Schwingen In Switzerland’s Top 10 Posts Of 2012

Since everyone seems to come out with a Best of 2012 list at the end of the year, I thought I would list my top 10 most viewed posts this year.

  1. Everything You Don’t Need And Can’t Live Without – I don’t like to sit still, don’t nap and hate to be bored.  I realize that it doesn’t always make me the most relaxing person to be around, but it’s generally pretty entertaining.  When we had a free Sunday, I decided to go check out a little shindig they had going on in the cool Carouge neighborhood.  Unexpectedly, this post was selected for Freshly Pressed.
  2. Tschäggättä Parade To Celebrate Carnival In The Lötschental Valley – One of the best things about Switzerland is its festivals.  This one was unlike anything I’d ever seen.  This was my first post to be Freshly Pressed.
  3. More Pictures of the Versoix, Switzerland Ice Storm – Remember the picture of the frozen car?  Well, since it was taken in a suburb of Geneva, I couldn’t help myself.  I went to get the shot.  On a side note, it would have been smart of me not to wear high heals when doing so.  A couple of nice Swiss gentlemen helped me off the ice.  Yep, I’m an idiot, but the pictures are great.
  4. Our Basement Bomb Shelter, Otherwise Known As Our Storage Unit – I’m glad other people are as intrigued by this phenomenon as I am.
  5. Mt. Blanc, The Tallest Mountain In The Alps – I am profoundly grateful to have seen such beauty.
  6. The Spaghetti Tree Hoax, Aka Happy April Fool’s Day From Switzerland – Hilarious.  Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.
  7. My Introduction to French Cinema, A List of Great, Entertaining and Fun French Films – While I posted this before Jean Dujardin won the Oscar, some of his comedies made the list.
  8. Why Didn’t Hitler Invade Switzerland? – This was a hard one to write as it’s a difficult question.  I hope I didn’t screw it up too badly.
  9. Another Cultural Difference…Men In Spandex – Sometimes, it’s the little things…
  10. What The Heck Is A Bidet? – Please feel free to comment with any additional uses you can think up for a bidet.

 

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Not Just A Ghost In The Machine – European Vending Machines

This post comes with a warning for Americans (and any other country that doesn’t display items many Americans would feel are more mature or private in public spaces).  Warning – While I took these pictures in the middle of a train station in Switzerland, but in the US (and probably other places) people consider these items to be more of an adult or private nature.

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We’ve noticed that vending machines in Europe contain some things that are um, well, a bit different than what you would see in American vending machines (or at least the ones not found in truck stops).  Take a look below and see for yourself.

Yes, that is C-ICE, “Swiss Cannabis Ice Tea,” located above.  It is made from black tea hemp bloom syrup (5%), and hemp bloom extract (0.0015%) that will allegedly give you a “fantastic natural feeling.”  It allegedly has low levels of THC, but appears to be marketed more as a health drink.  We didn’t try it, but the Top Gear guys did when they visited Romania.

Please note that the pack of lighters (above) is located adjacent to a kid’s candy bar. Also for kids is Buffalo Jr., a children’s energy drink.  It doesn’t contain either Taurine or caffeine and is marketed as providing “an additional supply of energy producing L-Carnitine needed for an active life.”

How Bazzar! Dubai’s Souks

 

A surprising amount of Dubai‘s traditional commercial activity is still conducted in traditional markets known as souks.  Dubai’s souks are chaotic labyrinths filled with energy, movement, sights and smells.  I can’t tell a lie.  In almost 50-degree heat (122 Fahrenheit), there is a little less energy and movement and a little more to smell.   As a result, the best times to see these old-style markets are during the morning and evening’s cooler hours.

Dubai has many of these atmospheric, vibrant, old-fashioned souks, each with their own specialization.  I checked quite a few of them out but didn’t buy anything.  If you do, plan on haggling.  It looked like part of the fun.

The Grand Souk Deira, a bustling textile souk, is Dubai’s oldest and busiest bazaar. Dating from the 1830’s, it contains hundreds of businesses that sell everything from cheap, good quality pashminas to exquisite fabrics to junk.  I giggled when the salesmen remembered me walking down the street earlier and many of them will try to strike up a conversation to sell to you.

On the other side of the river, the 300 stores of the Gold Souk, are filled with a dazzling array of cheap gold.  The souks are regulated by the government which ensures the quality and that items are of the purported the quality.  Silver, platinum, diamonds and other precious stones are also for sale.  By the way, if you are in the market for gold, you can also get a good deal at Dubai’s Gold & Diamond Park.

The nearby restored Spice souk sells exotic herbs, colorful spices and aromatic frankincense.  The barrels and jute sacks contribute to the atmosphere.  Not just a tourist attraction, it also sell groceries, and household goods to locals and workers on nearby dhows.

Dubai also has perfume fish and probably countless other souks that I don’t even know about.

For me as an American, it was really interesting to see so many similar business located in such proximity. Americans tend to think about things differently and prize convenience.  Therefore, in the US, you don’t usually see many districts with a singular-type business or industry that sells goods to consumers.  Businesses in the US tend to try to take advantage of proximity to the consumer.  That’s not to say that you don’t see a Home Depot near a Lowe’s.  I just mean that you don’t see 10 independent small business of the same type all in a row, let alone 50 or 100.

Enjoy the atmosphere and the unique merchandise.  Just don’t expect the souks to be untouched by globalization.  I was amazed by the large array of goods made in China that I could by at a dollar store or Asian market in Charlotte, North Carolina.

 

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Next to Milan’s Duomo, is Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a four-story glass-covered shopping arcade.

We sat down for our first of several coffees at the Campari Cafe, just inside the opening.  The cappuccinos were the best these caffeine addicts had ever tasted.  I’m not exaggerating.  It was the best coffee I’d ever had.  Sitting on the patio, we had front row seats for some great people watching.   I am sure that people in Geneva and other places are just as interesting, but the culture is so private that you feel bad staring.  In Milan, everyone is there to see and be seen, so it feels perfectly acceptable.

Campari was invented in this historic café.  Giuseppe Verdi and Auturo Toscanini used to hangout here after a performance at the nearby La Scala Opera House.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was built right after Italian unification in 1870 to be a showplace for modern Milan.  This patriotic, art deco building still is.

It was Milan’s first building with electric lighting.

Guiseppe Mengoni designed it, but tragically plummeted to his death from the scuffling just weeks before it was finished.

For good luck, locals (and tons of tourists) spin on one of the floor’s mosaics.  The mosaic is of a bull, Milan’s symbol.  You don’t just step on any part of it.  You spin, grinding your foot into its, um, what’s the word for cojones in Italian?  We saw over a dozen people do it.   People walked out of their way to do a quick spin before continuing with their business.

I’m all for breaking some balls, but the extraordinary amount of wear and tear means that the poor bull gets a new set every few years.  The ground is permanently indented there.

Dubai’s Malls: Where Money Can Buy Happiness, Or At Least A Walk In Air-Conditioning

Dubai is famous for its malls.  There are over 60 of them and they are immense.

While I didn’t see much in the stores themselves that surprised me and couldn’t find in New York City, the experience was amazing.  People in Dubai don’t go to the malls just to shop, they go escape the sweltering weather, socialize, eat and entertain themselves.

To lure credit cards, malls provide surreal attractions.

The Souk Madinat at the Hotel Jumeriah has artificial waterway that reminds me of The Venetian in Las Vegas.  Since it’s in Dubai, of course it’s bigger.

Go ahead. Shop like a winner.

The Dubai Mall has about 1200 stores.  There are towns a few miles from where he grew up with fewer people.  It has an Olympic-size ice-skating rink!  Hockey anyone?   If that isn’t enough to draw you in, it also has a four-story waterfall, a huge aquarium, indoor theme parks, and a fashion catwalk.   The aquarium is enormous and breath-taking with lots of fish that include stingrays and sharks.  It holds the Guinness World Record for the largest acrylic piece used in an aquarium.

The Wafi Mall has a glass pyramid, kind of like the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.

I visited the Mall of the Emirates because I had to see its indoor ski slope with real snow.  When I first heard about this, I couldn’t believe that someone would think to build an indoor ski resort.  For me, part of the fun of skiing is being outside.

Ski Dubai features five indoor ski runs, of varying altitude, incline and difficulty.  I didn’t give it a go because I figured the skiing wouldn’t be better than in Switzerland, but regret not doing it.  They rent you everything you need, parkas, boots, skis and snowboards… I’m not sure if they rent helmets, but wouldn’t doubt it.

It was fun watching kids running around, playing in the snow.  The Magic Planet, a two-story arcade, was lousy with kids fresh out of school and high on sugar.  I had to play.

Another reason I went to the Mall of the Emirates was that I’d heard you can get outstanding coffee drinks at the Armani Coffee Bar.  It did not disappoint.  My coffee drink was amazing and unlike anything I’d ever had.  It was like a super-refined latte milkshake.  The interior lights continually change colors and the Armani interior was elegant.  No surprise there.

As I was leaving, I saw something that fascinated me, a donation machine.  It allows you to give toward food, the disabled, orphans, treatment, house appliances (?), zakat, alms, constant alms and penance.  Does it mean that you can, literally, pay for your sins?

Everything You Don’t Need And Can’t Live Without

In English, terms like into attic sales, flea markets, secondhand, garage sales, car boot sales, all mean cheap prices on used stuff.  In French, terms like brasserie, vides greniers, marche aux puces, brocantes, all mean about the same thing.

In 1754, Carouge, just beyond Geneva’s city limits, was granted to Victor Amideus, King of Sardinia.  It became a refuge for Catholics, less puritanical Protestants, and even Jews.  Its streets are laid on a grid pattern with lots of trees and planters.  The city has low Mediterranean style buildings and interior courtyard gardens.  We like to go for a stroll there and aren’t the only ones.  It’s become a trendy ‘hood.

Some people have a problem with buying or using people’s old stuff.  I have no such compunction and am a sucker for these sales.   This one didn’t have much furniture (which is fine because I don’t have much extra space), but had a lot of everything else including Mexican food (which is a rarity here).   It was great, but perhaps the least spicy Mexican food ever.  The Swiss don’t eat spicy food and so most foreign food is toned down for the Swiss market.   We didn’t care.  I have a supply of assorted hot sauces at the apartment.  If you come visit us, please bring more.

We don’t have children, but I wanted to buy some of the toys anyway.  When I was young I had one of the Fisher-Price castles like the one below and loved it.  It was hard to pass this puppy up.

I think these sales are great places to pick up unusual souvenirs.  We’ve had visitors pick up paintings, books, beer steins, cool glasses, tastevins, vintage t-shirts, Swiss army knives and other cool Swiss army gear at the flea market.

I got a couple of Swiss army knives, a couple of old champagne buckets (to use as planters on my balcony), a leather purse big enough to hold my giant camera (super cute for summer), and a Sherlock Holmes book (in French).    While I didn’t need any of it, apparently I could live without it.

I love these sales because you never know what you will see.  They are like a mini cultural time capsule.  Although you might be able to find an old wheel in the US, you probably won’t find some old spraying equipment or watch parts.

Find Everything From the Everyday To the Eclectic At Geneva’s Plainpalais Flea Market

Historically, Plainpalais was an area outside the densely populated city of Geneva where they brought the sick to avoid contagion and an epidemic.  Located close to the Old Town and a public transportation hub, Plainpalais is now used for special events like festivals, the circus and markets.  On Wednesdays and Saturdays, there is a large flea market, marche des puces in French, there.

There are several reasons to love flea markets.  They include:

  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I love a bargain.
  • Individuality.  Having the same stuff as everyone else is just plain boring.
  • It gives you a chance to buy quality things for a reasonable price.
  • Phenomenal people watching.
  • Sustainability.  Keep something from going into the rubbish bin.  Recycle it.
  • It’s free to go walk around.  It’s a great and convenient place to meet up with some friends to walk around and chat.
  • In expensive Geneva, it is a great place to pick up some cool souvenirs for your friends and family.  When the nicest girl in the world visited, she purchased a Tastevin and some beer steins to take back to her brothers.
  • Where else are you going to buy fossils, a mounted Boar’s head or old Swiss army gear?

Plainpalais flea market is a Geneva institution and has operated since 1848.  It is not as large as those in some larger European cities.  Geneva’s wealth and highly mobile population means that it makes up for it in quality.  As Geneva is home to so many foreigners from all over the world, it has a larger number of unique items from all over the world.

Here are some of the great things you can regularly find at Plainpalais:

  • Old books,
  • CD’s

  • Kitchen gadgets;
  • Dishes and cutlery;
  • Decorative and practical household wares;

  • Furniture;
  • Antiques;
  • Paintings, posters, and other great wall art;

  • Clocks;
  • Fabric, trim, sewing machines and other craft items;
  • Records;

  • Old watches and watch parts,
  • Clothing,
  • Shoes,
  • Toys

  • Suitcases, briefcases and purses;
  • A lot of the things you could find at the dollar store;
  • 1 CHF/2 CHF boxes and 5 CHF tables;

You can also find more unique higher end pieces.  Invariably, there is a constant supply of eccentric, unusual and sometimes slightly freakish pieces (see the mounted Boar’s head above).

People begin setting up as early as 8:00 (perhaps earlier but I’ve never been there earlier than that) and continues through out the day. On days with poor weather and little turnout, vendors tend to close up shop early, as early as noon.

Most items are not marked with a price.  You pick up an item you like, take it to the person that looks like they might have set up the stall and ask “how much”?  Be ready to negotiate and have coins and small bills handy.  When I go, I don’t walk around with a Starbucks cup (at 5-7 CHF/$8-10 a pop, I don’t do that here anyway).  I carry a backpack instead of a nice purse.  Why? I like to negotiate and an expensive handbag screams “quote me a higher price.”  Haggle, negotiate, be prepared to walk away, drive a hard bargain.  Oh yeah, and have fun.

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Les Soldes! Who Doesn’t Love A Sale?

What are “Les Soldes“?  It translates to “the sales”.  Here in Europe, sales don’t happen like they do in the US.  This is not the land of constant markdowns and bargain shopping.  Twice a year for about a month (in August and January), they sell off the previous season’s merchandise at a discount.  In France, the dates are set by the government!

At first, they start with 20-30%.  After a couple of weeks, they mark things down to a second reduction of 50% off.     If you get really lucky, they will mark things down to a final reduction of 70% off.  Even though “never pay retail” should be tattooed on me somewhere, I haven’t gone buck nutty.  I still think you can buy things less expensively in the US.  Knowing there is a better deal out there somewhere takes all the fun out of it.

Les Soldes are practically a national sport around here.  People will scout things out ahead of time, stalk the remaining garmets in the store and play the waiting game to get the best deal.

Some stores splash the discounts all over their storefronts.

Others (like Valentino) are a bit more discreet.

I didn’t even see any markdowns at Gucci.

By the way, the crazy storefront had this in the window for him.  Unfortunately it hasn’t gone on sale yet.

If you are planning on doing some shopping, EuroCheapo and Europe Up Close have some good ideas for tackling the sales.

Grocery Shopping In France

 

I went grocery shopping in France.  It was a little bit different than in Switzerland.  The store was larger than I have become used to.  I confess, I was a bit overwhelmed.  I have gotten to know the Swiss grocery stores, but there were so many crazy French foods that I was overwhelmed trying to make sense of them all.  When I saw the butter… well, I froze.

 
There was a wall of it.  I have never seen that much butter (buerre in French).  Heck, over the course of my existence I have probably not consumed than much butter.  Actually, now that I think about it, Luciano Pavarotti probably never consumed that much butter.
 
 
I counted over 100 different types!  In actuality, I stopped counting at a hundred with more to go (including margarines).  
 
When faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of choosing the correct type of butter, I immediately started laughing at myself and whipped out my phone to surreptitiously take pictures for you. There were so many different types.  Each of the 27 regions of France must have had several of their own. Butter was salted, half salted, soft and types I can’t even remember. 
 
 
 
I ended up just picking one and hoping that our inexperience palates wouldn’t pick out the nuances of the my poor butter choice.  
 
 
 
While shopping, I saw a few familiar faces.
 
 
Your French lesson for the day géant = giant, vert = green.  Yep, it’s your old friend, the jolly green giant.
 
 
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out propre = clean and Mr. Propre is Mr. Clean.  I didn’t end up buying him.  He was more expensive than an organic herb scented cleaner.  Desole Monsieur Propre.*
 
* Desole means sorry.







 

Geneva Expat 101, Lesson Four – Furnishing an Apartment on a Budget

Switzerland is expensive.  Very, very expensive.  The high value of the Swiss Franc hasn’t helped (thank you Switzerland for devaluing your currency).  As a result, we have been looking for ways to get the things we need here on a budget.

We went to Ikea*.  It still seemed rather expensive, or at least more expensive than Ikea in the US.  I know that their prices are, in theory, the same worldwide.  Although I haven’t done the calculations, I suspect Switzerland is an exception to their standard pricing and is more expensive.

We tried to make our new home  organized, warm and homey. To do this on a budget, I relied heavily on brocante (secondhand). Since Geneva is such a transient community, you can get lots of nice things used.  Some of the best stores to go are Caritas, CSP and L’Armee Du Salut (Salvation Army). A few weeks back, I went to check them out with some friends. We were amazed by what we saw and all of us found “treasures”. 

Sometimes, there are extra markdowns on certain items.

 

Sadly, none of us purchased the Courvoisier cannon.
None of us purchased the mounted fish head either. It is still up for grabs. Interested?
Seriously, they have tons of whatever kind of household item you need.
They have furniture too.
Tons of it.
On the hunt for a smokin’ deal
Rugs, books and CD’s. Oh my.

Here are some places you can go to get what you need on the cheap:

  • Salvation Army (L’ Armee Du Salut) – We purchased a giant armoire here to store all of my clothes and a nice lamp (it fits Swiss plugs).
  • CSP (Centre Sociale Protestant) they are all over – I purchased a ton of flower pots here.  This is a great place to go for books too. 
  • Caritas stores are also all over – you can get just about anything here.  One day, I spent 49 CHF and came home on the tram with a table for our kitchen, a vacuum cleaner, a steamer/rice cooker, and a plant stand.  It has been a great place to get appliances.  We have gotten a hairdryer, a rice cooker, a fan and a raclette set there.
  • The classifieds on glocals.com has also been a really useful.  We were able to buy our spare bed and TV there.
  • Advertised brocante weekend sales
  • Plainpalais flea market 
*I bought Ikea’s version of the Slap Chop.  It didn’t cut anything and was a big waste of money.  He just laughed at me because I’d wanted it so badly and had been so excited about it.