In search of sunshine… Portugal

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I’ve got my sunglasses packed and I’ll be out the door in one hour for a flight to Portugal! We’re spending four days in the south — the “Algarve” region — visiting family and soaking up Vitamin D. We don’t have much planned beyond activities involving sunscreen and tapas. With Geneva temperatures hovering around the 30s and 40s for the past month, I couldn’t be more excited to fly south!

To top it off, Travel + Leisure this week named Portugal their 2016 “Destination of the Year.” The magazine’s editor writes Portugal is “exhibiting a dynamism that feels fresh and distinctive.” I’m excited to discover what he means by that.

Have you been to Portugal? Have you been to Faro? I’ll take any recommendations… meanwhile, a few fun links for your Thursday:

On unfamiliar territory

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This thoughtfully-written piece in the New York Times puts into words some of what I’ve been feeling for two years and some of what I’m just coming to terms with this morning. American journalist Jim Yardley reflects on what it is like to be an expat during these strange times. Be warned, the piece is long and will break your heart. Here’s an excerpt:

I heard it often, traveling around Europe as a journalist. I even heard it from an immigration officer at Gatwick Airport outside London, who teased me as he looked at my passport. I was an American abroad, which meant being held accountable for the strange and fevered state of my homeland, which meant facing some version of the question “What is going on in the United States?” Sometimes the query had an air of schadenfreude, but just as often there was a hint of real concern. The rest of the world already seemed to be going off the rails. It couldn’t afford to have America follow.

I don’t yet have my bearings in this new, unfamiliar territory we’re entering, so I thought I’d do the lazy thing and share what another has written. I can say this much: I feel more American than ever and am hurting more deeply for my broken country than I did when I lived in the United States. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the “distance makes the heart grow fonder” syndrome or maybe I didn’t really know my homeland as well as I thought I did.

It’s snowing in Geneva as I write this and it feels both gloomy and hopeful. Maybe all of this pure, white, heaven-sent confetti will cover some of the ugly, muddy tracks we’ve left.

One Weekend in Zermatt

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We made a pact in January to see more places in Switzerland, but after our two-year Swissiversary came and went we realized we had not made good on our deal. Our list of “must-see Switzerland 2016” had barely been touched and Zermatt was at the top. So, on a Friday we booked train tickets for Saturday to try and soak up as much as we could over a weekend.

What we didn’t realize is that October is Zermatt’s low season. Its very lowest season. Most hotels I contacted were closed until December and many restaurants had signs that read “See you at Christmas!” The town is fueled by tourism and October is wedged between ski season and summer, so I understand why. Still, I’d highly recommend visiting in October.

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If you ski and have only one chance to visit Zermatt, then wait. But if you are in town to hike, snap selfies with the Matterhorn and stay on a budget, October is a prime month. It is warm enough that you’re not likely to run into rain or fog. The high altitude hiking trails haven’t been closed yet and the fall colors are a dramatic juxtaposition to the snow-capped peaks.

Moreover, the hotels that are open offer their best rates of the year. We stayed in an adorable Alpine room with a Matterhorn view at the Hotel Bella Vista for half what it would run us during ski season–about $150 versus $300. The hotel has a spa open to all guests (with jacuzzis facing the Matterhorn!), a delicious complimentary breakfast and a romantic fireplace. We really enjoyed indulging in a luxury room on a mid-range budget.

Oh and we didn’t go hungry either. We enjoyed wood-fired pizzas and homemade tiramisu at Vieux-Valais. You can practically see Italy from Zermatt, so we had to try the local pizza.

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On the advice of friends, we took the Sunnegga funicular up where we began the Five-Seenweg or Five-Lakes hike with a view of the Matterhorn. There seemed to be a surprise around every bend of the trail, be it wildflowers, birds singing in the pine trees or a new perspective of the Matterhorn that I had to snap 25 times on my camera.

But after spotting four lakes and missing lunch, I got cranky. I’ll admit it. I had hit my hiking quota for the day much to the chagrin of my boy scout husband, so I suggested we take the Gornergrat train up to the peak. Luckily, he acquiesced. Once on the train, the scenery quickly changed from autumn to winter and I was glad I had overdressed in my ski parka.

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At the peak is an observation deck, two restaurants and a gift shop. We opted for the less expensive a la carte cafe and my husband was rewarded with some locally-brewed beer–which always tastes better with a view of the Matterhorn.

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Another reason we made visiting Zermatt a priority is because apparently babies and high altitudes do not mix…and by next spring, we won’t be able to visit.

It’s true. We’re honored to announce we’re expecting a baby in March!

It is sure to be the biggest adventure we’ve ever embarked on and we could not be more thrilled. Meanwhile, I’m excited to share what I’ve already learned about traveling while pregnant and sometime next year, what traveling with a little one is like. Here’s wishing you all something to celebrate this week, the big and small!

On the differences between Switzerland and the U.S.

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I came across an interview of a Swiss woman traveling in New York City and just had to share since it perfectly captures some of the differences between my home country and my adopted country. The original interview appeared in New York Magazine.

Americans do not know much about Switzerland.

“We’re from Bern in Switzerland. Even though it’s the capital of Switzerland, no one knows where it is.”

Yep. Although every Swiss person I’ve encountered knows that Washington, D.C. is the capital of the U.S., I’m guessing many Americans could not point to Switzerland on a map of Europe. Most people believe I live somewhere near Norway or Sweden. They think I live in someplace unbearably cold and snow-covered. Switzerland is actually down by Italy and Geneva’s winters are milder than D.C.’s.

Americans smoke far less than the Swiss. 

“We’re staying at an Airbnb in the East Village that’s very, very nice, but the fire alarm has gone off three times!”

I have not encountered a smoke alarm in Switzerland ever — I think, because smoking is so acceptable here. I have even seen my neighbors lighting up in my apartment building’s elevator since they can’t wait to get outside. Yuck! Smoking is outlawed even in public parks in California, so I’ve found this cultural difference very difficult to stomach. We actually brought a smoke alarm back from the U.S. for our Swiss apartment because we needed that little blinking red light for our peace of mind.

Americans are more aware of each others’ space than the Swiss.

“I was really surprised by how respectful people are of one another here. Except when we were having trouble with our MetroCard at JFK. An American lady yelled at us.”

I never realized the unspoken codes I adhere to in public spaces in the U.S. until I started living in Switzerland. When on a bus or metro in the U.S. it is considered polite to move to the inside seat to leave the outside seat free. One does not crowd around the door of a bus or elevator when new passengers are boarding. You always stand on the right of an escalator to allow people to pass on the left. Not so much in Switzerland. There is an “every man for himself” mentality here. As far as the woman who yelled at the Swiss traveler — well, welcome to New York.

I can’t wait to share more photos from our weekend in Zermatt. Meanwhile, a few, fun links:

On two years in Switzerland

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This week we’re celebrating two years living in Switzerland and I’m surprised how emotionally-wrought this anniversary has been. We’re experiencing the most difficult of expat conundrums: The longer you live in your adopted country the harder it is to imagine moving home. In fact, it’s harder to define where “home” lies these days. We’re having a full-blown, expat identity crisis. I can say with certainty that a part of me will always be in Switzerland, just as a part of me will always be in the California, no matter where my body actually resides.

Despite having never set foot in Switzerland before moving here, we quickly fell in love with the country. We became outdoor-loving, train-riding, watch-wearing, cheese-eating versions of ourselves. Or maybe we became our real selves. But we didn’t only fall in love with the mountains, we fell in love with this go-go-go expat lifestyle of seeing as many new countries as we possibly can. It’s intoxicating, addicting and all-consuming. I didn’t think I had an addictive personality until I met my poison.

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In the end, I’m simply trying to be grateful. I’m trying not dwell on the notion that Switzerland may have ruined me; that this incredibly enriching experience has spoiled me rotten to the core. Settling down someday will be an adventure in itself. Right?

To celebrate our Swissiversary we’re headed to Zermatt this weekend to have a proper raclette with a view of the Matterhorn. Meanwhile, enjoy a few of my favorite expat posts:

Contest: Spend the night at Abbey Road Studios

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If you are like me–not a child of the 60’s, but the daughter of a child of the 60’s–then The Beatles’ music holds a big place in your heart. When I close my eyes and listen to “Here Comes the Sun” I’m 16 and driving around town. “If I Needed Someone” and I’m nursing my first heartbreak in my childhood bedroom. “The Word” and I’m off at college celebrating the end of exams. Even if I can’t take a time machine back 50 years and catch the Fab Four in concert, there are other ways I can feed my Beatles’ infatuation. For example, I can spend the night in Abbey Road Studios.

Until midnight tonight (October 6), you can enter Airbnb’s contest for four people to spend two nights at Abbey Road Studios for free (including airfare)! And you won’t just be sleeping on hallowed ground; you’ll be allowed to play the same instruments that The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Adele and Amy Winehouse have played…when you record your own track with music producer Mark Ronson at the studio!

Interested? Go to Airbnb.com and sign up for an account if you don’t already have one. Enter the contest by writing a 100-150 word explanation of which song you would have liked to witness being recorded at the studio. Good luck!

 

Travel find of the week: Mini steam iron

About two weeks ago my husband and I took a quick trip to Brussels (and Amsterdam) where he had to attend a business conference. When he opened his suitcase in Brussels, I heard a familiar groan. Uh-oh. Did a pen explode? Shampoo everywhere? Nope. Just one pant leg of his only suit had become so wrinkled in transit that it looked like he had been caught in a natural disaster. Despite trying every folding method in the book, this was far from the first time it had happened.

I resolved to find a solution…and here it is: Steamfast SF-717 Home-and-Away Mini Steam Iron.

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I know it’s not the sexiest travel gadget around, but it is so tiny! It weighs less than one pound and costs only $30. The more than 1,000 reviews it has received are overwhelmingly positive. Do you have any packing tips? I’m always game to try something new. Meanwhile, some packing tips from the experts, such as: