Chronicles of a writer abroad


A cell phone hang-up

Hi, all. My long absence (in case it was noticed by any of you) was due to a cold that really knocked me out last week. But I’m up again, and I’m back with a bit of a rant.

This has to do with cell phones. It could get virulent. You’ve been warned: this content may not be suitable for your Siri.

First, a little backstory. Like many other teenagers of the time, I spent most of the ’90s with a phone receiver glued to my ear (not literally, though I might have wished for that at the time, to reduce neck strain). I talked to friends for hours upon hours about everything and nothing. I did my homework on the phone. I listened to music through the phones of my friends. I watched TV on the phone with a friend watching the same show, both of us silent except when we giggled along with the laugh track. Yes, this was a complete and utter waste of telecommunications resources.

Perhaps this is why I no longer care to talk on the phone. After all, I logged more phone conversation-time in the space of a few years than anyone probably should in their entire life.

I like e-mail; it suits me as a person who loves the written word, and I appreciate the opportunity to edit my words before they are transmitted. I understand that some people are uncomfortable with e-mail and feel much more like themselves on the phone, so I try to balance my needs and those of others. But there is a type of e-mail/phone clash that annoys the heck out of me and is, to my mind, completely unnecessary.

The situation might go something like this. A friend and I are planning to meet for coffee. We make this plan over e-mail: I will meet you at such-and-such place at such-and-such time.  I am a reliable person, so my friend has no reason to believe I will not be there when I say I will. Yet, if they happen to send me a confirmation text hours before (“we’re still on, right?”) on my phone and I fail to reply, they might see this as a reason not to show up.

Fair readers, we have come to the heart of the rant. Why must I be sentenced to carrying a phone around with me everywhere I go, vigilantly responding to its every vibration? This makes me feel as though I am a prisoner on parole, or some kind of professional on call. Why is you must not have gotten my text from a few hours ago a fair accusation to lob at someone? When did not being glued to your phone become synonymous with being unreliable? I must have missed something. Do we have a new social contract provided by Verizon Wireless?

I know people love their iPhones, their Androids, their Blackberries, und so weiter. But I have none of these: I own, instead, what is known in Switzerland as a “budget Handy.” It is pre-paid and wonderfully old-fashioned. It does nothing but voice calls and text messages, and I’m not so good at ministering to its need to be charged. Sometimes it’ll languish in my handbag or coat pocket for a couple of days before I’ll bother to check if it’s conscious, battery-wise, or if I’ve missed any calls. (I know, I’m never going to be popular this way. I’m entirely okay with that).

There are a few other reasons that I dislike cell phones. In Canada, when I could understand what people were saying, I often had to listen to incredibly inane conversations during long commutes to school or work. These conversations were as boring as the ones I used to have in the privacy of my home (“Oh…you painted your nails? Purple? Ohh….”), but they were unignorable  to a whole busload of people instead of  just one family (er, sorry about that, guys). I also fear the degeneration of language that is taking place as a result of texting (u no wat i mean?). Finally, cell phone companies are, to my mind, some of the worst corporate offenders out there (me, to Bell last fall: “I’m leaving the country, so I’m gonna need to break my contract.” Bell, to me: “But we expect your revenue. So you still have to pay us.” Me: “Yes, I’m sure you’d be destitute without my revenue, you weasels.”).

Okay, this has gone on long enough. I think it’s clear that I’m taking a stand here. I understand that the arguments I’ve outlined will make me seem like a Luddite or a 99 year-old, or both. But let me say, in closing, that I have found one brilliant use* for my cell phone, which does not depend on its being charged or on a contract. Outside of one of the supermarkets that I frequent, there is commonly some group or other trying to raise money or convert me to their religion or otherwise persuade me to do something. I don’t like to donate money on the street, and I’m not generally in the market for new dogma, so I want to avoid these people. It can be hard to deflect them, though, when I can’t understand what they’re saying in rapid-fire Swiss German. But if I have a cell phone held to my ear, they are magically repelled. I can look directly at these people and even dare to smile without being harassed by them, and that’s beautiful.

*I concede that no-frills cell phones are also useful for situations requiring rescue, grocery-clarification-in-supermarket conversations, and finding people you’re trying to meet in large, crowded places.

I look forward to hearing how wrong I am in the comments. Bring on the dissent!



Having beef with having beef, and other distractions

Salut! I don’t know about your parts of the world, but it’s getting cold here — we’ve had some days lately when the cold has caused me to gasp as I go outside. Last year, we saw hardly any snow in Zürich — though we arrived on January 2nd, it was too mild a winter for snow to fall often or accumulate. Looks like this year might be different, though. And while I don’t look forward to it getting much colder, I do think the city would look beautiful in a coat of white…

Here is a sundry list of things — apart from the ongoing quest to write a perfect (or at least publishable) short story — that have been keeping me occupied and/or entertained, the past few weeks:

  • Going ice skating for the first time in 8 or 9 years;
  • Attending a surprise birthday party (love these, so long as I’m not on the receiving end);
  • Debating with a group of friends about where to spend Christmas — looks like it will be in the highest city in Europe;
  • Wondering when the Christmas lights strung up around the city and my neighbourhood will actually be turned on;
  • Trying new varieties of cookies that have appeared in the stores for Christmas (so far, they all taste disappointingly like marzipan);
  • Discovering Nabokov. It seems unbelievable that I haven’t read this author before now, and I sense him becoming my new favourite, at least for the time being. We’re also birthday buddies (to the extent that you can be birthday buddies with someone who had already died by the time you were born);
  • Replenishing my iron stores. As alluded to earlier, a few weeks ago, I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia. The doctor asked if I hadn’t been feeling tired. I said that I hadn’t especially, but that running has been difficult for a number of months. She said she was surprised that I’d been able to run very far, given my levels. I was told it was imperative that I receive iron infusions, so I did — two sessions with an IV bag dripping a rust-coloured substance into my veins. It’s my hope that this will improve my running situation. It’s equal parts frustrating and relieving to think that this was the cause of my miserable summer training season in which I pushed myself continually but never saw any improvement in speed or stamina. Now that I’ve done the research, I know that iron-deficiency anemia commonly occurs among female long-distance runners, especially those (like me) who eschew red meat.
  • So, I’ve been Thinking About Eating Beef. My iron levels should have been brought to normal by now, but in order to maintain them (if I continue to run, which I will) I’ve been ordered by my Swiss doctor to eat red meat 2-3 times per week. This is something I’ve avoided pretty much entirely in the past due to my ethical leanings towards vegetarianism and my general dislike of the taste of beef – in other words, I “have beef” with beef. It’s true that there are plant-based sources of iron, but they are not nearly as effective or available to the body as animal-based sources (there are also iron supplements, but these are known to have a number of undesirable side effects). So, sadly I’m forced to compromise my ethics and tastes in order to improve my health. I know, I know: classic first-world problem. Stelian, of course, was not at all sad to hear that we’d be adding more red-meat recipes to our repertoire. If you have good recipes of this kind, I’d appreciate it if you’d send them my way!

What’s new and exciting in your world?


A November hike

Most people in Switzerland have long since declared the hiking season vorbei. I was generally in this camp as well: since you can’t be sure when winter hits the mountains, it seems risky to travel several hours only to find that your planned route is snowed-out. However, a friend of ours was visiting from Canada last week and we wanted to show her the beauty of the Swiss mountains, so on Sunday four of us headed to Braunwald, a couple of hours southeast of Zürich.

To my surprise, this ended up being one of the most enjoyable hikes I’ve done in Switzerland so far. The weather was beautiful; strangely, it was warmer at 1600 meters above sea level (which is where we got off a gondola to begin the hike) and above than it was back in the city — I attribute this to the Föhn.  The sun was not consistent, but we were never cold, and at some point when it was shining strongly, people were stripped down to their t-shirts or wicking layers, and it was hard to believe that it wasn’t a summer day. We had beautiful views of the Alps throughout our trek on the aptly-named panoramaweg, and it was a great way to really and truly close the hiking season.

And now, let’s let the pictures do the talking, shall we? 🙂

Can you spot the glacier?

Typical single-file goat path often encountered in the mountains

Alpine lake

Our friend D taking in the view

It doesn't get much more rustic than this

They really mean it when they call this place a hiker's paradise


Okay, I’ll explain this last one. It is my post-hike dinner: a vol-au-vent filled with mushroom ragout, spaetzle (German egg noodles), brussels sprouts, red cabbage cooked in wine and topped with steamed chestnuts, and a poached pear and grapes. I obtained this plate of deliciousness at a Zürich restaurant specializing in sausages and German-style potato salad, which is what my fellow diners ordered. I did not envy them their meats at all, though they seemed to enjoy them, and they probably do not envy me my iron-deficiency anemia (but that’s a topic for another post).

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Prodigious Paris

Ah, beautiful Par-ee.

Okay, yes, I’m pulling your leg. That is not really Paris, except insofar as EuroDisney’s theme park is called “Disneyland Paris,” despite being situated in a suburb a 40-minute train ride away.

The park is where we spent our first full day in France. We joined friends from Germany to help celebrate one of their birthdays (as a bonus, the weekend also fell close to Stelian’s birthday). As soon as we entered the park, our friends knew where everything was, which I found strange, because I didn’t think any of them had visited this park before. It was then that one of them informed me that all Magical Kingdoms have the same layout. For some reason, the cookie-cutter quality of this creeps me out. I also learned that because the particular park we visited is in Europe, and has to compete with real châteaux, its crowning castle (pictured above) is larger than the ones in Orlando or Anaheim.

Our day there was enjoyable. We rode a lot of rollercoasters, which sadly I have become quite intolerant of since my teenage years (read: while on the ride, I apply a Vulcan death-grip to the handles, squeeze my eyes shut and count the seconds until it’s over). But was the visit magical? Well, it was interesting for Stelian and me to reconcile the reality of a Disney theme park with our respective childhood conceptions of it. As a child, I never had any kind of fetish for the parks, or any real desire to visit them, but I did imagine Disneyland as a place where children went to be treated like little kings or queens and to frolic with costumed characters. Stelian recalls having a book about the Disney parks as a child, and thinking of them as an enchanted place that he’d never be able to visit.

But I think I can tell the truth here: there’s nothing magical about the crowds, the long lines, the many kids who are crashing from sugar or over-excitement, the endless processed food and cheap souvenirs being proffered at every turn. Perhaps the aura of magic still somehow materializes for the children who have been dreaming of visiting for so long. I hope so, but I fear not. And this has caused an interesting question to linger in my mind: Is it sometimes better not to visit a place about which you have developed a beautiful, magical dream?

Anyway, the next day we went to real Paris. We’d visited the city once before, but this time we stayed in Montmartre, a part we hadn’t visited on our first jaunt. Montmartre is home to this:

And also this, which is particularly beautiful at night when it’s not mobbed by other tourists (and you can go inside then too):

Montmartre perches above the rest of Paris on the right bank, and the Sacre Coeur (pictured above) is its crowning jewel. This is also the former hangout of Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, and other great artists. In fact, one of the highlights of my trip was this:

I love Dali’s imagination and symbolism, and Espace Dali, a gallery in Montmartre devoted to him, offered plenty of it, from his more classic works:

To more obscure works like this:

Not to mention a pretty cool gift shop where I nearly bought surrealist melting salt-and-pepper shakers, before stopping to question whether I could handle having to look at them all the time.

Our time in Paris proper was short (just two partial days and one night), but still long enough to squeeze in good art, a couple of good salads (I don’t usually order main-course salads, except in France, because they do them so well), and a good visit with an old friend who happened to be in the city. For me, the magic of Paris lies in the quiet interstices of the city’s many hyped-up and “magical” sights, and I’m okay with that.


Fall: a moveable feast

Happy November!

Fall is and always has been my favourite season, so I was eager to see it descend upon my new city. And Zürich has not disappointed me with its autumnal display – the city is, in my opinion, more picture-perfect and lovely now than ever.

To begin with, most days there is wicked fog coming off the lake, fog that engulfs even the North end of the city, where we live. Since living in Vancouver, itself a prolific generator of the misty stuff, I have come to consider heavy fog a necessary ingredient in the atmosphere of fall. Here in Zürich, it lends a romantic feel as it partially shrouds the city’s church steeples and gabled roofs.

View from ETH's Polyterrasse

The trees are looking great as well. As October was ticking along and everything was still green, I became a little concerned that the leaves wouldn’t turn the vibrant colours we’re used to in Canada, and would instead merely just go brown and fall off overnight. As you can see here, my fears were unfounded:

As it turns out, fall is also a great time to be a book lover in Zürich. This past weekend, the city hosted its first-ever book festival. Called Zürich Liest (Zürich reads), most of its events were German-language ones. One major exception to this, though was an English-language reading by South African author J.M. Coetzee given on Friday evening. I’d been looking forward to this ever since I learned about it several weeks before (just in time to snag a couple standing-room-only tickets for Stelian and I).

I was introduced to Coetzee’s book Disgrace when it appeared on the reading list of Stelian’s first-year university English class, years ago. At that time, Coetzee was still a year away from winning his Nobel Prize, and I’d never heard of him. Stelian disliked the book, but I decided to give it a go anyway. I’m glad of that, because in the years since, I’ve re-read it countless times, and I now count it among my favourites. It’s not a happy book, dealing as it does with brutality in post-apartheid South Africa. Each time I read it, it hits me over the head again – the sadness and poignancy of its subject, and particularly its ending, stand up to many a read. I also read it again and again because it is beautifully written – Coetzee’s signature style is sparse and crisp, and each of his words feels very carefully chosen.

Coetzee is also known for his reclusiveness and his dislike of interviews – to me it felt  serendipitous, therefore, that his one European appearance this year should have been in Zürich. Who knows how or why he chose our city – perhaps it was because he speaks at least a modicum of German, as he demonstrated in his greeting to the crowd, which was seated on the ground floor and standing on the second-floor atrium balcony of Zurich’s Stadthaus. Perhaps he has people to visit in the area. Whatever the reason, I felt very lucky.

Because of Coetzee’s preferences, the reading was different from others that I’ve been to. Usually, a portion of the evening is allocated for the author to answer questions and discuss his or her work. Instead, Coetzee treated us to a 45-minute reading of a piece called “The Old Woman and the Cats.” The story centered on a middle-aged man’s visit to his elderly mother who lives in the country and has decided to feed and house an incompetent person from a nearby village, as well as a large number of feral cats. The argument that the son and his mother have about how best to deal with the cats – is taking them all in and feeding them really the right response? – spans several days and touches upon the faces, souls and fates of humans and felines alike. It was a stunning piece made even more stunning by the 71-year-old author’s voice, which was soft and beautifully cadenced. As I said before: a very fortunate experience.

On Saturday, I attended a special event at Zurich’s one English bookstore, Orell Fuessli. The event, timed to coincide with the book festival and Hallowe’en, was called “Welcome to the Night Circus,” the theme inspired by a newly-released book by author Erin Morgenstern. In addition to a gajillion copies of the book, the store had much on offer, including a reading of a spooky Roald Dahl story, a showing of a horror movie, hired contortionists and magicians, fun costumes donned by all of the staff members, and a huge amount of delicious free food. And yet it was not at all mobbed with people, as such an event would have been in Canada. Switzerland continues to perplex me in certain ways…

So, these have been  beautiful days, and I have been savouring them. Pretty soon these pretty leaves will be sodden, rotting piles on the sidewalk, but for now they’re (mostly) hanging on.

For those wondering about Paris, please stay tuned for the next entry!