The Regulars

Chocolate and cheese aside, Switzerland isn’t exactly a country for foodies. The dairy products may be the world’s finest; as I have mentioned before, the cheese is excellent and far more diverse than just the holey, slightly bitter image that comes to many American and other international minds when they hear “Swiss Cheese.” Milk chocolate was invented here, and Swiss fine chocolate, whether light or dark, can stand confidently by its claim to be the best in the world (take that, Belgium).

But Swiss cuisine isn’t going to attract many culinary tourists all by itself. Two of the most significant national dishes, fondue and Raclette, both consist almost exclusively of melted cheese, as if Swiss gastronomic heritage were invented by a latch key kid with access to a microwave. Other prominent Swiss mains include Rösti, which an American would recognize as hash browns and an Ashkhenazi Jew would find reminiscent of large, less eggy latke, typically served with fried eggs and sometimes with sausage or one of a few varieties of meat, like breakfast for dinner. The national breakfast of Müesli, meanwhile, consists of wet, raw rolled oats, usually soaked in yogurt or milk, typically with dried fruit or nuts. At its best, it is damp trail mix. At its worst, it is the world’s saddest oatmeal.*

Can Swiss food taste good? Sure, especially if you are not a vegan. Is it haute cuisine? Probably not.

Despite not having a food culture that attracts (or maybe deserves) a lot of attention, though, the Swiss have a vibrant, thriving sidewalk cafe culture. Even when it costs six bucks (at the hipster food hall not far from us, a double espresso, one of my tipples of choice, will set you back CHF5.50, US $5.92 at this morning’s exchange rates; I have paid as much as CHF6, which is a whopping US $6.48), the Swiss will drink a cup of coffee on the street with the best of them, and they’ll eat too. Even before Coronavirus times, which have pushed even more tables and chairs out onto the pavements, the Trottoirs and squares have always been loaded for many months each year with places to sit outside and consume something.

Our own street, which is a busy commercial strip but fewer than four full blocks long from the convention center at one end to the Rhine at the other, is home to more than a dozen venues that maintain tables outside. A lot of them are, perhaps predictably, bakeries and coffee shops; there are two just on our block that face off on opposite sides of the street, and a Starbucks has a similar showdown with a Dunkin’ Donuts just a little further down by a mall. At least one is a bar, one is a McDonald’s, and at least four are kebab shops, Germanic Europe’s favorite cheap, Turkish-inspired fast food joints (more about one of which below).

But many are garden-variety Swiss restaurants, offering Swiss restaurant food, in all its pan-European mediocrity. That means fondues and raclettes and Rösti may be featured prominently, but so too are foodstuffs borrowed mostly from heavier-hitting cuisines from all over the continent, especially Italy.** Pizza. Many pasta dishes, from penne to lasagna (these frequently nod to Swiss culture with cream sauces or local cheeses).

Many species of burger. Chicken cordon bleu is inexplicably popular. So too are locally beloved variations on dishes like schnitzel—two favorite schnitzel presentations in Switzerland include Schnipo, for Schnitzel mit Pommes, or schnitzel with fries, and its marginally more elaborate sibling Schniposa, which adds a salad. Schnitzel is undeniably tasty, and it is an internationally celebrated dish, of course, but it’s a product of Vienna’s cultural heritage, not Basel’s, and if we are being totally honest it is basically an enormous chicken nugget made of veal (or sometimes, albeit less traditionally, of chicken, which makes it just an enormous chicken nugget).

One of the strangest features of the Swiss restaurants on my street is the great surface similarity of most of their menus. One place bills itself as the Walliser Stube/Taverne Valaisanne, and the building and room are done up in an appropriately woody, rustic manner to simulate an inn you might find in the Alps in southern Canton Valais. As the weather has cooled, the fondue and raclette specials have come out, but regional specialties are few in number, and they serve pizzas and pasta too. Almost immediately across the street is the Hotel Rheinfelderhof, whose sidewalk restaurant is invariably popular, and whose menu overlaps with the Stube in most particulars, albeit featuring lasagne more prominently than the Walliser Stube’s favored spaghettis.

Along with their uniformity, another striking feature of these Swiss joints is their popularity—in fine weather, all of their tables are frequently packed, often by obvious regulars. I walk past multiple people again and again who clearly head to the same place just about every day, even if that place happens to be a Swiss restaurant. The regulars aren’t necessarily out to eat—many are just out for a cup of coffee or a drink—but they are out consistently and often.

A heavily tanned man, probably in his late 60s, usually with aviator sunglasses and a short-sleeved plaid shirt unbuttoned to his pectorals, and in hot weather, denim cutoffs, sometimes accompanied by his dog, takes a large bottle of beer every summer morning around eleven on the sidewalk outside Restaurant Holzschopf, which is located a block and a half toward the river on my street. It bills itself as a ‘Swiss Kitchen’ on some of its windows, and sticks Swiss flag toothpicks in its cordons bleues, but is run by a family of Turkish descent and has pictures of pizzas on the front door. I have seen him there at least a dozen times, but I’ve never seen him eat. Maybe he just doesn’t like Schnipo, or pizza. The Holzschopf sits on a corner, with sidewalk tables on both streets; Aviators always sits on the Clarastrasse side, while the other side (Claragraben) is frequently taken up by a group of late-middle-aged women from the Dominican Republic, at least two of whom are confirmed regulars, although one of them appears to double-time the restaurant with a separate group of middle-aged Dominican lady friends at the kebab shop or Indian supermarket takeaway around the corner.

A woman I would describe as a little old lady (she is quite small, although her age is really indeterminate; I can say for certain only that she has the short graying hairstyle popular among ladies over 70 in Switzerland, and she walks with the aid of a walker, albeit a walker that is sometimes laden with grocery bags, mail, or reading material, and thus functions more like a trolley) visits a sidewalk table at the Bistro Europe every afternoon, usually also with a dog, occasionally with another little old lady friend. Bistro Europe seems an odd choice for a preferred haunt to me, because it is the lobby restaurant attached to a Pullman Hotel. It doesn’t look like a bad restaurant, necessarily, and it clearly gets a good lunchtime crowd of men and women in suits eating overpriced pasta, but I assume almost all of those folks are staying at the hotel. Only the little old lady knows why she chooses a hotel bar as a regular destination when there are a literal dozen additional options within a few hundred steps, and at least three within twenty steps. Perhaps it’s because of the Pullman’s proximity to the tram stop (it’s about the closest sidewalk table to the transit point, although there’s an equally popular indoor venue in the coffeeshop/bar in the lobby of the adjacent Coop supermarket, which gets other blue-haired folks in for regular coffees and drinks), and maybe they’re just especially nice to her dog. When she’s with the pooch, she brings a water bowl on her walker, and I assume the waiters fill it for her.

They clearly know her well—as soon as she rolls in the waitstaff are quick with her order of choice, a large glass of draft beer, with a glass of ice cubes and a spoon on the side; she nurses the beer for a good long while, icing it as necessary to keep it cool, while she reads newspapers, sometimes does crossword puzzles, and smokes a lot of cheap Magnum cigarettes. When she brings her other little old lady friend with her they sometimes eat ice cream and drink coffee instead, or she switches to coffee when her beer is gone.

Watching the world go by from the Pullman Hotel next to the supermarket and the tram stop.

Lots of the Swiss places seem to serve largely as coffee shops; regulars are taking espresso or cappuccino or cafe crème at many of them at all hours of the day and evening (the Swiss do not have the same snobbery about taking milk coffee after noon that the French do; they are as a rule accepting of milk in the evening just as they are of beer in the morning). The aforementioned Rheinfelderhof Hotel restaurant has elaborate, if predictable, prix fixe menus every day, but a significant percentage of their patrons seem to be just drinking coffee.

One of my neighbors takes what appears to be an espresso nearly every day not from the sidewalk tables of one of the three Bäckerei-Konditorei on our block, always reliable sources of coffee and Gipfeli (the Swiss variation on the croissant, basically the same but bigger and sometimes with added whole grain or lye) or other pastries, nor from the Café-Bar two doors down next to the convention center, but from the kebab shop immediately next door to our building.

Kebab shops are almost hilariously ubiquitous in Basel—you’re never much farther than a block away from more than one. Although presentation and a few specialties will vary, the kebab places’ core menus are nearly as uniform as those of Swiss restaurants. They all offer döner kebap, shreds of a mixture of lamb and beef, or sometimes chicken, very similar to gyro or shawarma meat, in a large white breadroll topped with salad and spicy sauce and other dressings; or dürüm kebap, the same fillings in a huge tortilla-like flatbread wrap. Some offer Şis kebap, the grilled meat on a skewer an American would call shish kebab, or other Turkish grilled meat specialties, and burgers are not uncommon. And they all offer cheap pizza, pide, and lahmacun (two flatbread-based dishes both typically nicknamed “Turkish pizza,”) and typically an assortment of deep-fried snack foods—fries, chicken nuggets, falafel, fried calamari, schnitzels, and others. Pretty much anything affordable you can chuck from the freezer into a deep fryer is likely to be available. Most attract their own crowds of regulars, from lunchtime construction workers to late-night revelers coming out of bars, and I may forever wonder how one chooses where to pledge one’s allegiance given so many options—the kebab ecosystem may warrant its own future post.

The one downstairs from our apartment is deeply beloved by my kids, who eat its totally forgettable, but very cheap, pizza embarrassingly frequently. I’ve eaten a few of their kebabs, and they’re… OK, but noticeably not as good as many of their nearby competitors, and I had to forgo them when they stopped restocking Kebab Poulet, as I don’t eat beef or lamb. I’ve tried to get my kids to switch to one of the three others within a few blocks of us that have chicken or halloumi cheese kebabs and what I would consider higher-quality pizza, but no dice. The staff are invariably really nice, Jessica likes their spinach pide, and I’ve tried more than once to get takeout pizzas from them for the kids with someone else’s kebab hidden on me in a shopping bag, but the guilt weighs too heavily. And it is only about a minute from our apartment, mostly spent in the elevator. So like my downstairs, coffee-drinking neighbor, we are regulars (whether I like it or not).

But kebab places are not typically thought of as coffee shops, so I was a little surprised to notice that my neighbor had coffee there almost every day (she also takes a bottle of sparkling water sometimes, but I’m not sure if that’s after she’s already finished her coffee), until I realized that our kebab shop also has a high-end espresso machine behind the counter, and actually does a good business in espresso drinks at lower-than-cafe-prices when it’s not stuffing construction workers with kebabs, pizzas, or kebab-meat pizzas. So my neighbor from downstairs isn’t the only coffee-drinking frequent visitor; over this summer and last I have also noticed another regular from the building next door on the other side, a large curly-headed guy who also enjoys cheap local cigars.

So while the little old lady drinking iced beer at the Pullman’s motivations remain be a mystery to me, I’m pretty sure I understand my neighbors’ preference—it’s right downstairs, the coffee is quality, they save some money. So they’re regulars.

*In Müesli’s defense, there is also Knuspermüesli, or “crunchy müesli,” which is granola and totally fine.

**The argument can be made that Italian food is also Swiss food, given that the southern canton of Ticino is Italian-speaking and Italianesque, but people in Ticino call it Italian food.

Landlocked Beach Town

As I was writing this in mid-September, Basel was experiencing the last glorious days of a sunny, warm Indian summer, with temperatures in the high 20s (80s F) and copious golden light. If various viruses and airlines cooperate, by the time this is posted my family will be spending some of our Herbstferien, or autumn break, one of the two-week school holidays that the Swiss educational system distributes every six weeks throughout the term, catching a few last rays on the beaches and by the pool in the Algarve, in deep southern Portugal.* It seemed an appropriate time to say goodbye to the beaches we have at home.

The beach nearest to Basel, which is to say the nearest seaside, is close to five hundred kilometers away, on the Italian Riviera. We’re in a landlocked country, and unlike Bern, Lucerne, Zurich, Geneva, Interlaken, Neuchâtel, or Locarno, among others, we don’t even have any big lakes in town or in the immediate neighborhood.

What we do have, however, is the Rhine, and Baslers are deeply dedicated to taking advantage of it in the summer months, which turn parts of our little inland city into something resembling a resort. Among Basel’s most beloved summer traditions is the storied Rheinschwimm, “Rhine Swim.” There are traditional days every year when whole workplaces, including my wife’s 7000-plus-employee multinational HQ, encourage their people to Rheinschwimm home from work after a long day of crunching numbers or manufacturing antibodies.

But the term Rheinschwimm is almost a misnomer, since for most participants it’s less a swim than a float, thanks in part to Basel’s ubiquitous and locally invented Wickelfisch.

A Wickelfisch (literally something like “wrap fish”) is a fish-shaped waterproof bag with a strap on it, into which RheinschwimmerInnen bundle their street clothes, shoes, wallets, purses, briefcases, cell phones, laptops, sunglasses, and whatever other stuff they might have on their persons in their everyday, dry lives, rolling up the tail end and sealing it with a thick strip of Velcro and plastic buckles, trapping a quantity of air in the bag alongside their belongings. The Wickelfisch thus becomes both a dry bag and something of a flotation aid (although the warning labels on the Fische explicitly tell you not to depend on them as such, and mine lost a noticeable amount of air over the course of my first Rheinschwimm, so it’s probably good advice).

My Wickelfisch at front, Jessica’s at rear. I had the choice of red or red with spots. I got mine at a pharmacy, but you can also find them at supermarkets, the train station, kiosks, riverside pop-up stands, bars, ice cream stands, and restaurants, among other outlets. Jessica got hers free from work; you can tell by the subtle double helix decorations.

Swimmers paddle out just a little ways from the riverbank, hold on to their fish, and get swept downstream by the Rhine’s very strong current. Some people wade in with their Wickelfische already strapped on, and others toss the fish in first before jumping off a bank or a landing to swim and catch up with it. While a big, beautiful waterway like the Rhine obviously also attracts your usual gung-ho hardcore swimmers ostentatiously slicing against the current like athletic seals, for most Rheinschwimmers, the only serious swimming involved is just for launching and landing, and maybe steering around the odd moored boat.

Some obvious questions about Rhine Swimming:

Is it clean? Yes, it’s clean enough. Although historically the Rhine around Basel was polluted with a lot of industrial effluvia, an effort has been made in recent decades to clean things up. It’s not drinking water (the communities along the Rhine closer to its North Sea outlet in the Netherlands that do depend upon the Rhine for drinking water have to filter it first). But it doesn’t smell and generally looks clear.

Is it safe? (Isn’t it a major international shipping channel?) The answer to these questions is yes, it’s safe enough if you’re careful, and yes, as the second longest river in Europe and a primary transit artery through one landlocked and one double-landlocked country (Liechtenstein), it’s an important channel for freight, some passenger transport, and those river cruises you always see advertised on PBS, if you’re American. Basel officially designates specific, clearly mapped parts of the river as swimmable, marking the shipping lanes and particularly dangerous bridge pylons that should be avoided as off-limits. And virtually all Rhineswimmers adhere to these guidelines, sticking close to the banks on a couple of popular stretches.

Can you dive off the bridges? NO, and some of the bridges are clearly labeled to remind you of that. People still do it sometimes (I have friends who live on the riverside who have seen it done, and you can find clips on YouTube), but it is officially verboten. I have often wondered whether violators get busted by boats, or whether the authorities nab them when they come ashore, but I wish the rule were enforced by swimming cops who could write you a waterproof ticket on the spot.

Printed on the sidewalk on Mittlere Bruecke, the closest bridge to my house.

You can, however, jump off of unoccupied boat landings, as my kids have recently learned to love.

Coming ashore from a Rheinschwimm is theoretically possible almost anywhere, but most people get in and out near one of the city’s four main bridges, which serve as sort of mile markers for the length of various trips downstream (“We went from Schwarzwaldbrücke all the way down to Dreirosenbrücke, it was great!”) The riverbanks adjacent to all of the central bridges are built up with boat landings with staircases, sun-dappled Rhineside promenades, benches, fountains of pure drinking water shaped like Basel’s emblematic Basilisk (known to my kids as the Chicken Dragon, not without reason), and in the summer months, Buvettes.

All summer and early autumn long, all along the banks of the Rhine, but especially on the sunnier, Kleinbasel side, these small refreshment stands serve up snacks, light meals (most often overpriced, not necessarily very good sandwiches, but in a setting pretty enough to make up for it), ice cream, Aperol Spritzes, Hugos (a prosecco and elderflower syrup cocktail), espresso, beer, craft lemonade and more. A couple of kilometers of shore thus become, for the summer months, a massive sidewalk café or beer garden. Riverside full-service restaurants on the Kleinbasel side of the river, some with names like Glaibasler RHYwyera (Baseldeutsch for ‘Kleinbasler Riviera’, with the first syllable in Riviera rendered as Rhy, the Swiss German name for the Rhine; I suppose that means that the restaurant’s name actually translates literally to “Kleinbasler RHINEviera,” but who can read that?) open their terraces and spread out onto the sidewalk. A Mediterranean restaurant on the river walk called Pulpo offers high-end takeout gelato, and its seasonal sidewalk table zone is demarcated by a chalkboard that reads No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem. All along the RHINEviera (nope, still can’t read it), and all over the city during the warm months you meet people on the sidewalks, squares, and trams in flip-flops, bikinis, and towels, who might have been negotiating high-stakes arbitrage, selling paintings, or designing clinical trials a few hours before but have since stashed their business suits in the Wickelfische dangling by their sides.

The tourism authority loves the idea of Kleinbasel as the Basel Riviera, but it’s unclear to me whether the nomenclature enjoys much popular support. Branding aside, though, the Kleinbasel side of the river certainly functions like a big Riviera-style lido in any case. And the Rhine is not Basel’s only waterway to be enjoyed when it’s hot out; two much smaller, shallower, but still impressively cold (particularly early in the Alpine snowmelt season) and rapid Rhine tributaries also pass through the city and its suburbs.

While these streams, the Birs and the Wiese, are mostly too shallow for adults to really swim in, children float down them in inner tubes or on rafts at an incredible clip, sometimes bouncing over rocks like stuntmen, and splashing and wading are refreshing for humans and dogs of all ages.

The Wiese and the Birs in greater Basel mostly flow through parkland rather than the Rhine’s urban development, and their grassy or wooded banks are ferociously popular picnic areas for many months of the year, with families and friends gathering to drink and snack and grill. The Swiss are serious contenders for the most enthusiastic barbecuers in the world—you hear and smell the sizzling from inner-city balconies all the time starting in about mid-April, and every supermarket sells little disposable aluminum charcoal grills for those times when you don’t feel like bundling your Hibachi into a duffel bag, although serious grillers who presumably don’t have to take the bus eschew these flimsy, unsustainable substitutes and haul the real thing around. One popular seasonal Birs-side bar and restaurant has a kiddie pool in its backyard, emphasizing its beachy atmosphere, and where both the Birs and the Wiese flow into the Rhine are large parks, a playground, and several fine beaches.

Our son Simon on a summer camp excursion to where the Birs meets the Rhine. He officially hated it, but it still took me an hour to get him away from the riverside to head home. This rocky bathing area and the sandier beach behind Simon are both adjacent to a large, grassy park known as the Birskoepfli that is crowded with people grilling and chilling for at least a quarter of the year.

I have never been a big summer guy, but watching this small landlocked city turn into a beach town for a few months a year has been among my favorite Basel experiences so far, and as the autumn descends upon us after a few last weeks of sun I know I will miss it. Until next season.

* In the end, we had to do some Coronavirus dodging between the time we first scheduled our trip and the time this post was published; Portugal was added to the Swiss quarantine list (meaning that had we gone, we would have to shelter in place at home for ten days before re-entering school, work, or society). So at the last minute we re-booked our Algarve holiday for Sicily. So I hope it is safe to assume that we are in Taormina when you read this, but if we had to scramble again, I will let you know. Scheduling blog posts is a bit like miniature time travel.

Swiss Radio*

I recently heard Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe” three times in a single week, in two different Swiss supermarkets and one department store. I’ve also, both when shopping and in a car, heard the light lilting piano of Bruce Hornsby and the Range more than once in a week for the first time since what may have been the late 1980s.

Both of these remarkable audio anachronisms were thanks to Radio Swiss Pop, which is the most ubiquitous source of background music in the Swiss retail market; it’s also available on satellite radio and on the FM airwaves. You hear it in the store, by which I mean in nearly any store, most of the time. This is perhaps obviously not because the tattooed and pierced cashiers at my local Denner enjoy the mild strains of American vintage AOR, although maybe some of them are ironic fans of cheesy listening.

The secret to Radio Swiss Pop’s significant success (the station officially boasts some 800,000 listeners across Switzerland tuning in for an average of about half an hour every day) is that it’s less a traditional radio station and more a perpetual playlist; no hosts, no news reports, and no advertising. Just song after song after song, punctuated with the odd station identification message, in a measured baritone, currently “RADIO SWISS POP. MUSIC. PURE.” This is rendered in an unidentifiable, perhaps pan-Helvetic, accent, with the RADIO in a European rather than Anglophone style (RAHdio, not RAYdio), and the rest of the gibberish syntax in something vaguely like English but obviously spoken by a European. The lack of talking makes it perfect for inoffensive background noise in a retail situation, and perhaps helps to explain the station’s generous listenership estimates: there are easily eight hundred thousand people in Switzerland going to the grocery store every day, and half an hour is about the right amount of time for a regular shopping trip.

Radio Swiss Pop is a slightly odd name for the station, both because many of the tunes are less pop songs than soft rock, light rock, adult oriented rock, dad rock, or yacht rock songs, with a side of R&B and disco, and because less of the RSP catalog than you might expect is actually Swiss. Officially, Radio Swiss Pop says they play an average of 50% Swiss material, which already seems low to me for a station with SWISS in its name, but in my frequent incidental, and recent intentional, listens, I hear a lot more American and other Anglophone content than I would have expected.

As I wrote this sentence, I was listening to Frankie Valli’s “Grease.” It was followed by a quick song in French by a 60-year-old multilingual Swiss singer-songwriter from Paul Klee’s birthplace in Canton Bern. But less than three minutes after that was “What If” by Kate Winslet, who I did not even know was a singer. But she’s not bad! Maybe a little aggressively earnest and emotional, and singers can surely point out the flaws in her technique, but she hits the notes without obvious AutoTune. She does, however, demonstrate an overarching corniness that perfectly encapsulates my Radio Swiss Pop MUSIC. PURE. experience, apart from my being out on my veranda rather than looking for a spatula in the housewares section.

A majority of the Swiss and other non-Anglosphere European artists featured on RSP even sing in pleasant, if often slightly silly, Germanic or Frenchy English. German-accented radio-ready light blues rock. Country-tinged gentle arena anthems by a Flemish woman who sounds a bit like solo Belinda Carlisle (she was followed by execrable American bro Jason Mraz, a paragon of the douchebag acoustic-guitarist-singer-songwriter phenomenon of the early aughts; he was followed by the far more estimable Jimmy Cliff, albeit Jimmy Cliff inexplicably performing “Hakuna Matata” from the Lion King, and then by the goofy but respectable-in-their-own-dumb-arena-prog-rock way Styx). A German woman offering a stiff-English approximation of a limp Heart. A Danish boy band with excellent English that sounds a little like an even milder Maroon 5. The polished pop-country-in-English-with-an-undeniable-Schwiitzertüütsch-accent tunes of Eastern Switzerland’s Canton Appenzell Ausserrhoden’s sister act Enderlin Chicks. The Enderlin Chicks, who also sing in Swiss German and German, are presumably named after the formerly-known-as-Dixie Chicks, but Enderlin is not a toponym but their surname. Lucky and Martina Enderlin’s songs feature paeans to raising kids and moving out to the country when they get enough money, which seems at least a little weird given that they come from a small village in a rich canton with a total population of 55,000; as noted in the previous entry, Switzerland mostly IS the country, and mostly HAS enough money.

MUSIC. PURE.

Enderlin Chicks aside, It’s not easy to believe that anybody listens to Radio Swiss Pop at home/in the car/at work (for those who don’t work in supermarkets) on purpose. But more conventional Swiss radio airwaves suggest that many of RSP’s themes and motifs resonate widely.

I have made a fairly serious effort over the last year and change to sample many of Switzerland’s radio stations, to boost my German comprehension, to get closer to Swiss cultures, and perhaps above all because I wash a lot of dishes and have a smart speaker with Internet radio next to the sink. I’ve listened to broadcasters from across all of Switzerland’s language communities, as well as some from neighboring countries whose broadcasts get picked up within Switzerland on rental car radios. I’ve checked out major players like national broadcaster SRF (Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen, or Swiss Radio and Television), which is mostly talk and thus my most strenuous German lesson, more local broadcasters, which mostly remind me of the profound limitations of my Swiss German comprehension, a few community-based stations, and some college stations, which mostly remind me that I don’t like electronic dance music very much.

The best Swiss radio station I’ve come across so far is Kanal K, which describes itself (as paraphrased by Google Translate) as, “the music, community and training radio in the Aargau/Solothurn area.” It operates out of the town of Aarau, capital of the confusingly near-identically named canton of Aargau,** between Basel and Zürich at a distance of a little less than sixty kilometers to our southeast. We discovered it on a rental car radio when we were most of the way back from a trip to (extremely beautiful) Lake Thun in Canton Bern, and lost it to static after about three tunnels. Kanal K’s limited reach is understandable and eminently forgivable, as compared to Radio Swiss Pop’s boastful eight-tenths-of-a-million daily listeners, Kanal K is proud to reach some 35,000 people. If they’re all local, that’s actually a really impressive number, as Kanal K’s home city of Aarau has a population of only about 21,000.

When we listened to Kanal K briefly in the car, we heard two really weird, really interesting English-language indie rock songs, one by some Brits, one by some Germans, before the station fuzzed out. When I finally found it again on my smart speaker by the sink, one weekend not long after that, I was initially a little perplexed but nevertheless delighted to learn that Sunday evenings are oldies Tamil film music nights. This is in keeping with Kanal K’s community-based nature, and with its very good-guy-Swiss commitment to delivering content in fifteen languages (I’ve only heard Tamil, English, French, Swiss German, and German so far, but I’ll keep listening).

I’ve also been enjoying Romansh-language radio from Switzerland’s far Southeast, delivered by RTR (Radiotelevisiun Svizra Rumantscha, the diminutive Romansh-medium branch of the public broadcasting system). I like RTR both because I admire Romansh’s gumption, as a language with fewer than fifty thousand native speakers that somehow maintains at least five living written dialects, and has insisted upon being acknowledged as a national language, and because the language itself is fascinating. It’s a massive oversimplification, but to my untrained ear it sounds a bit like a regional Italian dialect spoken with a German accent, just as Alsatian, spoken just to Basel’s west in France, sounds a lot like Swiss German spoken by a native speaker of French. When the RTR news comes on, I can typically catch a lot of words, but not always the important ones, so the gist may escape me; the written language has lots of easy-to-recognize Latin roots but is definitely harder for me to read than the other Romance languages I don’t really know. But it’s printed on the banknotes, and don’t you forget it.

Romansh radio also seems to beat Radio Swiss Pop in terms of volume of local content; I can only assume that just about every Romansh-language recording artist eventually makes it on to radio and/or television. After all, RTR’s television department has to generate ninety minutes of programming every single week, and the radio hours are even more numerous. They also broadcast songs and news in both German and Bündnerdeutsch, the Swiss German dialect in which most Romansh speakers are bilingual, as well as some French and Italian content.

The artists that get airplay on RTR are fairly diverse. I recently discovered the delightful early 1980s new-wave/post-punk track “Eisbär,” (“Polar Bear,”) by Canton Bern’s Grauzone, on an RTR morning program. It’s in Hochdeutsch, and minimalist enough for me to understand it: the singer wishes he were a polar bear in the cold polar ice, and polar bears must not cry.

Among more local performers, a big recent hit was “Home” by an artist who bills himself as Calandaboi, either after a peak in the Glarus Alps in the Romansh homeland of Canton Graubünden, or perhaps after a popular local beer with the same namesake. It features vocals in English from a Swiss-German-speaking, English-singing singer-songwriter named Olivia Virgolin, and sounds a little like Radiohead in a quietly introspective moment being fronted by a deeper-voiced, much less Scottish, more intelligible Elisabeth Fraser. It’s a little cheesy, but I still kind of like it.

Calandaboi is very Swiss, in that he was born in Canton Graubünden to a Hungarian father and a German mother, and grew up speaking Swiss German, German, and Romansh. And although he says that he’s always trying to write songs in Romansh, he mostly records in English.

Among Romansh-language singers, you get, among other things, a lot of pop country, and a lot of artists that sound surprisingly like Bruce Hornsby.

*When I first started thinking about this blog post, I figured I had to either come up with a catchy title or a good Wall of Voodoo (“Mexican Radio”) pun. This would of course require rhyming a foodstuff with a Swiss location, à la “Tijuana: Barbecued Iguana.” But after scratching my head for a bit, the best I could come up with was “Wish I was in…Gruyères, eating barbecued…Gruyère?” which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and the cheese would just melt all over the grill. But I give myself extra points for coming up with such a close rhyme without technically repeating the same word twice.

**Both Aargau and Aarau are named after the Aare River, which waters the canton of Aargau along with several others. I choose to believe that the Aare, in turn, was named by a bear.

The City and the Village

Many of greater Basel’s many attractions (An indoor water park and spa! Roman ruins! A push-scooter or sled ride down a small mountainside! IKEA!) are not in the city itself, but in our neighboring Basel-Landschaft, AKA Basel-Land. Basel-Land, which shares our tram and bus lines and was until a battle in 1833 part of the shared canton of Basel, is the much larger canton that wraps around the city of Basel to the South, and represents the entirety of our home canton of Basel-Stadt’s border with the rest of Switzerland (it is surrounded on its other sides by France and Germany).

Basel-Land is interesting in a lot of ways, not least because it’s home to the most amazing public toilet I’ve ever seen, nor because somebody there prints streetwear hoodies that read STRAIGHT OUTTA BASEL-LAND in predictably classic NWA typography, offering some of the world’s least gangster Germanic farm boys the opportunity to demonstrate disproportionate street cred.

Basel-Land also illustrates just how small and rural Switzerland really is. The total national population is under nine million, which means that there are more than 35 cities around the world—seven just in China, and two just in Guangdong province—with more people in them than this whole country. When you take into account that nearly a quarter of the national population is made up of foreigners, things shrink even further: counting Hong Kong, there are a dozen Chinese cities with more residents than Switzerland has citizens. To put this size into a disgusting perspective, several hundred thousand more people voted for Ted Cruz in America’s 2016 Republican primary elections than there are legal Swiss nationals. (Sorry for making you think about Ted Cruz, Americans; if you’re not American and/or don’t know who he is, do yourself a favor and don’t look him up.)

Basel is the third most populous city in Switzerland, and with a population of just over 171,000, it’s slightly smaller than Eugene, Oregon, the 153rd largest city in the United States. I’m originally from Western Massachusetts, which makes Basel slightly larger than Springfield, but slightly smaller than Worcester (in this case, if you’re not from Massachusetts, do yourself another favor and don’t look them up either.)

Assuming you like cities, Basel gives a very pleasantly urban impression thanks largely to its density—although Basel-Stadt is Switzerland’s smallest canton by area, it is also its densest, home to more than five thousand people per square kilometer. One of the first things I noticed and remarked upon when we moved here was that Basel is slightly smaller than the thoroughly charming but undeniably tiny city/moderately large town of Madison, Wisconsin, where I went to graduate school, and which my advisor described optimistically as “almost a city.” But Basel feels more like a real city than Madison, because it’s nearly five times as crowded.

It also punches well above its weight in terms of cultural institutions and attractions, billing itself as the Cultural Capital of Switzerland. Not only does Basel have two charming, minuscule medieval quarters, facing one another across the Rhine and dating from when Grossbasel, the slightly older, larger historical center of the city on the left bank, and Kleinbasel, where we live, on the right, were two separate cities.

(The marriage of the two municipalities seems to have been as contentious as the divorce of Basel-Land from Basel-Stadt; the golden-crowned crowned, clockwork Lällekönig, or “tongue king” figurine has been blowing a mechanical raspberry at the lower classes of Kleinbasel from a perch near the Grossbasel side of the Mittlere Brücke [Middle Bridge] since at least 1658, although the king currently rolling his eyes at us is a 20th-century replica. Giving as good as it gets, when the heraldic mascots of Kleinbasel’s three ancient honorary societies hold a procession through the streets every January, the Wild Maa [Wild Man, also Wildi Maa and Wilde Maa] cruises down the Rhine on a barge accompanied by fifes and drums and cannon fire, swinging a tree branch and keeping his back firmly to Grossbasel.)

We also have a whopping 37 museums in the city or very nearby (some are in Basel-Land, at least one is in the posh suburb of Riehen, one of three towns in Basel-Stadt proper, and about which more below, and one’s in an adjacent town in Germany). We’ve got a Symphony Orchestra, a chamber orchestra, an imposing central Theater in Grossbasel, and an even more imposing Musical Theater in Kleinbasel next to my kids’ school. Over a hundred thousand people check out and buy the work of some 4000 artists every year at the enormous Art Basel art fair, which since its founding here has stretched tentacles into larger hotbeds of wealth and sophistication such as Hong Kong and Miami Beach. A lively, hip, youthful creative culture energized by the more than 12,000 students at the University of Basel, Switzerland’s oldest, permeates Basel’s bars and cafes, club nights, galleries, pop-up boutiques, food halls, and politics (while the country as a whole shows a lot of support for the xenophobic-nationalist Swiss People’s Party, Basel-Stadt’s government is dominated by the Socialists and the Greens).

So Basel looks and feels more urban, and frankly, cooler than Worcester, or Eugene, or dare I say it, Madison, Wisconsin, despite being similar in scale.

But where the city ends, the country starts. Rather than miles of lawns and tract houses in the suburbs, Switzerland offers rolling hills and bucolic villages. In the town of Reinach, just twenty minutes or so from the main Basel train station by tram, you see tractors on the streets, and the skyline of the nearby village of Bad Bubendorf (by skyline, I of course mean a green hillside) is marked by a small billboard for the Swiss Potato Association, a Hollywood sign in miniature reading kartoffel.ch. (Go ahead and check it out—if you can read German, French, or Italian you may find some fine new Rösti recipes.) The aforementioned town of Riehen, wedged between central Basel and Lörrach, Germany, is about ten minutes from the Basel convention center by tram and feels like… what it is, basically, a very pretty little more-or-less country town full of inexplicably rich people.

The denizens of Riehen love Riehen. I peruse a handful of Basel expatriate forums, and whenever a newcomer asks for advice about where they should live, they’re always quick to boost their swanky little town. Residents of most other Basel-area villages are similarly enthusiastic cheerleaders, citing beauty, availability of large houses and gardens, peace and quiet, speed and ease of commuting into central Basel, and, more often than not, safety.

Basel is too loud, gritty, and crowded for a lot of people. And let’s not even talk about Kleinbasel, which is not only the inner city, but the wrong side of the tracks, home to filth, violence, and drunken and/or drug-addled debauchery. When I gave my doctor my address, he raised his eyebrows and stammered, “Oh, ah, that’s not the nicest part of Basel.”

It is true that my block is not very pretty; we live nearly across the street from the convention center, among the city’s largest and least attractive pieces of architecture. And our end of our street is a largely commercial rather than residential strip, built up mostly in minimalist Swiss modern styles, nondescript concrete and glass and steel boxes that sometimes give a rather Soviet impression. It’s also true that our nearest square is popular with people who enjoy drinking cheap beer on the street in the morning (and more about street drinking, which is not against the law here, in another post); a nonprofit organization that serves addicts and the poor has established an Alki-Stübli, or “Alky Tavern,” essentially a dedicated wino zone, including former phone booths repurposed into tiny, socially-distanced indoor lounging areas for use in inclement weather, next to the kiosk there. Basel’s little red light district is also nearby. And on the subject of violence, statistics suggest that Kleinbasel may be the most dangerous neighborhood in Switzerland, with more than a dozen violent crimes per 1,000 residents in 2018: our old stomping grounds of San Francisco had fewer than six times as many.

But on the other hand, at the other end of our street is the beautiful, early 20th-century Mittlere Brücke, reconstructed on the site of the first-ever bridge across the glorious Rhine, which was built in the late 13th century. All along the riverside are leafy bike paths and a pedestrian promenade, and dozens of gorgeously preserved medieval houses. (This is about two and a half blocks from my house.) And pretty much every other street in the neighborhood is substantially more historic and attractive than ours. The alcoholics stay home on Sundays, because they have homes to go to. The working girls (who are working legally) are confined to designated, clearly labeled portions of the sidewalk, next to a sign encouraging public order and “No Mess in the Milieu.” And my kids travel freely to and from school, and around the neighborhood, to the store, on the trams, and pretty much wherever they want, all by themselves, because that is what primary schoolers in Switzerland are expected to do. Our neighborhood may be among the most dangerous in the country, but the country is still the safest in Europe, or maybe second safest after Finland.

We have no fear, and we’re very happy in our neighborhood. But we are city people, not villagers.

No Mess in the Milieu, in German, English, French, and Hungarian.

Design Peaks and Valleys: Some Snapshots

In last year’s garbage post, I mentioned that the sanitation system in Switzerland demonstrates both design peaks and valleys, a concept I’ve been using in my head to describe products, systems, and procedures offering great beauty and sophistication, and/or what feel like arbitrary hassles. Some stuff feels like genius. You wonder why everybody doesn’t have it or do it. Some stuff just makes you wonder why nobody has noticed how stupid it is.

A fellow expat friend has suggested that some of the things we’ve perceived as just (or at least) a little off in Swiss design and design thinking are merely reflecting the local sense of what’s important. Inspired by Swiss values. And she’s probably right, at least in some cases.

But I suspect that in many other cases, it’s just that if it ain’t been broke since 1291, why fix it?

So below I offer just a few snapshots of the excellent and the incomprehensible in Swiss design.

PEAK: Three-Way Windows

These aren’t unique to Switzerland, and are in fact a German invention, but the ones in our first apartment were proudly made not just in country, but right here in Basel, by one of a number of local engineering and manufacturing outfits that thrive here, thanks no doubt to a generous protectionist tariff regime.

More importantly, they’re great. Point the handle toward the floor and your window is locked. Point it to the side, your window swings open like a door. Point it toward the ceiling and the top edge of the window leans in, offering pleasant ventilation but keeping your children or your cats from leaping to their death stories below.

(Our cats don’t really entertain suicidal ideations, as far as I know, and they had a decent track record of not doing so much as stumbling for our first few months in country, at least that I noticed, as they tiptoed through the pigeon spikes, but our Harriet took to leaping from our front balcony to our kitchen windowsill in our first apartment, a distance of more than a meter/yard, possibly just to escape cozily to a spot I couldn’t easily grab her, maybe just to mess with me. And she did eventually slip off the balcony in our permanent apartment, miraculously surviving a 6-7 story fall, about which I may write more later. But in any case, despite our apartment’s two enormous terraces, I use the tipped-in feature a lot more than I used to.)

VALLEY: One-Way Doors

The front door at our temporary apartment was a fine piece of wood. It was equipped with an intercom phone and a buzzer for the lock downstairs, and seemed sturdy and insulating. It also felt quite secure, as it was equipped with not one but two deadbolts (one attached to the door handle mechanism, one above).

Therein lay a problem. If I locked the door with my key from the outside using the deadbolt attached to the door handle, it could only be unlocked from the inside with another key. Unlike a modern American- or international-style springbolt, you couldn’t just open the door by turning the inside doorknob, nor was there a switch anywhere on the door handle to unlock it. There was no automatic opening switch on the knob inside, such as you find on most modern springbolts, so anyone I locked in couldn’t get out until I came back. This was particularly challenging very early in our tenure in Switzerland, when we had only one set of keys for the apartment.

Meanwhile, if I twisted the little upper deadbolt knob from the inside, there was no way to unlock it from the outside at all—no external keyhole attached.

I’ve since learned that this one-way deadbolt phenomenon is not universal among Swiss apartments, thankfully; all of the locks on the two doors to our permanent apartment (one leading directly to our private sixth-floor stop for the elevator, and one leading to a fifth-floor landing) can be opened from either side. But only if people on both sides of the door have a key.

My front door, from within: No key, no exit.

Including one truly remarkable lock.

I noticed not long after we’d moved in that I had been given, along with four sets of normal housekeys, not one but two teensy keys. One was for the mailbox, the other, even smaller one, a mystery. Until I happened to be making sure that our downstairs door, located down a dedicated staircase and opening onto the fifth-floor landing, which we never use (because when you have moved on up, and have an elevator that opens directly into your apartment like some kind of Manhattan yuppie, why climb an unnecessary flight of stairs?) was locked.

It was. And like its counterpart upstairs, it was affixed with two locks—not two deadbolts like the main door, but a deadbolt and a security chain of the sort that you’ve seen everywhere. You know, the kind that allows the door to open just a few inches, for you to see who it is, or for an axe-wielding maniac to shove his face and/or arm through to threaten you. But unlike any such security chain I’ve ever seen, this one had a tiny keyhole. Stick my miniature key into the tiny keyhole, and the chain part of the locking mechanism detaches from the wall and dangles from the door. Huh? I finally figured out that this is almost certainly an overcompensation for the potential threat of the one-way door. Not only can the deadbolt be unlocked from without with a key, the security chain can be disconnected from without, once you’ve opened the door as far as the chain will allow, assuming you can wiggle your hand through the gap and accurately thread the miniature keyhole. It’s a little awkward. But it’s undeniably clever.

So if you find yourself given a mysterious extra micro-key to your next rental abode, don’t lend it to an axe-wielding maniac.

One, two, three!

The proliferation and diversity of locks may offer one example of Swiss design oddities that reflect Swiss values. When I mentioned our former impenetrable door to one friend, she pointed out that it seemed like a reflection of a Swiss emphasis on safety and security, which is definitely something people, both expats and locals, spend quite a bit of time thinking about, despite living in what may be the safest country in Europe, or the second safest after Finland (perhaps more about that later).

So perhaps my one-way door reflects a Swiss value of massively exaggerating the need for safety in among the safest countries in the world. Or maybe it just ain’t broke.

PEAK: Secret Ergonomic Broom/VALLEY: We Were Too Stupid To Notice it for a Couple of Days

Our temporary apartment was equipped with cheap and easy versions of all the household cleaning implements a person might need—a vacuum, a mop and bucket, dustpans, sponges and rags, and two brooms proudly made in Switzerland.

The weird thing about these brooms was that they only appeared to be about two and three quarters feet long. As we contorted ourselves to bend over to sweep with them, I wondered why they were so anti-ergonomically stubby. A reflection of traditional Swiss values, in which a tiny hunchbacked grandma was part of every extended household? A reflection of the self-sacrificing nature of the historical (and still surprisingly prevalent) Swiss housewife, until just a few years ago expected to wait at home for her kids to come home for the midday break at school, during which she would prepare a hot lunch? (“Oh, don’t worry about me… I don’t need a full-length broom. I don’t need to be comfortable.”) A reflection of some arcane mystery, like house gnomes?

None of the above, perhaps obviously and perhaps sadly (and certainly sadly for us, who took the better part of a week of awkward grandma/gnome-postured sweeping to figure it out). The handles are collapsible, unscrewing to extend to normal, non-gnome/hunchbacked grandmother/self-negating homemaker length. In their condensed form they fit very well in compact Swiss Euro-kitchen cabinetry.

Hobbit mode at left; normal human-sized mode at right.

PEAK: Medicine Cabinet Outlets

Blowing your hair dry in a Swiss bathroom? You’re in luck—if you can’t find an outlet on the counter or near the sink, there’s a good chance you will find one conveniently located in a corner inside your medicine cabinet. That does mean that you need to keep the cabinet open, but the cabinet doors are probably mirrored on both sides so you can have a little salon effect outside your shower.

VALLEY: Plug Type J (Mostly)

Switzerland is home to a lot of very important multilateral and international organizations: the Red Cross, many United Nations agencies, the World Trade Organization, and of course the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the creators and promoters of unified global formats for everything from child car seats, to three-letter acronyms for world currencies, to the proper order in which to write the date (hint: It’s how everybody in the world except America does it).

A number of the ISO’s most technical and intricate standards were developed in collaboration with other international organizations, including this one that I’d never heard of: the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), headquartered in, you guessed it, Geneva, and responsible, among other things, for cataloging the world’s sizes and shapes of electrical plugs and wall outlets. Of which there are fourteen distinct varieties, ranging from Type A (the ungrounded two-pronged plug the United States shares with 51 other countries scattered around the globe) to Type N (advanced by the IEC as the new, hopeful global standard, but so far adopted just by Brazil and South Africa, and still universal in neither).

Perhaps the second most interesting thing about the Type N plug is that it resembles, but is not compatible with, Plug Type J, used… in Switzerland, where the titans of global standardization make their homes. Oh, and also in Liechtenstein. But don’t worry—J plugs are sometimes compatible with all of Switzerland’s other European neighbors’ Type C plugs. Except when they’re not.

So the standard is clear.

At left, the plug for my rice cooker, purchased in Switzerland; at right, the adapter that enables the European-standard Type C plug to fit into a Swiss Type J outlet.

PEAK? VALLEY? I CAN’T PROPERLY SAY: This Public Toilet

A while ago, on our way to ride rented push scooters down a mountainside, as you do, we spent a bit of time at the train station in the rather charming center of Liestal, the capital of our neighboring canton of Basel-Land, where we had to wait for a bus connection to a nearby village. This gave me the opportunity to experience the most remarkable public toilet I have ever seen.

It does it all! All by itself, it’s a urinal! Fold down the little seat, and it’s a toilet! Turn on the little tap on the side, and it’s a sink! Perhaps most importantly, it’s a giant stainless steel funnel taking up most of one wall and the floor of a public lavatory, and I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere but Liestal. But I wouldn’t dare guess whether that is for better or worse.

How to Get Home Internet in Switzerland: A 5-Step Guide

First, I have to apologize in the unlikely event that anyone’s been waiting with bated breath for a new missive from me. I’ve been distracted by the boys starting school, and more recently (this week and last), by moving from our temporary furnished apartment to our new, permanent apartment, a gorgeous loft where our furniture is mostly cardboard boxes. Our interior design aesthetic is now “Manhattan Hoarder.” More about all of these exciting developments coming soon!

I’ve also been offline until just a little while ago, because we didn’t have home internet, and my fingers are too fat and clumsy to attempt to blog from my phone.

On that note, How do you get a home internet connection set up in Switzerland, anyhow?

It’s very simple! Follow the five steps below and you will be all set.

  1. Choose a Provider. There are four big players among Swiss ISPs: Swisscom, Sunrise, Salt, and Yallo (which I associate with someone yelling “Yallo?” into a phone with a suburban Albany accent, but perhaps it’s a play on Yellow; Salt was formerly known as Orange). These are all major telecoms, so they’ll offer similarly bewildering bundles of home telephony, cable TV, landline, and mobile phone packages. All will have similarly dishonest introductory offers for services you probably don’t want, that will expire before you remember to cancel them and your auto-payment auto-triples or auto-quadruples.

There are probably half a dozen additional providers that are just ISPs, but I’m not young or tech savvy or cool enough to pay much attention to these cutting-edge types. I never went with Monkeybrains or Monsterface or Weirdo-E-Libertarian or any of the other “cool” ISPs in San Francisco, either. I just seethed quietly while cutting AT&T a massive monthly check and periodically giving my router a serial reboot, like any other normal consumer.

In the end, you will, like me, choose Swisscom, because: It’s what your previous temporary apartment had; the vaguely nationalist nomenclature will suggest enormity, ubiquity, and competence; and you will have done enough research and comparison shopping to tell you that you can’t stand comparison shopping for internet service providers and would rather just be done with it.

2. Notice That it Takes at Least Ten Days Advance Notice to Install Swiss Internet. The best time to do this is late on the Thursday or Friday before the Monday when you are scheduled to move into your new apartment, when you remember that you didn’t pick an ISP yet despite an hour or two of annoying online research two weeks before.

So when you’ve got that done:

3. Place an Order Online, and receive a confirmation e-mail informing you that the ISP will be in touch in a few days to get your contract finalized.

4. Follow up With the ISP, ten days later, when you’re squatting among cardboard boxes in your new home, on the day before the “earliest available” activation date you chose online a week and change ago, when you realize that the ISP never got back to you. This is also when you will learn that, auto-generated confirmation e-mail notwithstanding, the ISP has no record of your order in your system and has no idea that you exist. You have no contract in place. Set up your contract over the phone, a process that takes a little over 90 minutes.

During this process you will be upsold to a more expensive package that may or may not actually be available at your address, with a tempting introductory offer you will forget to cancel in a year’s time.

You will also get a follow up call, two e-mails, and a text, shortly thereafter, asking you to upload a photograph of your passport or Swiss residence permit, a process that is successful after only thirty attempts. The issue may be that uploaded photographs are strictly forbidden from including any glare, and both passports and Swiss residence permits are phenomenally shiny little documents. Or not.

Anyway, they’ll call back twice to find out if you’re finished uploading the images while you’re trying to do so for the fifth and seventh times, and will stay on the line for the next 23 tries.

5. Begin Receiving Extremely Frequent SMS and E-Mail Messages from Your Provider. Note that although the ISP’s website has an English option, and the customer service people (more about whom below) speak English with varying degrees of proficiency, you can only get official communications from your ISP in one of the big three Swiss national languages. Despite the fact that the ISP totally didn’t notice that you placed an order online twelve days ago, they somehow remembered that you checked a box asking them to communicate with you in Italian when you did so, so your texts and inbox are now filled with Italian messages.

Ooops, that’s five! Maybe this process wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be. Carrying on:

5. Notice That Your Text Messages Contain Conflicting (Italian) Information. After requesting your original activation date over the phone, receive three messages noting that your activation date will take place 1) The day before you requested; 2) a day later than you requested, and 3) two days later than you requested. To get that cleared up…

5. Speak with Three Additional Customer Service Representatives, a process that should take no more than 180 minutes. During the penultimate of these phone calls, you will fail to be informed that your request to have your hardware (router, cable box) delivered to your home was canceled by one of the five people to whom you have spoken; you are now scheduled to pick it up yourself, at a location to be disclosed via QR code you will receive via SMS the day after the technician is scheduled to come to your house (now a full three days later than the start date you requested). As you call back one more time to clarify our story thus far:

5. Get Yelled at by a French Speaking Woman. When you express discontent with the inconsistent information and shifting targets you have received, a customer service representative (technically the last one you will speak with on the phone, but more on that below) with a pronounced French accent (the others appeared to be mostly Portuguese and Italian speakers) will respond with this pinnacle of customer care: “Eh?! Why you cry to me?! Your Internet will come the 30th. Not before.” This date, incidentally, is the latest of the many that have been suggested.

Thankfully, this phone call will take no longer than 45 minutes.

5. Pick Up Your Router at a Convenience Store. This process involves flashing your QR code, which has mysteriously appeared ahead of schedule,  to a lone clerk who will be forced to abandon her counter, to the discontent of a line of commuters buying cigarettes, lottery tickets, takeaway coffees, and newspapers, to root around the back of the shop somewhere. But she’ll find it eventually and sell you a decent $3.50 caffe ristretto while she’s at it.

5. Have a Surprisingly Attractive Serb Plug In Your Router. I don’t go for men, but even I could tell that Ivan, the technician who showed up at my house to activate our Internet Box, looked like he could have a side gig dancing in the Castro in his underpants. His arrival was like the setup gag to a pornographic comedy; Jessica was even in the shower. Anyhow, he’ll be taciturn, extremely soft spoken, and polite as he tells you how stressful his job can get.

This interaction will take less time than literally any of the customer service calls you’ve experienced to date, and you will receive an invoice via e-mail within seconds.

And, finally, Point 5:

5. Call Technical Support Six Hours Later Because Your Internet Doesn’t Work. Technical support, unlike customer service, will be polite, apologetic, and, apparently, competent. You will talk to them for ten minutes or so, during which time they will magically command your router to do its job from behind the scenes somewhere.

And that’s it! Happy blogging!

PLEASE RESPECT THE GARBAGE DISPOSAL SYSTEM

Having put in the effort to learn where and how to get stuff in my first few weeks in Basel, I was soon filled with an increasingly intense desire to learn where and how to throw stuff away, in the sense that my house was soon increasingly intensely filled with junk that I needed to throw away.

Switzerland’s refuse disposal system is one of many much-publicized sources of national pride. The Swiss often seem to take a lot of pride in being Swiss. There’s no denying that they get a lot right, and one of their national successes has been to cultivate a pretty enthusiastic recycling culture, about which local outlets are more than happy to crow.

You can’t look anywhere online without seeing a blog, newspaper, or magazine reference to Switzerland’s “high recycling rates.” The proudest among Swiss sanitation enthusiasts even like to claim that the Confoederatio Helvetica is among the world’s greatest recyclers; that might be true, depending on how you slice the garbage cake, but the Germans, Austrians, South Koreans, Slovenians, Belgians, and Taiwanese, at least, seem to have the Swiss beat.

But like the plastic bags I inevitably wind up choosing when I scoop the litterbox, the Swiss garbage disposal system has some holes in it.

Swiss sanitation offers a large-scale example of the design peaks and valleys you start to notice all over the place after spending just a little time here (and this will be the subject of an imminent post)—points of great efficiency, thoughtfulness, and beauty interspersed with what seem like arbitrary complications.

Talking Trash

The garbage part of the garbage disposal system (Abfall, or waste), the non-recyclable trash that gets incinerated, largely for energy recovery nowadays, or decreasingly often, landfilled, is mostly a thing of great, common-sense beauty.

Like some other municipal sanitation programs around the world (the small college city of Ithaca, New York does something similar), it’s based on the “polluter pays principle.” In Basel, the city sanitation department that does all the trash collection has a monopoly on the production of Bebbi-Säcke, or “Basler Sacks,” using one of the cutesy diminutive Swiss German variations on the word for someone or something from Basel (the Zürich versions, incidentally, are known as Züri-Säcke, along the same lines).

They’re easy to find, behind the counter at grocery stores, and cost 24 francs for ten 35L units. So yes, you read that right: Medium-sized trash bags (like a small kitchen sack) cost close to $2.50 apiece (you are also welcome to get smaller ones for a little less, and larger ones for more).

Bebbi-Säcke are uncommonly high-quality trash bags. Brilliant blue in color; impressively durable (I feel confident that I could toss broken glass into them without having the bottom fall out on me, although I’m also pretty confident I’d get arrested for trying to toss broken glass into a Bebbi-Sagg); apparently leakproof (I’ve taken out more than one Bebbi-Sagg loaded with wet coffee grounds, and at least one wet rag used for washing a litterbox, even going so far as to hoist it up on my shoulder while carrying it down the stairs, and I have without exception emerged unscathed and unscented); equipped with fine strong drawstrings (good enough to semi-reliably seal them shut, when tied aggressively as labels on the bags encourage, and if they’re not too heavy, strong enough once tied to use as a handle to carry them down from your fourth-floor walkup, or whatever type of Swiss apartment you live in).

Bebbi-Säcke are a world apart from the cheapo drug store trash bags I have experienced in my more foolish moments in the States. I have increasingly sporadic periods of near-pathological frugality, where buying the cheapest available version of a thing seems the irresistible option, and I have learned the hard way that trash bags are one of at least two items for which it never pays to follow that instinct (unless you like cleaning up spilled cat waste, soup, soggy paper towels, or whatever horrifying species of garbage juice your household produces, after you take out the trash).

The other item that taught me this principle, incidentally, is disposable razors. It’s amazing that something that seems to have such a hard time accomplishing its one job can hurt so much while it fails to do it. If you are in a dollar store while reading this, thinking about buying a pack of disposable shavers imported from China via Northern Macedonia, please love yourself enough to think again. The second-cheapest might actually work, though.

Anyway, what really differentiates Bebbi-Säcke from cheaper options is the fact that there are no cheaper options. It’s officially illegal to dispose of any non-recyclable anything in any bag apart from a Bebbi-Sagg.

But the Bebbi-Sagg’s noticeable price tag also covers your twice-weekly refuse collection. Just follow local guidelines about when you’re allowed to leave your full bags on the curb (in our current zone, it’s Monday and Thursday mornings), and a cute little orange truck with a cheerful cartoon pig on it will swing by and your trash will disappear.

So trash disposal is extremely low-effort for the waste producer, but costs a lot.

Recycling, on the other hand, is free. It further adheres to the polluter pays principle by making it really expensive to get caught throwing away recyclables—the fines start around CHF/US$100. Penalties for dumping household waste into public recycling bins are even more frightening, starting around CHF200.

Like public transit fares and public parking time limits, recycling violations are kept under control largely through the national honor system (and much more on this soon), so I expect these fines are seldom levied, but scrupulously paid and collected when they are.

But as if to make up for being free, Swiss recycling is a sort of DIY affair, requiring thought and effort on the consumer’s part. Paper and cardboard make up the easiest (but maybe also least convenient) part, getting collected off the street once a month, assuming proper bundling and presentation. I say least convenient because I have now missed our monthly paper pickup day twice, and have a cabinet filled with hoarder-worthy bales of cereal boxes to prove it. But that’s my fault, not the system’s.

Rejected recycling and trash are  left behind on the street, with a scolding sticker attached. Even if they didn’t see you carrying it out, and don’t see you slinking it back in, you can be sure your Swiss neighbors will know the offending trash was yours. So real enforcement of waste management regulations may take place in the court of neighborhood opinion, sure to be a higher price to pay even than the steepest citation.

Everything apart from paper has to be taken to an appropriate recycling center. Everyone seems to agree that these are well located and easy to reach from more or less anywhere within Basel city limits; the one closest to us is about three minutes’ walk from my front door. But, as a valley to this particular systemic peak, there’s no single recycling center that takes everything, and even a recycling center appropriate to the type of material you’re trying to pitch probably doesn’t take everything you think it does.

By you, of course, I mean me.

The municipal recycling center closest to our place handles glass carefully sorted by color (there are separate bins for Weiss-, Grün-, and Braunglas), Aluminium und Weissblechdosen. We had to ask our relocation consultant what Weissblech was; either she didn’t know either, or just didn’t know the English, and vaguely offered that it was something like aluminum, but thinner, maybe? Or slightly thicker? (Literally, it appears to be ‘tinplate,’ but that’s probably just a vestige of an earlier era, like our ‘tin cans’ or ‘tins.’.)

Anyhow, I figured that that was where we should put metal, and I dumped whatever scraps of metal and foil I gathered around the house for a couple of weeks before I noticed that the bins were labeled for not just any kind of Aluminium and Weissblech,  but Aluminium- und Weissblech–[D]osen, a word that in other contexts (specifically, beverage labels) I mistook for ‘dose’ or ‘portion’ but which is actually a can. Cans and tins only. Other metallic stuff is, at least according to official signage, not the city’s problem.

Adjacent to the small receptacles for each category of trash is a large, blue dumpster-like container that is labeled to outline the acceptable forms of recycling to put in the cans you just had to walk by to reach it, reiterates the fines and penalties for inappropriate disposal, and has a small slot into which you are supposed to insert… I have no idea what. Stuff that didn’t fit into the segregated bins? Other categories of recyclable material? Garbage (but not bags of household garbage, or the cheerful cartoon pig is fining you two hundred francs)?

People are clearly hoping for some of each of the above, based on the things I see in, on, or next to that bin.

Caught it at an unusually clean moment.

…so I’m not the only one who finds this confusing.

As orderly, neat, and rule-bound as Switzerland supposedly (and mostly) is, there’s actually a lot of fudging, guessing, and cheating surrounding the waste disposal system. Not only are my neighborhood curbs invariably full of Bebbi-Säcke well in advance of official disposal hours (you’re supposed to wait until 7PM to put them out), people clearly aren’t sure what to stick where at the recycling stations, hopefully abandoning pots and pans, broken glassware, dishes, umbrellas, and more next to whichever bin they think is the closest fit (nice try putting the umbrella between the Aluminium- und Weissblechdosen and Weissglas cans, anonymous neighbor).

Plastic receptacles, on the other hand, are nowhere to be seen at our local recycling depot. To get rid of PET bottles (and also batteries, light bulbs, carbonation and cream-charging cannisters, I think) you need to head to the lobby of your local supermarket… obviously?

Both Coop and Migros have a wall of curiously shaped windows out front, labeled with the kind of recyclables for which they are intended. Our Coop divides acceptable plastic into two categories: PET-Getränkeflaschen, or PET Drink Bottles, and PET-Plastikflaschen, or PET Plastic Bottles. Assuming the diagrams on the walls are to be believed, these slots are for detergent bottles, opaque milk bottles, and other non-beverage plastic containers, opaque in color.

But only Flaschen. If you’ve got a plastic lid, takeaway container, broken toy, or piece of disposable tableware, it probably goes… in the regular Abfall. Many products are actually labeled with a cute little trash-bag-shaped icon to indicate that you have to throw them away.

But there’s more! At the train station, the public trash and recycling bins are divided into Alu, PET, Papier, and Abfall sections… but no glass. And all over the city are public garbage bins lined with bright biohazard-orange bags that the cheerful cartoon pig implies are for everything, presumably to be sorted later. He’s cheering Da! Easy! (There! Easy!) for what look like cartoon cigarette butts, disposable aluminum bakeware, cans, bottles, and general waste. But he will totally mail a CHF200 ticket to your house if he catches you dumping your trash wholesale into a public bin.  

There! Easy! But if you toss your kitchen garbage in here, you’re busted!

Die Sprachfrage, Questione della lingua, Question de langue: First Thoughts on Languages

The big three.

It may surprise people who know me to learn that when I, an anxious preschooler, was told that the time had come for me to attend kindergarten, I decided to vocalize my fears as thus:

“But what if some of the kids speak a different language?”

I don’t think I really had any kind of linguaphobia, I was just making up a reason why kindergarten was out. And it turned out that at least two, maybe three of the kids in my class (it was a very small town) did speak different languages, at least at home. But they spoke English with me and we got on fine.

But the reason this seems such a funny idea now is because since I was not that much bigger than a kindergartener, learning, listening to, and thinking about languages has been more or less my favorite thing.

I chose my undergraduate university primarily because of the range of language courses listed in the catalogue of its Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, from Arabic to Zulu. I’m not a “superpolyglot,” a term that I think is reserved for people who can speak ten tongues, but I can get by in a lot of languages for an American.

German has never been one of them, however. German boosters often like to point out that English is a Germanic language, and it is true that they share an ancestor. But this doesn’t help as much as you think it does, as syntax, other grammar, and even most of the vocabulary have diverged dramatically over the millennia. Not much more than a quarter of modern English words come from Germanic roots; our corpus is nearly as French as it is German. And our case-free, non-gendered, reliably subject-verb-object grammar doesn’t look much like German at all. 

When I’m trying to pick up words and phrases in a new language, I fish for cognates to hang on to. Ideally, English cognates. But I’ll make do with Romance or Slavic or Greek roots, too—I’ve had formal instruction in ten languages, and studied many more casually—surely I know some word this word sounds like.

Sometimes it works really well in German: Gut. Mein. Hand. Problem. Seite. Goldfisch. Universität. Waschmaschine. And many, many more.

Got it.
Also clear as a bell.

Sometimes it works not at all: I was looking for a notary; turns out that’s an easy-to-remember Notar or Notariat. Then I called one, and found out that a Swiss Notar is actually a species of lawyer more concerned with the production of legally-certified documents than the witnessing of signatures (which is what I was looking for).

I wanted signature authentication, which is obviously Unterschriftbeglaubigung, dummy.

Easy enough in context; helps to know that “verkaufen” means “sell.”

Sometimes it works at first, then goes off the rails: The scene is the pet supply store next door to my apartment.

“Umm… meine Katze hat ein Problem mit Haarballen.”

Nice girl behind the counter gestures immediately to the corner where the hairball medicine is. I get it and pay. But then I get cocky and try to thank her in Swiss German (which is not to be confused with German, and about which I will write much more by and by).

One of the endearing features of Swiss German, along with the fact that most nouns are usually rendered as diminutives (a house is not a Haus, it’s a Hüsli; a mouse is not a Maus, it’s a Mäusli; a rabbit isn’t a Hase, it’s a Häsli; that dude from Basel is not a Basler, he’s a Beppi, etc.) is that it’s loaded with French, of which I can understand a lot. In local argot, “farewell” is often adjö (adieu). And at least as far as I can overhear, “thank you” is often mässi (merci). So I tried it.

Me: Mässi!

Her, brain kicking into gear to remember the French she had to pass in high school but clearly has not used since: “Oh, ah… merci, monsieur! Bon journée!”

So I’m pretty sure I’m known at that pet store as “That dim-witted French guy with the cats.” But I can live with that.

Um, OK. Pretty sure the Trottoir’s the sidewalk, and you’re probably not supposed to park on it past this point? Traffic signs will be another conversation…

Even Swiss Hochdeutsch (High German, the stuff people around here are schooled in but do not generally speak in the streets) is Frenchy—when I buy a chicken salad, which I have done several times both because I enjoy eating them and because I can say it, I buy a Salat Poulet, with the chicken part pronounced like French with a little German accent.

(I have yet to see or order a potato casserole, although I enjoy saying Kartoffelauflauf to myself, and Kartoffel [potato] is easy for me to remember because it was borrowed into Russian, although the Russians usually use the diminutive kartoshka. But of course, the Swiss would call potatoes Herdöpfeln [earth apples], an Alemannicization of pommes de terre.)

 Switzerland is famous for being an officially multilingual country—German, French, Italian, and plucky little Romansh (among many other local spellings—for a code with fewer than 50,000 first-language speakers it has an impressive diversity of at least seven living dialects, and the official pan-valley standardized form, invented in the 1980s and building on around a century of earlier unsuccessful language engineering attempts, has been met mostly with resentment) are all printed on the money, and all enjoy legal status in various parts of the Confederation.

When I signed up for my supermarket loyalty card (and no, I’m not going to get started on grocery shopping again), I had the choice of requesting communications in German, Italian, or French. I chose Italian, as it’s the easiest for me to read; I can fake a little French, too, as implied above, but I can actually speak some Italian, rather than just trying to speak a guttural portuñol through my nose.

But Swiss federalism makes this official polyglossia a little less convenient than you might think. Languages are only official for government use within the cantons where they have been designated as such. So a Romansh speaker outside of Canton Grison (aka Graubünden), the only region where the language is legally sanctioned, can’t expect to walk into a government office and receive service in his or her mother tongue.

In our home canton of Basel-Stadt, Switzerland’s smallest, German is the only official language. So that’s the only language you can expect the government to communicate with you in, and vice versa.

We’ve met native French speakers who’ve been refused permission to fill out German forms in French, even though French enjoys pretty nationwide visibility, appearing alongside German (and sometimes Italian too, albeit less often) on most labels and packaging, and some public signs. Announcements on our local trams are in German only, but switch into French when we arrive at the train station where the French trains stop (they speak English, too, but only at the stop for the massive convention center). And when you talk to a local government official (so far we’ve interacted just with the foreigner processing teams at the Bevölkerungsdienste und Migration unit of the Justiz- und Sicherheitsdepartement des Kantons Basel-Stadt—doesn’t it sound welcoming?), it’s safe to expect her to sigh and switch into English with you, but she would clearly rather not.

Letters from the sanitation department explaining trash pickup days and locations of recycling centers seem oddly threatening, cheerful stickers with the pig mascot of the sanitation department notwithstanding. One of Jessica’s colleagues received an ominous-looking official missive, brought it to the administrative team at her office with some concern—is it a traffic ticket? Did I break the law? Am I in trouble?—and was met with peals of laughter.

“Did you put recyclable tonic water bottles in your trash bag?”

Such is the daily life of non-German speakers in Basel.

Beneath local officialdom’s German monomania, and federal multilingualism, Basel is an extremely, delightfully multilingual place. People have moved here from throughout Switzerland’s speech communities, and from places all over the world. It’s not the most foreigner-heavy town in Switzerland (this award goes, evidently, to some small Zürich suburbs that are majority-immigrant), but something in the neighborhood of a third of Basel residents are foreign-born.

Most of Switzerland’s resident aliens (more than 80%) are from other parts of Europe—French, Germans, Italians, and Portuguese together make up half of the foreign population nationwide. Jessica, who is like me a beginning student of German, although she had the advantage of a semester in college twenty years ago, has been able to get her nails done in French by a stylist from Alsace. During my first few weeks in Basel I found opportunities to use Italian just about every day, beginning on day two, when my jet-lagged brain, too tired to remember any of my previous weeks of very casual German self-study, noticed that my supermarket cashier had an Italian surname on her nametag and was speaking to the man in front of me in italiano.

My French is fake—it would be dishonest to claim that I can really speak it—but I understand it moderately well, and it has been a relief more than once when someone who speaks kein Englisch has offered Französisch as an alternative.

Basel is also home to some thousands of English-speaking expats working in the large pharmaceutical and chemical industries, and an interesting diversity of people from other parts of the world. When I visited Basel for the first time back in March, one of the things that made me feel most comfortable with the idea of moving here was observing polyethnic groups of local schoolchildren, phenotypically of European, African, and South Asian descent, shooting the breeze with one another in Schwiizertüütsch on the trams and in the squares. Some of the people I’ve spoken Italian with have been Albanians.  

The neighborhood to which we are most likely to move in the next few weeks, known as Clara, is agreeably diverse. It’s home to a sizeable Turkish population (our prospective new apartment is above a kebap, pide, and low-end pizza shop), a large community of Indian descent (we will be just a few minutes’ walk from Switzerland’s flagship Indian grocery store, the headquarters of a little local chain, and I could not be happier), many old-school Portuguese and Italian eateries, a lot of Thai restaurants, and at least one Thai karaoke place—I hope they have one of the four or five Thai oldies I can sing accurately.

Surprisingly, it’s also a center for Basel’s Brazilian and Dominican communities, which I didn’t know existed before I came here but have since seen evidence of all over the place. The Indian grocer has a selection of Dominican and Brazilian imports, and I hear much more Latin American Spanish and Portuguese around than I was expecting to.

We hired a cleaner a few weeks ago (for those still looking for German cognates, that’s obviously typically a Putzfrau); it took a long time for the service to find anybody who was available on the day and time we needed, so I was startled when someone actually showed up.

It turned out to be a Putzmann rather than a Putzfrau, and he spoke good German, some Swiss German, and not a word of English. As I escorted him awkwardly up the stairs to our fourth-floor walkup, I started fishing. Ummm… sprechen sie Englisch? Nein? Französisch? Nein? Italienisch? Nein? Ummm….

Nein, nur Deutsch und Spanisch… Entschuldigung.”

My Cuban cleaner and I sighed with mutual relief as I switched from pidgin alemán into workmanlike Spanish. I’m thinking of asking him to come in for a few extra hours per week to give me German lessons.

Meanwhile, I need to pick up some Turkish if I want to get a decent haircut, and some Gujarati to get a better deal on groceries.

You pretty much only see Swiss German in ads–there is no standardized written form. Coke couldn’t even come up with a Schwiizertueuetsch word for “story,” but they would like you to write your own, evidently.


What? Where? Even More About Shopping

I wasn’t intending to write a second post about grocery shopping, but it seems that grocery shopping, and more specifically, figuring out where to find things, has taken up maybe 80% of my life so far in Switzerland.

Our temporary apartment is literally across the street from a Coop (locally pronounced Cope, rather than Co-Op, despite being derived from the word Cooperative and being a literal cooperative), the second-largest of Switzerland’s two major supermarket chains, and a little under a block from a Migros (the largest grocer, retailer, and employer in Switzerland, pronounced “me grow,” as in French, with a silent ‘s’, despite being founded in, and in our case, located in, German-speaking Switzerland. Migros is a cooperative too, known in full as the Federation of Migros Cooperatives), so basic foodstuffs aren’t very hard as long as I go out on weekdays during narrow Swiss shopping hours (typically until 8PM M-F, although a few larger branches stay open until 10 on weekdays, and until 6 on Saturday).

Our local Migros is a two-M Migros, meaning medium-sized. Smallest are M, biggest are MMM.

Both Coop and Migros are almost comically ubiquitous in Basel. Beyond our local (which also features a deeply mediocre, noticeably expensive buffet restaurant my kids fell in love with immediately—they’ve taken me there twice so far to watch them eat half a pretzel sandwich and a forkful of salad, and I have yet to spend less than 25 francs, but at least they gave them a free little stuffed toucan), there’s a larger Coop three blocks down the street, just before the train station.

Inside the train station itself, just over four blocks from where we live now, there’s a slightly smaller Migros than the one closest to our house. But this one is a Basel-Stadt institution because it is the only major supermarket in the city that is open on Sundays. I’ve never been there on a weekday, but I’ve recognized multiple fellow shoppers on successive Sundays… this city is not very big.

As I will detail in a later post, we are very likely to move to a different neighborhood on the other side of the river in the coming months. There are many things about our temporary neighborhood that I already recognize that I will miss dearly. One of the dearest is being perhaps eight minutes’ walk from the city’s main train station. The train station is maybe the only place in Basel that is noticeably bustling seven days a week, and it offers a large handful of very miscellaneous shops that keep some Sunday and/or evening hours.

The station on a Sunday morning. Fewer people are visible pretty much anywhere in town at this hour.

So along with getting real food at the station Migros, or snacks at the pretty well-stocked-but-not-a-grocery-store Coop Pronto convenience and liquor store (Migros is officially dry; more about that below), I could also easily acquire overpriced muffins or takeaway sandwiches, German-language romance novels, Swiss Lottery tickets, low-end candy, greeting cards, or an umbrella on a Sunday if I had to. And our beloved Turkish corner store, as noted, can supply us with anything that has ever been pickled, as well as an interesting but not comprehensive selection of international delicacies, and a small range of household products, seven days a week.

The Turkish corner store does not, however, sell toilet paper.

So, to cite a hypothetical example, if you were to move into a temporary apartment just down the block with your family of four, at midafternoon on a Sunday, and find that your home has been stocked with a single small roll of toilet paper, you would have to look somewhere else.

But where? This question in many variations has consumed a surprising amount of my mental and physical energy over the past few weeks.

Below I offer some of what I’ve figured out.

What You Can (Maybe) Get Where: A Selective Guide for the Confused

What You Can Get at Coop

Most things you want to eat, particularly if you are a Swiss family. To get the obvious staples out of the way:

  • A huge amount of chocolate (the store brand features a heap of organic and Fairtrade options, all of high quality and all fairly cheap; I recommend the Fairtrade Certified Choco-Brezeli). Fine chocolate is literally among the cheapest things in a Swiss supermarket, perhaps alongside store brand energy drinks, which come in a range of exotic flavors from “disgusting” to “mojito/also disgusting,” Ubiquitous taurine-slinging juggernaut Red Bull has the gall to sell a Coconut Blueberry flavor here, in both glucose and sugar free versions.
  • Lots of cheese, nearly all white or pale yellow, mostly without holes. The stuff Americans call Swiss Cheese is actually one of many regional varieties, officially produced just in the Emmental, a valley in Canton Bern, and is known in Switzerland not just as Cheese, but as Emmentaler. There are maybe fifteen other common local types; I’ve probably tried half and like most of them more than I like Emmentaler. But I like the Emmentaler better here than in the US. The only orange-colored cheese I’ve noticed so far, apart from a convenient but depressing store-brand product called Tex-Mex, made of pre-grated yellow and orange cheddaresque shreds, is a packaged product that bears a suspicious resemblance to American cheese “singles,” known locally as “Toast cheese,” and formatted to fit exactly on the vaguely American-style square, usually white, sliced bread known as “Toast.” There is also a great range of patties made from cheese, sometimes breaded, sometimes seasoned, intended to serve as something to be grilled for non-meat eaters–the Swiss do a lot of outdoor grilling in the summer. The Coop house brand is called a Cheese Burger, and it bills itself as a “Schweizer vegetarische Alternative,” which is hard to argue with. Except for the fact that I’m definitely already eating too much cheese, I might try them.
  • SO MANY KINDS OF MUESLI, including some really strange-looking ones such as “No Sugar Added Cocoa Muesli,” a store brand that I can’t help but imagine tastes like raw oatmeal with unsweetened cocoa powder dumped all over it (that is certainly what it looks like). Nobody in my family really likes muesli, so this is a section—fully half of our local’s Frühstück aisle—I have not explored in as much detail as Swiss patriots might think it deserves. We were warned before coming, by an expat forum participant, that Switzerland is “not a great scene, cereal-wise,” and this has proven only partially true. Incomprehensible quantities and varieties of raw oats and nuts, and a surprising density of deeply sugary cereals featuring shrieking monkeys, hyperactive pieces of anthropomorphic cinnamon toast, menacing bees, and manic baby tigers, among other mascots, yes. But also ready access to perfectly acceptable corn flakes, brand-name Rice Krispies, and a couple of other non-sugar-bomb processed breakfast foods. All cheaper than in the US.
  • Very expensive meat, including Horse Fillets that can set you back a whopping 40+ francs per kilo. I’m pretty sure this was organic horse, however, and probably from somewhere expensive like France; I presume conventional horse, and/or Ukrainian horse, isn’t as pricey. Half of my family is made up of committed vegetarians, I make an effort to minimize the animals I eat, and basically all of our family meals are veg, so the cost of meat isn’t actually troublesome for us, but it makes it clear why Swiss customs prohibits the import of more than a kilo of meat per person among cross-border shoppers (and perhaps more about international shopping another time). Das Fleisch is an obvious revenue generator.  

On the subject of vegetables, the selection is both smaller and quite a lot different than I was expecting. It took several trips to several stores to find celery, and while other lettuces seemed abundant (mostly Butter and other floppy varieties), there was no sign of any romaine for the first two weeks we were in Switzerland. Romaine lettuce is probably our Levi’s favorite food—Jessica and I frequently have to remind him that he “can’t just eat salad,” and he has recently been known to refer to himself as either the Salad King or the Saladmaster when performing superheroics at the dinner table. So it was a delight when, a little over two weeks into our Swiss sojourn, little tiny heads of romaine lettuce appeared, wrapped in packages of two or three, and labeled either Minisalat or Baby Salat; the perfect staple for our salad baby. We’ve since come to understand that the produce is just much more seasonal here—this leads me to assume that we will get to watch the Baby Salat grow up into Big Boy Salat, Teenager Salat, and eventually Grownup Salat as the summer goes on. (I wonder if Middle-Aged Salat is bitter.)

But back to the list of things you CAN get at Coop:

Potting Soil. It’s right out front, in huge bags. The small selection of potted flowers and plants is dwarfed by their bulk. I suspect that in the winter it gets replaced with firewood. But we shall see.

LED Lightbulbs. A tiny selection of mostly curiously small and oddly shaped light bulbs is available for sale. The range of bulb shapes and socket sizes is far more diverse here than in the US, but all skew small. LEDs and compact fluorescents only; incandescent bulbs are soon to be illegal.

You CAN’T, however, typically get batteries. I found mine at the electronics store on the same block as the Turkish market, after a few attempts; they were proudly Made In Switzerland (Swiss-made products are nearly reliably ostentatiously labeled as such) and cost close to three times as much as they would have in the US.

Kitchen gadgets, both international-standard and local favorites such as the Hob Scraper, a razorblade in a handle designed to chisel encrusted gunk off of a glass induction cooking surface… I smirked when I first saw it, but now I use it every day.

Undergarments. Hosiery, men’s and women’s underpants, and men’s undershirts, at least. Typically not far from the shaving and shampoo aisle. When I visited Switzerland back in March, before we moved, I picked up a pack of boxer briefs at Coop that are excellent; my Swiss supermarket underpants are now probably my favorite. Maybe a little insulting, though, as I, increasingly doughy but still usually a reliable American Medium when it comes to underpants, am evidently a Swiss XL.

Apart from this slight, and the fact that they’re really, really expensive (I think I paid CHF20 for a two-pack, or about ten bucks a pair), I would probably buy all my underwear at the grocery store from here on in.

And as far as I can tell, the main reason that the larger Coop three blocks from us has so much more square footage than the one right across from our house is that it has a much larger underwear section. Far greater array of pantyhose, and I saw a bizarre, green men’s boxers-and-tank top set, although it might have been pajamas. Everything else seems comparable in scale, just arranged or assorted a little differently—only the bigger one sells 1.5L cartons of pasteurized rather than “ultra-pasteurized,” that is to say refrigerated rather than flash-heated to be shelf-stable, milk containers. Only the smaller one sells caffeine-free Coke Zero.

Health, Beauty, and Voodoo. In just about any Coop, including the little convenience-store ones, there’s a selection of vitamins, soaps, shampoos, and sunblock, and maybe a small number of first aid supplies (at least sticking plasters/Band-Aids). You can also find a few ointments, as long as they’re basically cosmetic and not at all medicinal—no antibiotic ointment outside of an Apotheke (pharmacy) or Drogerie (Druggery? Drugstore? A strange name for something that actually sells fewer real drugs than its pharmaceutical sibling—a Drogerie cannot dispense prescriptions). Both Apotheken and Drogerien are curiously sparse-looking; the shelves accessible to visitors tend to feature mostly skin-care products, artfully arrayed. The actual medicines are hidden behind a counter or in a safe.  

In any case, you can’t get anything resembling medicine, over the counter or otherwise, at a supermarket unless it has an Apotheke up front—maybe the same brand and loyalty card, but officially a separate store, with a discrete staff and till.  

The closest thing you can find to medicine in the health-and-beauty department of Coop is a small selection of herbal lozenges (all 70 flavors of Ricola) and syrups, and weirder, typically a shelf or two of homeopathic remedies.

Drogerien do a lot of homeopathic business as well, as do some independent Apotheken. Maybe it has to do with das Homeopathie’s Teutonic roots, but it’s comparatively big here, in spite of being totally bogus pseudoscientific nonsense.

But as a physical therapist once told me, if the placebo effect works, the stuff works. On to other grocers!

The view from my front door.

What You Can Get at Migros (and a bit about what you cannot)

Maybe the most common differentiator cited among expats and many Swiss people between Migros and Coop is that Coop is slightly more expensive; this may be true, but the difference isn’t striking. To San Franciscans, groceries in Switzerland—fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, processed foods—are quite similar in price to their Yankee equivalents.

But another important distinguishing feature of Migros is that the store was founded in a sort of paternalistic charitable framework, with a mission of uplifting and supporting poor farmers and working people, who in the past may not have had access to any markets at all across their remote valleys and hilltops. When the Migros Federation was first founded, it focused on selling a mere six staples, cheaply, out  of mobile trucks, to people who otherwise couldn’t find them.

In keeping with these beneficent roots, Migros is now sometimes described as a health food store, and it’s famous for not selling alcohol or tobacco (you can find the Alkoholfrei edition of the ubiquitous local Schlossfelden beer in Migros’s soft drink aisle; given the typical mildness of Swiss beer overall, I wonder if one could taste the difference). Coop sells beer and wine in its regular aisles, and in most stores, tobacco and spirits out front, from a separate kiosk. (At Coop, this is also where you buy expensive local government-issued trash bags, but more about those in an upcoming entry.)

Until recently, there were no such kiosks out front at Migros, and technically, there still aren’t. But back in 2007, Migros bought Denner, the third-largest supermarket chain in Switzerland, which is primarily a discount grocer, but also a major mover of beer, wine, spirits, tobacco, and, more recently, the 1% THC, mostly CBD cannabis joints that remain legal in Switzerland’s curious patchwork of vice regulations (perhaps more about that later). Many larger Migros stores are organized in small shopping centers, with other Federation-owned companies, such as Migros Bank, occupying spaces in lobbies or adjacent to the supermarkets. So you can now frequently find a Denner, maybe most famous as the place to buy the cheapest wine in Switzerland, in the lobby of your local teetotalling Migros store.

Along with Switzerland’s cheapest rotgut and mock ganja, a brief selection of some of the highlights of stuff to buy at Migros:

Shoes. While Migros, like Coop, has a solid socks and underpants selection, Migros takes things one step further by selling flip-flops, knockoff Birkenstocks, slippers, and other footwear. Switzerland’s is mostly a shoes-off-inside-the-house culture; the boys’ school requires all students to possess indoor shoes, outdoor shoes, and indoor sport shoes, and chaotic low shoe racks line the elementary school hallways  between the classroom doors, under the coat pegs. I just barely stopped myself from buying a pair of sandals at our local Migros, but I couldn’t decide if a pair of fake Birks from the grocery store would fall apart immediately and/or induce instant regret. They also weren’t cheap, at around CHF/US$50. So for better or worse, and it’s hard to imagine anything other than worse, I’m still wearing a pair of molded rubber sandals I picked up in a market in Kenya ten years ago, which may be even uglier than mock-Birkenstocks, but were immeasurably cheaper and seem to be indestructible. (Maybe next year, Migros shoes.)

Sushi.  You can actually get supermarket sushi at both Migros and Coop, like at grocery stores around the world. Unlike at most grocery stores where I’ve purchased sushi, however, including such highlights as no-closer-to-the-coast-than-Switzerland Wisconsin, Swiss supermarket sushi gets startlingly expensive; it costs more to buy a roll from the grocery store in Switzerland than it does to get one from a restaurant in San Francisco, and a cup of edamame might set you back seven bucks. But in Switzerland, only the Migros sushi cooler offers the amusing Sushi Sandwich, featuring triangles of sushi rice, toasted sesame seeds, and seaweed pressed into a vague resemblance to slices of white bread, and filled with salmon, shrimp, or, not-very-sushilike curried chicken.

Toys. Nothing special to report, but Migros stores seem to have better/larger selections of cheapo, colorful plastic junk to serve as a child magnet than do Coops. A few board games and puzzles, even. I’m OK with the fact that I have yet to bring my children to Migros with me, although they’re increasingly well-acquainted with the ice cream and bread aisles, among other eyecatchers, at the much-more-adjacent Coop.

Farro, maybe? We have a dish made from farro, the Italian name for one of several varieties of coarse wheat grains, in regular rotation at our house. It comes in a range of types, both in terms of the wheat species used and in terms of the degree to which it’s been processed; our home ideal has been “semi-pearled,” or mostly husked, because it can be cooked in about 30 minutes, as opposed to who knew how long with the unpearled stuff, and yields a nice chewy mouthfeel. But it wasn’t anywhere to be seen in Coop. Jessica swore to me that she saw it among a great array of bagged grains, pulses and beans on some shelf somewhere, and I finally found the shelf she was talking about when I finally went to the station Migros. She mentioned that farro might be sold as Einkorn, Emmer, or Dinkel, and there it was, a fine, farroey looking bag of Dinkel.

Which, as it turns out, is entirely unpearled spelt, which may or may not even be the same species of wheat as farro. It cooks in… more than an hour, at least, because when I boiled the hell out of it one hot morning for use in a salad, I think I did so for about an hour, and the stuff was still near-inedibly chewy. I choked it down out of spite, but I think only the Saladmaster enjoyed it. But he also eats birdseed. We’ve since swapped the Dinkel out with very coarse bulgur from the Turkish shop.

Toilet paper.

Next week I’ll tell you about something other than things I buy at my local Turkish supermarket. Probably.

Your guess is as good as mine, but it’s available everywhere, like Curry Mayonnaise or Quark.

Introduction: When I told my dad

My father’s a retired university professor, and a pretty worldly guy. He and my mother have traveled widely, from youth to old age, have spent time over the years living in four countries on three continents, and his global outlook rubbed off on me. So when I told him early this year that I would be moving to Switzerland with my wife and his two grandsons, I was surprised and amused by his nonplussed reaction. “Switzerland, huh?” he said. I could almost hear him scratching his head over the phone. “That’s not someplace I ever thought I would go.”

His response made me laugh, because in some respects I felt the same way. I lived abroad when I was young, spending a total of a little more than three years studying or working in Thailand. My first stint there was in high school, accompanying my dad on the first of his two Fulbright fellowships. (I also visited him when he and my Mom were on the second, in Pakistan back when it was a peaceful little military dictatorship). I was an exchange student for a few weeks of the last gasps of the Soviet Union. More recently, my wife and I have traveled abroad as often as work, life, and eventually children would allow.

But apart from a delightful month-long sabbatical in Italy when the kids were preschoolers, most of my, and our, travel had been… a little exotic. Safari in Kenya. Angkor Wat. Turkey. A few trips to my old stomping grounds in backwoodsy parts of Thailand. Our vacations were nearly always quite a bit different from our pleasant family life in San Francisco, and typically at least a little more exciting.

Switzerland is a lot of things, many of them wonderful, but nobody would call it exotic, and it’s not likely to inspire too much excitement. It’s none too extreme (arguably apart from the spectacular peaks of the Alps, which are of course pretty intense, but we’re living in Basel, on the opposite side of the country from the mountains, with naught but some gentle rolling hills on our horizon). It’s… quiet. Mild. Perhaps a bit uptight (much more about that by and by).

Jessica and I are not campers, hikers, skiers, or other outdoor sports enthusiasts. I’ve been known to refer to myself as ‘indoorsy,’ and I think Jessica mostly feels the same way. I liked short camping trips in the not-all-that-wild wilds of Western Massachusetts as a lazy Boy Scout, and Jessica relishes an annual pilgrimage to a ‘family camp’ on a farm in Mendocino County, California, where one is half an hour from town and never too far from dirt, but the cabin has an outlet to plug in a hair dryer, there are three high-quality catered meals a day, and the rustic-looking outhouses have flush toilets. I have yet to attempt downhill skiing; Jessica has done some time on gentle slopes, but not more than a dozen times, and not in fifteen years.

So what is without much question Switzerland’s major draw for tourists–extraordinary natural beauty, much of it mountainous, and the various sporty pursuits such a remarkable setting inspires–is arguably a little lost on us, making our choice to make a home here all the funnier.

But when Jessica’s company got purchased a little over a decade ago now by a large firm with global reach, headquartered here in Basel, she took on a global role that sent her frequently to Switzerland and other parts of Europe, and started engaged with a diverse international array of colleagues. She also started to get a wide range of sometimes titillating international job listings in her inbox, and these became the focus of frequent flights of fancy for us both.

Me: Sure, let’s move to Singapore! Food’s great. Hot though… I’d move to Hong Kong, too. Or Malaysia. Let me know when there’s an opening in London. I’d go anywhere in Europe, maybe except Basel.

Her: Hey, Basel’s cute! It looks like Swiss Disneyland. Swissneyland. (She was right about that–the little medieval old town is movie-set charming from many angles.)

Me: [Chuckling quietly to myself about how nobody would want to move to Switzerland…]

And on and on it went–we talked idly about moving abroad for literal YEARS. And then one day, a job that was a good fit for her opened up at the HQ, and we realized that if we didn’t go, we never would. We’d have immobile, sullen teenagers instead of brave and pliable first-graders, our parents would be too old to come visit, and we would eventually just stop thinking about it, perhaps save for an occasional regret.

So we did it. I now live somewhere I never thought I would go.

Inconvenience Culture

Switzerland is famous for a deep, broadly shared commitment to a sense of social order that I mostly respect a great deal. Swiss people place a great deal of emphasis on not imposing on or inconveniencing others. As someone with a sense of solicitousness that is certainly exaggerated, and probably borders on the psychotic (the arrogance/selfishness of people double parking, or doing nearly anything an Uber or Lyft driver does, makes me deeply angry; I am literally ashamed of myself every time I hit my hazards, because I don’t think it’s OK to value your own time and convenience over those of those around you), the idea of looking out for your fellows before yourself, as an understood part of keeping a good thing going, as job #1 is in theory very appealing.

It also gets a bit absurd. Our temporary building, like virtually all of its fellows, expects quiet at lunchtimes and all day on Sundays, and forbids showering before 7AM or after 10PM. I’m glad we got an apartment with an in-unit washer and dryer, because in buildings with shared facilities, assigned washing and drying days and times are supposedly rigorously enforced by tut-tutting neighbors–you have Wednesdays at 2! If we catch you in the laundry room after five or anytime on Thursday we’re calling the super! I’ve heard legends of neighbors calling the police to complain about improperly disposed garbage (but more about trash later). And both laundry and vacuuming are universally forbidden on Sundays, the day of rest, when all-day silence is theoretically expected.

Sunday is also the day when pretty much everything is closed. Some restaurants and bars offer limited hours, trams and buses run on a much slower rota, and anything to which one has free access and doesn’t have to pay an admission fee is probably available. The zoo, curiously, like its sibling in San Francisco, and perhaps in solidarity with other zoos around the world, is open 365 days a year. But the two big chain supermarkets,[1] where nearly everybody seems to do pretty much all of their shopping, shut all their branches except the ones at the train station, which stay open until six.[2] A participant in a Swiss expatriate forum I’ve been perusing postulated that the near-universal prohibition on commerce on Sundays had to do with a profound commitment to Sunday as a day of leisure. Shopping isn’t fun for the Swiss; it’s a chore. No chores on Sunday. Period.

“So what the hell are people supposed to do all day on Sunday if they can’t clean or shop?” I asked Jessica before we came.

“They go hiking,” she said.

“So if all the neighbors are outside, why do we have to be quiet in the house?” A mystery for the ages, that one.

It was with a little anxiety, then, that we arrived in Switzerland on a Sunday afternoon–even less conveniently, on Sunday afternoon immediately before a religious holiday I’d never heard of, Whit Monday. Despite most Swiss people not seeming especially churchy, particularly by American standards, they get a lot of days off in the name of various friends of Jesus (Jessica thinks she lost count of the number of Ascensions during which she couldn’t get Basel-based colleagues on a teleconference). And everything is closed.

…at least theoretically. Leave it to hard-working immigrants to solve problems for themselves and one another, as they do worldwide. Not a block and a half from our home, we noticed what appeared to be an open corner market as we drove toward our apartment on a rainy Sunday. Bins out front laden with attractive early-summer fruits. A cheerful bright-yellow sign with cartoon sheep advertising halal meat.

Our indefatigable relocation consultant (remind me to tell you sometime about how much easier it is to expatriate with a multinational executive contract than it is with a newly-minted useless Bachelor’s degree and a duffel bag), who was driving us in from the airport and whose office is literally just around the corner that the corner shop occupied, expressed surprise to notice it was open.

“Oh, looks like that place is open, too! Hm. Probably Turkish food?” Her tone made it clear that she’d never been in the shop, indeed, may have barely noticed it, despite the near-certainty of having walked past it on her way between the parking garage under a nearby Migros where she mentioned parking her car and her workplace, perhaps hundreds of times.

But there it was, the Alima Supermarket, fulfilling an unmet need, indeed selling a lot of Turkish foodstuffs (the array of olives and pickled vegetables is dazzling, and the semet and breads are excellent), but also, as markets run by immigrant families often seem to do in Switzerland, featuring a small assortment of products to cater to other foreign communities. Thai fish sauce. Indian papadams and paneer. One of the brands of durum (Turkish flatbread) helpfully labeled “Tortillas”–they are indeed a fine, nearly indistinguishable, if lardless, substitute for massive burrito wrappers. The largest jar of sambal oelek (Indonesian/Malay chili paste) I’ve ever seen. Sriracha. In the decidedly non-Swiss cheese case, alongside plenty of good Turkish varieties of curds, feta and several Balkan cheeses with unfamiliar Albanian and Serbo-Croatian names. Then, right around the corner from the Turkish Delight, looking as if it was looking for my children, the most patriotic peanut butter I’ve ever seen (notwithstanding the fact that it was manufactured not too far away, in the Netherlands, on behalf of a Swiss company that has been in business since 1932):

I have since learned that just about all the major brands of Swiss-market peanut butter are patriotic Americans. Stars, stripes, the odd eagle adorn every label. And it’s actually quite good, if a little overpriced. Sweetened, unlike the hippie peanut butter to which my California family has become accustomed, but nowhere near the candied, greasy Jif I was expecting. The brand pictured above is barely sweetened at all, and made a great base for a sauce for peanut noodles.

…from one immigrant to another, I offer a hearty mässi/teşekkür ederim to the good folks at Alima and all those like them around the world.