Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Goodbye Switzerland

The time has finally come to leave Switzerland. It has been an epic year, I've seen beautiful Switzerland (amongst other countries) and have met really great people. As with ever when moving into a flat with random strangers, you never know how it will turn out. I was fortunate enough to find myself in an apartment full of cheery people (with equally sociable neighbours), with whom I became great friends over the period of one year.

Boat trip on Lake Lugano.

I spent my last day in Switzerland in Lugano with two good friends, which is in the Italian-speaking part of the country. With a Mediterranean climate and surrounded by mountains and lakes – indeed like many Swiss towns – it made a nice way to round off the exchange year.

Lugano is situated in Tecino, the predominantly Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland.

Swiss towns and cities, due to their small size, tend not offer many sights to see, but you'll often find a lake to see! We took a boat trip on Lake Lugano and spent the rest of the time eating. A very laid-back place and many houses along the lake looked completely cut off from the outside world. Sublime...

The sleepy streets of Lugano.

I'm now on my way back home, taking my time by hopping off the train in Paris for two nights. It's been sad to leave Zurich, but I also am looking forward to going back to Aberdeen and studying properly for once – and not like an exchange student! I want to thank everyone in Zurich who made my time as special as it was, I'll miss everyone. And I want to thank YOU too for reading these blog posts. I hope I didn't waffle on too much.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Zurich Street Parade

Who'd have thought? The world's largest, and perhaps wildest, outdoor techno parade in Zurich; a relatively quiet and small city in one of Europe's most conservative countries. Famous DJs from both Switzerland and abroad held sets in the parade, which started at 1pm and went on well into the night.

The parade's moving stages are called 'love mobiles'.

950,000 people took part in the free festival this year, including me and two good friends. Many of the other festival-goers were dressed in crazy costumes, some much more revealing than others. Indeed, skimpy outfits were the norm and seemed to not just be limited to girls, a few older gentlemen could also be seen sporting little more than leather hot-pants, unfortunately.

Each moving 'love mobile' had their own DJ, all of whom playing better techno music than the last.

Not only were the streets teeming with ravers, loads of yachts and boats covered the lake, gathering closest to Utoquai bridge, part of the parade's route. In the hot August Sun, there would have been nothing better than cooling off in the water whilst listening to the music. Shame I can't quite afford a nice yacht in Zurich just yet...

All ages could be found at the parade, some enjoying the music more than others.

From the hotel balconies lining the streets, dressed-up dancers could even be seen making the most of their prime position. I did however also notice some older hotel guests, seeming as though they weren't originally aware of the huge techno extravaganza taking place, looking on uncomfortably in bemusement. A hilarious sight to behold!

Lake Zurich bustling with yachts of techno enthusiasts.

The hot Sun combined with the music and only drinking beer was not particularly conducive to keeping you fit. Nevertheless we spent a good eight hours there and I now have the buzz to go again next year! Maybe next time I'll wear a costume myself, although perhaps I'd best avoid the more skimpy of costumes...

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Alp Horns, Cow Bells And Yodelling

The 1st of August was the Swiss National Holiday. All across Switzerland people celebrated the founding of the Helvetic Confederation. Zurich, which usually is adorned by Swiss flags anyway, showed its national and cantonal colours even more proudly yesterday.

The 26 cantons of Zurich represented in the parade.

A parade made its way along the Bahnhofstrasse, showcasing stereotypical Swiss types – donning traditional dress and brandishing cow bells and alp horns. Aesthetically, the parade was beautiful indeed, although acoustically less so - a brash mix of trumpets and eccentric yodelling.

Alp horns are quite unwieldy instruments.

At the end of the parade, a stage, equipped with the biggest flag I have ever seen in my life, was the scene of a speech, a rifle-fire salute, flag juggling, alp horn playing and yodelling extravaganza. With so many national symbols, I thought it might have been uncomfortable, as a foreigner, being there. Thankfully, the event was completely free of politics and tourists were very much made to feel welcome.

The stage at Bürkliplatz.

The Swiss are quite keen when it comes to fireworks. I can only really make a comparison to the 5th November in the UK (Guy Fawkes night), but there were much more explosions to be heard over the skies of Zurich last night than I've ever heard back at home. Although this might have something to do with the cheap price of fireworks – and the ease of access to them here – despite the earlier, not-unconcerning exploits a Swiss friend told me he got up to as a teenager...

Sunday, July 29, 2012

My Final Month In Zurich

Time flies when you're having fun. A saying I've always found to be true. I now have less than a month left in Zurich before I finish my year abroad. I was at home for a little while but I just had to come back and spend my summer over here – partly because I actually wanted to have some warm weather (a rare phenomenon in the UK) and also so that I could start with my reading for next year without the distractions of home life.

Relaxing by the Limmat river.

Of course, I don't plan to spend the whole time here doing something productive! There are still parties and barbeques going on as well as the Zurich Street Parade - a crazy music festival (on the 11th) which transforms the orderly, Swiss city into a huge rave! Best of all, unlike many things in Switzerland, it's free!

The pristine Lake Zurich looks rather inviting in hot weather.

Besides, I can use the odd break, reading my prescribed literature on National Socialism for the new semester in Aberdeen is only bearable in small doses. In many respects, this year has been a bit of a break in general, in anticipation of the hard work waiting for me for honours the next two years.

The lake at night, looking over to the Utoquai bridge.

I'm leaving Switzerland on the 14th of August and I've already had to say goodbye to a few friends. I'm going to miss this place and the people, all the more reason to come back here at some point - I'm already looking forward to the ski season.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Reverse Culture Shock

On my very first week of university in Zurich, I was warned that the reverse culture shock will be worse than the initial shock of moving to a foreign country. This definitely seems to be the case, for me at least. I've spent the last week or so back at home in England, (in order to attend a wedding). And it's been very bizarre being back...

When it's not raining in England, it's about to rain.

I left a relatively cool Zurich (25C) only to find that I forgotten just how bad British summers are, arriving into overcast 13C Manchester. What I found really strange, is that people speak English here, and not just any old English, but English with English accents! It took me a while to get used to not hearing passing strangers speaking German. Indeed, to begin with I found it very difficult to adjust to. Through force of habit, I thanked someone in German for letting me passed in the airport and I spent a good 10 seconds stuttering to an official, when trying to find out where I needed to go.

Finally reunited with a mug of decent tea!

I was also affected by the recent road trip I had in Germany and Poland, it felt very strange seeing cars driving on the correct side of the road again! Apart from all the weirdness of being back in Blighty, it's been great seeing my family again – and not to mention being able to eat fish and chips! British 'cuisine' may not be terribly good, but I missed it all the same. I'd say Swiss cuisine is better, but that's not all that important when you can't afford eating out!

My local, where the pints are affordable and the craic is good.

The biggest shock however, was receiving change from a tenner after buying three pints in a pub. In Zurich, you'd be happy to get one pint of beer for that and still have the shirt on your back. It's been great to be home! Having said that, 10 days has been plenty of time and I'm looking forward to spending one more month in Zurich, where hopefully, the concept of 'summer' isn't a far-fetched fantasy!

Monday, July 09, 2012

Road Trip: Part Three

The final leg of our journey was originally to stop over in Wroclaw. We decided however to just spend an afternoon there. From the outside, Wroclaw looks uninviting. Grubby suburbs and uneven roads surround the centre. But I guess most suburbs of most cities tend to appear that way.

Wroclaw can actually look pretty, depending on the camera angle you take.

Once you get to the heart of the city, you discover quite a pretty old town district, lined with cafes and restaurants. Another opportunity to try Polish food, pierogi (filled dumplings) is something I'd definitely recommend for example. Without really knowing anything about the city beforehand at all, we exhausted our ideas of what-to-do in one afternoon. I'm sure the city has more to offer though.

Dresden, the reconstructed Frauenkirche.

We drove onwards to Dresden, which proved to be a good decision. There's plenty to see there. Most of the old cathedrals, theatres and other buildings which were destroyed during the Second World War have been rebuilt, some still with original masonry. A very impressive sight indeed. Dresdner cuisine is also supposed to be pretty decent, but we were more tempted by South African instead, not quite authentic, I know, but better than eating at a certain fast food chain!

The main square in the city.

An ace road trip, covering the best part of a thousand miles. Although as much as I love travelling, I could take it easy for a while now!

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Road Trip: Part Two

After Hamburg and Berlin we drove across to Krakow. There was no mistaking that we were in Poland, immediately upon crossing the border, the motorway became incredibly bumpy – so much so that I'm not even sure if motorway is the right word for that haphazard strip of tarmac. A sharp contrast to the smooth speed-limit-free Autobahnen of Germany! Nevertheless, we somehow made it to Krakow with an intact chassis.

The main square in Krakow.

A friend's family – whom she had never met before – were kind enough to host us. They live in a farm outside of the city and we were given a warm, Polish welcome (yet more beer). I can't speak Polish, so understanding what was going on was a little tricky, but I did pick up a few useful words – beer of course included (piwko).

In the old town district of Krakow.

Krakow itself is a very pretty city and there's plenty to see and do. We spent most of the time eating – Polish food is great (not a country for vegetarians)! After looking around the city, we headed to Wieliczka, just outside Krakow, in order to check out the salt mines that our hosts recommended.

A shop 100 metres underground in a mine - very strange...

The mine was really cool, the miners had sculpted statues into the rock salt – including a 3D carving of The Last Supper which was impressive. In fact the salt mine was like nothing else I've seen. There was a cathedral chamber (where you can be wedded for 2000 Złoty), a conference centre and even a little shop down there. I was half expecting to find a Starbucks and KFC too. 'Mine' is probably a misleading term for the place, rather I'd call it an underground exhibition centre – which also carries out the odd mining operation from time to time. Very bizarre – but definitely worth a visit!

The impressive cathedral chamber.

A very enjoyable time had in Krakow indeed, I could've stayed there longer! The road trip then took us back West, next stop Wrocław...

Friday, July 06, 2012

Road Trip: Part One

At the end of June, me and two flatmates embarked on a road trip. We began the journey in Hamburg, where one of my friends hails. Hamburg is a huge harbour city, once part of the Hanseatic league, in the north of Germany.

The Speicherstadt district is where all the trading goods were stored.

Any visitor to Hamburg is pretty much obliged to go to the Reeperbahn: an unashamedly bold red-light district (the biggest in Europe in fact). It's wild reputation certainly is deserved, at least upon my first impression. In any case, beer is an intrinsic part of German culture, whether you are in a Bavarian beer garden or the Reeperbahn, beer should always be involved in any trip to Germany!

Relaxing with a beer after taking a boat trip through the harbour city.

Hamburg is one of the most exciting cities in Germany, rivalled only by Berlin. But unlike Berlin, I could also envisage that life in Hamburg might also be pleasantly relaxed at times too.

After a couple of nights in Hamburg, we had a quick stopover in Berlin, where another friend joined our road trip. I had already been to the city before during the winter, but it was nice to be there in temperatures above -15C! Again, as mentioned, beer has a cultural significance in Germany. A great excuse to try a Berlin speciality: Berliner Weisse.

Woodruff, blackcurrant and rhubarb flavoured beer.

The beer can actually be flavoured with fruity syrups, this makes for – to put it politely – an interestingly unique beer experience. Far too sweet for my liking, it tasted more like cider, which would've definitely tasted nicer.

After an evening in Berlin, we set off again in the morning: bound for Poland...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

On the Röstigraben

Being soaked randomly after having a bucket of water thrown on you from a window above is perhaps not the best way to be welcomed into a town. Nevertheless, I was quite content in Fribourg – besides, the heat soon dried me. Fribourg is situated right on the Röstigraben – where French and German speaking Switzerland meet. The town is bilingual (predominantly French) and somehow seems to work just fine.

The view over Fribourg from the bar.

I went there with a flat mate in order to visit another friend and we had a tightly packed programme. This first involved getting up a 3.30am to witness the sunrise on a mountain summit. We enjoyed our well earned breakfast - continental buffet style – right on the summit, watching the sun rise, albeit behind clouds. Watching a sunrise can feel magical, but so can lying in on a morning!

The sunrise from the summit of Kaiseregg.

We also wanted to take out a boat and head from Thunersee to Bern, but the water was still pretty cold. We settled instead for having a chilled out barbeque. We did reach Bern in the end anyway, taking the lazier option of the train. It was nice to be back in Bern, but I still find it hard to believe that it's a capital city, or a city at all. Despite there being quite a big demonstration in front of the parliament building, the place still felt quiet and relaxed.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Hiking in Kandersteg

Yet again, I went into the mountains this weekend. It's simply not possible to be in the Alps too often, each visit is as enjoyable as the last. The Erasmus Student Network organised a hiking weekend in Kandersteg; a tiny, alpine village in Berner Oberland – close to the cantonal border with Valais. A beautiful mountainous region not a million miles away from the well-known areas of Interlaken or Jungfrau.

The valley seen from the west face of Bunderspitz.

We arrived in the village on the Friday evening, giving us the chance to fire up the Finnish sauna cabin that we had to ourselves. Definitely a good shout – and I could really enjoy the sauna, although had it been after the hike – my sunburn would've probably made me suffer. Sunburn, which I have to add, that only seems to have got to my nose and ears: not a great look!

Steinbock sighting.

The hike itself was pretty decent, good weather and conditions and the route was cool too. We headed up to the summit of Bunderspitz before traversing around the east face of the mountain and descending to the west via a pass – where we witnessed a spectacle. A lone steinbock (a rare alpine mountain goat), which strolled up to a cliff edge beside us and simply jumped down – running down a vertical crag – not only without dying, but with grace!

The scree slopes of the eastern face of Bunderspitz.

On the Sunday, before heading back to Zurich, a challenge awaited us: Jacob's Ladder. A simple task of climbing a set of wooden ladders, the catch being that the rungs began at one and a half metres apart and the gap increased incrementally. It certainly sounds easier than it was in practice. An uncomfortable challenge complete with many compromising positions – spectating was definitely more entertaining.

The Jacob's Ladder challenge: everyone in the group managed, some found it more trickier than others.

Again, another great time in the mountains. Now that the Summer is upon us, I'm sure I'll get some more hiking done too.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Opinion: The Economic Crisis And The Swiss Perspective

Being a Euro-sceptic Brit living with Germans and other students of economics has lead to many interesting debates regarding current affairs in Europe. We tend to have different opinions on many issues, although I do find the Swiss here to be equally as Euro-sceptic. Many of these 'debates' are usually held after a few beers – alcohol tends to make philosophers of us all!

Switzerland, not being a member of the EU, is lucky enough to still have its own currency, allowing it to cushion itself from the turbulence of the surrounding Euro zone. Having control of their own currency, the Swiss are able to change their interest rates – much like the UK – in order to suit their own economic needs, whereas the Euro zone nations find themselves tied to the same rates. A disadvantageous situation indeed, which lead to the crisis in Ireland – the Euro zone-wide set interest rate resulted in creating catalyst conditions in the Irish property market. A bubble which popped quite spectacularly back in 2009.

'We want the Deutsch Mark back' Graffiti in Constance, Germany.

The current crises in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland are prompting Europeans to reduce their exposure to the Euro and to increase exposure to perceived safe haven currencies, such as the Swiss Franc and indeed the Pound Sterling (despite our own harsh economic climate at home). This frenzied purchasing lead to the overvaluing of the Swiss Franc, crippling the Swiss export industry. The Swiss cheese and watch industry are not to be underestimated! Back in November the Swiss National Bank then set an artificial peg to the Euro of €1 : 1.2CHF to protect the Swiss economy. The Swiss Franc is probably the most overvalued currency in the world.

Swiss protectionism has created a noticeable island within the Euro zone. As I have mentioned many times before, prices in Zurich are high – antisocially high at times. The plus side is that this keeps the Swiss relatively prosperous: unemployment is very low, Swiss farmers aren't priced out of the market and consumers can afford to choose high quality, ethical goods (such as organic products) more so than anywhere else I've experienced.

Swiss Francs are a perceived safe haven for European investors.

I remember as a teenager being excited at the prospect of the EU and the new Euro currency. I was (and still am) hugely in favour of greater European integration – I loved the idea of being more easily able to head to the continent. But even as a teenager, I realised that the Euro could not work as a monetary union involving so many different European countries with differing compositions, interests and positions on the business cycle. The main advantages of the Euro are often said to be trade and ease of mobility. Whilst I cannot argue with ease of mobility, I refuse to believe that the Euro is a prerequisite for pan-European trade (again, citing Switzerland and the UK as examples).

Indeed the very same currency which set out to improve the welfare of Europeans seems to be endangering it. For example, I doubt the Irish with a high unemployment rate are currently benefiting from any increased trade. The exception is Germany, whose export industry benefits from the cheap Euro.

The Swiss don't seem to be interested in joining the EU any time soon, particularly considering the crisis, which may end up threatening this country, should the proverbial hit the fan. Fortunately direct democracy in Switzerland ensures that the Swiss will only join the EU project, if they so wish.

If you have any comments yourselves, please leave a comment!

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Scenic Route To Milan

Over the weekend, me and four of my flatmates decided to take a break. It's the middle of the exam period, but taking a break can be just as important as studying! That's my excuse anyway. We decided to go to Milan and take the scenic route: the mountainous Bernina Express route meanders over the Bündner Alps dropping back down into the Italian foothills. 'Picturesque' doesn't even come close.

The Bernina Express route took us into 120 tunnels and over around 50 bridges in the alpine canton of Graubünden.

The route took us through a UNESCO World Heritage Park in the Engadin (South East Switzerland). Three or four hours usually suffice to reach Milan, but taking the slow, scenic route, we spent 9 hours on the winding tracks. The time was made enjoyable, not only due to the magnificent views, but also because the train conductor was extremely friendly, taking it upon himself to sit with us and tell us jokes about the Zürchers and the Americans (with an American friend present) – just great!

The view from the village of St. Moritz.

For lunch, we made a quick pit stop at St. Moritz, the most expensive and most exclusive ski resort of Switzerland. A mountain village where jewellers and banks outnumber ski hire shops and cafés. One of the few places on Earth more expensive than Zurich! So we just had lunch and went swiftly on our way...

The Swiss Italian villages on the South side of the pass.

Crossing the border into Italy, leaving the Alps behind us, we could immediately sense that we were no longer in Switzerland. A €5 train ticket to Milan (on a less than stable train), Mediterranean heat and a slower, yet slightly chaotic approach to life all indicated that!

The cathedral – and crowds – the pope was in Milan on Sunday.

Milan is no pretty city, especially for Italian standards, but it is definitely a city worth visiting. It's not far from Switzerland either, as I mentioned earlier, it is possible to get there in four hours using the more direct train. This was my first time in Italy: the first of many I hope – even just simply for Italian cuisine. It's certainly earnt its reputation. I made the most of the occasion and filled myself like a king at each meal time – not being in Switzerland, I could afford to too!

A typical street in Milan.

A very enjoyable weekend indeed – I now hope to see more of not just Italy, but also the Italian speaking parts of Switzerland. There's something about the relaxed atmosphere which immediately appeals to me. Next stop perhaps Logarno and Locarno?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Swiss English

Hello together!

The Swiss are fortunate enough to have a linguistic situation which very much encourages the learning of multiple languages. English included. Indeed, the Swiss tend to speak a very high standard of English. However, English is often viewed as a cool, trendy language – this leads to the peppering of Swiss German with random English words which tend to be used, shall we say, creatively.

Image source: Deccon Bewes

For example in the special board above. 'Tages' is German for 'of the day', however the unfortunate juxtapositioning of the English 'hit' leads one to look onwards, perhaps to a restaurant that isn't offering excrement of the day...

The English used is often strange, and can often be completely made up. Consider the following: the Swiss often go wellnessing or enjoy wellness weekends in order to aufpowern ('power up?') after a stressful week of work. 'Wellness' actually refers to spa therapy – inventive in itself, before reflecting on the point that I'm not even sure if 'wellness' is even an English word?

Flumserberg: a nice but unrelated photograph.

When you do happen to find an English word in use in Swiss German, being able to speak English is no guarantee of understanding its meaning in Switzerland! We all know what a car is right? Err, a car is a car. Well, not in Switzerland. A Swiss Car is actually a coach or bus. So if you see a car-lane on a Swiss road, you should probably avoid driving down it...

Mega easy, gäll? Schönes Weekend!

Monday, May 21, 2012


This weekend, Munich was host to the UCL football final between Bayern München and Chelsea. Me and a couple of friends went over to watch the game (at a 'Public Viewing', not the stadium). I'm no football fan, but I had a great time back in Munich.

Back in Munich, I first came here two years ago.

The city was packed full of drunk and rowdy fans – both for Bayern München and Chelsea. It was weird seeing so many English people – they seemed to be upholding the stereotypes people have of us. For example, whilst sat on a train, an English family spent a good 20 minutes discussing the weather – and of course the fans were as loud as you'd expect. Especially in the underground, everyone packed in, chanting loudly and began shaking the tight carriages. The atmosphere was great!

FC Bayern München

We were supporting Bayern München – of course – probably like many other English people back home I suspect. We spent the day in a typically Bavarian manner: Weiss Wurst, pretzels and white beer for breakfast – followed later by going to one of the beer gardens to watch the game. A Bavarian victory would have seen the whole city party, so it was a shame Chelsea won. After the final penalty goal by Chelsea, the whole city became eerily silent...

Watching the football from the comfort of a beer garden.

The trip was affordable too, thanks to Mitfahrgelegenheit (car sharing), we managed to avoid shelling out for expensive train tickets and once there, we stopped at a friend's place. For others it wasn't so cheap, everywhere there were people trying to pick up tickets for the game on the black market – the going rate was about € 1000,- !