Archive for May, 2010

May 31 2010

No Memorial Day here…

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We got Pentecost last weekend, instead.  However, it is window-washing season.

Window Washing in Zurich

And in Estavayer-le-Lac, a lovely medieval town on the banks of Lac Neuchatel, things were looking a little froggy this weekend.

Ribbit Carac

It took me a year of living in Switzerland before I found out from a fellow chorister munching away on a carac during a bus ride that there was fudgy chocolate hidden under that bright green exterior. The frog design makes them particularly cute at this bakery.

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May 26 2010

Summer in CH=Wine, Bikes, Lakes

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Switzerland is mainly known for its wintry sports scene, of which we sort of take part by snowshoeing and once-yearly terrified sliding down mountains, but wow, is summer amazing.  The sun just started to shine, our CSA provided us with a kilo of delicious strawberries last week, the public pools are open, the 2009 wine vintage is ready for drinking, and the fields of canola flowers are in bloom.  Since I can’t be an academic writing machine 24/7, I’ve decided I do need to take advantage of the season, so the past two weekends, we’ve gone on fun little day trips.

Fields of canola flowers

We went to the Caves Ouvertes in Valais (caves ouvertes=open wine cellars) with Adar and Horesh, buying plenty of wine from grape varieties I’ve seen only in Valais.  We were able to decide where to go by simply picking a village (Chamoson) off the map provided by the official web site that looked like it had  dense collection of vineyards, there turned out to be welcome tables and a free little shuttle around the town, it was busy but not crowded, there was as much free wine and raclette as we could down, and everyone was friendly.  What an odd setup for Switzerland; it was great.  I highly recommend it.


Building on such success, we decided we would go to the Caves Ouvertes in Vaud this past weekend.  Rather than choosing the Lavaux as our destination, we went for something more unusual and aimed for the  Bonvillars region alongside Lac Neuchâtel.  This was much less organized than our day in Valais…there were signs in the towns that announced the existence of caves ouvertes that weekend, but no signs, shuttles, or people directing visitors to said caves, and the vineyards weren’t especially evident from the road.  Fortunately, we’d decided to turn this into a bike expedition as well, making use of the second bike we’ve recently acquired.  We took the bikes on the train to Yverdon-les-Bains and planned our trip using the incredibly helpful veloland website.  As it turns out,  Lac Neuchâtel has flat, non-trafficky paths and roads alongside much of the lake, so it was gorgeous and easy going until we climbed into the hills towards the vineyards and my bike refused to switch into its lower gears.  Eventually, we found a winemaker in Concise who was happy to let us try and buy some wines, and we sipped away and munched on bread before turning around and heading back to Yverdon.  Given that I haven’t bike in a year, my legs were really sore, and I was too tired to do any work that night. But now I feel better and am hoping that maybe this weekend we can combine a bike ride and strawberry picking adventure as a break from studying human rights law (final exam next week…).

Lac Neuchatel

By the way, the winegrowers all seem to be saying that the 2009 vintage, while still young, will be incredible given a few more months, as the grapes were exceptionally sweet and healthy last fall, so stock up!

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May 23 2010

Wherein I create a Wikipedia page to try to make the world a better place

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Ludothèque in Renens

There’s a storefront that I often pass in Renens with a big picture of a pumpkin labeled “ludothèque.” I never gave it much thought, though I guess I would have concluded it was just a store that had closed down some past Halloween. (Jackie thought it was a daycare with a pumpkin theme). Not so! Natalie recently explained what a ludothèque is:

A toy library is a library from which toys, puzzles, and games are lent out, functioning like a lending library. Toy libraries offer play sessions for families and a wide range of toys appropriate for children at different stages in their development. Toy libraries provide children with new toys every week or two, saving parents money and keeping children from getting bored. Popular in the French-speaking world, toy libraries are called ludothèques.

Great idea, right? From what I can gather it’s a very common thing in France, Switzerland, and Quebec (where it’s called a joujouthèque!) It’s obviously good for the environment, and if libraries are already lending CDs and DVDs to big people, why not games, toys, and puzzles for the little ones? It was so great an idea, I decided it needed a Wikipedia page in order to popularize it outside of the Francophonie. So I went ahead and created a page for it, originally calling them “Toybraries” in English (based on the first one I found in the US, Toybrary, because it sort of approximates the construction of ludotheque as “ludo” = play and thèque from bibliothèque. Ludobrary sounds kind of weird I guess. Playbrary?). Eventually after doing research and turning up federations in the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand—all linked on the Wikipedia page, of course—I settled on the blander “Toy library.” The blockquote description above is from Wikipedia, or in other words, I just wrote it.

Of course what’s now needed on the Wikipedia page is a history section. Toy libraries have existed since at least 1935, according to a master’s thesis from 1995 by Julia E. Moore of Kent State University [PDF], when one was set up in Los Angeles. The idea apparently reemerged in the 60s and 70s with Head Start and other legislation. Interesting! Well, it’s back to real work for me (sorting photos from the weekend?) Hopefully a committed Wikipedia-er will pick up where I left off and summarize the 46 page thesis in a section called history, which I’ve just added.

P.S. By the way there’s a Swiss association online. They’re called Ludotheken in German.

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May 11 2010

Judt on Switzerland

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In the May issue of the New York Review of Books, Tony Judt writes his thoughts on Switzerland. Read the article here.

I just returned to Switzerland from a week and a half in the United States. Returning to the US was a re-experience of the reverse culture shock of last summer. I got lost in the supermarket, felt motion sick in every car, habitually checked for signs telling me when the T was expected to arrive, couldn’t figure out how to use the change in my wallet, and lamented the long-distance produce. I was like a foreigner with a deceptively American accent. But it was lovely to feel surrounded by friends and familiar places. And to be able to go to the supermarket in pajamas without anyone giving me strange looks.

Back to the Judt piece. Going to the US really makes me re-evaluate Switzerland. I know I complain a lot about Switzerland, and Judt gets it all right. The blandness. The people who would tell you to keep your feet off the seat. The overwhelming expense. The “recidivist chauvinism” as demonstrated by the minaret ban. The difference is, he likes it. He likes that there is nothing to do, that everything is clean and colorful, that it is still surprisingly unchanged and rural, that the trains are the main attraction, the natural beauty, the shared responsibility for public goods. According to him, Switzerland is “the happiest place in the world.”

The truth is, I like many of these characteristics, too. In the US, I pine for the train network, the food from the local farms, the safety, the concern of each person for the public good, the view across the lake to the Alps. When Seth and I return to the US, we will seriously miss a lot about this place. Yet, it is so hard for me to explain what is good about Switzerland to Americans, and so much easier to talk about the frustrations and absurdity of daily life and the hypocrisy and conservatism of much that is Swiss. It is quite difficult to talk about what it is like for us to live here, both in discussions with Swiss and with Americans. Swiss hate to be criticized as only an outsider can criticize, and Americans can’t believe we’re not on a permanent vacation in a Swedish-speaking ski resort. And I think Kathy does a magnificent job discussing the myth of Swiss happiness (read both part I, part II). Switzerland is not paradise, and I cannot see past its problems as, apparently, can Judt. Like everywhere else, there is the good and there is the bad. It is mixed.

Thanks, Judy, for sending me the article.

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May 07 2010

Easily missed miscellaneous photos

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You probably know about Jackie’s Flickr page, where we post all of our photos. If you haven’t been there recently, check out a few sets we’ve added:

Usually, these are taken with Jackie’s nice, big digital SLR camera. But sometimes they’re taken with my not-so-nice, small digital camera. The big camera is big, so it only goes with us when we’re planning ahead—vacations, day trips, shopping at the market—so it’s rare that the other camera gets use, other than by Jackie for photographing documents from the 1930’s in the League of Nations archives at the United Nations in Geneva. But every once in awhile the little camera captures something, and it takes us awhile to get it on the computer and find it amongst Jackie’s research. So while organizing photos today (a productive use of my time when I should otherwise be doing research or looking for a job) I came across these… Continue Reading »

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May 05 2010

Major (minor) victories

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Jackie is in the U.S. this week, and she says people ask about our life in Switzerland, imagining that we’re on some sort of permanent vacation / honeymoon / fun study abroad experience. They’re clearly not reading our blog, or they’re skipping the posts about laundry. We’ve had some minor victories recently—major in the context of our life in Switzerland—which I thought I’d share.

Books: Jackie is only allowed to check out 15 books total from all of the libraries to which she has access, including the library at her school and the cantonal libraries in Geneva and Vaud. This is a major problem, seeing as she is doing a master’s (now PhD!) in history. So she spends a lot of times shlepping books back and forth to Geneva and strategizing about which books she needs when. Recently, she found out that two books on ancient Egypt had mysteriously appeared as checked out on her account from the cantonal library of Geneva. Needless to say, these were not books she had actually checked out—but how was she going to explain this? And more importantly, since Switzerland is not big on central sources of information, who was she going to explain this to? The short version of the story is that after calling the library, being transferred around a fair amount, finally talking to someone and explaining, she was told that they would look into it. 30 minutes later, she refreshed her account online, et voila! The books had vanished. Jackie 1, Switzerland 0.

Flat tire: I got a nice new (used) bicycle two weeks ago, which I’ve been riding to school on days that it’s not unseasonably cold and windy and rainy (so not this week). After class last week I noticed that my front tire was totally flat. Shoot! I considered taking it on the metro and then walking it back home, or leaving it and returning with tools and supplies (which I would obtain…somewhere?) or taking it on a bus to the bike shop I bought it at. But I vaguely knew that there’s a bike repair place on the EPFL campus (Le Point vélo) . I looked it up, and despite it being past the hours it’s listed as open, I headed over there with my bike. This was a dubious proposition in Switzerland, where I’ve been yelled at for coming into a bakery 5 minutes after closing (after I backed out of it quickly, they locked the door behind me.) But there were a couple very helpful guys working there, who said they’d be happy to help if they could, despite it being closed. Turns out I do not know (m)any bike words in French. It also turns out I do not know how to check for a leak or detach my inner tube and replace it with a totally new one. But I managed, with some help. And twenty minutes later, my hands covered in bike grease, we had determined that the hole was not worth repairing, and we had replaced my inner tube. They only charged me for the inner tube, generously claiming that I was the one who had done the work, not them. Seth 1, Switzerland 0.

Late trains: many months ago Jackie took a train back from Paris which was severely delayed. They gave the passengers claim forms to fill out and hypothetically this was supposed to entitle them to some amount of money. Jackie dutifully filled hers out, sent it off to the French company, and weeks later received a reply that, in fact, this was the responsibility of the Swiss train company, SBB, since the train was going to Switzerland and Jackie had bought her ticket from SBB. Or something. The letter said that her request had been transferred to SBB, and we assumed that was the last we’d hear of it. And then last week a letter arrived with a voucher for 36 CHF from SBB to be used on any train ticket. Wow. Jackie 2, Switzerland 0.

Laundry: Last Monday was our laundry day and after two succsesful loads one of the electronic cards that we use to activate the machines totally stopped working. The other was low on funds. But the one that stopped working was supposed to have a credit of 14 CHF on it. The machine claimed it was broken. So I reinserted it, more gently this time as the super had instructed me. Still broken. More gently, but with a little pressure? Broken. After 20 minutes of this, the machine finally read the card. But there was only 1 franc on it! I tried to transfer this franc to my other card (because combined it would have been enough) and in the process … lost it. Now the card works when inserted into the machine every single time (go figure) but it has 0 francs on it. I called Yuliy, who lives in a house in which there is unlimited (even during lunch?) laundry, told him about my laundry emergency, and biked over to use his laundry machine. Point for Switzerland.

Final score: Us: 3, Switzerland: 1 (+ 10000000000).

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