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.
With the 2014 Winter Olympic Games behind us and the Paralympic Games well underway, now seems an appropriate time to post about the Swiss love of winter sports.
As you might expect of citizens from a country full of mountains, they love throwing themselves around on ice and snow. And they're pretty good at it too. Despite being a relatively tiny country, Switzerland finished 7th in the Sochi medals table, bringing 11 medals back to the land of cheese, 6 of them gold.
While we Brits may have outdone them in curling, the winter equivalent of crown-green bowls, they were victorious in bonkers, dangerous sports such as alpine skiing. Of course I don't feel too bad about this. In Britain we don't have any alps to practice on. If they made "Milton Keynes snowdome skiing" an Olympic sport we'd probably fare much better.
That said, even for the Swiss, winter sports are dangerous. Between October and March the number of people you see hobbling around Zürich on crutches is astounding. Between 10,000 and 12,000 cruciate ligaments are torn in Switzerland each year. That's about one per hour. And I'm pretty sure most of them are because of winter sports. The cry of Swiss fans as they cheer in their nation's heroes is "Hopp Schwiiz" (roughly translated as "go Switzerland"). But it's equally applicable in the cities after any winter weekend of good weather. Everyone seems to be "hopping" about on crutches. They've all done their knees in skiing and snowboarding.
Zoe and I don't ski. We've tried it but we don't 'do' it. When you tell a Swiss person this they often seem baffled. They will also be baffled if you ask them whether they "ski or snowboard?". This is a perfectly legiitimate question to a Brit. But they are Swiss. They can do both. Probably even at the same time.
We do, however, love being in the mountains. We recently went to the Grindelwald region, home of the Jungfrau and the Eiger, to do a bit of snowshoeing. Check out some of the pics below. It was great fun. Even if it isn't perhaps as thrilling as skiing, being able to walk on giant drifts of snow to take in incredible views was still breathtaking.
While we were in the area we also joined hoards of Asian tourists to head to the "top of Europe". A special train takes you up to the Jungfraujoch - within a stones' throw of the peak of the Jungfrau itself. It was spectacular.
Though as a Brit, and a lily-livered one at that, I may never feel on top of the world when it comes to winter sports, I literally felt atop the world that day. I can really see why the Swiss love their mountains. But I still have no urge to throw myself off one.
Never has it been so sweet. After a long day at the office, silence truly is golden. No moaning, no tutting, no blackberry ringtones, no angry shouting about stocks or shares. In fact, the platform is empty.
In and out. Deeply. Breathing is also a pleasure. The lack of elbows between my ribs makes exhaling a joy. And the lack of other people's breath on me is also something to be treasured.
I give thanks once again, as I do every day. Commuting in Zürich is different to London.
I stretch my hands in front of me, surprised at the personal space I'm afforded. I have a glance up and see the mountains in the distance. I did see great scenery on the tube too, I suppose. You see they like to put billboards for holidays down there. Who longs for a sandy beach more than someone having to travel to work through a cramped underground tunnel? He's cruel, Thomas Cook.
I get my phone out, because there is the space in front of me to do so, just because I can. I could use it to check the progress of the tram but that would be pointless. It's always on time. On the rare occasion it's not I'll be notified by the tannoy from nowhere. The voice from the sky will boom the exact length of delay, the reason and, if necessary, alternative connections. There are usually a few of those. It's as if God himself is controlling the Zürich public transport system. Sometimes it's so good I think he actually might be.
I recently reached a new level of impressed when the tram to work suddenly terminated early. Before I'd even had a chance to realise what was going on, a bus stopped alongside to whisk me off to my destination. It was scarily efficient. Someone or something omnipotent is definitely involved.
This isn't special treatment I'm getting either. I'm not paying more to get this service, it's just how it is. In fact, public transport here is cheaper that in the UK. My season pass for commuting is very affordable. And for longer journeys I can use my half-price pass. That paid for itself in a couple of trips to Bern. It's great at weekends.
"What about the Sunday service?"I hear you cry. If you ask a Swiss person whether there are fewer trains on Sundays they will look at you like you have lost your mind. An infrequent service on a day when everyone is free to travel for fun and visit loved ones? "What sort of backwards country would do such a thing to its people?" they ask, astounded. Sadly, as many of you know, Britain is not "Great" in this regard.
For those who like to really get about there's the "GA" (General Abonnement) which gives you the freedom to make use of the Swiss public transport network as much as you like. The annual cost is less than what I used to pay to take a packed sardine can of a train from Hertfordshire to London every day.
The trains, buses and trams are clean too. No "Tony luvs Debz" in tipp-ex on the back of seats here. And they're spacious too. Most trains are double-deckers. They're so big even the giraffes and elephants at Zurich Zoo could comfortably commute to work on public transport.
The Swiss, unfortunately, don't all seem to realise how lucky they are. Some still have a moan about their trains and trams from time to time. "2 minutes late two days in a row!" I've heard exclaimed. A friend even saw someone actually cry because of a rare lengthy delay. Try getting on the 7:31 from Hitchin to Kings Cross love. That'll give you something to weep about.
But I know how lucky I am. And so, every day, I'll keep giving thanks that I've been saved from a daily journey worse than death. In Switzerland, my commuting prayers have been answered.
In following a post about bacon with one about pig farming, you could quite easily accuse me of telling porkies. Although it might be hard to believe I spent a weekend trying my hand at pig farming, I can assure you it's the truth. And here are the photos to prove it!
On Saturday afternoon, after arriving in France by train, we headed out to the fields to help with moving an Ark. I thought this was an appropriate name for a pig house as it took an effort of biblical proportions to shift the thing. But, with a bit of teamwork and the promise of wine once finished, we got it into the field that was to become the new home of lady pig Ella and her six cheeky piglets.
This turned out to be a day of firsts and learnings. These included:
All in all it was a lovely weekend and we're already looking forward to our next trip to the Liberty farm. Andrew and Sarita are fantastic hosts, and it's always great to see Zoë's nieces Emelia, Ruby and Annie.
In the meantime we're looking forward to pigging out on our lovely Liberty Pig goodies. Especially as Swiss sausages are the wurst.
A belated 2014 everyone, we hope you had "einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr" – a good slide into the new year as they say auf Deutsch.
We were back on the island for Christmas and New Year and had a great time with family and friends. It was unnervingly normal to be back among Brits for a period of longer than just a few days and, despite now having lived in Zurich for pretty much a year (the 1st of Feb 2013 was when our mini invasion began), it took a little bit of time to get back into the Swiss routine. This was actually a good indication that we are not even close to becoming Swiss. They love routine.
This little break was a good time to work out how living in Switzerland really compares to being a resident of the British isles, not least because it's all people back home seem to ask about. What do you miss? they enquire. And of course, our loved ones come top. But there is something else that makes me occasionally pine for home. You may think it trivial, but the longing for me is real. The longing that is, for bacon.
Wait. Where's the bacon?
Switzerland has over 4 million types of cooked, sliced pork. Ok, this may not be true. But you wouldn't necessarily think it was an exaggeration if you took a look down the refrigerator aisle of a Coop supermarket (pronounced not like co-op but more like where you find chickens. Which is appropriate in a way because they do sell chickens. You'll find them once you've made it past all the ham. Note: You may need a sherpa for this).
Don't get me wrong. I like ham, and smoked ham, and salami. I'd even go as far as to say I'm partial to the stuff. But there's one problem. It just isn't bacon.
You can't fry it up and stick it on a sandwich on a Sunday morning. It doesn't go with a cup of tea, nor with HP.
They do have "speck" here, which is like streaky bacon. But it still doesn't cut the mustard. It probably goes with mustard, but I don't want it to. I want the comforting hug on a plate that only a bacon sarnie can provide.
So yes, there, I've admitted it. I miss is bacon. Lovely back bacon. And at the same time I'll confess to something else I miss – proper greasy spoon cafes. Places to go for a fry up. But I guess that's probably a chicken and egg scenario (they do sell eggs, and we've already discussed chicken) – if you don't have bacon you can't have a fry-up so, in turn, you can't have a "caf". It's a terrible vicious circle of disappointment.
And it makes me wonder, what on earth do van drivers here eat? You can't tell me they go for the continental breakfast. Even in Switzerland, there is only thing that's continental about van drivers. Their tyres.
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
In Switzerland, winter gets pretty cold. Can't feel your feet, nose Rudolph would be proud of, cold. The mercury struggles to climb above freezing and we humans struggle to climb out of bed, so low is the appeal of tackling the elements.
The Swiss, however, are used to this. They take it in their stride. But, of course, they have a secret. And I've sussed it.
I have established that the ability to take on Jack Frost and win comes from one source.
But not just any cheese. Melted cheese. In a pot, with wine and herbs. Fondue, to be exact.
You see, it turns out that eating fondue in Switzerland is not just a stereotype; it's compulsory. And I think it might be a method of survival.
When you line yourself with melted gruyere, a bit of vacherin, herbs, spices, wine and schnapps, the cold cannot penetrate. Swiss people are, as a rule, not fat. But I suspect, on the inside, they are mostly cheese.
Still not cheesed off after nearly 300 years
1. Never eat fondue with a hangover
My first fondue experience wasn't the best. In fact, it was horrible. Back in February I tried to tackle this national dish when some of the lads came over. As you may remember from a previous blog post, their visit got a bit messy. After a night on the town the fondue lunch I'd planned as a bit of a cultural excursion sounded like a terrible idea. And it was.
Determined to press ahead with the plan, I dragged the lads, and a less-than-impressed-with-us Zoe, to one of Zurich's finest fondue restaurants. The boys couldn't even face cheese and ordered something else. I felt ok for the first few cubes of cheese soaked bread. That didn't last long. They soon turned to lead in my delicate stomach, leaving me the same shade of green as the pesto fondue that is very popular in that particular establishment.
2. Prepare yourself for the smell
What didn't help is that fondue stinks. I mean, really stinks. Like feet. The cheese and wine mingle to form a pungent aroma that penetrates your skin and clothes and you cannot remove it. Well, maybe with fire (remove them first).
Don't let that put you off though – it tastes excellent.
I've had the pleasure of trying several different versions of "chäs" (cheese) fondue since winter returned. At a work bash we had a bit of a fondue sampling session with eight or nine varieties brought to the table. All smelled like feet but tasted great. A spicy version with tomato was a hit, as was one with truffle. The champagne one was a bit overrated and you can't go wrong with a classic "Vaudoise" style, made with Gruyère.
3. Accompany your fondue with booze
The trick to really enjoying fondue is to wash it down with a nice white wine. In fact, I'm told to forgo the wine can lead to digestive difficulties. And you should round it off with a shot of kirsch schnapps to make doubly sure it has a safe passage.
However, the accompanying beverage is a bit of a moot point. In their academic paper (I don't know why you are surprised, this blog is a serious portal for learning, in fact, you're lucky I don't charge tuition fees) Heinrich, Goetze, and Menne et al (2010) published the paper "Effect on gastric function and symptoms of drinking wine, black tea, or schnapps with a Swiss cheese fondue: randomised controlled crossover trial" proved that "Gastric emptying after a Swiss cheese fondue is noticeably slower and appetite suppressed if consumed with higher doses of alcohol."
They came up with the suggestion that you'd be better off drinking tea with your pot of cheese. Quite an academic achievement. It's almost as impressive as the fact that the 10 researchers (10!) presumably got funding for what is effectively a night out. Plus, they went on, despite what must have been a heavy night for those not on the tea, to publish the research paper with the world's best title. Science at its best.
4. Be a bit more careful if you aren't used to cheese
I also believe that if you are not used to a lactose binge such as is unavoidable with fondue then you should take care. Folks from Asia tend to have to take it slow, as people from that part of the world tend to eat less cheese than we do. They therefore don't quite have the enzymes to process it all. This can lead to the "cheese baby" effect, a sensation like a blockage that is not only unpleasant but can cause the unlucky recipient to slip into some sort of cheese-induced coma.
5. Don't drop the bread
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.
Mike Stuart moved to Switzerland in 2013 when his better half Zoë landed a job in Zurich.