Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My first couple of nights in Switzerland

eating in Bern
After a really long day, with an early morning start to go skiing in Mulhouse in France, I headed into Switzerland to visit Corine, another AFS 2009-2010 exchange student. Its quite a bizarre day really, just casually going skiing in France and then taking the train to Switzerland, its how normal days like these are here that make me love Europe!

I had a funny experience on the train from Mulhouse in France to Basel in Switzerland, 20 minutes away; I got border controlled. Since German customs stamped my passport back in December, I haven't had had any further encounters with customs, when flying between Schengen agreement countries the airline has just glanced at my passport to make sure I am who I say I am, and I've never been checked travelling between countries on the trains, so it was quite strange! A couple of French customs guys got on the train, and I guess because I had my huge bag with me, I was the one they picked to interrogate in that carriage. Interrogation was as follows:

French customs: Can I see your passport please?
French customs: This visa is for Spain
Me: Yes, I am doing a working holiday there
French customs: Do you need a visa for France?
Me: No...
French customs: Do you need a visa for Switzerland?
Me: No...
French customs: Ok, then enjoy your trip

Wow. Pretty sure it should have been that guy's job to know whether or not I needed visas. All of a sudden I have no sympathy for the French complaining about their illegal immigration problems, they should stop hiring muppets to patrol their borders.

Burger King tray in different languages, Basel
I had a little under a hour in Switzerland, so I left my bags in a luggage locker and walked out of the train station only to realise that I couldn't really go that far in the time that I had, and so I just ate Burger King and people watched, there were some really cool old trams stopping in from of the station, the oldest I think I've seen since Christchurch. Have to note though, that just getting a burger, not even a combo was 6.50. I can see what everyone in NZ is thinking, 6.50, that's a little steep, you'd probably be able to get a whole combo for 6.50 in NZ, but no, I'm not talking in NZ dollars, I'm talking in Swiss Francs. That burger really cost a little over 9 NZ dollars. Nine. For just a normal burger. Switzerland is not a cheap country, needless to say I did not enter any more food outlets during my time there, nor did I stay within what I thought was a generous budget for the week. It is cool that the Burger King cups and trays and everything has their mottos written in all three of the official languages, German, French and Italian, you can feel here that the linguistic regions of Switzerland are much more united than Belgium was.

Clock in Basel (urinal on side)
But anyway, several hours later and after what had been a really really long day I arrived to the train station in a town called Romanshorn, right up in the German-speaking north-east corner of Switzerland on the edge of Lake Constance. Corine was at a job interview, so all I knew was that her mum was going to pick me up. I stood and waited for awhile, and then a car pulled up and three people got out and started taking photos of me. I thought that even with all of my bags and stuff I couldn't have been that much of a spectacle for strangers to be taking photos of me, so that must have been Corine's family! Her mum, dad and younger sister were very happy to meet me, and we headed out to a pizza resturant. They were quite impressed by the little bit of German I could remember from my time there (somehow I am really good with food names and not too much else, probably from the old Food is one of the two Pillars of our Family Holiday thing, spending so much time in Austrian resturants!) but I was really struggling after such a long day and really wasn't as switched on and conversational as I normally would have been. Corine arrived after a succesful job interview, it was great to see her after so long, and then after she ate too we headed home, with Corine driving me. I have to admit, after Camille's driving Corine seemed like a pro (sorry Camille!), but she has had her license a lot longer. Corine lives in Egnach, the next village along from Romanshorn with a population of around 4500. After a quick tour of her place and introductions to the world's hugest cat and Switzerland's most hyperactive sausage dog puppy, I collapsed into bed.

Cellar-shops in Bern
Thursday we were up relatively early and off to see Switzerland! Her mum had very generously spent some time before I came tracing down one of a limited number of all-day train tickets, so we could visit the cities without paying hundreds of swiss francs, so we headed to the capital of Bern first. I really liked Bern, after Brussels and Paris it felt more like Wellington, a capital that is calm and tranquil and not too big, but still pretty cool. Bern has a river running through it, and a lot of the buildings are built on slopes.We checked out the government buildings walked around for a bit, one of the first things you notice about Switzerland is how many fountains they have! They're everywhere, water is definitely not a hot comodity here! The second thing you notice is the clocks, they're also everywhere, huge ones on the buildings. I also like how in the main street there are all these cellars with big wooden doors on the street and steps leading down to them, like those hurricane shelters you see out in the feilds in american movies, and they have little shops down them, quite cool. And they have a mens urinal on the side of a really nice building with some of those huge clocks on it. I find it quite weird that they just condone peeing on the side of a building like that, with only a half screen up for privacy, but I also find it really unfair that men can pee for free and women can't. Sexist Switzerland, not only did they not let all women vote until 1971, they make women pay to pee but provide free places for men, not cool.


We saw the capitve bears, the motto of Bern, like many other cities here in Europe, but that was actually a little sad, their enclosure in the centre of Bern is a long way from old Orana Park. In the middle of Bern is a famous fountain, called the Kindlifresserbrunnen, or Child-eater-fountain. This fountain shows a ogre stuffing a naked kid into his mouth, holding a bag of other children at his side. Pretty gruesome really, apparently its an old carnival figure they use to frighten children. We had some Swiss beer and meals, sausage and potatoes, and then jumped on a train to Zurich.

Zurich is much bigger than Bern, you can just feel it, maybe not quite as friendly or something - I guess its like the difference in ambience between Wellington and Auckland. We checked out the Paradeplatz, where all of the huge banks are, and walked around for a bit doing some shopping and heading through the alleyways in the old town. Despite the prices, I'd actually given myself permission to buy at least one thing in Switzerland, but typically when we both had money to buy stuff we couldn't find anything we wanted, the only thing I picked up was some penis-shaped pasta that someone back in NZ had told me existed over here. I didn't believe here then, but it really does! Europe really amazes me sometimes!


That evening we headed to an AFS meeting, where Corine underwent training to become a support coordinator for a Chilean boy. It was really bizarre to sit there and listen to the training in German, but using the same resources that we had in NZ. I had to laugh when they were showing how to file reports on global link, how you have to select a rating for the students, its a funny thing to see getting shown to a student that you used to rate! It is really amazing though and it makes me so proud, to see a student who came to NZ as a 16 year old and grew up and changed so much, became so mature, who is now an adult driving and working and taking responsibility for an exchange student herself. About half of the students I used to look after are now volunteering themselves, it's great. It was also really great to see that everyone in the room was a youngish returnee, I am a big believer in using young people as volunteers.

the postbox in the bar
After the meeting finished we grabbed a late dinner in a really nice (and ridiculously expensive) asian resturant, and then headed out to a club called Hive that Corine's friend had recommended. Even though it was a Thursday, it turned out to be a huge night, the place was packed and had DJs doing live remixes, the music was cool. The drinks were not cheap at all, about 20NZD for a simple vodka and orange, like you'd pay between 4-8NZD for in NZ, which when I think about it probably turned out to be a blessing early the next morning, but I still drunk enough to be buzzing all night. The weird thing was, in NZ you'd pay about twice as much to switch the orange to redbull, whereas here there was barely a difference. As I rarely allow myself to splash out on redbull in NZ, I thought why not here, seeing as it was barely more expensive, but I think it meant I drunk many, many cans of redbull, which is probably not healthy and made me feel very funny the next morning! They had a postbox in the women's bathroom, with free postcards that you could write on and put in the box and the bar would pay the postage for you, quite a novel idea but perhaps not that smart for anyone to actually do considering the level of sobriety most people in the club had. We wrote some ourselves, one to Corine's mum apologising for being out so late on a school night (she wasn't really that happy about it) and one to Hauke in Germany, which have both since arrived, and one to myself in NZ that hasn't.

Me in Zurich
The other funny thing was how friendly everyone was, it was great to be back in a country where being able to speak conversational english is the norm, not the exception, and word seemed to quickly get around that there was a NZer in the club, because everyone seemed to come up to me to meet me, and I got quite a few interesting propositions from various men (and a woman!). We did met a half-German, half-kiwi guy that normally lives in Wanaka, that was quite cool, the only time I've met a pretty-much kiwi over in Europe, and then at the end of the night one of the DJs came up and introduced himself and we had a huge chat about NZ music, I wrote down a lot of artist for him to check out and he invited us to stay for their after-hours staff party and put me on the guestlist for a concert that weekend. We hung around after the place closed for a bit, and then we were off to catch the 5.30am train back to Romanshorn.

Corine with her plans!
I really had to laugh at Corine, turns out Swiss-Germans are closely related to those from Germany when it comes to intense organisation, the whole day she'd been carrying around printouts of maps and all of the train timetables, including our early-morning train back home! This trip was pretty much on par with my memorable journey from Mainz to Wurzburg, thankfully minus the puking, and I was very glad Corine was the one responsible with getting us from A to B. Its a really bizarre position to be in, relying on people who you used to look after, and also letting them see you drunk for the first time! We arrived back at about 7.30am, trying to dodge all of Corine's schoolmates and teachers so that they wouldn't catch her pulling a sickie, and collapsed into bed, although we wouldn't stay there for too long...

Switzerland photo album on Facebook is here, I might even have a good enough link this time that you don't even need facebook to look at them! Try it.

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