Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Non-smoking Glass Box of Baden

I loved visiting Berlin because it was so free of the smoke that chokes Switzerland’s public transportation platforms. The train station at Potsdamer Platz was full of clear air and the floors were spotless, not a cigarette butt in sight.

It’s a very different site to come back to Zurich, where smoke rises from the tracks like it’s a bakery but smells more like a bar. I think what’s upsetting about this, is that as a non-smoker, I have no choice but to breathe this air. Set up smoking rooms, fine, but to just have the main transport artery of the country in such a disgusting environment doesn’t make Zurich seem very ahead of the times or classy. After all, this is the first impression most people get of the city.

While other European countries and cities are banning smoking in stations all together, or creating small walled-off smoking areas, in my town of Baden, it's just the opposite--they have one tiny non-smoking waiting room on the tracks. But since it's summer, it's way to hot to sit in a glass cage, (you can see where the non-smokers rank), so I have developed a new train waiting strategy. I stand as far away from all people as possible at the edge of the tracks and only when the train pulls up do I come closer. It’s just too disgusting. You move over to avoid smoke being blown in your face on one side, only to have someone on the other side’s ashes burning little holes in your clothes.

I liked what David Sedaris said about the Japanese smoking signs in his new book “When You Are Engulfed in Flames”. Instead of saying “Smoking will kill you,” the signs in Japan say things more hard-hitting, like “cigarettes are 700 degrees and you hold them at the height of a child’s head”. These signs more than anything else, make me really interested in visiting Japan. I think Switzerland could use signs like these. Because dying and caring about the health of others are not really a consideration here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What a (Swiss) Day

Today I had one of those days. Well, one of those days you could only have in Switzerland. Just a bunch of little things adding up to utter irritation. I sweated in the 85 degree office. I endured the "oh, yeah, we have to do this in English," comments of million-language fluent peoples. I went to lunch at 12.45 so there were no sandwiches left at the bakery. I had to work until 7 so I couldn't go shopping for our party on Friday night and will now have to shop on Friday in Germany as the Swiss stores will be closed. I had to write in English so it could be translated into German and then into French. Who knows what it said by the end of this translation train. Then a bunch of people were not standing to the proper side of the escalator in the Zurich train station so I patiently stood behind them only to have a Swiss woman come barreling past me, scraping my leg with her bag and almost knocking everyone over. Great. But at least my train ride home was actually cool for a change. And that is really something.

Long Live the Ampelmann!

So much of Berlin seems to have tried to rid itself of its past, or is still figuring out how to deal with it. But they have left up the light signals from the former east and west, so you can still clearly see when you’re walking over the now mostly non-existent Wall. This failed to lose its allure for me, even after three days in Berlin, so I have many shots of the so called “Ampelmännchen” (little traffic light man—what a very German word indeed). In this photo you can clearly see the two different lights—the generic one from the west, and the 1961 designed Ampelmann from the east.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Street Deutsch

Let’s say you put money in a parking meter in Germany and it fails to work. With a limited vocabulary, you may only be able to express things like, “Es funktioniert nicht,” (It doesn’t work). This is a rather boring phrase and does not express the real emotion of losing two Euros (especially with the terrible exchange rates these days). In this case, you need to forgo the grammar book and pull out a little street German. These are all phrases heard, duh, on the street. It’s important to be able to pick these out for future reference. Here’s one from this very situation, picked up from a women in Berlin. So now you don’t have to say, “it doesn’t work,” You can do like a real mad German woman and say:

“Meine Gute! Was ist passiert?” (My God! What happened?)

Or instead of learning words like “businessmen” and “to work”, how about what to say when your business partner stands you up to an important awards ceremony and you are stuck on a 3-hour train to Geneva without him? This was another complicated situation I was fortunate enough to witness, and this is what you say:

“Ich bin stinksauer!” (I am pissed!)

So now you know two of the most useful phrases in the German language. And that’s worth a Zertifikat if I do say so myself.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The People of Berlin

In Switzerland, people don't even look at you when you pass them on the street. They are appropriately, very neutral. But in Berlin, they really get into things--either nicely or angrily. Overall, the people in Berlin showed much more emotional range than the people in Zurich.

When we first arrived and were in the subway station trying to figure out the direction of the hotel on our map, a friendly guy helped us (auf deutsch, natürlich). That evening, we were asked by a young Berliner if we liked his haircut as he wasn't sure if he liked it. It was all very amusing.

But then there were the crabby Berliners. The restaurant bathroom attendant at a pub where we ate--I didn't know the German tradition of bathroom attendants at restaurants since the Swiss have nothing like that. So I didn't have any change and apologized to him, saying, "I'm sorry, I don't have any change." He said back, "I know," in a very rude voice. Needless to say, I felt terrible but my husband and I did manage to spend 25 Euros on dinner at the establishment so it's not like they were really losing out.

Then at this same pub, a bunch of angry old people tried to sit between us and all around us while we had just started eating. They were taking chairs, waving their crutches at us, it was really ridiculous. Finally our waiter had to tell them to leave us alone. And we watched them go to another restaurant and do the same thing to some other people.

But when you think about it, it makes sense for a people with such a divided and tragic history to have a wider range of emotions than people from a country like Switzerland. It's interesting to see how people mimic their country's history--and it shows itself in fashion too. The fashion of Berlin looked as confused as its city's history. People wore just about anything--socks with sandals, gladiator leather boots in 95 degree weather, orange crocs with red bermuda shorts, and women sported blue hair. Needless to say, while a little strange, it was very refreshing to see so much color, as the Swiss favorite color of choice, as I've mentioned before, is the very neutral black.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Crop Off My Shoes, See if I Care

Today at work we had to brief an illustrator to draw a storyboard for a commercial. The TV spot was going to feature a woman of my age and the art director decided he wanted the woman in the ad to be wearing a shirt like mine.

So he took a photo of me to send to the illustrator so he would know the kind of high fashion we wanted the woman to be wearing in his drawing.

I took this as a compliment until, upon opening the photo on his computer, the art director said,

"Well, we don't want those shoes in there, so I'll just crop it," and with one fatal mouse swoop, he managed to not only reduce me to a double amputee, but also to squash my pride.

But I'm the first to admit that Birkenstocks are not the most flattering shoe in the world, but I am just not the stiletto type and refuse to suffer for fashion, especially since my day involves a lot of walking to and from work.

So imagine my silent glee, when coming home from work, a woman gets on the train, takes off her high heels to rest her feat on the seat opposite her, and has two big bandages covering her toes.

All I could think was, ah, if my art director only had his mouse now, her feet would be reduced to pixels with no real purpose--except to give the delete key a reason for being.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Don't Call Me, I'll Call You

As I was about to dump the vegetables intended for my salad onto my mac and cheese as to not waste them (see Salad Surprise below), the phone rang.

It was my husband and he was teaching some Polish guy in Warsaw how to play darts. I heard bar noise, I heard my husband explaining the rules. I heard the Polish guy asking questions. But I didn't hear my husband answer my three "hellos".

Then I heard different numbers on the phone being pressed, obviously by mistake. This is one of those classic situations where the spouse left behind while her husband is on a business trip finds out something she shouldn't and ends the marriage.

However, last night my husband called me for real and told me he'd be at a bar tonight playing darts. And what do you know. He's good to his word. Not that I ever doubted him anyway.

And by the way, next time I'll skip the raw onions on the mac and cheese. They're making my stomach burn.

Salad Surprise

As I was dumping a good amount of fresh washed lettuce into a salad bowl, a leaf starts moving. Turns out it was a nice fat green worm. He survived living in my fridge for 24 hours and a lettuce washing and was curled up on a leaf waving his tail at me.

Needless to say I was not as happy about seeing him and promptly deposited him outside on the balcony along with a few lettuce pieces while dumping the rest of the lettuce in the trash.

So now, having had to work until 8pm and not getting home until 9pm, my fridge is bare and the salad I planned to eat is no good and no stores are open.

So what will I eat? The trusted never spoiled or wormy Kraft Mac and Cheese. Thank God I went home to the states at the beginning of this month and picked up some good old processed foods or I'd be starving tonight.

Now if you'll excuse me, my noodles have boiled.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cherries, Gladiolas, Sunflowers and a Castle

On Saturday we finally had a nice summer day in Switzerland. On Sunday it rained again, so in the last 2 weekends we are 1/4. Needless to say, we always take advantage of a nice day when we can since they don't come too often.

The best thing about July in Switzerland are the fields of sunflowers. I love biking through them. My husband suggested a new ride that he had scoped out, but since it involved climbing 2 very large hills I was not so excited, but because the ride went to a castle I finally was convinced.

The ride from Baden to Regensberg didn't let me down. Not only was I always climbing up and up, but we found plenty of fields of sunflowers to keep me happy as well as a couple of cherry trees that we picked a few cherries from. The castle emerged from a distance and was worth the final hill up. The town of Regensberg is beautiful, small, and has great views of the surrounding area including Zurich's airport. We ate our lunch on a bench overlooking the area and then paid a franc to climb the tower of the castle.

On the way home, we stopped at a farm where we could pick our own gladiolas from the field. For 6 francs we got 5 red and white gladiolas and I tied them to the back of my bike and rode home through the hills looking my most European ever.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Gotta Love the USA

Every time I return to the U.S. I am always amazed by something. Like this sign that was as big as some European buildings advertising a quarter pound Polish Sausage and a 20 oz drink with free refills for only $1.50 at CostCo. There are not many places with a deal like this left in the world.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

My European looking, American bought wardrobe

When I was in Chicago over the 4th, my mother-in-law took me shopping at Oakbrook Mall. Three of my favorite stores are all together there--The Limited, The GAP, and Express.

Since I moved to Europe, my shopping habits are much different. While I don't consciously look for clothes in black and white, that's what I always end up getting.

After my shopping trip with my mother-in-law, I had acquired:
1. A black, white and tan skirt
2. A white shirt
3. An off-white shirt
4. A black and off-white shirt

It all sounds a bit boring, but my European colleagues have been very complimentary of my new clothes, so my fashion tastes must be adjusting well. Today, for instance, I wore a shirt I never would have worn 5 years ago (it is very European looking--long and flared)and got 2 compliments so far--one from a German woman and one from a Swiss guy.

But the best part is, I got all my European looking clothes at American prices. And that is really the icing on the cake.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Four Seasons: Winter, Winter, Winter and Winter

After living in Switzerland for over 2 years, I think it is fair for me to say that the weather sucks. Right now it's mid-July, and it feels like March. It's been raining for three days straight and it's so cold that I considered getting out my little space heater to warm my toes. I keep thinking, maybe I'm not being fair, that this is just a freak incident, but then I thought back to last July, when my aunt was here and we went hiking. I couldn't even hold my hiking sticks without my fingers freezing off. So no, this weather, sadly enough, appears to be normal.

My husband, being the great boss that he is, organized a team-building outing for his department. It was a build-a-bridge very engineering activity somewhere outdoors near Lake Zurich. Even they were calling him this morning, saying his event may be cancelled due to weather. Never mind the fact that this weekend he went out of his way to buy vegi burgers for one of his employees to grill at the lunch, where he figured the choice of sausages or sausages wouldn't really cut it for the vegetarian on his team.

The main problem is that in Switzerland, there is just not much to do when the weather is bad. Sundays are the worst since no stores are open. Yesterday, after jogging in the rain, we decided to check out Musee Bizarre in Baden for lack of anything else to do. Like most Swiss museums, it took longer to get there than to go through the museum. There was about three tiny rooms of exhibit and the museum was the size of our apartment. Still, the size did not seem to influence the price, as we still paid 20 CHF total for our 10 minutes of amusement.

Of course, there are pleasant days scattered here and there. You just never know when they will be. The only thing you can guarantee is that they'll probably fall on a Wednesday.

The only redeeming factor to all of this is that at least now I'm starting to understand why no one smiles. It's hard to look happy when the even the sun is a foreigner. It's November on everyone's faces all year, but really, who can blame them?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

America's Shameless Marketing of Debt

When I was shopping at home last week in the Chicago area (which was a lot since the prices are so much better than in Switzerland), it never failed that while at the cash register I was asked if I would like to save an additional 15% by opening a store credit card.

Now on one hand, this pleased me because I could understand exactly what I was being asked. But on the other hand, it scared me.

Every store in America appears to have its coordinating credit card. The Limited, Guess, Express, Kohl's, you name it, you'll get asked if you want their card. If I had been so inclined, I could have opened over 10 credit cards while I was home, flown back to Switzerland, and racked up debt for as long as I pleased.

Instead, I paid for everything with dollars, which appears to be as foreign to the salespeople as if I had whipped out some Swiss Francs. Holding my $50 bill up to the light, they stared at it like I was a counterfeit criminal. No wonder people use their credit cards. That kind of treatment is just uncalled for. It was all very different from handing over a similar amount in Switzerland, where 50 CHF is treated as pocket change and isn't given a second glance at the register.

Anyhow, the highlight of my US shopping trips happened at the GAP at the Chicago Outlet Mall. I found a headband in the sale section for 47 cents. Yes. I could not believe it, and had to buy it just on principal that in Switzerland you can't even buy a banana for that price. And as I took the headband to the counter, the salesman rang it up, with tax, to 51 cents. And then he added,

"Would you like to save an additional 15% today by opening a GAP credit card?"

It took everything in my power not to laugh. Common sense, it appears, has disappeared in America along with the concept of saving. But I, I took the path of a good Swiss resident, and paid my 51 cents right then and there. In cold, hard cash.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Back to Deutsch

Yesterday I went back to German class after a few weeks of indulging in no-thought-required-English immersion. I knew I'd be behind, but just figured I could zone out, jet lagged style, and listen to what was going on and figure things out slowly.

Well that strategy failed to work. Because I was the only one in class yesterday. So I had an hour and a half of non-stop German speaking, Grammar, and my own personal catch-up lesson. On one hand, it was great. On the other, I was so tired!

My German teacher is very disappointed that I have not signed up to take the first official German certificate exam in September. There are a number of reasons for this:

1. It costs 270 CHF
2. It takes an entire day
3. When you sign up, you don't know the date or time of your test until you've paid. (The test could be anytime Sept 1-10). I don't know how many working and traveling professionals can just keep 10 days free while waiting for the Test Authorities to decide a date and time.
4. My in-laws will be in town that entire time and we will be traveling a lot.
5. My point of taking German in the first place was just for survival purposes and to understand if anyone is talking about me behind my back at work
6. Having a certificate and still not being able to say much would be even more humilitating than not having anything at all.

As far as I know, no one else in my class is taking the exam either. I can't say I'm surprised.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Back in Smokerland

I am back in Smokerland. Excuse me, Switzerland. And the first thing I notice upon stepping outside the airport? Smoke.

There are lots of cultural differences between the United States and Switzerland, each have their good and bads, but smoking is definitely one of Switzerland’s worst.

While in the U.S. I enjoyed smoke-free restaurants, bars, and beaches. So even though I was only gone for 10 days, it was still a shock to have to go back to breathing smoke everywhere. In Zurich, the Swiss recently rejected a referendum to ban smoking in restaurants. This is just sad. I don’t think the bar and restaurants realize how many more people would go out if they didn’t have to breathe smoke. After all, if two-thirds of the country doesn’t smoke, then it seems like common sense. And if Italy and France can survive by banning smoking, anyone can.

Monday, July 07, 2008

From Chicago to Madison

Yesterday we took the 2.5 hour drive to Madison, Wisconsin to visit family up there. I have never really paid attention to the scenery on this drive before (and I've been going for 30 years). But living abroad does strange things to your sense of observation and gives you a better appreciation from where you came from.

Anyhow, I really enjoyed the drive. Probably the first time I can ever say that. There were fields of purple clover lining the roads, lots of open fields filled with corn, and cute little red farm houses scattered between billboards advertising cheese and fireworks. That pleased me the most--a billboard that advertises cheese AND fireworks. I mean, what more in life is there?

My other favorite billboard simply said, "WISCONSIN FUN, THIS EXIT". I have no idea what the fun involved as the billboard did not specify, but for me it probably would have consisted of getting a slushy from 7 Eleven and buying something under a dollar from a vending machine.

In any case, it was a great day, got to see family and watch a sunset over the flat Midwest. I'd forgotten how low the sun can go as in Switzerland you never really see it set with all the hills around where we live. It was a nice thing to relive.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Notes from the Homeland

It is a very strange experience to live abroad and return home to visit. Home for me is a western suburb of Chicago. Here are the major impressions on my 10-day trip thus far:

1. Could not understand my first greeter upon arrival--the passport control man. He spoke terrible English and I kept having to say, "I'm sorry," after not understanding him. It didn't help that he also spoke with a toothpick in his mouth.

2. Dirty, smelly airport. Could only use 1 of 3 stalls in women's bathroom. After "set your bag on the bathroom floor" disgustingly clean Switzerland, this was quite a shock.

3. People saying "good morning" and looking me in the eye when passing while taking walks along the river. They generally looked happy. This was shocking after training myself in Switzerland to never look at people and not to smile.

4. Cheap stuff. Corn is 19 cents an ear. Wow. (In Switzerland an ear costs anywhere from 1.50 to 3.00)

5. Tax that's added after the fact so final prices are strange, like $6.44. (In Switzerland every price ends with a 0 or 5. (There's no such thing as a penny, the Swiss are too rich to bother with that).

6. Books in English. Everywhere and in great quantity. A library where I can read everything and actually look up things and research my writing markets. How great.

7. Vending machines with large drinks that are only 1.25.

8. Cold drinks. Root beer. Cherry Coke. Free water with ice.

9. Friendly dentists that try to find out your life story, even with their hand in your mouth.

10. A grocery store with a produce section that's the size of an entire Swiss grocery store. Carts that are twice as wide and no need for a dollar deposit coin to use them.

11. Lack of environmental concern--stores blasting A/C with their doors wide open, little use of shades to block sun, abundance of free bags at grocery store and baggers to pack your stuff.

12. Processed food in great abundance, huge portions, greasy food.

13. Trying to pretend I live a normal life with my hairdresser as to not complicate matters by discussing overseas living.

14. Huge green lawns. Houses that look ridiculous they are so large.

15. Bottomless, cold drinks. Sigh.

And I'm sure, more to come.


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