National Day, and a coda

Yesterday, August 1, was National Day in Switzerland – the Swiss Independence Day. It celebrates the Federal Charter of 1291, a document that bound together the first cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden as an alliance.

Last year, I spent the Swiss National Day like a good Swiss: on the shores of Lac Léman, watching fireworks being shot of over the water (and sometimes over my shoulder – explosives regulations seem to be pretty lax here). It was really lovely and even though I am not a big fan of loud sounds and crowds, I thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie, the festive atmosphere and a warm summer night filled with carnival food and music.

This year was somewhat different…it was a rainy and chilly evening, and I was too tired to go out anyway. Fortunately, I found “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on TV in English! Not only did we only recently get a TV, but American movies are usually dubbed over in French or German, so that was a rare moment of complete cerebral disengagement. Not that I don’t enjoy French dubbing on occasion…it is excellent practice for me, and it can turn even the most dramatic and tragic of movies into a comedy!

Anyway. It seemed like a good time to reflect on my blog and the purpose it has served for almost two years now. Part of the reason I have not posted for so long is because I think I just don’t think of the things that happen to me – good or bad – from an expat perspective quite as much as I used to. Of course, I know I will never really lose that “stranger in a strange land” feeling… there will always be part of me that is attuned to the fact that I am not in the same place where I was born and raised. Some days I dearly miss US culture, food, language, commerce, cityscapes and landscapes…and every single day I miss my family and friends who still live there. I never want those feelings to fade, but I am grateful that I have been able to grow enough to feel comfortable somewhere else (‘comfortable’ being a relative term…I am still scared to talk to people I don’t know, I take my GPS everywhere, and I access Google translate on my phone at least 27 times a day).

But all that aside, the major reason I haven’t written for so long is because I have started a new job! I know it sounds crazy, especially since I was not at the other one for very long, and since this new one is in the capital of Bern and involves quite a long commute. Without going into much detail, though, I can say that it is a writing job…something I have desired my whole life. I am still pinching myself to make sure it is real! At any rate, it has taken a lot of time and energy to get up to speed on a whole new skill set (not to mention significantly buckling down on my French studies, as the job requires it). But mainly, I have been spending the majority of each day writing non-stop, which, while very fulfilling for me, kind of takes the itch out of my fingers when I get home to my own laptop!

In light of these two observations, I think the time has come to close this blog. Perhaps I will start another someday on another aspect of Swiss life, but I don’t feel like I need to document all my daily mishaps, missteps, discoveries and adventures anymore, as they are no longer Swiss experiences…they are just life experiences! I hope other scrappy travellers can derive some counsel – or at least some commiseration – from the few posts I have managed to put up in the last months.

Thank you for reading, one and all. And happy travels!


I am happy to report that I now know what a Swiss bargain looks like!

As I have probably complained mentioned before, prices for items like clothes tend to be higher in Switzerland than in the US and elsewhere in Europe (even in the absence of world-rocking economic maneuvers like the one recently made by the Swiss National Bank, which caused the value of the CHF to surge).

I should clarify that with me, the disagreeably high cost of clothing is not just a Switzerland/exchange rate issue. Before I came here, I had only been working full-time for two years and had spent the majority of my thus-far adult life as a student, which means that most of my clothes came from Target and TJ Maxx. Now, I refuse to say anything bad about either of those brands, because together they have gotten me through childhood, college and graduate school with their cute, versatile 3-for-$8 tank tops and $20 jeans. Target, in particular, is always a treat for me…I tend to hear the Hallelujah chorus play when I step into the women’s clothing section, knowing that an array of delightful outfits can be mine for very cheap, but not so cheap that they fall apart as quickly as Wal-Mart wear.

ugly sweater

But, it was on sale!

However, the sad truth is that Target clothes do not last very long either, and I have definitely begun to wear some of my favorite finds for too long. But I have been hesitant to buy more than one or two full-priced Swiss items of clothing, which are painfully pricey – an average pair of jeans will run you 150 CHF or so. Most Swiss women I have met so far tell me that they tend to wait until they are on holiday in the US or elsewhere in Europe to buy clothes, and some even drive just over the border into France to spend the day looking for bargains. I am by no means a fashionista, so traveling to a different country – even a very close one – to try on pants is not an activity that I would choose to spend my free time on. So, over the last year I have purchased several pieces of Swiss clothing from H&M, which is the European version of Target. These tended to fall apart even faster than Target items, however, and I found myself cursing my tendency to favor cheapness over quality.

What I didn’t realize, however, is that clothing sales are a huge thing in Switzerland…and they are very different from sales in the U.S. Right after the holidays (and I did not notice this last year as I was in the US at the time) Swiss clothing goes on sale in a big way. In US stores, clothes are more or less always on sale…you can’t walk by an Old Navy or Nordstroms without seeing some large percentage sign in the window to lure you inside with the promise of huge savings. I have gotten a lot of great bargains this way, but I often end up buying something ill-fitting or flimsy simply because it is on sale, and passing by the better quality items which have of course been left at full price. This is how I have ended up with a wardrobe of jerry-rigged clothes, which (given my rudimentary seamstress skills) usually end up unevenly hemmed, cuffed, or with a thread-y stump left where I have clipped off a particularly ugly bow.

But January – oh, January is the season of the Swiss SOLDES, or clearance sales…and when the Swiss say ‘SOLDES,’ they really mean it. At first I was confused by this term, because it is usually painted across storefronts in capital, red, bold letters…much like the diagonal ‘SOLD OUT’ that marks popular concert posters. Why would stores advertise that they have no more inventory, I wondered? But I was soon set straight about the true meaning of this magical word. For just a few weeks, even top-quality Swiss clothing is seriously marked down, and if you can brave the swarms of humanity rooting around the shelves and whipping back hangers to find their size before someone else takes it, then you are in for a real treat.


With this dress, I could be the belle of the Awkward-Stock-Photo-Ball!

Last weekend, I bought two pairs of well-fitting, thick-fabric jeans and two Italian merino wool sweaters…for 160 CHF. I still can’t quite believe my luck…I had actually left the store with only one purchase before I glanced at my receipt and thought that the amount I had paid was impossibly low…I thought there had been a mistake before I went back in and realized that the tags on the clothes were the original prices, not the marked-down ones.

This experience is consistent with my ongoing education in Swiss culture and commerce: Many things come off as outrageously expensive or complicated or otherwise demanding (at least to me) at first, but with patience and time, I have found in most cases that above-average costs nearly always correspond to above-average services and/or products, and that bargains can indeed be found if you know where to look!

Bonne Année

Happy 2015!

I have not posted in awhile, which I choose to attribute to a more structured and busy Swiss-life routine rather than laziness! But here is a little update for the New Year. Since a lot has happened since my last post, I could not choose a single topic for this one, so I decided to do a round-up style list of events and observations.

1. Apartment: One of the most satisfying and rewarding projects of the last few months has been setting up the apartment more completely. My husband and I had the bare minimum of ‘stuff’ shipped over from the US over the summer, but it has taken us awhile to identify those things that can be lived without, but which improve the convenience and comfort of daily life considerably once you remember you’ve forgotten to buy them. Examples of such items include: floor lamps to improve dim overhead lighting, a food processor, a filing cabinet, a bookcase (goodbye, Rubbermaid tubs full of random items!) and a clothes drying rack.

I must say that it has been a challenge to find exactly what we need at a reasonable price. In the US, one generally has a geographically-organized mental catalog of resources for obtaining the trappings of daily life: Crate and Barrel for home decor and accessories, IKEA or local thrift shop for furniture, Home Depot for home improvements, etc. etc. IKEA does exist here in Switzerland, but alternatives for all other familiar commercial outlets must be found. Locating and visiting a Swiss second-hand furniture store turned out to be particularly rewarding, as there was a huge selection of very nice, Swiss-made antiques with price tags that bore a sufficiently low number of zeroes for me to remain inside the store for more than 5 minutes. We were even able to find a wonderful set of affordable antique speakers on a second-hand online forum.

One of the local home improvement outlets here in Lausanne is called “Mini Prix, Maxi Choix” which means “low price, big selection.” I always joke to my husband that Switzerland’s national motto should be “Mini Choix, Maxi Prix,” but in fact, this is not really fair. It is indeed possible to find items you like at a reasonable price in Switzerland…you just have to know where to look. This as opposed to the US, where cheap ‘stuff’ is advertised everywhere all the time.

Of course, we did pay a visit to our local IKEA as well…there is nothing that makes one feel quite so stupid as being stymied by the idiot-proof instructions, and nothing that makes one feel quite so smart and capable as having your own, slightly crooked KVIKNE to put your clothes in!

2. Winter sport: Switzerland is synonymous with skiing and snowboarding, and its reputation as one of the best winter sport locales in the world is very well deserved. This year I went with my husband, his extended family and my parents to a small ski resort in the canton of Graubünden – way over on the other, eastern side of the country. The resort itself is quite private and low-key, with slopes that are generally described as “easy” or “boring” by the Swiss (this as opposed to Wengen, which is one of the world’s most challenging locations for championship and Olympic ski events, where professional skiers often clock in at 100 mph or more). However, these hills were quite enough of a challenge for me as a ski novice!

I would wager that the only thing more difficult to master after the onset of adulthood than a foreign language is skiing. Like second language acquisition, skiing requires skills and instinctive reactions that are otherwise never used, and learning to use them for the first time is a bit like trying to teach a dog to eat with chopsticks. It feels very unnatural! A lot of coordination is required, and on Alpine ski slopes at least, so is courage. The hills we skied on may seem easy to the little Swiss toddlers whizzing by on skis the size of hot dog buns, but to me, they are still very steep and very scary.

I have actually skied these mountains before while on vacation several years ago, but apparently, only some of my muscle memory was retained. The most important lesson to remember, I have found, is to keep moving forward. The guaranteed recipe for ski slope disaster is to balk at the crest of a particularly steep hill…once you stop, you do not get moving again without falling, crying, removing your skis and walking, or possibly all three. I am proud to say that I only fell once, although my husband maintains that it was more like catching myself with my face than a real fall! By the end of the trip, though, I was skiing almost parallel again, and able to enjoy some of the breathtaking scenery in between bouts of intense concentration.

3. Transportation: In December, my place of work moved from the EPFL campus in Lausanne to a new site in Geneva. This means that instead of the Lausanne metro, I now take the Swiss train – SBB-CFF-FFS – twice a day for about 35-45 minutes (the odd initials refer to the official name of the train system in German, French and Italian, respectively). While my commute time has increased significantly with the train journeys and medium-long walks on either end of them, I have to thank my lucky stars for Swiss train travel. It is quiet, efficient and comfortable, and certainly the best way to commute if one is obliged to do so. It is a far cry from the white-knuckle traffic I was dealing with a year ago!

Another perk is that I have become much more train-savvy. Growing up as I did in a rural US town, I have only become familiar with public transportation as an adult, and there has been quite a steep learning curve. I admit that I have yet to take the New York subway alone, as its endlessly complicated network of letters and numbers and outages and re-routings never ceases to confuse me to the point of staring slack-jawed at the grubby subway map for up to half an hour before daring to board a grubby silver capsule hurtling towards who-knows-where. Trains are even scarier, because while a mistake on a subway might take you several blocks out of your way, a train error can leave you one or two cities removed from your intended destination. This is not such a big deal in the US, but get on the wrong train in Switzerland and you are bound to get off in a city that uses an entirely different language and/or currency! But after a few weeks of daily train trips, I have become a lot more comfortable with the schedules, the multilingual loudspeaker announcements, the crowds, and the seating arrangements. It is actually quite pleasant to see the Swiss countryside out the window twice a day… the sheer beauty of this country never ceases to amaze me.

And finallySwitzerland has recently been voted the Number 1 place in the world for expats!

That’s all for now, folks. I am planning another jaunt back to the US this spring, and am really looking forward to seeing friends and family. And a 24 hour grocery store. And maybe a Clif bar.

Modena and Bologna

This week, my husband and I took a few days to explore the Italian cities of Modena and Bologna. This was my second trip to Italy, the first having been to Venice, and this time the cities we visited were much less tourist-y. I suppose we diluted that benefit somewhat by walking around for three days with our faces upturned and our cameras out, but we did our best to observe and experience the culture around us as thoroughly as possible in the time we had. We even went to restaurants that had no menus at all – just a list of daily dishes recited by the waitstaff in Italian. Fortunately, it was mostly pasta, so I usually knew what shape of food I was getting…just not the topping or sauce!

The first thing that strikes you about Modena and Bologna, and that continues to strike you as you spend hours walking the cobbled streets, is how old these cities are. More than once, we came across towers and churches that leaned just as precariously as the Tower of Pisa, as though they were simply tired of having stood up straight for so many centuries. We even went inside a church from the 11th century…it was so old, it didn’t even have stained-glass windows. It is quite a sight to stroll around the weathered, orange-tinged stone architecture at the University of Bologna, while students rushed up and down the streets with their earbuds and iPhones.

The University also held one of the greatest highlights of our trip – the Museo di Palazzo Poggi. We happened on it by accident and, with a few hours to spare and the sky turning dark, decided to pop inside. For just three Euros apiece, we were granted access to the most fascinating natural history museums I have ever seen in my life! The museum boasts collections as old as the 16th century that span the areas of botany, marine biology, anatomy, obstetrics, physics, chemistry, optics, and military architecture. Visitors can look through hundreds upon hundreds of ancient specimens, all preserved and carefully labelled by people who, centuries ago, were captivated by the earth’s biodiversity. The extensive collection of wax cadavers for anatomical study was another of my favorite exhibits, but it unfortunately did not make for very pretty photography!

One Year

The arrival of November marks my one-year anniversary of living in Switzerland!

It really crept up on me…the fact that I have been here a year didn’t sink in until it came time to renew my work permit this week. Upon reflection, there could be no more appropriate way to spend my one-year Swiss anniversary than in the city administrative bureau, waiting in line to fill out some forms. In all seriousness, though, it has been a spectacular year and I am very grateful for how things have turned out.


This perfectly illustrates how I always feel during Swiss bureaucratic procedures. [source]

At regular intervals over the past year, I have kept checking in with myself, asking: Do I feel at home in Switzerland yet? How about now? like an insomniac keeping themselves awake by constantly checking to see if they’re falling asleep (and no, I wouldn’t know anything about that…why do you ask?)

Of course, I am massively more comfortable living Swiss daily life than I was a year ago. Going to the grocery store is now a routine affair rather than a terrifying expedition, and I can gaze absently out the window of the metro like all the other passengers rather than obsessively checking the route chart on the wall to make sure I haven’t missed my stop. I’m especially proud of how relaxed I’ve become about speaking French…notice, I didn’t say I’ve improved much, but my fear of speaking has decreased dramatically. I no longer over-think and practice in advance of opening my mouth…I trust myself to be able to get by in most situations, even though the words rarely come out in exactly the right order.

But the truth is, I can’t quite say that I feel totally at home yet…I am still self-conscious – still overly aware that I am living in a different country and culture. It’s kind of like getting braces on your teeth…for the first week or so, all you can think is, I am wearing braces! So, this is what wearing braces feels like. I can’t imagine what it feels like to not wear braces anymore!…etc., etc. After a month of wearing braces, you don’t think about them at all…they become part of you, and you don’t feel or notice them unless someone mentions them to you (“Did you know you have spinach in your braces?”).

Basically, I think that feeling completely at home, and feeling like I really belong, are another year or two away for me. But for once, this does not stress me out too much, because I know that based on the progress I’ve made this year, I’ll get there eventually. And the longer I am here, the more things I realize I love about Switzerland…not the least of which is our new apartment, which my husband and I are still in the process of fixing up and furnishing, but which is so warm and cozy as the cool weather sets in. I still can’t quite believe it’s ours, and that the long hunt for a place to live is over!

I’ll have more new things to write about, soon. Next month, the office I work in will be picking up and moving to Geneva, and so I will soon be spending a significant chunk of my time in a different Swiss city. I have been to Geneva a handful of times, but not enough to know it well or see more than the most famous landmarks. I am looking forward to the change…our new building will be bigger and more comfortable, and I think working in Geneva will be exciting. It will add about 30 minutes to my commute each morning, but my feeling is that 40 minutes aboard a Swiss train twice a day is better than any length of time stuck in traffic!

Also, in a few weeks we’ll be taking a short vacation to Modena, Italy, to spend a couple of days walking around and to try a restaurant that my husband has been interested in. It is only a few hours from here by train…for me, being able to visit other countries without having to board a plane is a thrill that will never grow old! We might even take a day trip to Bologna. I will be sure to post photos when we return!


I’m pleased to announce that I can now check another European country off my list – Germany! Recently, I had to attend a work conference in Heidelberg (at Heidelberg University) and so although this was not a voluntary instance of travel, I do feel very strongly that Heidelberg is just the sort of place I would visit if I was the kind of person who voluntarily visited places. It is a beautiful, classically European city, complete with cobbled streets and a ruined castle atop one of the nearby mountains. Its main centerpiece is the Neckar River, which passes underneath several scenic bridges. Unfortunately, due to the nature of my visit I was not able to do much sightseeing, but I did snap a few shaky photos to share (see gallery below). One of the conference events took us to the ruined castle, which was a highlight of the trip. It was nighttime during the visit so good iPhone photographs were out of the question, but it was an awesome experience (in the sense that it inspired a great deal of awe). It was a real castle, complete with gargoyles and turrets and a winding mountain path to its entrance. Throughout my visit, I was repeatedly struck with the thought that I really do need to learn at least a little German. I already live in a country where the vast majority of the population speaks it, but I had not really been surrounded by it for an extended period of time until now. I had to take a couple of taxis by myself, and found myself at a loss to communicate without any German basics except for Danke and Bitte and Gutentag. My brain obviously now associates feeling socially awkward with speaking French, so I also embarrassed myself by stuttering a few French words in my attempts to communicate. What a strange feeling it was to be back on the Swiss train home, feeling grateful that I could once again understand the conductor’s announcements in French! Of course, most Germans can speak English perfectly well – I just feel guilty if I start right in with that assumption and no attempt to speak the native language, however poor the attempt may be. On the train to Heidelberg, I sat in one of those closed-in cars with one other gentleman, who was working away on his laptop. He leaned over and explained that he had heard me conversing earlier with one of my colleagues, and asked if I would mind proofreading a job application letter that he was writing in English. I was of course happy to help, and he was so eager for feedback on his English grammar that I felt bad pointing out his few minor errors. He left me genuinely hoping he gets the job. This little interaction again left me impressed with the linguistic talent of Europeans in general. Time and time again they will aver that they ‘do not speak English’ or ‘barely speak English’ or speak ‘terrible English.’ This is true exactly 0% of the time: when a European tells you that they do not speak English, what they really mean is that they were not born speaking English! Having to work so hard just to make myself understood in another language is something I will always lament, but seeing how Europeans are able to interact in such a wide variety of circumstances and social situations will always encourage me to keep trying.

Guest Post: Stranger in a Strange Land (Part 3 of 3)

One of the best things about sharing my scrappy travel experiences is that it invites others to do the same. As an expat, there is nothing more wonderful than hearing about other people’s similar challenges and adventures and how they handled them.

My aunt has been a respected oncologist in the northeastern U.S. for many years, and she recently shared with me her experience attending the Welsh National School of Medicine for six weeks in 1971. She has kindly allowed me to share her experience on this blog…though I fear that next to my daily worries about parking and peanut butter, her brief experience abroad seems much more profound! She notes that her account is a reflection of Wales as it was over 40 years ago, and that cultural attitudes toward nationalism and language may have relaxed since then.

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

As my mother had always wanted to visit her family in the North of England, I suggested that my parents join me at the end of my time in Cardiff to go to Barrow-in-Furness. My mother had never been out of the US, and my father had been all the way to Toronto a couple of times. I remember asking a colleague at the Royal Marsden when I was spending a summer in London, “What is the best way to go to Barrow-in-Furness?” He replied, “People don’t go to Barrow-in-Furness, people come from Barrow-in Furness.”

However, I could not communicate with Mom or Dad as there was still no post or telephone. It turned out that they would be arriving on Saturday of the four-day weekend for Decimalization (D-Day). My popularity among the locals improved when it turned out that I was quite facile with decimal currency. I would have thought it would be easy but apparently, for those raised on “2&6 and 2&6=5” and 21 shillings makes a pound, it was not.

I did, however, realize what a mess a four-day bank holiday would make. I cashed as much currency as I dared carry around and booked the best room in the local hotel, the only one with a bathroom and central heat. I didn’t know for sure that Mom and Dad were going to arrive, but I couldn’t take any chances. I took the Airport bus to Cardiff Airport at the appointed time, and there they were, mighty glad to see me!