Wednesday, December 13, 2006

13 December 2006

It’s hard to believe, but this will be my last post of the year, as I leave next Monday for the sunny Maldives for a two-week dive trip on a boat. Not really a typical way to spend the holiday season, but if “typical” means braving cold weather, going into the office, and dodging tourists, shoppers, and snot-nosed kids on the sidewalk, I’m happy to be taking the road less traveled.

Santa Claus (or Samichlaus, as they call him here) arrived in town last week, with his pal Schmutzli (a menacing black man with a donkey). As I’ve mentioned in previous years, Santa comes early so that he can hang out, mingle with the people, make house calls, and raise Christmas awareness. I knew that he drove trams sometimes for groups of children (I don’t really see the benefit, since it’s not like you can climb on Tram Driver Santa’s lap and ask for a Wii or whatever it is that kids are asking for this year, since T.D.S. would probably tell you to sit down). Last week, however, I was surprised to see him in another unlikely position, Bulldozer Santa. Yes, Santa was operating a bulldozer in a construction zone, wearing his full Santa outfit (and even a Santa hat instead of a hardhat). My truck-loving nephew would have gone crazy. If Santa is busy bulldozing things and driving trams in Zurich, however, who’s in charge of making presents for worldwide (well, Western worldwide) delivery? I guess Schmutzli and the donkey are holding down the fort.

Just a random train of thought, but I recently bought a new tube of toothpaste at the grocery store (which, incidentally, was Candida brand, which makes me chuckle every time I brush my teeth, since Candida is the Latin term for a type of food poisoning or infection, so it’s the equivalent of brushing your teeth with Salmonella Fresh Mint Paste or Trichinosis Kid’s Gel with Sparkles). Toothpaste tubes are differently shaped (and obviously differently branded) than in the States, but they are still recognizable as toothpaste. Other products are less obvious...

After living here for over two years, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing other things in tubes, as well: mustard, mayonnaise, condensed milk, sweetened chestnut paste (which is outrageously popular here, especially in the fall and winter), and fish paste. (I can imagine the ads -- Are you sick of only being able to eat fish paste in your own kitchen? Now you can have fish paste on the go: it’s delicious, spreadable, and ever so, er, fragrant!) Yeah, I have no idea, although I do have a quirky fantasy of buying one of every tubed food in the store, and combining it into one bowl of super-paste, to see what horrific astronaut-Frankenstein food-from-a-tube will emerge. Given the Swiss affinity for putting foods in a tube, I’m surprised that there isn’t yet hummus-in-a-tube, but then again, hummus is still considered quite exotic in Switzerland, so it can be hard to find it in any sort of container, tube-based or otherwise.

Back to a non-random train of thought. Although the Swiss don’t go overboard with Christmas decorations (most stores keep it to some greens with red ribbons, and some Christmas lights) or Christmas music (I have probably heard maybe three Christmas carols so far this year), they do know how to find other ways to celebrate. December 25 and 26 are national holidays, as are January 1 and 2. Many offices close for the time in between, as well, and when the calendar falls just right (as it does this year), that means that much of the country pretty much shuts down from Saturday the 23rd until Tuesday the 2nd. That’s a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, indeed, when you only have to take three vacation days to get eleven days off in a row.

Hope 2006 went well for you and that 2007 is even better. See you next year!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

5 December 2006

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and as in most industrialized Western countries, that fact is quite evident when you go shopping. There are the usual greens and ribbons and twinkling lights, and the usual fake frost and snow in display windows. Part-time St. Nick’s ring bells outside shops, with their beards awry and their tight Euro-jeans sticking out from under their robes (Santa wears a hooded robe here, instead of the red fur suit that he sports in the States).

Grocery stores stock specialty items, like holiday cookie dough (who knew that there were so many types of Christmas cookies requiring so many different types of dough, most of which are on sale, apparently because the Swiss shun pre-packaged dough, opting instead to grind nuts, sift flour, and bake ten types of cookies without any help from large corporations, thank you very much), and scented toilet paper with reindeer stamped on it. Yes, the paper smells like cinnamon, and yes, it has brown cartoon reindeer frolicking in between cheery “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” greetings (is this stuff sold in the States or England, because I don’t know why else the toilet paper would be greeting bathroom-goers in English? If so, I feel a bit silly that I'm using imported, cinnamon-spiked reindeer TP, but it was on sale, and I was running out.)

On certain appointed dates, stores are open on Sundays. Sunday shopping is a rarity here, a special exception to the rule that Sunday is the Sabbath, a day of rest. Although I spend most of the year wishing that I could buy things on Sundays, Sunday shopping days invariably end up being the Sundays that I least want to spend shopping, due to the frenzy that ensues from all of the Swiss releasing their pent-up Sunday shopping urges in the pre-Christmas carnage.

It's hard to describe, but all I can say is that the feverish crowds are a cross between a sale at Filene’s (for those of you from my college years), Times Square on New Year’s Eve (for my law school-era friends), and a pack of ravenous lions mauling a particularly juicy gazelle (for, er, nature show addicts). There are no big sales or specials, it's just the pleasure of partaking in a rare forbidden pleasure that transforms the normally sedate and orderly Swiss into a rabid mob of Sabbath consumers.

Speaking of forbidden pleasures, there was an “Erotic Fair” the other week, right here in little old Zurich. It was held at one of the biggest convention halls in town, and it spanned an entire weekend (Thanksgiving weekend, actually, so while most of America was eating turkey and watching football, there were many Swiss who spent the weekend testing lube and picking porn). A friend who lives by the convention center said that it was packed the entire time (it wasn’t a Sunday shopping weekend, so people had to seek an alternate forbidden pastime).

In addition to the things I would have expected to be featured at something called “Extasia,” like toys and DVDs and “celebrity” meet-and-greets, there was a live sex show. Yes, a live sex show, and the original intention had been to solicit audience participation, live on stage, with the cameras rolling. The audience participation part was axed, due to morality concerns (live public sex by paid professionals is perfectly fine, but not if it includes upstanding citizens who are otherwise employed). So they were forced to put on a normal sex show, whatever normal might mean, for a non-participatory audience.

I suppose you could say that the convention put the “ho” in “holiday.” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). In any case, happy “ho”-lidays from Switzerland.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

28 November 2006

Ah, Thanksgiving, that age-old American tradition that entails taking stock of what you have and showing your appreciation by over-indulging in it. Food, shopping, family, and football are the four pillars of an American Thanksgiving, and most Americans try to overload on all four to the point of discomfort over the course of a long weekend. So how is Thanksgiving as an expat in Zurich?

Start off with food: turkeys are hard to come by in Switzerland, as they aren’t particularly popular, and are really only eaten at Christmas-time. Pumpkin pie and cranberries are similarly hard to find, as are candied yams. All of these items can be rounded up or simulated with some effort and ingenuity, provided that you’re willing to spend a lot of money (a nine-pound turkey costs upwards of 70 francs, or almost $60). Thanksgiving here is best done potluck style, partly because the kitchens are small, and partly because footing the bill for an entire Thanksgiving feast would leave you with very little to be thankful for in your bank account.

Shopping. I think I’ve covered the sad, sad state of shopping in Zurich. High prices, poor selection, abominable opening hours. Maybe it’s for the best, so that we can still afford to buy all the food for the big meal.

A German friend was completely baffled by the Thanksgiving and Black Friday tradition, saying he couldn’t understand why people would go eat till it hurts and then go Christmas shopping in November on a day when the stores are completely crowded. Granted, I’ve always avoided Black Friday, but I can see why less crowd-averse people might brave the throngs to get a deal. And really, who is he to talk? Germans and Swiss leave their shoes out in early December, and St. Nick comes by and fills them with peanuts and candy. I’d say that eating shoe-nuts is much weirder than going bargain-hunting.

Family. Um, none of us has family living here, since we left them all behind. Football. Well, American football is pretty much an American phenomenon. One expat friend pays to watch streaming sportscasts on the Internet (but it’s live, so an evening game in the States translates into a middle-of-the-night pixellated computer window here). I have TiVo and a Slingbox, but I don’t watch football. Long weekend? Thanksgiving isn’t a Swiss holiday. Well, it’s not a holiday anywhere except for in the States.

So, how does a Swiss Thanksgiving compare to an American one? Food? Check, sort of. Shopping? Nope. Family? Nope. Football? Not really. Long weekend? Nope. But we ate our turkey (on a Tuesday), saw our friends, and celebrated in a modest salute to the Holiday of Excess.

Saturday night, a bunch of us went to the ETH Polyball, which is sort of like a giant prom thrown by the Swiss version of MIT. It is apparently “the largest ballroom dancing event in Europe,” attracting about 10,000 people every year, who dance salsa, rumba, waltz, cha cha, swing, and do whatever other ballroom dances that are out there that I never learned. It was quite a spectacle, partly because it was populated by fashion-challenged computer science nerds (one of the raffle prizes was a brand new, super-deluxe graphing calculator), and partly because Switzerland doesn’t have prom culture, so this is sort of their idea of what a formal dance should be like (apparently garnered from careful imitation of high school proms in American 80’s movies). Add in all the folks who take the ballroom part of “ballroom dancing” seriously, complete with hoop skirts and ball gowns, and you get a unique mix of Revenge of the Nerds, Sixteen Candles, and Gone With the Wind. Whoa.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Editor's Note

Happy Thanksgiving! It's been busy here, between visitors, Thanksgiving celebrations (without any time off work), and so on, so update will come next week :)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

14 November 2006

Living in Switzerland requires an ability to keep track of a lot of dates: trash day, cardboard recycling day, paper recycling day, national holidays, canton or city holidays, and religious holidays. I have not proven myself worthy, as I forgot that this past Saturday was November 11th. Well, I knew that it was the 11th, but I forgot the significance of the date, and so I was caught completely unawares when the marching bands started playing outside my window at 11:11 in the morning (yes, I consider 11:11 to fall squarely in the middle of the morning, and am surprised and somewhat disturbed if I get out of bed before the crack of noon on a weekend).

What, you may ask, happens at 11:11 on November 11th? That, my friend, is when Carneval season starts in Switzerland. Yes, the lead-up to Mardi Gras begins in November, and it involves a lot of marching bands blasting their instruments outside my apartment on a morning I had earmarked for sleep. The bands all play Guggenmusik, which apparently is German for “crazy Bandies wearing weird outfits and playing as if they are drunk and standing on a bus that is swerving in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid potholes of enormous proportions.” (I’ve been told that this strange sound is intentional, and that it takes a great deal of skill and practice to have the pitch and rhythm off just the right amount).

And they weren’t content to just play their lopsided music in the rainy street. No, they were determined to share their gift with the world, including the brunch-eating world. A few friends and I, unable to sleep, had decided to grab brunch in a cozy neighborhood joint, only to hear some seasick saxophones lurching around as we tried to eat our eggs. We wandered around town gawking at the costumed bands, who doggedly played through the entire morning, afternoon and evening, despite the cold and the rain. Eventually, we fortified ourselves with a few cups of glühwein (mulled wine), and ventured forth to observe the brass-and-drum-heavy festivities.

After checking in several bars that were overly full, we finally settled in at one bar that was only full. Every thirty minutes or so, a new band would stagger in and the old band would trickle out, and we would be treated to another round of wonky music played by people in wacky costumes. There were people in giraffe costumes playing steel drums, there were pirates dancing along to a marching band version of Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” and obviously, since it was a big party involving beer and German speakers, there were clowns singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

The revelry continued into the night, and the confetti and rainwater formed soggy piles on the street. Of course, since this is Switzerland, the confetti was gone by the next day, and I’m sure the musicians are all plotting further outings for Carneval season, to be topped off with the Big One on Fasnacht (Mardi Gras, which is celebrated in late February this time around, actual date varies by city). Leave it to the Swiss to start a party at exactly 11:11 a.m., to clean up before it’s over, to leave sufficient time for further planning, and to let each city have its own staggered celebration. Let the good times roll, in as orderly and organized a manner as possible.

Had a visitor in town last weekend, and another one this weekend, and I’ve already planned several trips for the next five months: Maldives, Paris, London, Rome, San Francisco… (I keep repeating these facts to myself to help myself ignore the fact that by late December, it starts getting dark by about 4 p.m., assuming that the sun ever comes out of the clouds in the first place).

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

7 November 2006

A friend who was living here for a while said that he was afraid that he was falling victim to Prison Syndrome, which he defined as a situation in which you’ve been deprived of something for too long, so that anything that vaguely resembles it seems pretty appealing, and your new way of life starts to seem normal.

I live in the oldest part of Zurich, where the streets are cobblestone, the ceilings have beams, and there is no guarantee that your apartment will have any 90-degree angles in it. Recently, the city has started installing these 24-hour trash drop-off points every few blocks, they’re basically like outdoor trash chutes. This means that I can throw away my garbage (in regulation trash bags, of course) any day of the week, any hour of the day. I got excited about this new freedom, until I remembered that when I lived in New York, I could throw my trash out 24/7, as well, except that: (1) I didn’t have to buy special bags to do so, and (2) the trash chute was right outside my apartment, instead of several blocks away, so I didn’t even have to put on shoes to get rid of my garbage.

I went to see a movie last night with a few of my friends. We had purchased our tickets online in the afternoon, so we headed up to the seats we had reserved in the second row of the balcony (yes, some of the movie theaters here have balconies). I knew which ones to get, having been in that particular theater before, so I knew that all of the seats on the floor level are positioned such that you have to crane your neck upwards to see the screen, and the seats in the first row of the balcony are partially obstructed by the railing.

Monday is cheap night at the movies here, and we were quite pleased with our seats that had a good viewing angle unobstructed by poles or railings, and which only cost 12 Swiss Francs (instead of the standard 18). And then I remembered that every seat in the theatres back home is positioned to minimize neck injuries, and that even on a normal night, movies in New York cost the same as they do here on cheap night (elsewhere, tickets cost even less).

On the other hand, you can also get used to a good thing, so that going back to the old ways can hurt. I’ve gotten used to carefree traveling. I leave my apartment an hour before my flight (and remember, every flight is an international flight), and get to the airport 40 minutes before takeoff. I amble through security with my carry-on and still have 10 or 20 minutes to waste before boarding. I faintly recall the days when I had to budget up to an hour to get to the airport, and two hours to clear security and board, and I shudder.

And now I’m shuddering again, because the Zurich airport has just announced new security measures that will require getting to the airport an hour before non-U.S. flights (and probably an hour and a half before U.S. flights). On top of that, there are also those weird restrictions on carry-on liquids (100 mL per liquid), which means that I’ll have to put all of my toiletries in travel bottles from now on, since I absolutely refuse to check bags for trips that are shorter than a week. I know, I know, these travel restrictions are nothing in comparison to what people go through at Heathrow or La Guardia, but I’ve gotten used to the footloose and fancy-free style of traveling here, and considering it’s one of the few ways in which the Swiss can be considered “footloose and fancy-free,” it’s a great loss.

In the last twelve months, I’ve flown out of the Zurich airport thirteen times to visit twelve countries. Multiply that by 20 minutes, and almost 4.5 hours of extra time I’ll have to spend in the airport in the coming year!! It’s a hard life, isn’t it?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

31 October 2006

Happy Halloween!! It’s not a big deal here (and even might not qualify as a little deal), so I haven’t bought any candy to hand out to trick-or-treaters, since I didn’t get any trick-or-treaters the last two Halloweens. If some of them unexpectedly show up during my impromptu little dinner party tonight, I’ll just have to improvise and give them some lentil stew or dog kibble in cheap Ikea Tupperware. I would be even worse than the people who gave out pennies or Necco wafers.

The Swiss are so accustomed to having everyone do everything by the book and to the letter that when something falls outside of the norm, they are quick to jump to terrible conclusions. Small glitches and tiny anomalies indicate gross violations and sinister intentions, and no violation is committed innocently.

My building has a communal washing machine and dryer, which is the norm in Swiss apartment buildings. We are allowed to do our laundry without a schedule, even late at night or on Sundays, which is not the norm. My building, which is small, is mostly businesses, so there are only a few of us who use the laundry facilities, and only two of us who actually live in the building. I have a dog. He has black fur. I sometimes touch my dog, and his fur gets on me and my clothes. It happens. And eventually, I do laundry.

In any case, some of his fur apparently lingered in the laundry machine and made its way onto the laundry of my neighbor. She sought me out, informed me that there was dog hair in the laundry machine, and concluded that I must have my own secret washing machine in my apartment that I use for my own clothes, and that I only do Fiver’s laundry in the communal machine. I insisted that not only do I not have a secret machine, and not only do I wash my things in the same machine that I wash my dog’s things, but on top of that, I hardly ever wash my dog’s stuff, because I’m too lazy to do it that often. She expressed her continued suspicion as to how his fur got in, remained firmly convinced that I was still hiding my secret washing machine upstairs, and strongly suggested that I start doing his laundry with mine, so that she could stop hauling her laundry to her daughter’s house to avoid getting hair on her things. She has since moved away, doubtless in search of an apartment with its own secret fur-free washing machine.

It’s not just dirty, lawless Americans who are regarded with suspicion. Even Germans, known for being orderly and rules-loving, are subjected to the Swiss paranoia with regard to breaking the rules. A German friend bought a parking permit for his German-registered car. The permit was specific to his residential zip code. He parked his car in a parking zone one street over from his street, and then left it there for a few days before going to check on it. There had been a succession of parking tickets left by diligent parking police who noticed that he was in the wrong zip code (unfortunately, his zip code ended at that street).

A week later, he received a notice in the mail that a criminal investigation was being opened against him, since his car had been parked illegally for over ten hours. Never mind the fact that the car was parked only a block from his apartment and had a parking permit that was valid for the entire zip code that was just one street away, it had been parked ILLEGALLY for OVER TEN HOURS!! A criminal mastermind capable of such horrific atrocities is surely also up to his elbows in smuggling, prostitution rings, murder, and who knows what else. He might even be hiding secret washing machines and other appliances in his apartment. Best to start an investigation.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

24 October 2006

The long weekend in Lisbon reminded us of many things we don’t have in Switzerland: fresh seafood, abundant shopping, tank top and flip-flops weather in October, and cheap taxis, as well as panhandlers, flies, and dog poop. We ate, shopped, and squinted at the sun, all while waving flies away from our food and trying to avoid a minefield of canine waste that seemed to be required wherever there was pedestrian traffic. We stuffed ourselves at a Brazilian buffet for prices that are unheard of in both Zurich and New York (where it is pure fantasy to find all you can eat steak for 27 Swiss francs or 22 dollars). In any case, it was a good break, getting away from the prices and gloomy fall weather that plague land-locked Zurich (and it was cool to bring my list of countries visited to 33!!), but it was also good to get back to a city where walking without looking at the ground is not a risky venture.

After returning, I found something in my mailbox. After living in my apartment for over two years, I finally have an engraved plastic nameplate to replace the improvised bit of cardboard I had been using to let the mailman know where to put my mail. Of course, even without the spiffy new nameplate or the now-retired cardboard tag, it’s not difficult to figure out which mailbox is mine, since mine is the only one that is overflowing with junk mail from who knows how long ago.

The other tenants in the building apparently check their mail and clear out the junk on a daily basis. I imagine that they bundle it in with their neat stacks of paper recycling, which I still haven’t mastered, since I don’t know the paper pickup schedule, and can’t tie them into the perfect cubes of paper that are required. And I refuse to spend money to put my grocery store flyers into a regulation garbage bag to throw away with the regular trash. And so I’m reduced to a choice between smuggling junk mail to public trashcans or leaving it in my mailbox. Given my predilection for the option that requires the least effort, it’s not hard to guess which one I picked, and to then figure out why mine is the only mailbox that was vomiting mail this morning.

Although I am not a trash-master, I can say with confidence that I am better than the Swiss (and most other Europeans, other than the British) in one very important skill: waiting in lines. At the gate in the airport, at the train station ticket counter, at concession stands, and basically anywhere that forces people to wait for something they want, the Swiss are unable to grasp the concept of “waiting your turn.” If you’re waiting to get on a plane, or to buy a beer, or to get a ticket to the art museum, take a look around, and there will be at least two people trying to squeeze in front of you. It’s not a question of age or gender, I’ve been line-challenged by old ladies, teenage boys, and middle-aged men alike. The Swiss are unable to form lines, and instead clump up into throngs that push and wiggle their way up to the front.

In some cases, the powers that be have tried to force some semblance of order on the crowd: velvet ropes, numbered tickets, seating by rows. The only ones that work are the ones that say exactly when each particular person is entitled to go next. Other attempts at line management are completely ignored. Airline passengers who wait for their row in the middle of the plane to be called walk onto the plane to find the front rows already fully boarded. Housewives determinedly shove and wriggle their way through the “lines” carved out with ropes and barricades. For a country that likes everything to be orderly and in its logical place, Switzerland is hundreds of years behind in its understanding and enforcement of waiting in line.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Editor's Note

Still recovering from lots of sleep deprivation, so update will be next week. In the meantime, I've put up pictures from Zurich's Oktoberfest, and pictures from Lisbon, as well...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

12 October 2006

World Animal Protection Day was last week, which I only found out when a Swiss group brought a bunch of live animals to a busy square near my apartment. Specifically, they brought the exact number of animals that the average Swiss person eats in his or her lifetime. Eight cows, 33 pigs, 720 chickens, six sheep, two goats, 25 rabbits, four deer, 390 fish, and half of a horse (they brought a whole horse, but the average Swiss person eats half of one). Mind-boggling. And all I could imagine was a Swiss guy, with a crazed glint in his eye, charging into the animal pens and chomping on deer neck, goat leg, or pig butt.

There are vegetarians who don’t eat any meat, which means that somewhere out there, for every Swiss vegetarian, there is a Swiss carnivore who eats sixteen cows, 66 pigs, 1440 chickens, twelve sheep, four goats, 50 rabbits, eight deer, and a whole horse. Of course, these meats and their proportions are tailored to the Swiss palate (which apparently prefers to eat the entire petting zoo), so I wonder if it’s possible to cash in the deer, rabbits, goats, horse, and sheep for some extra pork? Chinese people don’t have (m)any dishes involving sheep or horse, but pork is an entirely different matter altogether…

I don’t eat five of those animals. Call me narrow-minded, but I’ve somehow got it stuck in my head that horses are transportation, rabbits are pets, sheep produce sweater-material, deer are Disney cartoons, and goats, well, they’re just weird things that you see on farms and don’t really know what they’re for. For me, eating those animals would feel about as natural as eating a bicycle, a cat, a cotton plant, the Little Mermaid, or a weird tractor-y thing that does something I don’t know about out in the fields.

One question I had was regarding the sheer quantity of meat involved. Assume that the average person starts his meat-eating career in earnest at the age of five, and that he eats until he dies at the age of 75 (let’s hope the person still has a decent set of teeth, so that he doesn’t have to drink goat meat shakes at the end). Assuming that he never dabbles in vegetarianism, this means that he eats more than ten chickens and five fish every year, that every five years, he eats more than half a cow, two pigs, and almost two rabbits, and that every fifteen years, he eats more than a whole sheep, almost half a goat, and almost a whole deer. If his wife is vegetarian, I guess he has to eat her share, too.

A second question I had was regarding the cows. Veal shows up in half the dishes served in Swiss restaurants, and it’s a mainstay of Swiss cuisine. Do those calves count towards the cow quota? Does eating one calf’s worth of veal count as eating a whole cow, since a calf grows up into a cow, or does it take several calves to add up to one cow, since calves weight so much less? Or did they just forget to bring calves along?

Another random factoid: the average Swiss person eats about 11 kilograms (24 pounds) of chocolate per year, or 770 kilos (1680 pounds) over the same 70-year period. The average cow weighs 550-680 kilos (1200-1500 pounds). So I guess we could say that the average Swiss person eats nine cows in his or her lifetime, one of which is made entirely out of chocolate.

Heading to Lisbon for a long weekend this week, in search of a last bit of summer before we head into the interminable grey of Zurich winters.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

3 October 2006

I spent the weekend in Munich for Oktoberfest (which occurs, inexplicably, for about two weeks in September). Oktoberfest was like a bigger, drunker version of all of the festivals we have here in Zurich. Lots of rides and tents and permanent-looking buildings that are built and taken down with no hesitation in the face of the amount of labor and planning that is required to bring it all in, assemble it, maintain it, take it apart, and store it ofr next time. Amazing. The Oktoberfest grounds are like a miniature city that sort of resembles a strange hybrid of a beach town's boardwalk (cotton candy and ring tosses and haunted houses), the German part of Epcot (people in costumes) and Spring Break (drunk college kids puking and passing out).

At Oktoberfest, beer is sold by the liter (which, incidentally, is also the unit used to measure gasoline, water, and other things that you buy in large volumes), and teams of roving paramedics constantly roam the grounds with stretchers, looking for unconscious people to schlep back to the central first aid area. To get one of the coveted spots inside one of the big tents, you either needed to (try to) make a reservation in February, or you need to get to the tents by 9 in the morning to compete for a seat on one of the long benches. Getting up can mean losing your seat, but drinking multiple liters of beer starting at 9 in the morning pretty much guarantees that you'll need to empty your bladder at some point. Some hardcore Oktoberfesters just pee at the table, thereby avoiding getting up, losing their seats, finding the restroom, and waiting in line.

Many partygoers sport traditional Bavarian clothing: lederhosen and knee-highs for men, dirndls (long dresses with puffy sleeves and aprons) for women. Some are older Germans, nostalgic for the olden days, some are younger Germans, making an ironic retro statement, and some are tourists, convinced that they blend in with the locals. The tourists usually also have stupid plush novelty hats shaped like kegs or beer mugs, which are probably the second-hottest item at Oktoberfest, after beer (about six million liters are consumed over a little more than two weeks). A lot of revelers also wear cookies on ribbons around their necks. Rock-hard, heart-shaped gingerbread cookies, bigger than Frisbees, with saccharine messages written in German with icing. Nothing says "I love you" like giving your girlfriend a mass-produced cookie as big as (and about as edible as) a toilet seat cover.

The train to Munich was full of people raring to get their party on. There was a constant level of excited chatter, and already-drunk teens and 20-somethings ran up and down the aisles, getting a head start. (They were already planning on doing two full days of heavy drinking; did they really think that the four-hour train ride was critical?) The train ride on the way back, however, was about as lively as a funeral, assuming that people at funerals pass out on the floor or make frequent runs to the restroom to vomit. I felt somewhat out of place, being one of the few people on the train who was both well rested and not hung over.

I started chatting with the guy next to me on the train back to Zurich: a Canadian student interning in Baden. I've met several people with the same story. My friends and I saw one on our flight to Istanbul (although we didn't know his story at the time, he was just wearing a very distinctive shirt). When we later ran into him in a shop in Istanbul (which is a huge city), we said hi. A month later, I saw him at a concert in Montreux, and we were on the same train back up. I mentioned his name to the Canuck I met on the train from Munich, and he laughed and said he had taken over the other guy's apartment. It really is a small world, after all, at least for expats in Switzerland.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

26 September 2006

Let's talk about numbers.

Let's say you get a call on your cell phone from a number you don't recognize. You check the area code and realize it's from [city or state], which is where [name] lives, and decide not to take the call. Not here. Swiss area codes for land lines are assigned geographically, but Swiss cell phones have area codes that are assigned by service provider, which means that everyone using the same provider, whether they live in Geneva or Zurich, has the same area code. That would be like getting a call and saying, "Ooh, that's someone who uses T-Mobile, I won't take that call."
Speaking of phones, there is an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer calls directory assistance and says, "Give me the number for 911!" It sounds stupid, but at various points in the past two years, I've realized that I don't know the number for 911 here. Fire? Poison? Kitten in a tree? I wouldn't know what number to dial (much less how to describe the emergency in Swiss German). Fortunately, my life here has been relatively emergency-free so far. I am somewhat curious as to what would happened if I actually dialed 9-1-1 on a Swiss phone, but have restrained myself, just in case it actually works as an emergency line for stupid Americans, in which case I would have to explain why I was dialing an emergency number. Uh, didn't think it would work. So why did you dial it in the first place? Dunno.

If you go into a building at ground level and take the stairs up one level, what floor are you on? Second floor, if you're American. If you're European, you're on the first floor, because the floor at ground level doesn't count. So all those stairs you climbed up don't earn you any credit, from a Swiss building's point of view. This can get confusing when mixing cultures. When telling people how to find places, or asking directions, there always has to be a clarification as to what, exactly "go to the third floor" means.

When explaining how to find my apartment, I tell people: take a flight of stairs up to the European 1st floor, or the American 2nd floor. Get in the elevator and hit 5, which goes to the European 5th floor, or the American 6th floor. Go in the front door of my apartment, which immediately leads to another set of stairs to the main floor of my apartment (European 6th, US 7th), and my bedroom is upstairs (European 7th, US 8th). So you take the elevator to 5 if you eventually want to end up on the (American) 8th floor of my apartment building.

The discrepancy gets even bigger if the building is more than a dozen stories high (which is actually rare in Switzerland). American buildings usually skip 13, so that you can take just one flight of stairs (assuming that Americans take the stairs) to get from the 12th floor to the 14th floor. They don't do that here. So the American 12th floor is the European 11th floor, but the American 14th floor is the European 12th floor.

A friend who was living in Switzerland for a summer wanted to open a bank account. Nothing fancy, just a checking account. He walked into a bank and said that he wanted to open an account. They said that since he was a foreigner, there was a minimum balance. He (thinking that Swiss banks are like banks elsewhere, which often require an initial minimum deposit of $500 or so) said that was fine. They started bringing him bottled water, giving him pamphlets on money management, and making pitches on portfolio holdings, and he thought, "No wonder Swiss banks are the best in the world. They know how to treat customers right." Somehow, he found out that the minimum deposit was CHF 50,000 (about $40,000), which was a little bit over his student means. He faked a loss of interest and then slunk away.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

19 September 2006

My parents took a "leisure tour" of Italy that involved seeing seven cities in ten days (I'm not sure how that fits in with the "leisure" description), and came to Zurich to see me for a week. The weather was impeccable the entire time they were here: sunny, warm, and dry, and I soon realized that I was repeating myself, telling them over and over again that winters are long, grey, and wet, just so that they wouldn't get the wrong idea about Switzerland being a year-round paradise.

The weather here is fickle at best. In the summer, we alternate between sun and rain, and in the winters, we alternate between grey days and rainy grey days. For some reason, however, my guests have only experienced either the best or the worst, so half of them are convinced that Switzerland is like San Diego at its best, and half of them believe that Switzerland is like London at its worst. I don't think my parents believe that it can be depressingly grey for weeks on end here, and they seemed skeptical of my dread regarding the coming of winter.

Last Monday was Knabenschiessen ("Boys' Shooting Day," which was recently changed to include girls, a competition which involves junior high school kids shooting military assault rifles, and grade school kids shooting pistols), so all offices in Zurich had the afternoon off. My parents and I went to check out the festivities. It was a little bit odd to spend September 11 at a shooting contest, but hey, this is Switzerland. As it turned out, we didn't see any of the shooting, since the shooting range was tucked away from the fairground, and we didn't really look for it.

Previously, I had only been to fairs in the center of Zurich, where space is limited, and I had still always been impressed at the number of games and rides they assembled overnight, packed into a small area, then spirited away the next day. The Knabenschiessen fairground, however, was a whole new level. Every kind of ride you've ever seen at a fair or small-town amusement park was there, sometimes more than once. I counted no fewer than four places you could do bumper cars. Four. The fairground was quite large, since it was out in the suburbs of Zurich, but even so, they squeezed rides in right up to some nearby mid-rise buildings. I watched a man inside a building calmly eating a late lunch while a ride jerked screaming kids back and forth past his window. He never looked out, never indicated that he was aware of the flashing lights or shrieking teenagers, never seemed to wonder if the ride might malfunction and send a dozen people crashing through his window.

My parents took a daytrip to Lucerne, wandered around Zurich, got their morning coffee every day at the Starbuck's around the corner (yes, shame shame, but I don't drink coffee, and so they had to go get it somewhere), accompanied me to the Asian market to tell me which foods I like (I've only seen them in cooked form, and know them by their Chinese names, whereas the market has things labeled in Vietnamese, German, and sometimes English – who knew that I liked a vegetable called Chinese morning glory?)

They met my friends, ate sausage, and went on boat rides (which are included in the normal transportation system – people can take boats, trains, trams, or buses to work). Before leaving, they commented, "Europe is so clean, orderly, and organized." I reminded them of their recent experiences in Italy (Italy is many things, but it is not clean, orderly, or organized), and explained that it's just a Swiss thing, not a European thing. In any case, they approved of Switzerland, but there's no telling if Switzerland approved of them. After over two years, Switzerland and I are still trying to figure each other out.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Editor's Note

Had a quasi-long weekend, and my parents are in town. Update postponed...

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

5 September 2006

A recent study prompted the Swiss government to issue a bulletin warning that about 50,000 people in Switzerland are addicted or in danger of becoming addicted to the Internet. 50,000? That seems very low for a country that has almost 7 million people. Does that number include expats living in Switzerland? If so, then I can almost guarantee that the figure is too low, as there are tens of thousands of us, and I'm sure our rate of Internet addiction is higher than among native Swiss.

If it's accurate, however, what addiction have they found instead of the Internet?? And is it so bad to be addicted to the Internet, it's better than heroin, right? It's cheaper, it's publicly acceptable, and it's something you can do at work or in front of your parents or small children (depending on what sites you visit, obviously). I'm not really sure what the Swiss government is trying to accomplish by warning people of the dangers of the Internet. Maybe they should focus on the smoking problem, since millions of people in Switzerland are addicted to cigarettes, and no one has ever died from secondhand Internet.

There are certain things that I never got around to doing since moving here, partly due to laziness, and partly due to an inability to figure out how long I'll be here, and whether the length of my stay is enough to justify such things. Until recently, I hadn't bought any picture frames and I hadn't bought guest towels. I figured that I could just stick the pictures on the wall in plastic sleeves, and that my guests could use one of the three towels I brought over here as part of my "single person living alone" stock of household goods. I've been here for over two years, however, so I finally decided that I could invest in a few picture frames and another two bath towels. I am not the worst of the lot, however, as I have several friends who have been here for a year or more, and who still don't have a hammer, a screwdriver, or place settings for more than two people.

A few months after I moved here, my bank called me and asked me if I wanted a Swiss credit card. I said no, as I already had a few American cards. They said it had a low, low annual fee of 99 CHF (about $80), and I again said no, as I've never had to pay a credit card fee before. They offered to waive the fee for the first year and to link the card to my account, so that I wouldn't have to bother with monthly payments unless I wanted to, so I finally caved and let them send me a card. Based on that experience, I assumed that getting a credit card in Switzerland is much like getting a card in the States: everyone and their mother will try to throw credit cards your way, as long as you are human and seem to want to spend money.

As it turns out, my experience was the exception to the rule. Several of my expat friends and colleagues have had ridiculously difficult times getting Swiss credit cards. Bank reps have told them that they can't get a card with the permits they have (the same permit I had when I got my card), and that they have to have a minimum account balance to cover the maximum charge limit on their cards at all times (which runs against the underlying concept of credit, besides which, I have gone negative on my account balance and put charges on my credit card without a problem). Perhaps the Swiss knew that I would stick around long enough not only to pay my credit card bills, but also to buy picture frames and bath towels, and they were therefore more comfortable providing me with the credit to make such long-term commitment purchases.

Parents coming in town, just in time for Knabenschiessen (the holiday when local kids shoot things).

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

How to Pass for a Swiss Person, Part IV, Section 1: Swissification; Jobs

An expat email forum I read has recently had a thread on applying for jobs in Switzerland. A typical job application here includes a cover letter, CV, references, and a photo. Yes, they want a picture of you clipped to your CV. They also expect you to list your date of birth and marital status on your CV. Imagine the uproar if an employer in the States asked for pictures and marital status before even granting an interview! They also expect you to submit copies of your college and graduate school diplomas; if applicable, these are also forwarded to the government when applying for a visa. Official school transcripts are only acceptable if copies of your diplomas are not available. I remember finding it strange that the Swiss government would rather look at a shrunken-down photocopy of my college and law school diplomas (which would be easy to fake) than official, signed and sealed transcripts that not only prove that I graduated, but also indicate whether I was a decent student.

If you're lucky enough to land a job, then you sign a contract setting forth the terms of your employment. That seems fairly normal, right? Typical Swiss, the contracts set out working hours in precise detail. "Full-time" and "part-time" are too vague. Standard full-time employment contracts for professionals will state that they are to work 42.5 hours, 40 hours, or 37.5 hours per week, with pre-ordained office hours and a fixed-length lunch break at a set time each day. Part-timers get contracts for 80%, 60%, or even 40% of a full schedule, with similar terms regarding start times, lunch breaks, and so on.

Based on a person's contract, you can predict exactly what time they will walk in the office, when they will eat lunch, what time they will come back, and when they will leave for home. Because most people in the city take public transportation, which runs on a precise-to-the-minute schedule, you can also predict exactly what time they will leave the house in the morning, and you can also determine what time they will walk in their front door and take off their shoes. Me? I leave the house at 8:44 a.m., take the 8:52 a.m. tram (missing the morning rush by a good hour, since the busiest commute time is between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m., as Switzerland is a country full of "morning people"), start work at 9:00 a.m., have lunch from 1:00-2:00 p.m., finish work at 6:00 p.m., putter around a bit before leaving, and get home by 6:25 p.m., usually with a stop at the gummy candy store downstairs on the way up to my apartment. Swissified? Perhaps.

29 August 2006

After getting fed up with the non-stop rain and cold here in Zurich (in August, nonetheless!) I fled to Verona for the weekend. It's funny, but when the weather reports in Zurich forecast a 20% chance of rain, there's a good chance you'll need an umbrella. Some Verona forecasts predicted a 40% chance of rain, but the only weather gear I needed all weekend was a pair of sunglasses and some sunscreen. It did rain once during the weekend, and it was a thunderstorm to end all thunderstorms, but it had the courtesy to wait until the middle of the night, and to end well in advance of daybreak. Even though Switzerland is all about having everything as it should be, Swiss weather apparently doesn't realize what August is supposed to be like.

Italians know what weather and shopping should be like. Sunny days, warm nights, summer that lasts longer than two months (we were wearing wool sweaters in the office in the beginning of June, and we've been wearing them again since the beginning of August, despite the Böögg's prediction of a nicer summer at this year's Sechseläuten). Instead of only offering cheap, mass-produced clothes or exorbitantly expensive designer clothes, they also have interesting clothes at all prices in between. Some stores were even open on Sunday afternoon! I felt rather sheepish, being impressed by the fact that their stores sell a variety of goods with a range of prices at convenient times. I guess my consumer expectations have become Swissified.

It is only when I leave Switzerland that I realize how much my expectations have aligned themselves with living in Switzerland. For instance, I always forget that public restrooms are usually not nearly as clean as private restrooms. I forget that walking into a public restroom can assault your nose and make you worry about stepping in puddles of unknown constitution. I forget that people pee on the toilet seat and don't wipe it up afterwards. I forget that there might not be hot water and that the air freshener might be both deeply necessary and pitifully inadequate.

And the public transportation, where do I even begin? Verona, for instance, only had buses. And the buses only ran every 20 minutes, except on Sundays, when they only ran every 40 minutes. Compare this to Zurich, where if you miss the tram, you only have to wait another three to eight minutes until the next one comes, depending on which tram and what time of day it is. While in Verona, I checked the bus schedule and realized that that next bus was scheduled to come in a minute, so I ran out to the bus stop, not wanting to have to wait for another twenty minutes for the next one. A minute passed, then two, and I figured, "Well, it's Italy, maybe they don't run things quite as on time as they do in Switzerland." A few more minutes passed, and I decided, "I must have just missed the bus, there's no way it's this late." Then an Italian sauntered up to the stop, looking completely unconcerned, despite it being a good five minutes after the scheduled stop, and a couple minutes later, the bus pulled up to the stop. Why post a bus schedule that is so precise, if the actual buses don't run on anything resembling the schedule? If things aren't that precise, why not just do as they do in New York, and say that buses will come "approximately every X minutes"?

I'm not Swiss, I'm not Swiss, I'm not Swiss, I'm not Swiss. (If I say it enough, then it's true). But I guess I'm not Italian, either, although I must admit that they have excellent food, weather, and shopping.

Another busy few weeks coming up: my parents will be coming in town, then a college friend, then Munich for Oktoberfest, and more planning to get some weekend adventures lined up...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

23 August 2006

Oops, didn't realize that yesterday was Tuesday, hence the delayed update.

In any case, without further ado, three things I've realized over the past couple of weeks of recuperating...

The first is that the doctors here prefer to take the "wait and see and then come back" approach to treating patients. I had a vicious case of bronchitis a little over a year ago, and the doctor refused to give me any antibiotics until I had been coughing like a TB patient with pneumonia for a week. This time, I went in with a concussion, two massive lumps on my head, a hand-sized bruise on my back, and a visible knot in my back muscles, and the doctor told me to take Advil. That's it, Advil. It was only after I returned two weeks later with continued symptoms that he prescribed some muscle relaxants and time-release, high-dose Advil. I can understand not wanting to over-prescribe antibiotics, to some extent, but if someone comes in with obvious sources of pain, wouldn't it make sense to give them something?

Second, one of the medications I was prescribed is called Brufen Retard. Seriously. I'm taking Retard pills. I know that they aren't sold under the same brand name in the States and that "Retard" probably doesn't have the same connotations here as it does in the States, but still… I'm taking Retard pills that the doctor gave me. The same doctor who looked at an X-ray of my head and said that there was nothing there. I think he might be trying to tell me something.

Third, I learned how accident insurance works in Switzerland. Employers are required to get accident insurance for full-time employees, and the accident insurance covers all accidents, both on and off the job, with "accidents" including anything from falling in your own home to wiping out while snowboarding to totaling your car. As it turns out, there are very specific conditions that must be met for the insurance to be valid. For instance, employees who work 40 hours a week (as I do) are required to have at least one 45-minute break each day, which is why employers have a one-hour lunch policy that requires employees to take a real lunch hour every day. If you skip lunch and eat while working, or if you take a short lunch, it doesn’t count as a full lunch hour, which would therefore theoretically void the accident insurance.

It makes sense for people working in a physical job, where not having a break could decrease alertness and increase risk, but seriously, I sit at a desk and work on a computer. There is no scaffolding or heavy equipment, no power tools or hard hats. If I'm less alert, I might get a paper cut. Maybe. In any case, knowing exactly how accident insurance works here makes me feel like a truck driver: OK, so if I work this many hours, I have to stop and take this many minutes of break before working this many hours again. Maybe I'll get some donuts. Except for there aren't good donuts here.

I'll finish with a random weird moment from Street Parade a couple weeks ago: we were checking out a late-night party in the square that is right by my apartment, and the DJ was mixing beats in with some sort of vaguely classical-sounding music. I suddenly found myself thinking about jewelry, and after some mental probing, realized that the music was the tune that has been used for as long as I can remember in deBeers commercials, the "A diamond is forever" ads, where a shadow man gives a shadow woman a diamond ring. The music is linked so strongly to the brand in my consumer-culture-infested brain that even played in the street, using different instruments, with techno beats added in, the song still made me think of diamonds.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

15 August 2006

Back again, and slightly worse for the wear. My birthday was quite memorable, mostly due to the fact that I ended up with a concussion and a few bruised or fractured ribs, due to extreme clumsiness on my part. When my friends finally dragged me to the clinic the next day, the doctor showed me X-rays of my head and said, "Good, there's nothing there," and when I started laughing, he rephrased to reassure me that I hadn't knocked my brains out, that they were still there, and that there were no clots or fractures.

After the heat wave in July, we had a complete reversal, and cold, wet weather descended on Zurich, forcing me to wear pants, thermal shirts, cashmere sweaters, and rain jackets in the middle of August. Unfortunately, the cold rain spanned the weekend of Street Parade, the annual techno festival held in Zurich that usually features thousands of drugged people running around half-naked with body paint, moon boots, and extreme piercings in order to dance frantically to the overwhelmingly loud music being blasted from every direction. There were still some brave souls who shed their clothing and inhibitions despite the weather, but most people (my friends and I included) decided that we would be happier with sweaters and rain jackets. There was still dancing in the street, but after seeing the last two (sunny) Street Parades, I was less than impressed by the lack of nudity.

In other news, I am finally in possession of my new and improved work permit. For the first two years that I was here, I was on a temporary annual permit, but I have now been upgraded to a permit that implicitly acknowledges that I've been here for a while and might stay a little longer, as well. The Swiss government is funny. I guess all governments are funny, so it's just that the Swiss government is no exception. Despite being in charge of fewer than seven million people, the government here is highly bureaucratic and compartmentalized, so to get your permit renewed, you have to communicate with several offices, which are located near each other and ostensibly have to deal with each other on a regular basis (seeing that almost one-third of Zurich inhabitants are foreigners, and therefore need permits to live here), but the way things actually work, it's as if they are as unrelated as a post office in Kenya and a grocery store in Fiji.

They claim that they will forward your information to the other offices and automatically send you paperwork and updates when your permit requires renewal. And once you've sent your papers in, they claim that they will be processed and you will be notified to come in and do the actual renewal in time for your new permit. Ha. The first time I got my permit renewed, my paperwork was submitted over a month in advance, and the permit was finally issued almost a month late. This time, the paperwork was submitted almost two months early, and I've just received the permit two-and-a-half months late. When we first checked with the offices in charge of processing the paperwork, they said that they were behind. When we checked again, they said that we had never submitted anything. We had the proof of receipt, but they insisted that they didn't have it, and so we were charged a late fee and a processing fee. Apparently, the Swiss are so much more organized than anyone else, that if something went wrong, it couldn't possibly have been their fault, receipt or no. And of course we paid, because without payment, no new permit would be processed and issued, and without a permit, I would get to taste firsthand the cloud that hangs over the head of every stranger in a strange land: deportation. No thanks, I'll pay your silly fine, take my permit, and go through the whole rigamarole in another year. Oh, wait, less than a year, since I'll submit the paper work a month early, and my permit is already almost three months used. Argh.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Editor's Note

Slight delay this week, due to unforeseen weekend aftermath. Instead, for now, I leave you with this, the description of a Celtic-inspired pendant that was being sold in the duty-free magazine on board our flight back from Dublin:

Salmon of Knowledge Pendant

Handcrafted in silver from a design in the Book of Kells. The pendant depicts the story of Finn and the greatest salmon ever caught. While the salmon cooked, he touched it with his finger. It was so hot he had to suck the pain away which made the old prophecy come true - that he who first tastes the salmon of knowledge possesses all the knowledge their mind can hold.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

3 August 2006

Back from the long weekend in Dublin, and the heat wave has finally broken, so that my bedroom is 26 C (79 F) instead of 32 C (90 F) at bedtime. Much more bearable. It's a three day work week, but there is no rest for the wicked, as this coming weekend is my birthday, so I will go from a long weekend in Dublin to a short week at work to a weekend of celebration. One of these days, I will catch up on my sleep.

Dublin was good, although it was a hassle to get there. We were supposed to fly out Friday evening, but our flight was cancelled at the last minute due to malfunctioning de-icing equipment. Yes, it was hot as hell in the summer, but apparently the planes are not allowed to take off without de-icing equipment, just in case you have to divert to Siberia or something. Two of my friends waited in the long line at the transfer desk, and two of us decided to go out to the main ticketing desk to see if they could do anything about it. It took us 20 minutes of constant, brisk walking through corridors, up and down escalators, in and out of buildings, through passport control, and so on to get to a spot that was probably only 100 meters from where we started. Guess the Zurich airport was not designed for complications. They operate under the assumption that things will work. Period. So there is no reason to design the airport to allow for easy movement between terminals.

In any case, we eventually got to Dublin on Saturday morning, and my friend came to get us at the airport. He's in his mid-20's, a normal beer-drinking Irishman, and he suggested that we go back to his place for breakfast and then we could sit around and have "tea and cakes," which to the American ear sounds rather granny-ish, but it's apparently the normal thing to do in Ireland. So we went back to his place and he started pulling together some breakfast. First he gave us "Scotch eggs," which were whole hard-boiled eggs encased in sausage and breading, then fried. They seemed like they were quite enough for breakfast, but then he fried up three different kinds of sausage, a pile of bacon, and some eggs, tossed in some toast, butter, cheese, and other things, then said that we were just having a small breakfast, comparatively. Compared to what, I shudder to imagine. If that's what breakfast is in Ireland, there is no good reason why Americans are the fattest people in the world. There was enough pork on the table to feed a small village, as long as none of the villagers were vegetarian or kosher.

At various points, my friend expressed his love of the following foods: cheese sandwiches with a salty-sour jelly-like spread; "French-fried toast," which is basically French toast made with salt and pepper and eaten with ketchup; Nutella and butter sandwiches; and peanut butter and butter sandwiches, and was disgusted by some of my suggestions: Reese's cups; French toast with maple syrup; bacon dipped in maple syrup; and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They say that Americans, the Irish, Brits, and Aussies are separated by a common language, but I'd say that we're also separated by rather uncommon foods. Like French toast with ketchup. Eek.

Coming back to Zurich brought one unexpected perk. Tuesday was Swiss National Day (their version of July 4th), and fireworks had been banned in the city itself, since the dry spell and heat wave increased the risk of fires, so if we had stayed, we wouldn't have seen any fireworks. As we descended towards the airport, however, we could see all of the fireworks people were setting off outside of the city center, and for the first few seconds, it looked like faraway paparazzi or signal fires, until we realized what it was, and enjoyed the show from afar.

Birthday party this weekend, wish me luck.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

26 July 2006

We're having a heat wave like nothing I've seen in Switzerland in the past two summers, with temperatures consistently reaching 95 F (35 C), and before you scoff and say that the temperature goes higher wherever you live, stop and consider for a moment the fact that we are walking to work, sitting in offices, cooking meals, doing laundry, carrying groceries, running errands, and sleeping in these temperatures without the benefit of air conditioning. I believe in global warming, especially in the vicinity of my apartment, and if I were a country, I would sign the Kyoto Protocol.

Conditions like these drive people to seek out ways to cool down. Late night walks, wet towels, fans, cold drinks, hanging out in the freezer aisle at lunchtime, you name it, and someone in Zurich is doing it. I've spent a couple nights watching movies at the outdoor cinema by the lake, eating ice cream and catching the breeze. One movie had a lot of Ukrainian dialogue, which was fine, as it also had English, German, and French subtitles, but the other was mostly in French, and they only added German subtitles, so I had to listen to the French and read the German to get the full meaning.

I decided to eat a cold dinner on the terrace one day after work, and so I went to the (air-conditioned) grocery store to get some supplies. I took my time browsing, no sense in rushing back out into the heat, and while I was in the juice aisle, debating between the relative refreshment potentials of pineapple and pear, I saw a bottle that I had never noticed before. I picked it up, read the label, translated in my head, decided I must have missed some other meaning of the words, and asked my friend, "Is this really a bottle of sauerkraut juice?" Yes. "And people drink this?" Yes. Yum, nothing is more refreshing than a tall glass of fresh sauerkraut juice! Except, perhaps, a shot of chilled mustard.

I even considered making a trip to Ikea on Saturday (which is really the worst day to visit Ikea, since everyone and their evil twin goes to Ikea on Saturdays). I ended up not going because: 1) it seemed a bit ludicrous to go all the way to Ikea just for a few picture frames, 2) I wasn't certain that Ikea had air conditioning, and the only thing worse than fighting your way through Ikea on a hot Saturday would be fighting your way through Ikea on a hot Saturday without air conditioning, and 3) I was pretty much paralyzed by the heat, and couldn't drag myself out to go anywhere while the sun was up, anyways.

A few rooms in our office have air conditioners, which were apparently installed by the previous tenant without the proper permits, so the authorities are removing them at some point in the near future. Since we open all of our doors and use them keep the office from turning into saunas, the pending removal hangs over our heads like an executioner's ax. A very hot, sweaty executioner's ax. But in the mean time, I've actually semi-seriously contemplated bringing stuff into the office and sleeping in one of the air-conditioned rooms. Hey, that way I could get some real sleep, and I could even sleep in, since I wouldn't have to worry about getting to work!

This coming weekend is a long weekend for Swiss National Day (their version of July 4th), so a few of us are going to Dublin, where it is supposedly in the 60s. I may get to wear, what are they called, jeans? And what were those other things… oh, right, sweaters. Imagine that. Next update will probably be on Thursday, and the following weekend is my birthday (the annual hijinks are already being planned), and the weekend after that is Street Parade. And now we return to the regularly scheduled programming of sitting around and trying not to sweat…

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

18 July 2006

Another weekend, another trip. I spent the weekend in Berlin, to check out the city and Love Parade. On Friday, I mistimed my departure and got to the airport 65 minutes prior to departure, instead of the recommended (in Switzerland) 40 minutes, and was rather annoyed at myself for having wasted an extra 25 minutes that I could have spent, er, checking email or something.

This is the first time I've been to Germany, besides a few layovers in the Frankfurt airport, and one venture across the border shortly after I arrived. It was interesting to try out Angela German, which is sort of a high German/Swiss-German/pidgin hybrid. The German they speak in Germany and the German they speak in Switzerland are extremely different, to the point that many Germans can't understand Swiss German. The grammar is different, the pronunciation is different, and even the vocabulary is different. The Germans (who were amazingly friendly and helpful) humored me, and I managed to get by without having to lapse into English too often.

Berlin was not what I expected, although I suppose if I had thought about it, I would have been less surprised. Most European cities are a mix of quaint and modern, with central areas having a heavy emphasis on old architecture and urban planning: cobblestones, steeples, funny little buildings, and narrow streets. Berlin, on the other hand, sometimes feels like a city that was built in the 1960s. After noticing the difference and thinking about it for two seconds, I realized, "Duh, the city was pounded during WWII, so a lot of the old stuff is gone," but I hadn't thought about it in advance. Things you don't think about when you come from a country that hasn't fought any home-turf battles in over 140 years… Also, Germans like wearing socks with sandals. I didn't expect that one, either.

Love Parade, a Berlin institution for fifteen years, came back this year after a two-year hiatus. Perhaps because it lost some momentum in that time, Love Parade wasn't the crazy spectacle I had been expecting, especially after having heard that it was like Zurich's Street Parade, only bigger and crazier. Comparing this year's Love Parade to Street Parade from the last two years, I think that Street Parade (at least now) has a higher percentage of people willing to make a spectacle of themselves. That said, however, there were still people in costume (including my friends and me), or not in costume (barring thongs and some tape over their nipples), techno music, and rowdy mob behavior. Germans apparently like to climb things: every streetlight had partygoers perched rather precariously on top, some jumping up and down in time to the music, despite being about fifteen feet above the ground.

The surprise hit of the weekend? Big sunglasses. One of my friends hadn't come up with a costume, so we stopped in a novelty shop and he bought a pair of gigantic sunglasses. Between the three of us, we also had a women's tank top (on a man), a feather boa, fake eyelashes, a red-white-and-blue (for France) wig, and so on, but it was the sunglasses that got constant comments, pictures, and thumbs-up signs. Who knew that Germans liked big sunglasses so much?

A relic of the days of East and West Germany and the quartering of Berlin is that they have more airports and train stations than really necessary, since you couldn't very well expect the Soviets and the Allies to share back then. So Sunday evening, we split up and took cabs to our respective airports (too early again, I'm losing my touch when it comes to planning travel down to the minute). And life is back to normal, at least for now. With "normal" meaning hot days without air conditioning, evenings with friends, and weekends by the lake. Pictures coming soon, I promise.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

11 July 2006

Last weekend saw the end of the World Cup, so I watched the final game with a few friends at a bar in the red light district. There was the game, then overtime, then the infamous head-butt by France's star player (which was all the talk the next day around the proverbial water cooler, although we don't have a water cooler, since Swiss offices stock bottled water, both flat and fizzy, that workers keep at their desks), and then the penalty shootout. As soon as Italy won, the French fans slunk away to lick their wounds, and the Italian fans (Zurich has a sizable Italian population, supplemented by the Swiss who hail from the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland) poured out into the streets, converging on the red light district, which is the area that has the largest ethnic and immigrant populations. Incidentally, it also happens to be the area that is least patrolled by the police, which may in part explain what happened after the game.

Soccer fans are insane. They painted their cars in red, green and white, just so that they could drive them through the streets while honking and hanging out of windows and sunroofs, waving huge flags and banners (if Italy had lost, or if they had been eliminated earlier in the World Cup, I'm not sure what they would have done with their cars. I'm not sure what they're doing with their cars now that it's over). Those who didn't have cars painted their faces and bodies, and they brought their flags, banners, bullhorns, air horns, confetti cannons, flares, and fireworks into the crowded squares. It was like a grade school Fourth of July warning video, with people lighting Roman candles, rockets, and flares in the middle of the crowd with little regard for safety.

Anything that was elevated above street level was fair game for climbing. There were fans perched on top of awnings, cars, ticket machines, bus stop shelters, traffic lights, and street signs (the street signs here, unlike in the States, are load-bearing, so every street sign had a soccer fan or two balanced precariously on top, waving a flag, spraying champagne, or shooting rockets in the air). Although it was past midnight, parents had brought their infants and toddlers to come celebrate with the drunks amidst the broken bottles and hissing flares. To the American eye, the whole place was a hundred accidents waiting to happen. Or a battle scene from a movie about some sort of Italian revolution, what with the smoke, explosions, flashes of light, and Italian flags as far as the eye could see.

And the noise! Switzerland is such a quiet country that when there is noise, it's quite a shock to realize that these people do indeed know how to be loud. Car horns are rarely used in normal driving in Zurich (which isn't something you could say about New York or Boston), but are apparently reserved for liberal use after soccer games. People brought two or three air horns each (you can't expect one air horn to last through an entire evening!) Bars blared techno music in the street. Whistles, bullhorns, and yelling supplemented the noise, since car horns, air horns, and ground-shaking techno were clearly not enough.

I don't think there is a single international sporting event that would inspire so much excitement among Americans. Our biggest events are the World Series and the Superbowl, but those are national sports, and even they don't create the same crazed fervor that the World Cup incites (and if mild, reserved Switzerland went this crazy, I can't even imagine what it was like in Italy). Also, they don't go in for the hardcore marketing and advertising that go hand in hand with big sports in the States. After the Superbowl, people talk about the commercials more than the game, but there were hardly any commercials during the World Cup games. It seems that they watch sports for the sake of watching sports? Crazy Europeans.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

5 July 2006

How was your Fourth of July? I did absolutely nothing to observe it. This was not due to a lack of national pride (although I must admit that I feel a healthy dose of shame on that front these days); it was partly because I was horrifically tired, and partly because in Switzerland, the 4th is just the day that comes between the 3rd and the 5th. I arrived in Zurich Sunday afternoon, went to work Monday, went to Montreux after work, saw Sigur Ros in concert, then caught a bus at 2:45 in the morning. And then a train at 4:45. And another train at 6:20. And a tram at 6:40. Showered, changed, and still made it into the office by 8:30. So after working all day, I considered going out to celebrate, then thought I'd stay in and watch TV, a low-key, one-(wo)man celebration. And then I realized that I couldn't even watch TV without falling asleep, so I was in bed by 9 p.m. But I thought about going out to celebrate. And I thought about staying in and celebrating. And it's the thought that counts, right?

Lesson learned: taking five flights with long layovers, spending time in three time zones in ten days, running countless errands in between trying to see everyone you know, jumping back into work, then staying up all night to go to a concert does not leave you well-rested and ready to celebrate a holiday that is not observed in your country of residence.

California was great. My grandfather was quite pleased that his six surviving children, seventeen grandkids (and thirteen spouses), fourteen great-grandkids (with two more in the works), and other assorted relatives made it to Monterey for his 100th birthday. I met several new family members (mostly great-grandkids) for the first time, and none of them puked on me (not even my newly-married cousin's husband). Reunions in the old days included Yeye (my grandfather), the "grown-ups" (his kids), and the "kids" (his grandkids, my generation). Now that there's another generation added, we've started labeling ourselves like iPods. Yeye is G1, my parents are G2, the grandkids are G3, and the great-grandkids are G4. These are actually used. In the schedule that was handed out (yes, there was one), I had to check and see where I showed up, as Angela, G3, or #5 family (my dad is sibling #5), to make sure I was where I needed to be.

You may have gathered this, but my family is a little bit insane when it comes to organization and planning (if you think I'm anal, you will be shocked to find out that I am one of the most scatter-brained members of my family). Reunions are planned by committee, with copious input via our family email group. People are appointed Food Czar, Transportation Czar, Accommodation Czar, Gear Czar (over the years, we have collected family sweatshirts, jerseys, t-shirts, key chains, mouse pads, fleeces, pens, and mugs), Photo Czar, and Activities Czar. Seriously. G4, you may be carefree, puking, and potty-training now, but one day your Anal Gene will kick in and you will be telling G5 that they need to be ready for a group photo at 3:35, no exceptions.

New York was also great, although going back always awakens feelings of nostalgia. There really is no other place like New York, for better or worse. The sunglasses-shielded speed-walk down a squashed-gum sidewalk with an MP3 soundtrack. Dribbles of air conditioner spit coming from above. Grown-up hippies sitting on park benches next to sullen hipsters. Business casual-clad white-collar slaves gulping their drinks down in between furious bouts of Blackberry-ing. Strange(rs) sending drinks from across the bar and then making awkward conversation. Incomprehensible garbled announcements on the subway. The doorman who remembers your name two years later. The ear pop near the end of the elevator ride that means you're finally home.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

20 June 2006

Speaking of the World Cup (because isn't everyone talking about it?) Switzerland beat Togo yesterday (truly a battle of the titans), much to the delight of everyone within earshot of my office. The game started at 3 p.m., and based on the amount of noise that came in through our office windows every time something happened in the game (we knew before checking online when a goal had been scored, because the cheering and honking were so loud), I can only conclude that one of the following is true: (1) everyone was skipping work to watch the game, (2) Switzerland has a much higher unemployment rate than advertised, so no one had to skip work to watch the game, or (3) contrary to popular belief, the game was played in Zurich, outside my office window, and not in Germany.

For the rest of the evening, crazed fans in red shirts were running around banging on drums, driving around honking their horns, sitting in bars leading team chants, meeting perfect strangers and screaming with delight, and generally acting very un-Swiss. Despite being uninterested in soccer and the World Cup, I like what it does to the Swiss. Unfortunately, Switzerland doesn't seem destined to last much longer, so life (and people) here will soon return to normal, whatever "normal" might be.

One thing I have been wondering about team sports here is what language they speak. People who are born and raised in Switzerland don't necessarily share a mother tongue, as there are four national languages here (three of which account for over 90% of the population), and Swiss fans cheer for their teams in different languages, so I can only assume that the team is also comprised of people who favor different languages. Although most Swiss people speak two or three (or four or five) languages, it must be more difficult to muster the right words in your second or third language when screaming in the heat of the moment on the playing field than when giving someone walking directions to the bank. Add to that the fact that the players on the national team usually play on different club teams around Europe, so they aren't fully familiar with each other on the field, and it must make for some interesting communication problems.

The past couple of weeks have been spent in preparation for my upcoming trip back to the States for my grandfather's 100th birthday party. As usual, I've engaged in a frenzy of placing online orders, making calls to customer service, scheduling appointments, getting in touch with friends, and generally trying to ensure that I get the most out of my trip, in terms of my favorite people, administrative stuff, non-Swiss food, cool electronics, and good shopping.

I'll see friends and family who live much too far away these days. I'll go to the dentist, get a haircut, rearrange my accounts, and get random crap at the drugstore. I'll get my fix of Ethiopian food, lobster, burgers, Korean BBQ, and dim sum. I'll finally get a TiVo hooked up to my Slingbox, so that I can watch TV on my computer. I'll buy clothes that aren't from H&M. I'll pick up things that I had always assumed were available everywhere till I moved here: pudding mix, Jell-O, vanilla extract, microwave kettle corn, Tang, chocolate syrup, instant oatmeal. And I'll grit my teeth in frustration at the things that I won't be able to bring back with me: frozen dumplings, good beef, obscene quantities of breakfast cereal and bagels, cases of American-bottled Diet Coke (it tastes different here!), my friends and family, and the entire city of New York.

I'm flying to San Francisco on Thursday and stopping in New York on the way back, so the next update will be in two weeks, probably on July 5th. Till then, enjoy the longest days of the year, and Happy Fourth of July!!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

13 June 2006

The World Cup has started, and the entire world, minus Antarctica and the U.S., is entirely caught up in soccer fever (sorry, I suppose that I ought to say "football fever," since everyone else calls it football). People ask me if I'm going to watch any of the games, or if I'm rooting for any particular team, and I explain that no, I'm not really interested in the World Cup, but it's not because I'm American, it's just that I'm generally uninterested in most spectator sports. If I wasn't into football, basketball, or baseball in the States, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that I'm not terribly excited about the World Cup.

Apparently, I'm not alone. It is so commonplace that husbands or boyfriends become so engrossed in the games that their wives and girlfriends become "World Cup widows." Switzerland's tourism industry is trying to capitalize on that phenomenon, as evidenced by a series of ads placed in in-flight magazines in the preceding months, which depict rugged Swiss men with pitchforks, cows, hiking gear, and other assorted props and costumes that have no relation to soccer. The text reads: "Dear girls, why not escape this summer's World Cup to a country where men spend less time on football and more on you."

First of all, I'm not sure that most women would prefer to spend the World Cup hanging out with a strange man and his cows. Second of all, I'm not sure that the men in Switzerland are actually uninterested in the World Cup. Switzerland is in the World Cup (having rather amazingly bumped Turkey out), and there is World Cup paraphernalia on sale all over Zurich. Every bar that has a TV has signs outside advertising that they are showing live World Cup games. Instead of the usual giant Ferris wheel, the city has put up an outdoor movie screen with bleachers and vendors, so that the crowds can watch the games for free. If there is a game going on, even during working hours, I can hear shouts and cheers coming through my office window, from somewhere in the city. If anything, I think Swiss men have more opportunity to watch the World Cup than elsewhere, since so many people finish their working day by 5, in plenty of time to catch the evening games.

Summer has arrived in earnest. Clear skies, flip flops, skirts, sunglasses, daylight until 10 p.m., ice cream, cook-outs by the lake, terrace parties, they've all come back again, and it's about time. As I've mentioned before, air conditioning is not very common in Switzerland (or in Europe, in general), which is not as bad as it sounds, since summers here are less humid, and Swiss August is nothing like New York August or Chicago August. On the other hand, it can be difficult to sleep when you're hot, and an air conditioner would sometimes be a rather handy thing to have.

With that in mind, I bought a small air conditioner to use in my bedroom when it gets too hot to sleep, and I decided it was time to install it. I realized that needed a longer exhaust hose, as the one that came with the unit was too short, and that I'd need to find a way to cover the opening for the skylight that I'll be using to vent the air conditioner. So I went to the Swiss equivalent of Home Depot with two goals: a longer exhaust hose and a piece of plywood cut to my skylight's dimensions, with a hole cut out for the vent. And then I realized that it was going to be more difficult than anticipated. The employees there speak no English, no French, no Chinese, and little high German, so I was stuck trying to explain what I wanted in a weak combination of high German and Swiss German. (Upon further reflection, I'm not even sure that I would have fared any better in French or Chinese, since my home improvement vocab outside of English is, well, non-existent). How many languages can you say "I'd like a longer exhaust hose for my air conditioner" in?