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024: travel : Europe : Switzerland: What is Basel like?


photo collage of scenes from Basel, Switzerland by A.E. Graves



(For additional images of Basel, see my Google+ album "Basel, Switzerland - August 2013".)

From summer 2013 through summer 2014, I had the great privilege of dividing my time between my employer's San Francisco Bay Area office, and the Swiss headquarters of its global corporate parent. HQ is scattered across many buildings beside the Rhine River in Basel, a city originally founded in the 300s (yes, you read that correctly) of under 200,000 people, which sits on Switzerland's borders with France and Germany.

A city with houses in active use which are OLDER THAN MY NATION.

Until this project, I had been to Europe exactly twice: once to visit France a decade ago, and then not again until spring of 2013 for my first visit to dear friends in Sweden. Unexpectedly, I spent twelve months going to Europe every [single digit] WEEKS in the oddest (and longest) commute I've ever had, to a country I had never given much thought to visiting, but which I came to adore.

Now that my regularly scheduled trips have ended, even while I am still months behind in sorting through the photos I took on my weekends off, I can look back and think about the impressions Basel made on me, and write about them here.

What is Basel, Switzerland LIKE?

The super-short answer is that it is a small, Swiss city where the streetcars are immaculate and frequent, where there is no litter, where everyone appears to be wealthy-but-classy-about it, where every district appears to be a high-end shopping district, where bicycles have underground parking with mechanics on duty, where all the important buildings have a clock mounted on them and ALL buildings are well-maintained, and where there is no crime. (Well, okay, that could have been shorter.) But there is more.

BASEL-STADT CANTON RELATIVE TO SWITZERLAND AND ITS BORDERS

Switzerland has four official languages, and everyone you meet is multi-lingual. Imagine needing to speak Italian, French, German, and English to work in a restaurant or hotel! They do that there. Smoothly, even. Especially in Basel-Stadt, the canton where Basel is located, since it's sitting on two borders, and its suburbs spill across both of them. It's funny to hear someone speaking German, and then suddenly say, "Voila!" But that cross-border influence is normal. Locality has affected other words: the word for bicycle, which would be Radfahrer in German, becomes a more French Velo in Basel.

A pleasant side-effect of the effort people there make in studying other languages is that they are very patient with my attempts at German (or sometimes French). They empathize. Also, they speak slower than lots of German-speakers from elsewhere, which I appreciate! (Special note: if someone switches to English while speaking with you, don't feel discouraged. You can freely switch back and forth at any point when you are confident - they aren't telling you to give up, they are just trying to be understood. Unless you are German, in which case, they are MESSING with you for sport. :))

Basel's location means that I have taken DAY TRIPS to France, to hike the Alps, to Zürich, and to the Swiss capital, Bern. I have taken weekend trips on the way in or out to Belgium (by train) and Sweden (by air), thanks to reasonable rail and airfares (try Zürich for airfares over Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, but add the cost of the train to get there to calculate the complete cost).

BASELDEUTSCH

The Canton sits squarely in the German-speaking region of Switzerland, and the local dialect, Baseldeutsch (en.wikipedia.org), is reputed to be distinctive, not just because it has associations that other Swiss dialects don't (see the "Low Alemannic" pages at wikipedia), and perhaps not even because of the words it shares with French, which I associate with the shared border, but also it has its own words. Words that aren't used in other parts of Switzerland, and intentionally so. When I described shredded paper thrown during a certain festival to a local, he told me that the word I used would cause me to be mistaken for someone from Zürich (a problem I'd love to be fluent enough to have!) unless I used the local word (baselinsider.ch), which he provided. I can always get a laugh from a local by talking about words like this, which are a local specialty, a secret code, a source of local pride, and something which the locals are happy to share when I ask directly about their words and tell them I want to know more.

FOOD

Basel is an international convention center, and so caters to travelers. I can get great Spanish food, honorably made Japanese rahmen noodles in delicious vegetarian broth with my choice of authentic toppings, fabulous Italian foods, authentic Vietnamese food, homey and delicious Turkish food, and plenty of local Swiss specialties, some prepared in innovative ways. The local specialties run from what we Americans would call "comfort food," like local versions of baked macaroni and cheese, to fresh breads, fresh berries, light pastas, baked pastries, whole grain breads, and lots of local dairy products in a range of forms (cheese plates, amazing chilled desserts). Everything is labeled as to where it is from, even on restaurant menus. I've found Basel to be comfortably vegetarian-friendly, despite the German influences in the most traditional veal-and-sausage-and-cheese restaurants.

"SWISS PRICES"

Switzerland is expensive: when trying to prepare someone for a visit, I warned them that the previously mentioned bowl of rahmen would cost about $20. It's almost impossible to have a hot breakfast for less than $35; dinner without wine for one person can easily cost $70; don't ask what it is WITH wine. (Did I mention the white Swiss wines are good, great French reds are abundant, and the southern German beers are amazing? Their beer is so fresh, it is a different beverage from what you know of even the better bottled beers...) The locals who work there talk about going to France to shop, because the prices in this unusually wealthy country are astoundingly high. I've often amused myself by looking at clothes in a window, and trying to guess how many thousands of dollars that particular outfit would cost... No, I'm not exaggerating.

PRIVATE LIVES & SOCIALIZING

This part is tricky, because it's something I don't entirely understand, but I've been piecing together from other long-term visitors and relocated residents. I am a 'sunny Californian,' and my positive experiences in Basel are limited to a year of business trips involving formally, work-related social events, plus interactions with people who work in the hospitality and retail sales industries - people who are professionally friendly, especially at restaurants where I "am known to" them. Something like a quarter of the country's population is foreign-born, and the colleagues who describe this to me are ALL foreign-born, so keep this in mind.

Here goes: I've spoken to really lovely young women who would be fending men off with a stick here, who speak of the complete impossibility of the dating scene, and of the impossibility of establishing a serious relationship with locals, who might flirt and toy with expatriates, but are only serious about other Swiss. I've heard of other expatriates leaving the country on weekends, to visit places that are... social. I've spoken with an outgoing, pleasant, long-time European expatriate who said that, in a decade of working there, he has never ONCE been invited into a Swiss colleague's home for dinner, which would be unthinkable in his own country or others he has worked & lived in.

I have no balanced perspective, because I'm someone who has taken nearly all of meals with work colleagues at certain (San Francisco) Bay Area companies, who has taken interstate VACATIONS with Bay Area colleagues, who has regular dining haunts and seasonal traditions outside of the office with Bay Area colleagues... Yes, I have visited nearly all of the homes of the vast majority of my close Bay Area colleagues from past employment, and (depending on the size of my apartments at any given time), have packed various combinations of many of them into my home(s) at various times. (I have mentioned I'm Californian, right? :) ) So my expectation is that certain colleagues WILL BE integrated into my private social life, and that this is a normal expectation.

I don't have a view on why my non-Swiss colleagues have experienced this exclusion. I was just visiting, and was engaged with work and with weekend tourism while I was there. But I have been... warned, gently, not to expect inclusion if I ever spend a block of time living there. I don't think is a warning I've heard about anywhere else, so I find it novel.

ARCHITECTURE

As you might be able to guess by the photo collage near the top of the page, the city has a mix of buildings that are hundreds of years old, and ultra-new, contemporary architecture. Some of these are adjacent to each other on the street, filling out the European street-wall model (the streets are lined with buildings which touch, or nearly so), and... it works. It works well.

I especially love the old buildings that look like they've been cut in half, and the gorgeous, red, mural-covered town hall. (See some of my photos of Basel on a cloudy visit here.)

VISUAL ARTS

Basel has some impressive museums, and takes its fine arts culture seriously. The local banks and pharma companies seem to compete for sponsorships of major cultural events, especially in the visual arts, and it's almost impossible to escape publicity for the latest art show. How cool is that? And yes, it is the home of Art Basel (artbasel.com), THE big art fair that has branch events at other key locations around the world. Basel even has ANCIENT visual arts - there is a paper mill with a paper & printing museum, filled with illuminated manuscripts, printing presses, and other cool stuff that thrills my printed-word-geek core.

EVENTS

I'm not saying you can get a room in Basel during Art Basel. I've been told you can't. Some of my business events have had to take into account major art fairs, major jewelry fairs, major watch fairs, major pharmaceutical fairs... all resulting in rescheduling our events, which would be nearly impossible to hold during sold-out conditions. (Yes, I've had to book a room in France and commute in by train on one occasion, when all 65 hotels I am allowed to book rooms at had SOLD OUT.) The convention industry does well for itself in Basel, and when it isn't occupying all of the space there, cultural festivals, Christmas markets, pop music concerts, and professional tennis championships take up the slack.

Basel is especially famous for Basler Fasnacht, the biggest Carnival festival in Switzerland, which I've turned up for (people in baboon masks, throwing oranges, as you wade through confetti that is ankle-deep all over town...) and Basel Tattoo, a military music festival (frivolous night parachuting and fireworks!). Yes, it IS fun to follow drum and fife corps as they wander through town at odd hours.

WHY I ADORE BASEL

Yes, it is expensive, and far from home, possibly socially challenging, hosts big events that make it difficult to get a room there, uses nearly-secret words in its own dialect which don't appear in any dictionary, AND when I'm there, I work crazy-stupid-long hours... but I'm a visual artist, and Basel's mix of new and old buildings in its two major town centers does a lot for me. There is always some detail to look at, some odd building with painted shutters, some fountain tucked into the entrance of an apartment, some sculpture which unexpectedly appears in a square, which I feel I should be photographing or drawing (or both). I've produced no great Basel-inspired works yet, but I'm still 8 months behind in sorting my photos, plus I now own a full set of Swiss-made, professional grade watercolor pencils (and made some nice, abstract sketches during a rainy trip there), so there is still hope. :)

The cafes are great, the restaurants are great (and I'm there on expenses!!), the museums are great, and the Rhine is lovely year-round, reflecting the sky in all weather, always available to walk along when I need to clear my mind and get some fresh air.

Basel has also spoiled me by being so friendly to foreigners, especially foreigners like me who can speak some transactional German, giggle over my gaps in knowledge, and ask freely for vocabulary assistance. (My hardest question: asking the name of the city's mascot in English. (Basilisk!!)) People are polite. Strangers hold streetcar doors open for me. It is easy to get around by streetcar and on foot. Having worked (and walked) there so much, the city's streets and weather are reassuringly familiar. I have HABITS. I am comfortable there.

And, something that is a bigger deal than I imagine, Basel feels so SAFE. Yes, I grew up in a neighborhood where gunshots were common enough that, upon moving away, I felt something was MISSING when I didn't hear gunfire at night. I have excuses for this (I lived on a big hill with an expansive view, and could hear sound for miles!), but... I have lived in quieter, safer places for years, but that experience shaped me. I have spent my life as a big-city, street-smart, safety-aware American woman, taking countless, automatic precautions for my safety, and it feels so UNNECESSARY there, in immeasurably common ways. Like Japan, it's the kind of place where you only lock your bike so someone doesn't mistake yours for theirs, and take it accidentally. But... more so, because there seems to be no "want," which changes the way everything feels.

I had no real expectations of what Switzerland would be like, and have been quite pleasantly surprised by my experience visiting for work. Perhaps, by the time I catch up on my photo backlog (mid-2015??), I'll be able to visit again!


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images and original text Copyright © 2014 A. E. Graves

(posted December 5, 2014)

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