Thursday, April 30, 2015

Looking for an apartment in Lausanne

I’ve moved a lot over the years, but usually I can find the perfect place to live within days and am able to move in within a week or so. That’s not the case in Lausanne. When people told me to expect to spend 6 to 8 weeks in temporary housing, I thought they were exaggerating.

Turns out they were right. It’s hard to find a place to live in Lausanne – especially if you are an expat.

Here’s why:

1) First of all, you need to speak French in order to communicate with the property owner.

2) You need your Swiss ID which takes at least a month to get (and to get this, you need a document from your work and you need a lease - a bit of a catch 22.  I used the contract for my temporary housing to get mine).

3) You need connections because if you like the place, so do 50 other people and the only way your application will stand out in the pile is if you have a connection. They don't care if you can plop down the down payment at that second.  It's a networking thing --and luck.

4) You need to have your personal insurance documents.

So I turned to a professional for help. That professional was Carmela at Swiss Flats. Swiss Flats specialize in finding apartments for expats in Lausanne. I found them by doing a random internet search on the web and sent them an email asking about the rates and the process. They responded within 24 hours and had answered all my questions.  I met with Awni, the manager, the day I arrived in Lausanne and after finding out what I was looking for, he assigned Carmela, my Lausanne apartment finder angel, to me.

Carmela was great and treated me as if finding an apartment that was perfect for me was the most important thing in the world.  She was on a mission to make me happy which was a challenge as I'm not rich, but like really nice things and in Lausanne, finding an apartment with modern plumbing in a good location in my price range is pretty much impossible.  Throw in the unreasonable requests of wanting a regular size fridge and laundry in the unit and you are asking for a miracle.

But Carmela was determined. Each morning she would call me after contacting all her contacts with exciting news. “Two new places have opened up. We’ll see them tonight,” she would tell me.

We would go after work and then if I didn’t like them – which was often the case as I’m super picky, she would go back and keep looking for me. If I did like one of them, she would help me fill out the application which was usually in French or German, call up the property manager to try to put in a good word for me and basically “beg” on my behalf.

For two weeks, she drove me around Lausanne, but in the end. It was worth it. She found me the perfect place in my price range. Yay!! People say it’s a miracle that I found something so quickly as some people spend up to 6 months living in crummy places while searching. But that’s because they didn’t have Carmela working for them.

And she hasn’t stopped helping me. She also helped me get my apartment insurance, gave me advice on which cable package to get, where to eat in the neighborhood and so much more. She helped me assimilate so I felt less lost – and more importantly, less confused as to how things worked because it is very confusing here.

Accepting Swiss Flats offer to find me a place to live in Lausanne was the best decision I’ve made this month.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

One word to describe the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi? Wow!

Dubai gets all the hype when it comes to tall buildings, expensive hotels and crazy things of luxury that nobody can afford. But the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is something to behold. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

 The mosque’s official name is Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and it’s in Abu Dhabi.  My friend calls it the Las Vegas of mosques, but I liked it. Yes, it cost $545 million (USD) to construct and the structure took nearly 9 years to build, but it’s worth it. When you walk in, you are in awe and even whispering seems wrong.

 When you first walk in, you won’t be able to miss the chandeliers. There are seven in total throughout the mosque. The biggest one is the second largest chandelier inside a mosque (hard to believe there is one bigger) and the third largest chandelier in the world. It spans 33 feet in diameter and is 49 feet in height.

 While I was blown away by the chandeliers and the cut marble floral designs on the floor, my friend was all about the carpet. The carpet in the main prayer hall is supposedly the world’s largest carpet. It’s 60,570 square feet and weighs 35 tonnes, which I guess is pretty big, but inside this massive mosque, it just looked normal.

What I did think was cool were the raised bits to show people where to pray so that they faced Mecca.

Everything in the mosque is decadent. The columns are marble and inlaid with mother of pearl. The pools on the outside are so blue in contrast to the white mosque.

These are apparently amazing lights at night as they change to match the phase of the moon. However, we had a flight to catch and could not stay.

 Non-Muslims can visit the mosque on Saturdays. It’s free to go in and if you don’t bring your own abaya, they will lend one to you. Guys, don’t wear shorts. This is a place of worship so your legs need to be covered.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Filled with amazement in the Empty Quarter

The trailer for the new Star Wars movie “The Force Awakens” is out and the buzz surrounding where it was shot in the desert outside of Abu Dhabi is everywhere.

 Let me tell you, this desert is amazing and even better in real life than on film.

Parts of "The Force Awakens" was shot in the Empty Quarter (also known as Rub’ al Khali). It's the second largest sand desert in the world and covers over 650,000 square kilometers. This sand is so fine that when you step in it, you sink up to your ankles, and when you go up hill, you have to run or else you will slide back down. It’s a challenging and amazing experience, but you will have a lot of sand in your shoes.

 The fine sand is also why it looks like ocean waves. As the wind blows, your footsteps disappear and tiny waves of sand appear.

I went with a girlfriend a couple of weekends ago as I’ve been dying to stay in a desert resort in the Empty Quarter. The one I picked was Al Sarab Desert Resort, which is located about 2 hours outside of Abu Dhabi in the middle of nowhere – or in the middle of the Empty Quarter.

But it was worth the long drive as everything at the resort was better than I imagined – from driving up to the resort gates (that looked like a desert fortress) to drinking camel milk with dates (their welcome drink), to the super posh bathtub that neither of us had time to use in our fantastic room.


We hadn’t planned on doing excursions, but when we got there, we couldn’t resist. Instantly we signed up for a sunset camel ride in the desert and Fat Tire Biking at sunrise. You notice all our activities are either early morning as the sun sets, and that’s because it’s the desert. The rest of the day is pretty hot so you want to spend that part in the pool or in air conditioning somewhere.

So first up…the camels. I’ve done camel riding in Morocco years ago, but that one was lame compared to this adventure.

With the Al Sarab Desert Resort, you are riding your camel for a good hour or so. I’m saying riding, but really you are just sitting there. The camels know where they are going so you don’t need to steer or anything. They walk in this slow leisurely line up over the dunes and eventually you stop on top of a sand dune and watch the sun go down. Super relaxing.

Then there were the fat tire bikes. These are the opposite of relaxing. This was challenging. The tires are fat AND they are flat. The reason for this is so that you have more traction in the sand and don’t sink. Remember how I mentioned that you have to run up the hills or else you slide back down on the sand? Well, on the bike, you have to pedal really fast or else you’ll sink, slide down and then fall off. They are also really bouncy when on solid ground (that part was fun).

I highly recommend fat tire biking if there. It’s an experience you won’t find anywhere else as this desert is unique. Plus, once I got the hang up it, going up and down the dunes was a blast!


The absolutely best part about our trip to the Empty Quarter was the night walk through the desert.

There were just four of us and the guide. He drove us out farther in the desert away from everything and then we trekked through the sand under the light of the moon. The only sound out there was our footsteps as we sloshed through the sand, but we could see the tracks of other creatures in the sand as we walked. Even the beetles sink in the fine dust so you could see their tracks too.

Finally, at the top of one of the dune, the guide had us stop, lay back and gaze up at the sky. With no light pollution, the heavens were an astrologer’s dream. I’ve never seen so many stars. It was as if they were layered upon each other. And the silence of the desert was so peaceful. 

I never had time to do this, but if you go, try to camp in the Empty Quarter under the stars. They resort can set up a tent for you, provide food and the transportation to the middle of the desert and back.  After seeing the starry night sky, I've now added this to my list of things to do next time.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Have the Swiss found the secret to happiness?

I’m going to be honest. My first few days in Switzerland sucked. It was raining, barely over the freezing mark, I was paying a lot of money for a crummy room with a crappy heater and the internet didn’t work.

But then spring arrived a week later and life was good.

There are still a number of things to get used to like the fact that none of their gyms open before 7 a.m., all the shops close at 6:30 p.m. and nothing is open on Sunday. The first week here I never made the cut off and had no groceries in my fridge. It was extremely frustrating...and I was hungry.

 But now I’m catching on and I think I get it. It’s forced down time.

Because things close early, you have to leave work on time in order to complete all your errands before the stores lock their doors. So by 6:30 p.m. you’re done and you have your whole night ahead of you to relax, hang out with friends or hit the gym. There are no excuses not to relax as there is nothing else to do except relaxing things. In my case, it’s even more extreme as I’m still in my crummy place with no internet so I can’t even do work at home.

Forced down time. Could this be the secret to sustained happiness?  Survey after survey, Switzerland is shown to be the place where people are the happiest. It's an expensive country to live, the weather isn't as fabulous as Florida and they work hard and have less vacation than some other countries.  Yet, they still say they are happy.  Could it be because of the early closing of shops and the lack of anything open on Sunday has instilled the habit of work/life balance?  Could it be forced down time can lead one down the path to happiness?

Forced down time. Maybe the Swiss are onto something.