Tuesday, July 26, 2005

26 July 2005

OK, a few more things on London, while I’m on the topic… Oftentimes, their public restrooms are marked, “Male Toilets” and “Female Toilets.” I didn’t realize that toilets had genders; they look pretty asexual to me. Although I suppose that “Toilets for Men to Use” and “Toilets for Women to Use” might be a bit wordy. Why do they name their subway lines? Northern, Piccadilly, District, how does the name of a subway line help at all? Give them numbers or letters or colors to make them easier to sort out on a map. One weird experience I had at the airport in London: some woman came up to me out of the blue and asked me if I was from Cyprus. Huh? Do I look like someone from Cyprus? What does someone from Cyprus look like? I’ve been puzzled by that one ever since. And one more random observation from London: as I was walking along, I saw a woman pushing her child in a stroller. OK, nothing strange about that. But the kid was strapped into the stroller using a 5-point harness, like you see on Formula 1 racecar drivers: shoulder, crotch, and waist straps converged on a central buckle. How fast is she pushing this kid that he needs a 5-point safety harness? So, yeah, Londoners are weird.

And so are the Swiss.

I went for a dive in Lake Zurich yesterday after work; it was my first dive in the lake, and my first dive in a drysuit. The water was about 6°C (43°F) at a depth of 24 meters, which was the deepest we went. It was pouring rain and dark above water, which meant that it was dark and mucky underwater. Visibility was 1-2 meters near the surface, and cleared up to about 10 meters further down. There were a few small brown fish, one big fish, a big water pipe, some other random stuff, and lots of silt. And still we went. A bunch of other divers were there, too. Apparently, Switzerland has more diving instructors per capita than any other country in the world, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why they need so many instructors, if that’s the kind of diving they get to do. Of course, the Swiss also have a lot of money and free time, so I guess they can afford to buy all of the gadgets and gear and go on long dive holidays to tropical locations… And I guess that even I have succumbed to the local diving thing, as I have another one scheduled for next week.

So a new Asian grocery store opened up about two blocks from my office, and I am very excited. There are many reasons for this excitement. First of all, it’s very close to work, which means that it’s possible to get to the store after work, but before the store closes at 6:30. The other Asian stores are further away, and so weekday shopping is rather difficult. Second, it is quite large, and has more in stock than any of the other Asian markets in Zurich. It is about the same size as the Asian markets in the suburbs in the States, and I can go there to get anything from mangosteens to Chinese broccoli to dried mushrooms. Third, it is an Asian market, so the prices are cheap, compared to what you see elsewhere (although it is still more expensive than the Asian stores in the US, but any price differential is welcome). Fourth, they give what I call a “yellow discount.” My Asian friends and I have all gotten 10% off of our purchases, just for being Asian, as far as I can tell. This discount would not work so well in a place that has a decent-sized Asian population, since they would have to give a discount to most of their customers, but for once, my ultra-minority status here has served me well. Ahh… No longer do I have to dream about red bean buns, peanut candy, and summer rolls. I have found a store that sells them, that is open when I am free, that gives me a race-based discount!! (I suppose it’s pretty pathetic and a symptom of Swissification that I’m so glad to have found a store that sells things I want at a reasonable price and is open until 6:30 p.m. Oh, well, it’s the little things…)

However, I am currently in the process of finding shepherds to guide some things across the Atlantic for me: books, OTC medicines, random bits of gear, and other oh-so-essential items. As long as I refuse to buy my ibuprofen 10 pills at a time and beg friends to bring me toothpaste from Duane Reade and books from Barnes and Noble, I will know that on some level, I have not been completely conquered.

Monday, July 18, 2005

18 July 2005

Was I really only away for a week and a half? This vacation was so disconnected from Real Life. I left for London after work on the 6th, and met up with Kris and Lauren. The next morning, Lauren and I got on the Tube at around 9 and barely made it to the airport, as our train kept stopping and starting, with attempted evacuations, due (we later found out) to the bombings. We not-so-intelligently stayed on, undeterred by the "electrical failures" that the loudspeaker was warning us about, and determined to make sure that the shallow end of the gene pool made it to Egypt. At the airport, I managed to get my camera gear in as carry-on, even though it was 9kg over the 5kg limit (I used the Force, Obiwan-style, "This is not the overweight bag you are looking for...")

We had the plane ride from hell, as there was a very drunk group of wedding guests also on their way to Egypt. The full spectrum of the human drama unfolded on that flight. There was laughter, there were tears, there were tacky cowboy hats. There was crazed yelling and uncontrollable sobbing. Accusations of wrongdoing and declarations of friendship flew fast and furious through the recycled air. And we couldn't escape for five hours. (Or was it five years? Hard to tell.)

We got to Marsa Alam in Egypt, and after negotiating our way through customs and wrestling our luggage off the belt, we boarded the bus, 68% confident that the confused porters would load our bags on, as well. As the first group got off the bus, they had difficulty determining which bags to leave on for the continuing passengers, and I had to run out and tell them to put our bags back on, as the exiting passengers already had their own dive gear, and wouldn't have much use for ours. We got on the boat, and I popped the first of 36 Dramamines for the trip. There were 19 divers, mostly Brits, with a few Aussies and Irishmen, plus one American, me (represent!) We had three dive guides: two Ahmeds and one Ali Baba (no joke), who was deaf, but made up for his lack of hearing with an over-the-top personality. The remaining crew included another Ahmed, a few Mohammeds and Mahmouds, and other crew members who had their own names to themselves.

On a typical day, we woke at 5, dove at 6, had breakfast at 8, dove at 11, had lunch at 1, dove at 3, had afternoon tea at 4:30 (seriously, we did, the boat catered to Brits, and by the way, the British are weird. They weigh themselves in a combination of stone and pounds, but can't tell you what a stone is, exactly, and their hot and cold water taps are usually separated, so you either have scalding hot or freezing cold water, but never nice and warm. Anyways, back to what I was saying), dove at 6, and had dinner at 8. Then most of the others would stay up doing God-knows-what, and I would go to bed at 10 like the withered old almost-27-year-old that I am (I blame it on the Dramamine, but it's probably also partly due to my natural slothfulness).

What did we see? Short version: fish, coral, and water. Less-short version: hammerhead and reef sharks, lion fish, spotted rays, morays, wrecks, Napolean wrasse, scorpion fish, clown fish, unicorn fish, groupers, anemones, feather stars, loads of coral, and so on. Unabridged version: go dive the Red Sea and find out for yourself. Several passengers succumbed to what one of the divers dubbed "Pharoah's Revenge," a close relative of Montezuma's Revenge. Through the vomiting and bathroom breaks, we kept our minds on the most important thing... (Family? Friends? Health? Love?) ...Diving.

The last day, we were at a resort in Marsa Alam, waiting for the nitrogen to leave our blood (the bends are overrated). It was a sunny, shadeless, breezeless 105F (40C), so we did what anyone would do and jumped into the 92F (33C) pool (yes, it was warm enough even for me!!) and played water polo. The resort was one of those all-inclusive resorts in the middle of nowhere (I've never been so in the middle of nowhere before), with organized activities like synchronized dance and water aerobics (do people really go there for a whole week??)

Caught the plane back to London, after a brief scare about plane tickets, and we were a tad wary upon being reunited with the stars of the prior flight's drunken soap opera, but they had apparently been hit with elephant tranquilizer darts, much to our relief. Got into Gatwick, trudged through customs (I've never been so heavily questioned in customs before, probably a combination of the prior week's bombings, the Egyptian origin of our flight, and my highly suspicious terrorist-like appearance), got our baggage, and parted ways. I made it to my friend's place around 4 a.m. after sharing a train compartment with a sleepy man who had wet his pants. Spent a day and a half in London, during which time I had dim sum, a Chinatown massage, and met up with a friend from a previous life.

It was with great relief that I finally got back to my apartment and dropped my 88 pounds (40kg) of dive gear and camera equipment. As I took a midnight shower, I was supremely thankful that I am not in a building that forbids late night showering. Tonight I will do laundry late into the night. I feel like such a Swiss-style rebel. But I wish I were still diving...

Monday, July 04, 2005

4 July 2005

Happy Fourth of July (for whatever it's worth these days)!! It’s a bit annoying to note that we’re celebrating the downfall of a George who has been dead for two centuries, while living under the de facto rule of another George who is doing much more to offend us than just taxing tea and stamps. Instead of quartering soldiers, he’s sending them out to wreak havoc elsewhere. Instead of settling for having us hate him, he’s making the rest of the world hate us. Say goodbye to Roe v. Wade, any hope of gay marriage, and separation of church and state, because present-day George wants to turn the Supreme Court into a party-line assembly of Scalias and Thomases. Who needs education, health care, and a stable economy when you can have so much more fun ruining international relations and wrecking the environment? There’s a reason I semi-facetiously titled my Fourth of July mass-mail “American Refugee Pride Day.”

Speaking of the Fourth of July, I was in the grocery store over the weekend, and came across a display case for Swiss National Day party supplies, which included fireworks and flags and so on (Swiss National Day comes about a month after the Fourth of July, so it’s convenient that they like to prepare in advance). Fireworks can be hard to come by in the US, as they are illegal in many states, but when you do buy them, you can usually tell what it is that you’re buying, as they have instructions or pictures. Here, on the other hand, you can get your fireworks at the grocery store, and once you’ve bought them, you have no idea what any of the fireworks (if that is indeed what they are) are supposed to do. In a huge snub to tort law and product liability, the Swiss package their fireworks in generic boxes with pictures of happy children celebrating. No big warnings or disclaimers, no instructions or suggestions, no pictograms or explanations. I’m guessing that you just light them and hope for the best. Are you supposed to put them on the ground? Hold them? Throw them? Only one way to find out. Got matches?

Not only can you buy fireworks at the grocery store, you also go there to get clothes, houseplants, Swiss Army knives, government-issue trash bags, and other sundry items. In fact, a few weeks ago, I was accosted by a store representative asking me to take a written survey in German, in exchange for a free chocolate bar. Obviously, I took it. I like chocolate. They asked me to compare the store’s produce and meat with that of their competitors. Sure. Location, price, selection, all things you would expect to be asked about. But they also asked me where I preferred to buy my clothing and, if not at the grocery store, then where and why. I have a feeling that certain people buy their clothes at the grocery store, and others don’t, and that there is little you can do to make people switch. Personal opinion, but I think that their marketing and research money would be better spent trying to get a bigger share of the food market, as I don’t anticipate adding pants or sweaters to my grocery list any time soon.

Anyways, I got my Swiss driver’s license in the mail last week (they mail it to you about a week or two after you go to the Swiss DMV, not wanting or being able to give you the license on the spot). It has holograms, photo, and date of birth, as you would expect, but no address or expiration date. I’m assuming that they don’t put an address on there because the license is good for life, and the address is unlikely to stay the same forever (but then again, is a picture of my 26-year-old self going to be all that useful when I’m 70?) The license also came with a letter from the Swiss DMV, with standard information about the newly issued license, as well as a paragraph about the credit-card-size format. Until just a few years ago, Swiss (and other European) driver’s licenses were large pieces of stiff paper with a signature and photo. I’m assuming that they were easy to fake, and that they did not withstand being put in wallets or washing machines very well. And so the DMV’s letter very proudly pointed out that the “new” licenses are durable, portable, convenient, and modern. I had no idea that wallet-sized, plastic driver’s licenses were considered such a recent and revolutionary advance in ID technology.

I’m trying to get my act together for my upcoming dive trip. I’ll be flying to London, catching a charter flight down to Egypt from a different London airport, spending a week on a boat, and then doing the whole thing in reverse. It’s not an insignificant feat to navigate myself, a carry-on of regulators, a suitcase of camera gear, and a body bag of dive gear through four airports and four flights, but I’m hoping to make it there and back with sanity intact. One thing that will help is that the Swiss, blissfully confident that terrorists will not attack, invite passengers to bring their bags to the airport one day early, pick seats, and leave their luggage. Even stranger, for about $15 per bag, you can take your baggage to the train station, give them your information, and leave your bags. They take the bags to the airport and load them on the plane for you. Seems a bit lax for a country that is so paranoid as to rig the bridges and tunnels to self-destruct, require all able-bodied males to serve in the military, and build enough bomb shelters for every man, woman, and child.

So. I’m off to go shark hunting in Egypt, so I’ll be on hiatus, and back with some great stories (definitely) and pictures (hopefully) in two weeks.