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.