Monday, January 31, 2005
Monday, January 24, 2005
OK, so I have recently gone through a spate of American food cravings. Nothing elaborate, just things like burgers, PB&J, chili, and so on. In procuring the necessary supplies to make these things, I noticed even more oddities about the grocery shopping experience here than I had noticed before. It amazes me, how the grocery store here never ceases to amaze me. The spice aisle, for instance, only has about 10 spices, plus a bunch of mish-mash mixes. Want celery salt? Sorry, no luck, but if you’d like “Mexican” spice, or “Thai curry” in a jar, we’ve got that. The jam aisle brings further revelations. You can get a huge jar of strawberry-rhubarb preserves, or generic-brand jars of such flavours as kiwi-apple or cranberry-pear, for about $2 a jar. Also inexplicably in the jam aisle is this sort of pureed, sweetened chestnut product that has the consistency of high-grit toothpaste and the appeal of grade school paste. How can they have so much selection for such low prices, limited to one type of product? Go elsewhere in the store, and there is only one brand, or two, tops, for criminal prices. Since when does chicken cost more than $20 a pound?
Speaking of chicken (and other meat), there is some sort of regulation that requires that all meat be labelled with its country of origin, both in restaurants and in supermarkets. I assure you that it brings me unspeakable relief, knowing that Fiver’s horsemeat is American and my ground beef is Swiss. The ground beef, by the way, was for burgers. It took me a while to find ground beef, since they have various ground meats here, and the ground meat that is packaged and promoted for making burgers is a mix of beef, pork, and veal, which I don’t think will taste like a real burger. I’m quite sure that the pre-made horse burger patties will not taste like the burgers I’ve been missing.
Of course, you can also go to a restaurant and order burgers, and some places even boast that their burgers are “American-style,” which I am assuming means that they are horse-free. Apparently picking up on the Supersizing idea, one restaurant offers to make one burger for the entire table, no matter how big the party is, which results in a giant lump of cooked ground meat, three inches thick and soggily lying on top of an over-sized bun, ready to feed six people. Sorry, that is not a burger. And it is definitely not a burger if you’re eating it with a fork and knife (pizza and individual burgers also receive the fork and knife treatment).
Every time I get a salad, and I am asked what kind of dressing I want, I get a little bit flustered, because the colors and flavours don’t match what I grew up with. Here, the French dressing is white, and looks sort of like Ranch. The Italian dressing is reddish, and looks sort of what I would think of as Country French. The two kinds taste pretty much the same. I have no idea what the other dressings are when they are offered, but usually there are only the two, since this is Switzerland.
Two good things about going to restaurants here are that generally, they automatically do separate checks, and that tip is included in the cost of the meal. No more complicated divisions of checks at the end of the meal, and no more “multiply the tax by two and then round up.” However, that said, people still do tip, sometimes, and I am never quite sure when they decide to do it, and how much. This is further complicated by the fact that you have to make a split-second decision on tipping, since the waiter comes to you, takes your money, and gives you your change on the spot, and if you’re going to tip, you do it by telling him to keep a certain amount of the change. Nothing stalls out your brain like having to make a snap decision, then trying to dictate that decision in another language to the person who will receive the benefit (or insult) of the decision.
Monday, January 17, 2005
So last week as I was walking down the street after dinner one night, I all of a sudden realized that I haven’t seen a limo or a stretch SUV in months. Months!! Apparently, the term “party like a rock star” is a foreign concept here, since you never see people sliding out of a stretch Hummer to dodge the velvet rope and go to the VIP room, for the most part due to the lack of stretch Hummers, velvet ropes, and VIP rooms. In fact, since many bars here close rather early, compared to the 4 a.m. closing time of most Manhattan bars, there is not a lot of time to party like a rock star. On the other hand, many Swiss will party like high school ravers, since the Ecstasy-heavy clubs stay open quite late, and the guys get spiffed up in their tapered, ankle-length pants (it would be unheard-of for guys to wear pants that come within an inch of the ground), and girls wear their sassiest 80’s gear, and they stay up until all hours, awkwardly twitching to endless techno. Party on, Wayne.
The Swiss like everything to be predictable, efficient, and functional, which really makes life easier in many ways, since you always know what will happen, and when. Sometimes, however, the system doesn’t make it as far as you would like, and you will come across a blatant oversight in logic and practicality which makes you think that sometimes, the Swiss like to smoke a little too much crack. There is one thing in my apartment that I silently curse out every time I use it, and that is my shower. The bathtub is a normal bathtub, with a normal faucet and normal taps. The showerhead is a standard European showerhead, attached to a flexible hose and mounted on the wall.
OK, fine, so what’s the problem? The problem is that someone decided that it would be great to have some cabinets in the bathroom, and that the best place to put these cabinets would be *in the shower.* So along the entire length of the bathtub, there are cabinets that come down to about 5 feet, 3 inches, forcing anyone who is not a Munchkin to either hunch down or tilt to the side while taking a shower. I’d like to note that there are lots of other cabinets and closets in my apartment, and that these particular cabinets are unused, because there are few things that I want to keep in cabinets that are in my shower, since I imagine that things get rather humid in there.
One thing that I find rather quaint here, in a strange way, is the Swiss insistence on keeping a “strong military.” All able-bodied males are required to serve in the military, and after an initial, intensive 4-month training period, they are required to go back for two weeks of refresher service every two years for 22 years. They are issued assault rifles, which they keep at home, and 20 bullets, which are numbered, so that when they check in every other year, it can be ascertained that they are returning with the same 20 unused bullets (now there’s a career to brag about, checking the serial numbers on bullets). There are about 1 million people in the Swiss army (and yes, they do get Swiss army knives), and the Swiss air force proudly flies about two-dozen American-made fighter jets, for annual military expenditures of about $3 billion. What I find quaint about all of this is that the Swiss are so convinced that it is absolutely necessary and fully effective to maintain this military force, as this gargantuan military deters attacks from Switzerland's many enemies, and fends off invasions by evil nations hungry for Swiss cheese and chocolate. (I would like to note that the always-brilliant Dubya was absolutely certain that Switzerland did not have an army at all, so I'm a little skeptical of the deterrent value of an army that some world leaders know nothing about).
Two questions: first of all, who would attack Switzerland when it holds the money of all of the most influential people around the world, and second of all, would 1 million semi-trained ground troops and two dozen planes really hold off a full-scale attack from any larger country? It reminds me a little bit of the rose in The Little Prince, who boasted that the tigers and their claws were no match for her four thorns.
And on a completely unrelated note, I was in a gas station market over the weekend, and realized that the mini-marts here are of an entirely different ilk than those accompanying Exxons and Texacos in the States. No Slurpees or dancing hamsters, no hot dogs of questionable age and origin. Here, you go to the gas station market when the regular grocery stores are closed (any time after 8 p.m.), and you can buy baguettes, frozen foods, fruit, and other foods that do not begin with Nacho Cheezy or Blue Razzamatazzberry.
I would like to note that my favorite item for sale was called “Crack Sticks,” which were just frozen fish sticks, but I just love the idea of having a conversation such as the following, “Honey, I’m going out, do you need anything?” “Man, I really want some Crack.” “Well, I don’t know where I can get you any, it’s 8:15 at night!” "Go to the gas station, look for Frank, and ask for Crack Sticks. In the meantime, I'll finish putting those cabinets in the shower.”
You will notice that things here really are completely miniaturized, especially compared to the land of the Super Size. People fold themselves into cars that make VW Bugs look capacious. They drink their sodas in glasses that would usually be used for whiskey. They buy their milk by the half-liter or liter. They put their trash out in kitchen-sized garbage bags, in streets that are too narrow to have one lane of traffic, let alone two. They buy their chicken breasts one at a time.
You will see some familiar sights, such as Starbuck’s and McDonald’s, but take a closer look. Things are still a little bit off-kilter. Take a look at the menu in McDonald’s. Yes, the ubiquitous Big Macs and fries are there, but what are Choco Balls? (Breaded, deep-fried wads of McNutella). What about McShrimp? (Breaded, deep fried shrimp). And when did McDonald’s add strawberry cream pie (also deep-fried, is there a trend here...) to their menu? Do American McDonald’s also have “Asian Weeks,” where they offer everything with a glop of teriyaki sauce on top? It also seems unlikely that McFondue, available in the mountains here, is served in the original McDonald’s.
Does it seem like everything is moving in slow motion? Are you in a strange dream sequence? No, but apparently the Swiss are constantly engaged in a “who can walk slower” contest that non-Swiss are not privy to. There is no other way to explain why so few people can clog the sidewalks so effectively, no matter what time of day or what part of town it is. They are masters of inefficient sidewalk usage, and you have to appreciate, on some level, the seemingly blissfully unaware miens that they maintain while practicing this skill. They walk in pairs and trios, sweeping slowly down the sidewalk, or they walk alone, with unpredictable pauses. They meander from side to side, pinging and ponging off the margins of the walkway, or they just take the old-school approach of shuffling along at the pace of a disabled snail.
Monday, January 10, 2005
The actual products being sold can be equally baffling. Got milk? There’s the boxed kind that stays good for months, and there’s the bottled kind that requires refrigeration. Whole milk is king, because apparently, low fat and skim milk are not so popular here. Want toothpaste? The most popular brand here is black licorice-flavored. Knowing how our normal, mint toothpaste tastes with orange juice, I shudder upon imagining the stomach-turning flavor combinations experienced after brushing with licorice toothpaste. Need ice? It’s not a simple matter of going to the corner store to buy a five-pound bag, since most Swiss don’t buy ice. You can go to the fish market and ask them to fill up a bag of ice (I can only hope it’s pre-fish ice, rather than post-fish ice), or you can go to the cleaning supplies aisle of the grocery store and buy these little plastic bags that you fill with water and freeze to make ice balls (no automatic icemakers or ice cube trays here).
So then you take your basket to the cashier, and you realize that you haven’t brought grocery bags. D’oh. Add some to your basket for about 25 cents each, or try to carry everything home in little plastic bags that each fit one or two items. Bag it yourself, since there isn’t an awkward teenager standing at the ready to put your groceries in bags for you.
The next hurdle comes when unloading groceries at home. The fridges here are about half the size of a regular American fridge, and the freezer is even more miniscule. My parents have two full-sized fridges and freezers full to the gills at home, just for the two of them, but I have to fit everything into a hobbit-sized fridge. I have been told that the Swiss make multiple trips to the grocery store each week, but who has that kind of time, since it takes an hour to find and buy each basket of groceries?
So, knowing how frustrating it is to find groceries, carry them home and take them upstairs, last week I decided to try out the grocery delivery service that is available here. There is only a limited selection of goods available, and the delivery charge is pretty hefty, but there’s a new user’s discount, so I figured I’d give it a go and see if it matched up to FreshDirect (it didn’t). I was specifically shopping for Fiver’s food, as the vet has put him on a new diet of horse and potatoes. Yes, the grocery stores here sell horsemeat, as in "giddyup, horsie, let's gallop to the slaughterhouse so I can eat you," and what I find somewhat mind-boggling is that I can have pounds and pounds of horsemeat delivered to my door with a click of the mouse, but I can’t find things like creamed corn.
In any case, you would think that with all these difficulties in finding and storing food that I would have starved to death by now, but I seem to be quite safe, probably due to the fact that cheese, chocolate, and pasta have become three of my main food groups here.
On an unrelated note, I have dreamed up a malicious plot, ahem, I mean, an interesting psychological experiment that I would love to try out at some point, if I am motivated enough, and if I decide that the potential negative ramifications are minimal. The Swiss adore rules, and will obey them blindly and to the letter, without ever stopping to question the purpose and effectiveness of said rules. My proposal is to make some official-looking signs setting out a temporary rule, something along the lines of, “Due to intermittent construction, please use the opposite sidewalk for the week of ____.” Next, post the signs on a street that gets a lot of pedestrian traffic, and sit and laugh, (read: make sophisticated scientific observations). Will they notice that there is no construction? Will they obey the sign? Or perhaps I should make it even more absurd. “To use this street between ___ and ___, please take a ticket, or if there are none left, please apply for a ticket at [office] on Mondays and Thursdays between 2 p.m. and 3:45 p.m.” How many people would show up at the office? How many people would use the street without a ticket? And the Swiss question, could I get in trouble for doing this? The American version of the same question, what are the chances that I would get caught?
Also unrelated: I went to a Chinese restaurant this past weekend. Well, *tried* to go to a Chinese restaurant. But they were closed for two weeks for vacation!! Their phone rang and rang, unfettered by an answering machine, and it was only upon arriving at the front door of restaurant that we discovered the two week closing. What kind of restaurant, especially a Chinese restaurant, completely closes for two weeks? And what kind of business doesn't even leave an answering machine on, letting customers know that they are closed??
Monday, January 03, 2005
I hope you all made it safely from 2004 to 2005. How frightening that it's already 2005, and I still find myself accidentally writing 2003 on things.
I went into the mountains in Villars, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, where six of us had dinner and champagne by the fire in a chalet. We played some I Never (which wasn’t quite as juicy as past rounds I’ve played with RCSers and CLSers, but enlightening, nonetheless), messed around with the PlayStation, and turned in around 3. I lost my lip balm while up there, which many of you will realize is one of the greatest catastrophes that could happen to me, since I need lip balm more often and more desperately than most crack heads need their next fix. Out of sheer desperation, I started using Neosporin, instead, which wasn’t the tastiest thing ever, but it worked until I was able to go buy more of the real thing. I promise that pictures will go up in a day or two, both from Christmas in San Francisco, and from New Year’s here in Switzerland.
So anyways, after ushering in the New Year, I spent the remainder of the weekend in Lausanne. I went for fondue with five other people, and it had been about a month since I last had fondue, which surprised my friend greatly, as he has it every week or so. Keep in mind that when they say they eat fondue here, they are talking about some serious eating. This was the first time I’ve had fondue with a group of people in Switzerland, and they brought out the biggest vat of cheese I’ve ever seen. Take a block of cheese about as big as your head, throw it in a pot, and melt it, and that’s about how much five or six people will eat in one sitting. Remember, if it's made well, it should be stinky, like unwashed socks. By my rough calculations, when we had fondue nights in college, we had about one-quarter as much fondue for twice as many people. Granted, we also had a pot of chocolate fondue, and it was more just to have something to eat while we gossiped and played Taboo, but still… That’s a hell of a lot of cheese. When asked if my family eats fondue at home, I laughed, thinking of my wonderful, but very lactose-intolerant family. I seem to be the only lactose-intolerant person in all of Switzerland.
A few things that puzzle me… in a lot of the older buildings and apartments in Switzerland, they split bathrooms into two rooms. One has the toilet, and the other has the shower or bathtub, which in theory, makes a lot of sense, as it allows people to use both facilities simultaneously, but the strange part is that the sink is in the room with the shower and bathtub. I very rarely come out of the shower and then need to go wash my hands, as I assume that the showering process cleanses them sufficiently. It seems more likely that you would need to wash your hands after using the toilet. So why is the sink in the room with the shower and bathtub, instead of in the room with the toilet?
Switzerland has yet to go smoke-free in public places, and so people still smoke in the train station, in restaurants, and pretty much everywhere. Trains are no exception, although they do make a distinction between smoking compartments and non-smoking compartments. This would be excellent, except that it doesn’t always work. On double-decker trains, some cars have smoking compartments on the first level, with the non-smokers sitting up above, with an open stairwell between the levels. Other trains have cars that are bisected with a non-sealing, saloon-style swinging door, with smokers on one side and non-smokers on the other. Apparently, non-smokers here don’t mind the actual smoke, as the non-smoking compartments are often as smoky as the smoking compartments, it’s just that they don’t want to sit with the actual smokers. I’m not sure if it’s because they think that smoking, like leprosy, is contagious, or that smokers (but not the smoke) are disgusting, or if it’s just sit-in-the-back-of-the-bus style segregation.
And one last oddity: the whole formal-informal distinction. In every job I have had, everyone was always on a first-name basis, regardless of age difference, seniority, gender, and so on. You walk into work, meet your boss, and immediately start calling him Bob. Assuming that his name is Bob. That is not the case here, at all. Colleagues will call each other Mrs. This or Mr. That for years, even if they are 27 years old, and even if they work on the same level. Calling your boss by his or her first name is considered rude and presumptuous, and in most cases, you have to reach a great degree of familiarity before making the daring leap to going on a first-name basis. Especially in German-speaking Switzerland. I heard of one office where two women worked together on a daily basis for ten years, and were quite friendly, whereupon one asked the other if she thought they could switch to calling each other by their first names, and the other responded that she was quite happy with the status quo, and so they continued calling each other Mrs. This or That.