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.