Wednesday, April 26, 2006

26 April 2006

Back in Switzerland. Thailand and Myanmar were amazing, on land, at sea, and underwater. 26 dives. 4 massages. Dozens of mosquito bites. Lots of fish and coral. Countless mangoes. Here's the beginning of an update, but there's too much to fit in one week's entry, so Part 2 will come later. Pictures are up, as well, and there are a lot of them, but they were gleaned from about 1,000.

From the time I have spent in Asia, as well as the time I have spent, um, as an Asian-American, I have cultivated a love for strange food products and English usage ("Engrish"), both together and separately. One night in Thailand, my dive buddy (Sarah) and I decided to get ice cream. I was particularly intrigued by one that had cartoon illustrations of corn and green beans happily exploding out of a Popsicle. Truth in advertising, as it was indeed a mild coconut-flavored Popsicle studded with corn and beans. Convenience stores also carry the requisite hot dogs and meat pies side-by-side with corn or pineapple pies. So yes, you could go to the 7-11 and have a corn pie for lunch and corn ice cream for dessert.

Apparently, wooden planks are the duct tape of the East. Dangerous pothole? Put a wooden board across it. Floor of the car rusted through? Get a 2x4! Not enough seats in the back of the truck? Nothing like a piece of wood to make a bench! Speaking of which, I have never seen as, er, thorough usage of transportation vehicles as we saw in Phuket. Vespa-style scooters that generally seat one (two if you're dating) were used for entire families of four. Add on a sidecar, and you can cart eight people with one scooter! Helmets are only required for the driver, so Mr. Scooter wears one, but Mrs. Scooter, Scooter Junior, and Baby Scooter go without, since scooter accidents couldn't possibly be injurious to passengers. Pickup trucks, which in the States would seat three people if someone takes the middle seat, were used to transport entire workforces, with over a dozen people squinched in the back, sometimes standing, sometimes seated on wooden planks.

I sometimes forget how hot and humid Asia gets, and April is the hottest month of the year in Thailand. Daytime highs around 90F (32C) and nighttime lows around 78F (26C), and the humidity pushed the heat index over 100F (38C) most days. Sarah and I spent our days on land walking slowly between air-conditioned shops, taking breaks to get hour-long foot rubs, which including tip, cost about $7 each. The shopping was cheap, abundant, and aimed at tourists. (Cheesy trinket? No, thanks. Oh, two for a dollar? I'll take four!) I spent a significant amount of mental energy on the lookout for lizards, because they are cool and were all over the resort, and millipedes, because they are disgusting and were all over the resort.

Most of my physical energy on land was spent shopping, sweating, and eating mangoes (grocery store mangoes just don't live up to the real thing). Given our inability to do anything but sweat through our swimsuits and shorts in that kind of heat and humidity, imagine our surprise when we hung out with one of our dive guides, and he showed up in jeans and hiking boots, then told us that on his days off, he usually goes long-distance mountain-biking. He works his butt off for eight days on a boat, then goes and nearly kills himself biking in heat wave conditions in order to relax??

Got back to Zurich at 6:15 in the morning on Monday, went home, dropped off my bags, got Fiver, and came into the office. Monday was a half-day because of Sechseläuten (Swiss version of Groundhog Day with an exploding snowman; why is it that every time I really want to sleep here, there are marching bands outside of my window??) Next Monday is Europe's version of Labor Day, and we're going to Ljubljana for a long weekend, so next update (Thailand and Myanmar, Part 2) might be on Wednesday again.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Editor's Note

Leaving this Saturday for two weeks of diving with a friend in Thailand and Myanmar, so the next update won't be until April 26 or so. I've put up a new Swiss Guide entry and a load of pictures from Paris to make up for it. Back in a couple of weeks, hopefully with another three dozen dives under my belt. Be very jealous.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

4 April 2006

Ah, Paris in zee springtime, when young people's thoughts turn to zee, how do you say, rioting? Spent the weekend in Paris, where we saw few signs of the protests whose main point was, "We're young and unemployed, but we don't like laws that would make it easier to fire us if we ever got jobs." Some stores were closed to avoid looting (or perhaps because the employees were off looting other stores), there were police and soldiers milling around, and we could see the remnants of temporary barricades used to hem protesters in, but otherwise, Paris was Paris. We tried to stage a few riots and protests ourselves. Not very effective, but amusing, nonetheless.

The French dating scene is bizarre. My friend who lives in Paris brought his French friend out, whom I'll call Jean. Jean has been dating two girls "exclusively" at the same time for a year. They have the same name, which is the feminine form of his name, so I'll call them Jeanne One and Jeanne Two. About eight months ago, they found out about each other, but Jean told each of them that he had broken things off with the other. Jean brought Jeanne Two out, and it was strange, hanging out with Jean and Jeanne Two, and knowing about Jeanne One. Valentine's Day must have been awkward, and he's trying to figure out what to do about his upcoming anniversaries, since he started dating them at the same time. How strange, to date two people who share the same name, which is almost the same as yours.

The French know way more about wine than the rest of us, but there are ways to catch up. One way is to buy a special wine-tasting book with a set of about 40 vials of scents that commonly show up in wine, so that after some self-study, you can look very knowledgeable when you proclaim that a certain wine is "full-bodied with a lot of fruit, a hint of leather, and a slight aftertaste of pepper." I played around with one of these sets once, sniffing at poire, litchi, bois, and brioche (pear, lychee, wood, and bread roll), all of which seemed as if they might show up in a fine wine, then picked up pipi de chat (helpfully translated as "cat piss"). My guess is that if a wine reminds you of pipi de chat, it's probably in a screw-top bottle in a brown bag, and it's not really a wine-tasting kind of situation.

I've grown accustomed to the fact that Switzerland shuts down on Sunday. When I visit big cities, however, I still expect things to be open. Maybe not to the extent that things are open in New York, where you can walk down the street at any hour of any day and find places that are open, but at least to the extent that you could go shopping on the weekend. Sunday afternoon, I wanted to do some aimless shopping: clothes, books, random doodads, I had no real goal, so any stores would have sufficed. I could only find one bookstore (run by a Brit) and one clothing store that were open. Everything else was closed. How can stores in a big city close on Sunday? Do they realize that tourists, who make up a large percentage of the weekend population, are especially careless with their cash? Are they too busy protesting and rioting to care?

On the way back, we left for the Paris airport over two hours before our flight. I sometimes forget that in the rest of the world, you have to leave for the airport more than an hour before take-off. Later, on the train from the Zurich airport back into town, there was a children's car with a slide and a jungle gym, both shaped like dinosaurs, and some other dinosaur-related games. They were sized more for 7-year-olds than for 27-year olds, but that didn't stop my friends and me from playing on them. It was the first time I have ever climbed on a dinosaur while taking the train, and I'm pretty sure that few, if any of you have done the same.

Monday, April 03, 2006

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

Should you eat fondue, here are a few cheats to ensure maximum cheese consumption, thereby avoiding labeling yourself as a foreigner who can't hold his (or her) cheese:

1) Competition is key. Go with enough people that two pots of fondue are necessary, six or more, and you'll feel obligated to do better than the other team. If you're hardcore, you'll also feel obligated to have dessert, to show that you had space.

2) Make sure your potmates are experienced fondue eaters. You're in this together, the fondue pot is communal, and one sub-par eater will increase the amount of cheese the rest of you have to eat in order to finish off the pot.

3) Don't eat any cheese beforehand, don't eat a big lunch, and don't fill up on appetizers. An empty stomach is key, and you don't want to max out your daily cheese quota too early.

4) Break your bread into smaller pieces. Smaller pieces mean more surface area, which means more cheese ingested per cubic centimeter of bread. If you're eating fondue with potatoes (as is done with some kinds of fondue), cut the potatoes into smaller pieces.

5) Dip and stir. Submerge your bread completely in the cheese and stir it around to ensure complete coverage, maximizing the cheese you eat per piece of bread.

6) Cleanse your palate. Feeling overwhelmed by the salty cheese and chewy bread? Is the squishy texture of cheese-soaked bread starting to feel too gooey and heavy? When you start to get cheese-fatigue, have a bite of sweet fruit or a bite of crunchy pickle, and you've bought yourself a little more cheese-eating capacity.

7) Don't give up. Eventually, you'll be eating the whole pot, scraping the burnt cheese off the bottom (the best part of the fondue, according to the Swiss), and waiting impatiently for dessert. And when that time comes, you'll take a quiet sort of pride that you aren't like those other foreigners who can't hold their cheese.

Although native Swiss people probably don't have to use these cheats to ensure their successful consumption of full fondue portions, they have also had a lifetime of training and preparation, so this just levels the playing field to ensure that all people, both Swiss and non-Swiss, can exceed their monthly fat and cholesterol quotas in one sitting.