Customer service

Amazingly great customer service from thinkTANK photo.

Close readers may recall that, several miles into my day-long hike along the Aletsch Glacier, back in Switzerland, that my backpack’s hip-belt suddenly failed – the padded belt portion simply became un-sewed from the body of the pack. Today I received the most amazing example of Customer Service I’ve ever seen…

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Quarantine

We’ve finally finished two weeks of self-quarantine.

We have finally completed our fourteen days of state-mandated at-home self-quarantine. (All visitors arriving from anywhere outside New England are required to self-quarantine for two weeks.) Although the policy is eminently reasonable, given the low prevalence of COVID-19 here relative to many other countries and regions of the US, it has certainly been a difficult adjustment for the three of us; we were quite used to hopping on a tram or train to visit a favorite restaurant or trail. It was especially tricky for us, because our daughter (and her friend) were already living in the house, so we’ve had to wear masks and maintain social distance while inside the home. (On the other hand, they were very helpful in keeping the house stocked with groceries!)

I miss my ‘morning walk’ up the steep streets of Zürichberg; now I’m faced with the flat and sparse terrain along River Road.

River Road, seen from our driveway entrance.

Actually, I can’t complain. It’s not all that bad. Read on!

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Reflections

Thoughts during departure.

We left Switzerland this morning, after a delightful eleven-month residence in Zürich. This parting is bittersweet, and a long layover in Amsterdam gives me a first opportunity to reflect on our experience in Switzerland.

In short: we had a wonderful time, enjoyed Switzerland thoroughly, and (speaking for myself, anyway) can’t wait to return. I found the university center to be professionally fulfilling, the city of Zürich to be a pleasant place to live, the mountains to be entrancingly beautiful, and the deeply complex history of the country to be fascinating.

We were lucky to have rented a comfortable ETH flat, just a few blocks from the main train station (HB) and from my office (WEV), with a view over the lake Zürichsee to the Alps beyond. From here, I enjoyed a near-daily walk straight uphill to the Zürichberg ridgeline, which offered even better views, and an ample variety of routes down through tree-lined residential areas – where I would often stop for hot chocolate at a neighborhood Honold shop. This week I finally stopped long enough for a breakfast of my three favorite things: bircher muesli, gipfeli, and heisse schokolade.

breakfast at Honold in Zürichberg neighborhood.

In a way, I’ve just begun to scratch the surface. Although you can see in the map below that I visited (and photographed) many locations around the country, the Swiss countryside changes over every ridgeline, from one valley to the next. Even within Zürich, my wanderings were focused almost entirely within the Altstadt (old town) and on the slope of Zürichberg above our flat, that is, within walking distance. And the coronavirus cut short many of my aspirations to visit more of its museums and other cultural activities. The good news: there’s lots to explore on my next visit! (Assuming I can ever return; the EU and Schengen region are not allowing US visitors.)

Numbers indicate number of photographs at each location.

Indeed, I’d like to learn more about Zürich’s long history, which dates at least 2,200 years back before Roman times to early Celtic settlements; indeed, the modern name Zürich derives from the Roman Turicum, which is apparently “a derivation from a given name, possibly Gaulish personal name Tūros…” [Wikipedia]. It was later settled by a Germanic tribe, and its own form of that language still dominates the region.

I frequently found myself thinking about this depth of history as I wandered through the pastures of the Swiss hills. This landscape has been engineered by humans for centuries, indeed, for millennia, and the land is still worked by hand in many corners of steep terrain. The land and the people co-evolved here, in this crossroads of the European continent.

View of Breithorn peak from Lauterbrunnen valley.

[Of course, there is also a long human history in my home turf along the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, though for many reasons (including many very unfortunate reasons) there are few tangible signs remaining of those early civilizations. I hope to learn more about those peoples and cultures as well.]

So, as I (literally) sit in transition between Switzerland and New Hampshire, let me ponder the things I like (and dislike) about Switzerland.

Likes:
– the train system: convenient, efficient, and nationally integrated with buses, trams, gondolas, and more;
– the SwissCard, an RFID card that integrates with all those transportation systems;
– Halbtax and GA discount cards, making the rail system affordable;
– gondolas and funicular trains that provide quick access to the high country (and give the option of hiking up and riding down, or vice versa);
– the pastoral landscape, with free public access for walking across most terrain;
– the mountain landscape, with their snow-capped peaks and dramatic glaciers;
– mountain huts and restaurants;
– the standardized and integrated national trail system, including detailed signs and markings that often begin right at the bahnhof or bus stop;
– SwissTopo, the national map system that is so detailed that it maps every trail, every structure, even the smallest barn;
– contactless payment: Apple Pay works almost everywhere, and very few places require cash (indeed, due to corona many places are refusing cash);
– cheese, in more varieties than one can imagine (American “swiss cheese” is not just a misnomer but an embarrassment);
– chocolate: it’s easy to understand why Switzerland is the country that eats more chocolate per capita than any other;
– food quality: in general, the quality of meats and produce are vastly better than my US experience;
– cities with clean streets, well-repaired infrastructure, efficient transport, and pedestrian-friendly design;
– an organized society, where things pretty much work well and people pretty much follow the rules;
– a multilingual society – especially in Zürich, where 40% of residents are non-Swiss;
– a strong education system that provides everyone a solid foundation, and a meaningful track for those who wish to learn a trade rather than going to university;
– social services that provide for the health and welfare of everyone;
– safety and security: I felt safe everywhere, and was astonished to see few people worry about theft (it is not uncommon to see things left exposed);
– train beers :-), the freedom to buy a beer in a station kiosk and drink it on the platform or on the train.

Dislikes:
– cigarette smoke: it is hard to avoid when out in public, on the streets, or in an outdoor café;
– graffiti: perhaps this is an issue in every urban city, but I found the pervasive graffiti to be an unfortunate eyesore;
– a complex tax system that ensnares even temporary residents with no Swiss income (like us!);
– a Euro-centric culture, with few people of color; even coming from New Hampshire I was struck by Switzerland’s limited diversity.

Anyway, those are a few of my initial thoughts. I’m sure I will find myself missing things about Zürich and Switzerland – or finding differences more noticeable, once I return to life in New Hampshire. For now, let me emphasize that I am really impressed by Switzerland, and really loved living there.

Andy and Mara skiing at Zermatt, in sight of the Matterhorn.

I have posted to this blog every day for several months. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity – and challenge – of sharing something interesting every day. Once home, however, I will return to less-frequent posts. Schönen Tag!

Final day

The twin peaks of Zürich.

Today is our last day in Zürich, our last day in Switzerland. I will reflect more on the overall experience in a future post, but for now, let me reflect on this final day. I decided go hiking – but to stay close to home, and to re-visit the twin peaks of Zürich by having breakfast on Uetliberg and lunch on Zürichberg.

I’ve been to Uetliberg several times, either on foot or by train. Today I took my original route – the steepest, most direct route – and was soon at the summit area. It was hazy and the view of the Alps was limited, but I nonetheless enjoyed tea and a pair of gipfeli while sitting in the morning breeze.

Uetliberg summit area.

Later, after some errands, I made my final climb up my usual morning route to Zürichberg, extending it a bit to reach the (wooded) summit. From there I followed gravel paths down to the 120-year-old Zürichberg Hotel, which I had passed many, many times without stopping.

Zürichberg Hotel.

Today, I met Pam and Andy there for lunch on their sunny terrace overlooking Zürichsee and the distant Alps. Though the view was still hazy, it was a beautiful day and a fine meal.

Andy, Pam, David go for birthday lunch at Zürichberg Hotel.

Check out the gallery for more photos.

Uetliberg, Albisgütli to summit and down to train: Distance: 2.9 km; Time: 01:01:52 (including breakfast); Ascent:324.3 m; Min/Max Altitude:810.4 m, 855.3 m; Location: (47.35166, 8.48746)

Zürichberg, home to summit and down to hotel: Distance: 3.0 km; Time:00:35:11; ; Ascent:226.0 m; Min/Max Altitude: 635.4 m, 668.1 m; Location: (47.38222, 8.56758)

CDHI

The Center for Digital Health Interventions.

As I wrap up my year-long sabbatical in Switzerland, during which I was a visitor at ETH Zürich, I am grateful to have been part of the innovative team at the Center for Digital Health Interventions (CDHI). Led by Profs. Elgar Fleisch and Tobias Kowatsch and jointly operated by ETH and the University of St. Gallen, the center is working on a range of important problems, interesting studies, and innovative technologies: passive health-sensing techniques in smartphones, smartwatches, and cars; stress detection; asthmatic cough detection and breathing-exercise games for asthmatics; machine learning to predict when a person might be receptive to health-intervention messages; chat bots to engage and encourage people involved in health interventions; systems to detect hypoglycemia in the driver of a car; passive interventions that can occur while driving; and more.

The CDHI offices (and me!) are reflected in the building across the street, August 2019.

Although my visit has been scientifically productive and rewarding, it is really the people who have made the visit so delightful. The faculty welcomed me by encouraging and enabling me to be involved wherever I seemed interested; my officemates patiently answered all my questions about Zürich and Switzerland; the graduate students adopted me into their lunchtime group outings; and the staff assisted me with all the complex logistics of moving to, living in, and departing from Switzerland. Just a portion of the team is pictured below. I am proud to have been part of this group for the past year, and hope I can return again some day!

Group photo, ETH-St.Gallen lab ski day at Obersaxen, Switzerland.

Braunwald Panoramaweg

A return to Braunwald for the summer perspective.

Although it was tempting to think of Friday’s climb of Piz Palü as a grand finale for my time in Switzerland, today’s sunny summer weather just couldn’t be ignored. With only a few days remaining in Switzerland – a hiker’s paradise – I decided to maximize the opportunity. So this morning I hopped a train back to Braunwald, where in March I spent an intense day postholing my way across the high country toward Schwanden. It was quite different today! Read on and check out the gallery.

Waterfall and mountains in Braunwald.
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Piz Palü

I grew up hiking in the Adirondack mountains of New York, and later the White Mountains of New Hampshire – places that are still near and dear to my heart – but ever since I was a young boy, leafing through pictorial mountaineering books from legendary climbers like Chris Bonington and Reinhold Messner, I’ve dreamed of ‘Real Mountains’ capped with snow and glacier. Yesterday, I finally had my chance and summited Piz Palü (3900m, 12,811′). Although relatively simple on the grand scale of mountaineering, it was nonetheless the most challenging mountain I’ve experienced in my 50 years of hiking. Read on and definitely do not miss the gallery – we were blessed with outstanding weather and snow conditions.

David, Patrick, and Felix on the summit of Piz Palü.
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Final Fountains

My final post about fountains.

Two months ago when I set out to share with you the amazing variety of fountains in Zürich, I never imagined it would keep me so busy. It was a fine project during those weeks when I was unable to travel far.

Today I’ve posted a final batch of 16 photos (starting here), emphasizing decorative fountains. Most, if not all, of these fountains are for enjoyment rather than nourishment.

Early morning in a square along Rämistrasse.

In my first post I wrote “it might be fun to find them all.  Since most (if not all) appear on a street corner, i.e., at intersections, the challenge appeared to be similar to the famous Hamiltonian Path problem in computer science: given a graph of vertices (intersections) connected by edges (street segments), devise a path that visits each vertex exactly once.  No such option existed for me, as I spread my travels out over several weeks and must begin/end each walk at the same point.  But I’ve tracked my walks as a means of finding new routes to cover each day.” As of today, I’ve photographed about 161 fountains (though I hear there are about 1200 fountains in Zurich); the map around my home (orange arrow) looks like this:

I managed to make a thorough coverage of the intersections in the hillside between Altstadt (by the lake) and Zurichberg (at top right).

Here’s another pair of maps, showing the location of all the fountains (all my photos are geo-tagged). The numbers represent photos, not fountains, so they over-count fountains; also, photos that are close together are aggregated into a single bubble on the map. The first map covers all of Zürich; the second map zooms in to my home turf.

Map of fountains whose photos I published; counts indicate photos not fountains; some counts are aggregated.
Map of fountains whose photos I published; counts indicate photos not fountains; some counts are aggregated.

You can find all the posts here and all the photos here. To wrap up, below is one of the first fountains I saw in Zürich – in the mall under the train station.

A decorative fountain in the underground mall at HB in Zürich.

Lenin in Zürich

Lenin spent a year in Zürich while writing his book.

If you wander down a tiny street in the Altstadt (old town), you may come across a nondescript historical marker indicating that “Lenin lived here.”

A residence of Lenin when he was living in Zurich.

Indeed, it turns out that Lenin and his wife lived here for a year, 1916-17, while he worked on his book, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. A nearby marker gives more details:

A residence of Lenin when he was living in Zurich.

For more, see here and Wikipedia.