Things we wish we’d know when planning a trip to Zürich

Welcome to Zürich ☺. If you are moving here there are a few things you might want to know, in no particular order :). This is especially geared towards folks living in ETH university housing.

Paperwork

(most of these things take around 30 mins – 60 mins once you find the right place)

  • To register, you will need to go to Kreisburo 6 first, then Berninerplatz (a stop on the 10 tram, the Kreisburo will give you an appointment there)
  • To leave, you will need to go to the migrationsamt (in the city hall, next to the fraumünster church) and register to leave
  • To get a half-pass (half off all tram and train travel) you can go to Bellevue (on the 9) and go into the office in the building that’s right at the center of the stop OR go to the main train station and go into the “travel agency” (take a ticket and be prepared to wait a bit
  • To get a monthly pass (free travel all month long) with your half pass you can go to the train station or use any of the newer (“fancy”) electronic machines (like the one at the Winkleriedstr. Tram stop). The “fancy” machines have an English button. There is no “fancy” machine at the airport, so don’t expect to renew your monthly pass at the end of a trip back and forth to Zürich

Money & Phones

  • I would get a Bank account at the post finance (in the post office, if you walk from Winkleried str Tram stop to Rigiblick Tram stop, you’ll see it on the left).
  • When you get bills, you typically get a “pink slip” – bring it with some cash to the post office, and you can pay it there.
  • The post office is closed over lunch
  • ETH pay can be picked up between 11 and 2 in the back right corner of the 2nd floor (I think) of the main ETH building
  • Sunrise pre-pay is the simplest mobile phone plan. You can “top it up” at any Co-op grocery store (just ask for, say “50 CHF on my sunrise)
  • Sunrise pre-pay charges you 1 CHF on each day that you make a call, text or use internet (up to 3 CHF per day total). You can get an add-on plan for unlimited internet if you use it a lot, for about 10 CHF a month.

Shopping

We’re not big shoppers, so this is just the basics.

  • H&M has reasonable clothing. The big Co-op and Migro stores have inexpensive clothing options too. There are also lots of sales in the “mall” under the main train station
  • There are a number of farmer’s markets worth checking out.

Things to check out that you might otherwise miss

  • Feminist Zürich: The labrynth and Feminist Tours of Zürich
  • The rooftop swimming pool & spa (“Thermalbad Zürich”)
  • Dolder ice rink 
  • Swimming in the clear cool clean lake of Zürich (‘nough said)
  • Tour the archeological ruins of Zürich (register at City Hall to get a “key to the city” and a map). Takes time to get the key, so this is really only for folks living here.
  • Lots of wonderful places to walk in the Züriberg (Look for the life-sized elephant fountain in the woods) and the Jütliberg. Enjoy them.
  • There’s lots of festivals in Zürich and Switzerland worth checking out. Basel Fasnacht in the spring, independence day parade in mid August, etc. etc. Google to find them. Don’t necessarily confine yourself to Switzerland – for example Austria has numerous “balls” in dance season (winter).

English speakers

  • The expat forums are a great place to find advice about all sorts of stuff
  • There’s some great meetup groups for childless expats – they do all sorts of sporty stuff in the mountains, if you’re into that. They tend to hold separate from the swiss
  • If you prefer to mix with the locals, try a yoga class, join an orchestra, etc. Downside is you have to speak some german and it helps if you’re working on understanding swiss german.
  • The ETH has a tandem-partner program. You can sign up to practice german and offer to help someone with English. We had great experiences with it. They also offer German classes (1x week)
  • If you have kids, the public school has an amazing program for helping them to learn german before shifting them to “regular” school. The teachers are wonderful and for my kids at least, the class worked wonders. Just register with the school system.
  • Be prepared for younger (even 1-3 grade) kids being done with school at noon two days a week or more, and having no school from 12-2. Don’t worry though, Hort will feed them a warm meal and let them play/do crafts during lunch, and as late as you need on weekdays.

Doctors

There’s an English speaking doctor’s office that has long hours at the main train station. There’s also a 24 hour pharmacy there. You should receive accident insurance through ETH, and you know better than I where you get your health insurance.

Garbage

  •  For ETH folks, you just buy regular garbage bags. For everyone else, there’s special taxed bags
  • Recycling: plastic goes inside the co-op in their wall collection unit. Metal and glass you can find bins for around the city 2-4 times a year (unsure how often) you will find a garbage bag in your mailbox for clothing and shoes. Anything else of quality, if you put it outside, someone is likely to take it.

Other

  • The climate makes gardening easy. The abundance of green space also makes foxes quite common. As a result, you can’t eat greens raw: they can leave a parasite on plants that is deadly in the rare case you catch it.
  • There is a community farm that you can help out at near the botanical gardens, if you want more than that. I’m sure there’s other options if you want an actual garden bed, but a year is short.
  • We were able to get permission to garden in the non-grassy areas of our yard.
  • We went to a Tot Shabbat service at a local liberal temple, the Jüdische Liberale Gemeinde. It’s a bit out of the way in what looks like an apartment building, but the people we met were wonderful and very welcoming. Be prepared for swiss german though :).

Have fun!

Leaving India (the hard way!)

It started when we realized we had far too much stuff. Even after giving away boxes and boxes of it, we still had to buy three large suitcases, at which point we had eight suitcases, a cello, a carry on suitcase, and our backpacks and briefcases, and one large picture.  Where did it all come from? Perhaps a topic for another post, but the focus today is the impact that had on our travels.

On Tuesday night, we called the airline to check that this many bags would not be a problem. We were told that  our bags would be checked through. We called back again Wednesday to check on the number of bags allowed and overage fees. At that time, we were told that in fact the tickets were not joined, and our bags would not be checked through, which would mean difficult times in the Mumbai airport. As a result, late Wednesday night (11pm and later), a day before leaving india, we found ourselves exploring shipping options. We went online and found many descriptions of the complications involved in shipping through the postal office, the cost of shipping through companies such as DSL, and so on. They all seemed very extravagant or complicated. But we had too many bags. We kept packing (hoping it would at least all fit in our suitcases) and discussed what to do for too many hours.

The next morning we heard that there might be an inexpensive boat shipment option from a neighbor. Turns out this wasn’t true, but it prompted us to ask IIIT for help, which worked out well. They arranged for someone to come and weigh our bags and we were quoted a price of around $600 for 100 kg of shipping. We decided to take it, since we were expecting to have to pay around $200 in extra luggage fees in any case to take those things. We schlepped the other six bags and the cello to the airport.

We loaded all of our things in one car and drove behind in the other. We left super early for the airport, which was a good idea. We got there at 3:15 for a 6pm flight.

When we tried to check in, we were told that Mom and kids were supposed to be on a 7am flight, which we had obviously missed. Apparently our travel agent [1] had booked us on the 6pm flight, then changed the ticket without telling us! Would we be able to get to Mumbai in time to catch our flight home? How much would it cost us? How long would it take to find out? We could see things were going to be difficult for us and the kids, so it was clearly game time!  We started working out the rules for points: -5 for asking when we would arrive, -10 for whining, +500 if we could get the bags checked through, and 55 for doing something you wouldn’t normally do. We decided on 1000 for getting on the plane (since we now needed new tickets) and -50 for quarreling, -20 for yelling at someone.

My son started us out on the right foot by earning 5 points when he allowed my daughter to be the calculator even though he had been planning on doing it, in a very polite voice.

Mom worked magic on the ticket desk, by pointing out that we had confirmed the flight and not been told we had the time wrong (and it was obvious it was the travel agent’s fault [1] and not ours) and they agreed to try to resolve the fees for a new ticket. After an about 1.5 hours wait (during which the kids behaved perfectly, even though some of their food fell on the ground and they were starving), we were given tickets on the 6pm flight for only 1500 Rs each (the change fee, no ticketing fee).

The next challenge was getting all the luggage on and checked through. We were told that the bags were too heavy, but after rearranging we managed to get by with a wink and only 1 bag that was too heavy. Point hit though — the extra 5 kg in that bag cost us $200. Also we lost 20 when one person got to the yelling point (happily, this happened only twice in our entire trip).

All bags checked, all fees paid, we headed through security, and went to buy food, only to discover that we were down to 605 Rs, only enough for one Pizza. Daddy worked magic and got two squeezed out of it by a nice teller (20 pts), and sent Kavi looking for supplementary coins for water. Lo and behold, we discovered 300 Rs more. We settled in and ate, and now are on the airplane.

Our last feat was getting the picture stowed, Mommy did it without a problem. We’re on the airplane now, with a total of 2815 points (and our entire remaining Indian bank account spent!). Even so, excellent score for level 1 :). We will level up to two when we land in Mumbai.

[2 hours later]

Mumbai was crazy mainly for the reasons that Mumbai is always crazy for international passengers – 5 security checks, a long bus ride, and so on. To make things extra fun, we added in an upset stomach (long bathroom visit required) and a request by Continental that we pay a missing fee for an extra bag (eventually they waived it after we said we’d carry the bag on and they couldn’t find it). In the end we got to our plane as they were loading passengers, i.e. with no time to spare, but not late either. Score!

The trip from Mumbai to home was 17 hours long, but uneventful. However, our day wasn’t done when we landed. Customs was complicated by the immigration officer only citing 3 passengers on our forms (we were 4), and then we had to track down our ride (the grandparents). We gave each child 500 points for making it through this last level without a melt down, and 1000 for making it through with no whining. They were, after all, exhausted. Score again!

Once we had all found each other, the kids went home, but we still had to submit paperwork for our swiss visas! On to NY city to the consulate, which opened at 8:30am. We quickly learned that we were missing important information (photos of the kids, photocopies of our passports, filled applications). After visiting 4 separate shops we managed to collect all the needed information, and get the applications submitted. If all goes smoothly, we will pick up the visas next week.

Points mean absolutely nothing after the trip, but the kids still love collecting them. And they allow us to adjust and set expectations. For example, at one point when my daughter (only 6) was clearly losing it from exhaustion, I told her that she could no longer lose points (by bad behavior), only earn them (by good behavior). With the pressure off, she rose to the occasion. Not only that, but I think it got the adults on better behavior, both by making it more fun (and thus more bearable) and by making concrete the example that needed to be set. It also helped relieve tension: For example, when an adult did begin to lose it, a ready response was “Ok, 20 points off” without escalating things. I expect this is a game we will use and re-use as long as possible :).

I’m beginning to feel home, even if for a short while. It was interesting to observe the conversations among store keepers and customers outside the visa office and think about how different things would have been back in Hyderabad (and how the same). Breakfast at a diner vs a roadside stall. Cold weather. Hopefully soon, a bathtub full of hot water (both luxuries I couldn’t have in India). For now, I’m sitting in the car minutes from home at 12pm EST. It’s 10:30pm in India, on Friday, over 32 hours after I left India.

[1] http://www.vijaywarty.com/ — NEVER USE HIM!

Indian Bureaucracy #2

After everything that happened on our last trip to the FRRO office, I was naturally trepidatious when we had to go back a few weeks later to request a further extension (Our initial visit got us an approval only until December 8th, but our plane ticket out of India is on December 22nd). As usual, day number one was a flop (we spent the entire morning gathering all the paperwork, we thought, and when we arrived we were informed that applications could only be submitted in the morning, 9:30-1). Now I’m back here trying to pass the time on day 2, and I have suddenly had an insight that changes everything: Somehow the whole experience has turned into a game. Here’s how it goes:

Where we have now spent 7 days of our trip.

There are three desks in the building. Your goal is to exit with a visa extension, but you can only do this by passing through every desk. Think of this as leveling up. Points are scored for fewest visits to the FRRO office and/or fewest hours spent there. Extra points if your children manage to stay entertained without getting kicked out of the building (ours are currently very excited about checkers). Points lost if you don’t make it through before lunch and end up spending the whole afternoon here as well.

10:30: We are currently at level 2, on day two of our visit, 1 hour in. How did we get here? First off, we scored at least 100 extra points (reduced the effort by one whole day) by asking the right question yesterday just before leaving. We stopped at desk #1 to ensure that we had the correct information about the fees owed. The correct number was different than what our support staff person from IIIT had told us, and we were able to correct the mistake yesterday after we returned. Second, we managed to get both our driver and support staff person moving early enough this morning that our applications are numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 instead of 22 or 62.

On level 2, we had a near disaster: We were informed that the rules had changed (not an uncommon event in this particular game), and my husband no longer qualified for an employment visa, making any extension impossible. This is because our salary is really small at IIIT: just cost of living plus free housing. Would we have to leave the country on december 8th after all? Click to find out ….

Continue reading “Indian Bureaucracy #2”

Indian Bureaucracy

The scream, Edvard Munch
The scream, Edvard Munch

I hesitated to post this for a few days (not least because I can never seem to spell the word bureaucracy correctly), but I’ve decided this story is worth sharing, if only so that it prepares other travelers for what they might face. As an added bonus, a usability bug made the experience about 10 times as bad as it might otherwise have been.

I and my children are in India on an entry visa (accompanying my husband). Due to an error on the part of our travel agent, my visa expires in a few weeks (November 18th), more than a month before I am due to leave India. This is because (unlike what our travel agent told us), our 6 month visas began on the date they were issued, not the date that we entered India. As a result, I needed to visit the FRRO (Foreign Regional Registration Offices), at the old airport about one hour from my home, in order to request a visa extension. According to what little information I could find online, we would need to submit a request, and if accepted, we would then wait up to two months for the visa to actually be extended.

Being somewhat familiar with the difficulties of interacting with this office, I prepared as well as I could (printed out the official government form, filled it out, gathered the necessary photos; a copy of my husband’s employment letter; a new letter stating that IIIT Hyderabad wished us to stay until the end of may (carefully written to include the passport and visa numbers for each of us), a copy of my husband’s registration (he was required to register when he arrived, as a resident of Hyderabad, in addition to having a valid visa), and all of our passports. I also requested the help of the IIIT Hyderabad employee who has experience with the FRRO (and can speak Telugu, Hindi, and English) and arranged for our driver to be available. I left the children behind, because I knew that the chances of success were about 0.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the office, I was told that I had filled out the wrong form. Additionally, I was told that I and the children all needed to register as Hyderabadi residents in addition to my husband (news to us!) and that I would have to pay a late fee ($30 each), and bring a letter verifying my residence at IIIT Hyderabad. I filled out a new form, which they provided, with the same information as the old, and was then sent home to get bank checks ($30 each, plus $80 each for the visa extension) and fill out an additional web form for registration. This meant going back to campus to collect my paycheck in cash, and then to the bank to get the bank checks. I was unfortunately sick with the flu, so the day blurred by, but the whole effort took from about 9am to 5pm.  I was given a 10am appointment the next day when I could complete the process.

That night, my husband and I both struggled to fill out the web form, with no success. After completing the whole form, we repeatedly ran into a bug in which it requested an exit date, but claimed that each date we entered was invalid (either because it was before the arrival date, or after it). We tried every possible combination of exit and arrival dates with no success, and were stumped as to how to complete the visa extension process.

At 9:15am (15 minutes late), my driver showed up without his helper (who apparently did not want to come and/or had assumed things would go smoothly from here on out, which I doubted highly). No one on campus could explain what I should do about the broken form, but finally a friend suggested I simply print out each page of the form in the hope they would accept them (a long shot). And hour and 40 minutes after we were supposed to leave, and a full 40 minutes after our appointment should have begun, the kids and I (all still sick) began the journey to the FRRO. When we got there, they would not accept the printouts. Luckily, I had my laptop and a 3G modem with me, so they assigned a technical support person to help me fill out the form (a laborious process given the network speed we had over the modem). He made a few adjustments, and we ended up with the very same bug. However, through some miracle unexplained to me, the piece of paper we needed to proceed magically appeared on the printers of the FRRO.

At this point, things got very strange. The man whose desk I was near (and who had been yelling at people left and right all morning) tore into me for wasting their time when clearly I knew how to print the form. He told me to go to an Internet cafe and fill it out again for the kids when I tried to explain that I had no idea where the printout had come from and ask for further help. He did not seem to understand that I already had an Internet connection. I went ahead and filled out the form again on my own (for about the 10th time in the last 24 hours), got the same error, and went to find the person who had magically appeared with the missing piece of paper. In doing so, I apparently entered forbidden space, and this time the angry yelling man tore into me so loudly, and so threateningly, that the children were in tears. He told me he would revoke my ability to stay in Hyderabad if I did not go to an Internet Cafe and refused to let me seek help from the tech support person. Everyone assumed that I was at fault for the form’s problems (classic!).

I hate to admit it, but at this point I was in tears too. I don’t handle being yelled at well. No one seemed willing or able to help us, and I was ready to leave India in November when my visa expired rather than continue this process. I sat down and tried to collect myself, and at that moment, I was reminded about the other side of India. A complete stranger walked up to us and handed the kids candy with a smile, telling them to cheer up. The IIIT helper accompanying me suddenly got moving and found a way to bring the tech support person back. Suddenly, I had all of the forms I needed.

You might think that at this point things would proceed smoothly. You would be wrong. I won’t go into as much detail about what happened next, but a few highlights: I was in trouble for not having registered within 2 weeks (or at least 3 months) of arriving despite never having been told to register; I was only going to get a visa until December 8th (still too early) because my husband’s registration (not his visa) expired then; I was kicked out for engaging the kids in a card game (they were miserable, and needed entertainment, but the people in the waiting room are not allowed to enjoy themselves because the FRRO folks are working!); I was stranded outside on a curb for about 30 minutes because my driver and helper had absconded to get themselves lunch (not thinking of us); I had to cancel my 3:30pm talk because all of this took until 5pm to be complete (despite my original appointment being at 10am); and finally I was told to return (without the children, thank goodness) next Tuesday to complete the process.

As it happens, I am simultaneously applying for my swiss visa (which requires birth certificates for the kids for some reason, which I have had to request from the states they were born in as they have vanished from my house in Pittsburgh). Even with those bumps, it is a far easier process!

Wish me luck finishing all this off! I still don’t know whether my new visa will expire on Dec 8th (in which case I will cut my trip short rather than face all of this again!) or in May.