Chronicles of a writer abroad


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.



If you don’t like the weather…

…wait five minutes.

How many people in how many places try to claim this saying for their meteorological patterns? I’ve encountered many hyperbolic uses of it. If there is a German version of the adage, however, I think Zürchers deserve to employ it. The weather here lately has been as changeable and chameleonic as Lady Gaga’s fascinators. I can leave my house for a short run on a perfectly sunny afternoon and find myself caught in a crazy downpour before I’ve reached home.

Now that it’s June, we’re eager to begin our season of weekend hiking. But the forecast for the past few Sundays has been for rain, and because of the tendency for said rain to be so sudden and so severe (unlike the all-day, lighter rain we became accustomed to in Vancouver) we’ve been holding off on far-away hikes and hanging out in Zürich instead. And our walks around here have been perfectly lovely, if intermittently rainy. Here are some pictures taken along the way…hope you enjoy them.

Rolling hills just outside the city

The Zürichsee just before it began to pour

Lazy Sunday cows

Land & sky

University of Zürich, Irchel campus

Walks with Stelian include free lessons in agriculture…

…and new friends 🙂

Fountain in the Zürichberg forest


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:


A Sechseläuten story

We stood outside yesterday, another day with temperatures in the mid-20s — a day so warm and sunny that discomfort drove us to find an at least partially shaded spot as we waited near Sechseläutenplatz, down by the lake. We would be there for hours, protecting our vantage point, and we feared becoming overheated or badly sunburned if we stayed in an area fully exposed to the sun.

I couldn’t help but appreciate the irony of the situation — in these record-breaking April temperatures, we and tens of thousands of other Zürich residents sweltered as we waited to watch a snowman be burned, so that we could be assured that winter was over and summer on its way.

Sechseläuten (Sächsilüüte in Swiss German) is a spring holiday celebrated since the early 1900s; it is not Switzerland-wide, but peculiar to the city of Zürich. The English translation of  Sechseläuten is “six o’clock ringing of the bells,” and it originally marked the time of year when men in guildhalls (workshops) across the city no longer worked until lack of daylight forced them to stop, but started to be released from their duties by the tolling of church bells at six p.m.

Today, Sechseläuten is a holiday on which city-dwellers are given the afternoon off so that they can watch the parade of guilds and the burning of the Böögg. The parade is interesting and enjoyable: the guild members don their traditional costumes, some have floats and marching bands; they throw apples, bread, flowers, and other items to the crowds lining the parade route.

A noteworthy thing, though, is that this parade is composed almost entirely of men. Our German teacher told us an interesting fact, which I later confirmed through other sources to be true: 2011 is the very first year that a women’s guild was invited to participate in the parade. The Gesellschaft zu Fraumünster (or guild of the Fraumünster, one of Zürich’s important churches and former convents) is composed of women in various occupations, who honour and seek to represent the Fraumünster’s abbessess, or superior nuns, who were once de facto rulers of the city. Having being granted by King Henry III in 1045 the rights to mint coins and perform other important duties, and given further powers by Emperor Frederick II in 1218, their considerable political influence lasted through to the fourteenth century.

So, since 1922, the Fraumünster guild has been attempting to march alongside the men, but they found themselves shut out by the other (men-only) guilds year after year, and resorted to simply marching earlier in the day, when no one would stop them, or along a different route. I wonder how they felt, finally marching as a legitimate part of the parade yesterday — proud, no doubt; but do you reckon they felt completely and happily vindicated, or still a bit annoyed that this had to take 89 years to happen? Were they uncomfortably hot in their medieval costumes? Well, there is no doubt of this last.

As interesting as the parade is, the main attraction of Sechseläuten in its modern incarnation is surely the Böögg, a giant snowman who serves as both a burning effigy of winter, and a summer weather oracle. He sits atop a giant pyre, his rotund figure packed with unseen explosives, and at exactly six o’clock the bottom of the pyre is lit. While he burns, guildsmen on horses race around the fire. The amount of time that it takes for the Böögg’s firework-laden head to explode is used to predict whether the coming summer will be hot (with a faster time suggesting a hotter, and more enjoyable, summer). This year’s time was 10 minutes and 56 seconds, which is on the faster side; some years, it takes closer to half an hour. In 2003, the year that much of Europe, including Switzerland, would experience a massive summer heat wave, the Böögg’s head exploded in the very fast time of 5:42.

Here are some pictures I took of this year’s Böögg and his quick demise:

Before the burning, a pristine Böögg awaits his fate

The highly punctual Swiss light his pyre right at six o'clock

The flames climb higher...

...and soon the Böögg is himself on fire.

Explosives are going off, and the head is blackened...

He's engulfed in flames now, but the head has to be entirely gone...

Like this! You can see that the broom fell off as his head exploded.

The pyre and stand would continue to burn for some time.

After the fire has gone out, the tradition is for residents of Zürich to snatch some hot coals, and use them to grill sausages, such as their beloved Cervelas, and other foods. I didn’t stick around to see this part, but maybe next year I will.

I rather enjoyed watching the Böögg explode — it was far more dramatic than I’d been imagining (there is a short video here of the head exploding and disappearing suddenly). But I do have to say that there is some eerieness about being among a crowd of people who are cheering as a somewhat human-like figure is destroyed by fire. I did my best to suppress or compartmentalize thoughts of people being burned at the stake in this same country, probably amid this same type of gaiety (this poor guy being one example).

Well, to end on a happy note — it looks, based on the weather pattern so far, as well as the Böögg’s prediction, as though we will be having a nice, hot summer this year. All the more reason to come and visit our fair city!


Fun in (and around) the sun

We had some guests, friends from Vancouver who now live in Munich, come to stay with us this past weekend. Our espresso machine was put to good use. Our sofabed was put to good use. Our cats found that the audience for their plaintive yowls for food and attention was suddenly doubled. We ate a lot of cheese. It was a good weekend.

It was also, I think, the first time that I’ve ever managed to get a sunburn in April. I was not quite prepared for the temperature to be in the mid-twenties and for us to be wearing t-shirts as we paddled a boat across the Zürichsee on Saturday. I was lobster-coloured in certain places after that afternoon. It may have been the reflection off the water that made things worse.

Here’s a picture that I took from our paddleboat.

It’s not the best quality, I realize. But the thing to notice is that you can see the mountains — the mountains were “out.” It doesn’t happen all the time, and this is the first time that I’ve managed to capture it on film. I actually overheard a tour guide say to a group on this weekend: “over here is a viewpoint where you can see the city of Zürich…and today, you will see the mountains as well.” The mountains are a special show that not everyone witnesses. We likely annoyed our guests by pointing this out repeatedly.

After our paddleboat adventure, we went to Sprüngli, the famous Zürich chocolate shop, where a staff member attractively packaged a box of Luxemburgerli for us, perhaps thinking that we were buying them as a gift. Then we exited the store, tore open the box on the sidewalk right out front, and devoured the little delicacies in about eight seconds. Then we went for dinner. And later, we had ice cream.

Paddleboating is serious exercise. I won’t let you tell me otherwise.

Stelian and I had thought that we might venture out of Zürich to do a hike on Sunday, but our guests had come with a preconceived mission: they wanted to hike the planetary trail. So we set off to the top of the Uetliberg, one of the mountains flanking the city.

The Planetweg, or planetary trail, is about 7 km long. It starts with the sun, and other planets appear at various points along the trail, and in various sizes, in accordance with their size and distance relative to the sun (the scale is 1:1 billion). The sun looked like this:

The Earth appeared as a tiny metal ball, smaller than a pencil eraser. Pretty humbling, that. And here was Neptune, almost at the end of the walk:

Really, it should be the end of the walk, but Pluto is still considered a planet according to this trail. Too bad; no opportunity to use the “when I was your age, Pluto was a planet” line on little Swiss kids. Not that they would have understood, anyway.

The Planetweg also offered an unfamiliar (to us) planet: something called Ceres, which fell between Mars and Jupiter. We stood puzzled at its sign with some French tourists, all of us shaking our heads at this apparition that didn’t fit into our MVEMJSUNP acronym and attendant mnemonics. Later googling revealed that this is a dwarf planet, like Pluto. Well, fair enough. But even if the Swiss do think you’re worthy of the Planetweg, my pancake story ain’t changing for the likes of you, Ceres. Except without Pluto, which is gone now…oh, darn it, it’s already all messed up.

Once we made it to Pancakes — I mean, Pluto — we realized that we were stranded, because we didn’t have enough cash to take the gondola down the mountain (don’t be like us: always carry lots of cash when in Switzerland). So, it was either trek all the way back to the Sun (which, incidentally, would have had us facing the sun), or climb down the mountain via a path through dense forest. I happily took the shaded option — the sun and I needed a little break from each other.


A reasonable balance of photos and text

It’s been a while since I’ve shared some pictures with you. I uploaded a bunch from my camera last night, and realized that you might appreciate seeing some of them.

But I gotta hit you with some prose at the same time. You know how it is. I can’t just let you look…I can’t just show without telling a little bit, too.

So settle down, class. Let’s get started. Here is a picture of Zürich at dusk that I took a couple of weeks ago.

Notice how we’re up above the city — and the River Limmat — a little bit here. There is a very nice square up here, with the usual decorative fountains and benches for people to relax on, and take in the sights.

Looking south from the same square, you can see the twin towers of the Grossmunster.

Let’s change gears, from pleasure to pain. Here is an example of these running paths in the forest that I keep complaining about:

Yeah: I keep denouncing them, and then I keep going back for more. It’s that kind of relationship.

Ooh, and we had a renovation! Renovations are really fun, I’ve realized, when you don’t have to do any of the work. When we moved in, our landlords mentioned that they we’re going to enlarge one of our balconies (come on, as if we’re not already so lucky to have two balconies). Anyway, they did it, and it was painless for us, and also pretty exciting. Here’s a picture of the balcony before:

That’s right — it wasn’t the prettiest balcony (the pretty one is on the other side, facing the street). Knowing how things can get hopelessly mangled in translation, I wondered if what they actually planned to do was just update it a little. Could it really get much bigger?

The answer is yes. Oh my, yes.

Here is Cleo luxuriating on our new patio. I don’t think we can call this thing a balcony, anymore. It is huge. You can certainly eat on this thing…and you will, if you visit us during nice weather (and after we’ve bought the necessary furniture). Al fresco dining! You won’t have a view of the Alps, I’m sorry — our building forms a triangular enclosure with some other buildings, so all you’ll see is them. But still…al fresco!

Here’s another view of the new structure, from inside. That feline lump is Cleo, again. I don’t know what happened to her eyes. Sometimes their reflective light gets sucked into to the black hole of her dark-as-night fur, I guess. I’m not freaked out by it anymore.

Finally (the bell is about to ring, but please just stay in your seat for a minute or two longer), we celebrated the Vernal Equinox yesterday by going to the Zürich zoo. It sits atop the city on the Zuriberg. It has great views, an impressive variety of animals…and it attracts an impressive number of human animals speaking an impressive variety of languages. (Want to experience a babel of language? Go to a zoo in a country that has four spoken languages, and attracts tourists from around the world).

We saw lions…

And tigers…

And the most adorable little baby goat.

What — was that supposed to end differently?

Class is dismissed. Now go and enjoy Spring!


A Walk in the Woods

(Disclaimer/Rambling Preface: the title to this post is a Bill Bryson reference — you may have noticed that I like to rip off one thing or another in most of my titles. I must inform you, with regret, that this post is not likely to achieve one-tenth of the humour of the Bryson book of the same name. Terribly sorry about that. For those of you who haven’t read A Walk in the Woods, I suggest you do: it’s truly hilarious).

I was pretty bummed when I realized that Stelian left for the UK without taking our shared camera. I would like to know what Brighton, England looks like — especially after Stelian has informed me that it’s in some ways the Las Vegas of the UK (as he put it, “what happens in Brighton, stays in Brighton”) and that the hotel room he’s staying in looks like a love nest from the 1970s.

Oh, well — the camera was with me, so I decided to take you along on a walk today. This is a forest near our house — I typically run in it, but today I walked, because I’m afraid of running with the camera. I hope you enjoy the scenery…I know I did.

Welcome to the woods


Ready to choose your own adventure?

My chosen path led me to the shanty town of Zürich North. What — you haven’t heard of the raging poverty that exists here in Switzerland?

Okay, those are not shacks. Well, they are…but for gardening, not for people to live in.

But some of them are quite nice. And, I’m convinced that they’re also larger than the average Vancouver shoebox condo.

Now we come to the deer park. Could this walk get any better?


Hello, Deer - how was your day?

I love these animals.

After tearing myself away from the deer, I came across this. Seriously? Who buys spray-paint with this kind of graffiti in mind? Only in Switzerland…

After this, I pretty much turned around and went home — keeping a sharp eye on the competition.

Just kidding: I could never keep up with these runners.

Thanks for joining, and I hope your Thursday is a pleasant one too!