Ever heard of Xherdan Shaqiri? If the answer is no, then you're probably not reading this in Switzerland. His stocky frame, boyish grin and dodgy earring are staring out of almost every billboard in Zurich, and presumably in each and every Swiss town. He's the moody character in the picture above.
As another valiant England defeat signals that the World Cup is well and truly here, the Swiss are gearing up for their first game against Ecuador this evening. And much of their hope rests on the rather broad shoulders of Herr Shaqiri.
The star of the Swiss national side, Shaqiri plys his trade during the club season for European football behemoth Bayern Munich. He rose to fame playing for Basel, and notably gave Manchester United's defenders a torrid time when the two teams met in European competition, setting up two goals.
If you take a look at the team sheet you can probably see that they have a point. Midfielder Valon Behrami was born in Kosovo, captain Gokhan Inler has Turkish roots, Blerim Dzemaili moved to Switzerland from Macedonia when he was four, strikers Josip Drmic and Mario Gavranovic both have Croatian families, the list goes on.
In fact, it makes me wonder why those objecting to the recent ruling on introducing immigration quotas didn't point to the disastrous effect that it could have on the Swiss national team (or "Nati" as it's known here).
With this tournament to mark the end of the respected Ottmar Hitzfeld's reign as manager of Switzerland, the natives here are hoping Shaqiri and co. can fire their boys in red to prominence on the World Stage. In fact, they seem pretty confident. All the talk in the papers today was about the Swiss getting to the quarter finals.
I hope for my own personal experience of the tournament that the Swiss do well. It would be nice to be in a country that had some good performances to celebrate for a change (though I actually thought England did pretty well against Italy).
Watching the tournament in Zurich should be a great experience. Switzerland has a team of non-Swiss names because it's an international place, Zurich in particular. And that makes it a great place to be for the World Cup,
Case in point, Zoe and I had a good time on Friday night watching Spain against Holland with the Spanish guys that I work with. Even though the atmosphere went steadily from "fiesta" to "siesta" as Netherlands scored goal after goal, it was great to experience the emotion of the game with those amigos that really cared.
So, tonight I'll be inverting my St. George's flag and shouting "Hopp Schwiiz" (come on the Swiss).
I imagine there will be a few people in Albania and Kosovo doing the same.
Send your toast soldiers back to the barracks. Switzerland didn't get to be the country it is today by having a soft centre.
All year round, but especially come Easter time, hard boiled eggs are a snack of choice. You can't help but notice the "Picnick-Eier" (picnic eggs) in the shops. The shells of these ready-boiled eggs are brightly painted in every shade of the rainbow. Sometime they're patterned too, or they even sport the Swiss flag. The shades vary in many different ways. But when it comes to eating them the rules are, as we've come to expect in Switzerland, exact (or should that be eggs-act?).
After you've peeled off the luminous shell you need to season the egg before you bite in. And plain old salt and pepper won't cut the mustard. Ironically, neither will actual mustard. You need to sprinkle your egg with a magical powder know as "Aromat" (shown below).
This stuff has been around since the fifties and I think the best way to describe it is as a powdered version of a stock cube which, incidentally, was invented in Switzerland).
I'm not sure, however, that crumbling an oxo cube on your boiled egg will have the same effect. This stuff is a unique blend of salt and spices. And it's pretty good. I'd recommend giving it a try.
Zoe loves the eggs, albeit without the Aromat. She eats them at least twice a week for breakfast.
For this Brit, however, you can't beat a dippy egg. And pass me the plain old salt.
Immigration is a hot topic in Switzerland. As you may have heard, a little while back Switzerland voted to limit immigration using a quota system. The vote was passed by the slimmest of margins, just 0.3%. Worth noting is that the cantons (regions in Switzerland) that voted in favour of a cap on immigration tended to be those that are more rural. They are also the ones that I've not been to yet. In fact, there's actually a clear correlation between the cantons I've been to and a positive view of immigration. Interesting...
Anyhow, I thought it was pretty cool that the Cantons with big cities that have large expat communities were against limiting immigration. Since the vote, many people have implied that the Swiss are xenophobic, but I think that's an extremely unfair generalisation.
For me, and for many of the Swiss folks we know, the international feel in Zürich is one of its biggest attractions. When I get on the tram in the morning I can hear a mix of English, German, French, Spanish, and Russian. Not all from the same person you understand. The Swiss are good at languages, but they're not that good.
It's a bit like getting on the tube in London, in that respect (though thankfully not in others – see earlier post on Swiss transport).
On an international note, I play football every week with a group of lads from all over the world. It's awesome. We all have different backgrounds and nationalities but the beautiful game transcends all language barriers. The stereotypes are all conformed to as well. The brazilians like to dribble, the spaniards try and play pass 'n' move and the English miss penalties (sorry again boys).
If, or rather, when, I miss a chance, I get chastised by teammates in about six different languages. The plus side to having terrible shooting skills is that I've now learnt swear words in pretty much every language.
The office is really international too. Amongst others I work with lots of Swiss folks, some Germans and a fair few Swedes. My boss is American. I even heard a rumour there was someone from Madagascar working in the building.
But I think probably the best thing to come out of my new international environment is the information I am about to share with you.
As you've probably sensed, the British royal family has quite a following, even way beyond the Commonwealth. It's no different in Spain, where celeb magazines like Hola! like to run pics of Wills, Kate and baby George. If you were to look at captions however, you'd be a little surprised.
You see, as I've learned from Spanish colleagues, and the Spanish ladies in my German class, the Spanish translate the names of major public figures into Spanish. So, for them, the next in line to the English throne is not Prince Charles, but, wait for it, Prince Carlos!
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge? Oh, you mean Catalina and Guillermo. And how cute is their baby son Jorge !?!
Plus, just like the tabloids, the Spanish press like to keep tabs on what the rebellious Principé Henrique is up to! (That's Harry to you or I).
Isn't that awesome? Prince Charles seems much cooler if you refer to him as Carlos. I think I'll be doing that from now on.
Or "schöni Wienachte" as they say here in Switzerland!
Having had a crisp, clear December here in Zurich, Zoë and I have been out and about making the most of some of the festive activities the city and the surrounding area have to offer.
From admiring the Swarovski crystal christmas tree (they love a bit of decadence in Züri) and one which has singing children sat in it (much more fun than baubles, see pic below) to meandering among Christmas markets and glugging down Glühwein, it's a great place for getting in the festive mood.
There is, however, one tradition that left me feeling scared as a turkey at this time of year...
If I were to ask you who Father Christmas hangs around with, who would you say? Rudolph? Mrs Claus? Some hard working elves?
Well, in Switzerland, and some other European countries as I understand it, Sami Claus is accompanied by his own personal muscle. The Schmutzli.
With a blackened face and tattered dark clothes, Schmutzli is a child's worse nightmare. Not only does he look sinister, but he is also a strict disciplinarian.
In the grottos at home, Santa simply asks whether you have been good. Here, in a country where decisions are made only by committee, there is no such easy way to guarantee presents under the tree.
You see, Schmutzli knows if you have been naughty or nice. And, if you have been bad, he administers a bit of a thrashing with a broom of twigs!
Well, to avoid Zoë getting stressed out and inflicting some sort of Schmutzli-like punishment on me, I'd better get my last bits of packing sorted ahead of our flight to England later today. Really looking forward to spending time with friends and family and eating an inordinate amount. So, all that remains to say is:
Ganz schöni Wienachte und an guäte Rutsch is Neue Jaar wünscht eui allne!
(Merry Christmas and a happy new year to you all!)
Mike & Zoë
Swiss people are proud of their mountains. And rightly so. As peaks go, they have some of the very best.
Then, this weekend, Zoe and I headed to Bannalp, just north of Engelberg – proper mountain territory. And this time it was proper hiking. Meticulously connected public transport got us painlessly to a cable car which took us up to 1713m. And the weather was perfect. Zoe had planned a combination of two routes. A gentle uphill and then a descent on a route classified as “difficult” though I was assured we were skipping out the tricky bit. The climb up to 1951m wasn’t too tough and we were rewarded with a seemingly endless view of the glacial valley below. It was truly breath-taking (probably as we’re not very fit).
The thing is, as we’re not Swiss, we hadn’t quite got our plans right. The descent of almost 1,000m turned out to be THE tricky bit of the route and though we had planned lunch in a quaint little “Hütte” on the mountainside, one never emerged. So, I’m not going to lie, it was tough going. My knees are still sore from acting as brakes the whole way down. But I tell you what, it was worth it. The great outdoors, the fresh air, the incredible views, the repeated “Grüezi”s from passers by – it all made for a great experience and a sense of achievement at the end. If you want to feel reinvigorated then I now know what to recommend: take a hike.
Hope you like the pics,
The Swiss are stereotypically a reserved bunch. Of course that's a sweeping generalisation, and we've already met some colourful characters in the short time we've been here. Plus, some of the traits that have earned the Swiss this label don't seem as uptight now I'm here and experiencing them first hand. No noisy activities on a Sunday makes for a nice, peaceful day of rest, and is particularly valued if you've had a few too many bottles of Appenzeller beer the night before (though church bell ringers are exempt from this rule and as we live between two churches total silence is never really achieved).
Contrary to popular belief, the natives here love to let their hair down. And when they do, they do it big time. Whether it's pyrotechnics at the football or dancing until the early hours, it seems the seriousness of their day-to-day working lives often gets well and truly forgotten. I go for more post-work socialising here than I did in London. I'm also hard-pushed to think of another city that would open up its main streets, including the financial district, for the biggest techno-rave party in Europe. We enjoyed the 'Street Parade' very much, as did hundreds of thousands of other revellers. And this came only a few weeks after the "Züri Fest". Taking place every three years, it again saw the city opened up to drunken tomfoolery. In an English city it would be violent chaos. In Switzerland it was a great party.
But even when having fun, Swiss efficiency isn't far away. Apps and maps detail all the public facilities for each big event. And somehow the cleaning up begins before the party is even started. Whilst the party goers are catching up on their sleep the cleaning force is wide awake, removing any trace of the previous night's hijinx. If you head into town for a hangover-beating bite to eat you find life carrying on as if the party never happened. And through bleary eyes you wonder if it actually did.
After a beautiful Summer, Winter is finally arriving in Zürich. Which means it's going to get cold. And very, very grey.
As I hail from the north west of England, grey skies are not unfamiliar to me. But here they are different. When we arrived in February we caught the end of a pretty tough winter. It was bleak. For some reason the grey blanket of cloud that covers the sky seems to sit a little lower here, topping the surrounding hills like icing.
But there is nothing sweet about the frosting that covers the ground and makes walking about treacherous. Before long it will soon be bitterly cold again too. To forget the temperatures and find some sun most Swiss folk tend to head in one direction. Up.
If you can get high enough among the alps you can battle through the murk and mist to rediscover the sun. Zoe and I unfortunately don't ski, which may make us social pariahs here during the winter months. There are, however, other actives to explore in the winter - sledding, snow-shoeing etc and we might well give those a try. We'll keep you posted.
There is, however, one source of colour in Swiss life that will not fade when the days get shorter and the mercury plummets. It's their trousers.
At odds to their conservative stereotype, it seems the Swiss blokes love to wear brightly coloured trousers. And I mean neon rave, highlighter pen bright. It isn't just me that's noticed it either. My colleagues from other parts of the world have also pointed it out. Once, when we headed for a post-work drink, our Swiss workmate Christian wore pants in such a bright shade of blue that we were worried papa smurf would come crawling up asking for his legs back. At least it made him easy to spot in the beer queue.
In "Swiss Watching", Diccon Bewes' excellent book about Swiss culture, he references that Swiss people seem to wear red shoes a lot. I must say, I haven't actually noticed a lot of feet in the national colour during my time here. But I have seen red pants. And builders' jacket lumo yellow ones. And traffic-cone orange ones. And in a shop I saw a pair of purple ones even Prince (or the artist formerly known as such) would have considered too garish.
For all I know this is a worldwide fashion trend that I've somehow missed out on, and in a few months you'll be reminding me of this post as I strut around in chinos of blinding mauve. Or perhaps the Winter will be so grey that seasonal affective disorder will drive me to purchase an amazing technicolor shellsuit. Well, I suppose I am from Liverpool. Sometimes things come full circle...
The area of Zurich we reside in is called Oerlikon (pronounced Ur-lee-kon). It was by chance that we ended up here. A little out of town (about 20 mins from the centre, such is the compact nature of Zurich) it is one of the less expensive areas of the city to live in and, being just a ten minute tram ride from Zoe's office, the location seemed ideal when we started looking for a flat here.
It's actually worked out brilliantly. I've just gone and got myself a job as Editorial Manager for a company that makes dental implants (well, I wanted a role I could get my teeth into) and my office is just 15 minutes away on the tram, a couple of stops past Zoe's. This makes it an hour less than my previous commute from Hitchin to London. On a cleaner, more punctual and cheaper transport system. It's simply wunderbar.
However, there is more to Oerlikon than just great transport connections and I haven't even gone into half of them! - Direct (and on time!) trains to Luzern and other places, plus they're extending the train stations for even more links, which, for a Brit used to getting soaked on a crowded platform, is pretty exciting. I appreciate, however, train ranting might not make for the best blog post. So enough of that...
Apparently, the name Oerlikon goes back to the alemannic settlement founder Orilo. Oerlikon was mentioned for the first time on record in the year 946. At that time the town consisted of no more than one dozen houses and was part of the municipality Schwamendingen, where the inhabitants of Oerlikon went to school and attended church. Zoe and I actually live just off 'Schwamedigenstrasse' now, though we're still not sure how to pronounce it.
In 1855 a railway (last mention I promise) that connected southern Germany with Zurich was built. As a result Oerlikon expanded and became a hub for industry and trade. One of Switzerland's biggest industrial firms bears the name 'Oerlikon' to this day and ABB are among the engineering companies that have big offices here. In 1872 Oerlikon was separated from Schwamendingen and became its own municipality. In 1897 a tramway (my previous promise referred only to trains!) from Zurich to Oerlikon was built and the suburb has been a busy part of Zurich ever since.
The town's industrial heritage is still very prominent today. One well know example is the recent moving of an entire building to make way for the expansion of the train station I mentioned. Yes that's right, here, you don't demolish buildings of historical significance to make way for progress - you move them. Even if, like the old headquarters of engineering firm Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon (MFO), they weigh 6,200 tonnes.
You can see a time lapse video of this feat of Swiss precision here. It's a very nice building and fantastic that it has been preserved. It actually now has a bar in it which I visited with my new work colleagues the other day. I imagine the bar wasn't there when the builders were moving it or they'd never have got the thing 60 metres down the street, well, not in a straight line at least.
Next to the old MFO building is the MFO park. Created on the site of the old MFO factory, it's now an award winning bit of urban landscaping with platforms, stairs and scented plants, all on a frame which stands where the old factory walls used to be.
The building above dates from the industrial age and is now the heating plant for the surrounding residential buildings. The repeated number two on the side is a bit of left wing artwork that stands for 'community and the divisible', presumably in a nod to the common man / trade unions that used to operate in the area in its factory filled heyday.
Back in the old part of town there is another interesting piece of 'Kunst' (art). Aptly entitled 'The Walker', the bronze statue (below) of a naked chap going for a stroll actually has nothing to do with the Swiss passion for naked hiking, though it has caused just as much controversy.
When I read in the poorly translated guidebook blurb that the statue's erection had caused a stir I was a left feeling a bit sorry for the poor chap, but it turns out that they meant his mere installation triggered uproar. Installed in 1934 next to a school (I sense local sculptor Franz Fischer was looking to ruffle a few feathers) the locals protested vehemently against it and local writer Albin Zollinger called it "pornographic". They must have found something else to complain about, however, as it actually won a gold medal as Switzerland's entry at the World Fair in New York five years later and it stands next to the changing rooms of the local school to this day.
Attitudes must certainly have become more liberal in recent years otherwise the town would never have allowed the bright orange 'Dorflinde' to be built. Roughly translating as 'Linden Tree Village', this complex of bright orange blocks sits pretty much opposite our flat and contains, amongst other things, some local authority offices. The name refers to the village that was on the site until 1799 when it was burnt down in a battle with the French and the Austrians (and you thought the Swiss didn't get involved in wars!).
I thought the orange colour of the buildings might be a tribute of dubious taste to this blaze but my dodgy guide book (provided by the state I hasten to add) explains that it is "painted in the colours of the 1970s". That this is written in an almost boastful way causes me a great deal of concern. It may also help explain why the clothes shops here often seem to be in a time warp. If you want anything from C&A just let us know - still going strong in der Schweiz!
All in all, we love where we live. Equidistant from the airport and the city centre, Oerlikon is great for transport, has a few nice bars and restaurants and also, as we've seen, a few stories to tell too. Hopefully we'll be hosting a few more of you soon so that we can show you its delights in person.
From walking in the air to the sound of a young Aled Jones, or starring in last year's festive John Lewis advert, the UK cherishes the humble snowman as a symbol of the fun that can be had in Winter despite low tempeatures. In Zurich it's a bit different. Here, the snowman gets executed.
Instead of being allowed to gently dissolve to form a slushy puddle when the mercury in the thermometer starts to rise, he is perched upon a pyre to burn until his head, stuffed full of fireworks, explodes.
This is Sechseläuten (pronounced 'Zeks-uh-loy-ten) or, in Swiss German: 'Sächsilüüte' (zeks-uh-loot-e) and is the traditional Zurich festival for saying goodbye to the winter and welcoming spring. Celebrated on the 3rd Monday in April since the early twentieth century, it's a national holiday in the Canton of Zurich (but not elsewhere in Switzerland). Last weekend for 2013's celebrations saw glorious weather here and we were fortunate to have had my parents with us to witness this fascinating cultural event as well.
The day begins with a parade through the city by the members of the 'Zuenfte' - the old city Guilds, each with their own marching band and floats. My favourite was the 'Zunft zum Kaembel' or 'Camel Guild'. Derived from an organisation of fruit and vegetable sellers from way back when, they were dressed in arab clothing and their procession included actual camels (see pic in slide show below). I've tried to find the reason for this link with the middle east but even on their website in doesn't seem to be explained - presumably they were wheeling and dealing with tradesfolk from that part of the world to stack their own veritable Aladdin's caves here in Zurich.
The origins of the festival go back to medieval times when the first day of summer working hours was celebrated in the guildhalls across the city. Back then, the powers that be strictly regulated the length of the working day and during the winter period the workday in the various workshops lasted as long as there was daylight. During the summer months, however, the law stated that work must cease when the church bells tolled at six o'clock. Sechseläuten is Swiss-German for "The six o'clock ringing of the bells". Changing to summer working hours traditionally was a joyous occasion because it marked the beginning of the season, though the parade and snowman execution didn't begin until 1902.
The procession of guild members heads to a dedicated square next to the lake where the snowman or 'Böögg' as he is known (a bit like a bogey man - very different to Raymond Briggs' interpretation!) is perched ready to meet an explosive end.
At 6pm we, and a staggering 5000 other specatators, gathered around as the bonfire was lit. The legend has it that the quicker the fire reaches the poor fellow to blow off his head, the better the summer will be. The quickest execution on record was in 1974 when his carrot nose was sent into orbit after just over 5 minutes, indicating a scorcher of a summer on the way. The longest burning at the stake on record was 26:23 in 2001. That is, until this year.
Despite a hot sunny day, it took 35 minutes and 11 seconds for the final giant pop to indicate our bogeyman had gone to snowman heaven. This of course doesn't bode well for our first summer in der Schweiz. In fact, since the Böögg met his violent end the clear skies have been replaced by clouds. Even the UK has had better weather than us.
I'm beginning to wonder whether sacrificing Mr Snowman was such a good idea...
P.S. Just in case the spirit of winter is here to haunt us for a while I've included a few pics below from the trip we took with my folks to Luzern before the weather changed. And thanks to Dad for providing most of the below photos.
P.P.S - this YouYube video will give you a good feel for - the festivities: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQBEMWfVAuE - skip to the end for the snowman's final moments.
We're still getting to know the local way of life but it's fair to say that the Swiss have a reputation for being sticklers for the rules. Going back to our very first day, this became apparent after being here for only 5 minutes. Having literally just got through the door to the new flat where Zoe, having already arrived a couple of days prior, was directing the removal men's activities, the doorbell rang.
Now, my German is a bit rusty, and the Swiss accent is likely to baffle me forever, but when I picked out the word 'Polizei' among the garbled speech that came through the intercom I realised we had better open the door.
Fearing I'd made an immigration related admin error that was about to see me sent back to Blighty, I was relieved when the two stern officers at the door asked if I owned a truck. Filled with relief I declared that I do not own a truck, nor any vehicle for that matter, and explained as best I could 'auf Deutsch' that I'd literally just arrived and that we were only now moving in.
Putting two and two together more quickly than I did (I did have a 4:30am start that day to be fair) the policeman asked whether moving in required a giant truck. Yes, I replied, pondering for a moment - I supposed it probably did.
So, as you've probably already got there quicker than I did that morning, I can confirm the removal men had a giant van that had brought all of our possessions to the continent and that they had parked it where they shouldn't. Big no-no in der Schweiz.
So the police told the driver where to move his van and he did just that. But we weren't finished there, unfortunately, oh no. As I began to commence some bleary eyed unpacking my attention was drawn to some squawking from outside. Some local birdlife, I presumed, making a mental note to get a bird feeder for the balcony I'm so excited about.
Unfortunately it turned out to be a gaggle of elderly Swiss ladies who were up in arms and pointing at a parked car. It looked like this was the most excitement they'd seen in Oerlikon in some time. Just a few minutes later, as the removal men were saying their goodbyes, the Police arrived again, this time stating that a parked car had been knocked by their juggernaut.
What unfurled then was like something from an epidsode of CSI. Two riot vans arrived on scene in addition to the car that was already there. One young officer then began taking pictures of the car that had been bumped and the removal chaps were taken away for questioning. As they had done all their work in the flat we never actually saw them again, though as the truck was gone the next day I assume they were released and made it on their way (I don't want to ask too many questions until my visa has been processed).
So, a bit of excitement on day one that probably demonstrates the serious approach of the Swiss. They don't seem to do things by halves and I reckon that's a good thing. It certainly bodes well if we are ever in need of Police support here I suppose - I'm not sure you'd get that sort of attention for a murder in the UK, never mind a dented bumper.
Mike Stuart moved to Switzerland in 2013 when his better half Zoë landed a job in Zurich.