Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad


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Pretty Portovenere

The main reason that I wanted to do a separate post on Portovenere (or Porto Venere, as I have also seen it written), is that I wanted to show you lots of pictures like this one.

Isn’t it lovely?

Portovenere was not a key part of our itinerary when we headed to the Cinque Terre. I did have a notion of doing a challenging hike that could either begin or end here, but I planned to merely whisk through the town as a means of getting to or from the trail, which I viewed as the main attraction.

But Stelian and I had a joint predicament that threw us off course. When we got up on Sunday, after having hiked the trails between all of the five villages the day before, we confirmed a hypothesis that had been brewing since the previous afternoon: we had overdone it. Though we are no strangers to hiking, we had hiked a little too much — it was probably the crazy detour between Corniglia and Manarola that did us in. Our calf muscles were so sore from the previous day that the hike to and from the breakfast room (one floor below our hotel room) proved monumental. So, plans were altered — we ended up taking a boat all the way to Portovenere, and spending the afternoon exploring it. It turned out to be a very nice way to spend our anniversary.

When we approached this village (town? I’m not really sure what the most correct translation of comune would be) by boat, it was very impressive — the first things you see are the castle walls towering above you, and next you glimpse the old church:

The Church of Saint Peter, or San Pietro, was built in 1256, in a location that was formerly a temple to Venus (Venere, in Italian) — hence the name Portovenere.

When we docked, we were met by rows of multicoloured houses, as in the Cinque Terre villages. These ones, however, are especially narrow and high. There tend to be shops at ground level, and living quarters in the higher floors.

Behind the houses, you can see the Church of Saint Lawrence (which dates back to 1130)  and above that, the Castello Doria (1161).

We first visited Byron’s grotto — the site from which the great poet is rumored to have swum across a gulf to Lerici in order to visit fellow writer Shelley. Unfortunately, after my experience, I have had to rename this place “the site where Kristen slipped and fell on some rocks and blamed her stupid hair which had blown inconvieniently in front of her eyes, and then refused to take a picture because her hands were muddied in the fall and she was frustrated and not, at that moment, overly impressed with the site, though in retrospect she would be forced to admit that it had been lovely.” Yes, I am full of the maturity of my 29 years.

Moving on (as I did, after literally washing my hands of the grotto site)…we went inside the Church of San Pietro (lovely sea breeze in the sanctuary, and exceptional views from the balcony), and then gingerly climbed through the narrow streets towards the Castle, which, being situated above everything else, gives an astounding view of Portovenere and the Gulf of Poets which surrounds it (this is where I snapped the picture at the top of this post). I am sure that celebrities and billionaires would jostle to get a piece of this real estate, were it ever made available to them.

Here are some pictures of the Castle itself:

For anyone who finds themself in the Cinque Terre, I would contend that Portovenere is certainly worth a side trip. We were happy to have stumbled upon it, somewhat by accident.


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Italy and the Cinque Terre

One can attempt to describe a country by listing its characteristic traits, or by making references to its “national character”. Having just spent four nights in Italy, I want to sketch one such character for you while it is still fresh in my mind.

To begin with, this country is undeniably female, if you hadn’t already guessed from the high-heel boot shape that she takes. Walking through Italy’s nonurban regions, you are enveloped by strong perfume from flowers growing on trees, on bushes, and all along the ground. Her land is ever-fruitful, bearing olives, lemons, and unfathomable quantities of grapes. Her sea is an incredible, sparkling azure blue, and her coastal fingers are studded with gleaming jewels of cities with luscious names like Portovenere (“Port of Venus”).

But before you get the impression that Italy is simply an earth goddess, I have to warn you that she has another side — one that’s a little…well, dangerous. These things that you might have heard about her are true: she likes strong coffee, leather jackets, and clouds of smoke outside restaurants and bars. She likes to talk loudly, drive quickly, and gesture with her hands. Unfortunately, she also likes to litter. But man, can she ever cook

Through all the stimulation she offers — in terms of overwhelming landscape, food, and natives — Italy tends to make my head spin a little bit. Did I breathe a small sigh of relief when I was back in Switzerland, where the air is easy to breathe, the streets are free of garbage,the trains are not routinely crowded and in ritardo, and it’s acceptable to drink tea? Yes, I did. Okay, I know: you didn’t pay the entrance fee to hear about this. So clamber onto the vespa here, don your helmet and hold on tight — we’ll travel back to the Cinque Terre together.

[please insert your own time-travel sequence here]

We arrived in Monterosso al Mare, one of the “five lands” that comprise the Cinque Terre, on Friday afternoon, along with an enormous gaggle of other Easter-weekend tourists. It was a warm, sunny day, so the beaches that characterize Monterosso were crowded, though no one was swimming (the water was still much too cold, despite the summery air — Italy can also tease in this way). We were hungry, and soon sat down at a restaurant where we ordered a Ligurian specialty dish. A little while later, a proud waiter carried out a pan bearing a whole roasted dorado fish, which he proceeded to filet in front of us — this was very fun to watch. Also on the pan were potatoes and olives roasted to perfection in delicious local olive oil. It was already a dinner to remember, but it went over the top when we tried the restaurant’s housemade tiramisu. It was my birthday, after all.

When we awoke the next day to cloudy skies and light rain, we were initially somewhat dismayed, until we reasoned that 1) the less-than-optimal weather would likely mean fewer people on the trails, and 2) having lived in Raincouver, we are pretty much impervious to the wet stuff, as long as it’s not a downpour. So we set out after breakfast, and were greatly rewarded: the path was indeed not very crowded (as it otherwise should have been), the air had that lovely smell of wet greenery, and my pasty skin was not in danger of burning during what turned out to be an 8-hour hike. We hiked the entire “blue” trail that connects the five villages on this day. We were surprised by the intensity of this hiking: getting to each village meant having to climb up, and then down, unforgivingly steep trails and a large number of stairs. But the views, and the villages themselves, were well worth it.  Without further ado, let me introduce you to these five beauties. First up, Monterosso al Mare, where we stayed and where we started the hike:

And next, Vernazza — so very dramatic and lovely, but unfortunately also teeming with tourists who must have arrived there via train or boat (since the Cinque Terre are car-free):

So we admired Vernazza quickly, and then got back on the trail to Corniglia, which, unlike the first two villages, doesn’t sit right on the sea, but on some cliffs above it:

We had lunch in Corniglia, but then hit a bit of a snafu as we returned to the trail: the section between Corniglia and the next village, Manarola, was closed. We considered our options, and after walking to the train station and just missing the hourly train to Manarola (and seeing tourists packed into it like sardines), we decided to take one of the alternate (“red”) trails, which essentially went straight up a mountain. A couple of hours later, we arrived, exhausted, in Manarola, a village that is artfully arranged around a column of rock:

And from here it was pretty easy — we simply had to drag our wasted legs across the flat and paved 1-km Via Dell’Amore…

…which led us to the last village, Riomaggiore. At this point, we were quite tired and just headed for the train back to Monterosso — I didn’t even take a picture of this village until we passed it by boat the next day.

I think it goes without saying that this day was one of the most scenic of my life — but, there you go, I’ve said it now.

I’m going to conclude the tour for now (my high word count is making me anxious), but I’ll be back sometime in the next two days to tell you about Portovenere, a special place that we visited on Sunday. If you want to see all of our trip photos right away, though, please visit this link to my Picasa album.


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Hoppy Easter!

Before moving to Switzerland, I was working in a unionized police job (for any who don’t know me well, please don’t get any delusions that I was a police officer. I held a decidedly less glamourous and exciting — though still “essential,” meaning that I had to work holidays and wacky hours — post at this department).

If you have also worked in a unionized work environment, you might have encountered a certain type of individual, who is…how can I put this…encrusted. I think that’s the word I want. This person started working for this organization when they were 18, say, and now they’re in their fifties, a few years from retirement. They are entrenched. Ah, there’s an even more satisfying word.

If you are a twenty-something, Gen-Y individual, one who has gone to university for too many years, with the unfortunate end result that you think that it is acceptable to, I don’t know, ask questions about why things are done the way they are, or suggest a more efficient way of doing something, you will not get along with this individual, who is so…militant. (Oh, these words are working some cathartic magic).

I’m probably exaggerating the scale of antagonism, here. I didn’t have any major blow-outs with this woman, who I’m going to call, for the sake of this post, Penny Sue (far enough away from her real name). I know it would be great blog fodder if I had a story about how I finally stood up to her and said, “Penny Sue…today I’m going to staple this document the way I like, instead of using your prescribed stapling method. That’s right, I’M TAKING A STAND!” (Okay: we didn’t actually disagree about stapling things, but imagine something equally asinine).

Oh, I could dream of a Jerry MacGuire-esque scene in which the whole office turned to watch as I, a female David in shiny pennyloafers, slayed the giant, bellicose Penny Sue.

But that didn’t happen. Penny Sue didn’t work in my exact unit, so there were few opportunities to hash things out. I should also mention that she disliked my unit in its entirety, and not just me. But still, when I sensed that (pugnacious) Penny Sue didn’t like me (based on a few clues such as the rude e-mails she sent about my “mistakes,” comments she made to my supervisor, and her inability to say anything nice to me), I did what I always do in such situations: I tried to make her like me.

That’s right — I tried to kill (discordant) Penny Sue with kindness.

I labored over my e-mails to her, making sure that they were as polite and respectful as could be. I smiled at her when I passed her desk. I even voted for her in one of our office’s costume contests, though her costume was not remotely the best. (Naturally, she didn’t win.)

The result of all my pleasantries? Well, I hate to tell you how harsh the world can be. But the truth is that Penny Sue still hated me. She was always going to hate me. (Because she was set in her ways).

But then Easter came around. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I often had to work on holidays — Easter Sunday of 2010 was one of these. Penny Sue, being more established in the organization, did not have to work. But I had occasion to tell her something on that Sunday, and I wasn’t going to remember it by the time she was back in the office on Tuesday. Cursing the connection between her section and mine, I crafted an e-mail to her — possibly my kindest yet.

And then I returned to my work, but no sooner than I did that, I got a return e-mail from (absent) Penny Sue. I eagerly opened it. It was an autoreply that she’d set up. It said something like this:

I am currently on weekend and holiday leave. I will return to the office on Tuesday, April 13 at 9 am, and will respond to your message as soon as possible thereafter.

But below that, in large font (which I apparently can’t reproduce here, but please try to imagine) it also said:

Have a hoppy Easter!

Penny Sue

And there were images of bunnies frolicking, and some other Easter-themed stuff. I’m telling you, it was magical! I’d found the warm side of Penny Sue! She was wishing me a happy holiday! We were having a good moment, Penny Sue and I — never mind that she wasn’t there to witness it. I really felt the love from (suddenly benevolent) Penny Sue.

It was, in effect, an Easter Miracle.

And because I still bask in the glow of this love, I’d like to pass some of it on to you, dear Reader. Because you’re constantly here, checking in with me, reading and validating the (often mundane) stories of my life. Because I feel close to you, even though most of you are far away. And because I know you’d let me staple the document however I wanted, and might even listen to my explanation as to why I think it’s sensible to do it that way.

Because of this, and everything else that you are to me…

I wish you a hoppy, hoppy Easter — the hoppiest of your life.

Love, Kristen

P.S. I’ll thank you in advance for trying to wish me a happy birthday (those of you who normally try to reach me for such an occasion). I’m twenty-nine and doin’ fine, but I’m also going to be incommunicado today, as we train our way to the Cinque Terre. You’ll get the full scoop on our vacation next week. Ciao!


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In which I forget how money works

I’ve been feeling a little…weighed down, lately. And no, thank you for asking, but it isn’t the extra-flesh-courtesy-of-cheese-and-chocolate making my person feel heavy (okay, there is some of that, but who wants to discuss it? certainly not me) — it’s my wallet, which is full of change. The other day, I dumped the coins out of their compartment, and discovered this:

Thaaat’s right – what we have here is over 17 CHF in change. We have 5 CHF (the largest and heaviest coin), 2 CHF (next largest), 1 CHF, 1/2 franc (irritatingly, this is smaller than the 20 or 10 rp coin), 20 rappen, 10 rappen, and 5 rappen (thankfully, there is no equivalent for the penny).

A brilliant mathematician, such as my sister, and probably even a lesser intellectual being, could have told you that this much change is unnecessary: if I had the opportunity to gather so much change, I should have had the opportunity to spend at least some of it. A smart person wouldn’t have amassed so much change. Or, at least, a person who remembered how money worked.

In Canada, I never carried cash. Anything I bought could be paid for with those magical pieces of plastic, the debit and credit card. But in Switzerland, things are different. Credit cards are not used very much, debit processing can be slow and painful, and in some cases the only option is to pay cash (this is how we ended up stranded in the outer reaches of the solar system a few weeks ago). I routinely pay for groceries with cash — but I’ve just realized that I routinely pay with bills only, meaning that I am always getting coins back, and never spending them.

So, to avoid being that lady who counts out her entire purchase in coins someday, I have to remember that using money means using a combinatio of bills and coins. Thank you, Switzerland, for refreshing this basic concept for me.

Also:

These are not going to help me get any lighter. But I don’t care; they were (are) worth each and every calorie.

If chocolate chip cookies are wrong, I don’t want to be right.


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With great sugar comes great responsibility

We received a slip in our mailbox on Friday afternoon, summoning us to the post office to pick up a package. We’d have to wait until Saturday morning to find out what it was — few things in life are so suspenseful. We were not expecting a package, and we thought it might be related to my bank card being returned to me, but those expectations were dashed when we saw that it was a fair-sized box. And oh, were its contents ever exciting:

Our friends who visited from Germany a few weeks ago very kindly surprised us by sending brown sugar and chocolate chips, two things which we don’t have access to here, but they apparently can get in their country.

I know — Switzerland might as well be called “Land of Chocolate.” But chocolate chips don’t exist here, and if you’re going to make chocolate chip cookies (which, for obvious reasons, also don’t exist here), you need to have the real deal. I have lovingly captured their likeness on film, for I know we won’t have them to look at long:

And the sugar! I had forgotten how smooth and uniform real brown sugar is. Here is a comparison of the stuff we received, and a batch of my bootleg brown sugar:

Okay — enough with the pictures. I am writing this because I need help. Obviously, I am going to need to combine these ingredients into a delicious batch of chocolate chip cookies (and soon, because there is otherwise a risk that I will just eat all the chips, handful by handful). But I don’t have a killer recipe, and I can’t afford to take chances here. Think of this like a wartime ration situation. This stuff needs to be put to good use, because who knows when I’ll have these ingredients at hand again (okay — family members visiting next month will be bringing more brown sugar, but that’s, like, next month).

To quote Eminem: “Success is my only m*****f***ing  option.” I’m pretty sure he was thinking about a baking predicament when he wrote that.

So, if you’ve got a no-fail chocolate chip cookie, please shout it out in the comments, or send me an e-mail. Yes, I could just find a recipe on the internet, but I trust you more. (One warning, though: if your recipe is a disaster, I might have to blog about that. Just kidding. Sort of.)


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Book recommendation: The English Patient

Yes, that’s right: I’m a few years behind on this one. 19 years, to be exact. Can I just say that it’s pretty incredible how quickly time has flown since 1992, when The English Patient was first published? I was ten years old then, so I think I should be let off the hook for not reading this immediately upon its release. But maybe I should be faulted for not reading it when I was twenty, and for waiting almost another decade to finally dive into this story.

But maybe you can understand, because maybe you’re like me. Maybe you also have that stubborn streak inside you that makes you recoil from things that people say you “simply must” do. The English patient was a “simply must read,”and the movie it spawned was a “simply must watch” (I haven’t seen the movie, but I did enjoy the classic Seinfeld episode wherein Elaine lost a boyfriend, and put her job in jeopardy, for voicing her dislike of this film that everyone else fervently loved). I have wasted time on “simply must” gone awry (no offence, Dan Brown, but…) and I have grown distrustful of it.

Okay, so let me give you my opinion. It’s not that you must read — but that you really might enjoy reading The English Patient, if, like me, you’ve been putting it off for too long. You might be thinking, “can it possibly be that good?” as I did, for many years. This story — basically about the unpredictability and sadness of love, bombs, and war — is that good. I’d read Ondaatje before (Divisadero), but I think this is Ondaatje at his peak. I finished this book a couple weeks ago, actually, and wasn’t going to post about it until I realized that some of his gorgeous lines were still jumping around in my head. Ondaatje is a poet who writes novels, I think. I love his vivid imagery:

Her father had taught her about hands. About a dog’s paws. Whenever her father was alone with a dog in a house he would lean over and smell the skin at the base of the paw. This, he would say, as if coming away from a brandy snifter, is the greatest smell in the world! A bouquet! Great rumours of travel! She would pretend disgust, but the dog’s paw was a wonder: the smell of it never suggested dirt. It’s a cathedral! her father had said, so-and-so’s garden, that field of grasses, a walk through cyclamen — a concentration of hints of all the paths the animal had taken during the day (p. 8).

Man, doesn’t that make you want to smell a dog? I wish my cats smelled like that. Though they already smell good, in their own way.

This can be a disturbing book, too — the incident that leads to the English patient becoming an invalid is one of the most affecting (and not in a happy way) scenes that I have read in a novel in recent memory. But this, too, shows the gift of the author.

So, if you haven’t read it…consider it. Don’t let another decade go by.

Have you read anything good lately? Please share your recommendations!


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A Sechseläuten story

We stood outside yesterday, another day with temperatures in the mid-20s — a day so warm and sunny that discomfort drove us to find an at least partially shaded spot as we waited near Sechseläutenplatz, down by the lake. We would be there for hours, protecting our vantage point, and we feared becoming overheated or badly sunburned if we stayed in an area fully exposed to the sun.

I couldn’t help but appreciate the irony of the situation — in these record-breaking April temperatures, we and tens of thousands of other Zürich residents sweltered as we waited to watch a snowman be burned, so that we could be assured that winter was over and summer on its way.

Sechseläuten (Sächsilüüte in Swiss German) is a spring holiday celebrated since the early 1900s; it is not Switzerland-wide, but peculiar to the city of Zürich. The English translation of  Sechseläuten is “six o’clock ringing of the bells,” and it originally marked the time of year when men in guildhalls (workshops) across the city no longer worked until lack of daylight forced them to stop, but started to be released from their duties by the tolling of church bells at six p.m.

Today, Sechseläuten is a holiday on which city-dwellers are given the afternoon off so that they can watch the parade of guilds and the burning of the Böögg. The parade is interesting and enjoyable: the guild members don their traditional costumes, some have floats and marching bands; they throw apples, bread, flowers, and other items to the crowds lining the parade route.

A noteworthy thing, though, is that this parade is composed almost entirely of men. Our German teacher told us an interesting fact, which I later confirmed through other sources to be true: 2011 is the very first year that a women’s guild was invited to participate in the parade. The Gesellschaft zu Fraumünster (or guild of the Fraumünster, one of Zürich’s important churches and former convents) is composed of women in various occupations, who honour and seek to represent the Fraumünster’s abbessess, or superior nuns, who were once de facto rulers of the city. Having being granted by King Henry III in 1045 the rights to mint coins and perform other important duties, and given further powers by Emperor Frederick II in 1218, their considerable political influence lasted through to the fourteenth century.

So, since 1922, the Fraumünster guild has been attempting to march alongside the men, but they found themselves shut out by the other (men-only) guilds year after year, and resorted to simply marching earlier in the day, when no one would stop them, or along a different route. I wonder how they felt, finally marching as a legitimate part of the parade yesterday — proud, no doubt; but do you reckon they felt completely and happily vindicated, or still a bit annoyed that this had to take 89 years to happen? Were they uncomfortably hot in their medieval costumes? Well, there is no doubt of this last.

As interesting as the parade is, the main attraction of Sechseläuten in its modern incarnation is surely the Böögg, a giant snowman who serves as both a burning effigy of winter, and a summer weather oracle. He sits atop a giant pyre, his rotund figure packed with unseen explosives, and at exactly six o’clock the bottom of the pyre is lit. While he burns, guildsmen on horses race around the fire. The amount of time that it takes for the Böögg’s firework-laden head to explode is used to predict whether the coming summer will be hot (with a faster time suggesting a hotter, and more enjoyable, summer). This year’s time was 10 minutes and 56 seconds, which is on the faster side; some years, it takes closer to half an hour. In 2003, the year that much of Europe, including Switzerland, would experience a massive summer heat wave, the Böögg’s head exploded in the very fast time of 5:42.

Here are some pictures I took of this year’s Böögg and his quick demise:

Before the burning, a pristine Böögg awaits his fate

The highly punctual Swiss light his pyre right at six o'clock

The flames climb higher...

...and soon the Böögg is himself on fire.

Explosives are going off, and the head is blackened...

He's engulfed in flames now, but the head has to be entirely gone...

Like this! You can see that the broom fell off as his head exploded.

The pyre and stand would continue to burn for some time.

After the fire has gone out, the tradition is for residents of Zürich to snatch some hot coals, and use them to grill sausages, such as their beloved Cervelas, and other foods. I didn’t stick around to see this part, but maybe next year I will.

I rather enjoyed watching the Böögg explode — it was far more dramatic than I’d been imagining (there is a short video here of the head exploding and disappearing suddenly). But I do have to say that there is some eerieness about being among a crowd of people who are cheering as a somewhat human-like figure is destroyed by fire. I did my best to suppress or compartmentalize thoughts of people being burned at the stake in this same country, probably amid this same type of gaiety (this poor guy being one example).

Well, to end on a happy note — it looks, based on the weather pattern so far, as well as the Böögg’s prediction, as though we will be having a nice, hot summer this year. All the more reason to come and visit our fair city!