Monday, September 29, 2014

Swiss summer of soccer

Oops. So it's September and it's my first post of the year. What can I say? After nearly four years of living in Switzerland, things here have now just become part of, well, life.

There are still new things to observe though - I just don't always find the time or inclination to post. It's the same with food, over at the Empress Eats. I've cooked a bit this year, but haven't posted.

But it's the end of summer, so let me catch you up on a couple of things. First, the summer itself. Actually, no - go back six months to winter. This was my fourth winter in Geneva and it was the mildest one yet. It had shades of my first winter, when there was no snow. There was snow in the mountains, thankfully (especially for Emperor D who decided to take up snow boarding), but otherwise there was one pathetic attempt at snow for about half an hour in Geneva in early February and that was it. It didn't even get cold! I was home having Christmas in Australia and remember seeing the Geneva forecast for Christmas Day, when they predicted an unseasonably warm 16C. I don't remember it getting colder than about 5C during the day all winter.

I guess because the Weather Gods thought we didn't get a winter, we shouldn't get a summer, either. This summer has been one of the coolest I can remember. I've been swimming in the lake each summer I've been here but this summer I haven't been once; granted, I was back in Australia for a conference and have been away, but otherwise it hadn't been warm enough. I don't think it's been above 26C!!

Even the bins on the street go World Cup mad
More on summer, and this year it was the World Cup. I've always loved the World Cup, and especially when I'm in Europe for it. I travelled through Europe when the World Cup was on in Germany in 2006; I still remember drinking beer in the summer sun with hoards of Czechs in Old Town Square in Prague and being out on the streets of Amsterdam with the crazy, orange-wearing Dutch.

During the month-long soccer fest, I came to understand two things about Switzerland: one, that it really is a melting pot of nationalities - flags from every team in the tournament were flying from apartment buildings and houses all over the country. Two, that people in Switzerland are soccer mad. I mean, they get really passionate. They sit on the edge of their seats and scream with joy or despair as a goal is scored either for or against their team. Everything becomes about football and the World Cup. There's advertising and promotions everywhere; even the bins on the streets of Geneva became sideline (sidewalk?) Swiss supporters!

And then you could listen to or see a curious post-match spectacle I hadn't witnessed before - the ritual of winning team supporters jumping in their cars and doing bog laps through the streets of town, constantly honking their horns in celebration. Just before the World Cup started, I read an article in 20 Minutes (commuter newspaper) that talked about how the police in each canton would let people "blow off steam and celebrate" for up to an hour after matches. I wondered what they were on about; with some matches ending at 1am, I'm glad the cops put a cap of an hour afterwards.
Hangover: A World Cup promotional flag
still flies in September

The Swiss themselves - ever known for being quiet and conservative - come into their own when their national pride is on the line, becoming every bit as noisy and exuberant as the Spanish or the French. Except when they got knocked out of the competition (in extra time by runners-up Argentina in the Round of 16); the mood the day after their defeat there was palpable despondency.

But beside that, Geneva is no different to anywhere else in Europe during a World Cup; people are keen to escape work early and pack the bars, pubs and outdoor cafes, all within viewing distance of a TV. Even though the party was nearly 9,000kms away, there was definitely a festive atmosphere in the city, making the summer - what there was of it - so much more vibrant and fun.

Friday, December 27, 2013

My town

It's the end of the year and finding myself back in my Australian home, I thought I'd post some photos of my Swiss one. Here's a tour through my town - Nyon, in Canton Vaud, Switzerland...

The centre of town. Each Saturday morning there's a
growers' market here, full of fresh food and produce.

Place de Chateau - often the streets around
the place are closed for festivals in summer;
usually to do with wine. The flags: Liberté et
patrie, the flag of Canton Vaud; behind it,
the red and blue fish flag of Nyon.

Chateau de Nyon. Parts of it have been around since the
13th century. I have a confession to make - in the 3 years
since I've lived in Nyon, I've never been inside the main
residence of the chateau; just the wine cellars downstairs!

The view from the Chateau's terrace across Lake Geneva
and the Alps - on a clear day, Mont Blanc (tallest
mountain in Europe) is clearly visible.

Down the hill towards the lake and we're into
the cobblestones of the vieille ville (old town)
part of Nyon. Some of the water pumps (see
this post) date from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Street life in the old town; Cafe des Moulins
in the background is a tapas bar.

In the old town: someone is keeping an eye
 on you. I call the statue Colonel Nyon.

Gelateria Venezia - seriously, the best
gelato this side of Italy. Maybe anywhere
outside of Italy. I'll be heartbroken when I
eventually leave Switzerland and can no
longer get my fix! It's hard enough that
they close in winter...

Nyon waterfront and jetty, where the lake's boats stop on
their to and fro voyages between lakeside towns in
France and Switzerland.

My town: Nyon.

Monday, December 2, 2013

When a kiss on the lips is a slap on the cheek

Most cities have it - a meteorological phenomenon unique to the city. In Perth, it's the Fremantle Doctor - although no one in Perth actually calls it that - the breeze that blows off the cold waters of the Indian Ocean most afternoons in summer, cooling the hot, parched land. 

Choppy waves on Lac Leman
In Geneva and around La Côte, it's la bise - the wind that blows from the north-east, straight down the lake. Pronounced 'beez', bise actually means 'kiss' in French. Most of the year, it's a breeze that comes down the lake for a day or two, usually fairly gently, but sometimes a bit stronger. 

That is, until winter, when la bise noire - the black kiss - comes howling down from the north. Cold, strong winds - coming directly from the freezing north and gusting as much as 90km/h - can create havoc; the Jet d'Eau is turned off, UN agencies lower the flags on their buildings. 

A day where the temp is 2C can feel like -5C with the bise noire. It cuts through you like a cold knife, with any extremities - ears, cheeks, hands and fingers - quickly becoming frozen and numb. The bise noire is no gentle kiss; more like a hard slap on the cheek. 

Even the seagulls are finding the
bise noire unpleasant
The normally calm, flat Lake Geneva turns into a windswept, choppy sea, complete with white-capped waves, occasionally high enough for someone with a lack of brains and/or sense to try surfing in. It was the bise noire that caused the coast along the lake to freeze over in February 2012. With ambient air temps below 0C for about two weeks - and in fact hovering around -5C for much of that - the freezing temps, along with the bise noire, cause water blowing on shore to instantly freeze. Footpaths, trees, and even - famously - cars, became covered in a thick layer of ice. Images of several cars parked along the shore covered in ice in nearby Versoix went around the world. 

Flashback: Versoix in February 2012
Thankfully though, while the bise noire we're currently experiencing is fierce, the temperatures are not low enough to cause the water blowing from the lake to freeze. Temps have been a nonetheless chilly 2C or 3C for about a week, but it's the bise which makes it unpleasant, making it feel so much colder than it actually is. 

With forecasts that this winter is expected to be one if the coldest and snowiest on record, I'm looking forward to escaping to the sun when I head for three weeks in South Africa and Perth this month. Give me the Fremantle Doctor any day

Sunday, November 3, 2013

When Evian is on tap

Fountain in Nyon that is older than Australia
So we’re well into autumn now – one of my favourite seasons – but with the advent of the colder weather, you’d think they’d turn the taps off on the free public fountains around town, but not so.

But a step back for a moment. Geneva, Nyon – well, pretty much anywhere in Switzerland, actually – has an abundance of public drinking fountains around each town. Some of the fountains are pretty stark; just a plain spout for the water and a plaque that says ‘Eau potable’ (drinking water). Others are a little more elaborate, with statues or flowers off them (as is common on a few throughout Nyon), and others have been around for centuries, with one in the middle of Nyon clearly marked with the year water first spurted out, in 1761. That one fountain is older than what Australia is as a colonised nation, and by some nearly 30 years.

Coming from Australia – one of the driest continents on earth, frequently prone to drought – we’re taught from a very young age that water is perhaps the most precious commodity there is and to waste as little as possible. Take three minute showers. Don’t run washing machines and dishwashers until they’re full. Wash your car on the lawn using a bucket, not the running garden hose. In Perth, its compulsory for all households to observe the annual summer water restrictions, where you may only water your garden with sprinklers twice a week, on allocated days according to the last digit of your house number, and only between the hours of 6pm and 9am. It's a $100 fine if you don’t comply. Water is taken pretty seriously.
One of the plainer fountains in Nyon

So on arriving in Switzerland, a surprising thing was the amount of water fountains around that constantly spout water. Although here is 6% of Europe's freshwater reserves, remarkable for a such a little country. Given it’s crystal clear, cold (almost as if it was from the fridge in winter), and very pure,  and that we’re just across the lake from the town that bears the famous bottled water brand’s name, you could be forgiven for thinking it was Evian on tap. Actually, I’m glad it isn’t Evian – I don’t really like the taste of the stuff out of the bottle, but the stuff from the free water fountains taste great (and yes, water does taste different).

The fountains though, have a continuous supply of water and it often makes me wonder where it goes. The logical conclusion is the lake, since the water there is crystal clear, pure and, being a freshwater lake, would be almost potable if it weren’t for the seaweed, the fish and the boats in it or on it.
A fountain with 'eau potable' in Geneva

Despite the fact it seems like a tremendous waste of what must be some of the clearest, purest water in the world, having the fountains around are pretty convenient when you find yourself suddenly thirsty on a hot summer’s day or during an energetic hike uphill through the old towns of both Geneva and Nyon. It’s just one more thing which makes life in Switzerland so unique and different from Australia.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Canton Vaud, home of the rich and famous - and me

Before moving to Switzerland, I always knew the country and its inhabitants were wealthy. That it was the land of low tax rates and attracted the rich and famous. But reading an article recently, I was surprised just how many famous people called Switzerland home. Tina Turner lives near Zurich. Roger Federer lives near Basel. But it seems to be canton Vaud, the canton that I call home, that seems to be the most popular.

Canadian singer Shania Twain lives near Vevey (also the home of Nestlé),
Ikea's Ingvar Kamprad
singing legend Phil Collins lives about a 20 minute drive away, while former F1 driver Michael Schumacher lives in Gland, the next town over. Ingvar Kamprad, the founder and owner of Ikea, is actually the richest person living in Switzerland and lives in a modest house near Lausanne. Most exciting of all is that I've heard rumours that none other than George Clooney has a residence in Switzerland with a 1260 post code - my post code. George Clooney could have a house in my neighbourhood! 

Aside from celebrities living in the neighbourhood, the signs of serious wealth and privilege are around. At nearly $100,000 per year, the most expensive school in the world, Le Rosey, is just up the road in Rolle. It educates the children of the seriously rich, celebrities and royalty. 

Down along the lake, and up in the foothills of the Jura, sits the nice houses and sprawling estates of these people, living in quiet anonymity. Sheltered from view behind thick trees and high walls, you only get a sense of the luxurious scale of these places from a plane as it comes down the lake, getting ready to land at Geneva airport. I always like to grab a window seat on that side of the plane since it's the only way I get to see how the one percent live. 

Nyon and Geneva also put on a bit of a luxury car show each weekend, with the latest model Ferrari, Bentley, Aston Martin and Maserati cars out in town. And Geneva has no shortage of high end jewellery stores either. Got a penchant for diamonds? Bulgari, Chopard, De Beers can sort you out. Have a taste for fine clothes and accessories? Gucci and Hermes will help sort you out. 

But expensive cars, shops and the rich and famous aside, Switzerland is just like any other normal country. Not having millions of Swiss francs in the bank doesn't mean life here can't be enjoyed - the simple pleasures here are free or affordable. I guess having the wealth which many in the country enjoy simply makes things a little easier. While that kind of money wouldn't hurt, there's little to complain about the quality of life here.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Tour de Switzerland

It's coming up nearly two years since I arrived in Switzerland. And it flies by pretty quickly. There's been quite a bit I've come to like about this country - in fact, you can see a list here - one of which I have no hesitation in saying is Switzerland's proximity to everywhere else in Europe. In fact, it was one of the first things I wrote about. Jump on a train three hours north-west and find yourself in Paris; three hours south-east you'll end up saying buongiorno in Milan; and two hours' flight will take you pretty much anywhere in Europe. 

But I haven't really seen much of Switzerland itself. Living in one of Europe's most beautiful countries - and one that has some of the continent's most recognisable icons - that's rather sad.  So, much as I will always be willing to jump on a plane or train and venture outside of Switzerland's borders, I've recently decided to turn that around and see what Switzerland has to offer. 

And what an offering. I had long wanted to see perhaps the most instantly recognisable mountain on Earth - the Matterhorn. However to make the trip worthwhile - it's a bit of schlep, taking two trains and nearly four hours from Nyon - it's best to pick a clear day. 

A mountain that needs no introduction
We had a long weekend in September with fine weather, so after making sure that the weather at the Matterhorn was fine and clear - thanks to the magic of webcams - we headed for Zermatt, the famous ski town at the base of the mountain. Although traditionally a ski resort town, more associated with powder snow and freezing temperatures, Zermatt in late summer nonetheless buzzes with tourists and, of course, hard core Swiss hikers. 

After arriving in Zermatt, we walked through the town in a state of anticipated excitement - where's the Matterhorn? We round a bend in one of the pedestrian-only streets of the village - and there it stood, in its majestic, iconic, postcard picture-like beauty. 

Taking a series of cable cars from the village, we head up for the mountains. I'd never been to the mountains above Zermatt at all, let alone in winter - though that's another goal for another day - but seeing it summer was a strange experience. The landscape in the high mountains, bare of snow, was almost moon-like - grey, rocky, devoid of vegetation. 

The Alps from the summit of the Klein Matterhorn
After taking a couple of cable cars up ever higher, we take the last one for the end of the line - the top of the Klein Matterhorn (Little Matterhorn). With the summit at nearly 4,000m above sea level, it's the highest point on land I've ever been. standing on the summit is an awesome experience; the Matterhorn itself so close you can almost touch it, with cloud billowing off the warm face of the Italian side of the Matterhorn. To its left, the high peaks of the Alps roll off as far as the eye can see. I'm halfway to heaven and it's an experience I'll never forget. 

Back down to earth, and a few days later we're heading for Bern, Switzerland's capital. Bern is a little like some of the world's other capitals; the seat of a country's power, it's famous for being the capital - and not much else. Comparisons with Washington DC and Canberra in Australia spring to mind. 

It's not my first visit to the Swiss capital - that was on a miserable Sunday in winter earlier last year, and was a bit of a disaster. Horrible, cold, wet weather, and - being a Sunday - nothing open and nothing to do. I wasn't in a hurry to go back, so when Emperor D suggested we visit Bern on a Saturday at the end of summer, I was surprised - but after hesitating, decided to give Bern another chance. 

The River Aare coasts past Bern
I'm glad I did. While it will never meet the verve (well, for Switzerland) of Zurich or even Geneva, it is a pleasant city that's lively enough on a Saturday afternoon in summer. The old part of the town is gorgeous, with cobblestone streets, and Swiss chocolate box architecture. The River Aare that circumnavigates it, is a brilliant ceylon sapphire blue, with a fast-running current. Even on a day that struggled to get out of the 20s in temperature, it looked inviting enough; on a hot day in high summer, I can only imagine how packed it must get. 

We ended the day by coming across a small, pop-up rock concert in a terraced park by the river, not far from the train station. We took in local acts - some good, some truly awful - belting out rock tunes with English lyrics on the top of a bus while enjoying a pint of beer or a glass of wine. It wasn't a side of Bern that I expected to see, but I was nonetheless glad to see it, since it made me realise that first impressions don't always last. 

Then, during October, with autumn in full swing, we headed for the UNESCO heritage-listed terraced vineyards of the Lavaux region, at the top of Lake Geneva. Lavaux is famous for its vineyards and the wines that it produced from their grapes; it’s supposed to be particularly beautiful in autumn as the vines change colour.

Terraced vineyards of Lavaux
A group of us headed for the tiny lakeside village of Lutry, just east of Lausanne. From there we took a tourist train through the Lavaux region – the best way to see them – where we could see the vines marching up the hills in glorious autumn shades of yellow, orange and red. At the end of the trip, back in Lutry, we headed back up into the Lavaux vineyards where we eventually found a couple of bottles of local wines (self-service; very trusting of the Swiss with alcohol involved!), some disposable wine glasses and, finding a picnic table, sat down and soaked up the late Sunday afternoon autumn sun, with a couple of glasses of wine and a great view of the lake and the Alps. Happy times.

Heading back down the hill to catch the train back was an interesting experience, especially after a couple of glasses of wine and feeling a little on the light-headed side. With us in danger of missing the train and the next one not another for half an hour, and with the road down being too far away and winding, we took a shortcut – through the vineyards themselves. They are terraced, so getting down wasn’t too bad, but it did make for an adventurous end to the day trying to find our way through the vineyards, and ending up in someone’s backyard. I’m sure that’s not the first time that’s happened to them.

I’m glad I’ve got out and seen more of the country. I’ve been to Zurich as well in the last couple of weeks, but there’s still so much more to see. So, when in Switzerland, go and see her – she’s got a lot to offer.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

I feel the need... the need for cheese

For me, the holy grail of cheese in Switzerland
I'll admit that, in the nearly 18 months since I've been in Switzerland, there's been very little - apart from the obvious things; friends, family - that I miss about home.
I think in there lies the key word for what I do miss - the little things. Just recently, I've realised that there's lots of little things from back home that I took for granted. Mostly, it's food. Some food habits from home have been hard to break.
What's more unusual though is that I haven't even realised I've missed something until I've come into accidental contact with it, and then discovered I can't find it again.
Cheddar cheese is the perfect example of the above situation. Yes, you can buy what the Swiss think is cheddar cheese. But it's greasy, goes sweaty and doesn't have that delicious, tangy cheddar taste. However, on a recent visit to London, where I was staying with friends, I was reintroduced to the pleasure of a good, sharp-tasting mature cheddar cheese.
I had to have more.
Then I returned to Switzerland where I hadn't really found cheddar cheese in my previous half-hearted attempts of looking. Then I heard rumours that you could actually buy proper cheddar cheese - Cathedral City Mature Cheddar, to be exact, the same I had in London - at some supermarkets in Switzerland.
But where? The rumour was you could buy it in areas where there was a large expat community. It's a bit strange then that I couldn't find any in Nyon, where half the population seems to be British, let alone expat.
But like the Calvinist reformers, Geneva proved to be my salvation city. There, in a big Migros a few tram stops from Geneva's main train station, was a small part of the top cheese shelf dedicated to Cathedral City Mature Cheddar Cheese. I bought two. And the taste? Sharp, tangy goodness. I can't wait to try some with creamy mashed potato, a guilty pleasure introduced to me by my grandmother.

In the meantime, it turns out that Nyon does have a sufficiently large enough expat community to warrant my local Migros stocking Cathedral City Cheddar as well. Why did I not notice it before? Not sure if it's a case of it not being there before or that I just never really looked for it.
So while some of the little things I miss have happy endings, maybe it's too much to ask that I can have everything I want. Because one day, all the little things will add up with the big things and it'll turn into a desire to go home. But not just yet.