Why My Appliances Fit in Barbie’s Dream House

Switzerland is one of the smallest, but most densely populated countries in Europe.  It has a population of approximately 7.3 million, with 173 people per square kilometer.  Here, space is at a premium.  In all other European countries, appliances are 60 centimeters wide. Here, they are 55 centimeters wide.  Why?  Space. There is a lack of it.

When we were looking for apartments, I noticed all the elevators were the same (tiny) size. This appears to be a pretty standard size that is just large enough to fit appliances in one at a time.  Our kitchen is packed like the blocks from a game of Tetris, but it all fits. We are lucky to even have appliances like a dishwasher, oven, washing machine and dryer.

They are also smaller than we were used to in the US and only hold about a half to a third of what our washer in the US did.  It also takes a bit longer to wash and dry a load here, clocking in at about 4 hours. The result, we wear things a little more before throwing them in the wash.

By the way, everything seems larger in the US.  Check out the size of the US toilet paper roll compared to the Swiss role.

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Gnome Sweet Gnome, We’re Living In The Land Of Gnomes

Gnome lawn ornaments are considered a bit kitschy in the US.  In Switzerland, garden gnomes are everywhere.  Known as “Zwergli” in German, they seem practically mandatory.  I’m exaggerating, but only just a bit.

Plastic or cement, big or little, these  have seen these gnome statues come in all shapes and sizes.    They are usually in yards or gardens, but we have also seen them on porches, railings, stoops, on stumps and even on pedestals.

We see them out all year long.   It’s a wonder that they don’t disappear.  It’s Switzerland, so there isn’t too much crime, but they look tempting.  Wouldn’t it be so much fun to take the gnome and photograph it in crazy places just like in the movie Amalie.   In 2000, the International Association for the Protection of Garden Gnomes was founded in Switzerland (GGLF) was formed in Switzerland to combat gnome kidnapping and try to make it a criminal offense.  Apparently, a few people have even been prosecuted for theft.  I’m not kidding.

Plotting a breakout?

Instead of kidnapping them, The Garden Gnome Liberation Front advocates  freeing the gnomes.  If you don’t believe me, just check out http://www.freethegnomes.com.  I couldn’t make this stuff up.

It would be great to dress them up in special outfits for different events, kind od like Mannekin Pis in Brussels.  Who doesn’t want to dress their gnome up in a team uniform for game day?  On second thought, the Garden Gnome Liberation Front might think it was exploiting them and protest.

The bankers who toil away in Zurich are also referred to as gnomes.

Switzerland has a trail with gnome trail markers in Gänsbrunnen.  Children who complete it receive a very child receives a “Nature and Gnomes Certificate.”  Do big children count?

I’m pretty sure this guy escaped from a Travelocity commercial. He wants to roam.

Our Basement Bomb Shelter, Otherwise Known As Our Storage Unit

Switzerland.  Swiss Army Knives.  The Swiss Guard.  Serious Military Defenses.  Our Basement?  Switzerland’s commitment to neutrality, their position between historic enemies of France and Germany, and the meticulous, rule oriented, precise Swiss nature mean that our basement is a bomb shelter.

All Swiss residential buildings have bomb shelters in underground.  Until Swiss law changed at the end of 2012, all inhabitants were required to have access to shelter space.   Given the Swiss focus on quality, these are serious, heavy-duty bunkers.

Our apartment is in a building that predates the mandatory bomb shelter law, so our basement’s shelter is on the rustic side.  Newer buildings contain way more impressive looking shelters.  Ours looks as though it is where the vampires from True Blood sleep during the day.  The first time he went down there, he did it alone, at dusk, after a True Blood marathon.

You see heavy, vault-like doors on public parking structures.  They serve as public shelters.  The parking structures have thick concrete walls.  In theory, the shelters have air filters inside to provide fresh air in case of nuclear, biological, or chemical attack.   I am unsure if the age of our building exempts us, but there aren’t any signs of air filters in our building.  Come to think of it, I haven’t seen any supplies down there either.

To get into our “bomb shelter”, you enter through an old wood door.  It doesn’t look as high-tech or safe as the door above, but hopefully we won’t have to put it to the test.  You descend an old, windy staircase, past bricked over doors down into the basement.

You can’t exit through this door

It is so narrow and steep that the wall warns “stopping is prohibited, serious risk”.

The basement, ahem, sorry, the bomb shelter is partitioned into sections for each apartment using wood slats.  Each partition is approximately the size of a twin bed (give or take a couple of inches).

Some people hide their belongings from view

In French, basement translates to “cave.”   It feels a little funny to say I’m going to the cave. Who am I, Batman?  While our cave is filled with extra suitcases, beat-up sports equipment and camping gear,  many people here use theirs as a wine cellar.  A German friend uses his to store cases of German beer.

Our key… I’m serious, this is it.

A New Low… Public Toilets

I’ve seen my fair share of fluorescent lighting in bathrooms, but black lights?  I wanted to look around for the black light poster of Lil Wayne.
You can get your own one for $4.99 on Amazon.com
The Swiss love a clean bathroom.  I commend them on the nice state of their public toilets.  In addition to being clean, almost every public bathroom has disinfectant next to the toilet.  This is so you can personally disinfect the toilet seat before and after use. What a country!

I admit to being a bit puzzled by the black light fixture. It made the toilet paper glow.  Maybe people use black lights in bathrooms to find “spots” they missed when cleaning?  Was this store was so proud of their bathrooms, they invite you to take a look? I wonder if they make a black light flashlight version?  A hand-held black light would probably be handy on cleaning day.  Or not.

Actually, the black light is to prevent junkies from finding their veins.  If they can’t find their veins, addicts can’t shoot up in public restrooms.  Tres practique!

 

My First Go ‘Round With Customer Service In French

Every expat in Geneva has laundry horror storiesblogs are full of them.

  • Washers are tiny, and hold about a third of what they do in the US.
  • Sometimes, entire buildings share them with each resident receiving 3 hour slots each week (or every other week) during which they are permitted to use them.
  • Doing laundry at a laundromat is astoundingly expensive (give or tai $5 for a tiny load).
In November, I opened our dryer to find broken glass in with our clothes and a wire hanging down into our dryer.  During the cycle, the bulb had come loose, been tossed around and broken.  I called the repairman who came to fix it.
We bought our dryer when me moved here and it is still under warranty, so I was shocked when I received the significant bill for the repairs.  Nothing gets under my skin like wasting money, so I prepared myself for a giant test of my French skills and called to dispute the bill.
My repairman didn’t have a snazzy uniform like the one above. Ladies, don’t you want to get your man one of those?
I was transferred around from one customer service representative to another.  Finally, I got to speak to someone with some authority.  Their first question was “what did you do, that doesn’t happen.”  They may as well have asked when I stopped beating my wife.  Of course I did something, I used the dryer to dry my clothes.   Try explaining that you didn’t do anything wrong (a) in another language, (b) to someone who doesn’t want to hear it.
Yep, that’s me.  Cheap.  They told me that it wasn’t covered by the warranty because it didn’t render the machine inoperable.  I told them that although, in theory the machine might still have been able to dry clothes, no one will put wet clothes in a place with wires hanging down and turn it on.  Therefore, you can’t operate it and it should be covered.  Seriously, we went around and around on this for about a half an hour.  When I hung up, I burst into tears (probably from suppressed anger as I remained polite and did not use any of my nice collection of French naughty words).

The next day, someone from the company called me. As I hadn’t conceded defeat the previous day, my file landed on their desk.  I went through the whole story once again and…success!!!!  We don’t have to pay.  When I asked them to send me something confirming this, they replied, “this isn’t America, we don’t go around suing people.” 

I only wish I had spoken to them on a hamburger phone…

In the US, this would have been a single item crossed off a “to do” list. Here, this was a huge victory for me. First, I’m super cheap and would rather spend the money on something else.  Secondly, it was hard to figure out a way to tell the story (including describing all the washing machine parts) in French and persuasively explain my side.  I felt like shouting “I made fire” a la Tom Hanks in Castaway.

 

What The Heck Is A Tastevin?

Until we met Jean-Michel on our wine tour of Burgundy, we had never seen or even heard of a tastevin.*  It’s a small, shallow silver cup traditionally used by wine makers, sommeliers and wine merchants to judge the maturity, quality and taste of a wine.  Jean-Michel showed us a wall of them at the Chateau du Clos de Vougeot on the wine tour.
The wine is poured in the tastevin over the shiny silver, allowing them to accurately judge the color in the faint light in a wine cellar.  They are made of silver because it doesn’t taint wine’s taste or character.
 
A tastevin’s surfaces aren’t flat, they are convex and concave to allow the maximum possible light to be reflected. The stripes and circles reflect the light differently.  As a result, wine sellers traditionally had stripes/flutings on theirs because it made the wine seem to have a deeper hue, indicating a higher quality wine.  Wine buyers had concave circles which made the wine appear more ruby in color.  This indicated a less mature, and therefore less expensive, wine.  Some cups have both.
  
Now (with the advent of electric lighting in wine cellars), they are novelties, nods to tradition or just plain old good souvenirs.  They make a great souvenir and our visitor, The Sweetest Girl in the World, bought some for her family.  If you can’t make it over here to buy one, you can order one from the J. Peterman catalog!
If you are enough of a wine enthusiast, you can join the Burgundian Wine Society, La Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.  They wear these bad boys around their necks, have big dinners with amazing food and drink a bottle or two.

B.Y.O.K. – Bring Your Own Kitchen

Here, “unfurnished” apartments can be a different sort of unfurnished than we are used to in the US.  There are usually no light fixtures (just bulbs with bare wires). Most of our friends have hired electricians install light fixtures. I am (a) lazy, and (b) cheap.  As a result, we still have bulbs hanging on wires.

We had to specify whether or not we would be bringing our own kitchen. Given that we were coming from the US where the voltage is different, I felt pretty confident when I stated that we would not be bringing our own kitchen.

Everything is relative.  Forget the idea of an apartment coming with a washer and/or dryer.  Sometimes, you don’t get curtain rods or toilet seats

The Case of the Exploding Banana

No room for Costco products here
The Swiss have grocery stores everywhere, neighborhoods have markets multiple times a week and there are tons of corner stores. Why?  They have small fridges.* Even when they have larger ones, they buy only their food for a day or two at a time. In the US, I shopped in bulk. I tried to grocery shop once a week, but if I still had milk and bananas I would push it.
When we arrived, I went grocery shopping for the first time. I bought the largest bunch of bananas they had because that’s what I did in the states. When we arrived home the next day, things smelled funny. I had left my new bananas near the window in the kitchen.  Several of them exploded.** When you food is picked for taste and isn’t crammed full of preservatives, it just doesn’t last as long. Go figure.

*Swiss appliances are very small. I believe the standard width is 55 cm (don’t quote me on this, I haven’t gotten out the measuring tape). Here is a link to apartment differences, including the small appliances.

**We now keep our fruit in a bowl in our entry hall because it is the darkest room in our apartment. I’d put some of it in the fridge, but it is too small.

 

 

Our Obligatory Laundry Story

If you read Swiss expat blogs, you will soon realize that everyone has a laundry story.  It is inevitable and they are usually humorous.  Ours arrived ahead of schedule…

Having heard laundry horror stories, we decided that it was essential to get a washer and dryer immediately.  We hadn’t even been in the country two hours when we were investigating our laundry hookup to buy a machine.*  Above is what we saw.

The former tenant removed everything, and I mean everything. The man at the appliance store had to arrange for special plumbers to come and install them.  They were installed the day we were on our last pair of clean underwear!

*We met our realtor immediately after landing to pick up keys to our place. This is very, very unusual. When I tell people this they get a shocked look on their face and their jaw drops.