ZWO, ZA, OYEF

The things I do for blog post fodder.

I’m mostly kidding, but sometimes I do look around me at whatever weird Swiss antics I’m up to this week and think that I need to write this up. A couple weeks ago (I’m a bit behind on, oh, everything in life), I spent a snowy Sunday afternoon in a tiny town in the Swiss countryside selling lotto cards at a Bingo convention.  Or at least that is the closest English translation my tired brain can come up with for what I did.

How did I end up in the middle of nowhere watching a bunch of seniors aggressively shush anyone breaking the deadly silence while trying to win sausages and chocolate? Well, Benno is as per usual the culprit.  Once a year his shooting club organizes a Bingo fundraiser in a gym hall in his hometown, population 9,000.  This year they needed someone to man the moneybox at the front, and Benno’s friend asked if I could help out.  I was halfway flattered to be asked (sometimes it is not immediately apparent whether a Swiss person likes you or not, especially given I am the strange foreigner bungling grammar and confused half the time), but was apprehensive about my level of German being sufficient for dealing with hundreds of old people who have probably not spoken to a foreigner in years communicate about their specific Bingo needs.  However, Benno and his friends are definitely aware of my limitations so I thought I’d give it a go.

So, I’m all set up with a buddy at the front door. The first person hobbles in with their walker and makes some rapid fire Swiss German joke and I am immediately lost.  I decide to enter onto firm, non-small talk ground, “Lotto card 20 francs,” plus a 100 watt American smile (a good replacement for small talk).  This continues on repeat for around an hour and hundreds of people.  Luckily my desk buddy and occasionally Benno step in to help me with the small talk, but this is just WAY above my Swiss German level.  It’s one thing to have one on one or even group discussions with Benno’s friends, who know I’m a foreigner and more or less which things will go over my head (sidenote: I never realized before how much of language is based on habits or previous knowledge.  For example, when we say, “When in Rome…” that actually makes no sense unless someone contextualizes the rest of the expression.  Benno’s friends will usually explain the rest of the expression to me after they say it.  Old people from the countryside just repeat the same thing again, louder, and then conclude that I am “special” when it is clear I still don’t understand).  Adding to my confusion is the fact that every single person seems to be speaking a slightly different dialect, so I’m sweating it out a bit as I’m trying to figure out exactly HOW MANY cards they want and then count out the change while keeping up with whatever these people are asking me, which usually has to do with explaining the rules of a game I’ve never even heard of before.  It was a fun mess, which pretty much describes a lot of my life now that I come to think of it.

There’s one thing I can say- if you want to learn the numbers in a million different Swiss German dialects, manning the moneybox at an old person event + playing Lotto (what they call it) is A++ for learning. By the end I was a pro, even with 2 (high German zwei, Schwiizer Duutch ZWO), 10 (H.G. zehn, S.D. ZA), 11 (H.G. elf, S.D. OYEF)- I am convinced every Swiss person says these numbers differently.  Anyway, because of the bad weather there were fewer people than expected, and I was actually able to play a little under the watchful eye of Benno, with whom I verified my understanding of the trickier numbers because God knows a false Lotto would cause a riot. You could practically cut the tension in that room with a knife, I’ll tell you.  The Swiss take their recreational gaming seriously.  I did win a box of chocolate, though!  And Benno won some sausages.  So overall a complete win in the Swissness contest.

After about 4 hours of relentless concentration and silent giggling (on my part) the crowds dispersed promptly at 6pm and we broke down the tables and decorations with typical Swiss efficiency. Plenty of money was raised for Benno’s club and I confused many many Swiss seniors, so I count the day as a win in the life of Andrea in Switzerland.

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ZWO, ZA, OYEF

Reboot

Today felt like a big day, my friends! I dropped 3,860 Swiss francs on a yearly unlimited pass for public transport and headed merrily off on the first day of the next three years.  After a little wrangling with the administration, I finally settled into my new desk, a quiet little spot on the ground floor with a view onto a garden where cats seem to be constantly pacing past.

Adding to my general sense of excitement is the ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE 2.5 weeks in Japan that my grandparents just showed me. Japan really deserves its own post, but I’m not sure I’m ready to capture it yet (or ever).  I couldn’t think of any better way to mark the end of three years of hard work, and am endlessly grateful to my grandparents for sharing with me this place that they love so much.  And in what I’ve decided is the true mark of absolute post-holiday relaxation, I’m not feeling the slightest inkling of jetlag.  Mind over matter is a lot easier when your mind has just been pampered by Zen gardens and peaceful temples for the last little while.

But back to today- in a way I feel like I am now embarking on phase 2 of my life in Switzerland. I’m living in a new town and working a new job in yet another new city, something not quite so different than when I first moved here three years ago.  But now the challenges are different.  Instead of moving to a big international city (by Swiss terms), I’m living in a quaint small town.  Instead of struggling to speak basic German, I am aiming to graduate to Swiss German.  Instead of struggling to find my own flat or roommates with minimal German, I am learning about how to cohabitate and live my life with a deeply Swiss person.  Instead of signing up for random meetups or filling my endless friendless spare time with things like baking bread (disaster, don’t ask), I am trying to learn how to balance the circle of friends I have, a circle that is becoming increasingly widely flung as a natural consequence of academia.

I find all of these things exciting, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that also come with a tinge of anxiety. I am committing to Switzerland heavily in a way that my initial PhD jaunt didn’t involve.  Also, a lot of things are just changing quickly in general.  All good things!  But I always do need to process change in my own way.  Japan was a wonderful opportunity to catch my breath- I will always be in agreement with the European idea that holiday is essential for the soul.

Reboot

A new challenge: the countryside

You know, sometimes I think the big cultural difference in the world is really city people vs. country people, not any of this different nations business.  People in cities are remarkably similar worldwide.  Until recently I didn’t even identify myself as a city person, but I guess I am.  I’ve lived in Chicago, Boston, and NYC for the bulk of my adult life, and now Zurich for the past 3 years.  I actually think of Zurich as a cosmopolitan small city, really.  It’s half a million in the actual city, and something around a million when you consider the burbs (or what Switzerland considers the burbs, which is a whole other topic).

Lately, though, thanks to Benno New(ish) BF, I’ve been hanging out a lot in the countryside of Switzerland.  And I realized that to them, Zurich is a MAJOR CITY.  I also realized that, just like in the US, every region of Switzerland has a very distinct culture.  Zurich culture is sort of like Switzerland Lite.  Sure, they eat a lot more fondue than the average world citizen and they have their own dialect, but oh man does Swiss countryside culture go a lot farther than that.  I almost feel like I’m going through a whole new form of culture shock- city mouse meets the countryside.

Friday, for example, was one of those days when I felt myself in a totally different world.  Benno has been part of a rifle distance shooting club in his home village since he was a young teen.  He is quite good, even qualifying for the kantonal semifinals (sort of like US states).  But more than anything it’s an important tradition, and interesting for a foreigner to watch, even if at first I was a bit fearful.  After all, we have our own gun traditions in the US.

Back to Friday.  The club has a big season ending award ceremony + dinner + massive lotto, all in a big traditional old chalet-style restaurant.  The shooters bring partners so I came along to cheer on Benno.  We sat at a big table with many of his childhood friends, chatted with Swiss locals ranging in age from early teens to 70s, drank tons of beer, ate lots of sausage, won some grill implements, listened to lots of accordion music from “Fritz and Heinri,” and then stumbled home to Benno’s parents’ house under the shadow of the medieval monastery in his home town.  I still find magic in these things that are so foreign and so far from the suburbs of Chicago where I grew up.  I have always had wandering feet, but recently I find them wandering more and more away from big cities and towards these small moments.

 

A new challenge: the countryside

No mountain pictures this time

It’s been a long hiatus. Partly because I’ve been busy finishing up all this PhD stuff and starting my new postdoc position. But also partly because I never intended for this to be an academic blog and well…see the last sentence. My “cultural ponderings” and private life doings have taken a back seat to staring at my computer willing more publications to appear under my fingertips. Here is Some Other Stuff in no particular order.

  • I wrote a pretty deliriously happy blog post a few months ago. I wish I could say that it has been a steady stream of upbeat doings since then, but turns out that dealing with lots of change is always a bit overwhelming, even if they are mostly good changes.
  • Flew off to my good friend Alex Lavers’ wedding in Sweden for a big time ladyfriends reunion just moments after sending off my dissertation into the ether. THAT FELT GOOD. Seeing a big stack of my three years’ worth of work bound into a book and stacked up impressively on my desk? ALSO FELT GOOD. But the most awesome thing of all is seeing my friends settle into new life stages and places and looking so happy doing it (we’re a little slow on the settling down front, what can I say).
  • I have come to the decision that finishing a PhD (as in the very end stages) is largely an exercise in persistence. I keep waiting for it to sink in that I’m at the finish line, but it kind of feels like those trick birthday candles that never go out regardless of how long you huff and puff.
  • Dating a Swiss guy from the countryside is a TOTALLY different experience than dating a city Swiss guy. I feel like I’ve done more acculturation in the past five months than the past three years. I have learned about shooting clubs, Carneval bands, festivals, every variety of Swiss dish I’ve never heard about, Swiss sumo wrestling, and spoken WAY more German than ever before. Yesterday we had brunch for a few hours with a couple of his friends and I had to take a nap afterwards I was so exhausted. One on one German is OK but following a conversation among a bunch of people that I am simultaneously trying to impress…woof.
  • My new colleagues are the best. Really, they are a smart, supportive, and ambitious team, and I can’t wait to see what we will accomplish. I feel really lucky that I found such a great project and team.  However, I am eager for this part time postdoc part time PhD phase to end.  ASAP.
  • Just had a week back in Trump’s America for the first time and it was…really fun. Turns out Trump’s America is not so different on the everyday level from Obama’s America. Whew.
  • NYC no longer feels like home. Chicago is not really home. Switzerland feels like home. That feels a little scary sometimes. Is this going to be a lifelong move? Will I have little Kinder running around someday speaking Swiss German? What have I done?

Things not included on this list: much hiking or running or…anything in the mountains. Trust me, I plan on fixing that soon.

No mountain pictures this time

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