Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Supermarket Showdown

This title may sound like a hideous new game show combining the theme of Supermarket Sweep with the final round of The Price is Right, but thankfully it isn't. For Mickey and I, meeting our most basic need - feeding ourselves, has been a challenge not because we don't like the food here, but because getting it requires a trip to the sometimes not so super market. It's not that we minded bringing our own grocery bags, weighing and pricing our produce, bagging our purchases and never shopping on Sundays, it was hunting for the items on our shopping list that made every trip an adventure. Sometimes our supermarket simply doesn't have a particular food item we need for a recipe, other times they do carry it but we don't know its German name and we have to pull out Mickey's Blackberry in the baking aisle, search Google translate and find out that yeast is hefe.

There are two major supermarket chains here in Switzerland: Coop (pronounced 'cope') and Migros (pronounced without the 's' sound). Migros supermarkets come in three sizes: M, MM and MMM. As you might have guessed, the single Ms are small (only a slightly bigger than a liquor store, just more crowded) and carry only basic items, double Ms are larger and satisfy most of your shopping needs while triple Ms are suburban monsterplexes with not just food, but clothing, books, toys, linens and everything else under the sun. I've never seen a triple M, but I doubt it's as big as a Super Walmart. I know that bigger isn't always better and I didn't move to Switzerland to shop anywhere that resembles a Super Walmart, but it seemed unfair to compare my local Safeway in San Jose with my neighborhood double M. Until now...

On March 22 of this year, after more than ten years of planning, negotiations and construction, Sihl City opened for business. Sihl City is a shoppertainment plaza not unlike The Block in Orange or Pasadena's El Paseo featuring a movie theater, restaurants, shops, a hotel and, of course, a supermarket. This mall isn't even half the size of either of the aforementioned southern California outdoor shopping meccas, but it is enormous for Swiss standards. As luck would have it, Sihl City is a three minute walk from my door; it's even closer than my double M. Now that my Rivermark Safeway has found a worthy adversary in my brand new Super Coop, let's see how the two stack up in an aisle by aisle showdown.

Wine and Spirits

Here, Super Coop is at a disadvantage because they aren't licensed to sell hard alcohol; they only have wine and beer. However, their wine selection is vast and they stock enough bottles to intoxicate the entire city. So if you wanted mojitos on a whim, Safeway is your one stop shop, but if you want a bottle of wine to impress even French dinner guests, Super Coop has you covered. We'll call it a tie. Safeway: 1; Super Coop: 1.


It is hard to compete with California in this department. I've been spoiled by the salad greens from Salinas, seedless table grapes from the San Joaquin valley and avocados from my own backyard. You'd think that globalization would have made it possible to enjoy all of these fresh treats no matter where you shop, but this isn't the case. Swiss produce is labeled as such at Super Coop and government subsidies make it a lot more affordable than off season strawberries imported from Chile. I'm happy to support local farmers, but they simply don't grow peaches, cilantro or squash. And by Saturday evenings (remember that you can't shop on Sundays), Super Coop has run out of the few fruits and vegetables that they normally stock. Sorry, Super Coop, this is a runaway victory for the California store. Safeway: 2; Super Coop: 1.

Meat and Poultry

Do you like having variety when you shop for your bratwurst? If so, Super Coop is an excellent choice for pork sausage and lamb. If you're looking for anything else, shop at Safeway. I was raised on chicken and good ol' American beef and unfortunately for me, these are some of Super Coop's most expensive meat products. It would be fair to call this one a tie because superiority depends on personal preference, but Safeway's seafood section secures the win. The seafood section (or freezer) at Super Coop is what you'd expect from a landlocked country; need I say more? Safeway: 3; Super Coop: 1.


Perhaps the fact that Safeway's own line of dairy products is called 'Lucerne' (the name of a Swiss town and lake) lends a clue as to which market has the superior dairy products. I imagine that the marketing executives at Safeway branded their dairy products with the 'Lucerne' label to conjure images of rolling green hills and charming cowbells in the minds of shoppers. I don't know how effective this strategy is, but I do know that Super Coop has the real thing. They have milk, of course, with as much or as little fat, vitamins and pasteurization you could dream up. Unsurprisingly, the cheese and yogurt aisles extend half the length of the store. I now stock my fridge with Gruyeres, Emmantaler and fresh mozzarella and have boldly experimented with Camembert and Appenzeller. Likewise, I try to select a new and tasty yogurt with every trip to the market, fooling myself into believing that this sour milk is a healthy choice when it's really a dessert in disguise. Super Coop also carries a fantastic selection of creamy goodies right next to the yogurt which don't pretend to be anything but dessert. You can buy individual servings of chocolate puddings, panna cotta, creme brulee and even flan in a little glass jar. Still, there's a special place in my heart (or is it my thighs?) for Safeway's cheeses: cheddar, Muenster, pepper jack and queso fresco (Mexican cheese). I'll reunite with them when I get home, but for now, I'll live the life of a dairy queen. Safeway: 3; Super Coop: 2.


Back in my Safeway shopping days, I was always a sliced bread girl. It was cheap and it made sense for sandwiches. After living in Switzerland for just four short months, however, I have converted to purchasing fresh, whole loaves and rolls. I enjoy the brown nutty, seedy rolls with lots of butter, but zoft, a gorgeous lumpy white bread is my new favorite. Super Coop's bakery also features fresh croissants, flaky fruit pastries and some kuchen, or cakes. What's missing from this carboholic's paradise, though, are two of my all time favorite foods, cookies and pies. Super Coop sells plenty of what I consider biscuits, the small shortbread cookies that accompany tea or coffee, but they lack as-big-as-my-hand, chunkalicious cookies with chocolate chips and nuts. I rarely allow myself these indulgences at either store, though, so Super Coop with its fresh bread is the clear winner. Safeway: 3; Super Coop: 3.

It seems that the showdown has ended in a tie; Safeway's cornucopia of fresh produce, meat and poultry is a blessing to Atkins dieters while Super Coop's dairy and bakery can turn bread and cheese into a fancy feast. One of the best parts of living in a different country is adding new, local items to your regular shopping list. Sure, it was disappointing to cross fresh salsa and hummus off my list, but replacing these with Swiss chocolates and ready-made pastry dough has been delicious.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Beauty and the Underbelly

Because the Swiss get Good Friday and Easter Monday off from work, Easter is a glorious four day weekend whether you celebrate the resurrection of Christ or a visit from the Easter Bunny. Mickey and I celebrated in our own way by devouring a two foot tall chocolate bunny and taking a road trip around Switzerland. None of this (neither the trip nor the consumption of the bunny) would have been possible without the patience and generosity of our friends Daniel and Sirpa. After four days, three nights, ten stops and 1,000 kilometers on Sirpa’s electric blue Puegot, we have seen Switzerland but are still hungry for more. To learn more about our travel route, click here.

When Daniel remarked at one point that we should take a ‘scenic route’ to our next destination, I had to laugh because the term doesn’t seem to apply to Switzerland. The whole country is so magnificent, I challenge someone to find a route that isn’t scenic here. While riding along the Thuner See, I glanced at the other drivers and wondered if the majestic alps and shimmering lake ever failed to inspire them. Do they think, ‘wow, I am lucky to live here’ on their commutes to and from work or does the scenery become commonplace? I imagine that these drivers re-appreciate the beauty of their homeland when they return from long trips abroad. Perhaps I too will gaze on the Pacific coast and the Golden Gate Bridge with a fresh eye when I eventually return to California, the land I love.

We enjoyed spectacular weather the whole weekend and the warm, clear days only added to the splendor. I thought often of Joanna Spyri’s famous story and my favorite film adaptation with Shirley Temple because we were indeed in Heidi land. Any one of the abandoned winter cow sheds could have passed for Grandfather’s hermitage and all the fields resembled those where Heidi and Peter led the goats to graze. Yes, this is the sort of place where sickly girls like Clara can fill up on fresh dairy products and learn how to walk. Perhaps a little Alpine air can cure almost any ill. And I think this is what the Swiss Tourism Bureau wants us to believe.

The Swiss authorities are pleased when we order fondue and bring home cuckoo clocks as souvenirs, but I get the impression that they don’t want to share their Heidi land with permanent visitors. While on this perfect adventure through this outwardly gorgeous country, Switzerland’s less pretty side emerged. It became glaringly apparent just how much the Swiss dislike foreigners and particularly immigrants from what was once Yugoslavia. I must admit that the Swiss have been nothing but friendly and helpful to me, but I have heard racist stereotypes about ex-Yugoslavians on several occasions. People accuse them of not trying to integrate themselves with Swiss society, driving loud cars, wearing flashy clothes and committing a disproportionate amount of crime. I heard of someone who wanted satellite TV, but did not install a dish on her balcony because it would make her look like an ex-Yugoslavian.

The manager of a hotel in Interlakken recommended a particular cafe with the following anecdote: ‘Go to _______ for a coffee. They charge five Francs for one coffee, but they have to. They used to charge three, but then the ex-Yugoslavians came and put their feet up on the tables, so they had to raise the price to five.’ To say that Americans don’t make similar disparaging remarks about immigrant populations would be a lie, but I had never heard such politically incorrect ideas from otherwise quite lovely individuals.* However, I guess therein lies one of the differences between prejudice here in Switzerland and at home in the States. Whereas at home showing racial bias is an absolute taboo, here in Switzerland making fun of foreigners is an acceptable national pastime. Whether it is done publicly or behind closed doors, it is unfortunate that immigrants are disrespected. My country was created and is maintained by the hands and hearts of hard working immigrants and I know that Switzerland couldn’t survive without them either.

Still, we enjoyed a fantastic romp about Switzerland. When I first got home, though, I felt a little disappointed that I couldn’t cross any major destinations off my mental list of sites to see. We stayed in Interlakken, but decided not to ascend its greatest tourist attraction, the Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe. Likewise, we spent one night in Lausanne but did not visit the Olympic Museum at the IOC headquarters. We did see the Matterhorn, a peak in southwestern Switzerland made famous by Toblerone wrappers and a ride by the same name at Disneyland, but were not allowed to get up close because it was too crowded and late in the day. Even from far away it was breathtaking. I learned once that Disney’s Matterhorn is a scale replica of the real one, but maybe that’s just one of those factoids that Orange County kids dream up when they get season passes to the happiest place on earth. Anyway, Switzerland’s superior public transportation system makes it easy for me to return to these places another time. Besides, isn’t it better to be left wanting more as opposed to crossing something off your list and never caring to return?
Again, I didn’t make it to Switzerland’s most famous Alps, but my travel checklist looks something like this:

Double Cream in Grueyere – Check

Are you familiar with a subtle yellow cheese by the same name? Yeah, it comes from this charming, pedestrian only town where the locals try to outdo each other with colorful window boxes. Besides its famous cheese served in fondue form, Grueyere’s other famous dish is double cream poured atop fresh raspberries. Did they double the time it takes to whip this cream or did they double the calories? I don’t care if they tripled the calories, it was that good.

Beautiful Old Churches Everywhere – Check

We have already chosen a wedding venue, but some of these cathedrals would have made picture perfect wedding sites. Even the catholic churches here in Switzerland are a lot less ornate than those in Italy and Spain, but I think the Swiss prefer it that way.

Decent Mexican Food in Lausanne – Incredibly... Check

Okay, so the salsa was more like marinara and the margarita glasses were rimmed with sugar and not salt, but this was the most authentic taste of Mexico we’ve had in months! The fajitas included grilled bell peppers and were actually served on a skillet. Sirpa said that Zurich also used to have a Poco Loco, but it went out of business. Maybe their menus that are so large you need eye holes to see your date just didn’t appeal to Zurichers.

Castle Ruins in Sion – Check

The gentle fluttering of hundreds of butterflies added to the enchantment of this hilltop fortress. I could easily imagine myself in a historical romance novel. I would eavesdrop on gossip about the chambermaid and the knight while taking my lunch on the esplanade.

One of the best parts of this trip was just dining alfresco with good friends. I imagine that if someone followed the same route that we did on a different weekend in different weather conditions, it would still be scenic, but they would experience a different Switzerland. Maybe they would never notice how xenophobic the Swiss can be. I suppose that every rose, even one as radiant as Switzerland, has its thorn.

* Note: My employers are an important exception to this trend. I have never heard them say anything disrespectful about foreigners.