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?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

7 June 2006

It's hard to believe that we were in Istanbul. Istanbul, the city that straddles two continents. Istanbul, the city in every sophomore year history textbook. Istanbul (was Constantinople), the city that They Might Be Giants sang about. Thousands of years of history and millions of people, interlaced with kids selling postcards, shady men offering private tours, and buses full of German tourists. In some ways, it's a very modern city: huge highways full of cars, teenagers taking pictures of each other with their camera phones, trendy restaurants and bars. When you look more closely, you can see differences: few of those cars are driven by women (we saw one female driver while we were there), a lot of the teenage girls wear headscarves, and some are completely veiled.

One travel website suggested getting a Turkish newspaper to carry around to blend in. That might have been a good tip if we had been in, say, Paris or Berlin, but not in Istanbul. My two friends and I look like the cover of a diversity awareness pamphlet: we represent three professions, three regions of the States, three ethnicities, and both genders. I don't think a mere newspaper would have helped us to blend in, given the amount of staring we inspired while walking down the street. (Plus, there's the minor obstacle that none of us know any Turkish, so any small illusion of native-ness would have fallen apart immediately).

We would blend in if we were walking down the street in Manhattan, and we are of some interest in Switzerland, but we were a tourist attraction unto ourselves in Istanbul. Schoolchildren and adults alike stopped and stared at us wherever we walked, and they found us more picture-worthy than the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I've never had my photo taken by so many strangers, not even right after Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon came out, and people thought I was Zhang Ziyi. Turkish people from the countryside rarely see people who are black, white, or yellow, and to see all three together was even more mind-blowing, even for cosmopolitan Istanbul natives.

On the first day, a Turkish carpet shop owner came up to us and said, "You're very multi-racial, you just need me." We ended up chatting with him and his business partner (Turkish hospitality is absolutely incredible – we spent most of the weekend with them, drinking, eating, smoking shishas, seeing lesser-known parts of the city). They threw an impromptu cook-out for us, invited their friends (the Turkish mafia, the Turkish Pavarotti, the Turkish Geraldo, their drivers and associates and apprentices) by calling them and telling them that three Americans were visiting, and hired three gypsies to come sing for us.

Not that Istanbul has never seen foreigners before. You can see evidence of the historical diversity of Istanbul, which has been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottoman Turks, and was Christian before it was Muslim, and has traded heavily with Africa and Asia. The Hagia Sophia was a church before it was a mosque before it was a museum, and there are plaques written in Arabic side-by-side with mosaics of Mary and Jesus (which the Muslims left intact, with extra people tiled in next to them: local politicians and other decidedly non-Christian people). There are Turkish people with dark hair, dark skin, and pale green eyes. There are Turkish people with blond hair and Asian features. Maybe the strange thing for them was seeing individual races represented in different people, instead of all mixed together.

Our experience was incredible, bordering on the surreal, to the point that any description of what we did sounds like the lead-in for a bad joke: Three Americans walk into a bazaar, and… Or, a yellow person, a black person, and a white person walk into a carpet store… And how about, what do you get when you mix a lawyer, a banker, an engineer, an opera singer, a TV star, the Turkish mafia, two carpet salesmen, a chauffeur, and three gypsies? An awesome weekend.