Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad


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An evening without Alice Munro

A funny thing happened when a friend and I went to an Alice Munro reading yesterday evening: Alice Munro wasn’t there.

Looking back on it now, it maybe was a little too good to be true. In the past year in Zürich, I’ve attended readings by JM Coetzee and John Irving, and now Alice Munro was coming to town. These are not authors that I just kinda-sorta like; it was starting to seem eerie how tailored to my taste these author appearances were.

Yes: I’m aware that Alice Munro is 81 years old.  And yes, I’m aware that she, having lived her life in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia, probably speaks no German, unlike Coetzee and Irving, who both speak enough to be comfortable at bilingual events.

But at 81 Munro does have a new book of stories out, entitled Dear Life. It was easy for me, then, to spin a mental yarn in which she decided to do a European tour, and opted to include in it our klein aber fein city – hadn’t its beauty dazzled me on my walk to the venue?  The lit-up churches and the fairy-light-garlanded trees standing out against the black sky…the swans bobbing serenely on the dark river, the glow of these lights reflected dimly in their breasts…who wouldn’t want to visit Zürich near Christmastime?

Admittedly, there were clues that Alice Munro wasn’t coming to the Literaturhaus’ “Alice-Munro Abend” (translated in my head as “An Evening with Alice Munro”). Though the event was advertised using a picture of Munro, the names of two other, local female writers were on the bill. But recall that John Irving’s reading involved someone helping out with reading the German bits — wasn’t it plausible that that’s what those women would be there for? Or else, the three were planning to have a conversation about writing?

When the event began, however, there was a table with only two chairs on stage…and both chairs were occupied by these women. Where would Alice sit? A third woman came on stage to welcome us all to the event, and she began to talk about Alice, in German. As my friend later noted, she talked about her in a somewhat indelicate manner (“Alice is not young; it’s difficult for her to travel”) but as always when German is being spoken quickly, the meaning fades in and out for me, so all I noticed is that she didn’t look at anyone in particular, as you typically do look at someone when speaking about them in their presence.

Next the two authors began to talk about her life and work, and went on to read from some of her stories, all in German. Surely it isn’t polite to alienate her with all this German? I thought. To make her wait so long for her turn to speak/read? And where indeed was she waiting — in the audience? The bubble of my illusion was being stretched further and further…until they played a tinny audio recording of Alice speaking at a true public reading, and it popped.

It turns out that we non-native German speakers may have been foiled by one little word in the advertisement for this event: widmen. It apparently signalled that this was an evening dedicated to, and not with, the writer. However, a German-speaking couple sitting in front of us walked out partway through, presumably after realizing that Alice Munro wasn’t coming, so I think there might still have been cross-lingual confusion.

After the event, my friend and I ran into a fellow expat writer who at first looked absolutely stricken by what had taken place – she loves Alice Munro; she’d brought a book to be signed – but then, as we headed for the drinks table, pooling our embarrassment, began to laugh until tears stood out in her eyes.

That’s when it occurred to me how much this event had succeeded in capturing the spirit of Alice Munro’s writing. What I think most of us cherish about her fiction are its moments of raw and blemished humanity: moments of awkwardness, embarrassment, anger, and yes…disappointment, too.

In her stories, Munro gives us the moment in which one woman calmly but furiously cleans her kitchen while another confesses to an affair with her husband. She gives us the moment when an older woman who has opened her home in kindness to a stranger realizes that her life is in jeopardy. She gives us the confusion of a man upon finding out that his wife, institutionalized with Alzheimer’s disease, has taken a new boyfriend. And – perhaps most salient for me – she gives us the moment of revealing oneself as a writer:

 …here comes the disclosure which is not easy for me: I am a writer. That does not sound right. Too presumptuous; phony, or at least unconvincing. Try again. I write. Is that better? I try to write. That makes it worse. Hypocritical humility. Well then?

 It doesn’t matter. However I put it, the words create their space of silence, the delicate moment of exposure. But people are kind, the silence is quickly absorbed by the solicitude of friendly voices, crying variously, how wonderful, and good for you, and well, that is intriguing. And what do you write, they inquire with spirit. Fiction, I reply, bearing my humiliation by this time with ease, even a suggestion of flippancy, which was not always mine, and again, again, the perceptible circles of dismay are smoothed out by such ready and tactful voices–which have however exhausted their stock of consolatory phrases, and can say only, ‘Ah!'”

– From the story “The Office”

 I feel sure that if Alice Munro had lived as an expat, she would have brilliantly captured the moments of delight and confusion and embarrassment and sorrow that accompany this experience, too.

In the end I’m grateful to Zürich’s “Alice Munro-Abend” for reminding me that I can visit with Munro, in my home and in the original language, any time I wish. In her perfectly-crafted stories, which now fill thirteen volumes, she has never once failed to show up.

But I can’t help wishing that Alice Munro the person – who ironically at this moment is probably at her home in Ontario, only a few hundred kilometres from my hometown, from my family – will have a holiday season as beautiful as the one we enjoy here in Zürich.

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Swiss National Day, Take 2

Here we are again: another August 1; another Swiss National Day.

It’s a good time to think about what’s occurred since last Aug. 1, and how our relationship to this country has changed (or not) during this period.

There have been times over the past year when I’ve felt rather integrated — running the marathon in April was one such instance, because it was something I could do alongside the Swiss, and I had the sense of doing it in a city I knew well and had already logged hundreds of miles in. There have been minor victories, too, in the form of full conversations with shop clerks, tailors, waiters, etc. conducted in German. There are times when I think, maybe I do sort of belong.

But then again, I don’t. Because what often happens is that when I need to go and talk to someone, I rehearse the German version of what I want to say, and then as soon as I’ve said it, the person responds to me in English. There are a few reasons why this might be happening: because the High German I’m speaking is not actually the language that these people are comfortable with  (Swiss German is, but it’s not something you can take classes in); because my “English” accent is ridiculously strong; because Swiss people take pride in the fact that they speak English well, and they enjoy practising it; or because Google Translate has led me to say something ludicrous in German, and my interlocutor wants to prevent me from embarrassing myself further.

In any case, the language issue is one that keeps us feeling like outsiders. The permit issue is another — we still have an “L” permit, which is the worst type. It has caused our bank to deny us a Swiss credit card, leading us to continue to rely on our Canadian ones; it causes other companies (like those dealing with cell phones) to demand huge deposits before they will give us a contract; and it makes it very difficult for us to move apartments (which we considered doing after learning that Stelian’s contract was extended and we have the possibility of staying through 2014).

So, in some respects, Switzerland can be a hard place to live in. But in other ways, it is easy: the food — especially the summer produce — is beautiful, excellent jogging trails are practically at my doorstep, the big mountains are only a couple of hours away, and everything is clean, efficient and running on time.

I’m not finished figuring the country out, either. The weekend before last Stelian and I had the privilege of attending the wedding of one of his Swiss coworkers. Here is a brief list of things we witnessed that day that surprised me:

– the minister wielding a rolling-pin as a symbol of the importance of fighting in marriage;

– the congregation being invited to sing non-traditional songs like Bob Marley’s “Is It Love” and the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week”;

– a multitude of Swiss children being allowed to not only attend the ceremony but also to roll in the church aisles in the throes of boredom;

– a very easygoing attitude about various uncontrollable events (the rain that poured during the mostly-outdoor reception; the flower girl who became very cranky and decided to attack the guitar-player during his solo performance).

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I’m grateful to Switzerland for providing  challenges, for giving me insight into new ways of doing things and into what it feels like to be a newcomer trying to assimilate, for allowing me to traipse all over its beautiful soil…and for giving me the chance to stay and experience it all a little longer.

P.S. Here is a recent video by Monocle magazine, explaining why they think Zurich is the world’s “most liveable” city.


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Birdsieged!

I’ve had a busy few weeks, hence my silence… there has been, among other things, a weekend writer’s workshop, and a trip to the dentist which resulted in my mouth being painfully and expensively but very, very thoroughly cleaned. Now I’m back to share an important development: My two cats are under siege by a bird.

Yes. I did just say a bird.

Here’s the situation: we’ve been living in this third-floor apartment since February 2011, and our cats have been enjoying our large rear balcony since it was rebuilt in March of that year. This spring, however, a bird has nested somewhere in the courtyard formed by a few different buildings that this balcony overlooks. And the bird has begun a campaign against our cats. Anytime they go on the balcony (which they are accustomed to doing several times a day in nice weather, in order to sun themselves and sniff the breeze), it appears in a frenzy of fluttering feathers and chirping calls. Knowing that the cats are watching its every move, it flits from rooftop to windowsill to balcony rail, all while making the sort of tongue-clucking sound that I use to call the cats in off the balcony. Yes, I do believe the bird is imitating me. I know this makes me sound crazy…but it’s true!

The cats, meanwhile, make their ridiculously pathetic bird calls, which are like cranky or injured meows. As the bird becomes bolder and moves ever closer towards them (sometimes it hovers just beyond the balcony rails), they adopt a hunting cat’s low crouch, their muscles storing up the energy to pounce. And that’s when I freak out, thinking that they are going to attempt it. I usher them inside, locking the door between them and the bird, who continues to taunt them by hopping along the railing.

And so it has gone, for weeks. I don’t know how to rectify the situation, and I’m sick of watching the cats while they’re on the balcony. I used to be able to leave them out there by themselves, trusting that they wouldn’t do something stupid, because they understand they’re somewhat high above the ground. But I can’t do that anymore; I understand that birds are one of a cat’s greatest temptations. Not too long ago, in fact, I heard someone who produced “cat entertainment videos” (yes, these do exist, and anyone who has seen their cat go crazy over a nature show will understand why) interviewed on the radio. “Some cats like to watch string,” the man said, “and some go wild for the sound of paper being crumpled and balled up. But what you can count on is cats being interested in is birds and squirrels.” Then, to drive home his point, he said: “Yep, birds and squirrels…those are your money shots in this business.”

Anyway. In my recent writer’s workshop, we talked about the importance of understanding the motivations and desires that drive your characters. As a writer and a human being, I so badly want to figure this bird out, to understand it so that I can author an ending allowing us to all live in harmony. I get that the bird doesn’t understand that the cats have no way to access its nest, and that they are therefore threatening to it. But what I don’t get is why it responds by asking them to kill it. Because now they really want to, and they would, if given half a chance. I suggested to Stelian that the bird is endeavouring to have the cats plunge to their deaths, so that its problem with them would be solved. But he thinks it isn’t that smart, and says that its instinct is just to draw attention to itself in order to distract the cats from the nest, wherever that may be.

An alternate (and more interesting) theory is that this bird is a reincarnation of the one killed in our Vancouver apartment in 2008. We never knew which cat did it — it may have been a tag-team effort — but by the time Stelian came home that day and discovered the bird it was deceased (but not eaten — our cats think that food comes only from bags and cans). I was grossed out and saddened, but impressed that our indoor cats were in good enough shape to catch a bird. Also, I reasoned that the bird had come into the apartment through a window — it had asked for it. Like this guy or gal is now doing.

Bird surveillance photo

The innocent victims

If you have any suggestions or insights into bird behaviour, I would appreciate your advice!


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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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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.


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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?


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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