Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad


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Book recommendation: Middlesex

I feel a bit silly recommending Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex to you, seeing as it was published a full decade ago, and most people I’ve talked to about it have read it already. Having recently finished this book, however, I feel the need to spread the word about how good it is, on the off-chance that you haven’t read it either and I might induce you to.

What kept me from reading Middlesex all these years was my understanding that it was an “intergenerational saga,” which is not typically what I go for in a novel. I enjoy books which allow me to get to know a few characters really well, as opposed to books in which I have to continually meet and adjust to new characters. I think this mirrors my real-life preference to spend time with a smaller group of people that I know well rather than a larger group that I’m acquainted with on a more casual basis.

It turns out, however, that despite being an intergenerational saga, Middlesex is exactly my kind of book. The book’s main concern is the formation of one individual’s identity (their gender identity, in particular) but in order to fully appreciate this character’s situation, you have to understand things that happened in the previous generations of that individual’s family. You could make this argument for any character in any book, I suppose, but I’d say that the family history is especially important here.

I’ve been in awe of Jeffrey Eugenides since I read his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, in which he pioneered a new kind of point-of-view, which was first-person plural. If you haven’t read the book, that means that it is narrated not as an “I”, but as a “we” (it’s a group of boys telling a story about a family of five girls with whom they were obsessed). In Middlesex, Eugenides again plays with point-of-view in a way that would make any writer jealous: though narrating in first-person, his main character has firsthand access to things that happened decades before they were born. Odd and seemingly wrong when you stop to think about it, but it’s so well-done that as you’re reading, you never doubt the source or question the authenticity for a moment. This is one sign that you’re in the hands of a truly skilled writer.

In addition to enjoying great writing, you will not have read many books that grapple with the sorts of questions that Middlesex does, though the questions are important and fundamental. Questions like how do we come to identify with one gender over the other? and what are the relative contributions of genes and environment to that process? Perhaps it’s the former psychology student in me that finds these issues very compelling, but I’d submit that we’d all do well to think about them a little bit.

If you haven’t read it, I think all I have to do in order to get you immediately hooked and committed to reading the novel’s 530 pages, as I was, is to give you its first sentence:

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

Has your curiosity been piqued?

A final note: as suggested by the title and my description, the book does contain descriptions of genitalia and sexual encounters, but none of it ever struck me as gratuitous.

Have I convinced you to read this yet? If you’ve already read the book, what did you think of it?

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On how Canadians can be backward, too

I realize that in many of my entries I’m hard on the Swiss, making them out to be pretty provincial. In this post, therefore, I’d like to flip the script, and tell you about how I, as a Canadian, sometimes am left feeling uncouth in Swiss society. There are a number of ways that this happens, actually, but one stands out for me.

It’s pretty simple: I’m accustomed to not acknowledging the presence of other human beings.

Generally, in the world that I grew up in, unless someone is your friend/family member/acquaintance, or unless you need to have some kind of transaction with them, it’s acceptable not to greet each other. This means that if you find yourself riding an elevator with strangers, for example, or sitting in a waiting room with them, you don’t have to say anything to them.

Here it is different. For example, last week I went to the doctor’s office (relating to my anemia issues, which I’m still “ironing out” — ha, ha) and, after checking in at the front desk, I went to the waiting area, where everyone looked up at me. I took a seat, thinking, why are you all staring at me? In the course of my 1o-minute wait, other people arrived, and none of them failed to offer a “Grüezi, mitenand” (how the Swiss greet more than one person) to the group, which made me realize my faux pas. As we continued to sit, a nurse came to ask one man if he’d eaten anything yet that day. “I had a coffee with sugar,” the man said. “Oh, this is no good,” replied the nurse. “The doctor wants to take your blood on an empty stomach. We’ll have to reschedule for tomorrow morning.” The man was understandably annoyed, and went on a mini-rant about how he wouldn’t have wasted his time if someone had communicated this to him in advance. Then, even in his worked-up state, he turned to those assembled and offered a polite “Ade, mitenand” (how the Swiss say goodbye to more than one person).

I was impressed.

Of course, the Swiss don’t feel compelled to offer a greeting to everyone when they ride buses or enter supermarkets, or in other situations where it would be impractical. But they do it when they’re in close quarters with other human beings. And doesn’t that just make sense?


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Some thoughts on “whoa, man”

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. This is apparently a tradition of some standing, but this year marks the first time I really became aware of it. There was, first, the intriguing doodle — who can resist mousing over to see what it signifies? There was also an appreciation for women resounding through the blogosphere. But I might have shrugged off these things were it not for certain elements of my current personal zeitgeist that made me inclined to prick up my ears.

I’ve mentioned before how attitudes in Switzerland can feel downright sexist. Remember the women’s guild that fought for the right to march in the Sechseläuten parade for the first time last year? Well, there has since been a vote against that becoming a regular occurrence (warning: the article may cause feelings of impending head-explosion).

I’ve also regaled you with examples from my German class, but I can’t resist throwing in a new one, from a few weeks ago:

HERR GERMAN TEACHER (HGT), during our “crime unit”: So, the language has no word for a female detective. Only the male form of the word exists.

ME: Ah, interesting. So what do you do if you have to address a female detective, then?

HGT: I don’t know. Are there any?

ME: Why, yes. Certainly there are.

Sexism: it’s frustrating. I have never thought of myself as a feminist, but there’s a little part of me that feels guilty about this, that knows that I was just lucky to be born in the 1980s, at a time when most of the important fights had already been fought and won, and at a time when I could grow up taking for granted the idea that I could do or become anything that I could dream up. But now I’m living in a country where the right to vote was only granted to women in a certain canton in 1990, and I realize that I would have grown up with different ideas here. I realize, too, that I would brand myself a feminist and fight for the rights of women before I would be willing to have a child who felt her possibilities to be limited by her gender.

There have also been events in my family recently that have reinforced the strength of women for me — their strength in caring for others, their strength in facing obstacles, their strength in caring for others while facing obstacles. My sense of privacy and respect prevents me from saying more, but the formidable nature of women in my family has been at the forefront of my mind, lately.

Then there are those favourite female writers of mine — they’ve been mental companions of mine since teenagehood, so that by now I think of them like old friends. For a writing workshop I attended in the fall, we were asked to arrive on the first day prepared to talk about who our favourite writers were and why. As I prepared a long list and then painstakingly pared it down, I found that it was women — Joyce Carol Oates, Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro — whose names crowded the final list, along with just a couple of men.

These women writers have done important trailblazing work, too, showing how wise and witty and bang-on accurate a woman’s depiction of the world can be. So many are indebted to them, and I feel all warm inside when I see a fairly masculine writer, such as Jonathan Franzen, exhorting people to read Alice Munro, who is nothing less than a Canadian treasure.

Joyce Carol Oates’ story is an interesting one: she undertook a doctoral degree at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1960s, but ending up being granted a Master’s and then shunted out of the program. As she wrote in an autobiographical essay:

 In May, one sunny morning, I was examined for my master’s degree, in venerable Bascomb Hall for what would be the final time. My examiners were all men; two were older professors with whom I’d studied and who had seemed to approve of my work; the third was a younger professor of American literature, very likely an assistant professor, who stared at me, now “Joyce Carol Smith,” doubtfully. A married woman? A serious scholar? It did seem suspicious. In this man’s unsmiling eyes, I saw my fate… How negligible in his eyes, how expendable, a young woman, and married; not a likely candidate for the holy orders of the Ph.D.

The verdict of the examining committee was that “Joyce Carol Smith” be granted a master’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin; but she was not recommended to continue Ph.D. studies there. The verdict was You are not one of us, and how could I reasonably disagree?

Her story ends well, with her achieving a pre-eminent and highly decorated position in American letters: a thing, she notes, that might never have happened had she been allowed to do the planned thing, the Ph.D. It’s also worth noting — as she does later in the essay — that she has been granted about a dozen honorary doctoral degrees, including one from — guess where? — yes, Wisconsin. But she merely mentions this fact, and does not gloat about it, because women can be excellent models of graciousness, too.

So, I’m feeling pretty humbled by all of this female greatness, and it seems therefore fitting to leave you with the words of Mike Myers’ character in the immortal movie So I Married an Axe Murderer:

“Woman: whooooa, man!”

And I mean that in the best way possible.


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The Tyranny of the Doorbell

I wrote in an earlier entry about my aversion to talking on the phone. Since arriving in Switzerland, however, I have also been haunted by a new spectre, which is the doorbell.

To fully appreciate my fear, you first must understand that every modern apartment in Switzerland, such as the one we live in,  comes equipped with not only a buzzer/intercom so that you can communicate with people outside the building and let them in, but also a little placard outside your apartment with your names on it (ours says “Stelian and Kristin,” owing to someone at the management company not having good attention to detail) and below the names, a button that you can press to ring a doorbell for the apartment. To my mind, it’s pretty unnecessary — the apartments in our building are all 75 square meters, definitely not so large that a knock wouldn’t do the trick.

Within days of arriving in Switzerland last January, my cats and I were already conditioned to hate the trilling doorbell sound, for it inevitably meant that someone intended to barge their way in. For our first month, we lived in a temporary apartment, and the landlord would show up with no warning whatsoever and want to show the suite to prospective future renters. Then we moved into our own apartment, where we thought there’d be peace, but as it was newly renovated, there were little things to be worked out still, and someone was always arriving to recaulk the shower, install something that we hadn’t known we needed, change the locks, etc. Never did we get any warning, and always was it irksome to me, because I usually spend my morning writing in…shall we say…comfortable clothes (pyjamas, okay? I’m often still wearing my pyjamas). Also, I’m what I like to call “differently-organized” (and what a more critical person might term “a slob”) so having my household disorder on sudden display, in addition to my slovenly costume, is almost more embarrassment than I can bear.

I can see how some of the Swiss characteristics that I’ve noted before — chattiness, nosiness, compulsive neatness — make it seem okay to expect to be admitted to someone’s personal space at any time. But to the highly private expat, it’s so bewildering, especially when you consider some of the requests that have faced me on the other side of the door.

One evening after dinner, for example, I answered a doorbell ring to find a staff member from the Kebab shop, which is at the ground level in the same block of buildings as ours. He began to speak in rapid-fire German, asking if I happened to occupy storage locker #20 in the basement (he already knew that I did; our names are also on the lockers). After I confirmed that I did, he said, “I will need to borrow your key, because [a complex sentence that was incomprehensible to me].” He didn’t speak English; what could I do? He’s come to borrow the key several times now — it has something to do with our locker having access to some pipes or vents or something.

Then, just today, I was showering after a late-afternoon run when I heard the doorbell ring. Once, twice, then an incredible third time. By the time I got out of the shower, I crept to the door and listened as two people stood outside talking in German. I didn’t answer — I was only wearing a towel, after all, and I don’t need that kind of embarrassment on top of everything else. Guess what the party trying to get my attention did next? Went downstairs and buzzed me. Talk about persistent.

When Stelian came home half an hour later, he was waylaid by the serial ringers, who were still downstairs — they were people who had narrowly missed the window for a showing of an apartment in the building, and were now wanting to see someone else’s apartment to determine if they wanted to apply for it. To their request, Stelian politely (and wisely) responded, “No, I don’t think my wife would be okay with that.”

There is also an apocryphal story about the Billag people, who are responsible for collecting a government-mandated tax on television and radio consumption. If you claim not to have one or the other, it is said, the Billag people will surprise-visit you, hoping to catch your TV-that-you-claimed-not-to-have blaring away in the background or sitting prominently in your living room. But I really don’t have a TV, so when I received my annual and exorbitant-seeming bill I wrote to tell them as much. Therefore, if it’s true that they do surprise visits, there could be one lurking in my future.

But do you think I’ll answer when they come? Nope, not a chance, not anymore. I’d love to be unafraid, and one of those people who can receive others for coffee at any time. But the ringing doorbell is just too dangerous a prospect for me. So friends, Roman(ian)s, countrymen: lend me your advance notice. Or at least knock in Morse code to let me know it’s you, and give me a minute to change and clean up first.