Tuesday, May 30, 2006

30 May 2006

Huge Twilight Zone moment going on right now: I just realized that this Friday will mark the two-year anniversary of my arrival in Zurich. Whoa. Has it really been two years? Wait, that's too imprecise a time measurement for Switzerland. OK, Friday morning at approximately 7:05 a.m., it will have been 1,051,200 minutes since I landed at the Zurich airport two years ago.

It's been a good two years. I had forgotten until now that the big day would be this Friday, and realized that I'll be celebrating the occasion in a rather appropriate way: going to the airport after work and taking a weekend trip to Istanbul. It seems that my life here is defined by the places I go, the things I do, and the people I see in between getting my work done. So far, I've taken 22 international trips, spent time in 18 different countries, gone diving in six countries, and I already have another four trips lined up for Istanbul, San Francisco/New York, Berlin, and Dublin. I've even managed to check out 15 or so towns here in Switzerland. I've had 15 friends come through Switzerland, and I've met up with several other friends around Europe. Not bad.

Anyways. My two friends who were visiting overlapped for a few days, and we took a quick trip down to Zermatt, did the requisite ooh-ing and ahh-ing on the train ride down, checked out the Matterhorn, and got some sun. The weather in Zurich was less than cooperative, and it rained almost out of spite, so that everything I had to say went something like, "When it's sunny, this [bar, restaurant, terrace, street, neighborhood] is really nice." So my visitors perhaps got less out of their trips than they would have liked, but I got everything I had hoped for: Cheetos, red Twizzlers, tropical Starburst, Skittles, Lactaid pills, Advil, and Reese's miniature peanut butter cups. Oh, and quality time with my friends, of course.

Speaking of food, you would think that after two years, I would no longer consider any of the eating habits here to be strange, especially considering the somewhat suspect things that I eat for "dinner." (Gummy candy counts as fruit, right?) But there are still surprises, even after two years. My friend and I went to get a late dinner on Friday night (that was our first mistake, failing to take into account the fact that the Swiss like to eat early, and restaurants often stop seating people after 10 p.m.), and we were informed that the restaurant we chose was no longer serving its full menu, but that they had a late menu. Sure, sounds good. You would think that a shortened, late-night menu would have mostly standards and popular classics. So why, then, did the menu have pickled beef muzzle? Is this what the Swiss crave late at night? Is it a popular item that sells well at any time of day? Are they trying to offload it on desperate late-night diners? I have no idea.

You can buy fish paste in a tube at the grocery store (don't ask me what for), but there's no grape jelly. You can get every kind of jelly but grape: strawberry-rhubarb, green tea-peach, mango-orange, fig, whatever you want, as long as it doesn't involve grapes. Some typical American foods have made their way into Switzerland. If you go to the "Mexican" section of the online grocery store, you can get Doritos, or even Cool American Doritos (rather than Cool Ranch). "Nick's Easy Rider Pancake Mix" is also available for purchase in boxes that contain enough mix to make breakfast for a family of four.

In any case, it's been two years, and the Swiss still manage to catch me off guard with their pickled beef muzzles. Who knows what surprises the next year will bring? I'm off to Turkey this weekend, so next update will be on Wednesday.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

23 May 2006

A college friend is visiting during her time off between business school and work, sort of the equivalent to my big Australia- California- Delaware- New York- Bonaire trip after taking the Bar Exam. She's traveling around Switzerland for a while before meeting her boyfriend for some touring around Ethiopia. It's difficult to imagine two countries with greater contrast: Switzerland, twice the size of New Jersey, median age of 40, population under 8 million, of which maybe 9 aren't rich and white. Ethiopia, twice the size of Texas, median age of 18, population over 70 million, definitely more than 9 non-white people who aren't rich. Both are landlocked, which means that there isn't much good scuba diving in either country. Not really a relevant fact for most people, but very important to know, in my book.

The stereotype for Ethiopia is a desert wasteland full of starving people that was always on the news some years ago, which, when we would go for Ethiopian food in college or law school, would invariably prompt comments to the effect of "Wait, they have food in Ethiopia?" The CIA describes Ethiopia's climate as "tropical monsoon with wide topographic-induced variation," which basically means that they gets lots of rain and they have everything from deserts to plains to meadowlands to jungles. Learn something new every day.

My friend is going to Ethiopia partly because of its long and rich cultural history, and also for the food. She freely admits that she picks travel destination based on the food, and has ended up in Malaysia and Italy for the same reasons. While she's in Switzerland, she is also trying to get the full Swiss food experience, and is taking day trips to regions that are especially famous for their local cheese and sausages. (I say "especially" because all of Switzerland is known for cheese and sausage, so she's going for the highlights).

Here in Zurich, we've gone for dinner at two Swiss restaurants: one for sausage and rösti, and one for fondue and raclette. I'd never had raclette until now, having always opted for fondue. A few of my fellow expat friends also opted for raclette, since we've been here so long that it was getting to be a bit absurd that we hadn't had raclette yet. Although raclette is often served as a do-it-yourself project at the table, this restaurant served it already made. Since raclette is basically cheese that has been melted on a grill and eaten with potates and pickles, this meant that the waitress brought us individual plates with puddles of melted cheese on them, which somehow didn't really look like dinner. I decided that I prefer fondue, partly because I like fondue cheese better, and partly because melted cheese in a pot makes more sense to me than melted cheese on a plate.

We wanted to order dessert, and were all set to order the chocolate mousse, which is a specialty at this particular restaurant, when the waitress informed us that they don't serve chocolate mousse in the summertime. So, basically, they will bring you vats of boiling cheese (fondue), grilled cheese sandwiches without bread (raclette), sizzling pork sausages, and greasy potato pancakes (rösti), even though it's summertime, but cold chocolate mousse is considered wintertime fare.

A friend from my law firm in New York is getting here on Thursday, which Switzerland has off for the Ascension, and we may go to Zermatt to take pictures of the Matterhorn. Unless we get lazy. The weekend after that, we have a long weekend for Whit Monday, so I'm heading to Istanbul (was Constantinople). Gotta love the random Swiss holidays -- why celebrate things like presidents or veterans when you can celebrate, er, Whit? Some random religious thing I don't observe, but hey, it means I get to go to Turkey!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

16 May 2006

Sunday night. My living room. I was watching the first season of Alias on DVD (thank you, Thai shopkeeper) and the main character had to go to Geneva. The word "Geneva" popped up to let us know that the next scene would take place in Geneva. The scene opened with a shot of... Zurich. My neighborhood, no less.

So yes, I'm back in Zurich, and not just for the workweek. For the first time since March, I spent the weekend in Zurich, and it felt like being in a new and foreign place, partly because it had been so long since I spent a weekend here, and partly because Zurich is a different city in the summer than it is in the winter. For all two weeks of summer, people wear sunglasses, smile in public, and do things outside. On Thursday, I had about fifteen people over to have drinks on my terrace, on Friday, my friend organized an after-work cookout, and I brought my portable grill to the lake, and on Saturday, I went shopping and an expat arranged a pub crawl, so we did more in-city socializing in one weekend than we had in the previous month. When the next 13-month winter comes, the entire city will disappear behind frowns, scarves, and doors again, but for now, we have summer, and the city is alive.

Complete change of topic. I discovered last year that public passive farting (dropping anonymous, toxic farts in crowded, public places, such as at the symphony or on the train) is OK. I've recently encountered another phenomenon: elevator departure farts. Several times in the last week, I've walked into an empty elevator that, based on the smell, had just been vacated, probably by someone who ate too much cabbage. Is that really the nice thing to do, booby-trapping an elevator??

I suppose I shouldn't be terribly surprised. A few months ago, I went out for ice cream with some friends, and because it was cold outside, the customers all stayed inside the crowded shop to eat their ice cream. A guy, maybe twenty years old, was standing with his back to the corner, facing the entire room, and he was slowly and purposefully picking his nose. He did so repeatedly every few minutes, and after each successful endeavor, he popped his finger into his mouth. I have never seen such a thorough public nose-picking (and booger-eating) done by a person capable of speaking in full sentences.

I thought it was an aberration, but less than a week later, I was having dinner at a nice Italian restaurant near my apartment. As I was conversing with my dinner partner, my thoughts vanished and my voice trailed off as I watched a woman at an adjacent table. She was well dressed, perhaps forty years old, and having a conversation with her dinner partner while they waited for their food. In mid-sentence, without pausing, she deliberately reached up and picked her nose, all the while maintaining eye contact with her friend. This wasn't a subtle napkin wipe or nose rub, it was a deep insertion of her index finger into her nostril with a twist and scrape, a full-on excavation. At the dinner table. In a restaurant. With her friend looking directly at her.

Those incidents put me on the alert, and in the ensuing months, I concluded that public nose-picking is common, and apparently is not socially unacceptable. So it's OK pick your nose and fart at will, as it's not shocking in the least. But try not to jaywalk or do laundry on Sundays. We foreigners have such appalling habits.

A friend is coming in this weekend, and another friend's coming next weekend, so I'll be sticking around Switzerland, looking for more public nose-pickings. My dog is turning 6 (42, if you prefer dog years). He's very happy these days, as he loves warm weather, and has a new girlfriend (my boss's puppy). Yes, it's a bit of a Lolita situation.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

9 May 2006

Welcome to Ljubljana, would you like to buy a vowel? Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, formerly part of Yugoslavia in the good ol' Communist days. European borders and politics are much harder to keep track of than US borders and politics. In the States, everything has been the same for the past 50-plus years, and even before that, it was just a gradual expansion to include more states in a westward fashion. I suppose you could say that we were once colonies, but even then, Maryland was already Maryland, and before that, it belonged to people who have been largely ignored in history books, so we aren't expected to nod knowingly about the Nanticoke tribe the way we're supposed to know about Milosevic and Slovenia.

We had a great time in Ljubljana, despite the fact that it rained for two out of the three days that we were there. We stayed in a hostel that was once a prison. Each of the cells had been designed and furnished by a different artist, the mattresses were firm, and there was free Internet. Not bad, for prison. Ljubljana is a small city with a very active arts and youth culture that hasn't yet made it onto the European Tourist Circuit, so it's relatively unspoiled: the prices are low, the people are friendly, the sights are uncrowded, and the gimmicks are minimal. I haven't had such consistently friendly and helpful service since… well, since before I moved to Europe. European service can be a bit surly, partly because they don't rely on tips, and partly because they have grown weary of foreigners, but the waiters in Slovenia seem to still work for tips and haven't yet acquired a distaste for tourists. I'm sure they'll learn to hate us, eventually, but for now, they're amazingly cheerful and eager to help.

Ljubljana is a curious mix of Eastern and Western Europe: the city is clean and picturesque, situated (like most old European cities) on a river. The architecture is a mish-mash of periods and styles. True to the city's Eastern roots, there is graffiti everywhere, but it isn't just any graffiti, it alternates between being artistic, clever, and political, and is seen as a significant enough art form to warrant a large exhibit in a local gallery. That alone was enough to make Ljubljana my new favorite city in Europe. Graffiti aside, though, there was also the food and the shopping. There is nothing like combining American consumerism with Eastern European prices.

Things have been such a blur lately, with six weekends in a row spent away from Zurich, that I almost forgot to mention that Sechseläuten was two weeks ago, the day I arrived back from Thailand. As you may recall, Sechseläuten is the Zurich celebration of the end of winter, and they torch the Böögg, an explosive-filled, gasoline-doused snowman, to predict how the summer will be. This year, there was added intrigue because the original Böögg was kidnapped by political activists (not sure what their platform was, unless it was anti-snowman or anti-explosives), and they had to put another one together in time for the festivities, because we all know that you can't welcome summer properly without setting something on fire.

I recently got a letter from the Swiss tax authorities saying that they had (finally) processed my taxes for 2004, and had determined that I am entitled to a refund. A refund of 50 rappen (about 40 American cents). They informed me that they would deposit the refund in my bank account. The letter cost twice as much to send as the refund itself; couldn't they have skipped the letter and tripled my refund, instead? My US taxes are due in another month. I won't have to pay any taxes, but I won't get a refund, either. I've never spent so much time on taxes before, only to get a refund that isn't even big enough to buy a candy bar. Unless you're buying the candy bar in Slovenia.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

2 May 2006

So, Thailand and Myanmar, Part 2. Many people think that Asians "all look same," but despite that, neighboring countries in Asia have separate identities and different traditions. Moving to Switzerland, I thought that having four official languages in one small country would make things difficult, but in Myanmar, the Country Formerly Known as Burma, they speak about 40 different languages, all of which are so different from the language spoken in neighboring Thailand that Thais and Burmese often speak English when trying to communicate with each other.

Thailand's government is a benevolent token monarchy, but Myanmar is a military dictatorship that has kept the most recently elected president (attempted president?) under house arrest for over a decade. You would think that in such circumstances, border control would be a big issue. When it came time for our boat to cross into Burmese waters, however, the Thai customs official pulled up on a scooter, took off his shoes, boarded the boat, and stamped our passports, and then the Burmese customs official took off his shoes, hopped on board, stamped our passports, and took our visa fees. The main difficulty that arose was that some of the bills we gave him (they only take US dollars) were not brand-new, and they only accept current-issue, un-creased, unmarked bills. You would think that with the elected president under house arrest and dissidents breeding discontent, they would have more pressing issues than whether the Benjamins are folded or not.

Despite being neighbors and "all look same," Thailand and Myanmar celebrate their New Years at different times. Thai New Year fell on April 13, and was celebrated on our boat by a lot of crew members running around throwing water at each other and at us, apparently to bring good luck for the coming year. Burmese New Year happened about a week later. That has to be confusing, if you're from adjacent countries, and talking about "last year" or "next year," and having to specify whose years you're using.

We went on shore briefly at a border town in Myanmar, and their abject poverty was made even more obvious by the dead heat and humidity. Not being able to afford sunscreen, locals smear some sort of home-concocted paste on their cheeks to try to block out the harsh sun. The pavement is strewn with trash and spattered with red blotches from the betel nut that a lot of the local men chew. Street children follow foreigners everywhere, trying to scrounge some spare change. The temple is populated with young monks whose families couldn't afford to raise them. Nobody puts on a show of good squalor like Asians do (I should know, since my apartment clearly reflects a genetic gift for squalor). In Asia, I think it's due to a combination of heat, humidity, poverty, population density, and a love of food that really stinks when it goes bad. I'm still trying to come up with an excuse for myself, though.

While in Thailand, I rode a motorcycle (something I've always said I'd never do, the whole death on wheels thing) without a helmet (double death on wheels). After that brush with hypothetical death, I sampled a single grain of rice that had touched food that my Thai dive guide said was spicy, even for him (so he only had one plate of it), and my mouth quickly informed me it was not meant for human consumption, since it was made out of fresh lava. I think it was as risky a venture as riding the motorcycle. When in Asia, do as the Asians do. Then come back and write about it from the safe squalor of your own apartment.

Ljubljana was great, but I'll talk about that next week. Going to Geneva this weekend to meet up with a friend who is visiting (whew, seems like it's travel season for me again).