Thursday, July 1, 2010

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.