Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Top Ten Reasons to Fall in Love with Spain

For some reason, Mickey assumed that Spain and Barcelona were part of the third world until the ’92 Olympic Games. So when we spent last week there he was pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of the airport, the metro and even the bidets. Of course, it’s no Switzerland (parents allowed their children to pee on the streets), but it was wonderful in its own Mediterranian way. I could describe each day in detail, but I’d rather list the Spanish specialties that make me want to return. This post is dedicated to Dawn who inspired in me a late-night love for top ten lists.

1. La Boqueria – Our guidebook described this outdoor food market as one of the most spectacular in Europe. Incredibly, La Boqueria surpassed our expectations. The endless displays of perfectly stacked fresh fruit and fruit juices were so enticing that we came back the next day for more. A clever merchant gave us a free sample of some highly addictive chocolate covered nuts. Of course, we had to buy half a kilo ‘for our friends,’ but I felt guilty. If we buy chocolates in Spain, are we cheating on our new home, Switzerland, the land of chocolate?

2. People watching – Maybe it’s just the anthropologist in me, but isn’t this the best part of travelling anywhere? One highlight was watching the white pants cult end an afternoon ritual with hugging in the Parc Ciutadella. I also enjoyed the fashions sported by Spanish women. Whereas I feel successful when I’ve put an outfit together with a shirt, pants and shoes, these gals can add a handbag, belt, coat and jewelry with ease.
3. Tapas – We’ve enjoyed the California take on tapas for years, but tasting the original was enlightening. Mickey could live on Spanish olives.
4. Scott’s Hotel – An enormous mobile technology conference made staying in Barcelona too expensive, so we caught a flight to the island of Mallorca and bided our time at Scott’s Hotel. Scott’s is a charming B&B with seventeen unique rooms, a helpful staff, a picturesque courtyard and the best buffet breakfast on the island. The chef will make your eggs any style you like them even if you like them over medium (which he had never heard of before, but I described them and they came out perfect).
5. CavaCava is Spanish champagne. We brought four bottles home. Need I say more?

6. The Caves – The caves at Arta (not to be confused with cava) make you feel like you’re in a Nancy Drew mystery. They’re wet, dark, deep and totally cool if you are a fourth grade boy or anyone else. The guided tour failed to answer any of my questions about the geological formation and history of the cave, but featured a musical light show resembling something I saw during the holiday season at the zoo in Toledo, Ohio.

7. Paella – There is no paella in this picture; it’s another picture of La Boqueria, but it was too cute to leave out. We ate paella twice during our week in Spain at what our guidebook hails as two of the best restaurants for this most famous Spanish seafood dish. Unlike the paella in the states which features shellfish and meat, the paella in Barcelona included only seafood. Perhaps this is the more authentic way, but I think a little chorizo makes everything tastier. Nonetheless, the paella was delicious.

8. Modernisme Art and Architecture – I know next to nothing about art and architecture and even I could tell that Gaudi’s work is one of a kind. The unusual curves on the buildings and extraordinary use of color give Barcelona its distinct character. We bought a small ceramic gecko, a miniature of Gaudi’s gecko with multicolored mosaic tiles in the Parc Guell, to hang on our Christmas tree and remember this trip.

1. 9. Chocolate de la Taza – I’ve heard it called European or Mexican hot chocolate in the states. It tastes like a melted, high-quality chocolate bar mixed with rich creamy goodness and the result is thicker than chocolate fondue. In Spain, it is eaten with churros and a spoon. We ordered chocolate de la taza twice on our trip and were treated to the real thing first and a sorry powdered imitation the second time around.

10. Warning Signs – I don’t know if warning signs can really make one fall in love with a country, but it’s good for a laugh when you’ve been on your feet too long. We found this sign next to a large fountain in the Parc Ciutadella. It was clear that swimming wasn’t permitted, but if you do, will lightning strike your crotch?

Growing Up and Coming Out

In high school, social outcasts and anyone outside the popular crowd was comforted by the promise that 'college would be different.' "You will meet life-long friends and people who are passionate about the same things you are," we were told by parents and school counselors. Overall, my college experience was good and I met some extraordinary people, but my social anxiety didn't exactly disappear.

The popular kids who got into Cal rarely strayed from frat row and weren't considered cool by many on campus so I wasn't bothered by them. But between high school and college, cool had been replaced by a new ideal, 'chill.' Whereas a cool person followed the trends, a chill person devised his/her own style. Chill people were passionate about social issues and attended a demonstration now and then, but never let their ideals get in the way of binge drinking at parties. The most important part of being chill is being easy going, able to take a joke without getting offended and tolerant of a messy room. Yes, I had missed the boat again. When/where would obsessive and Type A become the desired traits?

In Teach for America (TFA) as it turns out, but during those two years I was too tired to worry about cool. For the first time in my life I was terrible at my job and TFA constantly asked me to reflect on this fact to improve my practice. Eventually, I became a slightly better teacher and a much better self critic. Like everyone else, I have strengths and weaknesses and I could finally identify what these were. Pinpointing my uncool and inconvenient quirks was incredibly liberating because I realized I could either try to improve or accept myself as I am.

Some argue that changing oneself is impossible and that even trying is foolish. In some cases, this is true, but I believe that having an open mind can go a long way. For instance, my friend Natalie always felt limited by her shyness and decided to do something about it. She did some research and attended a class to help her approach social situations differently. Now, Natalie will never be the life of the party, but she has a few strategies that help her feel more comfortable in a group. I admire Nat tremendously not because she conquered shyness, but because she had the courage to try.

On the other hand, there are things about ourselves that neither therapy nor plastic surgery can fix that we simply must accept. And just as improving oneself requires a lot of courage, accepting oneself demands complete honesty and the confidence that true friends will appreciate 'the real you.' For example, my friend Alyssa is a master of what Dave Chapelle would call 'keepin' it real.' She is true to herself even when it's inconvenient and this is one of the things her friends like best about her. Alyssa likes getting enough rest and makes no secret of her preference for sleep over other less worthy night-time activities. 'Hey, Alyssa, want to go to a party on Friday night?' 'Maybe I'll stay up for that,' I imagine her saying.

I also think Alyssa's dislike for outdoorsy activities like hiking is totally hilarious. Nerds like me imagine that being athletic and outdoorsy is an integral part of being cool and likable. Doesn't every internet dating profile in the world make reference to a love for the beach or rock climbing? I feel like admitting you don't care for the outdoors is akin to confessing that you've not only watched a whole episode of MTV's My Super Sweet Sixteen, but you actually Tivo it. But Alyssa is not ashamed of her preference for reading the Times over windsurfing and I think that's... well, cool.

Alyssa has inspired me to keep it real too and I've decided to come out of the closet. I'm... a dog hater and I always have been. I've been in hiding for so long because hating dogs is more uncool than being a member of the SCA and more inconvenient than having a wheat allergy. I would even go as far as saying that being a dog hater is likened with being evil in popular culture. Imagine Adam Sandler and a canine sidekick as the heroes; of course, a dog hating ex-girlfriend or wicked mother-in-law are bound to be the villains. Dog haters are people too!

It amuses me that people ask if I'm afraid of or allergic to dogs upon first learning that I loathe them. Truthfully, I do have terrible allergies to pet dander and a mild fear of dogs, but there are so many other reasons to dislike dogs:
1. They sniff crotches.
2. Dogs are dirty.
3. They bark.
4. If you own one, you must clean up its crap and no one should even consider doing this for a creature that isn't your own flesh and blood.
5. Sometimes dogs need medical treatments that cost more than a new outfit. Wouldn't it be more fun to go shopping and just let Old Yeller be on his way? All Dogs Go to Heaven, right?

Before I completely alienate my dog-loving readers I must get to the point. Again, disliking dogs is inconvenient especially when you're a kid. I remember trying to act excited when childhood friends oohed and awed about some new puppy to avoid feeling left out. I sniffled and sneezed all night at slumber parties in homes that had pets and just prayed that the animals wouldn't lick my face.

My mom, dad and I formed a secretive, three-person club called Eliminate Dogs Everywhere Now or EDEN for short. (This club does not meet nor do we actively eliminate dogs. It is more of a support group for people who feel like outcasts because they don't enjoy playing fetch with a slobbery stick.) My brother refused to join insisting that when he grew up his family would have a dog and we would have to deal with it. He's now 23 and still doesn't have a dog. Maybe he's come to his senses and realized that dogs are a pain in the neck or maybe he feels like he hasn't grown up yet. Fortunately, I have and I don't need to speak about EDEN in whispers anymore. In fact, I've recruited some new members: Andrew, Jess and most importantly, my future husband. I just hope our children won't resent us all their lives for never allowing them to care for a pet more interesting than a goldfish.

About a month ago, I met up with some bright and interesting fellow expat bloggers at a hip Zurich bar/lounge. I was having a nice conversation with a Cal grad coincidentally when the subject turned to, you guessed it, dogs. I'm new in this town and I was tempted to just smile and nod. Instead, "I can't stand dogs," is what came out of my mouth. I kept it real and announced my uncoolness upfront.

And this is truly what I love best about growing up. Cool matters less and telling the world that you actually sympathize with Cruella DeVille is more fun. If this trend continues for the next several decades, I might just be the happiest curmudgeon in the old folks' home. Let's just hope the gods don't strike me down with blindness and a seeing eye dog first.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Mickey's coworker Aaron showed us how to make Mexican food the way his family does it. This was the tastiest and most authentic Mexican meal I've ever had and I never dreamed I'd eat Mexican food this good in Zurich. This picture is much larger than the rest and I now know why. I'll fix this next time.
King's Kurry won't let you forget where you are when you're sipping the best mango lassi in Switzerland.

I can't tell whether I look European or just ridiculous.

Last Saturday, we took two trains and a boat to reach the top of Mt. Rigi, a peak near Lucerne.

Hanging out above the clouds was surreal. I was fascinated by this plant; the half that gets little sun is covered in ice, the other half is bare.

We were kicking ourselves for not bringing our sunglasses. We think we saw the alps, but we were squinting so who knows?

We're lucky that we don't have double chins in this self portrait.
Our new friends Daniel and Sirpa invited us over for a traditional Swiss dinner at their house last weekend. The food was fabulous and the company even better. Here I am sandwiched between two charming Scandanavian girls. Is my Danish heritage coming through in this picture?
We love Daniel and Sirpa's dishes almost as much as we love them.

Mickey's holding a children's alligator game that Daniel and Sirpa have reinvented as the most adorable drinking game ever. Each player takes turns pushing down one of the alligator's teeth. Randomly, the alligator's jaws will snap shut on the fingers of one unlucky player. That player loses (and takes a shot).

We staked out this spot for picnics with Joshica, the A team and Mom and Tom in July. This is a beautiful park near our house with fantastic views.

Some say that Grossmünster was founded by Charlemagne, others dismiss this as legend, but Mickey posed with him in Grossmünster's crypt anyway.

This is the lovely Hannah, a fellow au pair who keeps me sane. We climbed a winding stairway to the top of one of Grossmünster's towers and this was the view from above.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Let's All Go to the Lobby

Between 1998 and 2004 I went to the movies A LOT. I know exactly what movies I saw, where I saw them and who was there with me. No, I don't have a memory like a steel trap, but I do have a movie journal in which I recorded details about all my trips to the cinema. Of course this isn't that long ago, but it felt like movies were considerably cheaper then and there was always something worth seeing playing. Nowadays, going to the movies feels like a much bigger deal than it once was. I've become more selective and won't cough up $10 for a ticket unless the film is oscar-worthy or at least funny.

Last week, however, the movie snob in me took a backseat to the girl who just wanted to escape the cold and binge on buttered popcorn. My new friends Kate and Hannah and I went to one of Zurich's newest, hippest theaters to see Blood Diamond. Monday night is cheap night at the Zurich cinemas (admission is only 12SF as opposed to 18SF, but this is still about $9) and we figured we'd need to make the most of it. This was our last free Monday night before our German classes began and thus our only opportunity to take advantage of cheap night until July. I wasn't terribly excited about seeing a film that could make me feel guilty about my new diamond engagement ring, but I was game for an adventure.

The first part of the adventure involved choosing seats not when we entered the darkened theater, but before then, when we purchased the tickets. Assigned seating in the cinemas is common in Europe and I believe this system is neither better nor worse than the one I'm used to; there are pros and cons for both. On the plus side, assigned seating gives patrons the freedom to talk to friends and avoid watching offensive advertisements before the feature presentation begins. You have all the time in the world to buy concessions and linger in the lobby because no one can steal your seat. In fact, many movie goers slipped quietly into the theater just as they rolled the opening credits.

If this were an ordinary trip to the movies, I would have passed the concession stand without blinking an eye. I just paid $10 to get in, there's no way I'm paying $4.50 for popcorn I can make at home for pennies. Tonight was different, though; I was in Zurich with two new friends seeing a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. I needed a treat. Fortunately, Kate and Hannah are the type of gals you should never, never go out with if you're on a diet. They must breed 'em differently down unda because these girls can eat. We stocked up on junk food like we were leaving on the Oregon Trail (this is an Ellen Degeneres joke). We shared a large bag of popcorn, one bag of Maltesers, another of peanut M&Ms and two peach iced teas and we ate every last morsel. Well, we would have eaten every morsel if I hadn't spilled a handful of M&Ms on the floor. Those of you who know me know that I'm pretty generous with the five second rule (to be honest, I don't feel restricted by a sixty second rule). So, of course, I tried to rescue those few fallen chocolate candies, but the theater sloped downward and they rolled away. It's a shame that my reaction wasn't, 'well, I shouldn't have eaten those anyway,' and instead was 'next time I'm buying a candy that can't roll, like licorice.'

As if we hadn't eaten enough already, they stopped the movie for a ten minute intermission, allowing movie goers yet another chance to purchase concessions. Hannah and Kate saved room for an ice cream bar, but I just had to give my stomach a break. I can understand having an intermission during an epic like Gone With the Wind or The Sound of Music, but Blood Diamond? It just seemed out of place especially since they stopped the projector almost mid-scene.

In the end, the movie had inspired some guilt about my diamond engagement ring, and I suppose that was the point. Considering the experience I had, the expensive tickets, the assigned seats, the powerful draw of the concession stand and the intermission, would I go again? Absolutely, I would go again, but as I'm learning with all things Swiss, going to the movies requires planning. Make sure you're in the right mood for the movie (you can get guilt at home for free), buy your tickets in advance and opt for candy that cannot roll.