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 :)