have a second Christmas dinner – with their housemates. But December is too early, January is the vacation season followed by exams and in February everybody’s broke. So students don’t get around to organizing the Christmas dinner until March. Some even until June.
  • April – month of the swarmin’ German
    April marks the start of the tourist season. And in Delft it starts with Germans. Old and crumbling ones. Lord knows where they’re kept for the rest of the year, but in April busloads of elderly Germans descend on Delft like locust, swallowing all the bicycle paths.
  • May – month of the lazy student
    Summer is around the corner. The weather is finally good for BBQ-ing, the exams still seem far away, and with the hormones raging, stimulated by beer and short skirts, who wants to think about studying?
  • June – month of the drunk student
    Traditionally, most faculties and many of the student clubs and organizations throw a party at the end of the lecture year – in June. These festivals revolve mostly around beer and produce a huge number of drunk students, who’s organisms are already weakened by long hours spent studying for the upcoming exams.
  • July – month of the sweating foreigner
    In July most of the students and staff are on vacation. The only ones around are sweaty foreigners – M.Sc. students on a two-year visa, which is expiring in August and who are desperate to finish their thesis by the end of the term. The only sounds heard in these quiet summer days are their typing and the dripping of their sweat, as they spend endless hours chained to their computers.
  • August – month of the last resort
    The last re-sits of the academic year are due. For some students it is Doomsday – the last chance to complete the number of credits necessary to be allowed to continue or to be admitted to the final project. August is do or die, the library is crowded again and the first freshmen are already sighted. The cycle is about to begin again.

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Europe is hot – the signs of summer

A sunny day, at last

In small European countries it can be hard to tell whether its summer. If you judge by the weather, then some countries, like Greece, have summer from April to October. Others, like Norway, may have one or two weeks of summer and in some years none at all. In the small European country I live in, summer weather has finally arrived this week. It is not here to stay though – by this weekend the hot and sunny spell will be over. Enjoy it while it lasts is the motto. So I took a swim in the sea. I was the only one on the whole beach who was swimming. Its called the North Sea for a reason. When I moved to Europe, my mom asked me whether I was swimming often. I said “mom, the sea is cold. Its Europe you know”. She was not convinced. “But the Gulf Stream” she said, “is a warm current”. It is. 10 degrees in the winter and no less than 18 in the summer. Significant shrinkage guaranteed all year round.

The North Sea beach is not so crowded on a Sunday

To know whether its summer yet, you have to pay attention. As I was cycling home from work last week, I noticed something unusual. The streets were filled with skaters of all sorts. Suddenly I knew – it was the Wednesday Night Skate – a sign of summer.

Wednesday Night Skate – a sure sign of summer

Another sign of summer are the boats that crowd the waterways. Just as European countries, boats come in all shapes and sizes, and different states of luxury. They do have one thing in common – bridges have to be raised to let them pass. If it wasn’t for the summer state of traffic, the jams would have been huge.

A small European boat

A sure sign of summer is the quiet office. Since my office is at a university, it is even more quiet. Its so empty is rather spooky. And I love it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against students, and I enjoy teaching them. But its so much calmer on the campus in the summer.

Summer campus

Where are all the students?

The last and most definitive sign of summer are the BBQ’s. Its not Australia here, you can’t just start grilling all year round. You’ll get moist. When the temperatures finally do get into the comfort zone and the skies clear, the grills are lit and small European parks look like a battle zone. I’m a vegetarian, so if you ask me, they smell like a battle zone, too. No one’s asking me though.

Summer in Europe – smokin’ hot!

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PDF managing in Ubuntu

Since I’ve switched to Linux several months ago, I’ve had to deal quite a lot with PDF documents. PDF’s are an essential part of the job as a PhD student, and one needs to manipulate them quite a lot – merging, splitting, turning and resizing. In a previous post I’ve mentioned some of the applications I am using. However, since then new needs have emerged and its time for the nerd update. Here’s the review of the tools I’m using in my daily PDF operations:

  • Viewing – I have all but abandoned PDF-Xchange viewer. Good old Adobe reader is just much more compatible with the printers at the university, even though the connection still has some bugs I’m too lazy to work out.
  • Editing – I usually do not use editing in PDF. But when I do, I find Okular the most straightforward tool for this.
  • Splitting and merging – I used PdfMod and PDF-Shuffler to split and merge PDF documents, but I’ve had some difficulties figuring out how to force the order of the pages when merging and splitting. PDFSAM allows the user to choose exactly the order of documents when merging and the interface is much more to my liking. However, PdfMod is still the one I use to rotate pages.
  • Bookmarking – when merging PDF’s, the bookmarks do not always merge in a consistent way. JPdfBookmarks allows to edit or create bookmarks, including dumps and uploads of complete sets of bookmarks. Very useful!
  • Online tools – of course all these operations on PDF documents, including resizing, merging, converting and compressing can be done online. The downside is the limit on the document size you can upload/generate, but in everyday use its usually not a problem at all.

Happy PDFing!

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Where the (Euro)shit goes down

Following courses is an integral part of a PhD. In the past couple of weeks I’ve been following an Advanced Course in Environmental Biotechnology. Delft is a European powerhouse in microbial bioengineering ever since the days of local hero Anthony van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope and actually started the whole science of microbiology. With exciting lectures on hot topics such as stoichiometric of microbial growth and gas-liquid inter-phase transport, the course lived up to the standards required from the birth place of the trade. It might sound awkward to some people, but as I’ve mentioned so often before – I am a nerd and I actually enjoy this stuff. Although I’m absolutely no biologist so as far as I’m concerned they could have gone lighter on the topic of Microbial S-, N-, and P-conversions.

Unlike the courses I am used to in the engineering world, this one was inhabited mostly by (micro)biologists and biochemists. In plain language – girls. Surprisingly, this does not appear to make much of a difference. As usual with this type of occasions, the course also included the usual portion of socialising – meaning drinks and dinner, and whether its guys or girls – the conversation is mostly revolving around sex. The only difference might be the girls needing a bit less beer to get started, a simple matter of lower body mass. Hey – I am implementing the biology lessons learned already!

The absolute highlight of the course was undoubtedly the visit to the practical part of environmental biotechnology, a waste water treatment plant in Rotterdam. This is where the shit goes down, literally. Well, actually the shit goes up. The Dokhaven plant treats the sewage of some half a million people. In a proper Dutch way, it is built in a dried dock under the sea level. So when the sewage water is cleaned, it has to be pumped several meters upwards to be discharged into the Maas river. All in all I’ve had a very useful course, and a unique opportunity to see with my own eyes where it all goes to once I flush. Engineering rules!

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Food that actually has taste?

Today I walked into the university cafeteria to get a snack but got a big surprise instead. I was stunned to say the least. The lady working there was cooking. Now I know that’s what you expect to see in a cafeteria. But in Holland? The Dutch cafeteria cooking is usually limited to warming up a sausage or opening a bucket of factory soup (and of course not to forget deep frying things normal people give to the cat). But this lady was actually cooking, and she was using real vegetables, too! Even more surprisingly, they looked fresh.

After I got over my initial shock, I immediately changed plans – this turn of events deserved encouragement and appreciation. Even if it would mean putting my stomach at the mercy of a Dutch cafeteria, something any person who owns taste buds normally avoids doing at all cost. Fortunately, my daring move was rewarded by the second surprise of the day – the food actually had taste! As I dug in, I discovered to my further amazement that the wokked veggies were still crispy, the tofu (yes, there was even the choice of chicken/fish/veg variants) was not disintegrating upon gaze and that the gravy was of the right texture and not too fat. Admittedly, the rice could have been fresher, but who cares? You could actually distinguish the ingredients by colour and taste! Now I know many readers would think I’m exaggerating in my excitement, but those who’ve had the chance to “appreciate” a Dutch office cafeteria will surely understand. Hopefully this is more that just an incident, and lets all pray that other Dutch cafeterias will follow suit in not just opening packages but actually making food. Amen.

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Viva la Récession

The economic recession in Europe is refusing to go away, despite (or thanks to) all the efforts of the EU. Economists would say that formally, the recession has ended years ago, but what do they know? If they’re so smart, how come they never saw it coming?

A recession is, however, not only a negative thing. For example, thanks to the recession, the roads are less congested. As transport by trucks goes down, traffic jams are decreasing, so I can actually (sometimes) get to my recession-proof university job by car in less than 25 minutes. A side-effect of the diminished traffic is that less new roads are being constructed, so the already small amount of nature left in small European countries is being demolished at a slower rate. Also, because of the recession, construction of new offices and industrial parks has virtually stopped. Hopefully the planners and architects will use this break to reconsider some of the design and development choices they’re making, like coming up with something truly original and sustainable.

Anther consequence of the recession is that its a buyers market in the housing. Prices have dropped by 20-25% and you can often bargain even further. I’d love to use the opportunity, but unfortunately, I have my own place that I’d have to sell first. With 50 other apartments for sale in the block, I just don’t see it happening any time soon.

The one thing that appears to be recession-proof are the fuel prices in Europe. They just keep going up, rain or shine. If the current trends will continue, in a couple of years when no one will be able to afford the gasoline any more, I will have the empty highways all for myself to cycle on. Good thing I like cycling. It would be a dream come true.


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