Archive for September, 2009

Sep 21 2009

To a sweet new year in CH

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This past week, Seth and I both went back to school.  As we were trying to figure out what classes to take, in came the new year.  Typical. Welcome 5770.

We spent a nice weekend, albeit full of far too many train trips into Geneva.  Services at the GIL were not particularly inspiring, but there were reasons to celebrate nevertheless: there are two new and one returning (welcome back HSF!) Harvard recent grads who have come to Geneva, and we also met a handful of young and interested Jews through a connection and by meeting incoming students both at IHEID and EPFL.  Enough people so that we are hosting our very own break fast to end Yom Kippur on Monday in Renens!  If we’re lucky, we’ll even have bagels (if you would like some as well, leave a comment and we’ll send you the email of Ion, the bagel maker of Geneva).  I also acquired delicious artisanal Swiss honey, harvested by the father of a fellow choir member in a small town near Sion called Grimisuat.

Difficult readjustments aside, we are looking forward to a new and improved year in this country.  Now if only we could settle on our academic schedules…

Shana tova.  A sweet, fulfilling, and healthy 5770 to all.

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Sep 13 2009

Skype: now available on trains and your cellphone

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Last year, before I left for Switzerland, I switched my T-mobile account from a regular monthly contract (post-paid—seriously, that’s what I’ve seen it called), to pre-paid, since I wanted to keep the number and have it work when I got back for the summer, but I didn’t want to pay in the interim.  Of course, I did have to pay a bit every so often so the account would stay open.

When we returned to the US in August I was careful not to make too  many calls, receiving them instead, just like Jackie does here in Switzerland, where her phone is prepaid and I have a monthly contract.  A week or so into August, I was shocked to discover only 70 cents remained on my account, down from ~$35.  As a tech support person patiently explained, you get charged for incoming minutes in the US.  Shoot.  I felt like a clueless European tourist.  The rest of August, I mostly stole Jackie’s phone.

Upon our return to Switzerland, we’ve considered and made various decisions regarding phones and the like.  Jackie really wanted a 3G internet everywhere USB-stick deal, so we check out the under-26 offers from Swisscom and Orange.  To save you some work, here is how they stack up:

Orange Swisscom
Price/month 39.- CHF 39.- CHF
Initial price for a 12 month contract 79.- CHF 129.- CHF
Data caps per month? After 5 gig you get throttled 5 gig. Period.
Hidden fees no. 40.- CHF for the SIM card

(1 CHF ≈ .96 US$) Ugh.  Swisscom is worse, or no better, on every count, right?  Also, the Orange salespeople were way nicer than the Swisscom guy we talked to, but this may be a Lausanne (where we went to Swisscom) vs. Zurich (where we went to Orange) thing.  This kind of makes me wonder if the rest of our Swisscom services are good, or laughably terrible deals.

We’ve hardly used our landline, so this morning I called Swisscom to find out about canceling it, ultimately hoping to replace it by a VOIP thing like Switzernet.  Sure, they informed me, we can cancel your landline, but then we have to transfer your DSL subscription to your mobile account.  Ok, I said, and if we do that, the price doubles.  What?  Yeah, the under-26 deal is only available for landline subscribers.  Here’s the breakdown:

What we have now What Swisscom cheerfully proposed
25.45 CHF for the landline no landline
24.50 CHF for DSL 49.- CHF for DSL
Total: 49.95 CHF Total: 49.- CHF

Right.  Thanks, but no thanks.  The customer representative was very jolly about all of this, but I got off the phone quickly, before I found out about any more terrible deals from Swisscom. Also, she said the under-26 deal only lasts a year, and it’s a little unclear when our year is up, so I didn’t want her taking a closer look at our account.

So: keeping the DSL and landline, but now, thanks to Orange, Jackie (or me if I steal her laptop or use my Google phone with its Swisscom data plan) can be on the Internet everywhere!  Including on Skype!  Yet another reason for you to get a Skype account and give us a call.  And, by the way, if you want to be able to call us straight from your cell phone, no data plan required (though iPhone has an app), Skype to Go seems to be quite magic: Michelle called us with it the other day and it showed up on Jackie’s cellphone as coming from Michelle’s cellphone in the US.  Crazy.  (Actually, it kind of scared me).

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Sep 12 2009

The hidden power of Wikipedia’s interlanguage links

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For anyone who’s dealt with other languages in a casual (or academic) way, you’re probably aware of the standard tools: Babelfish (no longer at AltaVista?), Google Translate, and the invaluable WordReference.com, which includes forum discussions of words and phrases.

These are great for deciphering the occasional e-mail. But there’s another, somewhat unexpected tool out there which I’ve found invaluable on an almost daily basis. Around the second time last year that we cooked something called topinambour I decided I should head over to its French Wikipedia page and then follow the little link on the left sidebar to its English Wikipedia page. So I did, and I discovered that … topinambour = Jerusalem artichoke?! Mind blown.


oyster mushrooms gills by frankenstoen on Flickr

The same thing would have happened if at any point I’d looked up this mushroom we keep buying at the market, pleurotes. According to the hidden information in the link structure of multilingual Wikipedia they’re just … oyster mushrooms! (we actually discovered this when I brought them home from a farmer’s market in Chicago this summer and Jackie said, “look pleurotes!” and I said, “nono, oyster”)

Final example: I informed a doctor yesterday that a painkiller that’s super common here, paracétamol, doesn’t exist in the United States. She could not believe it, as it’s just as common here as Tylenol is in the U.S. “Nope,” I explained, “maybe you’ve heard of Tylenol? Acetaminophen?” “Never heard of it,” she said. The punchline, of course, is that as you can see from Wikipedia in French and English they’re in fact the same drug.

One mystery remains, however: I’m still at a loss as to the French terms for nutritional yeast and brewer’s yeast.

Postscript: just did some Googling. Apparently they’re called interlanguage links and they’re a subject of academic research (of course): Scale-free topology of the interlanguage links in Wikipedia by Łukasz Bolikowski.

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Sep 10 2009

As summer wanes

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With my choir, I get to see Switzerland.  Also, when people come visit us!  In the last week, I have been to Appenzell, Solothurn, Payerne, Zurich, Chur, and Vals.  The waning days of summer are such a beautiful time of year here.  But I always feel slightly panicked around now because I know it is about to end and school is about to start.

My choir, as you know, sang at the Payerne Schubertiade this year.  On our way (in fact, very much NOT on our way) our bus went to Appenzell.  This region is known for its rural beauty and traditional way of life, as well as its infamous nude hikers.  It is so stunning that my fellow choir members, most of them Swiss, who have spent their lives gazing at Lake Geneva and the alps across it, remarked upon it and exclaimed that this place looks like the Switzerland in Heidi.  Unfortunately, we did not get to see much of it.  The usual 3 hour ride took more like 5.5 hours due to the huge amounts of traffic in central Switzerland (Appenzell is far to the northeast).  In fact, 3 hours into the trip, when we were very much realizing we were going to pressed for time, our bus driver announced that he was stopping at a rest stop for a half an hour, as per his contract.  Our panicked president tried to reason with him, to no avail.  So we got dinner to go and used the toilets, and the rest of the bus trip was spent eating, changing clothes, practicing some music, and going over concert logistics.  We arrived 5 minutes before the concert was due to start, so we all were very flustered and felt unprepared, but it went ok.  The building where we sang was a gorgeously restored brick-making workshop which is now an art center.

After the concert we arrived late in a hostel in Solothurn, a beautiful baroque city built on the banks of a river.  The hostel where we stayed was incredibly nice and clean, with a surprisingly good breakfast.  And it was trusting enough to leave our keys at the front desk since we arrived after it was closed for the night.  I somewhat awkwardly had to sleep in the same room as our conductor, one guy I kinda know, and a couple I completely don’t know, but I survived.  We were told to be outside by 9:45 am to meet the bus; at 9:40, me and a French girl were the last ones out and the group had already left.  Thus we got to make a fun dash in our concert clothes with suitcases through the Saturday market.  I want to go back for that Saturday market sometime.  The Payerne concerts went pretty well as well.  The festival was crowded, and the small town was soon wiped clean of food.  I had been warned that this would likely happen, but said warning didn’t do much good; Seth and I spent about two hours looking for lunch for me, when I finally decided to eat some of the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted for lunch.  We thus only got to see one concert (contemporary classic music played by piano, bassoon, and saxophone) other than mine.  Cara F, former president of the Radcliffe Choral Society, came to my second concert on her Germany-Switzerland-Italy tour, and spent the night with us, to our delight.

The next morning, it was off to Zurich to meet Joel and Rachel, Seth’s brother and sister-in-law.  They were starting out their vacation to Germany with a short detour in German-speaking Switzerland.  We stayed in a basic, but clean, hotel in the red light (and still very much seedy) district of Zurich for the low (hah!) cost of 137chf per night.  For this price, we got to witness many gentlemen’s clubs with explicit photos posted outside, prostitutes standing on street corners, and a couple of what looked like drug-related searches by the police.

Iconic Valser Mountain
The iconic mountain of Vals, scattered with little chalets and boulders

On Monday we rented a car and Joel drove us all on the windy roads to Vals, the site of the mineral spring which sources Valser Water and Peter Zumthor‘s architecturally award winning Therme Vals spa.  We went more for the spa, based on Michelle’s enthused recommendation.  It was pretty great for a series of swimming pools—but no pictures allowed, so you’ll have too look at photos on their own website.  By the way, if you are going there, take along a towel, pool shoes, and shampoo/soap.  Vals happens to be in the Romansch-speaking area of Switzerland, so once we exited the highway to climb up the mountain roads, the signs and names were a fascinating mix of German and something resembling Italian or Latin.  On our way back, we stopped at the very old city of Chur, with an old town full of restaurants and boutiques.  We dined at Rebleuten, a wonderful restaurant with an innovative take on Swiss food.  Seth and I agree that it is the best food we’ve eaten in Switzerland, and made even better by the fact that it is actually Swiss food and is no more expensive than any of the ethnic eateries or typical fondue restaurants we generally find ourselves in.  Before Rachel and Joel took off for Munich, we made it to the Freitag flagship store, built in an industrial/highway/train tracks area of Zurich out of stacked shipping containers.  Everything about Freitag but the prices of its products fits this store and location.

View from Freitag Containers
Jackie and the “beautiful” view from the top of the Freitag Flagship Shop storage containers

And now I’ve got the about-to-be-back-to-school blues.

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Sep 03 2009

Oh Switzerland…

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In the last two days since we’ve been back, we’ve been snapping photos around our neighborhood and noticing all the things that have changed and grown in hilarity since our departure.  Here are some examples:

  1. A notice flyer was posted on our elevator by our building manager reminding tenants not to feed birds from their balconies, as it is against the law.  I hope he’s not talking about the odd basil/sage leaf we send over the rail of our balcony on occasion?
  2. SBB, the national rail company, is offering special direct trains and reduced price tickets for attending the classical music festival I’ll be singing at in Payerne this weekend (so come, it’s easy and not overpriced!).  And speaking of SBB, they mailed both of us a letter encouraging us to re-purchase exactly what they had on file for what we bought this past year, as ours are about to expire. My, is this country small and orderly.
  3. Lausanne and surroundings are now on google street view!  Sweet!  Too bad it happened after we had to pick an apartment without seeing it.  Anyway, check out our neighborhood—on foot!  Here is our lovely city hall with its ever-changing, beautiful flowers (and people who give us our residence permits) and here’s the local Migros supermarket mall (pardon the nearby construction).
  4. Pédibus is celebrating 10 years by putting up adorable ads all over.
    I want those boots.  Where can I get me and Liz W a pair?  In short, pédibus provides exercise to small children, does not emit greenhouse gases, and gets kids to school safely.  The kids line up as if they’re on a bus, march down the street behind a volunteer parent “driver,” and stop at all marked pédibus stops on the way to school.  Awesome.
  5. This just appeared on the Swiss market: Emmi Caffe Latte Zero, which is the “first lactose free coffee drink to be found on chilled shelves and has no added sugar either .”  Read: unsweetened and using lactose-free milk.  Um, guess who’s happy now?  Note that the Emmi Caffe Latte line appears to be the only iced coffee available in Switzerland and is less expensive than a teeny cup of hot coffee at any cafe.  And, check out Emmi’s absurd Swiss website to enter a virtual reality where everything is owned by Emmi.
  6. There was a sign at the Migros with a giant map of the United States that they are accepting donations for children in Louisiana.  While those kids could certainly use that money, it’s depressing that the charitable citizens of Switzerland have cause to provide said funds.  The “now I’ll admit to being an American expat because Obama won” factor just wore off slightly.

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Sep 02 2009

One-way to Switzerland

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We are back in Switzerland.  It was just as hard to say goodbye this time around.  And it is just as hard to get over jetlag.

We flew via Brussels (an airport with which Jackie is intimately familiar) on the airline Jet Airways.  We would’ve flown direct, but other than Jet Airways and Aer Lingus, which goes through Dublin, there are no reasonably priced one-way tickets.  So we got to try out this Indian airline that we’d never heard of before this year.

Seth called in advance a few days before we left to ask for special meals—we always need to do this if we want vegetarian/vegan meals on planes.  Usually special meal options are listed as “Hindu vegetarian” (meaning vegetarian, but Indian food usually) and “Vegetarian” (meaning vegan, and thus dairy free, so the only option for Seth).  Seth asked for a vegan option for himself and then felt awkward asking for a “Hindu vegetarian” meal for me on an Indian airline.  In any case, it worked out so that we had the most tasty plane food we’d ever had, Jackie’s with paneer and yogurt, Seth’s channa, dairy-free.  We’re pretty sure all the food on the plane was vegetarian.

The plane and most of the people on it were continuing on to Mumbai.  We felt almost as if we were, too.  Combine that meal with the wonderful selection of Bollywood films (we watched Delhi-6) and Indian music and announcements made in Hindi before English, and it felt pretty surreal to step off the plane into Brussels.

We booked our tickets through Travelocity, which listed it as a trip on multiple airlines.  When we checked in in Newark, Jet Airways assured us our bags would go through automatically, and they gave us our boarding passes from Brussels to Geneva as well.  As it turns out, Brussels Airlines is a partner airline of Jet Airways.  We had been careful to leave ourselves extra time for the transfer, because we didn’t know this; we thought we were simply switching to a Brussels Airlines flight and thus would have a lot of difficulty should Jet Airways arrive in Brussels severely delayed.  We were not allowed to go standby on an earlier flight to Geneva (turns out this is the one we should have booked in the first place), but we made good use of our time in the airport, sleeping for an hour and buying some duty-free Belgian beer and chocolate.

Now we get to unpack our entire apartment and restock our refrigerator.  Fun.  By the way, Jackie is singing with the Choeur des Jeunes de Lausanne at the Schubertiade Festival in Payerne on Saturday, so if you are planning on being there, don’t miss out on her choir.

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