It has been a month since we landed in Switzerland to begin a one year career break / sabbatical. While I hope we might dig a bit deeper into Swiss culture later on, I thought it would be interesting to share some of the practical aspects of daily life in Basel that are different from the U.S. So, I polled the girls and here is what we came up with so far, in no particular order. I figure if we can master the practical aspects of Swiss life, we are practically Swiss–ja? Genau.
Grocery stores are much smaller here and incorporated into the local neighborhoods. I have counted at least six stores within a half mile of our flat. They are open from around 7 a.m. to around 7 or (maybe) 8 p.m. They are closed on Sunday, unless they are located in or near the main train station. Most people (including us) walk to the store or ride their bike. We have been going to the store pretty much every day since we can’t buy more than we can carry home each time. Does this also mean that I consume as much as I can carry in food each day? Best not to dwell on those details.
The Exchange rate between the Swiss Franc (CHF) and USD is 1.05 to 1. Prices on most items are higher than the U.S. (except yogurt, chocolate and wine) and most items come in smaller packaging. For instance, you cannot find a gallon or even half-gallon of milk or OJ at your standard store. The eggs are not kept in the refrigerated section, but are shelved right out next to the cereal. There are also some ‘picnic’ eggs, which are hard boiled and dyed bright colors. Why? No one knows. Ice cream is tricky, and if you are not paying attention (like me), you could end up paying close to 10 CHF for a container smaller than a U.S. half gallon. Cheddar cheese has so far been non-existent in stores here, and we’ve been buying either Gruyere or Gouda, instead. The produce is comparably priced to the U.S., with the main difference being you have to weigh it, type in the produce code to the scale which spits out a sticker that you place on the bag. Our first trip to the store, we ended up having to run back and weigh and tag everything during checkout. Guess the checkers here didn’t have to memorize hundreds of produce codes like I did. Folks bring their own bags and then bag their own stuff. Carts are a bit smaller and chained to each other at the entrance. In order to release one, you put in either a 1 or 2 CHF coin. Then, to get your coin back when you are done, you have to ask your six year old to figure it out. Then she will tell you to put your cart back in with the other carts and re-connect it to the cart in front of it, which pushes your coin back out. I thought this was an ingenious way to get people to put their own carts back. The grocery stores here are very light on labor.
Water is free-flowing! Friends reading this in California may want to look away. There are fountains around every town that continuously flow with fresh, great-tasting drinking water 24/7, with the excess just going back into the sewer. There is no need to buy bottled water. We always have a water bottle with us and fill it up in these fountains.
Kids come home for lunch from school. From around noon to around 2 p.m. everyday, most kids in public schools go home for lunch. I guess the Swiss schools save a bunch of money by not serving lunches. Jana’s not sure how this works when both parents work. When she asked a few people about this, they said most moms didn’t work. Jana also wanted me to add that women didn’t get the right to vote in Switzerland till 1971!
In addition, many businesses close their doors for a couple hours around lunch. The post office, banks, some grocery stores and many small businesses will shut down from around noon to around 2, each day. We wanted to set up a bank account and I checked the local UBS branch hours and they were open M-F from 9 to noon and then again from 2 to 4. Forget opening an account, I want to apply for a job there!
Ping pong is popular! I was pleasantly surprised to see public ping pong tables when we first arrived. Nearly every park has them and they usually have people, young and old, playing on them. Sadly, in the U.S. ping pong tables are mostly used for holding cups of beer. I should have brought my paddle, and someone who likes to play ping pong, with me.
Air conditioning is rare. We expected this, given the mild climate most Swiss cities have. Houses don’t have it. But, interestingly, a lot of office buildings (like Jana’s work in Basel) do not have it, either. We had several days of 90+ degree whether last week that was pretty rare for Basel, but really highlighted the fact that one of the only places to cool down is by floating down the Rhine [editor’s/Jana’s note: which Barry would not do!].
Trash and recycling are a bit different. Your trash bags have to be a very particular type, and can be purchased at the grocery store customer service desk. We got a roll of ten 35 liter bags (just smaller than your standard kitchen trash bag) for 23 CHF. The extra cost helps pay for services and makes sure people recycle/reduce waste. Recycling is complicated here. I spent a half day researching and sorting our trash to try and get it right the first time. For most plastic and glass bottles and aluminum cans, you can take them back to a grocery store or find recycling drop-off containers in your neighborhood. Paper and cardboard is picked up once a month in front of your house, if it is set out correctly, tied together with twine.
Going out to eat can be very expensive. We have only gone a handful of times. McDonald’s, Subway, Dominoes and Burger King have locations in Basel. We ended up at a McDonald’s shortly after we arrived. The bill for two kids (Happy Meals) and three adults was 50 CHF. It’s kind of comparable to eating at the airport, price wise. There is no tipping here, with the extra cost already built into the price of the entrees. Jana and I had a nice Italian dinner out by ourselves with a glass of wine each (wine is not expensive here), two entrees and two desserts. The bill was 100 CHF. But, without the extra 15% – 20% for the tip, it was not too far over what you’d pay at a relatively nice Italian place in the U.S. I have paid the same price for a beer (4 CHF) as I have for a Coke.
Overall, we have had little issue with finding people to speak English with when we are out and about. Kids from the age of about 9 or 10 can carry on a conversation in English and German. A lot of folks in service-related jobs can speak German, French, Italian and English – that is always impressive to us! We had our first German tutor come today to help us learn ‘high’ German, which if you are from Colorado is not what you think.
There are many more differences in day to day life–laundry and Sundays are a whole thing here–but those will have to wait for another day.