Tuesday, October 31, 2006

31 October 2006

Happy Halloween!! It’s not a big deal here (and even might not qualify as a little deal), so I haven’t bought any candy to hand out to trick-or-treaters, since I didn’t get any trick-or-treaters the last two Halloweens. If some of them unexpectedly show up during my impromptu little dinner party tonight, I’ll just have to improvise and give them some lentil stew or dog kibble in cheap Ikea Tupperware. I would be even worse than the people who gave out pennies or Necco wafers.

The Swiss are so accustomed to having everyone do everything by the book and to the letter that when something falls outside of the norm, they are quick to jump to terrible conclusions. Small glitches and tiny anomalies indicate gross violations and sinister intentions, and no violation is committed innocently.

My building has a communal washing machine and dryer, which is the norm in Swiss apartment buildings. We are allowed to do our laundry without a schedule, even late at night or on Sundays, which is not the norm. My building, which is small, is mostly businesses, so there are only a few of us who use the laundry facilities, and only two of us who actually live in the building. I have a dog. He has black fur. I sometimes touch my dog, and his fur gets on me and my clothes. It happens. And eventually, I do laundry.

In any case, some of his fur apparently lingered in the laundry machine and made its way onto the laundry of my neighbor. She sought me out, informed me that there was dog hair in the laundry machine, and concluded that I must have my own secret washing machine in my apartment that I use for my own clothes, and that I only do Fiver’s laundry in the communal machine. I insisted that not only do I not have a secret machine, and not only do I wash my things in the same machine that I wash my dog’s things, but on top of that, I hardly ever wash my dog’s stuff, because I’m too lazy to do it that often. She expressed her continued suspicion as to how his fur got in, remained firmly convinced that I was still hiding my secret washing machine upstairs, and strongly suggested that I start doing his laundry with mine, so that she could stop hauling her laundry to her daughter’s house to avoid getting hair on her things. She has since moved away, doubtless in search of an apartment with its own secret fur-free washing machine.

It’s not just dirty, lawless Americans who are regarded with suspicion. Even Germans, known for being orderly and rules-loving, are subjected to the Swiss paranoia with regard to breaking the rules. A German friend bought a parking permit for his German-registered car. The permit was specific to his residential zip code. He parked his car in a parking zone one street over from his street, and then left it there for a few days before going to check on it. There had been a succession of parking tickets left by diligent parking police who noticed that he was in the wrong zip code (unfortunately, his zip code ended at that street).

A week later, he received a notice in the mail that a criminal investigation was being opened against him, since his car had been parked illegally for over ten hours. Never mind the fact that the car was parked only a block from his apartment and had a parking permit that was valid for the entire zip code that was just one street away, it had been parked ILLEGALLY for OVER TEN HOURS!! A criminal mastermind capable of such horrific atrocities is surely also up to his elbows in smuggling, prostitution rings, murder, and who knows what else. He might even be hiding secret washing machines and other appliances in his apartment. Best to start an investigation.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

24 October 2006

The long weekend in Lisbon reminded us of many things we don’t have in Switzerland: fresh seafood, abundant shopping, tank top and flip-flops weather in October, and cheap taxis, as well as panhandlers, flies, and dog poop. We ate, shopped, and squinted at the sun, all while waving flies away from our food and trying to avoid a minefield of canine waste that seemed to be required wherever there was pedestrian traffic. We stuffed ourselves at a Brazilian buffet for prices that are unheard of in both Zurich and New York (where it is pure fantasy to find all you can eat steak for 27 Swiss francs or 22 dollars). In any case, it was a good break, getting away from the prices and gloomy fall weather that plague land-locked Zurich (and it was cool to bring my list of countries visited to 33!!), but it was also good to get back to a city where walking without looking at the ground is not a risky venture.

After returning, I found something in my mailbox. After living in my apartment for over two years, I finally have an engraved plastic nameplate to replace the improvised bit of cardboard I had been using to let the mailman know where to put my mail. Of course, even without the spiffy new nameplate or the now-retired cardboard tag, it’s not difficult to figure out which mailbox is mine, since mine is the only one that is overflowing with junk mail from who knows how long ago.

The other tenants in the building apparently check their mail and clear out the junk on a daily basis. I imagine that they bundle it in with their neat stacks of paper recycling, which I still haven’t mastered, since I don’t know the paper pickup schedule, and can’t tie them into the perfect cubes of paper that are required. And I refuse to spend money to put my grocery store flyers into a regulation garbage bag to throw away with the regular trash. And so I’m reduced to a choice between smuggling junk mail to public trashcans or leaving it in my mailbox. Given my predilection for the option that requires the least effort, it’s not hard to guess which one I picked, and to then figure out why mine is the only mailbox that was vomiting mail this morning.

Although I am not a trash-master, I can say with confidence that I am better than the Swiss (and most other Europeans, other than the British) in one very important skill: waiting in lines. At the gate in the airport, at the train station ticket counter, at concession stands, and basically anywhere that forces people to wait for something they want, the Swiss are unable to grasp the concept of “waiting your turn.” If you’re waiting to get on a plane, or to buy a beer, or to get a ticket to the art museum, take a look around, and there will be at least two people trying to squeeze in front of you. It’s not a question of age or gender, I’ve been line-challenged by old ladies, teenage boys, and middle-aged men alike. The Swiss are unable to form lines, and instead clump up into throngs that push and wiggle their way up to the front.

In some cases, the powers that be have tried to force some semblance of order on the crowd: velvet ropes, numbered tickets, seating by rows. The only ones that work are the ones that say exactly when each particular person is entitled to go next. Other attempts at line management are completely ignored. Airline passengers who wait for their row in the middle of the plane to be called walk onto the plane to find the front rows already fully boarded. Housewives determinedly shove and wriggle their way through the “lines” carved out with ropes and barricades. For a country that likes everything to be orderly and in its logical place, Switzerland is hundreds of years behind in its understanding and enforcement of waiting in line.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Editor's Note

Still recovering from lots of sleep deprivation, so update will be next week. In the meantime, I've put up pictures from Zurich's Oktoberfest, and pictures from Lisbon, as well...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

12 October 2006

World Animal Protection Day was last week, which I only found out when a Swiss group brought a bunch of live animals to a busy square near my apartment. Specifically, they brought the exact number of animals that the average Swiss person eats in his or her lifetime. Eight cows, 33 pigs, 720 chickens, six sheep, two goats, 25 rabbits, four deer, 390 fish, and half of a horse (they brought a whole horse, but the average Swiss person eats half of one). Mind-boggling. And all I could imagine was a Swiss guy, with a crazed glint in his eye, charging into the animal pens and chomping on deer neck, goat leg, or pig butt.

There are vegetarians who don’t eat any meat, which means that somewhere out there, for every Swiss vegetarian, there is a Swiss carnivore who eats sixteen cows, 66 pigs, 1440 chickens, twelve sheep, four goats, 50 rabbits, eight deer, and a whole horse. Of course, these meats and their proportions are tailored to the Swiss palate (which apparently prefers to eat the entire petting zoo), so I wonder if it’s possible to cash in the deer, rabbits, goats, horse, and sheep for some extra pork? Chinese people don’t have (m)any dishes involving sheep or horse, but pork is an entirely different matter altogether…

I don’t eat five of those animals. Call me narrow-minded, but I’ve somehow got it stuck in my head that horses are transportation, rabbits are pets, sheep produce sweater-material, deer are Disney cartoons, and goats, well, they’re just weird things that you see on farms and don’t really know what they’re for. For me, eating those animals would feel about as natural as eating a bicycle, a cat, a cotton plant, the Little Mermaid, or a weird tractor-y thing that does something I don’t know about out in the fields.

One question I had was regarding the sheer quantity of meat involved. Assume that the average person starts his meat-eating career in earnest at the age of five, and that he eats until he dies at the age of 75 (let’s hope the person still has a decent set of teeth, so that he doesn’t have to drink goat meat shakes at the end). Assuming that he never dabbles in vegetarianism, this means that he eats more than ten chickens and five fish every year, that every five years, he eats more than half a cow, two pigs, and almost two rabbits, and that every fifteen years, he eats more than a whole sheep, almost half a goat, and almost a whole deer. If his wife is vegetarian, I guess he has to eat her share, too.

A second question I had was regarding the cows. Veal shows up in half the dishes served in Swiss restaurants, and it’s a mainstay of Swiss cuisine. Do those calves count towards the cow quota? Does eating one calf’s worth of veal count as eating a whole cow, since a calf grows up into a cow, or does it take several calves to add up to one cow, since calves weight so much less? Or did they just forget to bring calves along?

Another random factoid: the average Swiss person eats about 11 kilograms (24 pounds) of chocolate per year, or 770 kilos (1680 pounds) over the same 70-year period. The average cow weighs 550-680 kilos (1200-1500 pounds). So I guess we could say that the average Swiss person eats nine cows in his or her lifetime, one of which is made entirely out of chocolate.

Heading to Lisbon for a long weekend this week, in search of a last bit of summer before we head into the interminable grey of Zurich winters.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

3 October 2006

I spent the weekend in Munich for Oktoberfest (which occurs, inexplicably, for about two weeks in September). Oktoberfest was like a bigger, drunker version of all of the festivals we have here in Zurich. Lots of rides and tents and permanent-looking buildings that are built and taken down with no hesitation in the face of the amount of labor and planning that is required to bring it all in, assemble it, maintain it, take it apart, and store it ofr next time. Amazing. The Oktoberfest grounds are like a miniature city that sort of resembles a strange hybrid of a beach town's boardwalk (cotton candy and ring tosses and haunted houses), the German part of Epcot (people in costumes) and Spring Break (drunk college kids puking and passing out).

At Oktoberfest, beer is sold by the liter (which, incidentally, is also the unit used to measure gasoline, water, and other things that you buy in large volumes), and teams of roving paramedics constantly roam the grounds with stretchers, looking for unconscious people to schlep back to the central first aid area. To get one of the coveted spots inside one of the big tents, you either needed to (try to) make a reservation in February, or you need to get to the tents by 9 in the morning to compete for a seat on one of the long benches. Getting up can mean losing your seat, but drinking multiple liters of beer starting at 9 in the morning pretty much guarantees that you'll need to empty your bladder at some point. Some hardcore Oktoberfesters just pee at the table, thereby avoiding getting up, losing their seats, finding the restroom, and waiting in line.

Many partygoers sport traditional Bavarian clothing: lederhosen and knee-highs for men, dirndls (long dresses with puffy sleeves and aprons) for women. Some are older Germans, nostalgic for the olden days, some are younger Germans, making an ironic retro statement, and some are tourists, convinced that they blend in with the locals. The tourists usually also have stupid plush novelty hats shaped like kegs or beer mugs, which are probably the second-hottest item at Oktoberfest, after beer (about six million liters are consumed over a little more than two weeks). A lot of revelers also wear cookies on ribbons around their necks. Rock-hard, heart-shaped gingerbread cookies, bigger than Frisbees, with saccharine messages written in German with icing. Nothing says "I love you" like giving your girlfriend a mass-produced cookie as big as (and about as edible as) a toilet seat cover.

The train to Munich was full of people raring to get their party on. There was a constant level of excited chatter, and already-drunk teens and 20-somethings ran up and down the aisles, getting a head start. (They were already planning on doing two full days of heavy drinking; did they really think that the four-hour train ride was critical?) The train ride on the way back, however, was about as lively as a funeral, assuming that people at funerals pass out on the floor or make frequent runs to the restroom to vomit. I felt somewhat out of place, being one of the few people on the train who was both well rested and not hung over.

I started chatting with the guy next to me on the train back to Zurich: a Canadian student interning in Baden. I've met several people with the same story. My friends and I saw one on our flight to Istanbul (although we didn't know his story at the time, he was just wearing a very distinctive shirt). When we later ran into him in a shop in Istanbul (which is a huge city), we said hi. A month later, I saw him at a concert in Montreux, and we were on the same train back up. I mentioned his name to the Canuck I met on the train from Munich, and he laughed and said he had taken over the other guy's apartment. It really is a small world, after all, at least for expats in Switzerland.