Tuesday, February 28, 2006

28 February 2006

No matter how long you live abroad, you still retain some connection to where you come from. There is always some mental comparison being drawn between "us" and "them," which sometimes weighs in favor of "us," and sometimes in favor of "them." Your perception of who "us" is and who "they" are may change, but the comparisons are always being made. Even the most well-adjusted expats still retain some ties to their homeland, and it's not always obvious in advance what people will hold onto to remind themselves of where they come from. Just a few examples off the top of my head...

Music. When American bands come through, over half of the audience is American. I went to see Death Cab for Cutie with a few friends, and we heard more American English than Swiss German while we were there. On a side note, Swiss concert-going behavior continues to stump me. After the first couple of songs, the singer, Ben, suggested that a couple right in front of him should get a room, since they seemed to be enjoying themselves so much, and it was really distracting him. Over the course of the concert, he referred to them repeatedly, commenting that they were still making out like they were the only ones in the room, asking how much they spent on Chapstick, wondering if the people behind them were watching them or the band, telling them that they were being disgusting. And yet they continued. I don't know if they didn't understand what he was saying (unlikely, since the Swiss speak good English, especially if they are young), or if they just didn't care. I think most people would be embarrassed enough to stop groping and tongue-jousting, but then again, the Swiss are often shockingly willing to make out with each other in very public places. Park benches, picnic blankets, tram stops, concerts, the city is one big bedroom.

Junk food. Yes, I miss all sorts of good food from New York and from home: Ethiopian food, tapas, Chinese food, sushi, Korean BBQ, but when friends visit, I find myself hoping that they will bring the most random junk stocked by American grocery stores: Kraft Mac & Cheese, Cheetos, pudding mix, red Jell-o, microwave popcorn with lots of butter, sugary cereals, beef jerky, Reese's Miniature Peanut Butter Cups, flavored instant oatmeal, Tang, Fruit Rollups, Pop Tarts... And then there are the things that I wish they could bring that just wouldn't survive the journey: green mint chocolate chip ice cream, cheddar cheese, sourdough bread, and so on. I leave one of the culinary capitals of the world, and most of the things I crave can be found at any truck stop in Nebraska. I live in Cheese Country, and half the foods I crave contain what can only dubiously be described as "processed cheese flavored product."

And then there is the chocolate debate. I grew up on Hershey's. I got it in my plastic pumpkin at Halloween, I bought it at the store, I went to the theme park in Pennsylvania. Hershey's meant chocolate and chocolate meant Hershey's. The Swiss categorically refuse to recognize Hershey's as chocolate, saying that it doesn't taste like the real thing. And it's true that Hershey's isn't like Swiss chocolate. They taste different enough that you wouldn't necessarily think of them as being from the same candy category. But I still eat both. Swiss chocolate lives up to its rep. It is rich and smooth and creamy and decadent, and you feel sick after eating a whole bar, but it's worth it. But Hershey's, well, you can eat two bars without feeling ill, it just isn't that rich. It's no longer entirely synonymous with chocolate in my mind, and maybe it isn't as decadent, but it tastes like home, if the States are home. Swiss chocolate is starting to taste like home, too, if Switzerland is home.

Other people define themselves through politics and language. I define myself through junk food and candy. Mmm... processed cheese flavored product...

21 February 2006

My college roommate came out for a long weekend to check out all there is to see in Zurich. That took about one afternoon, and then we spent the rest of the weekend in Prague. No, seriously, we went around town a bit, hit the Turkish baths, went to two of the main chocolatiers, and went out for fondue (where she discovered, much to her relief, that fondue tastes much better than it smells). Another day to putter around town would have been great, but time waits for no man, and planes wait for no tourists. On to Prague, then.

Our hotel was full, so they had booked us a two-person apartment, instead, for the same price. The two-bedroom apartment had five beds. Five. What would two people need five beds for? The place I stayed at in Rome two weekends ago had the same thing: five beds for two people, and that was just a room, not even an apartment. European hotels have strange ideas regarding the proper person-to-bed-to-room ratio, apparently.

When I first moved to Europe, it was slightly disconcerting to see signs and newspapers all written in a foreign language, but I got used to it pretty quickly, especially since French and German are easily translated into English. What throws me now is going to a country where the language is entirely incomprehensible. I came across that in Budapest last year, and this past weekend in Prague. Czech is almost entirely unrelated to English, and yet we would still try to read the signs. It�s amazing how strong the reading instinct is when you see signs, even if you know that you won�t understand them. They�re there, so you try.

The other thing that happened in both Prague and Budapest was that it was difficult to figure out how much things cost. Most of the traveling I've done since moving here has been within the EU, Switzerland, England, or the States, so I've gotten used to keeping track of what things should cost in euros, francs, pounds, or dollars, but Hungary and the Czech Republic are still on their own currencies (forints and crowns, respectively), and the exchange rates are odd (something like 23 crowns per dollar, or 17 per franc). Add to that the fact that I think half in dollars and half in francs, being in expat currency-consciousness limbo, and I spent half the time trying to figure out if things were expensive or not.

In any case, I�d heard that Prague has succumbed to the tourist industry in the past ten or fifteen years, but I wasn�t prepared for the extent to which the city is overrun by and run for tourists. Every store, every restaurant, every square was full of tourists and the people trying to get the tourists' money. February is cold and in the middle of low season, so I shudder to imagine what high season is like, and how many tourists must flood Prague in June. We heard more Brits and Americans than Czechs while we were there, and had to remind ourselves that we were in a foreign country, mostly by trying to read street signs.

One day, my friend and I were sitting in a caf�, conversing (as we always do, it being our native tongue) in American English. A man sitting at the next table over, probably about 50 years old, leaned over and apologized for interrupting, but he wanted to know where we were from. He was American, and also spoke with an American accent. We told him that we were American, and he said, �Oh, that explains it. It is nearly impossible for non-native speakers to speak such good English.� Um. I guess I�m relieved that I can speak English like a native, despite my yellow skin and slanty eyes. It was more excusable that a few Czech people we met were surprised and shocked that two Asian girls could come from the States, but to have an American listen to our American English and be surprised that we�re American? People like that remind me why Bush is president and why Americans have a reputation for being ignorant.

And one random note: My webstats broke 20,000, so that means that my random blabbering is somewhat amusing to you guys. Or that you�re very bored and need something to read at work that isn�t porn. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

14 February 2006

So. Happy Valentine's Day. I had forgotten that it was that time of year until after I had already scheduled a personal fitness assessment at my gym, so I will be spending the evening being weighed, measured, and put through my paces. My gym buddy told me that it's cool, though, they tell you how much fat and muscle you have in each limb and on your torso, not just overall, and she evidently has 400g (almost a pound) more muscle on one leg than the other. It must be because that's the leg she uses to run around and kick people all the time. If I had known the assessment would be so detailed, I would have made a special effort to only work out one muscle group for a couple weeks in advance, to see how much I could skew the results. Yes, other people are having romantic dinners, giving flowers and cards, and doing other woo-natured things, and I'm wishing that I had had the foresight to work out my left buttock.

I came into work on Sunday in order to be extra-productive, and I thought back on the weekends I used to work when I was at the firm in New York. And then I realized that it was the first Sunday I've worked since coming here (Swiss employment law really protects employees' personal time), and felt rather smug about the fact that I'm getting a comp day in exchange for the Sunday at work. Happy employees make productive employees, in my opinion, and Swiss law seems to support that mindset.

At some point on Sunday, I went to use the restroom, and noticed that something was very different. It wasn't freezing cold. The windows were closed. For some reason, a lot of companies, stores, bars, and restaurants in Switzerland like to keep their bathroom windows open. It's fine in the summertime, but when it's snowing and cold outside, there is nothing pleasant about walking into the restroom and realizing that you should have brought your coat and hat. Switzerland has a good shot at winning the award for Coldest Bathrooms in the World. It gives me flashbacks to Girl Scout camp, and using the latrines at night. Yes, there's a ceiling over your head, but it's cold, and the chill in the air only hints at the coldness that is yet to come when you sit down. You wash your hands, and the water sucks any remaining warmth from your fingers, and then you go back to your desk and try to warm your hands up on your dog so that you can type again. It's very odd. They have heat, they have ventilation, so why do they open the windows and turn the bathrooms into walk-in meat lockers?

So today, the front page of the newspaper that everyone reads had an article about the snowstorm that has hit the Northeast, with a picture of people cross-country skiing through Times Square. The article is continued on the second page, where there is another article whose headline says in German, "Three Swiss Flights Cancelled," and goes on to say that Swiss Airlines has cancelled three flights due to the snowstorm, leaving 235 Swiss passengers stranded. This is top news here, folks. A snowstorm in another country that caused three flight cancellations. It's sort of relaxing to have those kinds of headlines, instead of headlines about wiretaps, roadside bombs, and murder-suicides.

My college roommate is coming in for the weekend, assuming that flights have gone back to normal by tomorrow night. She gets in Thursday morning, and I'll take her on the grand tour of Zurich, which will take about an hour, then we'll go to the Turkish baths, have some fondue, and get a good night's rest before heading off to Prague for the weekend. Neither of us has ever been to Prague, and it's been almost a year and a half since we've seen each other, so good times will be had by all. Except for the people who aren't going with us, which is... all of you. After a long weekend of awesomeness, she takes off Monday morning. Watch this space next week for deep thoughts and reliable observations on the Czech people.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

7 February 2006

Life is hard. I spent the weekend in Rome, seeing the sights, enjoying warm weather, eating good food, and hanging out. Anyways, it had been just over a year since my first trip to Rome, and my friend had never been there before, so we went. She takes life as seriously as I do, so our pictures are mostly of us making fools of ourselves in front of a few Italians and a million other tourists.

Based on my extensive (two) experiences, I can authoritatively say that Romans don�t believe in heat or absorbent towels. Last time, my hotel room had a radiator that was firmly in the �off� position, even though daytime highs were 40F (4C). Same thing this time, which was slightly more forgivable, given that daytime highs were 60F (15C), but the lows were still cold enough that heat would have been appreciated. I think Italians are in denial. They believe so strongly in their Mediterranean climate that they don�t want to cave in and use heat. The towels were once again made out of material more suitable for tablecloths, and I felt silly trying to towel off and dry my hair using something that probably would be sold to a restaurant once it was no longer white enough to be foisted on hotel guests.

Our room had a bidet. The first time I saw a bidet, I was in Milan, on summer tour with my college choir. A friend came out of the bathroom, saying, "Italian couples must be really close. They have his and hers toilets so they don�t have to go to the bathroom separately.� I explained to her that the second one wasn�t a toilet, but it was sort of a sink for your butt. I never really understood the appeal of bidets. How much mess is there that you need a butt sink? And if it were that messy, wouldn�t hosing yourself down make things worse by turning a mess into a diluted mess spread over a larger area? Ick. And then there was a smaller towel (or tablecloth) hanging behind the bidet. Does everyone use the same bidet towel? That�s as appealing as recycling communal toilet paper. Bidets never made it big in the States, and I don�t feel like we lost out in that regard.

Rome is the The Place To Be for Catholics. You�ve got the Pope, the world�s biggest cathedral, a bajillion churches, tons of relics (including, apparently, pieces of the actual cross, and thorns from Jesus�s crown, don�t ask me who ran up and grabbed those), and tons of famous religious art. If Rome isn�t Catholic enough, then Vatican City, a country in its own right, is an entire nation (albeit a small one) smack in the middle of Rome, dedicated to Catholicism. Seems odd to have a country inside a city, rather than vice versa, but then we have D.C., which isn�t part of a state, but is inside one, anyways. Anyways, I think of nuns as being predominantly older and white. My friend had the same impression. So it was a bit mind-blowing to see young nuns of every race milling around Rome. Chinese nuns. Indian nuns. African nuns. How does a twenty-year-old woman in a village in India, Ghana, or China decide that she wants to be a Catholic nun and then end up in Rome? A mystery for the ages.

We saw Brokeback Mountain, which isn�t out in Switzerland, and realized that we are more Swiss than we care to admit. It was strange not having assigned seats. It was odd that there were no snacks or restrooms. It was surprising to see the couple next to us eating the whole pizza that they brought with them. It was frustrating that people talked throughout the movie and didn�t turn off their cell phones. But we are not entirely Swiss: the movie was shown without intermission, and for that we were grateful.

One other thing that we realized that we really miss: random banter. People in the street, shopkeepers, waiters, locals, tourists, everyone talks to you. They joke with you and smile, going beyond the polite formality observed in Switzerland. To the waiter who gave us free pastries and asked us to come back, to the punks who tried saying hello in every language they could think of, to the hotel clerk who told us we could sleep in past the check-out time, please come to Switzerland. We need people like you here.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Editor's Note

Editor's Note: Taking a last-minute trip to Rome this weekend! Good, cheap food, another stamp in my passport, triple miles, hanging out with a good friend, what's not to love?