At home.

Zurich is really a beautiful city.  I feel like I don’t talk about that enough- traveling is fun and all, but inhabiting the place you actually live is also fun.  And I love the place I live, even if it’s a bit of a rarity that I’m actually there on a weekend.  It’s a quaint little city perched on the lakeside under the towering shadow of the Alps, filled with cobblestone streets and soaring church spires and ABSOLUTELY NO trash or homeless people.  I still don’t know how they manage this last, but it often leads to the sensation that I am living in a happy little bubble far distant from the problems of the world.  I don’t know if this is good or bad for the psyche.

It’s no great secret that I love the mountains, but there’s a quieter sort of beauty to the rolling countryside around Zurich that I also love.  There’s no end to walking or running or cycling paths, all marked out with the usual Swiss perfectionism.  There are over 65,000km of marked trails in the country, which is more than the distance around the world!  And it’s very diverse- my natural inclination is to make a beeline for the glacier strewn mountains farther south, but the local “mountain” Uetliberg” is wonderful for a midweek hard jog or walk upwards through the woods, a wonderful view over lake Zurich awaiting you.  And it seems no matter where you go, you run into local farmers selling their wares, often by the honor system where they list the prices and leave self-serve homemade cheese and jam out in a little hut next to a bucket where you can drop the cash.

Last weekend was a pretty typical weekend “at home” and I thought for once it might be fun to record what a normal weekend in my doctoral student life in Zurich is like.  At almost three years in, Zurich is truly home for me, and it is so nice to have made a little circle of friends and acquaintances to relax and enjoy the springtime weather with.  One of my favorite parts of living here in Zurich (NOT in Switzerland as a whole, this is definitely not true in the countryside) is how international working life here is.  In just this weekend my friends mentioned here were: German, Swiss, Italian, Australian, Mexican, French, and Spanish.  No Americans at all on this particular weekend, although usually there is a smattering of them.

The blow by blow:

Friday

A normal 9-5 working day, although when the weather is so nice it can get hard to stay alllll the way until 5pm.  Every week a rotating group of PhDs at my institute gathers at 5pm for after work beers, and today a group of 5 or 6 of us go down to the river and have panache (lemonade and beer mixed, also known as Radler in high German) at a little open air bar. My friend has brought her toddler along, so we spend a lot of time blowing bubbles and quacking at ducks in different languages (animal sounds in different languages is one of my favorite conversational topics).

Afterwards a couple of us eat burritos and then head to my friend Dayra’s birthday party.  She has rented out a whole bar in the Langstrasse district, a part of Zurich known for its hard partying and (ahem) ladies of the night.  She has provided open bar, bowls of gummy bears, unicorn balloons, and even a homemade tres leches cake- A+ birthday party.

Saturday

I have a mission today.  That mission includes reviving my bike.  See, I don’t cycle in the winter for various reasons that boil down to the fact that I’m a wimp.  One December day I biked to work and then decided it was just entirely too cold to bike back.  It’s been there ever since.  I haven’t really checked on it, but I suspected that 1) the tires would be flat or even possibly have holes in them, as I already had to patch one last fall, and 2) it is covered with dust from the construction site next door to my office.

It was also a beautiful spring day in the 70s, and I decided to kill two birds with one stone by taking a meandering jog to the office by way of a trail by my house down to the lake. This turns into more of an obstacle course once I reach the lake, as approximately 3/4s of the mobile population of Zurich has decided that this is the place to be and are walking around sunning their pale winter legs.  Nevertheless, I make it to the office, drag my bike to a nearby bike store, and purchase two inner tubes for my tires.  Then I stare at my bike for a while, a little bemused.  I am just not the Fixit Type. Luckily I have friends who are.  I call my friend Heidi and show up at her door, dusty bike in tow, still in my sweaty running outfit and no makeup.  We have an awesome relaxing afternoon on her rooftop with her, her boyfriend, and another friend Anne while we hose down my bike and repair the brakes/tires.  After a full day of relaxing in the sun, I pedal home for the first time in 2017, pondering how nice it is to have friends who accept emergency calls from sweaty runners who need bike first aid.

Sunday

This same friend Heidi has now organized a bike tour for five of us along the Sihl river into the countryside.  I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to kick off biking for the first time with a full day 70ish km hilly tour, especially as I was already a little sore just from 40 minutes of biking home the day before, but overdoing it seems to be a general theme in my life.  Let’s just say, sore bums are the worst.

At home.

stuff i should have figured out by now

I have a nemesis while traveling.  That nemesis is contact lens solution.  I’ve had many a scavenger hunt for contact lens solution while wandering mainland Europe, and my findings are puzzling.  It is truly hard to hunt down those buggers!  Pretty much the only place that always carries it is the pharmacy- which is no CVS.  You’ve gotta go in and talk to the pharmacist, and hit the open hours, which are usually limited and DEFINITELY closed outside of conference working hours, which is when the situation usually becomes dire. 

The worst is Sunday, when almost everything is closed- I spent one memorable Sunday morning wandering around Venice asking café owners for help (literally I will give you money for your contact lens solution, why does no one wear contacts) and finally located a nifty vending machine outside one of the closed pharmacies.  Maybe my favorite experience was in Portugal, where after consuming a slightly too large glass of wine I remembered the usual lack of contact lens solution.  This time I had no problem locating a pharmacy, but the staff were utterly mystified by my usual acting out of the process of putting in a contact to get around the language barrier and I could not stop giggling.

I also routinely forget that Swiss plugs, much like everything else about Switzerland, are not quite compatible with the rest of the EU, but that on the other hand is no problem- almost every hotel has a stock of converters handy.  But contact lens solution?  That is apparently a problem that stumps every concierge, much as I suspect that I am not the only person with this problem.  Are you other vision challenged travelers just much better than me at this?  In my defense, it’s really hard for me to find the travel sized ones even in Switzerland.  Help me fellow Euros.

Huge digression aside, my latest contact lens solution pilgrimage was last week in Belgium, after realizing around 10pm as going to bed that I either needed to locate some under the counter contact lens solution pronto or spend the weekend blindly feeling my way around the conference.  I approached the concierge with trepidation (earlier on handing over my passport he had commented acidly, “Oh, Trumpland,” as has become a normal experience in Europe in the last couple months), and he very kindly took me on an engaging tour of late night stores in Brussels after the usual look of mystification.

Luckily, our tour was successful (and educational!  There are a lot of Middle Eastern owned late night stores in Brussels, just FYI).

The conference was also really successful.  It was the first feedback I’d gotten from the research community outside my institute on the latest paper that I’ve submitted, and it was really outstanding, I thought.  I even ran into the editor in chief of the journal that I submitted the paper to in the elevator, and he not only remembered me but complimented me on the work I’ve done.  It’s hard to convey how satisfying that is to those outside the research community- a normal paper might take more than a year from conception to submission, and the peer review even longer, so long periods of time in a scientist’s life are spent laboring alone with only our ideas.  In addition, this particular study was met with a lot of skepticism in this group when I initially presented the idea and enrollment statistics, so it was great to see how many people we won over with the final result.

And Belgium is beautiful and very interesting in terms of history!  It seems like almost every other country in Europe has conquered Belgium at some point, which leads to an interesting mishmash of language and culture.  At one point the Spanish kicked all the non-Catholics out of Belgium, which is when the Dutch all moved to the Netherlands en masse and still seems to lead to a lot of wink wink jokes about the differences between the 2 cultures. Unlike Switzerland, which is like a patchwork quilt of regions with different languages, Belgium is just one big swirl of everything everywhere.  Brussels is not my favorite, although the Grand Place is one of the most impressive squares I’ve seen in Europe, but both Antwerp and Bruges are beautiful, manageable little canal cities on the water with gorgeous gothic architecture.  How’s that for a 4 sentence summary of a country?  Please do not inspect my history claims too closely :X

And with that I think I’ve tracked all of western Europe except for the microcountries! Woot woot travel.

stuff i should have figured out by now

in which i (mostly) solve my problem by the end of the post

Gahhhh. Last weekend, whizzing down mountains. Today, tying shoes an impossibility. This week has been an annoying reminder that sometimes life gets in the way of best laid plans. And also how for granted I take my active life!

Grumbling aside, we have entered prime spring skiing here in Switzerland, and I spent three days zooming around a lovely local resort in one of my favorite alps regions this past weekend. Val d’Anniviers is in Wallis (Valais in French), a half German speaking, half French speaking canton in the south of Switzerland that is prime chalet & yodeling Heidi lookalikes territory. Literally in my case, since my friend Heidi was one of my skiing buddies. I have actually been here once before, during my two week hike from Chamonix to Zermatt, so it was really fun to compare summer vs. winter views (harder to spot the glaciers!)  I even managed to find the same swing that we had been monkeying around on two years ago.  Our friend Rafael is the pro-iest of skiers, like most of the Swiss I know, and is also formally trained as a teacher, and he managed to give us amazing tips!  Seriously, it was better than the last lesson I paid good money for.

Unfortunately, I was also gifted with a gnarly raccoon tan and a pulled shoulder/neck, thanks to a momentary slip in ski boots.  It seemed like just a twinge at first, and I skied a full day afterward with no problems and then went on a 12km/7mi run a day later. To which my body said, HAHA YOU FOOL.

Anyway, I’m walking around like Frankenstein and desperately trying to figure out a way I can still ski Zermatt this weekend while not bending over or turning my head.

I’m writing this on the tram on the way to physio partly because I am thinking of a silver lining- my German really seems to have turned a corner. After waking up and immediately yelling an expletive this morning, I lurched my way down to the pharmacy to ask for advice, bought various gelly things with long names, then called up the uni physio to get more advice and schedule an emergency appointment, all in German. Which isn’t really a big deal, don’t get me wrong- I’ve been able to have a basic conversation in German for quite some time. But describing detailed information about a fall and the level and location of the problem while in some degree of distress felt somewhat effortless, which is definitely a new feeling.

Probably to an outsider the difference is not very noticeable, as I’m still making oodles of mistakes, but to me it feels like a switch suddenly flipped in my brain and I no longer have to plan out my sentences in German, they just come. And I have gotten a little external validation as well- a few weeks ago in Davos we did a “German day” on the pistes, and at one point my friend looked at me and said, you can really make that chhhhhh sound now! To which I pointed out there are really three different chhhhh sounds in German, and what I have really learned is to differentiate between the three. It felt real good though, not gonna lie.  Normally, illness and injury are some of the most difficult things to navigate in a foreign country, and the ease of managing this minor crisis reminds me more than ever that Switzerland increasingly is just home.

POST PHYSIO: what a miracle worker!!!! I now have almost full range of motion back after some physical therapy and cupping and she even gave me guarded permission to ski if I’m still better tomorrow. She understands my pain as an Austrian who lived in St. Moritz for 6 years. I will forever be a massage and physio evangelist.

The amazing quality of healthcare here in Switzerland makes me a little sad when I think of the mess that is the healthcare system I grew up in.  It doesn’t have to be that way, guys!  Join the rest of the developed world in regarding access to healthcare as a human right.  But that is another post for another day.

in which i (mostly) solve my problem by the end of the post

earthquakes & uncertainty

Last night there was an earthquake in Switzerland!  Random, petite, and only the second one of my life.

Besides earthquakes, my thoughts have been swirling a bit lately around uncertainty and how we humans deal with it.  Uncertainty is particularly rife in academia, for better or worse my current endeavor.  You become incredibly specialized and invest years in your education, betting that 1) your area of science will continue to be funded, a gamble that depends on a whole host of factors ranging from the political and economic climate to media coverage, and 2) that there will magically be a senior position in a good university open when you finally finish all of that onerous training.  The path to professorship in my field looks something like bachelors>masters>PhD>postdoc>second postdoc>assistant professor>full professor(with tenure??).  Less than one half of 1% of those PhD students make it to the professor level, and even fewer of those lucky PhD students are women (another topic for another day).

An added complexity here is that normally there are only a handful of universities doing really top level research in your area of expertise, so you must be willing to move almost anywhere to nab that perfect professor job.  And even before that, geographical mobility is rewarded on the grant level (to get top level postdoc grants in Switzerland you MUST leave Switzerland).

That, of course, leaves me in my current position.  I’m finishing up my PhD this year, which is both exciting! and means I am right smack dab in the middle of all that uncertainty again.  My preferred method of coping is premature nostalgia.  I found myself sitting at my desk last week, messing around in R with some really cool geospatial analyses, and thinking I LOVE MY JOB HOW CAN I LEAVE. I love my job- I mess around dreaming up and answering cool scientific questions and then writing it up for publication.  When I get stuck I have no end of brilliant colleagues to bug for help, and they are always willing to help me because 1) they are incredibly intellectually curious, and 2) they are also my very good friends and friends help friends.  When I want a coffee break or am not feeling excited by my work there is always someone who wants to take a walk with me through the lovely streets of Zurich to grab a needed afternoon dose of chocolate, and I almost always have time for social life and sports.

Maybe I would also have this if I left research and became a consultant or worked for a pharma company, to be fair.  There’s no guarantee either way.  And if I did go that route, I would at least be able to choose my geographical location and in some ways my future much more securely (I’m pretty sure pharma will be around for a while).  But…when I talk to other researchers about our projects, that’s when my heart beats a little faster.

I think that ultimately this year of uncertainty will be much more fun than in the past- one perk of getting older is that both my confidence in my own abilities and those actual abilities are exponentially higher than say right after university.  But in some ways, I think my decision this year will be a big one: whether I want to keep choosing the path of adventure, or choose the “safer” route.

earthquakes & uncertainty

It’s amazing how quickly we as humans adjust to our surroundings.  When I started this blog, it was supposed to be an effort to document the sometimes bumpy road to assimilating myself into Swiss culture.  While I am still far from “assimilated” (I think you need a tree tracing you back all the way to William Tell to be able to really say THAT), I found myself in the peculiar position of being surprised by some aspects of American culture the last time I was back over Christmas.  Some of these came up over lunch with coworkers this week (they seem to source most of their knowledge of these items from sitcoms) and I find these things entertaining to ponder.

So help me Americans, why do we do these things??  Are some of them Midwestern specific??

  1. Shoes in the house.  I am now well trained- the second I darken the doorstep of anyone’s home, those shoes are practically flying off.  Most people have “Hausschuhe/house shoes” both for themselves and guests, but I have upgraded my sock quality without even thinking about it in the last couple years.  Holey socks are no longer a secret between me and my shoes.  I didn’t even realize how normal this is to me until at home over Christmas, when I realized I was the only person taking my shoes off at every given social occasion.  But…people…this is kind of gross!  The streets in winter are filled with salt and slush and mud and whoknowswhatelse.  And so many people have these gorgeous rugs that must be expensive and difficult to clean.  Why?
  2. Constant apologizing.  I can see people protesting that they don’t do this, but seriously start listening.  Over Christmas I silently mulled this over as I squeezed past people at brunch, walked past them in the grocery store, and stuck my butt in their face while exiting a plane row for the bathroom.  I was the one inconveniencing them, but the second you enter someone’s personal space bubble the apologies begin to flow.  I mentioned it to my brother, and his theory is that it defuses potentially combative social situations before they even start.  Which is nice.  But I also don’t know how I feel about this constant apologizing for one’s self, especially since I think it is somewhat more common with women.  But then it feels weird to not say anything back when someone is basically apologizing for their existence in your space bubble?
  3. American food culture.  I almost didn’t say this one because everyone’s heard it before, but it really is different.  There’s a lot of ritual around eating in Europe- even at work, we all sit down together, pronounce “en guete” (enjoy) and start eating when everyone is ready.  At restaurants the meal is expected to take several hours, and waiters usually take their sweet time coming over and between courses. I rarely eat alone unless I feel like reading a book or taking a walk at lunch, and never eat in front of the computer unless under a very tight deadline.  Also, there’s just so much less choice.  Menus are usually small, the grocery store I shop at is literally smaller than the closest Starbucks in Chicago, and I usually can only get fruits and vegetables in season or at extraordinary prices in the bigger grocery stores downtown.  There’s very limited to go food (although that is changing the longer I am here), and almost no eating between meals.  I have mixed feelings about this.  I miss the extraordinary food culture in NYC and Chicago, but I like that the foods I eat here are by default always local and usually minimally processed.

So there you have it, my weekly cultural ponderings for the week.  I’ve had a lot of adventures lately that have been percolating in my brain, especially my literary adventures in Dublin, and I would love to share them before they fly away like my third (!) winter in Switzerland is whipping by.  What’s with these climate change winters?  They are severely impacting my ski season.

Liebe Grüsse,

Your Swiss Correspondent

 

2016 in the books

Literally.  Happy New Year’s, all!  I’ve never been much of a “New Year” person, so I’ll spare you any pontification about all my 2016 ups and downs.  It always made more sense to me logically that the beginning of the New Year should fall in springtime, when everything is ACTUALLY starting over new.  Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere have still got at least a couple more months of dead trees out our windows so I have plenty more wintery reflection time to fit in.

Instead, I’ll talk about a big part of my life that doesn’t often make it on here: my life in books.  I’ve long had a habit of writing a review of every book I read on goodreads, good or bad.  I don’t read nearly so much since I moved to Switzerland, but goodreads does tell me that I read 53 books and 22,384 pages in 2016.  Here are my favs in top ten list form, no particular order.

  1. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. see review.  Kind of science fiction, kind of mathy, kind of historical fiction- hits all my nerdy favorites.
  2. My Brilliant Friend series by Elena Ferrante. book 1 review, book 2 review, book 3 review, book 4 review. An author who captures the intricacies of female friendship beyond anything I’ve ever read before.  I know I’m not the first person to be singing her praises, but it bears repeating.
  3. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. see review.  Want to know why humans do illogical stuff?  Nobel prize winner has the answers.
  4. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. see review.  Yanagihara is one of my favorite 2016 author discoveries.  She just kills it with the kind of page turning, morally ambiguous tales I love- this one about a scientist who discovers the secret to long life in a forgotten island tribe.
  5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.  see review.  If you read the review it’s clear, but MAJOR WARNING that this is dark stuff.  Nevertheless I raced through this door stopper and had all the feels.
  6. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. see review. Unbelievable account of an unbelievable event.
  7. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. see review. Kinda like a darker version of the Great Gatsby set in the desert.
  8. Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates. see review.  JCO takes on Marilyn Monroe and the result is a fascinating mashup of prurient curiosity and feminism and Hollywood and the making of an icon.
  9. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. see review. Amazing WWI read.
  10. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. see review. I know I’m probably the last person ever to read this but it was darkly funny and insightful and memorable.

Besides the time spent with my nose in a book, I spent plenty of time hiking and climbing in the mountains, published a new manuscript, visited 16 countries (some of them more than once!), hosted my dad and brothers in Europe for the first time, finally moved in on my own, and spent lots of time laughing with loved ones.

There were some low moments- I am approaching a lot of decision points re: my life, the future, and everything, and I’ve never been too good at dealing with endings and change.  I’ve taken a lot of chances and a few unpremeditated leaps in my life, and while most of them have worked out wonderfully, there were a few that did not this year. I think, though, the lesson is not to stop taking leaps, but to appreciate the opportunity to relearn the habit of hopefulness in the face of setbacks.  I’ll just look at it as a healthy pruning of my ego 😉

Guess I totally lied about saving the pontificating for springtime.

 

 

2016 in the books

the sometimes weird cult of travel

I found myself thinking a lot today about cultural differences around travel.  I was chatting with a friend during the coffee break at a course, and she was giving me some advice about an upcoming trip.  I was amazed by all the places she had been, and asked her when she had fit it all in.  Turned out that for every winter and summer break from late high school on, she had saved up at her job and bought a plane ticket somewhere new.  Especially when traveling in Asia, she said, living there was so cheap that virtually the only expense was the plane ticket, so she could stay for months on end.

Why hadn’t I or most of my friends done anything like that?  It’s not like the stuff I was up to on my high school and college breaks was anything earth shattering for my career.  The best I could come up with was that I just hadn’t thought about it.

Frequent travel and long interludes abroad are the norm for the Swiss and even most Europeans I meet, to the point that I am embarrassed frequently by how little of this wide world I’ve seen.  And trust me, I’ve tried my best to see all I can in my surroundings, no matter where I’ve lived.  Hang around in the vicinity of some of these avid travelers and you will inevitably be asked your “country number,” aka the number of countries you’ve visited (normally with the caveat that it just can’t be the airport).  I’ve even heard challenges around this like “30 before 30,” or the quest to visit 30 countries before hitting 30.

All of this reeks of a certain type of box checking approach to life, and I get sometimes annoyed because anyone with this sort of attitude is likely missing the point of traveling entirely.  (And maybe because I can hardly ever come close to the person asking me :p)  And while I’ve had some pretty great adventures living in different places, sometimes I am envious of the people who put down roots in one place, and wonder if the people with such strong family and friendship ties in one place end up the happiest overall. I’m also uncomfortable with the simple fact that except for my tourist dollars (and sometimes even with them), I am undeniably making a place worse with my swarmlike tourist presence (we rarely roam alone), and with all my carbon spewing plane rides to get there.

However, when I think of what has shaped me as a person, I have to admit that a lot of it has been travel, most especially long term stays where I truly got beneath the surface of a new culture.  My short months in the Dominican Republic I remember specifically as an often uncomfortable period personally that helped me to grow hugely as a person and also brought me to the understanding of how completely and totally privileged my upbringing has been.  Perhaps that is when travel goes from being an enjoyable hobby to something that is really worthwhile.

Finally, of course, you never know what is lurking behind the glossy instagram photos that can make the jetset life seem so appealing.  This weekend, while drinking wine on a lovely terrace in Corniglia overlooking the Mediterranean, I struck up a conversation with a French Canadian woman sitting at the table next to us.  She and her partner were retired Air Force and traveling all over the world together, drawing the next wonderful destination out of a hat.  I thought, awed, that I would love to have that life when I reach that age.  Later I found out that she had cancer, and likely wouldn’t have much longer.  A lot of pain was sitting on that idyllic terrace.

For now, I definitely would describe myself as someone with the travel bug, even if as I get older I get more thoughtful about what that means.  And I guess I do think, high handed as it seems, that travel in general is a good thing for the human race, if not for its health or the environment.  Like eating meat, it is kind of one of those things that I feel uneasy about now and then, but squash down under the corner of my brain that says “BUT I REALLY LIKE IT.”  Perhaps one of these days I will take a principled stand, but that day is not today.

 

the sometimes weird cult of travel