Chronicles of a writer abroad


Odds and ends

We went on a beautiful hike this past Sunday. It started with an hour-long train trip to Luzern. From there, we set sail for an hour-long ferry ride down Lake Luzern, which deposited us at the Rigi-Bahn, a steep and very scenic ride up what has been dubbed the “Queen of the Mountains.” After we disembarked and ate lunch, we began a four-hour hike that took us through dense forest, along ridges offering jaw-dropping views of mountains, far-away cities and the lake, and through pastures filled with cud-chewing cows.

Okay, so show us the pictures already!

Well, um. Here’s the thing. Normally I love to pepper these boring narratives of mine with photos, but on this day…I forgot to bring my camera along.

I know. I know. I tried to not rue the mistake as, from the boat, I saw a beautiful castle nestled in the trees high above the emerald waters of the lake, or as I saw the lake shining  from high up on the mountain, and especially as I espied a baby cow perfectly framed against a backdrop of powdery mountains.


My only consolation is that I enjoyed this area so much that I plan on taking future visitors to Switzerland there, and I will redeem my chance to photograph it in all its glory at that time.

I’ve just submitted finished submitting work for two writing deadlines (one with my critique group and the other relating to a workshop I’m attending in early October), so being a little burned out, especially by writing, is my excuse for not blogging yet this week. A summary of some things that have happened since my last post:

On Saturday I saw the Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris,” which I recommend, especially to writers, lovers of Paris, and those who like journeys into the past and the magic of nostalgia. I went in knowing very little about the film, and I think this is probably the best way to watch it, so if you haven’t watched it yet I won’t spoil it for you by saying any more!

On Monday (in addition to writing work) I spent a chunk of my day watching an on-demand version of the Layton funeral, which I thought was beautifully done but so, so sad. The poem that Olivia Chow chose to be read for Jack, e.e. cummings’ “I Carry Your Heart With Me” was perfect — and hearing it in French only deepened my love for it. As I watched, I got to thinking about how in 2011, there has been a very highly-publicized wedding (that of William and Kate) and now a very highly-publicized funeral. In 2010, I was involved in two such events (a wedding and a funeral) on a very personal level, so I know that these events are emotionally intense enough without the additional stress of millions watching. So while I am a gawker who can’t help herself, I also feel a great deal of empathy for Jack Layton’s family — imagine having to hold up under so much attention and scrutiny! This is a reality that public figures and their loved ones have to accept, though, I suppose.

And that about brings us up to speed. Oh, a couple more little things: today I found an underground (literally) gourmet store that sells cardamom pods and tahini, both of which I have been on a quest to find since arriving in Zürich. Also, I started my new adjusted running regimen, and as I predicted, it’s so much more enjoyable now that the pressure’s off…and I guess the temperature being 10 degrees or so less than last week is a help, too.

Bis bald! (Be back soon!)



Beware the Föhn

A warm wind blew into the room as we sat in German class today. “Here is the Föhn,” our teacher advised.

Ah, the Föhn– I’d read about this phenomenon before coming to Switzerland. A beguiling aura of mystery and superstition surrounded it. I was curious to know more, and luckily our teacher can be convinced to prattle on in English about matters culturally related to Switzerland. Through him, and subsequent internet research, I have learned the following.

The word Föhn, in German, means hairdryer – and it thus serves as a nice metaphor for the hot air that blows in regions north of the Alps at certain times during the spring and fall. This air can cause wildfires, spur rapid changes in temperature, and bring on anxiety or migraines in certain people. While it brings a welcome increase in visibility, there are anecdotal accounts of it triggering psychosis, and researchers have documented increases in accidents and suicides during its active periods. Our German teacher explained that Innsbruck (a lovely resort town in Austria that Stelian and I visited five years ago) is the heimatstadt or hometown of the Föhn — they are particularly affected by it, he said, due to their proximity to the Alps, and so when the winds are blowing, they cancel exams for students, as well as all but the most urgent surgical procedures.

Before I’d ever heard of the Föhn, I heard similar reports of weird behaviour and wariness relating to the Santa Ana winds in California, but I’d always assumed that this was mostly just folklore; something that people legendize and enjoy getting a little spooked by.

“Also, das ist ein bisschen…superstitious, oder?” I asked our teacher, in my quality Denglish (Deutsch + English).

“Nein, das ist nicht aberglaublich,” he replied. “It’s quite real.”

So, dear family and friends, the next time you are blowdrying your hair, think of us, caught in the blast from a large-scale version of your seemingly innocuous appliance…our hair becoming perilously overdried and our fortunes “blowin’ in the wind.”


Know when to fold ’em

I am a person who likes to achieve their goals. Who usually operates with a “when I say I’mma do something, I do it” mentality.

But at the same time, I understand that sometimes your aims overshoot your means and you have to make concessions in order to “know your limit and play within it.” You have to take to heart the ineffable wisdom of Kenny Rodgers when he urges you to “know when to fold ’em…know when to walk away, know when to run.”

Or not run. Not as much, anyway.

Things came to a head in my marathon training this week. It was the morning of what would be, by its full unfolding, a 33 degree day. Still slightly jetlagged, I’d gotten up at as early an hour as I could stomach to try to avoid the strong sun during my long run — but by two hours in, the sun was strong, and the day oppressively hot. I was trying to ration the one litre of water that my hydration belt carries, knowing that it wasn’t good to be feeling so thirsty and that I should have found a way to bring more fluid. And to make things even more unpleasant, there was a painful popping sensation in my left hip with each stride of my left leg. As I endured another hour like this, I considered my motives, and the marathon training season so far. It’s been, to select just one word, joyless. The heat (which I do not tolerate well) has been unrelenting, the new terrain has been challenging, the distances have been…just too far for anything close to comfort.

I went home and thought some more. I hobbled around, nursing my hip, which did not have any serious injury, just an annoying and unpleasant condition called “snapping hip syndrome,” wherein the inflamed iliotibial band snags on a bony structure in the hip at each step, producing the snapping or popping feeling. As I type this, it’s already gotten much better, but it was a message from my legs – too much, too soon. We’re not ready.

I chose to listen to them, and I’ve now downgraded my entry in the Amsterdam marathon to the half-marathon distance. My revised plan is to run that race as well as I can, which will provide a solid base for training for and running the Zürich marathon in April.

If I want to, that is. From time to time I have to remind myself that running, in addition to being something that I do to stay healthy, is something that I have really enjoyed in the past, and that I want to continue enjoying — I don’t want to burn out, as I feel myself doing. Furthermore, there’s no need to pretend that anything more than my pride hinges on me having to put off running my second marathon. At this point, I’ll happily take a reduction in pride if it means I no longer have to lope through long runs like an injured animal crossing the fiery Sahara.

So there you have it. This grasshopper will be exercising patience…and, I hope and suspect, rediscovering the joy of this thing as I resume training at a more civil pace.


Catching up

We’re back from our whirlwind trip to Canada. I planned to offer you some highlights today, but that was before I realized that essentially the whole trip was a highlight. I/we got to visit with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and some old friends too. Excellent meals were consumed with everyone we met. We spent time by the ocean, in the frenetic downtown cores of Vancouver and Toronto, and in the peaceful oases of Sidney, Orangeville, and Elora.

We also shopped until we dropped. Stelian and I hadn’t done any real clothes shopping since leaving Canada at the beginning of the year, so part of our visit was spent in marathon shoes-jeans-shirts-running-stuff shopping sessions. And we each bought a new laptop computer, so once mine’s fully set up, I can retire this clunky, five-years-old-and-missing-more-than-one-key monstrosity on which I’ve been writing.

I also found time to pop into my favourite Vancouver used bookstore in order to stockpile some English-language fiction:

Going to the grocery store was fun, too — 2 and 4 litre jugs of milk look gigantic to me now. I discovered that I no longer really care for this oatmeal I was pining for in the early days — that’s a happy thing, because it means the version that I’ve learned to make here is superior. But my taste for this had not changed:

That’s 2 oz of bliss right there. Even though we have some pretty good chocolate here in Switzerland, I’m glad I brought a bar of this home to savour — it brings back fond memories of Vancouver. In fact, I was tempted to bring home more epicurean souvenirs, but I’m glad I didn’t, since our bags, emptied of chocolate gifts but newly laden with clothing and books, just squeaked under the weight allowance.

While I expected that being in Canada again after a significant chunk of time away might be strange or difficult, I found that it wasn’t at all — it so easy to fall back into speaking English all the time and to unconsciously operate within the framework of the customs and norms that I grew up with. One novel thing was how much I was scandalized by dirt and garbage — in the TTC, for example, and generally around downtown areas. I forgot how much gum you see everywhere on the ground, and evidently Canada doesn’t polish its garbage cans the way the Swiss do :). Additionally, after a delicious Greek-food birthday dinner on the Danforth in Toronto, I took a stroll towards Yonge St. and was surprised to see that the bridge over the Don Valley near my high school has been suicide-proofed. It’s been years since I crossed this bridge — how long ago did this happen?

Coming back to Zürich also felt familiar and homey. Unlike the other airports and cities we’d visited, it was nice to pick up our baggage quickly, hop on a train and be home in a matter of minutes. Things are smaller-scale and less complicated here, which I appreciate. The unfortunate thing is that we’ve returned in the middle of another relentless and seemingly interminable heat wave, but we made the made the most of it yesterday, joining the masses on the shores of Lake Zürich for a swim, and afterwards, a round of the dangerous-but-addictive card game that we picked up in Ontario. I do hope it will cool down soon, since we need to catch up on sleep, running, and work, all of which become more difficult in this kind of heat.

Also, now that I’m back in Zürich, Canadian news is once again grabbing my attention, with Jack Layton’s obituary headlining every Canuck news outlet this afternoon (morning, I guess, for those of you who are over there). This news came as a fairly big shock to me: though I noted in my last post about this that Jack looked very ill, I didn’t expect him to be gone in under a month. Very sad for his family, and another reminder of how quickly fortunes change; how incredibly fleeting things can be. But of course his last message to Canadians (in the form of a letter released today) was an uplifting one. It seems fitting to end on this:

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

Amen, Jack.

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Looking forward

I will offer two excuses for my silence this week. The first is that I’m not really living in the present moment — in defiance of the advice regularly proffered by healthy-mind gurus, I’m living life looking forward to my trip next week — I just can’t wait to see my family members on the West Coast, and also enjoy the region’s food and scenery. Then I get to fly to Ontario a few days later and do it all again.

The second excuse is that I’ve snagged a copy of Freedom from my library, and I’m trying to race through it now so that I don’t have to lug it along with me on my travels. After all, it would be unwise to stuff my luggage with 500+ page books when I could instead fill it with Swiss chocolate, no? 🙂

Hope you have an excellent weekend!


A Feiertag

Today is a national holiday (Feiertag in German) in Switzerland. Swiss National Day, as we Anglophones call it, commemorates the signing of the Federal Charter in 1291, which  confederated Switzerland’s first three cantons.

Stelian has the day off work, which is nice…and somewhat lucky. In Switzerland, the concept of “in lieu days” doesn’t exist, so if August 1st falls on a Saturday or Sunday, there is no day off work. So we took advantage of the free day and headed for the lake in the afternoon. Along the way, we found that Starbucks was offering a free iced tea when you made it yourself (the baristas actually handed you the measuring/shaker cup and told you the steps to follow to your desired drink — thankfully, my lemon passion iced tea turned out well even though the instructions were in Swiss German). I think this freebie was in recognition of the holiday, though it wasn’t really clear (nothing can be really clear when Schwiizertüütsch is involved).

Afterwards, we visited the lake and found that the crowds lining it were not really larger than that of an average nice Sunday. The rest of the city actually seems pretty quiet. I have the feeling that many people are on the wanderwegs today, or otherwise out-of-town.

A few other quick observations:

  • There is a special bread that accompanies this holiday — unsurprising since every Swiss holiday has a specially named and/or shaped cake to go along with it. This bread is called augustweggen, and it cleverly resembles a Swiss flag with the cross in the middle.
  • The Swiss seem to be crazy about fireworks for this holiday, with many offered for sale in recent weeks. This strikes me as funny given that the Swiss generally abhor noise, especially in the evening, as well as showiness and flashiness — things they generally associate with the U.S.A. Anyway, I guess our cats will spend the later part of the evening cowering under the bed — some early deployments have already sent them skittering off nervously.
  • A sort of anti-invitation to the party arrived in the mail just days before the holiday, in the form of a flyer from the Swiss People’s Party (which, as you might recall from previous mentions, has the largest number of seats in the National Council) with a lovely image of a Swiss flag being trod upon by some heavy, foreign black boots, and a reminder that “mass immigration” is out of control in Switzerland and that August 1 is a good time to be thinking about how to stop it.

I think my sentiments about Swiss National Day can be summarized with this: I feel as though I’m at the birthday party of some cool and glamorous girl from my high school. She wouldn’t have thought of inviting me, but her mother forced her to. So I get to walk around and admire her beautiful house and drink the punch and eat the excellent food. As I’m trying to get closer so that I can wish her a happy birthday, I hear her not-so-softly whispering about all the people that she wishes weren’t even at the party. So I decide that maybe it’s pointless to try to make us be friends, at least at this point. But hey, I can still have a good time at her party, along with some other people who weren’t invited.

Happy August to you all, and Happy BC/Simcoe Day to my dear British Columbians and Ontario-dwellers!