My toes had barely touched Swiss soil and I was in shock.
In fact, what I really would have liked to do is turn right around and shove everything back onto the train, four kids, suitcases, and all, and continue on to the next border.
Instead, while I was looking around to see where the bus taking us to our final destination might depart from, amidst the maze of construction fencing, my kids spotted the ice cream stand right in front of us. You might argue that ice cream cones for everyone, having stepped off the train, were possibly the very last thing we needed, and I admit that I secretly pursued precisely that line of reasoning. But sometimes the energy required to deflect a barrage of pleas (and worse) from four fronts, right after a lengthy train ride dominated by fights over who gets to sit by the window, who should have gone to the bathroom later or earlier, whose backpack was in the way of whose feet, and whose water bottle fell onto whose head when the backpack was heaved onto the hat rack – well, that energy just isn’t there.
But perhaps I should have mustered the energy. Each tiny scoop was three Swiss Francs fifty. Which I didn’t even have, but in a rapid exchange of Swiss German I barely understood, it was established that I could also pay in Euros. For what was probably a terrible exchange rate. I suspect this because when it came to testing the flavors, something I admit my kids typically engage in with exquisite abandon, we were cut short after only one taste. Something blue and ungodly looking was okay to test, was the sales woman’s argument, but we weren’t allowed to test the “butter cookie” flavor, because anyone can imagine what butter and cookie might taste like and it therefore didn’t warrant a taste test.
I didn’t know there were people out there with a reputation of being even more thrifty than Germans of “Swabian” ethnicity – my own – but the Swiss might very well fit that bill.
About that thrift: From that first encounter with the cost of living in Switzerland, I set out to find the best bargain possible in whatever we did. Out of necessity, really, because I had a credit card with a certain amount of money on it, and it had to last us through another five days in Paris and three in Amsterdam after this.
Everything in Switzerland seemed outrageously expensive. A fifteen minute bus ride for the five of us: SF 17. Food at a museum cafeteria (after I had already vetoed the SF 12 chicken nuggets and the SF 14 pizza and had banned any drinks but tap water): SF 51. I spotted a bagel with cream cheese for SF 13 at a fast food place. A bottle of water: Not to be had for under SF 3.50 (note: one SF is $1.06, so it’s almost at parity with the US$).
It was a good thing the kids really liked the science museum we visited, the Technorama Swiss Science Center, because for that kind of entrance fee I was going to keep them there forever, or at least overnight if possible.
Although it must be said that the Technorama in Winterthur is worth every penny. I would just recommend getting there as soon as it opens in the morning. We were there from noon to closing at 5 pm and barely scratched the surface, there were so many cool things to see and do. Standing in a wind tunnel and leaning against gale-force winds. Observing the Coriolis Effect. Seeing (and hearing) lightning recreated. Everything from mechanics, magnetism, light, water, electricity to chemistry, biology, and optical illusions. The thing where you could scream into a microphone inside a booth to measure the amount of decibels created while the people outside of the booth could watch your distorted face on a screen proved particularly popular in our family (side note: it is ME who can create the most decibels in our family). A close second was where you could pump pure oxygen into a beaker and then put the glowing end of a matchstick into it for a bright flame to erupt. I’m glad none of the kids figured out a way to hold the lighter directly to the nozzle of the oxygen pump. We normally cannot finish a meal in any restaurant without someone setting fire to the table cloth at least once.
The day before the Technorama we had visited the Maestrani chocolate factory in Flawil. That’s another excursion I can recommend should you find yourself in the greater Zurich area with kids and time to spare. Because who doesn’t
That’s where I also learned my first thrift tip. Everyone was dying for water after ingesting an ungodly amount of chocolate samples (in very un-Swiss generosity, I might add, but Maestrani has Italian origins after all), and we hadn’t brought any. But I was going to be darned if I was going to buy five bottles at SF 3.50 each from the vending machine. So I sprang for one – already painful – and proceeded to send one of the kids to the bathroom for free refills henceforth. Winterthur has some of the most delicious tap water in the world. Better, in fact, than most bottled water.
When you travel in Switzerland, you will quickly learn to never ever throw away an empty plastic bottle. And you will visit a lot of bathrooms.
My second thrift tip: Avoid buying food where there is any kind of service involved. The only way the Swiss can afford paying such high prices is by earning high salaries, and that includes your waiters and such. The most basic meal to be gotten at any kind of establishment, it seemed, was going to cost at least SF 50, without any drinks. What we did instead was find a supermarket each day and buy some rustic bread, salami, and cheese – oooooh, the cheese – and break off bits and pieces to assemble on-the-spot sandwiches for a scrumptious (and healthy) picnic, at a fraction of the cost.
The one place I wouldn’t recommend trying to save any money is public transport.
As in most European cities, Winterthur local buses and trains operate on an honor system of sorts. You buy your tickets and hold them on you, but most of the time you won’t have to show them. The local authorities rely on infrequent spot checks to make sure everyone complies, by issuing heavy fines should you be caught without a valid ticket.
As Murphy’s Law would have it, I was almost ensnared by this system. Having decided I wasn’t going to survive another hour listening to whiny kids while wandering through Winterthur searching for a bank and a post office, I decided to let the kids continue on home – our friends’ house, as it was – on the bus whereas I was going to get off downtown for a few errands. Except I didn’t remember to give them their bus tickets until the bus had already stopped. I scrambled to find the tickets in the depths of my backpack and figure out which ones were which in the space of a few seconds. I finally just shoved four tickets to Zax and ran out the bus with the remaining one before it was too late, not checking to see if it was an adult or half-price fare. I proceeded with my errands, including a stop at Coop Supermarket to spend my remaining SF 20 on a bagful of groceries for tomorrow’s train ride, and hopped on another bus home, pleased with my accomplishments. Then I realized I was on the wrong bus, so I got off at the next stop promising a connection. That was the stop they had chosen to do a large-scale security check – something like twenty yellow-vested security police hopping onto the bus as well as checking everyone getting off. I died about a million deaths, certain to have grabbed the wrong ticket and now having to pay the stiff fine of SF 80 or perhaps being detained in some humorless Swiss police station. While I was in line to be checked, I was silently practicing ways to explain my story so it didn’t sound entirely lame, but miracle of miracles, I did indeed have the correct ticket and was left to exhale a big sigh of relief while watching a few young guys being led off, to prison presumably.
We hadn’t really come to Winterthur for sightseeing, but to visit old friends Noisette and I have known since graduate school. It was wonderful to catch up on old times, and congratulating each other on how none of us looked a day older than when we last saw each other. Except that some of our kids inexplicably seemed to have moved from baby to college student.
While we were there, however, we got to appreciate Winterthur’s tourist appeal. Apart from being a pretty town, it proved a great location to explore the surroundings. From where we stayed, you could take a short walk along a little stream and find yourself surrounded by grazing cows, their tinkling bells as much an icon of Switzerland as Toblerone or Swiss army knives. We could have easily have gone to Zurich for a day – it’s less than a half our train ride away – for some world class shopping. Which is of course why I didn’t bring it up. And we could have gone to a cheese factory in Appenzell, but strangely when the topic of a factory tour came up, the chocolate factory won out.
What we did do, however, and what turned out to be an unexpected gem, was to visit the Oskar Reinhart collection of Impressionist paintings. It’s fairly small and therefore easily doable even with children, and contains some beautiful art, including drawings by one of my favorites, Edgar Degas.
Stay tuned for more Europe with kids blog posts. Also see: