Monday, January 29, 2007

Using the Language

For the most part, America is hopelessly monolingual. Sure immigrants and their children move to the US from all over the world and speak thousands of different languages at home, but English is the only language necessary for integration. Thus when a language other than English is used in public in America, it is always done with a specific purpose.

For instance, in giving a French restaurant a French name such as, C'est Bon, the owner wishes to convey much more than the fact that they serve decent French dishes. A French name also implies elegance, fine quality and even romance, attributes that any restaurant owner would want associated with his/her dining establishment. Almost anything, store names, clothing and everyday speech sound more sophisticated and appealing in French. After all, who would buy a muffin from The Baker when you could buy one at Le Boulanger?

And it seems to me (leave a comment if you disagree or have another idea), that if saying it in French can make something more stylish, then saying it in Spanish can make it more fun. My friends and I used to meet at a bar called Tres Gringos for happy hour when we had spent too many unhappy hours in our classrooms. Now, 'tres gringos' literally means three white guys and that title wouldn't entice anyone to stop in for drinks. But in America, Tres Gringos means 'we may not have the most authentic food, but we've got tequila aplenty and we'll serve it to anyone, especially gringos.' Playfully add some espanol to your evite and suddenly everyone wants to come to your fiesta. See what I mean?

I started thinking about how we use languages other than English in the US because I wonder why and for what purpose people use English in Switzerland. A lot of the graffiti here in Zurich is in English and it saddens me a little bit, but mostly I'm curious. Am I just not noticing graffiti in other languages because 'f*** you' stands out a bit more than foreign swear words that I don't know? Do the Swiss resort to English because their own language, Swiss German, is only oral? When I saw the words 'the end for you' spray painted on a building yesterday I wondered whether the artist/vandal wanted to be understood by the international community or whether he was explicitly targeting English speakers. Criticisms of Bushy are plentiful over here so I had to wonder if 'the end for you' referred to the American president.

If French = refined and Spanish = fun for English speakers, what does English mean for the rest of the world? There are a lot of stores and restaurants here with English names and I wonder what their owners hoped to express by using English. My guess is that English makes something more cosmopolitan, hipper, more modern and more universal. I wish I could back this up with examples, but for now this is just a feeling. Over the course of this year, I will pay special attention to the use of English here in Switzerland and report back later. Julie, your thoughts would be appreciated. Everyone else should see Julie's post about 'ridiculous English.'

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Oh, Sh*t Moment: S.N.O.W. (Seldom Nice, Only Wet)

I met a fellow Cal grad last night who moved to Zurich in July. "The food is worse, but the trams and buses are better," she summarized, "it's not that different than home. I haven't had one of those 'oh, sh*t I'm living in another country' moments. Have you?" While brushing ice off my coat I replied, "I think it was just now. This is my first experience with snowy weather."

Okay, I haven't been completely deprived (or spoiled, depending on how you look at it). I've been to places where there was snow on the ground; I attempted snowboarding recently and even have vague memories of sledding in Big Bear as a kid. But this is something different and painfully new. I'm not vacationing in a winter wonderland, snow stings my face as I walk out my front door. I live in a place where it snows.

To be completely honest, I do remember snow falling once in Scotland. I was entranced by the sight of it and unnerved by its lack of sound. The snow in Edinburgh didn't accumulate, though, and even if it had, I wouldn't have had to deal with it. My responsibilities as a university exchange student were so limited that I barely had to leave the dorm and get out from under the duvet.

I can't hide under the covers here, though. Remember my last post, the one glorifying my commute? That was pre-snow. Add downy flake to that pretty little picture and the reality of my commute becomes much icier and less serene. How can I gaze at the Alps and listen for farm animals when I'm struggling not to slide face first down the road? I slipped and fell to my knees once today and had two other close calls. The perks of being a live-in au pair are few, but I'll add waking up at work to the list.

The danger inherent in leaving the house now summons a lot of questions for me that are probably no-brainers for those who grew up with snow. How are you supposed to walk in this stuff? I am asking this in all seriousness. Are you supposed to adapt your gait to the slippery conditions or do you just hover over a handrail? Are you supposed to slow down or am I just wearing the wrong shoes? How did my mom deal with mountains of this stuff as a kid in Buffalo in the pre-polartech days? What did Mickey think when he first moved from India? Does Holly still wear heels in the slush?

I wouldn't be surprised if people continued to wear weather inappropriate clothing despite the recent snow fall. Yesterday evening, when Zurich got its first taste of snow for the year, I looked around to see how people would react. I wanted to approach people, shake them and say 'it's snowing! Can you believe this?! What are we supposed to do?' But the people on the streets didn't seem to even notice the falling powder. They walked around with their heads uncovered and carried on as if ice in your face is normal. I never really understood what it meant when people said that California didn't have seasons until now. It blows my mind that I will walk these presently icy streets in flip flops come July.

If you have experience with the white stuff and can offer some helpful tips, please leave a comment. Also comment if you have a better acronym for S.N.O.W.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Commute

Most days I walk to and from work in darkness. Before 7am, Zurich and the S Bahn are bustling, but the little town on the hill, cozy under a blanket of morning fog, is just waking.

I cross quieter roads and busier streets on my way to the train station. Terrified of being hit by the tram, I look both ways several times before crossing the crowded boulevard, and as I do, I pass young school children sporting bright orange reflecting sashes who seem unconcerned with oncoming traffic. Do those sashes come in adult sizes? Before I reach the train station, a brightly lit bakery tempts me with its fresh brot (bread), chocolate croissants, and other delicious pastries. The promise of free Farmer Flocs, a brand of muesli, only minutes away helps me resist.

The train pulls into the station on the hour and it takes eleven minutes to reach my destination, without fail. If it were light outside, I would notice the landscape change from city to suburb and from suburb to forest as we quickly ascend the mountain.

I’ve never lived in a city as big as Zurich and yet I’ve never lived in a community that felt so small. We cannot go into town without bumping into Zooglers and it never ceases to surprise me that I see the same people on the train day after day. I sit across the aisle from a young couple holding hands on their way to high school. I stare at them and wonder whether or not they speak English and how long they’ve been together.

Because my route is the reverse commute, very few passengers remain when I leave the train. Sometimes, I am the only one who gets off at my stop. It is indeed a stop and not a station as only a shelter, some maps and schedules and a sign distinguish it as a place at all along the railroad tracks. As I descend a steep hill on an unpaved road, I often must hold my hood at my neck to prevent the wind from blowing it off. Strict Swiss rules prohibit most cars and trucks from using this road, so I walk in its dead center. If it were light, I would see green hills ahead and the snow covered Alps on the horizon.

To my right, I pass a small football pitch and then a school yard littered not with children (it’s too early), but with farm animals. The bunnies are still asleep in their hutch, but the geese and hens are already up and pecking at the grass. I’d like to imagine that the proud crow of the rooster serves as an old fashioned alarm clock for the neighbors nearby, but this street is filled with families and the babies’ cries probably do a more effective job of waking the world than the rooster ever could. School doesn’t begin for an hour, but a couple of classroom lights are on and I can see dedicated teachers preparing their lessons. I think lovingly of my mother and friends who, though an ocean and nine time zones away, will rise and also prepare to nurture young minds.

I was once that teacher; the one who drives to work in the dark to meet the educational challenges of the day. Now I am an au pair and though I still commute in the dark, I do so without anxiety. I needn’t plan creative lessons nor teach any content to twenty children; I only have to feed and entertain two. It isn’t heroic and it isn’t intellectually stimulating, but I have time to reflect on this commute and that is a good thing.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Global Reaction

In an effort to expand my social network, I met up with fellow au pairs at their weekly Starbucks gathering the other night. I brought along my new friend Hannah who also works as an au pair for a family up the road from my host family. The other au pairs (who I connected with via a publication for parents in Zurich called The New Stork Times) instantly loved Hannah. The two girls from Canada are avid snowboarders and were making dates to hit the slopes with Hannah as soon as they learned that she also snowboards. I couldn't help but feel a little left out because as a southern Californian, I've only seen snow a handful of times and cannot imagine doing anything as graceful, quick or cool as snowboarding in it. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I walk through snow or simply tolerate it for more than a couple of minutes. It is kind of ironic that I, someone with little experience with snow and no talent for sports, now live in the ski capital of the world.

Anyway, no one could resist Hannah's kiwi charm and while I hadn't won over any new friends yet, I had brought like-minded au pairs together. Sadly though, my feelings of pride turned to guilt when Hannah's purse was stolen in front of our eyes at the Starbucks. I said in front of our eyes, but none of us saw it happen. We were engrossed in conversation when Hannah looked for her bag in the place she had left it only two minutes ealier and noticed it was gone.

The thief probably saw us five young women speaking English and figured we were rich tourists and easy targets. I wanted to tell him/her, 'hey, buddy (buddy means friend, but read it as 'jerk' here), we're not tourists. We live and work here so go rob someone else.' Isn't that strange that I wanted a low-life thief to know we weren't tourists? That in itself deserves a separate post. In any case, it was hard to imagine that someone would cause another person so much shock and hassle for 45 Swiss francs and a cell phone.

Though I felt badly for Hannah, I was fascinated by how the different au pairs responded to the purse situation. Perhaps it is unfair to let these individuals speak for their nations, but let's see where this goes.

See the next post.

Global Reaction Part II

Let us begin with Canada. The two Canadian au pairs who witnessed the theft responded with concern and sympathy. In fact, they both hugged Hannah even though it was the first time they had met. These gals were as sweet as real Canadian maple syrup; O Canada!

The German au pair applauded Hannah for not panicking. She said she knew other people (I think she even said 'Americans') who would have freaked out and made things worse. I admit that Hannah played it cool, but isn't this one of the times you are allowed to panic? I understand why they tell you not to panic before taking a test or visiting the gyno; if you don't, things won't go, well, smoothly. A stolen purse, however, is another matter. A woman's whole life is in her handbag. In Hannah's case, this life included cosmetic items that she had to surrender to customs on her way over from New Zealand and then repurchase. Buying them a third time would have been infuriating and I think we should let the girl panic. It may not bring her bag back, but it just might give her enough adrenaline to do something cool like run for miles without stopping. Okay, maybe not.

Like I said, Hannah handled the situation very well and even laughed through the tears. One might expect someone from down under to say, 'no worries, mate,' and then drink another beer. Hannah's reaction was more realistic, however; she took the appropriate actions by going to the police and reporting the incident. She later said that she felt naive because New Zealand is so safe.
If I had been Hannah, the Swiss reaction would have made me want to hit someone. The Swiss told her that she wasn't the first victim of a purse snatching and told her stories about how much worse it had been for other people they knew. 'Who cares about those other people?' is what I wanted to shout on Hannah's behalf. She was the victim and her belongings were valuable to her. The Swiss even made fun of her for having, and then losing, ten lipsticks from her bag. I guess this passes for consolation in this country. At least now if I become the victim of a crime, I know who I won't come crying to.

I did my best to represent Team USA by giving Hannah all the cash I could spare and maintaining a grim composure out of respect for her situation. Unlike the Swiss, I believe you can't be the one to initiate jokes about someone else's misfortune in order to make them feel better. I was thinking I could tell Hannah, 'well, now you can go shopping for a new handbag,' but I'm saving that until the time is right.

* Update * The police found Hannah's handbag and returned it to her. The cash, cell phone and a chocolate bar were missing (my god they love their chocolate here), but her IDs, address book and snakeskin wallet were still there.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Second Chances

Original art adorns the walls of our new flat.

It comes with an espresso machine. Yes, this is even nicer than our real home!

This antique secretary chest has been in our landlord's family for over one hundred years.

When I first learned that our Zurich move would become a reality, excitement and new worries occupied my thoughts. Surprisingly, I wasn’t concerned that English is not a primary language here (although I should have been, see above), nor did I fear dirty diapers or the ‘terrible twos.’ Instead, I was terrified that we wouldn’t make any friends. This fear drove me to sign up for a number of Yahoo groups (sorry, Goog) for English speaking Zurichers who share interests. I was thrilled to discover that one group dines out together every month at different restaurants in Zurich. You don’t need to use hiking or any type of exercise as an excuse to go out with these people; you just show up and eat. Yes, this is my kind of club.

Upon skimming the long list of Zurich Yahoo groups, I found myself gravitating toward some unusual (for me) links. You’re offering a board game club? I’m there. You say pie of the month club, and I’ll even run the thing. But when you say Stitch and Bitch, a local group that meets to knit and chat, you’ve really got me thinking. I’ve never created a handicraft that I didn’t later want to chuck out the window, but this Stitch and Bitch group intrigued me. Was this the 2007 version of the quilting bee? Fans of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books will recall that quilting bees involve knitting socks for soldiers and the menfolk, embroidering linens for one’s trousseau, and most importantly, swapping juicy morsels of gossip. If these were the sewing circles of old, how do today’s women stitch and bitch? I envision modern women seated not in the pews of a local church, but instead comfortably gathered at a friendly Starbucks, knitting scarves for their children while sipping lattes. It sounds like fun.

After actually signing up for some of these mailing lists, I realized that many similar groups probably exist at home in the bay area. If I had always wanted to join a book club or learn how to knit, why did I wait until I moved to Switzerland to do so? The answer lies in the fact that we have been granted the opportunity of a lifetime. Not only do we get to experience European life in one of its most beautiful cities, we also get to do things that we would never dream of at home. Though there is nothing wrong with being an au pair, I would never consider nannying full time in the US. Here, however, working as an au pair meets my needs to a tee and has opened the realm of possibility in other areas of my life. If I can start a new job in a new country, then joining book clubs and knitting should be small potatoes to me.

Maybe that is what Mickey was thinking when he started a conversation with a Swiss couple at a “Mexican” restaurant the other night. We don’t usually initiate conversations with strangers at home, but with fresh confidence, the clean Swiss sky is the limit.

Friday, January 12, 2007


When Giulia and I grew tired of peekaboo the other day, I grabbed a stack of children's books from her sister's room and we cozied up on the sofa. At seven months, Giulia probably couldn't follow the story, but she could enjoy the pictures and at the very least, she could chew the cardboard pages. It was only when I sat down and opened the first book that I realized I couldn't read any of the stories; they were all in German, of course. I felt ridiculous; I'd never not been able to read something in my life. I suddenly sympathized with my former first grade students as I used cognates and context clues to decipher the meaning of a book about farm animals. Fortunately, Giulia did not notice.

My German illiteracy plagued me again the other evening when I bought what I thought were disposable makeup removing cloths. (I consider these wasteful but waterproof mascara leaves a girl with few options). I opened the package and wiped my eyelids with the moist towelette. It felt tingly. "Oh my god, Mickey; it's burning!" Okay, so I panicked. All of a sudden, I was convinced that I had applied nail polish remover to my face. This was a bit far-fetched, but pasta sauce comes in a tube here so why couldn't nail polish remover come in the form of a pre-soaked cloth? My thirty-day listen and speak German program taught me how to say, 'where is the opera house?' and 'I have three daughters,' but 'avoid contact with eyes' was not covered. Thankfully, I did not need to call the Swiss equivalent of 9-1-1. Paola read the package the following day and confirmed that these were in fact makeup removing cloths.

These incidences are mildly amusing, but my sense of humor is wearing thin because these stories repeat themselves. Trying to read the instructions on using the washer/dryer was like trying to crack the Da Vinci code. Trying to copy and paste text with German language browser settings was also maddening. I overreacted again when I learned from a Jeopardy clue that 'cervalles' is French for pig's brain. I had purchased and cooked some sausage earlier that day labeled 'cervelas' and bought it because it seemed local and inexpensive. "Mickey, I think I served you brain sausage for dinner!" It tasted good so it didn't really matter, but I wanted to kick myself for buying an unknown meat on sale. Thanks to Google, I now know that cervelas are not necessarily brains; the name refers to the shape of the sausage, not the contents. Talk about mystery meat.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Enough is Enough

As soon as I asked my employer whether or not she owned a cheese slicer, I felt foolish because I already knew the answer. "We may have one somewhere," she said, "but that isn't very Swiss." I puzzled over this for a while; why don't the people of Switzerland, a nation known both for its efficiency and love of cheese, embrace cheese slicers?

I believe that it is because they decided at one point that enough was enough. Let me explain. The Swiss had been cutting cheese with knives for centuries and I suppose the cheese slicer was not enough of a work saver to entice the Swiss to change their ways. A knife worked just as well, and for the Swiss, that was enough.

Likewise, I believe a similar mentality prevents the Swiss from purchasing disposable paper napkins en masse. Mickey and I don't eat a meal without paper napkins (1. I'm a mess and 2. cloth napkins will be on the wedding registry) and were initially surprised that the grocery stores do not carry this meal time must have. Maybe the Swiss are neater than we are or maybe meal time is sacred enough to deserve proper linens. In any case, the convenience of paper napkins is outweighed by the fact that cloth napkins are good enough for the Swiss.

Perhaps every culture can be defined by the moment at which it declares, 'enough.' For the Amish, the technology in use one hundred years ago was enough. For the Japanese and others, a simple futon, blanket, and pillow (as opposed to the bed frame, head board, box spring, mattress, sheets, etc. we use in the US) are enough for sleeping.

Engulfed in a culture of bigger, more, faster, Americans have trouble deciding when enough is enough. If you don't believe me I have two words for you, 'Hummer Limo.' This culture of excess negatively impacts the environment and our health. So, perhaps there is something to be said for the rejection of the cheese slicer, paper napkins and all else that is a little too convenient for our own good. I'll take a cue from the Swiss and try to live more simply, right after I eat a burger the size of my head. Yum.

Not Yet Fraulein Maria

Forget learning German or even Swiss German, I need to learn 'baby,' pronto. I started my job as a nanny caring for two little girls. The two year old attends daycare three days per week so most of the time it will be just me and baby. She has a routine with which I am not familiar and different cries that alert her parents of her various needs. Giulia truly is an angelic seven month old (in fact, she has the roundest, most perfect head you've ever seen), but at one point I could not get her to stop crying. If I understood 'baby' I would have known that that particular cry meant 'hold me in your lap while sitting in the chair by the window singing the entire score from The Sound of Music.' Until I become the Doctor Doolittle of babies, trial and error (and Rodgers and Hammerstein) are my method.

Overall, Giulia and the other members of my host family are fantastic. Paola, my employer assembled a welcome package that made me feel just that and then some. It contained an unintimidating book on Swiss German, Swiss chocolates, an invitation to have a traditional raclette dinner with Paola and Lionel and a phone so fancy that it may even have 'gaydar.' This family makes me question everything I have heard about the Swiss being cold or difficult to get to know. Paola is incredibly organized, yet warm and flexible. Yes, Google, I'm feeling lucky.


This is our tiny studio apartment. We found a new place and will be moving soon.
Here I am using the kitchenette.
One of the best views of the city of Zurich is from here, the Lindenhof.
Google welcomes us with a cake.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


We arrived in Zurich early on Saturday morning. My feelings as I walked through the airport were difficult to describe. I was nervous and excited, of course, but there was also this feeling of emptiness and expectation that accompanies the start of something brand new. When I moved from Berkeley to Scotland during my junior year of college, many important aspects of my life remained constant; I was still a student of anthropology at a large university in an English-speaking country. Now, I am beginning a new job as a nanny in a Swiss German-speaking country with vague goals involving planning a wedding and researching a future career. In other words, nothing is as clear or familiar as it once was.

Anyway, we are safe and fighting jet lag with Ambien. Our temporary studio apartment is decent but so small that our hunt for longer-term accommodations has become more urgent. I have realized that because we are so far from home, the new place must be one I want to come home to. I won't be particular about the square footage (or meterage?), but our Swiss abode must possess some unique charm or small luxury like a fireplace, rooftop terrace large enough for a container garden, or perhaps an inviting sofa. Mickey is more practical about the whole thing, insisting that location, amenities and cost are of utmost importance.

Whenever I feel homesick, I try to remember a fact my mother mentioned about the travelers of long ago. When immigrants from Holland, Ireland, Scandinavia and elsewhere moved to America in the early part of the twentieth century, they boarded the ship 'knowing that they would not come back,' she said. When they said goodbye to their loved ones, they knew it would be for the last time. Like those travelers, I have left my home country in search of a different life, but I have it so much easier. I live comfortably and did not have to fear getting scurvy on a two-month voyage across the Atlantic. More important, when I long for home or a familiar face, I can email or call someone or resort to a "comfort movie." Does anyone besides me have comfort movies? You must; if you are reading this, leave me a comment about yours. My comfort movies are those that I don't mind watching over and over again that make me laugh, recall fond memories and feel at ease. The Sound of Music, Wayne's World, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Bridget Jones' Diary are on my list. Anyway, Google and modern technology have made relocation comparatively easy.

One of the ongoing themes of my blog will be cultural differences between Switzerland and America. I will try to avoid the cliches we've all heard from anyone who's ever had a Eurail pass: 'the pace of life is slower in Europe, Americans rush' or 'the water served in restaurants is sparkling or mineral,' blah, blah, blah. I love the US of A and will never say that everything here is superior to everything there. Likewise, I'll try not to do the opposite out of homesickness or frustration.

That being said, I don't think I've been ordering the right items on Swiss menus. I can't bear being the person who is too picky to enjoy foreign cuisine, so we'll say that I cannot yet navigate a Swiss menu properly. Last night I ordered a "mango" margarita at a local bar. If kids drank margaritas, this would have been the kiddy 'rita; it was tiny, rimmed with sugar (not salt) and tasted like it had never touched a mango. Note to self: do not order a margarita in Switzerland. I'll probably have to learn this lesson again when Mickey and I explore Zurich's version of Mexican food. Anyway, I also bombed out on soup and pizza ("pepperoni" is peppers, not meat).

Photos to follow.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A Swiss Miss No Longer

This holiday season Mickey and I were proud to announce our engagement to all of our family members and friends. I've told the story of how it all happened so many times, but it is special to us and I believe it deserves some attention in this blog.

The Google holiday party is in some ways the biggest night of the year for Mickey and me. I take great pleasure in choosing a gown (never a repeat :) and getting all prettied up. For the 2004 holiday party, my cousin generously lent me her Bob Mackie prom dress. Anyway, this was the fourth year that Mickey invited me to be his date and we had a fabulous time despite very poor sushi.

During a lull in the party, Mickey and I were sitting on a sofa talking and canoodling. He told me that he loved me and wanted to marry me. Because he didn't drop to one knee or present me with a ring, I didn't think that this was really "it." I recall saying, 'I want to marry you, too!' thinking that this meant that we would look for a ring and eventually he would propose in some elaborate way. Of course, a ring of my choosing would have to be ready in advance of his proposal atop Kilimanjaro with a gospel choir. It was clear that I had seen too many romantic movies and far too many episodes of TLC's Perfect Proposal. Later that night Mickey mentioned the proposal and I told him that he hadn't proposed yet. Where was the knee? the ring? I can live without the mountain top and choreography, but how about the ring in the cake trick? But he had in fact proposed in a sincere, Mickey way and that is what I love. I accepted and that is our story.

We decided not to tell anyone until we had the ring and could tell them in person. This meant that our big news was delivered in a first come, first served manner. My own mother didn't learn of our engagement until it was old news among Googlers. Telling people in person was certainly worth the wait, though, because we got to witness our loved ones' reactions and even capture some of them on video. Though none of the reactions were negative, the positive responses ran the gamut from screams of joy to tears to 'well, it's about time.' The love and support we received from family and friends has made this a very happy time for me.

While we were in Ohio over the holiday break, Mickey's parents hosted an engagement party for us. I met members of Mickey's family who I had never met before and felt incredibly grateful for their blessing.

We plan to wed in the spring or summer of 2008.