Tuesday, December 20, 2005

20 December 2005

Four days until I go to San Francisco for a week, and I’m already trying to figure out how I can fit in everything that I want to do, buy, and eat while I’m there. Conversations in expat circles resemble the conversations that polar explorers or refugees must have, in that they are fervent and absurd in their detailed enumeration of things that they miss, and those things usually revolve around food.

As for me, I’m looking forward to several very specific things that give a clear culinary picture of my Asian-American roots. I can’t wait to have my mom’s skin-on, bone-in Chinese pork roast (tipang, for those of you who speak Chinese). They don’t sell that particular cut of meat here, because it’s too fatty and the Swiss don’t like the skin. I’ll snack on chocolate chip cookies or cheddar cheese melted on toasted San Francisco sourdough. We might do sushi handrolls one night. I’ll have assorted breakfast cereals at all hours of the day, with lactose-free skim milk. I may even make some Kraft Mac and Cheese, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, made with Wonder bread, with the crusts cut off. Meanwhile, I’m sure the Swiss who are working abroad are fantasizing about veal sausages and roasted potatoes.

One thing that was overwhelming when I went back to visit last year was the sheer abundance of variety and space, both at the store and at home. I walked into a suburban supermarket and realized that I had forgotten how big stores are, how many products they sell, and how many types of each product they sell. Every product comes in ten brands, and each brand makes multiple versions: reduced fat, low salt, high fiber, lactose free, sugar free, fat free, family size, kiddie portion, and so on. So you buy all the things you need, and you bring them home, and your fridge, freezer, and cabinets are huge, so you can actually fit everything you bought, and you don’t have to go to the grocery store for another week. Living in Switzerland is an exercise in organized scavenging. Without much fridge, freezer, or cabinet space, I have to go to the grocery store often, buying strategically to make sure that I always have something to eat, but not so much that I don’t have space for it. I’m bad at that game, so I end up eating whatever I happen to have around, which usually includes a side of gummy candy.

Having visitors come to visit Switzerland is often a double bonus: you get to see your friends, and you get to import whatever it is that you’re missing. When friends visit, I routinely ask them to load up on instant oatmeal, over-the-counter drugs, toothpaste or other toiletries, and I also order various clothes, books, CDs, and other things to be delivered to them, so that they can bring them over for me. Other expat friends tell their visitors that they have to bring Skippy peanut butter and Kraft Mac and Cheese.

Speaking of peanut butter, recently, one of my Australian friends brought a package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups back from a trip to the States. My American friends and I pounced on them, then noticed that he wasn’t having any, and neither were any of the other non-Americans. When pressed, they admitted that they thought that the combination of peanut butter with chocolate was strange. Upon further questioning, they also said that peanut butter and jelly is also off-limits. In the non-American opinion, peanut butter is categorized as a salty food, and not a sweet one, and so you can put it on toast or crackers, but not with anything sweet. On the other hand, you can’t really trust the Brits and the Aussies when it comes to appropriate toppings for bread, since the Aussies like Vegemite, and the Brits eat sandwiches filled with cheese and chutney.

I’ll be in San Francisco next week, so the next update will probably be January 3 or 4, so HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! See you next year. In the mean time, stay safe and be in touch. :)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

13 December 2005

Another week, another trip. It has gotten to the point where if I don’t leave the country at least once a month, I start to feel restless, and yet I can vaguely remember a time when I would go for a month without going to the East Side, much less venturing outside of Manhattan. There were entire seasons when I didn’t leave the state. On the other hand, living in Manhattan, I had Ethiopian food, Barnes and Noble delivery, sushi, the New York Public Library, Central Park, tapas, Fresh Direct, and True Religion jeans right in my neighborhood, so there were fewer reasons to be restless.

The Swiss aversion to noise is so deeply ingrained that they will go to great lengths to avoid any unnecessary sounds, no matter how trivial. On several flights, I have noticed that flight attendants, when making their final check of the cabin before takeoff, will carefully lift the latches on the overhead bins when closing them, so that they don’t make the characteristic clicking noise when closing. While this does eliminate that tiny bit of noise, it also makes me a bit wary, since the click is always what signals to me that the bin above my head is indeed closed, and that the luggage inside won’t come tumbling out onto my head. But better to have falling suitcases than unnecessary noise, right?

In the Zurich airport, they still have a few of those electric carts for passengers who aren’t very mobile, but otherwise, airport employees get between distant gates on airport bicycles. It makes sense: bikes use less energy, take less space, and (my secret theory is that this is the most important reason) make less noise. But it’s still rather disorienting to be indoors at an airport, and to see airport personnel careening through the terminal on bicycles.

Anyways. I recently went to see the new Harry Potter movie here in Zurich. I was prepared for some Swiss oddities, like assigned seats and intermission, but was not expecting to see two cigarette commercials, a beer commercial, and a very sexual jewelry ad before the previews came on. The ads are fairly standard for the movie theaters here, but it just seemed a bit incongruous to air adult ads for a theater full of grade school kids, unless they’re just trying to get them hooked early.

Another movie theater foible that confused me recently was the phenomenon of reverse stadium seating. We’re all familiar with stadium seating, where every row is higher than the row in front of it, so that everyone has a clear view of the screen. Well, in this theater, every row was lower than the row in front of it, so unless you were seated behind a midget, their head was right in your line of vision. Who had that brilliant idea when designing the theater, and who approved the brilliant idea when building the theater?

Zurich is a very international city, and most movies are shown in their original language, with German and French subtitles. This usually works out wonderfully for English-speaking expats, except when the movie was originally in, say Japanese or Spanish. Watching a movie in English can be frustrating, as well, although for different reasons. Because most of the people in the audience are reading the German subtitles and only half-listening to the English dialogue, they tend to react to jokes or dramatic statements before they are actually said, meaning that if you are listening to the movie, rather than reading it, you may miss the punch line or dramatic moment, since the audience laughs or groans too early, and the sound is not turned up very high (since it’s a Swiss theater, and we wouldn’t want the movie to be loud, now, would we?) As much as I like my peace and quiet, there are certain times when I wish life were a bit louder here.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

6 December 2005

Christmas is coming, and you can tell by the lights decorating the streets, the faux pine garlands bedecked with red ribbons that frame shop doors, the tram drivers dressed as Santa Claus, and the stores that are open on Sundays in a yearly exception to the “no shopping on Sundays” laws. Last weekend I was walking down the busiest, poshest street in Zurich, tagging along with a friend who was actually shopping, and realized that there were two Bactrian (two-humped) camels and a burro standing in the street. They were accompanied by Swiss people wearing what they imagine camel- and burro-tenders to wear, and stood there calmly eating hay, while people scurried around buying their Louis Vuitton bags and Hermes scarves, pausing only to snap pictures of the wildlife with their camera phones. Next thing you know, there will be elephants and tapirs on Fifth Avenue.

But I described a lot about Swiss Christmas last year, and the stuff I’ve learned this year that has thrown me for a loop is about Christmas in England. Although I would have expected Switzerland to have different Christmas traditions from the States, I would have thought that Christmas in the UK would be pretty much the same as Christmas in the States, but apparently it is not.

Last night I had rehearsal with my choir, in preparation for a carols service we’ll be singing next week. A big tradition in the Anglican church is to have carols services involving 7 or 8 readings from the Bible, which give a Cliff’s Notes approach to the birth of Christ, interspersed with lots of carols. I figured it would be an easy rehearsal, as I noted some familiar carols: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Away in a Manger,” and so on. And then I realized that although the carols have the same lyrics as the ones I grew up on, the music was entirely different.

English Christmas carols exist in an alternate universe, where the words are the same, but the melodies are completely changed. How did that happen? Our Christmas traditions are rooted in theirs, the words for our carols came from theirs, so how did we end up with a completely different set of carols? “Silent Night” was originally a German carol, and we translated the words into English, but otherwise, it’s the same song, so what happened? And how many Brits and Yanks are running around thinking that the carols bearing the same titles are actually the same songs? And what if this phenomenon is more widespread, and it turns out that Beethoven’s 9th, “Rock Around the Clock,” and “Hit Me Baby One More Time” also have alternate versions for people on opposite sides of the Atlantic? The possibilities are mind-blowing.

One line from a Christmas carol fascinated me as a young child: “Now bring us some figgy pudding.” I sat there pondering what that could mean. I knew that figs were fruit, although I wasn’t sure what they looked like and imagined them to be something like raisins, and my experience with pudding was limited to that of the chocolate, vanilla, and tapioca variety. So I wondered why on earth you would go out into the cold, knock on someone’s door, and sing for them to bring you a bowl of tapioca pudding with raisins, and why on earth they would actually have that ready to offer to you. I wondered what to give people if they demanded figgy pudding, and could only come up with leftover Easter or Halloween candy, and a lame excuse that we were fresh out of pudding of any kind.

As I later found out, pudding in this case refers to the dense cake-like dessert that never really made it big in the New World. I recently found out a more disturbing tidbit about Christmas pudding: it is often prepared months in advance, put in a cloth, and hung from the ceiling until it’s eaten. Prior to serving, it’s doused in brandy and set on fire, partly for the spectacle, and partly to burn off anything that shouldn’t be eaten that may have accumulated after several months of sitting around. Mmm… nothing says delicious holiday tradition better than month-old burning cake, which just moments earlier was molding in an old bag in the basement.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

29 November 2005

Thanksgiving came and went with little fanfare, other than various expat gatherings. I attended one dinner that had the full, traditional Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey, and had a smaller one with friends, sans turkey, because none of us felt like trying to find and cook a turkey. "But you can't have Thanksgiving without turkey?!" Right, and you're not supposed to have Thanksgiving on Saturday, which we did, and apparently, Peking duck doesn't count as Thanksgiving fare, but that's what I grew up on. I figure everyone else is busily upholding tradition, so if I don't, there are millions of others who will make sure that Thanksgiving is properly observed.

I went to catch a Röyksopp concert here in Zurich on Sunday night, and it was a different concert experience than I am accustomed to. The tickets said that the doors opened at 8 pm, which in the States would mean that by 7:30, there would be a big line of people hoping to get spots near the front, and that once the doors opened, people would charge in to reserve their standing room. Instead, my friend and I walked in at 8, and the only line was for the coat check. Everyone waited to check their coats before trying to get into the club. Once inside, people were milling around, getting beers, and making no perceivable effort to get up front, and so my friend and I, despite having walked in after at least 100 other people, ended up in the front row.

In the States, once a show starts, the crowd presses up to the front, to the point that you can almost rest your entire weight on the people squished up against you, and sometimes necessitating the artful use of elbows and heels to get some breathing room. Not the case here, where even the people in the front row (read: my friend and I) had space not only to breathe, but also to dance. Despite the fact that there were hundreds of people drinking beer, smoking pot, and cheering the band, there were only two bouncers who sat on the steps at the front of the room, one of whom was phenomenally bored, and the other of whom smoked his cigarette and grooved along with the music. That has to be a cushy job, being a security guy in a country of well-behaved people.

At the end of a concert in the States, people scream and clap in order to bring the band back on for an encore, and that seemed to be the same pattern in Switzerland, until the last 20 seconds before the band actually came on. Somehow, the Swiss know when the band is about to re-take the stage, and they all stick out their right hands at shoulder-level, wiggle their fingers, and say, in unison, “Ohhhh,” and when the band actually walks on, they raise their arms, fingers still wiggling, and the “Ohhhh” then rises in pitch and tails off. It sounds strange, but, believe me, watching hundreds of people do it in unison is even stranger. The concert ended by 11, the earliest of any concert I’ve been to, in plenty of time for everyone to catch a tram home and go to sleep early enough to get up by 7 the next day.

Not all Swiss are so proper. A couple weeks ago, a pack of about 20 guys in their early 20s got on a tram, drinking beer (acceptable in public) and smoking cigarettes (also acceptable in public, but not on trams), and making a lot of noise (not acceptable in public). They were chanting, “Hurrah, hurrah, die Zürcherin sind da” (shouted with much rolling of the Rs, it means “Hurrah, hurrah, the Zurichers are there”), and “Scheisse, scheisse, FZW” (a highbrow chant meaning “Sh*t, sh*t, FZW”), evidently out of drunken pride in a local team. They congregated at one end of the tram, jumping up and down, making it rock, and shouting, “Fike the police,” apparently a call to action that falls somewhere between “fighting” and “f*cking” the local police authorities. The conductor announced that if they didn’t leave, the police would come. I perked up, anticipating the spectacle of the fiking of said police, but their true Swiss natures prevailed. They immediately exited and ran away, but not without dealing their extremely rebellious parting blow: they tripped the emergency switches. Fike the power.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

22 November 2005

Late Wednesday night, my friend, who lives about a five-minute walk from my place, was sleeping. We live in the old part of town, where the streets are cobblestone, the churches are numerous, and the buildings are kept in their original state (read: made out of wood). At about 3 a.m., he heard a big explosion that shook his building, but in his sleep-induced haze, he assumed it was rowdy Swiss people setting off fireworks in celebration of Switzerland’s soccer win earlier that evening.

As it turns out, the explosion was actually in the first floor of his building, and the flames quickly spread upwards. Unable to go out his front door because of the smoke and flames, and unable to go down the fire escape, as there never was a fire escape, my friend grabbed his computer, iPod, cell phone, and passport (the four most important things in the expat existence), jumped up on the roof, climbed over to the next building, crawled in a window and went down their stairs. Other tenants jumped out their windows into nets held by firemen waiting below. The story made all of the local papers, along with the soccer news.

My friend’s building is uninhabitable, due to fire and water damage in the lower stories, and smoke and soot damage in the upper floors, yet his landlord is reluctant to let him out of his lease. It seems self-evident that if a building is nearly destroyed by fire, you can’t really expect people to live there, but apparently it’s not so simple. The landlord did an apartment inspection and started complaining that my friend had damaged the apartment by letting his candles drip wax on the floor! My friend pointed out that the wax was inconsequential in comparison to the soot and smoke that had destroyed all of his belongings and the fire and water damage that had nearly ruined the building and left him homeless. The landlord considered this and then acknowledged that they had all had a difficult day, and that she had been awake since 7 a.m. (whereas my friend had been awake since 3 a.m., when he was awakened by an explosion and had to scramble for his life out of a burning building). Only in the mind of a Swiss landlord would wax drippings and a long day be equivalent to nearly losing your life in a fire.

People make fun of Americans for being so quick to notice potential liability and fire hazards, but honestly, who wouldn’t think “fire hazard” when confronted with a wooden apartment building with no smoke detectors, no sprinklers, no fire extinguishers, no fire alarms, no fire escapes, and doors that lock you in unless you have a key? This describes many Swiss buildings, although the newer buildings aren’t made of wood. If you’re lucky enough to wake up, since there are no smoke detectors or fire alarms, you still have to figure out how to get out, since your only exits are through the window, which can make for an unpleasant fall, or through the front door, if it isn’t blocked, and if you remember to bring your keys. I am fairly certain that if I’m running out of my apartment in a panic, I will forget my keys, and end up locked in the building, unable to get out. Hopefully a Swiss neighbor will have the presence of mind to bring keys, and will be able to let both of us out.

The Swiss are risk-averse and plan against all possible mishaps, to the extent that they have detailed plans in the event of nuclear war, with every household having a fully stocked bomb shelter. I would have thought that if you plan for Armageddon that you would also take a few precautionary measures for things like fires, which cause much more damage on a yearly basis than the end of the world, which will only happen once.

On the same day that the fire made the papers, another headline announced that two pickpockets stole a woman’s purse. I had to laugh at that, as where else in the world would a petty theft be newsworthy? Imagine how thick the New York Times would be if every mugging, pick-pocketing, theft, and other minor crime made the papers!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

15 November 2005

Two friends and I ventured to London for the weekend, primarily to see the beautiful Ewan McGregor live on stage in Guys and Dolls, but also to catch up with friends, hang out, and eat (what other reasons are there to travel?) Mr. McGregor lived up to all expectations, and we couldn’t help but pity his successor, who takes the stage in early December, and will have to struggle to charm the audience as easily as Ewan did.

It’s flu season, and countries around the world, especially in Europe, are urging citizens to get flu shots, both to prevent the regular flu, and to avoid unnecessary paranoia about bird flu in the event of a normal flu outbreak. In London, there are posters advertising free “flu jabs.” I don’t know if “jab” is supposed to sound less threatening or frightening than “shot,” but I don’t think it’s the best choice of words, as it really emphasizes the stabbing motion involved in getting a shot. Try again...

It was cold while we were there, and we were wearing sweaters, coats, hats, and scarves. However, the locals weren’t quite so bundled up; there were guys wearing t-shirts, and girls wearing miniskirts and tank tops, with nary a coat to be seen. When it’s summertime, a coat might not be necessary, even if the evening is a bit breezy, but if it’s November and the evening temperatures are below 40F, there is no way that it’s comfortable or healthy to wear a miniskirt and tank top without anything else. If you argue that it’s for aesthetic reasons, that, too, is fallacious, as there is little that is attractive about shivering, goose-bump-covered flesh that is usually sickly pale, but in the cold turns sickly blue.

After a late dinner on Saturday, we tried to catch a cab to my friend’s apartment, to no avail, and ended up waiting and walking for an hour. We ate in a central location, and my friend lives in a central location, so there really is no excuse for the lack of cabs. What kind of large city has neither official cabs nor gypsy cabs (or minicabs, as they call them in London) when there is a clear demand for late night transportation? The Tube shuts down early, and no one drives, so cabs and buses (which run on a sparse late night schedule) are the only options. I felt sorry for myself, walking home in the cold, and then felt sorrier for all the Londoners who didn't wear coats, and must have frozen solid en route. Notice to Londoners: get a free flu jab and wear a coat, especially if you stay out past midnight.

This past Sunday was Remembrance Sunday in England, commemorating the two World Wars. All of the major streets were shut down for a parade, and it was surreal walking through Parliament Square near Westminster without hundreds of cars zooming through the roundabouts. It was also an eye-opener to see how seriously they take the holiday, perhaps because the Wars were partly fought in English airspace and waters. I’ve never seen such mass public support for veterans of wars long gone, but then again, I come from a country that hasn’t fought a domestic battle in over two centuries. In the U.S., Memorial Day means cookouts and beaches, and Veterans Day is a random day off in November. We learn about wars in class, but we never acknowledge them in real life. In London, there were thousands of people wearing poppies that symbolize hope in the face of devastation (poppies bloomed in Flanders even during the heaviest fighting in WWI), shaking the hands of old veterans, leaving flowers, and generally showing that they care.

I am by no means a warmonger, and disapprove of all the monging of war that is going on these days, but I did find it touching to see how much people still cared about these men who, sixty years ago, were in the idealistic but bloody business of saving the world. Americans are brash, sarcastic, and future-minded, which often serves us well, but in some cases, in some situations, I think that it might serve us equally well to look to the past and have a little heart. We can still have cookouts on the beach, of course.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

9 November 2005

I spent a long weekend in Dublin hanging out with an Irish friend and his three siblings. It was his younger sister’s birthday, so that was the main reason for celebration (although I think there would have been a celebration regardless of whether there was a reason or not, simply because it’s Ireland and it was the weekend). I have to say that it was something of an eye-opener. In my family, at least, blood and alcohol don’t mix. You can hang out with your family, or you can go for a crazy night on the town, but you can’t do both. While I’m sure most American families are less rigid than mine, I am also pretty sure that few American families are quite as crazy as the Irish.

While I was there, my friends recounted some of their craziest nights out, and I must say that they seem to take things to a level far beyond even that which I saw in New York. For instance, they were recounting one night where a few friends were tossing pint glasses full of beer or water on each other in a pub, and then one friend went into the corner of the pub and starting pissing in empty pint glasses and tossing those, instead. On another night, one of their friends tossed a pint of beer on my friend, who responded by tossing a pint of water back. The guy punched him twice in the face, thinking that the pint was full of beer, and had ruined his clothes (keep in mind that this was after he had thrown a pint of beer first), and then apologized when he realized it was water (and they’re still friends). Another guy started picking a fight with one of their friends, who pretended to shrug it off and walk away, but later stood next to the guy at the bar and calmly urinated into the guy’s pants pocket. Other nights involved stripping buck-naked in the middle of a crowded pub, falling off bridges, crashing into parked cars, breaking backs and noses, and other over-the-top hijinks. Perhaps it is no coincidence that one of the most insane nights I witnessed in New York came after my friend had had four or five Irish car bombs. It must be something in the Guinness.

The day after a heavy night out can be a somewhat incongruous experience, as well. After having watched the siblings drinking and smoking up a storm the night before, dancing and shouting and having a wild time, it was rather amusing to see them sitting on the couch like senior citizens, drinking endless cups of tea, complaining about the amount of sugar and milk, commenting on the flavor of the tea, debating over which cookies, or "biscuits," rather, would best complement the tea. (One of the brothers, who spent the previous night drinking and dancing like any twenty-something, enthusiastically recommended the website nicecupofteaandasitdown.com, as it provides detailed analysis of various teas and recommends a Biscuit of the Week). I thought my parents drank a lot of tea in having a couple cups after dinner at night, but apparently the average Irish person drinks eleven cups of tea per day, perhaps to balance out the eleven thousand drinks they had the night before.

Even more so than Britain and the U.S., Ireland and the U.S. are separated by a common language. When speaking one on one with an Irish person, I know most of what’s going on, with a few questions here and there as to what a particular slang term means, but get a few Irish people together, especially if they are from the same city, and the slang flies fast and furious. “Lamp the gatch on ‘im” translates into “Look at the way that guy walks.” “Woke up with a minger of a mouth” means “I had awful morning breath when I got up.” No restrooms, just the “jacks.” And words like “berries,” “business,” and “savage” all refer to things that in various regions of the U.S. would be “awesome,” “wicked,” or “rocking.” It’s a funny sensation, going to an English-speaking country, and still feeling like I need to learn the language.

Heading off to London this weekend with two friends, and we’re going to catch Ewan McGregor live on stage in Guys and Dolls.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

1 November 2005

This past weekend was spent in two ways: singing a couple of concerts with my local choir and celebrating Halloween with my fellow expats. With respect to the concerts, my choir is comprised of twelve people, mostly older, half Swiss and half Anglophone expats, and we sing a variety of music, with a focus on Renaissance music from England. Our concerts were in two churches in nearby towns, and given the narrow focus of our repertoire, it was impressive that the German-speaking Swiss audiences were sufficiently interested to come hear a random choir sing predominantly English music from hundreds of years ago. Even more astonishing was that a fair number of parents brought their young children, ranging from toddlers to kindergarteners. From what I remember of being five years old, sitting through an 75-minute concert of classical music in a language I didn’t understand wasn’t very high on my list of things to do, yet these children sat quietly and listened without a fuss. My only explanation is that they were possessed by aliens, or they were actually robots, because little kids are not meant to sit still and listen to stuffy music for more than two minutes at a time. Or maybe it’s because they’re Swiss. Aliens, robots, Swiss, same thing, right?

In any case, my friends and I did indeed dress up, to various degrees, for Halloween, and we ventured forth to go dancing while in costume. The expected amused looks, double takes, and bemused questions took place, and a good time was had by all. Well, except for one guy who made the mistake of accosting me as I walked home from the club at around three in the morning. After trying several times to step around him, and after politely telling him several times exactly what he should do with himself in response to his lewd comments, I was somewhat annoyed and frustrated. When he reached out to grab my arm, however, that was the last straw, and so I hit him and kept walking. Yes, he was male, and therefore obnoxious at 3 a.m., but on the other hand, he was Swiss, and could therefore only stand in utter shock that someone would be anything but passive and polite in the face of his rudeness.

Last night, we went to check out Zurich’s version of Oktoberfest. The better-known celebration in Munich lasts two weeks at the end of September, but Zurich celebrates Oktoberfest for a month, which this year is from October 6 until November 6. We arrived at 7 p.m. on a Monday evening and it was already crowded. Once the oompah band started up with the greatest hits of German polka, the crowd sang along with great gusto, drinking out of liter jugs of beer and wearing floppy felt hats. For the more popular numbers, the Swiss, young and old alike, would stand on their tables, roaring along with a rough approximation of rhythm and pitch. Upon reflection, I don’t think there are any equivalent songs in the U.S., traditional songs from a hundred or more years ago that, when played in a public place, would result in 20-, 40-, and 60-year-olds jumping up on their chairs to jubilantly scream along. My friends and I joined in when the oompah band inexplicably played an oompah version of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

As you might imagine, when people start drinking beer out of liter mugs right after work, there are some seriously inebriated people wandering around by 10 p.m. Friends staggered around, holding each other up (or dragging each other down), while other friends and strangers watched with detached amusement. There was no tsk-tsk’ing by the elder Swiss, as I imagine they have been in the same state in years past. An EMT stood by to check on the more seriously drunk people to make sure that someone would get them home safely, but in general, the atmosphere strongly encouraged public drunkenness and revelry, and several people who had celebrated a little too hard were carried out by their friends as everyone, including the EMT, chuckled and hoped that they would still have control over their own legs when it was their turn to leave.

Off to Dublin for a long weekend, so next update may be on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

25 October 2005

Halloween is coming up, so we’re making plans for this very American tradition. As of now, our plans are unconventional, by both American and Swiss standards. My friends and I are planning on celebrating Halloween on Saturday the 29th, since it would be difficult to celebrate on Halloween night and get into work the next day. The pitfalls of being an adult. In any case, we’re planning on dressing up in a country that doesn’t really observe Halloween, on a day that isn’t even Halloween, and going out to a club, where our costumes are sure to raise some eyebrows. Especially since our theme is “Pimps and Heroes,” rather than “Pimps and Hos,” meaning that we can dress up either as pimps or as superheroes, with the additional restriction that we can only spend about $15 on our costumes. I’m expecting some rather interesting homegrown superheroes, like Captain Toilet Plunger or The Cheese Grater.

Thanksgiving is also on the horizon. That weekend is not a holiday weekend here, so expats are split as to whether the holiday should be observed on Thursday, as intended, or on Saturday, when people actually have the day off to cook, eat, and go into food coma for a day. An added twist is the bird flu that is making its way across Europe. I’m wondering if we should get a turkey, perhaps with a side of pandemic, out of respect for tradition, or if we should try for a pork roast or steaks, instead. Ever since this bird flu scare has started up, I’ve been giving an especially evil eye to the local pigeons and swans. Apparently, bird flu is most easily transmitted through the handling of bird droppings or feathers. I don’t usually go out of my way to play with bird poo, nor do I pluck birds very often, but I’m just waiting for the Evil Infected Pigeon of Death to drop a load on me as I’m walking to work.

Speaking of being sick, I remember growing up and reading about various kinds of food poisoning. Cook your eggs and poultry, or you might get salmonella. Don’t eat raw pork, or you’ll get trichinosis. And then there was one called candida, which can cause something called “leaky gut syndrome,” which sounds anything but pleasant. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Candida is the brand name for a popular toothpaste in Switzerland. Now, I understand that it’s difficult to find brand names that are acceptable in every language, but it might be best to avoid the Latin-based names for diseases when naming oral hygiene products? I’m no marketing expert, but that seems pretty basic.

Something that has been irritating me lately is that it’s very difficult as a foreigner to do things like get a cell phone contract or a movie rental card. Unless you’re a permanent resident, most businesses and companies refuse to give you anything resembling an ongoing contract or membership status, opting instead to do pay-as-you-go plans (for cell phones) or sorry-no-foreigners plans (for video rentals). Do they really think that I’ll flee the country in the middle of the night, leaving my steady job and large apartment security deposit behind, just to avoid paying a $5 fine on a late video rental? Apparently they do. OK, yes, I’m a lawyer, yes, I’m American, and yes, I have those shifty, slanty eyes that come with the yellow skin I’m in, but I can sometimes be trusted with small things, Scout’s honor.

Swiss Airlines, my new nemesis (and doesn’t everyone need a nemesis?) recently posted a “Special Offer” on their site for fares to Hong Kong. I have friends in Hong Kong, and I like to travel, so I checked it out. There were some restrictions, like requiring a Saturday night stay, with a maximum stay of one month. Bookings were available through December. OK, sounds good, how much? Including taxes and fees, a round-trip economy class ticket would cost over $8,200, and they even had the chutzpah to label it as a “Best Price.” Other airlines were not making any special offers or giving best prices, but were instead selling tickets for about $1,300. But I’m sure it’s worth it. For only $8,200, you can fly direct to Hong Kong and bring bird flu back for you and all of your friends!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

18 October 2005

Last week I had a moment of claustrophobia when I thought I would have to stay in Switzerland for three weeks in a row. I ran out of pages in my passport, and had to send the passport to the American embassy in Bern to have extra visa pages added. When I called the embassy to ask how long it would take, the woman was noncommittal and wouldn’t give me an estimate. When pressed, she said that it probably wouldn’t take more than three weeks, but no guarantees. I asked her how long it’s been taking recently, and she hazarded a guess of a week and a half. So I figured that would keep me in town this past weekend and this coming weekend, and Halloween weekend, I have to be in town to sing with my choir. But I kept my chin up in the face of "adversity." I mailed my passport Thursday, so it arrived at the embassy Friday, since mail takes only one day within Switzerland. I got it back Saturday, meaning that the woman who so stubbornly insisted that she couldn’t commit to taping the pages in within three weeks sent it out the same day that she got it! Which means I am free to roam this coming weekend, if an opportunity should present itself…

It may be a good idea for me to leave town this weekend, as I am still fuming from yet another Chink Incident. Walking home from a night out this past Friday, I passed three Swiss guys in the street. Out of nowhere, one of them said, “Ching chong chung.” While I normally either ignore such comments or laugh them off as a sign of pathetic ignorance, I have had a few too many Chink Incidents lately to shrug them off as easily, and I had had a few drinks that night, making me less patient than my already impatient self. So I replied with an automatic, New York-style “Muck shoe.” Or something sounding vaguely similar to that. It’s good to know my urban misanthropic self is still in there, ready to strike back. I now know what Fiver thinks whenever people look at him and bark; he must be thinking, “You have no idea how ridiculous you sound, you ignorant prat, do you really think that’s what dogs sound like??” It’s disturbing how widespread and accepted such behavior is here. In a country where it’s considered rude not to say hello to the cashier or to only make cursory eye contact when making a toast, it is perfectly OK to make grade-school racial slurs in the street.

Another thing that is perfectly normal and widely accepted is body odor. Yes, it is a stereotype that Europeans don’t bathe or wear deodorant, but in many cases, based on the smells you encounter in public, it is not unfounded. Summertime is an especially, er, fragrant time. There is no air conditioning, so people sweat freely all day and all night, and they also have a tendency to wear the same clothes for several days in a row, which compounds the problem. I have no idea how often they shower or wash their hair, or how much deodorant they wear, but I do know that even if you shower every day, if you wear the same clothes for three days in a row, and sweat into them for three days in a row in un-air conditioned homes, trams, and offices, people will definitely know you’re there without even seeing you first.

My friend and I are thinking about getting an apartment together. If we pooled our resources, we could get a brand-new 3-bedroom loft, a 4-bedroom apartment with two terraces, or a 4-bedroom house, and we would still be saving money. Some confusion arises, however, when trying to figure out what should look for. The Swiss, when tallying up living spaces, count bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens as rooms, but not bathrooms, and if the kitchen or eating area is especially big, they tack on another ½-room. What Americans would call a one-bedroom is usually called a 2.5-room apartment here. The 4-bedroom house? It’s got 7 rooms. Not an exact science, so if you’re looking for a certain number of bedrooms, you add anywhere from one to three extra rooms to figure out what you’re looking for. Watch this space to see if there are further developments. If not, it’s because we’re lazy, and can’t count…

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

11 October 2005

I have never lived anywhere that makes travel as easy as it is in Switzerland. Trams and trains run exactly on time and according to schedule, so that you never need to budget extra time to get to the airport, you know exactly which tram to catch to make it to the train station in time to catch the train that will get you to the airport in time. And you only have to get to the airport about 40 minutes before your flight takes off, even though you have to go through passport control and security. If you already checked in the night before, either at the train station or at the airport, you can show up 25 minutes before your international flight, and still make it on the plane in time. This past weekend, I took another trip out to Ireland, and I left the office 85 minutes before my flight, caught a tram and then a train, and that got me to the airport 50 minutes before my flight, giving me plenty of time to stop and pick up some stuff in duty-free, get a snack, and then sit and wait for my flight to be called.

Ireland was loads of fun. I got in a bit before midnight on Friday night, and after dropping by my friend’s house to leave my bag, say hi to his dad, and give his dad the wheel of Swiss-made sheep’s milk cheese (I only realized after getting on the plane that it was sort of an odd gift, but my friend had suggested it, telling me that his parents love cheese, which somewhat mitigated the sheepish feeling I had, pun intended, while handing his dad a gift bag with a slightly smelly cheese inside), we headed out to the pub to celebrate his best friend’s new baby. His best friend was absent, having already stopped in earlier to have half a bottle of champagne, but the celebration continued without him, since it was a good excuse to have a celebration on a Friday night. I definitely felt noticeably yellow-skinned, as I kept getting “Ooh, Mommy, look at the giraffe!” looks from some of the other people in the bar. But at least they weren’t “Ew, Mommy, look at the leeches!” looks.

By this time, the U.S. must be in full holiday prep mode, with store displays hawking an overwhelming assortment of food, decorations, supplies, and other related items for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, with token displays for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and whatnot. Here, Christmas is the only holiday remaining for the year, and there haven’t been any displays up that I have seen (although I haven’t been in town much to notice). While it is nice to avoid the blatant commercialism, it does make things difficult for Americans who want to celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving. Expats are busily trying to find out where they can order turkeys, which aren’t very popular in Switzerland, and throwing together homemade costumes, since Halloween has only recently surfaced here on a very small scale, and is only for children. Fiver will be going as Darth Vader, thanks to a costume my sister sent me, but my costume is still up in the air. For Thanksgiving, my friends and I are thinking random potluck of whatever food items we are able to find and prepare, limited by what is sold in stores, and how much skill we have. Oh, and oven space. Ovens here are very small, and rarely fit anything larger than about 10 pounds. Isn’t the whole point of an oven so that you can cook large quantities of food at one time?

Swissification update: A sign that I am caving to the Swiss mentality, in some respects: I no longer flinch when buying movie tickets for about $14, and I think it’s a great deal when I go on Monday, which is cheap ticket day, when the tickets cost about $10. Another sign: I can no longer imagine working nights, weekends, or holidays, and I am wondering how on earth to make 25 vacation days (plus 10 Swiss holidays) stretch out over an entire year.

Anyways, after traveling six out of the last seven weekends, I’ll be staying in town this weekend (no guarantees for the one after that, though), to reacquaint myself with what Zurich has to offer.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

4 October 2005

Coming from the land of political correctness, I have often been surprised by the lack of PC culture in Europe. Diversity is the exception, rather than the rule, and so political correctness has not yet taken root. I dated a Swiss person who thought that “ching chong wing wong” should either be seen as a funny joke or as an effort at cultural outreach and understanding, and I have met with looks of blank confusion when someone realized that I was not yet another mail-order bride from Asia. Better to turn it into a humorous anecdote than let it be a source of real annoyance. So, two humorous anecdotes…

When I was in Ireland, the whitest country I have ever been to, my friend and I were having a post-dive snack with two other divers. One of them had his wife and two children in tow: one was still an infant, and the other was about seven. The seven-year-old stood behind his dad's shoulder and stared at me so hard without blinking that I was surprised his eyeballs didn’t dry up and fall out of his head. His parents didn’t notice, but my friend made a comment under his breath that maybe someone should say something. What could you say? "Stop staring at the chink?" After a while, the baby started staring, as babies do, and his mom noticed, and she pointed out that he was “fascinated,” so I made a snarky comment, totally deadpan, “Yeah, it’s the yellow skin and the slanty eyes.” My friend and I had difficulty not dying of laughter as we watched the sudden shock spreading around the table.

Then this past weekend, I was having dinner with friends in Lugano, in the eastern, Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, and my Italian-speaking friend struck up conversation with the waiter, who then asked her where we were from. She responded that we were from the U.S. and Australia, and he asked again where I was from, China? She replied that I was Chinese, but from the U.S., and he turned to me and leaned in, about to speak. I prepared myself for a poorly-delivered Chinese phrase, ready to respond with “Oh, your Chinese is quite good!” but he instead gave what is apparently the Italian equivalent of “ching chong wing wong.” Sudden shock spread around the table. He later asked if I could translate the menu into Chinese, and I sat there, passive-aggressively wishing I knew how to write “goat testicles with dung sauce” in Chinese. I declined, seeing as my knowledge of written Chinese would only have allowed me to translate the menu if it had dishes called “Good morning” or “Don’t forget your homework.”

In any case, Lugano was great: good food, good wine, good friends, and sunshine. Summer is gone in Zurich, and we are getting ready for seven months of clouds and rain, but the Italian-speaking portion of Switzerland knows nothing of that. There is a tunnel that goes through the Alps between German-speaking Switzerland and Italian-speaking Switzerland, and most days, if it is raining in Zurich, once you go through that tunnel, you come out into a clear, sunny day. It’s like coming out of a tornado in Kansas and landing in Oz, except that there aren’t any Munchkins, and the people make weird ethnic jokes.

Sunshine notwithstanding, Lugano is still part of Switzerland, and like all good Swiss towns, they love a good street festival. We arrived in Lugano and were (not) surprised to find that there was some sort of street festival going on. We never determined what the reason was for this particular festival, but it involved large vats of polenta, which just looked like giant masses of yellow glop. People lined up in Disneyland lines to get a plate of this glop, which the servers stirred with large wooden spades and ladled onto their plates in a manner reminiscent of the cook in Oliver Twist. Each mound, I mean individual serving of polenta would then be topped with a ladleful of cheese sauce or some type of indeterminate meat sauce. Mm… mass-produced yellow glop with indeterminate meat sauce…

Going to Ireland this weekend to see if clouds and rain look different in another country.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Editor's Note

OK, so I've been having trouble updating on Mondays, mostly because I've been travelling so much on weekends that I'm too tired to post on Monday. So from now on, normal update day will be on Tuesday. Let's hope I can make that deadline, instead... So, till tomorrow!!

Monday, September 26, 2005

26 September 2005

So for the first time in over a month, I spent the weekend in Zurich. I spent no time in the airport or the train station, and was always within walking distance of my apartment. That’s not to say that the weekend was spent doing nothing, in fact, I’d say it was at least as busy as the weekends spent elsewhere.

Saturday, I realized that that once-in-a-blue-moon coincidence had happened: I was in town, awake, and not at work while the shops were open, so I set out to take care of a few things. I bought a wedding present for a friend (one year late, partly because she and I have a late-gift understanding, and partly because I’m rarely in town and free when the shops are open). I got confused wandering around downtown Zurich, and couldn't find a store I was looking for for about half an hour, because it had been so long since I’d walked around there.

I went to a pharmacy and bought the Swiss equivalent of Drano (finally). I walked into the pharmacy, since that’s the only place where it is sold, and asked the pharmacist for drain de-clogger. She asked me what I was going to use it for, and I told her I wanted to use it to de-clog my drain. Which drain? The bathtub. After assuring herself that I had no ill intentions, she retrieved a bottle from a locked cabinet, had me write down my name, address, year of birth, profession, and then sign for the bottle. In a country where most men have an assault rifle in their homes, they supervise the sale and use of Drano??

Then I met up with a friend, also American, with whom I have had several commiserating conversations regarding the difficulty of sleeping in a non-air-conditioned room in the summertime, and we went and bought air conditioners on sale. I’ve been here two summers now, and I’m finally buying an air conditioner, after twice thinking about it and not knowing how long I would be here and whether it would be worth the investment. I should have bought one right at the start, instead of suffering through two summers of hot nights. We took the air conditioners home by cab, and started setting one up. The boxes proclaim that they are “mobile” air conditioners, which seems to imply that you can easily set them up in one room, then move them to another room. They are ridiculously heavy, but they do have wheels, so I suppose they are somewhat mobile. The instructions however, in French, German, and Italian, begin with “Cut a hole in the wall,” which seems to defeat the units’ claim to being “mobile.” Sure, I guess you can move them from place to place, as long as you happen to have holes in the wall in all the places you want to move them to.

Saturday night, a friend was celebrating her birthday, so a group of us, all twenty-something American expats, met up for drinks before going dancing. The club was having an 80’s, funk, and retro night, which apparently meant Vanilla Ice, Nirvana, and other classics from junior high dances. The Swiss calmly danced to all of the songs, whereas the Americans, inspired by the prepubescent anthems, went crazy, jumping up and down, head-banging when appropriate, and screaming along to every almost-forgotten song. By the end of the evening, we were even trying to sing along to some songs that were apparently from European 80’s, as they were in Spanish or German. Nothing is funnier (sadder?) than a bunch of Americans trying to sing along with songs they have never heard before in languages that they don’t speak.

Finally, what’s with all the hurricanes? It must be karma for not signing on to the environmental treaties and pacts, although some say it’s karma for Iraq. Pretty insane stuff, and just horrible. To give the expat perspective, though, it didn’t occur to me to transfer money over to my U.S. account right after Katrina, when the dollar tanked for a few days, and it looks like it won’t tank this time around, so it looks like I won't be making a quick buck in the exchange. Tack that loss onto all the flooding and drowning and property damage ;) No, seriously, I was thinking that maybe this time around, they would evacuate everyone and then Rita would just go to town on the oil refineries, drive up the price of oil and gas, and jettison the exchange rate with minimal other property damage or loss of life. Oh, well, looks like I’ll just have to wait for Bush to do something else to mess up the economy…

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

20 September 2005

Back from the fourth weekend traveling in a row. Amsterdam, St. Moritz, Cork, and now London. Unless something really cool comes up this weekend, I think I’ll stick around and recuperate and remember what it’s like to live in Zurich, and give my bank account a chance to recover, although some of my friends will be heading up to Munich for Oktoberfest this weekend (aside: it has always amused me that Oktoberfest happens in September).

The evening before I went to London, I met up for a drink with a few friends at a bar near my apartment. You may recall that around the corner from my apartment, there is a porn cinema, which sits in the same square as the bar where we were meeting. A latecomer called to find out where we were, and I tried to give her directions while standing in the somewhat noisy street, and told her that it was near the porn cinema. “What cinema?” “Porn.” “What?” “Porn.” “What?” This continued for at least half a dozen iterations (she later explained that she thought I was saying "point," and was therefore confused), and it attracted the attention of several passersby, because not only was there an Asian girl outside of the red-light district, she was also standing there chanting, “Porn! Porn! Porn!” into her phone.

On Friday, four of us met up for dinner at the airport before catching our respective flights to Copenhagen, Vienna, and London. Only in Europe could you meet with a bunch of your friends for dinner at the airport before everyone catches their international flights for last-minute weekend trips.

My friend and I were both delayed getting into London, and further delayed trying to get to the hotel, due to London’s layout as an old European city with no perpendicular streets or numbered streets. We tried to get directions from various people, but they were all drunk, lost, unfamiliar with English, or visitors themselves. It was a minor miracle that we eventually found the hotel and checked in successfully.

We managed to meet up with five other friends, have sushi, go out for dim sum, catch a movie, and check out the Tate Modern while we were there. We also managed to get to the airport too late, so that I missed the check-in cutoff for my flight by ten minutes. The plane was still there, it just wouldn’t let anyone else on. The 7:45 p.m. flight was the last flight to Zurich, as Swiss noise regulations prohibit planes from taking off or landing after 11 p.m. So we spent an unanticipated eleven hours in Heathrow, waiting for the 6:20 a.m. flight. You would think that airports would have comfortable places to crash, since they are certain to have people on layovers or delays there at all times. We were lucky to find a carpeted patch of floor that wasn’t heavily trafficked. At one point, as we were trying to doze, we were woken by giggles and a flash, as a passing pair of travelers took a picture of us sprawled on the floor with our bags. They explained that they had once been stranded and had crashed in the exact same place we were crashing.

We were later roused by a policeman who wanted to see our passports and boarding cards to ensure that we weren’t terrorists or hobos, since we clearly fit those profiles, as fairly well-dressed, relatively clean-cut Caucasian males and Asian females are well-known threats to public safety. The policeman seemed suspicious that we each only had a small backpack, even after we explained that we were only in town for a weekend trip. I resisted asking him how much he packed when he went somewhere for the weekend, and whether he packed like a girl, as that seemed like the kind of suspicious question that a terrorist or hobo might ask, at least from the perspective of a British police officer.

Came straight to the office from the airport, and while I was sitting at my desk, bleary-eyed and zombie-brained, I received a spam SMS from my cell phone company offering me one million free SMSes for 30 francs (about $24), as long as the SMSes were sent in the next three months. It sounded like a good deal, since that’s about how much it costs to send 150 SMSes, until I realized that I send most of my SMSes for free online, so I don’t send 150 SMSes from my phone in three months, and who sends over 8,000 SMSes per day (to hit 1,000,000 SMSes over 120 days)?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

15 September 2005

I spent a long weekend in Ireland, visiting a dive buddy. As ever, I have a few observations gleaned from my brief trip into the land of leprechauns, Guinness, and people with last names starting with “O.” The Irish (or the “Ish,” as my friend called them after getting the Irish and the Scottish mixed up, then deciding that they could be lumped together, only later realizing that there are many other Ish people: English, Flemish, Spanish, Finnish, Jewish…) are an interesting people.

True to stereotype, many of them have red hair, and they drink a lot. In the waiting area for my flight to Cork, I looked around and realized I had never been in a room with so many redheaded people at one time. As for the drinking, the Irish drink with their parents, they drink with their grandparents, they drink with their bosses, they drink on weeknights and for no reason other than that they can. The morning after a rough night out, they have breakfast with their parents and compare notes, commiserating over their hangovers. It’s a completely alien world.

Like their fellow Ish friends, the Brits, the Irish weigh themselves in stone, but are similarly unable to tell you what a stone is. Their bathroom scales are in stone, and thanks to Google, I found out that a stone is 14 pounds, which I find to be a pretty useless unit of weight. How often do you gain or lose weight in 14-pound blocks? Changes in weight are usually a pound or two at a time, and the difference between weighing 9 stone and 10 stone is really quite significant. The Ish mock us for hanging onto feet and Fahrenheit, and they still weight themselves in stone??

It’s always amusing to hear what kind of English is spoken by other native English speakers. Given the right combination of accent and slang, it can sometimes feel like a different language altogether. For instance, my Irish friend said that one of the local bars had “some good crack,” if we wanted to go there, and I sat there wondering if all of the Irish had such a nonchalant attitude towards one of the most addictive drugs in circulation. As it turns out, “crack” means “fun” or “good times” over in Ireland, and not “crack cocaine.” The Irish also prefer to say “amn’t I,” rather than “aren’t I,” as in “amn’t I taller than you?” Makes sense, since “am” goes with “I,” but it sounds so very foreign to my decidedly American ears. Another confusing one is the use of the word “score.” When an Irishman says that he went to the bar and “scored with a girl,” he means that he kissed her, and nothing more (or “nowt” more), whereas in American slang, well, scoring means so much more…

Two very Irish events occurred while I was there. One was a successful attempt to set a world record for the number of people simultaneously dancing a ceílí, a traditional Irish dance. There were multiple traditional bands playing combinations of fiddles, drums, spoons (yes, spoons), and other instruments, and thousands of people doing semi-coordinated imitations of Michael Flatley (but with shirts on). It was sort of like square dancing, with more Lord of the Dance-style bouncing and footwork.

The second very Irish event was the national hurling championship. Hurling is a very old Irish sport that is sort of like baseball, sort of like lacrosse, sort of like soccer, sort of like football, and sort of like running around whacking people with sticks. Basically, there are two teams, and each player has a curved wooden stick. There are goals at each end that also have goalposts on the top. The players have to balance the ball on their sticks, or bounce them or alternate between holding them and bouncing them. They can throw the ball using their sticks like lacrosse sticks, or they can hit them by using their sticks like baseball bats. In this manner, they pass it between players and try to score either in the goal or through the goalposts, while running around and hitting each other in the process. They break lots of bones, and inspire much drunken revelry amongst their fans. You sort of have to see it to understand.

Anyways, got a dive in while I was there, and got to play with a sand shark, a new dive computer, and an underwater MP3 housing, so I’d say that the weekend was a success. Heading off to London this weekend for more encounters with a different set of Ish people. Next update Tuesday, probably.

Monday, September 05, 2005

5 September 2005

After hosting a little Friday night party for a friend’s going away (the expat population here is so transient that someone is always coming or going), I spent this past weekend in St. Moritz, a mountain resort town about 3-1/2 hours away by train. St. Moritz (or, as a friend mistakenly called it to his unimpressed coworker, St. Mor-tease) is a pretty town in the Alps, suitably packed with over-priced hotels, shops selling Prada and Rolex, and noticeably devoid of local residents. While we were there, my friend and I tried out a couple of restaurants (one of which played an inexplicable mismatched mix of music that included Stevie Wonder, The Who, Shakira, and Richard Marx), walked around the lake, and went to the top of Piz Nair, over 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) above sea level. And no, we didn’t hike up, and if you thought we did, you obviously don’t know us very well!

One thing that we noticed while we were there was that there were an awful lot of matchy-matchy couples of all ages, shapes, and sizes. Couples who were jogging together would wear matching running shoes and spandex shorts. Yes, there were many men in spandex shorts. Up on the mountain, couples were sporting matching, wildly-patterned windbreakers. Couples on bikes wore matching bike shorts and helmets. We even saw a couple wearing matching sailor hats.

Another thing that we noticed was that even for Switzerland, St. Moritz is very homogeneous. Zurich is probably the most diverse city in Switzerland, and my friend, who is African-American, and I, Asian-American, both stick out, my friend more so than I do, since there are always tourists roaming around, providing camouflage for me. St. Moritz was as white as snow, powdered sugar, copy paper, hotel sheets, and so on, so we definitely felt like explorers in an alien land, especially since we weren’t wearing matching spandex shorts and windbreakers. The hotel manager, who was rather garrulous, wanted to know where we were from, and he noted that St. Moritz does get some Asian tourists, but mostly Japanese, because “the Chinese tourists all go to Geneva,” apparently. I didn’t get that memo, but now I know.

While waiting to get information at the train station in St. Moritz, we were in line behind some tourists who were inquiring as to whether they might be able to go to a nearby city and back in time to catch their 5 o’clock train. The clerk said that the train there would take an hour and fifteen minutes, and that it was leaving at 2:45, getting there at 4, and that the next train back didn’t leave until 4:51. These apparently brilliant tourists asked if that would get them back in time for their 5 o’clock train. I was tempted to butt in and say that yes, it would, if they were able to bend space and time. In any case, they were quite shocked that they couldn’t make two-and-a-half hours of travel time plus sightseeing fit into two hours and fifteen minutes. Not to be defeated, they then inquired whether there were any “beautiful tourist sights” they might see nearby. Um, look outside, you’re in the middle of the Alps!!

One last thing, a huge weight has recently been lifted off my mind. We aren’t allowed to throw away cardboard here, as it has to go into recycling, but it can only be taken out once a month. Not being Swiss, I threw away my recycling schedule when it came in the mail, and so I never know when it’s cardboard day until I’m walking to work and see cardboard that has been flattened, bundled, and set out on the curb, and it’s too late for me to run upstairs, sort my boxes, flatten them, bundle them, bring them back down, and still get to work in time. I missed cardboard day for many months in a row, but had still been receiving packages and buying things that come in boxes, and so the pile of cardboard had been growing steadily.

The other week, I happened to be out and about around dinnertime and noticed that there were piles of boxes in the road, and was finally able to pack up all of my boxes and sneak them into someone else’s cardboard pile (thereby avoiding the need to buy stickers to put on each half-cubic meter of flattened cardboard to show that I had paid the requisite cardboard tax). Never has someone been so happy and relieved to recycle a huge pile of cardboard boxes. Missing trash days and recycling days makes it very difficult to hold steady in the constant battle against trash accumulation here.

Off to Ireland for three days this weekend, missing Knabenschiessen, but hoping to get a couple of good dives in!!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

30 August 2005

Every Wednesday, Swiss Air posts last-minute deals for travel around Europe, and it’s a good way to get away for a couple of days. This past weekend, there were six cities on sale, and three of my friends and I decided to go to Amsterdam, leaving after work Friday night and coming back Sunday night. Most of Europe is within a two-hour plane flight, although a few places can take up to three hours. Amsterdam is a little over an hour away. It still blows my mind, even after being here for over a year, that in the time it would take to get from Boston to Philadelphia, I can cross three countries and end up in Amsterdam.

I think that Amsterdam was designed to confuse all visitors, whether they are sober or stoned. The city is laid out like part of a wagon wheel, with spokes radiating out from the center, and round roads spreading from the center, as well. There are no numbered streets, only named streets, and they have long names that somehow have too many vowels and too many consonants; I think it’s more that the vowels are not evenly distributed. The following letter groups actually occur in Dutch words: “jksm” and “rtg,” which could probably have used some of the extra vowels that show up in words that have “uu” or “aa.” It’s difficult enough trying to read and pronounce these long, jumbled words in a normal state, but if you walk around, you’ll see dazed, shell-shocked visitors staring at street signs and trying to figure out if their minds are playing tricks on them.

The Dutch also put on events and concerts to appeal to visitors, as well, although I think that on some level they are also having their own private laughs by scheduling so-called children’s concerts that feature singers dancing on stage, dressed in bunny and cow costumes. There were some children watching the concert, but a lot more teens and adults, most of whom were staring at the stage in disbelief, “Am I the only one who sees the dancing cows and bunny rabbits?”

In New York, a fun game is to walk around trying to guess if people are insane or if they're just talking on their cell phones. In Amsterdam, the game is even more fun, as you try to figure out if people are insane or if they're just in some crazy drug-induced stupor. I saw one man wearing a ragged thong, performing acrobatics in front of a restaurant, and I am almost certain I saw that same man in the same place six years ago. Another man walked through the crowds, saying to himself (or perhaps to the dancing bunny rabbits, or perhaps to a dancing bunny rabbit on a cell phone in New York), "These people... small minds, small minds. Small minds, all of them." It's rather uncanny, how similar parts of New York are to Amsterdam. (As They Might Be Giants would say, "Even old New York was once New Amsterdam...") It was easy to imagine that we were back in Chelsea or the Village, what with the raving lunatics and the architecture, until we saw another crazy Dutch street sign.

All around the city, in fact, there are strange sights and strange people. The red light district is full of ground floor windows that are about the size of a shower door, with almost naked women sitting inside, waiting for customers. Rather than trying to look sexy, they sit and chat on the phone, send SMSes, pick at their fingernails, and do otherwise normal things, making it seem almost as if they don’t realize that they are sitting in their underwear as hundreds of people walk by. Some of the most-trafficked streets surround an old church, so it is quite surreal to see an old church, hear the church bells pealing, and see the hookers sitting across the way. Maybe they have a referral service with the church: they help the sinners sin, then send them to confession before they come back for seconds.

For the less adventurous, the red light district has many stores that sell a variety of goods. A very wide variety. My friends and I wandered into one shop, and decided that it would be highly amusing to buy a blow-up sheep. After I had paid for my purchase, the shopkeeper decided to point out its best features. “You know, the sheep has a hole here, in the back,” as if: (a) he thought I was buying the sheep to use it, rather than to laugh at it, and (b) he thought that I could get any use out of a sheep with a hole in it, seeing as I am FEMALE. I am still wondering why he felt the need to jump in with his not-so-useful sales pitch after I had already paid for the sheep. I’m also still wondering why I decided that buying a blow-up sheep was a good idea. It made sense at the time. Amsterdam does that to you. It confuses you with dancing rabbits, strange street signs, and half-naked women near the church, and then sells you a blow-up sheep.

Monday, August 22, 2005

22 August 2005

Due to a huge, weekend-long rainstorm, I spent the entire weekend in my apartment, except for a dinner with my choir at my conductor’s house. My conductor, who is British, but has lived in Zurich for quite some time, is apparently a huge fan of croquet. He had hoped to play croquet on the lawn, but because of the rain, that was not possible, but never fear, he had other options: carpet croquet, which is just like croquet, but indoors, and in miniature, or tiddlywinks croquet, which is very little like croquet, and is played with tiddlywinks on a tabletop. I think that was my surreal experience of the week, playing tiddlywinks croquet with a bunch of British and Swiss singers in a town outside of Zurich, and I think it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime event.

I stayed in on Sunday, having decided to skip the Cheese Olympics, which were over two hours away by train. Yes, the Cheese Olympics, where alpenhorn players, cheese makers, dairy farmers, and other mainstays of Swiss culture gather each year to crown the king of cheeses, the fastest milk jug racer, and other local royalty. While I would have loved to have gone there to take a gander at the proceedings and report back with photos and anecdotes, it was raining harder than it has since Noah’s time, and so I leave you to imagine for yourselves the splendors and wonders of the Cheese Olympics: the theme music, the events, the competitors, the animals, the ceremonies, the commentators…

It is not always necessary to journey very far to find something interesting. A few weeks ago, my friends and I were walking back to my apartment when we passed by my local, er, adult movie theater. Porn theaters here are not tucked away in the red-light district or hidden in dark alleyways. They are in prime locations next to clothing stores and restaurants. Their selections are included in the mainstream movie listings, and they put out movie posters advertising whatever is “Now Playing.” It was one of these posters that caught our attention. On it was a woman in a traditional Swiss dress with puffed sleeves and apron, with her hair in braids (except for the front part, because she had a mullet, so only the back hair could be braided), and a man in traditional Swiss clothing, as well: green hiking hat with feathers, suspenders, lederhosen, and a bushy mustache. The woman had the front of her dress open, and the mustachioed man had his hands out and his mouth open in pure shock and awe. The title, roughly translated, was “Inside Heidi.” We were amazed that Heidi had been remade into porn, and were trying to imagine what might be involved: Yodeling? Fondue? Goats? Cows? More men with mustaches? Cows with mustaches? The porn theater changes its selection (and its posters) on a weekly basis, and the last two weeks have ushered in "Inside Heidi 2" and "Inside Heidi 3," which is apparently the last in one of the great cinematic trilogies of all time.

An expat friend of mine had an experience which could well have been the opening scene for “Inside Heidi 4: Heidi Gets a Desk Job.” He had a big deadline, and so was working at about 9 p.m. (which never happens here, as everyone evacuates the office by 5 or 6 as if their lives depended on it). It was hot, and, being in Switzerland, his office did not have air conditioning. He turned off the lights, but the office was still boiling. So he took off his clothes, and typed away at his computer clad only in his boxers. He figured that no one would be the wiser, as it was 9 p.m., and no one would be in the office until the next morning.

Except for the cleaning lady, who walked into a darkened room, thinking it was empty, and was quite startled to find an almost-naked man sitting in front of a glowing computer.

She was understandably embarrassed to interrupt whatever it was that he might have been doing alone, half-naked, with his computer in a dark room, and tried to make a hasty escape. He was embarrassed by what he thought she must be thinking, and so insisted that she stay and go about her business, while he continued working and tried to pretend as if it were a perfectly normal situation, to be sitting in his underwear while the cleaning lady was collecting trash and vacuuming the floor. This would never happen in an American office because: 1) American offices have air conditioning, and 2) no one would just assume that the office would stay completely empty at 9 p.m. So be grateful for small blessings. Even if you work long hours and have less holiday, at least you can be pretty sure that the cleaning lady won’t walk in on you while you’re sitting in front of your computer in your underwear.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

16 August 2005

Oh, Street Parade, what would Zurich be like without you? When else would normally straight-laced Swiss trash-baggers, rules-followers, early-to-bedders, noise-haters, and clothes-wearers be able to throw trash in the street, break all the rules, stay up late, make lots of noise, and run around in various states of undress? Maybe every society requires a certain amount of each of these things, and the Swiss, efficient as always, prefer to get it all over with in one big bash. My second Street Parade was less shocking than the first, although I still found much of it to be amusing, and I was often much bemused. Where to begin?

Nudity. It's so strange to walk through Zurich seeing people dressed (or undressed) as sexed-up cavemen, or sexed-up devils, or sexed-up something or others, and trying to imagine what they wear in real life. Maybe that woman who is wearing nothing but body paint and shoes usually wears high-waisted jeans with floral shirts. Maybe that man in the codpiece wears man-pris (my term for those capri pants for men that Europeans favor) with white socks and dress shoes. I bet that couple in faux fur and chains usually wear pleated pants and Birkenstocks. Seriously, looking around the city during Street Parade has the shock value of walking in on your middle-aged accountant surfing goat porn on the Internet. And then when he sees you, he proceeds to use the lamest pick-up lines ever coined in the history of mankind. (Two of my favorites from Saturday: "Did you go to Street Parade?" Um, no, I'm wearing devil horns and silver eyelashes and wandering around downtown Zurich at 2 a.m. to go to church. "Why are you wearing horns when you're an angel?" Uh, because that's what I was able to find in the store?)

Other things… Trash. It's everywhere – in the river, on the street, in the tram tracks, in doorways, on sidewalks. One mystery is how the Swiss are able to bring themselves to throw trash on the ground like that, when they are normally so fastidious about such matters. The greater mystery is how a city-wide carpet of trash can completely disappear by the next morning. Noise. Zurich goes from the quietest city in the world to the loudest city in the galaxy, just for one day. Your clothes (if you are wearing any) literally shake on your body, and the techno can seem loud even with earplugs on. Crowds. Zurich usually has a population of about 340,000, spread out over numerous neighborhoods. For Street Parade, 1,000,000 people crowd into downtown Zurich, mostly on or around one main bridge. How do all these people fit in such a small space? Where do they come from? Where do they go? Yes, they all go to after parties, and some of them go to the after-party in the train station, which is packed by late-night, standing room only, with lasers, fog machines, big banks of speakers, and neon lights. Imagine coming in on a train, not knowing about Street Parade, and arriving in the midst of such bedlam.

Ah, this year's slogan was "Today Is Tomorrow," which is really quite lame. Much better, in my opinion, was the Brazilian Jesus Parade (a group of Christian Brazilians who play drums and march around at the Street Parade opposing drugs and pushing Jesus). Evidently inspired by "Today Is Tomorrow," they had a big banner that proclaimed, "Tomorrow Must Be Now With Jesus," which reminded me of Japanese stationery, Chinese instruction manuals, and countless other sources of linguistic amusement.

Speaking of drugs, they are closely tied into the Street Parade tradition. If I had to explain Street Parade in one sentence, I would have to say that it's a big techno festival where Swiss people wear crazy costumes, listen to loud music, take lots of drugs, celebrate free love, and party all night. There are dozens of ambulances standing by for the overdoses, and there were sirens going all night. The openness and accessibility is rather stupefying. People bring out huge tanks of nitrous and boxes of balloons, and they deal out whipits in the street. Pot dealers print up business cards with their phone numbers and working hours, promising to deliver to your door. And here we were thinking that Switzerland was buttoned-down, prim and proper. Well, it is, usually. Just not during Street Parade.

Monday, August 08, 2005

8 August 2005

OK, my birthday weekend passed without excessive damage to person or property, and it was good to celebrate with a few dozen friends from Zurich, London, and Paris. Everyone made a strong effort to ensure that this once-in-a-lifetime event (turning 27) would not go un-feted, as evidenced by the many dozen cans and bottles that made it to the recycling center the next day. Trash day isn't until tomorrow, so the last traces of the party are still sitting in my kitchen, properly squashed and bagged, and I will take them out tonight, even though we aren't supposed to take trash out until 7 a.m., for fear that the foxes will get into them on their nocturnal rounds (because everyone knows that Swiss foxes go to sleep at 7, just as everyone knows that I'm up and ready to take the trash out at 7).

A few notes for future generations: absinthe is never as brilliant an idea as it might seem; keep everything (kitchen appliances, electronics, people, cleavers, candles) on the floor, because it will all end up there eventually; beware of confrontational Polish men in bars known to be Nazi hangouts; even if you aren’t taking pictures, chances are there are other people who did; nothing good happens after someone says, “Watch this!”; and ordering falafel can be trickier than you might think. So thanks to all who made it out to make things a bit less civilized around here. It was a birthday weekend to remember. Will collect pictures to post in a while.

So a few of my friends came in from out of town and had to get to my apartment from the airport, and while giving them directions, I realized just how absurd cabs are in Switzerland. It costs less than five dollars to get from the airport to my apartment, and all it involves is taking a ten-minute train ride and a five-minute tram ride, and the trains and trams run very frequently. Taking a cab takes almost the same amount of time, but it costs about fifty dollars, which makes no sense, unless it’s because almost all of the cabs here are Mercedes or BMWs. Maybe they could offer slightly more competitive prices if they would use normal cars.

But then, the Swiss don’t seem too fazed by over-priced goods and services. In fact, in many cases, they are more than happy to pay a huge premium, because they see higher prices as a sure sign that the product is better. They also like to pay a high premium for Swiss products, either out of some sort of economic patriotism, or out of a certainty that an egg or a computer or a light switch made in Switzerland is bound to be better than one from Germany or China. My friends who work at a Swiss manufacturer of light switches report that their company has 86% market share even though they charge double the price of their closest competitor… come on, they’re just light switches!! On, off, they all do the same thing, and I have never seen a light switch that made me think, “That is clearly a superior light switch, I’ll pay double for it!”

In order to pay for all of these expensive cabs and light switches, the Swiss carry a lot of cash. Credit cards are not so popular here, as many stores don’t accept them, and so most payments are made with cash or debit cards (but stores often only take Swiss debit cards). Zurich sometimes seems to have more ATMs than people, and they like dispensing cash in as few bills as possible. Withdraw 100 francs, and you usually get a single 100-franc note. Never fear, though, as everyone is always quite happy to make change for large bills, and you can go buy a candy bar for one franc at a newspaper stand, and the cashier will give you 99 francs change without blinking an eye.

There is no such thing as a checkbook here, and I don’t even know how you might go about depositing a check in your account. Instead, you can pay your bills online or through the post office, and the money just gets zapped from bank to bank, and from account to account. If you decide to pay at the post office, you take your bills and enough cash to cover them, take it all to the post office and hand it in, and they make sure the money goes where it’s supposed to go. Imagine walking into a post office in the States with a fistful of cash and your cell phone bill, handing it to the harried person behind the counter, walking out, and believing that your bill will be taken care of.

Street Parade next week; some friends and I are planning on Swissing it up a bit, so tune in next week to see how it all goes.