Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I'm Bringing Schmützli Back...


This post was also published here on a new website for expats in Switzerland.

When I leave Switzerland, I hope to bring home more than just bars of Lindt chocolate and a multipurpose pocket knife. I'm talking about non-material souvenirs like Swiss habits, traditions and ways of life that I've not only adjusted to, but embraced and adopted as my own. For instance, I've gotten used to all the stores being closed on Sunday and now plan my meals in advance and actually spend my sabbath as a day of rest the way the Swiss do.

And last week I came across another Swiss tradition, this time annual as opposed to weekly, that I will be sure to "take home." The Swiss Santa Claus, Samichlaus, shows up almost three weeks earlier than our jolly old St. Nick on December 6th and brings a bag of edible treats for children who've been good all year. It's the Christkind, or baby Jesus who brings toys in secret and leaves them under the Tannenbaum on Christmas eve.

There's one aspect of this December 6th ritual that I will probably leave here in Switzerland; the sack of goodies that Samichlaus brings aren't really... good. He always brings the following items even if you behaved yourself incredibly well for an entire year: 1. mandarin oranges - these are incredibly sweet and abundant this time of year, but is it really a "goody" if moms encourage kids to eat these anyway? 2. lebkuchen - like a gingerbread cookie but cakier and somehow not as tasty, 3. chocolates - no problems there, but lastly 4. unshelled peanuts - these are great for ball games and the circus, but in the heat of cookie season they're totally forgettable. I think my host family has in fact forgotten about the mountain of unshelled peanuts on the dining table because no one has touched them for a week. Anyway, when I have kids I'll arrange for Samichlaus to bring them sacks full of sour gummy worms, blow pops and other candies loaded with processed sugar and artificial flavors and colors if they've been very good, that is.

Aside from the somewhat lame contents of the goody bags, December 6th is a lot of fun because, if your parents are creative and have an older male friend with a white beard, you get to hang out with the man in the red suit for the evening. Before handing over the treats, he tells kids that he's proud of them for behaving, but also lets them know that it pisses their parents off when they have tantrums in the supermarket. The most interesting aspect of this holiday, however, the reason I am bringing this tradition home and hopefully spreading it, is that Samichlaus doesn't come alone.

Samichlaus is always accompanied by his creepy sidekick, Schmützli. Schmützli wears a long black robe that when done wrong makes him look like a member of Al Qeada, but when done right merely looks intimidating. These days he just helps Samichlaus distribute the treats and doesn't say much, but he used to play a much more important role. According to Wikipedia, Samichlaus was all about rewarding the good kids and Schmützli was the enforcer who punished the bad. He used to carry a whip and when the large sack of goodies was empty, Schmützli could use it to stuff naughty children into and then kidnap them.

Elena received a book this year explaining the legend of Schmützli and how he became Samichlause's most unlikely helper. We've "read" it several times even though it's in Swiss German, but I gather that he was once a poor woodcutter who saved Christmas one year by picking up all the treats that fell out of Samichlause's own ripped sack. Samichlaus was grateful for the woodcutter's help and let him accompany him to children's homes every subsequent year. This tale might explain why Schmützli wears dark clothing (he's a poor woodcutter), but it doesn't give any hint as to why he plays the bad cop and sometimes covers his face in soot and lard (Wikipedia). I have a feeling that this delightful children's story was a lot more Hans Christian Andersen-esque before it was Disneyfied.

Anyway, I think we need to resurrect this valliant tradition of scaring the pants off kids and introduce it to every home where good intentioned parents spoil their greedy little offspring. The only remnant of Schmützli in our culture is a harmless little lump of coal in the stocking and that is simply not good enough to deter bad behavior. Who knows? Maybe if Schmützli came and roughed up the naughty kids a little on December 6th, they'd be behaving by December 25th. And if that is successful, maybe the parents of the world can arrange for Schmützli to show up in July or at other points of the year to regulate behavior.

Yes, you won't find a cuckoo clock among my treasures from Switzerland, but you might find a holiday tradition with a little law and order.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Black Friday


I made it almost a whole year without once returning to my home country for a visit. And the fact that we are coming home for Christmas and New Year made a trip stateside in November seem a little excessive. Was it the pull of a home-cooked turkey dinner that drove us to endure two eight and a half hour plane rides in order to spend Thanksgiving weekend with family in New York? No, Mickey's family doesn't prepare a traditional American Thanksgiving feast so our motive wasn't a longing for comfort food. Last Thanksgiving weekend I was seeking a different kind of American comfort usually enjoyed post-turkey and I don't mean pumpkin pie... ever heard of retail therapy and Black Friday? Sure I was excited about being with family, but it was ultimately the sales that got me skipping all the way to the airport.

Black Friday isn't for the timid. Named for the Friday after Thanksgiving when sales supposedly boost retailers "into the black" (the point at which they begin turning a profit), Black Friday is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Most of these retailers open their doors early and entice shoppers with incredible deals for those who brave the chaos of jam-packed parking lots and long lines. On the Black Fridays of years past, I kept as far away from the mall madness as possible, but this year our circumstances are different.

When I was in seventh grade, my English teacher asked us to list the five most important things that we had learned from our parents. Four of my life lessons probably mentioned 'hard work' or 'true friends,' but the one I remember writing is 'never pay retail.' By the age of twelve, I knew the joy that comes with treasure hunting at TJ Maxx or Marshalls. My mom taught me that Nordstrom offers the best customer service, but that the best deals and best selection of shoes are at Nordstrom's Rack. I discovered Loehmann's as a young adult and Century 21 on a trip to New York City and have been happily bargain shopping ever since. That was until I moved to Switzerland.

Switzerland and most of Europe it seems doesn't have discount clothing stores at which you can purchase top brands for less. I've heard of some supposedly great outlets in southern Germany and others outside Florence, but I'm doubtful that they're really as good as the ones in the states. I went to one Esprit outlet here in Zurich and was terribly disappointed by the selection and quality of the merchandise. Of course shopping at regular stores is just as bad because prices are high and sales are few and far between. So I decided to do what any discount-loving Swiss person would do when the dollar hits an all time low: fly to NYC for a shopping vacation. (Remember, the official purpose of our visit was to spend Thanksgiving with family and that's all anyone, especially US and Swiss customs officials, need to know :).

Having never trained myself for a Black Friday, I started to feel pre-trip anxiety about the crowds. Would my desperate need for a new pair of black leather boots help my nerve last longer than the line at Cole Haan? Had a year of Saturday mornings spent hiking and touring instead of waiting in line at Costco made me soft? I knew Black Friday would require every ounce of strength I could muster and I wanted to be ready. I began preparation by memorizing a list of the outlet stores at the Tanger Outlet Mall in Riverhead, NY, downloading a map of the mall and then planning my route. Then, I browsed the websites of my favorite retailers to get ideas. This particular outlet mall and probably many others throughout the US were running an insane Midnight Madness promotion; the stores open at midnight on Thanksgiving night/Black Friday morn' and stay open all day, a full 22 hours until 10pm on Black Friday.

Mickey was willing to take me shopping and his uncle lent us his car, the only question was when we should hit the stores. My plan was this: we arrive in New York on Thursday afternoon jetlagged but still kicking. We spend some time with the family, have a meal and pass out at 7:30pm eastern time (1:30am to our bodies). Then, wake up at around three or four in the morning eastern time (nine or ten to our bodies) and rush to the outlets. Believe it or not, this is almost exactly what happened. We were backing Mickey's uncle's Pathfinder out of the driveway when the clock on the dash said 4:00am. My thinking was that midnight shoppers would be gone by four, but that daytime shoppers wouldn't show until after six and we'd have an easier shopping experience, but we couldn't be sure.

Mickey and I were taking bets about the state of the parking lot when we exited the highway. At 4:20am there weren't yet any signs of Black Friday on the road. And then we got closer to the outlet mall... When I saw both sides of the street lined with cars haphazardly parked in the dirt and grass, I started to panic. "Mickey, just pull over and park anywhere," I begged. "We don't want to go into that parking lot if it's this full." But Mickey persisted and we were relieved to find the lot less than half full. It turns out that we had guessed right; the midnight shoppers were exhausted and packing up their cars with bulging shopping bags, but the daytime folks were still asleep. We left the car in front of the Rebok outlet and I practically ran to the Banana Republic outlet, giddily pulling Mickey along behind me. The salespeople yawned as they folded sweaters and jeans, trying to pick up the pieces after the tornado that was Midnight Madness, but we were fresh as daisies on Swiss time. While ringing up my purchases, they complained to one another about how much longer their shifts were. I smiled as I handed over my credit card and bid them goodbye with a cheerful "happy holidays!" thrilled that I could again communicate in public with ease. My shopping bags were full, the discounts were mine and I was home.



Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hans and Heidi


Are we:


a). trying to convince the SVP that we are the type of foreigners who integrate themselves with Swiss society?

b). doing nothing out of the ordinary; this is how we dress now.

c). celebrating Halloween, Zurich-style?

d). falling into one of those tourist traps where they dress you up in traditional clothing, take one photo and charge you 40SF?


If you guessed answer c, you'd be right! But if you didn't, don't feel bad because I've actually done answer d before and if we were staying in Switzerland longer I'd probably do answer a as well.

Mickey's office hosted a Halloween party at a Zurich night club last month, and though we've never done this in the states, we decided to go all out and rent costumes from a shop this year. Mickey and I visited the costume shop on the Saturday before Halloween and were delighted to find hundreds of costumes from which to choose. A Minnie Mouse costume caught my eye right away. Ever since I'd met Mickey I've wanted us to dress up as Mickey and Minnie for Halloween; I would don the round black ears and oversized white gloves and he would wear his normal clothes. I reasoned, however, that I have decades of Halloweens to do Mickey and Minnie but perhaps will have just one October 31st in Switzerland. Yes, we absolutely had to wear traditional Swiss outfits and go as an Alpine Hans and Heidi duo. I did my best to select a Heidi costume that was fun yet not trampy and hoped that people would assume were embracing, not mocking Swiss culture (okay, maybe we were mocking it a little bit).

My employer wasn't offended by our choice of costume, but he was a little confused. 'Swiss outfits? Why aren't you dressing like Americans?' he said. This response was funny for several reasons, but I tried to explain that though Halloween is an American holiday, the tradition allows you to dress up as anything you like. At least, this is how it usually goes at the Google Halloween parties in Mountain View where the engineers try to out-nerd each other by dressing up in obscure, internet-themed costumes such as a facebook profile, a Google ad or a computer virus. I guess nobody told the employees of Google Zurich this, though, because Mickey and I were the only ones at the party with non-scary costumes. We were surrounded by monsters, witches, mummies, etc. and felt a bit out of place.

Paola mentioned that marketers have unsuccessfully tried to "sell" Halloween to Switzerland in recent years. She said the stores were flooded with costumes, but it didn't really catch on. I was a little surprised to hear this because I feel that Halloween is one of the finest traditions American culture has to offer; what other day of the year allows one to carve a gourd, dress up in a wild costume and collect free candy from neighbors? But maybe this latter aspect of the tradition is the reason why Halloween didn't work in Switzerland. It's easy to get young kids pumped about dressing up as fairy princesses and power rangers, but how do you get the old crotchety neighbors on board with the candy idea?

Perhaps the Swiss don't need Halloween. Fasnacht, a holiday linked to Carnival in February, gives the Swiss an opportunity to dress up in costume, while Räbeliechtli in early November is a holiday on which Swiss children parade down the streets carrying carved turnips impaled on lit candles. Besides, Swiss parents and teachers are probably too smart and health-conscious to welcome a holiday that involves bingeing on processed sugar. Oh, well. If the Swiss ever itch to initiate a 'Dress Like an American Day' holiday, I hope my host family will celebrate with sweat pants, tennis shoes and cowboy hats. And it's okay if they do it mockingly, just a little.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ticino

After at least one cancelled trip, Mickey and I finally made it to Ticino, the Italian speaking part of Switzerland, and spent an enjoyable weekend there with our friends Daniel and Sirpa. We knew we couldn't leave Switzerland without having visited this southern canton not only because we'd heard they had good risotto, but just because they speak Italian and are still part of Switzerland.

As an American leading a mostly monolingual life, it has been hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that there are three national languages here. The packaging information on supermarket items is printed in three languages; how is it that our product labels are printed in one language but still take up the same amount of space on the package? I guess Swiss manufacturers have learned how to express ideas like "containing 30 essential vitamins and minerals" pictorally as to avoid printing "enthält 30 wichtige Vitamine und Mineralas, 30 contenant des vitamines et des mineralas, Contenente 30 vitamine essenziali e mineralas."

English language films are shown with both German and French subtitles and most Swiss learn all three of these languages in school, German, French and English, that is, not Italian. I guess it makes sense because only about eight percent of the Swiss population speaks Italian, but it made me feel kind of sorry for and incredibly curious about the Ticinese. Do they feel like outsiders in their own country? Is language or nationality more important to their senses of identity? When Switzerland plays against Italy in soccer I assume the Ticinese root for Switzerland, but do they have to watch the match on an Italian channel to hear commentary they can understand?

After spending a weekend in Ticino on Lago Maggiore, I was able to answer none of the above questions, but I did walk away with a turquoise necklace and a comparison that helps me make sense of my trilingual host country. I tried to imagine what the United States would be like if it were divided into three distinct cultural and linguistic regions. The Swiss German speaking part of Switzerland is known to be a little more conservative than the rest of the country, so I decided that this region could be compared to the Midwestern and southern parts of the US. The French speaking west of Switzerland, however, is more... French actually; it's slightly more relaxed with a bit more flavor. Perhaps this region can be compared to the American east coast and New England. Those areas are not as conservative as the south or Midwest, but they can be snobby.

That leaves us with Ticino and its American counterpart. Paola (and loads of other Swiss) love Ticino; "you see the palm trees and immediately you start to relax," she says. Okay, palm trees, relaxing, known for good food... Ticino must of course be compared with California. Yes, we had a weekend away in the California of Switzerland. It made us feel so at home that we decided to play a friendly round (we usually make wagers when we play) of mini golf in Lugano.

One crucial difference between Ticino and California, however, is their relationships to their southern neighbors. Unless one has family down Mexico way or is compelled to party underage, most Californians keep their distance from Tijuana and Baja California. Travelling from Ticino southward into Italy, however, is obviously quite different. There were only a couple of restaurants to choose from in the Lago Maggiore town where we stayed so we figured, 'why not drive down to Italy for dinner?' In less than twenty minutes we were waved across the border and thinking in Euros again. The restaurant we chose was a little touristy, but good and worth the 'we drove down to Italy for dinner' story.

I'm curious about how other travellers perceive of Europe and how they compare these exotic locales to the regions of home. Has anyone found the Berkeley of France, the Vegas of China, or the Yosemite of New Zealand? Perhaps it is inappropriate to equate these places that are truly unique, but the human brain naturally loves making comparisons. Regardless of whether Ticino is the California of Switzerland or not, I feel lucky that I was able to experience it first hand and make the comparison in the first place. As my friend Daniel would say while sitting down to an espresso and gazing across the lake, "life is tough."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tradition with a Twist


If you were to ask a Swiss person what the nation's most sterotypically Swiss region is, he/she might mention Appenzell. Known for breathtaking mountain vistas, quaint dairy farms and a potent cheese by the same name, Appenzell in the eastern part of Switzerland fits the bill. When our friend Martin, who grew up in this serene spot, invited us to spend the weekend at his family's home in Appenzell, of course we didn't think twice before saying 'ja!'

Saturday began with a rather strenuous but rewarding hike up a mountain. While huffing and puffing up the trail I remembered that I do not like hiking and do it only for the guilt-free meal that follows. Indeed, the hike was rewarding not only because of the view from the top, but because I allowed myself to order french fries when it was over. Lucky for me, Switzerland is a haven for hikers who don't really like hiking. You can always find restaurants along the clearly marked trails and can opt to take the gondola back to your car in case you wuss out.

On Saturday evening we had a traditional raclette dinner and then visited a cheese factory and an authentically restored Swiss farmhouse/museum the next afternoon. We saw paintings and photos of traditional Swiss wrestling and people voting on local laws by raising their hands in the town square. The biggest take-away from this place was the notion of tradition, cultural practices that the Swiss embrace and carry on into the twenty first century.

Before we drove home on Sunday evening, Martin led us on a walk up the hill from his parents' house to a neighbor's farm where he used to shovel hay when he was a little boy. He introduced us to the farmer and we all stood around and watched while he milked the cows by attaching a vaccuum pump to their udders. When the containers holding the milk became full, the farmer would dump them into a larger tank which wouldn't pasteurize the milk, but simply refrigerate it until the milk trucks came to pick it up. As he shoveled fresh hay, the farmer pointed out which cows were pregnant and told stories (Martin translated) about how he'd sometimes wake in the morning to find a new calf in the pen. Everything on this farm sounded very natural, like things had been happening the same way for centuries.

We said goodbye to the farmer and Martin led us further up the hill, toward a quaint farmhouse with a black Audi parked in the driveway. "This is the farmer's house," Martin said pointing to the house "and this is his boyfriend's car," he said pointing to the Audi. I asked Martin to repeat himself because the notion of the farmer being gay just didn't jibe with my notion of who Swiss farmers are and how they live their lives. I think it's great, though that in this small pocket of Switzerland we cannot assume that the country folk are all 'conservative' just as we cannot lump all urbanites, especially in Zurich, into the 'liberal' category.

In this beautiful picture of Appenzeller life the farmer still rises at 4am to milk the cows, but does he return to the farmhouse for a breakfast of eggs and bacon with the Frau? No, perhaps this farmer checks his email and sits down for a cappucino with his partner. It's tradition, but with a twist.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lang Nacht im Museum


Do you ever come across a perfectly good Saturday night and then feel indecisive about how to spend it? There's always dinner and a movie, dancing if you're feeling ambitious or game night at home if you're broke and nerdy, but even these start to feel routine after a while. I bet this is why bowling and laser tag were invented; there was a demand for something new to do on Saturday night and someone thought that knocking over pins with a heavy ball was it. Anyway, a couple Saturdays ago I was hungry for something new to do and Zurich's Lang Nacht im Museum satisfied my appetite.

The title of this annual event translates to 'Long Night in the Museum' and if you think that sounds like a field trip nightmare from hell, think again. On this one special night every year, all 39 museums in town remain open later, in some cases as late as five a.m., and unite for a single purpose: to get more folks interested in museums. Obviously, patrons cannot visit all 39 museums in one night, even if it is a lang nacht, so we meticulously read over the brochure before deciding on an itinerary. Each museum lured patrons with a unique program for the evening; some offered films while others featured presentations, but almost all of them set up bars serving snacks and drinks. The Kunsthaus, Zurich's largest contemporary art museum, literally rolled out the red carpet and hosted a big party with a deejay spinning electronic music. Memories of fourth grade field trips to the museum quickly vanish when you enter a gallery with a disco ball hanging from the ceiling.

We didn't linger in the Kunsthaus long, though because we figured that we could visit bigger museums any time and wanted to devote our evening to the venues with more limited regular hours. And in the case of our first stop, by 'limited' I mean only open twice per month and by 'venue' I mean a three-story underground Swiss bomb shelter/bunker/hospital. Because even today Swiss homes are required by law to have bomb shelters, I was surprised that this facility was considered enough of a relic of history to be turned into a "museum." However, once inside we learned that only part of the bunker was open to the public and the rest remains ready to be used in the event of an emergency. Whew! I knew the Swiss had a plan.

Anyway, in the 80s or 90s when part of the shelter was converted to a museum, the designers must have found it lacking a sense of life and action. They decided to remedy the problem by adding creepy, now very retro-looking mannequins to the various rooms. Our tour led us through a room where mannequins modeled how to cleanse oneself of radioactive particles in a communal shower and then put on matching Brave New World-esque uniforms.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to peek inside a real Swiss civil bomb shelter, but as I look back on it now, the tour made me pretty uncomfortable. At no point did we enter a room without electricity, yet at the beginning of the tour we were given hot lanterns with a real flame to carry around in the enclosed space. I think the idea was to give us a sense of what the shelter would have been like in 1941 when it was built, but I'm not sure. The Lang Nacht im Museum involved a lot of guesswork because most of the information was presented in Swiss German and I had to listen really hard to understand about ten percent of what was said. Thankfully, our friends Thao and Martin were available to translate, but we didn't want to bother them all night. In any event, it was hard to hold the lantern without burning my fingers and as far as taking me back to the second world war, let's just say they did about as good a job as the mannequins.

And speaking of the mannequins... have you ever had to stand really close to one, I mean really close? Hanging out in a bomb shelter alone is enough to make anyone feel claustrophobic, but when you fill the small space with a large crowd and a couple of dusty mannequins, people start to get nervous.

So we've entered the hospital wing of the shelter and, of course, there is a mannequin about to draw blood from another that is strapped to a gurney. We're surrounded by cabinets full of antique medical tools and supplies that more closely resemble medieval instruments of torture than devices that save lives. And if this wasn't freaky enough, there is a small album of photos of the worst injuries I've ever seen lying rather unceremoniously on the table. I later asked Martin if our tour guide had warned us about this photo album, given us a little heads up that these weren't for the faint of heart, but he said he didn't. Anyway, a teenage girl starts flipping through the album as I gaze on. These are so ridiculously graphic that I know they aren't fake; deep lacerations revealing muscle and bone, third degree burns, organs spilling out of the abdomen, it was horrifying but fascinating too. I walked away from the table to check out the rest of the room and moments later I see the teenage girl lying on the floor. Her knees are bent funny and it looks like she's having a seizure. The tour guide goes on talking as if nothing had happened, but the girl's brother and mom attend to her. She regains consciousness and we learn that she fainted after looking at those pictures. The tour group that followed ours included a bunch of small kids and I hoped that the guide had removed the photo album or at least warned people about it.

We recovered from that little shock with some complimentary wine and snacks outside the bomb shelter (bet I'll never say that again) and made our way to the next museum. Because the Swiss always rise to the occasion when it comes to transportation on special event days, we were easily able to hop on a tram in the direction of Kulturama, the next stop on our itinerary. We chose this museum because they were hosting a special exhibition called Geburt or 'Birth' on the early development of human life. I have four pregnant friends right now so of course I couldn't miss it.

Before we wandered up to Geburt, which was on the second floor, we went downstairs to see the permanent collection. Like many smaller museums, churches and historical monuments I see in Europe, it was kind of half-assed, if you'll pardon the expression. Three hundred million years of life on Earth was awkwardly compressed into one room. There were fossils on one wall, primate ancestors on another, some cave paintings, a whale's heart and a dinosaur in the middle.

If Kulturama turns Swiss kids on to learning then it can't be a bad thing, but I'm still a museum snob. Maybe I've had the privilege of visiting only the best museums in the states, but I feel like we have some really good ones. Americans don't have as much history or culture as they do here in Europe, so our few museums are well funded and feature high quality exhibits. Europe, and especially Italy (Rome, I'm talking about you), are so packed with history and culture that people cannot even maintain them properly. Have you ever read an informational brochure about a Spanish church that had been translated into atrocious English? It feels so pathetic and lazy that a simple proofread by a native English speaker could have remedied the problem, but didn't. This gave me a great business idea: outsourcing maintenance of cultural/historical tourist attractions to India. I understand that a lot of these crumbling churches and castles have tight budgets, so why not get more bang for your buck by outsourcing the maintenance to India where the workers don't take a siesta?

Anyway, Geburt was interesting. Highlights included real fetuses in jars at the different stages of development and a pregnancy suit. It was fun to look at the models of a four month old fetus or a five month old fetus and think 'that's what my friend's baby looks like right now.' The pregnancy suit is more like a heavy vest with two boobs and a big tummy. Trying it on provided a great photo op, but there was no danger of actually looking pregnant unless you brought a muumuu to throw on top. A video depicting a live birth looped in one corner of the room, making me wonder if the Swiss feel that a museum just ain't a museum without graphic photography.

Still, we had a great evening and learned some new things. Most importantly, it was a more memorable Saturday night than most spent at home or in a bar or restaurant. Yeah, if I can report that I toured a Swiss bunker and tried on a pregnancy suit in response to 'how was your weekend?' then I figure I have a pretty nice life.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Nature's Candy

When we eventually leave Switzerland for our next adventure, it is hard to say what I will miss most about this enchanting little landlocked nation. Mickey wouldn't hesitate to say that he'll miss the car-less lifestyle: going about your day without mood-draining traffic jams, without the stress of hunting for parking and unconcerned about the price per gallon (or liter) of gasoline. I too will miss the ease of public transportation. Indeed, there is something truly liberating about making plans to meet friends in town without arranging a carpool or appointing a designated driver. What will stay with me long after I've readjusted to my dependence on a car, however, is the wholesomeness of this place.

When I returned from our two week tour through Italy, I was surprised by how glad I was to be back in Switzerland. It was refreshing to not see trash on the ground and to get friendly service again. Even just breathing felt different because the air is so much cleaner here. In some ways it felt like we had experienced two European extremes; whereas Italy was hot, crowded, dirty, spicy and flavorful, Switzerland was cooler, calmer, cleaner, blander and more wholesome. I've played around with a lot of different adjectives for a feeling that accompanies blue skies, white peaks, green hills, shimmering lakes and cheerful hikers and 'wholesome' fits. Wholesome is not letting your kids watch TV and slicing your own fresh loaf of nutty wheat bread. Wholesome is creamy, fatty dairy products from pretty brown and white spotted cows with giant, clanging bells around their necks. Wholesome is daily trips to the market, buying farm fresh, hormone-free eggs and toting them home in your own basket or canvas bag. Wholesome is Switzerland.

It's funny that this notion of Switzerland as a tidy, healthy, natural utopia prevails even when reality suggests otherwise. Switzerland is known to the rest of the world as the home of fondue and many Swiss do in fact enjoy this national dish aprés ski in the winter. When foreigners partake in the national tradition, however, they glance at the trim Swiss and get tricked into thinking they've chosen a wholesome, healthy menu option. 'The bread is so warm and yeasty and the cheese is local so how could I go wrong?' they naively wonder. As is the case with another Swiss national favorite, raclette (cheese on potatoes), you never put the portion you plan to eat all on your plate at one time. You stab a cube of bread, dip into the communal pot of melted, stinky goodness, eat and repeat. It's only twenty minutes later that you realize that you just downed the equivalent of have a loaf of bread and a quarter pound of cheese. You look around again at the slim Swiss ladies and scratch your head, puzzled. Sigh. I guess wholesome doesn't indicate healthy, but instead cheese made from 'whole' milk served with a 'whole' lot of carbs. Likewise, even I got fooled into bragging about Switzerland's clean air in the paragraph above before recalling that Switzerland's anti-smoking laws are years behind those of other smoker-friendly European nations. (Cough, cough). But now I'm on to you, Switzerland.

Whether the wholesomeness of this country is real or an illusion almost doesn't matter to me, though. The natural beauty of the village in which I work has bewitched me completely and nothing can tarnish the memories I've already made here. It was spectacular in the winter because of the way the snow blanketed the hills and frosted the branches of every tree, but summer and its bounty give this quiet village another appeal.

First came the cherries; it was early June when boxes of dark, plump cherries appeared at the farm house for four francs a box. Paola suggested I pick up a box for Elena and the family, but there were none left for anyone by the time we got home. These were the best cherries I had ever tasted not only because they were ripe, but because they were incredibly fresh. The farmer picked them, brought them less than 100 yards away to the farm house, boxed them and sold them to me. When produce needs to travel long distances, growers chemically treat the fruits and veggies to help them survive the journey. My cherries didn't require any treatment and thus had the softest flesh and bursted with sweet flavor at the first bite. I couldn't get enough of these cherries and started to pick a couple off my employer's neighbor's tree every time I walked by. Getting caught by the neighbor made me feel a little bit like Peter Rabbit when Mr. McGreggor catches him in his garden; I wanted to hide in a watering can. The situation became more awkward when we realized that we didn't speak a common language and I was her neighbor's employee. She rung Paola as soon as she got back in the house and graciously offered to let me and the children pick cherries any time we liked. Whew!

I was disappointed when cherry season came to an end, but I wasted no time in taking advantage of plum season. Paola had warned me about how good the cherries were, but I was not prepared for the quality of the plums. The plums I was used to had a brownish flesh with patches of red and pink and the pit was difficult to remove. The plums I bought at the farmhouse, on the other hand, were in another league. The flesh was a golden color shocked with a hint of lime that complemented the deep purple of the skin beautifully. The hue was so striking that I decided they should change the color 'plum' to refer not to the skin of the fruit, but the flesh.

Now that plum season is also over, I have moved on to wild blackberries. Eating blackberries is much more fun than even the delicious cherries or plums because you cannot purchase them at the farm house. You have to pick them yourself off of prickly bushes covered with spider webs. You may be wondering where the fun part is in that, but there is nothing like pulling a living, growing thing off of a plant and popping it into your mouth. The pleasure inherent in this abbreviation of the food chain feels completely natural, like something from our hunting/gathering past. I've gotten really good at identifying which berries are ripe. My secret is to look for those that are uniformly black (dark, dark purple), extremely plump and have a slightly wrinkled texture. If they are truly ripe, they will give easily when you pull them off the vine. I perfected my technique on a vine with hundreds of blackberries on a pedestrian pathway near Paola's house. Elena and I would stuff our faces until we couldn't find any more ripe berries.

Unfortunately, our days of blackberry picking bliss came to an abrupt halt when we got caught red-handed (or purple-handed). Yeah, I probably should have learned my lesson the first time and of course, the fact that this little area where the vine grew was gated should have been a clue that the blackberries were private property. Two middle aged people, first a man and then a woman leaned out from their balcony to shout at us. I couldn't understand exactly what they said, but I can make a pretty good guess. I considered acting like a complete jerk and shouting back 'ich verstiehe nicht' (I don't understand), but that would have only made things worse. It's funny that I was the one stealing, but still felt like they were in the wrong. They would have never been able to eat all those blackberries alone; in fact, some were rotting on the vine. As I walked away I wondered who felt like the bigger idiot, me for stealing fruit again from my employer's neighbors or them for shouting at a foreign au pair for sharing their blackberries with two little girls.

That was three weeks ago and I still haven't learned my lesson. I found a blueberry and a raspberry bush near Hannah's place and I cannot resist plucking a few scrumptious berries every time I visit. The risk of getting caught again somehow doesn't outweigh my addiction to the instant gratification of berry picking. Still, my karma has and will catch up with me. Two months ago I became so enamored with the novelty of ready to eat food growing on trees that I tried almost anything that looked like a berry. Not far from the blueberry and raspberry bushes grows a red currant berry plant. I suspected these were in fact red currants, but wasn't positive so I popped one in my mouth to find out and was pleasantly surprised. I found a similar bush with a similar berry near the old kindergarten building and eagerly gave these a taste test. The sharp, bitter flavor told me straightaway that these were not red currants. What if they are poisonous? I started to panic and spit them out.

It is a mystery even to me why I can't stay away from berry bushes after getting yelled at and nearly poisoned. I think it has something to do with the fact that I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, in a climate too hot for many berries and land too precious to be used on anything but housing and roads. It is ironic that my home state is one of the most productive agriculturally and yet industrial farming allows many California residents to remain oblivious to how food arrives at their local supermarkets. When I pick berries in Switzerland I can understand why farming is romanticized in literature and for political purposes; I can see why all those hippies wanted to give up their worldly possessions and move to kibbutzes in the 1970s. Modern and especially urban life demands that we keep a safe distance from our food. We almost don't want to know what farmers have to do (genetic modification, pesticides, unfair labor practices, etc.) to bring us large quantities of food so cheaply. And I guess that is why I find this little village in Switzerland so wholesome and irresistible. Buying my fruit directly from the farmhouse and picking berries allows me to reconnect with the land and nature, and I hope I never forget this sensation of feeling so wonderfully... human.





Friday, August 10, 2007

Swiss Mrs.


I've never felt like a princess, but somehow I wound up with a fairy tale wedding and a prince to boot. Of course as a little girl I fantasized about my wedding day. 'We should have it right here in the backyard,' my mother used to say as we gazed over the lawn and our spectacular view of Pomona, CA. 'We could rent tables, chairs, linens and it would be really nice.' Logistical problems such as where one hundred guests would use the toilet and park their cars in our two bathroom house at the end of a cul de sac never bothered us, but I suppose that's what fantasies are good for. Anyway, my big day always felt too far into the future to justify prematurely choosing china patterns and wedding gown styles the way some gals do. Even after I figured out that Mickey was 'the one'derful guy for me, I felt like I might jinx something by dreaming about our future wedding.

After we got engaged, the bridal magazines never thrilled me the way they did when I was just a bridesmaid. In fact, they completely overwhelmed me and I avoided them whenever possible. The brides in the photos didn't look like they had to deal with appeasing conservative, religious in-laws, a tight budget and a groom who would have rather eloped. He tried to compromise with me suggesting that we invite just our immediate families to a small ceremony, but I (or was it my ego?) felt that our union deserved a bit more pomp and circumstance.

Two months and many tears later, Mickey and I started to fall in love with Switzerland and latched onto the idea of having our wedding here. He was pleased with the size of the affair (25 people) and I was pleased that he was agreeable to having a wedding at all. Truthfully, though, Mickey has been very generous and has consented to celebrating with a bigger reception when we return home to California. The idea of the Swiss wedding was born in February, after my mom and some friends had already booked their tickets to Zurich during their summer vacations. If we wanted our nuptuals to coincide with these visits, it would have to take place in the month of July and that left only four months to plan.

In the states it would have been impossible. All the popular spots to tie the knot would have been booked at least a year in advance. And even if some locations were still available, we would have spent a month of weekends scouting them, taking pictures of each and comparing prices. On top of all this, planning a wedding in Switzerland would involve the additional challenges of not knowing how to find what I wanted and not speaking the local tongue. Considering what I was up against, it seemed as though I wouldn't be able to pull off a beautiful wedding in four months and maintain my sanity. But I did, and my big day exceeded my expectations. Even I was stunned by this success and now reflecting on the experience, I think I know why...

It is my firm belief that the length of time a bride has to plan a wedding directly correlates to the amount she will worry about it and thus enjoy it less. For instance, if you have a year and a half to plan a wedding, you can spend two months poring over stationery catalogs before choosing the perfect invitations. You also have enough time to match the color of the ribbons on your invitations exactly to the hue of the jordan almonds you will painstakingly wrap in tulle with a tiny note that says 'Amy and Jack - March 4, 2008.' But then you find out another month later, that the vendor no longer makes jordan almonds in sea foam green and you feel frustrated, frustrated because you actually let this minuscule detail get to you and irritated that you spent hours choosing the invitations that your guests will eventually throw away. With four months and 25 guests there is no time for invitations and you skip this step and the worry that accompanies it.

I guess I lied when I said that I didn't read any bridal magazines because I read every word of the People magazine special wedding issue that my friend Jessica brought from the states. It was filled with all kinds of fun facts about weddings in the US and pictures of the most hideous bridesmaids dresses you could dream up (or have nightmares about). I learned that more than a million weddings take place in the US each year and realized that this enormous number played into why my Swiss wedding planning experience didn't leave me pulling my hair out. It's pretty simple; in a booming bridal industry, marketers and vendors offer brides thousands of options. And usually, options are a good thing, but I get overwhelmed by that volume of variety and thus found it refreshing to have to pick from only three gown shops in town. I know David's Bridal would have eaten me alive; I would have left that place begging Mickey to reconsider the court house wedding plan. In Zurich, I visited three small bridal shops and chose a gorgeous gown in just a couple of hours. Likewise when it came to choosing a venue we knew we wanted a Swiss castle (down to 30 choices or so) and we didn't want our guests to have to travel far from Zurich to get to it (1 choice). Now that's not so bad.

Part of my satisfaction with our wedding day stems from the fact that we tailored it to suit our personalities, not the demands of parents or anyone else. While traveling in Austria this week, my mom met a newlywed couple from New Delhi on their honeymoon. 'Was it a three day affair?' my stepdad asked. 'Five days,' they said with a sigh. 'Was it fun?' The groom shook his head and replied, 'Indian weddings aren't about the bride and groom.' I find this kind of sad, but it makes me feel grateful that Mickey and I decided to have what we called our 'personal ceremony.' Because we aren't religious, we decided to have a Swiss government official marry us. They have strict rules about what the civil ceremony entails and where it can take place. Ours refused to give us the content of her speech because she wanted it to be a surprise to us. I like surprises, but I wanted to be sure that I could still walk down an 'aisle' and exchange vows we had written together. So, we decided to conduct this personal ceremony involving Korean wedding ducks, a beautiful passage from my mom and some of the first emails Mickey and I had ever exchanged. The beauty of meeting your partner online is that the beginning of your relationship, that sweet, unsure, high drama getting to know you bit is documented. We embarrassed ourselves by reading these initial messages to our guests, but it was worth it because the result was a sincere yet light hearted moment. It felt like us and I'll cherish it always.

Of course, I was a little sad that many friends and family members were not there that day. But the fact that Mickey and I could spend quality time with the people who were there made up for it. If there are any brides out there reading this, remember that giving yourself a lot of time and options with which to plan your wedding is sensible, but it can stress you out too. Besides, a wedding is only the first day of a hopefully happily ever after.

Monday, August 06, 2007

When in Rome... Hop on a Train to Tuscany and Don't Look Back


We did it. We spent two weeks traveling through Italy at the peak of tourist season and despite scorching temperatures, inflated prices and sour service we still managed to have a wonderful trip. Even more astounding is the fact that we are still friends with Andrew and Alyssa, our faithful and rather useful traveling companions at the end of two solid weeks together. Their traveling experience is more limited than Mickey's and mine, but they are so much better at it. Perhaps it was last summer's excursion to Tanzania via Dubai that toughened them up and helped them prepare for virtually anything. I guess when you've had to practice sleeping with the sheet over your face so that lizards climbing on the ceiling won't fall in your mouth, you're not afraid of even the grossest Italian squat potty. Anyway, it was a joy to have this adventure with friends who actually remembered to pack things like wrinkle releasing spray for suitcase weary clothing, baby wipes for sticky hands post-gelato and a perfect travel Scrabble board for fellow nerds on long train rides.

So great company partially explains the success of our trip. Fresh pasta, a daily dose of gelato, cheap wine, beautiful views and (as much as we may not want to admit this to Mickey) the Rick Steve's Italy 2007 guide book also must have contributed to our contentment in Italy because it certainly wasn't my naive strategies. Now that I have returned, I'll reexamine my three pronged attack and attempt to offer some real words of travel wisdom.

1. Forget learning synonyms for 'beautiful' or 'amazing.' In cities like Rome and Venice, more words to express 'hot' and 'crowded' would have been handier. Seriously, leave the thesaurus at home because what you really need is a secret code. A couple of friends have admitted to me that they sometimes lie about their nationality while travelling abroad, telling folks that they are Canadian when they are actually American. I can understand wanting to distance oneself from Dubya and current politics, but I am not ashamed of who I am and where I come from. Also, I think it is unfortunate that many of the people who do this (deny their American citizenship) are some of the more conscientious travelers who might have otherwise given Europeans a better impression of what we Americans are really like. Anyway, these were my feelings before I came to Italy and realized that my friends and I could never undo the damage already done by hoards of rich, fat and ig'nant American tourists. All hope was officially lost when we noticed a group of three American youths trailing behind their People to People Young Ambassadors tour group because they stopped to graffiti their names into the Italian cliff side. And the whole purpose of their trip was probably to improve relationships and understanding between Europe and the US!

Again, so what you need is a secret code. Let your waiter or your tour guide overhear you and your crew speaking code. Perhaps they won't mentally lump you in with the other lot of ethnocentric barbarians and you may get better service. Speaking code is also useful when you want to talk trash about someone who speaks and/or understands the same language as you. Remember, your code doesn't have to be as elaborate as Klingon or Elvish. You just have to be able to say things like, 'can you believe that hick just touched the bronze statue?' or 'this ape needs to go back to the Cleveland zoo!'

2. I now realize that 'one museum per day' should not be set in stone, a guideline, sure, but not a hard and fast rule. In order to not get museumed out, you must adhere to a schedule built around your siesta, gelato break and cocktail hour. Insert these activities into your plan first and see which museums you can work around them. By the end of the trip, we had it down:

7:15am - Get up and prepare yourself for the day (too bad if you partied hard the night before)

7:45am - Eat the hotel breakfast and don't complain if they don't stock peanut butter. Go wild with Nutella and prosciutto and when that gets old, fall back on muesli.

8:15am - When possible, make a reservation for a museum or church before your visit to avoid waiting in long lines. If this isn't possible, don't worry because the crowds and heat will definitely be less intense at 8:15.

8:45am - Sightseeing can be really costly if you routinely pay for an audio guide on top of the price of admission. If you download podcasts of museum tours of your attraction ahead of time, you can walk right on by the audio guides and save your six Euros for something edible.

10:45am - Find an outdoor food/produce market and shop for lunch. Even if you aren't hungry now, by the time you and your friends actually find the market, decide what to buy and where to picnic, you will be. Besides, these markets are fun and less costly than a restaurant.

12:00pm - People-watch while you picnic. Don't forget to speak only in code.

1:30pm - Siesta time! This is the hottest part of the day and you need to spend it in an air conditioned room with your feet up. Nap, read or watch local TV. If your travel buddies are funny, you can play that game where you are watching a show in another language and you dub in what you imagine they could be saying Mystery Science Theater 3000 style.

3:00pm - Get up; it's time for gelato! Consult your guide book to find the very best gelateria and go there. Try at least two different flavors every time you go.

3:30pm - Do something that doesn't require all of your attention and doesn't involve anything you learned (or should have learned) in school. Go shopping at a market where vendors will haggle over prices with you; who cares if you don't actually get a good bargain, if you even attempted to negotiate you can bring a story home along with your souvenir. One fella acted really offended when I asked him politely but confidently for a little discount, but I am told that this is part of their game. If you are broke, go for a walk in a garden. If you feel that you must see another attraction, go wine tasting or take a tour of a local brewery. Intensive sightseeing can feel like work if you don't mix it up a little.

5:30pm - Soak up as much night life as you can by having an aperitif in one bar/restaurant and dinner in another. The menus will let you know which dishes are local favorites, but go out of your way to taste test the local cocktail as well. In Venice we discovered that our palettes are not sophisticated enough to enjoy Campari, but the Bellini, a cocktail consisting of nectar of white peaches (keep it pulpy) mixed with champagne, was a taste of sweet serenity.

6:30pm - Because portion sizes vary from restaurant to restaurant, order your meal course by course. We made the mistake of ordering while famished and were too stuffed to fully enjoy the secondi piatti when it finally came around. Take it slow because you're on vacation and yes, they are charging you for table service so you might as well make the most of it.

8:30pm - See your age and marital status below for instructions regarding your evening:
Under 25 and single - go out to a bar/club and live it up. If you don't know where to go, find some Australians and follow them around.
Under 25 and single and broke - find a liquor store and brown paper bag it back to the hostel. If the people there are lame, walk around and look for other people who are broke and cruising the streets.

Ever been out on a Friday or Saturday night in a middle/upper class suburban shoppertainment center and seen those seventeen year olds blaring music from cars they don't pay for? It turns out this is universal because young kids in Venice do it too, even though there are no cars in Venice and they have to cruise for girls in a motor boat. No joke, these guys had pimped out their boat with a high quality but ostentatious sound system and played techno tracks while the tourists stared. I was in a weird mood when they passed under the bridge I was standing on so I started to dance around wildly and acted like I was totally into their music. I figured that once they noticed their little parade was attracting the attention of not the young and hot but a strange, married tourist, they'd realize that they were lame. But they just continued to play their music and drifted away through the canals.

Over 25 and married - Go to a movie. Many tourists don't consider seeing a film while traveling abroad because they don't want to waste time doing something they could do at home, but going to the theater is one of my favorite ways to experience local culture. I've seen movies in Edinburgh, London, Paris, Ireland, Holland and Switzerland and I haven't forgotten which movies I saw where because the cinema experiences are rather memorable. Even though I never treat myself to the concessions at home, I couldn't get over the two bottles of Heineken and a bucket of popcorn deal in Amsterdam. I also think that watching advertisements and trailers are much more fun in a foreign country; I find them much racier and more graphic than those we are used to at AMC.
Over 25 and married and nerdy/broke - Buy a bottle of wine and drink out of hotel glasses while playing board/card games. Didn't bring any? Try charades, truth or dare or that one game where everyone sticks the name of a famous person to their forehead and tries to figure out who they are. That game isn't actually much fun, but taking a picture of someone with a piece of paper awkwardly stuck upside down on their forehead is funny later.
Over 50 - Go to bed! You're getting up at 7:15 the next morning, remember?

3. The only one of my previous suggestions for not getting museumed out that was fairly right on was the one encouraging the traveler to read books, watch movies or TV shows (even The Bachelor: Rome if you must) that take place in your destination city. It makes seeing the sights in person all the more exciting. This is why Salzburg is cool even if it's really not because The Sound of Music was filmed there.

And speaking of movies and TV shows, I have a new theory that has yet to be tested that high culture might best be enjoyed when contrasted with not low culture, but pop culture perhaps. Again, if you're bombarding yourself with the extraordinary: the Louvre, St. Peter's, etc. then you become a bit desensitized to the beauty and enjoy it less. What would happen if you balanced every trip to a museum with a quick shot of something frivolous like an episode of The Office from itunes or Wayne's World during siesta time? Somebody please try this and let me know how it goes. If you have already tried it, I'm dying to find out if reading a Sophie Kinsella novel the night before you visit the Uffizi intensifies the experience.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Staying Amused in the Museum

My recent run-in with the Mona Lisa at the Louvre has made me a little nervous about my upcoming trip to Italy. I probably won't visit a museum as immense or crowded as the Louvre, but I understand that the cities of Rome and Florence are so densely packed with fine art that they may as well be open air galleries. Strange as it sounds, I don't know how I will deal with all this art. For many, art isn't something that needs to be dealt with. Indeed, these people are content with simply basking in the magnificence of masterpieces. I, however, am afraid that all the creative brilliance might leave me feeling museumed out.

You can get museumed out (or churched out, as the case may be) when you've seen so much beauty that you stop appreciating it. It's only natural; when faced with the extraordinary for several consecutive days, it ceases to seem special. I believe some have a greater capacity to be inspired by genius, but we all have a limit. You know you may have reached yours when you are secretly overjoyed that the church you planned to visit is closed for renovation, or when sitting in the hotel room watching Alf in Italian seems more appealing than the local gallery.

I am very excited about this trip to Italy and I love the people with whom I am travelling. Because I don't want to spoil it for all of us, I've developed a three-pronged strategy for combating the symptoms of getting museumed out:

1. Relive my SAT prep days by scouring the thesaurus for synonyms for the word 'beautiful.' When gazing at yet another culturally significant work of art or architecture I need not fall back on the word 'cool' to express my sentiments. I'll throw out 'isn't that resplendent?' to keep it fresh.

2. Set a cap on the number of churches and/or museums I can see in a single day. If I happen to walk by a church, fountain or important looking sculpture, after I have met my quota, I will simply have to walk the other way or cover my eyes and have Mickey lead me to an art-free zone. Even if my friends want to see another museum after I have reached my cap, I will hold my ground and decline. If this means I must spend the afternoon shopping and eating gelato, I am prepared to do that in the name of not getting museumed out.

3. Remember the lesson learned from the Louvre and read up (or listen up) on the art prior to viewing it to enhance my appreciation and enjoyment. If I had even more free time, I would read a novel, set in modern times or historical fiction, about the places we are about to visit. Nothing gets me more psyched up about travelling than reading a great story set in your destination. I started John Berendt's City of Falling Angels in Preparation for my trip to Venice, but to be honest, watching ABC's The Bachelor: Rome got me pumped about this trip.

At the end of two weeks in Italy, I'll let you know how these strategies held up.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mona Lisa Not Smiling Yet


You know you're marrying the perfect guy when he takes you to Paris for the weekend of your birthday. The trip was everything you'd imagine a romantic adventure in Paris should be; we walked hand in hand down St. Germain des Pres and stopped in charming cafes for a pain au chocolat during the intermittent rain showers.

Mickey and I had both visited Paris five years ago separately with friends. He and his crew made it to the Louvre on that trip, but I had never been so we decided to go together. Neither of us are fans of art, but we occasionally visit museums because it seems like the thing to do when you travel to a foreign city. I made up my mind that I couldn't leave Paris a second time without having seen the Mona Lisa not because I truly wanted to see it, but quite honestly, because I would've felt guilty if I hadn't. So there we were in the most famous museum housing the world's most famous work of art, Leonardo DaVinci's Mona Lisa. But when I should have been enjoying the splendor of the Louvre, I felt only frustration.

Because there are literally ten miles worth of gallery space in the Louvre, a first time visitor must carefully plan her route through the former palace. Acting like a high schooler on an academic scavenger hunt, I followed the signs leading the way to the Mona Lisa. I knew we were in the right place when I saw what looked like hundreds of people vying for a glimpse of a painting behind bullet proof glass. Mickey and I joined the herd and edged closer and closer to DaVinci's masterpiece. It is embarrassing to admit this, but my first thought upon viewing the Mona Lisa was 'it's really... small, actually.' Immediately I cursed myself for being a philistine incapable of appreciating art, whose impression of the world's most famous painting focused on its size.

But I wasn't only angry at myself, I felt like the whole world was playing some trick on us. True, the Mona Lisa wears an intriguing grin. But I don't understand how that expression made her one of the most recognized images in the world, priceless, protected by bullet proof glass and a team of museum employees who kindly but firmly tell visitors not to take photos. Sure, I could read piles of art history books about precisely this subject. Indeed, having more knowledge would allow me to write a more informed blog post, but would it help me to gaze on DaVinci's famous portrait and smile back?

My guess is, perhaps. I can appreciate art when I gauge how difficult it would have been for me or someone else to replicate it. For instance, I can admire sculpture because I believe that chiseling a life-like human form from rock requires special talent and cannot be done by the average person. Likewise, I can appreciate paintings that accurately or imaginatively depict real people and places because they require tremendous skill. Thus, admiring the pure artistry of Michelangelo's David or the works of Salvador Dali is easy for me.

And then there's modern art. I'm sure we've all visited MOMA at one point or another and thought 'I could've done that' while perusing the galleries. The Louvre houses thousands of pieces of art, mostly renaissance and classical, but a couple of modern pieces have managed to sneak in. On the floor of one of the French Classical sculpture galleries is a snaking tube, perforated with large holes from which strawberry plants grow. I stared and wondering how that could possibly be art. Would it still be art if they grew zucchini instead? If I flew a kite through the adjacent sculpture gallery, would that be art?

I was thoroughly confused, but my walk through the sculpture gallery/strawberry patch helped me realize that art was not limited to the category of 'that which your average Joe could not have created.' After reflecting for a while and kicking myself for not taking at least one art history class in college, I realized that there is another way for people like me to understand and enjoy fine art. I thought back to my unusual experience of actual satisfaction at an art museum, the Museum Rietberg here in Zurich, to be specific. The main building was closed for renovation but a small annex housing Indian paintings from the 18th century remained open. There I wandered from piece to piece with genuine interest because the subject matter was familiar. A year's worth of South Asian Studies classes had helped me identify the different characters of the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita and their moralistic dramas in each painting. In other words, I had fun because I had a sense of the context behind the painting.

And perhaps the same goes for the Mona Lisa. If you want to not only see her but also understand why she smiles from behind bullet proof glass, you'll have to learn more about her. Sometimes I wonder if even a three hour lecture could convince me that a strawberry patch or a blank canvas is museum worthy and thus valuable. I used to get frustrated and wonder why a hot dog from a street vendor isn't art, but now I believe that in the proper context and with the right intentions, maybe a hot dog could also be art. Take my advice and don't leave Paris without ... renting the audio guide.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Cheerio

The virus that left me begging for a soft couch and a submarine sandwich forced us to cancel a trip to Ticino, but I didn't let it spoil a glorious bank holiday weekend in London. By Friday morning, I had beaten the virus and packed my bags. It turns out that I didn't pack them with enough sweaters though because the weather was nasty and, well, English, but we still had a fantastic time. A business trip to Google's London office inspired the trip and we began to wonder how our lives would be different if we had chosen London over Zurich as our European home away from home. How would we fare as residents of London? In order to answer that question, we had to ask ourselves several others.

Could we afford it?

After glancing at the prices for basic travel goods and services, shoppers accustomed to paying with the American dollar think the numbers look right, even reasonable. A room in a Bed and Breakfast: 100, okay that's fine; an entree at Middle Eastern restaurant: 14.50, great; a movie ticket: 9.50, not bad. And then you find out that the British pound is worth more than two American dollars and you realize that this trip to London will be your last for a while.

Friends who have lived there argue that 'if you're earning the pound,' London is affordable and you can enjoy a decent standard of living. Mickey's current arrangement with Google allows him to work in Switzerland while still based in Mountain View and paid in dollars. The company has made it easy for us to move here and I imagine they would've done the same in London, but perhaps we'd never get over the shock of paying for two movie tickets and thinking, 'whoa, that cost me forty bucks.'

What could I do?

Perhaps Mickey wouldn't earn the pound, but I could! It is easier for expats to secure working visas in the UK than it is here in Switzerland and I wouldn't "have to" work as an au pair. Nor would I have to take German classes because the language on the streets, in the offices and in the classrooms is my own. Yes, I could even go back to school and study almost anything (I say almost because sadly, Hogwarts is fictional) at a fine English university. If nothing else, I could fine tune my British accent and read trashy tabloids all day. Brilliant!

What's so great about London?

The anthropologist and teacher in me are reluctant to use the term 'culture-packed' because it is incorrect and barely makes sense, but just go with it. The short answer to what's so great about London is that it is culture-packed. You can find almost anything you want at almost any hour of the day or night. I love the fact that tourists and locals alike can queue up (do I sound like a local or just pretentious?) at Leister Square to purchase discounted theatre (how 'bout now?) tickets for that very same evening. We saw Avenue Q and I laughed for two hours.

Another big selling point for London (especially if you live in Switzerland) is the quality and quantity of its pubs and restaurants. But English food is wretched, you say? True enough, but Londish food, now that is a horse of a different curry, er... color. Talented chefs from all over the world have brought their A-game to London and unlike Switzerland, where there are no mid-range restaurants, you can find good eats at a dining establishment that meets your needs and budget, be it a chip shop or a three star Michelin bistro. Of course, we wasted no time in filling up on old favorites. Finding great Indian food was a no brainer, but we also enjoyed fresh hummus at a Middle Eastern restaurant, sushi with melt in your mouth toro (Andrew is so jealous) and a rather authentic American style brunch. No, I didn't scour London's countless McDonalds for a BE&CB; why would I when I could instead fill up on a traditional English breakfast with grilled tomatoes, mushrooms and beans on toast?

Eating out as often as we did last weekend would not be an option if we lived there, but I imagine London's food markets make cooking at home even more fun than dining in its restaurants. Borough market made me wish it was physically possible to digest more than four meals a day. Its vendors offered everything from fresh oysters to pre-bagged flour and spices for pakoras to the richest cheesecakes I had ever seen. Though I nearly froze last weekend in only my spring jacket, my biggest regret was not not packing more layers, but instead not coming to Borough market hungrier. In sum, if we moved to London we wouldn't starve. According to my friend Michelle, our resident expert, moving to London produces the opposite problem. "You've heard of gaining the freshman fifteen?" she asked. "Well, unfortunately it's a London thirty." That's one way to start earning the pound. :)

So how should a girl counterbalance those extra bickies (cookies)? Mickey and I tried to dance off those calories at an event called Guilty Pleasures. The title really says it all; several hundred young people came to dance to the songs we are ashamed to love. Forget hip hop and techno, only the cheesiest pop songs would do. Last week's theme was 'A Night of 1,000 Dollys,' Dolly being Dolly Parton. Watching Brits decked out in enormous blond wigs, padded bras and cowboy boots hit the dance floor was unreal. Stranger yet, though, were the Pleasure Boys, three male dancers who wore only underwear, sweatbands and loads of glitter.
What's not so great about London?

As far as transportation goes, the Tube is great... when compared to the Metro in Paris. It is pretty clean and it gets you where you want to go most of the time. But we've been spoiled by Zurich's superior system of public transport and thus were annoyed by relatively minor delays and inconveniences on the Tube. Likewise, the cold, rainy weather was fun for a weekend. We imagined we were getting the real London experience and enjoyed spending time in cozy theaters and restaurants. London fog would grow tiresome, however, and the Californian in me would whine about the lack of sunshine.

Mickey loves city life; he loves living near fine restaurants and he is thrilled that he doesn't own a car, but I wonder if I could handle the big city. This may sound strange coming from a native of southern California, but I find London too large and too crowded. I wonder if we would get lost, not in a physical sense, but I wonder whether we could make friends in another home away from home.

When I tell people here in Switzerland that I am an American from California, the response is always positive despite Bush's unpopularity. 'I love California!' or 'I want to go there,' people say. More than one person has responded with 'what are you doing here?' And they're not trying to ask what jobs/situations brought me here, they are surprised that I would want to move away from a place as lovely as California. Sure we love London, Switzerland and Rome, but there's no place like home.













Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sickness Leads to Homesickness


I thought this post would be about our glamorous weekend trip to Ticino, the Italian speaking part of Switzerland. I would've posted pictures of Mickey and I soaking up the sun, posing in front of Lake Lugano, devouring plates of seafood pasta and would've described the subtle differences between the German-speaking and Italian-speaking Swiss. Unfortunately, this post will have to wait because just days before we were scheduled to leave, my body was overtaken by a vicious virus and we had to cancel our plans. Sure, I was mildly disappointed that I wouldn't experience the region that boasts about its Italian charm AND Swiss efficiency, but when you feel as ill as I did, folks, you don't even care. All I wanted to do was crawl into bed and never come out.

But to my utter dismay, I just couldn't get comfortable. Sitting now in our house in San Jose is a sofa that Mickey bought in his pre-Alane life that I always complained about because of its greenish hue or lack thereof. Let me declare to the world that I will never utter an unkind word about this couch again. You see, the two sofas in our flat here in Switzerland are both leather, very modern and not at all comfortable. While awkwardly trying to prop myself up on the Swiss couch, I longed for the once disputed San Jose sofa and the way it allows one to sink in and forget about the world. Perhaps we Americans are a nation of couch potatoes simply because our couches are that appealing.



So the sofa wasn't my favorite place to binge-watch old episodes of The Office, but what about the bed? Sadly, the bed wasn't the ideal location for sick-central either. I believe the Swiss have a more practical attitude toward sleep and interior design in general than do Americans. They have no need for fancy headboards or decorative pillows; Swiss beds are simple and low to the ground. Because Swiss beds don't come with top sheets, making one only involves folding the duvet at the foot of the bed and straightening the pillow. I can see the efficiency in this manner of sleeping and making the bed, but when I was sick I started fantasizing about the ideal American bed. I decided it was California king sized and conjured the image of sleeping in a palace on a cloud. It is a work of art with a satiny quilt and mountains of pillows. It is so ridiculously inviting that when you climb in and curl up, it almost hugs you back.


The real life bed that inspired my fantasy is my mom's bed and I wished desperately for the ability to teleport myself directly there. This is not only because it belongs to my mother, the woman who has always taken care of me with great love and tenderness, but also because she has a high quality mattress, familiar blankets, soft pillows and a TV with digital cable that faces the bed. I really don't know how I would have recovered without iTunes and the freedom it gave us to download old television shows. Our Swiss TV has one and a half English language channels; one of them is CNN and the half is MTV (half of the programs are dubbed over in German). Can you imagine trying to get well while watching CNN? I think it would have made me feel worse. :)


I spent part of my illness on the BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) diet and, as you can imagine, that got old really fast. The strange thing is, I developed cravings for foods that I never dreamed I would miss. One of them, I am ashamed to admit, is the Bacon, Egg and Cheese Biscuit from the McDonalds breakfast menu. I loved McDonalds as a kid, but as I grew older, read Fast Food Nation and watched Super Size Me, the Nuggies and Big Macs seemed less tantalizing and eventually, less like real food at all. I haven't eaten there in years and then last week I got sick and all I could think about were those delicious, fatty, salty, fluffy little dreams wrapped in wax paper. Guiltily, I visited three of Zurich's McDonalds, but none of them sold BE&CBs so I'll have to wait until I return to the US of A to satisfy this unusual and unhealthy craving.


It was also while ailing that I realized that Switzerland doesn't have sandwiches. I know, you're thinking that's impossible, right? If you have all the ingredients for your favorite sandwich, you put them together and voila, a sandwich. No, I am much too lazy for that. I want to be able to walk into a cafe or deli at lunchtime and order a sandwich on my choice of roll with my choice of sliced meat and cheese, lettuce, onion, pickles, tomatoes, sprouts, avocado, mustard, mayonnaise, the works. Swiss eateries don't sell sandwiches like this. You may find a roll with either meat or cheese in a bakery, but you'll never find an over the top chicken club, cheese steak or meatball sandwich. Lunch is the main meal of the day here in Switzerland and sandwiches are just snacks at best, so most people eat pasta and other hot dishes as a midday meal. I bet I'm not the only expat in town who grew up on sandwiches and perhaps opening a fantastic deli in Zurich is a million dollar idea waiting to happen.


Until then, I am envisioning the joyous day I will return to the US. I will cry when I give little Giugiu a farewell hug and say goodbye to our amazing friends here, but when I walk down the jet way at JFK International I will kiss the ground, salute Old Glory and drive my Hummer straight to the closest McDonalds serving breakfast. Okay, maybe not, but I will never fail to appreciate a comfy couch or a decent sandwich.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Music to Their Little Ears


Have you ever had one of those moments when you step back from a situation and ask yourself, 'is this really my life?' While teaching, I had these moments whenever one of my first graders peed on the floor or fought over a pencil. I couldn't believe that my adult life involved determining the rightful owner of a 49 cent pencil, and in those moments I wished desperately for the magical ability to jump into someone else's, anyone else's shoes.

I had a number of 'is this really my life?' moments earlier this week when I took Elena and Giulia to their first Baby Music class. However, whereas these moments were once accompanied by a strong desire to run away at top speed, this time around I felt no urge to bolt when I found myself singing along to 'Aleegaloogalee' in a room full of mommies and babies. The girls had a blast and seeing them happy made it fun for me too. But if someone had asked me in 2002 whilst on a date or in a job interview where I saw myself in five years, I wouldn't have pictured myself as an au pair shaking maracas to the beat during Baby Music class on a Tuesday afternoon in Switzerland. Life's funny that way.

I was more nervous about simply getting the three of us over there than anything else. I had practiced driving Paola's minivan a couple of times, but the thought of hunting for parking with excited little ones in the back seat made me feel less than confident. And the thought of navigating the not at all grid-like streets of Zurich, obeying unfamiliar traffic signs and avoiding trams almost left me in a panic. Thankfully, Paola's friend graciously offered to let me follow her caravan style into the city so I wouldn't have to worry about where to go. We made it safely to and from Baby Music class, but I hope to take the train on upcoming Tuesdays when the weather permits it.

My friend Kate has been taking her charge, 22 month old Felix, to Baby Music for a couple of months now and she warned me about what to expect. She nearly cried from laughing so hard every time she described how ridiculous the teacher looks when she leads the class in a song and demonstrates how to use the "instruments." Though I believe kids can sense when goofy expressions, baby talk and overly enthusiastic gestures are inauthentic, I have come to expect adults to look like idiots while attempting to entertain little ones.

What I didn't expect, however, was how everyone else in the room would respond to the behavior of the Baby Music instructor. While she was squealing to the music and practicing opening her eyes and mouth as wide as possible, all the mommies were casually chatting and trying to keep their babies from wiggling away. I guess we couldn't really expect the other mommies to get fully engaged in a performance they watch every Tuesday, but the babies weren't really into it either. For some reason, this made me incredibly uncomfortable. There was something very awkward about watching the instructor enact the performance of a lifetime while no one paid attention. Perhaps the teacher in me believes that the presenter, no matter how similar to Barney the purple dinosaur, deserves his/her turn in the spotlight. Maybe the mommies once believed this too until they had kids and developed a new sense of how truly involved in Baby Music one must be.
Or maybe no one really comes for the music and thus not following along with the instructor doesn't matter. Let me explain. I saw a mom bring a three month old baby to Baby Music class and wondered what in the world she was doing there. For those who don't have a sense of child development, three month old infants cannot even sit up and simply looking at their parents' faces provides them with plenty of stimulation. That mom couldn't have come to Baby Music with the purpose of exposing her son to music and other children at that early of an age. Perhaps for her and other mommies, Baby Music is more about meeting other English speaking moms in Zurich and simply getting out of the house. I could pretend that I just go to Baby Music because the girls like it and Paola paid for it, but the truth is that it is just as much of a treat for me as it is for them. It provides structure to our Tuesday afternoons and I secretly love tambourine time. :)

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

It's All Swiss To Me - The Swiss Government and Federal Council


I have been volunteering with the American Women's Club of Zurich for a couple of months now. Usually, I just prepare the layouts for their monthly publication, The Round Robin, but in May they asked me to write a piece on the Swiss federal government for a column called 'It's All Swiss To Me.' This column usually features an aspect of Swiss culture that American women may wish to learn more about. For instance, the article in February's It's All Swiss To Me page described the history of those Alpine St. Bernard rescue dogs. As you know, I am not at all fond of dogs, but I thought even this subject was more engaging than the one they chose for me to write about in May, the Swiss federal government.

When I started researching the Swiss government, I quickly decided that I would focus on the executive branch because of its unusual composition and secret meetings. I thought I could make the piece interesting and fun somehow, but writing it felt like a chore and the result is a boring report. Read it below or skip down to the bottom paragraph.

In many ways, the Swiss government has a lot in common with our own American system. Indeed its 1848 Federal Constitution was based on our own Constitution and the ideas of the French Revolution. Switzerland has a Federal Supreme Court which hears appeals of cantonal courts and functions in a similar manner to our own, but does not debate the constitutionality of federal and local laws. Unsurprisingly, the 1848 Federal Constitution established a bicameral legislature, or Federal Assembly, consisting of the Council of States and the National Council. The Council of States, a 48 member group consisting of two deputies from most cantons, is comparable to the US Senate while the National Council, a 200 member body whose constituents are elected on a basis of proportional representation, resembles the House of Representatives.

The elements that set the Swiss government apart from not only the American system but from the rest of the world are its system of direct democracy and its executive branch of government. In this case, direct democracy refers to the fact that Swiss citizens have full power over the law. Any citizen may challenge the law and seek to amend the constitution if he/she gathers enough signatures. Once this occurs, a national vote is called and sometimes changes are implemented. While this system resonates with a Swiss notion of fairness, some citizens feel that voting on so many referenda is burdensome.

Again, perhaps the most intriguing feature of the Swiss government is its executive branch, the seven-member Federal Council. Only two other nations in the world, Bosnia and Herzegovina and San Marino, have similar collegial systems of government, but it is not unusual for the Swiss. The 1848 Federal Constitution established the Federal Council because Switzerland has a long tradition of success with the rule of collective bodies.

The seven members are elected by the Federal Assembly for four year terms, but almost all are reelected several times and remain on the Council until retirement. There was a Zauberformel, or ‘magic formula’ which determined the composition of the Federal Council from the four major political parties during the latter half of the twentieth century. The Free Democratic Party, Christian Democratic People’s Party, and the Social Democratic Party each had two seats while the Swiss People’s Party had one. The 2003 elections, however, marked a significant change when the Swiss People’s Party took one seat from the Christian Democratic Party. Each Council member is the head of a government department and are commonly called ‘ministers’ of Finance, Home Affairs, Justice and Police, etc. The Federal Assembly elects one President and Vice President of the Council and they rotate these responsibilities each year.

One of the most important traits of the Federal Council is their collegiality. Members of the Council do not publicly criticize Council decisions or fellow members even though they are often political opponents. The Council’s weekly Wednesday meetings in Bern are completely secret and records are sealed for fifty years. Though the Federal Council is stable and viewed favorably by most Swiss, it is said to be more divisive since the 2003 elections.

Unfortunately, only five women have ever been elected to the Federal Council. And one of them had to resign because of a scandal and another was one of the few Councilors to not be reelected. Today, however, two women serve on the Council and one of them, Micheline Calmy-Rey, is its President. Around one quarter of the Federal Assembly is women and perhaps even more women will be involved in the Swiss government in the future.

How could I have infused my own voice into this dry regurgitation of facts? Do you think it would have been better if I could have written about a subject that was more interesting to me? For instance, Paola told me about specialty Swiss cheese shops and their owners, the so called Masters of Cheese. Apparently they study for several years and then take an apprenticeship for a couple more years before they can become real Masters of Cheese. I would love to write about this topic, especially if I could interview Masters of Cheese and then quote them in my article. On the other hand, The Round Robin could use some fresh material and ideas. I was thinking of suggesting to the editors that they add a new column featuring one post from an expat American woman's blog (like mine, or Julie's or Meggie's) each month. Ideas?