Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Breakfast in Chur, lunch in Milano, dinner in Lugano

The funny thing about living in Europe, which I sometimes tend to forget after roaming around NZ, Australia and Asia for a while, is that in most places, it just suffices to take your car and drive for a short while to cross a border. This is so cool: in one day, you can do three or four countries! How amazing is that. It shouldn't surprise me that much though, because I am crossing a border every day anyway, but still.

I got this feeling again last Sunday, when Rosario and Victor had planned a trip to Lugano and kindly invited me along (would this have anything to do with the fact that Germaine is in my life? ... Hahaha I'm joking!).
Lugano is in the Italian part of Switzerland, straight south from Chur and very close to the Italian border. I took Germaine very early in the morning, picked up my two friends and we set off for the 1.5 hour drive south. However, after crossing the Alps (in a very hectic way ...) and approaching Lugano - which, by the way, lies in a beautiful area - we saw the road sign for Milano. It said: "Milano, 100 km".
Hmmmmm. Tempting.
Victor said: "Anyone in for a trip to Milano?"
Marie-Anne said: "Oooooooh! Why not!"
Rosario said: "It's all up to you, I just want sun."
So the decision was made pretty quickly, and indeed, why not - we passed Lugano, crossed the Italian border and headed for Milano.

We were so happy to have done that. While Lugano promised us a bright and sunny 15 degrees, in Milano we were surprised by a very decent 20 degrees and a fierce sun. There we were in our Swiss clothing: off with the scarves, jackets and even sweaters!
We walked around for a short while. We didn't have a lot of time since we still wanted to do Lugano, but on the other hand we were really enjoying the sun - or, that is to say, Rosario clearly needed the sun and Victor and me were happy to stroll in her wake :-) - so we just hung around a short while and then decided to go for lunch.
I was very good - I am still in my "Days without meat"-challenge, which is actually going pretty well, thank you for asking - so I ordered a cheesy pizza. What else do you order when you have 1 day in Italy? A certain someone though, cheated very hard, dropped all ties to the challenge and ordered what must have been the most juicy, delicious-looking steak I have seen in a long time. Sigh. I shortly cursed myself for my commitment to this challenge, but hey, commitment is commitment.

After lunch, we took out the time to see the beautiful duomo of Milano, where I had fun playing with light and photography. Not much came out of it though, but it's all about trying, isn't it?
Later, we headed back to Germaine and set off towards our original destination: Lugano.

This city is the largest Italian-speaking city outside of Italy. It is located on the banks of Lake Lugano and is facing south, which means it basks in the sun all day. It is the most popular destination in Switzerland and apparently attracts a lot of celebrities lately. I can see why; it has a kind of calmness but still some glamour to it that everybody would be jealous of.
When we arrived though - jackets, beans and scarves on please! We're back in Switzerland! - it was pretty quiet. Loads of people were strolling along the lakeside, restaurants and bars closing rather than opening, people sitting in the park or on the tiny beaches along the lake.

So did we - tired of all this sun (;-)) we just sat down for a while, staring into the beautiful sceneries and catching the last rays of sunlight. It somehow reminded me of Queenstown in New Zealand, but - how could it not be - a bit more European. What a great explanation, huh :-).
We only stayed for a short time, which I think was actually all we needed, so we were quite happy to have made the choice to go to Milano as well, and when the sun was gone and it got sensibly colder, we headed back towards Germaine, who still had a while to go.

We wended our ways through the Alps again, and lo and behold, in the San Bernardinopass it was actually snowing quite heavily! So for all you snow geeks out there: not to worry yet, the season isn't over.
Germaine, in the hands of Victor, got us home safely back to Chur, after a day well spent.
Breakfast in Chur, lunch in Milano and dinner in Lugano - how many people can say this? :-)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Days without meat

Hmmm, here we go. Another challenge, albeit a bit different from last year's Dry July.
This year, for lent, I am going to abstain from eating meat and fish, in order to think more ecologically. Apart from my ecological footprint, it is also just a challenge to myself - will I be able to eat no meat and fish at all for 40 days?
Luckily, the website of Days without meat offers some great recipes to get me through those days. So not only should I help the environment (a very, tiny, little bit), but I should also learn some great new stuff in the kitchen and I should be proud of myself if I will have been able to not cheat, in the end.
I am proud to say that I have been able to mobilize at least 2 other people to join me in this challenge: Gautier and Victor, colleagues in the office. At least this makes my lunches a bit less heavy :).

So, here we go, day 1. Let's see how we go with this. Cheers!

Friday, February 17, 2012

The föhn, bringer of strange tidings

Have you ever heard of the föhn? Because it is here! In Vaduz, I mean.
The föhn is a type of wind that is typical for the Alps. It blows in other parts of the world as well, but there it has a different name, usually.
This föhn is a very peculiar phenomenon. I had been warned about it by my colleagues in my first week at the office, but I had never given it any real thought. Until last Tuesday, when everything felt different.

To give a bit of an explanation about this wind: through a whole lot of meteorological movements - which I am not going to explain here - a compressed and hence warm wind is formed. This wind can elevate the temperature in no time with 10-25 degrees. The air humidity is strongly reduced, and because of sometimes very hard wind blows, the sky usually opens up and you get superb clear views over the Alps.
I think my explanation might be lacking a bit of detail - or let's say, a lot of detail - so if you want to get more (and more accurate) information, Wikipedia is the place to be I think!

When they say that the föhn brings strange tidings, I actually believe it. The day started different already with heaps of snow in Chur, very unexpectedly. When driving towards the highway, the light that has always been green so far, was now red. The highway hadn't been cleared at all, and there was even a traffic jam. A traffic jam! In Switzerland! I kid you not. Because of that, it took me one hour instead of half an hour to Vaduz.
When I arrived in Vaduz, there was already about 10 cm of snow on the ground, but the temperature seemed to be higher than normal.
In the office, I got an amazingly strong headache that seemed to come from nothing, and everybody seemed rather restless.
Then it started blowing so hard outside that even the windows started rattling. We all stopped working and stared outside, and then someone said "I think the föhn is here", and everybody went like "Aaaah." So that was my first experience with it. Yay!
When I came out of the office in the evening, literally all the snow in Vaduz had melted. All of it! In about one hour time. Now I find that strange. It was also about 5ºC as opposed to the -15 we had been having just a few days before.
To top it all off, at the end of the day while entering Chur from the highway, I was stopped by the police. It was a routine check, to see if all my papers were fine (of course they were) and because it was Valentine's Day, they gave me a pot plant. A plant! Now if that is not a strange tiding, I don't know anymore :-).

Now, at this moment, even though it has snowed in Chur again, the temperature is still above zero, and today at the office we did have very clear skies with nice views on the mountains, which brought a spring restlessness with everyone in the building . How I wanted to be out there! How everyone wanted to be out there :-).
But not to fear, dear föhn; the weekend is here, so bring it on!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

When driving your car in Switzerland

I have now been in Switzerland for just over a month. Time to give you some heads-up about how to get around here.
Obviously I have my car here, unlike many people that moved here. I need my car to get to Vaduz every day, so it is a big part of my Swiss life. I have driven around quite a few kilometers at the moment, so I think it is safe for me to tell you a bit about the Swiss highways.

1. Changing speed limits. 
The thing I have noticed most about Swiss highways, is that the speed limit changes constantly. That may or may not have an obvious reason, as in weather conditions etc, but change they do. For example, when I get to the highway from Chur, I get to drive 120 kph for about 3 minutes, after which it changes to 100 for no reason. 2 minutes later I get to do 120 again. Don't ask questions, just do it. If you get caught speeding, you get a ticket, and believe me, they are not cheap. They start at 20 CHF for speeding 1-5 kph (yes, that is different from Belgium), and prices rise dramatically. If you go more than 25 kph over the limit, your drivers license appears to be taken immediately.
There are these fixed changes, but there are also places where the speed limit changes day by day, usually due to weather conditions. My tip is to keep your eyes open for the speed signs all the time.

2. Snow, snow and snow. 
Switzerland in its lowest moment.
Be careful of the weather. I have often left Chur in a snow blizzard, to arrive in Vaduz with a watery sun shining and the temperature 5 degrees up. That's of course a good thing, but not if you do it in the opposite direction. Swiss highways have a lot of tunnels - and now I'm talking about the road from Chur to Zurich / Luzern - and the weather after a tunnel can be completely different than before. Strange, I know, I have been amazed many times myself.
Another thing is that the weather can change rapidly. A cute, tiny snowfall can rapidly turn into a thick fog with snow coming from everywhere, so you need to be prepared for that. Usually, speed limits change when that happens as well, so be double aware ;).

3. Be patient. 
Driving in snow conditions, especially with rapidly changing weather, means that you might get stuck behind a snow plough or two. I don't mind that much - I have every respect for snow ploughs. Those people do a tremendously great job. The roads in Switzerland are usually sparklingly clean. Only in the case of a very unexpected or very heavy snowfall, the snow ploughs can't keep up and then the driving might be sketchy.
Usually in the morning the roads are already clean. However, when you do get stuck behind a snow plough, there is nothing to be done except be patient, smile, listen to a nice song and think of the fact that these people are clearing the road for you. They usually work with two and spread out over the highway, so don't try to pass them, it's not possible. You can only wait until they run out of salt ...

4. Be prepared not to see through your wind shield. 
This might sound strange, but I've had some problems with my wind shield - and I'm sure I'm not the only one. With all the salt lying on the highway, then rain or snow falling on it, which makes everything splatter up on your window, the salt sticks to your window and is a bitch to get off. I don't know how it works with other people, but the more I try to swipe my windshield, the more the salt spreads and the whiter it becomes. I try to use the fluid but that seems to clean the window only in the wrong places ... and only helps for about 3 minutes. So, anyway, again, be careful :).

5. Pay when you park! 
This is not a joke - please pay when there is a parking meter! You only have to turn your back for 5 minutes and the police already put a fine under your swipers. Usually this is done very neatly with a nicely printed text and an accompanying sheet that says how to do an international transfer, all put together in a plastic bag - we wouldn't want our fines to get wet now, do we?
These fines aren't cheap either - I have had 2 tickets of 40 CHF, and that is in a residential area outside the city centre of Chur. I don't even want to dream how much it might be in Zurich.
So, bottom line is to always have coins with you, because these meters only work with coins. There is also no paper ticket in a lot of cases, so this machine just happily eats away your money without any proof.

Some fun facts
the Vignette
- it is obligatory to have winter tires. Just so you know.
- when driving highways in Switzerland as a foreigner, you have to have the Vignette, which is a motorway tax. Do not enter Switzerland without it, even if it is for an hour, or you will pay. Again.
- Apparently it is not allowed to honk your horn after dark. We all need to sleep well ;).
- Swiss people drive on the right, and unlike in Belgium, they usually do this. I have also never ever seen anyone passing someone on the right - again, unlike in Belgium.
- people wearing glasses or contact lenses should have a spare pair in their car. I did not know that, might have to look into it. Hmm.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Top of the world

Snow, snow, snow. That is what you get when you go live in the Alps for a while. Snow, and lots of it! Flakes in all sizes and weights. Thick, sticky ones, or small wet ones, where you are not sure if it's actually raining or snowing. But most of the time, it is a beautiful white shower which covers everything in a thick, powdery carpet. That's what I give a big like!
Snow in Chur means ... even more snow in the mountains around Chur. This, of course, means that I go out to the slopes just about every weekend. So far, in the 3 weeks that I have been here, I have visited Lenzerheide, Hochwang and Brambrüesch.

Lenzerheide is a 40 minute bus ride from Chur. The ski field is a tad more commercial than the others I've seen, but it has nothing from the fame that Davos has. The slopes are nice and easy, but a bit too crowded for my liking. The other fields I have seen so far (except from Davos) are also small, but very 'local' so not many people go there. But ahh, you need fields of all sizes and levels and I think Lenzerheide is a very good option - I'd definitely go again. There's also a few nice bars at the middle station, so an apres-ski - or should I say 'middle-ski'? - is always nice. Relax, face in the sun, gluhwein in hand. What do you want more?

Powder in between the slopes - Hochwang.
The week after, I went to Hochwang with a few of the Chur girls and my colleague. I had promised my colleague and another friend to try and teach them the basics of snowboarding - I say try because it is rather difficult to relate to other people what your body does. But hey, look at that! Both of them were off rather quickly. Victor - the colleague - even came down with us on the last run, turns and all, towards the bottom of the lift. How good is that? I felt rather proud - I taught him that. Maybe I might have the teaching gene after all? As I said before, never say never ...
Apart from teaching, I went up and down with roommate Claudia in the afternoon - and had so much fun with that! The slopes in Hochwang are very nicely groomed and are actually beautiful: above the trees with an immense view; in between the trees with thick packs of snow on all sides. The funny thing was that a thick fog was lying in the valley, so we constantly went from bright sunshine to a foggy soup. Exhilarating!
A mountain with a view - Hochwang.
I also convinced Claudia to go on her first powder side trip ever. In between the slopes there are heaps of untouched patches - or let's say, touched by people with the same state of mind as me - so it was the perfect time to get her to do it: short stretches in the powder, just to know what it feels like. Ohhh man, did she curse me at first :-). As you probably know by now, powder is very, very heavy to work through if you're not used to it. You constantly get caught in deep snow, and then it's a tricky matter to get yourself out of it without getting completely wet. Well, completely wet was a certainty in our case, so I just decided to laugh about it and try harder :-). In the end we finished a nice patch in between the fog and trees. I have to say - afterwards, Claudia had the widest smile imaginable and I even got a big hug. Again, a blast of pride rushing through my veins and a smile on my face. Teaching gene?

Just now, I went to Brambrüesch. This is actually a very specific ski field because it is the only one in all of Switzerland where the lift leaves from the centre of the city. Chur, to be clear. You basically just walk there, take the gondola to the middle station, then another gondola and poof, there you are. Easy peasy, no difficult car rides or annoying train rides. I really like Brambrüesch because it seriously reminds me of a true Winter Wonderland. Mini-Narnia, so to say. You arrive in between the trees and have to walk a little while before you get to the anchor lift. On this walk, there are a few houses scattered over the place, all covered in a thick pack of snow. How people live there, is a mystery to me, but the scenery is wonderful.
As by a miracle, the fog opened up as well and we witnessed a bright sunshine and blue skies. The cold front that has hit Europe, has obviously also hit Switzerland though, and at -20 up there it was rather chilly. But not to worry, we'd be up the lift soon.
Now, this anchor lift is something that I hate. I 'strongly dislike' the word hate, but hate it is in this case. For snowboarders - especially the solo ones, like me, and who are somewhere just above beginner but far under pro - these lifts are hell. They are inelegant, exhausting, stupid and difficult. You have to stick this anchor between your legs, which means your butt will be blue. When you are alone, like me, you have to do all you can to balance yourself on the thing, or it just jerks you right up, you lose your balance and you fall off. Usually with one leg still around the thing so you get dragged along for some 10 meters before you get the chance to shuffle to the sides. Sigh. But, as every day is learning day, today I learned to use it well. I actually succeeded to get to the top 3 times, and 'only' fall off 2 times. In one of those falls, though, I hurt myself and now I have difficulty to walk. But that's beside the point. ;-).
I thought this lift was way too much work for what the slopes are worth - there are not a lot, and most of them, though finely groomed, are not a real challenge - but then the chairlift to the top opened up. While my friend Linda kept on practicing on the lower slopes, I decided I wanted more out of my day and went up the chairlift (big sigh of relief). The freezing wind struck at once and gave me an immediate, hammering headache ... but then I got to the top. What - a - view. There is nothing up there except for the ski lift operator's tiny, tiny hut, and a gorgeous, amazing, breathtaking 360º view over the Alps. White carpets as far as the eye can see. It made me want to jump, run, turn, ... just play. Sadly enough, by then the battery of Linda's camera had frozen to death so I have no pictures of the view. But it is locked in my memory. So I think Brambrüesch is a perfect place both for beginners and pros. I think, once I get better, it would be awesome to get to the top and just fool around in this thick, thick powder. Only question would be how to get up to the top again, but that is a worry for later :-).

So that is how I spend my weekends. A day of snowboarding, sometimes bouldering, sometimes swimming, maybe a little run here or there ... And of course the beers on Friday night with the girls I met in Chur. Perfect!

Claudia and me on the slopes in Hochwang.