Greetings from a place where no one is denying climate change

Even immediately before moving here, my mental image of Switzerland was populated largely by snowcapped mountains and cozy chalets tucked among snow drifts.  However, I’ve been really surprised to find that at least in Zurich, winters are some of the mildest I’ve ever experienced.  No shoveling or snow pileup, temperatures entirely manageable, the Alps within a short train ride for a visit to Real Winter.

The summers turned out to be the real surprise.  So many days of golden sunlight and swimming and subtropical lounging!  However, it gets HOT.  Like hot hot.  Like I’m hotter than I’ve ever been before in my life because the Swiss do not believe in air conditioning for environmental and other reasons.

A note about this- I’ve been told that air conditioning is essentially illegal in Switzerland.  You have to apply for a special permit to have it, and I don’t know of any offices that have it and no one I know has an apartment with air conditioning.  Some grocery stores do, but it’s more of a gentle breeze by the fish than the arctic blast that I’m used to.  Largely, I think this is pretty cool.  It drives most of the population to one of the infinite lakes/rivers/alpen refuges that this country is so lucky to have, and avoids the terrible cost to the environment that aircon represents.  However, this whole system is really based around only a couple days of really hot temperatures per year.

This is changing fast in Switzerland in the last few years.  Temperatures have been above 30 degrees c/86 degrees Fahrenheit every day for the past week, even reaching 35c/96f.  Picture sitting in those temperatures in an office building packed with people and computers all day.  You can mess with the blinds and leaving the lights off and having a fan going, but at some point there’s just no combating such a temperature.  But there’s just no relief except for swimming- even restaurants don’t have AC!

The worst is at night though- the only tactic is to take a cold shower immediately before bed and hope you can fall asleep before you start sweating again.  Last night was officially the hottest night on record in Switzerland (https://www.thelocal.ch/20170623/parts-of-switzerland-experience-hottest-night-ever) at 25c/77f.  A nighttime temperature of above 20c is considered a “tropical night.”

I think Switzerland is an interesting case because it is a country that is changing fast that just literally doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a hotter climate, from public transit to office space.  Beyond just being uncomfortable, heat waves are one of the most deadly natural events- the rates of deaths from many causes have a prolonged spike after a stretch of hot days.  I’m curious to see how Switzerland and also less affluent countries will handle this change in climate (see recent NYTimes article for a breakdown of where we are headed: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/22/climate/95-degree-day-maps.html)

The flip side of this- warmer winters- has also been a problem in a country known for its skiing.  I don’t recommend coming to the Alps before late January for a ski holiday, based on the last few winters, and if you want to see some of the amazing glaciers it’s better not to put your trip off too long.

For now, I’ll enjoy one more day of sweating into my computer chair and prolonged swims before some summer storms move in.

 

Greetings from a place where no one is denying climate change

Senioritis, thinkingitis, & general excitement

I know I haven’t done much of a job at updating lately, but it feels like life has been coming at me at such a rate that I can hardly think my thoughts, much less organize them into a coherent blog post.  But since it’s these periods that are often later the most enjoyable for me to reflect back on, I thought I would jot down a few notes.  Gonna do this stream of consciousness “My Summer Vacation” style, though.

  1. Career stuff is similar to dating in that sometimes it just all falls into place and you wonder why you were torturing yourself with all those other options.  I have been ruminating over where to move next for probably the last year, but suddenly it just clicked that, hey, actually I don’t want to leave.  It’s OK to just do what you want instead of what Everyone Says.
  2. Said realization makes me really, really happy.
  3. I still reserve the right to change my mind later.
  4. Sometimes I was really in doubt about this whole PhD process- it can be a giant exhausting morass when you’re wading through the middle of it, and certainly nothing like any of the linear schooling periods I have gone through before (I discovered this comic this week that I think is a great summary of what a PhD really means: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/).  But the postdoc interviewing process has made me realize that I am a totally different person than I was three years ago when I first started.  I’m comfortable taking leadership roles and offering my “expert” opinion and defending my analyses to statisticians.  This might not sound revolutionary, but suddenly the idea of leading my own research team with my own ideas feels not sooo far off, something I’ve always found tremendously exciting.
  5. Getting older coincides with knowing yourself better and recently I’ve found that it has been affecting a lot of my decision making (in a positive way, let’s hope).  For example, for probably the first two years I lived in Europe I travelled like a crazy person to any spot I was invited to.  Now I know better what I like and what just isn’t worth the hassle and the extra carbon footprint.
  6. In fact, I’m pretty proud of myself that as far as I remember I have avoided any and all recreational flights for all of 2017- all of my holidays have either been via train or tacked onto a flight I would have had to take for work regardless.
  7. However, I can’t really can’t act like this was some selfless resolution.  I’ve really had to buckle down to finish this whole PhD thing and would have turned down a lot of trips regardless.  Looming deadlines have a funny way of curtailing holiday plans.
  8. I desperately want to take an extended period of time off after completing my PhD and before embarking on a new adventure, but it might be hard to finagle.  So I’m reminding myself that having a great job trumps exotic vacations any day 🙂
  9. I’m just a little bit scared of the new position.  I’m going to be learning a whole lot.

That’s it, a little sneak peek into my running brain as I’m taking a break from writing up my latest manuscript at 7pm on a Monday.  Wish me luck, there’s a whole lot to do in the next few months!

Senioritis, thinkingitis, & general excitement

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

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