Chronicles of a writer abroad

1 Comment

I’ve been coming around the mountain

Have you been looking for me? I’ve been occupied with a variety of things, including buying and returning electronics (a separate post on this is forthcoming), working on writing projects, and running up the hills like a person who’s never run before.

Also, I was away in the mountains again. Okay, that was only yesterday, when we rode the train for an hour and a half with some friends to Canton Glarus, which is south of here. We arrived in a valley surrounded by mountains — it’s so nice to have this kind of wilderness within a couple of hours’ travel!  We rented both snowshoes and sleds (aka: sledges) and rode a gondola up the mountain. Then we immediately ditched all of our equipment and went to eat at a restaurant on the mountain, where I had my second dose of Alpermakkaroni — I think I enjoyed this one even more than the one I tried in Saas-Fee.

We spent part of the afternoon snowshoeing, before we turned to sledging. When we arrived at the top of the sledge trail, we had to decide what to do about the fact that we were each carrying two snowshoes with exposed metal spikes on them, and that we were going to be hurtling down a slope a fairly good speeds, going over bumps and around turns. Stelian felt comfortable to tuck his under his arm and descend that way, but most of us attached them to our backpacks instead.

When I arrived at the bottom of the sledge trail, having thoroughly enjoyed my ride, I realized that one of my snowshoes had fallen off (alas, I am not much of a winter mountaineer — you may recall that I lost a ski pole, and could not recover it, in Saas-Fee). We had already decided to ride the gondola and descend the mountain via sledge again, though, and happily my missing snowshoe was found when the leader of the pack rode his sledge over it (yes, for those wondering, I was the last of the pack in the first round. But don’t call me slow!). The snowshoe was returned to the rental hut intact, and we declared it a pretty satisfying day and travelled back to Zürich.

Though I brought my camera along on this excursion, I didn’t take pictures of our activities because there was a fair amount of fog and snow that obscured any real views. But I did have the opportunity to snap some shots of this vending machine at the train station (sorry for the quality of the photo: I am not much of a photographer, either):

Do you think of the Swiss as uptight? I used to. But this vending machine would suggest otherwise. In addition to containing the usual chocolate bars and drinks, it sells Swiss-made Cannabis Ice Tea (slogans, according to their website: “Feel Free” and “Drink it”) a 3-pack of lighters, and next to each other and forming their own little section, condoms (5 CHF) and a “Maybe Baby” test (15 CHF). I love the wackiness of Europe sometimes.



Inaugural book review

So…you guys are my captive audience, right? You love me and will therefore read the blog forever, no matter how far it deviates from its original aim, which was to document our experiences in Zürich?

Good, because I’m thinking of introducing a new, non Zürich-related feature on the blog — specifically, a book review. In case you don’t know, I read a lot of books. A lot. If you ask the guy who hauled my 9 boxes of books up the stairs of this liftless building, I probably read too many books. But reading — like writing — is and has long been a passion of mine. At some stage in my childhood, I took to sleeping with treasured books arranged at my sides like comforting parentheses. Though they made decidedly less cuddly bedmates than stuffed animals, books were dear friends that I didn’t want to part from at night. In fact, I’d probably still sleep with my favourite ones, if I didn’t have to share my bed with some animals (oh, and Stelian).

So I spend all this time reading. But the sad thing is that I don’t have many people to talk to about the things I read — even other writers that I’ve been in touch with here don’t seem to read the same kind of things that I do. What is it that I read? Contemporary fiction, and lots of it. I occasionally try to read classics, but reading classics for me is often like eating certain vegetables: you choke them down more because they’re healthy/good for you (or in this case, instructive/important), than because they’re enjoyable. And my reading dabbles into non-fiction too — I especially love memoir, but sometimes I’ll just read about something wacky, like decision-making or what would happen to the world if the human race were to suddenly die off.

I’m trying to keep this introduction short, but do let me know if you like this new feature, or if it bores you to death. I’m not doing this in order to wow you with my literary criticism skills (in fact, I likely don’t have any). I won’t be posting about books that I didn’t like, but ones that I enjoyed or at least found interesting, and that I think you will like or find interesting, too. So I guess I may retitle the series “Book recommendations.” And I would love it if you would recommend books to me in turn, and I could end up discussing them here. But enough digression. Without further ado…

The first book is one that I finished last night: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, by Susan Jane Gilman. This falls into the memoir/nonfiction category. Full disclosure: the reason it came onto my radar is because Susan will be one of the instructors at the Zürich Writers’ Workshop which I’m going to be attending in May, and I wanted to familiarize myself with her work. But I’m not sharing it with you for this reason, but instead because it’s a genuinely enjoyable read. This book appeared in my mailbox on Thursday afternoon, and I promptly tore open the envelope it was in and began reading. From that point until the time that I finished the book last night (Monday), I really didn’t want to put it down, but I had to several times, in the name of things like “responsibilities” and “obligations” and “sleep.” Sheesh.

Seriously, though, this is a book that demands to be read in big gulps. This memoir opens with Gilman seated in an IHOP restaurant, deciding to undertake a trip around the world with a friend shortly after their graduation from college in 1986. They begin in the People’s Republic of China, which, as Gilman puts it, “had been open to independent backpackers for about all of ten minutes.” The book recounts their struggles with culture shock, a massive language barrier, squat toilets, and being stared at mercilessly everywhere they go. It also documents encounters with China’s military police, doctors and nurses in a backcountry hospital, and the People of the Republic themselves — people who are for the most part thrilled to meet “big-noses,” which is how Gilman imagines that Caucasians travelling through Asia are perceived.

However, as interesting and worthwhile as the book is for its captivating descriptions of the physical land they travelled through, and of what China was like at the time that it was just ceasing to be a highly closed society, the real hook is that the author and her friend are just so young and green. The reader continually catches whiffs of foreshadowed danger on the page as they are swept across the country with a motley, eccentric group of fellow backpackers and newly-made Chinese contacts, as well as total determination to “Stay off the beaten path entirely. Stay only in local places, eat local food. Be totally hard core and authentic.” Of course, this kind of travel — so at variance with their previously cushy American lives — quickly wears them down, and the girls begin to unravel physically and mentally. I can’t give away the book’s juicy parts, but suffice it to say that there are highly dramatic, unnerving and even  life-threatening events that ensue.

If I haven’t already convinced you that the book is worth a read, let me mention that Gilman (who now resides in Geneva, Switzerland) is a very funny writer. I rarely laugh out loud when reading a book, even a funny one — I usually just sit there smiling moronically at the page. But Gilman had me LOLing — almost ROFLing, to tell the truth — with her recounting of how, after she and her friend vowed to “be Odysseus…Byron, Don Quixote, Huck Finn, and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one” they landed in Hong Kong, and in the throes of their “oh-my-god-we-made-it-to-Asia” excitement, “We each gave a trilling, girlish squeal — no doubt exactly as Odysseus would’ve done — and sashayed through passport control.”

So, if you’re into travel lit/memoir, vicarious pain, pervasive humour and an opportunity to count your blessings, pick this one up. You can of course borrow it from me, if you want to make the trip across the ocean.


More adventures in cooking

Well, I say “cooking,” but the truth is that most of what I’ve been doing should be classified as baking rather than cooking. After last week’s carrot cake debacle (okay, it wasn’t that bad, but I have very high expectations in the baking department), I felt the need to redeem myself, and I did so by baking cornbread on Thursday (which I made good use of by eating it for four meals on the days that Stelian was in the UK); a batch of cookies to take to a friend’s party on Saturday night; and a loaf of banana nut bread on Sunday morning. Apologies to those of you on low carb diets, but I have to share a picture of this bread, because I think it’s simply one of the most beautiful things to ever emerge from one of my ovens.

Also, Stelian returned from the UK sans brown sugar, because he didn’t have time to visit a grocery store. I was disappointed. But then, as a result of my bringing cookies to the party on Saturday night, an American expat whom I hadn’t yet met struck up a conversation about baking, and wanted to know which North American ingredients I was missing. I had just launched into my brown sugar diatribe when she said, “Oh, brown sugar’s easy. I make my own, using molasses. The ratio is one tablespoon of molasses per cup of white sugar.” And molasses, she told me, is easily obtained at a Reformhaus (this is what natural food stores are called here, and we happen to have one across the street from us). I think this may be one of the most useful baking tips ever, and I’m so pleased to have found it out. I figured I’d share it with you, too, just in case you have an emergency need for brown sugar or don’t feel like buying it anymore! This seems to me an eminently practical thing to do — keep white sugar and molasses in your house, mix when needed and in quantities that suit you (by the way, the ratio given to me by this newfound friend is substantiated on several cooking websites and yields a lighter brown sugar; you can add more molasses if it’s the dark brown stuff that you seek), and avoid developing brown sugar bricks of neglect.

Okay, on to cooking now. Oh, cooking. I don’t hate all of it, but I find it difficult. Mostly because the things that I like to cook — rice and vegetable dishes, mainly — are classified by other people as “side dishes,” or not good enough to be the star of the show. (Other things that I love to cook, like pancakes, eggs, and toast, are sadly classified as “breakfast,” or not good enough to be eaten at certain times of day. I hate that!). In order to cook, the conventional wisdom still goes, you have to be serving up a hunk of dead animal. I’m sorry if that offends anyone’s sensibilities, but I have a hard time processing meat in its raw form. Last weekend, for example, Stelian and I thought it would be lovely to roast a chicken for Sunday dinner. As we prepared it, I learned a horrible, disgusting truth about chickens: they have claws on their wings. “Like cats!” I fairly shrieked at Stelian in disgust, as he hastened to assure me, “no, not like cats — more like reptiles.” I guess he’s right, but even now, I’m having to suppress my gag reflex at the thought of those sharp (reptilian) claws that poked through the chicken’s flabby skin. My Joy of Cooking, which was walking me through the roasting of the chicken, had advice for the chicken’s neck and giblets, but said nothing about the claws, or how to handle my traumatic response to them (in the end, Stelian had to declaw the chicken before I could continue).

So, while I’d happily never again witness a piece of raw meat, I’m married to a staunch carniphile (why yes — I did just make up that word, according to my fruitless dictionary search), so I probably haven’t seen my last chicken claw. I sense that the road to culinary splendor will be a long and winding one for me.


A Walk in the Woods

(Disclaimer/Rambling Preface: the title to this post is a Bill Bryson reference — you may have noticed that I like to rip off one thing or another in most of my titles. I must inform you, with regret, that this post is not likely to achieve one-tenth of the humour of the Bryson book of the same name. Terribly sorry about that. For those of you who haven’t read A Walk in the Woods, I suggest you do: it’s truly hilarious).

I was pretty bummed when I realized that Stelian left for the UK without taking our shared camera. I would like to know what Brighton, England looks like — especially after Stelian has informed me that it’s in some ways the Las Vegas of the UK (as he put it, “what happens in Brighton, stays in Brighton”) and that the hotel room he’s staying in looks like a love nest from the 1970s.

Oh, well — the camera was with me, so I decided to take you along on a walk today. This is a forest near our house — I typically run in it, but today I walked, because I’m afraid of running with the camera. I hope you enjoy the scenery…I know I did.

Welcome to the woods


Ready to choose your own adventure?

My chosen path led me to the shanty town of Zürich North. What — you haven’t heard of the raging poverty that exists here in Switzerland?

Okay, those are not shacks. Well, they are…but for gardening, not for people to live in.

But some of them are quite nice. And, I’m convinced that they’re also larger than the average Vancouver shoebox condo.

Now we come to the deer park. Could this walk get any better?


Hello, Deer - how was your day?

I love these animals.

After tearing myself away from the deer, I came across this. Seriously? Who buys spray-paint with this kind of graffiti in mind? Only in Switzerland…

After this, I pretty much turned around and went home — keeping a sharp eye on the competition.

Just kidding: I could never keep up with these runners.

Thanks for joining, and I hope your Thursday is a pleasant one too!


Some things I miss

I’ve been asked this question, and I think it’s only fair to address it: what are the things I miss about living in North America?

I could start by saying that I miss understanding people — the supermarket cashier, the tram conductor, my landlord. I marvel over how easy it used to be: you could just tell someone what you wanted or needed, without needing to rehearse your lines carefully or translate the response. You could listen to the endless chatter that fills your day, and quickly decide what’s important, and what’s not, instead of straining to process each syllable. You could easily do small talk. There is a flip-side to this, though: as a person who doesn’t understand a language, you can choose to adopt a zen attitude and let it just flow around you, like a senselessly babbling brook, as you luxuriate in your own private bubble of introspection. It doesn’t intrude on your thoughts if you don’t concentrate on it, because you don’t understand it. In fact, several expats have described the sensation of being overloaded by their native language when they return to their home countries. So, incomprehension can be good…but it would still be nice to know that I have the ability to order and obtain the exact sandwich that I want.

And speaking of food, I really miss sushi. I remember the first time Stelian and I tried it in 2007, our first spring in B.C. We were both thoroughly disgusted by the experience, and vowed never to repeat it. But it was hard to avoid, living in Vancouver: it popped up on various occasions, and we tried it – gingerly – again and again, until it was like a switch flipped, and I realized I was craving it.  And from that point on, we ate it regularly — often once a week. It was fresh, cheap, healthy, and capable of satisfying that umami taste bud  in a way few other things can. But alas, we’re in a landlocked country now, and when you do see sushi sold in restaurants, it’s ridiculously expensive.

A food that that is curiously missing from Zürich (considering how easily you can obtain marzipan carrots, whole vanilla beans, and other specialty baking items), is brown sugar. Well, they have “brown sugar” here, but what that means is granulated brown cane sugar, which is not the same as the moist, packable sugar that Canadians depend on for baking and sweetening things like oatmeal (which I’ve already discussed my obsession with). Stelian is headed to the UK today, for some meetings at a game studio there. He’s only staying two nights, but I’ve urged him to find time to visit a supermarket in order to bring home some real brown sugar!

Lastly, after living in Vancouver for a bit more than four years, I miss the ocean. Sure, there’s a lake here, and it’s very pretty. But it isn’t the ocean. The ocean smells different. It is more temperamental; it is much more wild and uncontained than Zürich’s pretty little lake. When we lived in downtown Vancouver, I ran along the seawall at all times of year. Often, in the winter, I had long stretches of it to myself, passing only the odd other runner as I went. The feeling of being alone in a big city with a huge wall of rock on one side and so much water on the other…well, few things could match it. I witnessed the most beautiful sunsets and moonrises while running around the ocean, and had some great moments privately observing otters, raccoons, crows, or other wildlife.

But again, I’m not complaining, and I’m not ready to come back yet. I’m eating very well, despite the foods I miss, and Zürich takes your breath away in different ways, such as with the magnificence of its architecture. Besides, summer will be upon us before long, and I can’t wait to see what kind of hiking and adventuring will ensue.

1 Comment

Expatriation makes the heart grow fonder

I’ve never been crazy about Valentine’s Day — I, like many others, find it to be too contrived a holiday. So while I’ve often eschewed it, I found it strange that February 14th was not a big deal here. No huge displays of chocolates (well, I guess I mean to say that the chocolate aisle remained unchanged), no signs exhorting you to show your love by buying your sweetheart something.

In my efforts to become a better cook, I’ve been following a number of baking and cooking blogs, and these were all atwitter at the holiday. They featured pastas, and brownies and cookies and candies…oh my. I got a bit caught up in their spirit, and decided that I would celebrate Valentine’s Day by baking and cooking, and thereby killing multiple birds with one stone: earning hausfrau brownie points; reconnecting with my heritage (ha); working on my kitchen skills; creating something that Stelian would hopefully enjoy (dinner), and something that I would enjoy (dessert).

I decided on the recipes – a pesto cheese pasta bake for dinner, and a carrot cake for dessert. I set off to the grocery store with a mile-long list of items, and luckily found everything I was looking for (though there were some tense moments, such as when I had difficulty differentiating baking powder and baking soda — it would have made good TV, I tell you!).

I then spent the entire afternoon working on the damn cake, which didn’t turn out as I’d have liked. Some of you may ask, why was I making a carrot cake anyway? Isn’t chocolate what’s called for by the holiday? Well, yes…but Stelian and I both like carrot cake, and I am irreverent about holidays as I am about everything else.

So there you have it.

Okay, there’s more. In one of the major supermarkets in Zürich, they sell the most adorable little marzipan carrots. I was just waiting for an opportunity to use them. That opportunity could only involve carrot cake. You have to create your own destiny, you know?

I would say I’m an intermediate baker. I have no problem with techniques like creaming and folding. The carrot cake recipe was not difficult, and the batter looked perfect. But then I realized that I couldn’t fit two cake pans into my small Swiss oven. And then I transferred the batter to a springform pan, whereupon it began leaking everywhere. So I resorted to pouring all of the batter into a square pan, where it formed one ridiculously thick layer that I thought I would have to cook forever.

Things went further downhill when I attempted to make a cream cheese frosting sans handmixer. I’ll spare you boring details, but let’s just say I ended up with an overly sweet and still too runny frosting. Ick.

So, in the end, we had a perhaps-not-quite-cooked-in-the-middle carrot cake with runny, cloyingly sweet frosting. But the marzipan carrots looked great. See?

And in other news, I nailed the pasta. Okay, the recipe probably deserves some credit. And because I dithered over the cake the whole afternoon, Stelian was there to help me cook it. But I still choose to believe that I’m becoming a better cook. I think this is my first time liking dinner more than dessert…who knows what might happen now. I could become one of those people who crave potatoes and appreciate bacon! Well…maybe not. But I will consider laying off the fancy baking and just buying some chocolate for dessert next year.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


A manifesto

“What would you say…you do here?”

Anyone remember this classic line/scene from the hilarious movie Office Space? The staff of Initech are made to meet with some efficiency experts who have been brought into the office to figure out who is redundant or expendable. The employees are shown, during their meetings, desperately trying to make their jobs seem essential, and themselves irreplaceable. It’s obvious, however, that some of the jobs are completely pointless. As they endlessly grill an employee who appears to have no real roles or responsibilities, one of the efficiency guys, his mustache twitching in agitation, suddenly blurts out “what would you say…you DO here?”

I’ve been feeling scrutinized since coming to Switzerland. People here like to put things in boxes (boxes, of course, are what comprise that most holy of Swiss pastimes — paperwork). As a married woman, it seems, you are either employed, or you are a hausfrau. When we registered at the kreisburo, the clerk looked at Stelian’s work contract and surmised that he was a Post-Docktorand: the occupation was duly noted on his forms. But he became troubled when filling out the forms for me. “So…what are you doing here?” he finally asked, in much the same manner as the Office Space efficiency expert. The bluntness was probably due to English being his second (or, given that this is Switzerland, third or fourth or fifth) language, so while I tried not to be insulted, I was a little taken aback. A number of unsatisfactory responses were running through my mind (“I’m trying something new,” “I’m wanting to explore your country”) but there was nothing I wanted to say out loud, so I just blushed instead. The man eventually suggested, “OK, you are here being Mr. Coros’s wife?” And I assented, and this is what went on the form. Another government survey form came in the mail a few weeks later, and for lack of a better option, I had to tick the box beside “homemaker” when describing what I do.  I am sure that a number of people I meet mentally check this box for me as well, since I don’t have a job to point to.

But here’s my chance to furnish additional explanation, outside of the boxes. It is true that I am here by virtue of being married to Stelian, who has his job. If not for that, I would not be having this opportunity to live in Europe (at least not in Switzerland: as I explained the other day, if you don’t have a good reason to be here, you can’t be here). And because Stelian is working full-time hours, and I am not, I will be doing a greater share of things like shopping, cooking, and housework. So yes, I am like a hausfrau in that regard.

There is more to the story, though. One reason why the opportunity to come here was enticing for me — apart from the draw of Switzerland and Europe as beautiful places to live and explore — was that it would be a challenge. It would involve a new language, a new way of living, and (I hoped, and still do) a new way of thinking. I even thought (and still think) that not being able to work would be an excellent creative challenge for me.  (In this regard, I am encouraged by research showing that living abroad is associated with increased creativity).

“Work” has never been a satisfying proposition for me in Canada. Though I’ve done a number of different things, I’ve never loved what I’ve done, and I’ve never been so absorbed in and enamored of what I’m doing that the hours roll by unnoticed, as they do for Stelian when he’s working on a project he enjoys. I know that what I can get lost in is writing — pouring more than 10,000 words into this blog during its first month of existence has reaffirmed that for me. I’ve been writing outside of it, too, and if my writing wanes somewhat in this forum it is hopefully because it is waxing elsewhere. I have certain goals in sight, including producing material for a writer’s workshop happening in Zürich in late spring.

So, for anyone wondering what it is that I “do here”, this is an early, tentative explanation. I currently have the luxury of exploring something that I am actually passionate about (in addition to doing other things that I’m not as passionate about, like cleaning and learning to cook). Whether my dream of writing full-time pans out or not, my goal is to spend my time in Zürich giving it a fair shot.