Saturday, 27 February 2016

Ignore the extremists - Swiss people embrace us 'Auslanders'

The lovely surprise gifts from my neighbours
I was a little annoyed to be confronted with someone else's sea of washing when I arrived at the communal washroom yesterday morning on my wash day – without a single space to dry my own. But my heart melted when I saw an apologetic note left for me from the two girls who live below us, saying that as their washing was still damp the night before, they had left it hanging up to dry and one of them would be back early that afternoon to take it down.

I shrugged, aware of how hard it must be to juggle a communal washroom rota when you are working and took some of their now-dry clothes down, folding them away into the available wash basket to make room for my own. I didn’t give it another thought until my doorbell rang later that afternoon and I opened the door to see the two girls bearing wine, chocolates and apologetic grins! And this is far from a one off. It is just one example of lovely little random acts of kindness which we have received from our neighbours here in our block of flats.

There is some sadness going around at present among us ‘Auslanders’ as the Swiss people prepare to vote tomorrow on the proposal to automatically deport foreigners who commit minor crimes, encapsulated by the infamous black sheep poster, which despite being widely criticised when it was first used several years ago, has resurfaced in the light of this recent activity. But you have to remember that the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) who has proposed this ‘Enforcement Initiative’ is an extremely right wing party, similar to the UK Independence Party, both of which have grown in popularity by feeding on the negative headlines surrounding the influx of immigrants. But this is certainly not a general view. Each day I encounter oodles of kindness and friendliness from the Swiss people in my community. 

It remains to be seen whether this ridiculous law will be passed tomorrow but I will not let it overshadow the high quality of life we have been given here in Switzerland and we will continue to enjoy the company of its incredible inhabitants.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

I popped my ski-ing cherry - and loved it!

Wow, where do I begin? My first ever ski-ing experience was the bomb!

Yes, it was a hassle, yes, it was nerve-wracking and yes, it was expensive. But what an experience it was.

We chose Toggenburg, a gorgeous, smaller, resort which I fell in love with when we first arrived in Switzerland. It is a little more expensive than the other larger resorts and only runs ski school in the week, not at the weekends.

We stayed at Robert’s house in Unterwasser. Robert is a member of the Airb&b family. It is the future of holidays – where you stay in the house of the host while they move out or even live alongside them. The hotel industry is getting very nervous as Airbnb is a big threat, accommodating people at a much cheaper rate, projecting them into the heart of foreign cities and their cultures in a way that most hotels can’t, and providing a unique travel experience. We have stayed in a flat at the centre of the action in Manhatten, New York, resided in the most beautiful square tucked away deep in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona and surveyed the landscape of Nice from a rooftop terrace.

But of course, Airbnb rentals are not always perfect. Robert’s place was beautifully designed but the second bedroom was down two flights of stairs (with the landlord living in between - not practical for us, with the girls being so young) I spent most nights tucked up on the sofa outside my daughter’s room while Graham enjoyed the king size bed to himself. This should have been specified on the website, instead of the blanket phrase that this is a ‘family friendly’ rental – something which will be reflected in our feedback on the Airbnb website.
However, its location to the ski school in Wildhaus was very convenient. A mere five minute drive away, or a 4 minute bus ride on the no 790.

I cannot improve on my friend Emily Player’s description of a first ski-ing experience, which she also enjoyed the same week as us, so here it is:

Ski Tours Day One: Beginner level anxiety ascending a mountain in the snow, crying optional. Day Two: Locate ski rental and commence simmering resentment as you realise you are basically paying to wear the most uncomfortable shoes ever invented. Stagger across resort like some sort of toddler Robocop, with heavy stick things and even heavier planks of wood continually banging against your helmet with every step. Drag/encourage two smaller versions of yourself to the Telecabina until you are all wondering WHY, WHY, WHY anyone in their right mind wants to do this. Day Three: Reluctantly admit it is quite fun sliding down a mountain with the caveat that for every 10 minutes of fun there is about 45 minutes of hanging about (usually dangling in the air) Watch your children master linked turns and beam with pride. Day Four: Get out on the slopes as early as you can, ski, ski, ski and immediately start planning when you can return.

In addition, Wildhaus ski school was excellent, with very friendly staff. As there were no beginners groups taking place, I was provided with my own personal tutor (at a cost of 150sfr per morning, as opposed to a 110sfr group rate) Lukas was instantly likeable, with a warm smile and suitably rugged Alpine appearance, dressed in the funky bright red ski-suit and accessories which highlighted all instructors on the slopes of Wildhaus. And as I speedily picked up the basics over three mornings, I fell in love. With Lukas, with my skis, with the mountains, with the snow, with the various ski lifts, with my fellow skiers. I was totally and completely hooked. And so was my 8-year-old daughter. And now we are indeed already planning our return…

Friday, 12 February 2016

Cannabis clubs set to open in Switzerland

Four Swiss cities have agreed to launch pilot projects to install cannabis clubs allowing members to smoke the herb without penalty.

The cities of Zurich, Basel, Bern and Geneva have agreed to participate in the projects, which have been discussed for some time, with city ponchos meeting in Bern last week to discuss how to regulate the sale of cannabis, which is illegal to possess in this country but police largely turn a blind eye to personal use.

The 'black market' for obtaining cannabis means the state cannot tax it or control production.

Geneva’s proposed pilot project would authorize the controlled use of cannabis for youth and adults suffering from serious problems linked to the drug. The projects are proposed to run over four years and will be 'scientifically monitored.'

An estimated 500,000 people smoke marijuana in Switzerland despite a ban and threat of fines.

Fergie applies for Swiss residence

First Tina Turner and now Sarah Ferguson has applied to become a permanent resident in Switzerland.

Fergie has already moved into a £13 million ski chalet at the upmarket ski resort of Verbier in the canton of Valais which she bought with ex-husband Prince Andrew in 2014.

The purchase was for their daughters Beatrice, 27, and Eugenie, 25, but it now appears the Duchess of York, 56, hopes to live there full term.

Fergie learnt to ski at the age of three and first travelled to Verbier when she was 16 and regularly returned for holidays there.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Ignore Swiss tradition at your peril

I am gutted that Poppy has missed out on the school trip of the year. I should have seen it coming.

In November last year we had a letter about a ski-ing holiday that is a tradition at the school for the children from Class 3 onwards. It’s a week on the slopes with a few teachers – including Poppy’s favourite ever teacher – and it only costs 400sfr.

So Poppy arrives home waving the letter, really excited about the prospect of going on holiday with her classmates. But a phone call to the school a few minutes later and I had the awful job of breaking the news to her that she couldn’t go. It’s not for beginners. Because everyone can ski here. As soon as toddlers can toddle, they are carted off to the slopes to learn to ski (and the ice rink to skate – I could not believe the amount of very capable teeny tots there were when we went ice-skating at the various pop up rinks over Christmas)

We have spent two SportFerien here now. The clue is in the name. Sports holiday. But instead, we took the advantage of the two weeks off to go visiting relatives and friends in the UK whom we hadn’t manage to see over Christmas. Instead - I realise now - we should have been doing what everyone else does, and hit the slopes. While cruising around the UK in those two weeks we had a vague notion that something was wrong and would toy with the idea that we could do a weekend on the slopes somewhere on our return (the snow sports season lasts until April!) 

But it just seemed a mammoth task – the exorbitant cost, where do we go, what do we need, just how do we go about it, coupled with the fact that I have never skied in my life – hasn’t someone just died in a ski-ing accident, how will we cope if I break my leg, etc, etc that time passed by and we never went. And ski school (for us beginners) takes place only from Monday to Friday. Which I guess is why the SportFerien was invented in the first place (those bloody efficient Swiss)

And now as SportFerien approaches and I seek to right the wrong I have done to my daughter, I have made the hasty decision to book a whole week in ski school for myself and my two daughters next week (and it was incredibly easy - the person I spoke to spoke great English, told me everything I needed to know and gave me the total cost there and then) And when I stop thinking about all those things above that could go disasterously wrong, I’m very, very excited about it. Should have done it years ago…

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

How I got my daughter to eat beetroot

I love beetroot. I especially love eating it pretty nude apart from a smidgen of feta cheese crumbled over the top (left)

Unfortunately my children don’t like beetroot. They used to. They used to gobble it down just like they used to gobble everything else from between their beautifully pudgy little fingers when they started eating. But between then and now they’ve got a whole lot fussier about what they eat (she says through gritted teeth)

So I’m reduced to using various strategies to get them to eat things like beetroot. My first strategy, recommended by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to tell them it makes their wee pink, failed miserably. All my eldest daughter said was ‘Eeeew’ (although I’m with Hugh here – how cool is that?!)

But thankfully Hugh (I'm just a big fan, don't worry, there are no affiliated links here) has come up with the goods in his latest ‘Love Your Leftovers’ book (a surprise Christmas present) with his vegetable peel crisps. As I was cooking some spicy potato chips for the girls last night, I threw in a handful of beetroot, carrot and potato peelings (beetroot always seems to come with its skin on here in Switzerland) mixed in with a slug of olive oil and a good grinding of salt and pepper. And 15 minutes later my eldest daughter was eating beetroot skin crisps (despite the potential for pink wee) Big result for mummy day J

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Forget your sins and enjoy a pancake

I love pancake day. Any pancake day – and I often decide this special day on a whim as I’m thinking what to do my daughters when they come home for lunch on a Friday, or get up for breakfast at the weekend.

But today is the official Pancake (or Shrove) Tuesday so ‘c’est oblige’ as the French would say.

As most of us know, Shrove Tuesday is the day in February or March preceding Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent) which is celebrated in some countries by consuming pancakes. In others it is called Mardi Gras – literally meaning Fat Tuesday – and is a carnival day and also the last day of ‘gorging’ before the fasting period of Lent. And of course there are also Switzerland's huge Fasnacht celebrations and carnival processions taking place across the country starting this week.

But did you know that Shrove Tuesday comes from the word shrive, meaning to 'absolve’ yourself from sin. It is observed by many Christians who make a point of self-examination, considering the wrongs they need to repent and what amendments of life or areas of spiritual growth they need to ask God's help in dealing with.

Not being religious, I think we need less of the self examination and considering the wrongs we have all done – jeez, we all feel guilty enough as it is! Let’s just make today’s Pancake Day the day to put it all behind us and look to the future with all its great things to come. I’d rather believe the idea that Pancake Tuesday was originally a pagan holiday in which the Slavs saw the change of seasons as a struggle between Jarilo (god of vegetation, fertility and springtime) and the evil spirits of cold and darkness. Pagans believed they had to help Jarilo fight against winter and bring in the spring. And the most important part of Maslenitsa week (the celebration of the arrival of spring lasted a week) was making and eating pancakes. The Slavs believed the hot, round pancakes symbolized the sun and that by eating them they got the power, light and warmth of the sun.

I certainly prefer the Pagan outlook. Bring on the pancakes and feel the power of the sun. Happy Pancake Day!

Tried and tested great pancake recipes

Easy Peasy Pancakes
  1. Put 100g plain flour and pinch of salt into a bowl.
  2. Make a well in the middle and crack in two eggs.
  3. Slowly add 200ml milk bit by bit, making sure to whisk out any lumps as you go.
  4. Put butter in frying pan until it is sizzling.
  5. Add a ladle of batter, swirl around the pan and cook on both sides until golden.
  6. Serve with a spoonful of sugar and a generous squeeze of fresh lemon and orange.
Nigella’s scrummy American style blueberry pancakes
  1. Mix together 200g plain flour, 2 tblsp sugar, 3 tsp baking powder and ¼ tsp salt.
  2. In another bowl mix 240ml milk, 2 eggs and ½ tsp vanilla extract. Combine the two mixtures and add 2 small ripe mashed bananas.
  3. Put butter in frying pan until it is sizzling.
  4. Add a spoonful of batter (these are much smaller than the traditional pancakes) and while it cooks, press 6 or 7 blueberries into the mixture, nicely spaced out. Flip and cook on the other side.
  5. Serve with maple syrup.

Monday, 8 February 2016

The movies - and a language lesson!

We went to see Peanuts – the Movie at the Arena cinema in Sihlcity yesterday. It was easy to get to from Zurich HB. You just hop onto Tram No.13 heading for Albisgütli at Bahnhofquai or in Bahnhoftstrasse and it's about the 7th stop (10 mins)

It was our first trip to this cinema and I was very impressed, despite the huge cost of 42sfr for myself and my two daughters. It is very large but done out well. There are automatic ticket buying facilities but you can go to the well manned desk to get your tickets too. The member of staff who greeted us was smiley, spoke great English and was very helpful, even suggesting the best seats available. Popcorn is not too over priced and there are even - get this - screens on the floor of each toilet cubicle (see pic below)

There are plenty of movies screened in English here, usually with subtitles in German and French running along the bottom. So not only could I enjoy the movie but I could keep up with my language learning at the same time! There is an interval in the middle of the film, which is lovely, and the particular salon we were in was very small and cosy – I'm not sure if that's a feature of all the screens – I imagine those showing films in German are much larger.

And the film? We enjoyed it pretty much, it's been really well done. But it's quite low key and not much happens, as I guess you would expect for a Charlie Brown film. The plotline is Charlie Brown falling in love with a new girl at school and trying, unsuccessfully for much of the film, to get her attention favourably. The sub plot is super cool Snoopy writing his own love story which gets its cues from his owners exploits. There is a lovely message delivered at the end and it leaves you with a nice warm feeling. However, I felt a little bored at times, there just wasn't enough to keep my attention – and I was a huge Peanuts fan growing up. Maybe it should have stayed as a comic.

But I can't wait to go to the cinema again - a fab, if expensive, experience.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Brace yourself for alarm testing day

Today, Switzerland will be alive with the sound of more than 8,000 sirens as the country carries out its annual alarm testing.

Siren testing takes place annually on the first Wednesday of February. Two types of devices will be checked this afternoon, starting with the general alarm at 1.30pm, followed in some areas by a water alarm.

Introduced during wartime, they are now used to alert the population to impending catastrophes, including the water alarm for people living in the area below dams.

Testing is carried out by the Federal Civil Protection Office, in coordination with the cantons, communities and dam operators, the aim being to keep these SFr15,000 ($14,200) high tech devices up to scratch.

When hearing a general alarm for real, people should turn on the radio and listen to the official instructions about what they should do to protect themselves and others. On hearing a water alarm, residents should leave the risk area immediately.

France and Austria each have a network and carry out testing. But Germany dismantled much of its system after the end of the Cold War and has left siren usage up to local authorities. Italy no longer has a network.

The sirens form an important part of the country’s civil protection programme, which also includes the provision of underground bunkers – did you know 95 per cent of the population have access to one?

Switzerland gets new 'baby hatch'

Switzerland this week installed its eighth 'baby hatch' - a hole in the wall where mothers are able to anonymously drop off unwanted newborn babies. The latest hatch is located at a hospital in the city of Sion, joining those in Bern, Davos, Olten, Basel, Einsiedeln and Bellinzona.

When an infant is placed into a hatch, the pressure of its body weight activates a heating pad. After three minutes (giving the person time to leave unobserved) an alarm alerts a member of staff who will take care of the child check its health. The baby will then be placed in foster care within a few days.

The mother has 12 months to reclaim the baby if she changes her mind, after which it will be put up for adoption.

The organisation Swiss Aid for Mother and Child (SAMC), a key driver behind the country's baby hatches, says a total of 16 children have been left at the Swiss facilities since the first was opened in Einsiede in 2001.

There are approximately 200 baby hatches across Europe in countries including Austria, Germany, Belgium and Italy. According to UN figures, more than 400 children have been given up in this way since the year 2000.

I can't begin to comprehend the awful circumstances that force a mother to give up her baby but this is amazing – at least she knows that her baby will be looked after and cared for and have the opportunity of a good life. I can imagine these facilities are quite controversial – I know a similar one was rejected in Amsterdam because of protests but it gets a huge thumbs up from me. Well done Switzerland.