Friday, August 27, 2010


There is a bike shop in my neighborhood, 3 blocks from my apartment, called Backyard. It is in the middle of a block of businesses, marked by a bright orange sign that hangs over the sidewalk. I had been riding my bike for two weeks on flat tires and faulty brakes, the latter a result of my bad habit of hurtling down the hills and screeching to a stop just before I ran into poles, streets, or bystanders. I went in one morning, and tried to explain in my best Deutsch that the bike needed servicing. “Oh,” said the young bike man apologetically, “you must make an appointment for service.” He asked me what was wrong, and then immediately fixed all the problems-- inflating the tires and tightening up the brakes. “Good as new,” he said. I asked cautiously if I owed anything, not wanting to offend his generosity. “As far as I know, air is still free,” he said. So I made an appointment for full servicing at their next available time-- 3 weeks in the future. On that day, I left my bike there. “It will be 50 francs to wash and polish your velo, do you want that?” No, I told him, I can do that on my own. The next day I came to retrieve my bike. “I have tightened every screw,” he said (I know that he did). I shortened the cables to the brakes so they will not slip, I greased the chain and reset your basket so it will not slip. I can tighten it with screws so that no one can take it?” No, I told him, that’s ok. “I was thinking to myself,” he said, “maybe you would want a kick-stand, so you don’t have to find a place to hold your bike up. It is only 9.98 more.” Will it take long? I asked. No, I can do it very quickly, he said. So he added a kick-stand, very quickly and very expertly, the kick-stand snapping smartly into place. And only when I got home I noticed, that he had washed it, anyway.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

You Were Here

[From December 2009]

I am sitting in the "Finnegan's Wake" reading group at the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich. It is winter and snow lightly dusts the window sills and the interstices between the cobblestones outside. Inside, a quiet battle is going on. Fritz Senn, James Joyce scholar and critic, founder of the foundation and a Gold medal recipient this year from the Canton of Zurich (something akin to being knighted) sits before the open window, white hair framing keen blue eyes, a half-smile upon his face. He is the best of English professors, allowing ideas to pop and bubble, inserting new sparks here and there. He is engaged in a subtle battle with the young man in a wool hat and scarf next to him, who quietly gets up each time Fritz opens the window, quietly closes it and tiptoes back to his seat.

The funny thing about this whole scene is, I don't even like James Joyce. I find his writing difficult and pretentious-- a written form of modern art that you must study and consult experts to make any sense of. But I have been curious, too, why his books are widely considered the best of any written in the English language, but have never failed to grip me. So I am here, listening and learning, caught up in the good-natured banter of the group as they ply their way through the prose.

I last came here in the fall, before the snow and cold began. I was lost, again, in the twisting narrow streets of the old town. The seven o'clock church bells were ringing and I was pedalling my bike madly, bumping up and down over the cobblestones with my hair flying in every direction, dodging tourists, trying to get to the building before the bells finished their announcement of time. I came around the corner, and there was the James Joyce Foundation! I jumped off my bike while it was still moving, crammed it into the vines along the side of the building and ran to the door and pushed. There was no give, and I knew that I had gotten there too late. Suddenly, the door swung open, and there was Fritz Senn, smiling and ushering me in.

Tonight, winter is here, drifting in to the book-filled room from the open window (score: Fritz 3, young man 2), and I realize I am serenely happy. I glance down at my book and the bookmark which says, "You were here." I was here, reading James Joyce with a motley group of intellectuals: a neurologist, a widow, several English professors, a professional musician, a traveller, a teacher, on the top floor of an old building in Zurich, Switzerland, with the chimes of the church bells ringing softly through the open window, and a paperback "Finnegan's Wake" held lightly in my hands. How strange and fine this life is.

Things you can do when your last child leaves home

[I realized today that it's been almost a year since I've posted anything. I've stored bits and pieces of thoughts and experiences in this year. So today I dusted a couple of them off (you may notice some time references that aren't quite right :) ). Hope you will enjoy. ]

She is in the bathroom humming. Her dad used to hum when he was happy-- a gay tuneless melody.
But she hums Beethoven. Why does she have to be so wonderful today? It would be so much easier if
she were spitting vitriol and telling you that you're wrong about something. You take her to
the airport and watch her go through the security gates.
You are weeping so you hide behind a pole so that she doesn't see you. You come out of the train
station and decide to walk the rest of the way back. The day is spectacularly beautiful.
Low clouds hover over the mountains, the sky is a cloudless bright blue, and a cool gentle
breeze blows through the streets. You get home, take off your clothes and get in bed. Sleep for
at least 3 hours. Wake up, read the saddest of books, something about children, Jews and World War II.
You know that only Neruda and your mother can possibly understand how you feel.
Weep a little more for what you did to her (leaving, as your child is now leaving you).
Make soup. The soup should involve lots of chopping. And lots of stirring. Minestrone is a good choice.
Cook it for a while and turn off the stove. Climb back in bed. Get up and eat the soup. If it tastes
good, eat some more. Go back to bed. Wake up at 4:30 a.m. and call to see that she
made it back to Colorado okay. Put away the soup you left on the counter. Go to bed and finally rest.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Living Like (Eastern European) Princesses

Eastern European princesses (like us) arrive at the Budapest airport an hour after leaving Zurich. The airport is clean and efficient, and in a matter of minutes, they have their bags, are through customs and have round-trip shuttle van tickets into the city. They arrive at the 5-star hotel they've booked online. The lobby is arched ceilings and marble and chandeliers and porters dressed in crisp suits, all for $100 a night, booked online. They go to their room. The bathroon is filled with marble, brightly polished, and there are white robes hanging on the door, which can be used for the spa later or to go down for a dip in the Roman-style pool. Wait, what's that smell, it smells sort of like stinky man smell, and it pervades the curtains, the carpet, the beds and the chairs. Eastern European princesses open the windows and go out for a walk. They stroll through the city in their finest capri pants and American sandals (why does everyone in Europe stare at my sandals?). They stroll through narrow streets painted with graffiti and riddled with bullet holes. There are shop windows with goods, but the most prominent signs are for Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, all of which seem to be doing a good business. Eastern European princesses sneer and return to the room for room service. The smell still lingers, but when the food arrives, they forget about everything except the feast before them. They've ordered tall, cold beers, an avocado appetizer, a risotto dish and crème brûlée, all of which are excellent. Their bellies full, Eastern European princesses put extra blankets on top of their sagging beds and fall asleep. In the morning they buy subway tickets and journey down into the metro stations with lovely names like "Vörösmarty tér ," which bely the trash blowing around in the streets above them. The princesses travel toward the river, buy hats and a nice vegetable crepe in a small cafe where the waiter chides them for drinking small beers and smiles as he delivers a check "for the lovely ladies." Eastern European princesses visit the marzipan museum and stand next to a life-sized marzipan model of Queen Elizabeth. Then they travel back to their 5-star hotel, where one of the princesses enjoys a swim in the pool. On their final day in the city, Eastern European princesses go to a restaurant advertised to serve traditional Hungarian food, vegetarian dishes, and fine Hungarian wines. They arrive at 6:00 and the waiters and owner are smoking outside. They gaze at the princesses, who ask if they are too early for dinner. The waiters and owner shrug in unison, and the owner guides them down into the empty restaurant. " a very special place," states the waiter, a middle-aged man, dressed impeccably, with neatly trimmed hair and spectacles. The owner passes by and sneers at the princesses. Can he possibly know that they are wearing clothes that they have worn for two days, bought at H&M for $10? (Or is it my shoes? Why does everyone hate my shoes???) Despite the sneers, it is indeed a special place. The princesses are served an appetizer of various types of pickles and fresh bread. They are given a glass of Hungarian white and red wines, which are indeed quite fine. The main dish of aubergine is nicely done with a light cream sauce. The gypsy musicians arrive at 7:00 and begin to play for their special audience. The younger gypsy pulls sweet and heart-rending notes from his violin, while the elder musician plays an open piano by banging directly on the strings with hammers. The Eastern European princesses swoon a little, their eyes tearing up a bit, climb the stairs out of the cellar, into the night air, and walk back to their still-stinky room.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Zurich Street Parade

In early August of every year, Zurich hosts a massive-street-party-freak-show-techno-extravaganza, called the Street Parade. Hundreds of thousands of revelers come to the Street Parade, dressed in their most outlandish costumes. The parade itself winds around the top of Lake Zurich, starting on the east side of the lake in Seefeld and ending on the western side in Enge. There are huge dance floors pulled by semi-trailers ("Love Machines") that compose the parade itself, full of writhing costumed young people and blasting 80,000 watts of techno into the crowd. Stages are set up in 6 spots around the lake with "international superstar DJ's" like Paul van Dyk and less well-known DJ's such as "Turntablerocker" and "Smash FX." The dance floors continue to troll the road around the lake throughout the day. The brochure for the event (available on the trams and in the train stations) is an interesting mix of languages and content. Descriptions of the event and the DJ's are mainly in English, with a few German descriptions smattered around. There is a half-page of "tips and information" in French, and a full page in German. The French side warns about dehydration and protecting your ears. The German side gets a full page, adding warnings such as "No waterpistols!" and "No camping." But to be fair, the French side does add, "Ne jouez pas aux Tarzans!" My colleague, Jana, and I ventured down to the festivities around 7 p.m., long after the parade itself had ended. Half a mile up from the lake, Zurich was serenely quiet. Three blocks away, we began to hear a dull bass thump. Two blocks away, we turned the corner and saw masses of humans lined along the lakefront road. Jana and I dive into the crowd. A love machine is driving by, and the crowd waves. They are mostly teen-agers and twenty-somethings, with a few children, ear plugs crammed in their ears, tugged along by their parents, and a few older people like me, there to take in the scene. Despite the loud thumping music, hardly anyone seems to be grooving. Maybe when night comes things will liven up. There are men in leiderhosen, women in a wide variety of semi-dress, a man dressed as a nurse, and fluorescent pink, green and blue clothes, hair and body paint. Jana and I make our way up the street and through the crowd, which is centered at the main stage at Burkliplatz. When we get there (are forced there by the moving part of the crowd), jam-packed bodies fill a space narrowed by the tram stop walls and the main stage. People begin to push and shove us. One young man grabs Jana by the shoulder and turns her roughly, then smiles and shrugs as he and his girlfriend slide past. We follow a king in a tall crown, orange polka dot cape and no pants. The crowd seems to part before him (is it his royalty or lack of pants?), and we start to move again. There are broken bottles and beer cans everywhere on the ground, and it is slippery. I hear a scream directly behind me. The dangling part of a young woman's hanging body attachment has become attached to my camera strap, and I am dragging her along behind me. I stop. She disengages and smiles. Finally we break from the main crowd and find ourselves with breathing room. A young man steps out from the crowd. He stands for a moment, his back turned to the throbbing stage behind him, breathes a heavy sigh, and falls asleep.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

À Chamonix

I have been a Francophile for as long as I can remember. The language, the food, drinking wine, making love, philosophy, conversation-- the French embrace and savor every aspect of being human, and I have long fallen in love with that way of being. And so it is no great surprise that on our first week-end out, Emily and I chose to cross the mountains into the French Alps, to Chamonix. The train from Zurich took us along rivers, through lovely valleys, rainy and green. Finally we arrived at our first transfer, in the French part of Switzerland, Visp. We only had 5 minutes to transfer, so I asked the conductor "c'est le train du Martigny?" "Oui, he replied, followed by a long stream of rapid French, only a portion of which I could understand with my high school level French. But I did catch one word, "premiere." No, we are definitely not premiere, still travelling like vagabonds on the cheap with our half-price Swiss rail passes. "Deuxieme!" I proudly shouted, surprised that I'd actually found the right word. Second class compartment. He smiled and pointed behind us.

Ah, after two weeks of struggling against Swiss German, to be able to converse at least briefly, to understand even a few words, was bliss. The conductor and I shared a French moment, then Emily and I ran toward the back of the train.

We arrived in Chamonix, and treated ourselves to French-Alpine pizza (actually very good, thin crust with just the right amount of cheese and sauce), wine and fondue. The waiters sneered at our mediocre French, much better just to speak English here. We took the tram to Mount Brevent and the train to “La Mer de Glace” (a giant glacier sliding down the mountain, with a gondola that takes you to the cave carved in ice). And everywhere, French. But not the French I dreamed of in my earlier, romantic visions. But loud French. Constant French. French children climbing half out the windows of trains and French parents talking to their children, even when the words were meaningless (“lalala, lalala”). And the frightening crosswalks, where French drivers dared us to try to cross.

On the train ride back over the mountains, I surprised myself when I realized I was longing for Switzerland. Ah, the quiet tram rides to work. The drivers that screech to a halt when you enter the crosswalk. Maybe I am getting old. Maybe I no longer crave the passion, the non-stop days of conversation and activity. A bit of Swiss gentility, rules and quiet sound...just so nice.

Der waschermaschine

Der waschmaschine lives in its own room in the basement. There is a small window above it, gray light filtering down onto a tidy wash basin, a small table to temporarily hold laundry soap, and der waschmachine, half a foot from the concrete wall, stoically waiting. When the laundry is put in, the inner panels connected together, and the outside latch clicked into place, der waschmachine comes alive with a dance party of flashing red lights. Sometimes it comes alive. If not, you must remember to turn the giant button on the wall from "0" to "1." Then der waschmachine is on. Blinking red lights flashing at random intervals on every button. The buttons seem to be grouped: 95, 75, 40, 40 sport, these seem to go together. I push 75, it's sort of in the middle, hopefully 75 won't do too much damage to my clothes. Some lights in the right-hand set of buttons turn off, others begin to flash maniacally. To the right of the numbered buttons are a pair of other buttons, one with a vertical line and one with a horizontal line. I press horizontal-- it seems like the right way I'd want my clothes to spin around, not being tossed up and down vertically. Now the button with the vertical line begins to flash, so I press it, too. Both buttons to the right of that are now flashing, too, so I press them. The flashing stops, but nothing happens. I press the button with a right arrow that looks like a giant "play" icon on a remote control. The display changes from 0 36 to 1h 12. One hour and 12 minutes! Now lights are flashing again. Ach du lieber! I press 40 sport and every flashing red button until they stop. Still nothing. I stand contemplating der waschmachine for 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds, hoping it will reveal the secret combination for starting, then... BANG! derwaschmachine emits a loud metallic clang, and it is running. I return 0 36 minutes later, and der waschmachine silently gives up my clean, spun clothes.