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, avril 25, 2007

Welcome to the Swiss life

We were concerned about making it back from Egypt on time because the morning after our return to Geneva we were expecting visitors. We were so concerned that we had a contingency plan; our friend, Mrs. Kofi, was set to pick them up and bring them to our place if we weren't able to make it back in time.

But thankfully we made it back on time and were able to go to the airport ourselves to pick up my dad & step mom (I'll call her Mrs. M), bright and early on Easter Sunday. It was their first time to Switzerland and I was looking forward to showing them all around our little corner of the world. We took it easy on our first day and wandered around Geneva a bit before a very traditional Swiss dinner. We went to a restaurant called Edelweiss, which was a bit touristy but charming none the less. We listened to a traditional Swiss band (complete with cow bells and an alphorn) while we shared a pot of fondue. You can't get much more local than that!

So what is the best way to start off our Swiss sightseeing week? Head over to nearby France of course!! We planned to ride a cable car to the lift station overlooking Chamonix, but the mountains were a bit too hazy to do the trip (and the 40 Euro lift ticket) justice, so we drove to Annecy instead. The weather was perfect for this picturesque lake side town where we enjoyed the sights and ate lunch in the old town. In the afternoon we swung by the medieval town of Yvoire, on the banks of Lake Geneva.

The next day was all about exploring Geneva, which isn't as boring as everyone says! :) We walked along the lake, wandered through the Old Town, and watched the chess games in Parc Bastion before heading over to the UN for an afternoon tour. I felt bad because I had to run into the grocery store for a few things on the way home. It turned out to be great, because Mrs. M really found it fascinating - I had forgotten how different our little local market is from the mega-stores back in California. It was cool to see the place I go to everyday through a fresh set of eyes!

Our first train trip of the week was when we ventured to the town of Montreux to visit the Chateau de Chillon, the largest and most famous castle in Switzerland, perched on the edge of Lake Geneva. The next day we ventured even further to Bern, the charming, compact capital of Switzerland. At lunch I tried my hand at German, but instead of ordering three beers and rostis, (I had gotten my zwei (2) and drei (3) mixed up) we ended up one short! When she brought us the rechnung bitte (bill please), the waitress was surprised that we were English speakers (not to sharp on her part if she thought I was fluent in German!) We had a good laugh over that one.

On their last night in Geneva I realized that my dad & Mrs. M had missed the second biggest tourist attraction in the city -- the beautiful flower clock (second only to the Jet d'Eau fountain in the middle of the lake)! I made it a point to swing by this famous monument on our way to dinner in the Old Town. After all, I didn't want them getting home and realizing that we had missed this amazing sight! ;)

It was a great week touring around Switzerland and France with my dad and Mrs. M - unfortunately they could only stay a week. But I'm thrilled that they had the chance to check out where we live and got a taste of the Swiss life, fondue and all!

In Anncey's old town

Yvoire harbor

Where are we? Oh, Yvoire!

At Jardin Anglais in Geneva


Chateau de Chillon

In Chillion

At the ogre fountain in Bern

Overlooking the Aare River in Bern

Dinner in Geneva

samedi, avril 21, 2007

The mysteries of Egypt: Part two - Upper Egypt

The train rolled into Luxor (الأقصر) (the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes) bright and early. Luxor is overloaded with sights and is actually referred to as the "world's greatest open air museum". We could have easily spent an entire week here and not have seen everything, but we only had three days, so we didn't waste any time and started right in.

Our first stop of the day was off the side of the road to take a look at the Colossi of Memnon, a pair of massive statues that are all that remain of what was once the largest complex on the West Bank of the Nile. It was built by Amenhotep III as his funerary temple. We didn't really linger, since just behind us were three huge busses packed with tourists! We wanted to stay ahead of the crowds. We were headed to the Valley of the Kings, which is a great, barren, isolated canyon on the West Bank where the tombs of the New Kingdom pharos were hidden.

There are 62 known tombs in the valley and your entrance ticket gets you into any three of your choice, except for the most famous of the tombs, that of King Tut, his tomb is extra. We visited three tombs (Rameses I, Rameses III, & Merenptah), all amazingly decorated, and then we decided to visit King Tut's tomb. Ali warned us that it is one of the least impressive in the valley, and not worth the money, but I had to go. It was the King Tut traveling exhibit that got me interested in Egypt when I was a kid, so I felt like it was a must see. Unfortunately, Ali was right. The tomb was neither large nor impressive (compared with the others) and is pretty empty, but we were there!

The rest of the day we spent visiting the Valley of the Queens (skipping the Tomb of Nefertari whose entrance fee is over $1,000 and requires advanced booking) and touring the Hatshepsut Temple, at Deir el-Bahri, built out of a sheer limestone cliff for Egypt's most successful female pharaoh (and my personal favorite pharaoh), Hatshepsut. It was a scorching hot day, so we decided to take it easy in the afternoon. We stopped off at the "Alabaster Museum" (another quick demonstration followed by more purchases!) on the way to our hotel. We had a few hours before the evening's entertainment and I had big plans to enjoy the hotel pool, but I made the mistake of lying down and before I knew if I was indulging in an afternoon nap!

We were scheduled to spend the evening at the Karnak Temple, where we would see the Sound & Light Show. The temple of Karnak is a vast, spectacular complex that is so massive it is large enough to contain 10 huge cathedrals. It was built on a leviathan scale to house the gods, and over the century’s different pharos added to it, each trying to outdo the others. The show was touristy, but interesting. It was a great way to get a first peak at this massive complex, but we decided to return the next day to see it by the light of day.

But a return visit to Karnak would have to wait until we returned from the Temple of Hathor (the goddess of love and patron of music and dancing) at Dendara. Ali was not able to come with us that day, so he set us up with a substitute guide, Hassan, who was very good too, although no one could compare to Ali! Dendara is located about an hour and half north of Luxor. To get there tourists are required to drive in a caravan with police escorts (to protect us from terrorist attacks). I thought the caravan was a bit over the top (the police drove through town with lights & sirens, stopping all local traffic along the way) and if anything, I felt like it put a big target on our heads! But, for now, it is the only way for tourists to travel in the South of the country. Because of the caravan, we only had 45 minutes at the temple, but it was fantastic none the less.

We returned to Luxor and had a chance to go back to the Karnak Temple, and it was even better by day than it was the night before! After another local lunch of falafels, we caught a felucca to Banana Island in the middle of the Nile. It is a lush island full of banana plants. Our boat driver came along to show us around and we ended up sharing a snack (of bananas & sugar cane), a tea, and a shisha pipe under the cool, shady trees. After dinner, Hassan gave us one last tour, this time at the Luxor Temple, which actually was right across from our hotel, right on the waterfront.

On Thursday Ali was back with us, and instead of taking the train to Aswan, (أسوان) (Egypt's southernmost town and the gateway to Africa) 125 miles to the south, we decided to drive (in another caravan) to visit two temples on the way. Our first stop was the Temple of Horus (the falcon god or the sky-god of the Nile) in Edfu. Then we visited The Temple of Kom-Ombo, dedicated to Hathor, the crocodile god. We arrived in Aswan about mid-day, but our sightseeing was still in full swing. We wasted no time and headed straight for the Aswan High Dam, completed in 1971, which was built to stop the annual flooding of the Nile. The construction created Lake Nasser, which is the largest artificial lake in the world. We then caught a boat to the island of Philae and visited the Temple of Isis, the goddess of magic and rebirth.

Our only evening in Aswan turned out to be the best of our trip. Ali had arranged for an evening boat ride to a Nubian village on Elephantine Island (الفنتين). When we landed, G, Ali, & I all mounted our own camel and we were off. I was handed over the reigns and instructed how to ride the camel myself, which may not have been the best idea. We were riding on the edge of a steep, sandy drop off that went straight into the water, so I was a little worried about my camel's footing. Then the crazy thing decided to take off on me! In a full gallop, I could hardly hold on and I felt myself slipping off to the side. It was the craziest and funniest ride I have ever had! It seemed to go on for an eternity, but somehow I survived.

Once in the actual village we dismounted and Ali brought us to see the local school. Along the way everyone was shouting "hola" to us (I guess there are a lot of Spanish tourists, so everyone thought we were Spanish). At the school Ali taught us the Arabic alphabet and numbers. I had learned a few words throughout the week, but the alphabet was a challenge for me. We were having fun, but we were late for dinner with a local family. Outside the school we met one of the little Nubian girls in town who Ali knows pretty well. She was so cute! She started speaking to us in Spanish and when I stumbled a little, she blurted out, "I speak English too" This six year old spoke Arabic, Nubian, Spanish, English (and maybe more!)

We were treated to a traditional Nubian dinner, which was probably enough to feed 8 people. We didn't want to be rude and not finish, but there was no way we were able to finish all the plates of food! Our boat driver joined us for dinner and soon we were in deep conversation. Meanwhile, G and Ali headed upstairs to socialize with the rest of the family. When I appeared upstairs about a half hour later, there was G surrounded by about 8 beautiful women! They were all drinking tea and chatting. I joined in and got some henna on my hands and even got to hold a baby crocodile. It was getting late, so the boat driver took us (and a few of the family members) back to the mainland. It was the best night. Because Ali knew so many of the people in the village so well, we really had a genuine local experience and it was by far the highlight of the week.

Our last full day in Aswan was an early one. We decided to make the trek to the great Sun Temple of Abu Simbel, three hours to the south (and only 40km north of the Sudan boarder). Our driver met us at our hotel at 3:30 in the morning to meet up with the caravan leaving at four! It gets so hot there that the only way to see it is before 9am, otherwise the heat is just too oppressive. On the way we saw a desert mirage. It was so neat, because it really looked like a lake of water, but it was only the sand.

The good thing about leaving so early is we were back by noon and were able to enjoy a relaxing afternoon. We wandered the Aswan souq and did a little shopping. Then in the afternoon we took another boat ride to the botanical gardens & back to Elephantine Island to visit the Aswan Museum. It was a pretty lazy afternoon, which was just what we needed after our hectic week of sightseeing. Soon we were on the overnight train back to Cairo.

Heni was at the train station to meet in the morning and then we were taken to the giant Cairo souq (Khan Al-Khalili bazaar) where vendors have been trading since the Middle Ages. We had time for a little more shopping and one last tea. Then it was time to head for the airport to catch our flight back to Geneva. We had had the best trip and I feel that we hardly scratched the surface! We never made it to the Red Sea, Sinai, or the deserts which would all be amazing to see. There is so much to see and do in Egypt that I hope to return someday to this extraordinary land.

Colossi of Memnon

At King Tut's tomb

At the Hatshepsut Temple

Hieroglyphics - most of which were in extraordinary colors

G making friends

Karnak Temple at night

Temple of Hathor at Dendara

More hieroglyphics

At the entrance of Karnak Temple

Mingling at Karnak Temple

Traditional felucca boats headed to Banana Island

G sharing a shisha pipe on Banana Island

Luxor Temple

With our temporary guide Hassan at the Luxor Temple

With some school kids at the Temple of Horus

At the Temple of Kom-Ombo

Getting ready for our crazy camel ride

Getting henna on my hands

With our amazing guide Ali in the Nubian village

Us at the great Sun Temple of Abu Simbel

Shop in the Aswan souq

"To the archeological area" sign behind the Aswan Museum

Sunset on the Nile

The adorable cat that followed us around the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar in Cairo

With Heni and our driver in Cairo

vendredi, avril 20, 2007

The mysteries of Egypt: Part one - Cairo

I used to think Boston was really old. I remember on my NYC/New England trip with Chica and Siff a few years back, I found myself standing in Paul Revere's house (built in 1680) and I was absolutely amazed at how old it was. The first time I arrived in Europe I realized that 1680 was actually pretty recent. But when it comes to old sights, nothing compares to Egypt (مصر), the oldest tourist destination on earth, where the ancient Greeks and Romans used to come to sightsee. It is hard to really phantom how old the temples and pyramids are that tourists are still able to stand in and marvel at today.

But before we could see the sights, we had to get there... and that turned out to be more challenging than we ever imagined. I booked our tickets through Alitalia, which I found out later has one of the worst reputations for canceled flights and lost luggage. We arrived at the airport at 6am and actually made it out to the runway before we were brought back to the terminal (due to technical issues) and the flight was canceled. Bad news, but it would get much worse. We were flying out the Saturday before the big Easter weekend, and since most of Europe gets at least part of this week off (G had 2 days off for Easter), so everyone is jetting off for vacation. When we tried to rebook our flight, the earliest flight (from ANY airport in Europe) to Cairo was MONDAY night!!! We would be missing 3 days of our 8 day trip!

After 45 minutes clicking away on the computer, the guy who was helping us put us on standby for a flight to Cairo through Tunisia on Tunisair (we actually live upstairs from their Geneva office). Somehow we made it! We did almost loose our luggage, (our packs were supposed to be checked all the way through to Cairo, but as we happened to be walking though luggage claim in Tunis, there they were!) but even though we were several hours late, we were finally in Egypt, luggage in hand. We were so happy to be in Cairo that we didn't even mind when we found out our hotel was just across the street from the Syrian embassy. It didn't get any points for ambiance, but we could still have been sitting in our apartment in Geneva, so we were happy.

On our first full day we started out with a bang and headed straight to the Pyramids of Giza, which are over 4,500 years old and the sole survivors of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. The pyramids are litteraly on the edge of Cairo, on the outskirts of Giza City. It is amazing just how big these tombs of the pharoses are, so big that up close they seem almost two dimensional. You can actually go inside, down a steep, humid and slightly closterphobic passage to the heart of the pyramid.

Once we ascended back to the outside world, we traveled a bit further down the road for a bit of a photo shoot and a camel ride. Yeah, it was a little touristy, but we had to do it! We were then taken to the Great Sphinx of Giza, which was surprisingly within walking distance of The Pyramids. It was also surprising to see just how small it is, although it was still quite stunning none the less. I could not take my eyes off of this legendary monument.

We made a quick stop at a "Perfume Museum" which was really a store where we were given a five minute demonstration of how the glass vials are blown and an explanation of what each of the "essences" are used for and what they smell like. We were suckers and ended up purchasing a box of six essences, ranging from stress-relieving Lotus Flower to anti-asthma Frankincense.

After a quick local falafel lunch we were headed over to The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities which has over 120,000 relics including the treasures of Tutankhamen and The Royal Mummy Room. There was no way to see it all, but we hit the highlights and got a good overview of Egyptian history. (And I thought we had a lot to learn in my high school US History class!) For dinner we were taken to a Nile cruise dinner show, which was a lot of fun. We watched traditional dancers and G was even selected as one of the reluctant volunteers who got up on stage to shake their money maker (it was MUCH too short for me though!)

Our first day was a fantastic whirlwind of activity. It was also our first day with our amazing guide, Ali who is a graduate of Cairo University in Egyptology and knows just about everything there is to know about Egypt. I was a bit reluctant about our tour company, One World Tours, since it was relatively inexpensive (compared to other companies offering similar tours) and I could not find any reviews on line. I figured we would be packed in a bus with a dozen other tourists with mediocre service, I was prepared for the worst. But to my pleasant surprise we ended up with our own private minivan, our own personal driver (actually a couple of drivers throughout the week), and our own "representative", Heni, who met us at the airport and took care of all of our needs throughout the week. And to top it all off, we were thrilled to have a fantastic guide, Ali.

Our second day was just as jam packed as the first. We started in the heart of the huge, busy city of Cairo (القاهرة). This is no understatement, considering Cairo is the largest city in both the Middle East and Africa. It is also one of the world's most densely populated cities, with over 18 million inhabitants. This "Mother of Cities" is staggering, chaotic, and overwhelming at times, but it is also an exhilarating, awe inspiring place full of wonderful sights and experiences.

We started in Islamic Cairo at The Citadel (قلعة صلاح الدين), the fortified complex which dominates the skyline. Here is the home of the Mohamed Ali Mosque which we were able to go into. Once inside, our guide, Ali gave us a lesson in the Islamic faith and the traditions of Muslims, explaining many things to us, including the Five Pillars of Islam and the call to prayer. It was really fascinating to me and I appreciated learning so much about a religion I really didn't know a whole lot about. We then ventured to Old Cairo, with narrow winding streets, where we visited the Hanging Church and the Ben Ezra Synagogue. It was interesting to see three completely different places of worship all in one day.

In the afternoon we headed to Saqqara (سقارة), the huge burial complex of ancient Memphis (the capital of the Old Kingdom) which peacefully sits on the edge of the desert. The most famous monument here is the Step Pyramid, the world's earliest stone monument. But there are several pyramids, tombs, and mastabas (another type of tomb) here and we were fortunate to get to explore several. It was much less crowded than the tourist-packed sights of the day before. This was also our first chance to study hieroglyphics up close. I was fascinated.

We were scheduled to take the overnight train to Luxor and on the way to the train station we stopped in to a "Papyrus Museum", which was very similar to the "Perfume Museum"... we got a five minute demonstration and a half hour later we walked out with a purchase of a fine papyrus print (or two). It was still relatively early, about six or so and Ali told us that our train wasn't leaving until nine! We had time to kill, so he took us to have tea (and a shisha pipe smoke) at his local tea bar. We met up with another guide, his wife, and our driver. I really felt like a local.

After a while it was time to catch our train. We got our own private sleeping compartment (complete with a sink), we were served a nice dinner, and soon we were settling in for the long journey to the South. When we woke the next morning, we had arrived in Upper Egypt. (I learned on our trip that Upper Egypt is in the South and Lower Egypt is in the North, the terminology derives from the flow of the Nile from South to North, where it flows into the Mediterranean.) Our next adventure was waiting just around the corner...

On The Great Pyramid of Cheops

The Great Pyramid of Cheops

On a camel trek

Kissing The Great Sphinx

Glass blower at the Perfume Museum

Part of the entertainment on our Nile dinner cruise

G at The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities

Mohammed Ali Mosque at The Citadel

The narrow streets of Old Cairo

At The Step Pyramid in Saqqara

Amazing hieroglyphics

vendredi, avril 06, 2007

Boarding en Français

Months ago, before the start of the warmest winter Europe has seen in over 100 years, we signed up for a three day ski trip with G's work. The French sales team made all the arrangements and all we had to do was pay our money and show up! But then, as the warm months went on and on, and what little snow that did fall seemed to melt away in a matter of days, things were looking bleak for our late-March trip. But then something extraordinary happened... It got cold, it snowed, and it stuck!

We were thrilled to finally be doing some snow boarding this year (even if it is a bit late to properly start the season!) After all, snow boarding is my favorite part of winter and we are so close to the slopes. So, we were off to France for three blissful days of boarding. We stayed in the little mountain village of Champagny, nestled in the Alps in the Savoy region of France. The village is connected to a series of ski resorts that offers more that 425km of pistes (runs) and 3 glaciers. You could stay here all week and not ski the same run twice!

On our first day (Friday), the weather wasn't exactly cooperating with us, but I wasn't complaining... we had acres of fresh powder and the snow was still falling! By Saturday things were clearing up a little and with a fresh wax and edge I was boarding well and happy as a clam. Sunday was the pinnacle of the trip. It was clear and warmer with tons of fresh powder on the ground - spring skiing at its best! That day we tackled runs with names like "Kamikaze" and "Hara-Kiri", I'm not sure if their names were meant to be funny or to scare off the timid!

We were skiing with a couple folks from the office and a group from the field (the French team). These guys were good, but then again most of them had grown up near the Alps and skiing was in their blood. One guy brought his 14 year old son, who skis competitively, and I barely blinked and he was gone. I have never seen anyone ski so fast in my life!

As for me, I faced an unexpected challenge. Last year I conquered the dreaded T-bar (and won), but the European ski slopes had a couple more surprises in store for me... the astro-turf conveyor belt chairlift and the mid-run tow rope. Both I mastered (after a first-time try debacle) and actually grew to enjoy, especially the tow rope, which felt more like wake boarding than snow boarding.

At night the whole group (about 20 of us) would gather for dinner at a long table in our chalet for a private meal. Most of the conversation was in French, which I could follow along with okay. The only trouble I had was when G was asked to tell the tale of how we met (in French) and he looked to me to talk for him! I must admit I stuck to the short version. ;)

The best part of European skiing - vin chaud (hot wine) & good company!

Alpine boarding

G with the French gals

The view from our chalet

The dreaded astro-turf conveyor belt chairlift -- who thought up this crazy thing anyway?!?

Together on top of the world