Friday, October 29, 2010

Instanbul arrival

Friday, Ocotber 29, 2010

Last night, we flew into Istanbul for four full days of sightseeing and culture absorption. The Turkish Airlines flight was half an hour late in leaving. Shortly before landing, we hit the worst turbulance I've ever experienced. Not only did we bounce up and down - we were also whipping from side to side. Maybe it was the two glasses of wine or just a sense of predestination but I thought it was kind of fun ... an aerial roller coaster ride. It's the first flight I can remember where the passengers actually applauded when we landed.

Today is cold and rainy and I found I had dressed more for the sunny and warm weather than this.  The day started with quite a nice - and free - buffet breakfast at our hotel (salty cheeses, olives, yogurt, meats, breads along with the usual breakfast stuff). We stood in a very long line to get into the Blue Mosque, so-called because the interior is covered with blue tiles. At the door, we had to take off our shoes and pad across a wet carpet to enter the mosque.  (Fortunately the entire interior is covered with a thick carpet which acted like a whick in drying our socks.) The interior was absolutely breathtaking.

Next we headed for the Basilica. This is an underground cistern from 532. Very Phantom of the Operish.  We were amused at the huge fish that congregated close to the walkways. Obviously someone has been feeding them! We wondered if they had been introduced when the Ottomans were still using this for their drinking water.

The Grand Bazaar wasn't open today. We stopped for lunch at a Turkish restaurant where our waiter explained that today is Republican Day so many things are closed or close early. He made us promise to go down by the water this evening to see fireworks and illuminated buildings.  We finished a delightful meal with our first taste of Turkish coffee.  Whoa! You could stand your spoon upright in it and there was enough sludge at the bottom of the cup to warrant a visit from the EPA people. It reminded me of the stuff Greg and I cooked over an open fire when we made our one and only trip into the high Sierras. (Remember, Katie - that "easy" elevation gain your father  promised us. Ha!) Of course, we loved it (the trip and the coffee).

We're staying in the Sultanahmet, the oldest part of the city and the location of most of the "must-sees".  Cats rule here. You see them everywhere and they all look well fed and healthy.  Greg saw a piece of cardboard lying next to a tree. On it, someone had written "Cat Pension" and piled on some dry cat food. At our restaurant, they had a favorite stray: a funny looking thing that had something wrong with her hind quarters and eyes that were vastly different from one another. (She looked like our cat 'Tude - aptly named - looked like after I ran her over with the car ... something which did nothing to improve her attitude, I might add.) I've only seen two dogs. Both looked well fed (believe me, I check these things out), had no collar but had a tag in their ear. I need to ask somebody about that.

As I'm writing this, Greg is taking a nap and the air outside our room is filled with metallic song from tinny sounding speakers calling the faithful to prayer.

I think I like Istanbul. We did get the requisite amount of overly friendly hawkers trying to convince us to buy something or visit their shops ... but Hong Kong had prepared us for that.  The people at lunch showed us the other, less touristy side of the city ... a people who are proud of their heritage and anxious to share it with visitors.

And, yes, I think we will brave the weather to see the festivities tonight.

 Arden Hotel was inexpensive and basic but it is located right in the thick of things, just a few short blocks to all the main sites.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Thursday October 28

Our post office in Atlantic Beach was always crowded with people neatly queued in a long line - sometimes out the door. The only service it offered (besides actually mailing anything) was the sale of stamps, boxes, envelopes and the odd commemorative thing like a set of stamps. That's pretty much it. 

Now let's compare that to our local post office here, which is about half the size of the one in Florida.

When we were planning the move here, I was planning our Secret Swiss Bank Account.  It would be in one of those gorgeous big banks with high ceilings and marble everything. People would speak in hushed voices in the face of all this commerce. You can imagine my dismay when Greg announced that, after comparing several banks, he had decided we would use die Post. The post office? My delusions of grandeur burst like a helium balloon in the hot Florida sun.

So we set up an account at the post office, having assured the clerk that, yes, our name was on the mailbox. (This seems to be a big deal with the Swiss. They ask you that any time they are going to mail you something. The fact that only Greg's name is on the mailbox has caused some negotiation with the postman when a parcel arrives in my name.)

We signed up at die Post for our account. Shortly thereafter, we received in the mail a package containing our new debit cards. In order to activate them, you had to use this crazy yellow thing that looks like one of those handheld credit card readers you see in restaurants.  It was some sort of code scrambler. Greg read the instructions and then, being male, decided that he would be the one to activate our cards.  Then my beloved dyslexic tried to enter the billion numbers into the yellow thing. Oh yeah and to make it even harder, after one set of numbers you had less than a minute (not making this up, folks!) to put in another string of numbers.  Poor Greg! After fiddling with this for hours and managing to lock himself out of the system, he let me call the help number and a very helpful, English speaking woman walked me through the process. (In spite of this, somehow only my card works right now.)

Now back to the small room at the post office.  The first thing you must do upon entering is to take a number. (My friend Dottie tells me that you must get a number even if there is not a single other customer, as her partner found out.)  In fact, most places here have a number system. Having watched Greg repeatedly get pushed out of the way at our favorite meat stall at the Saturday market, I understand why. (I've told Greg 'Get close and establish eye contact' but he is still hesitant to do so, which explains how I can check out every flower stall in the market in the time it takes him to get waited on.)

In the aforementioned small room in the post office, they sell: flashlights, tool sets, a child's Razor scooter, watches, wallets, cards for all occasions, office supplies, books, candy, phones,  cameras, toys, garbage bags, Swiss pocket knives, batteries, post cards ... and other stuff.  I recently received in the mail a flyer from Die Post advertising iPods, radios, speakers, monitors, home stereo systems,computers, and other electronics.

Monopolies seem to be the thing here. Two huge competing conglomerates are COOP and Migros.  Both have cards that you hand in each time you shop. You accumulate points that can be traded for stuff you don't need and would normally never buy. It's often only when I'm asked for a Coop or Migros card that I realize the store I'm in - shoes, groceries, sporting goods, pharmacy, clothes, home goods, etc - belongs to either COOP or Migros. A week ago, I went into a large, inexpensive furniture and home good store and bought a recliner. When the salesman asked for my card, I discovered I was in a Migros store. Oh yes, and the stores also offer vacation packages (I think the post office does, too.)

I pay our bils at the post office. So far, the only regular bill is our rent. I go in, get my number, browse the merchandis as I'm waiting, and when the ticket monitor advises that is my turn and gives the window (A, B, C, or D) to use, I hand over the rent bill and pay for it by sliding my debit card. 

Greg had a check come from the US. When I went to add it to our account, I was met with great consternation. The Swiss really do like to be helpful but this was out of their hands. They just don't accept checks! As we stared at each other dolefully, that teller and I, an old image floated back into my head ... soaring ceilings, white marble, a reverent hush ... and a system that accepts checks.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Up the Uetliberg

Tuesday 5 October

Last weekend was absolutely gorgeous: two golden autumn days.  The skies were clear and you could see the snow capped Alps from the city: clearer than I'd ever seen them before. The lovely weather was a gift from a Fohn wind: the same one that sweeps across France. I don't know how it did it and I don't care: I was too busy enjoying its effects!

On Saturday, I made the mistake of going shopping with Greg. "Shopping" is an inaccurate descriptor because the only things we bought were food and flowers from the morning market.  The rest of the day we spent looking, not shopping, which was pretty frustrating on my part! I must say, though, that we did get kind of attached to this lamp.  I think it was only 5,000 francs.

On Sunday, we took a train up the Uetliberg, the highest spot in Zurich. In the photo below (taken from our dining room window), it is right where you see the tall spire at the top of the hill. 

The train rails are the steepest normal (as in non cog) rails in Europe. We got off at the top station and walked about 15 minutes to the top of the mountain. Moose (who said there are no moose in Switzerland?) guided us to the restaurant and tower perched at the mountain's summit.

We took a ton of pictures and then sat on the restaurant terrace for a light lunch. I think the waiter misunderstood when we said we were going to share a small plate of the venison (sliced raw with parmesian grated on top) and the capri salad (layered mozzarella and tomatoes). He brought us a large portion of each!  Both were delicious as you can tell from our empty plates. (Our light lunch ended up costing $140 but that included the bottle of wine. Ah, it is Switzerland!)

I made Greg take a picture in the general area of our apartment and was delighted to be able to pick out our apartment, shown by the lopsided circle and no I wasn't drinking when I drew it.

We're the bluish building right smack in the center. Our building is the half on the left. We're on the 2nd floor which is really the 3rd floor since they don't count the ground floor.  So ... our apartment is the one right under the dormers.

We saw a plethora of bicyclists huffing their way painfully to the top of the mountain and then careening happily back down. This dog carried his own rucksack and was showing a lot more enthusiasm than his rather pudgy cyclist owner. 

We even met a colleague of Greg's as we walked down. (Wow! Of all the places in all of Zurich ...) He was cycling up but right after he stopped to speak with us, he blew a tire and ended up walking part way down with us.  We may have taken the train UP but I'm proud to say that we walked all the way DOWN and I'll take down over up any day!

This morning was drizzly and cloudy but the sun is now poking its way through the clouds.  I was feeling a little flu-ish and so stayed home and got lots of exercise running up and down the stairs doing laundry with our quaint little laundry set up.

You know, I thought that there would be days when I would get homesick but nope! Not so far!  Of course, as I'm trying to get all the disparate parts of my body wet in our child size shower or ironing sheets because they didn't get completely dry in the baby's breath of wind coming from the laundry fan, I do wish I could teleport back to Florida for just long enough to shower or do laundry (and to love on poor Abby who does not seem to be taking our absence at all well).

Now that we're settled, I can admit that I did have some trepedition about moving to Switzerland but I can honestly say that I'm really, really glad we did!

We saw this doll carefully perched on a railing. The next time we went by, it was gone. You've got to love a city where people stop long enough to pick up a child's lost doll.

Monday, October 4, 2010

New Friends

Monday, October 4

One of the first things I did when I got here was to join the American Women's Club in Zurich.  I knew from an online search that they offer all kinds of activities and support including a 400 page book on Living in Zurich. It covers everything from having a baby in Switzerland (I don't think I'll be needing that section) to libraries in Zurich (all right!) to finding paid work (I notice Greg highlighted that section. In your dreams, Buster!)

I had no idea what to expect from the members. Would they be hoity toity society mavins wondering how on earth I made it into the club or Ugly Americans loudly declaiming how much better life was in the US or little old ladies encased in walkers? It was, therefore, with some trepidition that I set out on my first group outing last Wednesday: a walking tour of some of the 2200 fountains in the city.  What I discovered is an extrordinary collection of women: intelligent, interesting and funny. The life experiences they bring to the table would fill volumes and I look forward to getting to know them better.

There were 23 of us on the fountain tour and our guide, although extremely knowledgeable, had an "inside voice" (throwback from my teaching days) that did not compete well with the traffic and people noise.  The parts I did hear were fascinating and our walk through the old city revealed some hitherto unknown shops!
One of the things I learned is that the fountains have a small basin on the side for dogs to drink from and some have a smaller tub the other side that the children could play in. (I know! I know! Dangling prepositions!) Back when the fountains were built, people didn't know how to swim and so they made the smaller tub so kids could mess around in it and not drown.  And if you wanted to get rid of your kids, you threw them into the big tub. (OK, I made that up.)

The dog basin is on the left, just out of sight. Kid basin on right.

I'm still looking for the other half of this one!

Two days after the fountain excursion, I attended a luncheon at the clubhouse.  The American Womens Club has branches all over the world and about a zillion members (okay - I don't do numbers). The club has a philanthropic arm and even has representation at the United Nations!  Friday's luncheon was to help raise funds and awareness of Schweizer Berghilfe, a charitable organization whose mission is to help preserve the pastoral beauty of the high Alps ... and keep those Alpine farmers in their place! Daniel Krahenbuhl, the CEO, used a video to give some examples: a farm that needed a larger barn that meets current standards and a cheese house to process the milk from their goats; a village store to sell wool products from the sheep wool which had hitherto been discarded; and a shop that sold dairy products from a local farm, cutting out the middle man and creating employment for local residents.
We were serenaded with traditional alphorn music: a duo that has been playing together a long time as well as one of our own members who used to play a horn in her high school band and has now taken up the alphorn; and a local Chinese Swiss opera singer who has taken up yodeling!

The lunch, cooked by our members, including one who is a professional chef, was Swiss inspired: hay soup (Nope - not kidding), pumpkin soup, lamb's tongue salad (relax - it's lettuce that looks like a lamb's tongue: or so I'm told, having never spent a lot of time examining a lamb's tongue) and a Gruyere cheese quiche. YUMMMM!

Sooo I've met some extraordinary people, made a few friends and am looking forward to other outings in the future: a trip to the largest Christmas market in Europe, a trip to a spa and a visit to Ballenberg which has more than 100 century-old buildings from all over Switzerland as well as 250 animals (I'm going to be checking those lamb tongues!) and demonstrations (no, no ... not the sign carrying kind). 

Life in Switzerland continues to amaze!