Tuesday, December 20, 2005

20 December 2005

Four days until I go to San Francisco for a week, and I’m already trying to figure out how I can fit in everything that I want to do, buy, and eat while I’m there. Conversations in expat circles resemble the conversations that polar explorers or refugees must have, in that they are fervent and absurd in their detailed enumeration of things that they miss, and those things usually revolve around food.

As for me, I’m looking forward to several very specific things that give a clear culinary picture of my Asian-American roots. I can’t wait to have my mom’s skin-on, bone-in Chinese pork roast (tipang, for those of you who speak Chinese). They don’t sell that particular cut of meat here, because it’s too fatty and the Swiss don’t like the skin. I’ll snack on chocolate chip cookies or cheddar cheese melted on toasted San Francisco sourdough. We might do sushi handrolls one night. I’ll have assorted breakfast cereals at all hours of the day, with lactose-free skim milk. I may even make some Kraft Mac and Cheese, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, made with Wonder bread, with the crusts cut off. Meanwhile, I’m sure the Swiss who are working abroad are fantasizing about veal sausages and roasted potatoes.

One thing that was overwhelming when I went back to visit last year was the sheer abundance of variety and space, both at the store and at home. I walked into a suburban supermarket and realized that I had forgotten how big stores are, how many products they sell, and how many types of each product they sell. Every product comes in ten brands, and each brand makes multiple versions: reduced fat, low salt, high fiber, lactose free, sugar free, fat free, family size, kiddie portion, and so on. So you buy all the things you need, and you bring them home, and your fridge, freezer, and cabinets are huge, so you can actually fit everything you bought, and you don’t have to go to the grocery store for another week. Living in Switzerland is an exercise in organized scavenging. Without much fridge, freezer, or cabinet space, I have to go to the grocery store often, buying strategically to make sure that I always have something to eat, but not so much that I don’t have space for it. I’m bad at that game, so I end up eating whatever I happen to have around, which usually includes a side of gummy candy.

Having visitors come to visit Switzerland is often a double bonus: you get to see your friends, and you get to import whatever it is that you’re missing. When friends visit, I routinely ask them to load up on instant oatmeal, over-the-counter drugs, toothpaste or other toiletries, and I also order various clothes, books, CDs, and other things to be delivered to them, so that they can bring them over for me. Other expat friends tell their visitors that they have to bring Skippy peanut butter and Kraft Mac and Cheese.

Speaking of peanut butter, recently, one of my Australian friends brought a package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups back from a trip to the States. My American friends and I pounced on them, then noticed that he wasn’t having any, and neither were any of the other non-Americans. When pressed, they admitted that they thought that the combination of peanut butter with chocolate was strange. Upon further questioning, they also said that peanut butter and jelly is also off-limits. In the non-American opinion, peanut butter is categorized as a salty food, and not a sweet one, and so you can put it on toast or crackers, but not with anything sweet. On the other hand, you can’t really trust the Brits and the Aussies when it comes to appropriate toppings for bread, since the Aussies like Vegemite, and the Brits eat sandwiches filled with cheese and chutney.

I’ll be in San Francisco next week, so the next update will probably be January 3 or 4, so HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! See you next year. In the mean time, stay safe and be in touch. :)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

13 December 2005

Another week, another trip. It has gotten to the point where if I don’t leave the country at least once a month, I start to feel restless, and yet I can vaguely remember a time when I would go for a month without going to the East Side, much less venturing outside of Manhattan. There were entire seasons when I didn’t leave the state. On the other hand, living in Manhattan, I had Ethiopian food, Barnes and Noble delivery, sushi, the New York Public Library, Central Park, tapas, Fresh Direct, and True Religion jeans right in my neighborhood, so there were fewer reasons to be restless.

The Swiss aversion to noise is so deeply ingrained that they will go to great lengths to avoid any unnecessary sounds, no matter how trivial. On several flights, I have noticed that flight attendants, when making their final check of the cabin before takeoff, will carefully lift the latches on the overhead bins when closing them, so that they don’t make the characteristic clicking noise when closing. While this does eliminate that tiny bit of noise, it also makes me a bit wary, since the click is always what signals to me that the bin above my head is indeed closed, and that the luggage inside won’t come tumbling out onto my head. But better to have falling suitcases than unnecessary noise, right?

In the Zurich airport, they still have a few of those electric carts for passengers who aren’t very mobile, but otherwise, airport employees get between distant gates on airport bicycles. It makes sense: bikes use less energy, take less space, and (my secret theory is that this is the most important reason) make less noise. But it’s still rather disorienting to be indoors at an airport, and to see airport personnel careening through the terminal on bicycles.

Anyways. I recently went to see the new Harry Potter movie here in Zurich. I was prepared for some Swiss oddities, like assigned seats and intermission, but was not expecting to see two cigarette commercials, a beer commercial, and a very sexual jewelry ad before the previews came on. The ads are fairly standard for the movie theaters here, but it just seemed a bit incongruous to air adult ads for a theater full of grade school kids, unless they’re just trying to get them hooked early.

Another movie theater foible that confused me recently was the phenomenon of reverse stadium seating. We’re all familiar with stadium seating, where every row is higher than the row in front of it, so that everyone has a clear view of the screen. Well, in this theater, every row was lower than the row in front of it, so unless you were seated behind a midget, their head was right in your line of vision. Who had that brilliant idea when designing the theater, and who approved the brilliant idea when building the theater?

Zurich is a very international city, and most movies are shown in their original language, with German and French subtitles. This usually works out wonderfully for English-speaking expats, except when the movie was originally in, say Japanese or Spanish. Watching a movie in English can be frustrating, as well, although for different reasons. Because most of the people in the audience are reading the German subtitles and only half-listening to the English dialogue, they tend to react to jokes or dramatic statements before they are actually said, meaning that if you are listening to the movie, rather than reading it, you may miss the punch line or dramatic moment, since the audience laughs or groans too early, and the sound is not turned up very high (since it’s a Swiss theater, and we wouldn’t want the movie to be loud, now, would we?) As much as I like my peace and quiet, there are certain times when I wish life were a bit louder here.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

6 December 2005

Christmas is coming, and you can tell by the lights decorating the streets, the faux pine garlands bedecked with red ribbons that frame shop doors, the tram drivers dressed as Santa Claus, and the stores that are open on Sundays in a yearly exception to the “no shopping on Sundays” laws. Last weekend I was walking down the busiest, poshest street in Zurich, tagging along with a friend who was actually shopping, and realized that there were two Bactrian (two-humped) camels and a burro standing in the street. They were accompanied by Swiss people wearing what they imagine camel- and burro-tenders to wear, and stood there calmly eating hay, while people scurried around buying their Louis Vuitton bags and Hermes scarves, pausing only to snap pictures of the wildlife with their camera phones. Next thing you know, there will be elephants and tapirs on Fifth Avenue.

But I described a lot about Swiss Christmas last year, and the stuff I’ve learned this year that has thrown me for a loop is about Christmas in England. Although I would have expected Switzerland to have different Christmas traditions from the States, I would have thought that Christmas in the UK would be pretty much the same as Christmas in the States, but apparently it is not.

Last night I had rehearsal with my choir, in preparation for a carols service we’ll be singing next week. A big tradition in the Anglican church is to have carols services involving 7 or 8 readings from the Bible, which give a Cliff’s Notes approach to the birth of Christ, interspersed with lots of carols. I figured it would be an easy rehearsal, as I noted some familiar carols: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Away in a Manger,” and so on. And then I realized that although the carols have the same lyrics as the ones I grew up on, the music was entirely different.

English Christmas carols exist in an alternate universe, where the words are the same, but the melodies are completely changed. How did that happen? Our Christmas traditions are rooted in theirs, the words for our carols came from theirs, so how did we end up with a completely different set of carols? “Silent Night” was originally a German carol, and we translated the words into English, but otherwise, it’s the same song, so what happened? And how many Brits and Yanks are running around thinking that the carols bearing the same titles are actually the same songs? And what if this phenomenon is more widespread, and it turns out that Beethoven’s 9th, “Rock Around the Clock,” and “Hit Me Baby One More Time” also have alternate versions for people on opposite sides of the Atlantic? The possibilities are mind-blowing.

One line from a Christmas carol fascinated me as a young child: “Now bring us some figgy pudding.” I sat there pondering what that could mean. I knew that figs were fruit, although I wasn’t sure what they looked like and imagined them to be something like raisins, and my experience with pudding was limited to that of the chocolate, vanilla, and tapioca variety. So I wondered why on earth you would go out into the cold, knock on someone’s door, and sing for them to bring you a bowl of tapioca pudding with raisins, and why on earth they would actually have that ready to offer to you. I wondered what to give people if they demanded figgy pudding, and could only come up with leftover Easter or Halloween candy, and a lame excuse that we were fresh out of pudding of any kind.

As I later found out, pudding in this case refers to the dense cake-like dessert that never really made it big in the New World. I recently found out a more disturbing tidbit about Christmas pudding: it is often prepared months in advance, put in a cloth, and hung from the ceiling until it’s eaten. Prior to serving, it’s doused in brandy and set on fire, partly for the spectacle, and partly to burn off anything that shouldn’t be eaten that may have accumulated after several months of sitting around. Mmm… nothing says delicious holiday tradition better than month-old burning cake, which just moments earlier was molding in an old bag in the basement.