When people think of Switzerland, chocolate is normally one of the first things that comes to mind. And after 6 weeks getting to know this place I am proud of how Mike and I are doing our upmost to sample different flavours and overall take great pleasure in choosing the next brand we should feast upon.
With this chocolate mission well and truly underway we were very excited to discover that this weekend, not a 5 minute walk from our apartment, was the Salon du Chocolat – code for, an afternoon of chocolate induced sugar highs and lows…
Walking into Zurich’s large conference and exhibition centre I had big hopes for the afternoon ahead. With live music playing Mike and I wandered throughout the chocolate stands and as we picked up speed we also sharpened our elbows and put on our best smiles to push our way through and blag as much free chocolate as possible. We did ourselves proud.
The choice was phenomenal. Coming from the UK I was always bowled over by the variety in Hotel Chocolat found on many UK highstreets but today raised the (chocolate) bar. To name a few highlights we had…
Switzerland is a cultural fondue pot, squeezing several different languages into a relatively small country. Here you'll find native speakers of French, German, Italian and Romansch - a language descended from the Vulgar Latin spoken by the Roman era occupiers of the region and spoken by just 0.9% of Switzerland's 7.7 million inhabitants.
Zurich is in the German speaking part of Switzerland. This is fortunate for us seeing as I speak some Deutsch having spent a placement year in Bavaria during my studies.
The slight issue is that the Swiss don't speak German like the Germans. Swiss-German or 'Schwiizertüütsch' is bonkers. And I can hardly understand a word. It's not just an accent, it's full of it's own idioms and phrases which make it pretty much a language in it's own right.
However, in my experience so far, you can get by with 'high German' as is spoken in Germany - the locals understand it and are often, like our landlady, kind enough to soften their swiss accents when they talk to an immigrant like me.
As you don't learn Swiss German as such (it's not taught in schools and the written word in Switzerland is usually in high-German) if I want to improve my language skills here I need to carry on trying to improve my Deutsch. Therefore, given my search for a job is going surely but slowly, I enrolled on an intensive German course. I started at the beginning of March and plan to carry on through April. Learning German from 8:30 to 11:00 each day isn't only good for my language skills but also gives me the push I need to get up and seize the day.
Zoe has just kicked off evening classes too and after a bit of a false start she has a new teacher who she really likes. Those that know Zoe will know that she is very dilligent - real grafter who tends to follow the rules (and has gone far as a result). Unfortunately, the one time she rebelled against something was when doing her AS Level German, when she skipped most of the lessons. So, although she speaks a bit of Deutsch she's starting from scratch to ensure she fills all the gaps in her knowledge from when she was sneaking to get chips and gravy instead of in class (this may not be true. In fact, I don't even think you can get gravy from the chip shop in Surrey, but as Zoe's not here and my only reference is a childhood in the Northwest I ask you not to question too much).
Like everything here, language lessons are expensive, but after a tip I received I signed up with a school that offers courses at a price that seemed too good to be true. The deal is that the teachers are not necessarily fully qualified, and the course is part of their training to become fully fledged, so as a result you pay less.
It's turned out to be exactly as I'd hoped - challenging but fun with a talented teacher and small class size. There are six of us in total, all from different parts of Europe. I'm the only bloke, so, as you might expect, it can be hard to get a word in edgeways, but it's a nice group and we have a laugh discussing topics from youth crime to healthy eating and gender stereotyping (had to be careful with that one given the level to which I was outnumbered).
The problem I often come across is that I struggle with the grammar. I think this has much to do with the fact that, unlike my peers, much of my German wasn't learnt not in the classroom but in the pub. Unfortunately when my good German mate Norman was helping me with my Deutsch over a wheat beer he didn't go into detail about the perfect tense, just the perfect pint. And apparently the singing of FC Nuremberg songs isn't part of the end of course assessment.
So, in additon to attending the lessons and completing my Hausaufgaben (homework) I've also been trying to enhance my language skills by reading the German freesheet on the tram each morning, watching German TV and also reading a German comic book that my mum gave me some time ago.
The 'graphic novel' is a good way to practice as the cartoons help with the context (well that's my excuse). However, I'm not quite sure my dear mum knew the the nature of the story she'd given me. Entitled 'Der bewegte Mann' (roughly 'the emotional man') the story, which has since been made into a film - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Der_bewegte_Mann - is about a man who, having broken up with his girlfriend, ends up befriending a group of gay blokes who fancy him.
I'm not sure how often I'll get to use most of the vocab, and I don't believe this sort of text is part of the assessment either, but it's certainly a novel way to improve my Deutsch.
In the excerpt shown above is all the vocab I'd ever need to invite someone to a gay party.
It will certainly make for an interesting blog post if this ever comes in handy. I'll keep you posted.
Apologies for the lull in blogging activity - such inefficiency is certainly not the Swiss way! The people to blame are our good friends Chris, Nick and Parso who came to visit at the weekend.
They picked a good weekend to get out here as we saw the first few days of consistently above-zero temperatures in a while. Nick arrived earlier than the others on Friday and we were able to head up to the Uetliberg, the hill overlooking Zurich, to take in the view.
It was a much clearer day than when Zoe and I made the trip up there previously and I was amazed to see the Alps looming not far away. I don't think there's much better in life than having a beer whilst looking at mountains and we did just that, catching up over a pint. Any negative health effects were surely offset by the fresh mountain air?
The other lads didn't arrive until late in the evening and Nick and I met them in the city centre to embark on my first proper Zurich night out. As you are likely aware, the cost of living means having a few pints in Switzerland can easily require the remortgaging of a property or the black-market sale of a kidney. Luckily, we have an organised and experienced pub crawl pilot in Parso, who had come armed with a map of the most interesting and (as we're all northern) reasonably priced bars the city has to offer.
The desire for a cheap pint (and nothing more!) took us off the beaten track and into the red light district - apparently Zurich's 'trendy' quarter. Here we did find some interesting bars, not least an FC Zurich fan pub where a drunken older lady gave Nick a 'Prost' so hard her wine glass smashed. Such was her level of inebriation this did not stop her drinking out of it.
When she then gestured towards Parso's camera phone and spoke some garbled Deutsch in his direction he thought he'd take her up on what he assumed was a kind offer of a photo of our group. By the time I'd processed what she'd said and realised she'd just sworn at Parso and demanded his mobile he'd already handed it over. When I explained what she'd said he understandably wanted it back. Luckily, after she'd downed the next shot the bar owner gave her it was not too long before P quite easily got back what was rightfully his.
We were then joined by Zoe who had been out at one of her Zurich girly meet up nights not far away (though not in the red light district, trendy as it is) to have some more drinks before heading home.
Unfortunately, we'd been much more organised in making plans for finding bars than for getting home from them so, after missing trains and busses I managed to get us taxis home (strange how my Deutsch improves with a few beers).
After a bit of time recuperating on Saturday, the lads and I headed out for a walk along lake Zurich to blow the cobwebs away. Zurich looks awesome in the sunshine and I think the boys enjoyed having a look at our new home. We strolled for quite some time until we reached the 'Zurichhorn' which is where the lake becomes wider. Given the weather was nice a little beer garden was open so we stopped and had a drink and a bite to eat. Actually, I probably now retract my earlier statement that there is nothing better than having a beer whilst looking at mountains. Having a beer whilst looking at mountains AND A LAKE can surely not be topped.
After a relaxed day we headed across town for our next 'cultural' experience - watching Zurich's top football team - the Grasshoppers. The bitter rivals of FC Zurich (whose fan pub we'd visited the day before), Grasshopper Club are currently top of the Swiss league. I've provisionally adopted them as my Swiss team of choice not because of their league standing, but as they wear the same blue and white halves kit as my beloved Blackburn Rovers. Surely after many years of torment you won't begrudge me watching a team win for once?
The Letzigrund stadium (above) is shared by both Zurich teams and in true continental style is seperated from the pitch by a running track. Another key difference in comparison to the English football experience is the lack of a meat pie, though the giant sausage with a bread roll was pretty good. With the visiting fans from St Gallen setting off flares in the away end I was pretty excited about the prospect of a good game, despite the stadium being far from full.
As it turned out the match saw 3 goals for Grasshopper Club Zurich and 1 for St Gallen with 2 red cards for the guests. On paper it sounds like an epic but in reality it actually was a bit tame. The goals were gifted rather than made and the gulf in the standard between the Swiss league and the English top tiers was evident. That said, we enjoyed it, though my only regret was that we were freezing in the stands instead of watching from a jacuzzi.
Yes, you heard me right - the game we went to saw the inaugration of GCZ's pitchside hot tub in which a couple of fans get to watch the game in their trunks whilst being served cold beer! The players even tried to join them as they celebrated taking a 2-1 lead!
After the Game we explored another couple of night spots including a mexican bar which was great fun despite seeming very much out of place in downtown Zurich.
On a trip to try and find the loo Nick and I came across a basement room with table football or 'Kicker' as it's called on the continent. Given that the room soon filled with Swiss blokes there was only ever going to be one outcome - Switzerland vs England.
It is to my shame that I have to report that Nick and I let our entire country down. We were comprehensively thrashed.
I'm not usually one to point fingers , but this national embarassment was mostly Nick's fault. Mexican lager had clearly not enhanced his hand-eye coordination. At least we can be grateful that England did not need to go through the agony of a penalty shootout before exiting this international contest. We left the room with our tails between our legs. Literally, as we'd been looking for the toilet even before the big match had started.
The next morning, the fondue lunch I'd arranged suddenly didn't seem such a good idea. Switzerland's pots of cheesy goodness deserve their own future post, but for now all I can tell you is that liquid cheese is not the best hangover cure.
We were sad to see the boys off on their way on Sunday afternoon, though this melancholy didn't last long as I went to bed soon after they'd left. I'm getting too old for such hi-jinx.
I think it helped us to feel more at home here having some of the people from our UK lives come to join us in our new Swiss world. For the same reason we're really looking forward to hosting Zoe's parents this coming weekend.
Big thanks to the boys for coming out here to help us explore Zurich nightlife. Thanks to their sacrifice we will be able to steer future guests away from some of the more diabolical establishments our new city has to offer.
At the weekend I again took advantage of Switzerland's top notch transport system to visit my mate Paul in the nation's capital city - Bern.
With Zoe bending over backwards to make it to a yoga class she's found, and having made plans to meet up with one of her new friend's from a Zurich ladies get-together she attended, I made the 50 minute trip to Bern solo.
Aforementioned Paul is a top bloke I know from my time working at a PR agency and he's a bit of a trailblazer for me when it comes to making the move to die Schweiz. He left London's PR scene to make the move some months ago because his good lady got herself a great job out here (sound familiar?).
Paul and his adorable four-legged friend Uma (who responds only to German commands having been raised in Berlin!) kindly gave me a tour of the beautiful 'Hauptstadt'. It's a fascinating place with the city's main arteries for shopping and business intersected by small winding alleyways and the winding river Aare. Many of the streets have shops or bars in the basement level - aladdin's cave type holes accessible only by what looks like a trap door in the floor.
The most unexpected encouter of the afternoon was with a bona-fide brown bear. The bear is the symbol of Bern and a 6000 square meter enclosure on the banks of the river is home to four of these icons - Björk, Ursina, Berna and Finn. Just one had dared to leave the comfort of hibernation for the biting cold at weekend. I'm no sure which of the family members it was, but it was certainly a very impressive specimen.
After taking in the main sights including the famous Zytglogge clock tower (shown at top of post) on foot we figured it was time to do what Brits do best - head to the pub and watch football. Our first port of call was a bar in a converted school gym, complete with stage for assemblies and wooden climbing bars. I managed to resist the temptation of an impromptu PE lesson (I'd forgotte my pumps) though after a couple of nice ales, including a lovely dark number complete with bear on the bottle, it did cross my mind. We then headed to a local British pub to watch the weekend's scores come in. I must say, though I've enjoyed a month of Swiss immersion, a taste of home was due. There was no forgetting where we were when it came to pay for the wheat beer though. I don't think the northerner in me will ever get used to paying over £7 quid for a pint!
In summary, Bern is a beautiful place. I bet it's great in the summer when the banks of the river come to life. Big thanks to Paul (and Uma) for the welcome and the tour - it was great to catch up and I'm looking forward to a return to the capital city with Miss Lavender in tow very soon.
A coupe of weekends ago, having got ourselves unpacked, and with the weather forecast cold but clear, we decided we'd have our first mini-adventure outside of the limits of Zurich with a trip to Luzern (or Lucerne as the french swiss call it and you may know it).
Despite being only a 45 minute train ride away, Luzern delivered all that we hoped for when first getting excited about making the move to Switzerland in winter time. Built at one end of a huge crystal clear lake, Luzern is framed on all sides by beautiful snow-capped mountains.
Having got our bearings with a bracing walk around the old town we ventured out on a boat tour of the lake with a round trip to nearby Beckenreid. But this was no ordinary boat ride. This, dear readers, was
'Cake on the Lake'.
Just when we thought that things couldn't get much better than bright blue skies and mountains straight from the Toblerone packet, we settled ourselves in for a boat tour that specialises in offering all passengers a huge selection of cakes and sweet treats. On board the 'Tortenschiff' (literally cake ship) we treated ourselves to a chocolate nut brownie and a decadent slice of raspberry gateau. Ironically the 'icing on the cake' was nothing to do with cake at all and came when it emerged they served cold beer too! Though I must confess the cup of tea we had subsequently was probably better accompaniment to the baked delights.
It was a lovely day and a brilliant first real taste of the natural beauty that Switzerland offers. With Luzern such a short distance away we'll definitely be back, not least for the cakes. Enjoy the pics.
Mike Stuart moved to Switzerland in 2013 when his better half Zoë landed a job in Zurich.