life around the house // an outsider’s view of switzerland, part 2
Hello again! This is Kate’s sister, Greta, with part two of my four-part series on interesting differences between life in Switzerland and the US. In this post, we will explore some of the unique aspects of life around the house in Switzerland.
It is very expensive to purchase a home in Zurich and the surrounding area, regularly over a million dollars for a small apartment, and if you want to buy, you generally have to make a very large down payment. There are also increased taxes to pay once you fully pay off your home. So, many residents rent apartments or duplexes rather than living in a single-family home. Rent is also far more expensive than what you would expect to pay in the states, although Kate says this is not necessarily disproportionate to the average income.
apartment layouts & the winter garden
Martin and Kate have rented two different apartments since they moved to Zurich. Their current apartment is two stories with five rooms, called a “maisonette.” Houses and apartments are described in terms of the number of rooms rather than square feet or square meters. The rooms that make up the total are the bedrooms and bathrooms, not the common areas of living, dining, and kitchen.
In addition to all of these rooms, Kate and Martin’s home has a winter garden. The winter garden is usually an unheated room with large wall of windows which open to the outside, and can be traditionally used as a second dining area or conservatory. In Kate and Martin’s place, the winter garden adjoins the hallway and there is a track of sliding glass accordion doors that can close off the room from the hall. Kate and Martin utilize this as an office and family room space, and it it really doesn’t seem much different than the other rooms of the house. In the winter, it is no colder in temperature because the hall and all the rooms around it have radiant heat. It is a unique space because it is not counted as a bedroom or a common area; it is really kind of a bonus space.
The windows in the winter garden are the same windows that are throughout most of the apartment, and they are windows that seem to be common throughout all homes in Switzerland. They are floor-to-ceiling windows without screens that can open to the outside in more than one position. Each window has a handle. When the handle is turned down, the window is locked in the closed position; when the handle is turned sideways, the window inwardly opens like a door would open with two hinges on the side; and when the handle is turned up, you can inwardly tilt open the top of the window while leaving two hinges intact at the base. All these windows open either onto the terrace or onto little Juliet balconies.
There are just a few windows that are above the floor and do not open onto balconies, but even these windows open with the same mechanism. Windows often have external shutters, and many newer homes have electronic external shutters operated from the inside that can be closed with the push of a button. Louvers can also be adjusted with the push of a button. It really makes my dusty interior mini blinds at home seem out of date! The shutters also add such charm to the outside of the buildings.
Although there are no window screens, the windows are almost always open in the summer because there are very few bugs in Switzerland. It is so refreshing to have that indoor/outdoor atmosphere. It is also imperative to open windows to get air moving because air conditioning is a rarity in Switzerland, and it can get hot and humid in the summer. It is very unusual for homes and even businesses to have real American-style air conditioning. I have definitely missed it on this trip. When it is humid here, you just feel so sticky, and all you can do is go stand in the refrigerated section of the grocery store!
Opening the windows also allows you to hear beautiful church bells from the surrounding churches every quarter hour. The chiming is a sound I will never tire of, and I will miss that when I return home.
bathrooms & storage
I will also miss the heated wall-mounted towel racks that are common in bathrooms. They help dry things out quickly, and in the winter, they add coziness when drying off after a shower. Having towel racks with multiple hanging points is also helpful because many bathrooms in Switzerland are severely lacking in storage and counter space. Pedestal and wall-mounted sinks are very common, and it is unusual to have built-in vanity cabinets or cabinets of any kind other than a medicine cabinet. Kate found a vanity cabinet that fits around the base of her wall-mounted sink in one bathroom, but even then, it doesn’t offer much counter space.
Storage is also different in the bedrooms. Bedrooms in Switzerland do not have built-in closets. Some older homes have built-in cabinetry in the bedrooms that can be used as clothing storage, but bedrooms almost never have designated closet spaces with full doors, let alone walk-in closets. It is very common to purchase wardrobes from Ikea or elsewhere to install in your bedroom and then take with you or offer to sell to the next tenant, when you move out.
Kate and Martin have a great amount of storage and counter space in their kitchen, but the appliances are so small and very European! They are lucky to have a freezer built-in. But, their fridge, freezer, and oven are all half the size of my American versions. There is no spot for a microwave, and they have opted not to use up counter space on a microwave, so they make do without one.
The living space of their apartment is magnified by the large terrace outside their living room. It allows space for a barbecue, table, outdoor living room, and container garden. If residents do not have a large balcony or terrace, they often rent small plots of land in a community space with many garden plots next to one another. People will build little garden sheds on their garden plots, and then, they use that space for outdoor lounging and dining. It seems really funny because you can walk through the garden area in the evening and see many people, all there at once, just enjoying their own little individual outdoor space with no privacy. Very different from the fenced backyards and private balconies we are used to in the US!