Swiss Customs: What’s up with lining up?

People have asked, “hey, Switzerland seems great, I see your posts and it’s just all good stuff.” Well not always, I did mention the prevalence of smoking. But I feel compelled to speak about an oddity of Switzerland (inasmuch as we have spent time in a few towns and Zurich, so of course we’re experts).

The Swiss are friendly. They let people into gaps in traffic. They greet you in stores and usually when out walking. Friendly. Also neat. Organized. All the stuff you read about, yadda yadda yadda, it really is nice here. But here’s the thing…. they cannot stand to line up. Imagine a line for a cash register. You get in line. You figure everyone waits his or her turn, it’s all fair. Now I know there are parts of the world where a queue just never happens. But given the organization, the politeness… but no, the Swiss cannot stand to just line up. You need to cut in line.

I was at Ikea the other day. I was in line. Clearly in line with a large shopping cart. I stepped out of line to look at batteries, but note that the shopping cart stayed in line. Some old guy and his wife, nicely dressed, I am sure they are pillars of their community, stepped into my place. Now normally I would excuse this; maybe he is old and didn’t see. But here is the thing, I know he was Swiss! So I jammed the cart between him and stood my ground. This wasn’t the first time, no… not at all. Any time you are in line, Swiss folk will just walk around you. At least Italians have the grace to smile at you when they overwhelm you in line, sort of a “ha ha, I am so clever and you are clearly so not clever and let’s face it I’m Italian so I am more handsome/beautiful anyway so life is just more fair for me anyway,” sort of a look.

We had another old guy, his son and his daughter (or maybe the son’s girlfriend, tough to tell really) skate on by an entire line at the gondola Sunday. Oh he gloated blowing by tourists, a Chinese tour group, and us. Nothing I could do, I never saw him moving by. But as Bill Bryson would do, I burned him to the ground with Thunderbolt Vision. May his skiing be on ice all season.

Forthwith my tips for dealing with queues in Switzerland:

  1. Be aware, be ready.
  2. Be wide. No one actually shoves (so far!) so being wide is good. We find that skis, ski poles, and small children are effective barriers.
  3. Carry a backpack and swing it a bit. Look a little crazy and mumble too.
  4. You are a tool user, use them. If you have a shopping cart, it is effectively a movable wall. Skis swing both ways, so to speak. Nothing says “get the f*** behind me” more effectively than a sack of wine bottles in the shins.
  5. Did I mention being wide? Do this, hold hands a lot. It’s romantic in some cases, it shows love for your children, it shows friendship. And it completely blocks the aisles:-)

So there you go, that is the deep, dark secret of Swiss living. Bad queues.

Alternative commuting

A colleague sent this on the cycling alias at work. I liked this a lot, it really shows how inefficient cars are. One of the nice things about living in Zürich is not driving. And it’s not avoiding driving because I care about the planet (although I do) or I am cheap and gas is expensive (which I am and it is). I am avoiding driving because it’s actually easier to jump on a tram or train or walk. I do have to admit thought that I don’t like riding buses. I don’t know, but somehow the “cool” factor is there for a tram but not for a bus.



One month

Wow, it’s been one month already. Looking back on my pre-move post I see a bunch of stuff that was correct and a bunch that was off, at least so far. So let’s dive in with the good & the bad.


  1. We’re all here, doing okay, starting to get involved in life here.
  2. We have solved our connectivity issues so we can Skype with family and friends at home. For those who haven’t tried Skype, it’s invaluable. We chat every night or two and it really helps bridge the gap. It’s not the same obviously but it helps.
  3. Outdoors. Getting outside is easy with lots of walking. Getting farther afield is just a few train rides away. We like taking trains and it works very well for us. We have a loaner car and it’s been parked for 2 weeks now.
  4. I’ve  lost a little weight. No idea how much since we have no scale but at least a belt buckle.
  5. Job is good, nice people, nice office, good to learn a ton of new stuff.
  6. Trip to Barcelona broke up the time for me, Susan might have a different opinion.


It’s not always great, the move has been tough at times. One thing that has caught me off-guard is how living in a temporary apartment feels so transitory it bleeds into everything else. You don’t want to get a doctor or dentist or barber since you know you will be moving. This leads us to the biggest downers since moving.

Apartment hunting

We have found several apartments but so do other people. We know in one case we didn’t get the place because we have kids. The others we applied to never responded at all; we knew there were tons of applicants. This is a tough market, we knew that coming in, but we’ve never really experienced this before.

Update 23 Dec: yeah! we found an apartment. It’s a little further out of the downtown area than we wanted but it’s big, it’s comfy, and the kids love it. Casa Steckler is now open for visitors!


Coming from a region which is now smoke-free this is a tough adjustment. Many restaurants are okay; you can smell the smoke but it’s not bad. Some places are thick with smoke though and often standing around waiting for trams and trains is an exercise in learning which way the wind blows. I had forgotten what it was like to come home from a bar and need to wash all of your clothes and take a shower.

According to one survey I read 2/3 of the Swiss would like to move to a smoke-free public environment. It is something of an oddity that a country which is so concerned about health in general would have such a high rate of smoking. From what we have heard a few years ago a smoking ban would have been inconceivable but now apparently some people are talking about it.

As a guest here of course I have no say in the matter. Even when the initiative was being voted on in Washington I abstained since I was torn between a public policy “good” around smoking, second-hand smoke, etc. vs. a public “bad” of taking away a person’s rights. I will continue to do here what I did there and then; vote with my feet and dollars francs.There is a list of smoke-free restaurants we are trying to use. It’s pretty limited (Migras and Starbucks figure prominently) but we are willing to keep trying and will spend money in those places.


Good month. Homesick at times. Not taking German classes more seriously was a mistake (yes, everyone speaks English but sometimes you want to go with the flow).

Next month we hope to find an apartment and get settled. We need to tackle Christmas. We need to get our gear shipped over. We need to start traveling again (which we will do once our permanent visas come in and we can leave Switzerland).

Day 19: so much done, so few updates

19 days. I had to count that up on the calendar. It’s something like when you first have a kid and he is 2 weeks old, then 6 months and maybe all the way up to 24 months but at some point it becomes 3 1/2 an then after a while you lose the fraction and the kid is 10.

So 19 days…

We took a trip to Grindelwald. It was gorgeous. When you think of Switzerland Grindelwald is probably pretty close to what you think, except Heidi is not walking around in a dirndl. In fact I haven’t seen any “traditional” Swiss costumes. Which shouldn’t be a surprise; I cannot imagine many people travel to the US and expect people to where pioneer homespun or Pilgrim-wear.

Susan and the boys Me having a beer Traditional Swiss fondue, sort of K playing with a tiny goat


Some notes about the photos:

  1. The mountains are pretty. And scary. You can see the north face of the Eiger. I cannot ever, ever imagine saying to myself “I’d sure like to climb that”. I can imagine sitting there and thinking,
  2. We had a picnic lunch in a park. And I drank a beer. In public. And wasn’t arrested. Or cited. Or an outcast. Amazing but true, apparently the Swiss think it’s okay for a grown adult to have a legally purchased beverage in public without ruining the moral fabric of the country.
  3. Fondue with tomato may not sound good, but it was really tasty. I had a lovely rosti mit speck (kind of a potato hashbrown with bacon) which I just love.
  4. We were hiking and suddenly these two tiny baby goats walked out of their pen and said hello. The mama goat was not very pleased with this but since she was in the pen and K was out of the pen he could pet the little thing. Very cute.

These photos are all from Saturday. I will post the spectacular shots from Sunday’s trip to Jungfraujoch soon.

In other news… no luck finding an apartment yet. We applied for two and were second-place on one, never heard back on the other. We applied for another today but there were 100+ people looking at it so we’re in the lottery again.

Two weeks (tomorrow)

Okay, we have been here almost two weeks. We’ve accomplished a lot in these two weeks. We still have a lot to get done.


  1. Mobile phones. Susan has a prepaid card through Orange. She is now using my Blackjack. I got me new phone via Swisscom yesterday. The cool thing is it’s a re-branded HTC s710. This is a phone I tried to buy in the US several months ago but didn’t due to the price. Windows Mobile 6 is very, very cool.
  2. Kids are in school and doing well. Wow.
  3. Susan is taking “Living in Zurich” through the American Women’s Club. She has already learned a few good-to-know secrets.
  4. We have a temporary residency permit. Our permanent ones will come within the next few weeks.
  5. We understand the tram and s-bahn system.

Not Done

  1. Language. Ouch. We still stammer and stutter and the first phrase we use is “bitte, sprechen sie Englisch?” I start classes next week.
  2. Housing. We’re in our temp place but we really do need something a touch bigger. We’ve applied for two apartments. We didn’t get one. We were one of around 80 applicants for another. Not good odds. So we’ll keep trucking along.
  3. Internet. Our apartment has this weird USB device that only works with XP. This means Susan’s nifty  MacBook is offline for the time being.
  4. Banking. We have accounts created. We have a variety of cards. We have some PINs. What we don’t have is any PIN that matches any given card. Both sets keep trickling in. Usually we need to go to the Post Office to retrieve the mail. I appreciate the security but I am really looking forward to acting like James Bond and saying “transfer it to my Swiss account Zürich”.

It’s the weekend so what’s the plan? We don’t know yet. Due to an interesting requirement in our visa/residence status we cannot leave Switzerland without resetting the whole process. We’re thinking of perhaps driving south to the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. Or maybe we’ll skip that and just go find a mountain somewhere to go climb. Interlaken sounds nice as does simply going to see the falls.

Day 8: Rigi & other thoughts

Our goal today was to get out of town and see some nature. A colleague mentioned taking the tour to Rigi , a mountain southwest of Zurich. We got something of a late start. We got a package deal at the ticket office at the Hauptbahnhof.


Here is a shot of us on the train.


After hiking around Rigi we took a cable car down to Weggis, then by boat to Lucerne. Lucerne was a pretty town but by the time we got there we were all too tired and hungry to see much of it. We also didn’t know when the train to Zürich was leaving. We headed to the train station and discovered that, uh oh, the last train for hours was leaving in fifteen minutes. We had hungry, whiny kids (and a hungry, whiny dad) so we grabbed some sandwiches and hopped on the train.We stopped by the Migros in the Bahnhof. Grocery stores close at irregular hours here and on Saturday they seem to close early. Thankfully the shops under the train station (Rail City) are open a little later and on Sundays too in a pinch. We grabbed some food and headed for home. It was nice by the way to talk with Mom and Bill & Sharon via Skype. We don’t have the video working yet but voice is nice.Tomorrow we are taking a lazy day. We plan to head to the park for a while. Then we will take a tram south to Wollishoffen, a neighborhood we are interested in perhaps.

Pre-move thoughts

In all fairness I have to say this is written after we moved. Nonetheless the idea for this post came before we moved and I have been thinking a lot about it. Many people asked us how we thought things would go. Someone suggested we write it down and laugh about it years later. So here goes, the list of things I think will happen while we are here:

  1. The flight and actual settling in will go smoothly. We hired someone to help us with this and simple things like food and shelter should be okay.
  2. We will struggle with the language. Not German since we plan on taking courses but with Swiss German, the dialect here. We can take courses later in Swiss German but I noticed on my visit in March that I just couldn’t understand a blessed thing.
  3. The kids will do fine in school early on and then struggle a little down the road. In other words I suspect when things are new and they are being treated as “special” that things will be fine. When the newness has worn off, I think things will get hard. Other parents have told us to expect crying jags at the end of each school day.
  4. I will miss the social structure I had. When I want to go out for a pint, or go to dinner, or whatever it will be odd. This would be true with any move of course but more so since we have the language barrier.
  5. I suspect Susan will find a social network much more quickly than I will.
  6. I will struggle with jet-lag the longest (note: this so far has not been true, this has been an easy transition thus far).
  7. We went into this with armor of sorts: it will be different and that’s not only okay it’s one of the reasons we moved. We’re trying to convince the kids of this too. At some point this armor will break apart and we will be sorely homesick for some period of time.
  8. Things will cost more than I think they will.
  9. Our overall lifestyle will be healthier. With walking much more and the high cost of eating out I suspect we will eat in, have quiet evenings at home, etc. I’m sure as we get more familiar with the landscape we will be able to find cool things to do but overall I suspect a healthier lifestyle.

That’s a start. I’m sure there are more thoughts than this. In my dreams I always think about skiing a ton and being outside a lot. We will definitely wind up outside as the apartments will be tiny. The boys will need to be outside just to work off their energy.

Day 6: kids in school

Okay, now the reality is setting in for everyone. I am working full time which is nice. Today we took the kids to school. They are attending a DfF (Deutsch fur Fremdsprachige) class, i.e. a class for people who don’t speak German. The building itself is imposing. I’ll post pictures at some point, but in the US you’d house a federal court or state office there. Very nice.The classroom itself was bright with lots of colors. The kids’ desks are all arranged so they can see one another. The teacher, Mrs. Rufo was very pleasant. She speaks English but will only do so in case of an emergency. Otherwise the class is 100% German. We saw her interact with several other kids and she was patient and kind. I hope that happens when we are out of the classroom too:-)Susan stayed behind to watch for a while and get the schedule straight. It looks like they get 1:45 for lunch which is nice. They will also do PE twice a week and one day of swimming each week. This morning the class was empty for the first as the kids go to mandatory “sewing and knitting” once per week and “wood working” another day. That is kind of cool, I suspect both kids will like those courses once they get enough German to understand the directions.Susan will have a full report later today and no doubt the kids will have much to say as well. Today is a half-day for them, tomorrow is a full-day.

Day 4: melatonin

I slept really well Days 1 & 2. I didn’t sleep well on Day 3. Last night (sort of the start of Day 4) I slept very well again. There have been several differences in all of those days so I cannot pin this down to any one thing, yet. However one thing of note is that Days 1,2, and 4 I took a single melatonin tablet before bed.I know research is mixed on this stuff. Some people swear by it to overcome jet lag, others see no effect. As someone who is apparently immune to Ambien you’d think it wouldn’t make a difference. And maybe it doesn’t. But I slept really well last night, crashing at around 9:30, waking briefly around 2 as the kids climbed into bed, then waking again at 6. Nice.What’s on deck today:

  1. 2nd day in the office. We have a crunch piece of work to get done. That actually feels nice
  2. Cell phones. We understand that until we get a permanent apartment and my work visa we will only get prepaid SIM cards. Oh well.
  3. Apartments. We are meeting to look at apartments from 4-6. Or rather Susan is while I watch the kids. I could also look at apartments but
    1. I am less picky about certain things like light, flowers, parks, etc.
    2. Susan has a much better idea of what I do care bout, e.g. secure bike parking, proximity to groceries, nearness to pubs, good running /cycling routes.

Other than that it will be a bit more grocery shopping. It seems like we are picking up a single basket of food each day and just slowly starting our collection. You know the drill. For instance we have no rosemary so I cannot make rosemary red potatoes. Okay, so today maybe I get rosemary & potatoes and a small chicken (prices for meat here are sky-high) for a nice roast tonight.We are doing a decent job of eating in although we’ll get better. So far breakfast has always been eaten in. Lunch once, dinner once. Last night we had take-out food which was pretty good. K and I liked our burgers but apparently L doesn’t like spicy tomato-something Indian hot/spicy sauce on his.

Day 3: the weather and other random thoughts

One new thing for us is that we cannot “read” the weather. We don’t know where rain comes from or wind. We don’t have any sense of what the weather will bring. It turns out that the forecasters don’t either (which makes it just like Seattle!). We have Weather Underground predicting partly cloudy. Then we have WeatherZurich predicting a few degrees colder and snow mixed with rain. And we have the BBC predicting “sunny intervals” a phrase I have never seen before having lived in the Puget Sound region most of my life.So which is correct? Who knows, it will take a while to figure this out and also to just look out the window and get a sense.Today is our first weekday in Zürich. It’s definitely noisier in the morning which is kind of a relief. Susan went out for a brief run, I am heading out next. Then we will get ready and walk to the kids’ school and perhaps I will head into the office for a time. Goals for today seem pretty simple:

  1. Start apartment hunting
  2. Get a SIM card and calling plan so Susan has a cell phone
  3. Find the post office and get that working
  4. Buy another electric adapter so we can plug in more than one thing at a time.

We’ll see how all this goes. Tomorrow the apartment hunting really cranks up and I will definitely go to the office.Update: we went down to Sihlcity, the big shopping mall here. K needs a new coat. L could use a new sweater. After that I went to work. Wow, it’s like a startup! I worked for a few hours this afternoon and it was fun albeit a little tiring since it’s been so long:-)I walked to the apartment from the office. It took about thirty minutes although it could have been a lot less had I not got lost for a short time. Nice to know I can always walk in less time than many people I know commute via car in Seattle. Next time for my big adventure I will figure out a way to shorten the commute via the tram. And sooner or later I will get a bike and tackle the commute that way.