Chronicles of a writer abroad

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Happy New Year

I hope 2011 has been good to you. For Stelian and me, it has been a mix of many things: happiness, stress, wonder, sadness, challenge, immense beauty, and discovery. There is a lot to reflect on, especially as our one year anniversary of living in Switzerland nears. I will be back with some sort of highlight post on that date.

In the meantime, I hope you have fun ringing in the New Year. Are you making any resolutions? I’m making all the usual ones — eat more healthily (salads for lunch! it’s got to happen!), exercise more regularly (maybe this year I can revive my second-marathon goal?) and work harder than ever before (author Ray Bradbury claims that the first million words one writes in fiction don’t count, so I’ve got…let’s see…a lot more work to do). I’m excited to tackle all of it.

 Prosit Neujahr!



City of (Christmas) Light

As promised, I’m providing some photos of Zürich decked out in its Christmas finery. I am not at all skilled at taking nighttime photos, but please try to enjoy these anyway — I endured painfully cold fingers in order to get them! Most of the photos are from the city’s old town and the ultra-trendy Bahnhofstrasse.

Click on one to view larger/scroll through:

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Davos-Christmas recap

In stark contrast to the rainy and not at all white city we’d left behind, Davos had snow, and lots of it.

So much snow, in fact, that when we arrived on Christmas Eve, our day’s plans were soon foiled. We were traveling as a group of three couples, and we’d agreed not to ski on this weekend but to sled and hike instead. So we headed to Davos’ sledding trail soon after our arrival. I didn’t know this to be possible, but it turns out that when there is too much powdery snow on a not-very-steep sledding trail, your two-railed means of transportation will become ornery and refuse to budge. I’m afraid I wasn’t the most assiduous photo-taker this weekend, mostly because the cold made me unwilling to repeatedly remove my gloves, but one of the two couples we went with posted some great photos on their blog — including one of us looking somewhat dejected as we trudged along the snow-covered sledding track on this first day.

But Christmas Eve certainly wasn’t a complete bust. Our sled-walk down the mountain was still scenic and enjoyable, and after we handed our sleds back to the guy who had tried to warn us that “it’s pretty slow today,” we went for a walk along the river, and then took the funicular back up the Schatzalp to have dinner at its panoramic restaurant. And this was perfectly klein aber fein: not only was the food exquisite in taste, but also in presentation — before we dug into them, most of our plates were as fancy and delicate-looking as the hats worn at this spring’s Royal Wedding. (An aside, and my only complaint: it is common in Switzerland to use a type of savory foam in plating at nice restaurants. I find this to be not appetizing, but rather off-putting).

Christmas Day dawned sunny and beautiful, and we hatched a plan to go to a steeper and longer sledding run on Rinerhorn, a mountain a 10-minute bus ride away. We were a little wary, given the previous day’s experience, but this trail was nicely groomed, and we were soon engaged in the type of fast, exhilarating sledding we’d been hoping to do. The trail was even a little too challenging in some areas, with steep slopes and hairpin turns leading to us careening off the track into snowbanks (luckily, the pillowy snow made this not too painful). We spent the rest of the daylight hours taking the gondola up the mountain and sledding back down, each repetition of this taking about an hour (of course there was a midday break for Alpermagronen and schnitzel, too). We then returned to our hotel to make phone calls and play ping pong, before heading out for a traditional Christmas dinner of Chinese food :). A couple pictures from Christmas Day:

Atop the mountain, preparing to sled down.

A mountain man enjoying the day.

This was an altogether lovely first Swiss Christmas experience, and a great chance to spend time with friends, especially since one of the couples we were with is moving back to Canada tomorrow. I hope your holidays were lovely, too!

P.S. We are returning to Davos in a few weeks for Stelian’s company’s post-conference-deadline ski trip, and I am determined to better photo-document it for you then…


May your Christmas be nice and large

I had big plans for this evening: I was going to walk around and capture Zürich’s Christmas splendour on film. I planned to take pictures of the snow, the lights strung up around the old town, making it sparkle; the people drinking Glühwein, the magic in the air…but then it rained all day, washing the snow away and making everything look dreary and dim. I think that if you live in Canada, you’ve already seen plenty of rainy winter scenes this year, no? So, I still hope to bring you some pictorial European Christmas magic next week — hopefully it will snow again before they take the lights down.

We’re off to Davos on Saturday, but before I go I wanted to wish you all happy holidays, and also leave you with a brief reflection on Swiss versus North American Christmas dining preferences.

Last week, the Coopzeitung that I recently admitted to devouring weekly did a feature article on the North American Christmas meal — the obligatory turkey, or Truthahn, as it is known in German.

According to my hairdresser (one of the few Swiss people whom I interact with on a friendly conversational basis), a traditional Swiss Christmas meal typically consists of raclette served over potatoes and gherkins or fondue chinoise (thin strips of meat immersed in boiling bouillon), so the concept of a large bird as a centrepiece is a foreign one. Indeed, most standard Swiss-sized freezers and ovens cannot comfortably (or at all) accommodate turkeys of the size we’re accustomed to eating, as a friend attempting to make an American-style Thanksgiving dinner in Zürich recently discovered and chronicled on her blog.

It was fun to see the reader responses to the turkey piece come pouring in this week. They ranged from praise: “so schön!” (so nice!) to tones of dismay: “aber das ist ein riesiger Vogel!” (but that is a huge bird!) to, finally, a note of scorn as it was observed that this style of dinner is “nicht klein, aber fein.”

You see, “klein, aber fein” is a commonly-employed and much-loved German expression. I easily located an instance of its use in another part of this week’s newspaper:

It means that something is “small but nice,” and this seems to be a guiding principle of life in Switzerland (milk, for example: highly delicious, but available only in the 1-litre format. Appliances, even apartments: well-constructed, but usually not so large).

So when the North American Christmas meal is deemed “nicht klein, aber fein,” this means that from a Swiss perspective, is “not small, but nice.” And thus a little off, according to their ethos. Perhaps it strikes them as too indulgent. But as someone who has come to appreciate aspects of “klein, aber fein” principle, I have to say that I don’t consider Christmas to be the time or place for it. Maybe North American Christmas traditions are so deeply ingrained in me that I cannot see the folly in them, but I believe Christmas should be a time to splash out. To gather as many loved ones around us as we can. To eat a little irresponsibly for one day; to test the capacity of our ovens. And, finally, to enjoy that “huge bird” for days afterwards (perhaps the Swiss wouldn’t be so horrified if they understood the aim is to have leftovers, and not to consume it all in one meal?).

Anyway, I’d like to wish you — and encourage you, exhort you — to have a Christmas (or other festive winter occasion) that is nice and large — large in love, in laughter, in spirit…and in bird. And I’ll be back from the mountains next week to tell you about our experience having Christmas — er, sorry, Weihnacht — the “klein, aber fein” way.



The seasons, they are a-changin’

Big, fat, beautiful flakes have begun to fall outside of my apartment’s windows. The first official day of winter is a few days away. Christmas is next weekend — can it be true?

All of this reminded me that I still had some fall-related photos kicking around on my memory card. These were taken during a walk along the Limmat river on a beautiful day in November. I hope you enjoy them.

The person who polished those garbage cans above would want you to note how shiny they are.

Hope the beginning of winter is bringing you delight, wherever you live.

P.S. A family member alerted me to an article about how to spend 2 days/nights in Zurich, which ran in Friday’s Toronto Star. See if it doesn’t entice you to come visit (but allow me to assure you that you don’t need to spend as much money as this reporter did in order to have a very nice time here).

P.P.S. A quick and fun game that’s been circling the internet: Which song topped the charts the week you were born? Find  it here. Mine is Joan Jett’s rendition of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” — not bad!


Finding Inspiration in Spoken Word Poetry

It’s a testament to my capricious nature that I’m always proposing new series or features for this blog (and carrying through with just some of them). I feel a need to do it, though, because while I enjoy blogging on the regular, I’m finding that expat life itself no longer provides adequate fodder for frequent entries — I’m pretty accustomed to the life I’m living here by now, so it’s become difficult to pick out things to hold up as strange or noteworthy. And forced entries are not good entries — I was reminded of this gem when it was shared by family members on facebook. That, in short, is what I fear my blog becoming if I try to regularly produce material on my original theme.

But there are so many other things I’d like to talk about. For example, as a person who attempts to do creative work on a daily basis, I’ve become interested in sources of creativity and sources of inspiration.

An obvious way to become inspired as a writer is to read books, and this is indeed  a major source of creative juice for me. I just finished reading Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, and as with any of his books that I’ve finished, it’s left me with a powerful yearning to do what he does: to be able to write so beautifully, and to tell a story so well.

But I’m also interested in becoming inspired by other means. I think music is also important to many writers — I know it is to me, as a novice. I listen to the a wide range of music (though not typically while writing).  What I find really inspires me in a writerly way is rap — I love the wordplay and the rhythms that it contains. It is Rhythm And Poetry, after all.

Not dissimilar to rap is spoken word poetry. This combines my love of poetry (duh), wordplay, rhythm and rhyme, and the chance to hear an author read their own work. I wish I lived in a city where I could see spoken word live, but the internet is the next best thing. In fact, some of the poets that I love the most, I’ve discovered through TED. If you’re at all interested in spoken word, have a gander at the two poets linked below. I’d also be very interested in hearing what inspires you to do your work, whatever your work may be!


Sarah Kay


So geht es – A German-language progress update

When we arrived in Switzerland, one of the things I did in those first few weeks of unending administrative muck was register for the loyalty cards at Switzerland’s two main supermarkets. These programs are pretty good: I get sent “free money” (i.e., coupons for certain amounts of money off in proportion to how much I’ve spent) each month from one of them, and the other one is the kind where you save up your points and redeem them for things later. While registering online, one of them asked me to check a box if I wanted to receive their weekly Zeitung. This word means newspaper, but at the time I thought they meant that I would get a flyer with the week’s specials, which I thought would be useful, so I checked the box for it.

What I end up getting each week is a newspaper of 150 or so pages. It looks like this:

And while it does tell me about new items and sales, it also contains a lot more: comic strips, travel articles, food features, interviews with Swiss people of importance, advice columns and recipes. It’s basically a great free newspaper, especially for a person trying to learn the language. In the beginning, I could understand mere snatches of the interviews (the parts where someone would say something simple like “I like dogs” or “I have two children”), but I eventually progressed to reading the more complex features, and when Stelian’s boss was featured in an article a few months ago, I could read and get the gist of most of it without difficulty. But one thing has always eluded my comprehension, and that is the comic strip. I think it’s because they often tend to use highly idiomatic expressions that I haven’t learned, as well as Swiss German words. But this week only two frames contained text, and I understood both of them.

First frame with words: “What a hectic racket this day has been. I’m glad it’s over.”

Second frame: “Now to enjoy my free time in peace and quiet…”

Har har. Another regular feature is one in which a famous person talks about a dish that they like, what it is, and why they like it. Here’s this week’s:

This is one of the instances in which German becomes truly exasperating. Please take another look at the name of the dish: “Tschechische Weihnachtssuppe” (translation: Czech Christmas soup). I think you’ll agree that the first word is objectionable for its difficult and repetitious consonants (N.B.: if I ever have occasion to pronounce this, I’m gonna say “cha-cha-cha” and hope for the best), the second for its sheer length.

Mark Twain was someone who understood the frustrations and illogicalities of the German language well. A writer buddy of mine recently tipped me off about this excellent 1880 essay of his, entitled “The Awful German Language.” If you are currently a student of this maddening tongue, I suggest you read this in its entirely — it will have you nodding in recognition and howling with laughter. And for those of you not currently experiencing this brand of torture, I offer just a couple of delectable excerpts:

“Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it. So overboard he goes again, to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand.”

And this, my favourite:

“The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the other half at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that? These things are called “separable verbs.” The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance. A favorite one is reiste ab — which means departed. Here is an example which I culled from a novel and reduced to English:

“The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his mother and sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom his adored Gretchen, who, dressed in simple white muslin, with a single tuberose in the ample folds of her rich brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale from the terror and excitement of the past evening, but longing to lay her poor aching head yet once again upon the breast of him whom she loved more dearly than life itself, PARTED.”


So, my learning is coming along, slowly but surely, and it helps when I can commiserate about the language’s difficulties with funny, intelligent people (such as my friends and Mark Twain). It is also imperative that my sense of humour be maintained, so that I can withstand the embarrassments and difficulties of learning the language, as well as the politically incorrect commentary of our class instructor. To put it politely, Herr German Teacher possesses certain old-school notions about gender and racial equality — notions which are insulting to females and people accustomed to multiculturalism. And sadly his views cannot be taken as anomalous. As I’ve noted before, coming up against such attitudes seems to be an inexorable part of life in Switzerland.

But aufwärts, vorwärts (upwards, onwards)! And Happy December (I know –I’m nicht so auf den Ball this month).