Wednesday, December 13, 2006

13 December 2006

It’s hard to believe, but this will be my last post of the year, as I leave next Monday for the sunny Maldives for a two-week dive trip on a boat. Not really a typical way to spend the holiday season, but if “typical” means braving cold weather, going into the office, and dodging tourists, shoppers, and snot-nosed kids on the sidewalk, I’m happy to be taking the road less traveled.

Santa Claus (or Samichlaus, as they call him here) arrived in town last week, with his pal Schmutzli (a menacing black man with a donkey). As I’ve mentioned in previous years, Santa comes early so that he can hang out, mingle with the people, make house calls, and raise Christmas awareness. I knew that he drove trams sometimes for groups of children (I don’t really see the benefit, since it’s not like you can climb on Tram Driver Santa’s lap and ask for a Wii or whatever it is that kids are asking for this year, since T.D.S. would probably tell you to sit down). Last week, however, I was surprised to see him in another unlikely position, Bulldozer Santa. Yes, Santa was operating a bulldozer in a construction zone, wearing his full Santa outfit (and even a Santa hat instead of a hardhat). My truck-loving nephew would have gone crazy. If Santa is busy bulldozing things and driving trams in Zurich, however, who’s in charge of making presents for worldwide (well, Western worldwide) delivery? I guess Schmutzli and the donkey are holding down the fort.

Just a random train of thought, but I recently bought a new tube of toothpaste at the grocery store (which, incidentally, was Candida brand, which makes me chuckle every time I brush my teeth, since Candida is the Latin term for a type of food poisoning or infection, so it’s the equivalent of brushing your teeth with Salmonella Fresh Mint Paste or Trichinosis Kid’s Gel with Sparkles). Toothpaste tubes are differently shaped (and obviously differently branded) than in the States, but they are still recognizable as toothpaste. Other products are less obvious...

After living here for over two years, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing other things in tubes, as well: mustard, mayonnaise, condensed milk, sweetened chestnut paste (which is outrageously popular here, especially in the fall and winter), and fish paste. (I can imagine the ads -- Are you sick of only being able to eat fish paste in your own kitchen? Now you can have fish paste on the go: it’s delicious, spreadable, and ever so, er, fragrant!) Yeah, I have no idea, although I do have a quirky fantasy of buying one of every tubed food in the store, and combining it into one bowl of super-paste, to see what horrific astronaut-Frankenstein food-from-a-tube will emerge. Given the Swiss affinity for putting foods in a tube, I’m surprised that there isn’t yet hummus-in-a-tube, but then again, hummus is still considered quite exotic in Switzerland, so it can be hard to find it in any sort of container, tube-based or otherwise.

Back to a non-random train of thought. Although the Swiss don’t go overboard with Christmas decorations (most stores keep it to some greens with red ribbons, and some Christmas lights) or Christmas music (I have probably heard maybe three Christmas carols so far this year), they do know how to find other ways to celebrate. December 25 and 26 are national holidays, as are January 1 and 2. Many offices close for the time in between, as well, and when the calendar falls just right (as it does this year), that means that much of the country pretty much shuts down from Saturday the 23rd until Tuesday the 2nd. That’s a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, indeed, when you only have to take three vacation days to get eleven days off in a row.

Hope 2006 went well for you and that 2007 is even better. See you next year!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

5 December 2006

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and as in most industrialized Western countries, that fact is quite evident when you go shopping. There are the usual greens and ribbons and twinkling lights, and the usual fake frost and snow in display windows. Part-time St. Nick’s ring bells outside shops, with their beards awry and their tight Euro-jeans sticking out from under their robes (Santa wears a hooded robe here, instead of the red fur suit that he sports in the States).

Grocery stores stock specialty items, like holiday cookie dough (who knew that there were so many types of Christmas cookies requiring so many different types of dough, most of which are on sale, apparently because the Swiss shun pre-packaged dough, opting instead to grind nuts, sift flour, and bake ten types of cookies without any help from large corporations, thank you very much), and scented toilet paper with reindeer stamped on it. Yes, the paper smells like cinnamon, and yes, it has brown cartoon reindeer frolicking in between cheery “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” greetings (is this stuff sold in the States or England, because I don’t know why else the toilet paper would be greeting bathroom-goers in English? If so, I feel a bit silly that I'm using imported, cinnamon-spiked reindeer TP, but it was on sale, and I was running out.)

On certain appointed dates, stores are open on Sundays. Sunday shopping is a rarity here, a special exception to the rule that Sunday is the Sabbath, a day of rest. Although I spend most of the year wishing that I could buy things on Sundays, Sunday shopping days invariably end up being the Sundays that I least want to spend shopping, due to the frenzy that ensues from all of the Swiss releasing their pent-up Sunday shopping urges in the pre-Christmas carnage.

It's hard to describe, but all I can say is that the feverish crowds are a cross between a sale at Filene’s (for those of you from my college years), Times Square on New Year’s Eve (for my law school-era friends), and a pack of ravenous lions mauling a particularly juicy gazelle (for, er, nature show addicts). There are no big sales or specials, it's just the pleasure of partaking in a rare forbidden pleasure that transforms the normally sedate and orderly Swiss into a rabid mob of Sabbath consumers.

Speaking of forbidden pleasures, there was an “Erotic Fair” the other week, right here in little old Zurich. It was held at one of the biggest convention halls in town, and it spanned an entire weekend (Thanksgiving weekend, actually, so while most of America was eating turkey and watching football, there were many Swiss who spent the weekend testing lube and picking porn). A friend who lives by the convention center said that it was packed the entire time (it wasn’t a Sunday shopping weekend, so people had to seek an alternate forbidden pastime).

In addition to the things I would have expected to be featured at something called “Extasia,” like toys and DVDs and “celebrity” meet-and-greets, there was a live sex show. Yes, a live sex show, and the original intention had been to solicit audience participation, live on stage, with the cameras rolling. The audience participation part was axed, due to morality concerns (live public sex by paid professionals is perfectly fine, but not if it includes upstanding citizens who are otherwise employed). So they were forced to put on a normal sex show, whatever normal might mean, for a non-participatory audience.

I suppose you could say that the convention put the “ho” in “holiday.” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). In any case, happy “ho”-lidays from Switzerland.