Chronicles of a writer abroad


Running and writing: an extended metaphor

There’s a lot of running advice available to those who want to read it. So much advice, in fact, that deciding which books, magazines, and online articles to read can be daunting, and can suck up a lot of time that you could have used to…well, go running. Some of the advice is good, some of it is detrimental. Some of it works for some people, and not for others.

When I trained solo for a marathon, I sought out a lot of advice. Some of it was highly technical. But what I remember today, and what was most useful, was very simple advice that went along these lines: start gently, and build slowly. But be persistent; keep going. Put one foot in front of the other. To my amazement, I found that I was able to take one step after another, all the way to the finish line. As a result of that journey, I arrived at a place where I was comfortable saying to people: “I’m a runner.”

If I’m going to blog honestly about my life in Zürich, then I’m going to have to risk boring you, from time to time, with my reflections on running and writing. These threads are woven deeply into my everyday life, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that they are twin threads, composed of the same fiber.

In both things, starting slowly is of utmost importance. A person who can’t run the 5K distance probably shouldn’t sign up for a marathon; a new writer might find themself hopelessly mired when thinking about the amount of work that goes into a novel (I know this is often the case for me). In both things, there are sudden challenges — the runner’s hill is the writer’s moment of realizing that he or she doesn’t know how to make a scene work, or that characters are refusing to stand up and tell the reader who they are. In both things, there are periods of boredom, feelings of loneliness and uncertainty, and epic battles against inertia. In both things, there are injuries: moments when one’s body, one’s pride, or one’s sense of “this is worth doing” is greatly challenged or wounded.

Admitting that you engage in either running or writing regularly can cause others to question your sanity, or your instinct for self-preservation. Why are these activities –both of them frequently painful — worth doing? For me, they offer similar rewards. The scenery gets to me, first of all. I get to see things that I never would have if I was sitting on the couch — exciting and beautiful things that I never knew existed within my city or within my imagination. I get to see progress: as I add up my miles, or tally my word count, I notice that my stride or my prose has gotten a little smoother along the way. I write things and run distances that I never would have believed myself capable of; I get the feeling that I am developing, getting stronger. Maybe most importantly, I still feel the excitement of starting out on a run or a writing session with a loose plan, but without knowing exactly where I’ll end up going.

There is a lot written about writing (not surprisingly, I guess). Just as a runner can pore over the minutiae of hydration, fueling, intervals, and tapering, a writer of fiction can obsess over whether their plot is in good shape, their dialogue is working well, their characters are believable. All things that I need and want to learn more about, and that I will learn more about. But it’s more basic advice that keeps me afloat on a day-to-day basis. Advice that says, “just keep writing, and let the experience pile up.” Advice that says, you can and you should (thanks, Stephen King, for the permission slip). Acknowledgement from other writers that it’s hard, but it’s worthwhile, as I have found to be true about running.

I’m not someone who is comfortable saying to people, in response to the question of what I do: “I’m a writer.” But I am sitting here, building slowly, being persistent; putting down one word after another. Hoping to someday cross that line.



Say hello to my little friend

It’s not really my fault.

My desire to buy a working food processor has so far been frustrated — there are so few on offer. It seems that either the Swiss don’t really need to process their food, or (more likely) they have other means of doing it (could it be — gasp — that they do it all manually? My North American brain balks at this thought).

Instead of food processors, this country is rife stupid with espresso machines, like the one you see here. So we bought one.

Yes, you are correct that Stelian and I don’t usually drink coffee. But this makes me feel like I got more bang for my reimbursable-white-goods buck. It makes me feel more adult. It makes me feel more Swiss, too. Plus, even though we don’t drink coffee on the regular, we have a number of guests coming through who do. So, you can look forward to espresso on our patio. Say it with me: espresso al fresco!

But the machine had to be tested. Right? Right. The machine had to be tested. It came with a bunch of sample coffee capsules, and I made decaf coffee for us last night. We declared the machine to be working and the coffee to be good-tasting. But then, today, at the time that I usually make tea, the machine was kind of…looking at me. I reasoned that I hadn’t yet tested the normal coffee capsules.

There are reasons that I don’t drink coffee, including the fact that it tends to make me jittery and anxious. So, predictably, this afternoon after drinking the coffee I was unable to concentrate, yet feeling energetic to the point where I was googling marathons in Europe, and wanting to run them all. I then went for an overambitious run and completely exhausted myself and got a post-coffee headache.

So, our little friend here will have to run on decaf fuel until a more hardy specimen of person comes to visit. And Amsterdam, I will see you in October…but now that I’m off my coffee high, I think a half marathon will do.


Cultural differences in safety measures

There were safety precautions that I took for granted, living in Canada.  A house/apartment/workplace/essentially any building you visited was outfitted with a fire alarm (and often a carbon monoxide detector, too). Main doors of buildings opened out, to the street, instead of inward, so that a frenzied crowd pushing to get out in case of fire wouldn’t make opening the door impossible. It was not possible to lose the means to open the door to exit your apartment.

Right about now, you’re saying “huh? I didn’t get the last thing. What do you mean you can lose to the means to exit your apartment?” Well, I mean exactly that. I want to explain to you using words, but unfortunately my knowledge of lock terminology is not up to snuff. So instead, let’s make use of a visual aid. See this?

I think this is called a deadbolt, but I don’t want to confuse you in case it’s not. In my mind, it’s that-thing-you-twist-to-lock-your-door-from-the-inside. But I expect there’s a more technical term, if you want to enlighten me.

Anyway, that thing? It doesn’t exist here in der Schweiz, at least not that I’ve seen. The way that the front door to my apartment works is that you have to use a key on both sides: to unlock when you’re outside of the apartment, and to lock up again when you’re inside. Stelian and I received three keys to our apartment, so for safety and convenience’s sake, we keep one key in the lock on the inside of the door at all times. Good solution? Ja, except you cannot have two keys fully inserted in the lock at the same time. Ergo, when you are preparing to leave the apartment, you have to pull the inside key halfway out so that you can insert your other key from the outside to lock up. This drives me bonkers, because I’m always forgetting to do it. I end up trying to lock the door and realizing that I can’t, and then I have to reopen the door and reach back in to pull out the key, at which point Cleo inevitably darts out, runs down the stairs, and starts meowing in front of our neighbours’ doors. Precious seconds are lost as I go to retrieve her, and you know, time is money! (Okay: time isn’t actually money for me as a hausfrau/hopeful scribbler, but I’m growing tired of this routine.)

Dear Switzerland: deadbolts (or whatever they are called). They are simple. But they work so brilliantly. Please look into them.

And I am pretty sure that this “keyholes on both sides” system is state-of-the-art here, because the locks in our building were replaced shortly after we moved in. I wildly hoping that I would see a deadbolt when the technician was done. To my dismay, he just smiled as he showed me how to use the key to lock the new lock from the inside.

Imagine, if you only had the same number of keys as residents in the suite, and you didn’t have a spare to keep stuck in the door. What if you couldn’t find your keys when there was a fire? I shudder to think about it, and if there is ever some kind of  Swiss congress on safety, and Canadian expats are by some miracle invited to participate, I plan to deliver an impassioned address on this subject.

The lack of household fire alarms is somewhat puzzling to me as well. I am not familiar with the stats concerning how many lives they actually save, but isn’t it one of those things that might help, and certainly won’t hurt?

I’m not trying to put the Swiss down here. I feel like they are probably more safety-conscious in other ways…fruits and vegetables, for instance, seem less mutated here, and I’m not as leery of what non-organic food might contain, since farms are still run by families, using more traditional methods. I also think that if I bought a Swiss-made comforter or pillow, it would be less apt to be packed with government-mandated chemical flame retardants than it would be in North America (some of you have already heard my rant on this).

Don’t different nations get together to discuss the merits and drawbacks of their varying approaches to household/industrial/food safety? Or am I just being a wide-eyed dreamer here?

You don’t have to answer that.


A reasonable balance of photos and text

It’s been a while since I’ve shared some pictures with you. I uploaded a bunch from my camera last night, and realized that you might appreciate seeing some of them.

But I gotta hit you with some prose at the same time. You know how it is. I can’t just let you look…I can’t just show without telling a little bit, too.

So settle down, class. Let’s get started. Here is a picture of Zürich at dusk that I took a couple of weeks ago.

Notice how we’re up above the city — and the River Limmat — a little bit here. There is a very nice square up here, with the usual decorative fountains and benches for people to relax on, and take in the sights.

Looking south from the same square, you can see the twin towers of the Grossmunster.

Let’s change gears, from pleasure to pain. Here is an example of these running paths in the forest that I keep complaining about:

Yeah: I keep denouncing them, and then I keep going back for more. It’s that kind of relationship.

Ooh, and we had a renovation! Renovations are really fun, I’ve realized, when you don’t have to do any of the work. When we moved in, our landlords mentioned that they we’re going to enlarge one of our balconies (come on, as if we’re not already so lucky to have two balconies). Anyway, they did it, and it was painless for us, and also pretty exciting. Here’s a picture of the balcony before:

That’s right — it wasn’t the prettiest balcony (the pretty one is on the other side, facing the street). Knowing how things can get hopelessly mangled in translation, I wondered if what they actually planned to do was just update it a little. Could it really get much bigger?

The answer is yes. Oh my, yes.

Here is Cleo luxuriating on our new patio. I don’t think we can call this thing a balcony, anymore. It is huge. You can certainly eat on this thing…and you will, if you visit us during nice weather (and after we’ve bought the necessary furniture). Al fresco dining! You won’t have a view of the Alps, I’m sorry — our building forms a triangular enclosure with some other buildings, so all you’ll see is them. But still…al fresco!

Here’s another view of the new structure, from inside. That feline lump is Cleo, again. I don’t know what happened to her eyes. Sometimes their reflective light gets sucked into to the black hole of her dark-as-night fur, I guess. I’m not freaked out by it anymore.

Finally (the bell is about to ring, but please just stay in your seat for a minute or two longer), we celebrated the Vernal Equinox yesterday by going to the Zürich zoo. It sits atop the city on the Zuriberg. It has great views, an impressive variety of animals…and it attracts an impressive number of human animals speaking an impressive variety of languages. (Want to experience a babel of language? Go to a zoo in a country that has four spoken languages, and attracts tourists from around the world).

We saw lions…

And tigers…

And the most adorable little baby goat.

What — was that supposed to end differently?

Class is dismissed. Now go and enjoy Spring!

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Recommendation: This American Life

A pattern referred to as “dream lag” has been extensively documented by scientists, as well as laypeople interested in their dream lives. Put simply, dream lag refers to a time delay in dream content. It explains why you dream that you’re still home while you’re on vacation, and then, after you go home again, your dreams “catch up” and you begin dreaming that you’re in the place you were a week ago. The unconscious mind apparently takes some time to chew on things before it spits them out again, if you’ll excuse the rough metaphor.

I find the dream lag phenomenon to be intensely interesting, and I thought I’d share that in addition to still having many a dream set in Canada rather than in my new life here, I’m also noticing a similar lag in my awareness of cultural things – that is, I’m being exposed to North American things that I never knew about while living in North America. For example, a newfound friend in Switzerland, herself originally from Illinois, said, “you should watch Ira Glass’ youtube series on creative endeavors — it’s really good.” Who is Ira Glass — am I supposed to know? I wondered. I watched the videos. The content was really good, and the creator/narrator of the videos — Glass himself — was a person with an interesting voice, and a really compassionate attitude towards people trying to find their way in fields such as radio (though his advice was broad enough to also apply to writers, and people in a whole range of other endeavours).

I wanted to learn more about Glass and his career in radio, and what I found out is that his show, This American Life, has been running since 1995 and is kind of a big deal, with a lot of listeners and a number of awards to its credit. I started listening to it on the internet right away, and found that the show has everything I look for in entertainment media (and everything that’s often hard to find in entertainment media): intelligence, outside-the-box thinking, bookishness, irreverence, and a kind of off-beat, indie vibe that is maintained despite its popularity.

I have been downloading weekly, hour-long podcasts of the show from itunes (for free; you can also listen to episodes for free on the show’s website), and each week, as I’m downloading, I see the show’s topic in the title, and I try to imagine what their treatment of it will be. For example, last week’s title was “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” — the topic was gifts, and especially how they can inspire reactions other than the intended ones. I was somewhat let down, thinking that the topic wasn’t that interesting — we’d probably just hear about a lot of unwanted socks and sweaters that had people had received from their well-meaning relatives. But the show went far, far beyond what I expected on this topic.

The 60 minutes of This American Life that air each week are typically divided into three or more stories, or “acts,” all of which touch on the week’s themes. For the gift-giving show, the acts involved an examination of the 1950s TV show, “This is Your Life,” and its assumption that telling someone’s story in a public forum is a gift to them; a story about an Israeli woman who gave extra medical marijuana to a patient (later revealed to be an undercover officer) who begged for it; an interview with a woman who discusses the very interesting practice of Tarof in Iran (a type of hospitality that involves forcing things on others whether they say they want them or not); and an actor reading the short story “What Of This Goldfish Would You Wish?” by author Etgar Keret. This episode was so absorbing and thought-provoking that I decided I had to spread the word about it. If you haven’t listened to the show before, but I have piqued your curiosity about it, this episode would be a great place to start (note: this week’s wasn’t hosted by Ira Glass, who was away, but by Nancy Updike, another great radio journalist).

I have to admit that, as much as I enjoy the show, it’s a little hard for me to sit and listen to radio: I’m just used to enjoying it on the move. So I save This American Life for one of my longer runs each week (the podcasts would also be great for while you’re cooking, driving, biking, etc). As I run and listen to them, Chicago, which is where the show is broadcast from, seems suddenly so near. Funny how going away brings you close to the place you left in certain ways. I’m so happy that this blog has the same ability to bring us closer, despite the distance that lies between us.

Schönes Wochenende!

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Fasnacht, we hardly knew ye

There was a carnival in Switzerland this past week/weekend. Sadly, I didn’t really notice.

I thought that Fasnacht, the celebration that occurs just before or right after the beginning of Lent, would be a little more attention-grabbing. According to my diligent internet research, the purpose of the festival is to dress up in costumes and make a lot of noise in order to banish the winter and its attendant spirits. The arrival of Fasnacht was heralded in the grocery store for weeks beforehand by the appearance of Fasnachtschuechli, flat, sweet, crispy discs of fried flour covered in powdered sugar. At least I did some investigative reporting into those for you (report: they are delicious).

In my defense, Zürich is not really known for its celebration of Fasnacht: Basel or Lucerne are the cities where you want to be to catch the true celebrations. But I did pretty much miss whatever happened here. I was riveted by footage of the quake in Japan, and didn’t venture outside of my neighborhood on the weekend. At some point on Saturday, I heard some noise, and looked outside to see a very small procession, consisting of costumed people (many of them children) making a very reasonable amount of noise as it wended its way down my street and around the corner to a public square, where there was later some live music and a few benches for people to eat and drink beer at. Apparently, this was the “Zuri-Nord” celebration of Fasnacht, and I must say that I was underwhelmed (if that’s a word…and it appears that it now is!). It was so contained and…well, neat, like everything else in Switzerland. There was confetti in shades of pastel covering the streets for a short time following the parade, and then it was meticulously cleaned up. I didn’t experience any obnoxiously loud music, see any really crazy costumes, or witness any obstreperous behaviour. It was just another weekend in Pleasantville.

Well, I feel sort of like I’ve let you down by failing to experience this holiday. I promise to be much more vigilant when Sechseläuten comes along: this is another celebration of Spring that will occur on the 11th of April — on this day, a snowman will be placed atop of a pyre and burned; the amount of time that it takes for his head to be engulfed in flames will somehow indicate to the residents of Zürich what the weather in the coming summer will be like — essentially, this is a variation of Groundhog Day. You can trust me to be your foreign correspondent for this strange-sounding holiday.

Easter also promises to be a big deal in Switzerland, if one judges by the grocery store (the grocery store is a major barometer of life for the hausfrau, savvy?). Our local store is already festooned with a few extra chocolate aisles, stuffed with eggs and chocolate rabbits. The beauty, and danger, of chocolate in Switzerland is that it is cheap: a chocolate rabbit about the size of our smaller cat (albeit hollow, unlike our cat), would run you only 5 CHF. We will be away for Easter, as I mentioned last week, so the only challenge is to resist the imploring stares of the cheap, delicious-looking rabbits until then.


Dreaming of Italy

After Monday’s somewhat heavy post, I thought I should assure you that I’m not just sitting around steaming about politics all day.

I’m also dreaming of travelling. As the weather becomes increasingly spring-like (sorry, Ontario-dwellers, if I am alienating you with this statement), the travel bug in me is stirring to life again.

Stelian and I were tossing around the idea of taking a trip outside of Switzerland for the weekend in April that covers both my birthday and our first wedding anniversary. Then, as we were discussing it a few days ago, we realized that this weekend will also coincide with Easter this year! Oy vey, we said — everyone else will be travelling then, too. We’d better get to planning.

We thought we’d choose from one of three countries which border Switzerland — France, Italy, or Austria. Initially, we had our sights set on Vienna, a city that we have long wanted to visit. But then, we thought it’d be nice to go somewhere a little less urban. And it’d be nice to be near a body of water. So, we decided on this.

The Cinque Terre are five villages in the Liguria region of Italy, strung along cliffs bordering the Mediterranean, and connected by hiking paths. The region is both a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage site. The villages are car-free (that always sounds so good to me as someone who has never owned a car) and the area is known for its pesto production. We look forward to hiking and eating and generally just soaking up the calm ambience of Italy. We both adored Tuscany when we went in 2008, and I’m sure we will love the Cinque Terre just as much when we visit next month.

So let’s talk travel. What trips are you planning, or dreaming about, in 2011? If you’re currently travelling or already have travelled, what have been your best experiences? Please share in the comments!