Chronicles of a writer abroad


Don’t mind the gap

I was just sitting here at my desk, trying to decide whether I should blog about the fact that I haven’t been blogging, which of course draws unnecessary attention to the blogging delinquency but also allows me to feel I’m somewhat making amends for it…

…when the sirens started to go off.

Air-raid sirens. A great number of them, echoing and amplifying each other. Their cries were loud and mournful, six notes ascending and then descending. I am powerless to describe how much they spooked me. The cats went skittering for cover under our bed. Looking out the window toward the source of the sound, I saw lots of calm, softly-falling snow that rendered the scene still more eerie. But in less than a minute,  it was all over.

Apparently (so Google informs me) the first Wednesday of February is always siren-testing day here, but I’ve somehow managed obliviousness during the last two Februaries — maybe we were traveling, or our old apartment was somehow sheltered from the sound. Now I’ve experienced it, though: another of those reminders that life in Europe is a little different.

Despite having that to share with you, I still want to say what I originally intended to, which is that the gaps between my posts will likely continue to grow, because I don’t want to blog just for blogging’s sake — I want to do it only when I have something interesting and worthwhile to talk about.

But I still want your friendship and affection, so here are some other ways you can stay in touch with me: I plan to post most of my future book-related thoughts on Goodreads, where you can be my friend to see what I’m reading and what I think of it; I’ve also started to explore Grooveshark as a means of  broadening my musical horizons, and we can buddy up there too. Of course I’ll continue to be a crappy facebooker as well.

Thank you for your attention to this message, and I hope your February is off to a pleasant and unalarming (!) start.



London, land of reversals

This post is a little late, seeing as it’s now nearly two months since we visited London, back in early November. I feel I have to tell you about it while it’s still 2012, or else I’ll be breaching some kind of tacit timely-blogging agreement.

Since there’s not much time left in the year, though, I’ll be brief. Brief-ish. Brief for me.

So, in brief, during our three-day sojourn I found London to be a place of many enjoyable reversals. I’m not just talking about the fact that they drive on the opposite side of the street that we’re used to, though these signs painted on the ground at pedestrian crossings did prevent me from being struck and killed on several occasions:


Thanks for saving my hide, signs.

But no. The roads are just the beginning; a surface (ha) indication of the huge differences a person will make note of, especially if that person has been living in a somewhat — shall we say — buttoned-up country for the past two years.

First, British humour can make anything, even routine security procedures, fun. “Hope you left your heroin at home today,” quipped a smiling security officer as he processed my bag for drugs at the airport. Rest of Europe, take note: The exchange was pleasant and I was given the (reasonable) benefit of the doubt by a person who was doing their job correctly.

Another glaring reversal is that in London, you pay to see the churches, but the museums are free.

Despite my vow of brevity, I feel compelled to repeat: Churches have paid admission; museums are free. As a result, we admired the cathedrals from the outside and spent our days museum-hopping. And the museums were so great we felt compelled to donate to them. See how it works?

Also, strangely, it was a church (St. Paul’s) and not any of the museums we went to, that was equipped with a revolving door.

Come and go, all ye faithful.

Come and go, all ye faithful.

In London, unlike certain cities that I might happen to reside in, there are many good things you can buy. You can buy reasonably-priced books. You can buy brown sugar. You can buy jeans that are exactly the right length (I could, anyway). You can buy good, imaginative kinds of cereal like mini-wheats with apricot jam flavouring. You can buy common drugs like painkillers without having to endure an agonizing conversation with a gatekeeper pharmacist. The paradox here (wait…is it a paradox? I don’t know, but I’m going with it) is that if I lived in London the health foods-store staff, the tailor, and the chemist would all speak English, but I wouldn’t even need to visit them.

Finally, the food in London was really quite good, contrary to expectations. (A clever marketing trick devised by a British restaurant board? “I tell you what we’ll do, we’ll spread the rumour that the food here is terrible. Then they’ll come with low expectations and it will all seem stellar by contrast!”)

The biggest reversal of all is that London, a place I’d never felt especially drawn to or interested in, now ranks among my favourite cities. I can’t wait to return sometime, with an empty (even of my heroin) suitcase.

More photos below!

A beautiful museum facade.

One museum’s beautiful facade.

Hyde park, complete with idyllic trio of horse-riders.

Hyde park, complete with idyllic horse-riding trio.

Stelian made me take this, explaining, "it's funny 'cause there are other kinds of birds in there too."

In Hyde Park, Stelian made me take this, explaining, “It’s funny ’cause there are other kinds of birds there too.”

Obligatory London photo #1

Obligatory London photo #1

Obligatory London photo #2

Obligatory London photo #2

Obligatory London photo #3

Obligatory London photo #3

The Tower of London was really cool. I just didn't have time to tell you about it.

The Tower of London was really cool. I’m sorry I didn’t have time to tell you about it.

Except there was some gnarly torture and animal-cruelty stuff that went down.

There was some gnarly torture and animal-cruelty stuff that went down there, though.

34-inch chest? Forget it!

Pfft! Get out of here with that 34-inch chest!

What catches my eye here are the garbage bags on the street. How I've missed that.

What draws my eye here are the garbage bags on the street. How I missed that.



It seems to happen every year at around this time: time speeds up for me. Poof, and weeks disappear; it’s late November, and then suddenly it’s the week before Christmas. Very strange. I don’t know what happens to those weeks. Are they appropriated by elves?

Anyway, here’s a few things from lately:

Stelian’s TEDx talk became available online, which let us relive the great experience of the day in October where we spent the full day at Zürich’s TV studios for the conference. The illustrious (yet highly modest!) speaker wouldn’t want me to discuss his achievement at length, but if you’re in the group that still doesn’t get what he does but are curious, watching the 11-minute talk below might help. And I would like to share that while the final product looks pretty effortless, A LOT of work goes into giving one of these talks. You do endless script revisions; you do rehearsals in front of speaking coaches and TED-people; you do stage-familiarization; you do microphone-fitting; you have to submit to hair and makeup. Then you have to face the lights and the cameras and the 500-person crowd. I’m thankful to have experienced this without, y’know, having to directly experience it.

May I also recommend one other talk from that day? It’s the one below, by Charles Eugster. The title — Why Bodybuilding at 93 is A Great Idea — may be enough to hook you. Yes, he’s a 93 year-old bodybuilder. He’s also a funny and inspiring speaker whose talk earned a standing ovation that day. Stelian had the good fortune to go onstage right after him — needless to say, the crowd was warmed up.

And but so moving on: my newest author crush is David Foster Wallace. First I read a book of his essays, which was so excellent that I then immediately decided to wade into the 1,100-page behemoth that is Infinite Jest. I am not a very quick reader — I expect it will take me many weeks to get through. But I’m enjoying each and every moment spent reading it. I look forward to being able to discuss it with a couple others who I know are reading it also, and I may post about it here as it eats up a significant number of my waking hours.

Of course, lately our attention has also been captured by the news from the US, and the sadness and anger and polemic spurred by it. I have opinions, but no desire to add more fuel to the fires.

Instead, I’ll leave you with a song from an album that I’ve had on repeat for a few days. It feels to me like a fitting antidote for a sped-up, confusing, emotional time (also, an antidote to the fact that the “Gangnam style” video — which I refuse to link to — has perplexingly been named the most successful of all youtube-time. Yes, I will try to propagandize good, meaningful music!).

Happy lead-up to the holidays, everyone.


Winter(ish) in Zürich

There are some enjoyable things about being in Zürich at this time of year, as I recently alluded to. The lights. The Christmas markets. The stands selling heisse maroni and glühwein (roasted chestnuts and hot mulled wine; I love how both of these things smell). The arguments held on Facebook between expats of different nations concerning whether a brisky day in early December can be fairly called “a winter day” (are you militant about the Solstice definition?). The exclamations of adults who come from other, warmer lands and are just beginning to experience winter (“but it actually HURTS!”).

And my favourite thing: the clear, crisp days when the forests surrounding the city are  freshly dusted with snow, so that it feels like we’re inhabiting a giant sugar bowl. The heavy and ever-present clouds only add to the dreaminess of the skyline. I tried to capture what I’m talking about after my German class today. Remember the pictures of Zürich in fall? The two below are taken from the same spot on ETH’s Polyterrasse. Enjoy, and tell me: what’s great about winter (or “winter” as it might be until Dec. 21st) where you live?






John Irving in Zürich

In my last post I mentioned a list of my Top 10 favourite books. It was more of a figurative thing than an actual list that I keep on paper, but I was prompted to spell it out in the comments. By the way, if you want to share your own Top 10, or Top 3 or whatever, in the comments on that post or this one, please do: I’m so interested in knowing what everyone’s favourites are (and reading them)!

I’m still not sure whether I’m entirely satisfied with my list, but I know that a few of the books I put down absolutely belong there. One of these is A Prayer For Owen Meany, by John Irving. It’s a wonderful novel about friendship and fate, and I try to re-read it every few years.

Yesterday, thanks to a friend who told me about the event (and accompanied me to it), I got to see John Irving in a reading/Q&A session at Zürich’s Schauspielhaus. This was my second time seeing Irving in person. The first time was at the Vancouver Readers and Writers Festival on Granville Island in 2009, and I found it so exciting to be in the same room as someone whose work I so deeply admired.

Seeing him in Zürich yesterday was a different, but still inspiring, experience. The venue was not a simple room with hard chairs but a plush theatre with a balcony, velvet seats and an enormous chandelier. The interview or “conversation” portion of the event was in English, but after asking each question and receiving a response, the interviewer would briefly paraphrase in German — until some point, after a particularly long response, she threw up her hands and said “Ah, why should I translate? Everyone understands anyway.” Irving himself supplied a German phrase here and there, vestiges of the few years he spent in Vienna.

For the reading, Irving was joined by a German-speaking actor. Together they read adjacent passages in the English and German versions of his new novel In One Person, meaning that the bilingual Volk got to hear more of it. The German was too fast for me, so I just enjoyed Irving’s own reading, and during the German sections I watched as Irving listened to the actor and followed along, making little swooping hand gestures as though he were conducting the music of his book. Fascinating!

At one point Irving jokingly said of his method for plot design: “I find a character that I’m sympathetic to, and I try to think of the worst possible thing that can happen to him.” At first I was taken aback by this — it seems so blatantly manipulative. But how come his work doesn’t come across that way? I then stumbled over a yet more depressing idea: is it by being as cruel as possible that Art successfully imitates life?

I had to reject this idea, too. I don’t think life is unconditionally cruel. But I do think we read for a reason, and that is to find out how we should live. Literature — and other art forms, like film — have to condense joys and sorrows, amplify highs and lows, in order to be useful and forceful enough in this regard. And what Irving didn’t mention, of course, is that after miring his characters, he most always allows them to overcome the obstacles, to be redeemed.

Irving is of course also known for his humour, so here is another [paraphrased] quote from yesterday on sexuality, which is the key concern of In One Person: It’s good that we can imagine things and not act on them, because “if you had sex with everyone you imagined, your life would be an utter disaster. I know mine would be.”

Irving has put out a new book every 3-4 years since 1968, and even now, at the age of 70, he shows no sign of slowing down. He told us, the audience members, about the main character and concept of the novel he’s writing now. And while I don’t know where I’ll be living when he goes on promotional tour in 2015-2016, I can hope it’ll be a place he’ll visit.


A few fall festivals

September brings a number of interesting events to this fair country. There is, of course, the cow parade, which I want to make a point of seeing next year (assuming we’re still living here then). Then there is the lesser-known Kurbisregatta, in which farmers race across a lake using a hollowed-out pumpkin as a vessel. Sadly I did not see this in person either, but a look through the images on that page is rather rewarding.

Stelian and I did, however, manage to take part in the film festival happening here in Zurich; last weekend we saw the film Sleepwalk with Me, written by and starring comedian Mike Birbiglia. I was familiar with Birbiglia as an occasional contributor to This American Life,  so I knew I enjoyed his sense of humour. Sleepwalking is also a topic that I relate to on a personal level. While I have (repeatedly) experienced it, Birbiglia, on the other hand, can really be said to have suffered from it…the movie tells his story in excruciating and hilarious detail. I liked the film — it certainly made us laugh, even if it seemed to lack focus at times. If it’s not playing in a theatre near you, I recommend in its stead this episode of This American Life, in which Birbiglia tells his story, which if you’re like me, will have you laughing until you can’t breathe. Good times.

Anything interesting happening near you this month? 


Apartment pics redux

We’re all moved in to our new apartment. Note that I said moved in, not settled. There’s a lot more to be done in terms of unpacking and arranging things. But we’re enjoying living here so far. Here is a look at one of my favourite rooms in the apartment:

It’s our office, and there is a tree that fills the picture window here. An amazing thing is that the large window actually is on a hinge, and opens. But we’ll probably not open it often, because it’s pretty scary to see such a big piece of glass swinging free. In case you can’t see in the picture, the tree is a maple — appropriate for us occasionally homesick Canadians.

And here is a look at two other great features of the apartment, in the living room: a fireplace, and a stairway to…a roof terrace. I’ll show you soon. But shhh — the cats don’t know about it yet.