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

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Border crossings

Now that we've got a car, we've joined the masses sneaking into France and Germany for groceries on weekends. It's astounding how much less expensive food in the E.U. is, particularly meat. Everywhere we've been, at least half the cars have had Swiss plates. Several shops advertise that they accept payment in Swiss francs. As far as I can tell, customs officials are resigned to the rampant smuggling. Aside from the major crossing points, most of the customs checks are unmanned, and even at the big ones, they don't seem particularly interested in stopping anyone.

This is fortunate, because last weekend, we tried out a couple of hypermarch├ęs in Alsace, where our purchases of Riesling, scotch, and gin exceeded our duty-free allowance by several multiples. We lugged back a tank of laundry detergent that comes up to my knees. Oh, yes, and we got some food, too. We shopped as if we were stocking up in advance of a famine. I can't tell how much more it would've been in Basel, because with some of the more extravagant purchases (Swissy Pie snuck in some foie gras into the cart when he thought I wasn't looking), our bill was a lot higher than usual. So much for saving money.

This weekend, after going to our local Coop for more wine (never mind what happened to the bottles we got last week), we headed over to Germany, "just for a peek." We should've predicted the outcome. Once again, we bought so much food we were hard-pressed to make space in our refrigerator for it.

Part of the problem: we came across Jever, Swissy Pie's favorite beer. The poor dear's been deprived ever since he left New York, where I'm quite certain he was single-handedly responsible for 90% of its consumption because no one else will touch the stuff. Naturally he had to get a few bottles, but they ended up occupying half a shelf in the refrigerator. By the way, we've only got 4 shelves.

But mostly, the problem is us. We're so used to prices in Switzerland that everything in the E.U. looks like a bargain by comparison. Plus, the French and German stores are so much bigger that they can offer a lot more variety. The cheese departments are much more interesting, for example. And instead of the one type of strawberry that Coop carries (which is from Spain, at that), in France you can pick from three different breeds. And have I mentioned that I saw my first European bagel? Of course I got a package, even though there's no shortage of bread in our home at the moment.

But as much fun as I had shopping across the border, I couldn't help but notice that I'm turning into a Swiss snob. "Oh no," I heard myself saying. "That spinach doesn't look very good. I'll get some at Migros next week." Or, "This beef looks disgusting. I'd rather pay more for the stuff at Coop."

Now, I'm not sure if there was really anything wrong with the food, and certainly I've picked up sub-standard food in Swiss shops. (Don't even ask about the last cucumber I bought. When I cut it open... Yech!) But because prices were lower (and in France at least, the stores looked dodgier), I became a lot more critical. You gets what you pays for, right? At least if you're not careful, and I have no desire to be the chump here.

Here's another point where I prefer the Swiss to their European neighbors: acceptance of credit cards. On our way home Saturday, we stopped by Dehner, a German chain of garden stores. I wanted to get some house plants, but at the moment there's no space for them in our living room, so we agreed to come back later. However, I picked out some herbs for the kitchen, as well as a couple of adorable little glazed pots for about 1 euro each. The grand total for my purchases: something on the order of 6 euros.

But when I went to pay with my credit card (why would I carry euros around when I live in Switzerland?) the cashier was very upset.

"For so little?" she said, grimacing in dismay. "It takes us 30 days to get the money."

"Sorry," I said, somewhat taken aback. (If that were the reason, wouldn't she be crankier if the bill were actually larger?) "I don't have any cash."

In the US, because of the fees they're charged, many small businesses request a minimum purchase before using credit cards, but I've never seen a big chain store do so. (In part because it's illegal.) In Switzerland, I've never encountered a minimum, either. I've charged 9 CHF at Nespresso, 4 CHF at Migros, both of which were less than this purchase. Not once have the cashiers stared (the official sign of Swiss disapproval). But this German woman, who works for a giant retailer, actually cared?

Swissy Pie volunteered, rather unhelpfully, "She's American, it's common there."

The woman replied irritably, "She's in Haltingen, not America."

Really? I hadn't noticed. I must have taken the wrong turn off of I-95!

After some more pouting and lecturing, which I pretended not to understand, she ended up running my credit card. "Just this once," she said sternly. I nodded and thanked her and tried to look as clueless as possible.

It's good to be foreign, sometimes.

Despite these little issues, we'll be back to smuggle our groceries. As the weather gets nicer, I'll probably start riding over on my bike during the week - it's only a few kilometers away, after all. And some day, we may even stop shopping like it's going out of style. But I doubt that will happen any time soon.

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Blogger Alexandra said...

hahah! when she told you "it'll take 30 days for us to get the money" you should have STARED AT her and in your best NYC voice told her "yeah AND?!"

March 26, 2007 at 12:45 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Be careful with what and how much you bring back across the border, especially with meat and spirits. While the Grenzwache doesn't stop everyone all the time, occasionally, they stop everyone. I get stopped about 10% of the time. The one time I didn't bring back any wine, the border guard looked very suspiciously at me. After that experience, I always bring back at least one bottle of Cremant d'Alsace or other wine with me.

For me there's nothing like a shopping excursion to the big supermarkets in Alsace to cure my homesickness.

March 26, 2007 at 7:09 AM  
Blogger The Big Finn said...

I'm one of those dorks who is never over the limit when bringing stuff back into Switzerland. For that reason, I stick one of those little green "Nothing To Declare" signs on my dashboard, and the border patrol NEVER stops me. However, be warned...
If you have one of those signs in your window, are stopped, and are found to be over the limit, you're subject to a huge fine - something lie 5,000 CHF!

March 26, 2007 at 8:27 AM  
Blogger Un-Swiss Miss said...

Ale - I have to work on translating the New York 'tude to German!

Greg - The alcohol limit's actually pretty reasonable, we just have a bad habit of binge buying. But since we're carnivores, the meat limit will some day gets us in trouble. 0.5 kg of fresh meat per person per day? That's breakfast! (OK, I'm exaggerating, but still.)

TBF - Where do I get me one of those signs? (To be used only when we're good, of course.)

March 26, 2007 at 12:24 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Yeah, a liter of spirits per person per day really should be more than enough! For the US it's one liter every 30 days, and you're supposed to be out of the country for at least 48 hours.

March 27, 2007 at 1:19 PM  
Blogger Ms Mac said...

We got busted once going through customs from Singen. Our downfall was the milk, we'd bought 60l of UHT. In our defence, we didn't have a clue how much we were allowed. Most embarrassingly, we had to do a walk of shame over the border, back into Germany and ask people in the car park there if they want to take out milk off our hands. Otherwise, the customs men told us, we had to just dump it or, if we wanted to keep it, pay an extortionate amount of Zoll!

Trials and tribulations..... Bring 'em on, I say!

March 28, 2007 at 10:55 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

Very interesting reading,

We've had one trip to St. Louis to the market and the Geant there. Very interesting to see the difference in price but also what's available considering it s only a bus trip away.

By the way, the phone is a Sony Ericsson K750i. Its pretty nifty!

March 28, 2007 at 12:33 PM  
Blogger Un-Swiss Miss said...

Greg - The only trouble is if you only go shopping once a week... then 2 L of wine may not quite cut it!

Ms Mac - Sounds like the good folks in customs are pretty lenient!

Barry - Peanut butter! Enough said! (Well, at least for this American.) Thanks for the phone info!

March 29, 2007 at 12:30 PM  
Blogger My Brand New Swiss Life said...

So in search of an answer to a pending question, I am consulting my fellow expat-in-CH bloggers...
If you can answer this inquiry, would be so appreciative!
I am driving (just a passenger actually) from Zurich to the Champagne region in France shortly with a friend.... Sadly & perplexingly, my passport is lost. Ugh! Thus my burning question: Do you happen to know (ie, having perhaps driven over the border from CH to France yourself), if they check passports as you cross the border in a vehicle??
\-Jess in Zurich :)
aka, "My Brand New Swiss Life"

March 29, 2007 at 8:32 PM  
Blogger Expat Traveler said...

I love those crossings and have lived on both sides of the border, in france and in Switzerland...

It's fun to go to Germany and then back over to France without the border checks too...

March 31, 2007 at 3:33 AM  

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