Tuesday, October 25, 2005

25 October 2005

Halloween is coming up, so we’re making plans for this very American tradition. As of now, our plans are unconventional, by both American and Swiss standards. My friends and I are planning on celebrating Halloween on Saturday the 29th, since it would be difficult to celebrate on Halloween night and get into work the next day. The pitfalls of being an adult. In any case, we’re planning on dressing up in a country that doesn’t really observe Halloween, on a day that isn’t even Halloween, and going out to a club, where our costumes are sure to raise some eyebrows. Especially since our theme is “Pimps and Heroes,” rather than “Pimps and Hos,” meaning that we can dress up either as pimps or as superheroes, with the additional restriction that we can only spend about $15 on our costumes. I’m expecting some rather interesting homegrown superheroes, like Captain Toilet Plunger or The Cheese Grater.

Thanksgiving is also on the horizon. That weekend is not a holiday weekend here, so expats are split as to whether the holiday should be observed on Thursday, as intended, or on Saturday, when people actually have the day off to cook, eat, and go into food coma for a day. An added twist is the bird flu that is making its way across Europe. I’m wondering if we should get a turkey, perhaps with a side of pandemic, out of respect for tradition, or if we should try for a pork roast or steaks, instead. Ever since this bird flu scare has started up, I’ve been giving an especially evil eye to the local pigeons and swans. Apparently, bird flu is most easily transmitted through the handling of bird droppings or feathers. I don’t usually go out of my way to play with bird poo, nor do I pluck birds very often, but I’m just waiting for the Evil Infected Pigeon of Death to drop a load on me as I’m walking to work.

Speaking of being sick, I remember growing up and reading about various kinds of food poisoning. Cook your eggs and poultry, or you might get salmonella. Don’t eat raw pork, or you’ll get trichinosis. And then there was one called candida, which can cause something called “leaky gut syndrome,” which sounds anything but pleasant. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Candida is the brand name for a popular toothpaste in Switzerland. Now, I understand that it’s difficult to find brand names that are acceptable in every language, but it might be best to avoid the Latin-based names for diseases when naming oral hygiene products? I’m no marketing expert, but that seems pretty basic.

Something that has been irritating me lately is that it’s very difficult as a foreigner to do things like get a cell phone contract or a movie rental card. Unless you’re a permanent resident, most businesses and companies refuse to give you anything resembling an ongoing contract or membership status, opting instead to do pay-as-you-go plans (for cell phones) or sorry-no-foreigners plans (for video rentals). Do they really think that I’ll flee the country in the middle of the night, leaving my steady job and large apartment security deposit behind, just to avoid paying a $5 fine on a late video rental? Apparently they do. OK, yes, I’m a lawyer, yes, I’m American, and yes, I have those shifty, slanty eyes that come with the yellow skin I’m in, but I can sometimes be trusted with small things, Scout’s honor.

Swiss Airlines, my new nemesis (and doesn’t everyone need a nemesis?) recently posted a “Special Offer” on their site for fares to Hong Kong. I have friends in Hong Kong, and I like to travel, so I checked it out. There were some restrictions, like requiring a Saturday night stay, with a maximum stay of one month. Bookings were available through December. OK, sounds good, how much? Including taxes and fees, a round-trip economy class ticket would cost over $8,200, and they even had the chutzpah to label it as a “Best Price.” Other airlines were not making any special offers or giving best prices, but were instead selling tickets for about $1,300. But I’m sure it’s worth it. For only $8,200, you can fly direct to Hong Kong and bring bird flu back for you and all of your friends!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

18 October 2005

Last week I had a moment of claustrophobia when I thought I would have to stay in Switzerland for three weeks in a row. I ran out of pages in my passport, and had to send the passport to the American embassy in Bern to have extra visa pages added. When I called the embassy to ask how long it would take, the woman was noncommittal and wouldn’t give me an estimate. When pressed, she said that it probably wouldn’t take more than three weeks, but no guarantees. I asked her how long it’s been taking recently, and she hazarded a guess of a week and a half. So I figured that would keep me in town this past weekend and this coming weekend, and Halloween weekend, I have to be in town to sing with my choir. But I kept my chin up in the face of "adversity." I mailed my passport Thursday, so it arrived at the embassy Friday, since mail takes only one day within Switzerland. I got it back Saturday, meaning that the woman who so stubbornly insisted that she couldn’t commit to taping the pages in within three weeks sent it out the same day that she got it! Which means I am free to roam this coming weekend, if an opportunity should present itself…

It may be a good idea for me to leave town this weekend, as I am still fuming from yet another Chink Incident. Walking home from a night out this past Friday, I passed three Swiss guys in the street. Out of nowhere, one of them said, “Ching chong chung.” While I normally either ignore such comments or laugh them off as a sign of pathetic ignorance, I have had a few too many Chink Incidents lately to shrug them off as easily, and I had had a few drinks that night, making me less patient than my already impatient self. So I replied with an automatic, New York-style “Muck shoe.” Or something sounding vaguely similar to that. It’s good to know my urban misanthropic self is still in there, ready to strike back. I now know what Fiver thinks whenever people look at him and bark; he must be thinking, “You have no idea how ridiculous you sound, you ignorant prat, do you really think that’s what dogs sound like??” It’s disturbing how widespread and accepted such behavior is here. In a country where it’s considered rude not to say hello to the cashier or to only make cursory eye contact when making a toast, it is perfectly OK to make grade-school racial slurs in the street.

Another thing that is perfectly normal and widely accepted is body odor. Yes, it is a stereotype that Europeans don’t bathe or wear deodorant, but in many cases, based on the smells you encounter in public, it is not unfounded. Summertime is an especially, er, fragrant time. There is no air conditioning, so people sweat freely all day and all night, and they also have a tendency to wear the same clothes for several days in a row, which compounds the problem. I have no idea how often they shower or wash their hair, or how much deodorant they wear, but I do know that even if you shower every day, if you wear the same clothes for three days in a row, and sweat into them for three days in a row in un-air conditioned homes, trams, and offices, people will definitely know you’re there without even seeing you first.

My friend and I are thinking about getting an apartment together. If we pooled our resources, we could get a brand-new 3-bedroom loft, a 4-bedroom apartment with two terraces, or a 4-bedroom house, and we would still be saving money. Some confusion arises, however, when trying to figure out what should look for. The Swiss, when tallying up living spaces, count bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens as rooms, but not bathrooms, and if the kitchen or eating area is especially big, they tack on another ½-room. What Americans would call a one-bedroom is usually called a 2.5-room apartment here. The 4-bedroom house? It’s got 7 rooms. Not an exact science, so if you’re looking for a certain number of bedrooms, you add anywhere from one to three extra rooms to figure out what you’re looking for. Watch this space to see if there are further developments. If not, it’s because we’re lazy, and can’t count…

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

11 October 2005

I have never lived anywhere that makes travel as easy as it is in Switzerland. Trams and trains run exactly on time and according to schedule, so that you never need to budget extra time to get to the airport, you know exactly which tram to catch to make it to the train station in time to catch the train that will get you to the airport in time. And you only have to get to the airport about 40 minutes before your flight takes off, even though you have to go through passport control and security. If you already checked in the night before, either at the train station or at the airport, you can show up 25 minutes before your international flight, and still make it on the plane in time. This past weekend, I took another trip out to Ireland, and I left the office 85 minutes before my flight, caught a tram and then a train, and that got me to the airport 50 minutes before my flight, giving me plenty of time to stop and pick up some stuff in duty-free, get a snack, and then sit and wait for my flight to be called.

Ireland was loads of fun. I got in a bit before midnight on Friday night, and after dropping by my friend’s house to leave my bag, say hi to his dad, and give his dad the wheel of Swiss-made sheep’s milk cheese (I only realized after getting on the plane that it was sort of an odd gift, but my friend had suggested it, telling me that his parents love cheese, which somewhat mitigated the sheepish feeling I had, pun intended, while handing his dad a gift bag with a slightly smelly cheese inside), we headed out to the pub to celebrate his best friend’s new baby. His best friend was absent, having already stopped in earlier to have half a bottle of champagne, but the celebration continued without him, since it was a good excuse to have a celebration on a Friday night. I definitely felt noticeably yellow-skinned, as I kept getting “Ooh, Mommy, look at the giraffe!” looks from some of the other people in the bar. But at least they weren’t “Ew, Mommy, look at the leeches!” looks.

By this time, the U.S. must be in full holiday prep mode, with store displays hawking an overwhelming assortment of food, decorations, supplies, and other related items for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, with token displays for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and whatnot. Here, Christmas is the only holiday remaining for the year, and there haven’t been any displays up that I have seen (although I haven’t been in town much to notice). While it is nice to avoid the blatant commercialism, it does make things difficult for Americans who want to celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving. Expats are busily trying to find out where they can order turkeys, which aren’t very popular in Switzerland, and throwing together homemade costumes, since Halloween has only recently surfaced here on a very small scale, and is only for children. Fiver will be going as Darth Vader, thanks to a costume my sister sent me, but my costume is still up in the air. For Thanksgiving, my friends and I are thinking random potluck of whatever food items we are able to find and prepare, limited by what is sold in stores, and how much skill we have. Oh, and oven space. Ovens here are very small, and rarely fit anything larger than about 10 pounds. Isn’t the whole point of an oven so that you can cook large quantities of food at one time?

Swissification update: A sign that I am caving to the Swiss mentality, in some respects: I no longer flinch when buying movie tickets for about $14, and I think it’s a great deal when I go on Monday, which is cheap ticket day, when the tickets cost about $10. Another sign: I can no longer imagine working nights, weekends, or holidays, and I am wondering how on earth to make 25 vacation days (plus 10 Swiss holidays) stretch out over an entire year.

Anyways, after traveling six out of the last seven weekends, I’ll be staying in town this weekend (no guarantees for the one after that, though), to reacquaint myself with what Zurich has to offer.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

4 October 2005

Coming from the land of political correctness, I have often been surprised by the lack of PC culture in Europe. Diversity is the exception, rather than the rule, and so political correctness has not yet taken root. I dated a Swiss person who thought that “ching chong wing wong” should either be seen as a funny joke or as an effort at cultural outreach and understanding, and I have met with looks of blank confusion when someone realized that I was not yet another mail-order bride from Asia. Better to turn it into a humorous anecdote than let it be a source of real annoyance. So, two humorous anecdotes…

When I was in Ireland, the whitest country I have ever been to, my friend and I were having a post-dive snack with two other divers. One of them had his wife and two children in tow: one was still an infant, and the other was about seven. The seven-year-old stood behind his dad's shoulder and stared at me so hard without blinking that I was surprised his eyeballs didn’t dry up and fall out of his head. His parents didn’t notice, but my friend made a comment under his breath that maybe someone should say something. What could you say? "Stop staring at the chink?" After a while, the baby started staring, as babies do, and his mom noticed, and she pointed out that he was “fascinated,” so I made a snarky comment, totally deadpan, “Yeah, it’s the yellow skin and the slanty eyes.” My friend and I had difficulty not dying of laughter as we watched the sudden shock spreading around the table.

Then this past weekend, I was having dinner with friends in Lugano, in the eastern, Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, and my Italian-speaking friend struck up conversation with the waiter, who then asked her where we were from. She responded that we were from the U.S. and Australia, and he asked again where I was from, China? She replied that I was Chinese, but from the U.S., and he turned to me and leaned in, about to speak. I prepared myself for a poorly-delivered Chinese phrase, ready to respond with “Oh, your Chinese is quite good!” but he instead gave what is apparently the Italian equivalent of “ching chong wing wong.” Sudden shock spread around the table. He later asked if I could translate the menu into Chinese, and I sat there, passive-aggressively wishing I knew how to write “goat testicles with dung sauce” in Chinese. I declined, seeing as my knowledge of written Chinese would only have allowed me to translate the menu if it had dishes called “Good morning” or “Don’t forget your homework.”

In any case, Lugano was great: good food, good wine, good friends, and sunshine. Summer is gone in Zurich, and we are getting ready for seven months of clouds and rain, but the Italian-speaking portion of Switzerland knows nothing of that. There is a tunnel that goes through the Alps between German-speaking Switzerland and Italian-speaking Switzerland, and most days, if it is raining in Zurich, once you go through that tunnel, you come out into a clear, sunny day. It’s like coming out of a tornado in Kansas and landing in Oz, except that there aren’t any Munchkins, and the people make weird ethnic jokes.

Sunshine notwithstanding, Lugano is still part of Switzerland, and like all good Swiss towns, they love a good street festival. We arrived in Lugano and were (not) surprised to find that there was some sort of street festival going on. We never determined what the reason was for this particular festival, but it involved large vats of polenta, which just looked like giant masses of yellow glop. People lined up in Disneyland lines to get a plate of this glop, which the servers stirred with large wooden spades and ladled onto their plates in a manner reminiscent of the cook in Oliver Twist. Each mound, I mean individual serving of polenta would then be topped with a ladleful of cheese sauce or some type of indeterminate meat sauce. Mm… mass-produced yellow glop with indeterminate meat sauce…

Going to Ireland this weekend to see if clouds and rain look different in another country.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Editor's Note

OK, so I've been having trouble updating on Mondays, mostly because I've been travelling so much on weekends that I'm too tired to post on Monday. So from now on, normal update day will be on Tuesday. Let's hope I can make that deadline, instead... So, till tomorrow!!