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.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

3 August 2005

So I’m a little late this week. I have an excuse: Monday was Swiss National Day, so I had a long weekend with numerous (social) obligations, including two cookouts, a dive in the lake, and drinks at three outdoor bars. Plus, I’m not the only one running late these days; even, horror of horrors, the Swiss railway system has been having difficulty. There have been numerous delays, isolated and system-wide, sometimes for hours, and sometimes for a few minutes (yes, they post it when a train is going to be 2 minutes late, and yes, people get very upset about such grave news. Spät, the German word for “late,” is definitely a four-letter word here.)

It’s funny how people are so focused on “how things should be,” and if things are not “as they should be,” the world turns upside-down. What this translates into is that you have rules for everything, big or small, and everyone knows the rules down to the letter, and they follow them without question. Everything is run under the assumption that people will know and follow the rules. Trams and local trains run on the honor system, and tickets are only verified during random, infrequent raids. Trash is put in special bags, and recycling is taken to collection points at certain times of day. If you send a letter with insufficient postage, the post office delivers it and sends you a bill for the extra postage, trusting that you will cough up the extra 20 cents. Banks allow you to overdraft your account by a thousand dollars without protest (I’ve done it by accident, and have made multiple withdrawals after going in the red).

The whole system is a cheater’s paradise, tempting non-rule-followers to sneak out illegal trash, withdraw on credit, use insufficient postage, ride sans ticket, and so on. I have fantasies of exacting revenge on unsuspecting foes by putting their name and address on bags of illegal trash, in order to incur a fine on their behalf. However, the Swiss are also masters at brainwashing, and it doesn’t take long before foreigners are using special trash bags, buying yearly tickets, and hauling their bottles to recycling kiosks before 7 p.m. (I just got rid of 60 wine and beer bottles!)

Despite having undergone some level of Swissifying brainwashing, however, I still am completely baffled by some rules. For instance, most offices have no air conditioning. Granted, the summers don’t get quite as hot for quite as long as they do in the States, but we still have days where the temperature tops 90, and sitting in an office on the top floor with an entire wall of windows doesn’t make for a productive work environment, unless you’re in the business of producing sweat. It’s not necessary (or comfortable) to air condition an office down to arctic temperatures, but come on, let’s keep it under 80 degrees. Even stranger, the Swiss, although they have very casual dress codes, refuse to wear shorts. Men continue to wear jeans and long pants, and women continue wearing nylons, even in stuffy, sun-plagued offices. No wonder so many Swiss people (and restaurants and businesses) take a three-week holiday in August; it’s not like they can do anything but sweat through their clothes if they go to work.

I suppose there are other ways to cool off, if air conditioning is not an option. The most obvious way, of course, is boat jousting. Yes, boat jousting. Last week, I was going to meet some friends at a lounge that is a women’s swimming pool by day (similar to, but not to be confused with the bar that is a men’s swimming pool by day), and I saw some people at the boathouse across the river from my apartment. I stopped to watch, and there were people swimming, drinking beers, rowing, and doing other liquid-centered activities. It was very hot. There was one group of people in something like a large gondola, something like a dragon boat, something like a Viking boat, and they were going full speed, despite the heat. I expected a Roman centurion to start beating a drum to make them row in time.

Anyways, there were two other boats that had Astroturf platforms on the end. Each boat had four to six people rowing or steering, and one person perched on the Astroturf. The perchers were holding long wooden poles, and I couldn’t figure out what they were for. One boat held steady and the other paddled upstream, then turned around, and the two perchers lowered what I then realized were their jousting lances. The boats headed for each other at full speed (not very fast when the only method of propulsion is drunk men with paddles), and the “knights” held steady on their “thundering steeds,” then tried to “unhorse” their opponent. Splash and repeat. The setup took at least five minutes each time for a joust that lasted about ten seconds. When I later described the wonders I had seen, one friend burst out with, “Boat jousting again??” Only in Switzerland would boat jousting be a regularly scheduled activity. Don’t believe me? I’ve put up pictures to prove it.

Birthday party Friday, this time in my now-furnished apartment! Friends coming in from London and Paris, and good times shall be had by all.