Recently in Switzerland Category

[Monday update - the folk at TNT got back to me after this post (they're on Twitter) and took care of things - they let me know this morning it would be delivered between 0930 and 1030, and indeed the shiny was successfully delivered at 0956. Thanks, TNT Customer Service!]

I will admit I'm a techie nerd, and I'll also admit without shame that I pre-ordered an iPad on the first day pre-orders opened up for Switzerland. Indeed. I pre-ordered in the first couple of hours. I think it's a nifty gadget and do actually have some planned uses for it (mostly to do with replacing the netbook I use for noodling around on during my commute). I pre-ordered for delivery to my home because, well, I may think it's a nifty gadget but I don't really have any desire to go and stand in line at the Apple Store on launch day with a lot of people who seem way, way too excited at the prospect of getting their hands on a gadget. I think it's cool, but.. y'know, I'm not religious.

Ordering a new Apple product online is.. well, for a gadget nerd it's the equivalent of buying pornography by post for delivery "under plain cover" rather than proudly strolling into the sex shop and walking out with a bag labelled PORNO FILTH. It's discreet, it comes right to your door, and it gets delivered in a plain brown box rather than one labelled SHINY APPLE STUFF PLEASE MOCK ME.

Enough self-justification, anyway. Let's just accept that I ordered one, and move on. You can't judge me, dude.

Apple sent me the "your order has shipped" mail last Saturday. You know the one - the mail that says your stuff shipped but which really means it's going to be shipped soon. I knew to ignore that one until I had tracking, which I eventually did on Tuesday as Monday was a public holiday in Switzerland (and in the Netherlands, where it was shipped from). By Wednesday lunchtime (the.. 26th) it had reached the local depot. I knew it was unlikely to get delivered that day, but stayed at home for the afternoon anyway mostly because missed deliveries are a bit of a pain in the ass to deal with - in general you can't collect from depots here, you have to arrange a re-delivery.

No delivery, but well, tomorrow for sure, right? Given that my past experiences of deliveries through TNT had always been very good that seemed like a foregone conclusion, so I stayed at home on Thursday 27th as well. My co-workers were starting to mock me a little by this time. 

By mid-afternoon - huh, not even "Out For Delivery", and I dropped TNT a line via their web feedback form. I promptly got an email back from a very helpful customer services representative who assured me that they had a lot of shipments from Apple to deliver, but that they were doing special evening deliveries and mine would be delivered in the evening.  Cool! Well, that's still a day before the official release date, so pretty good going.

So I stayed in all evening.

No delivery.

The next morning (Friday 28th), with the package still merely "In Transit", I mailed my helpful customer services representative ('HCSR' from here on in) to ask why it hadn't been delivered. The reply was that as they'd told me before, they were very busy due to a high volume of shipments, and that if I wanted I could pick it up from their depot that afternoon or Saturday morning. The fact that they had failed to be able to send out for delivery a package that had been sitting at the local depot for nearly 48 hours was, I guess, neither here nor there.

Their depot is in Urdorf, out to the west of Zürich - not the sort of place you'd choose to go to and anyway, TNT are supposed to be a delivery company rather than a pick-it-up-from-our-depot-in-Urdorf company. However, I have a life and a job to go to. I could not in good conscience spend a third day working from home waiting for the same delivery. I replied that okay, if they weren't going to able to guarantee delivering it on Friday, I'd collect it on Saturday morning, no worries. HCSR mailed me back with the details and confirmed that they'd contacted the depot to put me on the list of people who'd be picking up. I even got a second mail correcting the opening hours a little later. I thanked HCSR, we exchanged pleasantries and wished each other a pleasant weekend and I assumed that would be it.

Fast-forward to this morning (that's Saturday 29th). The story, for dramatic effect, now shfts into the present tense. I drive over to Urdorf in a Mobility car and easily recognise the depot by the line of people waiting outside looking annoyed. I join the line, which is being attended to by one rather harassed and grumpy guy who's spending 5-10 minutes finding each shipment in turn. A woman ahead of me is about to go spare when she's told that oh, her shipment has been sent out for delivery despite her calling to ask for it to be held. This, folks, is a really neat trick - arranging for people to collect packages at the depot, then sending then out for delivery at the precise time you can be sure nobody will be in because they're over at the depot attempting to collect the package. Genius!

A couple of people do actually manage to extract deliveries and depart with them to ragged cheers from everyone else in the line, but I, in my turn.. get told that it's out for delivery. 

You. Must. Be. Kidding.

Now I'm really angry. I'm not angry because I'm desperate to get my hands on a shiny gizmo (which, well, I'm not), I'm angry because now I've been screwed around over a simple delivery pretty much beyond the edge of sanity. I've waited at home for two days (one of which was overoptimistic, I'll grant), I've been told a delivery would come at a certain time and had it fail to show up, and now I've actually gone to the effort of setting my alarm on a Saturday morning and spending money on a Mobility car to pick it up from the depot to be told that it wasn't even there. 

Leaving the depot (the line has grown to about 15 people by now) I drive home - Tara is at home but might well have been asleep had a delivery arrived, and besides I didn't want her to get woken up because - as previously mentioned - it's Saturday morning. As of the time of writing I'm waiting in to see if the delivery shows up, which on balance I think it's fair to say I'm not overly optimistic about.

[Update at 1500 - Just now the tracking changed to Unsuccessful delivery attempt - recipient not at home, timed at 12pm. No card in our mailbox and someone has been in all day, so this is now definitely above the level of mere comedy and has become total farce. I called TNT, but the Swiss customer service people don't work weekends and all the folk who pick up the phone can do is rebook shipments. The helpful chap on the phone has requested a redelivery for Monday morning. In the meantime I think I am losing my will to live.]

You know, I don't even care what's in the box now. I'd be equally furious if it was just a box of turds which I'd been expecting to take delivery of. I'd be standing outside the depot yelling WHERE ARE MY TURDS until the police came to take me away. The point here is that TNT Swiss Post, who are supposed to be a delivery company, have been so staggeringly incapable of handling a large volume of shipments which they'd been expecting for some time. This is, I hate to say it, a level of unpreparedness and incompetence which is almost British. It's certainly not Swiss.

Other shippers in other countries (including TNT in other European countries) have got their deliveries in on time, even though they might have had to lay on extra resources to do it. What's even more astonishing is that this is Switzerland, where they're in general really, really good at stuff like this. I also know that TNT Swiss Post are usually speedy and efficient at deliveries (it's because they've delivered stuff a day earlier than expected in the past that I stayed at home on Wednesday).

The final straw was probably the experience at the depot - a big line, only one person dealing with it, no extra effort appearing to be made to ensure that people who had already received very poor service were taken care of. Hell, it wouldn't have hurt to have had a pot of coffee or something out. Maybe a couple of managers could have come in to help out rather than just leaving one guy to deal with everything.

I don't know if anyone from TNT Swiss Post will read this, but if you do - look, the reason I'm angry and frustrated is not that my iPad hasn't been delivered, it's because your company has consistently failed to deliver on its promises, has failed to manage expectations properly, has wasted my time, has cost me money which ended up being wasted, and has failed to cope adequately with a surge in traffic which other carriers (people whose shipments came via UPS report no problems) have been able to handle. From what I read online and from what I saw at the depot, I know there are a lot of customers in a similiar position to me.

TNT Swiss Post failed to rise to the challenge, has let down a lot of customers, and this is a shame because I know you can do better than this.

"Sure we can"? On this occasion, no, you couldn't.
I have just discovered that there are as yet no Google hits for "Swissiciency", which I kind of like as a portmanteau term for "Swiss efficiency", a concept so frequently encountered in Switzerland that it deserves its own word.

Anyway, this post should take care of that. I have more to say on the subject, but I'm too lazy to write that down right now.
So, the latest Apple Jesus-pad is coming to Switzerland (and some other European countries) at the end of this month. If you want to use the 3G version the data plan situation is a little confusing - Apple's online store only shows you the Orange offering, while their actual product pages also list Swisscom as having iPad tariffs. My personal choice here would be to go with Swisscom as their 3G coverage is better, but before making a call I thought it would be wise to compare the two offerings.

Swisscom's NATEL data easy flex tariffs are simpler and a little cheaper:
  • Fr5 per calendar day used (100MB)
  • Fr19 per month (300MB)
  • Fr39 per month (2GB)
  • The charge for a SIM is Fr19.90, including Fr20 credit.

Orange Internet Everywhere Prepay for iPad is more confusing, but might be better for heavyweight users:
  • Fr5 per calendar day used, unlimited data (3 days inclusive with SIM purchase)
  • Fr10 monthly plus 3.50 per calendar day 
  • Fr49 monthly for unlimited data
  • Fr59 monthly for unlimited data, inclusing 2500 minutes of access to wireless hotspots at home and abroad
  • A SIM costs Fr10 if you buy it from the Apple store, but is currently on special offer at the Orange online store for Fr5.
  • If you're young (under 27) or a student, Orange also have the Internet Everywhere Young option that provides unlimited data for Fr39/month.
Roaming gets a bit more complex. In general, both offerings can be summarised as "you'll get reamed", but Orange do have a deal for light roaming users - first 2MB for Fr4 daily. Swisscom's are a little more complex - trying to work out which is better for varying usage patterns gives me a headache, but assuming Swisscom's World Option flex is available on the iPad plans, that's probably better assuming you roam more often than once a month.

Which is better? Probably not much difference each way for everyday use.

ga.jpgI've been waiting until after the summer to write an entry like this, but I just think it should be said: If you're new to Switzerland, you owe it to yourself to get a General Abonnement. If you live in a town, especially in a city, you owe it to yourself to get a GA far more than to get yourself a car. 

A car's just a pain in the backside most of the time, unless you really want one because, say, you just love driving (which is fine). It'll cost you 150 francs or so per month just to park it in a lot of places, plus a couple of thousand francs or more per year to insure it, fuel costs, expensive parking in town, assorted inspections, and so on. Sure, but everyone just needs a car from time to time, right? Absolutely! In that case, a Mobility subscription will take care of those occasional trips where your own vehicle is necessary. 

But propaganda aside, why is a GA such a great thing to have? It's expensive, right? 

Yes, when you look at the purchase price (Sfr. 3100 in second class, SFr. 4800 in first) you are likely to experience a bit of sticker shock, But let's do a comparison with the UK. An annual second class season, Oxford to London (only the train - no Tube at the other end) - will set you back £3996. Even at today's dire exchange rate that's SFr. 6600. As a frame of reference, Oxford to London is about the same distance as Zürich to Bern - and about the same time on the train, just under an hour.

So, for less than half the price of that season ticket, you can get an annual pass for pretty much every form of public transport in Switzerland, or at least all the bits of it as outlined on this map. Virtually all rail routes (with a few exceptions such as the Jungfraubahn), buses, trams, lake shipping, all wide open. Suddenly decide to go to Geneva? Just get on the next train. Day trip to Ticino? Sure. Want to do a scenic round trip over the Oberalp pass? Why not? Trip out to Konstanz and a cruise along Lake Constance? All inclusive. Your work commute? All part of the deal.

The real win, though, is that with a GA you can see the beautiful country that is Switzerland without even really thinking about it or worrying about the price. I haven't been keeping detailed logs of the trips I've made over the summer, but I'm pretty sure I've seen an awful lot more of the country than I would have seen had I been having to pay out for individual tickets. As a recently-arrived expat this is a real joy, as it's given us the flexibility to go off exploring on a whim. 

A nice side bonus if you're bourgeois enough to have a first class GA and frequent Zürich Hauptbahnhof is that the SBB has a nice lounge there for first class GA-holders (plus one guest!) where you can hide and drink coffee until your train goes.

Oh, and if there are more than one of you in your household, there's a hefty discount on GAs for additional members of your family. And like a halbtax, it gives you 25% off on border-crossing trips into neighbouring countries. One top tip - if you want to spend a day in Germany exploring the Black Forest, simply use your GA to get to Basel Bad. (remember, it's valid on the ICE from Zürich) and buy a Baden-Württemberg-Ticket from the DB ticket machines. Up to 5 people, valid all day on non-InterCity trains and the vast majority of buses, trams, and so on in the state of Baden-Württemberg. All for €28, or €19 for the 'single' version if you're travelling by yourself. Bargain!

So certainly if you're new to Switzerland (and even if you've been here a while), I can highly recommend taking a good look at the GA. It solves a lot of problems in one go, it lets you see the country and go off on random trips without having to even think about it, and it's pretty much the best public transport bargain out there.
It's that time of year again, - Le Tour de France is on, and has been for the last week or so. This coming Sunday it's going to be visiting Switzerland with a stage finish in Verbier, a ski resort in the southwestern canton of Valais.

Information about travel is a little disjoined and hard to find, so I figured I'd collect some of it here for English-speakers coming from other parts of Switzerland who want to be at least near the final climb or at the finish. (If you just want to see the race go by, check the stage information for the map of the stage, and choose the place nearest you. Being on or around the climb will be a bit more spectacular, though.) There's general information about the event on this special website, In particular, there's a flyer you can download with the summary information.

Firstly, come by train. It's usually a given that if you come by car to something like this parking will be a nightmare. You won't be able to drive on the course itself for several hours before the race passes, traffic will be hellish anyway, and the road closures will be strictly enforced. Even if you get there early enough it's likely you won't be able to find anywhere to stop by the road as the road from Le Châble to Verbier is likely to be lined with motorhomes occupied by Belgians following the Tour who've been there since yesterday and have been getting merrily smashed on Jupiler ever since. So, do the Swiss thing and use public transport. Your life will be better for it - plus, you can join the Belgians getting smashed on Jupiler without having to worry about having to drive home! (You'll probably need to bring your own Jupiler.)

The good news is that unlike Britain (where the train companies legendarily banned bicycles from their London-Brighton services on the day of the London-Brighton bike ride) the public transport operators have noticed that the Tour is coming and have made arrangements for special services.

Firstly, you need to get yourself to Martigny. This is on the SBB (CFF if you're Francophone) main line between Lausanne and Brig, so is served by direct trains from various places. The SBB online journey planner will be happy to help you out with this bit. It'll take you either slightly under or slightly over three hours from Zürich HB.

Once you've done that, you need to get a train to Le Châble, which is the closest railway station to Verbier. It's more or less at the base of the last climb. This service is run by Regionalps, who are running a special service next Sunday. It's fairly simple - trains are running every half hour between 0600 and 2300, so just wait for the next one. The usual service is timed to take about 26 minutes.

Now you're in Le Châble. Here you can decide whether you want to just find somewhere in the town to watch the race pass by, if you want to walk up the climb a bit from there, or whether you want to try and head to Verbier. If you want to head for the finish, your best bet is the cable car from Le Châble to Verbier, although it's sure going to be busy, so expect a wait. This will be running from 0600-2300, and the fare is CHF10.

Other than that, have fun - be sure to be in place an hour or more before the race passes by in order to catch the bizarre spectacle of the caravane publicitaire, don't get in the way of the riders on the climb like the idiots you see on the telly, and please don't wear a mankini.

Over the last couple of weekends I've been doing some exploring of the quieter railway lines of Switzerland. The country has a multitude of narrow-gauge lines serving the lumpier areas - they're far easier to build in mountainous terrain due to the necessary infrastructure and rolling stock being much smaller.

I'm currently restricting myself deliberately to routes on which a General Abonnement is valid. This means some famous railways are partially or entirely inaccessible (the Jungfraubahn, for instance, doesn't accept the GA for travel, but does give a 50% discount to GA and half-tax holders). The reason for this is that I'm trying to discover genuine "Get up and go" trips for people who either are fortunate enough to hold a GA already, or who hold a half-tax card and can therefore get the incredibly good value day tickets which are effectively a one-day GA. I guess I should also talk about these different ticket types sometime as well, not to mention the multiple options available to visitors to the country.

Today's trip was down into the heart of the Alps, to Andermatt near the Gotthard Pass. From there, the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn runs service both west to Brig, Visp and Zermatt and east to Disentis, where the Rhätische Bahn takes over for the journey to Chur and St Moritz.

The first leg was an SBB Inter-Regio service from Zürich HB to Göschenen in the canton of Uri, not far from the Gotthard pass (in the timetable this is Table 600). Some IR services carry an observation car (Panoramawagen) - while it's only accessible to those with a valid First Class ticket, if you're feeling flush the views are spectacular. This is the main north-south route which crosses the Alps into Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, and connects onwards for trains into Italy. After leaving Zürich there are views of the Zugersee before the line starts to climb up into the mountains through a multitude of short tunnels. Before Göschenen the line even gains height through a spiral tunnel.

Leaving the train at Göschenen, there's a nice view of the northern portals of the 15km Gotthard tunnel, which links Uri to Ticino under the Gotthard pass. This may sound long, but the 57km Gotthard Base Tunnel (which you'll see works for in a number of places) will supersede it in a few years (and will become the world's longest rail tunnel). Through the underpass you'll find the platform for the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn's shuttle service to Andermatt (Table 143). This is a relatively short but pretty steep rack railway, which gains about 300m between Göschenen and Andermatt - look out for the rough walls of the blasted tunnels.

At Andermatt the real fun begins. You're now on the route of the famous Glacier Express, although we're doing it the fun way, using the normal scheduled trains that run on the line rather than the glitzy Glacier Express service. This means you don't have to faff around with making reservations (which are compulsory for GE services), but also means you might want to take a sandwich or something along as there's no buffet service or trolley. You also don't have the shiny panoramic views the carriages on the Glacier Express give you, but the train windows are pretty big anyway (and, even better, they can be opened if you want to take photos without having to deal with the reflections).

The MGB runs the service from Andermatt to Disentis/Mustér (also on Table 143). The big surprise here is that all of a sudden, the announcements are in German and also in a language which sounds a bit like a hybrid of German, Italian and Martian. This is Romansch, Switzerland's fourth official language, which is spoken in some communities in this part of the country. 

After leaving Andermatt the train starts to climb. After a while there's a couple of metres of snow on the ground despite my doing this trip in May, and after 20 minutes the train has climbed about 600 metres and you reach the Oberalp Pass, at Oberalppass station. The pass is the border between the cantons of Uri and Graubunden, and after leaving Oberalppass the line starts to descend through a mixture of tunnels and galleries until it breaks out into a deep valley. As you pass the tiny village of Tschamut, the name of the local hotel - Hotel Rheinquelle - makes it clear that the source of the Rhine river is only a couple of kilometres away. The line runs down the valley with the infant Rhine (it's actually the Vorderrhein, one of the Rhine's two main tributaries) running nearby.

At Disentis (German) also known as Mustér (Romansch) the MGB train terminates. You now need to change - probably across the platform - to the Rhätische Bahn's service to Chur (Table 920). While less precipitously spectacular than the run from Andermatt, this section of the journey along the valley of the Vorderrhein gives plenty of nice views of the river as it grows into a serious river.

From Chur, I headed back to Zürich via an SBB express (Table 900), but there are plenty of other opportunities for further exploration in the area. The RhB's line continues to a number of other places, in particular further south to the Glacier Express's terminus at St Moritz.
I finally gave in a few days ago and concluded that a GA was in my future. A GA, for those who don't know, is the General Abonnement of the Swiss public transportation companies. In other words, it's an annual pass for pretty much all of Switzerland's public transport operators - the ultimate transport nerd's fantasy. As a transport nerd, I therefore had no alternative but to get one.
The GA is a fairly large amount of money to drop in one lump. Looking at the figures, though, it's incredibly good value even if you aren't a daily traveller as even with a halbtax it's easy to spend the weekly cost equivalent of a GA in single tickets. Compared to the UK's insane fares it's a no-brainer - by my calculations, at today's exchange rate even a first class GA costs only two thirds of the price of a second class annual season ticket from Oxford to London - point to point, not even including the Tube.
And, of course, there's the transport nerd thing. Simply being able to hop on and off trains and buses (oh, and boats and various funiculars/cable cars/etc) makes that a lot more fun and allows the sort of "Let's go and see where I end up" day out that you just can't do if you're having to buy your tickets in advance. Being able to go anywhere without actually thinking about a per-journey cost is transport nirvana as far as I'm concerned.

The result of all this is that a couple of days ago I dropped into the travel centre at Zürich Hauptbahnhof and bought me a GA. And yes, I have plans. Expect to see some "Day trips with a GA" posts here as I explore the depths of the Swiss transportation network in my spare time. I'll also write a bit more about the Swiss transport and ticketing systems in general.. someone has to, right?
The majority of the stuff from our house in the UK finally arrived yesterday. We'd been holding off on the actual move until we knew what was coming and what was staying, which meant that I started out here with a futon and a couple of chairs, adding a few more bits of furniture but not really having what could be described as a full set of stuff. Worse than that, most of my DVD collection was still in Britain.

There had been a bit of a delay in getting the container here from the UK, so it was a week later planned. When I got the word that delivery was due from 0800 on Monday 20th I figured that well, I'd have to get up early, and decided that 0715 was a good safe time for which to set the alarm. That way I could get up, have a cup of tea, and get my brain in gear before the movers descended on the place.

The alarm went off at 0715, and I woke up feeling bleary due to having had a poor night's sleep (no idea why). I got up, put the kettle on, threw on some clothes, and explained to the cat that no, he couldn't go out as I was going to shut him in the bathroom while the movers were here (with food and water and comfy things to sleep on. I'm not a savage). Having poured boiling water on the teabag I ambled across the apartment to open the front shutters and let the light in. Imagine, if you can, my surprise to see a large truck parked right outside and five movers marching up the path to our front door at 0725...

Fortunately, people in Switzerland are used to work starting early (it's generally acceptable for construction work and similiar things to start from about 7 in the morning) so I knew the neighbours wouldn't be too furious. The supervising mover introduced himself to me, the movers marched in with many a Guete Morge and a handshake, and I just decided to stay the hell out of the way and only answer questions if I was needed to.

Having laid down floor protection stuff the movers went to work in a crazy world of furious activity. Boxes were carried in, furniture was brought in and reassembled, and one guy was out on the front porch assembling the two bikes we'd had moved. Kitchen stuff was being unpacked and stacked in cupboards. Other than one fairly brief smoke break after two hours, during which I took the opportunity to fortify myself with coffee as I could get to the kitchen, they worked flat-out for four hours. 

At the end of the four hours I had a huge pile of stuff on the bed and a huge pile of stuff on my desk (nowhere to put them - we still need more bedroom furniture and an industrial quantity of bookshelves), the boxes and packing materials had gone, and the movers were done. More handshakes and they were gone. It was like something out of a Dr Seuss book - the Cat in the Hat showed up, caused chaos, and then put everything back where it belonged.

Now I have my own bed to sleep in. That's a good thing to have. 

On the other hand, I have a lot of plugs to swap for Swiss ones - even if you can get around a lot of that problem by rewiring British power strips with Swiss plugs. Swiss plugs are mildly terrifying - three-pin affairs which look like something from the 1950s with unsleeved pins and which are, naturally, incompatible with anyone else's (even if 2-pin Europlugs will fit Swiss sockets). You can even get the kind of multiblock mains splitter plugs which feature heavily in British fire safety films and which are now all but banned in the UK - you know the sort, where the kettle / toaster / electric fire / etc etc are all plugged into the one socket through a wobbly multiplug, with a frayed cable leading to conflagration and a stern lecture from Shaw Taylor. That said, the electrics in this apartment are well protected by both overcurrent and earth leakage breakers.. and anyway, I'd rather use power strips than multiblocks.
It seems that life has been keeping me rather busy since January. My memory of the last few months is a blur of moving into apartments, going to work, trips back to Oxford to visit Tara, going to work, IKEA, move logistics, cat transportation, going to work some more, zipping off to New York (okay, I only zipped once), both Swiss and British bureaucracy, etc, etc. I'll try and cover at least a few highlights which probably deserve their own posts.

Having stayed for most of January with some extremely hospitable and generous friends who I now feel bound to cat-sit for as required for about the next decade I finally got the keys to our apartment at the end of January. The relocation company had told me that the handover would be at 5:30pm. This is Swiss 5:30, of course, which means that you'll arrive punctually at 5:30 and everyone else will be there waiting. In fact, it turned out that the relo company person had done most of the checklist already.

The place, I noticed, was clean. Not just any old clean, but that special Swiss sort of clean. This is actually pretty nice - having on one occasion moved into a place in London which still had all kinds of grime in it including a thick coat of dried talcum-powder-and-damp emulsion on the back of the bathroom door I can relate to the Swiss obsession with making sure the place is clean when you move out. It seems only fair to me that you should leave the place in a fit state for the next occupants to be able to move in and not have to immediately spend a week cleaning. Indeed, as I walked through the door and didn't take my shoes off (the floors are wood laminate) I was politely reminded by the relocation agent that any dirt I happened to bring in with me was now my responsibility. Everyone else, I then noticed, was in their socks. I guess that maybe next time I should wear one of those white paper oversuits and boot-covers.

I still like the apartment. It's on the ground floor and has whitewashed walls that are about a foot thick. The amount of space is ridiculous - the usable floor area inside is getting on for twice that of our house in Oxford which is mostly halls and landings, and we have not one but two outdoorsy bits. First there's an enclosed yard  out the back, which is fairly useful but a little close to the motorway that runs near the back of the place and therefore quite noisy. (Not a problem the inside suffers from, due to the aforementioned foot-thick walls and ferocious Swiss double glazing.) Secondly, out the front there's a good-sized patio with a lawn that's seperated by a metre-high hedge from the rest of the world. What's even better is that although it's our private space, we don't have to maintain it - someone comes and mows it and takes care of the hedges.

Now, all we need is the rest of our furniture. I've been sleeping on a futon since the beginning of February.


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Whenever you move to a new country, you have to figure out some surprisingly basic things from scratch. One of the things which often causes a surprise is shopping. Shops are the same pretty much everywhere, right? Well, yes.. in many ways they are, but in a few important areas they can be very, very different.

Germany and Switzerland manage to be very, very different with their approach to shop opening hours. For starters, Sunday as a day of rest is taken extremely seriously here (probably most seriously of all by the shopworkers' unions). By law, shops in Zürich cannot open on Sundays unless they're catering to the needs of travellers, or are things like kiosks and restaurants. You can't go to the supermarket and buy a litre of milk and some teabags. Coming from the UK, where we've had Sunday opening for some time, this is something of a shock. It's an even bigger shock when you find that the shops you thought closed at 7 or 8 actually close at 5pm on Saturdays and you're therefore going to starve until Monday morning unless you go to the station and live entirely on bratwurst from the kiosks on the concourse.

Of course, even closing at 5pm on Saturdays is a fairly new thing. Until not so long ago, shops in Germany were required to close by 2pm on Saturdays, except for one Saturday a month which was known (in hushed, reverent tones) as Langer Samstag - Long Saturday - when they were allowed to open until 6.

The laws have largely eased over the last decade or so. It's worth pointing out that this reverence for the day of rest is unlikely to be religious in origin. Shops were open all hours 7 days a week until the latter part of the 19th century. It's pretty much down to the retail unions. I can't say I blame them entirely - if I was required to lose my Sunday in order to work in a shop every couple of weeks I'd want to stop that too.

So what's the situation now? Well, shops in Zürich close sometime between 6 and 8 on weekdays, and an hour or two earlier on Saturdays. On Sunday, they are closed, closed, closed, and woe betide you if you haven't planned ahead. Okay, they're allowed to open on four Sundays in the year, usually the ones leading up until Christmas (a similiar regime applies in many German länder - although in some they're required even then to be closed during the times when you're supposed to be at church) but, by and large, Sunday means all the shops are closed.

Or are they? There's a loophole in the law - shops catering for travellers' needs are allowed to be open late nights as well as on Sundays. Always recognising a good business opportunity, the Swiss have capitalised on this. Both Zürich's main railway station and Zürich airport contain vast shopping centres open seven days a week, with smaller centres at a number of other railway stations. This neatly solves the Sunday opening problem as travellers are likely to want to buy things at the station and at the airport, and as a court ruling in the past has decided that it's impossible to decide what a traveller might or might not want to buy, you can shop for anything from a ham sandwich to a 10,000-franc watch. One side-effect of this, though, is that everyone else in town will be jammed into the same shopping centre as you, and trying to negotiate your way through the already-cramped aisles of the small supermarket in the shopping centre under the Hauptbahnhof is not for the faint-hearted.

Of course, retailers may trip you up in their own special ways. Switzerland's largest and most famous supermarket chain is Migros. Migros is big in Switzerland. It doesn't just run supermarkets, it runs an entire empire including banking services, mobile phones, and even language schools. Migros sells everything.. except alcohol, due to the puritanical views of its founder, Gottlieb Duttweiler. You can't buy beer at your local Migros. In fact, you can't buy cigarettes or what Wikipedia starchily calls "racy magazines" either, but people who feel the need for the latter two on a Sunday will find everything they want and probably more (much more, given the volume of pornography that takes up the shelves of the average Swiss kiosk) at their local kiosk or petrol station. (To be fair to Migros, it has also historically been an extremely socially-conscious company, having been converted by Duttweiler into a customer-owned cooperative in 1941, and to this day spending 1% of its annual turnover on financing cultural activities. Having seen some of the extremes to which alcohol abuse has gone recently in the UK, I can also see some merit in the view that alcohol is not a socially beneficial thing to sell.)

So if the supermarket in your local railway station shopping centre's a Migros, you're out of luck as far as getting a bottle of wine to go with your dinner is concerned. However, shops selling booze have an interesting habit of popping up next door to every branch of Migros. Funny that, eh?


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