Chronicles of a writer abroad


Barcelona Part I: Losing my appetite, feasting my eyes

I went to Barcelona with two main things in mind: food and architecture. Natural scenery, too, as a kind of afterthought: I knew that the city’s port was probably pretty, and we planned to make a day trip to the mountains. But really, the goals were to eat and be wowed by Gaudi’s creations.

I had some nervousness about the eating situation. Friends who’d visited the city told me that in Barcelona, lunch and dinner were late (with restaurants typically opening for lunch around 1 or 1:30, and for dinner around 9 pm). I am a person who considers 7 p.m. a lateish dinner time necessitating a snack several hours beforehand. So we planned to cope by doing as the Spanish do, and eating a big meal at lunch that would see us through to the evening dining hours.

On our first full day, therefore, we enjoyed a delicious three-course lunch, consisting of a starter salad, a main-course meat dish, and a dessert. It was delicious; we were stuffed. Afterwards, though, a strange thing happened: my appetite never returned. When dinner rolled around I didn’t want to eat it. On the next day and the ones that followed, I wasn’t interested in lunch or dinner, though I made an effort at both.

Perhaps I contracted some very mild virus or food-borne illness whose main symptom was disinterest in food. Or perhaps my stomach just went on strike due to the new and unaccustomed schedule. Either way, it was a very regrettable thing to befall a person in a foodie city – especially since not only was the quality of the food high, but the klein aber fein principle did not apply — portions were huge, in some cases ridiculously so (not just in my estimation; Stelian, still in possession of his usual voracious appetite, could not finish some of his dinners). Now that I’m home, of course, my appetite is back to normal.

All of this is to explain why I won’t be waxing poetic about the world-famous tapas and seafood: because I didn’t eat much of it. Nevertheless, for anyone who happens to be going, I present this as a recommendation of a place with a lovely atmosphere, nice servers, and where the food I managed to eat tasted really good.

Now that’s out of the way, we can talk Gaudi. This aspect of the trip was everything that I had hoped it to be, and I left Spain not only with great memories and cherished pictures of the sites that I saw, but a fascination with the man himself.

So let me take a moment to introduce Antoni Gaudi, especially since I plan to devote more posts than this one to his masterpieces. This man epitomizes devotion to one’s work. He was born midway through the 19th century, and after receiving his degree in architecture in the 1870s, he was first allowed to design small things, like some of the city’s lampposts; later he moved on to more important buildings and acquired a wealthy benefactor, one Count Guell, who commissioned him for, among other things, a mansion and a park. By the turn of the century, he was working fervently on the Sagrada Familia, a project whose completion he knew would not occur in his lifetime. He never married and apparently displayed little interest in women. He also took few pains with his appearance, so that when, in 1926, he was struck by the tram that would kill him while crossing the street near the Sagrada Familia, he was assumed to be a beggar and not given immediate aid.

Let’s have a look at Gaudi’s magnum opus, then. The first stone of the Sagrada Familia (or, in English, Church of the Sacred Family) was laid in 1882, and the current estimate is that the work needed to fully realize Gaudi’s vision will be completed in 2026. There is something so cool about visiting such a monumental site and knowing that it is, in fact, still being developed, day by day — there are still towers going up and sculptors chipping away. Also, the church’s completed Nativity façade is one of the most visually stunning things that I have encountered in my travels (though Stelian and another male tourist standing near us came to a mutual assessment that it was “too busy” for their taste). But I’ll cease chattering now and let you take in this wonder too.

Church entrance/Passion façade

Detail of Passion façade


Inside one of the church's towers

Nativity façade

Detail of Nativity façade

As indicated, more posts on this great city are forthcoming! But for those eager to see all the pictures now, please visit my Picasa album here.



Two types of ski-trip irony & being big in Korea

A traffic jam when you’re already late
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break
It’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife
It’s meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife
And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?

– Alanis Morissette, “Ironic”

The above song, released in 1995, has been credited with giving many people a false understanding of irony. Many of the things Alanis cites as ironic in this song, it has been noted, are not actually ironic but just unfortunate.

On our second trip to Davos this past weekend, we experienced both types of irony — real and Alanis-Morissettesque. Allow me to contrast them for you below.

Real irony: Many of the snow activities that we wished to do — skiing and sledding being among them — were unavailable due to too much snow (and ensuing avalanche risk/technical difficulties).

Alanis Morissettesque irony: A couple of hours before we began the train journey back to Zürich, the storm ended, the skies had cleared, and Davos looked like this:

It wasn't ironic to have to leave this: it was unfortunate.

But the weekend, though not as sporty as intended, was still a lot of fun. We ate copious amounts of good mountain food (Alper-macaroni, cheese fondue, etc.) and enjoyed good company, as well as the resurrection of an old joke.

CUT TO: Lab dinner at fondue restaurant. STELIAN and KRISTEN sit across from  VISITING RESEARCHER FROM KOREA. Polite dinner conversation is occurring.

V.R.F.K. [changing subject]: Do you like dramas?

STELIAN: Dramas?

V.R.F.K.: Yeah, like TV dramas?

STELIAN: Oh. Yeah, I guess.

V.R.F.K.: Like Prison Break?

KRISTEN knows what’s coming and begins to giggle uncontrollably.

STELIAN: Oh, yeah, I’ve been told this before…

V.R.F.K: You look like Michael Scofield!

STELIAN: Yeah. People say that.

V.R.F.K. [wielding iPhone]: May I take your picture? People in Korea will think I met Michael Scofield.


The reason why this is so funny is because Stelian’s facial resemblance to Prison Break star Wentworth Miller is a joke that goes back to our undergraduate days (interested parties can search for the now-dormant but still-existing group “I think Stelian Coros looks like Michael Scofield!” on Facebook, which was created by friends of Stelian at UoGuelph six or seven years ago). I love it when silly threads of continuity like this run through life.

Off to Barcelona in a couple of days — talk to you on the flip-side!


Of mountains and maniacally-working men

We have a long way to go until the non-snowy hiking season starts. It’s currently the time of year when, if you live in Switzerland but don’t regularly ski or snowboard, you might begin to pine for the green flavour of mountains. I’ve just begun to attend a Spinning class in which the instructor says, as we pedal standing up with high resistance in simulation of a hill, “now imagine we are summitting such-and-such mountain of 3,700 meters…” but somehow this doesn’t quite succeed in making me feel as though I am there.

What does somewhat scratch the itch are these pictures of trails that I took throughout last year. I don’t know about you, but there’s something about a picture of a mountain trail that makes me feel happy inside. How about you — any of these tickle your fancy?


We will, in fact, be heading to the mountains again on Thursday — we’re returning to Davos, site of our Christmas trip. The occasion for this visit is a ski trip put on each year by Stelian’s company. The trip always takes place shortly after the annual paper-submission deadline for a  conference that is the holy grail of the computer graphics field. Stelian and his colleagues have been at work 14-16 hours a day on average, for the last week (including the weekend). Yesterday the “abandoned spouses” met for coffee and commiseration — which also includes the telling of stories that are amusing to us as outsiders to this crazy process. (The best one I heard involved a colleague of Stelian’s who called his fiancée at work and said “Sorry, I made a huge mess in the kitchen, and I didn’t have time to clean it up.” She went home to find large gobs of melted candle wax all over her kitchen and coating her oven mitts. All in the name of research!).

Anyway, after so much exhausting work (and, on my part, so much exhausting observation of exhausting work), it will be nice to have a few days of relaxation in the mountains. Well, I confess that I will not be relaxed as I enact my annual OMG-I-forget-how-to-ski ritual, but the rest of the time will be good.

Then next week Stelian and I are heading to Barcelona for five nights! We are doing so because Stelian didn’t manage to use up his 5 weeks (!) of vacation last year, and he has to take the remainder now. We are looking forward to somewhat warmer temperatures, eating tapas, architecture by Gaudi, and being by the sea. Also, tying in with today’s theme, we are planning to do a day trip from the city in order to see Montserrat, one of the craziest-looking mountains ever.



7 ways in which the Supermarkt is a microcosm of Swiss society

The supermarket: a microcosm of society?

I think so. And it makes sense: everyone has to go to the grocery store, and we do so in order to meet one of our most basic needs. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we behave in very characteristic ways in these spaces.

If you think about it, many quintessentially Canadian things are in evidence when you pop into your local supermarket. I’m not referring to just the plenteous bacon and maple syrup. I’m talking about the way in which people say “sorry” (in a way, I’ve learned, that Americans who say  sah-ree find amusing) when they merely graze each other. Everyone queues politely to pay. A generous bubble of personal space is granted, whether you are in the produce section or the checkout line.

Here in Switzerland, the workings of the Supermarkt are different — and these differences, I believe, help to illuminate important aspects of Swiss culture. Here’s a list I’ve been mentally forming during my many trips to my local Migros and Coop stores.

No apologies. The Swiss have actually adopted the English word “sorry” as a more informal alternative to entschuldigung or es tut mir leid. Whether they say soh-ree or sah-ree is hard to tell, but you’re unlikely to either one in this context. There seems to be a rule that in order to get your shopping done, it’s perfectly acceptable to push, bump, and squeeze past with nary a word. This used to really irk me, but I’ve grown somewhat used to it with time.

Workers are intensely productive. To put this in context, it’s important to understand that Swiss supermarkets are not staffed in large part by teens/young adults, as is the case in Canada. Instead, most of the workers are middle-aged, and I’ve learned that this is actually considered a career track for those who get spat out of the very complicated Swiss schooling system (where tests are highly determinative) at an early stage. So first you have to get used to the idea that people work as stockpersons and cashiers their entire working lives, and secondly you have to accept the fact that they work like crazed automatons. It is not uncommon to see a person asking “where might I find X?” as a stockperson continues to unload boxes at lightning speed, not seizing this opportunity for momentary rest. They work so continuously, so ardently, that I have wondered if they are operating under some kind of threat or quota system. Also, the “push, bump, and squeeze past” rule reaches its highest octave here — the customer is not someone to be deferred to; no, the customer is someone who better get the heck outta the way when a certain area is being stocked.

Aversion to queuing/merit-based queuing. It’s every person for her or himself in all areas of the Supermarkt. There’s little sense of you-were-waiting-so-I’ll-let-you-use-the-scale-before-I-barge-up-to-it. There is (to a Canadian eye) discourtesy and disorder until shoppers enter the corral-like structures that lead up to the cash registers and force people to stand one behind the other. But even then, there is bargaining and place-swapping: some degree of filial piety means that the elderly will sometimes be ushered to the front of the line, and there will sometimes also be requests by people buying only a few items to go ahead of you when you have more. I don’t disagree with either of these practices, but I have become bewildered when a request to do one of them is being issued in Swiss German.

Lots of small talk and advice. Living in Zürich, I sometimes feel that I have a few thousand well-meaning but overbearing grandparents. Standing in line to pay, I have been scolded, chatted up, interrogated, sometimes all at the same time. The Swiss love to be a part of each other’s lives (I have many other stories about this in other contexts, too). I suppose I wouldn’t mind so much if this didn’t often constitute a language bomb situation for me.

Peaceful Sundays mean hectic Saturdays. I have previously lauded the tradition of no-business Sundays that Switzerland observes, but I must add that these Sundays come at a price, and that price is the all-out havoc that is Saturday at the Markt, as everyone tries to do their shopping at the same time. As someone who shops during the week and on the weekends, I would say that on Saturday there are at least 400% more shoppers in the supermarket. It is a blood-pressure-raising experience…for me, anyway.

Decadence in everyday life. Yes, I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to reiterate in case the foregoing comes off as sounding uniformly negative — the amount of gorgeous chocolate and cheese in these Supermarkts is enough to bring a tear to the eye of a hardcore dairy-lover such as myself.

Trim, healthy figures. I’ve said this before, too, but the customs of a people who load up their carts with fatty milk, chocolates, starches and meats and still manage to have healthy body weights, as well as a very impressive average life expectancy, are worth paying attention to.

Anything I’m missing? Care to share any of your observations of supermarkets in other countries?


Adventures in Cozonac-making

A little pre-ramble: Thanks for all the nice comments on the anniversary post. After I published it, WordPress informed me that it was my 100th post — a pretty cool achievement (and coincidence), I’d say. And today, January 4th, is the anniversary of starting my blog — its first birthday! So here we go — on to post #101 and another year of living and blogging in Switzerland.  

Cozonac is a Romanian bread traditionally eaten at Christmas and Easter. It is sweet and rum-flavoured, with a swirl of either a walnut-based or Turkish delight-based filling decorating each slice. It is the perfect bread that needs nothing on top; it is delicious with milk, and highly addictive. Stelian has been eating it every Christmas of his life; I’ve been eating it every Christmas since meeting him and his family. So when we didn’t return to Canada for Christmas this year, we mourned its absence. That’s when I decided, hey, I’m an intrepid hausfrau — I should take matters (in this case, wads of dough) into my own hands.

Stelian’s mom is the cozonac master — hers loaves always look perfect and taste glorious, so naturally, it was to her that I should have gone for the recipe. The only problem with that is that like many highly skilled bakers, she does not need a recipe, and works with the dough pretty intuitively, sensing when it needs more or less of something. I, on the other hand, am scared as heck of breadmaking, and I can sense the needs of dough about as well as I could those of a baby crocodile. I needed step-by-step, no-deviation-allowed instructions.

Luckily, through the magic of the internet, I was able to find a recipe in English and bossy enough to be suitable for a beginner. And the result? After several hours spent mixing, kneading, rising, rolling, and filling, we had this!

I am still pretty flabbergasted at the idea that something so amazing came out of my oven. Here’s the inside view:

The one on the left is the walnut-raisin filling; the right has Turkish delight and raisins. They were both so, so good — the air bubble in the lefthand loaf did not affect its deliciousness, and I was assured by Stelian’s mom that this just sometimes happens.

So, not bad for a first attempt, and the proof of success is in the fact that the 2 of us ate nearly 2 full loaves of this in 3 short days.

So there you have it…another way in which we are becoming fat, and another reason for you to come and visit. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go run on the treadmill forever.


The anniversary letter

Dear Schweiz/Schwyz/Suisse/Svizzera/Svizra/Confoederatio Helvetica,

So many names, because so many have fallen in love with you.

It turns out that even we are not immune to your charms. And here it is, our anniversary with you — we’ve been living on your soil for one year now. And what a year it has been!

First we got to know your big city pretty well…

And later we branched out to see some of your other urban areas.

We couldn’t stay off your peaks in winter…

…or in summer.

We had fun meeting your animals…

…discovering your storybook villages…

…as well as some of your wacky traditions.

This year we ate, and ate, and ate……until you made us kind of fat.

But we wouldn’t stay mad at you for that…especially since you lured some of our family members to come and visit us.

And let’s not forget that we were able to use you as a jumping-off point for some pretty excellent adventures outside your borders.

And all throughout this year, we were so enthralled that we couldn’t help but share all of this beauty with others.

Note: not my camera. I wish it was.

So happy one year anniversary, Switzerland, and here’s to at least one more.

It’s been wunderschön, magnifique, fantastico, and…sorry, but we still don’t speak any Romansch.

Love, Kristen and Stelian