Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Amazing Race 22, Episode 8

Grindelwald (Switzerland) - Dresden (Germany) - Berlin (Germany)

[The new U.S.-built Berlin Wall, with its sentry boxes, extending out from one wing of the Brandenburg Gate, near right, around the new U.S. Embassy, at rear]

This week The Amazing Race 22 sent the racers to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, and made them answer questions about speeches on that site, facing the Berlin Wall, by U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Unfortunately, the views of the Brandenburg Gate and its surrounding area were framed to avoid showing the new Berlin Wall connected to the Brandenburg Gate, which was built by the U.S. in conjunction with a new U.S. Embassy next door that opened in 2008.

The new U.S.-built Berlin Wall isn’t nearly as long or large as the old Soviet-built one, of course. But its symbolic similarity, especially in light of its location, is unmistakeable.

For my thoughts about the lessons for travellers of both the old and the new Berlin walls, and the German concept of “reisefreiheit” (freedom to travel), see my columns from previous visits to Berlin here and here.

The Amazing Race 22 moved on from Switzerland to to Berlin this week. But to conclude last week’s discussion of the cost of travel in Switzerland, here’s some specific advice for visitors to Geneva and “La Suisse Romande” (Francophone Switzerland):

The countries with the second, third, and fourth largest numbers of speakers of French as their mother tongue — Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland respectively — are all countries where French is a minority language nationally despite being dominant in some major cities: Montréal, Brussels, Geneva. (Most speakers of French are in Africa, many of them fluently bilingual or multilingual, but fewer of them speak French as their first language.)

Most of the wealth as well as most of the population of Switzerland is in the German-speaking regions, as that of Canada is in the English-speaking regions and that of Belgium is in the Dutch (Flemish) speaking regions. Justifiably or not, the Francophone minorities in Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland all share a defensiveness about the linguistic basis of their identity that disinclines them to learn other languages.

The use of French as the official working language of the U.N. offices in Geneva and many other Geneva-based international entities (and indeed the carefully cultivated role of Geneva itself as the city of diplomacy) is a significant part of the basis for the ability of French to resist total displacement by English as the language of diplomacy in other contexts.

Whether for these or other reasons, the fact is that far fewer native Francophones than speakers of most other European languages learn English. If they learn other languages, they are likely to start with other Romance (Latinate) languages, not English, German, or Dutch.

I’ve never felt unwelcome as an English speaker in France or any of these other Francophone regions, and people have always made their best effort to use whatever little English they might know and to understand my fractured French.

You can get around and have an enjoyable time in Geneva without needing to know any French. But even a little French will greatly enhance your visit, more so than knowing a little of a local language in many other parts of Europe.

The percentage of people on the street in Geneva who can give you directions in English is substantially lower than in Zurich or the other Switzerdeutsch areas visited by The Amazing Race 22 this season, just as the people on the street in Brussels who speak functional English are much more likely to be Dutch-speaking Flemish than Francophone Walloons.

The City Hostel in Geneva, where I stayed last month and on my previous visit in 2009, is the best deal in town at CHF63 (USD68) for a single room with shared toilet and bath, CHF77 (USD83) for a room with two twin beds and shared toilet and bath. It’s almost always sold out, even in low season. I made my reservations a couple of months in advance, but other members of the U.S. Human Rights Network delegation waited a few weeks to make their reservations, and had to stay in places that were much more expensive and/or much further from the center of town.

Geneva is at the extreme tip of the country, connected to the rest of Switzerland only by a narrow neck and surrounded by France within a few miles in every other direction. So one possibility for visitors to Geneva, unlike those visiting most of the rest of Switzerland, is to stay across the border in France, where prices of everything including hotels are substantially lower.

Even if you stay in Switzerland, it might be worth a trip to a supermarket across the border in France if you want to stock your kitchen in a rented “self-catering” apartment for a week, or to a restaurant in France. The best meal I had in a week in Geneva, at the best price, was at a neighborhood bistro in a blue-collar mixed-race suburban “quartier” a short walk into France from the end of one of the Geneva street-car lines.

You should carry your passport whenever you cross the border, but there’s no need to worry about border formalities or delays. Since my last visit in 2009, Switzerland has joined the Schengen Zone (which I previously discussed here). That means that all pretense of controls on movement across the Swiss land borders has been eliminated. The former customs and immigrations posts are in the process of being demolished, and new housing developments are sprouting up along the border in France for people who work in Geneva but can’t afford Swiss housing prices.

Check the location and transit routes carefully, and consider the value of your time, before booking a cheaper hotel in the French suburbs of Geneva. Public transit in the Geneva area, as everywhere in Switzerland, is exceptionally good, but it’s still a half hour or more by bus or tram (streetcar) from downtown Geneva to any of the various border crossings.

Public transit in Geneva is generally free for tourists as far as the French border, at least if you are staying at a legitimate hotel or hostel rather than an off-the-books rental. There’s also a free bicycle loan program, although sadly it only operates seasonally, from approximately May through October

At the Geneva airport (GVA), look for the inconspicuous automated kiosk next to the exit from the baggage claim area dispensing free tickets for the train from the airport into downtown. From the airport, board any train, and get off at the next stop, the Gare Cornavin. You’ll be walking distance (or a short ride on one of the streetcars which stop in front of the mainline train station) from the city center. When you check in at your hotel or hostel, you should be given a free transit pass valid throughout Geneva for the duration of your stay. If you don’t get one automatically, ask at the front desk or concierge.

Surprisingly, one of the few things that’s genuinely affordable is cellphone service, including cellular data service. Lebara, a cellphone service provider targeting immigrants and international travellers whose services I’ve used before in the U.K. (and which also operates in France, Germany, Spain, and Australia, among other countries) now offers free SIM cards with local numbers in Switzerland as well. Incoming calls are free; outgoing calls within Switzerland are a fairly ordinary CHF0.35-0.45 (roughly 40-50 US cents) per minute. The real deal with Lebara is the price of outgoing international calls: calls to the USA are CHF0.03 (about 3 US cents) per minute, and calls to landlines in almost any country in Western Europe other than Switzerland are even cheaper! 1 GB of high-speed (3G) data and unlimited lower-speed (GPRS) data costs CHF15 (USD16) per month. As always when buying a local SIM card, don’t leave the shop until you’ve made sure your new SIM card is activated and working (test it with actual incoming and outgoing calls), and that you know how to check your prepaid credit balance and buy more credit. Get the voicemail and text-message menus switched to English if that’s an option.

If you are already going to Geneva, you probably already have your own list of things to see and do. Here are a few additional suggestions you might not have thought of:

On my previous visit to Geneva in 2009, I spent almost an entire day at the fascinating International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. When I visited Geneva again last month, the Red Cross museum was closed for a major expansion and a complete re-design of its exhibits. It’s scheduled to re-open on 18 May 2013. If you visit the new exhibits, please leave a comment or send me a message about what they are like. Like most Swiss museums, it’s expensive (CHF15, USD16 per adult), but the City Hostel and some other hostels have half-price vouchers for their guests.

Geneva is the site of the world’s preeminent institute for research in high-energy physics, the Centre Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN). The USA abandoned construction of the half-completed “Superconducting Super Collider” in Texas, which had been planned to be larger, some years ago, leaving the 27 km (17 mile) diameter underground ring of superconducting magnets at CERN as the world’s largest and most most powerful sub-atomic particle accelerator.

CERN has an interesting history which includes its own international treaty, pursuant to which it occupies a site which spans the Switzerland-France border.

CERN’s facilities are scattered around the underground accelerator ring in several Swiss and French villages, but a new streetcar (tram) line which went into service just this year runs from alongside the Gare Cornavin in downtown Geneva to the main CERN campus.

A couple of buildings on either side of the road at the tram terminus have exhibits that are open to visitors Monday through Saturday, except holidays, without reservations. Science nerds, however, will want to get on one of the free daily 2-3 hour bus tours of the complex led by volunteer scientist guides.

Perhaps understandably, few scientists want to take time away from their research to play tour guide for casual visitors, and there is only one tour (in English) of CERN each day. If you try to make reservations on the CERN Web site, you’ll always be told that the tours are sold out for months.

What you won’t be told is that a small number of places on each CERN tour are held open for last-minute bookings such as by VIP visitors, and that there are always a few cancellations or no-shows.

Show up at the visitor center (in the lobby of the building on the left side of the road just past the tram terminus) as soon as it opens at 8 a.m., or call the visitor center, +41-22-767-7676, at 8 a.m., to get on the waiting list for that day’s 10:30 a.m. guided bus tour. Once you are on the waiting list, you can spend the time while you wait in the other CERN exhibits, or go away and come back before 10:30.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 21 April 2013, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Hi. When I was at meetings at the ITU a few years back, I stayed in Ferney-Voltaire, across the border in France on the far side of the airport. It's not exactly cheap, but at least it's priced in euros. I got a zone 2 weekly transit pass at the airport train station and commuted in on the city bus, which took about 15 minutes each way. This was before Switzerland joined Schengen, but even then the customs inspection generally involved the bus driver and customs guy waving at each other as the bus slowed but did not stop.

I stayed in a studio apartment with a supermarket within walking distance so I made my own breakfasts and some dinners when I wasn't going out with other people. This doesn't help in other parts of Switzerland, of course, but I know a lot of people who regularly do this when in Geneva.

Re: the overpriced Swiss Franc, its current high exchange rate vs. the euro is kept from going even higher only by heroic efforts by the Swiss central bank, against the vast amount of safe haven money flooding in.

The rate isn't going to drop until people feel confident about the euro and that's not going to happen any time soon.

Posted by: John R. Levine, 24 April 2013, 09:47 ( 9:47 AM)
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