Monday, August 25, 2008

ten things

Ten things I miss about Zurich:

1) My people  
2) Best. Public Transportation. Ever.  
3) Can you say five weeks of vacation per year?  
4) Dozens of countries within a two hour flight  
5) Dog-friendly restaurants  
6) Grilling by the lake  
7) Leaving for the airport an hour before a flight  
8) Clean streets  
9) Assigned seating in movie theaters  
10) My gummy candy store  

Ten things I love about the Bay Area:

1) Being near my sister for the first time in 18 years  
2) Ethnic food  
3) Shopping on evenings and weekends  
4) Cheap haircuts that aren't mullets  
5) Cheap everything  
6) Movies without intermission or subtitles  
7) Being fluent in the local language  
8) Not being mistaken for a mail-order bride  
9) Sun. All day. Every day.  
10) Coolest. Company. Ever.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

stranger in a strange(r) land

A little over four years ago, I moved to Zurich without ever having been there. I had been to Switzerland once during college, but that was to sing a concert in Geneva, which is in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and is vastly different from Zurich. Being a brave (or naive) 25-year-old, I just picked up and moved from Manhattan to Zurich, less than three months after first hearing about the job. I didn't really think about how big of an adjustment it would be, leaving my friends and life behind for a new job in a new city in a new country full of people I didn't know. Duh. It was a bit of a shock - everything from laundry schedules to store opening hours to local dialect to restaurant prices left me feeling like I had landed on some alien planet in a parallel universe.

It all worked out in the end - what started as a random "Hm, let's see what happens if I move to Switzerland" experiment turned into one of the best decisions I've ever made. Leaving my life in Zurich was one of the hardest things I've done, but I left older and wiser. Or so I thought.

As it turns out, only one of those was true. I am now 30, so I'm definitely older, but I'm not sure that I'm any wiser.

Somehow, I thought that coming back to the States would be an easy homecoming, of sorts. Moving back wouldn't be the big adjustment that moving to Europe had been, I reasoned, because I'm American and I'm moving back to America. Turns out that I should have said that I'm an East Coaster moving to California. Californians are nearly as alien and unfathomable to me as the Swiss. Preliminary observations reveal a marked penchant for yoga and bicycles. 

These aliens seem quite at home in a place that is quite foreign to me. For the first time in thirteen years, I'm living in the suburbs, and I have to drive everywhere, instead of just hopping on a tram (Zurich), the subway (New York), or the T (Boston). I have no idea what to do with my substantial collection of heavy coats and umbrellas. After four years of bringing my dog everywhere except for grocery stores, I suddenly have to leave him at home when I'm going to a restaurant (as opposed to Zurich, where he would sometimes get better service from the waitstaff than I would). I am somewhat discombobulated by the lack of marching bands and church bells.

I think it will take longer than anticipated to get used to this place.

Friday, August 1, 2008

land of the free (or deeply discounted)

One of the things that was most shocking about Switzerland was how they find a way to charge for everything. Nothing is free in Switzerland, and nothing is cheap, either.

On the flip side of that, coming back to the States has been a continuous stream of surprisingly cheap (or free) experiences. I still have my Citibank accounts from before I moved to Switzerland, and regularly transferred money from Switzerland to the US so that I could pay credit card bills and send money towards my student loans. It was easier than trying to do those things from my Swiss accounts, and besides, there weren't any monthly fees on my US accounts, so why close them? 

Now that I'm back, I have a bit of a dilemma - do I keep my Swiss accounts open? On one hand, it's convenient to have them there so that I can transfer money to the tax authorities once my final taxes are calculated. Also, if I closed them, I wouldn't be able to open new Swiss accounts as a non-resident unless I could give them at least $50,000 as an opening deposit. On the other hand, there is no such thing as free banking in Switzerland - every month that my accounts there remain open, the bank takes its cut, and doesn't even give me any interest. It's a great racket they have going on there.

In contrast, I opened another random bank account after getting back here, with a bank I never intend to use, simply because it's free, and the bank offers its customers good car loans and other nifty services. All for free, with a $50 minimum balance. So to recap - the minimum balance is 1/1000th that of a Swiss bank, they pay interest, there are no monthly fees, and they provide lots of free services and cheap loans. I have no idea how they make any money. I would have said that maybe American banks are less profitable and less stable, but it isn't like Credit Suisse and UBS have been having a stellar time of it these days, either.

It isn't just services like banking that are especially cheap - the shopping is ridiculous. I went to Target a few weeks ago, and spent an hour wandering around trying to figure out what, out of the endless aisles of random cheap stuff, to put in my cart. I have never spent much time in stores like Target, since I lived in big cities since leaving home, and big cities aren't really Target country (indeed, I have never set foot inside a Walmart, and hope I never do), so I was completely bowled over by how much stuff there is, and how little they charge for it. Do people really buy all of it? What do they do with it? How do they decide they need it? How do they get it home? Where do they have room for all of it? In the end, I bought a cartload of storage containers and bathmats, paid a measly $180, and called it a day.

Have I mentioned how cheap the food is? I haven't gone out to eat that much since getting back, since the food is free at work, but when I have gone out, the total per person is usually below $30, including appetizers and drinks. That's just absurd, after spending four years in a place where the entrees alone at a mediocre restaurant can run about $40. 

But cheap is still more expensive than free. Everything you have heard about Google food is true. It is all free. It is all good. It ruins your appetite for restaurant food, because why go to a restaurant and pay $20, if you can get better food for free, without even leaving the comfort of your office building? I was afraid I would gain a lot of weight after starting work at Google. Everyone talks about the Google Fifteen - the weight you gain in the first few months at Google - and I am food-lazy, meaning that when confronted with the prospect of having to go to the store, buy groceries, bring them home, prepare a meal, eat it, and then clean up, my tendency is to skip the whole process and watch TV, instead. 

I was worried that without a laziness barrier to over-eating, I would become a big, fat, "Midwest tourist" version of myself. I became even more nervous when confronted with such menu options as bubble tea, oysters, foie gras, Kobe beef sliders with Gruyere cheese, lobster risotto, and made-to-order sushi. So I exercised portion control (usually with success), and compensated for large lunches with small dinners (also free). Add on some stress and weekend food laziness, and the net result so far has been that I've lost maybe five pounds. So for me, I guess it's the Google Negative Five, and my pants don't fit right anymore. D'oh.

Does this mean that I got a free diet, too? I wonder how much such a diet would cost in Switzerland...