Chronicles of a writer abroad


Apartment pictures

Sorry for my lack of posts…things have been busy. We got the keys to our apartment yesterday (Friday), and spent some time there planning where things will go when our shipment gets delivered on Monday. I also took some pictures, to help you imagine where we’ll be living. Enjoy!

Kitchen (with balcony to the left)

Dining/living space off kitchen

Office/guest room

Bedroom (with another small balcony)


Looking up the street from the bedroom balcony



The language bomb

“Language bomb” is a term that I’ve begun to apply to the situation in which you are confronted by someone speaking to you earnestly in what is (to you) utter gibberish, and your mind reels as you try to comprehend or plan a response. Example: the other day, I was in the supermarket buying cat food. I hefted one of the big bags off the shelf, and the lady buying cat food beside me made a friendly-sounding little remark with a smile on her face — I imagined it was something like “heavy, huh?” or “your cat must have a healthy appetite!” So I said “ja” with a smile in return. And before I could walk away, she gestured at the bag and proceeded to launch us headfirst into a Swiss German conversation. At which point I had to cop to the fact that I had never understood her, since “mein Deutsch ist nicht gut.” How embarrassing…

And then I’ve also been guilty of language-bombing others. Stelian and I went to the bank the other day, to pay the deposit to our rental company, and set up a standing order so that the rent is debited from our account next month (cheques are not used here:  it’s refreshing). When we stepped into the bank, an employee approached us, and we received a full-on language bomb. When she was finished speaking (having merely said, no doubt, “Hello, and welcome. How may we assist you today?” though it seemed to go on forever) I bashfully brought out the “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” And as soon as she indicated that she did, I sighed with relief and began explaining at a mile a minute what it was that we’d come in for. At which point, she became overwhelmed and asked me to repeat, which I did, careful to speak more slowly.

It’s therefore worth bearing in mind that if someone says they speak English, this doesn’t mean they speak it the way I do, just as I hope to soon “speak” German, but I will likely never parse it as easily as native speakers do. Language is a gift, but it can seem an affront if it is not presented with due care and respect.

I’m off to my first German class at Disney this afternoon — there is a teacher who comes in twice a week to help the employees learn the language, and spouses are welcome to attend the classes, too. Exciting!


10 things I learned in Saas-Fee

1. Cross-country skiing on icy terrain is very difficult, especially if said terrain is actually pretty far from level. Many bruises might be avoided by first checking whether a trail is actually safe to navigate (i.e., open), since no signs will exist to indicate this.

2. Valaisan white white soup (full of cheese, cream and…well, white wine) is one of the most delicious soups ever.

3. Sledging is very fun. I don’t know why it isn’t just called sledding (see equipment, below). It is done on a ski run, at night, using headlamps.

4. It is worth learning how to slow down/stop your sled (sledge?) properly before going sledging. Otherwise, you risk not being able to navigate a switchback and flipping headfirst over the side of the trail (this happened to a friend of ours. Not to worry; he was okay — but after that incident, the most  slow and cautious sledger of the group!).

5. Alpermakkaroni — a baked pasta dish made with Swiss cheeses, ham, potatoes, and apple sauce (oh yes) — is the perfect recovery food after you have climbed a mountain in showshoes.

6. Snowshoeing up a mountain is difficult, but the views at the top are worth it.

7. After taking two gondolas and a train through the mountain to reach the top of the 3500 meter peak which you can ski down, you will feel slightly weird from the altitude, but the views are again worth it!

8. I will always have a love-hate relationship with downhill skiing, and feel sheer panic in my first hour each season as I forget everything I ever knew, and wait for my muscle memory to slowly return.

9. You can do impromptu sledging without a sledge while downhill skiing. You may irretrievably lose a ski pole in the process.

10. Descriptions of this region are not hyperbole: it really is that beautiful.

Photo uploads have been agonizingly slow today, but if you want to see more photos, check out my Picasa album at


Homing in

Our whirlwind apartment search is over, and we have decided where to live.  It feels good to think about having a place to stay long-term again!

The choice that I alluded to yesterday was between Apartment 5 that we saw with our agent last week, and the apartment above the donair place on Universitatstrasse. Not an easy decision! We really liked Apartment 5 when we first saw it, but the apartment on Universitatstrasse was bigger, and much closer to Stelian’s work (he could walk there in less than 2 minutes). Apartment 5 had a balcony (nice for us and the cats), and a nice location on a quiet street, while the Universitatstrasse apartment was situated on a noisy street, where we feared we might be bothered by traffic noise whenever we opened the windows.

So how did we decide? Well, I picked Stelian up from work last night, and we walked the 250 meters to Universitatstrasse. We stood on the corner outside the building for a few minutes, and listened. Trams and trucks went trundling by, the street was full of cars, an ambulance passed with sirens blaring — and not only was it difficult to hear eachother over some of the noise, but the exhaust fumes (from trucks belching smoke while trying to get up the hill that the street is on) were bothersome. Since the apartment was only on the first floor (that’s the first off the ground, here), all of this was a deal-breaker, and we decided to choose one kind of quality of life (peace & quiet) over another (walk to work).

In the end, we know we were lucky to have had a choice — friends and acquaintances here had led us to believe that we would have to apply to a multitude of apartments, and take whichever one accepted us, which likely wouldn’t be our first choice. In our case, we only applied to 3, and were accepted to two of them. This included the one that was our first choice, mostly because when we went into the apartment, we got a good vibe and an “ahh — I could live here” feeling. We looked at objectively “nicer” suites, but this is the one that had “home” potential for us. So we’re looking forward to making it our home, and to welcoming those of you who come to visit (this place, while on the smaller side, will have an office that will double as a guestroom).

This decision will become official when we sign our contract, which we received in the mail yesterday.  It’s full of hopelessly long German words — we’re lucky our agent is going to help us interpret it, since I already spend an appalling amount of time Google-Translating our mail.

Also, blog-writing will be on hiatus until next week, because tomorrow morning we leave for Saas-Fee, a ski resort in Canton Valais, in the southern, French-speaking part of Switzerland. It’s our first trip out of Zürich, and we’re excited! I’ll be back next week with a full report and pictures.


Stepping forward and back

Sometimes I think, hey, I’m really starting to get the hang of this culture.

As I’ve indicated, we love the food. In addition to the milk, we have heartily embraced the cheeses. I would count the fondue I had on Saturday night among my favourite meals ever. It was a moitié-moitié, meaning that equal parts of Gruyère and Vacherin cheese had been mixed with wine and kirsch (cherry brandy) to create a delicious concoction that was brought bubbling to the table, in a small cauldron sitting over a flame which kept it bubbling hot throughout the meal. For dipping, we had cubes of bread, small nugget potatoes, gherkins, pearl onions, and even some pineapple and pear (the fruit was surprisingly good). My only regret is that we weren’t able to reach the bottom of the pot — apparently the baked crusty layer that has formed there is a special treat, and a reward for those who can courageously eat their way through so much melted cheese.

We’ve also experimented with making raclette at home. Normally, this is done on a grill made just for this purpose, but I’ve found that you can obtain good results melting it in a frying pan over low heat. Then, traditionally, the melted cheese is scraped/poured over foods similar to those used in fondue — potatoes, small pickles, and so on. It is also delicious, I’ve discovered, cooked in omelettes or scrambled eggs.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of Stelian’s favourites: quark.

This is a sort of cross between cream cheese and yogurt. Stelian spreads it on bread and eats it with cold cuts and tomatoes. I haven’t really gotten in the habit of eating it yet, but I have to admit it tastes pretty good.

But while eating is easy, shopping can be hard. There is one key difference between grocery shopping in Canada and grocery shopping here (aside the fact that nothing is in English — I usually get by fine reading the French), and it lies in the way that you buy produce. In Canada, you select the fruits and vegetables that you want, bag them, and they are weighed at the register. Not so in Switzerland. Here, you select your produce, bag it, make note of its numerical code, and take it to a weighing machine, where you set it on the scale, punch in the code, and receive a label bearing the name of the produce and the weight and price of what you’ve selected, which you place on the bag. It’s an easy process, and one that saves time at checkout, but you have to remember to do it. At first, we were on top of it, but as we become more comfortable with grocery shopping, both Stelian and I have forgotten, and have had to utter feeble Entschuldigungs when the checkout clerk sighs and gets up to weigh it herself.

Then of course there is language. I can begin to feel confident in my German self-study at home. Yesterday, I ran onto a street called Goethestrasse, and since this street name was used as an exemplar in my Pimsleur CDs, it triggered my memory, and I realized that if someone asked me at that moment, “Wo ist die Goethestrasse, bitte?” I would be able to proudly proclaim, “Die Goethestrasse ist hier!”

And then I pick up the 20 Minuten, which is the free daily magazine (like 24 hours or Metro in Canada), and I understand this article (me, in my head: “Betrunkener Autofahrer = drunk driver; picture of car inside house — I totally get it! See, I’m doing fine.”)

But in all seriousness, normal articles and news reports are completely lost on me. And then there are practical tests of our knowledge. A husband who wishes to remain unnamed picked up his cell phone today, and received a flood of incomprehensible German, the only part of which he could decipher a reference to “Universitatstrasse” (we applied for an apartment there). After our go-to “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” failed, he could only resort to “e-mail, bitte?” And the property manager was kind enough to e-mail the offer, but we are still feeling chagrined. (Apartment update: we have, as of today, two suites to choose from — stay tuned for the decision, since we don’t know what it will be yet).

Anyway, we try, inserting our polite bittes and dankes wherever we can. But it doesn’t help that the Canton of Zürich’s welcome booklet, given to me by our relocation agent, lays out this unoptimistic view of the situation (and makes me feel even more self-conscious about my Grüezis):

Okay then. Well, Adieu, the Swiss-German word for “goodbye,” is more familiar to us who have spoken French, so at least we have some hope of ending the conversation on a good note.



I know what some of you are thinking while reading my blog.

You’re thinking, “Enough of your endless yammering…show us some pictures!”

Come on now, Reader — is the digital camera lens really mightier than the plastic laptop keyboard? I don’t know the answer to that, but today I took a bunch of pictures during an enforced long walk outside while the cleaning lady did her thing. So I’m going to conserve 7,000 or so words and just show you the following. Enjoy!

The sort of fountain I was talking about yesterday

Churches play peek-a-boo all around the city.

A nice neighbourhood near the See

Swans and other birds having lunch

Stelian's workplace -- do the ears look familiar?

A nice place to go dancing?


A few of my favourite things

Welcome to a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Zürich. It’s been exactly two weeks since we arrived, and during most of this time, the weather has felt more akin to spring than winter. Most days are sunny and mild — I always thought, living in Canada, that you had to choose a region that offered only one of these characteristics in wintertime. I’ve been told that this is unusually nice weather for Zürich in winter, though, so I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

Unfortunately, Stelian is stuck inside at work today. He will not normally be working weekends, but it just so happens that early January is crunch-time for people in his field, since there is a big conference whose paper submission date is mid-next week. So everyone in his office has been working extra hard, to the extent that last night, I was invited to an “Abandoned Wives” dinner organized by another DRZ employee’s wife. Four of us went out for fondue (more on this later — I shall do a full review of the semi-solids, I promise!) and then to a bar for some gluhwein (hot mulled wine). It was great to meet these other people in my same situation and have some company while Stelian worked on a Saturday. Plus, as the group’s newbie, I received a lot of useful information and tips. I look forward to meeting more of Stelian’s coworkers and their partners when we head out on a ski-trip next weekend (this will be a company-sponsored trip to celebrate the passing of the big deadline).

In Switzerland (providing you don’t work for an international corporation like Disney), Sunday is taken seriously as a day of rest and leisure. Shops are closed, and even domestic activities like laundry or vacuuming are frowned upon. It seems that people just stay home and enjoy the day with their families, as the streets are very quiet. I did see a fair number of people out strolling by the lake, too. I think I could get used to this do-nothing day.

I’ll leave you with a list of some of my favourite things about Zürich so far, before I go and continue my obligatory lounging.

Water Fountains. There are a whopping 1,200 of these spread around the city, spewing cold, delicious water from the Alps. In a city where eating out is so expensive, and a bottle of water will cost you at least a few francs, it’s nice to have these available — they are beautiful and decorative, and also highly functional. To a runner, they are a special treat, since they make carrying water unnecessary. I am now dreaming of owning a collapsible cup that might make the running-and-drinking experience even more convenient.

Exposure to multilingualism. I am extremely impressed with how the Swiss people I’ve met seem to be fluent in so many languages. Many of them say they speak “only a little” English, but it turns out to be much more than that. At one apartment we visited, Stelian and I had a very interesting mixed German-French-English conversation with the owner of the building, during which I think all important points were expressed using one of the three languages. With many languages swirling around me, I feel that my brain is always being challenged, usually in a good way.

A healthy lifestyle includes a trip to the chocolate aisle.  Weight-watchers everywhere might seethe in jealousy at this common supermarket sight: a slim Swiss woman, standing in the chocolate aisle (yes, there is a whole aisle!), selecting a stack of reasonably-priced Swiss chocolate bars. One of my current theories about why the Swiss are not obese, or even overweight, is that they eat satisfying foods. They don’t have guilt about eating chocolate and cheese, so they just eat it, instead of trying to deny themselves, or pretending they can live without it, and then bingeing on it. Of course, people also walk a lot, and Zürich can be a bit of a jungle gym, full as it is of slanted streets. And then there are the stairs — our current apartment is on the fourth floor, which to a North American is actually the fifth, since the ground floor is always “0” here. With no lift in the building, we’ve been doing a lot of unintentional Stairmastering. So pass the cheese!