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 apr├ęs 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.