The little things I miss about the States…

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A photo taken from space. Sometimes the U.S. feels this far away from me…

1. Real Mexican food. Did I mention I’m from California? Right, so I was basically teething on tacos and pico de gallo. This week I had my first Swiss incarnation of a “burrito” and it included: red beans and rice, chicken, large, circular slices of tomato, whole pieces of lettuce…and do I detect a sweet, Texas BBQ sauce? It would maybe pass as a Tex-Mex/Bayou sort of burrito, but there was nothing Baja about it. Mexico is about as exotic to Switzerland as Nigeria is to the States. Oh and did I mention the burrito cost me $17? Half of the joy of eating Mexican cuisine is the usually inexpensive price tag that goes with it. Ay chihuahua.

Barbacoa tacos--the things upon which expat dreams are made.

Barbacoa tacos–the things upon which expat dreams are made.

2. Long store hours. I really don’t know how working, Swiss parents squeeze in time to go to the grocery store, because I struggle to get everything before the “fermé” sign goes up at 7 p.m. On Saturday, grocery stores close at 5 p.m. and on Sunday, nothing is open. Nearly every Saturday afternoon I have a moment of panic when I realize I need to stock our fridge apocalypse-style so that we will have  everything we need to survive until Monday morning.

Some Swiss stores claim to be open “non-stop” with big signs in their windows, but what they really mean is that they will open for two to three hours on Sunday. I am pretty sure there isn’t a single store in the whole country that is actually open 24/7.

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3. Bus/subway etiquette. This is about the last thing I thought I would miss about Washington, D.C. (we don’t exactly rank #1 among subway/metro systems). For some reason, most commuters in Switzerland sit in the aisle seat, leaving the window seat open–even when the bus is packed like a sardine can. If you ask the person in the aisle seat if you may sit down, they will likely gesture for you to awkwardly climb over them! I also haven’t seen many (any?) people give up their seats to elderly passengers or expectant mothers. I gave up my seat seat to a woman with a cane yesterday while a group of eight businessmen let her hobble by them. What gives?

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4. Checks. That’s right, Swiss banks do not use checks. All cash, baby. But before you say “paper banking is becoming extinct anyways,” think about how you pay rent, your utilities and cashing a birthday check from a relative. You can’t do that here! You might as well be trying to cash a post-it note with “I owe you $20″ at a Swiss bank. Before moving into our Swiss apartment, we were expected to give the landlord our first month’s rent plus the hefty security deposit. That meant taking out thousands of francs in cash and nervously walking around with it until I could safely put it in my landlord’s hands.

Swiss currency is colorful…and they have a $1000 bill.

For all my perceived complaining, I also have a list of things I will miss about Switzerland whenever I leave this country…that will be for another day.

Would you buy phone-charging furniture?

Our furnished apartment...a page right out of the Ikea catalog.

Our furnished apartment…a page right out of the Ikea catalog.

Before Switzerland, I never owned any Ikea furniture. I would have to pretend laugh when someone told a joke about “assembling Ikea” or their famous meatballs. Then I moved into the apartment my Swiss landlord furnished and started looking at the bottoms of chairs, glasses and lamps–I realized I live in an Ikea showroom. I haven’t found an item yet that isn’t Ikea!

This week I had to get to know the Swedish furniture maker better when I wrote this ThriveWire story on Ikea’s line of phone-charging furniture. The company is smart and knows its market, I’ll give them that. But I hope I’ll never be too lazy to not plug my phone into a charger. 

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The phone-charging nightstand.

One of life’s most persistent problems in the 21st century is keeping a phone charged—wrangling all those wires and not losing one’s charger is a job in itself (#FirstWorldProblems). Sigh. But those Swedish geniuses at Ikea said “no more” this week when they introduced a line of phone-charging furniture.

“Through research and home visits, we know that people hate cable mess,” Ikea corporate manager Jeanette Skjelmose said at the unveiling. “They worry about not finding the charger and running out of power. Our new innovative solutions, which integrate wireless charging into home furnishings, will make life at home simpler.”

Using Qi wireless technology, these phone charging stations will be integrated into pieces such as nightstands, tables, desks and lamps. Ikea will make the furniture available in North American and Europe in April, in addition to kits that consumers can use to integrate a phone charging station into existing IKEA furniture.

Choosing a nightstand with a phone charging station versus one without will cost consumers about $33 extra, in keeping with Ikea’s promise to produce affordable furniture.

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How the charging station kit can adapt existing Ikea furniture.

The only catch? The technology will not be compatible with iPhone users, according to Wireless Power Consortium, which developed Qi wireless technology. Qi wireless charging technology is compatible with about 80 different types of smartphone, including Samsung Galaxy, Nokia Lumia, Google Nexus and Sharp Aquos phones.

The good news is that consumers will not have to assemble the phone charging stations themselves.

Are successful people born with something “extra”?

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Were the founders of the world’s biggest companies born with the genetic propensity for success that the rest of us were not, or are they doing something special we have not tried?

Former White House fellow and strategic advisor Amy Wilkinson hopes to put that question to rest in her new book The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills Of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs.

“Creators are not born with an innate ability to conceive and build $100 million enterprises. They all share fundamental skills that can be learned, practiced and passed on,” Wilkinson said. Her book draws on five years of research and more than 200 interviews of the world’s leading entrepreneurs from companies such as: Jetblue, LinkedIn, Chipotle, Tesla Motors, Spanx, PayPal and Yelp.

“I got the idea for the book when I was observing my friends in Silicon Valley who were starting companies and truly changing the world; I wanted to know what they were doing differently,” Wilkinson said. “I found that all these entrepreneurs had six things in common. Six things that anyone could use to find success on their own or even champion an idea in their existing career.”

Some of those skills include “fail wisely,” “network minds,” and “find a gap” in the marketplace, like the founders of Airbnb did when they launched their home rental business.

“The Airbnb founders—two designers and a techie—were having trouble paying the rent, so they started charging other designers to essentially stay on their sofas,” Wilkinson explained. “The concept seemed strange when they launched the business, but now it is a $10 million global brand.”

But the biggest secret to their success may lie in their inability to rest on their laurels, constantly scanning the horizon; the fifth skill “drive for daylight.”

nkh8qnavkdvnvoxltjr3“They are at the apexes of their fields and there is so much hero worship in the marketplace, you would think they would be comfortable with their successes,” Wilkinson said, adding “They are not; they are always looking to do more.”

I discuss the other two traits in my ThriveWire article. I had a wonderful time interviewing Amy and couldn’t include all of her fantastic quotes. Check out her website and buy her book!

This week I am…

IMG_1885…vowing to keep loving winter after a weekend trip to Gstaad (is the “G” silent or not?).

…making this classic Swiss dish for American friends coming through town.

…pretending I still live in D.C. by watching this drama (Have you seen the Muppet’s take on it?).

…dreaming about staying in this luxury pod hotel next winter.

…crossing France off the list of places to have children after reading this article.

…adopting these rules for going fluent in French (who am I kidding, I would have a French bébé).

…looking for some shoes for summer travel–should I go American or more Euro?

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I want to go to there…

2011-01-12-ChampagnyAtDawn_1web …Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France. Just a few kilometers down the road from Geneva lies the village of Chamonix at the base of the world famous Mont Blanc–the highest mountain in the Alps. Although the village literally lies in the shadow of Mont Blanc, this tiny, idyllic commune is more than just a place to lay your head after skiing.

Chamonix-Mont Blanc will always be special to me, because it is where we spent our first Christmas as expats. After planning the ultimate ski vacation, we had to change plans when unusually warm weather kept the slopes closed. What we discovered is that Chamonix-Mont Blanc has a lot to offer outside of skiing.

I mean, they practically invented aprés ski, which is the best part of skiing, in my opinion.

My favorite restaurant above Chamonix. Le Panoramic Restaurant.

My favorite restaurant above Chamonix. Le Panoramic Restaurant.

I have never skied Jackson Hole or Sun Valley, but I assume they used Chamonix as a model–its first historical mention was in 1091!

Chamonix also held the first winter Olympics in 1924–cementing its title as the “ultimate winter vacation.” That said, ski season often runs through May around these parts–not that it looks half bad the rest of the year.

Hiking

  • Skiing: My favorite slopes are on the Brévent Mountain. I am working up to off-piste or backcountry skiing, which is highly recommended attempting only with an experienced guide.
  • Hiking: Pull on your waterproof boots or rent snowshoes from nearly any ski rental place in Chamonix. When we could not ski over the holidays, we ended up on the best, most picturesque hike of my entire life. Take gondola up to the Restaurant Le Panoramic, have a Mont Blanc beer and then hike down to the next closest gondola.
  • Mer de Glace: “Sea of Ice,” this incredible glacier will take your breath away. You can take a small train from the Chamonix railway station to Mer de Glace. Once at the location, you descend into the glacier by stairs–going deep inside the fantastically blue ice.

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  • Cuisine: If you are lucky enough to visit Chamonix in the colder months, you must partake of Haut Savoie cuisine, such as: vin chaud (warm, mulled wine), tartiflette (a potato dish covered in Alpine cheese and ham), and raclette (more cheese). Interested in some local nightlife? Check out Barberousse Bar–a pirate-themed bar that specializes in infused rum.
  • Stay: I highly recommend using Airbnb in the winter, because hotel prices surge this time of year. You could live like Heidi in Alpine hut or like James Bond in a luxury condo.

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If you want to be mistaken for a ski bunny in Chamonix, you must dress the part. This is also a great time of year to stock up on winter clothing, such as:

A touch of fur and no hat hair. http://bit.ly/1E3fnh8

A little fur, no hat hair. http://bit.ly/1E3fnh8

A sweater long enough that you can wear your ski leggings. http://bit.ly/1wu9hEj

A sweater long enough that you can wear it over your ski tights. http://bit.ly/1wu9hEj

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It doesn’t get much better than Canada Goose. http://bit.ly/1LQJ8CE

 

Warm ski tights. http://bit.ly/1wpxwhg

Warm ski tights. http://bit.ly/1wpxwhg

Function definitely meets fashion with these snow boots. http://bit.ly/1DgVRID

Function definitely meets fashion in these boots. http://bit.ly/1DgVRID

If you are afraid of the cold like this California girl, check out some of the cold-defying winter technology I reviewed for ThriveWire. Heated shoe insoles, anyone?

The blog that went to Harvard

Do you read fashion blogs? I do, but less now that I live in a country without J. Crew or ASOS–it’s just too painful. I never considered writing a fashion blog myself (not my wheelhouse), but when I started researching fashion blogs for this ThriveWire story, I realized what a killing I could have made…

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Chiara Ferragni may have been a serious law student in Italy when she started her fashion blog “The Blonde Salad” in 2009, but she never thought writing about sequined shoes would be what would get her into Harvard University.

According to economists, The Blonde Salad is part of an elite group of bloggers who earn (yes, after taxes) more than $1 million a year—outside of perks such as free travel and designer clothing. A few other bloggers in the millionaire’s club include: Into the GlossMan RepellerSong of StylePink Peonies and Snob Essentials.

As part of a new marketing course at Harvard, a group of MBA candidates will study the inner workings of luxury fashion brands and blogs, focusing solely on The Blonde Salad. It will be the first Harvard case study on a blog, professors say.

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Since 2009, the blog has grown into a 16-person team running two main businesses: Ferragni as a brand (blog included) and the Chaira Ferragni Collection of footwear.

The footwear collection is the brand’s main revenue driver and brought in about $5.1 million of the group’s total $7 million last year, according to Harvard professors. That said, Ferragni pushes online shoppers to her website largely through her 3.2 million Instagram followers, her online editorial content and maintaining a public presence by being featured in magazines around the world.

Harvard students will study Ferragni’s advertising, editorial, brand partnerships and marketing. Through a case study, students in the course will seek to discern whether the footwear business should be merged under The Blonde Salad umbrella, or kept separate.

TEM7139Read more about the blog that went to Harvard on ThriveWire.

 

Five things no one told me about expat life…

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*Disclaimer: I am a new expat, having left the U.S. five months ago. Also, I live in Switzerland, so my expat experience is unique to my uber-efficient, super-expensive, chocolate-dipped country.

1. There is no ‘good time’ to move abroad. I’ve heard people say this about having children, but I think more people relate to the baby experience than moving to another country. Having a child seems like a natural progression for most couples, while moving abroad may seem like an extravagance or even a foolish decision. To us, it was a “now or never” moment.  We moved abroad three weeks after receiving our Swiss work visas, but four months after beginning the paperwork. After a lot of dreaming about Switzerland, the reality set in. I found myself making a list of events I would miss (my sister’s bridal shower, Thanksgiving, Christmas), instead of a list of new experiences I would have. Plain and simple, living abroad is a trade-off. But if living abroad is an urge you have, do not let the timing deter you.

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2. It is not like being a tourist. Granted, I have better access to amazing vacation destinations than I have ever had before, but living in Switzerland is far different from visiting. We have to pay rent, health insurance (no, it’s not free!) and taxes. We work Monday through Friday and sometimes more. We don’t drink wine in cafes every day, nor do we eat fondue regularly. We stick to a budget. We cook at home. (Moreover, it’s not a couple of pounds you gained on vacation; it’s just weight gain…had to learn that the hard way).

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3. It is also not like being a citizen. We are residents of Switzerland and citizens of the U.S. We are  not Swiss citizens and probably never will be (the citizenship test is in German…so, no…). That means we pay taxes in both countries, but don’t get the full benefits of either country. Since we don’t live in the U.S., we don’t get to physically benefit from our U.S. taxes. Since we are not Swiss citizens, our children born here will not automatically be Swiss. Doesn’t work that way over here. I know it sounds infuriating, but if you want to live abroad and not become a citizen of another country, you legally live in an “in-between” world.

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4. You develop a love-hate relationship with the United States. I’ve heard expats say both “now I appreciate the U.S.,” and “now I don’t want to live in the U.S.” You will see your home country with fresh eyes and sometimes it will be embarrassing. Sometimes it will fill you with pride. I have truly learned more about the U.S., its inner-workings and its laws since moving abroad. My new relationship with the U.S. is developing on a day-by-day basis, generally prompted by questions such as “Why does Switzerland do that?” (close shops on Sunday, play with the currency exchange rate regularly) and “Why does the U.S. do that?” (pay educators so little, have an open container law).

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5. You get to know who you really are. With email and Facebook, I never feel that far from my U.S. news and family…but I am removed. Since moving abroad I have realized that I let my opinions on a lot of issues be influenced by those around me: family, friends, co-workers, even advertising and TV. It naturally happens, especially when you respect the source. But when stripped of those small, daily interactions, I find myself better understanding what I want out of life. I can now see I made a few not-so-great decisions (bad jobs, bad investments), because I was having trouble discerning what I really wanted.

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A few of my favorite expat links:

  • One Big Yodel: Although this blog about an American living in Switzerland was helpful, I’ve since discovered that living in the German part of Switzerland is a lot different from the French part. For example: Flushing the toilet after 10 p.m. is not illegal in Geneva.
  • Motherhood around the world: This CupOfJo series taught me both about the funny things Americans do when it comes to raising babies and the cool things mothers do in other countries. For example: Leaving babies in strollers outside to nap is normal in Denmark.
  • Funniest signage in Switzerland: From the blog “Newly Swissed,” these Swiss signs are hilarious and real! For example: There are signs to denote where naked hiking is allowed.