A couple of weekends ago we had the most stereotypically Swiss day of our lives. If there was a cliché to be had in this land, we found it. And it all began with a cheese pilgrimage.
Zoe and I started off by driving across to the French part of Switzerland to pay homage to one of this land's greatest exports – cheese. As we left the autobahn and began to head past fields and fields of udderly magnificent milk cows, we knew we were on the right track. Eventually, we arrived at our destination in glorious sunshine.
Gruyere (above) is a small, quaint town. It's barely even noticeable from the roads below, but is known around the world for one very good reason. Cheese.
After a long drive we were ready for lunch and, of course, there was only one thing on the menu (quite literally at some restaurants). We were reminded that the country we live in is a cultural fondue pot when the waitress only spoke French, but we muddled through and successfully ordered ourselves mountains of cheese. Despite temperatures approaching thirty degrees, Zoë went for the fondue platter, while I had the daily special – cheese with a side of cheese. It was fantastic.
In a bid to fend off the onset of some kind of lactose-induce coma, we then headed up the town's cobbled high street to the chateaux that offers stunning views of the valley below. I was so full from lunch that this was a challenge. When Zoë wanted to take photos with said view of backdrop I couldn't even bring myself to say "cheese".
Randomly, there are also other attractions in Gruyere that have absolutely nothing to do with dairy produce. The H.R. Giger museum is a tribute to the Swiss artist of that name, who is a 'le grand Fromage' when it comes to science fiction art. Monsieur Giger won an Oscar for his work on the set of 1980s sci-fi classic Alien.
Given the sun was out, we decided not to spend the afternoon strolling around a dark recreation of a dystopian intergalactic film set, but apparently it's quite interesting if you like that sort of thing. Directly across the street is an Alien-themed bar, with a crazy interior and drinks served only on flying saucers (the second part may not be true).
As we were intent on having a Swiss day, we also passed on the chance to go to the next attraction in the street – the Tibet Museum. Set up by an organisation called the Alain Bordier Foundation it houses what I'm told is an impressive collection of Tibetan art. Why it's in a medieval town in the middle of Switzerland, I'm afraid, despite my best googling efforts, I cannot tell you.
So, where was the day to go after this high point? Well, there's perhaps only one thing the Swiss do as well as cheese. And that's chocolate.
A short drive away from Gruyere is the small town of Broc, which is the location of the Cailler chocolate factory.
Check back for the next post to hear all about our Willy Wonka style tour, and how one man's mad idea led to Switzerland becoming the home of milk chocolate.
Raising a glass to a good hike
And, I suppose like skiing, although with presumably less risk, you can combine it with another great pastime: drinking beer.
Sipping a beer and looking at mountains is one of my favourite things in the world. For me, hiking is to beer drinking what yoga is to meditation (stay with me here). As my newly qualified yoga teacher fiancée explained to me, the original yogis originally used yoga not so they looked good in jeggings, but so they could be fit and flexible enough to sit comfortably through long periods of meditation.
I can use hiking like this to enhance my beer experience. A long climb in the sun up a steep dirt trail is tiring enough that when you get to the top and survey the view you’ve earned with a cold one, it tastes like manna from heaven. You have to try it. It’s like an out of body experience in itself.
So I say to you cheers to the hiking season. I’m so glad it’s finally begun.
The temperature is rising which in Switzerland means only one thing. Hiking season! This is great for several reasons.
In the winter I dread conversations at the office coffee machine. This is because they invariably begin with “Where did you go skiing at the weekend?” This forces me to embarrassingly confess that I don’t ski, before blabbering a set of excuses until the other person’s nespresso has reached the top of the cup and they move on, wishing they had never asked.
In the summer months however, it’s a different story. As the snow melts, so too do my coffee area inhibitions. I stride up to that caffeine machine, treat myself to a large one (or more often a tea, you can take the man out of England…) and look around smugly for someone who wants to ask me about my weekend.
This you see, is because I hike. I love hiking. Hiking is awesome.
Hiking is what people in Switzerland do in the Summer and I do it too. I am no longer the nespresso pariah!
Lifting the snowy veil
Just like people keep telling me you can’t live in Switzerland and not throw yourself down mountains with wood tied to your feet (probably not wood, but I don’t know, never skied you see…), I do agree if you live in Switzerland you should try and hike.
For me, the mountains are even more breathtaking in summer than in winter. When the snow recedes from its mountain blanket state to become more of a mountain hat, the lush green of the valleys reveals itself. Frozen lakes become sapphire jewels teeming with life. Cows are released to jangle around the hillside with their stereotypically Swiss neck bells. As I said, it’s awesome.
Picture the scene: 28th May 1952. The Swiss Hardturm Stadium is buzzing. The national team lines up in their red shirts. Flags of the same color fly in the stands. The opponents? England. A formidable team that would reach the quarter finals of the World Cup in the same country two years later. The national anthems begin to play. God save the Queen rings out. The boys in white and the away fan contingent sing out, probably just getting used to singing "Queen" not "King" with Her Majesty Elizabeth II just over a month into a reign that will last over 60 years.
As the anthem plays, awkwardness spreads among the 33,000 Swiss fans. They shuffle their feet. They know what's coming next.
When the same tune strikes up once, the England supporters think there's been some kind of mistake. Do they sing again?
This was probably the moment when it hit the Swiss nation that their national anthem wasn't theirs alone. You see, although the words to "Rufst du, mein Vaterland" were different, the melody was identical to God save the Queen (The Swiss weren't the only ones to pinch our tune, by the way – Iceland, Hawaii, Russia and Germany all previously set their national songs to the melody. Lichtenstein still uses it today). You can hear the Swiss version by clicking on the image below.
Whether that match was a catalyst or not is impossible to say, but the Swiss did eventually decide to change their national anthem.
The Swiss Psalm
The first time I heard the Psalm was when we went to watch the Swiss ice hockey team play. I must confess I was a little underwhelmed. At a sporting event in particular, a good national anthem is one that can be belted out. That's tricky with the Swiss one. And probably any psalm for that matter.
Forget Cowell, we've got a yodellling expert
The start of February marked the second anniversary of our arrival in Switzerland. This milestone seems to have come around extremely quickly, largely because we're enjoying living here so much.
During this time we've tried hard to integrate, and with quite a lot of success. Our language skills have improved, our knowledge of Swiss culture and geography is getting there, and cheese and chocolate consumption has gone through the roof. There is, however, one thing we still struggle with – "the Swiss kiss".
Before you get excited, this is nothing too raunchy but merely the way in which two Swiss people of different genders greet each other with three pecks on the cheek. Sounds simple, right? Wrong! It's fraught with opportunities to mess up. Here are the three main ones:
1. Overcoming your native customs: Shaking hands is as British as tea and biscuits. Save for the lucky few that I embrace with a hug (inclusive of masculine pat on the back for the lads), offering a hand is the go-to greeting. Whether wth men or women, you go with the right hand. Simples. Resisting this and offering a cheek instead of a palm requires serious focus.
2. Going the right way: Like an English keeper against a German penalty taker, unless you pick the right direction it's game over. There must be an unwritten rule for which way you go for the first cheek to cheek movement, but I haven't learnt it yet. And if you go the wrong way it ends up, in the best case, with an uncomfortable face-to-face moment. In the worst case scenario you end up kissing your colleague or your mate's sister on the lips.
3. The culture clash: Swiss people are, in my experience, very accommodating to us foreigners. As such, they anticipate these greeting difficulties and adapt to your own native hello. But this brings with it a whole new problem. When you think you've finally got your Swiss kiss prepared, a hand that is thrust towards you meets your stomach (or worse!) on the way in. Or you get a hug and end up kissing someone on back of their head as if you are giving them some kind of elaborate blessing.
We aren't the only ones that find this tricky either. This week's immigration policy discussions between the President of the Swiss parliament, Simonetta Sommaruga (left) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker (right) ended up being entirely overshadowed by the very awkward face-eating incident above.
Zurich's international community adds another dimension to this headache. Spanish ladies think it's hilarious if a bloke offers them his hand instead of a kiss, even if he's never met them before. Germans do two kisses, as do most others. Americans love a hug. It's a minefield!
I did recently think I had the answer: the fist bump. Not only could it improve my street cred, but I recently read that it's the most hygienic greeting (that I see this as a benefit is probably proof I need to be more "street").
My only concern is that there's probably a culture out there where the introduction of the fist bump to a confused greeting could see me inadvertently punch someone in the face. If that happens it'll be the kiss of death for my integration chances. And even a failed Swiss kiss would be better than that!
Handshake it is then.
Zoe and I are now back in Zürich after a great festive break back in England. Splitting our time between my family near Liverpool and hers in Surrey, we packed a lot in. To our mouths that is. We ate so much traditional English fayre that I now cannot so much as think about a mince pie.
Waiting for us in the post box today were two packets of iodine tablets. It's not because we have any kind of deficiency or anything, in fact we'll likely never take them. We just happened to be one of the 4.6 million Swiss people (more than half the population) who live within a 50km radius of one of Switzerland's nuclear power stations.
As the weather was great on Sunday, we headed to St.Gallen, an hour's train ride east of Zurich for the "OLMA Messen" a big agricultural fair.
This wasn't because I was looking to take my balcony veg growing to the next level (If Zoë sees another pumpkin plant she'll probably end me), but for two other great passions of mine – food and also sport, though not an event I'd seen before...
The OLMA fair offers everything from food stalls and beer tasting to the sale of power washing equipment and livestock. First up, we had a try of the local bratwurst, which is famous as it's allegedly so good that having condiments with it is a crime. Well, it was pretty good, but I think it's a bit pompous to say it wouldn't benefit from a bit of mustard. I don't thing adding a blob of "senf" should be frowned upon. Most things are better with sauce, right?
Having now made that statement, I'm probably no longer welcome in St.Gallen, so it's a good job we made the most of our day there. We tasted cheese after cheese, bought a bag of cheese and even said "cheese" as we posed for photos with cows.
There were lively beer and wine areas and I grabbed myself a can of Schutzengarten, the local brew, in anticipation of the day's main event: Schweinerennen.
Yes, that's right. Pig racing!
This turned out to be a serious sport. Serious fun that is. As the sun shone, a little man with cows on his belt buckles got the crowd fired up to welcome the racing piglets - a loud enough cheer, he said, would turn the racing pigs into fighting pigs! A small child next to us looked a bit worried about this and stopped cheering.
Herr Horse Belt also promised the event was to be "Speck-tacular" (Speck being German for bacon - get it?). I hoped the pigs didn't understand that gag, I thought it might put them off. And we had five francs on a pig in each race.
Then it all kicked off! Status quo started playing, hands started clapping and pigs began squealing with excitement as they were led to the starting gates. Talk about dramatic.
With five francs on the piglet in a black and white racing bib, we watched with bated breath as they raced to the course's jump. It turns out, when faced with a hurdle, pigs will fly!
Unfortunately the pig we backed didn't fly as far as we might have hoped and was pipped to victory on the home straight. There was always race 2...
But then, disaster! The pig we went for in that round stumbled at the fence and didn't win either. Pig sick I was.
Actually, even two losses on the trot (should that be trotters?) couldn't dampen our spirits. We went home having had a great experience, with full bellies and giant bag of cheese. We didn't win on the races, but we certainly pigged out!
Enjoy the pics!
A couple of weeks ago I took part in the "Greifenseelauf" - a half marathon held in Zurich, popular for its flat, scenic course.
I ran not just for the thrill of the challenge, but to raise money for The MS Society - an organisation seeking to beat Multiple Sclerosis. It's a cause close to my heart as my mother is a sufferer, and we have several friends whose relatives are affected.
Thanks to the incredible generosity of friends and family, when I stepped up to the start line I'd been promised £568, money to go towards helping those with MS and to support research aiming to identify a cure. All I had to do was run 13.1 miles. Gulp.
I'd run that far twice during training, so I was quietly confident I'd go the distance, but with the weather surprisingly hot, I wasn't sure I'd be able to beat my previous personal best of 1 hour 45 minutes, set at the Great North Run in Newcastle a couple of years ago.
It was interesting that I didn't see anyone else in a charity running vest as I made my way around, and I've never heard of any of my Swiss mates doing a sporting activity to raise donations for a cause. That isn't to say that they don't take on such challenges – the culture of sport and fitness here is incredible. If a Swiss person is late back from lunch, they may well have done an Ironman.
I think that's what's behind the lack of fancy dress competitors and fundraising requests. So many people do so many events here that they need to do something even more awe-inspiring to warrant asking for funds. Or they just consider their sporting endeavours and charity contributions as two very separate things. Maybe it's bit of both.
Anyway, back to the race, and just a few hundred metres in, my MS Society charity running rest came in handy. I stuck the bottom half of my face in it to mask the smell of an initial stretch past a sewage works. The pong didn't last long, however, and the scenery soon started to improve as we began snaking around the Greifensee.
The few folks that live along the rural route came out to offer encouragement by jangling cow bells and spraying the runners with hoses. Though the intention is kind, I tried really hard not to get squirted. Wet kit can lead to chafed nipples. And there really is very little that's worse than chafed nipples. As a result, some of my fastest stretches were those that involved sprinting past farmers wielding water cannons.
Though the course is flat, they throw in a cheeky climb at the end, just for good measure. It's not too big or steep, but coming 12 miles in, it feels like the Matterhorn. Thankfully, I'd been running up the hill behind our flat quite a bit during training, so I managed to make it to summit without too much trouble.
By going steady at the beginning of the race, and picking up the pace at the end, I'm pleased to report I came home in 1 hour and 39 minutes. Not necessarily a time an East African would be proud of, but
a great result for me. If I'd had the energy to celebrate, I would've done, but as you can see from my finishing video here, it took all my effort just to turn off my stopwatch. I was delighted and relieved to finally see my finishing committee of Zoe and our friend Nat waiting to point me in the direction of a seat.
If you check out the video, watch out for the tall bearded guy storming in behind me. I used him as a pacer for the last four miles but it seems he went for a different finishing strategy to me. I have to say, anyone can go that fast, and get their knees that high, is impressive, not least at the end of a half marathon.
So, all in all, a great experience for a good cause. And, as my legs are still a little heavy, I figure I can still make one last fundraising plea. It's not too late to donate online - you can do your bit to beat MS by heading over to www.justgiving.com/halfmarathonmikey.
There will be a few sore heads in Switzerland today, and not just because of the Street Parade techno festival that has taken over Zurich. You see, August 1st is Swiss national day. And It has been a "Feiertag" (day of celebration) marking the birth of the country since 1891.
But the announcement of an allegiance between three Swiss cantons to form what is now the Switzerland we know and love today actually happened in 1291, some 600 years earlier. As is the Swiss way, they probably didn't want to make a fuss.
Celebrations range from family dinners to village fetes or even giant firework displays.
But for me, there are three things in particular that make Swiss national day special:
1. Swiss cross buns
People often ask me what I like most about living in Switzerland. Well, I reply, the flag is a big plus! (groan). On a serious note, I do quite like the Swiss flag. You can't beat the union flag of the Great British isles of course, but the white cross on a red background is simple and iconic. Well, again, the Swiss don't like to make a fuss.
Apart from when it comes to decorating baked goods, that is. The run-up to August 1st sees bakeries and supermarkets filled with treats bearing the national flag. I even got hard boiled eggs painted with the flag the other day. It's the sweeter side of patriotism and I like it!
2. It really is a national holiday
...So all in Switzerland get the day off. Whether you're from the French-speaking part, talk Swiss German, reside in the Italian bit or are expats like us, you are free to enjoy the festivities. At a time of year when the weather is usually excellent for doing super Swiss things like hiking. And even if it's raining you can stay inside and eat cakes with the Swiss flag on. Or you can do what we did this year and use a long weekend to go somewhere else - I'm currently writing this in leafy Surrey!
But before you report my lack of allegiance to my new homeland to the authorities, I know plenty of Swiss people who are doing the same (travelling abroad, not visiting Surrey). I don't think it's too frowned upon. As you may be aware, the Swiss don't like to make a fuss.
3. It's also Yorkshire Day!
Ee by gum! August 1st isn't just the designated day for celebrating Switzerland's existence but that of the county of Yorkshire too. "Ey up', I hear you cry! "How can I celebrate both these remarkable events if they are on the same day?!"
Fear not, this blog isn't known as a font of knowledge for "nowt"! As the famous Betty's and Taylor's of Harrogate was founded by a Swiss baker back in 1919, they celebrate both occasions in their six tea rooms across Yorkshire!
I hear booking is recommended but that you'll still be welcomed if you turn up unannounced. There's just one condition: don't make a fuss.
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.
Mike Stuart moved to Switzerland in 2013 when his better half Zoë landed a job in Zurich.