Tuesday, June 28, 2005

American Refugee Pride Day

Editor's Note: As you probably know, the 4th of July is this coming Monday, and for some of us, that means that it's time to celebrate the end of the tyranny of King George (whether the current George is treating us any better is open to debate... well, actually, no, it's not really open to debate, Georges apparently just suck all around, so let's all join in for a hearty round of "Down With King George!! U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A," and so on).

How better to celebrate Independence Day than by not having a four-day weekend, and by going to work on Monday? Don't answer that. Thanksgiving weekend (or not-Thanksgiving weekend) is even more depressing. Instead, come to the lake after work to hang out, grill some manly meat (I'll bring a small but manly grill if you bring some manly meat), have a few drinks (BYOB), and go swimming (if you so desire).

Let's meet in the grassy knoll (not that one) on the Enge side of the lake, tram 5 to Rentenanstalt, in what Niko calls the Arboretum, which looks, to the untrained eye, like a big park. Bring anyone you like; this is by no means limited to Americans.

WHERE: Lakeside park (or arboretum) at Rentenanstalt
WHO: you and anyone you feel like inviting
BRING: food, drinks, fireworks, blankets, George effigies, etc. I will bring a small grill with charcoal, and lighter fluid for the grill and the effigies.

Email me with questions, or call my cell if you have trouble finding us.

Monday, June 27, 2005

27 June 2005

I went to the symphony on Friday with three friends. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the concert hall is air conditioned, unlike most other buildings in Zurich, and will look forward to that (as well as the music) for the two performances I will be going to this week. Once it was established that the hall was air conditioned, the experience was nearly identical to other classical music performances I have attended in the past: older audience, musicians in formal black dresses or tails, polite silence and polite applause, when appropriate. There was only one noticeable difference. Someone near me took the liberty of farting three times during the performance, with great (but silent) gusto. It is difficult to concentrate on motifs, themes, and soloists when there are intermittent waves of noxious gas coming from an unknown location. Is uncontrolled public farting socially acceptable here? (Granted, I have been the victim of anonymous toxic farts in other cities around the world, as well).

Speaking of socially accepted behaviors, many of my male friends, if they are travelling together and find themselves to be four males sharing a hotel room with two double beds, will end up sleeping one person in each bed and two on the floor, to avoid the awkwardness of sharing a bed. This has always seemed absurd, as female friends will share beds with each other, and males and females will share beds, if they are good enough friends to do so. If you have beds for four, why put two people on the floor? Swiss men have gotten over their fear of looking unmanly in this arena, (and also in the arenas of shopping, hair products, clothes, and shoes), which makes a lot of practical sense.

Another difference in social behavior is rampant PDA (also known as public display of affection). Although the Swiss are generally reserved and all about social boundaries, that changes once they find boyfriends and girlfriends. Walk down the river or past a park bench or by the lake, and you will see dozens of couples going at it with such fervor that if they were in Manhattan, they would surely earn several whistles, jeers, and pleas to “get a room.” Some will try to cover themselves with blankets, which leaves something to the imagination (but not much), and others will just play tongue hockey and try to make it ‘round the bases without any sort of privacy barrier. My theory is that they save up all of the public affection that most Americans would spend hugging friends, and they lavish it all on extravagant PDA.

Despite this apparent physical closeness (at least in public, who knows if they are all similarly affectionate in private), the Swiss still keep certain boundaries in their relationships. Even if it’s OK to do joint tonsil inspections and breast exams in public, and even if it’s OK to share a bed in parental domiciles, it is absolutely not acceptable to burp (or even worse, to fart) around your significant other (although it might be OK to fart around your S.O. if you are at the symphony, as that might change the rules, but don’t hold me to that one). Apparently, even if you know someone well enough to exchange all sorts of caresses, familiarities, and bodily fluids, you still don’t know them well enough to let them know that you burp. Hold it in, or save it for the symphony.

To follow up on the diving thoughts that have been popping up in these entries lately: last week I ran into a group of divers going in for a night dive, and I got so jealous that I finally made up my mind to cross over to the Dark Side, get a dry suit, and start diving cold water, altitude dives, and lake dives. Fortunately, underwater communication uses universal hand signals, and above water, most of the divers here speak good English, so I won’t have to fumble around in my already very poor German for obscure diving terminology. I’m going back to the pool this Wednesday to start testing out my cold water gear. I can only hope that the synchronized swimmers will be there again, so that I can get a few pictures of them before they run away. (For those of you who have seen Mr. Helgen in Nigel's show... [said in a broad indeterminate accent] "Easy peasy, if we creep up on the swimmers before they realize we're here, we might catch a few on film, and if we're very lucky, we might even be able to trap a few. I hear that they're juicy like squirrel.")

Monday, June 20, 2005

20 June 2005

Ah, summer, with its sunny, blue skies, leafy, green trees, and weekend yodelling festivals. Yes, yodelling festivals. My friends and I went to the triennial Jodlerfest this past weekend in a nearby town, and wandered from tent to tent, having beer, sausage, and ice cream (the three major food groups in Switzerland in the summer time), in between checking out scheduled and impromptu performances by solo and group yodellers, bands, and alpenhorn players (for those of you who aren�t familiar with alpenhorns, they are the really long wooden horns that always show up in Ricola commercials). Traditional Swiss music is all in a major key, and it is very leisurely and placid, which befits a non-warmongering country, I suppose. It is very peaceful music that you could picture being sung in the mountains, and it follows the predictable verse- chorus- verse- chorus format (or, more accurately, verse- yodel- verse- yodel). The singers all stand with their hands in their pockets (I have no idea why, but they all did it that way).

All of the performers (and there were hundreds and hundreds of them) were decked out in traditional regional costumes (that, I was told, cost thousands of dollars each). In one region, apparently, the men wore dangly gold earrings in their right ears, which seemed to say Pirate more than Mountain Man. Other men�s costumes involved fitted black velvet blazers with short, puffed sleeves, worn over a long-sleeved white shirt, or ornate leather suspenders with brass cows and landscapes on them. And there were lederhosen, too, obviously. Can�t have a proper Jodlerfest without having men running around in leather shorts and knee socks! Women had long, old-fashioned dresses with laces and aprons and other old-timey touches you would expect. The surprises showed up more often in their headgear. Some had what appeared to be starched, white lace mohawks pinned on top of their heads, and others had large, frilly black nests of lace that were two feet in diameter.

The oddest performance of the day, perhaps, was a group of about a dozen men, each carrying the biggest cowbell in the world, about as big around as your arms can reach, and as long as an adult thighbone. They walked along in sync, swinging these cowbells with each step. That was it, that was the performance: men walking with cowbells. No melody, no harmony, no real performance, just walking with oversized, clanging cowbells.

One interesting thing was that this highly traditional festival was as eagerly embraced by young people as by older people. Twenty-somethings ran around in their traditional gear, singing traditional Swiss songs while sitting and rocking from side to side on wooden benches in the street, accompanied by accordions and wooden spoons. Some jarring reminders that they were indeed young people from the 21st century were that they had punkish highlights under their lace caps, had nose rings and tongue piercings, and took breaks from yodelling to talk on their cell phones.

Anyways, last week I took all of my dive gear and my camera and underwater housing (which I had just gotten back from repairs) to a swimming pool to test it all out. We were there after-hours, and the people in the pool before us were synchronized swimmers, practicing their routine. Apparently, in Switzerland, all of the weird water people come out after closing time, as evidenced first by the pack of grinning, kicking, perfectly timed girls, and then by the half dozen people trying out wetsuits, dry suits, tech diving gear, camera gear, and underwater MP3 players (I am dying to get one of these now, having tried it firsthand). I can only imagine what the people thought when they saw me on the tram, lugging about 50 pounds of dive and camera gear, complete with fins, regulators, wetsuit, dive computer, mask, snorkel, and so on. And the Swissification continues, as I am seriously considering starting to dive Lake Zurich, after a year of resisting the idea.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

14 June 2005

Zurich is eternally under construction. You will never see a pothole or a crack in the pavement, because they rip up their roads and sidewalks and redo them before any potholes or cracks can form. They do this with the tramlines, as well, tearing up and replacing the tracks before they show any wear and tear. Why have two workers fixing something for a day when you can have eight workers replacing it for two weeks? It’s good for unemployment, and it also makes everything look shiny and new all the time! Every workday, there are packs of construction workers jack-hammering pavement, removing debris, mixing concrete, laying down asphalt, and doing whatever else they do in their impossibly clean and blindingly fluorescent orange pants and shirts. (I have never seen such orange pants, and I’ve never seen construction workers in such clean clothes).

The Swiss (and Swiss construction workers and contractors) get up way too early for their (my) own good. When I lived in New York, my next-door neighbor was having work done, so for several weeks I was rudely awakened at 9 o’clock every morning by the hammering and scraping of the contractors. If only workers here started at 9 o’clock, since I am out of the apartment by 8:40 every day. No, here in Switzerland, if there is work being done in my building, it starts at 7 o’clock, just to make sure that I can enjoy an hour or so of jarring noise before I get out of bed. I suppose I could get up at that time, as well, but as a matter of principle, I refuse to be vertical before 8 o’clock, unless (as has happened several times so far), I have a delivery or workman coming over at 7 o’clock, in which case I am sure they are quite stunned that I stumble to the door in my PJs and then shoo them out as quickly as possible so that I can crawl back into bed.

As long as I’m on the subject of workmen and apartments, I’ve had a rather strange little ongoing story. My building is very old, since it is in the historic district of Zurich, and so it needs some work from time to time to fix leaks and cracks and so on. Since I moved in, my landlord has had to enter my apartment about four or five times, sometimes with a workman, to check on the roof, fix a leak, do some painting, or whatnot. He does this when I am at work. A while back, when he was checking the roof, he decided that my roof terrace was overgrown, and had a gardener come in to weed, prune, trim, and sweep. A few weeks ago, he let a painter in to paint the corner of my living room, and when I came home after work, the bathroom had been cleaned -- the sink, counter, and toilet were scrubbed so that they looked factory-fresh, even though the apartment visit had nothing to do with the bathroom. Sort of odd, but, hey, free bathroom cleaning. Last week, he had to check for leaks or cracks that might explain a problem with the apartment downstairs. When I came home, the hallway and stairs had been vacuumed.

It’s like I have little apartment-cleaning fairies that come in and clean one thing each time. I wonder if he comes in, decides it’s messy, and cleans it himself, or if the workman does it, or if he calls in a cleaning person. And why clean at all, or why clean only one thing? It weirds me out thinking about it, these little mini-cleaning projects that take place each time the landlord comes by. I hate cleaning, and it’s nice to have some of it taken care of sometimes, but this is just too creepy, even for me. Now I don’t know whether to let things get messy before he comes over, to take advantage of the Cleaning Fairy, or if I should clean up beforehand, to avoid the weirdness.

Despite being in an old building, my apartment (thankfully) has a dishwasher, and the washer and dryer are right outside my front door. I grew up using dishwashers and clothes dryers, and it has always seemed unthinkably inconvenient not to have them, but it is quite commonplace here to wash all dishes by hand and to hang your laundry out to dry. In fact, I have met Swiss people my age who have never used a dishwasher or clothes dryer (in fact, one of them, despite never having used a dryer, categorically said that they were not to be trusted. On the other hand, he was also mistrustful of foreigners, women with opinions, and lawyers, so as a foreign, opinionated, female, dishwasher- and dryer-using lawyer, I must have seemed especially shady.)

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

7 June 2005

It has been an action-packed week, as Zurich continues waking up from winter hibernation. Friday night, some friends and I went to the symphony, which was having one of its regular special events, designed to reach out to a younger audience. The 1,500 person audience sat through the Beethoven violin concerto, quietly drank beer, applauded boisterously when appropriate, and at the end, demanded two encores. After that, the audience flooded the foyer of the symphony hall, decked out in clubbing gear, drinking beer, and rocking out to the live electric cello-mixing table-drum ensemble. Only in Switzerland could you get a bunch of punks to pay $25 to sedately drink over-priced beer and listen to Beethoven before dancing to an electric cello ensemble.

Saturday was the Christopher Street Day Parade, which is the gay pride parade in Zurich. I realized that this was probably what was going on my first weekend in Zurich last year, when I saw a troupe of men in tighty-whities doing synchronized aerobics in the street and was very puzzled. In any case, the parade was relatively low-key; I imagine that people are saving their most over-the-top gear for Street Parade in August, but there were still a few people in full drag, half nude, or sporting full bondage gear. One amusing moment was seeing a banner that read “Zurich Bears.” There is currently this strange thing going on here, with dozens of large bear statues that have been painted in different ways, on exhibit around Zurich, similar to the cow thing we had a few years back in the U.S. I got confused, wondering why they would have a banner for the statues in the gay pride parade, before remembering that “bear” refers to an entirely different concept in the gay community.

After the parade, there was a street festival with (what else but) sausages and beer, a well as other food and drink, including absinthe, which, after trying it for the first time, I can heartily NOT recommend. If you’re wondering how the Swiss feel about gays in the military, the Green Berets had a gay pride truck, decked out in camo and rainbow flags. Next to the truck, one soldier was hugging another soldier while caressing his chest, and right next to them, one of their comrades blithely chomped away on a grilled sausage. My favorite quote of the day came from my friend, who said, “Hey, the guy with the tiara is wearing an assless apron!”

Later on, there was a concert that was billed as “Swedish electronica,” but was more of a cheesy wedding band. The band, Alcazar, felt the need to include their name in every song, and most of their songs were sort of cheesy remixes of existing songs, like, “We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning, and our name is Alcazar, so sing with Alcazar!” They had coordinated Star Search-style dance moves, and it was like Abba gone horribly bad. So bad that it was worth staying to watch for an hour.

Sunday I spent the day in Appenzell, which was the last canton to give women the right to vote, and where the stereotypical residents are short and mountain-dwelling. I spent the day half-expecting to be stoned by misogynistic Oompa Loompas, but alas, none were to be seen, as it was Sunday, and the Oompa Loompas apparently stay inside counting their cacao beans on Sundays. Sunday was also the day of a nationwide referendum, in which the Swiss voted on whether to loosen trade restrictions with the EU, and on whether to give gay partnership rights. I was surprised and happy to find out that both measures passed, and can only hope that this is a good sign for progress in conservative countries in general (ahem, yes, I’m talking about my homeland, unrecognizable as it is these days). At some point, I will have to post something about the intense propaganda campaigns that preceded this vote and others.

In other news, I'm trying to get a Swiss driver's license, which I can get without taking a test, since I have a valid U.S. license. I find the whole thing amusing, since they assume that having a license means: 1) that I can drive well, and 2) that I know how to drive stick. Also, I have to get a vision test at most 24 months beforehand, which makes sense at first, until you stop and realize that a Swiss license is good FOR LIFE, in which case, after 30 years, does it really matter if the vision test was given 24 or 25 months before you got the license?