Surviving Switzerland

an expat's experiences navigating the land of mountains, cheese and chocolate

The Trip to the Jungfraujoch


The second to left col is the Jungfraujoch, the right peak is the Jungfrau


The Jungfraujoch’s elevation is approximately 3500 meters, or 11,480 feet above sea-level. It houses the highest railway station in Europe, as well as an observation platform, an ice-carvings cave walk, a glacier hiking trail and some pretty spectacular views. By the time we reached the outdoor fun area, though, all I could think was, “I’m gonna get sick all over this white snow.”


The train trip up the mountain is more than half the adventure, in my opinion. Which is not to belittle the views or experiences visitors have at the Jungfraujoch, it’s just that the valley of Lauterbrunnen that we passed through is one of my favorite vistas in Switzerland. Waterfalls, towering cliffs, deep forests—I love it.

Lauterbrunnen Valley

Lauterbrunnen Valley


We went up together with my parents and nephew starting from Interlaken, where we had a hotel room. We had to change trains three times, and I wound up forgetting half of the picnic food on the second to last train. This did not make me a popular person. I mean, I could not forgive myself for being so thoughtless. All of the chocolate was on the bag I left under the seat of the cog-wheel train that took us up the valley. All of the chocolate. My dad offered to kick me so I could stop kicking myself. Fortunately, there is a solution to every problem and there are several restaurants from self-serve to fine dining at the top, and since this is Switzerland, there is even a chocolate shop. Not my favorite brand, but I had only myself to blame for my heart-break.

Several highlights for our group was probably the Ice-Palace (even the floor is ice), the zip-line at the top of Europe (not particularly fast or long, but how often can you zip somewhere at over 3,500 meters?), and the observation deck. It was warmer than I thought it would be considering the glacier below our feet, so I was glad that an acquaintance had recommended sweaters and wind-breakers instead of the ski-jackets I wanted to take. Gloves and scarves also come in handy, but I have to say I cannot recommend wearing beach thongs for shoes. Yes, I saw some people wearing those.

Zip-line starting point

Zip-line starting point

And now I know that elevation sickness can show itself in many ways. We weren’t up there long, but it was enough for my step-mom to grow weak and faint, for me to feel decidedly nauseated and for my son to start rambling incoherently for nearly 10 minutes before sitting down suddenly and asking for a Coke to drink. I am happy to say that no one upchucked on the snow and after sitting down and having some tea and water everyone felt better.

The entire trip started at 8:00 and we were back to Interlaken by about 5:00 that evening. It was exhausting—the trains were overcrowded and each change was stressful, but all-in-all it was an amazing experience, a once in a lifetime day.

Views of glacier

View of glacier

Train travel tips: visitors traveling for several days up to a month in Switzerland should check out the Swiss Travel Systems  for deals. We bought the half-fare tickets for my parents and when we booked the Jungfraujoch trip (at half price) we recouped the initial cost and saved an extra $60 or so. Then, every time we took the train during their stay we saved half on the normal price.


Meanwhile, the war against women continues…

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

The right wing in the States has taken some hard blows lately: the war against equality for homosexuals has been forced to retreat on several fronts (don’t worry, the right wing is biding its time for a major strike), and the war against terrorism is progressing in starts and stops, but mostly in stops these days (it’s difficult to maintain enthusiasm while pulling troops and moving operations underground). On the other hand, the war against any sort of gun control is coming along swimmingly in spite of the rash of school shootings and the astounding number of victims due to gun violence. In 2011, nearly 11 people died from gun shots every day.

So, who can the right wing take time to attack these days? Women, obviously. They make great victims, especially women with precarious finances and who can be labelled as vaguely ‘unchristian’ for their health care decisions.

Interesting how the same people who go buck wild with hatred at the barest mention of establishing gun restriction laws because it steps on the toes of the 2nd amendment will trample the 1st amendment—guaranteeing freedom of religion with it’s underlying principle of separation of church and state—in order to push their religious beliefs onto others.

And now businesses can be people, too. Yes, a corporation has not only feelings that can be hurt, but deeply held religious beliefs and moral standards. A corporation, whose only concern should be the bottom line, now has the power to decide if a woman is acting against the corporation’s religious beliefs. Because freedom of religion only goes one direction—the way of the most powerful.

Freedom to be free from imposed religious beliefs doesn’t stand a chance in this war.

Freedom for a woman to be able to choose and afford the best birth control for her life, her health and her family is being stripped away with this Supreme Court decision. All because a business, which should not be worried about private health concerns, deeply believes that the business itself is morally right and the woman is morally wrong in how she prevents pregnancy. Choosing whether or not to try for a pregnancy is one of the most critical aspects of a woman’s health during her reproductive years. This decision has an enormous impact on a woman’s mental, physical and emotional state of being.  There are also financial considerations tangled up in preventing unwanted pregnancies. A lot of women (way too many) have low hourly wages and no paid maternity leave…like the women working at Hobby Lobby.

I want to say thank you, Switzerland. We have private health insurance that might not cover all forms of birth control, but does cover maternity in hospitals and paid maternity leave. Switzerland does not allow businesses, pharmacies or insurance companies choose whether a woman can have access to certain kinds of health care, but leaves health decisions to the woman, her family and her doctor. No one dismisses science and the mechanics of conception to make egregious claims that prevention of conception is actually an abortion. Switzerland might not be perfect, but at least there is no war against women here.


Language Matters

School has been out for a couple of weeks already in the States, but here in the Canton of Fribourg, we still have one more week to go. In honor of the school year that is ending, I wanted to share some of the language difficulties we have in our house. We are primarily bilingual French and English, but every once in a while a ciao, tchuss-semma, or mein Gott will work its way into our discussions. Most sentences, however, start in either French or English, get thrown in the blender with the other about half way through and then finish in the second language. Depending on the speaker, it’s not always very clear which language is being spoken when.

For example: towards the beginning of the school year, my daughter came bouncing into the kitchen before my morning coffee, and announced, “You know you can take beer bellies to school pour manger.”

The children always pack morning snacks to eat during recess. Usually, teachers recommend bringing apples or little sandwiches. At the mention of beer bellies, though, half a dozen gruesome images popped into my head: mash-ups involving Hannibal Lector, the Children of the Corn and any number of the zombie movies and shows that I’ve tried to avoid.

“What?” is all I could ask.

“Beer bellies,” she said again. “You can take them to school.”

“Beer…bellies?” Without my morning caffeine, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was trying to tell me. To compound the problem of bilingualism at home, some of the kids at school also speak Swiss German, Portuguese, Italian and a couple of other languages which must make for some interesting conversations. There are only 7 other kids in her class, but hey, who’s counting?

“Uh, huh!” She bounced around some more until, luckily for me, my husband showed up.

“Oh, you mean Biberlies?” he asked (pronounced bee-bir-lees).

“Yeah! Beer bellies! Tu peux les prendre to school to eat for the recré!” Bounce, bounce! My darling daughter was ecstatic by this point.

Turns out that they are spiced cookies with creamy filling and you can buy them at them the grocery store. Hope your summer is off to a great start!

Alp Horn Blowing Summer Market in Bulle, Switzerland

Alphorns at the summer market in Bulle, Switzerland


Gearing up for summer travel: the restaurant experience

DSC00619I love going out to eat in the States. The food is great and restaurants are organized; the people working there have a plan for getting you in, getting you your meal and getting you out as fast as possible and all this with free perky smiles and refills on most drinks.

I used to love eating out in the States much more than I do now, though. Except when I’m with small children, but we’ll look at that in a different post. What took some of the appeal off was an eating experience from about 5 years ago, when I was in Missouri on vacation and I went out to meet two girlfriends from high school who I hadn’t seen in a year.

They worked full time. They had, and still have, busy lives. At the time they didn’t have kids, but they did have shopping for the Christmas gift exchange to do, half hour drives to get back home and probably some emails to look through and answer later that evening. Admittedly, I was on vacation.

I left the house for the restaurant at 5:50, and came back at 6:55. My husband was putting on his shoes to go drink a beer with my brother. The first thing he asked was if my friends didn’t show. I told him no, they were there, we ate. I had to leave half a margarita sitting on the table because I’m such a light weight, I didn’t dare slug it down and then drive. He asked if I had fun at least.

Well, I saw my friends for 40 minutes. I think they had fun. I love them dearly even if they couldn’t find much time for me that day. Even so, I could blame them for the short visit, or I could blame the restaurant culture of the US. I’m going to put a little blame on both.

If you are eating out in Switzerland, be prepared to sit and wait.

Maybe it’s not such a unfortunate thing. Sure, you are on a schedule and there are great things to see, but your feet probably hurt, so why not sit for a while?

Be prepared to talk to the other people at the table, and not just for 40 minutes. This should be easy because most people travel with family or other people they really, really like. Traveling with people you don’t like is an unbelievably bad idea.

The server may or may not help you find a table, bring you a menu, or smile, but he or she probably will. If you ask for the menu (as opposed to just having coffee or drinks) you will definitely get cute paper table mats and a menu.DSC00620

Then you will wait.

Then the server will remember you and ask what you’d like to drink and maybe eat. In case you are gluten or lactose intolerant any respectable restaurant will be able to accommodate you; be sure to inform the server. However, there is always the chance that this will get you a blank stare. Find another place to eat, is my suggestion. You can ask for plain water with the meal, but don’t be surprised if you get charged a couple of francs if that is all you request to drink.

Then you will wait.

Then you will get your drinks.

Then you’ll start going through the pictures on your camera and messages on your phone. Then you’ll try to not finish your drinks before the food arrives because there are no free refills. Then you will talk some more with your loved ones, if you are still talking to each other at that point in your trip.

Then the food will finally arrive.DSC00622

Unless you are very unlucky, the food will be quite good, maybe even excellent. Let’s hand it to the Swiss: they think meals should be filling, attractive and tasty (and overpriced, but you can’t have everything).

After you finish, you will wait.

Then much later, the server will come to clear the dishes, ask how it was and if you’d like dessert or coffee.

By now you can guess how this goes—more waiting.

You will have to wave at the server to get his or her attention in order to ask for the bill. They are all adepts at not making eye contact–don’t ask me why. I cannot count the number of times I’ve asked myself, how long would it take for the server to notice if I stand up and leave the restaurant without paying? Ten minutes? Twenty? An hour? By the way, tips are included in the total, but leaving a few extra francs is always a polite gesture.

I would never walk off without paying, of course, because it would be illegal and very unSwiss. I’ve been here too long for such shenanigans, no matter how long it takes for to get noticed in order to pay.

But this is vacation, right? Take the time to do eat like Europeans do. Sit back, talk and enjoy the wait.


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Padded walls and the fruits of rigorous research

Most people associate rooms with padded walls and no windows with the words lunatic asylum, funny farm, and possibly Renfield. I, however, dream of having my own small room with padded walls, ceiling and floor, and if I could put in a personal request, I’d like a skylight and for the lock on the door to be on the inside with me.

In this room, besides myself, I would put three items. As all fantasies have rules and regulations, there can only be three things in there with me. I’m assuming that silence does not count as one of those things, because I would definitely have silence: a rare and valuable commodity. I hope I don’t count as an object either, because I would like to bring in a hammock, a pillow and a blanket with me. Every once in a while, I plan on switching out the blanket for a book or my Kindle. But I’d always keep the hammock and the pillow.

This is all for therapeutic reasons, of course. The padded walls to make me feel safe and I kind of like the idea of literally bouncing off the walls and rolling on the floor without it hurting, and the hammock because of the health benefits.

Don’t believe me that hammocks have health benefits? Look no further. The Swiss scientific community has a made a study of them, see this great article. I have no idea who funded that research, but all I can say is, “Money well spent.” Unfortunately, I must have missed the call for volunteers when they needed people to sleep in swaying hammocks, so I’ll just have to reap the benefits of putting it to the test in my little padded room all to myself.

Inspired by the Daily Post



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