Tuesday, November 28, 2006

28 November 2006

Ah, Thanksgiving, that age-old American tradition that entails taking stock of what you have and showing your appreciation by over-indulging in it. Food, shopping, family, and football are the four pillars of an American Thanksgiving, and most Americans try to overload on all four to the point of discomfort over the course of a long weekend. So how is Thanksgiving as an expat in Zurich?

Start off with food: turkeys are hard to come by in Switzerland, as they aren’t particularly popular, and are really only eaten at Christmas-time. Pumpkin pie and cranberries are similarly hard to find, as are candied yams. All of these items can be rounded up or simulated with some effort and ingenuity, provided that you’re willing to spend a lot of money (a nine-pound turkey costs upwards of 70 francs, or almost $60). Thanksgiving here is best done potluck style, partly because the kitchens are small, and partly because footing the bill for an entire Thanksgiving feast would leave you with very little to be thankful for in your bank account.

Shopping. I think I’ve covered the sad, sad state of shopping in Zurich. High prices, poor selection, abominable opening hours. Maybe it’s for the best, so that we can still afford to buy all the food for the big meal.

A German friend was completely baffled by the Thanksgiving and Black Friday tradition, saying he couldn’t understand why people would go eat till it hurts and then go Christmas shopping in November on a day when the stores are completely crowded. Granted, I’ve always avoided Black Friday, but I can see why less crowd-averse people might brave the throngs to get a deal. And really, who is he to talk? Germans and Swiss leave their shoes out in early December, and St. Nick comes by and fills them with peanuts and candy. I’d say that eating shoe-nuts is much weirder than going bargain-hunting.

Family. Um, none of us has family living here, since we left them all behind. Football. Well, American football is pretty much an American phenomenon. One expat friend pays to watch streaming sportscasts on the Internet (but it’s live, so an evening game in the States translates into a middle-of-the-night pixellated computer window here). I have TiVo and a Slingbox, but I don’t watch football. Long weekend? Thanksgiving isn’t a Swiss holiday. Well, it’s not a holiday anywhere except for in the States.

So, how does a Swiss Thanksgiving compare to an American one? Food? Check, sort of. Shopping? Nope. Family? Nope. Football? Not really. Long weekend? Nope. But we ate our turkey (on a Tuesday), saw our friends, and celebrated in a modest salute to the Holiday of Excess.

Saturday night, a bunch of us went to the ETH Polyball, which is sort of like a giant prom thrown by the Swiss version of MIT. It is apparently “the largest ballroom dancing event in Europe,” attracting about 10,000 people every year, who dance salsa, rumba, waltz, cha cha, swing, and do whatever other ballroom dances that are out there that I never learned. It was quite a spectacle, partly because it was populated by fashion-challenged computer science nerds (one of the raffle prizes was a brand new, super-deluxe graphing calculator), and partly because Switzerland doesn’t have prom culture, so this is sort of their idea of what a formal dance should be like (apparently garnered from careful imitation of high school proms in American 80’s movies). Add in all the folks who take the ballroom part of “ballroom dancing” seriously, complete with hoop skirts and ball gowns, and you get a unique mix of Revenge of the Nerds, Sixteen Candles, and Gone With the Wind. Whoa.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Editor's Note

Happy Thanksgiving! It's been busy here, between visitors, Thanksgiving celebrations (without any time off work), and so on, so update will come next week :)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

14 November 2006

Living in Switzerland requires an ability to keep track of a lot of dates: trash day, cardboard recycling day, paper recycling day, national holidays, canton or city holidays, and religious holidays. I have not proven myself worthy, as I forgot that this past Saturday was November 11th. Well, I knew that it was the 11th, but I forgot the significance of the date, and so I was caught completely unawares when the marching bands started playing outside my window at 11:11 in the morning (yes, I consider 11:11 to fall squarely in the middle of the morning, and am surprised and somewhat disturbed if I get out of bed before the crack of noon on a weekend).

What, you may ask, happens at 11:11 on November 11th? That, my friend, is when Carneval season starts in Switzerland. Yes, the lead-up to Mardi Gras begins in November, and it involves a lot of marching bands blasting their instruments outside my apartment on a morning I had earmarked for sleep. The bands all play Guggenmusik, which apparently is German for “crazy Bandies wearing weird outfits and playing as if they are drunk and standing on a bus that is swerving in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid potholes of enormous proportions.” (I’ve been told that this strange sound is intentional, and that it takes a great deal of skill and practice to have the pitch and rhythm off just the right amount).

And they weren’t content to just play their lopsided music in the rainy street. No, they were determined to share their gift with the world, including the brunch-eating world. A few friends and I, unable to sleep, had decided to grab brunch in a cozy neighborhood joint, only to hear some seasick saxophones lurching around as we tried to eat our eggs. We wandered around town gawking at the costumed bands, who doggedly played through the entire morning, afternoon and evening, despite the cold and the rain. Eventually, we fortified ourselves with a few cups of glühwein (mulled wine), and ventured forth to observe the brass-and-drum-heavy festivities.

After checking in several bars that were overly full, we finally settled in at one bar that was only full. Every thirty minutes or so, a new band would stagger in and the old band would trickle out, and we would be treated to another round of wonky music played by people in wacky costumes. There were people in giraffe costumes playing steel drums, there were pirates dancing along to a marching band version of Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” and obviously, since it was a big party involving beer and German speakers, there were clowns singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

The revelry continued into the night, and the confetti and rainwater formed soggy piles on the street. Of course, since this is Switzerland, the confetti was gone by the next day, and I’m sure the musicians are all plotting further outings for Carneval season, to be topped off with the Big One on Fasnacht (Mardi Gras, which is celebrated in late February this time around, actual date varies by city). Leave it to the Swiss to start a party at exactly 11:11 a.m., to clean up before it’s over, to leave sufficient time for further planning, and to let each city have its own staggered celebration. Let the good times roll, in as orderly and organized a manner as possible.

Had a visitor in town last weekend, and another one this weekend, and I’ve already planned several trips for the next five months: Maldives, Paris, London, Rome, San Francisco… (I keep repeating these facts to myself to help myself ignore the fact that by late December, it starts getting dark by about 4 p.m., assuming that the sun ever comes out of the clouds in the first place).

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

7 November 2006

A friend who was living here for a while said that he was afraid that he was falling victim to Prison Syndrome, which he defined as a situation in which you’ve been deprived of something for too long, so that anything that vaguely resembles it seems pretty appealing, and your new way of life starts to seem normal.

I live in the oldest part of Zurich, where the streets are cobblestone, the ceilings have beams, and there is no guarantee that your apartment will have any 90-degree angles in it. Recently, the city has started installing these 24-hour trash drop-off points every few blocks, they’re basically like outdoor trash chutes. This means that I can throw away my garbage (in regulation trash bags, of course) any day of the week, any hour of the day. I got excited about this new freedom, until I remembered that when I lived in New York, I could throw my trash out 24/7, as well, except that: (1) I didn’t have to buy special bags to do so, and (2) the trash chute was right outside my apartment, instead of several blocks away, so I didn’t even have to put on shoes to get rid of my garbage.

I went to see a movie last night with a few of my friends. We had purchased our tickets online in the afternoon, so we headed up to the seats we had reserved in the second row of the balcony (yes, some of the movie theaters here have balconies). I knew which ones to get, having been in that particular theater before, so I knew that all of the seats on the floor level are positioned such that you have to crane your neck upwards to see the screen, and the seats in the first row of the balcony are partially obstructed by the railing.

Monday is cheap night at the movies here, and we were quite pleased with our seats that had a good viewing angle unobstructed by poles or railings, and which only cost 12 Swiss Francs (instead of the standard 18). And then I remembered that every seat in the theatres back home is positioned to minimize neck injuries, and that even on a normal night, movies in New York cost the same as they do here on cheap night (elsewhere, tickets cost even less).

On the other hand, you can also get used to a good thing, so that going back to the old ways can hurt. I’ve gotten used to carefree traveling. I leave my apartment an hour before my flight (and remember, every flight is an international flight), and get to the airport 40 minutes before takeoff. I amble through security with my carry-on and still have 10 or 20 minutes to waste before boarding. I faintly recall the days when I had to budget up to an hour to get to the airport, and two hours to clear security and board, and I shudder.

And now I’m shuddering again, because the Zurich airport has just announced new security measures that will require getting to the airport an hour before non-U.S. flights (and probably an hour and a half before U.S. flights). On top of that, there are also those weird restrictions on carry-on liquids (100 mL per liquid), which means that I’ll have to put all of my toiletries in travel bottles from now on, since I absolutely refuse to check bags for trips that are shorter than a week. I know, I know, these travel restrictions are nothing in comparison to what people go through at Heathrow or La Guardia, but I’ve gotten used to the footloose and fancy-free style of traveling here, and considering it’s one of the few ways in which the Swiss can be considered “footloose and fancy-free,” it’s a great loss.

In the last twelve months, I’ve flown out of the Zurich airport thirteen times to visit twelve countries. Multiply that by 20 minutes, and almost 4.5 hours of extra time I’ll have to spend in the airport in the coming year!! It’s a hard life, isn’t it?