28 May 2008

Gas Prices

Before you complain to me about the cost of gas in the United States, please read this...

Thank you

27 May 2008

Margaritas in Europe

As my long-time readers know, I have bemoaned the fact that European bartenders seem incapable of making a good margarita. What you get ends up being something like a tequila martini with an overwhelming taste of sour lemon.

But I have finally learned the secret for getting a good margarita in Europe. Oh yes I did!

First Step: Ask the bartender if they have Rose's Lime Juice.

If they say "yes," ask them to replace the lemon juice with Rose's Lime Juice. Voila! Mission accomplished. Sit back and sip with a smile on your face.

If they say "no," give up.

If you insist on ordering one anyway, get a side order of Sprite and use it to "doctor" the margarita and make it drinkable.

Two further notes...
  1. If you like it "on the rocks," just ask for it to be served over ice cubes. European bartenders do not uniformly understand the phrase "on the rocks," regardless of what language is used.
  2. Think before asking for salt on the rim. They generally just use regular table salt, which really doesn't have the same effect as the rock salt normally used. Might be better to just skip that part.

26 May 2008

What's Happening?

That's the question my neighbor asked immediately after I opened the door to her ring.

She wondered if we were having a huge party (to which she was not invited) or we were preparing for Armageddon.

Which was only fair considering the amount of water we had sitting in the hallway. Because right next to our door were 6 cases of water, each containing 6 1-liter bottles of fizzy water, waiting for us to take them down to the storage area in the basement. They had been delivered a few minutes before by the Migros Guy.

What she didn't know is that we also had 3 additional cases of water that we managed to fit into a kitchen cupboard. Plus 16 cartons of milk. Plus 16 cartons of juice. (Fortunately the milk and juice are UHT, which means they won't expire for about 2 months. And water doesn't really ever expire.)

Why do we have this enormous bounty of beverages?

Well, I'm a bit lazy and don't like to cart heavy beverages up the hill. Or cart them up from the garage if I drove the car to get them. So I have beverages and other heavy items delivered to our door by the Migros Guy. Much nicer that way, isn't it?

And when I did the online order on Sunday afternoon, we were also watching The Wire, a completely addictive tv series. We had just downloaded the entire first season from iTunes on Friday afternoon. We've got 6 seasons to get caught up on!

Unfortunately, my attention was diverted and I perhaps didn't pay as much attention to the Migros order as I ought to have done.

Now, I did notice that the water was on sale this week, so I tried to order 4 cases. It limited me to only 3 per order, which I thought a bit odd, but figured it was because of it being on sale.

What I didn't realize is that ordering 3 did not result in 3 cases with 6 1-liter bottles each as I thought it would. Nope. Because they sell them in clumps of 3. Which actually resulted in 9 cases with 6 1-liter bottles each. Which I would have noticed had I actually been reading the computer screen.

I have no idea what happened with the juice and the milk. Other than something very active or suspenseful was likely on the television at that moment.

So, no, we are not having a party to which we failed to invite our neighbors. Nor did we suddenly become convinced that the world is ending and we should begin to stock pile supplies.

However, GLH has asked that perhaps in the future I not watch television while making Migros online orders.

Which isn't fair. He's the one that purchased the Mac laptop, thereby enabling me to watch television and work on the computer at the same time.

So really, it's all HIS FAULT. He's an ENABLER!


One Note: This is the first time in nearly 18 months of deliveries that I have seen the Migros Guy smile. And today he was laughing outright. Even though he had to lug all those bottles of water to our door, he thought it very funny that the crazy American lady had made such a silly goof. I live to serve.

25 May 2008

Swiss Customer Service

This afternoon GLH and I made another trip to the FedEx office at the Zurich Flughafen. Some of you may remember our last trip here.

Today they once again exhibited fine customer service skills.

We had to mail a small box of stuff to the US and had to use either FedEx or DHL because it had to be tracked from door to door. (When mailed through Swiss Post, things only get tracked to the US post office in NYC, not to its final destination.)

So we walk up with the box and explain we have to send it via FedEx.

Swiss Guy: We cannot send that.

GLH: Why not?

SG: That is a box. We can only send documents.

GLH: Are you certain?

SG: Yes.

GLH: So you are telling me that I cannot send this box from this location.

SG sighs and walks into a back office. He returns a couple of minutes later.

SG: We cannot send a box.

GLH: Who did you just go ask? Can I talk to them?

SG: I just went to check the dimensions of what we can send. That box is too large.

GLH: So you do have boxes? Can I see one of the boxes?

SG, sighing more heavily this time, once again goes into a back office and returns with a FedEx box.

GLH: I think I can make that work.

SG: No. It will not work.

GLH: Yep, I think it will. Let me try.

SG reluctantly hands GLH the box. In a few moments GLH has transferred everything over and it is ready to send. After filling out a whole lot of information about what we are sending and where, SG runs into another problem.

SG: I need a telephone number at the destination.

GLH: I don't have one.

SG: I cannot send it without a telephone number.

GLH: I have sent packages without telephone numbers with FedEx before. Are you sure?

SG: This package cannot be sent without a telephone number.

GLH: OK. I've got a telephone number.

GLH writes down our Skype telephone number. SG accepts the number and we are finally able to end the transaction.

Sometimes it is just easier to give 'em what they want, even when it makes no sense...


Alright. Feeling better.

The weather has been cooler and rainy. That helps.

We went to Berlin and the trip verified I am actually learning German. That helps too.

We have a fabulous vacation planned for later this summer, plus my closest friend since junior high is arriving for a too brief visit in a couple of weeks and some other friends are visiting in August. That helps a lot.

All the comments of support also helped. Really do appreciate it.

Feeling more positive. Let's give this another whirl...

15 May 2008

Break Time

I'm going to take a break from this blog. Don't know how long. Could be a week or could be longer.

Since coming back from the US last week I have been swamped by homesickness and I am having a difficult time feeling positive about Switzerland right now.

I know that a huge part of it is because summer is here. I really do not like summer and dread it every year regardless of where I happen to be. It's worse when I cannot just escape into air conditioning and ignore the weather. I have an intense dislike of being too hot and my definition of "too hot" is very different from most people. My ideal temperature is 65-70 F (18-21 C). Anything above 75 F (about 24 C) is too warm for me. Above 80 F (about 27 C) is quite unpleasant and my discomfort, not to mention whining, grows exponentially as the temp goes up from there.

But I also miss my family and friends. A situation which is not helped by some of my friends here moving elsewhere.

And I miss friendliness, people smiling at strangers and laughing with friends on the street (in public even!) Oh God, I really, really miss friendliness! Must everyone be so stoic here?

I miss hearing English and not feeling panicked when I have to ask someone in a shop a question, not only because I'm not sure of the words but also because there is a high probability that I won't have a clue what the heck they say in response. Even though my German is pretty good at the basic interaction level, Swiss German remains beyond my comprehension.

And I miss how convenient life in the US is. How you don't have to worry about running down to the grocery store before it closes or figuring out where to get x or y or z or having a slight heart attack every time you realize just how much everything costs.

So I just need to take a break until I get past this and feel more positive about being here again.

Hopefully it won't be too long.

14 May 2008

No Relief

GLH and I are both having a terrible time with allergies this year. Even with our allergy medication, we are still having issues. So I did some googling on how to help reduce the allergens in your home.

Want to know what is the number 1 best way of reducing allergens in your home?

Central Air Conditioning

Pulls all the pollen out of the air and through a filter. Also helps to reduce any mold that may happen in bathrooms and kitchen by acting as a dehumidifier.

If only.

But alas, central air is but a dream here.


12 May 2008

Accepting Applications?

Most Swiss are not currently accepting applications for new friends.

Allow me to elaborate...

When I lived in Ireland for a year as a student, I purposely kept separate from the very large group of American exchange students who also came to the same university. I theorized I had come on an exchange program to learn about a new culture and hanging out with Americans would not help me to meet this goal. And I was very successful. I had a large group of Irish friends, some of whom I am still in contact with after more than more than 15 years. Of course, I was fully emerged in the student culture and I spoke the same language, a different dialect, but close enough for the most part. But still, I made an effort and it paid off.

When we decided to move to Switzerland for GLH's job, I decided I would attempt to do the same. True, I would not have school or work to help me to meet people and I didn't speak the language. But I am a very friendly, outgoing person and I have never had difficulty meeting people in any place I have ever lived. Surely it would just be a matter of time before I had a circle of friends, many of whom would likely be Swiss.

Well, I was wrong.

Yes, I have a circle of friends. But the majority of them are other English-speaking expats.

I do know a few Swiss and would consider them friends by my own definition of friendship, but I suspect they would not consider me a friend. Mostly because I have only been here for 17 months and it takes 3-4 years to develop an acquaintanceship enough to be called a friendship. At least in Switzerland it does.

But in speaking with people who have lived here for several years and are fluent in the language, many of them have stated that they still do not have many Swiss friends. Most of their friends are also other English-speaking expats who live in the area. If they have Swiss friends, they tend to be very internationally-minded -- meaning they have either lived abroad or traveled extensively.

The only ones who do seem to truly have a circle of Swiss friends are the ones who "marry into the culture." And even then, one woman told me they aren't really her friends. They are her husband's friends, most of whom he has known since preschool, and she is accepted in their numbers and they are friendly towards her. But when introductions are made to new people, she is described as their "friend's wife," not their "friend." Even though she has now known them for more than 10 years.

This all seems bizarre to me and has led to a great deal of research.

My theory? It's the difference between a transient society and a non-transient society.

The United States is a transient culture and has been since the beginning of its history. It's the largest "immigrant culture" that exists. Pretty much everyone is from an immigrant family. Even if your family came over on the Mayflower, you are still an "immigrant family." And as a culture we are extremely mobile. Most of us move multiple times within our lives. We move as children with our families as our parents get relocated for their careers. We move away from home to attend college. We move about the country and the world ourselves as we begin our own careers.

The US culture has always adapted for this. The earliest immigrants had to make connections quickly or they risked failure. In many cases, failure meant death. They had no network of family and friends on which to depend and had to work with complete strangers just to learn how to live in their new environment. From the pilgrims to the pioneers to the influx of European immigrants at the end of the 19th century, an inability to quickly meet people and develop relationships usually resulted in a "failure to thrive."

Even now, people constantly moving in and out of your neighborhood is the norm in most American communities. It has led to the creation of groups such as Welcome Wagon and Newcomers Clubs. Most Americans have a small circle of very close family and friends, a secondary circle of local & work friends and a much larger circle of acquaintances.

In Switzerland it is completely different. I cannot now remember where I read this, but in one of the books on Swiss culture I read before moving here one statistic stuck in my head. Around 70% of Swiss live within 30-40 kilometers of where they were born.

Think about that for a moment.

When you live close to where you were born, and most everyone you know has always lived there as well, you really have no incentive to make new friends. Your spare time is already spent juggling the social obligations of your extended family and the friends you have known since childhood. Why would you make the time for friendship with new people? Especially when they come from a different culture and perspective and friendship would be more of an effort?

And that is why I believe most Swiss are not currently accepting applications for new friends.

Any other theories?

11 May 2008

Boo Boos: A Cultural Experience

This evening we had guests for dinner. An Incident occurred.

Let me set the scene...

KR, German woman who lives a few blocks away
and her 1 year old son, F

KH, our English upstairs neighbor and her 4 year old daughter, R, and her nearly 1 year old son, D

We are sitting around the living room after dinner enjoying Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumble with ice cream. The little ones are getting tired, a bit cranky and slightly clumsy. In one move, D throws his hands out and tumbles forward off of his mother's lap, hitting his forehead hard on the coffee table. He immediately starts to scream and a large bump begins to form on his forehead.

KR (running for the kitchen): Quick, I need a knife!

GL (running after her): A butter knife?

KR: Yes, where is one?!!

GL (handing her the knife): I also have a package of frozen vegetables!

KR, looking at GL as if she is insane, lays the flat of the knife against the growing bump.

KH runs back into the room, having just returned from upstairs: Here, I have a Mr. Bump!

KR and GL both turn to stare at her in puzzlement.

End Scene

Later, after the screaming has stopped, we each had to explain our choices to each other. KR had never heard of using a package of frozen vegetables to ease the pain and swelling of a bad bump. GL had never heard of laying the flat of a butter knife against a bump to do the same. Neither of us had ever heard of a Mr. Bump. KH had never heard of the Knife Method, but had heard of the frozen peas. However, the English Method of choice is a small, fish-shaped frozen gel thingy called a Mr. Bump.

All of our cultures end with a "Kiss to Make It All Better."

What is your culture's form of Boo Boo Treatment?

PS: R, the 4 year old, and GLH calmly continued to eat their desserts and wisely stayed out of the way of the frantic women.

10 May 2008

Rude Awakening

This morning we were awoken very early by an odd buzzy sound and cats acting crazy. Max and Tilly were racing around the room and up on the bed.

The cats were chasing a wasp. Unfortunately, they weren't so much catching it as making it very angry.

Fortunately, GLH stepped up to the plate and killed it.

I really, really miss screened windows...

09 May 2008

Morning in Hell

Went to the Migros to stock up on groceries for the long weekend. I could not believe the mobs of people there. I actually saw one woman push another woman aside in order to get the last fresh baked loaf of a certain kind of bread. (There was other bread there, but apparently it was all wrong for her needs.)

See, the grocery stores close at 5 pm on Saturday and don't open again until 8 am on Tuesday. I went this morning in the hopes that perhaps it would be calmer than I knew it would be this afternoon or tomorrow.

No such luck. But at least I got the things I needed. No saying what is likely to be left by tomorrow afternoon.

For those Americans out there who have no idea why it's a holiday, let me explain. It's Whit Monday. Never heard of Whit Monday? Before last year neither had I. I had to look it up.

Those Europeans will use any excuse to close down for a holiday, won't they?

08 May 2008

I Can See Clearly Now!

One of my favorite things about our apartment is the floor to ceiling windows in every room.

However, when it comes time to clean them, they become my least favorite things about our apartment. The windows are hard enough. There are 27 windows in total and all but 7 of them are the floor to ceiling variety. Plus the shutters? They are even harder to clean. It takes me a few days to work my way through them all and at the end I am stiff and sore. It is not easy work!

Unfortunately, I am one of those people who feel that it is best to clean your windows twice per year in order to maximize the light coming in and your ability to see the view.

However, this Spring I decided to go a different route.

So today I spent my time getting caught up on e-mails, blog posts and reading books while two people busily cleaned my windows and shutters for me.

And all I have to do is hand the bill to GLH when it comes in the mail.

Being a Haus Frau is rough work, but someone's got to do it!

Leaving Las Vegas

I am a firm believer that birthdays are special days and should be all about the person whose birthday it is and what they want to do. I used to stretch it out to a Birthweek or a Birthmonth, but GLH has put his foot down about special treatment for more than a day.

And sometimes he starts glancing at his watch in order to determine how much more Special Birthday Consideration he is required to give me.

But I digress...

So when it is my birthday, it is all about me!

By the time my birthday rolled around on Saturday I had gotten tired of the whole Casino Scene and determined there would be minimal casino time spent that day.

It had to be minimal instead of non-existent because it is actually impossible to stay in Las Vegas and not have to at least pass through a casino. Heck, the gas stations and pharmacies had slot machines in them. Even at the airport there are rows of slot machines ready to go any time of the day or night. You literally cannot get away from the gambling!

So to have minimal casino time I decided we would actually leave Las Vegas for the day, returning in the evening for my Special Birthday Dinner at Alizé, described in the previous blog post.

We briefly discussed driving to the Grand Canyon, but it is a 3-4 hour drive and we had both seen it before. So we settled on a couple of places closer to Las Vegas itself.

We began at Red Rock Canyon, a mere 20 miles west of the Las Vegas strip. But a whole different world all it's own. I kept expecting Roy Rogers or John Wayne to come over one of the hills on a horse. (Please note the Joshua Tree in the foreground, which many have heard of because of the album by U2.)

The red sandstone was formed during the age of the dinosaurs over 150 million years ago when the area was an enormous, ever-shifting sand dune. As the sands shifted, the bottom layers were compressed into rock and were gradually built up over time. As the land came together at fault lines, parts were pushed up to form the multi-colored layers of sandstone you see today. The red is caused by the iron in the sand rusting with time.

You can hike, bike, climb or ride a horse through the canyon. We chose to drive along the scenic route. 'Cause it's the desert and it's darn hot and sunny. (Have I ever mentioned I'm not a fan of hot and sunny?) But we were very glad to have seen it!

We next crossed back through Las Vegas via the interstate and drove 50 miles east of the Las Vegas Strip to the Valley of Fire National Park.

Whoa! This one blew us away. Unfortunately, my photos cannot do justice to the vast, sweeping landscape that makes you feel as if you have landed on Mars or some other planet which does not look anything like Earth!

Made in the same manner as the Red Rock Canyon, but here the fault lines created a much more dramatic landscape.

The pre-historic people who lived in what is now known as Nevada considered the Valley of Fire (named because of the red sandstone, of course) to be Sacred Ground. You can still see the many petroglyphs they created throughout the park, even though their occupation of the area ended about 1150 AD. Here's a petroglyph of a fish:

What was perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of this National Park is how close it was to millions of visitors to Las Vegas, but it was practically empty. Look at our rental car, sitting alone in one of the of the parking lots with a fantastic overlook.

If you come to Las Vegas, do not fail to come here! It could even have been done in a quick trip of 3 hours or less. Take a break from the Flashy Lights of Las Vegas and go see something truly amazing!

While driving through the Valley of Fire area we repeatedly saw small statues such as the ones pictured above. They were everywhere, some more elaborate than others. They look kind of like little people. We have no idea what they signify? Anyone else know?

Viva Las Vegas

For my birthday trip this year we decided to go to Las Vegas.

We made this decision for a few reasons: Bette Midler was performing at Caesar's Palace; I had never been to Las Vegas before; and it seemed best to do places not so child-friendly before baby arrives.

Unfortunately, after we booked the non-refundable airline tickets Bette decided to go on vacation for the ENTIRE MONTH OF MAY! Still a little bitter, but moving on...

We stayed at the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino, in a good location about in the middle of the Las Vegas strip. Given our SPG Platinum status, we were upgraded to the 38th floor with a view of the Bellagio fountains, which was kind of nice.

Other than that, the hotel was just ok. Although we did find the photo of Bruce Willis in the bathroom to be a tad disconcerting. No matter where in the bathroom you stood, he always seemed to be looking directly at you. I felt like I should cover him up with a towel while showering just for a little privacy.

Las Vegas is a very, very strange place. As our guide book stated, in most cities the hotels are located near attractions. In Las Vegas, the hotels ARE the attractions!

Where else can you stroll through the streets of New York...

Take an elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower...

Ride a gondola through the canals of Venice...

And shop in the Roman Forum? All in one day?

However, the casino I enjoyed the most was the Bellagio. It is full of Chihuly's, which I loved seeing!

I have to admit I wasn't overly impressed with the whole Las Vegas Experience. I found it to be much too loud, flashy and smoky for my tastes. (Smoking is banned in most public spaces in Las Vegas except the immediate area in the casinos where the gambling actually happens.) I don't happen to care for gambling. Plus, I found the Slot Machine Zombies to be rather frightening.

But even though I do not gamble, I did manage to get us sorta kicked out of one of the casinos. How?

Well, since I do not like to gamble but GLH does, when we go to a casino I bring a book along with me. If the tables are busy I sit in one of the cafés and read. But when the tables aren't busy, I sit next to him and read while he plays Blackjack.

So I was reading at one of the Blackjack tables when the Pit Boss approached and said, "Is that a computer?" I tried to explain that my e-reader is not a computer and has no computing abilities whatsoever. I even offered to let him look at it to determine it is not a computer, but he didn't care. He just plain did not believe that anyone would come to a casino and read a book instead of gambling and was convinced that I was somehow counting cards with my book.

We left and went elsewhere. And managed to finish our vacation with $600 in winnings. Without counting a single card!

So what did we do instead of see Bette Midler?

On Thursday night we went to see Cirque du Soleil's The Beatles LOVE. I had never seen a Cirque du Soleil performance before and wanted to see what it was like. I actually enjoyed it quite a lot, although it did go on a bit long and I have no burning desire to see another one.

Then on Friday night we went to see Barry Manilow. Because what is more kitschy than seeing Barry Manilow in Las Vegas? (Liberace is dead and Tony Bennett wasn't performing that week.) We actually quite enjoyed the performance. Barry has a funny, self-deprecating humor and it was a great opportunity to sing-a-long to some hits from the 70's.

Watching him perform Copacabana was enormously entertaining!

But my favorite thing we did in Las Vegas? My birthday dinner at Alizé, the Michelin-rated French restaurant at the top of the Palms Hotel & Casino. Not only was the food fabulous, but the view from the 56th floor was amazing! (By the way, that glowing thing is the reflection of the candle on our table.)

So all in all, it was a good birthday trip. But I do not have any burning desire to return.

And I am glad we did it before baby arrived. Even though we saw tons of children there, I would not feel comfortable taking children to Las Vegas on a Family Vacation. Yes, they have activities for children in Las Vegas, but you have to walk past a whole lot of Adult Entertainment to get to them.

Lulu's Pyramid Project

Lulu, a blogger in Cairo, has posted a challenge for a Pyramid Project. So here is my entry:

This is the interior of the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. It's an enormous black glass and steel pyramid. The photo is of King Tut's statue. You can see the shape of the pyramid on the ceiling above. Too bad I didn't know of the project before we left Las Vegas, otherwise I would have done an outside shot as well!

Anyone else want to play? Just a post of photo of a pyramid-shaped object and link back to Lulu's site. She's going to post them all in a collage.

04 May 2008

My Feet Hurt

Las Vegas Warning

Distances may be further than they appear...