Last few weeks...

Have a couple weeks worth of writing to catch up on, but rather than catch-up, I’m going to go with the semi-quick version:


* Thanksgiving: We invited some people over, found a turkey, cooked it, ate it, and all was merry.

* The following weekend: Wow – I can’t remember what we did this weekend! I think we sat around and watched a movie. Watching movies rules.

* Same weekend: Ok, I remembered what we did – the movie part is true, so I don’t need to reiterate that. But on Sunday, we went to Montreaux for their famous (or at least mildly well-known-within-Switzerland) Christmas market. Yeah – Soph was pestering me something fierce to take her to a Christmas market, and for whatever reason I caved. I need to enact a zero-tolerance policy for that, as my caving just reinforces her behavior – but enough about psychology and how to deal with terror tactics. So we went to the Christmas market, it was kind of cool, we had a good time, and went home.

* Last weekend: This was a pretty good weekend. We left early Friday afternoon for Lucerne, and stayed there for a night. Lucerne is similar to Geneva in that it’s on a lake, has a river running through it, and is surrounded by mountains – but it seems to be a lot prettier. Not to take anything away from Geneva, but Lucerne was something new, and therefore we had city-surrounded-by-mountains envy. Hey – it happens to the best of us. Anyway, we got in kind of late, hung out a little, got up early the next morning, and then walked around the city the rest of the day. Turned out to be beautiful weather, and the combination of cobble-stoned streets and fresh mountain air made for a wonderful, leisurely day.
* Side-note: there is some festival going on in the park by where we live. This town always seems to have some festival going on, which is nice I guess, but I find it odd to have rollercoasters and such in the middle of the city. Makes for cool pictures, though.
* This weekend: Stayed in Geneva, went over and hung out with some friends one night, and then had some people over another night. Also, walked around a little and happened upon some sort of zoo. Yeah – you find odd things in Geneva if you just kind of wander – not that a zoo is odd, but it sort of simply appeared in a place where it didn’t make any sense to have a small zoo-like park. But, it was fun, so whatever.

Ok – so that was the quick version. Now, I'll talk a little more about Lucerne, since it’s worth describing in more detail. I didn’t realize this, but Lucerne is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Of course, since pretty much all of Switzerland is in the German-speaking part except for Geneva, this should have come as no surprise, but it kind of did. The point is, I realized I only know 2 words in German, and one of them is "blitzkrieg", so it kind of narrowed down the amount of communication you can do when in Switzerland. That was fun – as if I haven’t yet experienced having to try and speak in a language I don’t know or understand. Sigh. Anyway, we were able to make due on the speaking end, which was good because the markets in Lucerne were so vastly superior to the Geneva markets, that we pretty much flipped out. And by "flipped out", I mean we started running through the streets with cheeses and sausages flailing from our limbs. Seriously – the cheeses were amazing – stuff I had never even thought of before. Geneva is pretty big on the "stinky" and "veined" cheeses, and then a couple of solid standbys such as Gruyere and Tomme (which might just be the French word for "generic", but it’s still good stuff). But Lucerne – whoo Nelly! I still have no idea what some of them were called, but they ruled. Unfortunately, none of them survived the trip back to Geneva. Because we ate them all. But we did go on a cheese run on Sunday, and now our refrigerator reeks as a result – but it’s a good reek.

Anyway, that’s about it. Lucerne will probably go down as our final 2007 European trip, although since we’ll be flying through the Frankfurt airport on the way back to the States, who knows what adventures lie ahead of us. Probably an airport prison, if our last Frankfurt experience is any indicator, but that’s a whole other story.



Next week: the 2007 Europe awards!

Paris!


Although I’ve said this before, it never gets old; one of the great things about living here is that you can so easily pick up and go to a really cool destination. This time, as I had some vacation I needed to use and the weather was blizzarding east of Geneva, we decided to make it a five-day trip somewhere west – and where better to go than Paris? So with one day of planning we hopped a train, got to our cheap hostel, and started to explore one of the world’s most famous cities.

Before I move on, let me state a little fact about Paris; everybody secretly tries not to like it. You know you’re guilty of it – you might not be able to put your finger on why, but deep down, while you may want to go there, another little voice in your head tells you it’s all a giant scam. The problem being, Paris has too much hype surrounding it; not only is it the focal point in a lot of popular media, but everyone knows someone who’s crazy about the city, and a part of you thinks there’s an element of them saying they like it simply because they were there. Also, there are apparently a large number of pompous French people living there. As a result, it’s easy to say “I don’t want to go there”, and I have to admit that I wasn’t overly excited about using my vacation time in Paris. But – I can now say – I was wrong (I would never say that about any argument I’ve had with Soph, mind you). Paris is a pretty cool place, and not for the reasons normally given.

So, let’s start with the tourist attractions. The Eiffel Tower – yes, it’s big. Yes, it’s pretty. Yes, we took 67 pictures of it. But that’s not the point. It’s just this huge tower, right? Well – yeah. But it’s still pretty cool. In our defense, we didn’t actually go up it (going to Paris and not going up the Eiffel Tower is one of the world’s major tourism sacrileges!) But this trip wasn’t about tourism – it was about trying to get to the underbelly of the city and taking it in our hands, and twisting it and bending it to our will! Well, that and drinking a lot of wine and coffee while not going to work – but I digress…

Next, the Louvre; the Louvre is, simply, the world’s greatest museum (partly because the French never gave back a lot of the artifacts they stole from other countries back in the 18th and 19th centuries…but again, I digress…) So we basically spent a day there, and didn’t even come close to seeing it all. It’s ridiculous, but in a good way. And yes, we did go over to the Mona Lisa and take pictures – we can’t break all the tourism rules! Even though I’m vehemently opposed to aforementioned rules, for reasons I may or may not get into in a separate blog entry, as it’s worthy of more space than I will give it here. Gotta stop digressing…

Notre Dame is next on the list. We went while a mass was going on, which was good in the sense of having grown up going to churches (I stress the term “church”, as there are no “cathedrals” in the Midwest, at least none that I know of), I always thought the ceremony would seem sort of empty if there was so much space. On the contrary, a loud organ and a nice choir fills up the cathedral quite nicely, and changes the experience quite a bit. Anyway – Notre Dame is worth seeing also – but my favorite cathedral in Paris was St. Sulpice, because unlike Notre Dame, it was cold, dark, empty, and had an otherworldly quality to it.

Finishing up the cathedral tour of Paris, we went to Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, another fine example of aforementioned gigantic works of architecture. Montmartre, a neighborhood set on Paris’ only real hill (I think it’s the only hill – it’s a big hill though), was once a haven of artists from all over the world. This is important because Montmartre tries so hard to pretend it’s still bohemian, but the reality is it’s been gentrified beyond all recognition of whatever glory it once had. That being said, that’s probably a good thing, as the winding streets and alleys are now filled with fun shops and cool restaurants, making it a fun place to explore.

In this vein, we spent the rest of our trip. We would pick a couple of neighborhoods each day to go to, and then just walk around and stop in cafes or lunch spots when we needed to rest. We saw Marais, the Latin Quarter (“Latin” because people used to speak Latin there, not because they’re Hispanic), St. Germain des Pres, and a few other areas around the river. Lots of walking, lots of cafes, and a lot of fun. What we learned during these travels is that Paris gets a bad rap; we ran into a bunch of really nice people, all of which were French, and not a single snob! In fact, all the French we’ve met so far in Europe have been pretty cool, so I’m going to start giving them a little credit. Maybe.

The only problem we encountered on this trip – and it wouldn’t be a trip if there weren’t at least one problem – is that on Wednesday, our final day in Paris, there was a transit strike. As you might know, the French are notorious for working fewer hours and getting paid more than pretty much all other countries in the world. So what do you do if you have it good? Apparently, you go on strike. Ok – not to be bashing workers’ rights or anything – but our train, which we had booked and paid for, no longer existed when we got to the station, so I was a little annoyed. Also – as a result of the strike – we got stuck on what was the worst subway ride ever, in rush hour, due to the fact that only about half the trains were running. Our subway was too crowded to get in, so we had to take the train going the opposite way, half an hour to the originating station, stay on it as it turned around, and then take it back another 45 minutes to our destination – the entire time being completely jam-packed with armpits only inches from our faces. Check that – with European armpits only inches from our faces. Absolutely brutal.

But the rest of the trip was great. Good food, beautiful architecture, fun shops, tons and tons of monuments, and so much more. In truth, travel is always better when you’re not rushing to see everything, but when you get to simply relax and enjoy yourself (and maybe seeing just a couple of things) – and luckily we had enough time to do this. So to summarize, if you like big cities, then Paris is awesome – the street upon street of history and sights is great from a tourist perspective, but the hidden neighborhoods and underlying spirit also make it worthy of being called a cultural capital. I definitely recommend checking it out, even though you’re probably secretly thinking it’s not that great…

Budapest

This weekend we went to Budapest – probably my most anticipated city to visit in Europe. Years ago, post-cold war Budapest was one of those ultra-secret backpacker destinations that was dirt cheap, yet had a lot to offer. Times have changed a little since then, and while it’s no longer the “live like a king on $10 a day” mecca it once was, it’s still cheaper than most of the other major European destinations, yet it now also is a bit more tourist-friendly than it used to be (i.e. there’s little risk of crime). On one bank you have Pest, which is a teeming, expansive city with all sorts of interesting buildings and tree-lined streets. On the other side is Buda, a hilly knoll with castles and cobble-stone streets overlooking the winding river. Together, they form an amazing sight, one which in my opinion rivals the beauty of any city I’ve seen so far.

Budapest has a very long and storied past, which is important in that each period of time has contributed to the city as it currently stands. There are a lot of Turkish influences, which can be seen in some of the architecture; Viennese influences, seen in the cafes; communist influences, seen in the lack of wealth among the older generation; and western influences, seen in the fact that only 20 years after the fall of communism, a huge portion of the city speaks fluent English. That was the thing that surprised me the most; every waiter, shop owner, vendor, etc., all of them could speak English. More than people in Geneva, even. This borders on shocking due to the fact that it’s occurred so quickly; there’s no way English was taught in schools until recently (if even now), but everyone learns it – even though geographically, there are no English-speaking countries nearby. Made it much easier to travel, although we did try to use the simple Hungarian phrases we memorized. Anyway, on to the trip…

The first morning, we navigated the fastest escalators on planet earth into the subway, on our way to the Szechenyi baths. Here, I donned my speedo and bathing cap in joining the locals in an old-school thermal bathhouse! If you ever get the opportunity to go, the thermal baths in Budapest are great; we went early in the morning, and there was still a nice chill in the air as we sat in the extremely comfortable 85-degree water. I can’t think of too many better ways to start the day, or to continue it, as we stayed a couple of hours just floating around.

After this, we got serious, and decided the best use of our time would be to aimlessly walk around. The weather was perfect – not too hot, not too cold – and the leaves were in full autumn color-changing mode. There’s a great road cutting through the center of Budapest, full of squares, statues, and other assorted sights. One of their big monuments, Heroes’ Square, is simply monstrous – the pictures truly don’t do it justice. We walked throughout the rest of the afternoon, and ended up going to an opera later that evening. It was at this point I remembered I don’t particularly enjoy opera, but since it was a cool opera house it was alright for a couple of hours.

The next day was started by going to the greatest café in Europe – a very unpretentious, 20-ft-ceilinged establishment serving great coffee and amazing breakfast sweets. To me, this typified the entire Budapest experience – the city is still in a stage where it doesn’t have enough money to be snooty (kind of the opposite of Geneva), so you have these venues that are gorgeous and really nice, but have normal prices because they still rely on the lower and middle classes for business. In ten years, I imagine this café (and many others like it) becoming high-priced and not necessarily having better quality; but for now, it’s just right. Anyway – we finished up the day by seeing a traditional Hungarian folk performance, complete with dancers and a folk ensemble. Simply put, it was really cool.

The final day was spent roughly in the same manner – the common theme being that we tried to see something in the morning, walk around during the day, and eat as much food as possible anytime in between. Because the truth is, not only is Goulash an extremely fun word to say, but when it’s prepared correctly, it’s quite good. So we ate. And ate. And ate. We ate so much that, at one meal, Soph actually left some food on her plate due to being full! In my 6+ years with her, I’ve never been witness to this phenomenon, and it scared me. But the point is – we ate a lot. And it was good.

This was a great trip for a lot of reasons; first, the city is just amazing. Words really can’t describe how nice the buildings are and how great everything looks. Second, there was the fact we got to go shopping and eat out a lot. Buying things is fun. Third, there were so many cool things to do – there were the Baths, the Central Market, music – there’s even a 1000-year-old mummified hand in the city’s Basilica! That’s just cool. And lastly, the history of Budapest, and Hungary in general, is at such a crossroads of different cultures and time periods that there’s a lot to understand and absorb – which we were able to attempt over coffee and cakes in the wonderful cafes. And how can you not enjoy a little deep thought and introspection over a cup of coffee?

Non-Desperate Geneva Housewives


That is what my new friend Melanie has named our little luncheon group, and I have to admit that one of the highlights of not working (among many) is being able to meet up with some like-minded gals who love food and experiencing different things as much as I do. Plus the advice exchange is invaluable! Our new mission statement involves trying out as many different Geneva restaurants as possible (in a reasonable price range obviously) every week. One of the first weeks we went to a teahouse called Le The, which served the best tea and dim sum I've ever had. Granted, I don't eat dim sum very often, but hey the point is, it was great. And now that the weather here is getting cooler by the day, warm tea is very appealing to my anti-cold personality. Plus it's right around the corner from where we live! I'm so glad that we chose to be in center city because it affords us an opportunity to be in the action and close to everything. We're in a more student inclined area, which is fine by me, because jeans and sneakers fit in perfectly, and there are more thai restaurants in the vicinity of our house than I can shake a stick at, which is great for me, and doom for Tyler. :) He thinks I'm slightly obsessed with Thai food, which is probably true because it is surprisingly so easy to get all the supplies you need to make really great green curries and drunken noodles. It's helping ease the pain of not having a lot of korean food around, ok AFFORDABLE korean food around. A kimchijigae (kimchi soup) back home would have cost maybe 7 bucks, here it's thirty. Ah Geneva. However, I did get some kim (seaweed laver sheets) in a care package that I've been gobbling down with rice, so that's been helping alot, and I even gave a try at making kimchi. That wasn't so successful as I think I didn't rinse the salt enough off of the cabbage before dousing it with garlic and red pepper powder. So it's a little too salty, but I think I've learned my lesson and am ready to try try try again, much to Tyler's chagrin, ha ha. Can't believe he invented a new bad word just to describe kimchi!

So I can get really lazy, and as such this is the continuation of the draft blog I had started awhile ago. Part of it is Tyler's fault, as he now calls this blog HIS blog, and he has become very possessive of it (love you honey!!!!), but it's rather cute. So since going to Le The a few weeks ago, the Non-Desperate Geneva Housewives (otherwise known as NDGH) group has expanded to around 10 members, and we've gone to Vietnamese, Indian, and Sushi. The Indian was very yummy and a great deal because it was a buffet, the first buffet I've seen in Geneva! And let me tell you, I went to TOWN on that buffet. Talk about getting your money's worth! Although the service was absolutely atrocious; I nearly got into a fight with the snotty waiter. They don't get paid on tips here, and unfortunately it is reflected in the service sometimes. Everyone who knows me, knows that I'm a really easygoing, non-trouble-wanting kind of person, but this guy just made me want to throw down. Regardless, I paid him back by polishing off all of the chicken dishes in the buffet line by going up for seconds and thirds. Ok, not really. Ok, maybe :)

The lunchgroup has just been so much fun and such a great way to meet new friends; one of my biggest fears coming over here, was not being able to establish a network of friends very easily. I'm just a very social person and there is nothing more I like than to have a good chat or just to commiserate. Well, I'm very lucky to have found that in these girls, as well as some other people we've met through the expat network sites. I think our transition to living here has gone so smoothly because of that, and I know Tyler likes that I'm not pining away waiting for him to come home. Well, I know secretly he'd like that, but after awhile I think it would start to annoy him.

Today the NDGH group had lunch at Sushi Misuji, which is literally maybe a six minute walk from me (love that!) and I was surprised by how good my spicy tuna roll was. And the miso soup. I was expecting some kind of spicy mayonnaise gob concoction, but what came out was a very nice sized roll with large chunks of avocado and tuna, sprinkled with sesame and spicy pepper. Very yummy, and totally satisfied my sushi kick. There's something to be said about a really good sushi roll laden with wasabi and soy sauce...I felt very content, sitting there with my chopsticks poised on its way to bringing me goodness, listening to the gab around me. Life is good.
Next up: Budapest!

Random Geneva Blog

Living abroad, as much as we’d like it to be, isn’t all peaches and cream. I mean, there’s definitely cream, and it’s really thick, sweet fattening cream, but the peaches are more like grapes, although some days when the weather is nice, they’re raspberries. What does it all mean? Probably that raspberries and cream are pretty darn good, although it costs a lot.

One of the things about living in a foreign country is that to truly enjoy it, you need to put yourself out there quite a bit. We’ve been fairly successful in this regard so far, as we’ve made a lot of friends, had some great experiences, and I expect many more of those to come. But like everything else, sometimes the best of intentions are met with dismal failure. One such instance occurred the other night when I went to a wine tasting; seemed harmless enough, right? Well – this “wine tasting” – not “vin degustation” – which was advertised in English and promoted to an English-speaking crowd – was conducted entirely in French, and everyone spoke conversationally in French, except for the one guy in attendance who doesn’t yet understand French (I’ll let you guess who that might have been). And yes, I realize I’m in a French-speaking country – or rather, a French-speaking canton of a country with four official languages and multiple dialects within each language – but still. Anyway, it’s kind of funny, and it shows that, sometimes when you take a risk, things don’t work out and you end up feeling like a complete idiot for a few hours.

I’m feeling very motivational right now…

On a lighter note, or rather, a “puffier” note, Soph has perfected the French delicacy known as the puff pastry. Took her a couple tries, but they make for an excellent dining experience. And, on an even better note, she has not yet perfected the Korean, umm, terribalicacy called kimchi. Yes, try as she might, that most foul-smelling of foul-smelling foods is eluding her culinary skills. She’s trying to convince me to get a giant bathtub that we can use to ferment it, but for now, I’m not biting. Did you know there are people in Korea who actually have bathtubs specifically dedicated to kimchi? Crazy as it sounds, it still doesn’t compare to some of the oddities witnessed in Switzerland.

And speaking of Switzerland (since that’s what this blog is technically about), we had our second fondue dinner the other night. And this time, there was even a yodeler and a guy playing one of those super-long wooden mountain horn things. Yodelers are cool and all, but the best vocal performance I’ve seen in Geneva to date was some random guy belting away opera tunes in a deep baritone on the street in front of my office building the other day. For whatever reason, we get some very interesting street performers, a fact I find mildly amazing for reasons I won’t go into. I’ve only seen the baritone opera guy once, but one of the more common performers is this father and his two under-twelve children who play classical music on violins. They’re pretty good, but they only really have two songs they can play, so they’re not as respected as this other violin trio that just flat-out knows how to go to town. Also, every month or so we’ll get one of those people who dresses up like a statue (they suck), and sometimes a 4+ piece acoustic band with instruments other than violins. But the guy who absolutely, positively rakes in the most money, without question, is this old dude (who doesn’t appear to shower), who has what’s got to be the world’s laziest cat. I’m not sure how you could measure the sheer laziness of a cat, but if there were a way, this one would break the scale. The guy just pushes his cart, cranks a wheel that plays terrible circus music, and children flip out and come in droves to pet the cat, which causes their parents to hand the guy money.


Switzerland can be a weird, weird country if you pay attention.

Oktoberfest 2007!

Sophia: “This is great. I can be as loud as I want, and no one cares!” And that pretty much sums up the Oktoberfest experience.

One of the great things about being in Europe is, obviously, being relatively close to so many places. To a certain degree, you can just fill a backpack and go on the road to a well-known destination/event – such as Oktoberfest. And this is exactly what we did.

The story begins with us hanging out with a few of our friends earlier in the week, and one of them mentioning that their cousin lives in Munich. We all joked about how great it would be to go there and have a place to stay, etc., and then we all went home that night and forgot about it. Well, the next day, we get an e-mail with a rental car confirmation; split five ways, how could you say no? I mean, literally you could say no, but I’m speaking more figuratively…anyway, the point is, we ended up getting ahold of another friend who’s from Germany, who was also going and staying with one of his old college friends, and as a result, we had the perfect excuse for a last-minute getaway.

Now, before we start talking about how great everything worked out, let me just throw in that there were three of us squished into the back seat of a small Peugeot, on what was supposedly a six-hour trip but in reality was an eleven-hour drive each way. Not the most comfortable of conditions.

Back to the story…so once in Munich, we decide we’re going to get up early on Saturday so that we can get into a tent. We wake up at 6:30am – and anyone who knows me knows I don’t joke about getting up early –and head to the festival. When we get there around 8:00, there are masses of people standing outside each of the tents waiting to get in (doors open at 9:00). Unbeknownst to most of you, Sophia has a surprisingly developed skill of getting to the front of large crowds, something I’ve never perfected; so on her lead, we got pretty near to the entrance. Looking back, this probably was a bad idea, because there were a couple moments when the crowd was so restless that I thought someone was going to get crushed (apparently, a couple people fainted due to anxiety attacks and not being able to breathe; it was pretty crazy. And by crazy, I mean “totally sweet”). Anyway, when we were about 200 people deep, they stopped letting anyone else into the tent, which actually was okay because the whole being-in-a-massive-seething-crowd thing had completely lost any semblance of an attraction. On a stroke of quick thinking, though, one of our friends (who we had lost in the crowd) had the foresight to grab a bench right near where we were standing outside the tent. Considering it was a beautiful day, and they were serving both food and drinks outside, it turned out to be just as good, if not better, than the tent would have been.

The fun part about Oktoberfest is that it’s so easy to meet random people from all over the world. While we were at the bench, we were joined by a handful of other demographics; there were the 17 year-old Germans, who when combined with us were easily the loudest table of the festival (they taught us German cheers); some early-twenties Brits, who were also a lot of fun; some Italians, who were completely sketchy; and then some more Germans who were dressed in Lederhosen. Lederhosen rules.

A little note about Oktoberfest; there are a few things going on there. First, you have the tents, which are where the serious party happens. Even the tents are segmented, though, between the open parts, where the drinking occurs, and the reserved parts, where families / groups of people / etc. hang out. It all mixes nicely, of course, but the middle of the tents tend to be filled with people standing on the tables singing and cheering to the oom-pah bands, while the outer rings are people sitting around just chilling out and talking. Good stuff. At the same time, outside the tents is completely different. Hundreds of thousands of people – literally hundreds of thousands – are just walking around. Most of them are there to do just that – walk around and look at stuff; then there are also a bunch of carnival-style rides, and surprisingly a lot of families and little children. Lastly, there are a handful of extremely drunk people sitting wherever they’re able to find a space; they tend to have no idea what country they’re in, and don’t realize that people stand next to them making faces while taking pictures.

On Sunday, one of the people we were staying with had been smart enough to reserve spaces in the Hofbrauhausen tent (eight months in advance), so we were finally able to get in. The tents, as mentioned above, are a lot of fun, and have a lot of energy; a wave of cheers will break out every five minutes or so and you can’t resist joining in and yelling “Prost” while clinking beer glasses with everyone around you, including the strangers. Each tent (and there are twelve main ones) has its own personality, although all of them are huge and surprisingly ornate considering they have to be broken down and put back together every year. After hanging out for a couple hours in our original tent, we did a “tent crawl” and checked out some of the others - fun stuff.

All in all, Oktoberfest definitely lived up to the hype. If you’re interested in going, I’m pretty sure we’ll be back next year, with tent reservations, hotel accommodations and Lederhosen in hand. It’s hard to compare it to anything I’ve seen before, because it really is a unique event; everyone is just so happy and friendly! But I guess that’s the magic of German beer. Also, what we saw of Munich was fantastic – can’t wait to go back there and explore it a bit more, as the public transportation was great and it has a lot of elements of old-school Bavaria.

No more trips for the next few weeks…but still more entries to come!



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Moving Weekend!

The first night walking in the park around our new apartment, we saw some mice go scurrying by. Normally, this would bother me a little bit, but they were kind of small, and as far as park-mice go, on the cuter end of the spectrum (the rats in Baltimore could probably eat us, so mice are no comparison). And in true European fashion, one even had a giant piece of cheese in it’s mouth as it was running across the path! Soph said she thought she saw it wearing a beret, but I think she was just being silly. You never know, though.

So – regarding our new apartment – it rules. It’s a duplex on the top two floors of a building in Plainpalais (one of the fun parts of Geneva). 3 bedrooms, has a nice balcony with mountain views, a great upstairs with lots of space, large kitchen, spiral staircase separating the floors; easily the coolest place we saw, and I’m completely shocked we got it, what with the way the Geneva housing market is (not so much a housing “market”, as a housing “crisis”). So we’ll have plenty of space for visitors in the future. More importantly, we’ll also have plenty of space for parties! And as Sophia has quickly taken to becoming the party-organizer for a measurable portion of the Geneva expat community, we’ll probably get a lot of use out of the floor space. The last point I need to make is that I’m only a short, eight-minute walk to work; the sweetness of that statement oozes from my fingers as I type.

Up until now, we hadn’t really done any true shopping since our arrival. Therefore on Saturday, we went out to what is considered a mall, and “got a little crazy”. Ahh, shopping. It really is both an art and a science when done correctly. Among the items we needed to buy were: A) clothes B) adapters (electricity plugs) C) an ironing board D) a microwave E) groceries. That being said, you know that feeling when you’re arriving home from the store, and you don’t really want to get out of the car yet because you know you have to bring in about 15 bags of food and drinks, and if there’s a flight of stairs involved it’s just a pain to make more than one trip, so you try to carry it all at once and the handles on the plastic bags start to dig in because there’s too much weight, but that’s still better than going back out to the car because you just want to sit down again? Well, after three hours of shopping and completing most of our purchases, a feeling very similar to that set in, except instead of just lugging it from the car to the kitchen, we had to somehow get everything on a bus, then after about 10 minutes transfer to a tram, complete a five-minute walk, and then ascend a couple flights of stairs. To me, I felt a serious lack of motivation and dread. Sophia, however, had her mind on our sofa that had newly arrived, so she cared only about the fact that within an hour she would be laying on it. Further proof it’s the little things that matter...

Anyway, we bought some pancetta, grated some parmesan cheese, and had a nice little dinner on our balcony as the sun set above us, turning the sky a pinkish-purple with the mountains in the background. The only thing we could think to disagree about was whether or not the snow-capped mountain far in the distance was Mont Blanc or not, but some things are better left unresolved.

Happy Anniversary in Burgundy!


The French countryside is all it’s depicted to be in the travel books, oozing with rustic charm and countless cute villages dotting the vineyard-laden landscape. I actually started getting carsick because I kept on whipping the camera out to take pictures while driving along the famous Route des Grand Crus (note we deleted over 2/3 of them, but hey - I had fun). And I can’t tell you how many people we saw in the various villages we passed through who were carrying around exactly 3 loaves of French bread, I guess for their Saturday dinner; it was just the cutest thing.

We started our adventure by renting a car from the Geneva airport, where Tyler, thank God, got behind the wheel to take on the responsibility of keeping us safe, and other people / bicyclers alive. It took about two and a half hours to get to our bed and breakfast, Le Petit Clos, which has to be one of the most adorable bed and breakfasts I’ve ever been to (ok, the only bed and breakfast I’ve ever been to - but it was perfect). The hosts, Elisabet and Denis, were unbelievably attentive, and their dog Polka rocked! (For the record, it really is spelled Elisabet – we’ve met a few people here with that name.) After settling in, they armed us with maps and sent us on to Beaune, which considers itself the wine capital of France (apparently there’s a capital of everything in France), and we began our wine tasting and vineyard touring. But not until we ate lunch at this little café/restaurant where we were served an amazing 3 course meal for only 11 Euros! I do have to say, the French definitely know how to cook. Anyway, Beaune is another quaint, cobblestoned city, with all kinds of caveaus (cellars), cafes, and boutiques littering the streets, as well as a historic hospital that has retained its colorfully-tiled roofing from medieval times. After a small tasting and a tour of the hospice, we went on to explore some of the world’s best Pinot Noir vineyards, of the ilk of Corton, Vosnee Romanee, and Veugot. It was amazing to stand amongst these vines, knowing that these grapes are the source of thousand-dollar wines. I have to admit, they were pretty yummy (we only plucked a couple!). Another amazing thing about the plots is how small some were, and that people actually handpick many of the vines (we saw a little of this, as we went during the vendage, which is harvest time). After driving through the vineyards and another tasting, Tyler navigated us back home through the narrow country lanes to our B&B; the roads were insanely thin, and at one point we had some oncoming traffic and Tyler exclaimed he missed a whole appellation b/c of having to concentrate on the road!

Upon our safe arrival back at Le Petit Clos, we were given a little tour of Denis’s wine cellar, where we picked out a wine to go with our dinner. Denis and Elisabet sat with us in their living room and talked about wine, their lives, and where we were from; I have to admit I thought I’d be uncomfortable with such a personal bed and breakfast, but they were just so easy to talk to and knew so much about the area, and are so passionate about what they do. Elisabet fixed us an amazing five course meal that started out with some puff pastry thing that was absolutely delicious…the French have perfected the puff pastry concept!!!! And it goes without saying that the rest of our courses were incredible; we could barely waddle up the steps at the end of dinner!

The next day, after a breakfast on their terrace, we headed out to explore the Chardonnay vineyards (THE best Chardonnays come from Burgundy). What was great was the fact that there were virtually zero other tourists here; not sure why, but at one point, we stopped on the road and were walking through a vineyard (in the famous appellation of Puligny-Montrachet), and a good twenty minutes went by without a car passing by. So of course we used this time to eat some more grapes...haha! We also stopped in Chassagne-Montrachet (still home to our favorite white wines) and Meursault, where we learned that the size of the village and the danger posed in driving through it are inversely proportional; the houses, built of stone, are built on one-lane roads, but cars drive both ways on them!

Anyway, we eventually made our way back to Geneva. It really was a perfect way to celebrate our anniversary, with such good food and drink, and of course each other. I still can’t believe it’s been one year already, as it feels like yesterday that I was frantically running around trying to get married! But Burgundy was wonderful and we will definitely try it again, although maybe not so soon, as we paid 90 dollars for a tank of gas. So everyone out there in the U.S. can’t complain to us about gas prices!!!!

Next weekend: Moving into our new place!!!!

Belgium!

Sep 5-9 Amazing gothic architecture…great food…easily navigable subway system…all these things make it hard to describe why there was something a little…off…in Belgium. It started when we bought our first Belgian Waffle (a nice, sticky, chocolate-covered slice of heaven). When we started to eat it, I realized we didn’t have a napkin. So I asked the vendor for a napkin, and he proceeded to rummage around behind the counter, come up 20 seconds later, and hand me – one – napkin. Ok, I thought, no big deal. I’ll just have to live with it. Later on, we went to a kabob shop, ordering the delightful meat concoction that every city should sell, and again, upon asking for napkins, we were presented with one, single napkin. Yet after that, we ordered some hamburgers at The Quick, basically a McDonald’s without the grease (why would you get rid of the grease?), and once more, after asking for napkins, we were given a lonely, solitary napkin.

This happened on, and I don’t exaggerate, 8 different occasions – which clearly makes it a trend. (Ok, maybe 6 occasions.) Why would all of Belgium, a country who prides themselves on being the best at so many of life’s luxuries – chocolate, beer, seafood, etc. – why when they have so many ways in which they make the world a better place, why are they so protective of their napkins? How, from a sociological evolutionary standpoint, does a culture develop the need to conserve as many napkins as possible? They’re not even nice napkins; they’re ordinary. I could understand if they were silk or lace, but they’re rough and scratchy.

It’s just odd. But I digress…

Belgium, napkin-hoarding aside, has a lot of charm. While we stayed in Brussels for the majority of the trip, we took day trips to Ghent and Brugge. Ghent is one of the nicer “small” medieval cities we’ve been to, and probably has more gigantic, beautiful cathedrals per square meter than anywhere else in the world (sorry – I’m thinking in the metric system - it probably has more cathedrals per square foot than anywhere else). Brugge, meanwhile, is a canal-medieval-city, and was great for biking around, as it’s a bit too large to cover on foot. Both were very beautiful. For the record, Sophia and I are horrible bikers. I’m a bit too kamikaze, especially considering I never quite figured out how to ride in a straight line (I blame the fact I grew up riding a hand-me-down bike without pedals on unpaved roads). And while Sophia is better than me, she has a habit of twisting her ankle when walking down the street; if you apply this level of balance and agility to bicycles, you get the idea (note that she tripped and fell in Brussels, severely scraping her knee and looking like a fool, her words). Anyway – it was cute, we took some pictures, they’ll be uploaded on Shutterfly shortly – blah blah blah. Time for the good stuff…

So my main objective in Belgium was, as some of you can guess, to try as many beers as possible (in moderation). I am, after all, a self-proclaimed beer snob! And for all you other blossoming beer snobs, let me just say that this is the place to hone your craft; good beer flows like water from the old-world pubs of Brussels! But it doesn’t stop there; we also made sure to eat as many waffles and chocolates as possible. This is what vacationing is all about…13 pubs, 34 beers, 8 waffles, 46 pieces of chocolate, 64 mussels, and we even got some Vietnamese soup in there one night! Anyway, I believe we took pictures of every beer, waffle, and chocolate shop we went to. A lot of pictures, and a lot of fun. Made for a different type of vacation, because we didn’t really do any “touristy” stuff this trip – yeah, we walked around and looked at buildings and castles, but that was more because the places we were going to (chocolate shops and pubs) caused us to cross by some of these things. And that’s why Belgium is cool – because you can go there, and not have to feel like you’re missing out on something if you don’t see everything, and you can just relax and indulge yourself.

Great trip on the whole. For the record, I feel I can now officially consider myself a beer-snob. So that leaves me with only a couple of further “snob” activities to learn from my European snobbery to-do list:

  • Cheese
  • Wine
  • Cooking puff pastries
  • Looking down my nose at people who don’t pronounce French with the correct accent

And these remaining snobberies lead perfectly into our next trip…

Next week: Burgundy!

Barcelona

Aug 24-26

Barcelona has become an absolutely enormous city; what used to be suburbs are now teeming city blocks, while the labyrinthine gothic quarter can occupy hours of aimless wandering (or hours of bickering when you inevitably get lost – although I don’t get lost). Yes, it’s hard not to love Barcelona – although some of the more famous areas have become too touristy since I last visited (it’s possible that I just notice this more now that I’m older, but I feel a lot more people are traveling now versus 10 years ago).

This was our first "take-a-flight-straight-after-work" out of hopefully many to come, so that we could spend Friday night hanging out in the city. Of course, as my fellow thirty-year-olds out there can attest, this is always a better idea on paper than in reality – but we did manage to have fun and stay out until almost 1:30 am – craziness! We had a lot of sight-seeing to do the next day though, so we ate what would become my favorite meal so far in Europe (involving many tapas such as fried baby squid, also known as chiperones - Soph loved that word), washed it down with some sangria, and just had a good time. I was amazed at how the chefs could not only broil clams to rival the best seafood restaurants, but also cook a potato, egg and sausage plate that puts Cracker Barrel to shame. One wouldn't think that a potato dish with a mayonaissy sauce on it can be good, but really, it's phenomenal how they do it - I mean, Soph tried to lick the plate. I guess that's the reason Spain is always on the culinary forefront.

The next day we walked the Las Ramblas and stopped by the famous La Boqueria market where all the chefs come to buy their daily menu, and then got our tickets for the tourist bus (I wanted to travel by subway, but I heartily lost that battle). We also saw a bunch of Gaudi’s works, including a park he designed for what was supposed to be an exclusive village for Barcelona's elite – which was pretty cool. What was even cooler, though, was the Borne district, which is where we went that night. It’s definitely my new favorite late-night spot, with its’ miles of small alleyways and endless rows of unique and interesting venues and tapas restaurants. It could be the perfect night-life atmosphere, with just blocks upon blocks of twisting streets and secret paths set amidst hundreds-of-years-old gothic buildings. Sophia also liked it, as this is where she had her favorite meal so far in Europe (another tapas place, which was also insanely good). Alas, the curse of being thirty struck again, as we had to lament our ability to stay out late as the taxi driver chastised us for going home at 2:00 am.

This time, though, we had an even better excuse, for we needed to get up early to see La Sagrada Familia (top pic), Gaudi’s most famous work (and one of the most famous architectural pieces of work in the world). For those who don’t know about it, it’s basically this giant cathedral that is just ridiculously cool-looking. Not sure that it needs more description than that – it’s just ridiculously cool-looking. It’s still unfinished as of now (it was begun in 1902, with Gaudi starting the design in the late 1800s), but when 2024 rolls around, you might want to take a trip here, as I can’t think of any buildings of the past couple hundred years that are anywhere near as interesting as this one. Unfortunately, our pictures don’t do it justice, although there are some good ones of the statues on either entrance (could spend hours just looking at the details).

The rest of the day we walked around the gothic quarter some more, stopped at a couple of awesome cafes, checked out the Mediterranean beaches, and ate some more paella. Walked probably 6 miles in total, which pushed the limits of my knees, but in a good way.

We accomplished quite a bit on this trip – I was able to break out a little Espanol (can I tell you how nice it was to “kind of” understand a language again, because French just doesn’t make sense?); Sophia got to break out her paella-eating clothes (rice + seafood * a lot of it = happy Soph); we got all the tourist stuff out of the way (so that next time we come here we can base the trip around eating and going out); and yeah, it was just a great place. Spain rules.

Next weekend: chillin’ in Geneva!

Swiss Alps

Aug 17-19 Gimmewald is slowly losing it’s status as one of the best-kept secrets in Switzerland. The local saying is that “if heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, send me back to Gimmewald”. And rightfully so – it’s easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. We arrived shortly after midnight because, oddly, the impeccably efficient Swiss train system broke down on our way there (anyone familiar with my train-luck can appreciate the fact that my karma single-handedly took down the Swiss). Luckily, we caught the last cable car (apparently they’re called “gondola’s”, even though there are no Italian guys singing in them) up and found ourselves on a steep mountainside in total darkness, with some cowbells ringing eerily close to us. Armed with our printout map, we made our way up a rocky trail and found our hotel/hostel/whatever you call it, only to be greeted by, well, a building with all the lights off and nobody awake inside. After trying to figure out how to contact someone for about 15 minutes, we finally decided that we weren’t going back outside, and that we’d find an empty room and just sleep in it, and deal with everything in the morning. For the record, I would NEVER do this in the US. Anyway, we came down to breakfast the next morning, and the owners had a good laugh about it, as they had heard us come in but said in their singsong german accented voice “we were too lazy to get out of bed to show you the room, we figured you would find it”. Great place – and the views were spectacular.



Anyway – back to Gimmewald, the town is, as one of our fellow hostellers put it, “totally rad”. Hey, cut him some slack – he was born in the 80’s. But there was zero tourism, it was extremely small, everyone has a garden; cows are running rampant, there are absurd views of the mountains, and there are no stores, shops, or anything really, except a couple of hostels / bed and breakfasts. Developers aren’t allowed in, so it’s very unique in that it retains the old-world village lifestyle and feeling, and it’s almost impossible to get to by car, so if you don’t take the cable car or hike there, you would never know about it. Really an amazing place.

When we woke up, our plan was to go to the top of the Schilthorn (used as the bad guy’s lair in the only James Bond film starring George Lazenby ) to look at some mountains, go for a hike to look at some more mountains, and then come back to Gimmewald to, um, spend the evening looking at mountains. We accomplished all this, and even managed a couple other things, such as: we saw part of the “Inferno” triathlon, which involved swimming through glacier water, mountain biking, and running uphill well past the tree line; ate some wild blueberries and raspberries; walked through fields of grazing cows; filled our water bottles with fresh swiss alpine water; etc. And speaking of pictures, we took 378 of them! They’re not all posted on Shutterfly, but a lot of them are – we tried to keep it to a reasonable number though.

On Sunday, we had to take it a little easier, since we’re not as young as we used to be, and hiking an alpine mountain path puts a bit of strain on the body. We still walked a good three hours, but it was more along a mountain stream on a well-worn footpath. While the original hike was awesome in that it took you completely away from any remnants of modern civilization, this second hike was nice in that it was geared towards the masses, meaning it was really easy and still had great scenery.

Overall, there were a lot of cool things about this weekend. For instance, the owners of the hotel were this old Swiss couple, and the guy would just shuffle around in his overalls and laugh as he spoke a few random phrases in English, and the woman would cook dinner for the guests every night (which was probably the best food we’ve had over here, by the way), and that was pretty much their thing. They were just cool. There was also this middle-aged British guy who stayed there in the summers to help them out, and he would go paragliding just about every day. And of course the views of the Alps – you’d have lush, green meadows below you, imposing cliffs across the valley, and snow-capped peaks above – good stuff. We also met a handful of travelers one night, and got to share interesting stories as the night went on, as well as discussing that since we’re in Europe, man-purses are completely acceptable (so are tight pants, as well as the color pink. Speedos are still a no-go though). We jumped a lot of cow patties, ran into a herd of wild mountain goats, learned what the “mountain” setting on the camera does, cheered with about 50 people jam-packed in a cable car as it broke through the clouds to get the first up-close view of the Swiss peaks, had a local guy teach us a couple German phrases on the train; and what is really odd, is that even the cats in Switzerland are nice. They don’t try to bite you, and actually want to be petted! Guess the mountains just make everything a bit nicer.

Next weekend: Barcelona!

Nyon



Aug 11 - This weekend, we went to the town of Nyon (see picture). Nyon is known for, well, being a really cute little town (that Caesar settled), and also being only 15 minutes away from Geneva. And since one of the greatest fireworks (better known as camera tricks to all you Wintermeyers) shows in Europe was taking place in Geneva later that night, seemed like this would be a winner!

Nyon is a great little excursion; it’s further up Lake Geneva, and has some amazing views of the old town (and a castle!) and the lake. We spent some time at one of the best vantage spots I’ve yet seen, and just watched the sailboats out on the water. There were also some old Roman ruins there, dating back to the first century AD, which Soph thought were pretty cool (I know this because she took like 800 pictures of them). Also was referred to an awesome Michelin rated restaurant where we experienced "filet de perche," otherwise known as fish from the lake.

After getting our fill of Nyon, we headed back to Geneva to prepare for the night. While Sophia was blowing fuses and knocking out our electricity for the rest of the weekend, I was getting pumped for the fireworks show! We had an inside tip on where the absolutely, positively best place in Geneva to watch the fireworks was, so we trekked into the Old Town and got front-row seats watching the fireworks above the city’s buildings. Turned out to be great, as we had a view of the show over the heart of Geneva, and there were only about 150 people up there with us (compared to the lake, which was crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with people). The fireworks were phenomenal, and if anybody wants to visit next year, I highly recommend booking the flights around this time so that you can enjoy the Fete de Geneve.

And speaking of the Fete, since we’re only 1 block from the lake, we were able to spend a lot of time there. The Fete was basically this giant street festival that stretched about 3 miles around the lake. It’s been going on since we’ve been here (although the first two weeks were the “pre-Fete”, which translates into “pre-festival” for you non-French speakers). It’s been a lot of fun having it so close.

Next weekend: Swiss Alps!

Things That I Had To Get Used To

It's not so different here from the U.S. (outside the obvious of course, and b/c it's such an international city) but there are some things that I definitely had to get used to. Here's a little list (good and bad!)

  • Bagging my own groceries (stressful when you have someone behind you glaring you down if you're too slow)
  • Not even having bags to put your groceries in (some places you have to bring your own, which is actually very environmentally friendly)
  • Lack of bar soap (I miss Irish Spring!)...everyone seems to love the liquid washes. Unrefrigerated eggs and milk...the milk concept is actually pretty cool...you can buy a couple to store and you put it in the fridge once you open it.
  • When you ask someone (train ticket guy) in French if they speak a little English, and they say no, and then proceed to yell at you in English after you stumble through a couple of phrases. Sigh...that only happened once, but can I tell you how traumatizing that was!
  • Nobody returns anything here! Gone are the days of buying three outfits with the promise to myself that I'll return two of them (ok, I never did return them) :)
  • No glass, paper, or plastic in the trash; very very heavy emphasis on recycling here, which is awesome.
  • The three cheek kiss greeting...I love this actually, so get ready for me to lay some wet ones on you guys when I come home!
  • The expensive meat...I think the cheapest boneless skinless chicken breast I saw was like 8 bucks a pound. Ouch. And I won't even get into the steak costs, although ground beef isn't too bad, at about 5 bucks a pound (both are sale prices).
  • Scheduling a day and time to do my laundry. Yikes. Let me tell you that was an interesting conversation with my landlord (who spoke no English whatsoever).
  • Not driving. I love it. I think my blood pressure has been drastically reduced...the public transporation system here is truly great.
  • If we did drive - no right on reds, and there's a yellow before the red turns green!

It's been a month since we've been here (my how time flies). While walking around last night, Tyler asked if I was starting to feel like this was our home, and I thought for a second, and smiled and replied yes, because I feel we are truly embracing this place and just letting go of preconceived notions and habits. I don't think it will ever completely be our home because of not having our family and friends nearby, but it'll do :)

Wknd Trip to Montreux and Gruyere

We hopped the wonderful and very punctual Swiss train system to the towns of Montreux and Gruyere. Montreux is a lakeside town, pretty much on the opposite side of the lake as Geneva. It took about an hour to get there by train. The town is situated beautifully with rock-capped mountains fringing the lakeside; we walked the promenade to the Castle de Chillon, one of the largest castles in Switzerland, which has some history behind it that probably only the Swiss care about (something about Byron and some poem he wrote). In it's defense, the castle is actually pretty cool, and totally knocks the socks off of the studio we're staying in.


After touring the castle, we had lunch and then hopped another train to go to Gruyere, a medieval village a little northeasterly of Montreux. Gruyere is famous for (drumroll, please...) Gruyere cheese, although the "local butterfat-rich double cream" is pretty impressive also. On a side note, the person who designed the aliens in the Alien series was from Gruyere, and they have a themed bar and museum dedicated to his pieces - for the record, this completely does not fit in at a Swiss mountain-town. Regardless, we ate at a fondue/raclette restaurant, which could be better described as "eating as many calories as you can in one sitting", or also "totally sweet"...potatoes, sweet pickles/onions, dried meats, and bread dipped into melted cheese. And, of course, we finished that off with the double-fat-cream stuff. Overall it was a wonderful day of touring the rolling countryside and cutesy towns. More pictures can be found at shutterfly listed on the side of the blog.


Geneva Markets

The open air markets here are absolutely wonderful. All the fresh vegetables, baked bread, and smoked meats, are enough to make anyone want to cook. Here is a picture from the Plainpalais market that I went to (more are at shutterfly); about ten minutes by bus from where we live now. We're actually looking at the Plainpalais area for our permanent housing. Geneva is such a compact city, making city center easily accessible from all areas.

In the beginning...

So we're here and things are going great, discounting a few bumps in the road with adjusting and getting settled in. We're enjoying the beautiful (and amazingly mild/not humid) weather, as well as getting reacquainted with our legs. Even though the public transport is great, we're still walking a ton, which I'm glad of, otherwise all the cheese we've been eating would settle directly on my hips! We miss everyone at home, but are looking forward to sharing all of our experiences through this blogspot. BTW, you can click on the pictures to supersize them :) and there's a shutterfly link to the right which will house all our Switzerland albums.

Love,
Soph and Tyler (Swiss Mrs. and Mr.) :)


(edit:) Tyler: Hey Soph, how are people going to know which one of us is writing this blog?
Soph: You better not mess this blog up!
Tyler: I probably will. Sorry.
Soph: That's ok honey. We'll just have to put a note warning people that the writing style might change mid-paragraph. I think this qualifies as that note.