Thursday, May 31, 2007


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?