Starbucks and other things that remind me of home

A funny thing happened the other day.  I was in Starbucks to get some to go coffee for an afternoon break down by the river on a particularly sunny afternoon with my Swiss colleague (don’t judge me, I swear Starbucks is a rare occurrence.  But sometimes I just have a yen for that filter coffee).  I asked the woman behind the counter in German what the difference between 2 types of coffee was, and she gleefully went off a long catalogue of frothing and milk proportion differences.  It dawned on me quickly that this woman was American, which is not a normal occurrence in service jobs- to get a work visa as a non-EU worker you need to have some seriously sought after skills, and as important as coffee brewing is, there are quite a few qualified candidates right here in Switzerland.

So after her little monologue, I politely placed my drink order and then, switching to English, asked where she was from.  Florida, as it turns out.  She didn’t seem surprised by the question, either- she had clearly also realized I was American, although I had only spoken one sentence, and that in German.

We exchanged a little small talk about how we ended up here, but she had to move on to the person behind me in line, and my friend and I moved on to the little coffee doctoring station where we did our usual pre-coffee rituals.  My friend was amazed, however.

“How did you know that she was American?!  Her German was perfect!  I never would have guessed from what she said that she wasn’t a native speaker.”

I didn’t really have a good answer, and it is certainly not the first time that such a thing has happened.  I can often tell another American, particularly if they are my own age, just from walking down the street without a word being spoken.  After this little encounter, I conducted a brief survey of my colleagues of various nationalities to see if they have the same experience, and it seems many to some degree have.  (Although I did get some protests, particularly from my Australian and British friends, that they avoid their fellow countrymen like the devil and so largely can’t make any comment.  I will not overinterpret this statement ;))

Humans are just humans no matter where you go in the world- the same hopes, fears, petty grievances, gossip, and laughter.  This is absolutely true, and I think a lot of our societal problems would disappear if we all could just grasp that on a fundamental level.  But where we grow up DOES influence us, does affect the way we communicate, our sense of humor, our outlook on life, even the way we look to some degree.  Why are we able to recognize our compatriots, sometimes without even knowing why?  Why have so many people told me that I have “an American smile?”  There are so many unnameable things that go into making a person who they are- sometimes I wonder how much of any of us is a product of where we grew up, the commercials we watched, the newspapers we read, the shape of the world we lived in.

Starbucks and other things that remind me of home

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

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


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

On the hunt in Zürich

So many changes lately!  It’s in the air.  First of all, I’m writing to you from a new decade.  Woop woop.  The last time I changed decades, I was singing mournfully along to “Teenage Wasteland” and maneuvering my way into bars underage.  How things have changed…  I have oodles more thoughts on aging that I will spare you for today.

So there’s that, and a ton of other projects I’ve had cooking lately.  But the one that had me laughing the most this week is the insane process of apartment hunting here.  I’m currently on the hunt for my first EVER solo apartment.  I’ve lived with friends, roommates, significant others, but have never lived all on my own.  That is all about to change (fingers crossed, the apartment has been offered, but the lease is not yet signed!)

Anyway, the whole thing has been like a particularly competitive form of speed dating.  Let me paint the scene of a recent (typical) viewing:

Read about an “official viewing” for a likely looking apartment online.  It is a half hour slot at 5pm on a Tuesday afternoon, so must manage work schedule around this one time viewing opportunity.  Arrive 5 minutes early to the usual crowd of applicants milling around apprehensively and eyeing the rest of the crowd competitively.  I usually try to snag a Swiss friend to come along and prove that at least one local likes me, but today I’m flying solo.

Door of apartment building opens at 5pm on the dot.  Friendly older Swiss woman and her daughter begin a stream of rapidfire German describing the apartment and how we are to form ourselves into groups to view said apartment.  I do my best to come off as particularly friendly and as not-cavemanlike as possible, given the state of my German.  My likelihood of getting this apartment is a function of how “sympatisch” she finds me, along with her tolerance of foreigners.

Quickly scan apartment and decide I like it.  Pretend like I am interested in the basement storage unit and bicycle storage situation (this seems to be epically important to everyone except for me).  After I have asked enough questions about the basement storage to seem sufficiently sympatisch, I rush back to office.

Now it is time for that ever-present part of Swiss life: the documentation.  A successful application includes the following:

  • Completed rental application that can only be obtained at the viewing, as far as I can tell.  This is normal stuff, income, where you’ve lived before, reason for changing, some references from your current apartment and your boss.
  • Originalbetreibungsauszug (sorry, no translation).  This is a document that I had to go to my local Kreisburo (community government building) to obtain.  It certifies that I have no outstanding debts, according to the government.
  • Copy of my residence permit
  • A letter describing myself, my job, my interests, and why I am interested in the apartment, along with a photo of myself on the top.  Luckily I was able to copy this pretty much verbatim from a friend, because I am not particularly skilled in writing charming letters in German.

It is extremely important that you have all these documents together before ever even seeing the apartment, because it is literally a time game, as I have learned the hard way.  Within hours the landlord will be flooded with dozens or more of applications and only the first few will even get looked at.

I both email as pdfs and snail mail hard copies of these forms within 30 minutes of the apartment visit.

The next day: success!  A call from an unknown number.  It turns out to be the management company of the apartment, saying that I am in the running, but first he needs to determine if my German is good enough for this community.  A ten minute verbal German quiz follows.  I pass!  Woohoo!

The next barriers are the calls to my supervisor and current landlord.  I pass x2!  Woohoo!

Finally, I am requested to go back for a 1 on 1 interview with the current owner of the apartment building.  I suspect this is mainly to test my German again and introduce me to the other members of the building, so they can appraise the potential new resident as well.  It goes well, but they feel strongly that the apartment should go to someone who really NEEDS it.  I don’t really fit this category.  I just WANT a sweet little Swiss roof apartment in the Niederdorf.  I have a current roof over my head and other options in where I can live.

The next day, I hear back.  I didn’t make it 😦  Ah well, on to the next!  A good philosophy for life in general, I find.



On the hunt in Zürich

How not to road trip to Italy

This whole blog thing is a little strange for me- sometimes I go whole months without even remembering I have one, and then sometimes while something is happening to me I think I HAVE to write a blog post about this.  Last week’s Italian road trip definitely fell into that category.  Even though I’ve been living abroad now for almost 2 years, there are still moments when I am totally staggered by how strange a certain moment is, and how odd it is in the context of human history that I am standing in this random spot on the globe, thousands of miles of ocean and land from the spot where I was born, a situation that before the past century or so only happened to the conquistadors and Marco Polo, or something.  This whole epic road trip made enough of an impression that I am still sitting here laughing about it on the train home from Venice, all of a week later.

Philosophy aside, let me set the scene.

the views from smalltown, Italy

SCENE: The society that my supervisor is head of has an annual meeting that this year will be held in the member hospital in a tiny town in northern Italy.  It is so tiny that I do not want to mention the name in case the hosts google their own town and this comes up.  My supervisor, like many Europeans, is very ecofriendly and decides that the best option for the 4 of us coming from Zürich is to carpool, and he offers to drive us all down.  I am intrigued by the idea of 6 hours (so I thought) in the car with 3 colleagues and agree.

CAST (pseudonyms of course):

Rolf: Swiss version of the absent-minded professor.  Prone to opinionated outbursts and dreamy ideas.  Mysterious ability to cause any form of electronic to malfunction on approach.  And I know this is a German German name and not a Swiss German name, but I couldn’t think of any Swiss names off the top of my head.

Katya: German doctor researcher.

Sarah: Very serious Swiss doctor researcher.

Verona Castle


The drama begins before we even start as we wake up to a blizzard in Zürich.  In almost May.  This is significant because to cross into Italy from Switzerland you must pass over the Alps, and in snow this can become impossible.  Dun dun.  We decide to set out earlier than expected to avoid iciness, around 2pm, and hope that the passes are not snowed in.  This actually turns out to be the only thing that goes right about the day, as we sail into the Alps in picture postcard weather, tasty confisierie gifts from Sprüngli balanced on our laps.  This is great, I think.

Rolf is an incredible tour guide, pointing out all sorts of valleys with peculiar Swiss history and proposing stops at amazing hidden sites like an old Roman style church from the 12th century.  And of course we stop in the beautiful town of Lugano in the Italian lakes region (ya know, Lake Como and all those George Clooney type places) for an espresso with a view of Lake Lugano.  This is all very fun, but I am noticing that the time is getting later and the skies are getting darker.  I decide not to mention anything, as I am the most junior member of the party and also these directions conversations are taking place in German, and I get a bit timid about speaking German in front of my supervisor.  I prefer him to think of me as a genius at all times.  My nefarious plan is to wait until I am completely fluent in German and then trot it out at an after work apero, effortlessly dropping witty bon mots in Swiss German.

These are the things I fantasize about when I have too much time in a car.

Wandering through old Roman arches in the springtime

After we cross the border into Italy, several things become clear.  First, there is no navigation system in the car.  Second, there are no maps in the car.  Third, the only other person with a functioning smartphone is hopelessly confused.  Fourth, it is dark and we are increasingly far away from Milan or any sort of large city with shops that might be open.  Fifth, street signage in Italy is not what it is in Switzerland. Sixth, I did not download travel data before leaving and my phone is useless for anything but very expensive calls.  Seventh, none of us speak Italian and none of the people we are encountering speak anything but.  This is the first time I call my hotel, in what was an attempt to let them know I’d be very late, but turned instead into a game of verbal charades as I realized that we didn’t have any languages in common, either.

After doing circles in the general vicinity of Verona for some time, a local makes a valiant attempt to give us directions in slow, clear Italian.  We at least know the words for left and right, so attempt to follow them in what turns out to be clearly the wrong direction, as we are spat out onto a superhighway back to Milan.  We get off at the next exit, turn around, and miracle of miracles finally spot the tiniest of tiny signposts with the name of the town that we are searching for!  Much joy ensues, and the next 45 minutes are spent in a treasure hunt for a series of these tiny signs, with much ducking under of bridges and circling of roundabouts.


We finally pull into our destination close to midnight (so just 4 hours later than planned), where with the aid of two other coworkers who had spent several hours lost trying to find the hotel earlier that day, we pull into the agriturismo where my coworkers are staying.  No one knows where my hotel is (the one they are staying in was booked out by the time I got to it), and everyone is too exhausted to continue the search.

One of my coworkers offered very kindly to share her bed with me, and we all retreated indoors to our separate rooms.  However, I was not best pleased.  Sharing a bed is fine on vacation, but on a business trip?!  I had not one, but two presentations the next day, and wanted to do things like wake up early and work out, practice my talks loudly in my underwear, and prepare myself to socialize with important Europeans 30+ years older than me for the next couple days.  In a final, desperate attempt, I call my hotel again and restart the verbal charades.  Eventually, I was able to make him understand where I was, and he said he would come pick me up outside the agriturismo “een five minute.”  This is where my previous post from last week begins.

Fifteen minutes later, I am still waiting for said man and realize that maybe this was not my best laid plan.  I’m waiting alone, in the dark, in the middle of what I’m guessing are vineyards (this turned out to be true in the morning, and quite beautiful may I add!), with a massive, very friendly stray cat I had managed to pick up in my adventures, locked out of the agriturismo where all my coworkers were by now probably sleeping, and I couldn’t remember how much credit I had left on my phone to call any of them if this guy didn’t turn up after all.

Roman Verona amphitheater, where they still stage operas!

Long story short, the guy eventually turned up and I certainly made his evening.  “An American!” he said disbelievingly.  “What you do here?”

I don’t know, my friend, I don’t know.

Apparently it made enough of an impression that some of the Spaniards whom I met later at the conference exclaimed, “oh, it’s the American!  You must be in our hotel” on introducing myself.  Turns out my hotel friend of the midnight hour told them all the story of the American he tracked down in a vineyard when they checked in.

Sighing under the Bridge of Sighs, Venice

My favorite part of this whole debacle is that for some reason my refusal to accept no for an answer and give up on my hotel seems to have impressed my supervisor way more than any of my actual work, based on the frequency of him bringing it up at cocktail hour in the days afterward.  “I see now how clever you really are,” are I believe the exact words he used, which is the most effusive compliment I’ve received yet.  I’ll take it!  Call me the Marco Polo of the 21st century.

The conference itself went quite well- I gave three presentations over the three days that were well received and generated some interesting discussion.  More importantly, we ate DELICIOUS food and drank DELICIOUS wine, including fresh truffles as our visit was lucky enough to coincide with the start of truffle season!  And then topped it all off with further adventures through northern Italy, but that is definitely a story for another day.

Happy travels, my friends, and remember- make sure there is a GPS involved.


How not to road trip to Italy

meanwhile, back on the farm

Despite all evidence to the contrary, this is not a travel blog.  I am supposed to be describing my “expat” (not a huge fan of that word, but that’s another topic) life as a PhD student in Switzerland.  But even though that’s the whole point of this writing exercise- me living in the moment and remembering the ups and downs of adjusting to life abroad and the academic life, somehow I find it difficult to tackle.  It is way easier to talk about the tasty burrata I ate on a weekend trip to Rome than to ponder what I think about the PhD experience.

So, about that whole PhD thing.  I hit the 1.5 year mark this month!  Which means I am halfway through the whole shebang.  Am I on track?  My answer to this varies a bit depending on the day.

…this is a joke, i promise.

My first year was pretty consumed with a bunch of things related to setting up a study.  It was really cool to be part of the whole scientific process from dreaming up the conceptual framework to testing questionnaires to getting ethics people on board to actually enrolling my first travelers.  Because really, that’s all that science is- a bunch of dreamers trying to ask some cool questions.  I learned a lot, took some interesting classes, picked up a couple new statistical packages, and enjoyed getting to know the scientific community in Europe better.

why my contract says 60% and I am there 100%

Most importantly, though, I have collected the data that my thesis is to be based on, and it looks really cool.  Which means it is GO TIME.  There is a whole culture in academia that is called “Publish or Perish,” and I am acutely aware that I need to start publishing.  And I’m on it!  But there are definitely days where I sit down and stare at RStudio and the 951 observations of 236 variables I need to weed through and wonder if I should just go back to bed.


It’s kind of tough to describe, because this is simultaneously my favorite phase of the PhD so far and the hardest.  There are sooo many questions I want to ask, but I also need to figure out the right questions to ask quickly so I can get something interesting to write up.  Scientists could dawdle in minutiae their whole lives if they aren’t careful, but my priority is to find something that contributes to the scientific body of knowledge in a novel way.

i really like phdcomics.  they get me.

Beyond these big scientific questions, there is just simple time management and burnout. For example, to do the cluster analysis I want, I need to go through all 236 of those variables, decide which ones contribute to a clinically relevant picture of travel health and don’t overlap with each other, and then reformat all of the variables I want to include into something appropriate for a cluster.  Also, I’m documenting all decisions I make when for purposes of a later methods section.  This is tedious, but necessary.  I’ve fallen back on a handy time management called the Pomodoro Technique, which I often resort to when getting into these periods of time sucking tasks.


So I guess that’s my general sum up of how I’m feeling now: a little overwhelmed, but excited.  Time and work output don’t correlate quite as linearly as when I worked a normal office job, which is why I’ve also found it helps to have a weekly routine of tracking tasks and accomplishments closely.  It might take several days to wade through a pile of literature, but it’s just part of the scientific game.

On another note, my dad comes tomorrow!  I’ll be wandering the ski slopes of Switzerland with him and Ryan, and I CAN’T WAIT!!


meanwhile, back on the farm