Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Das Ende, meine Freunde

It’s the moment you’ve all been dreading more than any other, broad R, but the one you knew would eventually have to arrive. But steel yourselves for the grim truth: here endeth the broad, always entertaining, often deeply controversial, never ever endearing, and characteristically overbearing internet narrative (i.e., “blog”) that was DF Revisits Mitteleuropa.

DF sits now in the glassy aerie of Munich Flughafen, hi above the Lufthansa departure desk (which is, fwiw, about 500x more efficient, modern, and friendly than the equivalent desk at LAX). It’s a moment for reflection and sheer, unbridled rage. Or wait, not the rage, just the reflection. So (or, as my Deutscher compatriots might say, “Zo”), what are the big-pic takeaways from Eurotrip 2010?

1. DF is smarter than he was a month ago. It’s not a high bar, admittedly; it’s like saying “The LA Clippers are a better team than they were last year.” True, perhaps, but not necessarily indicative of objective quality. Still, DF’s head was stuffed full of very interesting and provocative ideas during his time here in Europa: very valuable comments on some works in progress; mind-bendingly technical introductory empirical legal knowledge; and a less technical but no less challenging or interesting introduction to a rat-choice take on law’s expressive function.

In that vein, I’ve been reading Taleb’s The Black Swan sort of as a follow-on to the ELS stuff, and it’s been an interesting counterpoint for a couple of reasons. First, Taleb’s very skeptical of the capacity of empiricists to predict much of anything, at least for certain kinds of populations (non-Gaussian distributions, and he thinks almost all populations are non-Gaussianly distributed, and certainly that no interesting populations are Gaussianly distributed). Second, the book’s written in a brash, contrarian style that reminds me of Camille Paglia, with all the same intrigue and annoyance. Taleb is forever chastising this or that group as clueless or full of idiots, while at the same time warning us not to get caught up in overgeneralized narrative, and apparently unaware that his ego has led him into a pretty obvious contradiction.

Boy, you really wanted to read all that, didn’t you? Well, jesus, you know DF’s an academic nerd, so what did you really expect? But I get the point; I’ll stick to less heady fare from here on out.

2. DF <3s Europa. You knew this already, Broad Readership, but I’ll say it one more time: the world is a big and interesting place, and DF wants to experience as much of it as possible before he shuffles off the old mortal coil. This summer was a chance to really get into a new, and heretofore largely unvisited part of Europa: Switzerland, and more specifically Zuerich. There’s something very different about living in a foreign city versus just popping in as a tourist. I’ve really only been able to spend multiple weeks in a Eurocity a few times: Amsterdam 2001, Barcelona 2002, Berlin 2005 and 2006, and Zuerich 2010 (and there was Melbourne 1998, but that’s not Europa, obv.). Actually, that’s kind of a lot, and looking back it makes me feel really fortunate to have had the luck and wherewithal to make all these trips.

DF liked Zuerich a whole lot. It’s a hard city to love, so I’m going to stop short of saying that, and I don’t think I have the affection for Z-town that I did for, e.g., A-dam or Melbourne. Zuerich has many admirable attributes: a classic central European beauty, efficiency and cleanliness, an easygoing and accessible atmosphere, and a rich cultural and intellectual life. But it lacks the spark or zazz that one will find in, say, Barcelona, or most other cities really. Being in Zurich was like staying with a wealthy relative who is very generous and polite but a little bit cold. None of this should suggest that I’ve got any reservations about the place; I loved being there and I’d go again in a heartbeat. I’m just trying to capture the distinctive source of its appeal and contrast its appeal to that of other European cities.

3. Travel while he may, DF’s <3 will always be in America, and specifically in Los Angeles. I am already strategizing for next summer’s plan to escape the US and explore some foreign burg (current frontrunner: Buenos Aires, Argentina, baby). But however much DF wants, and perhaps even needs, to travel, he will always first and foremost be American. One of the interesting things about traveling is that it reminds me of how American I am (and hints at common threads that may be said to be essentially American). In the states, we often contrast ourselves internally—north v. south, LA v. NY, red state v. blue state—but abroad, Americans are more alike than different, and this is a useful and, I think, happy insight to take back with me.

As for the city, there are many things about LA that a reasonable person could well dislike: the crowds, the pollution, the shallowness, the traffic, etc. Zurich had none of these drawbacks, and I can imagine that visitors to LA from Z-town would likely be baffled at why anyone would want to live in LA. (Indeed, Euros almost invariably say that they like some parts of CA, including San Francisco, but powerfully dislike LA). But these things are, for DF, swamped and then some by the city’s familiarity and bewitching appeal. You can’t really explain love, or perhaps less dramatically, preferences, and so I’ll just leave it at that. I’ll miss getting to work via a funicular railway, or being able to navigate the entire city by cheap trams (and even by foot), and seeing a spectacular medieval skyline of churches on a daily basis, but for inexplicable reasons, I am looking forward to being back in LA, my home sweet home.

4. If I could live one day from the trip all over again, the choice is beyond question: June 23, 2010. My first day in Zuerich, beautiful weather on the walk from Rigiblick to ETH, lunch with colleagues overlooking the breathtaking expanse of the city, and then of course, of course, the game, the game, the game. I watch sports a lot, and have been high and low as a result of outcomes, but nothing has ever quite matched that moment (perhaps the Gibson HR, but that sort of illustrates the point). Ninety minutes of tension and worry and a sense of impending doom was transferred into an explosion of joy so great I was literally at a loss for words (again: where the hell did “Oh Jesus” come from? And why did I respond to people’s “gooool” texts with “OMG OMG OMG”—it was like what the very religious refer to as speaking in tongues, perhaps).

And later, watching the great vids of fans all over America celebrating the goal in unison, it suggested that part of what makes national sports distinctive is that people who share a common thread with you that you hold dear (being American) are all happy because their representatives have pulled off a miracle. As Bill Simmons typically aptly put it, “We will always have that Algeria game. Always.” Not “I” will have the game, or “my team” won, but “we” will have the game. And, similarly, there will always be a crystal clear memory of the time DF, delirious with nationalism and victory, wended his way through the streets of Zurich, a city he’d known for less than a day, whooping and chanting "U S A". Always.

Hm. That was a digression, and hardly a coherent one. Well, folks, the time draws nigh. My flight for LA boards in about an hour, and in that time I want to have one last taste of authentic local fare (I’m thinking sushi). So I bid all y'all farewell. I’ll blog at ya again next time I can finagle an international voyage. Auf wiedersehen!


1. Sunset over mtns west of Zuerich seen from Rigiblick/Villa Hatt.

In Munich--Day III: Chillin' in Dachau!!!

Let’s be honest, broad readership: This is a great continent and all, but as has happened in the past, the wandering and the exploring can get kinda old after a while. This is not to say that Munich’s not a wonderful city to visit, but I’ve been on the road for near-on a month and there are large parts of me that are looking forward to being back stateside.

Which is more or less how I felt when I woke up yesterday: fairly indifferent between the idea of staying an extra day in M-burg or just heading home. But since it takes an act of congress and the contents of Fort Knox to change an international air ticket, and since I wanted to make sure I’d squeezed every last drop of touristic juice out of the city since I’m already here, I thought I’d go for one, last, big, festive celebratory tourist experience. Yeah, you guessed it…


Seriously, the Dachau memorial site is only an S-bahn ride away from Munich, and while I have had more than enough Holocaust history in my time (when it was easily the #1 topic we studied in freshman intro classes as well as sophomore tutorial, plus a good heaping helping of it in popular academic culture as well as occasional visits to, e.g., the Berlin Holocaust Museum), it seems like an important enough historical site that one should pay a visit while one has the chance.

So I hopped the trains to Hbf and connected to the S2, which speeds you right out to Dachau. It’s really hard not to figure out how to get there: there are signs and direct busses as soon as you alight at the station, and the crowds of people are all pretty much going to the same place. I sat next to an older lady from Kentucky on the bus over from the train station; she had been to Bregenz and expressed shock that I hadn’t been there (“You haven’t been to Bregenz? Well, you’ve just got to go. I’m serious.” I wanted to be all like, “Bus driver, stop this vehicle—I’m changing my plans and going to Bregenz, because a random person with whom I’ve conversed for three minutes said so!”).

What’s strange about all this is that even though Dachau has become synonymous with awful Nazism and is of international interest almost exclusively for this reason, they still have the town name and people still live and work there. I know some people changed their names after the scandals of WWII (hence you won’t find too many guys named “Bill Hitler” out in the world), but Dachau apparently didn’t think to do this (or found it infeasible or unpopular for whatever reason). Strangest of all: there are wholesome-looking middle-class houses built right up against the edge of the concentration camp site. Can you imagine the sell-job the nice real estate lady had to do with that one? “Lovely entryway, spacious master suite, and the balcony from your bedroom has a sweeping view of the crematorium!” I bet the values of those houses are half what equivalent places would be elsewhere.

At the site, I learned that I just missed the informative movie, which was a real annoyance since I like informative movies, and there wouldn’t be another one until late in the afternoon. I blame the hotel staff here at the Haydn, who screwed up my reservation (putting me down for 2 not 3 nights, despite clear confirming email to the contrary), and offered me a different room for the last night, albeit one that I had to move into—this delayed my departure by 20-30min and effectively precluded me from seeing the informative film. I want the Haydn to discount the rate of my room by the value of the historical information I would have gotten but for their snafu.

All right, Dachau itself: honestly, the verdict is in and it was interesting, sobering, but not terribly surprising. Getting educated in the very late 20th century means you’re pretty much exposed to the facts of the Holocaust, and that often includes some pretty gory and in-your-face footage of suffering inmates, piles of corpses, and the like. It’s never fun to see these things, and it’s always at least a bit unsettling to think of how terribly things can go wrong, but it was really just another illustration of a grim reality that I’ve been aware of for a long time. At least there was no freaking out or public keening in the exhibits (as there was in, e.g., my soph tutorial, where people went on and on and on about how they could barely take the material and it made them cry and lose sleep, etc.), although there was a couple that kept smooching in the shadow of the death-camp photos, which I thought was weirdly macabre.

I tromped around the grounds for a good long while. There are some nice memorials (nice in the sense of “well-executed,” not nice in the sense of “pleasant”—obv.), and a long, tree-lined walkway where the prisoners used to gather in what little time they were allowed to recreate. The walkway was downright picturesque, and with a breeze blowing and the trees shielding the hot summer sun, it was easy to forget what the place used to be about.

After much tromping, I grew weary and headed back via the brutally un-air conditioned bus, and then the deliciously air-conditioned Deutschebahn train, and arrived back at the pension, where I managed to nap despite the onset of a BBQ in the courtyard right below my room window. I eventually woke up because there was a single Italian guy in the BBQing group who was so loud that at first I thought he was having a rage-y altercation with someone. Turns out, he was just talking, though I think there’s something about some Italians (and yeah, it’s totally culturally specific in my experience) that brings out an almost comically loud vocal quality when they’re in a group. It’s kind of like a norm cascade—others were getting loud, and there were many hi-pitched shrieking girls laughing as well, but I figured, hey, it’s like 6pm—they’ll certainly quiet down by the time I’m back and want to sleep, right? (This is, broad readership, the kind of foreshadowing that is the mark of true literary quality.)

So at this point it was early evening, and DF’s eurotrip was in serious denouement. I’d seen what I wanted to see of Munich—and then some—and wanted nothing more than to relax and do some blogging, because after all, I am truly devoted to my readers. So I headed to Odeonsplatz, site of my beloved San Francisco Coffee Company. You might say, “Why visit a US-themed coffee shop when you’re in Europe.” My answer is four words: big, iced caffeine beverages. I got a massive (by Euro standards) cappuccino on ice, and sat in a courtyard off Theresienstrasse that could easily have served as an ad for old-Europe refinement: high windowed walls, central fountain, a few folks sipping coffee—it was one of those moments that felt scripted in its relaxing perfection.

My trusty but fading computer ran out of power not too soon after, so I took a wander through the Hofgarten one last time, where they were playing swing music in the Diana Temple and folks were milling around to gear up for the WC finale. And in the interest of not missing the latter, I hopped the U6 and hightailed it back to Goetheplatz for a farewell game-watch at Sinans, the really pretty good barrestaurant around the corner from the Pension Haydn.

The game, meh—I’d gone in wanting the Dutch to win but was so turned off by their cynical play that I felt it was some vindication for attacking soccer when Spain finally pulled out the late winning goal. I’m also glad there was a goal—if it had gone to scoreless penalties, it not only would have been unfair to the Spanish, but would have meant that we’d go at least 12 years without a decisive score in the final. Again, ugh. The atmo was really pretty fun—there was a table of Dutch people and Sinans was full and festive despite Germany not being in the game. The mood was clearly pro-Holland; when the game ended, there was no clapping, just mildly disappointed silence, as well as a few muttered “scheisse”s.

Then back home for DF, and sweet sweet repose, right? Oh, so wrong—I did indeed get to sleep, only to be woken up at like 1.30am by … the screaming Italian and his cohorts! They’d come back from watching the game, it seems, and had reassembled in the courtyard for more yelly, yelly conversation. I tried what I could to drown out the noise, even closing the window despite the hot oppressive night. But a half-hour in, I decided to chat with them, and was really surprised to find that the Italian who felt it necessary to scream at the top of his lungs to communicate with people sitting at the same table with him was … the proprietor of the pension! I think my shock was obvious when I went out to talk to the group, and he seemed incredibly embarrassed, though I can’t imagine he’d be surprised (“Oh, you mean the guests find it disturbing that I’m bellowing in a foreign language at 2am on a Sunday morning directly beneath their windows? What a puzzlement!”). But all was more or less well—they agreed to quiet down, and eventually packed up and went inside, by about which time my adrenalina had simmered down, and I finally slept.

And with that, twas morning, and the time of present writing, and I’m getting this all down in my Pension Haydn room before I leave for the airport. The flight is at 3.45pm, and my goal is to get there as early as possible so I can see about switching to a deliciously non-claustrophobic aisle seat, and possibly also do some internetting before the flight departs. The feeling upon departure day is right where you want to be: happy to have been here in Europa, but also ready to leave and go back home.


1. Famous entrance to Dachau, greeting prisoners with "Arbeit macht frei." Hey, who says the Germans have no sense of humor?

2. Eerie spit-turning sculpture outside Dachau main barracks.

3. More barracks, but in background check out the nice middle-class houses. How effed would it be to raise a family right next to a goddamned concentration camp???

Some unintentionally funny German signs

I don't know, the fruit in Germany didn't look gross to me at all, and certainly not extra gross. I guess they have really high standards, and a surfeit of honesty when it comes to advertising.

It wasn't the best beer I ever had, but it wasn't bad either, and certainly not "hell."

I was sure something sinister was going on behind this door, but was surprised to find only a shower.

It is one of the great regrets of my life that I did not manage to catch a set by "Party Time."

In Munich--day II: some Aristotelian wisdom about travel

When I worked for Let’s Go, I always puzzled over a tension inherent in how we trained our researcher-writers. On the one hand, we loaded them down with itineraries and schedules and tearsheets that more or less mapped out exactly what they had to do at every moment of their travels. But at the same time, we espoused—and also drilled into our researchers—a philosophy of going off the beaten path, rejecting stringent schedules, and generally wandering around and freely trying to discover the destination spontaneously.

DF’s possibly boring thought about this is something in between: you have to have some sense of a schedule when you travel, otherwise you’ll just waste your time. If you want to see the Frauenkirche, for example, it makes no sense to take a random ride on the S-bahn and hope it’ll just pop up. But on the other hand, overpreparing can be a real concern: you can end up rushing around with tourist tunnel-vision, popping from sight to sight missing the atmosphere of the city by obsessing about a checklist of discrete things to do and see.

So for Day II in Munich, DF had three goals: first, some blogging at an internet café; second, the BMW Museum; and third, watching the Germany/Uruguay match at a local pub. This was not an exclusive list, obv, but rather a framework: by endeavoring to see these things, I'd likely have enough time to do any other random stuff that happened to occur to me on the way.

The day started on the later side (for one good reason, see “Excellent night’s sleep,” above, and one terribly annoying reason, which was a frantic search for a nearly-lost passport, a la the great passport disappearance of 2001). Hence it was nearer to noon when I finally got to Hbf, where I had planned to do some internetting at good old EasyEverything, one of my fave haunts from Amsterdam a million years ago (actually, only 2001-02).

Verdict: fail. I couldn’t find EasyEverything, plus wandering around the Hbf and immediately surrounding area was a total sleazefest, with grotty hostels, nudie bars, and general riff-raffery (in a downscale, boring way, not in any sort of redeemingly seedy way) dominating. I tried going to an internet café in the basement of a casino but the terminal was so gross it made me feel like I was in a peep show rather than trying to enlighten the Broad Readership (and in fact public internet terminals in the basements of casinos in sleazy areas of Munich may well be the equivalent of peep shows), so I just called it a loss and hared on out of there.

All right, so: I’d actually wanted to stop by an English bookstore to feed my reading addiction, and found one near the university that would make for a constitutionally positive walk. On the way, I happened across a blessed exception in this city: a coffee shop (American-themed, obv.) where you can get big, iced caffeine beverages (iced beverages being thought unhealthy throughout Germany, for god knows what reason). I waited for twenty minutes behind a gaggle of tweeny girls and was rewarded with a big icy cappuccino, and it was totally worth overhearing all the inane in-line chatter.

Duly caffeinated, I hooked a left on Schillerstrasse after heading up big, broad Ludwigstrasse for a spell, and found myself in Anglia English Bookshop. It was not, as I’d hoped, a used bookshop, but I found a cheapish new copy of Cryptonomicon and left, finally feeling like I had enough reading material for the trip home. Next stop: a restaurant in Hohehzollernplatze where they serve Bavarian potato dishes. I continued on Schillerstr., and eventually got the sinking feeling that I’d missed the turn-off. And just as I decided to head back, I found myself—utterly unexpectedly—at an English-language used bookshop. It was a tiny paradise: the selection was vast, the books were excellent, and it was icy with blessed, blessed air conditioning inside. Intoxicated, I bought two more volumes: Taleb’s The Black Swan (very interesting and entertaining—this guy is the Camille Paglia of economics) and one of those Best American Essays volumes (distributing risk is always a good strategy for long plane trips).

The values of bounded wandering, broad readership: I’d started with a plan, but it was loosely constructed, and in the course of executing it, I’d found entirely by accident the very thing I thought I’d had on the enumerated list. Want more evidence? Check it: DF’s next move was to head N to H-platze for the Bavarian potato place. After some difficulty finding the square, I discovered that it was more or less where I thought and—better!—was hosting an open-air festival. This means big mugs of beer, Bavarian chow, and—best of all—an adorable junior-high band tootling out instrumental classics. I sat, ate and drank for a while, amused by the joyless seriousness—and not terrible execution—of the band, but left when they played a damned Beatles song. Terrible, overrated band, the Beatles.

Fortunately for DF, Hohenzollernplatz is right on the U-bahn line connecting to the next destination of choice: BMW world. BMWW is ground zero for Beamer-lovers like DF. I can totally understand why it would be a total bore for others, but I found myself drooling over the cars on display, which was less embarrassing because everyone else was as well. The place is fiendishly designed to make you want to buy one of their cars. I found myself doing quick mental calculations to see if I could afford one of the new five-series (NB: probably, but not a good idea), but of course did not, and limited myself to lusting near-pornographically over the delicious vehicular smorgasbord.

Then, more fortunate coincidence: BMWW is located adjacent to Olympic Park, where the 72 Olympix took place, and where (I think) Bayern Munich plays. I trekked over to the park, and found myself parching terribly in the late-afternoon heat (the park is basically a big stretch of asphalt between various elephantine stadia and towers). I got as far as the soccer stadium, where German folks were beginning to gather to watch the third-place game against Uruguay, and by the time I was ready to go back, I was fighting an increasing stream of Teutons decked out in Deutschland gear on their way from the UBahn.

I took an ever so brief naplet upon getting back to the Haydn (wandering around Munich is fun but really tiring—I’d basically been on my feet moving for eight-odd hours), and then tried to find a Turkish place mentioned in the LP that sounded good, south of Sendliger Tor. Good news: I found the address; bad news: the restaurant had changed, and the new place was a fancy sit-down affair with linen tablecloths, and it just didn’t feel like my speed.

(Related: am I the only person in the world who really really likes eating in restaurants by myself? If I have a good book and there’s a good restaurant, I am likely at a near-acme of contentment. The only thing that busts this up is that I’m aware that most everyone else thinks that it’s awful and sad to eat alone at a restaurant. I was in Oz researching for LG that one time and was so happy to get to a restaurant solo at the end of a long day working, but it was ruined when the hostess was like “You’re alone? Awwww, how awful, how sad—poor you!” It’s a good example of how hard it is to resist peer opinions even when they’re totally inconsistent with your internal instincts and prior subjective experience.)

Thus frustrated, I went back north of Send-Tor and discovered a very solid Italian place on the interior of a courtyard where I ordered a delicious pizza and ate it while reading Black Swan, which I’m kind of loving. The pizza was enormous and at first I was embarrassed that I’d ordered so much food just for me; more embarrassing was the ease with which I finished it.

Denouement: I finished dinner just as the big game was commencing, and wandered throughout a quiet Munich (most everyone was riveted to a TV). When I got back to G-platz, I went to the barrestaurant near the Haydn and watched most of the Ger/Uru game, which turned out to be a real thriller (I hope tonight’s final is as interesting). The barrestaurant is right by the pension, so I could blessedly walk a block and hit the sack for some corpse-like sleep, which is exactly what I did.


1. So many delicious BMWs. DF wants.

2. Open-air festival in Hohenzollernplatz; jr high band tootles "Soul Man."

3. Olympics tower backlit by brutal unforgiving summer sun.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

In Munich--Day I

Broad Readership:

I write to thee, as I did so many years ago (five, to be exact), from Munich, or Muenchen, or even München (as I can now write given the use of a Germanic keyboard, though it's not unfrustrating to deal with said keyboard since the z is where the y should be and other annoyances).

And perhaps also of moment, I am now officially a tourist, which I have not been since my arrival in Germania, and indeed not for a good long time, period. The difference is: when I first got here, I was working (bc of conference), and all through then and my time in Zürich, when asked I'd tell people I was working, and that was true. Being in Europe working (or, perhaps more accurately, "working") somehow appealed to me more than just being a tourist and being here for pleasure. The reason, I think, is that often traveling as a tourist isn't actually fun--things go wrong, there's no AC anywhere, the hotel smells like an unwashed dog, etc. But if you're _working_, then it seems less frustrating and ridiculous when things go awry.

Anyway: Lord, how I digress. Here's the point: I am now in München, and am touristing, and I will relate to you all the last few days of my time here in a manner largely chronological, though with the requisite DF commentary thrown in (as if I could _not_ throw commentary).

So: up bright and early day before yesterday when I departed die Schweitz at long last. There were no tears upon farewell; I'd enjoyed Zürich greatly, but I'd done the city good and proper, and twas time to leave. The train journey north to Deutschland was ... adequate. On the plus side, it was not the cattle-car experience of the Zürich-Berne debacle, but nor was it the open, opulent spacious comfort of the Visp-Zermatt leg. I shared a four-seat space with some nice Euros, it got tiresome having to sit there, but on balance it was fine and I read a dreary book ("Lush Life") to pass the time.

Arrival Munich! The trip from Hbf to Pension Haydn was uneventful and basically efficient. There were small annoyances (it took forever to change currency, and I said to a guy in line, "you're American" when he in fact was not--but in my defense he really really did look American). So: arrival pension, and it was/is entirely adequate. Not luxurious, not particularly nice even, but clean and well-kept, and blessedly there is not the critical mass of young travelers that I'd feared might make it a party spot (there is, fortunately, a hostel a couple blocks away, and I think that attracts the tweeniboppers and related annoyances--good lord how old I sound writing this).

So: after offloading all my crap into the tiny but very clean room (reminiscent of the dorm rooms my UCLA friends occupied, though they were crammed into them two at a time), I made some patented DF city maps and set off to explore the Munich. I headed to Marienplatz, which is more or less Munich tourist/commerce ground zero. The standard roundelay of tourist sights ensued: Munich Rathaus (again, government center, no vermin present)—check; St Peter’s Cathedral (complete with vertiginous and exhausting climb to top of tower)—check; Holy-Ghost Church (there are, you will have noticed by now, a profusion of churches in Munich)—check; Karlstor (one of many massive old medieval gates)—check.

It was another sweltering day in Central Europa, readers, and lord these people do not have a love for air conditioning. The second-best thing is to lounge at an outdoor café or restaurant and pray for a breeze, which is what I did (Augustinier am Dom, just out of the way and so freer of tourist hordes—and my newfound Schweitzer vegetarianism bit the dust when the waitress, trussed up in one of those fraulein outfits that looks painful to wear, brought me a menu overflowing with delectable Bavarian beef- and porkstuffs).

But here’s a weird thing: the Euros seem to love to bathe publicly in fountains. There are several very nice fountains along the shopping street that I wandered, and the locals seemed very willing to strip to the skivs and dance around in them, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald style. And on the exact opposite end of the spectrum, I was surprised to find more Muslim ladies in the headdresses and the full-on black coverings than I have probably ever seen in all my time in America. And many of these covered up Muslim ladies, with only eyes peeking out of their swaddling, have conspicuously expensive Prada or Chanel sunglasses on to boot. Welcome to contemporary Europa.

The initial impression of Munich: grand, and impressive, in an old-Europe sort of way. It’s well more urban than Zurich—in terms of scale and intensity of city atmo—but not as modern and edgy as Berlin. The people and style are more conservative, and more trad German; not surprising as we’re in the heart of Bavaria, people. It’s relatively clean and accessible, though, and enough English is spoken that DF can try to lead with German but default to English when the need strikes.

To resume the narrative: after grabbing a juice in a health-food snack and finishing a singularly dispiriting book called “Lush Life,” DF headed north up Ludwigstrasse to end the day by wandering throughout the Englishergarten, which is apparently one of Europe’s largest urban green spaces. The route took me past another park, the Hofgarten, which is smaller but insanely manicured and picturesque—they could set a scene from a eighteenth-century French courtly romance there—but twas not the final destination, so I had to move on.

Turns out that my route—basically, up Ludwigstrasse—angled away ever so slightly from the park as I went north, but it was worth it as the street passed both the city library and University. More meandering north, and finally I cut right, and after a few blocks, found myself in the Englishergarten. It was kind of a shock in the way most urban parks are: the grounds are perfectly nicely kept, but they’re vast and sprawling, and the trails are kind of rugged, so once you go in, you kind of feel immediately lost (or at least you do if you’re a clueless foreigner like DF).

But somehow I managed to emerge in just the place I’d been looking for: the Chinesicher Turm, a classic biergarten in the center of the park. The Turm itself is three stories high, in an ersatz, old-school Chinese style, and on the second story there was an no-fooling oom-pah band tooting out brass-band standards for the assemblage. If there is a more emblematic Bavarian experience, I’m not sure what it would be. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but I wandered anyway to the food stand, where they were serving absolutely massive (1L, I think) mugs of local beer along with the standard meat-and-potatoes fare (seriously). I grabbed a mug and some chow, found a picnic table, and enjoyed the oom-pah-ing in the early evening cool. It was the kind of moment that reminds one why one travels; these times make all the delayed flights and frustrating language issues and sketchy pension stays worth it.

Much much later, I finished up my refreshments and continued wandering through the park, far far north (and my damned tibia began to ache, which was more dispiriting than hampering—I thought I had the damn thing licked). The park population thinned as I wandered, and for a time whole, verdant sprawling half-acres were vacant as I traveled along the northward trail. But then I realized: I had no damned idea where I was, and it was getting dark. This didn’t make me feel unsafe as such, but it was a reminder that it would probably be a good idea to head back to the Haydn rather than, e.g., sleep on a park bench through the night.

So DF wandered west out of the park, in the rough direction of some U-bahn signs, and walked and walked and walked, and then walked some more, and just when I was all like “Time to turn around and just retrace all two and a half hours of the route I took to get here,” something spectacular happened: I emerged from the residential street I was on to a major artery with a big, delicious U-bahn sign. It was the U6—which goes right to Goethepl., a block from the Haydn. Blessed relief for my poor exhausted feetses. And as I cooled aforementioned feetses while waiting for the Ubahn in the company of a bunch of traditional Muslim folks (wives fully wrapped, and daughters increasingly wrapped as they got older, but sons and dads completely westernized in casual clothes, of course), I realized that I’d wandered like six or seven miles out of the city center, so far north that the bus for the airport (which is in like another German state) leaves from the Ubahn stop I’d found. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t walk a year ago, eh?

And with that, I was subwayed directly back home (i.e., pension), where I slept for at least ten delicious uninterrupted and richly deserved hours.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Last night in Zuerich

What to do for DF's last night in Zuerich? So much has already been accomplished. Win a fistfight with a Giacometti sculpture in the Kunsthaus? Check. Dive nude off the Quaibruecke into the Limmat? Check. Run through the streets of the business district chanting "USA"? Check. (N.B. That last one actually happened.)

Seriously, though, I was feeling a wee bit nostalgic earlier today, especially after leaving the Villa Hatt for a very serviceable hotel nearer the city center and, more importantly, the Hauptbahnhof (apparently there was a dignitary coming to stay at the Villa and they wanted me gone whether or not there was a spare room). There was no specific thing I wanted to do or see in Zuerich that I hadn't already done or seen. And anyway, Z-town is not not exactly a city of grand events that one simply must do. A trip to LA without going to the beach or Disneyland might be said to be bereft, and I think you have to see the Stat of Liberty or Central Park if you're in NYC (though I'm not particularly interested in either).

So what I did instead was wander around. I walked up to the Uni/ETH area and grabbed the 9 tram, which curves around the southern (?) side of the city, over Quaibrucke and then back up through Paradeplatz to Talstrasse, where both Paddy Reilly's and Wagamama are located. Paddy's is woven throughout my experience here in Zuerich, from the very first day and the fated US game to the next-to-last night and the not-so-fated Germany game. Wagamama, of course, is more familiar from my time in Amsterdam, going all the way back to 2001 (nearly ten years ago--yikes!) when my co-authors on the A-dam LG guide and I used to head over to Leidseplein to dine on noodly dishes on a regular basis. I had a bite at W and it was typically spicy and delicious, if kinda pricey (but what isn't in this damn flush-with-cash-even-in-a-global-credit-crunch kinda market?).

Then, post-Waga, I went to the Sprungli at Paradeplatz and Bahnhofstr for a tiny bite of spectacular and spectacularly overpriced schokolade. Disappointingly, though perhaps for the best in terms of health, S was closed, and I then set out to simply wander a bit and take in Zuerich qua Zuerich. As I mentioned, the city is not one of massive, must-see icons (though there are some), but rather has a beautiful and well-kept center that dates to the middle ages and has kept its medieval character while also staying high-end and modern commercially--think a stately old stone building off an alley with massive store windows with "Prada" emblazoned above them.

The maziness of the central city (across the Limmat from the slightly grottier Neumarkt area) affords a fun adventure to any walk. Nothing's an LA-style grid; hell, the city operates in three-space. Turn one way and you're in the middle of a square, fronted by weighing-houses that date to the early middle ages. Head down one of the narrow streets off the square and you're met with a profusion of Swiss flags and candy boutiques that can make chocolate into anything God's ever imagined. Head down a narrow, curvy stone staircase and you're on the Limmatquai, sunset sparkling on the water, Euros lounging about elegantly at outdoor tables and sipping on civilized beverages. Go up a narrow, curvy stone staircase and you've discovered a big park with statues and fountains (from which, I kid you not, people actually do drink) and kids playing and people making watercolors of the city views.

I read for a while in one of the latter, and thought--does this ever happen in LA? Are there places you can wander around and find all manner of picturesque corners and angles? Not really. There are great hidden spots in the city, but you have to drive, and so exploration in the pedestrian sense can't really work. And even so, the tenor of life seems much more calm and serene here. There are few if any yelly interactions. Motorists ALWAYS stop for peds at crosswalks. Groups of teenagers are rare, and don't really seem that threatening. No homeless people accost you for change and/or crap on the streets. Zuerich has the highest cost of living of any city in the world, and man you really can tell.

So this is it: Earlier today, I said my goodbyes to my friends and colleagues at ETH, and I really do hope to keep in touch with them. Many of us work on different things, but their insights were very valuable, and trying to engage their projects forced me to think about my own work in a very new way. The seminars were both great--challenging and interesting and made me think about things I never would have otherwise. People called my Swiss trip a "vacation," and that's not quite right, but it was really fun despite also requiring a lot of hard work.

And now I'm getting to bed early so I can catch the 9 15 train to Munich tomorrow AM. I'm never happy to leave cities I've stayed in and felt much affection for, but in this case I can at least say that I'm ready to leave, and that I don't feel that more time here would have caused me to do or see anything that would otherwise have missed out on.


1. The Limmat at dusk, photog'ed from a park that affords views of the entire city and that I just happened upon while wandering, which more or less illustrates the above points about the benefits of wandering in Zuerich.

2. Medieval street bedecked by Swiss flags. The profusion of flags in the city kind of puzzles me in a country that is explicitly neutral and devoted to plurality in its internal affairs. I think the reason they do this is that the flag doesn't really connote nationalism in the sense of "We're better than others," but simply as a symbol of the Swiss identity, which is somehow evident in the distinctiveness of the flag itself, which is not triumphal, but uses a symbol similar to the Red Cross and is square rather than oblong.

3. Pic that may or may not give you some sense of how you can really get lost among the asymmetrical medieval streets of the central city. And Zuerich being Zuerich, getting lost is good--it's a pleasant experience of discovery and aesthetic pleasure rather than making one feel disoriented and possibly threatened.

Unrelated and not particularly expertly taken pixes of Zuerich

Left: This is the intersection of Uraniastrasse and Bahnhofstrasse, which is more or less the beating heart of Z's downtown biz district. Near here is the horribly overpriced English-language bookstore, Orem Fuessli, where I have indulged my compulsive need for reading material despite the almost comically inflated prices (although: went in to a Starbucks today thinking about a green tea and left when I saw prices hovering around 7-9SFR for standard coffee beverages--no way in hell am I paying that).

Right: Apparently skateboarding is a crime in Zuerich as well. I've seen no skateboarders at all, and since I am now at least relatively familiar with inductive reasoning, I know that I cannot know whether this is due to the activity's lack of enthusiasm in Switzerland, or the efficacy of these signs.

Left: The walk from the Seilbahn Rigiblick toward the good old Villa Hatt has to be one of the best parts of my day. Here's why: there is a gorgeous little park with insane views of the city all along the right. Frail old people and relatively unthreatening teenagers alike flock here--though not in huge numbers--to sit and watch for hours at a time.

Right: "Abfahrt" means departure, as in "the Seilbahn is going to depart in three minutes." But it always makes me titter, and I'll let you guess why.

Left: The views from the deck behind the ETH are simply insane. If it weren't a million baking degrees out there, I'd have sat outside and worked there all the time rather than in my office. But alas, it was always a struggle: after ogling the views for 15minutes, I'd feel heat stroke coming on and need to go back into the cool cool confines of ETH's cavernous inner spaces.

Various soccer-related thoughts

I watched the second half of the Germany/Spain semifinal with some ETH colleagues at Paddy Reilly's, where I'd also taken in both US games. I'd been absolutely confident that the Germans would win after watching them chew up England and spit out Argentina, especially since Spain looked good but nowhere near dominant in beating Portugal and Paraguay. And of course this didn't happen, because I'd made a foundational error. Just as they say in stock ads, past performance doesn't assure future results. It's easy and familiar to assume that a team will continue performing at the same level that they have in previous games, and that often happens, but here Germany somehow couldn't muster the magic it showed against Arg, Eng, and Aus, and Spain deserved their 1-0 win.

The loss humanized Germany for me, for a couple of of reasons. First off, it's easier to root for a team that's struggling. It's something about the underdog instinct that animates general support for longshot teams. When Germany steamrolled Arg last Saturday, they seemed almost predictable in their dominance, and it's hard to be too excited when a team you have no connection to gets yet another goal. But this time, Germany started out tentative, and never really got consistently into the game. It reminded me of the US against Ghana in the first half of the R16 game. We all kept wondering what on earth was holding them back, and why they looked so different on the day. It's all part of the vagaries that make soccer frustrating and compelling; if teams were consistent and predictable, it wouldn't be very interesting to watch.

Second reason I was pulling for Germany was that my Deutsch compatriots were really, really into the game. This was not in a swaggering-Bavarian "we're better than you, Deutschland-ueber-alles" sort of way, but in a sincerely pleading, pre-game-nerves sort of way that I could really relate to. They wouldn't even agree with me that Germany was favored heavily (a fact you could verify by looking at online betting sites, and boy am I glad I didn't wager anything), because they didn't want to get their hopes up. When Puyol scored in the second half, our table became funereal, and I found myself--probably for the first time--sincerely hoping Germany would score so my terribly terribly sad German friends would be less terribly terribly sad. But they didn't, and I sat with them for a long session of post-game commisserating. I wish there were a German version of "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien." I don't think they're a people that can find glory in sadness, the way Latin folks do.

Finally, Bill Simmons has a typically great feature on the US Soccer team's run in the World Cup. It's worth reading, as most everything he writes is, but there's one line that stands out. He says (and I'm roughly paraphrasing), "Following the US in this World Cup was like pining for a girl all through college, finally hooking up with her one night, and then getting kicked out of school the next day."

Exactly right, because it illustrates the double body-blow of getting knocked out of the WC: a loss is always sad and disappointing, but a knockout loss is doubly so because it removes the context on which you've been depending for sports consciousness for weeks. I was looking forward to the WC for months, and when it finally came, it was an on going presence in my life. There were highs (Alg, obv., and also the comeback v. Slovenia), lows (first half against Slovenia), but there was always something. When the US lost to Ghana, though, the ride was over just like that. Normally the sports fan can say "we'll get 'em tomorrow," but when you're kicked out of the world cup, there's only a distant possibility of redemption, and not a whole lot else.

Image: crowd spills onto street in front of Paddy's during second half of Germany/Spain WC semifinal.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Where I'm writing from

I have been staying for my time in Zuerich at a place called the Villa Hatt, and I’m completely obsessed with it. The Hatt is an ETH-affiliated residence, though if there are other visitors staying here, I haven’t seen too many of them. But the house is conspicuously awesome in a way that makes me continually conscious of it. The VH is, I think, a place of some historical significance. There’s a plaque out front that says, in German (so it’s only an approximation) that some rich family gave the place to ETH some years ago, and sometimes people will wander by and stop to look at it, sometimes even snapping pixes (which makes DF feel vaguely famous, and you know how he likes that).

Now all you in the broad readership know that DF’s general indifference toward the indicia of adulthood stops when it comes to real estate. Despite my general aversion toward bourgeois materialism, I covet fancy dwellings. And perhaps this is why I’m so into the Villa—as houses go, it’s an absolute beauty. This is not in a cheesy American way (overbuilt, ostentatious, tackily decorated), but in a stately and (seriously) classy way. The Hatt has gravitas, literally and figuratively. This entire area—Rigiblick—is upscale even by Zurich standards, and often when I’m out on the deck I can see into the house across the street and the family that lives there just glows with wealth. They even have a pool, and I can’t stress how rare this is in crowded, cold European cities.

The Hatt is basically a mansion that’s been turned into a residence for academics, and this makes me worry that the itinerant nerds who pass through here don't appreciate it as they should, their noses being buried in books and/or their aesthetic sensibilities having been dulled by too many experiments or theoretical economic models. Geographically, the Villa's located high up above the city in Zuerichberg. There’s a deck out in back, where I have a tea and read sometimes, and the views of the city and sea sweeping out below are so awe-inspiring that I’ve photographed them countless times, knowing full well that the pics are not going to do justice to the views. Taking all the pix is just sort of a way of acknowledging how awesome and rare it is that I get to enjoy a view like this. (And the views from my room are similarly awesome--there are tree-enshrouded vistas that stretch down to the city and sea, and to the mountains beyond them.)

A staircase leads from the deck to a lower level with perfect hedgerows and roses, and when I sit and read and look at the view beyond and the hedgerows below, I feel like a low-class interloper into European gentility. (I am also, for what it's worth, like the only person who ever goes outside to enjoy this deck, and it makes me wonder if the deck is haunted or somehow off limits--if I lived here, I'd be on this deck ogling the views all the damned time.)

John Waters said that Switzerland is the only country where the rich know how to act. I only vaguely understand this aphorism, but as applied to the Villa, what one can sense is that it took enormous wealth to create the place, but it's not obvious or conspicuous-consumption-y. Aside from the location in the fanciest area of a very high-end city, there are two rooms with enormously high ceilings, one of which houses a flatscreen TV the size of a small movie screen (seriously, the ones in the Beverly Center may be smaller), though it’s unclear whether I’m allowed in these rooms (more on this later). There’s the de rigeur spiral staircase with wooden banister; the numbered prints of some famous artists; mini-sculpture garden in the side yard; and fresh fruit and Toblerone on tap at all times.

I’ve already written about the breakfasts, which make me look forward to waking up every morning, and the walk to the funicular, which delights me on a daily basis (though sometimes I walk for variation and exercise). But I would be remiss in not mentioning the Villa Hatt’s manager, Frau Erika. Frau E is a sweet and very well-presenting older lady who runs the establishment. From what I can tell, this mainly means getting breakfast ready in the AM and doing upkeep on the property. They have maids to clean the rooms (and one of them barged in again today when I was in a state of undress, walked into the room, indicating that she had to put a box of Kleenex into the bathroom, and then apparently lost heart halfway into the room and left, taking the Kleenex with her), and there’s hardly anyone here, so I can hardly imagine that her job is terribly exhausting.

Still, Frau Erika executes her duties in a classically Swiss way—that is to say, with a nearly frightening attention to detail. She has breakfast impeccably prepared at 7am sharp every morning, and will typically ask me 2-3 times whether it’s good (and since it’s the same food every morning, obviously my answer is yes). She seems unsettled by my tendency to occasionally get a tea from the kitchen at off hours, and has explained in a mix of German and English that there’s some official procedure for doing this, which I’m going to simply use as an excuse to not get any more tea in the afternoons. {Edit: just this AM I realized that the coffee/tea machine had been moved from the guest dining room to the kitchen, and I can't help but think they did this to stop me from using it at off-hours, which kind of mortifies me.}

The only downside is that Frau E speaks virtually no English, and with DF’s weak-ass German it’s a struggle to communicate. There is a lot of waving and smiling and nodding between us, all very good-natured. So for example, when I visit aforementioned back patio, it causes Frau E to act ever so slightly agitated, hence my worry that parts of the Hatt are off-limits to guests (I wonder if this area is part of their residence, so me hanging out there would be like barging into someone’s living room).

Long story short, I am madly in love with the Villa Hatt, and my only reservation is that it will make my living situation seem meager upon returning home. But hell, at least I’ll always be able to say I spent a few weeks rubbing elbows with the well-heeled Zurich elite in a famous estate high up in Rigiblick. Not terribly shabby, eh, broad readership?


1. Exterior of Villa Hatt

2. Zueriberg-ward view from DF's VH room (or, as the case may be, "raum")

3. Zuerichsee-ward view from DF's VH room


DF’s schedule in Switzerland has been a hectic one, with the seminars and the reading for the seminars, and … well, that’s pretty much it, actually. But to spend an entire three-week stretch in Zuerich alone without seeing any of the outlying areas would be a waste, so DF decided to devote one day to a trip to another Swiss area.

Which townlet to visit turned out to be an easy choice. Disneyland’s Matterhorn is one of the emblematic icons of DF’s beloved native SoCal. Trips to D-land as a tyke were always characterized by a contest designed to augment the delicious anticipation of the forthcoming trip: Who can spot the Matterhorn first?

Hence, DF planned a trip to Zermatt, located in southeasterly Switzerland, only a few miles from the Italian border, where the original Matterhorn is located. I got a ticket a few days early, being responsible and all that, and would certainly have done a spit-take had I had a beverage at the moment that the nice Swiss girl at the ticket counter quoted a price of $225 SFR for the round-trip ticket. As it happens, weekend travel is more expensive, Z-Faescht drives up prices further, and DF has no discounts available. This better be some damned good Matterhorn.

So: up early to catch a 9am train. Route: Zuerich to Visp via Bern, then from Visp to Zermatt. Total travel time about 3hr each way. I’d been warned off the voyage by some locals who stressed the long trip. But the length of the trip was actually part of what appealed to me. Train travel in Europe has often been a great pleasure. There’s something langorous and kinda romantic (non-sexually, obv.) about riding the rails through Europe, maybe getting a coffee and watching the countryside fly by.

Ahem. The key watchword in the above paragraph is “often,” and the second I boarded the train, I was reminded that train travel is not always a great pleasure, especially when the train is crowded and dirty and smelly, as it was during the leg from Zuerich to Berne. I found myself wedged at an angle into a tiny seat facing an old lady, right behind a group of five Swiss boys doing their compulsory year of military service. It was actually a pretty Swiss moment: the old lady was reading a paper in German, and the soldiers were nattering at each other in French until they drifted off, two of them slumping against each other in exhaustion. When I looked over I realized to my surprise that they were Swiss Italians (based on their names at least; “Dall’Agnolo” is the one that I remember), but you wouldn’t have known given the fluency of their French.

But then bit by bit the voyage improved. At Berne, more people exited than entered the train, and I got a big seat all to myself. Plus, the truly eye-watering BO smell that had dominated the area while the military dudes were there left with them, so I could start breathing through my nose again. Then at the transfer to Visp, things really took off. The train was as gorgeous as the one from Zurich was grotty. It had high ceilings with angled windows up high to afford views of the increasingly breathtaking Alpine landscape, and the air began to feel crisp and clear as we ascended the mountain railway to Zermatt.

Then, Zermatt itself: the town looks just like all those ersatz mountain villages you’ll see in the US, which are trying to cop an Alpine-resort feel, except that here, the aesthetic is authentic. Cars are verboten on even the main street, which leads up to the mountain region, and every building is named “Chalet” something or other. I stopped for a snack in a pub on the main road and sat for a while, watching the modest pedestrian traffic.

Well fortified, it was time for the ascent. Not of the Matterhorn, obv. The standard move is to take one of the hanging cable cars that bring you up the mountain and then walk down among the various picturesque paths. DF, though, decided to do it the hardcore way: walk up the hiking trails, and then descend in a cable car. And that’s exactly what I did, sweating and stalking up the steep-ass ascent (this about a year after breaking the tibia, which for what it’s worth, hurts much more on descents than ascents, to the extent it hurts, which is not really that much). It was aerobically challenging but not ridiculously so, and the walk from the base area to the cable car station at Furi took only about an hour, probably a bit less. Best of all, it wound up and around some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever goggled, the kind where you can’t quite believe how impressive it is, and all in the shadow of the Matterhorn, of course.

The Matterhorn, btw, was socked in with clouds when I first arrived, but eventually cleared up, and yeah, it looks pretty much exactly like its Anaheim simulacrum. The Swiss one is bigger, of course, but it lacks a rollercoaster, so I consider the comparison basically a wash.

Anyway: the hanging cable car (what on earth are these called? Sky-balls? They used to have versions of them at Disneyland between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, though those weren’t enclosed, which in retrospect seems really scary) swooped me back down into Zermatt. I wandered back into the city, where I checked out the very famous graveyard behind the church (the location of which I had to identify by describing it to a German girl who did not know what “graveyard” meant; so after trying it in French (“cimitiere”), I said “where they put dead people under the ground” and that seemed to do it). It’s famous because almost everyone buried there died while climbing one of the local mountains. Interestingly, the tombstones often detail the particular circumstances of the climber’s death, and some even include their climbing equipment as little memorials. It was sobering.

And speaking of sober, I then revisited the pub where I’d had lunch and watched Germany eviscerate Argentina in the company of a bunch of enthusiastic Swiss-German folks. I tried to cheer along when Germany scored all those goals, but my heart wasn’t in it; truth be told, I really wanted Argentina to win. It was fun, though—everyone booed whenever Maradona appeared on the screen, and after the game was over they played “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” really loud and we all sang along.

By then, twas almost nightfall, and DF caught the 6.39 train back to Visp, armed with a falafel sandwich and a Feldschloessen tallboy (the latter mostly because it’s so cool that you’re allowed to bring them onto trains). We sped back through the stereotypically Swiss-rural countryside (cows with disconcertingly loud cowbells, chalets a-poppin’, craggy Alpine wonderment, though sadly a dearth of yodeling), and then to Visp, and then DF slept most of the way from Berne to Z-town, and woke in time to navigate the chaos of ZuriFaescht and up to Rigiblick and home. Daytrip? Check and mate.

Finally, suggestion to local merchants: if you want to cash in on US tourists looking to bring a tacky souvenir back from your village, it’s an easy call. Just vend shirts saying, “Zermatt Makes Me Matterhorny” and you’ll make a mint. Can’t believe no one’s thought to do this yet.


1 Look familiar, anyone?
2. Zermatt town center--note dearth of any cars (not allowed in city limits)
3. Start of official M-horn hiking trail; religious iconography not reassuring
4. This is pretty much what it looked like all the way up; I had to stop
myself from going "wow" all the time
5. Slightly terrifying but mostly fun descent back to earth in suspended cable
car; any sense of height-fear palliated by faith in Swiss engineering skillz
6. Tombstones from graveyard for fallen climbers
7. Celebrating Germans at pub after 4-0 shellacking of Argentina; singing of
"Finale" to tune of "Volare"

Loud noises!!!

DF has never liked loud noises. Hence his systematic dislike for concerts: they are too damned loud. Ditto many (most?) bars and nightclubs, which are awful for their own reasons, but also because they tend to have music cranked to deafening levels. Why do people like this? What is appealing about having to yell to make yourself heard? These things confuse and flummox DF.

I can understand, of course, why one might need to make loud noise, as to call for help in the case of a criminal assault. I can also relate to, say, yelling to celebrate or singing when one feels like belting out a song. These loud noises make sense because they communicate something, whether a need for help or a desire to express felt joy.

For a child, such noises are a source of fascination, and they have no idea what kind of conduct is annoying because they’re presocial. But for adults to think this is amusing utterly baffles and annoys me. There is nothing interesting or entertaining or aesthetically redeeming about loud noises, whether vuvuzela or whistle or god knows what else.

My concern—and, let’s be honest, utter annoyance—is with the kinds of loud noises that people make for no other reason than they seem to like to make loud noises. To wit: when I was at the World Cup back in 2006, I became aware that most international football fans seem to absolutely, positively love loud noises. At the Brazil/Croatia game that year, a Brazilian standing behind me in a ticket line had brought a whistle and kept blowing it, at top volume, and without cease, even when I oh so politely asked him to stop.

This year, the prevalence of vuvuzelas at the World Cup has made even more salient the love of loud noises among soccer supporters. The vuvuzela is, in a way, the ultimate loud noise—it is terribly loud, impossible to ignore, simple and easy to create, and has no sonorous quality whatsoever. It’s about as mellifluous as the death bellow of a sick elephant—an unredeeming aural assault.

And so of course, OF COURSE, it has become de rigeur to bring vuvuzelas into pubs when you’re watching a game and to blow them in support of your team. And I hate this. Oh how I hate it. To illustrate: when I was watching Germany disembowel Argentina in a pub in Zermatt yesterday, I was dismayed to find that two Germany fans brought in vuvuzelas (painted in orange, black, and white, of course).

They blew the vuvuzelas throughout the game, sporadically (presumably to maximize their capacity to unsettle) and loudly. They would blow the vuvuzelas when Germany did well, and when play got into a lull. They blew the vuvuzela to make long monotone noises, and short staccato bursts. And every one of these was like a dagger of annoyance in DF’s brain, on the same level of appeal as having a howler monkey hopped up on methedrine screeching at top volume a few feet from your ears.

And you know what? PEOPLE EFFING LOVED IT. To DF’s utter and complete astonishment, every time these guys tooted their vuvuzelas, people would laugh, or turn and smile at them. I was baffled and still lack any real explanation. All I can do is venture this guess: people laugh for different reasons. Sometimes people laugh because something’s legitimately funny (e.g., a truly well-written comedic TV show or movie). But sometimes people laugh not because something is funny, but because someone is attempting to be funny or, perhaps more accurately, goofy. This happened a lot when I was clerking. My judge would often make jokes from the bench that weren’t particularly funny, but which nevertheless got a laugh because people perceived him to be trying to be humorous rather than actually being humorous (think also, for example, of parents laughing at a horrible school play).

Or maybe I’m overthinking this, and am just in the minority and I should accept that people, for whatever god-forsaken reason that I simply cannot relate to, love loud noises.

How DF stopped loathing and learned to kinda like ZueriFaescht

It is a well-documented fact that DF does not like public festivals. Crowds, bad food, loud music—it’s all about the polar opposite of DF’s scene. So when the ads went up around town for “Zueri-Faescht” (Zurichfest, fwiw, and possibly also obv.), DF was far from excited. The ads featured animation of a night sky lit by exploding fireworks, with the faces of smiling lions in the center of each explosion. This seemed somehow very European and also very unappealing.

On Friday night, the continually generous people of ETH again took DF out to dinner (while I am generally suspicious when others are nice to me, this is getting almost ridiculous—I constantly expect someone to pop up and hand me an exorbitant bill for all this) at a fancy, Japanesey restaurant called “Tao” in the central city. Walking there confirmed all my negative preconceptions about public festivals. The less-than-a-mile walk required us nearly a half-hour, as we had to traverse dense crowds of tweeny Swiss girls, cheesy Eurotrash dudes (which is pretty much all the dudes under 26), celebrating Dutch football supporters (didn’t mind them too much & they are very well-behaved), and all other manner of massed humanity, all pushing to get circus food or to make their way closer to some stage with awful, deafening music.

The dinner was great, as dinners in Zuerich nearly always are. One of the upsides of the city’s expense is that it’s keyed toward and insanely high quality of life, and that means many schmancy places to eat for bankers and the independently wealthy, and when there’s an extra table, some of the hoi polloi get a taste of the high life. The Japanesey fare was on par with anyplace in the U.S. save perhaps Nobu/Matsuhisa. The experience was not, however, enhanced by the proximity of a Polyphonic-Spree-type band performing nearby, belting out American gospel classics in labored German accents.

DF and his ETH compatriot parted ways after dinner, and the plan was simple: navigate the crowds, stop by the office, and get home for an early night (b/c heading to Zermatt the next day, about which more soon). But Z-Faescht thwarted DF’s plans. Hopping the 9 tram didn’t produce the familiar direct route back to Raemistrasse, because streets were closed and the trams were all re-routed. Hence DF found himself on a tram with very drunk and hyper Zuerich teens who were equally confused as to their whereabouts, albeit for chemically-induced, rather than slightly-disoriented-tourist reasons. The ensuing scene was comedic: DF in awful German and the drunken Eurokids in awful, slurred English, tried to figure out just where on earth the 9 had taken us and how we’d get back to the central city (DF to head home, the inebriated Zuerich boys to go to a disco called, apparently, “Caliente”—they asked me if I wanted to join them, assuring me there’d be “hot bitches” there, but I declined for many many solid reasons).

Eventually, the Eurokids and I decided the quickest way back would be to walk, and then I left, sort of having been absorbed into their pack by osmosis (and because it would have been harder to separate myself, since we were all going the same way), and eventually we got to the southern part of town and went our separate ways (despite more entreaties to go with them to “Caliente”; I wanted to be all like, “Do you know how old I am?”). I finally emerged just south of Quaibruecke, and immediately realized that both I knew where I was (excellent), and that the city had gone entirely dark (WTF!?!?!). So now I was disconcerted for a different reason, and just when I was thinking of how to say “power outage” in German, I realized: the lights had been killed because they were about to set off fireworks above the Zuerichsee, and I had just happened into the prime viewing territory for show.

And so I viewed, and the fireworks were really impressive, and it put me in a good mood. They ended, and I strolled back through the festival, less irritated with it all than I had been before. I strolled past the Muenstergasse, all lit up with animation, and felt a twinge of nostalgia for home as American pop songs blared from various outdoor discos. This time, when I got the 9 tram at ETH, beyond the confines of the Faescht, it was on track and dropped me off at Rigiplatz to be funiculared on up home.

Friday, July 2, 2010



(Get it?)

Unrelated, I had a subtle linguistic breakthrough earlier today. I ordered a coffee (in German, but this is no big deal), and the guy asked, "Zu mitnehmnen?" I replied without thinking, "Ja, bitte." For that moment, I did not do any mental translating and simply knew the answer was yes. But then I started thinking, "What the hell did he say? What did I say? What did it all mean?" While he was getting the coffee, it came to me: "zu mitnehmen" means "to go." Simple as that, and hardly on par with understanding a Wagner opera or anything.

But here's why it may be remotely significant: for probably the first time in my entire stint in Deutschweitz, I reacted instinctively to a question in German (as opposed to turning it over in my head like a thorny crossword puzzle), and my instinctive reaction was right. Given the slow rate of progress and my limited chances to practice, the likelihood of progressing too far is slim. But hey, little victories.

Two slightly related linguistic notes:
--Germanoswiss people seem to have no problem with referring to us Americans as, well, Americans. In Spain, for example, this is a big cultural issue. People will argue til they're (literally) red in the face about this, and insist on referring to us as "Estadounidenses" despite very compelling arguments to the contrary. Germanic types seem completely indifferent to this, and actively use the term "American" (or, more accurately, "Amerikaner" when identifying us).

--One of the great things about being in Switzerland is that it's been weeks now since I've heard anyone use the term "douchebag." A few years back, for reasons that remain opaque to me, a massive norm cascade caused this term to be the insult of choice around the States. I found the prevalence of "douchebag" gross and overused when it first happened, and I still do. Blessedly, this term has not yet crossed the Atlantic, and I've been enjoying life without having people refer to lurid feminine hygiene objects every ten goddamned minutes.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Wherein DF dis/confirms some earlier observations about Svizzera

OK, broad readership, you heard it here first: DF was wrong. About one thing. Remember how I said earlier that there is a puzzling dearth of bums in Zuerich? Well, it turns out that there are not no homelesses here, though there are some. Today, DF witnessed a frail old couple, shabbily but not poorly dressed (if you follow me), hobble up to a dumpster near Bahnhof Enge, open it, and root around for cans or god knows what. It not only proved wrong my earlier observation about homelessness in Zuerich (which was affected by an unPopperian black-swan type error anyhow), but may have been one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever seen.

But DF's surprise at the non-checking of railpasses here continues. I've yet to see a single person checking any tickets, and I'm on trams a lot. Today, I was almost happy to see a cop get on a tram, assuming he was there to check our tix (mine was totally legit, natch). But then the cop just sat in a seat and started texting someone. I wanted to be all like, "Hey, guy, stop sending txts to your BFFs and do your damn job!" But that might not have been a great idea.

I used to have a theory that while Chicago was on average much colder than DC, my subjective experience of DC was much much colder because I prepared for the cold more thoroughly when living in Chicago, so I actually felt much colder when I was in DC (i.e., I'd go out in DC without proper gear b/c it didn't seem that bad, and then freeze my ass off, while I'd bundle up for fifteen minutes minimum in Chicago because I knew that if I didn't, I might die).

I mention all this because once again, it is hot in der Stadt. Someone looking at the average temps in Zuerich might say that it's not that hot compared to the US, but here's the difference: in the US, places are wired for A/C or located to catch cool ocean breezes. In Zuerich, the buildings, houses, and trams are almost uniformly un-air-conditioned, so that you're some kind of hot all the time. This ranges from "sitting in the office and kind of sticking grossly to the seat" to "walking up the hill back to ETH and pouring lakes of sweat." Don't get me wrong, DF loves the Zuerich, and it's only a low-level annoyance, but lord if it doesn't make me pine for the good old US and its environmentally unfriendly A/C addiction.

Did you know?

--The reason Swiss email and web addresses end in ".ch" is that the traditional Latin name for Switzerland is "Confederatio Helvetica," or "CH".

--Swiss-German people often greet each other by saying "Hoi." It's a weird sound for German-speakers to make. DF is beginning to be able to sense how Swiss-German sounds different from standard German, though this is really only an elemental aural instinct and not something I could explain.

Zuerich daze

Many have asked what DF is doing in Switzerland. The current prevailing most popular misconception is that I’m on vacation. This is false, as you’d already have guessed because it is a misconception. I could describe in some detail what it is I’m doing here, but that would be kind of boring, so I’ll just say instead that I’m working as a visiting scholar at the ETH (Swiss Federal Technical Institute) in Zuerich for a few weeks this summer. This entails giving a paper presentation, attending some seminars, and generally hanging out with the interesting and very generous folks in the IP subset of the political science department of ETH. But rather than merely describe, let me narrate a recent day I spent here in order to illustrate by example:

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

DF arises around 7am (Ztown time, finally free of jetlag) and wanders down to the breakfast room at the Villa Hatt. I am, as usual, the only person in the breakfast room, which is great because it allows me to snag the best seat in the house: the one closest to the enormous plate glass window affording sweeping views of the city below and the Zuerichsee beyond. I have taken numerous pixes of the views from the Hatt decks, but none of them really do this view justice. I will simply have to ocularly devour it on a repeated basis to make sure it sticks in my memory.

There is a pretty standard Eurohotel breakfast that consists of juice, cereal, cheese, deli meats, bread, and yogurt, and the Hatt’s falls into that category formally, but is echelons superior in terms of quality. The very nice older lady who seems like the manager of the place is Frau Erika, and it’s a close call whether her German or my English is worse. If I feel particularly alert on a given morning, I’ll make the effort to use my broken German when chatting with her, though this really only requires saying “Guten Morgen” upon seeing her, and “Ja, super!” upon being asked for the seventeenth time whether the breakfast is good (and since it never varies, it’s a bit more absurd to continually ask me if everything is good, though I suppose I appreciate Frau E’s effort and her general commitment to excellence, though it at times borders on fussiness, which may just be a Swiss thing).

NB: The Villa is an ETH-affiliated residence, and this led me to believe that I’d be in the company of other visiting folks, likely scientists or whoever likely studies here. But in my time here, I’ve seen exactly one set of guests other than DF. This was a loud family so conspicuously and uninterestingly American that I played up my German around Frau Erika to conceal our common heritage (which I did only to make sure I didn’t have to get into a pedestrian conversazione with them).

Anyway: I eat the typically excellent fruehstuck, clean up and head out of the Villa and down the street toward school. DF gets to the ETH via a route that is almost ridiculously picturesque: there is a downward-curving residential road that leads past the equivalent of Swiss yuppie mansions (which are conspicuously not McMansions), and then right along Freudenbergstrasse, which runs along a park that affords famous views of the sun setting over Zuerich and is thus highly populated by view-peepers in the evenings, although it’s equally gorgeous in the AM.

This takes me to the Seilbahn (funicular railcar, I think) at Rigiberg, which is the center of this very posh neighborhood (there is a fancy restaurant and theater nearby—I perused the restaurant’s menu just to get a sense of the prices and was unsurprised to see entrees on the order of $50-60 USD). The funicular slides downhill past a mix of castle-like residences where rich Credit Suisse and UBS bankers must certainly live, as well as some mid-level apartment complexes, and deposits DF at Rigiplatz far below, where there is a newsagents and a Migros (the slightly lower-end of the two Swiss supermarket chains, the other being Coop). From there it’s a quick transfer to the 9 or 10 tram, and I’m at ETH in minutes.

There’s a seminar on today, the second day of a three-day onslaught of empirical legal studies led by three professors from the University of Illinois-Champaign. If you’re one of the broad readership who also does law stuff, you know what this is about. About ten or so years ago, people who write about law got wise to the fact that they’d been basing centuries of cases and legislation on ill-founded empirical assertions about the world. ELS seeks to give some kind of statistically measurable basis to the factual assertions underlying law. DF has had no background in formal stats, and the morning is both fascinating and mind-bending. By the noon break, I feel like my brain is as full as the exploding-gut guy in Monty Python.

Blessedly, and (again) insanely generously, ETH treats us all to lunch. The seminar participants are a broad cross-section of folks who are either grad students (from ETH, the Max-Planck Institute in Munich, or Oxford) or assistant/associate lawprofs (me, a couple guys from LSE and Oxford). Lunch is at the restaurant at the top of ETH, and the conversation reminds DF why it is awesome to be an academic. Topics range from whether couples should have to get a license to have babies, to whether there should be competence standards for voting, to why terrorists aren’t better at terrorizing. It’s enormously fun. The only down part is that DF has lost faith in the ETH elevators after they got stuck very briefly the first day he was here (getting stuck in an elevator being just about DF’s ultimate psych-out fear).

Anyway: the afternoon consists of discussing several papers that use empirical legal methods, and they are alternately very interesting and insanely hard to parse. It’s like being asked to read a great novel in a foreign language you don’t know that well. One of the papers illustrates the continuing incidence of assimilation bias, which means that we are more likely to be skeptical of the validity of studies that render conclusions with which we disagree, and are more likely to attribute the results of such studies to the researchers’ bias (than to the fact that we can be wrong about the world, because, really, who likes to acknowledge that sobering and unsettling fact?).

Afternoon session ends, and there is a couple-hour break, which DF uses to head over to the English-language bookstore he’s been scoping for some time. It’s open this time (ha!), and an hour of fun perusing follows. I finally select a book called “The Slap,” which is billed by reviewers as an Australian version of The Corrections (and so far that seems about right, though nothing’s quite as good as The Corrections, so this may merely reflect the fact that Oz is not as good as the USA). Then back to ETH to meet folks and wander over to dinner.

ETH and the University of Zurich (the former is more of a technical school, the latter, more humanities oriented) are located on a hill above the main part of the city. I think this hill is called Zurichberg (Zuerich Mtn., obv.) and it’s there that DF is staying in the Rigiblick area. By virtue of being high up, one has to walk down steep sloping hills whenever one wants to go into the town. This is often picturesque, as there are stone stepways cut into the side of the decline to make walking down easier (though going up can be kind of a bitch, especially when it’s hot as it has been for some days now). These declines are sort of a challenge for DF’s poor reconstructed tibia, and of late aforementioned tibia has been aching a bit from all the hill climbing (though descending is, for whatever reason, less pleasant). There’s an old-fashioned funicular railcar that goes from the Uni area to the flats of the main city, but it’s under construction at the momentito.

Anyway, DF joins with some ETH colleagues and treks downward to meet the other seminar attendees and sem leaders, and we walk en masse to a restaurant uncreatively named Neumarkt (uncreative because it’s in an area just this side of the Limmat that is itself called “Neumarkt”). The food is really really good, which is one of the upsides of being in a city this expensive—you pay for what you get, but you get what you pay for. DF continues to make concerted efforts to opt for vegetarian fare when possible, opting for cold cucumber soup and pike from the Zurichsee (all tasty, though the latter gets demerits for having bones). The convo was again fun enough that I found myself thinking at the time about how fun it was. Topics included ELS, DF @ Chicago, and how to measure the effect of laws redefining animals as companions rather than chattels. Yeah, this is the kind of stuff I like to talk about, and no I am not going to apologize for it.

Dinner breaks up late, late enough that the Spain Portugal game is almost over, and it’s a good thing, too, because (DF realizes when he pops into a Neumarkt kneipe) Spain is on their way to a 1-0 win (and later reports indicate that the win was totally deserved), which is kind of a bummer but good in the sense that I didn’t have to sit through the whole thing and watch Portugal slowly and inexorably lose.

We hike back uphill, and DF stops by his visitor’s office at ETH to get his back and then make the trek back to Rigiblick. It’s the morning in reverse, obv: tram #9, funicularity to the top of the hill, walk along the ridge of Freudenbergstr with the lights of the city and the flat black Zurichsee in the distance, and then a quick dogleg to the left and I’m at the Hatt.

On this night, DF arrives at the Villa Hatt very late, close to midnight, and has to navigate the enormous rod-iron gate and creaky staircase very carefully. But once back, sleep blessedly happens in an instant, given the length (and exhausting heat) of the day, and tomorrow it’s up early for more Zurich and scholarship blah-blah, and I’m looking forward to it already.

Image 1: Exterior reflecting pool outside UniZuerich by night.

Image 2: Exterior of ETH and its distinctive dome.

Image 3: Interior hallway at ETH.