Tuesday, November 29, 2005

29 November 2005

Thanksgiving came and went with little fanfare, other than various expat gatherings. I attended one dinner that had the full, traditional Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey, and had a smaller one with friends, sans turkey, because none of us felt like trying to find and cook a turkey. "But you can't have Thanksgiving without turkey?!" Right, and you're not supposed to have Thanksgiving on Saturday, which we did, and apparently, Peking duck doesn't count as Thanksgiving fare, but that's what I grew up on. I figure everyone else is busily upholding tradition, so if I don't, there are millions of others who will make sure that Thanksgiving is properly observed.

I went to catch a Röyksopp concert here in Zurich on Sunday night, and it was a different concert experience than I am accustomed to. The tickets said that the doors opened at 8 pm, which in the States would mean that by 7:30, there would be a big line of people hoping to get spots near the front, and that once the doors opened, people would charge in to reserve their standing room. Instead, my friend and I walked in at 8, and the only line was for the coat check. Everyone waited to check their coats before trying to get into the club. Once inside, people were milling around, getting beers, and making no perceivable effort to get up front, and so my friend and I, despite having walked in after at least 100 other people, ended up in the front row.

In the States, once a show starts, the crowd presses up to the front, to the point that you can almost rest your entire weight on the people squished up against you, and sometimes necessitating the artful use of elbows and heels to get some breathing room. Not the case here, where even the people in the front row (read: my friend and I) had space not only to breathe, but also to dance. Despite the fact that there were hundreds of people drinking beer, smoking pot, and cheering the band, there were only two bouncers who sat on the steps at the front of the room, one of whom was phenomenally bored, and the other of whom smoked his cigarette and grooved along with the music. That has to be a cushy job, being a security guy in a country of well-behaved people.

At the end of a concert in the States, people scream and clap in order to bring the band back on for an encore, and that seemed to be the same pattern in Switzerland, until the last 20 seconds before the band actually came on. Somehow, the Swiss know when the band is about to re-take the stage, and they all stick out their right hands at shoulder-level, wiggle their fingers, and say, in unison, “Ohhhh,” and when the band actually walks on, they raise their arms, fingers still wiggling, and the “Ohhhh” then rises in pitch and tails off. It sounds strange, but, believe me, watching hundreds of people do it in unison is even stranger. The concert ended by 11, the earliest of any concert I’ve been to, in plenty of time for everyone to catch a tram home and go to sleep early enough to get up by 7 the next day.

Not all Swiss are so proper. A couple weeks ago, a pack of about 20 guys in their early 20s got on a tram, drinking beer (acceptable in public) and smoking cigarettes (also acceptable in public, but not on trams), and making a lot of noise (not acceptable in public). They were chanting, “Hurrah, hurrah, die Zürcherin sind da” (shouted with much rolling of the Rs, it means “Hurrah, hurrah, the Zurichers are there”), and “Scheisse, scheisse, FZW” (a highbrow chant meaning “Sh*t, sh*t, FZW”), evidently out of drunken pride in a local team. They congregated at one end of the tram, jumping up and down, making it rock, and shouting, “Fike the police,” apparently a call to action that falls somewhere between “fighting” and “f*cking” the local police authorities. The conductor announced that if they didn’t leave, the police would come. I perked up, anticipating the spectacle of the fiking of said police, but their true Swiss natures prevailed. They immediately exited and ran away, but not without dealing their extremely rebellious parting blow: they tripped the emergency switches. Fike the power.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

22 November 2005

Late Wednesday night, my friend, who lives about a five-minute walk from my place, was sleeping. We live in the old part of town, where the streets are cobblestone, the churches are numerous, and the buildings are kept in their original state (read: made out of wood). At about 3 a.m., he heard a big explosion that shook his building, but in his sleep-induced haze, he assumed it was rowdy Swiss people setting off fireworks in celebration of Switzerland’s soccer win earlier that evening.

As it turns out, the explosion was actually in the first floor of his building, and the flames quickly spread upwards. Unable to go out his front door because of the smoke and flames, and unable to go down the fire escape, as there never was a fire escape, my friend grabbed his computer, iPod, cell phone, and passport (the four most important things in the expat existence), jumped up on the roof, climbed over to the next building, crawled in a window and went down their stairs. Other tenants jumped out their windows into nets held by firemen waiting below. The story made all of the local papers, along with the soccer news.

My friend’s building is uninhabitable, due to fire and water damage in the lower stories, and smoke and soot damage in the upper floors, yet his landlord is reluctant to let him out of his lease. It seems self-evident that if a building is nearly destroyed by fire, you can’t really expect people to live there, but apparently it’s not so simple. The landlord did an apartment inspection and started complaining that my friend had damaged the apartment by letting his candles drip wax on the floor! My friend pointed out that the wax was inconsequential in comparison to the soot and smoke that had destroyed all of his belongings and the fire and water damage that had nearly ruined the building and left him homeless. The landlord considered this and then acknowledged that they had all had a difficult day, and that she had been awake since 7 a.m. (whereas my friend had been awake since 3 a.m., when he was awakened by an explosion and had to scramble for his life out of a burning building). Only in the mind of a Swiss landlord would wax drippings and a long day be equivalent to nearly losing your life in a fire.

People make fun of Americans for being so quick to notice potential liability and fire hazards, but honestly, who wouldn’t think “fire hazard” when confronted with a wooden apartment building with no smoke detectors, no sprinklers, no fire extinguishers, no fire alarms, no fire escapes, and doors that lock you in unless you have a key? This describes many Swiss buildings, although the newer buildings aren’t made of wood. If you’re lucky enough to wake up, since there are no smoke detectors or fire alarms, you still have to figure out how to get out, since your only exits are through the window, which can make for an unpleasant fall, or through the front door, if it isn’t blocked, and if you remember to bring your keys. I am fairly certain that if I’m running out of my apartment in a panic, I will forget my keys, and end up locked in the building, unable to get out. Hopefully a Swiss neighbor will have the presence of mind to bring keys, and will be able to let both of us out.

The Swiss are risk-averse and plan against all possible mishaps, to the extent that they have detailed plans in the event of nuclear war, with every household having a fully stocked bomb shelter. I would have thought that if you plan for Armageddon that you would also take a few precautionary measures for things like fires, which cause much more damage on a yearly basis than the end of the world, which will only happen once.

On the same day that the fire made the papers, another headline announced that two pickpockets stole a woman’s purse. I had to laugh at that, as where else in the world would a petty theft be newsworthy? Imagine how thick the New York Times would be if every mugging, pick-pocketing, theft, and other minor crime made the papers!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

15 November 2005

Two friends and I ventured to London for the weekend, primarily to see the beautiful Ewan McGregor live on stage in Guys and Dolls, but also to catch up with friends, hang out, and eat (what other reasons are there to travel?) Mr. McGregor lived up to all expectations, and we couldn’t help but pity his successor, who takes the stage in early December, and will have to struggle to charm the audience as easily as Ewan did.

It’s flu season, and countries around the world, especially in Europe, are urging citizens to get flu shots, both to prevent the regular flu, and to avoid unnecessary paranoia about bird flu in the event of a normal flu outbreak. In London, there are posters advertising free “flu jabs.” I don’t know if “jab” is supposed to sound less threatening or frightening than “shot,” but I don’t think it’s the best choice of words, as it really emphasizes the stabbing motion involved in getting a shot. Try again...

It was cold while we were there, and we were wearing sweaters, coats, hats, and scarves. However, the locals weren’t quite so bundled up; there were guys wearing t-shirts, and girls wearing miniskirts and tank tops, with nary a coat to be seen. When it’s summertime, a coat might not be necessary, even if the evening is a bit breezy, but if it’s November and the evening temperatures are below 40F, there is no way that it’s comfortable or healthy to wear a miniskirt and tank top without anything else. If you argue that it’s for aesthetic reasons, that, too, is fallacious, as there is little that is attractive about shivering, goose-bump-covered flesh that is usually sickly pale, but in the cold turns sickly blue.

After a late dinner on Saturday, we tried to catch a cab to my friend’s apartment, to no avail, and ended up waiting and walking for an hour. We ate in a central location, and my friend lives in a central location, so there really is no excuse for the lack of cabs. What kind of large city has neither official cabs nor gypsy cabs (or minicabs, as they call them in London) when there is a clear demand for late night transportation? The Tube shuts down early, and no one drives, so cabs and buses (which run on a sparse late night schedule) are the only options. I felt sorry for myself, walking home in the cold, and then felt sorrier for all the Londoners who didn't wear coats, and must have frozen solid en route. Notice to Londoners: get a free flu jab and wear a coat, especially if you stay out past midnight.

This past Sunday was Remembrance Sunday in England, commemorating the two World Wars. All of the major streets were shut down for a parade, and it was surreal walking through Parliament Square near Westminster without hundreds of cars zooming through the roundabouts. It was also an eye-opener to see how seriously they take the holiday, perhaps because the Wars were partly fought in English airspace and waters. I’ve never seen such mass public support for veterans of wars long gone, but then again, I come from a country that hasn’t fought a domestic battle in over two centuries. In the U.S., Memorial Day means cookouts and beaches, and Veterans Day is a random day off in November. We learn about wars in class, but we never acknowledge them in real life. In London, there were thousands of people wearing poppies that symbolize hope in the face of devastation (poppies bloomed in Flanders even during the heaviest fighting in WWI), shaking the hands of old veterans, leaving flowers, and generally showing that they care.

I am by no means a warmonger, and disapprove of all the monging of war that is going on these days, but I did find it touching to see how much people still cared about these men who, sixty years ago, were in the idealistic but bloody business of saving the world. Americans are brash, sarcastic, and future-minded, which often serves us well, but in some cases, in some situations, I think that it might serve us equally well to look to the past and have a little heart. We can still have cookouts on the beach, of course.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

9 November 2005

I spent a long weekend in Dublin hanging out with an Irish friend and his three siblings. It was his younger sister’s birthday, so that was the main reason for celebration (although I think there would have been a celebration regardless of whether there was a reason or not, simply because it’s Ireland and it was the weekend). I have to say that it was something of an eye-opener. In my family, at least, blood and alcohol don’t mix. You can hang out with your family, or you can go for a crazy night on the town, but you can’t do both. While I’m sure most American families are less rigid than mine, I am also pretty sure that few American families are quite as crazy as the Irish.

While I was there, my friends recounted some of their craziest nights out, and I must say that they seem to take things to a level far beyond even that which I saw in New York. For instance, they were recounting one night where a few friends were tossing pint glasses full of beer or water on each other in a pub, and then one friend went into the corner of the pub and starting pissing in empty pint glasses and tossing those, instead. On another night, one of their friends tossed a pint of beer on my friend, who responded by tossing a pint of water back. The guy punched him twice in the face, thinking that the pint was full of beer, and had ruined his clothes (keep in mind that this was after he had thrown a pint of beer first), and then apologized when he realized it was water (and they’re still friends). Another guy started picking a fight with one of their friends, who pretended to shrug it off and walk away, but later stood next to the guy at the bar and calmly urinated into the guy’s pants pocket. Other nights involved stripping buck-naked in the middle of a crowded pub, falling off bridges, crashing into parked cars, breaking backs and noses, and other over-the-top hijinks. Perhaps it is no coincidence that one of the most insane nights I witnessed in New York came after my friend had had four or five Irish car bombs. It must be something in the Guinness.

The day after a heavy night out can be a somewhat incongruous experience, as well. After having watched the siblings drinking and smoking up a storm the night before, dancing and shouting and having a wild time, it was rather amusing to see them sitting on the couch like senior citizens, drinking endless cups of tea, complaining about the amount of sugar and milk, commenting on the flavor of the tea, debating over which cookies, or "biscuits," rather, would best complement the tea. (One of the brothers, who spent the previous night drinking and dancing like any twenty-something, enthusiastically recommended the website nicecupofteaandasitdown.com, as it provides detailed analysis of various teas and recommends a Biscuit of the Week). I thought my parents drank a lot of tea in having a couple cups after dinner at night, but apparently the average Irish person drinks eleven cups of tea per day, perhaps to balance out the eleven thousand drinks they had the night before.

Even more so than Britain and the U.S., Ireland and the U.S. are separated by a common language. When speaking one on one with an Irish person, I know most of what’s going on, with a few questions here and there as to what a particular slang term means, but get a few Irish people together, especially if they are from the same city, and the slang flies fast and furious. “Lamp the gatch on ‘im” translates into “Look at the way that guy walks.” “Woke up with a minger of a mouth” means “I had awful morning breath when I got up.” No restrooms, just the “jacks.” And words like “berries,” “business,” and “savage” all refer to things that in various regions of the U.S. would be “awesome,” “wicked,” or “rocking.” It’s a funny sensation, going to an English-speaking country, and still feeling like I need to learn the language.

Heading off to London this weekend with two friends, and we’re going to catch Ewan McGregor live on stage in Guys and Dolls.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

1 November 2005

This past weekend was spent in two ways: singing a couple of concerts with my local choir and celebrating Halloween with my fellow expats. With respect to the concerts, my choir is comprised of twelve people, mostly older, half Swiss and half Anglophone expats, and we sing a variety of music, with a focus on Renaissance music from England. Our concerts were in two churches in nearby towns, and given the narrow focus of our repertoire, it was impressive that the German-speaking Swiss audiences were sufficiently interested to come hear a random choir sing predominantly English music from hundreds of years ago. Even more astonishing was that a fair number of parents brought their young children, ranging from toddlers to kindergarteners. From what I remember of being five years old, sitting through an 75-minute concert of classical music in a language I didn’t understand wasn’t very high on my list of things to do, yet these children sat quietly and listened without a fuss. My only explanation is that they were possessed by aliens, or they were actually robots, because little kids are not meant to sit still and listen to stuffy music for more than two minutes at a time. Or maybe it’s because they’re Swiss. Aliens, robots, Swiss, same thing, right?

In any case, my friends and I did indeed dress up, to various degrees, for Halloween, and we ventured forth to go dancing while in costume. The expected amused looks, double takes, and bemused questions took place, and a good time was had by all. Well, except for one guy who made the mistake of accosting me as I walked home from the club at around three in the morning. After trying several times to step around him, and after politely telling him several times exactly what he should do with himself in response to his lewd comments, I was somewhat annoyed and frustrated. When he reached out to grab my arm, however, that was the last straw, and so I hit him and kept walking. Yes, he was male, and therefore obnoxious at 3 a.m., but on the other hand, he was Swiss, and could therefore only stand in utter shock that someone would be anything but passive and polite in the face of his rudeness.

Last night, we went to check out Zurich’s version of Oktoberfest. The better-known celebration in Munich lasts two weeks at the end of September, but Zurich celebrates Oktoberfest for a month, which this year is from October 6 until November 6. We arrived at 7 p.m. on a Monday evening and it was already crowded. Once the oompah band started up with the greatest hits of German polka, the crowd sang along with great gusto, drinking out of liter jugs of beer and wearing floppy felt hats. For the more popular numbers, the Swiss, young and old alike, would stand on their tables, roaring along with a rough approximation of rhythm and pitch. Upon reflection, I don’t think there are any equivalent songs in the U.S., traditional songs from a hundred or more years ago that, when played in a public place, would result in 20-, 40-, and 60-year-olds jumping up on their chairs to jubilantly scream along. My friends and I joined in when the oompah band inexplicably played an oompah version of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

As you might imagine, when people start drinking beer out of liter mugs right after work, there are some seriously inebriated people wandering around by 10 p.m. Friends staggered around, holding each other up (or dragging each other down), while other friends and strangers watched with detached amusement. There was no tsk-tsk’ing by the elder Swiss, as I imagine they have been in the same state in years past. An EMT stood by to check on the more seriously drunk people to make sure that someone would get them home safely, but in general, the atmosphere strongly encouraged public drunkenness and revelry, and several people who had celebrated a little too hard were carried out by their friends as everyone, including the EMT, chuckled and hoped that they would still have control over their own legs when it was their turn to leave.

Off to Dublin for a long weekend, so next update may be on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.