Cows with flowers

cow-with-flowers

We live in a country where there are cows everywhere. This is not a country for the lactose intolerant. You walk into a supermarket and the shelves are lined with chocolate and dairy items. A million types of yogurt and cremes and puddings.

The cows I see seem pretty happy. They are out in beautiful rolling hills, chewing on grass and enjoying the sunshine. Many cows live in some of the higher elevations where the semi rocky terrain is not so good for agriculture but plenty good for the cows as there is lovely grass to chew on and plenty of water. Come winter though, those cows need to come down as inevitably there will be snow and nothing left to eat.

Switzerland, being a country of tradition, celebrates the cows coming to lower pastures in ceremonies across the land called desalpe. This weekend, we traveled to Saint-Cergue to witness the cows making their fall voyage down the mountain.

img_1388

We left Basel Friday afternoon and traveled west towards Geneva and into the French speaking(yeah!!!!) part of Switzerland to the little town of La Cure. The hotel Arbeze literally straddles the border of both France and Switzerland. Our rooms were in Switzerland but the downstairs restaurant was in France. The old timers tell the tales of how the hotel owners would hide Jews upstairs while the Nazis would eat downstairs. The hotel is old but the rooms are warm and the food is just what you would expect; potatoes smothered in cheese and bacon and strong white wine to wash it down. After a long day, it is just what the doctor ordered.

The next morning, it was up bright and early down to Saint Cergue to be ready for the arrival of the first group of cows. The farmers decorate their magnificent animals with headdresses of flowers and heavy decorative brass bells around their necks. The farmers themselves wear suits of black velvet and white shirts. For the long walk down, they fortify themselves with little glasses of white wine. Between the different groups of cows, there were groups of the local St Bernards, alpenhorn musicians and lots of food to be eaten.

After enjoying way too much cheese and cake, we headed to the town of Les Rousses for a walk through town and then by the lake. The lake was crystal clear, the air fresh and scenery magnificent. We vowed to come back, to see the cows again and to enjoy another weekend all that Switzerland has to offer.

Advertisements

If I knew then what I know now….

img_1242

When we were considering moving to Basel, at no point did we even consider not taking our dogs. Our dogs are part of our family. For better for worse and all that, and there has definitely been some worse. At the time, we thought the biggest hassle and expense would be the plane tickets – if only….

In order to get our dogs here and legal(everything in Switzerland must be legal) we have gone through the following:

  1. Book seats for them to fly with us. $200 each for the dogs to fly under the seats in front of us. They were not allowed out of their carriers but we did sneak them out and hide them under blankets. For the fee, they received nothing! If we had called them support dogs, the fee would have been waived and they would have been able to come out of their cages.
  2. Buy special carriers to KLM’s specifications. $120 each
  3. Ten days before flying, the dogs had to have health inspections at their vet and receive an international chip. They now have an American chip and an international chip. $130 each
  4. Next, we had to go to the USDA office in El Segundo which is only open from 8-11 in the morning. I was warned to be there are 7am to wait in line which I did. I was the second person in line and wasn’t out of there till 10 am. Fee $35 each to have their health certificates validated by the USDA.
  5. Once we arrived in Switzerland, we had 10 days to report them to city hall and register them. In order to register them, we have to give their chip number in case they ever become lost. We also need to provide proof of liability insurance in case one of the dogs should become loose and cause a tram to crash or something. Insurance $500 a year. Then, we have to pay $130 a year for each dog for being licensed. If you are caught with an unlicensed dog it is a HUGE fine. Their tags must be worn at all times. img_1353But, the license fees pay for the poop bags which are the best thing ever here. Every block or so, there are free poop bags and poop trash cans. There is no dog poop anywhere in this land, not even in the country.img_1354
  6. Today, was the last and final fee. I had to take them to a Swiss vet to make sure they were healthy and who would register their international chip to our new address in Switzerland. They also had to get a new immunization for some disease caused by water and some tick repellant. Total cost $530. But they walked away with individual Swiss passports which they need to have on them if they cross the border. It would take us 5 years to become eligible to become Swiss but the dogs are already Swiss!img_1361

 

I have not totaled these costs because I realize I could have probably bought myself a trip to Tahiti with this money but if I knew then what I know now, I would not change a thing because for better or worse, our dogs are with us all the way on this adventure.

img_1325

I have seen my neighbor naked

I have seen my neighbor naked, and he has  seen me. I would like to think that the pleasure was greater for him but I cannot be sure as I have adopted the coffee and cake culture here.

Herr Googli, at least that is what I call him as I have never met him, lives on one side of us with his wife Frau Googli. They live in a house that is identical to ours and their house faces Charlie’s window. Their garden, unlike ours, is beautiful. Where is Jerry Hernandez when you need him? It has paths and roses and even a little pond for the birds. Every Thursday, Herr Googli mows his lawn. To do this, he strips down to his tank undergarment. Otherwise, Herr Googli is immaculately dressed in slacks, belt and shirt everyday. Twice a week, he gets the blower out and pushes around the 3 or 4 leaves that may have fallen into his yard.

img_1248

Herr Googli has the physique of a man whose wife cooks a homemade meal every night. His midline is very round.

In the morning, Frau Googli drinks her coffee and reads the newspaper on the patio. Switzerland is a country that still believes in the written word. Mid morning, she takes her wheelie cart and boards the tram for groceries. She comes back and prepares lunch which they take on the patio, enjoying these last days of summer. After lunch, Frau Googli treats herself to a little nap in the sun while Herr Googli does the crossword puzzle which Frau Googli has saved him from the morning paper. She could have done it herself but she knows how much he enjoys the satisfaction of having done it. It’s hard since he’s retired, he needs the sense of accomplishment that finishing the puzzle can give him. In the evening, they will take their aperitif on the patio again. After dinner, Herr Googli makes his way to the third floor to watch historical documentaries while Frau Googli knits for her expected third grandchild. She hopes the children will make it to visit at Christmas but doesn’t count on it.

I know all this and more because we live in a fishbowl of sorts. The homes are built like pieces of mosaic in a grid. All homes have enormous windows to take advantage of any light during the darkness of winter. The fashion seems to be to hang shears if one hangs anything at all. The things is, shears are just that, shear. So I know that Mr Googli is well fed and he knows I eat too much cake.

img_1256

Buying window treatments is just one more thing on my thing to do/buy list but now that everything is out in the open sort to speak, it has fallen down on the list.

img_1255

My not-so-secret,very fancy, highly secure Swiss bank account

There have been very many interesting experiences establishing ourselves in Switzerland but opening a bank account has to be at the top of the list.

Banking is everything in Switzerland. Because of Switzerland’s stable economy, 1/3 of all worldwide funds held outside of their country of origin are kept in Swiss banks. Swiss bank accounts have been known as havens for tax evaders for centuries. In 1934 a law was basically passed that forbade Swiss banks from sharing information to foreign countries or entities about their clients. As a result, those looking to hide money turned to the Swiss banks.

When Joost and I first lived here in 2004, we were able to open a bank account with the local bank in about 15 minutes. Things have changed. That local bank wouldn’t even deal with us anymore as Americans. In recent years, Swiss banks have come under fire from NGOs accusing them of assisting war criminals, mafia types and many other bad guys including the 9/11 terrorists. In 2010, Switzerland made an agreement with the US saying they would turn over information on clients suspected of tax evasion or other crimes.

So, when we went to open our bank account, we had to go the special branch in Basel of UBS that deals with Americans. This is the lobby.

img_1070

All marble, glass and sparkly things. We announced ourselves and were taken up an elevator by a gentleman dressed in the UBS uniform of navy suit, white starched shirt and red tie. We were led to a small conference room, and invited to sit and wait for our banker. A coffee girl came in and asked us if we would like some water, flat or bubbly or a coffee, maybe a cappuccino?

img_0954

The water came on silver tray with a hand towel, flower, and cookie. Nice…

img_0956

 

After a sip or two of water, our banker came in. Please note, at this time, the banker did not know if Joost made $30,000 a year or $3,000,000 or something in between. This was just standard practice.

Our banker asked us what type of accounts we would like and if we would like credit cards. Credit cards? We have no credit history in this country!!! He could provide us with debit cards, credit cards and online banking access in exchange for a little information…

Joost’s employment contract, our net worth in the US, real estate holdings in the US, our residency information, AND our social security numbers. No possibility to hide money from Uncle Sam, not that we would want to – we are not Apple. As US citizens, we are required to pay taxes in Switzerland and Federal taxes in the US though we get credit for what we pay in Switzerland. Forty-five minutes later,we walked away with information and waited for our debit and credit cards to arrive.

A week later, we had everything so I went online to try to track our account. This is where it gets interesting. Turns out we hadn’t received everything. In order to do online banking, which you need to be able to do as everything is done online – checks don’t even exist here anymore, you need to apply for it. Then you receive a code. Once you have a code, you can login for the first time. After, everytime you want to login, you need to use a special calculator to get a new code to login. Apparently, UBS spends millions every year on security. In order to see my credit card spending, I had to apply for another code…. I have piles of papers with different codes on them for the debit and credit cards.

Last thing of interest, we received an extremely huge credit card limit – higher than was logical for people who had no credit history. It was explained to us that our credit card balance would be taken out automatically every month on the 25th. I asked how is this credit then? Our banker said of course you could request to pay the balance over two months but that would be foolish because you would pay interest. The Swiss didn’t get rich by being foolish.

 

Living in a bubble

When you do not speak the language in the country that you live, it is as if you do not exist. It’s like walking around in a bubble and no one can see you.

Because, if you cannot communicate, do you exist? Matter?

When I walk out of my house, there is always a tad of fear in the bottom of my stomach. I pray that no one will try to speak to me and I will not be able to understand and I have to babble “engshudigan, ich sprachen kein deutsch”. The moment you say that, either they smile and wave away or they say something in English.

My chances of being spoken to increase if I have my dogs with me. As obnoxious as they are, they are cute and demand attention from people. Rudy is a mini celebrity as he is the only chihuahua in this land of Saint Bernards that I have seen. I usually try to cut off people by speaking very loudly in English to the dogs, preventing people from trying to talk to me.

Going to the grocery store is a daily source of dread. The checkers usually only ask me if I have a loyalty card and end it there. Sometimes, they try to chit chat and out comes my “Engshuldigan………(excuse me but I don’t speak German)”. Yes, daily because we a) don’t have a car so I can only buy what I can carry and b) nothing has preservatives here so nothing lasts very long. Thank God, the checkers are not like Trader Joes checkers who want to know how you like products, talk about the weather, ask how your day is. These checkers are all business.

The super fear is when I have to go somewhere and specifically speak to someone. Last week, I had to go get a name plate for our mail box. Without it, in this land of rules, our mail would not be delivered. I found out where I needed to go and headed out. I entered this tiny shop manned by someone who looked like an immigrant himself. I asked him if he spoke English which he didn’t. I then went out to draw pictures of what I needed and he told me to come back in ten minutes. I putzed around and when I came back I asked him, by showing him my wallet, how much I owed him. He told me, by crossing his hands and shaking his head, I owed him nothing. I could not believe it. I thanked him in German(thank you being one of the 12 words I know). The name plate is now on our box as a reminder of this kind man who either felt pity on me or didn’t want to go through the hassle of having to explain how much. The plate is not the correct size but it will stay there.

img_1216

Does anything terrible happen when I have to ask for forgiveness because I do not speak German? No of course not, but I feel as if I am less of a person. I am no longer a confidant, middle-aged, educated woman. I am reduced to something less than a child because I cannot do one of the most simple things in life which is to communicate.

By not being able to communicate, I do not exist. Those daily interactions which we all take for granted either do not exist in my world or are incredibly painful. And so, I walk around with my head bent, giving off bad vibes so no one dares to acknowledge me.

What’s that smell?

IMG_0943

Three days ago, we moved into our new home. It was a long day; the IKEA delivery men brought loads of furniture and we spent a good part of the day cursing and trying to triage which pieces we absolutely needed – the beds being the winners. About 6 pm, a smell begin to arise which was not us. I scratched my head and laughed, it smelt like cow which it was.

We live in a suburb of Basel which is surrounded by farms and forests though we are only 15 minutes by tram to the center of town. The above view is what we see when we walk out our door. Charlie passes the farm on his walk to school. The sign announces fresh eggs and milk.

The farm is open for anyone to visit. You can also walk in and get self serve fresh, unpasteurized milk and eggs. You just leave your money on the counter. Eggs are 4 francs for a dozen which is pretty much the least expensive item we have found in Switzerland. We will be eating lots of eggs.  There are also goats which are just for fun I think.

IMG_1120

I would have never thought I would live in a place where I wake up and go to bed with the smell of cow…..