Swindled in Switzerland©

July 26 – 30, 2012 

We took a trip to Switzerland for two reasons:  (1)  We had never been (although that certainly wasn’t the most compelling reason – we’ve never been to the sun, either, and haven’t booked a vacation there); and (2) Some friends we’ve had for 50 years were going to be in Zürich and, since we’re rarely on the same side of the Atlantic, we wanted to take this opportunity to spend some time with them (which was the driving factor – we would have met them anywhere in Europe).  So, we definitely accomplished both objectives.

Two Words for Switzerland – Clean and Pricey

When we got off the plane in Zürich, we noticed that the airport was amazingly clean – not a scrap of paper anywhere – and that was pretty much the case everywhere.  Really – you could have eaten off the floor (if, indeed, you could afford the food).  So, Switzerland gets high marks on being clean and neat (a human-controlled factor) and gorgeous (a nature-controlled factor).  The shuttle to the hotel – Movenpick-Zurich Airport – was prompt and in 5 minutes we were in the hotel lobby, where we were offered a glass of champagne to welcome us.

At check-in, we were given the option of locking in a price for the breakfast buffet – if we paid in advance for the breakfast buffet for our whole visit, we could get it at the low, low price of 25 Swiss francs (or $25.50 US).  (A Swiss franc is about $1.02 US).  Otherwise, the buffet would be 33 Swiss francs ($33.66).  Locking in the price would save about $8.16 per day.  They also said we could order breakfast ala carte.  We thought we could probably get enough to eat off the ala carte menu and wouldn’t really take full advantage of the buffet, so we didn’t sign up for the buffet.

Then we went to our room, which was also lovely, where 2 pieces of chocolate awaited us.  They had free Wi-Fi (which was nice, but we didn’t bring a laptop so didn’t use it).  We were particularly charmed when we noticed the little rubber ducky in the bathroom – just in case you had left yours at home.  So, at this point, we were fairly happy campers.  We didn’t expect things to be cheap, and we’ve been to some places that (by our standards – up until this point) were outrageously expensive.  For example, a few years ago we went to London for a few days.  Without realizing it, we happened to travel at the worst possible time (except, no doubt, for the Olympics this month) – three major events (the Wimbledon Tennis Matches, the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, and some inter-galactic Live Aid concert) were all being held the week we were there.  It so happened that we were also there for July 7—the day of the terrorist attacks.  Fortunately, that was the day we left and, other than our flight being delayed about 30 minutes because the crew had trouble getting to the airport, we were fundamentally unaffected by the attacks.  (This made it the second time Osama missed me; I was in Washington, DC, for the 9/11 attacks and watched the Pentagon burn from my office.)  We’ve been to New York City, Honolulu, and San Francisco, which we’ve always thought were pretty pricey.

We didn’t get the full effect of the category of ‘pricey’ until we went down to breakfast the next morning and set about to order our ala carte breakfasts.  We’ve lived in Berlin for more than 2 years, and traveled here several times in the preceding 8 years to see our son, so we’re no longer shocked that the water isn’t free and that there are no refills on coffee and soft drinks with your meals.  For two people, this can add $10 US (or more) to a meal.  And we don’t hesitate to pay Starbucks prices for specialty drinks.  So we weren’t particularly shocked to see a $9 price for scrambled eggs.  However, there were several things we definitely did NOT expect and pretty much blew our socks off.  For one thing, you’d generally expect to get 2 pieces of toast with your eggs.  You’d be wrong about that.  Not only did you have to order your toast separately (for $5), but that’s the price for a SINGLE piece of toast!  Somehow they must have thought that wrapping that pitiful, lonely little piece of toast up in a cloth napkin would make it look like it was worth $5.  Is there ANY place in the US where the notion of serving a single piece of toast has ever even entered anyone’s mind?  But – hold onto your hat because THIS will blow your mind – they don’t serve butter and jelly with that lonely little piece of toast!  You want butter and jelly?  Well, that will be another $2!!  Add the $5 cups of coffee (with no free refills) and that ‘special’ deal of $25.50 for the buffet looks pretty good!  But, of course, since we didn’t sign up for it at check-in, that opportunity was gone for good.  [We considered checking out and checking back in again, but probably would have had to have paid a cancellation fee for leaving early, so that wouldn’t have done the trick.]  Another morning, I ordered a cheese plate.  Do you think it came with a basket of bread?  Nope!  Just nothing but cheese.  And, to make things even worse, the only bread choices on the ala carte menu were a piece of plain, white toast or a croissant, while on the buffet there were all the wonderful breads for which this part of the world is famous.  The ala carte menu didn’t even have a separate bread basket; I couldn’t even HAVE such breads ala carte, no matter how much I was willing to pay.

Something else stunned me.  In the US, many hotels – especially the nicer ones – have a little shop where you can buy things like aspirin, candy, Band-Aids, etc.  And if they don’t have such a shop, the hotel typically has some sample sizes of these things on hand for you.  Nope!  Not happenin’ at the Movenpick!  When I asked at the desk, I was told that I could take the shuttle to the airport, where I could buy such things.  True, it was only 5 minutes to the airport and the shuttle was free.  But, of course, once at the airport, it was a good little walk to find the drug store.  It’s just a good thing that there were two of us, and only one of us was sick because when you really, really need to be within 20 seconds of the toilet, there’s a pretty high probability that a 5-minute shuttle ride, followed by a 10-15 minute trek through the airport to the shops is going to require a change of clothes.

We found something else bizarre – they have a concierge, but guess what?  The concierge isn’t available on the week-ends!  And most hotels we’ve been to have a variety of brochures for different things to see and do.  Well, good ol’ Movenpick had a wall of brochures, 5 ft. high and at least 20 ft. long.  But they weren’t advertising things you could do, unless the ONLY thing you were interested in was staying at a Movenpick hotel in another city!  Really!  There must have been dozens of brochures for every single Movenpick hotel on the planet.

Another interesting thing about the hotel was the name of the hotel restaurant – Dim Sum.  Not something you’d expect in Switzerland.  But, interestingly enough, we noticed that there were indeed lots of Chinese staying in the hotel.  Wonder which happened first – did the hotel start drawing a lot of Chinese guests, so they fashioned the restaurant to accommodate them, or did they do the restaurant first, to draw Chinese guests?  In any case, I have to wonder why folks who are typically lactose intolerant are inexplicably drawn to the land of milk chocolate and cheese.

Getting Around

We became quite familiar with the hotel shuttle.  It was clean, on-time, and quick.  Although you could walk about 2 blocks to get onto a bus or rail to get into downtown Zürich, the shuttle offered the advantage of picking you up at the hotel and taking you to the airport, where you could catch public transportation as well.  This was handy because, for the first 2 days, it was extremely hot and the remaining 2 days it rained (which, to a Berliner, is no real problem – it’s just nice to have the option of not getting wet).  So we used the shuttle quite a bit – AND it was FREE!!  There was one thing that was odd, however.  It had a display screen with the message “There is no information available.”  OK.  So why have a display screen?  If there’s no information available, maybe just having it turned off would convey the idea?  We did manage to see the device when it was displaying information—but it simply had ads for the hotel.  Well, if you haven’t decided which hotel you want to stay at, these ads won’t help you because you won’t be on this shuttle to see them, and if you ARE on the shuttle, you’ve already decided that you’re going to stay at this hotel, so there’s not really any point in trying to sell you on it.  Wonder whose brainchild that was!!

The public transportation was equally clean, timely, and efficient.  It, of course, had its own quirks.  Some signs admonishing folks to behave were posted in each car.  Most of them made sense.

  • No smoking (below, on the far left)
  • Don’t play a guitar,or, presumably, any other instrument (below, in the middle)
  • Don’t put your feet on the seats (below, on the far right)

The other two signs were a little puzzling.  After some pondering, the second one from the left probably means “Don’t get on without a ticket” (although, given how bossy the Swiss can be, it could just mean “Don’t go around with your pockets hanging out”).  But the second one from the right is really a head-scratcher—apparently folks need to be told not to saw the seats off.  Really?  Did someone actually saw off a seat?  And, if there’s someone who’s inclined to saw the seats off, is this sign likely to stop him?

Then there’s one other thing that puzzles me—when you DON’T want someone to do something, isn’t the international sign for that a red circle around the prohibited behavior with a red line drawn diagonally across it?  Are these signs actually telling folks that they SHOULD smoke, turn their pockets inside-out, play the guitar, saw the seats off, and put their feet on the seats?  Just askin’….

Bikes and Dogs

Europeans do indeed love their bikes, especially given that the price of gasoline is at least twice (if not 3 times) as much as it is in the US.  And they love their dogs (most of whom are extremely well-behaved).  So it was no surprise to see this example of bike-dog love in a rain cover for a bike seat.

At least the money is colorful!

How boring US currency is!  All the same size and color, with nothing much to distinguish one denomination from another, except for the number and which old, dead white guy is engraved on one side.  Well, Swiss francs also have the numbers and the portraits of (so far as I can tell) white guys (who may also all be dead), but at least they’re colorful and the images of the guys are more realistic.  However, since the portraits look more like photos, it feels a bit odd handling them like money.  I found myself trying to avoid having my fingerprints smudge the ‘photos.’  Plus, it’s a little creepy feeling like these guys are staring at you so intensely.

How much is that in real money?

In terms of getting an idea for how expensive things are, there’s another universal unit of comparison, and that’s a Big Mac Menu.  You want a Big Mac, with a small drink and fries?  $12.70.  You want it with a medium drink and fries? About $14.00.

But, that’s cheap when you compare it to the hamburger offered in the airport restaurant (as opposed to the food offered in the food court, where MacDonald’s is).  It’s about $29 (but, of course, it has real beef, rather than MacDonald’s mystery meat).  You get fries with that – but the drink is extra.

Michael Jackson Impersonator

I guess the one advantage that Michael Jackson impersonators have over the original MJ is they can do the music without that whole ‘inappropriate behavior with young boys’ thing lurking in the background.  I may have seen an MJ impersonator at a bus stop in Zürich.  Except, it was a woman.  And she was white (and was probably born white, rather than lightened up over time).  And middle-aged (which, I guess he ultimately was).  So, you ask, what made you think she was an MJ impersonator?  Well, I reply, she was wearing a single white glove on her right hand (although it was embroidered with little flowers and didn’t have any sequins).  Can’t think of any other reason to be wearing a single glove when the weather is about 90 F.

Watching TV

It’s always fascinating to watch TV in a foreign country.  In London, we watched a TV show that was fundamentally a televised radio show.  The actors were sitting at a table (much like you’d see at a conference, where a panel of speakers sits at a table on the podium) and had their scripts in front of them.  And they were just reading their parts.  OK.  So why televise this?

When we were in Mexico, we had the pleasure of watching a soap opera in which one of the actresses expressed herself with such exuberance that her wig flew off.  Well, in Zürich we got to see another soap opera—only this one was placed in the Middle Ages, with the actors wearing mail and armor, dashing about on horseback, and speaking German.  We also watched a bit of the pre-Olympics banter, where a British man and a woman were desperately trying to fill up the time.  I don’t know whether drawing out a conversation to the point of exhaustion is a British thing or not.  I do know that when we were in a London antique store, the clerk and a male patron managed to discuss a fork (and, in particular, the number of tines on that fork) for the better part of 30 minutes.  (It may have been longer, but we had to leave before we turned into the “Ugly American” and shouted at them to JUST SHUT UP!)  In recent years, as the number of news shows – and the duration of such news shows – has increased, more announcers in the US are developing this ‘talent.’  In any case, these two were broadcasting on the day of the opening ceremonies for the Olympics and nothing much was happening – no one to interview, because all the Olympians were preparing for the march into the stadium, as were the other entertainers.  And yet, these two folks just HAD to be broadcasting live, in case something MIGHT happen.  It was painfully like watching grass grow.  Here’s how their conversation went:

HE:  Today is going to be a long day.

SHE:  Yes, indeed, it is going to be a very long day.

HE:  How long of a day do you think it will be?

SHE:  Are you asking me how long I think the day will be?

HE:  Yes, exactly.  I am indeed asking you how long you think the day will be.

SHE:  Well, there are 24 hours in a day, so it won’t be any longer than 24 hours, will it?

HE:  Indeed, it will have to be a bit under 24 hours, won’t it?

SHE:  Most definitely.  But how much under 24 hours do you think the day will be?

HE:  Are you asking me how much under 24 hours I think the day will be?

SHE:  Yes, I am indeed asking you how much under 24 hours you think the day will be.

HE:  Well, it’s already 9 am and the work day started for us at about 5 am, so already the day has been 4 hours long.

SHE:  So, it really started at 5 am for you, did it?

HE:  Yes, it did.  That was when my alarm went off this morning.

SHE:  Well, are we counting from when we first woke up or from when we first started working?  We didn’t start working until 8 am.

HE:  Well, yes.  I can see your point.  That would make a difference of 3 hours in the overall calculation, wouldn’t it?

SHE:  Yes, it would make a difference of 3 hours.   Mind you, I’m not suggesting what the starting point should be, really.  I’m just trying to clarify for our viewers when the starting point would be.

HE:  Well, surely the starting point shouldn’t be at 12:01 am because we weren’t even awake then.  Besides, even though that’s technically the start of a day, most people really regard it as the middle of the night, don’t they?

And there was more, but I’ll spare you!

Truly fabulous meals

We managed to have some rather exquisite meals.  All the food was great, and the company was splendid—we not only got to visit with our friends from the States, but one night we had dinner with one of our son’s friends who drove half-way across the country (it took a whole hour!) to see us.  (Not many folks in Texas would drive half-way across the state on a week night just to have dinner with us!)  It’s a pretty good thing that the food was consistently good because, at those prices, I fear that somebody might have been in for a serious ass-chewing otherwise.

Just exactly HOW expensive is Switzerland?

Here’s how expensive – every month I do a spreadsheet of our expenses for the month, and our average monthly expenses for the time we’ve been here, and then do a projection of how long our savings can be expected to last us.  This gives us a target ‘drop-dead’ date (because if we live past it, we’re in trouble).  After doing these calculations reflecting our 5-day trip to Switzerland, it turns out that we’re gonna have to die 2 months earlier.

In closing…

So, Switzerland is clean, crisp, pretty, and expensive, and the food is great.  Here’s what I recommend:  instead of taking a trip to Switzerland, why don’t you just take a couple of days off, buy some Godiva chocolates, some nice wine, and some beautifully illustrated travel guides and videos, and just kick back in the comfort of your own home, where the aspirin and Imodium  are close by in case you need them.  You could even go nuts one evening and go to the most expensive restaurant in the area.

One final note…

And by the way, remember those chocolates that were waiting for us in our room the day we checked in?  Well, that ONLY happened the FIRST night we were there!  Every hotel I’ve ever been to either had no candy at all, ever, OR candy (typically mints or chocolates) EVERY night.  Not this one.  So when we left, I took that damned rubber ducky!