Tuesday, January 30, 2007

30 January 2007

You know you’ve been living abroad for too long when your own mother can no longer recognize you in pictures. My family sends out an annual letter (it used to be a Christmas letter, then it became a New Year’s letter, and now, well, it’s the end of January, so I guess it’s just a letter). I wrote the letter and emailed Mom the text, and she picked some pictures to go with the letter. When she emailed the final version that is being sent out to my parents’ several hundred friends and relatives, I noticed that one of the pictures that she had included of “me” was of a random woman on my boat in the Maldives. I had sent her pictures, but she decided she liked that one more. It’s a good picture, besides the fact that the woman in it isn’t part of our family.

People always say that the American lifestyle is what makes Americans so fat. American food, American laziness, it all adds up to widespread obesity. And if you look around, it seems to be true. In a contest for The Country Most Likely to Be Mistaken for a Manatee Preserve, America would almost certainly take the gold medal.

My personal experience, however, has been completely the opposite. Something about living in New York kept me ridiculously underweight. (The stress? The walk to work? The skipped meals? The hasty meal substitutes?) Since moving to Switzerland, however, my BMI has crept up into the lower end of the “normal” range for the first time that I can remember. After some reflection, I have a few ideas as to why I’ve gained weight since leaving Cheeto-land for Heidi-land.

Cheese. Fondue, raclette, cheese sandwiches, and so on. Butter on everything that doesn’t have cheese, and butter on some things that do have cheese. Cream and whole milk in anything that doesn’t have butter or cheese.

Meat and potatoes. Meat here is exceedingly expensive, and they only recently introduced ground turkey into the standard supermarket fare. Partly because of the high price of meat, and partly because of an apparently genetic national love of starch, potatoes come with everything, in every guise. This is not Atkins country. Plus it's all cooked with extra butter, cheese, and cream.

Door-to-door public transportation. Sure, I don’t drive everywhere like people do in suburban America, but the trams do a pretty good job of picking me up and dropping me off with a minimum of walking. The tram stops are so close that if a tram is going in relatively straight line, you can see the tram coming from several stops away while you wait for it to come to you .

Weather. If there’s no sun (which is sometimes the case for weeks in a row in the winter), I conserve energy by making no unnecessary movements, not even to go to the gym (which charges as much as an exclusive Manhattan gym, but without air conditioning, headphone jacks, and individual TVs). Even a trip to the bathroom becomes a carefully considered decision. When the weather is decent, on the other hand, who wants to go to the gym, just in case the sun disappears again for another two weeks?

I went to the gym twice last week, but I think that my best exercise was actually doing a hard day of cardio, I mean, shopping in sunnier Milan. Maybe I should cancel my gym membership and spend the money shopping, instead. Sounds like a good fitness plan to me - all the exercise without the agony, and you spend the money you would have spent at the gym (and then some) on a brand-new wardrobe for the brand-new you! (Of course, after that, your own mom won’t be able to pick you out of a lineup, but then again, that’s already happened to some of us).

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

24 January 2007

“The early bird gets the worm” is a proverb that must be dear to the heart of any good Swiss person. Zurich is a city full of morning people, and on that point, I am definitely a fish out of water with no chance of getting the worm, especially not if I continue mixing my metaphors. In any case, I was always one of those people who worked best late at night - I wrote my senior thesis in sundown-to-sunrise spurts, and much of my Bar exam prep was done without the help of sunlight.

Imagine my chagrin, then, upon discovering that it is perfectly routine to schedule deliveries and appointments as early as 7 a.m. here, and upon learning that my office’s start time of 9 a.m., which would have been early for a New York firm, is considered unusually late for Switzerland. Try to sleep in past 7 on a weekday, and lie in bed, silently (or not so silently) cursing the church bells and construction workers who take over the city, right on time, every day. Make an early morning appointment with a plumber or electrician, and he’ll come five minutes early. Take the tram before 8:30 a.m., and it’s packed.

Even on weekends, the Swiss are morning people. The church bells let you sleep in until 9 (mind you, they still chime every quarter hour, and tick off the appropriate number of BONGs every hour, I’m just counting when the first fifteen-minute-long run of bells goes off), which in my book doesn’t count as sleeping in, at all (then again, I spent much of the year between college and law school waking up just in time for dinner). Shops close particularly early on Saturday, and are closed all day Sunday, so the best bet for shopping is to flock to the stores early and en masse, which the Swiss do with great gusto. Shopping on weekends here is like taking a leisurely stroll through a cattle stampede. I’ve only witnessed it a few times, since I sleep in on Saturday to remind myself that weekends and weekdays are different.

You would think that vacation is a time to kick back and relax, but even in leisure-related matters, the Swiss are always on the lookout for ways to be early. Most flights (even international flights) out of Switzerland allow you to check in up to 24 hours in advance, which you can do online or by telephone if you’re not checking any bags, or at a train station (yes, you can check-in for your flight at the train station, and they’ll deliver your bags to the airport, and then the airline puts them on the plane) or airport if you want to check bags. It’s handy when you have big bags full of dive gear, and have to go straight to the airport from work to catch your flight and don’t want to be running to catch your train with 80 pounds of dive gear. In such cases, it’s worth the extra trip.

If you go for early check-in, though, which is done at certain counters at certain times, you can expect a much longer wait than if you check-in right before your flight. Only in Switzerland would they allow you to check in so far in advance, and only in Switzerland is the super-early check-in line twenty times longer than the normal check-in line. For weekend trips, I show up at the airport about 45 minutes before my flight, and am always surprised if there is anyone in front of me waiting to check-in. I guess it’s because everyone already checked in the night before at early check-in.

After a couple weeks of disturbingly warm weather (daytime highs over 50 F or 10 C, maybe Swiss spring decided to make an early entrance), we’ve had a sudden cold snap following the big storm that swept Europe. All of the trees and flowers that budded and bloomed must be completely confused by the snow that has been falling since last night. I’m definitely confused, so I’m going to take refuge in the warmer temperatures and winter sales in Milan this weekend.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

16 January 2007

Back from London. These weekend trips have become a way of life for us, but in our former lives, it would have been unheard of to set (and attain) a goal of “leaving the country once a month,” which is what I try to do here. The shorter distances and travel times are key, as are the predictable Swiss working hours.

A trip to London is an opportunity to speak English without a sense of expat guilt, and we read signs, billboards, posters, and ads greedily, hoping for reminders of home, before remembering that the English spoken in England is distinctly British, rather than American. We “mind the gap” when taking the “Tube,” and take the “lift” up to our friends’ “flats.” Not as foreign as Swiss German, but not as familiar as American English. If we feel like aliens living in Swiss German country, then American expats in London must feel like undercover aliens in British English territory.

Speaking of flats, I visited a friend who now lives in London, and found out that the rent for his gorgeous, huge apartment in central London is about $2,000, a bit less than my rent in New York or Zurich. Then I found out that the housing market in London has one important peculiarity. They quote rent by the week, and not by the month. My friend’s place is admittedly amazing, but his rent is four times what I paid in Manhattan for a one-bedroom in a doorman building near Central Park, or what I pay now for the top two floors (with roof terrace) of a building in the center of the old town! He then said something about buying real estate in England, and how very few properties can be bought outright, but can only be bought for 60 or 80 years. I'm puzzled as to how you can buy something for 60 years. Sounds like a long-term rental.

Speaking of ways to spend money, we went out for Lebanese food, and while we were eating, a few belly dancers wriggled their way from table to table. One particularly skilled dancer had £20 notes (each one worth about $40) tucked between her breasts by some apparently very appreciative diners. In the US, observers have the option to tip dancers as little as $1, assuming that they stick with bills, since shoving a handful of change down someone’s underwear is probably a faux pas. In England, the smallest bill is a £5 note, or about $10. While it means that whatever tips the dancers get will be pretty generous, I would think that their overall haul would be lower, since all of the “novelty tippers” who just want the fun of shoving a bill in someone else’s underwear would not leave a tip, since they can't shell out less than $10 at a time.

They say that time is money, and if that’s the case, then London is expensive in every way. Getting around the city requires advance planning. In Zurich, the city is small enough and the public transport is efficient enough that you can get anywhere in the main part of the city, door-to-door, in 30 minutes or less. Getting from A to B in central London can take over 45 minutes (and is sometimes faster on foot). Getting to the airport is also an uncertain venture. With four people, we opted for a cab, since it would be cheaper and easier (we thought) than taking the Tube and then the Heathrow Express. It took an hour and fifteen minutes of stop-and-go traffic to get to the airport, which felt like an eternity when we compared it to our five-minute tram and ten-minute train to the Zurich airport.

Zurich can be under-exciting and over-expensive, but it was good to leave the even more outrageous prices of London and take a quick train back into town. I envy the quantity and quality of the food and shopping there, but it's only a quick train and plane ride away.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

9 January 2007

Happy New Year!! I got back from the Maldives a week ago, and I’m slowly returning back to normal. I did five loads of laundry, a load of dishes, and some grocery shopping. I washed and rinsed my dive gear (and showered at the gym, as my bathtub is full to the brim with gear that is slowly but surely drying out again). I sorted through pictures and posted them (have you seen them?) before sending out an update email (did you get it?). I went through my inbox and started chipping away at the backlog. I watched multiple episodes of a few shows and did some big downloads to get caught up on TV. I got my dog back and reminded him what life with rules and dietary restrictions is like (he spent much of break with a friend who is the closest thing to a fairy godmother he’s ever had). I came into work. I started getting back onto local time (the Maldives are only four hours ahead, but add that to the fact that we were woken up at 6 a.m. and went to bed between 9 and 10 p.m., and that’s a pretty serious change in schedule).

The trip to the Maldives was a very different way to spend Christmas and New Year’s than I am accustomed to. For me, Christmas has always meant spending time with my immediate family (except for the one year when I was working at a big firm, and I spent Christmas miserably sick in my apartment, and doing a fund review). New Year’s has been less consistent, but has always been spent somewhere cold, either hanging out with my sister, visiting my parents’ friends, or with going out with friends. I’ve never spent it (or any other major holiday, come to think of it) on a dive boat near the equator.

The diving was good, but the weather was not 100% cooperative – it was warm, but the sun seemed to have forgotten that it is more visible when it’s not hiding behind the clouds. It made things a bit dimmer down below, but we still saw some amazing stuff: more sharks than I can count, half a dozen giant mantas, ten schooling mantas, eagle rays, stingrays (and no, none of them tried to stab me), big Napoleon wrasses, and every other kind of fish most people never knew existed. The current was strong, at times, alternately forcing us to hang on to rocks for dear life, if we were trying to stay in one place, or pushing us along at speeds that Olympic swimmers would never even dare to dream of, if we just let go. In those moments, we were like bubbling, underwater superheroes, zooming over the reef.

The Maldives import most goods besides coconuts and fish, as they don’t have a lot of land or natural resources (I read somewhere that the average height above sea level for the entire country is about one meter). With those restrictions in place, it meant that our on-board menu was somewhat limited, and we ate fish in every shape and guise imaginable. It became something of a running joke, when lunch or dinner was served, to point and ask what each dish was: “What’s that?” “Fish.” “And that?” “Also fish.” “Is this one chicken?” “Fried fish.”

We visited a few islands while we were touring around various atolls. For some reason that I still haven’t figured out, there are no cats or dogs in the Maldives, at least not on the islands that we saw. Most of the islands or tropical places I’ve been have had a range of domestic and feral cats and dogs, but not the Maldives. Maybe all their pets got sick of eating fish and coconuts all day.

Now that I’m back on land (with my dog), I’m settling back into Swiss life. A few friends and I are heading to London this weekend to see other friends, have a few good meals, and see a few things around the city, and we’re also having initial planning talks for a shopping trip to hit the winter sales in Milan later this month. Only in Europe…

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Editor's Note

Happy New Year!! The first batch of pictures from the Maldives is up!!