Our Own Roman Holiday

Angel on Bridge

Early February brought us to one of the gems of the world, Rome, Italy – a city with a deep and rich history.  It was an absolute thrill to walk down the roads of Caesars, Popes and so many others who have made a mark on history.

We spent three days in Roma. The weather wasn’t great, mainly rainy and ~50 F for a high, but being there at this time of year meant that the crowds were a fraction of what they are during the summer. As a friend once told me, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” We dressed accordingly and were just fine as we wandered the ancient streets.

On Friday, we visited the Colosseum. It was built in 70-80 A.D. specifically for gladiator fights. In its day, it seated 65,000 people! (The Lambeau Field of the ancient world.) So much of it is still standing because they used some type of concrete to mortar the bricks together that is seemingly indestructible. Scientists still haven’t figured out how to replicate it. In addition to gladiator fights, the Colosseum was host to “animal games” and a wide variety of events that entertained all classes of ancient Roman society.

Colosseum 1
View of the Colosseum and the many rooms under the former main floor,

Colosseum 2

After leaving the Colosseum, we walked along the Roman Forum. It was the center of  religious and political life in Rome. It is a large, rectangular plaza, surrounded by 50 buildings, including churches, arches and temples, some dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries B.C. Although much has been damaged by time and catastrophes, it has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It’s impossible to describe the feeling of walking the same paths as Romulus, the first king of Rome, or Julius Caesar.

Roman Forum
View of the Roman Forum.

Rome has an amazing mixture of remnants of pagan and Christian faiths. For example, the Pantheon, which was an incredible view just outside our hotel window, was built 2000 years ago. It was used for pagan ceremonies and has been consistently functioning as a church since then. The interior is completely round. In the huge domed ceiling, there’s a hole, called an “oculus,” that is over 20 feet in diameter. When they built it, they knew that if the door was closed, there’d be enough pressure inside to keep the rain out! Now that it’s a church and a tourist attraction, the door is open all the time so rain does fall in. They rope off the area and there are drains in the tiled floor to get rid of the water. To this day, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

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Photo from Wikipedia.

On Saturday, we took a semi-private tour of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Vatican City is its own country – the smallest and yet perhaps the richest country on the planet. St. Peter’s is the largest church in the world. So you have the largest church in the world in the smallest country of the world. There are only 900 residents of Vatican City and you must be a descendent from the original families who were there when the Vatican was founded in 1929 to be able to live there. It has its own postal service and there are no taxes.

St. Peter's 1

St. Peter's Monument
St. Peter’s tomb is directly below this altar. The bronze used for the altar was “recycled” from the roof of the Pantheon.

The Basilica itself is breath-taking. None of our photos do it justice. The paintings and sculptures are not only breath-taking, the sheer number of them  boggles the mind. Every space seems an artistic treasure. Most would agree that the finest and most moving of the statues in the Basilica is Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” It, and the statue of David in Florence, are considered his greatest sculptures.

Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Note: we learned that early Roman sculptures were colorfully painted. As our tour guide said, “Just imagine walking through town and seeing vibrantly colored statues everywhere.” This would have been great to see! It really makes you rethink the “plain, white marble” of the statues we see now.

The absolute highlight of the tour for me was the Sistine Chapel. It was built simply for the Pope to pray in; it is part of the original papal apartment. It is named after its first “client,” Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere. In addition to its use by the pope, it is also the site of the “papal conclave.” In other words, this is where the cardinals meet to vote on the next pope.

The chapel is not huge but the artwork is incredible. (Photos are not allowed. Click here for photos from Wikipedia.) The two long side walls were painted by Roman artists. One side is painted with depictions of the life of Moses, and the other is painted with depictions of the life of Christ. What people really go to see, however, is the ceiling and the front wall because they were painted by Michelangelo. What floored me is that Michelangelo was a sculptor and had hardly painted any frescoes before he did this ceiling! He built his own scaffolding and stood upright to paint. (Many stories incorrectly state that he painted it while lying down.) It took him about 5 years. When he was in his 60’s he painted the front wall of the chapel. It depicts the Day of Judgement, with people going to heaven and hell.

A funny story about the front wall. There was a lot of controversy about the nudes that Michelangelo included in his paintings. In particular, the pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, said that the paintings were disgraceful and belonged instead in the public baths and taverns. When Michelangelo was finishing the Day of Judgement, he put Cesena’s face on Minus, the judge of the underworld. He put donkey ears on him and a snake wrapped around his legs, biting at his crotch. When Cesena toured the chapel with the Pope, right before it was revealed to the public, he recognized his face on the guy in hell and went crazy. He begged the Pope to make Michelangelo change it. The Pope said that his jurisdiction didn’t extend to hell. LOL!

Swiss Guards
Couldn’t resist: these are the Swiss Guards who provide security throughout the Vatican.

In addition to visiting some of the major sites, we thoroughly enjoyed simply walking around the city. We ate wonderful meals topped with even better wine, and popped into church after church for artwork, architecture and sculptures that amazed us.


On Sunday, we returned to St. Peter’s Square. Every Sunday at noon, the Pope does a brief sermon (in Italian) from a window in the residence. He then gives a Papal Blessing to everyone gathered there. Afterward, we walked to an area called Trastevere and had a late lunch before heading to the airport. Our own “Roman holiday” came to an end with a short, 75-minute, flight back to Zurich.


Oktoberfest – The Real Deal


Living in Milwaukee, one is used to festivals at which people wear leather, drink beer and listen to music. Of course in that case, the leather is black and the people are often riding Harley-Davidsons. This past weekend, Bill and I experienced a completely different festival for leather-wearers: the opening weekend of Oktoberfest in Munich.

The first Oktoberfest was actually the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I, and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. It was held October 12, 1810 and, with the exception of war years, has been held annually ever since. It now runs from the second to last weekend in September through the first weekend in October, with weekdays included. Over the length of an annual Oktoberfest, over 6 million people will attend; including approximately 1 million in the opening weekend!

The event is a celebration of the six breweries of Munich (Hofbrau, Hacker-Pschorr, Spaten, Augustiner, Palaner and Lowenbrau). Each one brews a special Oktoberfest beer according to the “Reinheitsgebot,” the 525 year-old law that decrees that the only thing that can go in beer is: water, barley and hops.

Each brewery has its own “tent” on the festival grounds. “Tent” is so misleading, however, as the structures look so permanent!

"Zelt" = "tent"
“Zelt” = “tent”

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We were thrilled to join Milwaukee Hofbrau and Old German Beer Hall at a reserved table in the Hofbrauhaus Tent. The tent holds 10,000 people so, yes, having a reserved table, is fantastic.

"Before" - Friday afternoon in the Hofbrauhaus tent
“Before” – Friday afternoon in the Hofbrauhaus tent
"During" - Saturday afternoon in the Hofbrauhaus tent
“During” – Saturday afternoon in the Hofbrauhaus tent

Although beer takes center stage, the food is fantastic too. There are full menus of high quality items, including “hendl” (roasted chicken), “obatzda” (a Bavarian cheese delicacy) and lots of pretzels.

Appetizer tray

Music is provided by lively brass bands in each tent. Sing-alongs are the rule and dancing on tables is allowed. (Yep, I’m guilty!)

Each tent has its own decor yet dried hops, flowers and even heart-shaped lebkuchen cookies can be found hanging everywhere.

Now consider the following (and make comparisons to festivals you know):

  • No one is served a beer unless they are in a seat
  • All alcoholic beverages must be consumed in the tent areas; no wandering the grounds with a beer in hand.
    "Ein Mass" = one liter
  • Beer is served in one liter (33.8 ounce) steins. The prices we saw were 10.10 Euro each (about $13).
  • Note that the extra .10 euro makes a huge difference for the waiters and waitresses as most customers will round up to 11 euros. Many will make an entire year’s salary over the course of the festival.
  • Muscles! Waitresses typically carry 8 – 12 full beer steins at one time.
    8 Beers
  • Imagine: no plastic or cardboard! All food and drink is served in glass or ceramic with real silverware.
  • Traditional Bavarian attire is everywhere: men in “lederhosen,” leather shorts or knee-length pants, gingham shirts and knee socks; and, women in “dirndls”, cleavage-revealing traditional dresses. It’s especially interesting seeing people on buses and trains dressed this way!
  • Additional apparel note: the dirndl includes a colorful apron. It makes a difference where the knot is tied! I learned that the bow on the left-side = “single,” on the right-side = “married” or “taken,” in the front = “virgin” and in the back = “widow.”
  • Strictly cash only; no Apple Pay here (yet!)

There is a large amusement/carnival area on the grounds which, along with the food kiosks, gives the event a “State Fair feel.” The kick-off weekend of the festival includes two parades: one Saturday morning with the tent patrons and beer wagons, and, one on Sunday morning for local community clubs to show off their traditional costumes.



Parade 2

I now understand why Munich’s Oktoberfest is considered the largest “People’s Festival” in the world. We made great friends and terrific memories. We are especially grateful to John Savee and Hans Weissgerber III for including us and extending their warm hospitality. There may be great imitations elsewhere but Munich’s Oktoberfest is the real deal!

Swiss Miss Theresa and Hubby Bill
Swiss Miss Therese & Husband Willhelm

Road Trip to Provence

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For our first week-long vacation, we decided to experience Provence, the southern region of France which sits on the Mediterranean Sea. We made it a road trip and spent two nights in each of three French cities before ending our trip in northern Italy. Here are some of the French highlights:

Lyon —  technically not in Provence but on our way, Lyon is a large, wonderful city about 4 1/2 hours southwest of Zurich. (It’s the second largest city in France.) We stayed at the Hotel Carlton Lyon, just a short walk from the old city center. Our room overlooked a square with a carousel, the first of many carousels we saw in France.

Carousel in Lyon, France
Carousel in Lyon, France

We walked many miles throughout the city, climbing up hills to see the sights, like the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere. Built between 1872-1884 with private funds, the church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who saved the city of Lyon from a cholera epidemic that swept through Europe in 1643.

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. Built between 1872-1884 with private funds, the church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who saved the city of Lyon from a cholera epidemic sweeping Europe in 1643.
Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière.

We also visited the Musee Miniature et Cinema which housed costumes, props and miniature sets from movies and television shows throughout the world. And we were happy to get a nice shot of the two of us in front of this beautiful fountain.

Lyon Fountain

Aix-en-Provence — On our way to “Aix,” we stopped to see the ruins of Roman aqueducts near the town of Arles. These were amazing structures. It really is mind-boggling to walk among structures that were built in the last century B.C.

Roman Aqueduct
Roman Aqueduct

In Aix,  we stayed at the Hotel Cezanne, named after the famous artist who lived and painted there in the late 1800’s. When we travel, we definitely lean more toward soaking in the culture from the streets rather than the museums,  so I happily admit that one of the highlights of our entire week was the day we spent on tour of the Chateauneuf du Pape wine region with Romain, from ProvenceAndWine.com.

Chateauneuf Vineyard
The soil of rock, clay and sand that makes the Chateauneuf du Pape region so unique.

We learned about the many unique qualities of this 75-acre area, from the soil to the wine expertise and history. We now understand why wines from this region are typically more expensive than others in the area. The restrictions that are imposed to be able to use the Chateauneuf du Pape label are significant, such as the grapes only being able to be picked by hand. (Yes, we enjoyed the MANY wines we sampled that day!)

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Nice  — On our way to Nice, we stopped for lunch in the small, port city of Cassis. This was our first glimpse of the French Riviera. Photos do not do the “Cote d’Azur” justice; I’ve never seen blue waters like this before!

Once we arrived in Nice, we checked into our hotel and set off to explore the area. We happened upon a sign that indicated a rooftop terrace bar at a nearby hotel and looked no further. We enjoyed amazing views of the beach, a park (with carousel, of course) and a huge splash pad/fountain area for children.

Nice Overlook


Nice Fountains

Although we didn’t swim while we were there, we walked along the beach. I was amazed at how incredibly rocky it is! Imagine lying on a bed of pebbles to soak up the sun.

Our last day in Provence, we visited their famous flower market and treated ourselves to a very French breakfast: cappuccinos and crepes. (Mine with Nutella; you can’t get much more European than that!)

Flowers galore!
Flowers galore!

We also happened upon a fish market that was filled with octopus, squid, mussels and more. Unfortunately, the seagulls like it there too and made me a target at one point!

Fish market in Nice
Fish market in Nice

From the market, we walked up Castle Hill to a wonderful waterfall and incredible views.

Nice Overlook2

All in all, we had an outstanding week. The weather was perfect, 80-85 degrees each day with not a drop of rain. We ate amazing meals, mainly seafood, and learned to love the rose’ wine from the region. We continue to be astounded at all that we can see from our central location in Switzerland; we were able to visit all three cities in a 600-mile round trip. That’s like Milwaukee to Indianapolis!

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(Following our stay in France, we headed to northern Italy for two nights. I’m saving that for another post.)

House Guests!

Lucern, Switzerland
Lucern, Switzerland

After several weeks of just the two of us, Bill and I happily hosted our first non-family guests in our Swiss home a few weeks ago.

Marlene Schwartz and her husband, Steve Weiss, are good friends from Milwaukee who decided to drop by and spend some time with us before traveling to their primary destinations of Budapest and Prague. (It should be noted that we put them through our rigorous background check process and made them agree on a reasonable per night accommodation fee.)

Although many things are similar, preparing for guests in a foreign land is a little different than hosting guests in the U.S.  We prepped the “Marilyn suite” and made sure to put Swiss chocolates on their pillows — something that comes standard with our premium accommodation rates. 😉

We focused on a number of things:

  • How they would handle the jet lag
  • How much they would want to do/see
  • How far we would venture from Zurich
  • What experiences we wanted them to have: e.g. mountains, cities, countries

We also had to factor in things that are different:

  • Managing the “sticker shock” of prices for everything here
  • Dining options — restaurants are great here but the cuisine is very meat- and carb-heavy
  • Dealing with the local flavor – trains running alongside the apartment, no air conditioning, all retail including grocery stores closed on Sundays and holidays

Now Steve and Marlene are actually very easy going so we had it easy for this inaugural non-family visit.  We can honestly report that we spent a great 3 ½ days with them. We think they would tell you we were not a bad stop en route to Budapest.

They wanted to keep moving and pack it all in – so we managed to show them three countries and four wonderful European cities:

Zurich – the old city center, “altstadt,” is a great place to stop after picking folks up at the airport. We walked around, had lunch and gave them the chance to get some fresh air after the 8+ hour trip from O’Hare.  We’ve learned that once you find your guests starting to stare off aimlessly, you pretty well know it is time to do the late afternoon nap.  Works like a charm.

Lucerne – one of the most beautiful cities in Switzerland and only 40 minutes from our apartment. (See photo above and in previous posts.) There was a flea market going on which was fun to wander through — “one man’s (European) trash is another man’s treasure.”  Great place to get in some shopping as well – but that sticker shock thing tends to keep the wallet closed.

Freiburg, Germany – after visiting Freiburg when Sandy was here and finding out that Steve and Marlene were interested in visiting multiple countries, we decided to make a stop in Germany on our way to Strasbourg, France. Freiburg is a sister-city to Madison, Wisconsin and has a beautiful city center. We enjoyed walking around, visiting the Cathedral and, even though it was Sunday, we managed to find a shop open for some souvenir purchases.

Strasbourg, France – definitely the highlight of the long weekend, Strasbourg was so magical it made us giddy! Strasbourg’s historic city center, called the Grande Île (Grand Island), was classified a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1988, the first time such an honor was placed on an entire city center. Bill previously spent a weekend there so he served as our tour guide. We took a river cruise shortly after arriving which gave us a great introduction to the city. The photos below don’t do it justice but I can’t say enough about the incredible beauty of the city, the tremendous history and the overall “vibe” of life there.  Nice place to shop too.

Stras Cathedral Ext 2014-05-18

Strasb Cathedral Stained Glass 2014-05-18

Strasb Cathedral 2014-05-18

Stras Cath Night 2014-05-18

Stras Architecture 2014-05-19

After the night in Strasbourg, we returned to Zurich and spent one last evening together before Steve and Marlene’s early morning departure to Budapest. We thoroughly enjoyed our time with our first house guests!

Magical dinner on the river in Strasbourg.
Magical dinner on the river in Strasbourg.


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A Tuscan Weekend

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What’s better than traveling in Europe? Staying at friends’ homes in Europe! Two weekends ago, Bill and I visited our  friends, Lyn and Mike Hamilton in Camaiore, Italy. (The Hamiltons live in Elm Grove and also have this property that has been in Mike’s family for several decades.)

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The 400 year-old home is in the hills of Camaiore, a small town near Lucca and about 35 minutes from Pisa. From their patio, you can see down to the town of Viareggio and the Mediterranean Sea.

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We arrived early Friday afternoon bearing Swiss chocolates. We spent the day and evening at their home, chatting by the fire and enjoying a wonderful dinner of lasagna, salad, french fries (!) and sweet melon.

The french fries are their own story. When we visited the Hamiltons seven years ago, their cook served us french fries at every meal because we loved them so. The woman sadly passed away a couple of years ago and their new cook has continued the tradition but has added her own tasteful twist – she seasons the fries with sage and rosemary.

We ended the evening with small glasses of homemade limoncello, an Italian liqueur made with lemons from the tree outside the house. Sweet!

The next morning, we went into town for cappuccinos and brioche. (Mine was filled with marmalade.)


We strolled through town for a little while and then drove to the nearby  Sant’Anna memorial.

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Sant’Anna di Stazzema is a moving, beautiful and somber place. It is a memorial to the nearly 600 women, children and elderly who were killed by the Nazis during World War II. (Read more about the massacre here: http://bit.ly/1jCvdPO.) It’s hard to comprehend the violence that occurred there as you look around.

Along the path to the top of the hill and the memorial, you pass two versions of the Stations of the Cross. As shown here, a station includes a traditional depiction of Jesus as well a depiction of the Nazi actions at Sant’Anna:

Sant Anna Station 1

The memorial itself was striking as one walks up the hill.

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Sant Anna Ossuary
The remains of those which could be identified are included in this ossuary.
Sant Anna Memorial names
The names of all those killed are listed here – and on the other side.
Sant Anna main memorial
This sculpture is the focal point of the memorial.

After returning to the house and taking a late afternoon walk, we went to a wonderful restaurant for dinner. Rather than Italian bread, the restaurant serves puffs of hot, baked pizza dough. It set the stage for what was a wonderful meal with great friends.

Hamiltons Sat Dinner

All in all, it was a truly enjoyable weekend. Walking through the hills and olive groves of this Tuscan valley imprinted a wonderful peacefulness upon us. Bill and I thoroughly enjoyed both the time with Mike & Lyn and the Italian memories we created.

The Hamiltons sent us away with wonderful Italian goodies: lemons, basil, and both olive oil and wine labeled “Casa di Hamilton.” We are sure these taste treats will remind us of our enchanting weekend in the weeks and months ahead.


My apologies for the long hiatus on the blog front! I enjoyed an extended (nearly two month) visit to the States. It was strange to be there for such a long time. People kept asking me about Switzerland and I started feeling that I had been gone so long I wasn’t in a good position to talk about it.

The main reason for my return was to help out with the anticipated arrival of Katie & Kevin’s second child. I feel so blessed to have been there for the birth of Matthew William Joseph Reitman and to spend quality time  as “Boppy” with his big brother, Bennett. (Hard to believe he will soon turn 2!) The trip also gave me the  opportunity to visit family and friends, attend some of my favorite professional meetings, shop at Target, eat at La Merenda and order (easily and cheaply) from Amazon. I’m glad to have seen spring arrive in Florida and Tennessee as it sure hadn’t shown itself yet in Milwaukee!

I’m now back in Horgen and things are feeling more comfortable this time. Perhaps it’s because my German is slowly improving and I have some of the routines (e.g. post office, grocery shopping) down now. (I even figured out how to get a propane tank for our new grill. No small feat in this Home Depot-less society!)

Spring is in full-bloom here; tulips, lilacs and trees. The cows and sheep are grazing nearby. The pool across the street is now open. I even bought some herbs for the patio. (Did you know there is a mint plant that looks just like Rosemary??) Interestingly, there are a lot of bugs here. I assumed there weren’t many because there is no air conditioning and there are no screens on the windows. Hmmm…

We returned to Zurich on Monday, April 28. Literally just in time for the Swiss version of “Ground Hog Day”! We weren’t able to attend the festivities in person but watched the “Burning of the Böögg” on TV. The burning is the culmination of several days of festivities (the springtime kick-offl is called Sechseläuten) and a colorful parade of bands and local guilds. (I have to admit it seemed a bit out of place to hear one band playing “New York, New York” though.)

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The Böögg (Swiss German for “boogey”) looks very much like a snowman and sits atop a pyre of dried branches and fireworks. The pyre is lit on fire at exactly 6 pm on the third Monday in April. The length of time it takes until the head of the Böögg explodes is said to determine how sunny and warm the summer will be. Anything under 8 minutes is supposed to be very positive. The times have ranged from 5:07 to 40:00 minutes. This year’s time was 7:23.

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While the Böögg burns, riders on horseback circle the pyre. Imagine how dizzy the horses become if the burning goes on for very long!

We’ll have to see if the Böögg correctly predicts the summer weather.  My guess is that he has a similar record to Punxsutawney Phil. I  will keep you posted…

Watch for my blog later this week about our recent trip to Italy.


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A Whirlwind Week

We were thrilled to have our first visitor from the U.S. last week – Sandy Reitman!  A world traveler in her own right, she was excited to check out our new neighborhood.  And what a week we had; we really found out just how much there is to see and do so close to home. We hit three countries in six days!

We started off quickly. After picking her up on Saturday afternoon from the airport, we caught a couple of hours in Zurich’s old town before she crashed from jet lag.

Bill and Sandy ZUR

The Father/Daughter Reitman Team

On Sunday, we took a drive into the mountains to visit some of the picturesque spots nearby.  We stopped in Einsiedeln to show her the  town’s famous abbey which we missed when Bill and I were there for a Christmas Market in December.

It turned out that the town was celebrating Fasnacht (“Carnival” prior to the season of Lent). We just happened upon a grand parade of interesting, assertive and lively characters:

Einselden Fasnacht 1

Einselden Fasnacht 3

The parade of seemingly endless costumed locals was loud and more than a bit silly. The “gentleman” above was running around with a dozen or so similar characters, each swinging and hitting the legs of onlookers with his plastic balloon. Others were handing out small shots of flavored alcohol to their pals along the parade route.  Group after group appeared with their own bizarre twist to costumes – one large group of boys and men carried huge cowbells with wooden yokes across their shoulders. The noise was deafening – and the sight unlike any Milwaukee Saturday afternoon I know.

We made our way past the parade to the Abbey at the top of the hill.

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Photo thanks to Wikipedia.

While an impressive structure on the outside, it really gives you no hint as to what lies behind the large wooden doors.  And while we were not allowed to take photos, I was able to find one online to give you a sense of the grandeur and uniqueness of this church…

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Photo thanks to Wikipedia.

A separate “chapel within a church” was at the rear of the building.  Featured in the Chapel of Grace was a black Madonna. There were quite a few people praying here when we visited. I understand that there are a number of black Madonnas found across Europe. Eisielden is certainly a great little stop!

Photo courtesy of Einsiedeln Tourismus.

On Monday, Bill went to work (better him than Sandy or I!) so Sandy and I drove to Lucerne (“Luzern” in German) for the day. It’s a beautiful city on a lake with mountainous backdrop and features a wonderful wooden bridge and an old city area with lots of shopping and dining to be enjoyed – and we did just that!  We’re so lucky it’s just 40 minutes from our home.

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The Chapel Bridge is the oldest bridge in Europe (although 80% of it has been rebuilt due to fire).

On Tuesday morning, Sandy and I hitched a ride with Bill as he headed to meetings at his German office located about 3 hours away near Manheim, Germany.  We stayed nearby in the fantastic old city of Heidelberg.

That afternoon, Sandy and I took a Segway Tour in the old city. Traveling on this new technology was a first-time experience for both of us. It didn’t take long to get used to it but we were glad that there weren’t a lot of people crowding the sidewalks and paths! (And I did manage to have a minor spill which added to the day’s excitement.) I am so glad we decided on a tour this way.

Segway Fun

One of the highlights was traveling up to “Philosophers’ Walk.”

Philosophers Way 2
Professors and philosophers from Heidelberg University would walk to this area from its earliest days.

That evening, we had the chance to meet a large group of the great Briggs’ team in Germany.  On Wednesday morning, while Bill kept busy in meetings, Sandy and I visited the Heidelberg Castle, just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel.

Heidelberg Castle 2
The castle was first used as a regal residence in the early 15th century.

Heidelberg Castle 1

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View of Heidelberg from the castle.

After returning home to Horgen Wednesday afternoon, we had a quiet evening with pizza and rested up for our final excursion: Paris.

Thursday morning, we took a train to Paris and checked into the “Airbnb” apartment Bill found in the heart of the city, near the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  (Note: Airbnb.com can be a great, less expensive option when traveling. We had a two-bedroom, one bath apartment with a kitchen and living/dining area for the cost of one hotel room.)

The next three days were full of sightseeing and wonderful French food. And wine. And shopping, of course! Here are some of the highlights in photos:

Eiffel Tower

St. Michel Platz Paris
Place St. Michel (very close to our apartment)

On Thursday we hit the Musee d’Orsey – a beautiful museum in a former train station full of fantastic paintings and sculptures.  On Friday, it was a short train to the Palace of Versailles. Pictures don’t come close to sharing the experience, nor the enormity of the residence and its surrounding gardens.

Versailles 2
The golden front gate
Versailles 1
“All the glory to France”

Versaille 3

Versaille 4

Versaille 5

Versaille 6

Another very moving experience was visiting the catacombs of Paris. These are underground caverns and tunnels that are filled with the remains (bones) of approximately six million (!) people. The experience was incredible powerful and sobering. Although I took some photos, I won’t share any here. If you’d like to better understand the history and see some photos, I recommend this site: http://www.catacombes.paris.fr/en/homepage-catacombs-official-website

Since all good things must come to an end, we had to say “goodbye” to Sandy on Sunday as she flew back to New York directly from Paris. Bill and I returned by train to Zurich, tired yet happy after such a great week.

“It’s just different”

Bill said that a colleague advised him when relocating here: “Don’t spend your time comparing and/or complaining about how things are different from the States. Just recognize that things are different and embrace them.”

So we’ve been working at that. Some days are easier than others. It’s really easy, for example, when we realize we have places like this within 20 minutes from home:

2014-01-06 15.26.12

Or when we try yet another piece of chocolate and decide that, yes, this has to be the best we’ve ever had!

And then there are days when we thought we were buying rice for risotto  and it turned out to be barley. (!) Or when we practically drove across a sledding hill because we didn’t understand the signs.

Things are different; customs are different. Here, they hold their thumbs for luck, not cross their fingers. Here, no one dares take a sip of their drink until a formal toast has been made and everyone has looked each person in the eye and toasted glasses with him/her.  And if you eat with one hand in your lap here — well, I can’t tell you what they think you’re doing down there! It’s both hands on the table at all times.

Here, you’d never show up five minutes late for a meeting without feeling completely ashamed for doing so. Or drive in the left hand lane unless you were passing the car next to you.

Banking is different too. It’s much more secure than in the States. You would never have a Target-like identity theft problem here.  All  credit and debit cards have chips in them with a PIN number encoded. When you make a purchase, the unit that reads your card compares the PIN you enter with what’s embedded in the card. This is said to reduce fraud by approximately 80%.

Television is certainly different. I can’t possibly understand why there aren’t more channels in English. I mean, really, don’t we offer a lot of channels in German and French for the expats in the U.S.?  🙂  At least we were able to find a channel that broadcast the Superbowl. Of course, it started at 12:30 am!  Suffice it to say that US sports of any kind are hardly given a moment’s notice here.

I guess it goes without saying that the language difference can be overwhelming. It’s not just that there is nothing on television, it affects every aspect of daily life. Consider:

  • Grocery shopping — try finding pine nuts or horseradish when you don’t speak the language. I have a hard enough time finding these in Sendik’s! Or simply paying at the check-out: we think the cashier is always asking us if we have a “frequent buyer” card but we really don’t know. We just say “no” every time.
  • Parking — parking garages require you to pay at kiosks before you leave (similar to the U.S.). Figuring out how to work the machines can be challenging; they are all somewhat different,
  • Mail — we receive mail from the local government about a variety of things and it’s all in German. It’s nerve-wracking because they are so strict here about documentation and we’re always worried we have forgotten to submit something important. We’re grateful Bill can check with someone in his office for translation.
  • Contracts — we recently purchased a small car for me. We also bought auto and renter’s insurance. Try signing that paperwork when it’s all in German!
  • Driving — Thank God for a GPS with English language directions. Enough said.
  • Day-to-day interactions — Bill and I are outgoing people. It’s hard not being able to hold much of a conversation with others, or to have to depend on their English skills to do so. We’re getting better on the language front but it’s gonna be a while!

I’m sure this list will grow over time but it’s really because of the differences that we undertook this adventure. Some days, or moments at least, can be frustrating, but we eventually laugh about the experience — and wait for the next one!

Swiss Miss Theresa

P.S. A few photos to share, just ‘cuz:

SwissMissMobile - VW Polo
SwissMissMobile – VW Polo
Lugano, Switzerland. Two hours from Zurich in the Italian area of the country.
Lugano, Switzerland. Two hours from Zurich in the Italian area of the country.

Budapest – Our weekend in pictures

Bill and I met up with friends last weekend in Budapest, Hungary. It is an amazing city; we barely put a dent in all the things to see and do there!

Considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, Budapest is intriguing, gritty and engaging. It’s part of the European Union yet still has its own currency, the “forint.” (It exchanges at ~ 220 to the US dollar. Most places also accept the Euro for payment and Hungary will eventually convert solely to the Euro.)

Street view in Budapest, not far from our hotel.
Street view in Budapest, not far from our hotel.
Looked like "Free Willy" to us! (Actually a jewelry store.)
Looked like “Free Willy” to us! (Actually a jewelry store.)
The Budapest Opera House. (Nope; we didn't go inside.)
The Budapest Opera House. (Nope; we didn’t go inside.)
A partial view of St. Stephan's Basilica.  It is named in honor of Stephen, the first King of Hungary (c 975–1038), whose right hand is housed inside.
A partial view of St. Stephan’s Basilica. It is named in honor of Stephen, the first King of Hungary (c 975–1038), whose right hand is housed inside.
Front view of the Basilica. Above the door: "Ergo Sum Via Veritas Vita" for which my high school Latin came in handy: "I am the way, the truth and the life."
Front view of the Basilica. Above the door: “Ergo Sum Via Veritas Vita” for which my high school Latin came in handy: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
The photos don't do the beauty and grandeur justice.
The photos don’t do the beauty and grandeur justice.
The hand of King Stephan rests inside. (!!)
The hand of King Stephan rests inside. (!!)
The Danube River divides Buda from Pest. Here we are at the beginning of the "Chain Bridge" -- on the Pest side of the river.
The Danube River divides Buda from Pest. Here we are at the beginning of the “Chain Bridge” — on the Pest side of the river.
The Great Market Hall is a huge, colorful array of food vendors.
The Great Market Hall is a huge, colorful array of food vendors.
Too bad Bill wasn't cooking on this trip. We thought we could grab lunch here but nothing was cooked!
Too bad Bill wasn’t cooking on this trip. We thought we could grab lunch here but nothing was cooked!
Spices and dried fruit!
Spices and dried fruit!
Ronald Reagan and friends after being properly attired with scarf and hat. This statue was unveiled in 2011 as a memorial to Reagan's help in ending communism.
Bill and friends after adding a scarf and hat to the presumably cold Ronald Reagan. This statue was unveiled in 2011 as a memorial to Reagan’s help in ending communism.
We ate extremely well the entire weekend. This is just one example of the incredible meal we had at Costes.  (Called "Our Garden," it's pureed cauliflower with horseradish and an amazing array of colorful veggies, sprinkled with "dirt." Make sure you experience it if you visit!
We ate extremely well the entire weekend. This is just one example of the incredible meal we had at Costes. (Called “Our Garden,” it’s pureed cauliflower with horseradish and an amazing array of colorful veggies, sprinkled with “dirt.”) Make sure you experience it if you visit!
A view of the Hungarian Parliament from across the river. (Sun was beginning to set.)
A view of the Hungarian Parliament from across the river. (Sun was beginning to set.)
Inside the Parliament Building,one of the oldest legislative buildings in Europe. The building was inaugurated on the 1000th anniversary of the country in 1896
Inside the Parliament Building, one of the oldest legislative buildings in Europe. The building was inaugurated on the 1000th anniversary of the country in 1896.
A very traditional Hungarian restaurant located on one of the pedestrian malls in downtown Budapest.
A very traditional Hungarian restaurant located on one of the pedestrian malls in downtown Budapest.
Only in Switzerland! This sign was placed above our baggage claim in the Zurich airport. Not only did they tell you when the bags would arrive, the bags arrived 5 minutes early!
Only in Switzerland! This sign was placed above our baggage claim in the Zurich airport. Not only did they tell you when the bags would arrive, the bags arrived 5 minutes early!

Swiss Observations from a Milwaukee girl

Pic from last Sunday's drive.
Photo from last Sunday’s drive.

Today’s post consists of a wide variety of observations I’ve made since arriving in Switzerland nearly a month ago. Please note: 1) these are in no particular order; and, 2) I reserve the right to change my mind on things after I’ve been here a while!

  • A lot of people smoke here. I’m surprised, actually. You are rarely allowed to smoke inside an establishment but you’ll see people outside smoking nearly everywhere you go.
  • People are much more “fit” here than in Wisconsin. You just don’t see really overweight people. (So I guess they are unhealthy because of the smoking, rather than overeating?) Maybe they’re in better shape because fast food is less prevalent and walking is common?
  • Dogs. It’s still hard to get used to people bringing their dogs into restaurants. I also see a lot of people out walking their dogs — but I’ve yet to see one relieve itself anywhere. What’s with that?
  • “Swiss” = “punctual.” No question about it, you can set your watch by the people and systems here. When I take public transportation to downtown Zurich, the bus stops outside our apartment house at exactly 19 and 54 minutes after the hour. The route to the train station takes four minutes. I then have 6 minutes to walk to the platform and wait for the train to arrive. It’s amazing.
  • 1) There are a lot of rules. 2) People follow the rules. 3) There are serious penalties for not following the rules. Case in point: the transportation system has a great app for your smartphone that allows you to buy your train/bus/streetcar tickets and just hold them on your phone. I’ve used mass transit over a dozen times now and have only been asked to show my ticket once. People could likely get away without buying a ticket — but the penalty for not doing so is 100 Swiss Francs — $110.
    Same thing is true for cars stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks. Cars absolutely stop. There’s no question about whether or not they will. (I don’t know what the penalty is for not stopping though.)
  • Although I heard many comments to the contrary, I think Swiss people are rather friendly. They don’t go out of their way to greet you but they respond very kindly if you make the effort. At least here in Zurich, they often have a strong grasp of English — I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that!
  • Prices. PRICES! The exchange rate is about 1 Swiss Franc to $1.10. So it’s easy to make comparisons — but painful! Everyone here gets paid a living wage, (e.g. $25/hour for someone working in fast food), but the cost of living is amazingly high. $50 for a man’s haircut, $8 for a grande latte at Starbucks, $25 for a grilled chicken Caesar salad… $6.50 for a gallon of gas. As a former Expat told me “you just have to stop making the comparisons with prices in the U.S.”
  • Metric measurements are hard! Of course, the metric system is only hard for those who grew up with the imperial system. Note the map below. The countries in red are the only ones not using the metric system. (!!) I completely understand how it makes more sense to use measurements in 10’s, 100’s, etc. But try figuring out how much 100 grams of pork roast is compared to how much you need with an American recipe.  (No, I’ve not started cooking — that was completely an example on Bill’s behalf.)
  • Coffee. They drink a lot of it here. Often as espresso, cappuccino or a “latte machiatto.” Decaf is rarely an option unless you’re somewhere that caters to Americans. You’ll often linger after dinner in a restaurant with a cup of coffee. You aren’t ever offered your bill — that would be rude. You must request it.
  • Finally — Chocolate! I admit that I’m not one who lives for chocolate. I appreciate it and it always my dessert of choice. Switzerland is the land of exquisite chocolate. I’ve come to really enjoy it, especially dark chocolate. Even the local convenience store offers you a piece of chocolate with your purchase.The headquarters for the master Swiss chocolatier, Lindt, is just 15 minutes from our home.  Need I mention that they have a factory store?! You can learn more about Lindt here. http://www.lindt.com/swf/eng/chocolate-gift/ There are many small confectionary stores and high end chocolatiers here; Lindt is just the granddaddy.
Good-looking guy I found on last Sunday's drive.
Good-looking guy I found on last Sunday’s drive.

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A life in Swiss transition