2: Swiss Surprise

Yawn. Another mountain.

Swiss cheese, fondue, chocolate, watches: These are some of the things we expected of Switzerland. It turns out, there’s a bit more than that.

Start with the spring produce: Switzerland is perched just atop Italy and is only a few hours away by train to the Mediterranean, so that should have clued us into its fresh fruit and vegetable market. The produce here is crunchy and fresh.

We did not expect to see cyclists up on the  mountainside Kleine Scheidegg trail, but there they were, introducing us to another Swiss national oddity – adventurousness bordering on recklessness. They brought the Red Cross to the world, making us think they are a cautious accident-adverse people. They are not. Their idea of safety does not follow a prevention-protocol, which makes sense – it is how they got so good at responding to disasters. They make so many of their own to start with, offering them plenty of training opportunities.

I had no idea that Switzerland has a keen wine industry. South-facing sloped farmland ribbed in vineyards surrounds our town and with French vineyards a stone-throw over the border, it makes sense that the industrious Swiss would get in on the act. As to why it never occurred to us that Switzerland is a wine-producing country: Some joke that it is because the French export their wine, while the Swiss drink all theirs themselves.

There is skiing, of course, but the Swiss are also passionate mountain-climbers, hikers and bicyclists. They love sports. Confusing us even further, they are also proliferate smokers. We cannot understand this.

They are conservative in their conduct, yet they also voted to build a facility for prostitutes to operate their business in Zürich.

There’s more. I knew chocolates heralded from this mountainous land, but so too does CaranDache watercolour pencils and crayons – the funky metal-tinned colours my sister-in-law used to paint clown faces on ours boys when they were young.

Racial and immigration issues headline frequently in Swiss news as the country, like the rest of Europe, copes with the flood of Albanian Muslims that pushed north in the wake of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, as well as Tamils and other far-flung political refugees who fled to Switzerland because of its liberal amnesty program. As Canadians, we are accustomed to hearing about immigration issues, but we had no idea that step-for-step, Switzerland has the same national debate going on that we do.

They love festivals, and they are crazy about music. It’s not just yodeling that tickles their ears: I have never seen such a large concentration of accordion players anywhere. They beat out the Americans when it comes to marching bands – they have them all over the place, some in costume and organized, while others who look like they decided to take their band practice out of the garage and on to the street, just for fun. The quality of music played by buskers here is outstanding. I am sorry to say it, but most of them would put Victoria buskers to shame.

What surprises us the most, however, is that such a geographically small place has such a globally large footprint – from the Red Cross to the United Nations to its international market for banking, pharmaceuticals (Roche, Novartis), watches, Swiss Army knives and more. They are a stunningly successful people who from so little have made so much.

But back to chocolate, more chocolate businesses than Lindt call this place home. So, too, does Toblerone, Frey, Nestle, Cailler, Camille Bloch, Favarger and more – it explains why despite the occasional scandal, Switzerland’s brand continues untarnished. After all, who can stay mad with a place so packed with chocolate?

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62: O Shopping Cart, O Shopping Cart

Zebra-striped and pastel-hued pasta in a display window of a Swiss specialty shop.

We are nine weeks away from the return of shopping carts in our lives. North Americans do not think much about shopping carts, where they come from or the specs on their wheels, or how it is that store executives think making customers plug a loonie (Canadian one-dollar coin) into them will prevent anyone from stealing a $146 cart from the store parking lot.

I think of carts. I do. European stores have shopping carts, but none that I get to use, because filling up a shopping cart is a luxury reserved for vehicle-owners, which we are not, at least not any vehicles on this side of the Atlantic. Anything I would put into a shopping cart I would soon have to pull or carry back to our hotel room under my own middle-aging power.

And so, I shop in small pieces, every day, sometimes several times a day, which people remind me is the quaint European way, but there is nothing quaint about it. It is an annoying march into the land of inconvenience.

This shopping-gripe begins with the fact that all the stores in our district have their produce sections at the store entrance, and all the canned or heavier goods near the exit. For the cartless walk-a-mile shopper like myself, this means I spend my shopping time juggling the goods in my shopping basket so as to protect the strawberries from the milk bottles. This is easy at the beginning of the shop, but by the end when my basket weighs in at 15 lbs., it is a hazard to my wrists. On the upside:  I have pectoral definition now that I could only dream of back in Canada.

There is a myth in North America that daily shopping means the food here is fresher, but this is not the case. The Europeans view in-store refrigeration in a more lax manner than do we, and so milk purchased on Thursday can be sour by Saturday, sending us to the store to begin the cycle all over again. Strawberries must be eaten the day of purchase and veggies left in the fridge for two days acquire a mossy sheen then quickly descend into fungal blackness, except for Bell peppers which inexplicably last for weeks, making me think I may have accidentally picked up plastic display peppers.

We are only two people, and I have the luxury of being able to pick my shopping times, but it must be misery-multiplied for double-income couples who not only have to contend with all that I do, but also with the fact that stores here close at 7 p.m. and all-day Sunday, forcing them to rush to the grocer immediately after work, every single day, in a misery-go-round of check-out line-ups. This explains the famously tolerant Swiss’s aggression at the cash till where they are not past physically elbowing their way into any minute gap we North Americans might innocently leave open.

And so, I dream of the day when I can go back to once-a-week shopping excursions where I pack up all 30,000 cubic inches of a standard-sized cart, load it into the trunk of my car and return home where I will not have to ice-pack my wrists and study yoga videos for ways to restraighten my spine.

Reality check: There are European grocery stores that are very much on the same scale as those in Canada/U.S. If we had opted to buy a car here and live in an outlying area, our food-supply system would be simpler. So yes, we asked for this.

Sinking to new lows in the kitchen

We are sliding down the chute into culinary mediocrity, one forkful at a time.

The after-school cookie-muffin-and-scone-baking mom, that was me. No trans- fatty acids or cyclamates in my kids home-made snacks, just good old-fashioned butter and sugar.

How things have changed. Cooking in Switzerland has been challenging, mostly because six months in and I still haven’t figured out how to work our newfangled state-of-the-art oven. That and the combined horrors of shopping for food without taking out a mortgage has had an effect on our dining.

It began over the summer when I was in Canada and Dave took it upon himself to try out some prepared packaged meals from the grocery story. To his surprise, and later mine, it turned out they weren’t so bad, and with pricing between 5 and 7 Swiss Francs each, these meals have become staples in our weekly diet.

That is pretty low in my books, but today we sunk lower. I purchased pre-seasoned chicken breasts, reasoning that with pre-packaged food on the table four days out of seven, we were probably headed for heck anyway. How lame does a cook have to be to buy meat seasoned by a store? As lame as I am, as it turns out. A little pan-frying in butter and the pre-seasoned chicken turned out to be pretty good.

The price of vegetables makes me flinch (6 Francs a kilo for broccoli), but we have discovered packaged produce, such as bananas is much cheaper than the loose stuff in the bins. We had avoided the packaged produce precisely because it smacked of shoddy goods  – why package something if it wasn’t to conceal over-ripeness or bruising? It turns out that’s not the case in Switzerland, so we now buy our banans at 1.80 Francs for a big plastic bag instead of 3 Francs for a kilo.

We’ve also started shopping for cheeses, milk and other goods, mostly non-perishable, at a local convenience store called “Denners.” We earlier bought ground beef there and were suitably punished for that crime at dinner time. It tasted of something not quite beef. I don’t want to think about it. So, steering clear of beef, we have found other items there to be “okay” and weirdly cheaper than in the regular grocery store. This is the opposite of convenience stores in Canada where food is always priced way higher than in supermarkets.

I don’t know how much I’ve pared off our monthly 2,000 Francs grocery budget, but if we settle into this new “method,” I’ll try another week of collecting receipts and report back.