Chronicles of a writer abroad


I read the news this week – oh, boy

As I blog, I try to keep in mind that people who read the resulting posts likely do so as a form of escapism. I myself read the blogs of other expats and travellers to be swept away to another place, to be taken along with them on their journeys, and to vicariously experience things that offer contrast to the quotidian details of my own life.

But now I’m faced with a dilemma — do I write with honesty, or do I counsel myself to not say anything if I don’t have anything entertaining to say? Well, as you can see, I’m writing, and I’m assuming you’ll either forgive me for being a downer, or take this warning and x-out your browser now. Because in truth, this week has bummed me out. To begin with, the headlines reporting the number of people, most of them youth, killed in Norway — in such a lurid manner, by such an infuriatingly misguided man — were difficult to ignore, difficult to remain unaffected by.

Then I got sucked into a maelstrom of depressing Canadian news. On Tuesday morning, I got up and looked at my CBC newsfeed and saw a headline to the effect that Jack Layton has announced that he needed to take a leave of absence to fight a new cancer (“new” because he already battled prostate cancer within the past couple of years). Already saddened by this, I clicked on a link which showed a video of a man who I would have sworn was not Jack Layton (though he bore him some resemblance, perhaps enough to be his father) making a statement about his health. The way he seems to have aged 20 years since we were exposed to his face regularly during the spring election season was jarring. How sad, I thought, to have made such strides this spring and then to have to hand over the reins because of your health.

But what made me sadder, and madder, was later reading this editorial in the Globe and Mail, wherein columnist Andre Picard has accused Layton and his press team of “unacceptable fudging” because the exact type of cancer and the prognosis is not being disclosed to the public. Picard seems to consider it his right to know exactly what’s going on in Layton’s body, arguing that he must “tell his political family – the electorate – what he tells his immediate family: what kind of cancer he has, the treatment he will undergo and the prognosis.That is part of being a modern-day political leader.” He further advises those who would defend Layton, especially in his time of frailty, that “Mr. Layton is a big boy. He can take it. The last thing he needs is pity.”

For my part, I accuse Picard of unacceptable hounding. Do his words strike anyone else as vicious and extreme? Yes, we live in an age of virtually no privacy for public figures, but maybe that’s not a good thing. In terms of what politicians do in office, I agree that we should be privy to everything. And perhaps — perhaps — they can be faulted for not disclosing potentially relevant health issues while in office. But if someone learns that they have a health problem, and makes the responsible decision that they need to inform their party and the public that they need a leave of absence because of it, I don’t think anyone has the right to demand the details. I think Mr. Picard’s logic is flawed — the fact that “gossip flows as freely as news” is not a reason that “politicians owe full health disclosure,” as he has tried to claim. I wonder if Picard might gain some empathy for Layton by having his own head examined and reporting the results in his next column.

Finally, to add insult to death and illness, I learned that my most beloved public institution, the library, is now threatened in my hometown, with cuts proposed to the public libraries in and surrounding Toronto. Thank god for Margaret Atwood, who exhorted her quarter million Twitter followers to petition and speak against the cuts…the story about Toronto Councillor Doug Ford saying “I wouldn’t have a clue who she is” and suggesting that she only deserves to be listened to if she can be elected to office was so ridiculous I almost laughed…almost. Of course — we’d be silly to listen to one of our nation’s most celebrated and decorated authors on the subject of reading and literacy! And all of the people who commented on the related news articles, saying “Margaret Atwood wants the libraries to stay open because they’re the only buyers for her books” clearly have equally no idea about who she is, and that’s a real shame.

Let’s try to end this on a happy note, shall we? Here is a short list of things that have cheered me up this week:

  • The Chuck Norris-style joke that “Jack Layton doesn’t have cancer. Cancer has Jack Layton. Cancer should be worried.”
  • Reading an old edition of Moby Dick that is full of whimsical illustrations to accompany the text (procured from the library, of course)
  • Good weather for running
  • Swiss chocolate

In all, the week has been a good reminder that, while there are struggles in expat life, it’s not like it always was/is easy to live in Canada with other Canadians, either.

How’s your outlook this week?


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From dust to…more dust

For nearly six months now, we’ve been living in a construction zone. When we first moved into our building in February, its eight apartments had been newly renovated, so we expected the noise and the dust to be over with. Turns out we were very wrong. A note from our landlord shortly after we moved in informed us that we should expect more noise as construction continued.

First the workers pounded away on the attic. We hoped that it was storage space that was being developed — many buildings in Zürich have attic lockers, while ours offered only a meagre amount of space in a dank cellar. But, as it turns out, the attic was to become a luxury suite, so two floors up from us, there’s now an apartment that rents for more than $4,500 per month. Yowza.

As soon as that was done, the renovation of the commercial spaces began. At the ground level of our building, there’s a bar on one side, and an Indian restaurant on the other. We live on the third floor (what you North Americans would call fourth), so it didn’t seem like these establishments would have any impact on us. But our neighbour, who lives in the other apartment on the third floor and on the bar side, reported that music and voices drift up and bother him as he’s trying to sleep (the bar’s closing time is 4am, unfortunately). I guess we’re lucky to be on the Curry House side — it’s quiet while it’s open, and other than some occasional, pleasant aromas that drifted up, we didn’t notice it at all — until they decided to renovate. This renovation has followed a typically Swiss work schedule: it can begin well before 8am, even on Saturdays. Only Sundays provide a respite.

They’re now finished the bar renovation, and the result has been pretty funny. When we first moved in, the bar was extremely kitschy: the sort with old, peeling barstools, an ancient cigarette machine, a TV forever playing WWE, and a crowd of regulars who clearly enjoyed predictability and routine (one guy, for example, seemed to have a number of Hawaiian shirts in rotation). Following the reno, the bar has slick new benches and low tables and sexy lighting, but who do you think shows up every day? Yes, the same old characters. What did the owners expect?

Anyway, for the past few months, I’ve been reading and writing to the soundtrack of drills, jackhammers, and seemingly any other tools that can make irritating noise. I wonder if, after all this time, it will feel eerily quiet once the work is done and the building is inhabited by only the residents and not by a constant parade of yelling, chain-smoking, and yes, occasionally opera-singing construction workers? It’s almost difficult, now, to envision living in a quiet building whose floors are not covered in plaster-dust footprints. But I’m thinking that it’s got to be almost over — they won’t be able to find anything else to pound on after this restaurant reno is complete, right? And happily, the sign in the restaurant’s window says that this will be in early August, which is just in time for our trip to Canada.


Book Recommendation: Room

As promised, I am recommending a recent book. Room, written by Irish author Emma Donoghue, was published in 2010 — in this selfsame decade!

And it’s an incredible book. Incredible, firstly, in the literal sense of the word: it teeters on the edge of unbelievability because its subject matter — its concept — is pretty extreme. In the hands of another author, it might not have worked. But Donoghue makes it work. Room is also incredible in the other sense of the word — when you are finished reading it, you feel as though you have just experienced something pretty extraordinary.

Room is narrated by a boy named Jack, and the book opens on his fifth birthday. Like most children, Jack has been taught to distinguish between things that are “real” and things that are “only on TV” — except in Jack’s case, the latter category includes things like dogs and oceans and forests. This is because Jack has spent his entire life in a room that measures 11 feet by 11 feet. At the book’s opening, Jack is an unwitting captive who lives with his mother, who has been imprisoned since before his birth.

In Room, the author has done an excellent job with a very limited point of view — a five-year old’s understanding and perspective are wildly different from an adult’s, but Donoghue writes Jack’s voice and thoughts in such a convincing way that I believed I was in the mind of a child, except for a few occasions where a turn of phrase or insight would strike me as unbelievable. I cringed, for instance, when Jack dismissed one of his mother’s explanations, saying “that’s crazy math,” or when he described himself as feeling “giddy” — I have trouble believing that even a precocious five year-old could make such a judgment or grasp such a concept. But happily, I found these moments of incongruity to be few and far between.

I’m tempted to say a lot more about this book, but I think I risk lessening your enjoyment of it if I do; if you choose to read it, I think you should go in as I did, without knowing much. One caveat: there is a fair share of disturbing material in here, given the subject matter. Now that you know that, let me do this one final pitch: this book is unputdownable. The plot is riveting. The characters (especially the narrating protagonist) are fully-fleshed and endearing. The dialogue is entirely believable (one of my pet peeves as a reader is cheesy or artificial-sounding dialogue). This is definitely worth the few days that you’ll spend reading it…that is, if you can bear to have it spread out over a few days. Really, it’s that compelling a story — at least, it was for me.

Any thoughts about Room? Comments on the book or alternate recommendations are welcome!


T-minus 3 months

There has been some grumbling about all of the rain in Zürich lately — but none of it has been coming from me. Reading, writing, running — I’d rather do all of my favourite things in the rain. For the first two activities, rain provides that lovely “I should be inside doing this” feeling. For the third, it relieves the concerns about heat stroke and dehydration and sunburn that I consider to be major annoyances relating to running in the summer months.

I promised that I would give updates on my training, and since two days ago marked three months until the Amsterdam marathon, I thought I’d check in. First, here’s my data:

Since I wrote about this last month, I’ve nearly doubled my mileage, and my pace has improved somewhat, although I have to qualify this by telling you that these numbers are something of a lie — they don’t include my walk breaks, which may be more frequent than I’d care to admit. You don’t get to press “stop” on the timer during a race, so I shouldn’t really be doing it in training, either…but the numbers become too depressing otherwise.

I’m now just past the half-marathon distance in my training, and I’m still surprised by how difficult it is. I’d assumed that doing this for the second time would be easier, but I forgot about a little thing called motivation. For the first-time marathoner, the motivation to accomplish the goal is huge — you want to prove that you can do what you set out to do. In this second round, I’m finding that my attitude is “yeah, I know I can do it…but am I crazy to want to?” I think a lot of repeat marathoners use time goals for motivation, but since it’s been a struggle for me to get back in shape, I don’t see how I’ll even manage to run as fast as I did last time. As of now, I will be running the race the same way I did in 2010 — no time goal; the only object to get myself past the finish line.

I’ve also been toying with the idea of using my run to raise a bit of money for a worthy cause, but I think I’ll hold off on committing to this until I see more proof that my legs are really capable of carrying me over this distance.

Sorry for the somewhat pessimistic update, but this is the way it feels at this point.  We’ll see how things look in another month. I think recording this might serve as a useful reminder to my future self that if I can get my fitness back, I should not allow it to melt away again. Yep, it can melt like fondue cheese, or like that delicious melted chocolate I saw last week at the factory… Wait — Switzerland, surely you’re not trying to sabotage me?!


An Ode to the Library

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that public libraries are some of the best — and perhaps the best — things that our Western societies have got going for them. Every time I use one, I marvel that these places can exist in today’s highly consumerist culture: places where you can go and borrow almost any book you desire for free; places where the poorest kid can gain an equal intellectual footing with the kid whose wealthy parents bring home loads of shiny new books with unbroken spines; places where, if you so desire, you can learn what they’d teach you at Harvard or MIT, without having to endure the snobby atmosphere.

One of the things that I really miss about Vancouver is its library’s Central Branch, which occupies an entire block of downtown. It is modelled after the Roman Colosseum (see a picture of it here) and each of its floors have one wall of windows overlooking an atrium with shops and restaurants. It is exactly what a library should be: an oasis of peace and quiet, and extremely well-supplied with all kinds of media. I spent many happy hours here while living nearby.

This week, I decided to check out Zürich’s library system. I felt some trepidation — first of all, I felt that getting a library card did not rank as an “easy” task on the language-complexity scale. I figured it was bound to be a fairly involved, back-and-forth exchange that I didn’t want to fail at, so even though I’ve been wanting to join the library for some time, I kept putting it off. Secondly, I was afraid that I would be denied membership due to my L(oser) permit, and I was afraid that being thus denied would be a crushing psychological blow (given my love of libraries) and would make me feel as though I am truly regarded as a black sheep in Swiss society. And there was good reason to fear: L-permit holders are barred from all sorts of things in Switzerland, including cell phone contracts and credit cards.

The library, I am happy to report, welcomed my desire for membership. I also managed to navigate the registration conversation well enough. It was explained to me that membership in the Zürich library system is not free, but you choose between two main options: 30 francs/year gives you the ability to check out only two items at a time, while 45 francs/year allows you to take out up to 25 items at a time. Those who know me well will not have to ask which option I chose.

Being asked to pay for a library membership was foreign to me as a Canadian, but after some thought I concluded that it’s likely a result of the country’s very low tax rate: services like this have to be funded somehow. Besides, membership is free for people 16 and under — I like the idea that my dollars help to give kids/youth a free pass to the library, and I hope it will enrich their lives as much as it has mine. Finally, the amount of money that I will save by reading books for free instead of having to buy them…let’s just say that it will far exceed 45 francs.

So, with my new library card, I feel like a whole person again, and I also feel a greater sense of belonging here in Switzerland (oddly, the few hundred francs per month that I shell out for health insurance doesn’t bestow the same feeling). There is a branch down the street from me with a pretty decent selection in English, and I’ve already got two novels on the go, one in print and one in audio format. The bonus for you, dear Readers, is that I’ll start recommending more recently-published books — I am already making plans to share one of these with you soon.

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Kristen and the Cheese and Chocolate Factories

Hi there — after staying quiet for a few days, I’m back with lots to tell you. Yesterday we visited two Swiss factories. It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, but also a pretty long one, since these factories were located in or near Gruyères, which is a 2.5 hour trip from Zürich (by train-bus-train).

Our group decided to visit Gruyères (in the French part of Switzerland) because we wanted to hike, and there are nice trails (or wanderwegs, as the Swiss call them) here. We also went there because thunderstorms were forecasted, and I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet, but Switzerland knows how to throw a heck of a thunderstorm. Last week, for example, we had thunder, lightning and driving rain for about four hours continuously — I never knew this to be possible, since the Toronto boomers I grew up with were typically over in less than an hour, and Vancouver rarely had thunderstorms.

Anyway, Gruyères was a good option because if the weather forecast was borne out, we could visit the factories instead of being lightning poles on the wanderweg. And indeed, it was already raining by the time we arrived, so we ducked into the Gruyère cheese factory, which had a restaurant where we ate a cheese-filled lunch while sitting by the restaurant’s one all-glass wall and watching a typically fierce storm play out.

After lunch, we toured the factory. In retrospect, I might have reversed the order of the activities — the factory would have been an excellent way to whet one’s appetite, but having just eaten my fill of cheese, I was not as enthralled by it as I might have been. Each visitor receives a sample pack containing three pieces of Gruyère cheese aged 6, 8 and 10 months, but sadly I had no appetite for it at the time.

The factory — or at least, the part on display from above — basically consists of one room, in which a giant vat of cheese-coloured liquid was stirred continuously without any appreciable change during the time that we watched. And to the right of the vat are some drums containing cheese that is undergoing some kind of draining/hardening process…the floor below them was collecting the run-off. Mmm — Rivella, anyone?

The more impressive part of the factory, in my opinion, was the cellar, which consisted of several rows like this one.

Jeeze Louise, that's a lotta cheese

One member of our group had a Rick Steves guidebook, which advised us that a highlight of this factory tour was seeing a robot moving up and down the rows, “lovingly flipping and rubbing the cheese.” Well, naturally this phrasing conjured up all kinds of fantastic notions in our heads (mine, at least) so that when we did see this robot doing its thing, we (I?) were struck by its disappointing lack of anthropomorphic qualities. It is an impressive system, for sure, but I think Rick Steves’ ghostwriter (surely he doesn’t actually author all his books?) suffered from a wee attack of hyperbole when writing that particular description.

Happily, the weather cleared up completely during our tour, so afterwards we hit the Chemin de Gruyère, which is a famous hike in Switzerland, also known as the “Chocolate and Cheese Trail.” After about an hour of gorgeous views like this one…

…we arrived at Maison Cailler, in the lovely little town of Broc.

Isn't it just how a chocolate factory should look?

Cailler factory backdrop (complete with stylish European ladies)

By the time we arrived at the factory, we were sweaty and had rediscovered our appetites. It was shortly after four, and though the factory was supposed to be open until six, we were advised that there were already too many groups in queue; they were very sorry, but they could not admit us. Luckily, two other Canadians in our group (one of whom hails from Montreal) were able to use their French to wheedle the chocolate factory agent into a concession: “fine, but you are the last group we are letting in.” Whew! We were happy and grateful, and not even bothered by the fact that we’d have to wait an hour and a half before our tour (tip: it’s probably best not to come here on a partially rainy Sunday!).

The wait was well worth it. This factory’s entrance fee was 10CHF, and the value for money was pretty incredible. The first part of the tour consisted of a 20-minute walk through different rooms that, using audio recordings and impressive moving visual displays, educated us about the history of chocolate in general and the Cailler brand in particular (Fact: Cailler is owned by Nestle, that giant Swiss conglomerate also familiar to you North Americans). I haven’t been to Disneyland, but I’m confident in my assessment that this is the type of production that you find there.

Next, we wandered through a section that was more like a chocolate museum. Some highlights:

I think it would help if I could stick my head in one of these whenever I feel sad.

Many posters like this one gave reasons that one should eat chocolate. However, I wonder about their inclusion of the mirror (in which you can see my legs reflected). Is this a subtle way of reminding people to limit themselves?

I cannot express how much I love this -- video surveillance of the room where the "secret recipes" are kept.

Finally, we passed by part of an automated assembly line — Stelian was impressed by its robotic components, including an arm that picked up the pieces at lightning speed.

We got to sample the finished product of this line, and I thought, well, that was a pretty complete tour. We passed through a hall where you could leave comments (and where other people’s were tacked on the wall) which was, for me, a definite indicator that it was over. I was happy and satisfied. But then we walked into the room. It was a large room containing trays of every kind of chocolate that Cailler makes, and you could stay as long as you want and eat as much as you wanted — the only rule was that you couldn’t leave the room with chocolate in hand. I’m sorry that I was too awestruck to take any pictures of this. I ate a few samples and then forced myself to leave, but some of our friends stayed for a while longer and certainly got their money’s worth.

This is why I’m falling more and more in love with the French part of  Switzerland: they have a wonderful sense of humour (clearly, they wanted you to think the tour was over before the hitting you with the grand finale. Oh, and there was a fat mirror outside the factory exit :)), they offer such delicious food, and their scenery is all yeah, and I don’t even have to try to look this good.

In addition to all this, I’ve come out of this weekend with my eye on a new dream job.

Come on — who wouldn’t want to work at the Chocolate Center of Excellence? French Switzerland, once again,  je t’aime.

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Ins Kino (At the movies)

This past weekend we went to see a movie. It was the first time we have done so since arriving in Zürich. Six months is quite a long stretch for us to go without visiting a theatre (for those who don’t know, Stelian and I met in one, and watching movies was a fairly regular pastime of ours in Canada). But habits like these can fall away easily in a new environment…with all of the things I’ve had to learn and think about these months, it simply didn’t occur to me to go to the cinema, until a friend of ours suggested it as a weekend activity.

There are a few differences worth noting between the movie-going experience in North America and here in Zürich. First of all, as I’ve come to expect from a Swiss establishment, the building was spotless — there was nary a stray kernel of popcorn, and the floor was entirely devoid of that glutinous someone’s-spilled-their-drink-here feeling. Somehow the place managed to not even smell like popcorn, though the yellow stuff was of course being vended. Secondly, seats were assigned. We’d been advised by others to buy our tickets in advance, rather than right before the show, and when we did that we were shown a seating chart and asked if the assigned seats were agreeable to us. I can’t decide if this system is necessary or not, but we ended up with good seats without having to do the usual “well, where do you prefer to sit?” routine with our friend. And thirdly, there was an intermission. That’s right — halfway through, the film was switched off without warning, and people started filing out to use the washroom or buy more snacks. I feel that this is typical praktisch behaviour on the part of the Swiss, even though the filmmaker might declare it a travesty (I am pretty sure that they stop for intermission without too much regard for the flow of the story).

The biggest boon to seeing a  movie here, however, is that there is language learning built into the deal. Since many of the movies being shown here are from the US, and since Switzerland has four official languages, you can get a variety of different things happening when you go to see a movie: original language with subtitles, voice-over with subtitles, voice-over without subtitles. A simple code is used in the newspaper and online listings: the language that the film is being shown in is indicated by a capital letter, and the subtitles are listed in lower-case. So, for example, the movie we went to see was E/d/f — it played in English, with both German and French subtitles running along the bottom of the screen.To me, it was very fun (and educational) to be able to listen to everything in English while simultaneously reading in German. I have to admit that the movie we saw wasn’t high Art: it was The Hangover 2 (not my choice, but I was outvoted).  The great thing about it, though, was that in contrast to the stiff sort of language that our German lesson book teaches us (“How are you?” “I am well.” “The weather today is fine, isn’t it?” “Yes, and I am soon going on vacation.”) I picked up a lot of casual, everyday sayings that may serve me equally well (things like “we are so lost” and “this is going to be fun”).

So, perhaps we’ll consider going to the movies more often a worthwhile investment. A movie ticket in Zurich costs about 18 francs, which probably sounds very steep to you North Americans, but to someone getting accustomed to how much things cost in Switzerland, it actually seems not so bad (and what is a ticket in Canada these days anyway — $12 or $13 by now?). Besides, isn’t learning how to say “I woke up in Bangkok and I can’t remember anything and your brother is missing and we’ve somehow acquired a monkey” pretty much priceless?