Tuesday, January 31, 2006

31 January 2006

Happy Chinese New Year!! On Sunday, some friends and I decided to go out for dinner, so I called for a reservation. Only in Zurich would a Chinese restaurant be closed on Chinese New Year, one of the most popular (and lucrative) days of the year for Chinese restaurants. We went, instead, to one of those ubiquitous “pan-Asian” restaurants that serves pseudo-Asian cuisine of dubious origin. The upside was that it was one of the few smoke-free restaurants in Zurich. They say that the way you spend New Year’s is the way you’ll spend the rest of the year (not sure if that applies to Chinese New Year), so I’d like to think that this means I'll spend the year blissfully removed from second-hand smoke. Like most hopes harbored at the beginning of each year, I am sure that it will quickly be denied and forgotten.

Speaking of fine cuisine, I made a quick stop at McDonald’s last week before running to the movies, and realized that even the most American of institutions changes its character depending on the surroundings. One of the first things I noticed about McDonald’s when I moved here (which is the first thing I check out at foreign McDonald’s) is that the apple pies are still deep-fried, which in my opinion is the only food item served at McDonald’s that should be eaten for its deliciousness rather than its cheapness and convenience.

But there are other differences. When going to McDonald’s in the States, you have to be careful when asking for ketchup, and say, “Could I get two packets of ketchup, please,” or risk ending up with about 23 packets of ketchup. Sometimes they even start tossing fistfuls of ketchup into your bag before you’ve even asked for ketchup. Not here. You only get ketchup if you ask for it, and even then, you only get as many as you pay for. Yes, they charge you for packets of ketchup here, about 16 cents a packet. Everything on the menu here is more expensive than at American McDonald’s, so I’m not sure why it’s necessary to squeeze that last bit out on the ketchup, but maybe they just do it because other Swiss restaurants also charge for ketchup.

Another difference stems from the fact that the Swiss use the metric system, and Americans don’t. There is no quarter-pounder here, I’m guessing because no one would know what a pound is. Instead, they have a burger called the 280. 280 what? Calories? Grams? If it’s 280 calories, I don’t believe it, because nothing at McDonald’s has only 280 calories. If it’s grams, I’m hoping it includes the bun and the pickles and the paper wrapper, because 280 grams is more than half a pound.

I often express amazement at the, er, fashion scene in Zurich, especially the clothes worn by Swiss men. Summertime is odd enough, with capri pants, tight jeans, and high-waisted, pleated pants. Wintertime brings with it a whole other set of fashion choices: outerwear. Few days pass when I don’t see at least one grave-looking businessman wearing a pink plaid scarf or an eggplant purple wool coat. I often see macho beefcakes wearing nylon warm-up jackets in fuchsia and teal patterns favored by big-haired women in the 80’s. You'd think that by now, I'd be desensitized and wouldn’t notice them anymore. But I’m not, and I do.

I had an awkward moment the other week at the gym, when I spotted someone wearing a Harvard Law School t-shirt. I figured he was probably an expat and that he must have gone to HLS, and since I did my undergrad there, and have lots of friends who went to HLS, I said hi. Turns out that he was Swiss and had no affiliation with HLS whatsoever. He was visiting Harvard and bought the shirt. Who buys a law school shirt as a souvenir? Tourists buy the shirt for the university, and students buy the shirt for the school they went to. That’s my assumption, and I think it’s reasonable. He seemed quite taken aback that I would assume he was affiliated with Harvard just because he was wearing an HLS shirt. OK, so I was wrong, but do you really have to look at me like I’m crazy because I thought you went to the school that you’re wearing across your chest?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Editor's Note

Editor's Note: Happy Chinese New Year!! January 29 marks the beginning of 4703, the Year of the Dog. If you get a chance, have some noodles (long life), oranges (good fortune), or dumplings (wealth).

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

24 January 2006

One of the strange things about living abroad is that you forget that life goes on back home. My parents are immigrants, and when they visit old friends in Taiwan, they come back talking about how much has changed since they left 40 years ago, and how their friends tease them for using old-fashioned Chinese. I suppose it would be the equivalent of going to the US and saying “groovy” or “neato.” It doesn’t take 40 years for things to change, though.

After living overseas for less than two years, I already notice that things aren’t the way they used to be. People change jobs, they move apartments, they break up and get together, they have babies, they move to other cities, in other words, they live their lives, and then you go back expecting things to be the way they were when you left, and all those gradual changes hit you all at once so it seems like the entire place has transformed, and it's not quite home but not quite foreign. Since when did your kid start talking? Didn’t there used to be a diner there? And when did all the scaffolding get taken down? I have no idea what you just said, is that a new slang word? What are these unfamiliar songs on the radio? What happened to my favorite bartender, does he not work here anymore? Why does the nickel look all weird now? And since when does the paper money have strange colors and huge faces on it? It costs how much to mail a letter now? When did you move to Brooklyn? Who is the stranger who lives in my old apartment? Didn’t anyone think to check with me before changing everything?

It’s strange to realize that life goes on, and that life changes, even when you’re not there, and that life as you knew it isn’t the same as the life that is still to come. You assume that you’ll one day go back and pick up where you left off, forgetting the fact that life isn’t something you can put down and pick up again.

And then there are the things that you wish you never had to put down in the first place. Like American holidays. Although the Swiss holiday system is more than generous, and I have more time off here than I ever had in the States, there is something that is supremely annoying about working on days that you have always thought of as holidays. Martin Luther King Day, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving come to mind. Veterans’ Day and Columbus Day, as well. Even though I get more days off per year here, it still feels strange and somehow wrong to be in the office on those days. On the other hand, it feels quite right to not come into the office on Swiss National Day, St. Stephen’s Day, Whit Monday, Ascension, and other holidays that are recognized here but not in the States. What can I say, I’m very open-minded when it comes to observing holidays, whether they are Swiss or American!

Life here changes, as well. The “smoke-free” movement has finally started making some headway in Switzerland. Most restaurants are smoking establishments, and those with non-smoking tables often have them directly beside smoking tables (and you know what they say, having a smoking section in a restaurant is like having a peeing section in a pool). There are smoking areas in airports that aren’t glassed in like the smoking fishbowls in the States. But progress is progress. Baby steps. My office building has finally gone smoke-free, and there are some public areas that are doing the same: the underground portions of the train station, Starbuck’s, and entire trains! I feel like I’ve gone back in time to witness the non-smoking revolution all over again.

And now for something completely different. You may recall my friend whose apartment burned down in November. He was telling his story to a group of new business associates, and one of them turned to him and said, “Hey, I read about that on someone’s blog.” The expat community here is small, incestuous, and more interconnected than we realize. I have never met this man, and neither had my friend, but somehow he ended up on my website, read about my friend, and recognized his story in the re-telling. As they say in Disneyland, “It’s a small world, after all.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

17 January 2006

In a rare spate of motivation, I have been going to the gym quite regularly as of late. In fact, my workout buddy and I have been going every other day since getting back from the States. Granted, our workouts are generally about 20 minutes long, and involve as much talking as actual working out, but it's the thought that counts, right? Also, we have to do something to combat the cheese fondue and chocolate mousse with heavy cream that dominate the Swiss winter diet. Plus, we need an excuse to justify our frequent trips to the Turkish baths at the gym, where we spend much more than 20 minutes, and probably get almost as much exercise scrubbing ourselves and walking from sauna to sauna as we do when we work out.

In any case, the Swiss gym experience, much like the Swiss experience in general, is quite unique. First of all, there is the question of attire. In American gyms, I have seen signs requesting that people not wear black-soled dress shoes in the gym, which made sense, as they tend to mark up wooden floors. Here, the gym requests that you not wear any shoes that you have worn outdoors. Only indoor shoes are allowed at the gym. I was rather baffled by this request. Do they think that I'll wear my gym clothes and my outdoor trainers to the gym, then change into my indoor trainers there? Actually, do they think I even have indoor trainers? Do the Swiss all have indoor trainers? Maybe it's best not to know.

The clothes that people wear to the gym here can be quite astonishing. Whether they're wearing indoor or outdoor shoes, the Swiss often wear black socks pulled all the way up, possibly to cover up some of their legs, since their shorts are often on the skimpy side. Men show up in ultra-short shorts, or shorts that are not quite tight, not quite loose, but that uncomfortable in-between territory. We saw one man working out in his boxers. Other men wear pants in colors that should be reserved for sherbet: orange, pink, mauve, lime green. We saw one man yesterday wearing what I can only describe as Hammer pants (you remember Hammer pants, don't you? Fitted at the waist and ankles, and poufy in between?). His Hammer pants were bright yellow with black pinstripes, and his shoes (because the shoes have to match) were bright yellow with black trim. From waist up, he was a macho beefcake, and from waist down, he was the lovechild of a has-been rapper and Bozo the Clown.

There is one woman in particular that I keep an eye out for whenever we go to the gym. She is at least 50 years old, and she always wears black tights with a fitted black t-shirt, a thong leotard, and matching legwarmers. Sometimes she wears knee-high legwarmers, sometimes thigh-high, and sometimes knee-highs over thigh-highs. She is always coordinated: turquoise thong leotard with turquoise knee-high legwarmers; pink thong leotard with pink thigh-high legwarmers; teal thong leotard with charcoal-grey thigh-high legwarmers with teal pinstripes layered under knee-high teal legwarmers. Our gym is heated. You can work up a sweat in a t-shirt and shorts, even in winter, so she can't be cold. My only explanation is that she wears the gear for aesthetic reasons. I never thought that double legwarmers and thong leotards on middle-aged women would be associated with an aesthetic preference.

One final Swiss gym observation: during a quick stint on the elliptical machine, I glanced around and saw the usual assortment of people with water bottles, MP3 players, and magazines. But the man next to me had what appeared to be a large bottle of milk in his cup holder. (I suppose it could also have been a protein shake, but that's almost as strange, since those aren't exactly refreshing, either). Who drinks milk while working out? Yes, it does a body good, but it's not the drink of choice for a workout. You don't see football teams drinking coolers of milk and pouring it over their heads. They don't hand marathon runners cups of milk along the way. Only in Switzerland...

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

10 January 2006

Is it really 2006? I realized that part of what helps me to mentally mark the passing of each year is the holiday season, which in the States is marked with an overabundance of red and green decorations, Christmas carols blaring in every store, and huge signs and advertisements touting holiday sales. They don’t really do any of that here, and having been here for the lead up to two holiday seasons, I don’t feel as if 2004 and 2005 really ended, and it definitely doesn’t feel like it’s 2006. Coming from the ultimate consumer culture, where retailers and advertisers tell you what time of year it is and what holiday is up next, how else are Americans supposed to mark the passage of time?

The price of stamps is going up again in the U.S., and at first I was shocked, since the price has increased pretty steadily, and the postal service itself has stayed about the same (well, with the exception of the admission from the Bush administration that they’ve been reading our mail since 9/11� Between that, the wiretaps, and the email monitoring, I’m waiting for them to �fess up that they also have video cameras installed in toilets and Victoria’s Secret changing rooms, for national security purposes, you know). Swiss postage has stayed the same for the time I’ve been here, and everything takes a day to get anywhere else in the country. Then I realized that: (1) Swiss domestic postage costs as much as American airmail, and (2) Switzerland has fewer people than New York City and if it were a state, it would rank 42nd in area, so what with the higher price we pay for postage and the smaller number of people and shorter distances, Swiss post had better be faster than American post.

Last week marked another random holiday observed in Switzerland but not in the U.S., Three Kings’ Day. It’s not a day off, but people celebrate by baking a cake that has a tiny figure of a king hidden inside. Everyone eats a slice, and whoever finds the little king is king for the day and wears a paper crown. It is especially popular with children, although offices often have a cake. Two thoughts: first of all, isn’t that a choking hazard, especially since it’s geared towards children? And second of all, I think the kings are made of plastic. Wouldn’t they melt or leach unhealthy chemicals into the cake? I guess a third thought would be that I’m American and a lawyer, and these aren’t the kinds of things that the Swiss worry about. You know, hazards, torts, accidental injuries and deaths.

As I walked to work last week, I saw something that blew my mind, even after living here for a year and a half. A man parked his car, got out, leaving the engine running and the door open, then went into a store on the other side of the street, presumably only for a short time, but still… I’ve seen people leave their cars unlocked while running quick errands before, but this was five steps further, to leave the door open with the engine running. I was half-tempted to drive his car halfway around the block so that he would come back and realize that he shouldn’t leave his car that way, but then I remembered that the last time I drove a car was in Australia in 2003, so I couldn’t be sure that I wouldn't crash it. Plus, it was probably stick shift, and I definitely don’t know how to drive stick.

I went to see Jarhead Sunday night, and my bafflement with Swiss movie theaters continues. Knowing that the main level of the theater had reverse stadium seating, where every row is higher than the row behind it, I opted for a seat in the front row of the balcony. Problem solved, right? I thought I was guaranteed an unobstructed view. Not so. The railing at the front of the balcony was high enough that if I sat back in my seat, the railing ran across the bottom of the screen. I’m not terribly short, so this can’t be an isolated occurrence, and you would think that they would have foreseen the possibility that non-giants would want to sit back while watching movies, and they would have positioned the railing six inches lower. I ended up using my jacket as a booster seat and leaving the theater once again stunned by the Swiss movie industry.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

3 January 2006

Happy New Year!! Hope you are safe, healthy, happy, and recovered from whatever festivities you participated in. My trip to San Francisco was short but sweet. I hung out with the fam, including my two-and-a-half year old nephew Kazu (a.k.a. the Kaz or the Kazinator) and my five-month old niece Mika (a.k.a. Mikatroid, Mikacheeks, or Mikachu), my sister and her husband, and my parents. Saw some extended family, including my 99-year-old grandfather. And I ate most of the things I wanted to eat while I was there, including Fruit Rollups, Chinese pork roast, sushi, and tapas, but realized (much to my chagrin) that I didn’t have green mint chocolate chip ice cream, and since most countries are less open to radioactively-colored foods, it will have to wait until my next trip back. Artificial flavoring is also less prevalent here, so I stocked up on 80 packets of instant oatmeal.

Although I brought very little with me to the States and half-emptied my single bag once I got there, since I brought gifts, on the way back my suitcase was full, as was an additional duffel bag. Presents, a new computer, and two trips to the drug store will do that. Shampoo, toothpaste, contact solution, oatmeal, mouthwash, Tylenol, hydrocortisone, Robitussin, hair elastics, beef jerky, I got ‘em all!! My muscles have almost forgiven me for making them carry it all back.

One gift that I got, I left in the States. On purpose. Ladies and gentlemen, five years ago, the gods of television gave us Tivo, which allowed us to record programs and watch them at our leisure, skipping commercials and pausing live TV. At that time, I proclaimed it the greatest thing to happen to television since color and cable. 2005 brought us Slingbox, which I now solemnly declare to be the best thing to happen to television since Tivo, at least for expats. Using Slingbox, I can now watch whatever is on TV in San Francisco on my computer in Zurich. TV here is in Swiss German, and I don’t even get TV in my apartment, so this is the equivalent of going from the pre-wheel stages of transportation to intergalactic tourism. It’s good to know that there are brilliant minds creating essential things to better the human condition.

I arrived in Zurich the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. After a nap, a friend come over (everyone else was still scattered around the world), and we had champagne, watched DVDs, and listened to the pouring rain. A little before midnight, we went out on my roof terrace to watch the fireworks. The bells had been going off intermittently in anticipation of the New Year, but at midnight, they went ballistic. My friend and I had been expecting some sort of collective shout or song, the Swiss equivalent of “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Happy New Year!” and “For Auld Lang Syne,” but no such thing. There was some screaming, but out of the super-conformist and organized Swiss, I expected more in the way of group coordination. The public fireworks, instead of going off in a midnight frenzy, were sparsely meted out over 45 minutes, so that every couple of minutes, there would be a few fireworks, not the orgiastic display you’d expect. I think they would have been better off using all of them in 10 minutes, instead of spreading them so thinly over 45 minutes.

Not to worry. Private citizens set off their own fireworks to compensate. From my terrace, we could see people on rooftops setting off rockets. To our surprise, however, there were also people inside their apartments setting off fireworks. Inside. I’m not talking about sparklers or snakes, or other super-safe pseudo-fireworks. These were Roman candles, big tubes that spout a huge fountain of sparks and exploding stars, that you are supposed to set on the ground, light, and step back ten feet. It seemed as safe as taking an industrial blowtorch, turning it on, and setting it down on the carpet next to the curtains. Especially since the Swiss aren’t big into fire extinguishers or fire escapes. We did hear a few sirens during the night; maybe they were responding to indoor fireworks-related conflagrations. In any case, my apartment stayed fire-free. Here’s hoping yours did, too.