Tuesday, February 26, 2008

End of the Night Shift

A friend of a friend is a radiologist who works for an American hospital but recently moved to Zurich to avoid working the night shift but still work for the same American hospital. Here in Zurich, due to the time zone, he works normal hours by continuing to work the U.S. night shift. And why not? All the work is done by interpreting medical images which are easily transferred via the computer. So perhaps the end of “night shifts,” at least for jobs that can be done via a computer, is over. Now that's globalization.

Monday, February 25, 2008

New York Food. Now in Zurich.

I have found the best restaurant in Zurich. It has an ice machine. I couldn’t figure out how to use it, but still. It is there. This naturally makes it number one in my list. The restaurant is called New York Food. It is right near the Central tram stop.

You can order a sub sandwich from the counter, just like at Subway, except here, you start off ordering in German and then they answer you in English. (Even my German friend got spoken to in English—probably because he was with me). You can even get your sandwich toasted Quiznos style. Sandwiches start at 5,90 CHF. With a small fountain beverage (where you fill it yourself and can attempt the ice machine), expect to spend 9-10 CHF total. There are plenty of places to sit inside. They also have pizzas.

My German friend was very excited to order a BLT. He didn’t know what one was until his first trip to California where he was educated accordingly. Overall, a great spot for a quick American tasting lunch.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Paper Recycling

About every six weeks, there is paper recycling day in Switzerland. It is always announced on a big poster in the middle of town, as forgetting this day means that your paper will pile up for 12 weeks straight.

Unfortunately, when I moved to Switzerland, I realized my garbage and recycling habits were underdeveloped. No longer could I throw things in one big bin and be done with it. No. Recycling in Switzerland is a timely project. Each kind of item has its own place and process.

Paper, for instance, must be tied with strings in neat bundles no larger than about 12 inches high. If you decide it is easier to put out your paper in a paper bag (because let's be honest, that makes complete sense) they will not collect it and leave you instead with both your incorrect paper bundles as well as a note detailing why it was not collected.

Above is a photo of the neat paper bundles that appear every six weeks. When I see these piled in front of my apartment on Friday nights, I always groan and go upstairs for my Friday night fun--trying to tie this stuff in neat bundles. Once, I ran out of string and had to resort to thread as the stores were closed.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

What time is it?

For over a year and a half, we have depended on our trusty clock tower, which we can view from our window, to know what time it is. But now, we are in a state of distress as our trusted Swiss advisor has lost its face. But funny enough, it still dings every fifteen minutes 24/7. I just feel bad for the guys working up there. It must be awfully loud!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Shiny Gleaming Garbage Cans

No one else on the set of benches I am sitting on while waiting for the train in Zurich seems to notice that someone is actually scrubbing and shining a garbage can behind us. The Swiss are too busy looking at three things: their watches, the time the train comes in, and their watches. And if the train dares to be late, it will be a news item the next day. But to me, the real news item is that garbage cans are worthy of cleaning.

Friday, February 15, 2008

I saw the sun!

Well, the fog has returned to Zurich today, but for the last week we had bright sun and this is really something for a town that gets more rain a year than London.

Pictured below is the view from my office window in Zurich of the sunset last night. I like my new office because it's 3 sides window, 1 side wall! Glad I took this pic to remember the sky as I'm sure it will be awhile again before the clouds move out.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Valentine’s Day. In German, it is “Valentinstag”. Naturally. Because the German speakers always manage to take many words and somehow make them into one.

Anyhow, it’s been fun to observe all the men walking around town carrying upside down bouquets because you don’t see that too often—buying flowers seem to be the women’s job. But in either case, whenever the Swiss buy a bouquet of flowers, they carry the flowers facing down. My husband and I ponder this every Saturday during the market that goes on outside our apartment.

Cards don’t seem to be a big thing in Switzerland. For example, on the Snapfish.ch website, you can’t order a photo card like you can in the US. The only things I notice for sale for Valentine’s Day are flowers and chocolate. And mainly there are tulips, not roses for sale. Things are seasonal here, just like in the grocery stores. Right now the only fruits for sale are apples, oranges, bananas, and pears. Others are few and far between, but the one fruit the Swiss did break out in honor of today is the strawberry. These have been in both grocery stores I was in today. And the one across the street from me also had strawberry shaped pastries so naturally I bought two of those.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Thoughts on the Election from Abroad

I have made history. I have voted in the first online primary ever for expatriates. Only those who registered with Democrats Abroad could vote online, there was no online Republican primary. But that was fine with me as I was planning to vote Democratic. Once registered, voting took about one minute. Just had to sign in with name and password and choose the candidate and that was it. Very simple, fast, and efficient. A good experience overall.

From reading the Swiss newspapers, it is hard to tell who the Swiss want to win. The few articles I’ve read in Heute, the local free paper, seem to simply say, “Anything will be better than Bush,” and leave it at that.

The one last week began—“Who will be the next American President—a woman, a black man, a Vietnam Vet, or a Millionaire?” I guess that’s one way to look at it. But aren’t they all millionaires?
The big question that’s been bugging me when it comes to the coverage of the race so far is: Why is it Hillary versus Obama? Shouldn’t it be Senator Clinton versus Senator Obama? Or Barrack versus Hillary? It doesn’t seem fair to use the woman’s first name and the opposing candidate’s last name. At least be consistent. We never had to hear about Bill versus Gore. Or John versus Romney. But even a paper in the UK had this headline last year: “Hillary and Obama vote to cut off Iraq funding.”

Women, like men, deserve respect. If we want change, it should start with a name. It’s something subtle and sometimes unnoticed. But really, something this small would be a huge step ahead for all women. Whether one becomes president or not.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Vienna Opera House

A visit to the Vienna Opera House is one of the top destinations for any tourist in Vienna. But a better deal than just taking a 35-minute tour for 6,50 Euros is to actually see a performance for half that price. It requires no advance planning other than showing up an hour before performance time to pick up a standing room ticket. Available for either 3,50 Euros or 2 Euros depending where you stand (and they only take cash), it’s the perfect way to experience a more authentic flavor of Vienna. At the 3,50 Euro price, you can watch from right below the Emperor’s Box. When you get in the auditorium, simply do what the Viennese do—tie a scarf around the place you want to stand. And then you can mingle with the dressed up Viennese, watch women fix themselves in the hallway mirrors, and drink wine (that costs more than your ticket!) until show time. And if you’ve seen enough opera at intermission, there’s no guilt in leaving early.

Europe--Love is harder the second year around

At the beginning of this month, we visited Vienna--our first time in Vienna, but our second time in Austria. (We were there in November of 2006 in Salzburg). Back then, I sang along like any other joyful and amazed tourist on the Sound of Music tour, admired the fortress on the hill, and took in a touristy Mozart Dinner concert. All without one thought of, well, boredom.

Fast forward 14 months to Vienna. I liked Vienna--any city that loves and supports classical music has my admiration. But it wasn't love at first sight. And I don't know if any other European city can be any more. Because I'm tainted. I've been to 12 European countries so far (see visual of countries visited), many of them several times. I am no longer easily impressed by Europe. And this makes me sad.

It used to be any sighting of a huge gothic cathedral or a palace gave me goosebumps. But when I saw the cathedral in Vienna, I just thought: it's dirty. And it's dark.

When I saw the Hofburg palace, I thought, well, it looks just like most European palaces. And then I felt mean for being so critical. Shouldn't I be swept away by its beauty? Shouldn't I be taking 20 pictures of it from every angle like the other tourists surrounding me?

I feel guilty for not loving Vienna more. And it's really bringing me down.

According to my husband, I need to accept who I've become instead of fighting it. According to him, I've become a well-traveled person. I need to think of it as a good thing that I'm no longer amazed and impressed by everything. Because it means I've seen a lot. Learned a lot. Become a more educated and well-rounded person.

But somehow for me, that's not an easy thing to embrace. I don't want to be a person that's apathetic. I don't want to be a person that's bored. That always thinks, "Big deal, I used to live right below a 10th century castle."

My husband has a business trip to Athens in a couple weeks. He wants me to come along for the weekend. But I don't know if I want to. Because I've been to Athens. And somehow, I feel like the second time around won't have the same magic. I don't want to be there thinking, "Oh yeah, there's that Acropolis again."

But maybe I need to look at it from another viewpoint--one that says that I'll see the real town I missed on my first trip when my camera was an permanent attachment to my body. That this time I'll notice the people instead of the postcards.

So maybe travel is more interesting the second time around. I just have to convince myself of that. And fast. Before we decide the heck with Europe. Let's go to China.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Smile and Nod

Smiling and nodding. Can I tell you how tired I am of it? Before I came to Switzerland, I used the good ole smile and nod on various occasions—when I didn’t like what someone said but the person was of authority or someone you wouldn’t want to offend. Or to speed along a conversation that I didn’t want to continue. But I never used it to the extent and reason I do now—because I don’t understand what’s being said around me.

Now don't get me wrong. I want people to speak German to me. I want to learn German. But some days it's just really hard. You just want to feel normal again. And smile when something is funny or cute. Grimace when it's gross. Frown when it's mean. But as an expat, I have two main expressions: a blank stare. Or a smile and nod. And I'd really like to retire both.

For instance, it’s a very weird situation to be hanging out on a snack break in the company kitchen but barely understand a word about what’s being discussed. There are various strategies for this situation, such as smile and nod, look out the window, keep stuffing your face, drink enough beer until you don’t care, or a good combination of the bunch, but all are somehow weird. The fact that I’ve taken German for a year and a half only makes matters worse as I feel like I should be able to contribute something in a German conversation. And I really want to. But when 3 native speakers get going fast and are most likely using slang and Swiss German besides, I don’t stand a chance. And I feel like an idiot. Not to mention very lonely.

It’s not like I always felt comfortable in all situations in the U.S. But here, it takes much more courage and endurance to get through a day. Before I step outside the apartment I take a deep breath—one so I can hold it as I walk past the smokers on my step, and two to give me power to get through the day. Because after a day of smiling and nodding, sometimes all that's left are tears.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A Note to the IRS

Dear IRS,

As you well (and gleefully) know, Americans expats are the only expats in the developed world that are taxed by two countries. It is now 2008 and we are still being haunted by the state of Virginia for 2006 taxes as you claim that we underreported income by one hundred dollars. And because of that you are charging us an additional 580 dollars in late fees and interest. Even though we already paid you over 600 dollars in late fees and interest in December.

Ok. So maybe we messed up a little. But give us a break. We have two countries to contend with. And we can’t file US taxes until the Swiss ones are done. So therefore, we will always have to file late and pay penalties. Plus, we only lived in Virginia for 6 months is 2006. So maybe you could give us a break.

But my main problem is that if you expect your expats to pay taxes from overseas, then you should send all tax related items to our overseas address. Instead, you send them to my mother in Illinois. Who then has to forward them to us at great cost, but most importantly, at great time.

So by the time we receive for instance, a letter telling us we owe and additional 580 dollars in late fees, we are already too late for the late fee payment because it has past the 30 days from when the letter was written.

So we pay the late free, spend 30 USD to mail it, only to receive another letter, via my mother, that you are after us again for more fees and interest because we were late with the late fee.

There must be a better way. Please. If you’re going to tax me, at least have the courtesy to send my mail to me so I get it on time. Then if I’m late, it’s completely my fault. Or better yet, give expats the benefit of the doubt and let us file up to a year late penalty-free. Don’t we deserve a little credit? After all, we’re supporting two countries.

And please. Be sure to tell the election officials to count our votes. And that we’d probably vote for any candidate who would actually send us some mail. Because it seems we’re mostly ignored over here by any U.S. government official. Except of course, at tax time.

Monday, February 04, 2008

No Matter What, I Speak American

I have just about given up on learning German. It is pointless. No matter how hard I try to speak it (and I am finally to the point where I can say basic things and do transactions without thinking about it), I get a reply in English.

Ok. I know my German's not perfect, and I have an accent, but my language skills will never get beyond intermediate because no one gives me a chance.

Thus, while the world sometimes blames Americans for being so, well, English-speaking, I have to say: this is not always the American's complete fault. Because there are two sides to any conversation. And for me in Europe, one side usually consists of English. And this side is not usually mine.

Most co-workers, impatient with my slow speaking or stumbling (whichever may be the case depending how tired I am), talk to me in English. This weekend, both in Zurich and in Vienna, I spoke German and was answered back in English. At the Zurich airport, when I ordered a sandwich. At the hotel in Vienna when I said I had a room reserved. And at many other restaurants, cafes, concert halls and other places throughout Vienna. Despite the English replies, I would continue my German, and they would continue their English.

In German-speaking Europe, I'm always having a two-language conversation. Therefore my German listening comprehension never improves despite my best efforts.

So in conclusion, let's not always blame the American for not learning another language; the rest of the world is also at fault for one main reason: they know English. Because in most major cities in Western and Eastern Europe you don't need any other language to survive.

Even the hotel clerk in Vienna called the airport/train station to see if we could check our bags early. When she started asking about it in German, the person on the line said, no, "English only please." And she switched easily. But still. In her own town she can't survive without English.

So with that, I'll say "Auf Wiedersehen." And please answer back with a hearty "Good-bye."


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