Bonjour de la Suisse

Hello from Switzerland! ~~ The adventures of a California girl who got married to a great guy, G, and traded in her old life for the chance to live in a foreign land and live the expat life for a couple years. We live in Geneva, Switzerland with our globe-trotting cat, Scout.

Ma photo
Nom :
Lieu : California, United States

"The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land." ~ G.K. Chesterton

mercredi, février 28, 2007

The Majic of Lapland

About 10 years ago I heard of this crazy place in northern Sweden called the Icehotel. It is built new each year on the shore of the Torne River in Jukkasjärvi, high above the Arctic Circle in the heart of Lapland. It has always been on my "list" of places to see in the world and I figured that this year would be a good time to go. The trip was booked and as the time grew nearer, I found that G was getting more and more excited and I was becoming more and more apprehensive. The reality of sub-zero cold was starting to set in. I hate being cold! What the heck was I thinking when I signed up for this anyway?!?

We landed in Kiruna and to my delight the sun was shining. We stepped off the plane and saw that we were surrounded by beautiful wilderness and lots and lots of snow. It was cold, but manageable and soon I was caught up in the excitement of it all and forgot all about the -15*C degree weather and just took it all in. We were greeted at the airport by Icehotel staff and put on a bus with other giddy tourists. The 20 minute ride to the hotel was stunning. Soon we were there and given a tour, instructions on where to take our things, and issued our official Icehotel gear: a snowmobile suit, boots, gloves, and a hat.

We grabbed a drink at the Absolut Icebar before meeting with a smaller group to learn "How to Survive a Night in the Icehotel". We were given a 20 minute talk and demonstration of the procedures of sleeping in a hotel made of ice and snow... but we didn't need that until tomorrow. Our first night we were staying in the "warm accommodations" (it is recommended to only stay one night in the cold accommodations - thank goodness!) We were staying in a place called "The Northern Lights Bungalow" which was a cozy little cabin with a little kitchen, a living room, a view of the tundra, a warm shower, and huge windows in the roof that allowed you to see the Northern Lights.

On our first evening we had booked a 'Northern Lights' excursion. We rode snowmobiles to a remote hut (complete with a fire in the center) where we ate a traditional Lapland dinner. The hut was cozy and held about 15 people. We met some really nice gals from... well actually from all over, but mostly Americans living in the UK. The conversation was great and we were warm, which was not a small thing, considering that the nighttime temperature outside was -30*C and by the frozen river where we were was closer to -45*C (no wind chill figured in there!) On the snowmobiles the guide would regularly stop us to check for frostbite - yikes!

Our guide had stopped us on the way to the cabin to show us what he thought were the Northern Lights, but he wasn't absolutely sure. We were talking about it at dinner, when suddenly our guide told us all to go outside. To our amazement, the Northern Lights were now out and shining brightly. Our guide said that we were really lucky and that this was a great viewing that not many folks get to see. It was a simply amazing sight! The light comes in waves across the sky and almost shimmers in places. I could not take my eyes off of them, and I was one of the last to head back in to warm up by the fire. Despite investing in a new lens and hauling all our camera equipment with us, we didn't get any shots of the lights, it was just too cold and we really didn't have time to set up. But we saw them, and that was pretty cool (no pun intended).

After breakfast we decided to join an excursion called 'Saab Ice Driving'. It was very cool. For half a day you are taken out to an ice track (to get there we actually drove right down the runway our plane had landed on the day before) and learned all about how to drive on the ice. First we went through a few maneuvering exercises to get us used to our ABS and Traction Control. I have to admit I took out more than a couple cones, but it was great fun. They had us drive faster and faster, until the last time when they switched off both the ABS & TC, without telling us. One by one we all went spinning out into the snow bank. The instructors said they wanted to make all of us crash to "know what it feels like". After getting towed out of the snow bank, we were ready for the track, which was about 3/4 of a mile around. It was awesome! I had so much fun!! While G outdid me in the exercises, I kicked his butt on the track. All those years of ambulance driving paid off. :)

That afternoon I was still on high from the morning and we were gearing up for our next excursion... dog-sledding. We were in a group of 12 people which they split up between three sleds. We were paired up with a couple from Australia who we ended up seeing here and there for the rest of our trip. We were taken across the frozen river and out to a wilderness camp far from the hotel where we had coffee and lingonberry cake. The dogs were really excited and seemed to be having a great time. Our sled had 11 dogs and we were told that they may be a bit tired, considering they haven't had a day off in 4 days or so. But when we were passed by another sled, they went crazy and did everything they could to stay ahead of the pack. Those dogs just love to run!

That night was our "cold accommodations" night in the actual Icehotel. In the evening we went to a traditional Saami concert of jojk singing (the Saami are the indigenous people of Lapland). Our Australian friends were there too. After dinner (which was delicious), we headed over to the Icebar. The Icebar is sponsored by Absolut and serves some very yummy drinks. They play music from a sound system that is kept in a refrigerator, since it is warmer in there. We met a really nice couple from New York and toasted our ice glasses to a great trip. The funny thing is, you are paying all this money to stay in this amazing hotel, but you can't really hang out in your room until you go to bed... it is just too cold!

Since there are no doors or locks in the Icehotel your stuff is housed in a different building called "The Luggage House". When you check into your "cold accommodations" you get issued a little locked changing room to keep your things. This is also where the bathrooms are. When you are ready for bed all you are supposed to wear is long underwear and a thin layer over that, boots (for the walk), and a hat. You are issued a sub-zero sleeping bag and then you have to go OUTSIDE to get to the entrance of the hotel. The walk isn't long, but at -30*C nighttime temperatures, the hotel, at -5*C, seems warm. Everything is relative!

The beds are made of ice, but there is a pad, reindeer hides, and of course your sleeping bag. It was actually very comfortable and I really wasn't as cold as I thought I would be. The only problem was that I had to make a trip to the bathroom in the night, which involves a trip back outside to The Luggage House. But soon I was back in my bag and back to sleep. In the morning we were awoken by a friendly "good morning" and hot lingonberry juice. There are showers and even a sauna in an adjacent building, so they make it easy to warm up again.

We didn't have much time to spare though; we were soon off to one more excursion before we left. We went snowshoeing up to a lookout point on Mount Puimonen with a really fun group of people. We had no trouble staying warm on this hike! At the top we built a little camp-fire and had fresh coffee and lingonberry cake (very popular up there). After all that hard work to get up to the lookout, the fun was yet to come. We slid down natural snow slides most of the way down, which was a blast.

We only had a little more time before heading back to the airport. It was a short trip, but I can easily say one of my favorite so far! The Icehotel is so unique and set in such a stunningly beautiful place that you cannot help but spend the whole time just taking it all in and saying "I can't believe we're here!" It's hard to imagine that the hotel will be gone in May, when it melts back into the Torne River, only to be built again next year.

Landing at the Kiruna airport

Dogsled parking

Local transportation in Lapland


In the Main Hall

Snowmobiling in the Lapland wilderness, in search of the Northern Lights

At the excursion meeting spot

Ice driving


Happy dogs

Lights at the hotel

In bed in our Icesuite

Snowshoeing group

The church in the village of Jukkasjärvi

Absolut Icebar

mardi, février 27, 2007

Hej! Welcome to Sverige

Ah Sweden, home of Abba, Ikea, Volvo, Vikings, and the Noble prize. This was our first trip to Scandinavia and we didn't really know what to expect. Would we be dining on meatballs, sitting on stylish furniture, with a group of tall blonds listening to Dancing Queen? We spent two days in Stockholm on our way up to the Ice Hotel in the very north of the country. It wasn't really the best time of year to visit this wonderful city, but despite the cold, we took in the sights and got a taste of the real Sweden (and yes, that did include listening to a little Abba here and there). ;)

My favorite thing about Sweden (or Sverige) is that their word for hello is hej (pronounced hey), so every time you walked into a shop or bought a ticket at a museum you were greeted with a friendly hej! It felt like everyone was your close friend, and in fact we found that Sweden was one of the friendliest places we have been.

The food was great too. We actually had the best Italian food we've eaten (outside of Italy) and the local cuisine was delicious. The seafood and meatballs were great, and we discovered some new foods like cloudberries that were simply heavenly. We did get a laugh out of the local candy bars that we bought at a local market on our way out of town. They tasted fine, but with names like "Plopp" and "Japp" we simply had to try them!

Stockholm is built on 14 islands and sits between a beautiful lake (although the parts we saw were frozen over) and the Baltic Sea. It is billed as one of the most beautiful capitals in the world. I totally agree, and we saw it in the coldest month, covered in ice and snow. I can only imagine how amazing it is in summer.

We stayed on the island of Norrmalm where the downtown area is, but we spent quite a bit of time in Gamla Stan, the charming old island core of the city, filled with narrow alleys and stairways and the site of the Royal Palace. We loved the old town, but we also appreciated the more modern sites. Much to our surprise, near our hotel, was a huge mall, half underground. It was great. It was only the 3rd “proper” mall I’ve seen in Europe. One in Lyon, Barcelona, and now here in Stockholm. We didn’t buy anything, but it reminded us a little of home. We even caught a little US television at the hotel. "America's Next Top Model" was on, it was in English, but renamed to "Girlicious". I loved it!

We spent the day on the island of Djurgården, which used to be the King’s hunting ground. Here is where the three top attractions are in Stockholm. The Skansen, Europe’s largest open-air museum, founded in 1891. It is a huge park with more that 150 historic buildings, transplanted from all over Sweden. Nearby are also the Nordic Museum and the Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet), which showcases an ill-fated 17th century warship, dredged from the sea floor. It was really impressive. We also stopped into the Royal Armory back in Gamla Stan with a spectacular collection of medieval royal armory.

Even with all this, we managed to squeeze in a bus tour to really get a feel of the layout of the city. Since it was winter, we skipped the boat tour and missed the famous Changing of the Guard, which only happens May to September. But all in all it was a fantastic visit. We were now on our way to the airport to catch the hour and a half flight north to Kiruna and on to the Ice Hotel in the small village of Jukkkasjärvi.

This is one of the most interesting phone booths I've ever seen!

Every day the birds of Stockholm gather for breakfast. Eight huge sacs of feed were put out and the feeding frenzy began!

"Iron boy" is the smallest statue in Stockholm.

The Vasa warship was salvaged from the bottom of the harbor and is now the centerpiece of the Vasa Museum.

G and the crew of the Vasa.

A traditional Swedish house in Skansen, Europe's largest open air museum.

Traditional Swedish horses.

Lifebuoys, just in case someone decides to take a dip in the frozen lake...

The harbor on the island of Djurgården.

samedi, février 10, 2007


So far so good! It looks like the switch went smoothly! :)
Alle ist gut mit meinem Blogger, sogar mit einem kleinen Deutsch!
(Actually I can temporarily switch everything to English, so it isn't as bad as it was before!)

# 101 - The big switch

Well, I can't quite believe it, but I'm already at post #101... pretty cool huh?!? 16 months ago I started this blog and here we are today, 101 posts later. It has developed quite a bit over the past year, with new links here and there and other fun tid-bits. I've learned a lot and have had a great time sharing our Swiss life with all of you (and jotting down our adventures for us to read later).

I'm now facing my biggest challenge yet... I have to switch to the "new Blogger" which I really don't want to do, but I'm afraid if I don't do it myself, I will be forced to by the big bad people at Google. Why am I afraid? Well, the big reason (aside from hearing the horror stories from people loosing everything on their blogs during "the big switch"), is that the new form of blogger seems to be permanently stuck in German for me. If you have noticed I haven't been posting on anyone's blogs recently. This is because every time I go onto a blog that has made the switch to the "new Blogger", I get everything (except the actual content of the blog) in German. The blue nav bar at the top, the sign-in page for comments, and even the main blogger page... all in German.

I've read everything I can to see how to fix the problem, but it seems that Google (the new owners of Blogger), determines your language by your IP address and not by the language you select on your profile. I've read about people (English speakers) from all over the world that have the same problem. The most common "problem" languages seem to be German, Chinese, and Spanish... although I have heard of others. So, when I change to the "new Blogger" I'm going to have to translate things through babble-fish or something like that until Google helps us monolingual Anglophones out a bit.

Wish me luck! If you are reading this post, it means that at least I haven't lost everything in the big switch. See you on the other side...

vendredi, février 09, 2007

My first day on the job...

It's true! I started working yesterday. It was only a trial run, but last night I put in a 5 hour dinner shift at a pretty busy restaurant in Geneva, waiting tables.

About a month ago I mentioned to some friends that I was looking for work, and my name was passed on to the owner of a local restaurant called Heaven that we have frequented quite a bit since it opened last October. He contacted me last week and told me to come in on Thursday night. I thought I was there for an interview, but when I arrived they gave me a staff shirt and started showing me around. I have to admit I was really not expecting to work, but I dove right in and gave it my best shot. With no training, it was truly sink or swim.

I haven't worked in a restaurant since college, but I was soon right back in the swing of things. There were certainly differences from my old restaurant. The biggest for me was the language barrier. The menus are in French and English, and while quite a few customers speak English, some only speak French. That was a bit of a challenge for me. That, and the fact that I don't know a whole lot about wine. The other big difference was that there were no "sections" for each server, instead we all worked together on all the tables. It was hard for me to keep track of everything at first, since there were over 60 customers and I had to know what each of the other wait staff was doing so I didn't accidentally hand a desert menu to someone who had just finished their appetizer.

But I caught on pretty fast and soon I was having a great time. I even made a 40 CHF (about $32) tip! In Switzerland, tips in general are unheard of... the gratuity is already in the bill, so it is customary to only leave one or two francs no matter how big the bill is, so the 40 frank tip was great! Quite a few tables thanked me for the great service (in general, customer service in Switzerland is a rarity), so I was feeling pretty good about things. The other servers were great too. There were four of us last night, the other three spoke fluent French.

It was a great night for me, but I have to wait until next week to see if I have the job or not. If I don't get it, I'm sure it will be due to my French skills. But if I do, it will be a great place to practice my French! My fingers are crossed...

jeudi, février 08, 2007


Last night at my toastmasters meeting I gave my third speech, "Being Green", on global warming. This can be a gloom-and-doom subject, so I tried to make it lighthearted and funny, using Kermit the Frog's song "It's Not Easy Being Green" in my intro. Overall the speech was a success, although I still need to work on my nervousness.

The club is very international, with only about five of us (out of about 40) from the US. This has gotten me in a bit of trouble. I've been told I have a "thick California accent" and after my speech last night, the grammarian (from the UK) criticized my use of language. I used the words "garbage" and "trash" in my speech when I should have used "rubbish". Nothing against the queen's English, but I don't think I've ever actually used the word rubbish in my life!

But no matter, next time I think I'll tell a story of a family going on holiday:

We start at their flat where they open their wardrobe and pack the suitcase with their pullovers, tights and trousers. "Don't forget your swimming costume!” shouts mom. After throwing the suitcase in the boot and waiting in the queue to fill their tank with petrol, the family picked up some bangers, crisps, biscuits, and sweets for the road and a tin of beer for later. Driving down the motorway they dodged a lorry in the roundabout before heading into the crossroads, careful not to hit any pedestrians in the zebra crossing. At the hotel the kids watched some Beeb and football on the box while mom & dad headed out for a game of billiards at the local pub with their mates.

Hahaha... not too bad for a yank! ;)

mercredi, février 07, 2007

Duck and cover...

Today at precisely 13:30, all across Switzerland, the Civil Defense tested their “general alarm”, which sounded like air raid sirens to me. It was LOUD. I'm thankful that a gal in G's office sent out a little memo (which was forwarded on to me), that this was a test and only a test.

I'm not quite sure what we are supposed to do if it were an actual emergency, except maybe head for our bomb shelter in the basement. I took a look outside to see how my fellow Genevoise were reacting, and it seemed hardly anyone noticed the ear-piercing sound. The only soul that seemed bothered by the whole thing was Scout, who was looking at me with a look that said, "turn it off already!" Soon all was quiet and back to normal... which Scout appreciated. :)

lundi, février 05, 2007

Are you ready for some American football?

I had been more or less following the NFL these past few weeks leading up to "the big game". Unfortunately, when my two favorite teams (Seahawks & Eagles) were both eliminated from the playoffs on the same weekend I lost a lot of interest, but the season must go on and Super bowl weekend was upon us.

I was trying to find someone to watch the game with, but since it came on at 12:30am Monday morning, G was out and it seems my fellow Americans were all going to be in bed. I had heard that a local sports pub, Mr. Pickwicks, would be showing the game live (in English) via SKY Digital Satellite TV. The problem was I didn't know anyone going and I would have to walk, since the trams stop after midnight and would certainly not be running at 3:30 when the game would be wrapping up. Things looked bleak.

Much to my surprise, on the "France2" station, there it was, right in our living room... the Super bowl! It was CBS's coverage, but with none of the English commentary, touching "feel-good segments", or <<gasp>> commercials! Instead the extra time was filled in with a sole French sportscaster interviewing anyone who could speak French. It was the most random selection of people, from a technical engineer in the sound room to some Francophone fans. It was great to hear the French commentary of the game. They were really getting into it, screaming "Cet est incroyable!!!" and "SUPER!" (pronounced "Suuu-Pear!!!"). I even learned some new vocabulary words that I'm sure will be used on a daily basis, like "lignes défensif" (defensive lineman) and "calembours le retour" (punt return).

Overall it was a very entertaining game and I'm happy the Colts won. The half-time show was great. Fortunately, Prince was not dubbed and I highly enjoyed the "Purple Rain" ballad. And now I have even more incentive to become fluent in French... maybe someday I will be interviewed for France2's coverage of the big game! As for the commercials, I heard they are on YouTube... thank goodness for technology! :)