Friday, February 22, 2008

Commute by Bike!

I never have been able to do this, in any of my careers before. Biking to work in Northern Virginia is suicide. Not to mention too far, too hot, too scary and too cold. Traffic in Northern VA is terrible. The suburban sprawl has increased the number of houses to the west of the Washington DC area, but the number and quality of the roads have been slow to increase to match the population increase. It is said that there are three subjects that people can always small talk about. Politics, weather, sports. In Northern VA, there is a fourth: The traffic (or your commute this morning).

Everybody in Virginia has an opinion about traffic. "Oh, don't go on 28 between 7:35 and 9:30, you'll be in bumper-to-bumper!", "Oh you should take that cool bypass around Route 234." "Forget about getting on I-66 before the HOV lanes turn on." If you ask anybody who has lived in Virginia, they can give you detailed horror stories about how they hated their commutes, or at the very least, they all know the radio stations they like to listen to, as there is not much else to do in the car while sitting in traffic.

When I lived in Virginia, the location of the house was in South Riding, just southwest of Dulles International Airport. The office is in Sterling, northeast of Dulles Airport. There were two or three different paths to take to get to work. North in route 606, which is in places, an undivided highway of traffic going 96 kph (60 mph), giving me a very narrow 4 inches of real estate on the side of the road. Along this road drive 18 wheelers, and much worse: soccer moms driving their Chevy Suburbans primping their make up as they chat on their cell phones. I said suicide. I meant it.

The other path is north on Route 28, a 6 lane divided highway, a main thoroughfare between the Interstate I-66 and the Dulles Airport terminal. The traffic on this road, despite all the lanes, is usually stand-still in the morning, or at least creeping along at 32kph (20 mph). Still, there was a fatality of a poor guy on a bike a few years that I haven't forgotten about. Probably a soccer mom. By car, the commute is 16.6 miles (26 km) or 15.3 miles (24.6 km), depending on the route. The commute routinely takes 45 minutes during the morning, not so bad in the evening. That is an average of 20 miles per hour. For this suburban-sprawl induced traffic problem, I have sworn with words laced with anger and dripping with obscenities on a daily basis. If that is my average velocity in a car, I might as well have that commute on a bike.

So you must understand how excited I was when I came to Switzerland, and see people on bicycles everywhere.

Ever since we moved to Rüfenacht, taking the tram has been a source of impatience. I knew that the average velocity by tram was approximately that of me on a bike. So I started biking to the train station, to start my daily journey. My new commute consisted of: Walk to tram, 10 minutes. Wait for tram, 5 minutes, take tram to Gümligen, 10 mins, Wait for S1 to Fribourg, 3 minutes, 45 minutes to Fribourg, 5 minutes waiting for a bus, 10 minutes on a bus ride, and another 8 minutes walk down a hill to the office.

What an itinerary.

Well for the past 4 weeks, I have been taking the bike to the Gümligen train station, and sometimes even further into town, where i can catch a different tram to take me all the way to the central train station, Bern Bahnhof. The way to the train station in the morning is all down hill. If you drop the 10 minutes that it takes to walk down the hill to the tram stop, taking the bike is actually a shorter "door-to-door" commute time than taking the tram.

Since the way to work is all down-hill, and fast, I do in fact have a higher average velocity than the tram. One morning I got out late, and rode my bike past the tram as the passengers were boarding. What a perfect opportunity to test my theory that it takes about the same time on a bike as on a tram.

I peddled down that street as fast as I could. I was ahead of the tram. Whoosh! The tram passed me. Ah! but he's stopping. I peddled faster. Good thing this is down-hill. I pass the tram. I'm ahead! yay! The tram passes me again. We do this a few times, but his last two stops are close to each other, and I race by.

I had parked my bike, locked it up and was walking to the train platform as the tram shows up in Gümligen Station.

Since the S1 is a long ride, with many stops, and there are often no seats on the train in the morning (until we get to Bern), I have been doing an alternate course to get to work, which takes a little bit longer, but takes the InterCity train, which is bigger, nicer, quieter, and less stinky. This commute involves: bike to Eggholzli (which I think means 'little forest on the corner'), park my bike there, take the tram to Bern Bahnhof, and take the Intercity train to Fribourg that leaves every 30 minutes (on :04 and :34).

There are days that I wish I did not bike to work. The rain does not bother me so much, so those days I wish I did not bike don't happen to be the rainy ones. However, one day, after getting over a cold, and generally feeling spaced-out -- I was actually hoping that my bike had been stolen while I was gone. Most of the people here are trusting enough to lock up their back tire to their frame, and that is it. No locking up the bike to an immovable structure such as a pole, tree, bicycle rack, etc. This was a bit strange to me when I started the bicycle commuting. I am used to having those metal Kryptonite locks securely bolting the bike to something that would take a bulldozer to knock over. Once, I even locked my bike up, and forgot to take the key with me. The bike was not stolen.

It is clear to me that the bike I brought over was not well-equipped for commuting to work here in Switzerland. First of all, the gears are inappropriate at every speed. There has been times where I am racing down the hill to Gümligen at a very respectable pace, maxed out at the highest gear, and found myself being passed by a local Swiss.

Of course, since I am fat and pathetic, I am not surprised that I get passed going up-hill, either. But I did notice that even though I was going up-hill in the lowest gear, those who passed me had a faster rate of pedaling that did not match up with what I was doing. The only explanation for this must be in the gears. I find myself casually looking at the gears on the local Swiss bikes, and it becomes more apparent that these bikes are built for going up hills. The front gears are tiny and the back gears are huge. I guess I shouldn't feel too bad about not being able to climb the hill on the way back to home. (See how I gawk at other people's bikes in the next post, Stuff White People Like).

The return trip by bike has a modest up-slope which seriously reduces my return velocity. The grand finale is a terrible hill that might even have conquered me at my peak biking performance capabilities when I was 16 years old. I never get home without being out of breath and sweaty. I suppose it is better than getting to work out of breath and sweaty.

View Larger Map

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Swiss Education

Let's be honest. Jake may never forgive us for this trip to Switzerland. I have adjusted to be quite comfortable, even with the longer commute from Rüfenacht. The other kids seem to be have adjusted, made friends, gotten used to the change. Jake: not so much. "This is the worst thing you guys have ever done to me."

We sent him back to the US over the winter break to help cheer him up. I used 80,000 of my United Airlines frequent flyer miles to send him back in business class. We were hoping that this trip back to the US would remind him that he still has friends and family who support and care for him no matter what. Upon his return, (with a broken arm and a cast), we were hoping for a refreshed and renewed Jake ready to take on the new semester at school with enthusiasm and vigor.

Not so much.

"Dad, I hate the ISB." Jake mumbled. This was the same sentence that he has spoken many times before, as if it were a prayer chant, a meditation, a mantra. "Can I be home-schooled?"


"Can I go to a Swiss school?"

(Are you crazy?) OK we'll see what we can do.

The kids went to school at the ISB for one week. Friday was the "Ski day" where all students from the second grade on up go to a day's worth of skiing. The kindergarten kids and first graders go to the ice rink to go ice skating. Jake, of course, was not allowed to go skiing with his broken wrist. So he stayed home. But instead of actually staying home, he was given the opportunity to visit the local Swiss school in Rüfenacht. The school had a special day to try out the new environment called "Schnuppertag" (snooper day).

Jake enjoyed it. Actually said, "Let's try more". The school had a "Schnupperwoche" (snooper week) that Jake tried out the next week. Since the vacation days between the two schools are completely different, we decided to ask the other two kids at the ISB if they wanted to try the local Swiss school. They went to the local public school on the same week as Jake's "Schnupperwoche"

After a few days, it was pretty clear that they are no longer going to go to the ISB. They all chose this themselves. We didn't pressure them. We can't believe it either. All three children has withdrawn from the ISB, and are now attending the local Swiss schools full-time, in a fully German environment.

Josh is going to the Kindergarten named, this is so cliche, "Hansel und Gretel". The class is all in Swiss German, and he has no clue what is being said. He just follows along and plays with the kids. There are rules in the Swiss education system that prevent Kindergarten from being like the Kindergarten in the US, where it is almost as much pressure on the poor Kindergarten kids to learn as is pressure on the high school kids trying to get into college. So in a Swiss Kindergarten, you're pretty much guaranteed to goof off, play, get in lines, sing, stuff like that. No writing, or reading, or deconstruction of iambic pentameter.

Jake spends the day in intensive German training. He goes to some of the classes that involve not much lecture; classes like Gym, or Industrial Arts. Cecilia has much the same schedule.

I may give more details on the kid's educational progress and schedules in the next few posts.


Moving is a serious pain. You would think that moving once every 5 years would be enough. You might even think that moving once in the last six months would prevent any plans for moving any time in the near future.

Apparently the pain of cramming all of our family in that tiny apartment in Bern was too much to handle for my wife and kids. There was no place for the kids to retreat. Any time they walked down the hall any louder than a tip-toe, and I would yell at them to walk more quietly. I am sure that the neighbor below appreciated this. Eventually, everybody realized they were miserable, my wife included. She even was toying around with taking the kids back to the US without me, until my contract to stay here finished out. What a revoltin' development!

My wife set out to find some place new. She found several places, all of which made my daily commute even worse than we already had. There was one in Oberscherli, which wasn't that far from our apartment in Bern. After a review of the public transportation, I found out that I would have to get a Post bus that comes twice an hour, and then take another bus to the Bern Bahnhof train station. Total projected commute time, one way: one hour 56 minutes. Up from one hour, 10 minutes. Amazing, considering that this place was only a few km away from the first apartment.

Oberdiessbach, even further away. The house was awesome, the view stunning, the commute beyond dreadful. Apparently Stacy was taking this this "One man's quiet suffering" idea to the morbid extreme.

Finally she found this cute little cottage two tram stops from the International School of Berne, within a short walk of Joey's baby sitter. A short tram ride from the Gümlingen train station, which takes me straight to Fribourg. The same rent as the apartment in Bern, more space, a yard to play in, a parking space, and a most spectacular view of the Alps from the dining room table.

Faced with the very uncomfortable prospect of paying double-rent for another 8 months, Stacy set out to find some renters for the apartment in Bern, so that we could break the lease with, as the Swiss call it "ein Nachmieter" (an after-renter). We set up an ad in the local newspapers, and on-line to find a renter right away. During the whole month of December, we had two visitors. (This is really not the best time of year to rent out an apartment). Things were looking pretty desperate, and we had no prospects to assume the rental of the apartment when we finally moved in January.

With so few prospects, this was an increasingly more revoltin' development!

Anybody who expressed a vague interest in the apartment was met with great enthusiasm on our part. We met everybody who wanted to see the apartment. There were a few guys who got out of medical school and were looking to find a place after their landlord decided he wanted his apartment back since he was coming back from an extended relocation to Ireland. They were desperate to find a place to live, they need it now! And I have just the place!

We showed them the place in the first few weeks of January, and they indicated their interest, eventually signing the lease two weeks ago, to take residence in the middle of February. Stacy had the protocol inspection with the tenants, a real estate agent, and a representative for the cleaning crew just yesterday, and as of last evening, we are finally free of that apartment! I should have a drink to celebrate.

We've been here for 6 weeks as of today, and have been settled in quite well. The kids seem happy -- something we certainly haven't seen in them during the crowded months at Somazzistrasse. We have met the two neighbors who share the house, a very nice lady above us, who was originally from Muri, lived in Berlin for 20-some years, and has recently moved back to Switzerland. The other neighbors have lived in this shared dwelling for a very long time. He first moved into this dwelling in 1945, when he was 8 years old. Retired, and terribly nice.

We have also gotten the "yellin' at" from the locals too. Not by the neighbors mentioned in the above paragraph, but by the neighbor who got angry at us for some cardboard we left out on the sidewalk, that wasn't picked up by the local trash company. As many of you Americans may think that the trash company is at fault for not picking up the trash, please understand that in this case, "the customer is not always right." Here, the trash company is usually right. We didn't follow the protocol for the recycling of cardboard and newspaper -- all cardboard has to be neatly tied up. We just chucked the cardboard -- neatly stacked -- into a big cardboard box and hoped for the best. We got away with this sort of behavior in Bern, but not here in the Worb Gemeinde.

Not good enough. They didn't pick it up, I didn't notice. A day went by. It rained. The angry neighbor shuffled through the papers, and found our address and left an anger-o-gram on the outside of the box. We didn't notice the cardboard or the anger-o-gram. Another day goes by. The neighbor visits Stacy during the day and gives Stacy a good yellin'-at -- in Bärndutsch. Well, in Switzerland, I guess it's not home until you get yelled at by a local about some critical trash or noise violation. The Swiss are sensitive to trash, and especially sensitive to noise.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Understanding French as a Beginner

As you may know, I live in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and work in the French-speaking part. I've been sick all weekend with some sort of cold, and couldn't wake up in time to catch the normal train to Fribourg. My wife took pity on me and drove me to work. She came into the office with me, and was greeted by an elevator full of Cartier watchmakers (who work in the same building), all in their white lab-coats. Each of the lab-coated technicians greeted us with "Bonjour!" and Stacy later remarked that she almost responded with the Bernese German response "Gruess-ech Mitenand!"

We haven't bothered to learn French, as it just confuses the language learning process. My brain gets melted enough by trying to learn the Bernese German dialect... However, I have had the opportunity to pick up a few words here and there. Here is an excellent music video describing my French-Switzerland experience pretty well. The band who made this is called "Flight of the Conchords" and they have some amazingly funny music that can be seen on YouTube.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Links and Stuff

This is kind of Interesting. Since I'm a member of the Civil Air Patrol, although I don't ever do any search and rescue operations, especially now that I'm here in Switzerland. This article in Air & Space Magazine describes the search for Steve Fossett.

I have recently found the FAIL blog to be worthy of repeated visits. . I also find daily amusement with the Shipment Of Fail. "A Fail so Epic, it is a Win!!!"

Speaking of Fail, I found this web clip which seems to reinforce the idea that Europeans have -- think that Americans are dumb. After seeing this video, I have to agree.

A friend sent me this video commemorating the 25 Years of DNS.

All of my fellow Ex-pat co-workers have made it back to the US for a visit, and they all crow about how great the Mexican food is. There is a Mexican restaurant in Geneva I might make a trip to visit -- to see if it might help out that craving for a burrito that won't go away. Still no Taco Bells, Baja Fresh or Chipotle here in Europe from what I can tell.

I have recently been on a mission to get caught up with old high school, college friends and co-workers. I have rapidly expanded my LinkedIn profile, to help keep in touch. If anybody ever did a Google search for me, I would be pretty easy to find. The fact that I don't get a lot of random emails from friends probably means that people aren't thinking enough about me to bother doing a Google search. (I guess I should take the hint?) Anyway, I was recently looking to get in touch with a high school friend named Henry, with whom I had kept loose contact, the last I had heard from him in 2003. Well, unfortunately, he was killed in a tragic car crash last week.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Neat Day at Work

I was originally going to title this as "Hoo-ray! We Didn't Melt the Internet!" but I think some people at my office wouldn't find that so funny.

Did you notice?

Hey I actually helped make a part of this historic occasion! I work with the team that activated two of the root servers mentioned in this article on BBC. Actually, in the wee hours of this morning, I was doing lots of work on the servers, even before the world knew about them. I'm waiting for Slashdot to write about it, but it would appear that they're too focused on the RIAA actually notice. (I'm listed in this one)

I don't generally like to write about work on the blog, I try to keep it to personal matters. So. Sorry for the diversion.