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!!