Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Monday, October 30, 2006

And we're in...

As it's been a very long day, and I have to catch a plane back to New York early tomorrow morning, this will be a short public service announcement.

Swissy Pie has moved into our new apartment!

At the moment, our furnishings are rather sparse. No bed, no clothing armoire - in case I haven't mentioned it, few apartments in Switzerland have built-in closets. We had to borrow a rug and a tiny clothes rack from his parents, who also helped us unpack the kitchen. And boy, was there an awful lot of it to unpack! He has about a million coffee mugs, dozens of wine and beer glasses, knives and kitchen gadgets by the handful, and several gorgeous sets of tableware. (Not metrosexual? Yeah, right.)

I don't know how I'll manage to get my stuff in there too. What to take? What to leave?

But that's a problem to consider when I'm less tired.


Sunday, October 29, 2006


For two weeks, Mainz, a city in the famous Rhinehessen winemaking region of Germany, is celebrating its grape harvest. Hotels are serving special menus centered around riesling and truffles. And in the farmer's market this past Saturday, stalls serving up glasses of white, rosé, and red wine, as well as champagne (called sekt in Germany), were mixed among the ones selling the usual gorgeous array of red peppers, purple beans, golden mushrooms, lettuces, various fruits, and cheeses.

Since Swissy Pie had to attend a weekend conference there, we landed right in the midst of this unexpected indulgence. We took the train up on Friday - my first experience with the luxurious ICE, the high-speed "inter-city express" - and while he was at his seminar, I explored the old city, from St. Stefans, a church whose stained glass windows were designed by Marc Chagall, to the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, which had a special exhibition on a "Heldengrab in Niemandsland" (Hero's Grave in No Man's Land), to shops in the Altstadt and along the Augustinerstrasse.

The high point of the trip was, unsurprisingly, centered around wine. On Friday night we dined at Bellpepper, where we had a lovely 2005 Von der Fels riesling from Weingut Keller. It was nicely balanced between fruit and acid: bright and citrusy with just a hint of sweetness to round it out. I spent Saturday traipsing around the city to try to find it. Though I didn't manage to track down the Von der Fels, I did find an ordinary QbA trocken riesling, also from 2005. Of course, I managed to acquire two additional wines along the way. One was a 2005 Silvaner feinherb, also from Rheinhessen, bottled by Edith and Norbert Kessler. The other one, which we've already consumed, was a 2004 Kerner Spätlese trocken (Westhofener Kirchspiel) from Helmut Geil. It is very good - and in the States, would have cost at least twice as much as it does here.

In Mainz, I was also initiated into the European sauna experience, one of the best legacies of the Roman empire. Initially I was a little surprised to see that men and women shared the space, and even more surprised that most people nevertheless lounged around in their birthday suits. But the shock wore off quickly. It probably helped that there weren't many people using the facilities.

The sauna in our hotel was very nice. It was in the basement, but was built aroud the old city wall and had lots of natural light streaming down through the former defensive pits, so it was bright and airy and felt quite modern. The scent of oranges wafted through the space. Lit candles in the entry made it feel like a spa.

I began with the familiar. After rinsing down in the shower and indulging in a footbath, I entered the heated cedar room that I've always considered a sauna. It was hotter and darker than the others I've been in, so as soon as I began to sweat, I fled, to cool off by dunking myself in a tub of cold water. Then I tried the steam room, cooled off again under a waterfall-style shower, and moved into a "Ruheraum," a relaxing room, to finish cooling down. There was also a fresh air room, which was open to the outside. It was a nice way to finish on a brisk autumn day.

Some people wrapped up with time in the tanning bed, which I skipped. But on the whole, I found the experience really relaxing.

Good, inexpensive wine and saunas. I think I'm going to enjoy living in Europe.

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Be vewy vewy qwiet when hunting wohnungs...

We have an apartment!

No, it's not
the one we originally wanted. When we went to meet the owner last week, we discovered that two other couples had also applied for it. The next day, Thursday, we learned that we would not be its next occupants. (How did he decide? Were we supposed to bribe him at the meeting?) And thus began our foray into the bizarre and dysfunctional world of Swiss real estate.

I have to confess that I wasn't exactly heartbroken about losing the place: when I visited it, I had mixed feelings about it.
Though the neighborhood was really charming and central, the apartment itself was not on one of the prettier or quieter streets. And while the place featured plenty of nice old details, like leaded glass panels and herringbone hardwood floors, the light was mediocre, and the layout wasn't the easiest one to work with. Doors led everywhere, so that all the rooms were connected. (Not a convenient arrangement for guests!) The balconies looked their not-inconsiderable age, the bathroom was cramped, and the kitchen was blue. Not blue tiles, mind you, but blue cabinets, covered with the sort of sponged-on pattern popular among Italian restaurants with Tuscan pretentions.

One of my old bosses liked to complain that people never did things the way he would have done it himself. In the case of that apartment, it was definitely true. The place was more than livable, but... I was exchanging my beloved pre-war in New York for this? I was almost relieved when we didn't get the place - and the only reason I put in "almost" was because Swissy Pie needed a place to live by November 1, when he starts work.

Eleven days to go. Not a lot of time. What to do?

Hit the web, of course.

We spent Thursday night going through online listings, culling them down to a list that looked promising. But to our dismay, when we contacted the brokers on Friday, only two were actually in! O
bviously, if they weren't working on Friday, they certainly weren't working on Saturday. And no one in Switzerland works on Sunday. (Coming from the City That Never Sleeps, it's a shock to find out you can't even go grocery shopping, unless you're at the train station.)

So. Three days wasted. Eight days left, and Swissy Pie was not happy. No early bird, he - he even overslept the day he was supposed to pick me up at the airport, and left me stranded for two hours - but for this occasion, he got up extra-early to call the realtors. That in and of itself was a miracle, but even more miraculously, he was able to chase them down and cram our Tuesday full of appointments. He even ferreted out one particularly elusive lady who didn't seem to want to show us her apartment at all.

"This place is special," she warned us. "Most people just turn around and walk right out."

I couldn't help thinking - with little sympathy - that Manhattan would eat the whiny girl alive.

As luck would have it, she was our first appointment. She turned out to be a petite youngish lady with thick, Liz-Taylor-as-Cleopatra-style eyeliner, bleached blonde hair, and a desperate wish to get rid of the apartment; the apartment turned out to be a bright duplex on a nicer street in the same neighborhood we'd looked in before. Perhaps because she'd been so aggressive in managing our expectations, we didn't walk out at all. The place was strikingly modern, with two walls upstairs made entirely of glass, and a lightshaft down to the bedroom below. Plus, it had its own washer/dryer. But the lower level was partially underground, and the space was laid out rather inefficiently, so that 100 square meters felt more like 70. Like the first place, it was workable, but...

Then we saw the next apartment, which completely annihilated the hopes of that whiny, desperate blonde.

From the outside, it didn't look like much. It was in a modern, concrete slab of a building that had recently been finished. In fact, it was so new that no one had ever lived in it before. The neighborhood was in the early stages of up-and-coming, and nicely kept buildings were liberally interspersed among uglier, more run-down ones. But when we got in to see it, it started to grow on me. There were so many well-conceived details. For example, there was a large bike room right next to the entrance, so residents didn't have to drag their bikes from the basement. The cellar storage was large and clean, and had electric sockets. Laundry usage was based on a sign-up system instead of a fixed plan. Private underground parking was available.

And when we finally went up to the apartment itself, the flood of sunlight that poured though a wall of full-length glass windows pretty much sold me on the space. Yes, I liked that there were movable room dividers to separate the gourmet kitchen from the living space, and that were 3 bedrooms and a storage room, and that there were 2 bathrooms, and that heated pipes ran beneath the floor to heat them in winter. I liked that Swissy Pie's Le Corbusier furniture would fit right in. But most of all, I loved that wall of south-facing windows.

Of course it wasn't perfect. The floor was covered with a light green tile, cheap-looking stuff that I would ordinarily disdain. And I wasn't sure about the neighborhood. But for the rest of the day, nothing came close to it in terms of price-to-quality. We did see one, another "altbau," or old building, with really nice plasterwork detail that almost made up in charm and location what it lacked in light and space. But it had no parking, minimal storage space, and was noisy to boot.

So today (after Swissy Pie came out on top in a protracted battle with the recalcitrant fax machine)
we applied for the Windowed Paradise. To our shock - especially after our experiences with real estate brokers last week - we were approved a scant two hours later. The rest of the day blurred past. We raced up to sign the contract, and spent the rest of the afternoon shuttling paperwork between the bank and the rental office.

Now the place is ours! (Well, technically, Swissy Pie's, since I'm not on the contract.) We move in Monday, just before I return to the US. I can hardly wait.


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sunday drive

Today was one of those days that one could easily mistake for early summer, if it weren't for the foliage, which clearly screams fall. Such good weather, as far as Swissy Pie is concerned, can only mean one thing: a nice, long bike ride. Though I think he'd have preferred to climb a mountain, I was tired from yesterday's ride, so we got into the car and headed off to Biel/Bienne for a tour around its lake (named, in typically creative German fashion, Bielersee).

We parked the car by the lakeshore, just outside the city, and headed west. Across the road, by the water, russet treetops peeked over the railings to remind us that a park clung to the strip of land below.
To the south, the snow-coated Alps glittered, clear despite a soft haze that clung to the hills nearby. It seemed that everyone was outside to enjoy the day. Quite a few families were out for a stroll or bike ride. Boats with colorful wind-engorged sails skimmed across the surface of the lake. A single hot-air balloon hung in the sky. And cars kept whooshing past us, only to be brought up short at Twann, one of the towns along the shore.

It turned out Twann was hosting some sort of wine or harvest festival, so we stopped, threaded our way through the cars parked in the bike lane, and made our way into the crowded village. Stalls and oak barrels choked an already narrow main street. Some offered "degustations," or wine tastings, for about CHF 3-4 per glass. Others sold food, pottery, or jewelry. Between the silver rings (ubiquitous at New York street fairs) and the dodgy Chinese food, I almost thought I was back in Manhattan again.

Leaning against one of the old aging casks, we tasted a couple of local wines, one mediocre rosé and a pinot gris, which was pretty nice despite being a little warm. Then we continued around the lake for what ended up being a rolling 50 km ride. It was remarkable how abruptly the language went from German in one town to French in the next and then back again. More remarkable still was the variety of terrain packed into such a small area. Vineyards were carved into the steep hills on the north shore of the lake, while woods shadowed ancient cobblestoned streets in the west, near Erlach, and a patchwork of broad yellowing cornfields and cow pastures blanketed the rolling land around Ins.

By the time we got back to the car, my legs were close to empty, even though there hadn't been any serious climbs. That was a bit disappointing. I guess if Swissy Pie wants to ride tomorrow, he'll have to go alone.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

An ordinary Saturday

This morning we went to the farmer's market in downtown Bern. Though there's always a small one in the Bankenplatz with perhaps 20 booths, on Tuesdays and Saturdays it metastasizes, spreading into the back streets of the old city. The variety is astounding. Like in New York, there's lots of fruit and vegetables - sweet Concord grapes with translucent skins (as well as some champagne-colored variety), green and black figs, round little apples, fat green gooseberries and tiny red raspberries and dusty blueberries, ripe gold and crimson tomatoes, tangles of mushrooms that I've never seen before, crisp green beans, and bright purple eggplants little bigger than my hand.

But in Bern, there are also stalls selling haunches of wild boar, capons with some of their feathers still on, whole rabbits, and fish of all different sizes and colors. There are cheese and olive markets, and bakeries with wonderful specialties like gâteau de Vully, a beautiful golden risen yeast cake from the French-speaking portion of Switzerland. It's topped with butter and cream and sugar and sliced almonds, and as I later discovered, a slice is simply divine with coffee.

As is our tradition, Swissy Pie and I also indulged in nearly a kilo of goods at our favorite cheese market: green olives stuffed with preserved lemons, Roquefort, Pecorino Romano, and winzerkäse, which has a fabulous rich, nutty flavor that I adore. We also got a bottle of vinho verde from one of the wine stores downtown. We'll see how it compares to the much cheaper Casal Garcia that we like so much.

In the afternoon we took a bike ride through the Lindental, one of my favorite loops in the Bern region. It has many virtues: it's a short, 30 mile loop; the scenery is spectacular, particularly now, in autumn, when all the hills are aflame with foliage; and most importantly, it's flat. (At least, about as flat as Switzerland gets.) This is particularly critical at the moment, since I'm renting a bicycle for the trip, a classic black Cilo steel frame with really elegant lines and surprisingly nimble handling. Unfortunately, it's a little heavy, and has what Swissy Pie calls the "hero crank" double configuration. So hills are a little difficult, and steep pitches downright impossible, at least in my out-of-shape state. But I survived the final climb up to the house, and afterward felt surprisingly good. So maybe I'm not as badly off as I feared.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Off to Switzerland

Heute fliege ich nach der Schweiz! Since I haven't seen Swissy Pie in about a month, I'm really looking forward to the visit. I'm also curious to see how this trip goes. The last time I went, in August, I was more or less a tourist, going to scenic places like Luzern and taking tons of photos. What will I think, now that it's not so novel? And how has my German held up, given I haven't spoken it in weeks? (Though I have done plenty of writing: Sehr geehrte Frau -----)

We'll still be cycling, though I'm not in any shape to go up mountains right now. This time I'm going to rent a bike there, since Continental charges $95 each way to ship a bicycle, and that's simply egregious. Instead, I'm using half my baggage allowance for my own clothes, and the rest for stuff he couldn't take on the plane with him when he left, like his fancy cameras, and some bulky coats. (That boy has so many coats that I sometimes wonder if he's gay. Then I remember there's a term for it now: metrosexual, though in other respects this doesn't apply to him at all.) All I can say is, this time I'd better not get stopped by customs, because it'll be a royal pain to get the bags closed again.

Of course, we'll have to take care of business, as well. On Wednesday we have a meeting with the owner of the charming apartment. Though he has complained about this - "Since when do the Swiss interview for apartments?" - it's actually nice, in a way, since now I get to see the space in person. (And maybe we can tour some German wineries while we're up there.)

I guess I should take advantage of the proximity to do some job hunting, too. If I can understand any of the postings...


Friday, October 13, 2006

Alpenmacaroni (or something like it)

Since I'm about to go off to Switzerland for 2 weeks, I've allowed my refrigerator to get depressingly empty. Aside from the expected condiments, there's only milk, a handful of brussel sprouts and some random chunks of cheese: a slab of Gruyere, a scrap of some sort of blue cheese, and a block of cheddar. Not a very inspiring set of ingredients for lunch.

Fortunately, I almost always have dried pasta in my pantry, so I decided to make a version of Alpenmacaroni, only without potatoes, and without onions. (I ran out of those, too.) OK, so it was more like American mac 'n' cheese, only with fancy cheese.

  • 1/2 box (8 oz) dried pasta, cooked and drained
  • 2 cups grated cheese (ended up being about half Gruyere, half cheddar before I chopped up the blue cheese and mixed that in, too)
  • 2 cups milk
  • salt
  • pepper
  • nutmeg
Cooking the macaroni's the most difficult part. Once that's done, just mix all the ingredients together in a big casserole and stick it in the oven for 20 minutes at 400 F. When the cheese is melted, give the whole thing a stir with a spoon and serve. If the sauce is too runny, wait five minutes. As it cools, it'll thicken.

Given how easy this is, and how good it tastes, I'm sure I'll make some variant again in the future. (Though I'll probably use a little less milk next time... with these proportions, it was still a tad runny for my tastes.)

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Working girl

I came across a job posting that sounded interesting the other day. One of the giants of Swiss banking is evidently looking for an Art Banker.

Art Banker? What on earth is that?

According to the job posting:

In this challenging role you will act as the single point of contact for internal and external queries with regard to the structuring of art financing and investment products, the structuring and development of Trusts & Foundations as well as any escrow transactions' demands. Your main responsibilities include:
  • Development, maintenance and monitoring of art oriented products and solutions
  • Carrying out feasibility studies of new art-related products and Implementation of new products' shelves
  • Continuous monitoring of developments in the financial and art markets
  • Conducting regular presentations and reviews with Regional Market Managers and Client Advisor teams on the art market and on UBS Art Banking solutions
As the ideal candidate you meet the following criteria:
  • Excellent knowledge of global financial instruments and banking products (Funds, Private Equity, Investment Products, Lending Products, etc.)
  • Passion for art and global art market trends
  • Charismatic personality with networking abilities
  • Excellent communication skills and fluency in English, French and German
This could be good, aside from my lack of fluency in German. And there's the minor issue that, after 13 years or so of disuse, my French isn't exactly fluent anymore either. Well, according to my resume, I've got "intermediate" German and "excellent" French. ("Beginner," "fluent," and "native speaker" were the other options.) I'll keep my fingers crossed.



I first decided to start a blog to help my friends and family keep up with my life. Now, as I type, I'm wondering if I'm really using this blog so that I can keep up with my own life. Everything seems to be in flux right now; I feel gauzy and insubstantial, as if I'm just passing through. It's a bizarre sensation for me, since for the past five years, I've been solidly materialistic. I live in my cozy little apartment in New York City, eat cozy little meals, shop in cozy boutiques (and not-so-cozy department stores), hang out with my cozy, wonderful friends. I know where to buy what, and how things are done. I have a place this this messy, frightening, and exhilirating city.

And now I'm giving it all up. To go halfway across the world. For a

I must be nuts. I never thought I would be doing something like this. And yet, instead of dreading all this change, I'm oddly excited.

Swissy-Pie, as I'll call said guy for reasons which I hope are obvious, is already back home. And much faster than I expected, things are starting to come together. We're going to be in Basel, Switzerland, right where France, Germany, and Switzerland come together, glaring at each other over the legendary Rhine River like members of some dysfunctional family over dinner. While I personally have dubbed it the Ugliest City in Switzerland, it's his favorite. Oh well. I suppose New York could be considered ugly, too, but I've gotten used to it. Hopefully Basel will grow on me as well. At least
the Black Forest in Germany, which is really close by, is absolutely spectacular.

To be fair, there are some lovely neighborhoods. A few months ago, I spent a day in the area, and found a few pockets that I really liked. And during our apartment search (a virtual one for me), we've come across a few more.

One place in particular looks fantastic; I've posted the photo here. It's a big (over 1000 sq. ft) 4-room apartment in an old building, with lots of original plaster detail, beautiful herringbone hardwood floors, leaded glass doors, two balconies, a shared garden, and charm to spare. And the rent's quite reasonable, too!
We both independently chose it as our top pick. (This bodes well, I hope, for future decision-making.)

At first I was nervous because it simply looked too good to be true. But today he went to see it in person, and reported that the photos don't do it justice. Even better, no one else has applied for it! Of course, he submitted an application immediately. Hopefully we'll find out within the next few days whether we get it or not.

Assuming we do, the only thing that's left is for me to find a job, so that I don't die of loneliness and/or boredom in this brave Old World. There are a few obstacles:

  1. No EU work visa. I refuse to marry Swissy-Pie just to get one.
  2. Not fluent in German. Given I've only been learning for 6 months, I'm quite good. But that's nowhere close to good enough.
  3. Few finance jobs in Basel. That means I may have to commute to Zürich, 1 hour away. Yelch.
  4. No skills relevant to pharma positions, of which Basel does have plenty.
Oh well. I suppose can always join Centrepoint, or whatever the American Women's Club of Basel calls itself these days. But I have to ask, if it used to be an American club, why do they spell Centre like the British?