Tuesday, June 29, 2010

We are having a yodel-party now

Often, it's said that cultural stereotypes are harmful and unilluminating. And so I did not come to Switzerland expecting the natives to break into Alpine-style yodeling, well, ever. And yet as I sit here in my ETH office, I cannot ignore that someone on the square outside appears to have brought an accordion (or something) and is yodeling his ass off. It's a reality/stereotype convergence, whether meaningful or not. Oh, and church bells are also ringing, which is dissonant but has grown to the point where I'm pretty much surprised for there not to be bells ringing.

Unrelated, although perhaps related to the idea of cultural stereotypes, I have been on the local public transport (mostly trams) countless times in my days here and have yet to be checked even once for having a valid ticket. This is surprising because the entire system relies on voluntary compliance, so you'd think there would have to be at least some checking-up to make sure we're all not free-riding (and, just to be clear, I'm not--I've validated my ticket every damn day so far, though it's beginning to seem unnecessary). Could this mean that the Swiss are so rule-followy that the local police need not check up on them? I haven't enough data to know (said the guy who's spent the last two days at a mind-bending stats seminar).

Oh, and here are some interesting pixes.

Above: this is the headquarters of the local sports organization, Grasshopper-Club Zuerich. They're one of the top teams in the Swiss first division (honestly not a terribly distinguished accomplishment), and have easily the most bizarre name I've ever heard of for a sports team.

Above: this is an amusing copyright-related item. In 2009, a US court found that Swedish author Frederik Colting's book, "Sixty Years Later: Coming Through the Rye," a sequel to J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," violated Salinger's copyright. The court enjoined its publication within the US, so you won't find any copies. Outside the US, though, the injunction had no effect, so you will find copies of the book, and these copies proudly tout the US injunction in an attempt to pimp it.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Even more random Z-town related thoughts

I had a plan, readers, I really did. It was very civilized and even kind of Euro in its conception: this Sunday, I was going to get up, have breakfast at the Villa H., stop by ETH to do some work, and then head to the English-language bookstore on Bahnhofstrasse to get some reading material, and then grab a caffeinated beverage and enjoy aforementioned literature, perhaps in a café or on a Limmat-side bench. Classy, right?

So it all went according to plan, and I hiked down Muehlestrasse across the river to Uraniastrasse in what continues to be breathtakingly good weather. As I approached Bhfstr, it became increasingly clear to me that something was slightly amiss. Yesterday, these areas were all abuzz with people—Zuerchers were cramped into every outdoor seat that a café could fit onto their patios. But today, there was conspicuously less action going on. Hm. So I hung a left on Bahnhofstrasse and found myself at the ELB, tried the door, and … locked!

Then it dawned on me: there’s nothing going on in this town because everything is closed on Sunday here. Restaurants, bookstores, all other stores—pretty much anything commercial is shuttered. But I guess this makes sense, right? I mean, who would want to go shopping or out to eat on a Sunday? Jeez. I wonder if it has something to do with the religiosity of Zuerich. But it really cramped my style, especially since I won’t have a free moment for the next three days to go back to the damn bookstore.

Anyway, as I sat on a bench and stared at the bookstore, trying to will its doors to open (NB: fail), something occurred to me (which is really quite a rare and remarkable event). I have not seen a homeless person in the entire time I’ve been here. Nor have I even seen anyone who could arguably be homeless. Admittedly, I’ve spent the majority of my time in some pretty fancy areas, but I’ve been all over the city center, and not a bum in sight. Plus, even in LA you’ll often find homeless people in relatively fancified areas (Sta Monica, and I was once accosted by a guy asking for change as I sat at the corner of Rodeo Drive and Wilshire—I suspect he picked the spot to maximize the sense of guilt he’d inflict on people there).

So while there may—must—be homeless people in the city, the fact that I haven’t seen them strongly suggests that there are far fewer of them in Zuerich than LA (hardly a surprise). Conjectures: smaller wealth disparities, and (related) more effective social safety net. It does make sitting outside nicer, though, not having to worry that some poor soul is going to come up and do god knows what. Social welfare programs are always derided in the US as a distribution from the haves to the have-nots with no compensation, but you do get something for it—safer, more peaceful public spaces (not to mention that whole “helping the less fortunate” thing that’s apparently so unfashionable in the US).

Lowest lows: US 1:2 Ghana

Same opponent. Same result. Same scoreline. Same outcome: bounced from the World Cup by Ghana, 2-1.

If you want to know what DF’s experience of watching the Ghana game was like, it’s pretty simple—just read the post about the Algeria game and reverse absolutely everything in it. I wasn’t even going to write about last night’s game—didn’t know if I could—but there may be some catharsis in doing this, so what the hell, here goes:

I knew something wasn’t right all day yesterday. The game was going down at 8.30pm, but there was lots to do beforehand, yet somehow I wasn’t able to focus on it thanks to a vague, uneasy sense of pre-game jitters. This is ridiculous, of course—the presence of a soccer game in ten hours shouldn’t prevent me from having a productive day, but somehow it did. And this wasn’t excited anticipation, either—it was something like foreboding. This could all be 20/20 hindsight BS, but I don’t think it is.

Even the scheduling didn’t really work well. I spent some time at the office (so much empirical work to read—but all incredibly interesting stuff), and then decided for a bunch of reasons to haul my ass all the way back up to Rigiblick to do some writing and watch the Uruguay/SoKo game. Game ended, and I remained edgy. Showered, hopped on the funicular, transferred to the nine, discovered that it stops right outside Paddy’s, and guess what—I’m fully two hours early for the game.

So then DF wanders Zuerich for a while, but in a blindly time-killing way, not in a “let’s explore the city and see the sights” kind of way. I ended up getting a snack in an organic grocery store and the sandwich is secretly loaded with sauce. Gross. I kill sometime playing poker on my BB and then it’s finally time to get over to the pub. But that’ll be good, right? Positive memories of the Alg game?

Hardly. The moment I got there, everything felt wrong. I first sat at a table near some other US fans, but they were so obnoxious (in a jock-y kind of way) that I had to move. The next spot was the same one I’d occupied for the Alg game: same room, same table, same chair, same drink, same everything that was associated with the LD goal. Yeah, I’m that superstitious.

But it still didn’t feel right. The room was hot and humid (Europe is simply not a well air-conditioned continent). The crowd was not really that into the game; it seemed like a group of US expats who were using the WC as an excuse to hang out. There were a few moms who spent the entire first half talking about strollers and preschools. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it doesn’t exactly make for good atmosphere. Worst, a couple guys brought vuvuzelas and blew them loudly throughout the half. If you think a vuvuzela is irritating when you hear it on TV, wait til you have a couple of them honking about three feet from your eardrums. I wanted to shove the horns down the guys’ throats.

Oh, and also the US sucked. Gave up the traditional early goal—thanks a lot, Rico Clark (not that Howard did much to save it). And generally looked overwhelmed by the moment and clearly inferior to Ghana. It was up to DF to change matters.

So I moved to the main room of the pub, where I was set upon by two Irish guys who had all manner of questions. They were all right, actually—much more interesting and into soccer than the Americans—and it was fine talking to them throughout halftime, but the problem was that they wanted to talk about all manner of things even after play started for the second half. Even worse, some German guys wanted to talk to me about unrelated things as well. I was like, “Stop talking to me, people, or at least talk about the game, which is happening right goddamned now!!!”

When LD scored the penalty part-way through the half, it was great but didn’t have nearly the momentousness it should have, because for everyone else there, it was a mildly interesting moment of sporting entertainment, while for DF it was a life-and-death, razors-edge experience of salvation. And being the conspicuously most excited person in the room kinda takes some of the fun out of it, and even makes you feel kinda foolish (perhaps justifiably so).

That said, I was in good spirits when the game went to extra time, since we looked better than Ghana at that point and were the odds-on fave to win. And then, of course, of course, we again surrender an early goal (though this was a really good one), and that ended up being it. One of the Irish guys thought it would be hilarious to take the piss re the second Ghana goal, but I wasn’t really that amused, and he ended up apologizing, which was somehow even more irritating.

And then the US lost. No one really cared that much, or at least no one cared as much as I did, which was obvious, and this made the whole thing all the more irritating and disappointing. So I paid my tab and hustled out onto Talstrasse, where the 9 spirited a very, very dejected DF into the Zuerich night. And just to cap things, when I got to Rigiplatz, I learned to my massive exasperation that the funicular railway was closed (or broken, or something), and the swearing that ensued must have seemed scary indeed because it caused a girl to stop babbling into her cellphone in French and vamoose.

So I trudged up Rigiberg, got back to the room, and allowed myself to wallow in self-pity for a good long while. And while I tried to whip myself into shape this AM with the standard self-exhortations (it’s only a game, not that important in the grand scheme of things, hey at least you can walk, people out there are suffering far more than you over far more important things), the somewhat embarrassing truth is none of this really worked and I’ve been in a pretty intense post-loss funk all damn day.

“DF,” you may well be thinking, and very justifiably so, “this is ridiculous. Sports—even World Cup soccer—aren’t matters of life and death, and should not cause anyone, especially not a fully grown and no longer particularly young man to experience these kinds of highs and lows.” Well, yeah. I get that this was all kind of ridiculous, and it’s hard for me to explain why I keep following the USMNT with this kind of fervor, especially when there are other, more worthy things on which I could spend my time. I don’t really have an explanation, except to say that at times like these, I think back to times like Wednesday against Algeria, and it all seems worth it.


There are a lot of churches in Zuerich. In fact, when I mapped out a plan of what to see in the city yesterday, all the travel guides listed three main churches (Fraumuenster, Grossmuenster, and St. Peter's) as the most salient things a tourist should take note of in this burg. And one could well divine this merely by scoping out the city--the Zuerichscape is most notable for the numerosity of its steeples.

This is all well and good, since I'm neither a big fan or a big foe of churches (are there big foes of churches? does anyone go around saying, "If there's one thing in life I loathe, it's a damned cathedral"? seems unlikely). But here's a notable and increasingly startling side effect: on weekend days, all of these churches, which have bells, ring those bells. Frequently. And kinda cacophonously, since there are often several churches going at it at the same time. And loudly. Really loudly. And for a loooooong time.

This everpresent bonging is something that I began to notice gradually over the course of this weekend. At first, it was kind of nice. Then, I thought, "wow, that's a lot of bell-ringing." And eventually, while it's atmospheric and probably religiously significant to at least some folks, it got to the point where it was kind of distracting and made me understand how the protag of Poe's "The Bells" really could go nutso thanks to excessive tintinnabulation.

For what it's worth, though, having just said this, the bells have quieted, and so I've regained my sanity. For now.

Image: view of Zurich from the Quaibruecke. On the left of the river, you can see the Frau- and Grossmuensters; on the right is St Peter's.

{NB: Seriously, the millisecond that I hit "publish post" they started ringing again. Aaaah! Bells!}

Highest highs: US 1:0 Algeria

It’s taken me a long time to get to this topic, broad readership, but that’s because I wanted to take the time and do it right. And now that I’ve got a momentito, relaxing in my Rigiviertel room high above Z-town, watching the Uruguay-SoKo achtenfinale and resting up for the fury that will undoubtedly characterize the Ghana game, I will tell the tale of how DF experienced the greatest goal in US Soccer history.

There are some days on which you look back and say, “that was a great day.” But this day was different insofar as immediately upon waking up, I sensed greatness. And why not? It was my first day in a new and awesome foreign city. The weather was great. And all the US had to do was beat Algeria to reach the knockout rounds of the World Cup.

Early signs were good: I managed to navigate my way from my hotel in the hills above Zuerich down to ETH without much trouble, though the walk was steep and gave my newly rebuilt tibia some challenges (not in a bad way at all—it was like having physical therapy all over again). I ate with some colleagues at the school cafeteria that overlooks all of Zuerich, and the city looked spectacular.

So three-thirty or so rolled around, and I dragooned a reluctant US expatriate and made for Paddy Reilly’s pub, which I’d scoped out long beforehand. The venue was, unsurprisingly, dominated by Brits watching their game against Slovenia. The US contingent was relegated to a small side room with a single TV. In attendance were DF and his compatriot, plus about ten other US supporters (and I could tell who was who when I walked in because Americans really do talk louder than other folks).

There were early technical jitters, as the pub crew didn’t seem able to make the US game appear on our TV, and I was briefly deeply concerned about having to find a backup venue. But it all worked out, and we were off. I won’t relate the game’s details, because you already know them and if you don’t you should. The first half was nervy. Hearts were in throats when Algeria hit the bar, and I was reminded of the endowment effect when Dempsey’s goal (later shown to be perfectly valid) was called back for offside.

The atmo was tense in the way only a WC game can really produce, where every kick and miss and pass is fraught with extra tension. The tension in this case was, of course, ramped up because it wasn’t just a WC game but a crucial and decisive WC game. The second half grew even more fraught, as the lapse of time, all scoreless of course, gradually twisted the thumbscrews of anxiety. DF was, of course, cool as a cucumber throughout, head in hands, fingers in hair, head on table, swearing and yelling and generally freaking out.

And then it happened: just as the game was nearly lost (or, more accurately, tied 0-0, which would have felt like a loss, as Switzerland’s 0-0 draw did last night to my poor Schweitzer compatriots), a miracle happened. Donovan and Buddle and Dempsey broke down the right, and after Dempsey shot, and the Alg goalie—who had been great all day—gave up a rebound. The ball seemed to lie in the box for ages, all alone, surrounded by acres of space, until Donovan sliced into the scene and lasered it into the back of the Algerian goal.

Madness ensued, and I mean that pretty literally. Some good writers—Bill Buford (Among the Thugs), Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch)—have described the feeling of seeing your team score a crucial goal, and they both do a pretty good job. My take is that it’s a period of manic, joyful unselfconsciousness unlike anything else, one that makes us do and say things totally out of character because we’re incapable of expressing our joy in traditional, familiar ways. To wit: I hugged a burly US fan (a stranger) so hard that my poor sunglasses (which were hanging on my chest) got crushed; I shouted “Oh Jesus” repeatedly (which is uncharacteristic given my coolness towards organized religion); and I jumped on and climbed over about every piece of furniture in the tiny roomlet dedicated to US fans.

In that moment, Donovan had propelled us from a frustrating and gutting early WC exit to group C winners, ahead even of England. It was, easily, one of the most joyful sporting-related moments of my life (and I do not want to stop and consider whether it’s one of the best overall moments of my life, because of the very real risk that the answer may be yes).

More absurdist hijinks ensued: DF exited the bar and broke into various US songs and chants (entirely alone, and bedecked in a US soccer jersey, so that you’ve got the visuals down), and at one point even threw in a loud public performance of a Beastie Boys rap because it seemed distinctively American. I kept saying “This is the Mannschaft” and pointing at my jersey. I greeted several bald, large and threatening looking English fans, and they seemed amused by me much in the same way you might be amused by a younger sibling who finally beat you at something and was overly excited about it (which is not far off from what was happening, I guess).

I dropped into an imbiss and had a snack and beverage, where I ran into a couple I recognized from the pub (and the woman—admirably bedecked in jersey and US flag) remembered me as the guy who kept saying “Oh Jesus” when the US scored. Did the Zuerchers appreciate or hate DF for wandering through their streets early on a Wednesday night chanting “U S A”? Hard to say. Some were likely taken aback and/or annoyed, some were supportive (various passing cars shouted “Oo Ess Ah” at me), but I’d wager most were merely puzzled. The WC doesn’t seem to be much on the radar screen of the locals here, even with their own team well in the mix of it, so I suspect most of the locals just thought I was a crazy obnoxious American (i.e., they had it exactly right).

I went back to the office, and spent a couple hours posting incoherent things on soccer boards and watching goal replays. Eventually, I adjourned with new friends and new friends of friends to have a drink and watch the Germany game at the ETH student pub. I was able to cheer with real feeling when Germany won, as it had the salubrious effect of allowing us to avoid them in the next round (though the matchup v Ghana brings up sour memories of 2006).

And just about then I realized that I was really, really tired. It wasn’t jet-lag really, but just exhaustion brought on by emotion and hours of frenetic activity. And so I took leave of my Germanic amigos and was funiculared up into the Zurich night to sleep a well-earned and victorious sleep.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Oh Liechtenstein, I just can't quit you

Some years ago (five years, actually--whoa) when I was first traveling around Central Europe, I told everyone I was going to spend a few days in Liechtenstein, and to the limited extent that people recognized what that meant, I was met with skepticism. I will not again belabor the reasons underlying my admittedly idiosyncratic affection for geographical oddities such as tiny Micronesian islands and obscure European principalities (as I've already articulated said preferences in sufficient detail elsewhere), but here's the kicker: I not only did spend three days in L-stein back in 2005, but revisited the tiny nationlet just the other night.

Here's how: I got a ride from Wildbad-Kreuth (where the initial conference was held) into Zuerich with my new colleagues from ETH (Swiss Federal Tech Institute, sort of like the MIT of Switzerland). The route took us east a bit and then south through Austria, then back west through (and in some cases, even under) the Alps into Switzerland. But what, broad readership, lies between Austria and Switzerland? That's goddamned right: der Fuerstentum Liechtenstein!! And so when the question arose where to stop for dinner, DF the tour guide insisted on inflicting his Liechtenstein obsession on his kind and generous compatriots.

We parked in "downtown" Vaduz, which is in quotes for reasons too obvious to elaborate. I insisted on showing everyone around the main street, Staedtle, which is really only a couple blocks long, although it's very charming. We passed the main Vaduz WC viewing area, where Argentina was in the process of defeating Greece. It was only about a quarter full, but in terms of per capita representation, that's a pretty impressive turnout. I showed the folks around my fave spots, like the "Crash Bar" where I commisserated with sad Liechtensteiners when FC Vaduz failed to win their playoff game in 2005 that would have sent them to the Swiss First Division. I pointed out the hilltop castle, and related the story of the Prince after which the principality is named, who's young-ish, and actually somewhat relevant to the FL's governance, and annually invites the people of the country to hang out at and enjoy the castle grounds.

I had also talked a big game about a pizzeria that was pretty good, and was expected by all to find it, which--astonishingly--I did. We all filed in, looking forward to some chow, but were told by the freakishly weird-looking proprietor that they had run out of pizza. This seemed to call for some serious skepticism, but rather than press the issue, we walked back up Staedtle to another Italianate place, where we had totally delicious pizza and then adjourned to drive to Switzerland.

Oh, and also, the trip from Wildbad-Kreuth to Zuerich took us through four countries in a single day, which I think is a record for me. And also somewhat related: we were stopped at exactly none of these border crossings. I've been hassled pretty seriously when going between the US and Canada, and even between California and Arizona. But going from Germany to Austria, then into Liechtenstien, then into Switzerland? No problem! Good thing I spent three days at the Swiss consulate in LA making sure I had my visa papers in order.

Image: The Vaduz Rathaus. While this sounds gross, I can assure you that there are no actual rats in this haus, and that it's merely the structure where governance happens (kind of like a statehouse).

Frighteningly aggressive Zentraleuropean maids

The Swiss, I've learned, like to distinguish themselves from the Germans, which means downplaying any cultural commonalities and playing up cultural differences (e.g., pronouncing their country as "Schwiiz" rather than "Schweitz", as I learned from a friendly local shopkeep yesterday). But here's one thing I recall from staying at the Hotel Concorde in Germany during WC2006 that is as true in Switzerland four years later at the very lovely Villa Hatt, where I am staying now: these Central European maids, German and Swiss alike, are frighteningly intense when it comes to cleaning up your room.

At the Villa H, on the first morning, the maid knocked at like 10am and would not go away when I politely asked her to (because I was asleep and unclothed and it wasn't exactly a great time--oh, and unrelated my jet-lag seems to now mean I can't get up until after 10am rather than causing me to wake up at like 4am). I told her to come back in a half-hour, and she came back in twenty-five minutes, looking pissed. I was severely under the clock at that point, so I threw on clothes and put things in a bag, and vamoosed as she glared at me.

The next morning it was completely different--because the maid simply unlocked my door and walked in while I was still sleeping (she may have knocked but if so I wouldn't no because I was totally asleep). I woke up when this happened, and said (in English, because I was to say the least a bit groggy) "Whoa! I'm in here!" (Which would have been pretty obvious from sight.) The maid snorted and left. I dressed in a hurry and rushed out, again shamed by her dagger-stares on the way out.

This morning I actually got up at a respectable time, ate the awesome awesome breakfast they serve at the Villa, and went back up to the room to cogitate over my fave topic for a Sat AM: formal statistics applied to law (which actually is really interesting, albeit sort of rough sledding for reading purposes). As I was reading, there came a knock on the door. Twas, obv., the maid. "Ich verlasse in zwanzig minuten!" I told her. She wrinkled her nose--not good enough. "Zehn! Zehn minuten!" She sighed, shrugged, and walked off without saying anything. I am clearly her least favorite customer.

Fear Germanic maids. Fear them.

Image: Breakfast room at the Villa Hatt. You can't quite see it, but that plate-glass window affords a phenomenal view of the entire city, sweeping all the way out to the Zuerichsee.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Some more thoughts on Z-town, which may or may not apply to Suisse more generally*

This country may be in the grip of World Cup fever, but if so you wouldn't really know it. In about 1.5hr the Swiss national team will play against Honduras in a match that will determine their WC fate (although, interestingly, they could very well win and still not advance). Yet my recent wander around the main part of the city didn't reveal much in the way of support. Sure, there were occasional folks in team jerseys, and a couple places selling ersatz flags and whatnot, but no general sense of mania brewing as I imagine there would be in Argie or England. Of course, I'm about as out of the loop as one could be, so if there were something brewing, I'd be the last to know. Still, it's somewhat telling that Credit Suisse's current ad campaign has Swiss national team players with the logo "One Team, One Country" prominently featured below. Is it really necessary to remind people of these things?

It's wonderfully sunny here in Zuerich (as opposed to the very unsunny and glum weather that prevailed in Munich). Only downside of the weather: Europe is not so great on the air conditioning front. It's likely just a reflection of how little A/C is really needed in this country, and to be fair, I'm not really sweltering indoors, but I kinda miss the way the icy cold air hits you when you walk into an American building on a hot summer day. Another contrast: the Swiss aren't really that into sunglasses. In SoCal, going outside without shades makes me feel naked. Here, I feel a little weird wearing them all the time (but I still do, natch).

I said earlier that Switzerland feels civilized compared to the U.S. Here's a small illusration: when you go to the men's room, there is classical music playing. I have never noticed this in a U.S. men's room. This could just mean that I frequent lower-end pissers.

Someone finally said "Gruetzi" to me today. This is supposedly the local greeting in Zuerich, but I haven't heard it until now. I had almost convinced myself that it was a plot to convince tourists to say something foolish and/or obscene when greeting Zuerchers so that they could snicker at us secretly. I was "Gruetzi-ed" in a snack shop, btw, where I had stopped for a lite dinner. On offer were the standard complement of wursts, but with this exception: rather than being served in a bun, as always happened in Germany, the wurst was wrapped in a kind of flaky pastry. I like the variation, and I enjoyed eating the brat outside in a classic Euro square setting, replete with fountain, ancient buildings, and a lurid porno theater.

*I've become fond of using this term for Switzerland, because Switzerland is a mouthful and a keyboardful. Other alternatives include "die Schweitz" and "Svizzera", but "Suisse" is briefest and therefore best for my purposes.

USD/SFr exchange rate and Freud's pleasure principle

Freud's pleasure principle states that our enjoyment of a given experience is relative rather than absolute. That is, if you're experiencing a happiness level of 4 and you move to 5, you'll feel better than if you start at 9 and move to 8, even though the latter puts you at a higher absolute number.

I mention this because throughout the first few days of the trip and my first day or so in Zuerich, I'd been assuming for whatever reason that the Swiss Franc was worth more than the US Dollar. I thought the exchange rate was even stronger than that of the Euro, so that a SFr was worth like two USD. Hence my disappointment when the bar tab at the place I watched the US game came to like SFr42. I thought those four beers and two cokes (not all for me, natch) had run about eighty bucks.

But then, yesterday, I was informed that I was totally and utterly mistaken about this most basic and important factual matter (hardly the first time that's happened, I know), and that Swiss Francs are actually worth less than US dollars (though not, it appears, by much). Immediate, glorious, and frankly kind of laborious calculations ensued, with the happy result that everything became much, much cheaper! That bar tab was actually not completely scandalously overpriced (about 38 bucks, all told).

Of course, things here are still wickedly overpriced (because even though the currency is cheaper, prices themselves remain through the roof, as my earlier story about the 2SFr wafer-thin chocolate illustrates), but thanks to Freud's pleasure principle, I'm currently experiencing these prices as low because they are relatively lower than I perceived them earlier. This effect will, I'm sure, wear off in time, but for the moment it's oh so sweet.

Enough! Now I am off to watch Portugal play against Brazil in the mensa (student cafeteria--yeah, they actually call it that). After that, I will buy a Switzerland scarf and root on the home team because I am a good international guest. Tchuess!

Some things I've noticed about Zuerich* so far

Stuff is expensive. After the glorious US soccer game yesterday (about which more later), DF treated himself to a single specialty beer at Paddy Reilly’s pub, and was charged about ten Swiss Francs. This is about USD$9, which is fairly outrageous for a mere beer (though I’m told wine tends to be less expensive than beer). It was worse yesterday, though, when I was still laboring under the misapprehension that SFr are worth more than dollars, and believed that the cost of this beer was roughly USD$15. Additional example: I went into a small coffee shop today after lunch (pasta and salad, btw—USD$18!), and sought to buy a wafer-thin bitlet of fancy chocolate. The adorable shopgirl said, “Zwei, bitte.” As in 2SFr for an infinitesimally small bitlet of schokolade. I looked her dead in the eye and said, “This better be the geschmackenest schokolade in the world.” Actually, it was. That shopgirl got lucky.

What you may have heard about Swiss reserve (in terms of personality, that is, not in terms of some massive store of gold bullion) seems more or less true. Folks I’ve spoken to here so far lack the volubility that I’ve come to realize tends to be characteristic of Americans. (E.g., and paraphrasing a local on why DF seems “very American”: “You smile, you talk a lot, and when you talk, your voice is loud.”) This often makes me think the locals dislike me (which, to be fair, they well may) because I find myself talking much, much more (and much, much louder) than the folks I’ve been around. I’ve had to ask trusted locals to let me know if I’m acting so overly American that I’m alienating folks (verdict: nein, at least not yet).

Did you know? In Switzerland, they speak a different version of German than is spoken in Germany itself. Swiss-German speakers tend to be able to understand standard German speakers, but the reverse is often not the case. I suspect this may explain the puzzling “Hopp Schwiitz” scarves I’ve seen around town, and which I plan to buy tomorrow. The puzzle, briefly, is that the scarves say “Schwiitz” rather than “Schweiz”, and I think this must be due to the difference between Swiss-German and standard German (the former is, fwiw, only a spoken language not a written one, so the differences are all in terms of pronunciation).

The tenor of life in Zuerich, to the extent such generalizations make any sense, is calmer and less polar than American cities (or even some larger Euro cities, like Madrid or even Berlin). I haven’t seen/heard much in the way of traffic, or yelly public altercations, or horn-honking, or enthusiastic greetings, or much of anything out of kilter. I could of course be engaging in horrible, horrible selection bias, but as yet, the entire place seems pervaded by a relative calm that seems uncharacteristic of most urban areas.

I’ll try to post pix to illustrate the following, but the city, like Opus the penguin said of himself in Bloom County, is almost startlingly good-looking. Not the people so much (though I suppose they’re a well-groomed lot) but more the physical environs. Zuerich at the head of the Limmat river, where it flows into the Zuerichsee, which is a big (by Euro standards) freshwater lake. I’m fortunate to have great views of the city from my temporary office, and often from the decks that surround the ETH itself, which afford vistas of the entire city below, dotted with domes and church-spires. The weather has been gorgeous so far, which is almost a problematic distraction since I’ve got so much work to do.

The Swiss are said to be organized, and nothing I’ve seen disproves this (though given what I’m reading these days, it would be more rigorous to assume a null hypothesis, e.g., “the swiss are not unusually organized,” and then require substantial evidence to disprove it. The public transport is clean and—personal fave—provides to-the-minute estimates of when a given tram is going to arrive at a particular station. The houses I’ve observed on my way home are architecturally impressive and strikingly well-kept, many of which even feature obsessively manicured rose gardens, with fragrant flora poking out at passersby (this could also be selection bias, of course—I’m fortunate to be staying in a fancified area and have not seen the entire city—I’m sure there are Zuercher slums, but if so I haven’t seen them). The city is also clean, clean, clean—no Berliner dog-poop or LA-style pollution, at least not that I’ve seen. Even the graffiti I’ve noticed is pretty tame, touting local football teams or arty, visages, often of smiling faces (the latter could, for all I know, be the symbol of some bloodthirsty gang—the “Happy Eviscerators” or some such—but it seems pretty unlikely). I’m sure this is due to some kind of reverse-broken-windows effect; when the entire city looks this pristine, no one wants to be the first ass to litter and muck it all up.

*I’ve come to spell the name of the city this way because while I am no hand at the German language, I know where an umlaut should be, at least in major words, and the common umlaut-free English spelling of this city’s name has come to look weird to me. I realize one could counter-argue that this entire blog is in English, as it must be, so I should use standard English spellings of place names, but this is really something instinctive, so get used to the umlauts (or, more accurately, “e”s after umlaut-having letters, which is basically the equivalent on this keyboard), dear readers.

Image: view of the Limmat River from the Quai Bruecke. The water is choppy because it's about to flow into the Zurichsee (or vice versa--I really have no idea about the hydrology of all this).

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

“Das wetter ist schlect. Es regnet.”

This is a phrase I remember from the German language CDs I listened to before heading over here. It means “The weather is awful. It’s raining.” It has come very much in handy—every damned moment since I’ve been here.

Wherein DF ruminates about Bavaria and carsickness

Up again early. This is a common product of jet-laggery: the body both wants a full eight hours of sleep, yet is so dialed in to a different schedule that it refuses to sleep through the night. Particularly galling, that theory might not even work in this case, as it’s officially 8.30pm in the states, which makes it hard to explain why my bod started refusing to let me sleep about an hour ago.

So perhaps these theories are all shite, and the simple fact remains: I am awake at 5-odd in the AM, local time, in the townlet of Kreuth, Bavaria, Germany. I arrived here from Munich yesterday after a relatively efficient day of travel. Met John/athan at the Max-Planck, hopped on the bus to Kreuth, and arrived in 1-2hrs. The weather is disappointingly rainy and grim, causing the bus’s proprietors to crank the heat inside, causing the in-bus atmo to become hot and damp and not-great-smelling, and finally causing poor DF’s ever-shaky GI to nearly revolt about 2/3ds of the way there.

I considered what would happen if this were my introduction to this new international cohort of people. “Oh, right—you’re the American who made an entire busful of people pull over to the side of a remote Bavarian mountain road while you vomited copiously.” Fortunately, I reminded myself, as I am wont to do, that they call them “waves” of nausea, because like actual real-world waves, they ebb and flow. And they did in this case (ebb, that is), saving DF from the ignominy of having roadside barfing be the first impression he made on his new international colleagues.

Arrival Kreuth, and a debate broke out over whether a nearby mountain counted as an Alp (NB: it totally was, and DF was right about this). Hence I can accurately say that I am currently ensconced in an Alpine retreat, and it is about as picturesque as you might imagine. The accommodations are what appears to be an old monastery (I am surmising because they are both spartan and adorned with occasional but very visible crucifixes).

The conference is an academic conference, and a good one, though DF will not bore you with the details, dear readers. Instead, consider the meat-intensive mystery that is sud-Deutsche chow: We all adjourned to a Bavarian restaurant (a fully legit one this time, as opposed to the urban simulacrum of Bavarian I’d eaten at the night before), and it had all the traditional indicia of its provenance that one might imagine: a sunken room with large-ish tables and benches, waitresses in flouncy dresses, white walls adorned with, inter alia, beheaded deer, etc.

But the food was almost comically unhealthy: beer served in massive mugs (I abstained, which still surprises me), a “salad” that consisted mainly of a slice of deli meat in oil, soup that was meat broth with a meatball (it was explained to me that the meatball was composed of various different kinds of meat, all of which came from locally caught and recently killed game), and eventually a really fantastic dessert that was, more or less, berry shortcake. I skipped over the main course because it merits separate re-telling: There was a huge steak, breaded in something based on onions, as well as an Alpine portion of potatoes cooked, of course, with onions and bacon, and—for the health-conscious—some roasted tomatoes, cooked, of course, with some butter, cheese, and topped with bacon to make sure that nothing on the plate could fairly be regarded as vegetarian-friendly. The waitress came by partway through the meal with a big bowl of additional potatoes, in case we weren’t already exploding with food, and a tureen of gravy to make sure we maximized the grease and fat content of the entire repast.

Oh ,and in case this was not clear, aforementioned tragically unhealthy fare was friggin delicious. I finished every last bite. So when DF re-arrives in America, rotund and with every artery clogged, you’ll know why. And you know what else? It’ll totally be worth it.

Image: view from the Wildbad-Kreuth compound; in background--possible Alp!

Wherein DF sickens even himself

I have done something appalling. Here is the breakfast I ate this morning at the Westin Munich buffet:

Fruit plate (mainly kiwi)—1
Yogurt—2 spoonfuls
Baguette sections—2
Salmon—2 slices
Nutella—1 spoonful
Raspberry jam—1 spoonful
Deli meats—2 slices
Chocolate croissant—1
Fruit croissant—1
Brie cheese—one slice
Small chicken sausage—4
Rosti (hash brown)—1
Roasted tomatoes—2
Bowl of cereal (corn flakes & sugar smacks)—1
Glasses of OJ—4
Pot of black tea—1

What the hell is wrong with me? To wit, when I came in to the hotel last night, the lady mentioned the breakfast and offered to include it in my hotel bill for “only” 20 euros. This seems scandalously expensive, but also I suspected, based on previous experience with fancy German hotel breakfast buffets, that this fruehstuck was not just a broetchen or two with tea, but a heart-stopping (perhaps literally so) spectacular spectacular of a spread, and this was exactly right.

So, when it opened up at 6.30am, I was there, appetite ueber-whetted, and attacked the buffet with gleeful abandon. I think I made four return voyages in total, amassing the above roster over the course of at least an hour. During that time I perused the Zurich city guide I brought (there’s only one I could find that’s specific to Zurich, and it’s by the hoity magazine Wallpaper, and it’s only OK—lots of good pics but short on useful info, and with an overbearingly unselfconscious hipster agenda), and was careful not to eat too fast (to avoid der upchucking) or too slow (to avoid the very rational signals my stomach was bound to send me when I reached its natural limit).

Much credit is due to me for what I did not have, viz., an omelette (delicious but commonplace in the US and would have taken up too much precious gut-room), and champagne (which was available in great quantities and looked delicious but I don’t think it would have been a good idea to show up at the MPI boozed out of my gourd).

And so now here I sit, laid low by Teutonic fruehstuck-excess. I hope to take a strategic nap before continuing the day, though it’s always a crapshoot whether this will actually happen. Final thought: do I regret this morning’s gluttony? Well, from a purely health perspective, it wasn’t great, and my gut/arteries are likely unhappy with me about it. But hell, it was a rare opportunity to have some really excellent food, and to try lots of different things in new setting, so what the hell? And at the very least, I got my 20 euros worth, and then some.

A rueful but refreshingly honest reflection on the state of DF's German skillz

Let’s be honest: my German sucks arsch. All I can really do in German well is explain that I can’t speak German well, and politely ask that people speak English with me. They do, of course—everyone in this country, or at least those who travelers need to interact with—seems to have a solid grasp of the international language. It’s just a bummer that this is necessary. I’ve worked pretty hard at getting basic German down, but I just don’t have very good language skillz generally, I guess, and I pretty clearly lack the confidence that would convince people that I know what I’m doing. Also, no one I interact with seems to have any time or interest in helping me engage in the struggles that would be necessary to get to a point of adequate fluency. I get it—it’s not the job of a hotel desk worker or restaurant waitress to be my language tutor—they’re busy, and they just want to get the interaction over with as quickly and efficiently as possible. Plus, everyone here speaks anywhere from solid to perfect English, so it’s just simpler and more efficient to go ahead and use our common, fluent tongue.

An overly long rumination on DF's voyage from the US, with critical commentary on domestic airlines

I write to thee from Munich, dear readers, where I alighted about twelve hours ago after what may have been the most painless coach-class international flight of my no-longer-so-brief life. Here are some points of possible salience:

DF flew Lufthansa from LA, direct to Munich overnight. The flight experience reminded me how horrible domestic US airlines have become. I’m dimly aware of this on all my US flights, of course, but this most recent flight made the contrast depressingly clear.

The reason is that this eleven-hour red-eye flight was, to my considerable surprise, not a horrific affair, but actually pretty decent. The seats were leathery and leaned back enough to be comfortable. They also had headrests that could be adjusted to facilitate sleeping without having one’s head fall into the aisle and be bonked by passing food carts. Lufthansa gave out blankets, pillows, and earphones all for free, and there were personalized in-flight entertainment screens (also free). I meant to watch the “Golden Girls” pilot (by which I mean that I wanted to see the first episode of the classic TV show via in-flight entertainment, not that I intended to scope out the female septuagenarian pilot of the plane), but fell asleep before I had the chance.

There’s more! The waitresses were cute and friendly, the food was hot and pretty tasty, and while I didn’t partake of it, there was ample booze on tap (and it is an artifact of my awful US flight experiences that I feel obligated to stress that all of these services were free). I even got a damned hot towel, and for a moment I felt like I was getting something akin to customer service. It felt very foreign, but basically good.

I remember a day when US airlines were more like this. Hell, when I was a kid I used to refer to air travel as a “plane ride” as though it were Space Mountain, and even remember looking forward to the experience. Now I dread it like an invasive and uncomfortable medical procedure—it’s something that I can handle but really prefer to avoid. This is, I think, because for whatever reason (financial arrears, I suspect), US airlines have cut amenities so starkly that flying is about as glamorous and elegant as taking the bus. You get on, you get stoic, you get off. I have a first-class-flying friend who says that even the elite cabins aren’t so great; they’re just less sucky than the hideous cattle-call environs of coach class.

Point being: the flight, thanks to my low expectations and Lufthansa’s really decent services, was totally fine. I got some work done, slept for a really really long time, and woke up when we were somewhere over the Norwegian Sea with only a couple hours to go. Passport control and customs were a breeze (I got a few weird questions from the German passport guy about what I was doing here—I called it “work” and he got antsy, then I explained that I’m not getting paid, and he thought I was lying, then I referred to myself as an “akademischer gast” and this seemed to fix the situation).

Travel to my hotel was also pretty efficient. I’m staying at the Westin Munich, near Arabellapark, and I literally have no idea where that is. I do know, though, that the Munich flughaven is nowhere near anything, and that a cab ride to the hotel would have cost in the neighborhood of 100 euro (!).

No worries, though—years of travel experience and perhaps some of the old Portuguese navigation instinct in my DNA kicked in, and I figured out how to use public transport to get here. The people at the hotel had suggested that I just get the S-bahn to Oestbahnhof, and then take a cab, but that’s for the weak. After the trip on the S8 from the flughaven through what appeared to be vast rural stretches of farmland, I changed to the U4 at Karlsplatz, took it to its terminus at Arabellapark, and lugged my not unheavy bag a few short blocks to this very nice and fancy hotel (only complaint: internet is not free and actually very very expensive—this is especially galling in a place that ain’t cheap to begin with—it all probably cashes out to the same in the end, but having to pay for internet makes me feel nickel-and-dimed).

I did some more work, and then adjourned to what appears to be the only restaurant in the vicinity, a Bavarian-themed joint in the basement. The food was very delicious, if scandalously unhealthy. I had some kind of meat pfanne with beef, veal, a cream sauce, many kartoffeln—basically a fatty caloriefest. The Denmark-Cameroon game was on, so that provided a welcome diversion, especially since it turned out to be (uncharacteristically for this WC so far) a lively and entertaining match. The setting was weird, though—it was sort of like a modern, fancified simulacrum of a Bavarian biergarten, with almost a Rainforest Café-sort of vibe (but not juvenile).

Shortly afterward, around 10pm, delicious fatigue set in. This was surprising to me, since I’d had a strange day schedule-wise: flew all night, served breakfast on the plane, and then moments later touching down to find that it’s early evening. But being tired exactly at bedtime sounded great … except that I then woke up four hours later. I think the old body was looking for a nap, rather than a full night’s sleep. So what does one do at 2.30am when you’re wide awake? Well, if you can’t beat jet lag, join it. I got up, made some tea, and did some work. I’m now waiting out the time til the breakfast place downstairs open, with the intention of parlaying the post-fruehstuck food coma into a brief nap before breaking camp and meeting up with the conference folks over at the Max-Planck Institute.

Hier kommt der upcatching!

All right, smartypantseses. I know what you were all thinking: that first post was so meager and, frankly, boring that DF had past his blogging prime and this new travel blog was going to peter out and become a mere artifact of DF's literary denouement.

Well, it's time for you to eat your words, beloved readers, because the reason I didn't post for the last few days was that I was locked in a monastery-esque location in deepest darkest Bavaria, and while this location had many many crucifixes, there was nary an internet connection to be seen. Hence I wrote up posts but did not have the chance to actually post them. And so, here they come in rapid succession, or as fast as this gimpy Zuericher internet connection will allow.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


So it's been known for a while that DF is returning--yet again--to Mitteleuropa, site of his triumphant itinerancy in summer 2005, and of his World-Cup related adventures in 2006. The lesson of those trips appeared to be: if you want to make sure you don't forget what happened on your trip, and/or if you want to inform people about the trip, the surest way to do this is to write a blog.

Hence I am going to write a blog about this trip.

Or, perhaps better, I am going to try to write a blog about this trip. There is no guarantee that I'll have enough time to write blogs while I'm abroad, not because my schedule is packed with personally fun events, but because this trip is essentially work-related, and as a result I may be too busy to post thoughtful and possibly also amusing items here in order to entertain and, as the case may be, edify my broad readership.

But this is kind of also an exercise in solipsism, for even if no one reads or if I get only a few crucial thoughts down in post form, I'll at least have more data and detail than I would have otherwise.

Now that's enough justificatory claptrap. There is much to do before leaving (which is really, really soon), and hell this all isn't really that interesting anyway, so that leaves until manana, dear readers.