Sunday, October 9, 2011

Fine wines and cow hoe-downs

Yes, I’ve been a little quiet lately. Travel and social engagements have kept me busy throughout the rest of summer and into the start of autumn. And autumn is here with a vengeance; today it’s only 12C and there’s a healthy dusting of snow on the Alps. But the cooler weather hasn’t deterred festival organisers or festival goers. Over the last few weekends, I’ve attended two festivals in or near my home town, Nyon. One was a sophisticated wine festival showcasing the best local wines on offer; the other was a mountain-side cow hoe-down, featuring pretty much every cliché Switzerland has to offer.

Fetes de la Vigne in Nyon - the Swiss try out
their local drops
A few weeks back, I gathered some friends and we headed into the old part of Nyon for Fetes de la Vigne, a wine festival that features the best wine producers and wines in the local area. Local wines, however, are no slouch. Before moving here, I actually had no idea that Switzerland was such a prolific producer of wines – I thought the climate would be too cold but apparently it’s not; most grapes are grown in the French-speaking cantons in the south and west of the country. One of Switzerland’s best natural products is also its best-kept secret; the country exports less than two per cent of its wine, and what does go out of the country goes mostly across the border to Germany. So little wonder then that most people don’t know about Swiss wine.

But the local drops are great. I’m a red and rosé drinker and there’s plenty to choose from. The good thing is that at Fetes des Vignes – unlike other wine tastings in the area – the actual tastings are free. Plus they’re pretty generous with their ‘tasting’ size, with one old guy at a cellar stall giving my friend Julia and I nearly half a glass of a red to try. After my third ‘tasting’ I was well on my way to getting hammered until we decided to grab a bite to eat. The free tastings do work though; between the seven of us who went, we bought at least three, if not four, bottles of wine. The last one we bought was a bottle of red that had strong notes of dark chocolate but went for a pricey CHF35. We didn’t end up opening it that night, but despite what my parents – who are wine connoisseurs among the best of them – say, we won’t be cellaring it. Why store wine when it’s more fun to drink it?

The festival itself though was fun. It brought the whole community out for it, expat and Swiss, together. Friends and neighbours crowded around communal tables sharing a laugh and a glass – or four – of local wine. I have one gripe though – and it’s about the grapes. The programme for the festival in the local paper said that there would be grape harvesting and crushing. The harvesting I could easily give a miss. But grape crushing sounded like fun. Here I was thinking I could kick my shoes off and jump into a barrel of grapes to crush them with my feet, like I’ve seen them do in movies. Seeing the Swiss crush grapes with their feet would have been a sight to behold, but maybe they don’t have the passion the French, Spanish or Italians do. There was no feet crushing of grapes; the Swiss version of crushing grapes involved putting them through an old-school mechanical press to make grape juice. Never mind, it was still a fun festival.

Yes. It's a cow with a tree
and flowers on its head.
A week later, and the fun moved to St Cergue, a village up in the mountains from Nyon, for Desalpes (that’s from the Alps) – a traditional festival that signifies bringing the cows down from the mountains for the winter. Desalpes is Switzerland personified. The only thing missing from the parade of Swiss clichés was Heidi, and I’m sure that was only because she’s Swiss-German, not Swiss-French.

The festival is basically a continuous parade of cows, being brought down the mountain road into the village. Each farm leads their herd into the village headed by their ‘queens’ of the herd – or those that yield the most milk. The queen of the herd is easily identifiable by the headdress of trees and flowers on its head. Yes, you read right – by the flowers on its head.

The cows also have the massive Swiss cow bells and decorated collars round their necks. Then there are the dogs – I think they’re Bernese Mountain dogs – but they’re the adorable, sweet-natured working dogs, who pulled carts of children in a parade (I have no idea why).

While Desalpes is definitely a visual feast – including seeing traditional folk dancers in folk costume – it’s also a literal feast, with the streets of the village lined with stalls full of food, most of it local and traditional. Crepes, sausages, chocolate – it’s all there.

No Heidi? The next best Swiss cliche -
Alpine horns
It all makes for a cacophony of noise; in addition to the cow bells (which are actually quite loud when you add up a herd of over 100 cows, all with bells on, going at a brisk trot down the road), there’s the most Swiss cliché of them all – the Alpine horn. I can’t think of anything more Swiss – a group of men (with the odd woman thrown in), lined up in a row, blowing on these long, wooden horns, decorated with edelweiss and the Swiss coat of arms. Swiss cliché heaven.

I think there’s one thing to remember for the next Desalpes – bring a pair of Wellington boots. There’s a lot of cows…

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Geneva is not a wallflower after all

It seems that come August, Geneva drinks a little too much from the bottle of fun she’s had stashed away in the drawer all year, rips her shirt off, runs around yelling and generally just goes a bit nuts. And I’m glad to see it.

It starts on 1 August, Swiss National Day. I wasn’t here for it this year, but I’ve heard that Geneva starts to warm up for that; apparently there are some events on a smaller scale but most people keep it relatively quiet. I’ll have to wait until next year to find out for sure.

Cine Transat is a rarity in Geneva - it's free
Then there’s the variety of events – concerts, theatre, films – throughout the city. It’s summer, where the city herself throws off her inhibitions and loosens up. One event is Cine Transat, the outdoor cinemas that have the lake and mountains as an amazing backdrop. They show a mix of films – cult classics, newer releases, and international titles. I caught Romeo +Juliet on Friday night, which I fondly remember seeing in the cinemas as a 16-year old. The truly amazing thing about Cine Transat though is that it’s absolutely free. They have gone nuts.

The weekend just gone though was on another scale altogether and wrapped up what is – I guess – one of the biggest events Geneva sees in a year; the Fêtes de Genève. It’s a massive party along the shores of the lake for a week, with carnival rides, games stalls, food tents, performers, concerts; I was pretty impressed.
Geneva explodes in a riot of fireworks
for Fêtes de Genève

However, I was blown away on Saturday night. Nearly an hour’s worth of fireworks were blown up where Lac Leman meets the River Rhone in an awesome display of beauty, perfectly timed and coordinated to music. That amount of fireworks must have cost a – er – bomb.

I was reading in 20 Minutes yesterday morning – that’s the free Swiss commuter paper – that over 500,000 people turned out to watch it. Quite extraordinary given that I don’t think half a million people live in Geneva. 

The traffic jam afterwards suggests that there were that many people there, which is one reason why we took the train. I know that I’ve complained about Swiss trains before but, honestly, there’s no comparing to the Swiss for thoughtfulness and efficiency – Swissifficiency.
An hour and a half after the fireworks ended – 1.30am – and the crowd on the train station platform is ten deep waiting to get home. We were speculating who was going to get left behind, given we knew the trains that usually took us home won’t be able to hold half the number of people that were waiting.
2am in Nyon - crowds pile off a double
decker train thoughtfully provided by CFF

Just a minute late, a train pulls up – but it’s not the regular train type that takes the route through Nyon. In their Swissifficiency, the CFF (the French abbreviation for Swiss National Railways) decided to thoughtfully provide a double decker train that usually does routes to Zurich or Basel.

In just a couple of minutes, the platform is emptied and everyone is on board and on their way home. Until next year…

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Glorious Geneva

Just thought I'd share with you the below picture I took today of this glorious summer day in Geneva:

Mont Blanc far left; Jet D'Eau far right;
sunny gloriousness in between

It's days like this that make me think why would I want to live anywhere else?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The hardest thing about living in Switzerland

I've learnt a very sobering lesson in the last week. I learnt that the hardest thing about living in Switzerland is not trying to learn a new language, or trying to meet new friends, or coming to grips with the Swissness of things, or even the Swiss themselves. The hardest thing about living in Switzerland is the family you leave behind.

Late last week, back in Australia where I'm now writing this, I attended the funeral of my father-in-law, Joe. He was one of the kindest, warmest men you could ever meet; he was also generous almost to a fault. He had been ill when I landed the job that took us to Switzerland; concerned about leaving him, we thought about not going. He wouldn't hear of it. Selfless to the last, he insisted we go, saying he was so excited for us to have such an adventure.

His health had deteriorated over the last few months, but nonetheless we weren't expecting the call we got early in the morning ten days ago telling us to come home immediately. Then, later the same day, we received the news that he'd gone. And we were still in Switzerland.

Trying to get flights home was a nightmare, with holidays starting in Europe and ending in Australia. Once we were back here though, I started to process it all. And an overwhelming sense of guilt was the prevailing feeling. Guilt that I hadn't been able to say goodbye; guilt that I had taken my husband far away from his father.

That's the risk of living so far away from home - that the farewell at the airport could turn out to be farewell forever.

But I wouldn't change moving to Switzerland; life goes on. Joe gave us his blessing, and for that, I'm eternally grateful. Thanks Joe - for everything. Riposa in pace.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Six months in Switzerland and what have I learned?

It’s now July, and it’s been six months since I arrived in Switzerland. And how quickly it has gone by – it seems only yesterday I got off the plane and took my first look about me in my new city. A mild winter with no snow has changed into a surprisingly sometimes hot, humid summer. I’ve learnt some French. Made some friends. Seen a little bit of the country.

But what else have I learnt? What have I come to love about my new country, and what would I willingly change? Here’s a list of loves and loathes…

The mountains
Each day, especially on clear days when you can see Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, I’m awestruck by the beauty and grandeur of the Alps and the Jura. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing them.

Hard-to-find and expensive housing
Geneva is terrible when it comes to affordable housing – it doesn’t have any. Although I love our apartment, it’s tiny and the rent is a third of my monthly salary (which is not uncommon) – and it isn’t even in Geneva.

The transport system
So an early post of mine complained about the trains, but honestly the Swiss rail network is one of the best in the world. They’re fast, clean, go to all corners of Switzerland, and are – usually – efficient.

Expensive and hard-to-find food
A recent post for the Empress Eats, my food blog, sums it up. Food, especially meat, can be very expensive and I’ve found it hard to find some ingredients I take for granted at home. Not great when you write a food blog.

Being in the middle Europe
This is not necessarily a bad reflection on Switzerland, but after living in Perth – one of the most isolated cities in the world – I love how being in the middle of Europe means you can travel anywhere in no time and often for next to no money.

Expensive health insurance
Things that are expensive is becoming a theme, but it’s little wonder when you move from the 13th most expensive city in the world to the 9th most expensive. Health insurance in particular is nasty – I pay four times as much for less than half the coverage I got back home.

Pretty towns; my pretty town of Nyon
Pretty towns
Switzerland is very pretty. Geneva is very pretty. Nyon is very pretty. With soaring mountains, beautiful blue lakes and rolling green hills, it helps to become endeared to a new place when it’s aesthetically pleasing to live in.

Crap, expensive restaurants
I’ve recently been told that, per capita, Geneva has the most restaurants in the world. I’m yet to find one that I would give a glowing review to. The food is not that great, and, of course, it’s also expensive.

The history
Switzerland is nearly 800 years old, having been founded in 1291. That makes for some very old towns complete with cobblestones, stone forts and city walls, and imposing chateaus. Coming from a country that is not even 250 years old, that is pretty impressive.

Not being able to speak the language
Well, this is actually our fault, but not being able to speak the language is pretty frustrating; in fact, it’s what Emperor D dislikes the most about living here. It’s very hard to make friends and even just understand what’s going on when you don’t speak French.

The melting pot of nationalities
I’ve met people from all over the world while living here, and it’s a real pleasure to converse and find out if someone from South Africa, or Malaysia, or the UK or US has the same perspective on life in Switzerland as I do. Plus, despite the loathe above about crap restaurants, you get a variety in the cuisine here that I don’t get at home.

The smoking
I’ve written about this in a previous post, but honestly, the smoking here is atrocious. Dodging cigarette smoke here gets you a good workout. The sad thing – since posting in mid-March I have seen just one quit-smoking ad, and it was in a cinema just over a week ago.

The weather
Typical cold, (almost) snowy winters were to be expected, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by summer – consistently warm, with some days hot enough to go for a swim; humid with frequent thunderstorms (which I love); sunny more often than not. There are worse places in Europe to live for the weather – summer in Scotland, anyone?

So they are the things I’ve discovered about Switzerland after six months of living here. It’s had its down moments, but surprisingly I haven’t once wanted to go back home. I thought I would have been a lot more homesick than I am – in fact, I haven't felt homesick at all. Sure, there are a lot of things back home that I miss – friends, family, the familiarity of it all – but it’s the lack of familiarity here that I relish. It’s a challenge to get out of your comfort zone and start life all over again. It’ll be interesting to see how much this list will have changed in another six months’ time. Keep an eye out for it!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Life's a beach in Switzerland

Yes, Switzerland has beaches. Seems quite remarkable for a landlocked country where the nearest coastline is 250 kms away. But today I needed a beach to swim at. It's been pretty hot here the last few days, with today the hottest day of the year so far, reaching 35C (that's 95F for my Imperial system friends). As an Australian who's used to the odd 40C (104F) day during summer, 35C is hardly something for me to blink at - except this is Switzerland. Seems strange to be wanting to go to the beach given only a few months ago I was writing about snow - or Geneva's distinct lack of it. But ever since I moved here, I was fascinated by what it would be like to swim at a beach that is actually a lake; we just don't have anything like it where I'm from in Australia.

So today, given the hot weather, I decided to try swimming in Lac Leman. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, other than the water to be really cold. I remember dipping my hand in the water during winter and thinking it was so freezing cold that the water would never tempt me in. The water in Lac Leman, after all, is virtually melted snow from the Alps. Thankfully, the water has warmed up somewhat since then. While the water temperature induced a few 'oh my gosh, it's cold' gasps on first entering, it actually turned out to be fine and rather refreshing once I'd got out.

Not much to be said for the wide expanses
of white sand at Nyon Plage
But the 'beach' itself is something else. To me, a beach is made up of kilometres of wide, blindingly white sugar-fine sand, with deep blue water and crashing waves. It's what I've grown up with; I still remember my dad piling my mum, brothers, the dog and I into the car for the 15 minute trip to the beach as a kid. But the beach in Nyon is completely different. True, it has an amazing backdrop of the Alps - which actually seems rather surreal. It also has the most clear, blue, calm water that does look quite inviting on a day like today. But its beach is maybe 2 metres wide if it's lucky, a mix of river sand and pebbles.

But the backdrop more than makes up for it
- the Alps
It's quite strange that it's only taken us the first truly hot day to go to the beach here; back home, we actually very rarely went to the beach, even on the hottest days. My local beach, Scarborough, is pretty amazing for a suburban beach - it's pretty much as I described what my definition of a beach is above. But we never go, even though it's a 5 minute drive away. Mostly because my mother-in-law has a swimming pool, which is convenient. But also because we're not really beach people. Beaches at home tend to get very windy once our famous sea-breezes are in, plus the waves can be quite dangerous. Plus, having grown up aware of the need to be careful of the sun, it gets pretty intense out there, and you can get sunburnt very easily.
My local beach back home, Scarborough Beach

Despite the lack of waves or nice white sand, I think I could become a beach person pretty easily in Switzerland. Grass is much easier to get out of your swimming suit bottoms than sand, and there's something to be said for swimming in calm waters. Now all we need are more 35C days to tempt me in!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Chaos and confusion on travel

So I’m writing this while sitting on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic at 36,000 ft. I’m on my way to New York for work and on the way back I’ll be stopping in Madrid for a few days to take in the sights and to see my colleagues in Madrid. But today has been an observation in the barely organised chaos that is international travel. To get to New York, I’m going via Madrid, which is fine – I’ve taken worse flights than to have to make a slight deviation in direction for a stopover first. However, this morning’s flight from Geneva was delayed by an hour – not very Swissifficient that - and this afternoon’s flight from Madrid was also delayed by at least 40 minutes. It turns out though that by the time I touch down at JFK the flight should more or less be on time.

Airports themselves can be a really curious mix – unsure of whether they want to display the wares of the country people are leaving from, or what they think people want. Geneva airport, which is not a big airport by any means, has a mix of shops of both Swiss brands and international luxury brands. While you’re waiting for your flight to anywhere that is not Geneva, you can browse through Swatch, Montblanc, any number of Swiss watchmakers such as Raymond Weil, Frederic Constant or Omega, and buy as much Toblerone as you please. If your credit card limit stretches that far, you can also buy up a storm at Hermes, Cartier, Ralf Lauren and Chopard. (Seriously, Chopard? Who has the cash and the time to lay down $10,000 or more on a Chopard piece at an airport?!) The Swiss brands at Geneva airport make sense, as do the luxury ones given that Geneva is a city with some seriously wealthy people.

So after arriving in Madrid and browsing the airport shops while going from one delayed flight to the next, I was stunned. I thought I had maybe landed in some alternative Switzerland or a remodelled Geneva airport. The shops in this Spanish city’s airport were, in fact, all Swiss. The Montblanc, the Swatch of Geneva airport was to be found everywhere at Madrid airport; there was a predominance of Swiss brands and nothing Spanish. Startling. I had expected to find at least one shop selling espadrilles. But nothing.

But if airports are sometimes an object of curiosity, the act of boarding a plane can make people especially so. In Geneva, apart from the uncustomary delay of the plane leaving, the departure process was a model of Swissifficency. A polite boarding call, an orderly queue to board, people quietly finding their seats and sitting in them; no problems. But never have I ever seen anything so farcical as the boarding process at Madrid airport.

First, according to the flight departure boards, the flight was on time, then it wasn’t, then it was, then it changed gate, then it didn’t. Second, they don’t make announcements to make you aware of those changes. In the end, while boarding commenced on time, it certainly didn’t end so. There was one solitary lady that was processing the boarding passes for the entire full plane load of mostly Spaniards and Americans. Being a Transatlantic flight, the plane is not a small one either.

I don’t know what it is, but as soon as the purser looks even close to announcing the boarding call, people congregate outside the gate as if they must be first on the plane – even though they will simply sit on the plane for the next 30 minutes while everyone else boards too – or as if it will leave without them. So this seemingly innate instinct in some people naturally caused a small crowd to develop around the gate. Then, when the actual boarding call came, it became a mob. And with one lady checking the boarding passes of over 350 people, boarding quickly became a mess. Americans complained loudly, both to each other and to the poor Iberia check-in lady. Spaniards also complained, in quiet, albeit mildly irritated, accents. The immigration policies of the US before leaving the country of departure also don’t help, with anyone not American or from the EU pulled out and asked to provide more details.
The 'queue' at boarding at Madrid airport

Once I actually managed to get through boarding at the gate, I was met with the ludicrous sight of not boarding a plane, but a bus. Turns out that they suddenly had to switch planes and the new one was in a different location. On the plane, it didn’t get any better, with passengers haggling over seats. The seat allocation on the boarding pass is actually supposed to prevent this, but it still didn’t stop a group of people debating in the aisle next to me over whether they could swap seats with other people just so they could sit next to their friends, while already pissed off people from the delayed flight and farcical boarding process got even more pissed off at being further held up. Honestly.

I enjoy travelling, and even when it goes wrong it pays to have a sense of humour. As a people watcher, I find it also pays to have an appreciation of the idiosyncrasies of others – in fact vital, as it can make things quite entertaining when you’d otherwise just be joining them in being frustrated, pissed off and annoyed. And that’s not meant to be part of the travel experience.

Update - 10 June

So about a week after I experienced those delayed flights and a few days after I posted the above, the situations has gone from farcical to hysterical. I was supposed to leave New York for Madrid last night at 9pm, but with severe thunderstorms, many flights were delayed, and incoming flights were diverted to other cities, including the one that we were meant to fly on. So with our plane diverted to Pittsburgh, our flight from JFK was inevitably cancelled. But that was just the start. There was confusion on where to collect the bags from. We were told that the buses to take us to the hotels would be leaving at 10.30pm. Five buses were needed to take all the passengers - I was next in line to get on the third bus when I was told it was full, and actually ended up being the very last person to board the last bus, at 11.45pm.

The scene at JFK while waiting for a bus to
take about 200 passengers to hotels
It was nearly 1am by the time we got to the hotel; because ours wasn't the only cancelled flight, all the surrounding hotels were full, so we had to schlep out to Long Island, over an hour away. I managed to get a room at the hotel relatively quickly having used strategic tactics to get towards the front of the line. Finally I get to sleep at 2am.

The next morning, we're told that the buses will pick us up to take us back to JFK at 12 noon, but being Iberia, they don't show up and leave until nearly 2pm. Which means that the 3.30pm time the flight was going to leave is now not possible and after boarding the plane at 5.30pm, we finally take off at 6.30pm.

I'm sure you can't blame me, if, after all that, I say that I refuse to fly with Iberia ever again - except to get home to Geneva of course. Stay tuned for the inevitable disasters on that leg...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

No douze points for Suisse/Schweiz/Svizzera

The Eurovision Song Contest was on last night, and this year Switzerland was in the final. While Eurovision is always kitsch and cheesy, some of the songs are quite good; really catchy. I actually liked Switzerland’s entry this year – ‘In Love for a While’, by Anna Rossinelli. But it seems nobody else in Europe did.

Switzerland came stone last with just 19 points, miles behind second-last placed Estonia with 44 points. It was also one of only three countries not to be given ‘douze points’ (twelve points, the maximum a country can give an entrant), and I think most of their 19 points came in one ‘dix points’ (10 points) haul from one country (I forget from whom, and the detailed voting results aren’t up yet).

Eurovision is always famous for its country-block voting, where the Scandavian countries all vote for each other, as do the former Soviet bloc countries. But it seems Switzerland has no friends who will vote for it. You would think three of the countries that surround it and give it three of its four official languages – France, Italy and Germany – would vote. They might have given them some votes – I don’t really remember – but I don’t think any of them they gave Switzerland the big three; ‘huit points’ (eight points), dix points or douze points.

And I wonder why. A couple of my friends on Facebook I think have summed it up; in response to my post on Switzerland coming last, my friend Julia said ‘that’s what happens when you’re neutral’ and my friend Teri said ‘no friends, no enemies, no nepotism gets you 19 points’. That has to be it; the fact Switzerland is neutral and doesn’t create waves for itself with its neighbours.

I always thought Switzerland was one of those countries in Europe that people liked, or at least respected. Maybe they do; I’m not European, so I can’t really tell, and I haven’t been here long enough to really know. But maybe the rest of Europe just doesn’t think about Switzerland. As Teri said, Switzerland has no friends and, having not been in a foreign war since 1815 (I’m not counting Afghanistan – who hasn’t been in that one?), no enemies. They’re also not part of the European Union and don’t have the euro or crippling national debt. Apart from internationally controversial and little understood laws and policies, like assisted suicide, I think Switzerland rarely makes the news.

I read a great book recently, Swiss Watching, by Diccon Bewes, an English expat now living in Bern. His book was a revelation for someone new to Switzerland, the Swiss and Swiss ways. I think it should be required reading for expats. Several times while reading the book I had a eureka moment, where he would write on something I was curious about but didn’t know the answer to. Like what’s with the little yellow signs everywhere? (They’re hiking signs, to help the Swiss find their way in their obsessive love of hiking.) And with the people canvassing in the town centre every Saturday? (They’re trying to get people to sign a petition so that a referendum can be called, the main way of laws being passed in Switzerland.)

Mr Bewes outlines in his book the parts of Switzerland’s history, over 700 years of Swiss-ness, of why the Swiss are what they are today. The cover of Swiss Watching might have the answer as to why Switzerland came last in Eurovision this year – “Switzerland may be more than 500 miles from the nearest drop of seawater, but it is an island at the centre of Europe. Welcome to the landlocked island.” Indeed.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mobility mobiles and Boris bikes

Don’t have a car or a bike in Switzerland? No problem, you can still get around. Although I’ve outlined the problems I’ve had with Swiss trains, they really are quite efficient and can get you to all corners of Switzerland in no time. But sometimes it’s easier to go by car or bike.
Mobility mobiles docked at a station

So when we moved, we did our research and stumbled on the concept of car sharing. Mobility CarSharing is all over Switzerland; the website says they have over 2,500 cars available at over 1,250 stations throughout the country. You can even hire cars in Austria and Germany. We’ve found carsharing to be easy to use, plus it’s environmentally friendly and cost effective; we undoubtedly save thousands of CHFs in petrol, insurance, parking and registration. I’ve registered as a member, which costs around CHF200 with a SBB Half Fare card (more on that in an upcoming post). Then you just pay for your use by the kilometre and the hour. So for 2.5 hours and 14kms it took to move from our place in Sticksville to our new place in Nyon cost less than CHF20. Beats hiring a car through a rental company or getting a taxi!

Driving them is another matter. Like a rental company, you can hire different categories of vehicles from Micro (a cute little two-seater Smart car) up to Transport (a Mercedes Vito van), great for IKEA trips. And that’s the thing. Each car is different and not like the car you’re used to driving. Back home, I have a manual drivers’ licence but drive an automatic. So while I can drive a manual, it had been awhile since I’d done so, and getting used to different cars can sometimes produce interesting results. The first car I hired was a Renault Megane. I discovered – at the traffic lights in central Nyon with four other cars behind me – that it has a high clutch point and is really easy to stall, repeatedly. I’ve also hired a Mazda that I must have come very close to burning out the clutch on.

Then there’s driving in Switzerland. First, being from Australia means I drive on the left side of the road, and the right-hand side of the car. Having to do the opposite of both has produced some tense moments, especially when approaching slip lanes and left-hand turns across oncoming traffic. Emperor D and I have on a few occasions exchanged panicky words when we think an accident is imminent. Thankfully we haven’t had any dramas yet.

Secondly, there’s the speed limit. I often don’t know what it is, as it’s frequently not signposted. This is strange for me, where speed-limit-obsessed Australian traffic laws mean virtually every street, road and highway is sign-posted every 500 metres. Driving on Switzerland’s highways for the first time a few weeks ago, I pulled onto the highway and sped up to 100km/hr, the speed limit on Australian suburban freeways. Cars whizzed past me at least 40-50km/hr faster. I sped up to nearly 130km/hr, but cars were still passing me with ease – they were doing at least 150km/hr or more. And I’m surprised. This is Switzerland, not a German autobahn! I would have thought that the conservative, rules-obsessed Swiss would have had a strict speed limit, of maybe no more than 120km/hr. And apparently, that’s actually correct; according to Wikipedia, Switzerland’s speed limit is 120km/hr. That’s a lot of Swiss breaking the rules.
Boris bikes at docking station in Hyde Park
Image: ZanMan, WikiMedia Commons

If you can’t drive, there’s always bikes. It seems that most people in Switzerland own one, and a few of my colleagues get to work on a bike. But maybe Geneva needs to take a leaf out of London’s book. I recently spent a week in London. A lot of people there rides bikes to work too, but some with a difference; they have public bikes for hire, nicknamed Boris bikes. It seemed that one out of three bikes on the road was a Boris bike. Boris bikes, by the way, were nicknamed after London’s Lord Mayor, Boris Johnson, a bit of a London personality, and are a public bicycle sharing system where the bikes get docked at stations all over the city. I hired one on a sunny Sunday morning and took it through Hyde Park. It was one of the best things I did in London; they’re loads of fun.
Velopass bike sharing station in Morges

It’s something they should do in Geneva, and I can’t see an excuse for them not to do it. There are good bicycle paths in the city and there is even an example close to home, with a few towns in the neighbouring canton of Vaud having a bike sharing system, though on a much smaller scale. The city of Lausanne, and surrounding towns of Morges and Rolle, have the scheme. If they’re cheap to use and run, environmentally friendly, and get people out of cars and off public transport – as well as getting them doing something healthy – then why can’t Switzerland’s second biggest city, Geneva, do it too? Genevoise unite and get on yer bikes!

Update: turns out there is a bike hire system in Geneva, but it's not quite on the same scale as London, and it's suggested that the one in Morges and Lausanne is a trial to see how it runs. I hope it gets to Geneva in it's full capacity soon - Geneva is made for cycling!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Lessons in moving

So admittedly I’ve been a bit radio silent lately. You could hardly blame me after the constant moving about of the last four weeks though. What a debacle. We’ve certainly learnt lessons along the way – and so you can profit from them, I’ve listed them in gory detail below – but the important thing is that we’ve finally moved into our permanent apartment, and don’t intend on moving anywhere for a rather long time!

Lesson #1: If you think you think you need to extend your sublease, then do so!
So our problems started when we realised that our new apartment (which is just that – brand new, therefore under construction) wasn’t going to be ready as soon as we’d hoped. We’d signed a lease in early February and were told we could probably move in mid/late March, although our lease, to be on the safe side, was dated from 1 April. Our sublease in Sticksville ran out on 21 March and we thought we’d probably be safe. Wrong. When we realised that we needed a place to stay for an extra week, thinking we could move in on 27 March, it was too late to extend our sublease.

So we had to move out and we spent the next week shifting between friends’ place in Nyon and a temporary sublease for a few days in Geneva. Then on the Thursday before we were due to move in, I got the bad news that it was pushed back by an extra week to 1 April, April Fool’s Day. I wish it had been a joke. It wasn’t.

Not able to stay where we were, we had no choice but to find a hotel for the week, an expensive prospect to say the least. After an ultimately fruitless search in which neither the web, asking in hotels directly, or just asking at the tourist office – where we discovered there was not a hotel room in Geneva to be had for love nor (anything less than an exorbitant amount of) money – we gave up and headed for Lausanne for three nights, before finding a bed in Geneva for the last two before finally moving in. Glad to be in our own place at last, but the fun had only just begun.

Lesson #2: Don’t buy IKEA furniture in bulk
Of course, a brand new apartment is usually unfurnished, so we needed furniture. Ergo, like any good expat in Switzerland who needs furniture, we took ourselves off on a trip to IKEA.

To kit out our apartment, we needed to buy up big. BIG mistake. I love IKEA and - most of the time - their furniture. I have this mild obsession with anything Scandinavian, so usually that's enough to ensure my favour - the price, functionality and design is a bonus.

But good things need to come in small doses. I've spent the better part of the last 10 days on the floor putting things together - dining table, chairs, tv cabinet, lamp, bedside table, bed, bathroom cabinet, and joy of joys, a Manstad fold out sofa. We usually don't have problems putting together IKEA stuff, but this sofa is proving to be a nightmare.

You can have the chaise lounge left or right; they provide the instructions for first right, then left. We've chosen to put ours on the left, so it's meant that a couple of times we've put bolts on the wrong side and had to take them out again because we've looked at the right-side instructions first, which are wrong.

Then there's the end part which we're supposed to fasten to the seat, but the part in the hole that the screw goes into fell into the end part, rendering it useless. We took another trip to IKEA to get a replacement part, but that hasn't worked either, so we now have a half-finished sofa lying in pieces all over the living room. After two phone calls and two more visits to IKEA, it’s still not fixed. I’m not impressed at the lack of Swissifficiency (a hack word of Swiss + efficiency that I’m claiming I coined). I love IKEA but I've learnt a good lesson - don't buy it and put it together in bulk!

Lesson #3: Be prepared to fit your apartment out with just about everything – except the kitchen sink
So the above may be a slight exaggeration, but I was nonetheless startled to find that we need to fit our own light fittings in our new place, plus things like curtains. I thought the bare light bulbs (or no light bulbs, in the case of the kitchen) were going to be replaced, but it turns out that if you rent an apartment, you often have to bring or buy your own light fittings and curtains, etc. Each to their own, but I was a little surprised; that’s just not The Done Thing at home in Australia.
View from my new apartment - Alps
in the distance!

Lesson #4: Be prepared to sit back and allow your amazing surroundings to sink in
After all the hassles and stress, it’s important to stop for a moment and let things sink in. A couple of days after moving in, I stopped for lunch out on the balcony. It was gloriously sunny and (for early April) ridiculously warm. I was finally in my new apartment – it dawned on me that I won’t have to move again for a very long time. It’s brand new, so it’s a blank canvas, complete with shiny new kitchen toys, including a dishwasher (hello Empress Eats blog!). And then I looked up – and saw the French Alps, rising above Lake Geneva. No matter how long we live here, I don’t think that’s something I’ll ever get tired of.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Up in smoke

Growing up in Australia we were exposed to public health campaigns that were nothing if not prolific. The two that stand out though are Slip, Slop, Slap and Quit. Slip, Slop, Slap was a huge campaign starting in 1981 that encouraged people to ‘slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, and slap on hat’ to guard against skin cancer, which is a big killer of Australians. As a child during the 80s, I remember the television ad vividly, with its cartoon seagull and catchy jingle.

The other, the Quit campaign, still runs today to encourage people to quit smoking. It has been enormously successful, with smoking virtually banned in all public - and some private - places in some parts of Australia. You cannot smoke in restaurants, bars and nightclubs, at some areas of the beach or parks, and even your own car if there are children inside. The Quit campaign and ensuing laws has made smoking almost socially unacceptable, and there are very few people I know in Australia who are smokers.
Follow the cigarette butt road

I personally hate smoking. It smells, it’s expensive, it prematurely ages you, it’s pretty damaging to your health and of course, it can kill you. So with that attitude to smoking I came to Geneva. Where every second person, it seems, is a smoker. Again, I don't know if it's a Swiss thing, or if it's the French influence coming through in this French-speaking part of Switzerland, but a lot of people here smoke.

Walking the streets of Geneva I feel like I'm constantly dodging clouds of cigarette smoke being blown around me. Clearly there is no quit smoking campaign in Switzerland - or if there is, it's ineffective in Geneva.

Interestingly, the cigarette packs do have those graphic warning labels on them. But judging by the number of cigarette butts on the streets and the cliques of people smoking outside their workplaces, they’re not working.

Obviously smoking here is a social and a cultural thing. I've walked past women well into their 70s sucking on a cigarette. But given the cost - to your wallet, to your looks, to your health - this is one aspect of Genevoise culture I think they can do without. I've seen firsthand – from a sick family member – that it's just not worth it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Home sweet home is… the first place you’re offered

Anyone reading this who is Swiss or an expat living in Switzerland might be mildly surprised I haven’t blogged on this topic before – housing. I read an article recently that said housing was the number one area of concern for expats, beating security and transport. Then I read another article that said Geneva was ranked the tenth most expensive city in the world for expats to rent. I’m only surprised it wasn’t higher up the list. A decent one bedroom apartment in Geneva costs CHF2000 a month. At least. That’s CHF500 a week. And that’s just an okay apartment in an okay neighbourhood. Then a lot of owners want three months’ rent upfront as a security deposit. If your apartment is CHF2000 a month, then that’s CHF6000 you have to find. No wonder people worry about it.

I found very early on, in my research before leaving Australia, that housing in Switzerland – and in Geneva, especially – is both difficult to find and very expensive. This was only reinforced on day one at work. On my first day, I met a lot of people whose names I couldn’t (and some of them, still can’t) remember, plus a lot of other details that very quickly went out the window. But one thing stuck – the typical conversation I had with most people on meeting them. It went something like this:

Them: Nice to meet you. It’s great to have you on board.
Me: Oh, thanks, nice to meet you too. I’m really glad to be here.
Them: Where are you from?
Me: I’m from Australia; Perth to be exact.
Them: Australia? That’s great, I love Australia.
Me: Thanks. I think Switzerland will be great.
Them: So… have you found a place to live yet?
Me: Er, no – I arrived only four days ago.
Them: Oh, okay. Well, good luck with finding a place. Housing here is pretty expensive and hard to find.
Me: Oh, er, thanks for the tip (and after having this conversation five times)… I’m beginning to get that idea.

And they weren’t kidding. I’ve read that other expats, if they ‘go it alone’, can take up to three months to find a place. Emperor D and I decided before we left that we would take the easy (read, more expensive) route and hire a relocation agent. They are people who deal with mostly expats to help them find cars, schools for kids, etc, but especially a place to live.

When we arrived we stayed in a hotel for two weeks, then moved to a sublease for two months (where we’re still currently staying) just outside a village I’ve nicknamed Sticksville. Two weeks after arriving, we found a town just outside of Geneva, called Nyon, that we wanted to live in, and hired a local relocation agent. He did the job. After two weeks of meeting him and giving him our requirements, we signed a lease on a brand new apartment, seven minutes’ walk from the train station. It won’t be ready until later this month – and we can’t wait – but we’ve had a few sidesteps along the way.

We also found a sublease in Geneva that was literally next door to where I work. I could’ve rolled out of bed and had the world’s shortest commute. Things were very positive and we were looking good for getting that place, until we heard we’d missed out because the current tenant found that one of the people who applied had a workmate/friend in common. It’s not unusual for an apartment viewing to have 20 people show up.

But it seems ‘who you know’ is a common theme. A South African couple we’ve become friends with after they moved to Geneva and she started work the week after me, found their rent-so-cheap-it-must-be-too-good-to-be-true apartment through a friend of a friend after less than two weeks. Needless to say, I was a bit envious. I have a close friend here – actually more like family; my host sister – who lives less than two hours’ drive away and even works in real estate for expats. She couldn’t help us much because she doesn’t know the area and doesn’t know anyone here.

Then we found a place in Nyon that is bigger, cheaper and only two minutes’ walk from the train station, and on the ‘right side of the tracks’, that we thought was great. We saw it, applied for it, but it’s since become a little complicated. Although compared to other expats we’ve had it rather easy, we’ve now got to that point where we’re saying ‘home sweet home is the first place that’s accepted us’. And that’s fine. It’s a brand new apartment and, in a few weeks, we’ll be living there. We can’t wait. But watch out for blogs on the joys of moving and IKEA furniture buying!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sometimes the nicest people in Switzerland aren't Swiss‏

Maybe it's because I'm tired, but I need to have a bit of a bitch (or whinge if you don't know what that means). Not that I've come across anyone bad, but sometimes the nicest people we've come across in Switzerland haven't necessarily been Swiss. And I apologise if you're Swiss and you're reading this. The fact you're reading this means you're nice. Thanks, it means a lot. But I haven't come across you yet, so it doesn't count.

Take the other night. We got back after four days in London and get a taxi home. The taxi driver turned out to be a nice guy, who conversed with us, helped with our luggage, etc - but he wasn't Swiss. He was French Moroccan.

Sometimes, the Swiss (and I don't know if this is a Swiss French or just a Swiss thing) can really punish you if you're foreign. Especially in language. If you don't speak French, sometimes you'll get little help. Even if they speak perfect English. And I know that sounds really stupid and ignorant of me - I'm in a French-speaking country and I should learn French. I am, and really I'm trying and I make an utter fool of myself sometimes when I do try. But it's almost like there's this slight sadistic attitude towards expats sometimes. Even if expats try really hard and speak French and make the effort, and the Swiss can see that, they sometimes still don't cut us a break.

I'm not really sure what it is. The Swiss are not xenophobic, but I think they could be elitist. And why not, I guess it is their country. But still, sometimes some people don't make for a welcome.

I can't really blame the Swiss I guess, when I see the statistics that suggests they might feel as though their country is being overrun by expats. In Switzerland, 20% of the population are foreign and in Geneva, it's worse, almost 40%. With stats like that, I can see how some Swiss may think they're strangers in their own land, and react against that.

I genuinely think that most Swiss, at their core, are a nation of warm, friendly people - once you get to know them. And that's the thing. It's my job, as an expat, to scratch their veneer of 'just another foreigner' and get to know them. Because who wouldn't want Swiss friends?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Three countries in one day – Europe is at your feet

So I’m typing this on a TGV train, belting across the French countryside at about 300km/hr. This morning I had breakfast in Switzerland; I’ll have lunch in France; and dinner in Belgium.

For me, this is what being in Europe is all about. Being able to jump on an insanely fast train and cross entire countries, their languages and cultures included, in just a matter of hours.

I spent the better part of two days travelling from Australia to get to Europe. Today, in one day, I’ll spend time in three different countries. For someone that is from a place where a two and a half hour flight doesn’t even get you out of the state, let alone the country, this seems quite remarkable.

Just like someone from Europe has difficulty comprehending the vast distances and time needed to travel in Australia, I’m still adjusting to how compact Europe is; to learn that when my boss says ‘let’s send you to Paris for one day and Brussels the next’, it’s not that big a deal.

The trains and the low-cost airlines that service Europe make it so much easier. Looking up the cost of a return flight to London on easyjet, I was stunned to find you can get flights for as little as CHF90 (US$ and Aus$ are nearly parity with the Swiss Franc – CHF). The train I’m on from Geneva to Paris takes three hours.

When Emperor D and I moved to Switzerland, one of our goals was to try and travel throughout as much of Europe as possible. I think that through virtue of my work I’ll get to do that quite a bit, and on the longer trips, or trips that can be turned into a weekend somewhere, Emperor D will tag along. But we hope that sometimes we’ll say ‘let’s go to Prague/Amsterdam/Berlin/Stockholm/Madrid this weekend’. And it won’t be a big deal – a cheap easyjet flight, a room in a budget hotel, and Europe is at our feet.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The unglamorous world of Swiss banking

When telling our friends that we were moving, the thing they found most amusing about us going to Switzerland was having to open a Swiss bank account. There’s something about Swiss bank accounts that makes them sound so… glamorous.

Saying someone has a Swiss bank account conjures up images of shady billionaires trying to dodge tax or James Bond, The Saint’s Simon Templar or Jason Bourne.

Swiss bank paper overload!
The reality is far different; I know as I now have a Swiss bank account. Sorry to disappoint, but there are no hand prints on electronic screens, voice recognition or retina scans required to open one. All you need is an address and some identification, like your passport, and in 5 – 10 working days, you too can have your own Swiss bank account.

I went with the distinctly unglamorous Swiss bank of PostFinance – the bank of the Swiss national post office. A lot of locals use them and they have low fees. It’s all very efficient. I will say two things on them though: I’ve never been so overwhelmed with paperwork in one hit – I received six different envelopes relating to my account in one day (see right); and two, that their internet banking is quite secure. In the top right of the photo, you’ll see a bright yellow device that looks pretty much like a calculator. To access internet banking, you need your bank card, the calculator thing, a nine digit internet banking number and a password. It’s not retina scanning, but that’s some hard core security for internet banking.

At least I know my hard-earned is locked up tight like it’s in a Swiss bank. Oh, er…

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Swiss trains don’t run like Swiss clockwork

You know the saying – ‘it runs like clockwork’. The Swiss are world famous for the accuracy of their watches and clocks. But apparently the same precision of time doesn’t extend to their trains. You might be quite surprised – I’m frankly amazed – but Swiss trains rarely seem to run on time.

Here’s an example. I’m currently staying just outside a small village 18kms north of Geneva that I’ve nicknamed Sticksville. There’s nothing there – it feels like it’s out in the sticks. To get to work each morning, I hike 10 minutes along roads with no footpaths; then get a bus to one of two towns, either Coppet or Nyon; then get the train to Geneva. It’s a bit painful, but really, there are people in the world with worse commutes.

But I’m quite reliant on public transport, and I need to rely on that public transport being on time, as the bus to and from Sticksville village only runs every 30 mins. Miss it, and I’ll be waiting in the cold for nearly half an hour. Thankfully I haven’t missed it yet, especially since the weather has become much colder – daytime temps are currently only around 1C.

So this evening on the way home from work, I thought I would take a train to Nyon that would give me some time to run into the supermarket to pick up some food before I caught the bus for Sticksville (because of course, there’s no supermarket in Sticksville).

The train for Nyon was scheduled to leave Geneva at 6.00pm precisely. When I arrived at the designated platform, I was a little confused – there was another train sitting there, with the destination of Geneva Airport. Then, looking up at the departure board, I noticed that this train was due to depart seven minutes’ late. The train finally leaves, and my train for Nyon pulls up; the sign flicks over to say that the train will now leave five minutes’ late, at 6.05pm. I think to myself ‘okay, slightly annoying; probably now won’t make the supermarket before the bus leaves, but at least I’ll still make the bus with a couple of minutes to spare’.

Wrong. I get on the train and wait for it to leave. And wait; 6.05pm ticks past and we’re still waiting. I glance at my watch: 6.10pm. I now think it’ll be touch and go to make the Sticksville bus, let alone pick up some food. We’re still waiting. Other passengers look at their watches. The train finally gives up a small cough and crawls at snail’s pace out of the station. I check my watch: 6.15pm, 15 minutes’ late. If the train had been on time, I would’ve been at my destination by now.

I realise that I now won’t make the Sticksville bus from Nyon, and decide to get it from the other direction by getting off the train a stop early at Coppet. I hop off at Coppet at 6.26pm, just a minute before the bus leaves in Nyon and feel sorry for those still on the train who have no choice but to get buses from Nyon; they’ve certainly missed them. I get the bus to Sticksville from Coppet with no problems, but with no nearby supermarket, I head home empty-handed.

However, if that isn’t bad enough, confusion often reigns at Geneva’s Gare Cornavin train station. They frequently change platforms where trains depart from, often with only a minute or two notice before it’s *supposed* to leave. Announcements are made over the public address system and people inwardly groan and shuffle along to the new platform.

For a Swiss public transport system, I’m utterly stunned at the – admittedly quiet – chaos that sometimes prevails. For a nation famous for its precision in timing, the lack of it among its transport system beggars belief. It’s something completely uncharacteristic and unexpected. I’m glad to see however, that not even the Swiss are perfect.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

An update on the snow

Just a quick update on the snow - I mentioned in my last post that the weather here had been unseasonably warm and there was no snow. How things can change in just a few days! It had been getting noticeably colder the last couple of days, and today, with its temp of around 2C, was easily the coldest I've experienced so far, especially with the wind chill coming off the lake.

Then, early this afternoon, I looked up from my desk at work and suddenly gave a small shriek, startling my team mates - snow! It was very light snowfall - what some people would call a snow flurry - but it was falling snow nonetheless. At first it was very brief, only 30 seconds' worth or so, but more snow fell for longer a bit later.

Unfortunately I didn't get photos, but if it snows again I will get a couple and edit this post by including them. My team mates were all amused - as you can imagine - but nobody can take away my delight at finally seeing some snow fall! Hopefully more snow will fall, especially in the mountains, and then in a couple of weeks Emperor D and I can go up to the snow fields. Watch this space!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Got snow?

The Jet d'Eau with a clear Mont Blanc
in the background, middle.
Well, it’s mid-winter and Switzerland doesn’t. I confess that having never really seen snow before, seeing fresh, powder snow was high on my list of must-see things when I first arrived in Switzerland, now just over a week ago. Before this, the closest I’d come to seeing snow was seeing slush – snow that had fallen a few days previously – on the top of Mt Rigi, near Lucerne, ironically also in Switzerland. That was in June, which is the beginning of summer, four and a half years ago.

Since I arrived, the weather has been unseasonably warm. Switzerland should be buried under two feet of powder snow and its citizens should be shivering under grey skies in temps hovering around 0C. Instead, I’ve been welcomed by temps around 10C – 13C (although today was a little colder, ‘only’ 6C) and brilliant, clear, sunny skies.

I should be grateful, especially since this Aussie came from mid-summer temps in the high 30s. I guess its Geneva’s way of providing me with a warm welcome (sorry, bad pun) and allowing me to gradually acclimatise to the cooler weather, rather than the shock of arriving in snowy, freezing conditions.

Images like these – bright sunny skies and warmer than expected weather – has certainly endeared me to Geneva. It’s much easier to like a place under these skies than grey wet ones.
A glorious sunny day in Geneva, but no snow
on the mountains says it all.

Still, I’m a little disappointed at seeing no snow. There’s no snow on top of the mountains either. In fact, a planned day to go snow shoeing in the Jura mountains with my new work colleagues had to be changed to a terrifying attempt at ice skating instead. No snow means I had to try ice skating for the first time since I was 16. It was not pretty – even 5 year old Swiss kids put me to shame.

The Genevoise are certainly lapping it up – some literally. I was too nice not to take photos, but yesterday I saw nude sunbathers soaking up the sun – despite it being only 13C – and today someone was swimming in the freezing cold water of Lac Leman (that’s Lake Geneva). More than one person stared and pointed at this lady, who clearly had a death wish by wanting to contract pneumonia. 

The Genevoise take advantage of the sunshine
Other Genevoise take to the promenades, strolling, riding, rollerblading in the sunshine with family and friends. Emperor D and I joined them. With Geneva even more backwards than Perth in having all the shops closed on Sundays, there’s not much else to do, but on a day like today, nobody would complain.

How could you when you’ve found yourself fortunate enough to live in a place like this? 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bienvenue a Geneve

That’s French for welcome to Geneva, where I finally arrived after a killer 26 hours of travelling two and a half days ago. I’m so glad to be here at last. But let me back track a little firstly, as it’s been awhile since my last post.

Mountains from the Quai de Mont Blanc.
You can supposedly see Europe's highest mountain
from here and I thought it was the mountain
the middle; it's actually the one hidden by
cloud to the right of the building.

That’s basically because it’s been a whirlwind of farewells, packing, cancelling accounts – and lying by the pool reading, relaxing and doing nothing. I should explain that my parents live a couple of hours’ flight away from me, and I usually see them only every six months. A couple of months before I knew I was moving, I’d booked flights to see them for about a week just after Christmas. Turns out it was a good move, as it allowed me to relax and spend some time with them shortly before leaving, but it also means the manic period before I left became even more so. Still, it was certainly worth it.

There was also loads of packing. Our house looked like a bomb had hit it for a number of days – and I imagine it still does, as Emperor D hasn’t left yet and is finalising arrangements.

The left bank and the famous Jet d'Eau.
But I got here on Thursday morning. It was a long, long, trip. I had two stopovers in Singapore and Frankfurt before finally getting to Geneva, with waits at airports in between. I’ve always said that if I could have any magic superpower, it would be teleportation – a la Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie crossing her arms and blinking her eyes and voíla, she was instantaneously somewhere else – and never more so than after spending 13 hours squashed into an economy class seat.

So I arrived, and despite feeling pretty wiped out, I managed to venture out and take a look around. Wow. How fortunate am I to have landed in such a beautiful place. It was quite cloudy as you can see in most of the photos, except for the last one, which was taken today when it was much sunnier. In fact, the weather has been ridiculously un-winter like. There’s little snow on top of the mountains (real mountains!), and it’s been cool, around 10C – 13C, not bitingly cold. Hopefully I’ll get to see some snow before the winter out at this rate!

Lake Geneva - or Lac Lemán as the locals call it -
looking north from the Jetée des Paquis. Looks
like you can go for a swim - if you don't mind your
water being a chilly 10C - 14C.

I’m surrounded by people from over 100 nations – Geneva is a true melting pot, and you can see this in the variety of restaurants the city hosts. There’s the standard Italian, Thai, and Chinese, but I’ve also seen Japanese, Peruvian, Turkish even Ethiopian restaurants. And of course, there’s the French-influenced boulangeries, charcuteries and brassieres.

As for my French, I’m not doing too bad. I had started to learn several weeks before leaving Australia, by listening to lessons on my iPod. I’m glad I had learnt some French though. Despite being a city of over 100 nations and their accompanying languages, it seems some Genevoise speak little English. Not that I’m complaining – I relish the challenge of learning a new language - but I was surprised. I’ve learnt enough to get by in restaurants and shops. I feel quite proud of my French, which I imagine to the Genevoise is appallingly pronounced and delivered in a thick accent. But I think they appreciate my efforts.

The left bank - sans the Jet d'Eau - today,
when it was much sunnier.
While I’m looking forward to getting under Geneva’s skin a little more and exploring Switzerland as much as I can, my first few days have been interesting and filled with new sights, and I already have some great ideas for blogs in the future. Watch this space!