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.



Sweet escape

I didn’t make any resolutions for the New Year (except for a kind of vague optimistic pledge to do everything better!) but I find even without specific goals, January puts me in a navel-gazing, self-improving kind of mood.

There are many potential targets for melioration: my housekeeping habits, my sleep hygiene, my work ethic. But my thoughts keep returning to my diet.

I have Facebook friends who regularly post material intended to shame and scare people into eating the same way they do (which lately seems to consist of pretending you can only access caveman fare). They post things like “How Cola Begins To Kill You The Instant You Swallow,” with figures showing how each organ is being overworked and corroded and generally just completely annihilated by sugar. Presented with such posts, I either immediately ignore and dismiss them, or I give them a cursory look to ascertain that something is misspelled or poorly written and that I’m safe in dismissing the source as uneducated and unknowledgeable (snotty, yes, but desperate times…).

More and more, though, it’s in the news, it’s being spouted by reliable sources: Sugar (especially in its refined and added forms) really is bad for you.

It’s hard for me to hear, given that my life is fuelled by things ending in -ose. Fructose, glucose, sucrose, dextrose, lactose: they’re dear, lifelong friends. My childhood home was always full of sugary things: monochrome peanut-butter sandwich cookies, factory-perfect ridges decorating their surfaces; cartons of Neapolitan ice cream, the strawberry segment a lurid artificial pink; delicious homemade cakes and pies to mark our many birthdays. One of my favourite pastimes as a pre-teen was going to the house of my friend J, whose family had a gas oven which was great for baking. We would have “bake-offs” wherein we evaluated the merits of different cookie recipes and techniques. In those days, a lot of cookies were eaten in the pursuit of Truth and in the name of Science.

I remember when another (European and svelte) friend had me over to her apartment, and her mom had baked something which was sitting on the counter. “Do you feel like eating something sweet?” she asked. I stared at her, thinking it was the craziest question anyone had ever asked me. In my mind the question was never do I feel like something sweet. It was how often am I allowed ?

During my undergrad degree, I took a nutrition class. We learned about balancing carbs and fats and proteins, and I’m sure there was a specific caution to avoid too much added sugar. But after the final exam, I forgot all of my learning except for this: the brain runs on glucose. It needs sugar to operate. I would remember this fact, cling to it, while tossing cookies into my cart or whipping up a batch of brownies during midterms, thinking I want my brain to operate extra well, so

My next misstep as regards sugar involves becoming a distance runner. Not only does running 20 miles tend to make you feel that you’ve “earned” dessert, but marathon runners also revere sugar as prevention against “hitting the wall” (which I thankfully have yet to do). So in addition to ingesting too much sugar on a daily basis, I  was also squirting concentrated forms of it into my mouth during long runs.

Then I moved to Switzerland, a sugar-bomb of a mistake that I think needs no further explanation.

A couple weeks ago, we were having dinner with a friend, and I mentioned having eaten a peanut-butter-banana wrap for lunch (it’s one of my go-to lunches lately: smear peanut butter on a tortilla, add a banana, roll it up, and voila: lunch is ready in 30 seconds). Our friend said “Hm, I would never eat something sweet like that for lunch.” And I thought: that’s not something sweet…something sweet is the chocolate or whatever I eat afterwards. And I heard how bad it sounded.

Looked at one way, my day is a sine wave of sugar highs and lows; a series of carb cravings and fixes. But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way. I always thought I had a friend in -ose, but when I consider some other words that end this way…

  • Bellicose
  • Comatose
  • Grandiose
  • Lachrymose
  • Morose
  • Necrose
  • Overdose

…I can’t help feeling discomfited.

I’m not about to become a Sugar-Nazi anytime soon. There’s no way I’m giving up fruit or milk or other naturally sweet things. But it might be worth seeing what life could be without the chocolate, the desserts, the lumps added to coffee and oatmeal. If you’ve had similar struggles or successes with cutting down sugar, I’d love to hear about it…

(Today’s brain activity brought to you by Post-Prandial Apple, filling in for Lindt Infiniti Fondant.)


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.


Spam-filter poetry: My magnificent goods

I’ve said before that I like to find writerly inspiration outside of books: in things like rap music and spoken word poetry and radio programs. I like words (like this guy!) and I love when they’re used in playful and unusual ways.

There are a lot of words on the internet, but it’s not often that I surf into ones that really surprise and delight. But as it turns out, I’ve been sitting on a goldmine: my spam filter. Behold, a verse-comment recently nearly thwarted out of existence:

Magnificent goods from you, man. I have to take into account your stuff previous and you’re just too great. I actually like what you have obtained right here, really like what you’re stating and the best way in which you say it. You make it enjoyable and you continue to take care to say it sensible. I cant wait to read far more from you.

I don’t know what combination of computer-generation or botched language learning leads to this comment, but gosh, it’s good. Can you imagine a story-length version of this guy? I can, but unfortunately I’m not good enough to write it. And to think he squanders this talent, spending his days promoting his Viagra-site or some such.

Any good catch in your filters, fellow bloggers?


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?






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.