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Fence bullshit

Well the garage is gone now, so we are making progress. It was basically done single-handedly by our demolition guy and his excavator (aka the munching machine). It’s called the munching machine because it munched into our garage roof.

After two days, the garage was gone, all the blocks hauled off to the recycling. Apparently this was a tough job because the garage walls were so eroded at the bottom, there was a danger of the walls buckling out and hitting the houses around them. What really struck me was, late in the day, standing behind where the garage used to be, the sun was in my eyes. I realized the sunlight hadn’t hit that spot in 100 years probably.

The day after that, all of the concrete was gone. The whole thing going right up to the house. What was interesting was that no jackhammers were used. Basically there is what looks like the metal lift part of a forklift that they lay on the ground, push underneath the 4 inches of concrete, and then pull up with the excavator. The concrete just pops up, then gets broken up and thrown out.

Next up on that front is getting the concrete re-laid up to the house and the drains We decided to put in concrete up to the footprint of the garage, clear some of the dirt in the garage footprint, put in a retaining wall because the pitch of the site is so steep, then put the stone patio at the level of the retaining wall.

The same day the demolition happened, we went out and looked at fences and learned a little bit about them.

Your big box hardware stores sell the cheapest fence panels, of course, but they are pine and pressure treated. The pressure treatment makes them weather resistant, since you couldn’t leave plain pine outside, but it also gives them that weird dark green color. The two local fence manufacturers we visited make their panels out of cedar and use pressure treated posts. Almost everything I read online said that this is ideal, cedar panels and pressure treated posts. (Apparently cedar doesn’t do well as posts for some reason, but weathers very nicely otherwise). Cedar panels cost more, probably 50-100% more than pine panels, but I figured we might as well do it. It’s a small yard that only requires six panels, less than 50 linear feet of fencing, so we can afford the upgrade.

Well now it was time to dig the fence post holes. I wanted to do five at first so we could get up our four fence panels that separate the neighbors. yard. And immediately I ran into trouble. The first fence post was to be near the house. After digging six inches (in the neighbor’s yard shhhh…) I hit rock. Like,a big rock that goes into the foundation of the house. Hey, it was 1860. They made the foundation out of stone. Well, I wasn’t going to touch that and risk damage to the house, so I moved on and figured the panel will be attached to the wall somehow.

The next hole (also on the neighbor’s property shhhh…) was similar, but after six inches I hit bricks. Bricks, bricks, bricks. Their yard is full of bricks. The neighbor’s yard is elevated about two feet higher than ours, and I think it’s because they filled out their yard with bricks to make a level lawn. I don’t think there was ever a building there because the bricks are dry laid, and mostly, but not entirely, in a pattern.

So it took me a few hours working one brick at a time to get down about two feet. I need to get down one more. As for the other holes, we are on our property, and after six inches, we hit concrete! Yes, the garage foundation. I should have known. We figured out it’s all concrete blocks, three deep, and if you dig a trench, you can knock them apart with a sledgehammer! I want to get rid of the first two blocks all the way to make room for planning beds along the fence, and where the posts are going I’ll need to remove them all the way down.

All the way down entails even more concrete because the blocks themselves are sitting on a concrete pad. So there’s been a whole lot of hard labor going on. Digging, smashing, and removing.
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On Belgian blocks

You learn a lot about contractors when you meet with them in person. We had a few people come to talk about installing a patio. And one of these guys who works for a landscaping company that mostly seems to do bougey pool surrounds came by. I mentioned we wanted a paver patio made out of concrete or something else, and he said, “It’s all concrete. If you pour stamped concrete or do pavers, it’s all concrete.”

Uh, NO IT’S NOT, guy. It’s not all concrete. Maybe where you come from it’s “all concrete,” but paving does not have to be concrete.

Concrete is too easy. Concrete is for babies. Concrete is for people who don’t want the real thing. This is concrete, and this is concrete, and this is concrete, and fuck that shit. We live in a nationally recognized historic neighborhood and you don’t use modern imitation bullshit materials.

BLING BLING! THIS is what you need to use.

Look at that. It’s a thing of beauty. Real stone, roughly cut to shape, heavy as hell, it’s not going anywhere. But what is it?

It’s inaccurately called cobblestone. It’s more accurately called Belgian block, but it’s even more accurately called granite sett. Thanks to a gardening and hardscaping guy who came by, I now know what these are. These are the things that make up old city streets. When they tear up streets, you see them underneath the asphalt. Sometimes they get restored in the old part of town, sometimes they just get paved right over again. But these are indeed real granite blocks.

In this country we generically refer to any stones that make up a streetscape as “cobblestones,” but in reality cobblestones are small, rounded stones that you sometimes see in old European streets, or I’ve seen them built into houses here. Rarely you find them in streets here. They are riverstones: small, impossible to make into an even surface, and problematic for walking. At least in the northeast US, what we think of as cobblestones are actually granite setts.

I’ve heard anecdotally that we call them “Belgian blocks” because they were quarried in Belgium, used as ballast on ships to the US, and then removed and used as paving. I’m not sure how true that is, since in the northeast we have our own granite that could have been cut into blocks. But it makes a certain amount of sense, if you need the blocks for when the ship is empty (ie. Coming to deliver stuff from America to Europe) and unload them each time. But that sure is a lot of blocks over the years..

(An even better anecdote is that granite blocks were eventually replaced by poor Irish immigrants as ballast on those ships, and that’s why many of the Irish are here today. I doubt they were used as ballast, but it could be true that since the Irish were coming to America anyway, the stones weren’t needed. We’re one in the same, you blocks and I!)

As you can tell, I’ve read up on my granite setts. Predictably, since I love learning about these old building materials. And since I’m convinced that this is what needs to be our patio, I’ve been on the lookout and have started seeing them everywhere.

As far as purchasing setts, here’s what I’ve found so far:
-If you look up Belgian blocks online, you almost invariably end up with concrete fakes that go for a dollar each.
-There are landscaping companies who sell new stones for landscaping projects. Usually these go for $6 a block up to $12, depending on the size. The same goes for the companies cutting new stones today. Yes, they exist!*
-The blocks routinely get ripped out of the streets during re-paving. Sometimes they’re left in, sometimes not. Troy did this recently was selling them for $4 each.
-Home Depot sells them at $3 a piece, but they are half the size they should be, or less.
-Independent contractors end up with some on their hands. There is one guy on Craigslist who has a few thousand blocks listed for $3 a piece. I got him down to $2 because…
-The City of Albany has their own stockpile for granite setts you can buy for $2 each.
-There is a guy in Schodack Landing selling blocky setts for $1.5 each. That’s the best price I’ve seen so far, but there is also…
-A new apartment complex in Cohoes that required putting in an access road that I can see from my house. What I never noticed and Caitlin just saw recently is that there are piles of granite setts that were left in the weeds next to the road. I might have to call the apartment complex and see what their plan is, if any. They might be holding on to them, but maybe I can get them for cheap? They look nearly forgotten about.

*So why get new blocks? Stone is one of those great materials that, when pricing it, people don’t seem to realize that old stone is just as good as new stone. It’s not like that new stone is going to last longer! Reclaimed granite setts can be had for half the price or lower of new ones, and I just don’t know why the price difference exists.
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Le Garage to Le Patio

So we have a number of outdoor projects coming up at home that I’m going to try to detail in this space. You get to learn possibly useful (possibly useless stuff) and it will probably also help me keep track of everything.

We live downtown and have got this huge garage out back. Since we’re in a city lot, 25x100 feet, this two car garage takes up the entire backyard. What we’re left with is a small concrete patio between the house and the garage. Which is nice. It’s very private, being walled in by a fence and the garage. And since the courtyard is effectively below grade, the fence appears seven or eight feet tall and the garage wall probably ten feet.

The problem is we never use the garage. We park on the street, and so the garage became storage for bicycle, kayaks and garden supplies. Kind of a waste of space. Not to mention that the garage SUCKS. It is probably a hundred years old and made of concrete blocks. The problem is that no one took care of it over the years, and now it’s crumbling. The walls were probably painted at one point, which forms an impermeable barrier. Still water can get behind it, and cause the whole face of the block to pop off. And now we deal with the after effects of that. Concrete crumbling, mortar disappearing, blocks falling off. You can see through every wall, the ceiling leaks all over. I would say it probably sheds a few pounds of concrete dust every week. This crunches under your feet, forms piles, and just causes a mess.

So we’re getting rid of the garage and replacing it with a patio and shed. Although you could probably demolish the garage by turning a hose on it at this point, we hired a demolition crew to do it. It’s just too dangerous to do it ourselves. Not to mention back-breaking. This is how I envision the rest going.

- Contractor demolishes garage.
- Demolish garage floor and concrete patio up to house.
- Have contractor re-pour concrete patio up to house.
- Get fence permit approved. Install fence along property line with neighbor’s yard.
- Have 4” gravel delivered for new patio base
- Grade gravel to ¼ inch / foot slope
- Cover with 1” sand, save for 8x12 shed footprint, blocked with timbers
- Sort paver blocks by size if necessary
- Install paver patio
- Leave 2-3 feet of along fence for gardening, block pavers in with timbers
- Use polymeric sand in joints
- Have shed kit delivered
- Erect shed
- Finish installing fence along back of the lot to shed
- Plant plants or have someone else plant plants
- Re-install iron gate in our alley way

Of course this won’t go according to plan. Who knows what’s underneath our garage floor anyway? We should find out in the next few days…
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Swiss trip part 6, Murren to Geneva

Friday, it was time to head off to Geneva. It was even more complex than getting up to Murren because we were headed west across the mountains, and the trains keep changing line gauges. This time it was:

Murren -> Cable car to Gimmelwald, second cable car to Stechelberg -> Bus to Lauterbrunnen -> Train down to Interlaken -> Train to Spiez -> Train to Zweisimmen -> I honestly can’t remember if we transferred in Montreux, it’s such a blur, but we probably did -> Train to Geneva.

We had a few minutes to kill in Spiez waiting for our next train, so we gazed across the lake at this shit and listened to the noontime bells. Look at that shit.

The train ride to Geneva had lots of rolling green hills in place of the shocking mountaintops of the Alps. Also at some point, the language of the announcements switches from German-emphasized to French-emphasized, when you pass from the Bern canton into Vaud. Make what you will of it, but all I will say is that the conversations on the train at that point also started getting louder…

We got a little lost coming out of the gigantic train station trying to get on our way to the hotel. I felt marginally more comfortable surrounded by French instead of German. But truthfully, I might have picked up as much German after living in it for five days as I have retained French from high school. Maybe instead of teaching kids foreign languages in school, we should just drop them off in a foreign country for a month. They’ll probably pick up more vocabulary than from four years of classes.

We stayed at the Intercontinental by the United Nations, again free thanks to points. It’s a nice level of luxury, like the one in Dusseldorf, as opposed to the stifling luxury, and its attendant helper people, at the Park Hyatt.

I’m glad they left my personal water brand out for me.

The hotel, as all Geneva hotels, kindly gives you a transport pass so you can use all the trams you want during your stay. So we immediately headed downtown, since the hotel is a mile or two outside the historic core, and started walking walking walking. St. Pierre’s Cathedral is the centerpiece of the hilly, cobble-laden old town, but there are sidestreets aplenty, all filled with delicious-looking shops. That is, until you get close enough to read the prices.

Did I mention how expensive Zurich is? Well, Geneva has a reputation for being even more expensive that Zurich, but I managed to find the one cheap, good restaurant in town, La Chez Ma Cousin, a chicken restaurant. I call it a chicken restaurant, because that’s what you get: Half a roasted chicken. That’s basically the only thing on the menu, but it’s really good. I’m sure a more wealthy person could indulge in some authentic French cuisine in Geneva. There was absolutely no shortage of it. But if someone just wants to give me a roasted chicken meal for 15 francs, I’m happy.

Saturday morning I made it my goal to go to a real boulangerie for breakfast. (Look at that flawless high school French) It’s typical of our vacations to grab something from the nearest doughnut shop for breakfast, but when in French Switzerland…. I went to Boulangerie Contel and proudly conducted the entire transaction in French using words like “deux,” “s’il vous plait,” “pains du chocolat.” This is one of the few times high school French has directly paid off.

After les pains, we headed downtown for museum-going. The Museum of the Reformation is located in the St. Pierre’s complex. The sign is the most fun thing about it. It’s really educational, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you had more than two days in Geneva.

After La Musee de la Reforme, we met up with Spans and David who had come all the way out to Geneva, perhaps lured by the temptation of Saturday night’s Eurovision finals. They don’t have cable, and our hotel room was about to turn into Eurovision fandom central that night.

Since we had combo passes, we were able to go to the Reformation museum, the St. Pierre cathedral spire, and the Site Archaeologique.

The archaeological site, underneath St. Pierre’s, is what you should be doing in Geneva. It turns out that the site of St. Pierre’s has been a sacred site for millennia. You can go all the way back to 200 or 300 B.C. to when it was a tomb for some unknown revered person. Then the Romans took it over, and so on and on and on. As you go into the basement, all of these layers have been partially excavated so you literally see history adding up. This bath is dug, a floor is put over it, another tiled floor over that, etc. Pretty amazing.

What fascinated me most is that the site was really originally chosen by the Allobrogians for that one guy’s tomb. Who the hell was that guy? Nobody knows. But at one point at the site, you see his bones. During one of the expansions of the church, they started finding the lower half of the guy’s skeleton. And here’s the sick part: Instead of digging the whole skeleton out of the rock, they dug straight down to where his head would be, and took the skull. They just took it out! So the lower half of his body is exposed, and then there’s a straight line right to his skull. What is wrong with you freaks of old times?

I didn’t take a picture of it (something about respect for the dead) but other people have.

Then we went to the Patek Philippe Watch and Clock Museum. It was expensive and late in the day, but I’m glad we went. They had the most insanely ornate, and mechanically complex timepieces you will ever see. I wish I could show you, but pictures were not allowed. They had a fascinating video that showed how birdcall clocks work. It's not a cuckoo clock, mind you.

About that time, we headed back to the hotel. Spans and David took our advice and got roasted chicken takeout from Chez Ma Cousine and then we settled in for a long night of Eurovision!

Cheap champagne, supermarket macarons, fine cheeses… that’s how Eurovision should be.

All of the semi-finalists perform a second time, performances that are bizarrely identical to their first performance, and then the voting starts. Then the vote tallying starts, with a representative video-conferencing in from each country to present their country’s voting results. Austria won, which was no surprise. What surprised me what France’s result. The winning countries will have hundreds of points by the end, countries in the middle are in the 50-70 range, but France had 2 points, last place by a very wide margin. Which is so strange because I think their song was kind of great.

The next morning, we caught the bittersweet bus to the Geneva airport and got on our super luxurious Lufthansa business class flight home. I say luxurious, but it wasn’t without its awkward moments. Caitlin’s headphone didn’t work, which led the German flight attendant to take her seat for a moment as he tested the headphones out to make sure it was the headphones problem and get new ones. Then my food tray wouldn’t deploy from my armrest! It took (what felt like) an eternity as a different flight attendant jammed the tray up and down next my lap, trying to get it to pop up and out. We are definitely due a few hundred thousand flyer miles for this embarassment, and probably a few bottles of champagne to take home.
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Swiss trip, part 5, Müre Mürren

Thursday morning it was time to head up to the Schilthorn. We checked the Schilthorn cam, which you must always do, because it can be cloudy at the peak, making it a complete waste of time going up. It takes two cable cars to get to the top. I would’ve tried hiking the entire thing, something like a 1,300 meter elevation gain, but it was still almost completely snowed in.

If you think Switzerland is devoid of cheesy tourist attractions, think again! At the top of the Schilthorn is a revolving restaurant and a James Bond museum. The sole George Lazenby vehicle, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was filmed all around Murren and on top of the Schilthorn. In fact, the filmmakers helped finance the building of the restaurant.

There is a scene where Bond goes curling on the walkway, which I had to re-enact.

There weren’t many people at the top, but all were ecstatic to be there. There were a father and son going to the top, and I didn’t even realize they had all their ski gear, so when they got to the top, off they went…

There was no one else at the Bond museum, so we were free to play with the big LCD table, the kilt with the tv inside it, and the bobsled re-enactment.

Coming back down.

Silent cable car pulling into the Birg station.

After Schilthorn, it was time for another hike. This time we decided to go uphill, against the advice of Kitty, who said it was still too snowy. We would go up to Allmendhubel, an area with a flower garden in the warmer months, then across and back down to the cliffside.

During warmer months, you can even take the funicular train up to Allmendhubel, but this wasn’t running either when we were there.

Here’s the first cows we actually saw outside. As you can see, they are very interested in people. Couldn’t help but feed them some greens.

Allmendhubel station. Our water was running low, so we shoved some snow in the bottle taking a moment before realizing we would be drinking pure Alpine water! People would probably pay a pretty penny for that. They’d still probably want it filtered a hundred times because people are really paranoid about water, even Alpine snow water.

As you can see, it started getting snowy, and we only had hiking boots. There were a few other footprints in the snow, so obviously someone else had done the same route, but as we went along, it became only one pair of footprints, then no footprints. So we were the first people of the year stupid enough to do this particular route. I’m sure it gets very busy during the summer.

We came down into a nice valley with streams and wildflowers.

There are helpful posts everywhere telling you how many minutes hiking to different destinations. They are timed by local old people, and I’m proud to say, we usually beat their times.

More farmland, and no people.

So fucking picturesque!

Is this real??

Holy shit, look at that. Oh my god.​

We made it down to Winteregg since that was, I don’t know… a place on the map. I knew there was a train station there, so we might as well turn back at that point. There was a big restaurant and playground, and again, it was all closed. We walked back along the road to Murren.

Lumber mill.

They were testing out the train that normally takes people into Murren.

Back in Murren, there was a mountain goat chilling out next to our inn.

Ultra zoom!

Delicious supper in preparation for the second semi-final round of Eurovision!

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Swiss trip, part 4, Murren

What do you do in the Alps but hike. On a foggy Wednesday morning we walked down the road to Gimmelwald. Gimmelwald is a steadfastly traditional farming village, much smaller than Murren. But like Murren, it was also mostly empty. This is where the real farming was happening. Lots of goats, horses, and signs of cows, although no actual cows were seen in town. PBS travel guy Rick Steves has basically said that when he dies, he hopes heaven is basically just Gimmelwald. It was ridiculously picturesque.

Giant Swiss slime monster

I especially like how they chop their wood so neatly and evenly, it stacks just under the eaves of the house.

There’s a few friendly town cats around. Fun fact: Caitlin’s parents visited Switzerland a few weeks later and petted this very same cat.

Unfortunately, the Honesty Store was closed (I guess they don’t trust people that much). The woman who sells Rick Steves cheese in that one episode of his show has an Honesty Refrigerator in her house you can just walk into, but I didn’t have enough francs to buy anything.


Dope slide.

The phone booth in town has been converted into a shower. No shit.

Going back uphill to Murren, we took a detour through the woods. The hiking trails are all very well marked. We made it to Spurtz, a waterfall, and a great name for a waterfall. It was very active due to the snowmelt.

Then we hiked across farmland in an area called Gimmela. Again, no people, but we did find some cows in a barn. It was all very Heidi-esque.

We were able to go to the grocery that day so we made a nice smorgasbord of mushrooms and tomatoes cooked in red wine, sausages, bread, sauerkraut, and cheese. That’s Swiss wine. It cost about 3 francs and wasn’t even the cheapest one at the store.

I should mention that innkeeper Albert played the Alphorn while we were cooking. Here’s the most Swiss video of the trip.

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Swiss trip, part 3. To Murren.

Tuesday morning, it was time to head out on our first long train ride. While packing up, I watched an awesome British Recue 9-1-1 type show called Countryside 9-9-9, where they re-enact emergencies in the British countryside and show the struggles the ambulance driver faces trying to get to these places. And if that wasn’t enough, there was a sign language interpreter in the corner of the screen who was even more entertaining than the show.

Can I just espouse my love for the Swiss transportation system for a moment? I knew it was possible for us to get from Zurich into the Alps by public transport, and I knew basically how it was going to go, but I wasn’t sure how to buy tickets. The Swiss public transit system is so perfectly easy to use, so ridiculously comfortable, so reasonably priced, and so insanely on-time that I was completely befuzzled.

Getting from Zurich to Murren in the Alps requires a train transfer in Lucerne, another train transfer in Interlaken, a bus transfer in Lauterbrunnen, and then a cable car transfer up the mountains. I gave my itinerary to the station agent in Zurich, was able to buy the whole trip at once, and simply transferred at each station to the next waiting train. By the time we got to Murren, the cable car operators, who had only been handling day-trippers in the area, seemed taken aback that our ticket started in Zurich.

Even more awesome than the transit system itself are the views it provides.

Lauterbrunnen canton seal on the side of a train.

On the trip up to Murren, our chalet is actually behind the far left guy’s head.

Murren is on a side of a mountain, and I guess just as you’d expect, there’s a lot of uphill and downhill walking to get around town. So we walked around town, and it took a while to recognize what was happening, but we soon realized that there was no one else around. The town seemed deserted. We saw a few workers with little pick-up truck type vehicles (I should mention Murren is car-free, so you only see tiny little utility vehicles), and two kids on bicycles, and that was basically it. Also, almost every restaurant was closed, every hotel was closed, and every store was closed. There were just no people. And it was honestly one of the greatest moments of my life, coming to realize we had an entire Alpine village basically to ourselves.

The things we needed to be open were open. And by that I mean the grocery store and our inn. We stayed at Chalet Bobs, a place with three apartments and a front-row view of the mountains and Lauterbrunnen valley, run by Kitty and Albert. We found out from Kitty that the town basically closes down when the railroad is under repair, which is a few times a year, which explains the absence of people. Normally, people will take a cable car up and then a railroad into Murren, but since the train was down, we had to take a bus, then a different cable car. Boy, are we lucky Kitty and Albert stuck around for the week! I understand Murren is almost known as a resort town at this point, but we saw maybe only one other chalet open.

This little church had a bunch of plaques inside memorializing people killed by avalanches and lightning.

As you can see, the streets were jam-packed with tourists, making it hard to even walk! The cacophonous noise was unbearable!

Awesome mural on the butcher shop, unfortunately also closed.

The one other open chalet I noticed, Helvetia, has an outdoor rabbit playpen, where this big Cornelius lookalike was playing.

Since we had an apartment, we could shop at the Coop grocery store, open for 4 hours a day during the railroad downtime. And despite being halfway up a mountain, the prices were reasonable, even to an American. But since we had gotten there too late on Tuesday, we had to eat out. There were, like, two restaurants open, both serving Swiss food, so we went to Stagerstubli and saw some of the few other people in town we would come to recognize over the next three days.

The grocery prices were good, but restaurant prices still abominable. We had the cheapest thing on the menu, rosti (shredded potato topped with egg or cheese or whatever) and it was still over $20 a person. They charge for tap water, which is so bizarre, because all over town, and all over every town for that matter, is free, delicious fountain water. In Murren, it pours charmingly into cow troughs.

Now I had seen some great tv so far, like Schlaag den Raab and Countryside 9-9-9, but on Tuesday night came the piece de resistance of European television…

The Eurovision Song Contest

I had a vague idea of what Eurovision was, but I had no idea we’d be visiting Europe during Eurovision week. How lucky I am, because it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen on tv. Eurovision stretches over three days. Two days of semi-finals, and a final blockbuster Saturday show where the top twenty qualifiers, plus five or six countries who pay to skip the semi-finals (it’s complicated), compete for the ultimate prize.

Ostensibly, it’s a song contest, but it’s so much more. It’s a contest of visuals and spectacle, it’s a display of political and cultural tribalism, it’s cheesy and schlocky and overproduced, and everyone is trying their best to sing in English. I saw things on Eurovision I might never forget. I saw a man sing about his mother as his shoulder, his shelter, his satellite (Belgium). I saw sexy Polish girls perform a minstrely rap song (Poland). I saw a man wearing a parachute play the drums in a song about skydiving (Georgia). I saw knockoffs of the Backstreet Boys (Belerus), Mumford & Sons (Malta), and LMFAO (France). I saw blonde Russian twins get booed because they were from Russia. I saw an amazing amateur dance showcase, something probably every singing or dance contest should have. ​

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Swiss trip, part 2, Sunday and Monday in Zurich

Caitlin reminds me that at Zum Schiffchen, we saw one of the nicest public gestures. Next to us was a young Chinese couple, and the next table over a couple of older German guys. The Chinese dude kept looking over and checking out what the Germans were eating, since one was having a tartar steak with a raw egg on it. The German dude noticed, so he ordered another one for the Chinese guy’s table. When it arrived, the waiter explained who ordered it. Then the German dude went over and showed him how to mix the egg in and eat it, despite the language barrier. So, word to the wise: When in Germany, show curious interest in what the Germans are eating and you might get some yourself.

Sunday morning, since I could now check Germany off my list of countries visited, it was time to head to Switzerland. Back to the airport for what would be a quick jaunt to Zurich, about an hour plane ride. Well, it would’ve been if they hadn’t made some huge mistakes loading luggage.

Somehow, they loaded incorrect bags on all the flights, so every flight had to have all the bags removed and checked, and moved around. Remember, this is Germany. And what is it they’re known? It’s not efficiency, is it? Well, that added over an hour before we could leave.

Needless to say, when we got to Zurich, our bags weren’t there. My clever routing may have given us a full day in Dusseldorf, but since it was technically a layover, I had clearly confused the system (and that loading problem probably didn’t help). We had a feeling this would happen, so we were the first of many AirBerlin customers in the customer service area. Of course, we didn’t have a luggage tracking number either, because the check-in clerk in Dusseldorf took it away when giving us new boarding passes, and I didn’t notice. Figures, doesn’t it? So finding our bags was going to be an extra challenge. We put in our claim.

Luckily, I had my excellent eBags backpack which had a day or two of clothes in it just in case of an emergency like this. We got on the train (notably 3 times more expensive than the German airport train, but not a longer duration) and walked to our hotel.

We stayed at the Park Hyatt for two free nights. Our room was renting for the equivalent of 900 US DOLLARS. And that’s their cheapest room. This was just the beginning of that I-shouldn’t-be-here feeling I would keep experiencing in Zurich. This hotel was catering exclusively to the wealthy businessman, not the backpack-toting weekenders, which is what we looked like. In America, it seems like many wealthy people “dress down” but I feel like this just doesn’t happen in Switzerland. Everyone was wearing an expensive suit, while I had only a backpack of soon-to-be dirty clothes. On the upshot of staying in a hyper-luxury hotel, the front desk clerk will give you absolutely anything you need, which was great because we were lacking all our toiletries in the lost luggage.

A woman shows up at the room every afternoon to refresh your fruit. The room has a Nespresso machine.

Churches, churches, churches of Zurich!

The Grossemunster church has this gigantic statue of Charlemagne in its basement. It’s from the 1300’s and was originally outside. The original is now inside and the other Charlemagne is a replica. You’re actually not supposed to take pictures of old Charlemagne, so don’t report me.

Does that crown look familiar?

The Fraumunster is another church in the hilly Old Town neighborhood.

Wandering the old town.

Did I mention Zurich is expensive? We saved money by having free flights and mostly free hotel rooms, but the cost of dining out was still shocking. There I was bringing grocery bags of breakfast into our five star hotel. Our Sunday lunch was reasonably priced and sufficed for dinner also. That was Brauschanzli, a sort of outdoor cafeteria on an island in the river. I had a bratwurst, of course, since that’s always the most affordable option, and a pretty excellent beer called Schwarzer Kristall. I gave you your tenth rating on BeerAdvocate, Schwarzer, giving you a public ranking. You’re welcome.

I took some video just to get the audio of this:

The band is playing “Redneck Woman” because why? Because ZURICH IS FULL OF BACKWOODS REDNECKS APPARENTLY.

I should also mention, our luggage didn’t show up, so now the panic started to set in. Were we to wear the same clothes all week? We washed our clothes as best we could in our five star hotel’s sink with the bath soap and hung them up to dry. Luckily there was a luxurious towel warmer rack that helped speed their drying.


MONDAY we went into the Grossemunster convent, which is resplendent in insane carvings.

Nuns lived here!

Walked through the botanical gardens and up past the train station where we eventually ate lunch at Nordsee. If it looks like a junky fast food place, remember, this is Switzerland where only the highest standards will do. It’s a really good fast food seafood place with lots of delicious seafood salads to pick from, and fried fish sandwiches.

This was in preparation to spend some time next door at the Swiss National Museum! Which was closed. Of course it was closed! It’s closed on Mondays don’t you know! So I really don’t remember what we did next, except go back to the hotel room and consider buying new clothes since our luggage was still MIA.

Did I mention Zurich is expensive? The average pair of pants cost probably $70 at H&M. If you go elsewhere, you’re looking at triple digits. I had two pairs of pants, but the fear was Caitlin might have to buy a crappy and insanely overpriced pair of pants just to get through the week.

Well back at the hotel, around 4PM, there was a knock at the door and our luggage had finally arrived. JOY! This was lucky because 24 hours later we would be a hundred miles away, halfway up the Alps in a village reachable only by gondola! At that point, we’d never get our luggage. So basically we were ecstatic. The relief was so great it might actually qualify as one of the happiest moments of my life.

Caitlin’s sister and her husband showed up soon after that after returning from their weekend trip to Paris, and they whisked us away to their apartment for fondue supper. Apparently fondue and raclette at this time of year is something only tourists do. For the real thing, you have to come in the wintertime. So we hid away and had homemade fondue.

And followed that up with a café called CakeFriends. Is that not the most appealing name for a restaurant? Who wouldn’t go there? They have all kinds of cake, all variations on a heavy type of pound cake, with its own sauce. Plus coffee. Sorry, no pictures of the cake.

More later.
roast beef at computer

Swiss Trip part 1, JFK to Dusseldorf

Vacations exist only to be bragged about online. To that end, I had better write down everything about our trip far east before I forget it all.

The first leg was Albany parking lot -> Greyhound Bus to Port Authority -> Walk to Penn Station -> Long Island Railroad to Jamaica station -> AirTrain to JFK -> Air Berlin flight to Dusseldorf

Higgledy-piggledy, but it’s probably the easiest way to get to JFK without spending a fortune. The bus ride to New York was a tad stressful. When making a flight at JFK, maybe I need to leave more than 6 hours travel time. There was traffic going into Manhattan at the evening rush hour, which seemed counterintuitive to me. My first time taking LIRR out of Penn Station was also hectic. There is one gigantic sign listing every destination possible, their gate and departure time. But since every train goes to Jamaica, and there is only one line on the board for Jamaica, no matter when you get there, you probably have less than five minutes to make it to the train on the board.

Eventually we got to JFK, but not with enough time to enjoy the business class lounge! Argh! Why fly at all if I can’t get unlimited free drinks beforehand? And stupid Air Berlin uses the lounge of another airline located in another terminal.

Waiting at the gate, we were surrounded by Germans speaking their strange language and wearing odd sneakers, so it felt like were in Germany already. Since we were flying business class, we got to board before all of them. And this was a big plane. There had to be a few hundred people on it and we were in the very first row of the whole plane, aside from the pilots of course. I wonder if I can use my frequent flyer miles to get a seat in the cockpit?

The seats folded down completely flat, but were just short enough to be annoying. I couldn’t stretch my legs out completely into the small cubby hole for my feet. Waaah! I don’t think I watched anything on the entertainment system on the way over. Both the seat and entertainment options paled in comparison to Cathay Pacific business class. But the food was pretty delicious. I had a meaty salad appetizer, a lamb tagine, and a bunch of cheese for dessert.

Landed in Dusseldorf, and we didn’t really know if our bag would pop out at the baggage claim or not. Since we were going to be in Dusseldorf for less than 24 hours, it was technically a layover, and you normally don’t get your bags at a layover. They didn’t come out, so we left.

After several trips up and down the escalator system (the train would not accept credit cards, or 20 Euro bills, meaning several trips back into the airport) we made our way into the city. After exiting the train station, there was a Turkish parade underway. Come to find out, Dusseldorf has a big Turkish community. So I guess this was some kind of Turkish version of St. Patricks Day or Gay Pride Day. Is that offensive?

The original location of Kraftwerk’s Kling Klang studio was this building, up until very recently. Did you know it’s the 40th anniversary of Autobahn?

We were able to walk to our hotel, the Intercontinental, which was a free hotel night. Really very nice, with a huge, expansive lobby. It took hours to figure out how to turn the lights on in our room. These stingy Germans have it worked out that the lights automatically turn off unless you put your key card into a slot on the wall. I appreciate the energy-mindedness, but it was frustrating at first.

You know one of my favorite things about visiting foreign countries is watching foreign television. This was no exception. I watched some Schlaag Den Raab, a strange little game show where a guy named Raab competes against one person in a serious of stupid little games. The prize for each episode is a half million euros, and if Raab wins, that week’s prize is added to the next episode. So if you beat him playing finger-flick football for example, you could potentially win a few million euros. It’s bizarrely high stakes, so it’s treated very seriously.

Walked around Dusseldorf’s old town. Bright and sunny day along the Rhine. There was a used book fair going on. Normally I would be very interested in this, but of course everything was in German, so… I checked out a table of board games.

Awesome pretzel, or “risen brezel.” This was one of the best things I ate on the entire trip. There are carts everywhere to satisfy your pretzel needs. There are also churches everywhere in the old town that you can walk into and tour for free, which was very nice.

I had looked up a few restaurants to check out, mostly looking forward to one called Zum Schlussel. But what Yelp doesn’t really tell you is that when you come to this place around 7PM on a Saturday night, the entire pedestrianized block is packed, and I mean packed, with drunk people. It was truly nuts, and I believe there was a soccer game on somewhere. There must’ve been ten bachelor and bachelorette parties going on in this one block. It was people-pissing-on-buildings nuts. So needless to say, we didn’t eat at Zum Schlussel, and found a good restaurant on a much quieter block.

Zum Schiffchen brews their own alt bier, Frankenheim, which I had of course with sausages and sauerkraut.

More at another time.
roast beef at computer

Letter to the Editor

So, last year a local supermarket knocked down a church to put up a new supermarket a few blocks away from their old one. There was a big to-do about it because the church had been there for a hundred years, was the tallest structure in town, and was unique in its architecture. I was annoyed about it all too, and now that the new supermarket just opened, I started writing a sarcastic letter to the editor of the Times Union. But figured it came out a little too mean-spirited and maybe offensive in a way I didn’t intend… so I’ll just post it here instead.


On July 11, the new Watervliet Price Chopper opened at the site of the old St. Patricks church. I, for one, would like to welcome them to the area. Or, I guess to be more accurate, I would like to welcome them to their new street since they apparently moved about four blocks away from their last location.

And to the people who opposed the demolition of St. Patrick’s I say, “Cheer up! When life hands you lemons, you sometimes have to make lemonade.” So why not make the best of it? Who’s to say that the spirit that was found in the old church can’t be found on the same site?

The aisles are your pews. Take a knee before grabbing at an end display. If you wish to take the Eucharist, head to the Crackers and Cookies aisle and pop open a box of Ritz. They look similar to communion wafers, and taste better, too! Wine? Sure, it’s not allowed to be sold in grocery stores by law, but you can find grape juice. Grab a bottle of Welsh’s.

To those who miss the grandiose architecture of the church, I’m sure you can find something to appreciate in the efficient design of the modern supermarket. Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder anyway? Do you find god in nature? Bask in the glorious front lawn of Price Chopper. In all that expansive grass where the alter once stood, maybe you can spot Jesus.

No one's stopping you from chanting hymnals inside Price Chopper hallowed halls. Hey, you might even find a copy of the Bible available for purchase!