Monday, March 31, 2008

Back to Normal

When my parents left after visiting us they said, "Now you'll be able to get back to normal."

Problem is there is no normal.

Being at home isn't normal. Because I don't know what "home" really means anymore. Is it my apartment in Switzerland? Is it the last US city I lived in, Richmond? Is it my hometown in Illinois? None are really home anymore.

Friends aren't normal. The ones that speak English as a native language come and go as quickly as you meet them. Or they are traveling or have visitors half the year. The Swiss ones take years to really get to know.

Work isn't normal. It's half in German, half in English. And my schedule is half on, half off.

Weekends aren't normal. They are spent doing shopping that you can't do during the week or traveling out of guilt (or pleasure) for being in the center of Europe.

Transportation isn't normal. I have no car and travel mainly by train and plane.

Eating isn't normal. It's a lot of cheese and chocolate. And most everything else must be made from scratch. And restaurants serve mainly bland food for extremely un-bland prices.

Reading mail isn't normal. Because you can't guarantee you can read it.

Vacationing isn't normal. Because you actually have enough vacation days to do more than go home for Christmas.

Talking isn't normal. Because you're never sure what language you'll talk in or what language someone else will answer you in.

Money isn't normal. It comes in a rainbow of different colors. And when I go 15 miles, I need another kind of money. And when I go home I need yet another kind.

Measurements aren't normal. To rent skis I need to know how much I weigh in kilos. To try on pants I need to know how tall I am in centimeters. To order cheese from the counter I need to know how many grams will make one cup.

Yes, since we moved to Switzerland our lives have been a strange combination of vacation and frustration. But it's funny how the lack of normal has somehow become normal. So maybe now I am back to normal. My very own version of it anyhow.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The two religions of Italy

Soccer is broadcast on a huge screen in the plaza in front of Milan's biggest church--the Duomo. From its rooftop you can watch the gods of Italy play or step inside to pray for victory.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

19 Below Zero. And no mercy.

During our weekend in Zermatt, my parents and I took the cable cars up to Klein Matterhorn, the highest point you can get to without risking a mountain climbing injury. This trip involved a set of three cable cars: one six-seater and two huge gondolas that each probably held about 100 people and their ski equipment. On the final gondola we reached over 12,000 feet and were swept into a cloud.

It was my third ascent in three years to the top of this mountain, but definitely the coldest at -19 C with no account for wind chill. It was so beautiful though, that I had to take photos. But by the time we came down from the viewing platform and went to warm up in the ice cave (a strange concept), my fingers felt numb and my toes were starting to protest as well.

After our tour of the ice cave, complete with a pose at the ice bar we were sufficiently chilled and headed back to meet the gondola, which runs every 20 minutes. I waited in the bathroom for the next to arrive as by then I was a little scared for my fingers.

When the gondola did arrive, we stood back to let the pack of wild skiers out, politely standing to the side. After the skiers were out we went to get on, but the driver had shut the door. So we stood and motioned to him that we wanted to get on. But he just stared at us freezing in the wind and continued to sit there. Two minutes later, he descended, leaving us standing on the platform with our 70 CHF tickets.

Politeness, you see, does not pay off in Switzerland. One must charge ahead to get on any form of public transport or literally be left in the cold. In Switzerland, schedules matter. But people don’t. In this case however, it didn’t really make sense because it’s not like we were late and deserved to be left in the freezing wind.

So I headed back to the bathroom to get warm. When the next gondola arrived, we braced ourselves and stood by the door, ready for the stampede of skis. We held our hiking poles in front of us as self defense and pushed our way on while the skiers got off on both sides of the gondola. And that my friends, is survival in Switzerland. Pushing, shoving, and a few battle bruises to show for it. And if you don’t learn this before you arrive at Klein Matterhorn, you will learn it there. Or die.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Shopping in Milan

I did it. I bought the outfit I’ve been making fun of since I arrived in Switzerland.

But I guess you could say I turned European gradually.

First, it was the lack of baseball hat. Then the reluctance to wear gym shoes. Followed by the fear of consequences for not dressing my best to shop at the grocery store.

Then my mother-in-law visited me and bought me a Swiss black coat. The key being, black. Over time, the rest of my wardrobe has followed suit, slowly losing its rainbow to coordinate itself with the Swiss way of life—one long funeral procession. About a year later, I had even trained myself to stop smiling all the time.

In November of 2006 my sister visited and I got the next step to the Swiss wardrobe—the black boots. And then I started wearing skirts (black of course) and the black boots together. But when I did wear pants, I refused to do the most Swiss thing of all—tuck them into my boots.

To be fair, my Americanized pants were not really tuckable and therefore it wasn’t much of an option unless I wanted to have legs that looked like a hippos.

But then my sister returned to visit. And we went to Milan. I couldn’t afford much there. But then we found the basement of Nadine. Here was a red tag shopper's dream. (as much as something priced in Euros can be). Hats for 3 Euros. Skirts for 10. Boots for 20. And jeans. Skinny, skinny black jeans, perfectly tapered for tucking. I had to try them on. They were made in Italy.

My sister encouraged me to buy them as I modeled them outside the tiny, overheated Italian dressing room. I tucked them into my boots and pranced around laughing, the Italian salesgirl watching us in the background, wondering what we could possibly be so amused with.

My sister is good at persuasion. She said I looked good in them. And that I was 30, and therefore reaching an age where I might not have much time left to wear something like them. Great. I peeled them off and bought them for “Diciotto Euro”. After all, they were of course, black.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Designer Tape

Milan. As a tourist, spending a weekend there is plenty of time to see the highlights. The pan flute bands, the six Porches parked in a row on the main shopping street, not to mention the ladies carrying Versace bags.

Everyone in the town carries shopping bags, showing off their buys from this designer and that. The stores are all open late and on Sundays so there are no shopping restrictions like in Switzerland where nothing is open on Sunday or at night. But the highlight for me was seeing a lady carrying a shopping bag (can't remember which fancy designer it was from unfortunately) that was taped.

Yes. A mended shopping bag. Now to me, this really defeats the point. If you're that desperate to show off that you have bought something in one of the fancy shops and carry the bag around on more than one occasion to prove it, ok. If that's how you define yourself, that is your business. But please do not mend it with packing tape. It just looks wrong. I am so disappointed I did not manage to capture a photo of said bag, so you'll just have to imagine it in your mind.

But that, in a nutshell is Milan. And please enjoy pan flute band photo number two.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Native Music

You know them. They’re in every city big and small— filling airports, street corners, and bus stations with their pan flutes, native rhythmics, and CD buying options. And they must do ok. Because either they’re well traveled or there are just thousands of these bands. I don’t know. They all sound the same to me. But I plan to start documenting each one I see. So here’s the inaugural group for my project—The Natives of Athens. They even have a nice painting as part of their act. It really sets the mood below the Parthenon.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Creative Americans

In a German class that consists of people from Belgium, France, Croatia, Britain, Scotland, and the United States it is very interesting to see the approach people from different countries have doing something as simple as describing a picture.

Yesterday, for example, we were each given an image of someone in a hospital to describe as we are on the “hospital” chapter.

The Frenchman described the picture very literally—“there is a man lying in a hospital bed. He has a broken arm.”

The Brit also described his picture literally but with a little more story—“there is a man who is lying in a hospital bed because he had a biking accident.”

Then the American guy read his description—“Herr Schreiner had a biking accident. He is being asked by the nurse where and when and how much beer he was drinking at the time.”

Another American guy read his “Frau Hessler has back pain and is at the doctor. The doctor told her it’s because she has been lifting too heavy of a purse.”

And mine was “Herr Helmut has visitors visiting him after his operation. They brought him flowers and cookies. He was so glad because the hospital food is terrible and the nurse was about to make him eat more.”

Obviously, there was no right or wrong in these descriptions. But the Americans’ definitely got the most laughs and kept the class engaged. Why did all the Americans name the people in the photos? And all give a back-story?

From a very young age, Americans are trained to be individual and creative. From first grade on, we are trained to give “show and tell”. We bring in an object and show it off and tell its story. I think Americans are natural storytellers because of this.

My husband was recently on a conference in Athens where he noticed a related trend. All the Europeans that gave presentations read off PowerPoint slides. Only the Americans and Indonesians did not just read the slides, but told stories and embellished off of them.

So while the American education system is often criticized for many things, I think they have won the game when it comes to teaching people to think creatively. And for that I am thankful to have been raised an American.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Zu Dick?

Apparently Switzerland has an obesity problem. This is news to me. But according to this poster seen in Ennetbaden at a bus station, one in every five kids is “zu dick” or “too fat”. So the Swiss recognize the problem, but are still continuing to build a Burger King 800 meters away from the “zu dick” poster. But why not? It will give the Swiss more of the three things they love best—construction, money, and an excuse to blame foreigners. After all, obesity in Switzerland couldn’t possibly be the fault of the Swiss. Cheese and chocolate will always be innocent.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A New Normal

When you move to another country, three things eventually happen:

1. If you work on learning the language, you actually begin to understand some of it and can even—after a long, hard year and a half--start to even understand at least the main points of office meetings and work-related things. This has been a major step for me that I’ve just started to notice recently. It is no longer so hard to understand at least the main points during meetings and discussions and read basic creative briefings in German as well as understand most feedback. I can ask basic questions in German without having to think through what I want to ask first. It just takes a lot of patience to get to this point without giving up first.

2. Your body begins to act like the country it’s living in. I naturally shove people out of the way, run for the door of the train before it stops, and keep my shopping cart as close to the person in front of me in line as humanly possible. I have also been successfully able to stop smiling at people I pass on the streets and look no one in the eye while jogging along the river. It’s strange how your body just starts doing these things before you realize it. It’s a whole other “retraining.” I can even control one cart while packing another, be ready to pay exactly when the cashier is done scanning my stuff, and successful push both carts at the same time, return the store one, get my coin back, and keep going with my personal cart almost without blinking an eye. I can also type on a German keyboard without making every "Y" a "Z" and vice versa. And pressing "ctrl" + "alt" + "2" to get the "@" sign no longer mystifies me. The lack of personal space here still creeps me out though. Once I get over that I will really have triumphed.

3. You adjust to the new standard of living. Twenty-five dollars for lunch? Almost three thousand dollars for rent? You just pay them and don’t even think about it like you used to. That’s just how much things cost. Of course, it’s still fun to go to Germany for the day and marvel at how much things should cost. But then you get back in the habit again of the paying too much for everything and forget to notice.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Taking down the tree

We took down our xmas tree a little differently this year. First off, we took it down (in the way normal people take it down--i.e. taking ornaments off, etc) before xmas because we didn't want it to dry out while we were gone for over three weeks touring the U.S. from Dec 21-Jan 14.

But the problem was, there was nowhere to put the tree except out on our porch. Since we missed the ONE tree pick-up day in early January, the poor tree has been hanging out on the porch since December. And since it's technically illegal (and you can be fined big bucks) for disposing anything that's garden waste in the regular trash, we had a dilemma on our hands.

The biggest problem is that we have no idea how we are supposed to get rid of "garden waste" legally. It's so complicated (think 15 page booklet in German) that even our Swiss neighbor doesn't even bother, and prefers to live on the wild side by disguising yard trimmings as regular trash in dark, black innocent-looking trash bags.

So we knew just what to do. The tree was going down. Literally. Last year, this was kind of a procedure. But this year, my husband was experienced. He got out his Swiss Army knife and got to work on the porch, cutting the tree into little bits. It was really quite impressive. A 6-foot tree cut into little bits with a small pocket knife. But like I said, he had practice from last year.

With the tree cut into bits we stuffed it into a garbage bag and threw it into our trash bin in hopes no one will notice. After all it is March. No one's expecting a tree at this time of year. We'll just have to hope the garbage police have better things to do this week. Like run after the little old lady that had the nerve to throw away a battery.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Francs, Dollars, and not much sense

I just opened my mail to find out that our Swiss bank has charged us another 80 CHF (77 USD) for the privilege of having an ATM card for another year. To someone used to free everything offered by U.S. banks, it can be crazy to think about the charges Swiss banks impose on their customers. The account we have is just a general account anyhow and we get about .1% interest. No, not 1%-- but a measly Point One percent. That gets taxed. Yes, Swiss banks are not cracked up to be everything people think they are.

And for the U.S. citizens trying to do the classic thing rich people do—hide money in a Swiss account—there is a new law in effect beginning for the tax year 2007 that says that all U.S. citizens must report money in foreign bank accounts or be fined $100,000. So needless to say, even though we have a Swiss bank account merely because we live in Switzerland—and not for any other crazy money laundering purpose—we’ll be filling out that form this weekend. Thanks for the extra work, IRS.

Looking at the U.S. from abroad though, I have to say I’m a little scared of going back. Since we moved to Switzerland, the dollar has fallen over 20% against the Swiss Franc. That is scary. We’ve only been here a year and a half. If I go back and work in the U.S. making dollars, will I ever be able to afford travel to Europe again? This is a question that must be difficult for many Americans right now. So on that note, it’s time to go buy my train ticket to Milan!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The One Leg Lift

The Greeks. They are known for the Olympics. They are known for muscular Greek Gods. Not to mention, they are known for the marathon. But what happened between ancient times and today?

The main exercise in modern Greece appears to be the one leg lift. Once on the motorcycle, there is no turning back for the average Greek. Who needs to walk down a sidewalk when you can motor down it instead? Everywhere I went in Greece I had to dodge motorbikes and cars—even on the rare “pedestrian only walkway”. There are still streets in Greece that actually still have lanes painted like running tracks, but the only things running on them are engines.

Motorcycle driving and also motorcycle parking take place on sidewalks, making pedestrians forced to walk anywhere but. Some places, like the island of Mykonos, don’t even bother with sidewalks, because really, what’s the point if they are just used to drive on?

It’s really quite the switch, after getting used to Switzerland, where, if there’s a pedestrian within 2 feet of a sidewalk, a car stops dead in its tracks to let them cross. And there are more hiking trails than roads.

But in Greece, even dogs don’t go for walks. They go for rides. See the above photo taken in Athens for proof.

And they start the kids driving young. As you can see by the first photo, taken on the island of Aegina.

If there’s a mom and three kids and only one motorbike, no worries. They all ride together, the youngest kid perched precariously on the very back of the bike. It makes U.S. seatbelt laws seem rather anal. I’d add a photo of this, but the bike was going too fast for me to capture it.

So if you want a muscular Greek, head to the museum. That’s the only place where you can do two things—see a Greek not on a motorbike—and walk a few kilometers without getting run over.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Top 3 Texas

At lunch yesterday, my German friend started talking about the time he was in Texas. The things that stood out in his mind (in no particular order):

1. The only people he saw outside were 10 Mexicans building a fence. Everyone else was in their climate controlled houses or cars.

2. The entire grocery store was kept at about 55 degrees to keep everything “fresh” with no thought to global warming or customer freezing.

3. People would drive 25 miles to go park in a big parking lot and eat inside a warehouse-sized, windowless Japanese restaurant.

To him, these three things constitute Texas. Since I have not been to this country myself (because let’s be honest, Texas is its own entity), I can only think it sounds about right.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Greece Again

Well, for the last four days I was in Greece for the second time. I was there last year for 10 days and visited Athens, Mykonos, and Santorini.

Needless to say, I wasn’t planning to go back this year, but my husband had a conference in Athens and thus one of us had a free ticket, so we headed there Thursday night and I came back last night. On Saturday we took a day trip to Aegina, the closest of the Greek islands (40 min by boat, 23 EUR round trip per person).

I wasn’t really that excited about the trip to be honest. That sounds terrible, but I like the excitement of stepping off a plane in a completely new place. There’s that rush you get when you have no idea what’s there. I already thought I knew Athens.

But I was wrong. You don’t know a place until you go where the tourists aren’t. Like the meat market, where pigs heads hang from display racks. Like a restaurant off the beaten track where old men drink beer, smoke, and listen to hand held radios at their table. And like the metro, possibly the cleanest part of Athens (and the only place where smoking appears to be banned). For the record, Athens is the smokiest city I’ve been to in Europe.

Greece was better the second time around. Because we had already seen the main sites of Athens, we had a very relaxing time. Of course, we still took a hundred photos of the Acropolis. But this time we knew where to get the best shots. And the best part of being there in Feb/March is that there are barely any tourists and you can get the best shots with no random heads in the way. Plus the weather was great—60s and 70s.

Now I will definitely be open to revisiting cities. You get a whole new perspective the second time around when you aren’t as much of a tourist running around like a chicken with its head cut off!

Monday, March 03, 2008

German. Useful after all.

We spent the weekend in Greece. And as most people know, they speak Greek there. And English is the second language. So what good is German? Actually, it's more useful than you would think. Imagine:

1. Two guys come up to you while you are waiting at the port for a ferry. They want money from you and tell you a sad story in English about how they are soldiers. They ask where you are from. You say "Schweiz". Then they ask, "but do you speak English?" You shake your head and say, "Ich verstehe nicht. Ich spreche Deutsch." They say, "50 cents?" You shrug your shoulders like you don't understand and say "Nein." They give up and move on looking confused.

2. You are sitting on a bench enjoying the 70 degree day in a park in Athens. See picture above for where you could be sitting. Two women approach you and say something in Greek. You stare back at them like they are crazy. But they can't tell you think they're crazy because you're wearing sunglasses. Since you don't say anything, they switch to English. "Do you speak English? We are Jehovah's Witnesses and we are spreading the word." You set down your English magazine and say, "Nein." They look at each other and say, "Oh, you are from Germany. Well we don't have any documentation in German, only Greek and English." They show their documentation. You shake your head, acting confused. They walk on and you get back to your English magazine and enjoy the sun.


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