Monday, December 10, 2007

10 December 2007

We had a fantastic week in Kenya, fitting in three dives, a safari, a visit to a local school-slash-orphanage to drop off some toys and supplies, and lots of lounging around in the pool. Kenya is many things that Switzerland is not– hot, sunny, and full of friendly people who told us that we should stay in Kenya forever. As with all countries, however, the positives come with some downsides, as well – the tap water isn’t even safe enough to rinse your toothbrush, the mosquitoes tend to spread malaria, and the roads are rather bumpy, even when they happen to be paved.

The population of Kenya is, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly black. We were tourists, though, and therefore came across a fair number of other tourists, but they were almost all white. I didn’t see a single other Asian person in a week of traveling until we were in the Nairobi airport on the way back. It’s really rather shocking to go to a tourist destination and not see a single Asian person (other than myself) taking pictures of everything that moves.

This unfamiliarity with Asians led to some interesting exchanges. Locals repeatedly asked the three of us (two blond-haired, blue-eyed Caucasians and one Asian) if we were siblings. I’ve spent most of my life being mistaken for my sister, or as a sibling of Asian friends, due to the fact that to non-Asian eyes, “all Asians look the same.” I suppose that to African eyes, all non-Africans look the same. One day, I was walking by myself, and a Kenyan asked me, based purely on appearance (since I hadn’t spoken) if I were Russian. Huh?!

Kenyans are exceedingly friendly. Children will stop their games upon seeing a van bearing foreigners and delightedly scream, “Jambo!” which is Swahili for “Hello.” Upon seeing me, however, they would get up and run towards the van, pointing and yelling, “Wachina!” which is Swahili for “Chinese.” I had to laugh, because that was pretty much our reaction when we were on safari, excitedly calling out, “Giraffe! Zebra! Oryx!”

Due to the existence of anti-American sentiment in many places, when asked, we generally said that we lived in Switzerland, which often prompted Kenyans to tell us that our English was very good, and which sometimes led down rather awkward conversation paths about how long we studied English. When bargaining for various knickknacks (no one can leave Africa without buying at least one wood carving, and no one can buy a wood carving without haggling), in the interest of appearing less prosperous, we were a bit vague about our professions – two of us are lawyers, and the third is an engineer for a company that manufactures electrical devices, which we turned into “I work in an office,” and “I work in a light switch factory.” I don’t think we fooled the salesmen at all.

It was a shock to come back to Switzerland – a week of wearing nothing but copious quantities of sunscreen, t-shirts, and shorts does not segue well into cold, wind, and rain. It is a relief, however, to be able to brush your teeth without fear of parasites, and to live mosquito-free.

This past weekend was spent with a friend in Amsterdam, where it is similarly cold and rainy. Next weekend, we’re heading for the mountains, where the cold rain will perhaps be cold snow, instead, and I can go skiing for the first time in fifteen years. Yes, I’ve been here for over three years and haven’t managed to muster up the motivation to go skiing. For shame.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

20 November 2007

“If you’re going to do something, you might as well overdo it” seems to be the theme of my recent and near-future life. I won’t be spending a whole weekend in town for two months. This past weekend, I was in Brussels. The next two weekends (and the week in between), I’ll be in Kenya. Then Amsterdam. Then Davos. The two weekends (and the week in between) after that, I’ll be in the States. Nineteen hours in Switzerland, and then an extra-long weekend in Morocco. Then maybe (just maybe), a weekend in Zurich before I take off for a weekend in Madrid. Whew. It ain't easy trying to be a jetsetter.

And it’s not just the travel that’s being taken to the point of excess. How’s this for a textbook example of gluttony – my friends and I flew to Brussels Saturday morning to try out lunch and dinner at two Michelin-starred restaurants (and the two meals combined took over seven hours), stayed the night, then flew back 24 hours later, just in time to waddle into Thanksgiving dinner #1. I had Thanksgiving leftovers for lunch the next day. Thanksgiving dinner #2 will be this Thursday (we make up for the lack of a long weekend by overdosing on turkey more than once). I will probably have eaten a month’s worth of food in a week’s worth of time. Burp. Incidentally, dinner at Comme Chez Soi was a near-religious experience, and worth every franc spent to get there, and euro spent to eat there.

Speaking of food, it’s common in many languages to use food-based pet names. In English, for instance, people call each other honey, pumpkin, sugar, or sweetie pie. A friend of mine was taken aback however, when her German boyfriend called her (in English) his “honey cake horse.” What?! It turns out he had directly translated a German term of endearment (Honigkuchenpferd, in case you’re curious) into English, assuming that it would make as much sense in English as it apparently does in German. A quick peek at a website listing other German terms of endearment reveals such gems as Humpfimumpfi, and Marzipankugelschweinchen (marzipan ball piglet). Charming, no? They just roll right off your tongue.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the stereotypical German speaker is not known for his (or her) romantic conquests – it’s hard to win someone over when you’re comparing them to farm animals or lesser-known carbohydrates. Never fear, though, just as in the States, there are dating sites and dating shows to help those who cannot help themselves. "Swiss Date" is a long-running dating show that is similar to the "Dating Game," where a bachelor (or bachelorette) asks three contestants a series of questions, and then chooses a lucky winner.

The sad thing, however, is that the show is entirely scripted, so that everyone know what questions will be asked, and the contestants often read their strained joking responses off of index cards held in their laps. I realize that reality shows are often scripted, but it’s best to maintain the semblance of spontaneity by eliminating the visible cue cards. Just a tip.

My friends and I leave for Kenya this week! The two of them leave Thursday morning and will actually spend Thanksgiving evening in Nairobi, where they plan to eat Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant that serves unusual game meats such as crocodile, giraffe, and zebra. I’ll join them on Saturday, and we hope to spend the week relaxing at the beach, going on a safari, enjoying the equatorial weather, and not catching malaria.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

6 November 2007

One of the things I like best (and will miss most) about living in Switzerland is the transportation. Seriously. Before living here, I lived in New York and Boston, and I appreciated the fact that I could get away with not having a car and still get around, but Switzerland elevates the car-free lifestyle to a new level. Not only can I get around anywhere in the city without a car, I can do so on trams, buses, boats, funiculars, and trains.

And everything runs on time – in other places, the schedules are mere guidelines regarding the relative frequency of subway trains or buses. Here they are written in stone – if the schedule says the tram will be here at 10:32, it will be here at 10:32, just in time for you to transfer to the bus that leaves at 10:33. You can plot your trip out to the minute, knowing exactly when you need to leave your apartment, and exactly when you will arrive at your friend’s housewarming party. Not only that, but it works nationwide. If I have tickets to see a concert in Lucerne, I can plot out the exact Zurich tram, train, and Lucerne tram I will need to take to get there in time.

(That said, there have been a few disturbing tram delays in recent weeks – there have been several occasions where a tram I wanted to take was three or even four minutes late. Having lived here for over three years, I was suitably horrified.)

It’s definitely a far cry from inter-city travel in the U.S., where, even if you’re lucky enough to be traveling between cities serviced by Amtrak (read: major cities on the Northeast corridor), the schedules are still only a general guideline, with arrival and departure times being understood to mean “stated time plus or minus half an hour.”

A German friend is planning on going to New York, and was thinking of going to visit his friend in rural New Hampshire. I assumed he was going to rent a car, but he said he would probably take a train, and was surprised when I told him that there probably wasn’t a train going where he wanted to go. Welcome to America, the land of the free and the home of the very large spaces that aren’t serviced by mass transportation.

As wonderful and well planned as the public transportation system is, there are still a few things that puzzle me. Trivial things, but I still wonder about them. The first is that all of the trams in Zurich are numbered. We have trams 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, and 15. What happened to trams 1 and 12?

Another is that the tramlines are color-coded. Blue means 14, yellow means 13, and so on. It makes it easier to read the map and to tell from a distance what tram is on its way. What puzzles me, however, is that there are two red trams, two green trams, but no orange tram. They covered the main rainbow colors (besides orange), doubled two of the colors, and then randomly branched out into pink, black, and brown. There doesn’t seem to be a system, which is very odd in this country that loves and lives for systems.

I sometimes watch the tram drivers at work. At first glance, the cockpit (driver’s seat?) of the tram looks unsurprising – a steering wheel, lots of buttons and switches, a microphone, and so on. And then you stop and realize that you don’t have to steer a tram – it just goes on tracks. And then you observe that the steering wheel is basically a gas and brake pedal in one – the driver turns it right to go faster, and left to go slower. Doesn’t that seem it could get a bit confusing (and swervy) for the tram driver if he drives a car when he’s not at work? Just a thought.

Friday, October 19, 2007

19 October 2007

Switzerland has turned up on international news radars as it prepares for elections, mostly because of an initiative that has been proposed by one of the parties (any initiative, once it has enough signatures, can be put to a national vote). This particular initiative concerns whether non-citizen felons and their non-felonious families can be automatically expelled from the country, and was proposed by the same conservative party that successfully blocked the granting of Swiss citizenship to third-generation, Swiss-born, fully-integrated immigrants.

This right-wing party has about 27% of the popular vote, and they have been splashed all over international newspapers over their ad campaign that depicts several white sheep (representing good Swiss people) standing on the Swiss flag, kicking out a black sheep. There are games on their website where you can kick black sheep. I don’t know who thought this ad campaign wouldn’t be offensive to foreigners or minorities (but then again, this is also the country where a couple years ago, the transportation authority, wishing to prevent musicians from begging on trams, posted signs depicting a man wearing a poncho and sombrero, because clearly anyone who begs on a tram is a stereotypical Mexican).

In any case, it’s a little lesson about stereotypes – just as not all tram singers are Mexican, and not all foreigners are criminals, not all Swiss are neutral and polite. In some ways, I feel as if I’m in junior high again – back then, being Asian and intelligent (and having a bad perm) marked me as an outsider, a black sheep to kick out from some fabled inner sanctum of acceptance. And here I am again, a black sheep in a country full of white sheep. And I don’t even have a perm anymore.

Anyways, planning for Kenya continues. My new passport came back less than two weeks after I sent the old one in – how’s that for efficiency? The new one has been mailed off to the Kenyans to get a visa. I went to my doctor to get some “just in case” prescriptions for antibiotics and so on. My German isn’t great, and her English isn’t great, so we get by in a mixture of the two. I sometimes forget that when language is an issue, sarcasm often goes undetected, so when she mentioned the possibility of getting bloody diarrhea, I said, “Ooh, that sounds really fun,” and she very earnestly told me, “No, actually, it’s not fun at all.” Oh, really?

My two travel buddies and I went to the university travel clinic last night to get all the necessary shots. We showed up, took numbers, and sat and waited to be called. Then we were matched up with doctors who reviewed our travel plans and told us what shots we would need. Then we waited in line to pay. Then we waited in line to get the shots. With all the red tape and long lines, it was sort of like Disney World meets the DMV.

The consultation with the doctor was done in German (looking back, I’m still amazed that I managed to tell her all the necessary information, and even more amazed that I was able to understand everything she told me), and covered the exotic risks I would have expected, like polio and malaria, but she also spent a fair amount of time cautioning me to stay hydrated on the plane, and to periodically stretch my legs to avoid blood clots. While waiting in line to pay, a German man told me that he was told that because he often leaves Zurich to go into the mountains (in Switzerland), he should get a special shot.

It's apparently a dangerous world out there, once you venture forth among the black sheep.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

4 October 2007

The big news this week is that I’m going to Kenya next month! One of my friends (who is also a coworker) asked me Friday morning if I wanted to go on a trip in November. I expressed interest (everyone knows I’m a bit of a travel fiend), and he said he had a timeshare in Kenya next month. I caught another one of our friends right before she was about to go to lunch, and by that afternoon, the three of us had decided to go.

Sounds simple enough, but as with most fun things, it was a bit more complicated. We had to request the vacation days and wait for approval, and there was a bit of a panic when the ticket prices fluctuated. And then there’s the fact that the Kenyan consulate in Zurich apparently no longer exists, so we have to apply for visas through the embassy in Bern. Not a big deal, you just send your paperwork, money, and passport to them, and they send it back to you a week later with the visa. The passport just needs to be valid for six months after your trip.

Oh. Six months? Mine expires in… April. Wasn’t there something about big delays with American passport renewals or something in the news a while back? Uh oh. I called the embassy here and they assured me that the processing times for American passports being renewed through Switzerland is about three weeks. OK, whew. I just need to send in my passport, a form, two pictures, and some money (which I’ll have to do again to get my Kenyan visa, once I get my new passport back).

First things first, I went to go get new passport pictures taken. The embassy website listed the few Swiss photo places that were known to make regulation American passport pictures, so I went to the closest one. The guy sat me down, and I put on my best “I hope I don’t look terrible because I’m stuck with this picture for the next ten years” smile, and he told me to stop smiling. Swiss people aren’t allowed to smile in their passport pictures, so apparently they don’t want Americans to smile in theirs, either.

Too lazy to argue the point, I suppressed my smile (although not entirely), and thus ended up with a smirking photo that is sure to endear me to immigration officers everywhere. I went to pay and it cost 35 Swiss Francs, or about $30, using the current exchange rate (these days, I am so glad I get paid in francs instead of dollars). For two passport-size photos of me smirking!! If it hadn’t been so expensive, I would have considered getting them re-taken.

Then, I dropped the whole package off at the post office, and sent the fee to the embassy. I’m not sure how it’s done in the US, but here, they don’t want checks or cash, and I’m guessing that an online transfer is harder for them to match to the paperwork, so they want a post transfer. This entails bringing a wad of cash to the post office (because they don’t take credit or debit card, unless you keep an account with the postal service), writing down your address and the address of the recipient, and handing it over with the wad of cash (plus a $16 service charge). The post office then sends the recipient a post card verifying that you did indeed hand over the correct-sized wad of cash, and business gets taken care of. I hope.

In any case, I have to stay in Switzerland for the next few weeks, until my passport comes back, and it’s funny how restrictive it feels to say, “Oh, no, I can’t leave the country for the rest of the month.” Think positive passport thoughts for me, so that it comes back quickly, smirking picture and all, and so I can pass it along to the Kenyan embassy for my visa.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Editor's Note

I'm preoccupied with other things these days, so I might as well be honest with myself (and you), and admit that I'm only going to try to update this section every other week, instead of every week. Other stuff will still be posted at random, as always...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

18 September 2007

Another post, another jetlagged recovery from a trip to the States. This time, it was an eleven-day, six flight, two wedding, two-state journey, with a job interview thrown in for good measure. I managed to pack everything into my carry-on for the first four flights (Zurich to Atlanta to Kansas City to Cincinnati to San Francisco), because I had awful visions of showing up at weddings and interviews in my grubby travel gear. On the way back, however, as is always the case, I was forced to check a bag, because I had picked up so many oh-so-essential items while in San Francisco, like Twizzlers, reasonably priced socks, and clogs.

We haven’t had a summer worth mentioning in Zurich this year, other than three weeks of warm weather and scattered sunny days here and there, and fall is now firmly entrenched, as evidenced by all of the wool sweaters and dripping umbrellas. I haven’t spent much time in Zurich over the past month, however, so I’ll talk about the traveling, instead.

Don’t ever fly Delta. I booked this trip in May, and had to re-book no fewer than four times in less than four months, because they kept canceling or rescheduling flights. Each time, I would get an email telling me to re-book, so I would call in and sit on hold, explain the situation to an inept customer service rep, get cut off, call back, hold, talk to another rep, explain that yes, the dates were important, because the weddings couldn’t be rescheduled, and no, I didn’t want to take more than six flights, because none of the fliths were direct to start with, and would it be possible to just rebook the one flight in question, so that I wouldn’t have to do seat selection for all six flights all over again? And after much to-do, they would still re-book all six flights. It was like the movie Groundhog Day, except that instead of Bill Murray, there was bad hold music.

On one of my flights, there was a kid two rows behind me who was screaming and gibbering demonically enough that I fully expected to turn around and see him ripping off his head and rolling it down the aisle. No one else in the entire plane seemed to be making any noise. On a nighttime flight, two kids were stampeding up and down the aisles, screaming and bumping into passengers, and their parents didn’t do anything, despite many grumbling neighbors (including me), and useless entreaties from the flight attendants.

While boarding the flight from Atlanta to Zurich, I noticed three babies and two dogs seated close by, and started preparing for a noisy, sleepless flight. I think all of them were dead, however, because none of them made a sound during the whole flight. Instead, the man in the seat next to me was slouching into my seat and hogging my legroom, and I spent most of the flight passive-aggressively pretending to be asleep, while furtively jamming my elbow and knee into him, trying to get him to move out of space I had paid for and re-booked four times.

The process to get a job and move to Switzerland seemed complicated to me at the time, since there were work visas and residence permits involved, but now I think it may be more complicated in reverse. American employers want you to start yesterday, and they don’t comprehend Swiss laws regarding giving two months’ notice at work, and three months’ notice on your apartment (which can only be done twice a year). Not to mention the logistics of de-registering from all the things that require registration. Now I understand why people often stay here for longer than they originally planned – it’s just too much trouble to leave!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Editor's Note

Just got back from a double-wedding tour of the US. A few pics are up, update still to come...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

28 August 2007

Whew, time flies when you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off. In the past few weeks, I celebrated my birthday with 40-odd friends at my apartment here in Zurich, I took a quick trip back to New York and New Jersey, and I hosted a friend from Ireland for a long weekend, during which I visited my 40th country.

The birthday party was great (besides the fact that one of my friends had his finger broken mid-conversation). My friends chipped in for a group gift that included Reese’s cups (peanut butter and chocolate only go together in the States), Nerds (candy here tends to be either chocolate-y or chewy), a t-shirt from Old Navy (doesn’t exist here), an Extreme Ironing calendar (too weird for the Swiss), candy-flavored Chapsticks (lip balm comes in one flavor here), Mad Libs (too random for the Swiss), and other highly sought-after items.

One friend brought a bouquet of florist-quality flowers that he said he had picked himself. Really? Yes. He went to a nursery where customers pick their own flowers, check the price list, add it up, and leave money in a box, unsupervised. They just trust people to pick flowers and leave money. There are fruit, vegetable, and egg stands that do the same thing. Somehow, I just can’t imagine that working in the States.

My trip to the States was short and busy. I saw about two dozen relatives, 15 friends, had Ethiopian, Chinese, and Korean food, ate bagels, got bubble tea, went to my favorite brunch place, played cards with my old cards crew, bought clothes at my favorite store, got a two-hour massage from my favorite masseuse in the entire world, and then came back to Zurich and went straight to work from the airport.

While back, I ran into a childhood friend at the family gathering, and found out that she’s now good friends with my cousin. I ran into a former coworker from Zurich walking down the street in Manhattan near midnight. In the past, I’ve run into people in Paris, Venice, and every neighborhood of New York – leaving the country clearly does not affect the chances that you’ll see someone you know, there’s just no avoiding it unless you never leave the house.

Last weekend, a friend visited from Ireland, and we gave him the full Zurich experience – a sausage dinner, a cookout by the lake, drinks at an outdoor bar, dinner at the Oepfelchammer (which has a 150 year old tradition of inviting guests to climb through the rafters), a street party (my neighborhood’s annual “block party,” which involved music blaring outside my apartment late at night), and a day trip to Liechtenstein.

Liechtenstein is basically the Delaware of Europe – a small, corporate tax haven. About 35,000 people live in Liechtenstein, but over twice as many corporations are nominally headquartered there. They speak Swiss German and use the Swiss franc. They still use buses run by the postal service. It is one of only two doubly landlocked countries in the world (meaning that not only does Liechtenstein not touch the ocean, none of the countries touching Liechtenstein touch the ocean, either). The other one is Uzbekistan. That’s pretty much all I know about Liechtenstein.

Leaving for the States again on Friday, this time for a week and a half (which sounds saner than the last trip, but it involves six flights and two weddings, so I’m guessing it will still be pretty busy). Keep your fingers crossed for me that summer won’t be entirely over by the time I get back to Zurich.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Editor's Note

I've posted a few pictures from my weekend in New York, update to come...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Editor's Note

Things have been chaotic. Last weekend was Street Parade, which I avoided this year, not being in the mood to dive into the throngs of techno-mad people. Going on an unforeseen trip for a long weekend. In the meantime, I’ve posted a few random camera phone pics that didn’t fit in anywhere else.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

7 August 2007

Two weekends ago, a good friend from law school met me in Krakow, where we hung out for a couple days, seeing the city and making a side trip to Auschwitz before picking up a rental car to go to Slovakia. You may be asking, “Why Slovakia?” Several Slovakians whom we met along the way had exactly that question for us, and our response was, “Why not Slovakia?” Rural Slovakia is beautiful – wild forests, old castles, farmland, countless villages, each with its own steepled church – and plenty of time to observe it all as you’re stuck driving behind a tractor.

My friend is also Asian, and I think we have discovered the last two places on earth that aren’t completely overrun with buses full of Asian tourists – Spissky Hrad and Bardejov, Slovakia. Krakow was an entirely different story, with the city center swarming with tourists from all over the world (especially drunk British men – apparently, flights are so cheap, British men drink so much, and drinks in London are so expensive, that it’s cheaper for them to fly to Eastern Europe to party than to go to their local pub).

Slovakia, on the other hand, hasn’t yet been fully noticed by the outside, and is only just starting to connect to the outside world. We were often hard-pressed to find anyone who spoke any of the five languages we had between the two of us – English, French, German, Korean, and Chinese – a rare occurrence in Europe, where people tend to be bi-, tri-, or multilingual.

A good quick test of how closely a place is tied to civilization and the modern world is the Internet and the water supply. Can you find a computer with an Internet connection? Can you drink the tap water? If the answer to both those questions is yes, then you’re in a modern “First World” country. If the answer is no, then you’re being a bit more adventurous, and are hopefully reaping other benefits in terms of photo ops and cross-cultural understanding. The first Slovakian town we stayed had no Internet café, and even the locals didn’t drink the tap water. The second place we stayed had a computer connected to the Internet, but the computer was running on only 32 MB of RAM, so I think that still gets some points for remoteness from the modern world.

Rather incredibly, my friend and I didn’t get lost on our three-day road trip, despite several factors that were running against us: neither of us has a sense of direction; we don’t speak (or read) Slovakian or Polish; and we didn’t have GPS or a map of Slovakia. That’s right, we drove for two days without getting lost in the Slovakian countryside, with nothing but the equivalent of printouts from MapQuest. We were pretty proud of ourselves, and one of our big regrets is that we caved in and bought a map of Poland (which we didn’t really use, anyways).

The trip was a blast, although I don’t think I’ve ever missed fresh vegetables so much. Polish and Slovakian food (and perhaps Eastern European food in general) is very heavy on meat, potatoes, and pickles. In Slovakia, I ordered a pork chop, and was told to pick a side dish. I asked for vegetables, and the waitress said that there were boiled potatoes, fried potatoes, French fries, potato pancakes, and roasted potatoes. I ordered a salad, instead, and when it came out, it was a plate of pickled carrots, pickled cabbage, and pickled red cabbage. The pork chop was breaded, deep-fried, and topped with a fried egg and a slice of ham. At a restaurant in Poland, the pre-meal bread came not with butter, but with a pot of lard studded with chunks of bacon fat. Delicious? Yes. Nutritious? Perhaps not.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Editor's Note

I've added Nellie's pics from Poland and Slovakia. Birthday party was a success, update later this week :)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Editor's Note

It's concert season!! Four concerts in one week, and heading out to Poland and Slovakia for a looong weekend before coming back in town for my annual birthday party. Celebrate with me and forgive my lackluster posting schedule :)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

18 July 2007

It’s been a while since I’ve hung out with Asian people. There just aren’t that many of them here, although the numbers are growing, due to a booming restaurant business and the increasingly common phenomenon of Swiss men bringing back Asian brides. I’m only half-joking. Recently, however, I’ve met a few other Asians, who seem just as surprised as I am to no longer play the role of “token minority friend” when we’re in a group together, especially if they happened to grow up here in Switzerland.

A good friend of mine works for the local subsidiary of a major international company, which happens to be located out in the suburbs. Compared to New York, Zurich can already feel a little bit suburban (population-wise, Zurich wouldn’t even break the top 50 cities in the States), so the suburbs of Zurich are, to put it in the words used by a Swiss friend, “provincial” (as is the case anywhere, the city folk enjoy sneering at the country folk, and vice versa). My friend’s colleague started talking about a “black woman” working in a different department, much to my friend’s confusion, because she wasn’t aware that there were any black people working there. After further probing and clarification, it turned out that the “black woman” was actually Asian, and that the colleague just called her black because she wasn’t white, and really, what else is there?

When I told that story to an acquaintance who has Tibetan relatives who immigrated to Switzerland, she started laughing, because when her relatives took an outing into the “provinces” when they first moved here (granted, this was perhaps twenty years ago), the villagers followed them around, gaping at the “black people,” and trying to touch them. I would have been tempted to say, “Greetings. We come in peace, take us to your leader,” but I wouldn’t have known how to say that in Swiss German.

The other week, I was taking an elevator with three Swiss friends, one of whom is Asian, one of whom is half-Asian, and the third of whom is white. It was the first time since coming here that I’ve been part of a (localized) ethnic majority, so I pointed it out to our white friend, “Hey, do you feel outnumbered and marginalized?” His eyes widened in astonishment, then we all burst out laughing. Of course, as soon as we stepped out of the elevator into the general population, he was once again part of the extremely dominant majority, and the rest of us were back to being the funny-looking outsiders.

Last night, a friend and I organized an after-work hangout by the river, and perhaps two dozen assorted friends, coworkers, and acquaintances showed up, including five (that’s right, five!!) Asians. Four of us were expats, so it wasn’t a new experience to be more than just token minority representatives, although it definitely felt a bit strange to be hanging out with multiple Asians in Zurich. For the one Swiss Asian, however, it was a bit mind-boggling, and the rest of us were highly amused by his amazement that several non-tourist Asian people can hang out in one place without causing a huge tear in the space-time continuum.

It’s mid-July, and the weather has finally warmed up in Zurich. April was hot, but since then, we’ve had a lot of cold, rainy days, and nothing is more disheartening than wearing wool sweaters and scarves in July. So we’ve been grateful for the change in the weather, although a bit annoyed that half the summer was wasted as a faux winter. The rest of the summer looks busy – in the next six weeks, I’ve already got three concerts, three visitors, two parties, and several trips planned. If there’s no rest for the wicked, there’s even less rest for the expat.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

11 July 2007

Last weekend was Zürifäscht (roughly pronounced TSU-ree-FESHT), the once-every-three-years party that takes place in Zurich, well, once every three years. Last time it happened, I had only been living in Switzerland for one month, and I didn’t think I’d be here for a second Zürifäscht, but obviously, I was. After living here for three years and getting to know the place and the people a bit better, I think Zürifäscht was an even bigger surprise the second time around.

First of all, about two million people are in town for Zürifäscht. Considering that the population of Switzerland is about 7.5 million, that means that during the big weekend, over a quarter of the entire population descends on Zurich, which usually has a population of 370,000. If one-fourth of the US decided to go to a party at the same time, you’d have 80 million people all of a sudden showing up in New York for the weekend, which would pretty much be a logistical nightmare. Granted, it would be much easier to deal with two million people than 80 million people, but you have to hand it to Zurich for managing a sudden quintupling of the city’s population with remarkable aplomb.

Secondly, I didn’t quite realize the full scope of the party last time. I didn’t know my way around the city much, so I just followed a Swiss friend around. This time, I saw a schedule of events and the geographic area covered by the festivities, and it’s pretty mind-boggling. We’re talking multiple Ferris wheels (because the Swiss can never have enough Ferris wheels), an air guitar contest, dragon boat racing, Jewish folk dances, a petting zoo, fireworks, air shows, diving contests, bobsled tracks, freefall rides, cotton candy, ring tosses, bars, salsa dance floors, and just about everything else you can (or can’t) imagine.

And this is Switzerland, so it goes without saying that there are sausage and beer stands, plenty of trashcans and toilets, and trashmen scurrying around picking up the litter. Gotta feed the people and keep things clean.

People who happen to come into Zurich for the weekend of Zürifäscht must think that the Swiss are wild, crazy, and into littering. None of which is really true, except for when there’s a triennial party going on. True to form, the party was set up and swept away with mind-boggling speed. Since it’s a big one, it actually took a couple of days on each side, but if you could see the amount of equipment (and garbage) that was trucked in and out, you wouldn’t expect it to be done faster than a couple weeks each way.

Zürifäscht is really the only occasion I’ve seen where the Swiss go all-out with state-sponsored fireworks. Swiss National Day (their equivalent of the 4th of July) is more of a private affair, with measly little store-bought fireworks. Zürifäscht is when the government steps in and buys boatloads of explosives for public display. It only happens every three years, but then they do huge shows (about 30 minutes long) for two nights, so I guess the cost balances out, because each show was a bit bigger than the Boston 4th of July show, which happens every year.

One great thing about Zürifäscht (for Americans, anyways) is that it happens at roughly the same time as the 4th, so once every three years, we get to see a good, old-fashioned, bombastic display of pyrotechnic delights that are a taste of home, amidst the sausage stands and people frantically texting each other, trying to figure out which Ferris wheel they’re supposed to meet under.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

4 July 2007

Happy 4th of July, and here’s to the fact that the 2008 elections are drawing ever closer! Dubya, your days are numbered.

A Swiss friend recently commented that he likes the German mentality more than the Swiss mentality, because the Germans are “more relaxed and laid-back.” That made me laugh, because it really showed how everything is relative. I don’t think that Germans are world-renowned for their relaxed, laid-back personalities, but compared to the Swiss, maybe they are.

One friend who has been living here for a while told me how she once met an older Swiss woman who was grumbling about how the country is falling apart and chaos was taking over. My friend asked her what she meant. The woman said that in the past, if a train was supposed to arrive in the station at 11:14, it would pull in just as the second hand swept past 12, at 11:14:00 on the dot. Now, she complained, the train could show up anywhere from 11:14:00 to 11:14:59! What is this world coming to?

Some work colleagues and I were having drinks at a bar a couple of weeks ago to welcome a new coworker to the office. We had made reservations for a table for 20 for 6 p.m., and the first of our group walked in at about 6:10. There was a lone woman seated at our very large table. She looked up, told us that the table was reserved, and told us to find another table. We pointed out that the reservation was for our group, and started sitting down. She protested that it was already 6:12, and that it was too late for us to show up. After some back and forth, and much grumbling on her part, she vacated our table and went to one of many smaller tables that were free.

There was recently a “Laugh Parade” in Zurich. I didn’t attend, but apparently, people congregated on a Sunday afternoon at a pre-appointed time and place, and then they walked through downtown Zurich, laughing. I’m not sure what they were laughing about, but it was to promote health through laughter. But seriously, who schedules a time and place to laugh at nothing with strangers? The Swiss do.

Scheduling is paramount in Switzerland. Punctuality is right up there with cleanliness and godliness, and scheduling things well in advance is also a great virtue. Take my apartment lease, for example. It’s a pretty standard lease for Switzerland. There are two built-in termination dates each year – April 1 and October 1. In order to actually move out on one of those dates, I have to give the landlord three months’ notice, on January 1 or July 1, respectively. Otherwise, I would have to find a subletter (whom my landlord has to approve), or I would have to pay all of the extra rent myself. This is definitely not a culture that is accustomed to the transient nature of young Americans.

Most Swiss people stay close to home. Zurich probably has the most “transients,” but even they come from only an hour away, and visit home often. I haven’t been to my parents’ house in almost four years, and I have very few friends left from the “olden days,” but I have met many Swiss people my age who still see their parents and childhood friends almost every week. Moving to a town that’s an hour away seems to be as big of a step here as moving from New York to San Francisco in the States.

Even for an American, I’m relatively rootless, but compared to the Swiss, I’m probably akin to a hobo with a work permit.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

27 June 2007

After living here for over three years, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing dogs go almost everywhere that people go – bars, restaurants, boats, trains, trams, shops, you name it, there’s a dog there (except in grocery stores, where they aren’t allowed). I’m no longer shocked (but still appreciative) when waiters bring Fiver a bowl of water without asking, and when they stop to pet him and ask if they can give him some ham, then bring back bowls of sliced tomatoes and carrots, at my suggestion (Fiver loves veggies, and he’s overweight, so it’s for the best).

Fiver gets more attention and approval than I do. The Swiss are generally not inclined to notice or speak to strangers unless a rule is being broken, but if Fiver is with me, there is a steady stream of people – old, young, male, female – following us, talking to him, blowing him kisses, commenting on his appearance, asking me his age, sex, breed, and name, getting permission to pet him, and so on. I’m invisible, but Fiver is the Pied Piper of Zurich.

This past weekend, however, I was not prepared to see a rabbit taking the tram. I think of rabbits as stay-at-home pets, but a woman was carrying her pet rabbit in a grass-lined basket, and brought him on the tram with her. She (and he) seemed to think it was perfectly normal for a rabbit to ride the tram, and no one else took any notice of them. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, since when I first moved here, I often saw a couple who would bring their pet rats on the tram, and the rats would swarm up and around their necks, shoulders, and shirts.

Pets live a good life here – cats living in apartment buildings usually have outdoor feline spiral staircases that allow them to enter and leave the apartment at will. I sometimes think that pets have it easier than people here – they don’t need to worry about store opening hours, special garbage bags, registration and deregistration, laundry schedules, or any of the other strange things that their owners have to deal with.

Speaking of pets, one of my good friends here had a dog who died a while back. She had him cremated at a pet crematorium, and they mailed the ashes back to her. Very efficient. In any case, recently, she received a mailing from the crematorium informing her that they had just completed a major round of renovations and upgrades, and inviting her to come to an open house and cocktail hour. Seriously?? It seems about as appealing as revisiting a funeral parlor after they got a new paint job.

In any case, they raved about their new facilities, including improved incinerators, and were asking all of their valued customers to come have a drink and take a celebratory tour. There was even a pamphlet addressing potential questions, such as, “Can I watch while my pet is cremated?” Has anyone ever actually asked to watch Fido get burned to a crisp?? And would anyone actually watch, if given permission to do so?? It sounds like a terrible skit from SNL, but it’s true.

Met up with friends on Sunday, and took blankets, meat, and a grill to a park, just a typical summer afternoon in Zurich. The next day, we took a friend’s visitors to the quintessential Swiss restaurant in town, and, having decided that we had overloaded on greasy, grilled sausages, we opted instead for… greasy, grilled ribs, and greasy, grilled meat on a sword. Yes, they serve meat on a sword here. Beat that.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

19 June 2007

According to The Economist, in 2007, Zurich is the world’s sixth most expensive city to live in, and New York is the most expensive American city, coming in at 28th worldwide. San Francisco and Chicago are even further down the charts than New York, and the rest of the States are even cheaper. You can imagine, then, the sticker shock that most American expats experience when moving to Zurich. Only those of us who came from New York or London were able to look at real estate listings without gasping, and all of us were surprised at the “reverse Costco effect” when shopping – it seems like in Switzerland, you get half the quantity for twice the price.

The difference has been magnified even further in recent years because of the weak dollar. As much as I disapprove of Dubya and his foreign policy (and pretty much everything else he’s done), his ineptitude in managing the American economy has increased the relative value of my salary here, which is paid in Swiss Francs.

Mercer Consulting does an annual survey on which cities are the best to live in, and for at least the past six years, Zurich has been #1 on the list. You can check back further, if you want, but that seems to be a pretty unequivocal vote by Mercer for Zurich. The survey is based on a bunch of criteria: sanitation, disease, health care, pollution, potable water, and “the presence of harmful animal or insects,” are heavily stressed, but they also consider factors like banking, crime, political stability, education, transportation, housing, and natural disasters.

So basically, the survey is telling us that Zurich is really clean, you can drink the water and breathe the air, and you won’t be mauled by a bear or swarmed by poisonous centipedes. (Although the breathing thing is debatable, if you’ve ever been in a Swiss bar, where the smoky air probably causes lung cancer by the fourth breath).

Oh yeah, also, you won’t get carjacked during a tornado while driving your kids between your lovely home and their modern school. This all makes Zurich the best place to live on earth. Although I agree that Zurich’s a great place to live, I still think that the fact that I can’t get a really good bagel and then take the tram home at 1 a.m. should count against it, somehow.

While we’re talking about surveys, Mercer did a survey to see how much vacation time the average worker gets per year in different countries. The average American employee who has been with a company for ten years gets 25 days per year (including fifteen vacation days and ten paid holidays) – but we all know that the average American employee has not been with his or her current company for ten years, and many American workers (my dad, for example) don’t actually take all of their vacation, anyway.

In Finland, on the other hand, employers are legally required to give all employees at least 30 vacation days per year, plus about fourteen paid holidays. That’s two months off every year! When I thought about it, though, they probably need it up there. The winters are long and dark, and if you won’t see the sun for a few months, you’re going to want to go somewhere else for a while.

But still, two months. Wow, that’s some potential quality of life. I wonder if they often get swarmed by poisonous centipedes up there.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Editor's Note

I'll post again next week. It's been a busy travelling, hosting, birthday partying, jobhunting season...

Thursday, June 07, 2007

7 June 2007

Two friends and I spent a long weekend in Vilnius the other week. For those of you who don’t know where Vilnius is, it’s in Lithuania. We knew very little about the city before we booked the tickets, but they were relatively cheap, and all the flights to better-known cities were very expensive for the holiday weekend. The Monday holiday in question is called Whit Monday in English, and is celebrated the day after Pentecost, which has something to do with being fifty days after Easter. In any case, it’s a national holiday here, so we wanted to go somewhere new.

Before going to Vilnius, we did some quick Googling and found out that they have a “the only statue in the world honoring Frank Zappa,” which we wryly joked would end up being the highlight of our weekend. Luckily, considering that the “statue” was a stainless steel pole emblazoned with Frank Zappa’s name, there was much more to see and do in Vilnius – the best way to describe it is that it’s the kind of town people are hoping to see when they go to Prague, minus the overwhelming throngs of tourists and jaded locals. Basically, visit Vilnius before everyone else does.

In fact, the tourist industry may need a bit more development in Vilnius – the woman in the tourist office (which, incidentally, was poorly denoted and hard to find), though friendly, had never heard of several of the museums we had read about, and was unable to give us directions. A guy who played violin in the street next to a few of the most popular restaurants in town only knew two songs – he'll have to work on expanding his repertoire before the rest of the tourists show up, because listening to two songs on repeat through a two-hour meal is not likely to predispose people to generosity.

Despite being a small city that has only fairly recently emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, and which hasn’t yet gotten its share of the European tourist market, Vilnius is beautifully restored and boasts several well-curated museums. There are literally dozens of huge churches (I don’t know how they all have decent-sized congregations, since the town is quite small), and there were once over a hundred synagogues (resulting in Vilnius’s reputation as a local Jerusalem), until the Nazis and later the Soviets showed up – now there is only one synagogue left. If that’s not depressing enough, we also went to the KGB Museum (detailing the oppression brought by the Soviets) and the Holocaust Museum.

The juxtaposition of Vilnius, past and present, was particularly jarring as we, being tourists, usually went from museums with exhibits on oppression and starvation to eating huge, Lithuanian meals of bacon-studded potato pancakes. We skipped the boiled pig ear, “pork hand,” “boletus,” “curdled milk,” and pickled fish, and didn’t have room to try zeppelins (potato dumplings filled with meat and covered with bacon and curdled milk).

There was also an international folk music festival while we were there, and I got dragged into waltzing with a smiling old man in traditional Lithuanian costume, which was a surreal moment.

Perhaps the most surreal moment of the weekend occurred one afternoon when the three of us – two Americans and a German who all live in Switzerland – were walking down a nearly deserted street in Lithuania. A police-escorted motorcade came zooming towards us, and the Empress of Japan smiled and did a Queen of England-style wave at us through her open car window. The Japanese Emperor was in town while we were there, and we just happened to cross paths with his entourage as we were between sights. It was an international moment, It’s a Small World-style

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Editor's Note

Oops, Internet will be down for the day, so I'll have to update Thursday, sorry...

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Editor's Note

Had a friend in town for a long weekend, and US taxes are calling, so I'll post on Wednesday, hopefully.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

30 May 2007

I spent a long weekend in Vilnius, but that will have to wait. So much travel, so little blog-space! St. Petersburg is many things that Zurich is not – it’s big, it’s chaotic, it’s noisy, and it’s dirty. The population of St. Petersburg is almost two-thirds of the entire population of Switzerland. It’s not as populous as New York, but I’ve been Swissified, so it was a bit overwhelming, but very exciting.

St. Petersburg is huge – the subway is unfathomably deep underground, and the trains go for long stretches at high speed between stops – unlike in Zurich, there’s no debate between walking or waiting for the next train. You never know exactly when the train will come – there is no set schedule, and although there are timers on the platforms, they only tell you when the last train left. The trains run very frequently, though, so you don’t have to stand there for too long thinking, “If only I hadn’t stopped tie my shoe, I would have caught the train.”

Another strange thing is that a lot of the subway stations have safety doors instead of platforms, so you wait in what appears to be a hallway with heavy-duty elevator doors every few meters. When a train arrives, you don’t see it, but the safety doors open. You hop in as quickly as possible once the train doors open, because the safety doors slam shut with enough force to make you question their usefulness as “safety” doors. Once you’re in the train, you often can’t see the stations for more than a few seconds (because of the safety doors), and all of the station names are in Cyrillic, so it can be quite, er, exciting trying to get where you want to go.

There are hundreds of buses that run on tangled routes. The drivers speak only Russian, you get in, pass them some money, and they hurtle through city streets unfamiliar to confused travelers like me. Where does bus K-113 go? I have no idea, I just hope it’s going in roughly the same direction I want to go. And then there’s the practice that my friend and I dubbed “hitchcabbing,” which we did once while we were there. Basically, if you stick your hand out, palm down, while standing next to the street, somebody will stop. It’s usually not a cab. A lot of people in St. Petersburg earn some extra cash by picking up random people and driving them where they want to go. You get a car to stop, pop your head in, tell them where you’re going, negotiate a price, get in, and hope you didn’t just make a huge mistake.

There are tons of museums, some beautiful, some bizarre – one even has a collection of babies with birth defects, preserved for display. Yes, they have pickled, deformed babies in jars. That was less disturbing, however, than the stern warnings we read about drinking the tap water. Apparently, the tap water in St. Petersburg is so full of heavy metals and critters that even the locals don’t drink it. We were warned to use bottled water, even for brushing our teeth, for fear of catching a fun little parasite that is impervious to antibiotics, can withstand being boiled for up to ten minutes, and which can remain active for years after the initial infection. Eek.

There were many things that we could hardly fathom – the universal use of nylons and stockings by all women, regardless of whether they were wearing shorts, skirts, sandals, or flip-flops; the use of Russian dressing on foods ranging from pizza to sandwiches; the fact that we walked over 35 miles (56 km), despite having taken trams, subways, and buses for the “long” stretches; the strange feeling of watching the sun set at 11:30 p.m. – and many things I didn’t even mention here. It was an amazing weekend, and worth the angst over getting our Russian visas, which only arrived the morning of our flight out of Zurich.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Editor's Note

Still tired from Vilnius, so for now, there are pictures up from St. Petersburg, and I'll post on Wednesday :)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

23 May 2007

Where to even begin? I don’t think the extra-long weekend in Helsinki and St. Petersburg will fit in one entry, so it will have to be at least a two-part special. Let’s start with Helsinki, since that’s where we went first. We stayed at a Finnish friend’s apartment, and arrived there late at night. We opened the door to her apartment, which led to… another door, about 18 inches in from the first door. This door-in-a-door thing seemed odd, but it showed up in our hotel in St. Petersburg, as well, so maybe it’s a regional quirk, intended for storing wet shoes, umbrellas, or sleds (which is what our friend’s subletter was keeping in the inter-door space).

We closed the curtains to keep out the light (very important, since at this time of year in Helsinki, it’s light past 11 p.m. and it gets light again at 4 a.m., and summer solstice is still a month away), and went to sleep. We got up the next morning to find our way to a salon (haircuts rank high on the list of things to do outside of Switzerland, due to the astronomical cost and high probability of getting a charming mullet at Swiss salons), and as we made our way there, we noticed that the vast majority of the population in Helsinki is blond. Naturally blond.

This observation was confirmed by our hair stylist, who told me that my dark hair was very exotic and unusual (tell that to the billions of people with black or brown hair, and to the millions of them who dye their “exotic” hair blond). After we left the salon, we noticed that many people in Helsinki had “backwards” roots – their hair was dyed brown or black, and the roots were coming in blond. I spent the remaining time in Finland feeling very special and unique, indeed, until we reached Russia, where, as in the other places I’ve been, blondes supposedly have more fun.

Finnish is apparently one of the most difficult languages in the world – they have all sorts of declensions and conjugations, and they use so many umlauts and repeated letters that it seems like they’re just trying to make it more impenetrable to the rest of the world. A sample phrase in Finnish will show you what I mean: “ja käyttää saatuja tuloksia tukena päätettäessä ravintolakilpailutuksesta.”

Finland’s population is well under six million, so all Finns learn additional languages in order to communicate with the rest of the non-Finnish world. The first foreign language that they learn (which is also used on all of their signs, underneath the Finnish) is Swedish, a very judicious choice, seeing as Sweden has a population of over nine million, meaning that a Swedish-speaking Finn can communicate with almost fifteen million people, about a quarter of a percent of the world’s population! To be fair, Sweden and Finland are neighbors, so I suppose Swedish is quite useful for many Finns. After Swedish, most Finns learn English, which allows them to talk to a larger percentage of the world’s non-blond population.

One of my favorite things to do in a new country is to browse for unusual products. The tourist bureau had brochures advertising a necklace that was commissioned to commemorate the historic win of Finland’s heavy metal monster group Lordi in Eurovision 2006. Have you seen Lordi? The three best products for sale in the Finnish grocery store we went to were Lordi gummy candy, instant strawberry soup (just add hot water) and canned braised reindeer. We later saw canned bear and canned elk, as well. Our Finnish friend says that such unconventional (by American norms) meats are standard fare – her family freezes half of a reindeer or half of an elk every year to eat during the winter months.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

15 May 2007

When I lived in New York, and before that, when I sang in college and did international tours, my friends and I used to blow of steam every once in a while by imposing ourselves on a poor, unsuspecting karaoke bar. Because of the nature of karaoke in New York (and apparently also in Toronto), everyone cheered and sang along when we would do a screaming, jumping, heartfelt rendition of “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and no one really minded that we were standing on our chairs and sounding like a pack of rabid animals. That’s what you do at karaoke, right? You go with friends, pick the loudest songs from your youth, and howl them out in a show of friendly bonding.

Not in Switzerland. The Swiss take their karaoke seriously. Unless you go to karaoke at an expat-dominated bar, the mike is dominated by people who favor Celine Dion ballads to show off their vocal prowess. I went to one karaoke night when “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” and the Titanic song were each sung twice. At Swiss karaoke nights, one person earnestly belts it out into the microphone while the rest of the bar politely listens. Although the singers are sometimes impressive, it’s not the rowdy bonding experience that I’m used to.

This past Friday, a few friends and I decided to go to karaoke night at an expat bar, so our audience was decidedly less staid than the patrons of the more Swiss karaoke bars, but even so, I think they were a bit taken aback by our, how should I put it, enthusiasm. We had at least two people on each of the three mikes for every song, and we ran around trying to get the less stunned-looking members of the crowd to join in. Near the end of the evening, one fellow karaoke participant, searching for something nice to say, complimented our English (keep in mind that we were all American or Canadian), and another singer said that he admired our "energy."

The next night, I watched the Eurovision finals for the first time. Eurovision is sort of like Star Search for all of Europe. Every country sends one group or singer, their top pick, to compete, and the top 24 countries make it to the finals. People vote by phone or SMS, and then each country then submits its people’s votes in a strange quasi- electoral college voting system. After having watched the contest, I have to say that I have no idea why they get so serious about their karaoke here, because the performers on Eurovision, their countries’ best, were mostly exceptional only for their "energy."

My favorites, for your viewing pleasure, were the Ukraine (which came in second in spite of, or perhaps because of the cross-dressing Elton John-type singer and his knee-socked go-go boys), Sweden (note the lead singer’s flashy necklace and the guitar player’s 1980’s mother-of-the-bride shirt), France (that black thing around the guy’s neck is a stuffed cat), and Greece (he shimmies better than Ricky Martin).

After much fuss and angst, we finally secured our visas to go to Russia! They arrived this morning, just in time for our evening departure. Whew. The people at the Russian embassy and consulate in Switzerland rarely answer their phone, and they are rather hostile and unhelpful (independently confirmed by my dentist, who also happens to be going there this month, and who had similar difficulties getting a visa). Everything I’ve ever heard about Russian bureaucracy and efficiency has been proven in our dealings with the hotel and the embassy, but I’m hoping that all the amazing things I’ve heard about Russia are equally true. We leave today for Helsinki, Finland, and then spend the weekend in St. Petersburg!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

8 May 2007

This past weekend, my friend (who is from Kentucky) hosted a Kentucky Derby party. He served Southern food and mint juleps, and we used my TiVo and Slingbox to watch the race (I picked the 2nd and 3rd place finishers, so I came out about $5 ahead).

It seemed that half the conversations involved explanations of the Kentucky Derby, TiVo, and Slingbox, so that throughout the evening, you would hear snippets of conversation, “it’s the most important horse race in the U.S.,” “Have you heard of Secretariat?” or “it’s a box that streams live TV to your computer.” Strange to think that such an established event in the States is virtually unknown here – a German friend asked me if it involved chickens, which confused me until I realized his only point of reference was Kentucky Fried Chicken. A significant number of conversations also involved an explanation of grits, “Well, it’s sort of like polenta, I guess?”

Anyways, a friend and I are going to Helsinki and St. Petersburg next week. Well, at least we hope we’re going. It all depends on the Russian embassy. We tried repeatedly calling them in Bern, only to get busy signals every time. We had assumed that, since their website was in English, that someone in the office would speak English. When my friend finally got through to the office in Bern, the man only spoke Russian and German, no English, and he refused to answer any of her questions, asking her instead whether she had looked at the website. The official embassy website didn’t have the information we were looking for (although it did have choice sections like “What is Russian Visa”), but I guess there was no way for the man to know, since it was in English. I called their consulate in Geneva, and was able to get the necessary information in French.

With dubious hope, we wired money to the account she had specified, and mailed our passports, visa invitations (from the hotel), itineraries, pictures, and visa applications to them, and will just have to hope that they return them in time for our departure next week. The Russian visa application for Americans is quite extensive, asking, among other things, for a list of all countries visited in the last ten years, and the dates of the visits. For me, that’s 28 countries, and there’s no way it was going to fit in the space provided. They also asked whether we had any special training in explosives or nuclear devices. I’m guessing the right answers to those questions would be “No.”

This trip was planned to use up one of the Swiss holiday weekends, which are front-loaded, so that we have lots of vacations built into the first half of the year. Although I fully appreciate the abundance of long weekends, it does make travel planning a bit frantic, since this year, May has three long weekends. The first was spent in Strasbourg, the second will be spent in St. Petersburg (assuming we get our passports and visas back in time) and Helsinki, and the third was unplanned until recently. Decent fares are hard to come by on holiday weekends, since everyone scrambles to head out for a break.

But we found one. Vilnius, Lithuania.

We knew very little about the place before booking, other than the fact that we had never been there and the tickets were reasonably priced. Some quick research has turned up the fact that it is home to the only statue in the world honoring Frank Zappa. Not to be outdone, St. Petersburg boasts a collection of pickled babies in jars. This is going to be an interesting month.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

2 May 2007

Sorry for the delay, I took a last-minute trip to France, because it was a long weekend, and it looked like rain in Switzerland. How’s that for an excuse, eh? In any case, after spending the entire afternoon and evening outdoors on Saturday, three friends and I decided to rent a car on Sunday to go to Italy. Sunday morning, we decided that the town we were going to go to in Italy wasn’t very convenient, so we went to France, instead. Strasbourg, to be precise.

We packed the car with four people, a dog, four backpacks, three cameras, enough snacks to supply an entire kindergarten class. I considered picking up a package of trail mix, not because I had any particular desire to eat trail mix, but because the German term for it has always amused me – literally translated, it’s called “student feed,” the food you give students, just like “chicken feed” is the food you give chickens. Upon further reflection, I bought cookies, instead. We had no maps; instead, we put our faith in the GPS system installed in the rental car. The GPS woman proved to be quite stubborn and difficult to work with, and very vocal about her opinions, but in the end, we followed her instructions. She was all we had. But, it worked out, we made it.

Given all the hubbub in the States about passports and crossing borders and so on, it’s remarkable how lax the borders are in Europe. Border patrol between EU countries is almost non-existent. The border police aren’t allowed to stop vehicles unless they have a particular reason – such as an international manhunt, I guess. When we crossed from Germany into France, there wasn’t even a person manning the booth.

Between Switzerland and the EU (non-Europeans often forget that Switzerland is its own little island in the middle of an EU sea), border control seems to be purely for show. As we crossed from Switzerland to Germany, a man in a military beret glanced at the car and waved us on. We could have been illegal immigrants, and he wouldn’t have known. We could have had a bazooka, ten migrant workers, three terrorists, four kilos of crack, (and a partridge in a pear tree) and he wouldn’t have cared. On the way back into Switzerland, they were just as uninterested in checking our passports, human or canine.

Yes, dogs have passports in Europe, so that they can cross borders without being quarantined. Dogs also do all kinds of other things that are usually reserved for humans, at least in the States. Fiver comes to work with me almost every day, and he came to France and stayed in the hotel (the desk clerk seemed surprised when I asked whether dogs were allowed). In restaurants in Switzerland, waiters sometimes bring him water before I’ve even had a chance to order a drink for myself. Last week, I took him to a restaurant where the waiter even brought out a bowl of dog food so that Fiver could eat dinner at the table like the rest of us.

And finally, an “only in Switzerland” moment for your entertainment. Recently, Zurich has been installing lots of 24-hour garbage drop-off points around town, which are basically underground reservoirs topped with lidded metal tubes. You lift the lid, drop in a trash bag, and it drops down the tube into the reservoir. A kid fell into one of the trash reservoirs, and was extracted with minimal fuss, because, being Swiss, the garbage authorities had anticipated the fact that a kid would eventually fall in, and had conducted drills and exercises to ensure that they could quickly and efficiently get the kid out of a garbage chute once it happened. There won’t be a Baby Jessica story in Zurich any time soon.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

24 April 2007

It’s 2007, and Zurich has finally decided to cave in and open up a shopping mall. This is a country where, until a few years ago, it was illegal to have discounts or sales outside of certain government-regulated time periods, for fear of having unfair price competition, and where it is still illegal to have stores open on Sundays (except for in airports and train stations, or except for three specified Sundays each year, for those stores not located in a train station or airport). And now there’s a mall. Swiss style. Apparently, it was so mind-boggling that when it first opened a month ago, it was impossible to actually shop at the mall, because it was so crowded with people who went just to stand and stare.

The stores in the new mall close at 8 p.m. (most stores close even earlier), and are closed on Sundays. And as is practically required in every gathering of stores here, there is a large branch of one of the two major grocery stores. There is also a church, because we all know that that’s why people go to the mall – to pray for good deals and short lines. There’s a library for those who don’t want to buy anything, and a hotel for people who want to live at the mall. There’s a movie theatre with nine screens (which is quite large, considering that the main downtown theatre has four screens). For those patrons who feel that 8 p.m. is just too early to call it a night at the mall, there’s a nightclub.

Summer time is concert time in Switzerland. Although it’s a country of only six-odd million people, Switzerland has numerous music festivals in the summer, attracting all kinds of musicians of varying levels of international fame. I’ve seen Sigur Ros, Jose Gonzalez, Death Cab for Cutie, Royksopp, and Metric here, and I’ll probably see Bjork, Damien Rice, David Gray, Arcade Fire, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah this summer. Not bad.

What puzzles me about the summer music festivals is their nomenclature. For instance, the most famous summer festival is the Montreux Jazz Festival, which is where I saw Sigur Ros last year, where the Chemical Brothers, the Beastie Boys, the B-52’s, and the Pet Shop Boys are playing this year. My knowledge of jazz is pretty basic, mostly covering Monk, Ella, Billie, Louis, and Duke, but I’m pretty sure that “Sabotage” and “Time Warp” don’t get played regularly in jazz clubs. Maybe it should be called the Montreux Not-Necessarily-Jazz Festival?

Another big music festival is held in Lucerne. Van Morrison played there a couple years ago. David Gray will be there this year. It’s a well-known venue for established artists. And it’s called the Blue Balls Festival. Seriously.

Anyways, speaking of summer plans, a friend and I will be taking a trip to Helsinki and St. Petersburg soon. We found out that in order to get Russian visas, we have to give the government our flight and hotel information, our hotel needs to invite us to come to Russia as tourists, and then we can get our visas, after we’ve already booked our tickets and paid for our hotel. Sounds a bit suspect to me, especially since it involves lots of websites that end in “.ru,” which in any other context would make me think I was being scammed. I emailed a few hotels (in English, since my Russian is non-existent) to try to get a reservation. One hotel emailed me back in Russian. I translated their response online, and it’s clear that they understood my English inquiry, since they responded appropriately, so I’m just wondering why they responded in Russian. Or maybe they’re using online translations, as well, and we’ll show up and find out that we’ve ordered two ducks and an armchair, instead of three nights in a hotel room. Wish us luck.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

18 April 2007

I got back Monday evening from my trip to San Francisco, where I indulged in everything I miss out on here in Zurich – family, old friends, food, shopping, and speaking fast English to anyone who will listen. I got back to Zurich just in time to catch the tail end of Sechselaüten, the Swiss semi-equivalent of Groundhog Day, which, as I’ve described before, involves a gasoline-soaked, explosive-stuffed snowman effigy, costumed men throwing fish, apples, and rolls, fake Arabs in brown-face, and (like every good Swiss celebration) a parade with enough marching bands to populate a small country (I’ve come to believe that all Swiss men, in addition to having a military-issue rifle under their bed, also have a brass instrument tucked away in their closet).

After dropping my stuff off at my apartment, I stopped at my friends’ place to say hi to my local crew, who were celebrating the fact that the head of the Böögg (the burning snowman) exploded in just over twelve minutes, which supposedly means that we’ll have a warm summer. I handed out a few American goodies that various people had requested I bring back for them – contact lens solution, soy chips, and toilet bowl cleaner (I also brought back vast quantities of candy, beef jerky, dried mangoes, and cereal).

Then, I proceeded to instill envy in all of them as I regaled them with my doings during my ten days in the States. “I went to Costco! I went to Safeway and Walgreen’s! I had two Cinnabons! I went to Banana Republic and Old Navy, and the salespeople were so friendly! I ate all kinds of food – Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Mexican, French, mint chocolate chip ice cream! Everything was so cheap! I used the icemaker in my sister’s freezer! The washing machine was so big that I couldn’t even fill it!” Sometimes I wonder if I live in Switzerland or an alien planet.

My ticket was booked using some of my dad’s frequent flyer miles, and because coach was booked out by the time I bought my ticket, I flew business. I know this is obvious, but it’s a different world in front of that curtain – seats that recline more than three inches, so much leg room that it’s nearly impossible to kick the seat in front of you, warmed nuts, ice cream, eight movies, steak, complimentary toothpaste and booties, extra baggage allowance, priority seating, and the assurance that your bags will come within five minutes of deplaning. If all seats were business class, I’d fly a lot more.

It’s probably a good thing they aren’t all business class, because I’m not sure I really should be flying any more than I already am. I sat down and calculated all the flights I’ve taken since the day I started work in Zurich, and they total up to approximately 120,000 miles, which is equal to roughly fifteen trips around the world, one weekend at a time, in less than three years. Al Gore probably doesn’t approve of me.

Speaking of Al Gore, when I got back to Zurich, my friends informed me that for the previous week, it had been unseasonably warm, with temperatures going as high as 78 F (25 C). Keep in mind that Zurich is not a particularly hot town, and we usually only have a couple weeks each year where sleeping without air conditioning is actually uncomfortable. To be pushing 80 degrees in early April is a pretty good sign that I really ought to be flying less, or at least buying some carbon offsets to assuage the climate gods. Just don’t tell them about the trip I’ve got planned to Helsinki and St. Petersburg in May, or about the fact that I’m trying to decide what to do with my next two long weekends. Greece looks tempting.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

4 April 2007

I went to the bank to pull out some dollars in preparation for my upcoming trip back to the States, and while I was waiting in line, I started thinking about Swiss banks. Swiss banks really make quite a business of holding onto your money, moving your money, converting your money, and making money off of your money.

Unlike American banks, which only accept foreign currency in bills, Swiss banks also accept coins. Money is money, and change adds up, especially if they skim off a percentage on the exchange. Swiss banks also keep an impressive array of foreign currencies on hand, so that you can walk into a bank and immediately withdraw money not only in francs, dollars, and pounds, but also in baht, forint, and lira. Euros are even easier, since they are dispensed at ATMs just like Swiss francs. It’s great for last-minute people like me, since American banks typically require a week’s notice for ordering foreign currency.

Although there are the usual hurdles for opening a new account at a Swiss bank, the usual forms and identification verification sort of stuff, once you’re a customer at a bank, they make it ridiculously simple to open additional accounts. I walked into the bank one day to inquire about opening an account in dollars, to make it easier to transfer money from Switzerland back to the US without dealing with fluctuating exchange rates. I expected to fill out at least one form. Instead, the man at the counter swiped my ATM card, had me enter my PIN, typed a few things, then looked up and said that the new account was ready and waiting, just like that. And, of course, that it would incur a small monthly fee.

Ah, yes, the fees that come with Swiss banking. “Free checking” and credit cards with no annual fee are foreign concepts here. Free online banking? Nope. Looking at how much money I’m charged in fees here, I have to wonder how American banks can compete, if they’re giving everything away for free.

Then again, maybe it’s a cultural thing – if America is the land of the free, then Switzerland is the land of the surcharge. Even customer hotlines for orders, complaints, questions, or service are toll lines. That’s right, you have to pay to listen to hold music while you wait to order a computer, or if you have trouble with the computer and need to get it serviced. That doesn’t really add up for me – why charge people by the minute for the privilege of buying your product? And if you have a customer who is dissatisfied with a malfunctioning product and needs service, do you think that charging them byt he minute to listen to Muzak is going to make them any happier?

Anyways, back to the banks. One thing that always impresses me is that the bank tellers always speak at least three languages, if not more. How many bank tellers in the States can speak anything other than English? I think there are some American tellers that I’ve come across who didn’t even speak English all that well. It’s sobering to realize that I don’t even have the qualifications for one of the most basic jobs here. That holds true for a lot of people working in public positions in Zurich – the people running security at the airport, the ticket sellers for the tram, the police – most of them speak two, three, or four languages pretty fluently, even though their jobs aren’t necessarily the ones that are generally thought of as requiring a lot of education.

I leave Friday morning for San Francisco, where I’ll stay for a week and a half, so the next update will be in about two weeks.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

27 March 2007

Even after being here for almost three years, I am still amazed by some of the things that are done here. Just when I think that I’ve seen it all, I’ll come across something that makes me do a quadruple-take. Last Tuesday evening, I was on my way to have a drink with friends, and there was a man playing the piano at the tram stop. The outdoor tram stop. It was cold, it was dark, and he had somehow brought his own piano to the tram stop to play the blues. In other cities, people bring their own saxophone or guitar to play for spare change. Here, there’s a guy who apparently wheels his piano over the cobblestones and tram tracks to bring his music to the people. I was tempted to stay longer to see if his fingers would get cold, or if he would decide to take his piano elsewhere, but it’s a good thing I didn’t, since he was still playing his heart out when I was on my way home, three hours later.

I met about a dozen friends at the bar that night for drinks, and we ordered an assortment of food and beverages, which were shared in various combinations. One thing that always amazes me here is the absolute willingness of waiters and waitresses to divide the bill for a large party into separate checks – you can eat dinner with ten friends, and the waiter will go from person to person, totaling up their individual tabs and making change for each one.

This also holds true in bars. At the end of the evening, the waitress patiently figured out each person’s share based on what they told her they had had: “Half an order of meatballs, one-fifth of a pitcher of margaritas, and a glass of wine,” “one bottle of beer, one draft beer, one-third of an order of nachos,” “one Coke, one glass of wine, one-third of an order of nachos, and half an order of meatballs.” Their forbearance is even more astonishing when you take into consideration the fact that tipping is completely optional in Switzerland (on the other hand, waitstaff actually make a living wage here, so it probably it all evens out in the end).

Spring is finally here – the first day of spring was last week, which the Swiss weather gods observed by sending down a big, slushy snowstorm that lasted two days. The Swiss are usually very good about clearing snow and slush from the streets and keeping everything running on time, but for some reason, perhaps because the Swiss people were unable to comprehend and counteract a snow storm in the spring, everything was running in chaos (for Zurich). The first morning of the storm, I waited for the tram for almost half an hour, despite the fact that the tram is supposed to come precisely every seven minutes! I finally reached the office in a state of Swissified shock. Daylight Saving Time started this past weekend, and the weather finally decided to act more appropriately, much to everyone’s relief.

I’m leaving for California in less than two weeks, and my brain has woken up and started reminding me of all things American that I’ve been missing out on that I need to cram in while I’m there. I’ll go to Costco and load up on beef jerky, kettle corn, Twizzlers, Reese's Cups, and instant oatmeal. I’ll go to Dunkin Donuts and have chocolate-covered donuts. I’ll make my friends here jealous by eating an entire box of Girl Scout cookies. And I’ll go to Cinnabon and have a big, goopy cinnamon roll with a tub of extra frosting.

I checked into the possibility of getting a Cinnabon here, actually, and there are a fair number of Cinnabon stores around the world, but none of them are in Switzerland. Iraq and Oman have Cinnabon, but Switzerland doesn’t. There is no justice in this world.