I’ve (almost) reached the close of my first week abroad, so it’s time to tell y’all what I’ve been up to.
A piece of information that I’ve neglected to talk about before but I think is relevant: The BU Geneva study abroad program consists of our Physics group (16 students), a group of International Relations majors (22), and a group of Public Health students (18), for a total of 56 students. The latter two groups are referred to as the “internship kids”, because they take on internships with various international organizations starting in March, and then leave Geneva at the beginning of May. Until then, excursions and other outings sponsored by BU include all 56 of us.
Sunday – Monday, 15 – 16 January
My flights all went according to plan. No delays, average security lines, and minimal leg room. Dan and I watched Star Trek Beyond and fought for elbow room while eating airplane food as we crossed the Atlantic.
Once at Genève Aéroport, we took a taxi to our new home for the semester on the banks of the Rhone. We arrived and were greeted by one of our RAs, Gordy. I was promptly informed that Dan and I would be living on Gordy’s floor and ours was the only floor with a rice cooker! Great start to the day.
I dropped my luggage in my room on the first floor (aka the second floor in America) and then met everyone else in the basement/common room/kitchen for a special welcome breakfast, including hard-boiled eggs, Swiss cheese, salami, and smoked salmon. Mostly I was just excited for coffee since my body still thought it was 4am and I hadn’t slept very well on the flights.
We got some quick introductions during breakfast and then were released to unpack a bit before tours started. The building tour helped us get acquainted with our home, which consists of five residential floors, each with a kitchen and room for about 12 residents; the basement/common area, with a TV, bookshelf, and board games; and the first floor, where the administrative offices and a couple study rooms are located.
Next was a neighborhood tour, where we found the currency exchange, cell phone stores, the bus stop, and Lake Geneva. We swarmed the transports publics genevois (TPG) office to buy our monthly tram passes. Later, I went out to buy a Swiss SIM card for my phone and picked up some groceries. We didn’t have time to go to France for cheap groceries yet, but hunger does not wait for France. Instead, we tried a store down the street called Migros. After all we had heard about Geneva’s prices, I was ready for the worst, but I was pleasantly surprised by the prices. Most items were still relatively expensive (especially meat), but I felt comfortable buying cans of beans for chili and other small items for less than CHF 15 (CHF stands for Swiss Francs, “CH” being standard shorthand for Switzerland. More on that in another post. At the time of this writing, 1 CHF = 1 USD.)
After putting away groceries, Dan and I walked to my audition (which I talked about in my last post). The walking path took us along the lake and over a bridge, the Pont du Mont-Blanc. I had hoped this audition would be similar to most of my previous auditions, where each hopeful actor or actress would fill out an audition form, pick up a monologue or scene, and perform it in front of the director individually or perhaps with another auditionee. Unfortunately, this audition required everyone to stay for the full three hours—something I was not prepared for after a day of traveling and little sleep. I stayed for over an hour and a half before I got my chance to perform, and I decided it wasn’t worth staying to read another scene, so Dan and I went home. I found out later in the week that I was not cast, but I am neither surprised nor disappointed. Maybe I’ll try a staged reading with them in the future.
My roommates and I stayed up until 11 at night to fight the jet lag, and then I passed out in my bottom bunk.
Tuesday, 17 January
Today the group took a tram (Genevan subway equivalent) to a University of Geneva building called “UniMail”. (Contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with postage. It refers to the street on which this location of UniGe is situated.) We were given an orientation about Geneva and Switzerland followed by a brief tour of the building. After that, some friends and I went to the main train station, Gare Cornavin, to purchase a rail pass that allows us to travel throughout Switzerland at a discounted rate.
Next was a scavenger hunt. We were split up into teams by floor and given a packet of instructions and destinations. Points of interest included the Palais des Nations and Reformation Wall at the Parc des Bastions. Our team didn’t win the 4.5kg Toblerone for finishing first, but getting to escape the wind and come inside afterwards was prize enough.
Wednesday, 18 January
Again, we took the tram to UniMail for another round of orientation. We learned a lot about student life, including what excursions and activities we could do around the university. Most of the internship students had their first classes today, but we physics students were free for the rest of the day. A few of us went to another nearby grocery store where the prices were a bit better, including dark chocolate for CHF 0.60.
Thursday, 19 January
Today was our first French class. I was registered for the advanced course, but once in the class, I didn’t feel sufficiently prepared for this level of immersion. I’ve taken three semesters of French in college but my grammar and conjugation are still messy.
But then we got to visit CERN! We took a 40-minute tram ride out to Meyrin, Switzerland, and got a brief tour on the way to the registration center. The visit was mostly for sorting out logistics: we officially registered with CERN’s offices and received our ID badges. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. I’ve never been so excited to receive a lanyard.
We also met the instructor for our computing course that will take place on the CERN campus. We then made sure to take an obnoxious amount of pictures with the giant CERN logo in the lobby. The receptionist probably hates us.
Friday, 20 January
I tried the intermediate French class today and felt much more comfortable, so I made the official switch.
With nothing else to do until dinner, a few friends and I took the tram to Moillesulaz, a French town right on the border with allegedly cheaper groceries. We visited a supermarket called Spar and bought some meat and rice, but I was rather unimpressed with the prices. We’ll have to delve deeper into France to try another grocery store next time.
Tonight was also our welcome dinner! We were treated to a lavish dinner at Café Papon, an elegant restaurant in Geneva’s historic Old Town. Our first course was risotto au parmesan et safran, a rice dish topped with a parmesan chip and a dash of saffron (apparently the most expensive spice in the world?) The main course was “civet de joue de bœuf mitonné au four, confit de courge”, which translates to something about “beef cheek” (we thought it was just really tender beef) and a pumpkin mash. (My three neighbors and I were commended for having the cleanest plates–it was delicious.) For dessert, we were served “tarte fine aux pommes, glace caramel au beurre salé”, a small apple tart with blissfully-flaky crust and a scoop of salted caramel ice cream. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, they brought out espressos for all of us! This was 9:30 at night. It was heavenly.
Saturday, 21 January
The students taking art history were required to go on a tour of Geneva’s Old Town today, but those of us interested could also tag along, so that’s just what I did. We had an amazing tour guide who led us on a 2.5 hour walk through the oldest section of the city, regaling us with tales of the fascinating history of Switzerland and Geneva. It was cold, but we took haven in old churches and museums (all are free in Geneva!) as we walked. While I usually don’t care for history, I learned a lot and I’m really glad I went!
At home, Dan and I booked travel arrangements for our trip to Paris! Details to come…
Sunday, 22 January
European weeks start on Monday and end on Saturday, so that’s what I’ll do too. This morning, I went to mass at Église Saint-Joseph, the Catholic parish about a block away from our residence. The Mass was in French, as I knew, but all Catholic masses follow the same structure so I could follow it even though I understood very little of the French. I’d like to continue going to this parish and maybe by June I’ll be able to fully participate in French.
Since then, I’ve been working on this blog post. Other students went to Chamonix for skiing, took the train to Annecy in France for a day trip, or rode a cable car up Le Mont-Salève. I’d definitely like to do all those things at some point in the next six months, but I wanted to spend the first weekend in Geneva relaxing.
We’ll have our full spread of classes this week: French every day and computing on Tuesday and Thursday. We physics students will attend UniGe physics orientation, and this Saturday is our excursion to Gruyere! Other than that, I don’t have many plans for my second week in Switzerland. We shall see what happens!
I think I’m going to have a very carb-y diet this semester. Weekday breakfast is mostly bread and things to put on bread. Dan and I bought eggs, frozen vegetables, and potatoes to make omelettes and home fries on weekends, when breakfast is not provided.
Lunches are typically leftover fruit and bread from breakfast with peanut butter, which is only available at one grocery store in one small size and type. Hopefully I’ll be able to incorporate rice into my future lunches, or make more elaborate sandwiches. I will have to bring lunch to class on days when we have class at CERN after French.
Dan and I make most of our meals together, so we share most of our groceries and eat similar meals. We’re slowly developing our own recipe for chili, a quick and easy dinner go-to, and we made a killer pork stir-fry on Saturday night. I have acquired a small collection of quick meals such as microwavable ravioli and canned lentils for desperate times.
To stay within a reasonable budget, it looks like we’re going to have to rely on a lot of frozen veggies and meat bought on its expiration date….
I have purchased zero snacks, with the exception of chocolate. I regret it all the time.
This week has been unusually cold, with temperatures in the 20-30s Fahrenheit. Until now, Boston has been the windiest city I’ve experienced until Geneva, certainly worse than Chicago (unbefittingly dubbed “the Windy City” because our politicians are full of hot air, not for our weather). The winds from the mountains around Lake Geneva actually blow southeast–conveniently, straight toward Geneva (see photo). They have been nicknamed la bise (pronounced “bees”), meaning “the kiss”, which also refers to the kisses on the cheeks used as greeting in Europe.
The winds have been less horrible the past couple days. It’s still cold, but hopefully it won’t be as cold in the coming weeks.
Some cultural differences I’ve noticed so far:
- The crosswalk “walk” signals are green instead of white (see photo)
- The standard paper size is approximately one inch taller than our traditional 8.5 x 11’s.
- All the toilets–even those in Café Papon–resemble RV toilets. I.e. they are plastic and have a button on the wall to flush. Classy.
- On a similar note, the toilet paper is literally the texture of paper towels.
- Everything is closed on Sundays, except some family-owned establishments.
- Bags are not provided at grocery stores so we all bring reusable ones when we go shopping. Simple, but effective.
- A Big Mac at McDonald’s costs the equivalent of about 13 USD.