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.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Underwear, on our chair

My name is on the post box. Maybe no coincidence that that is the moment when I start to think about what I will miss and what I will have for the next couple of years. There is no air conditioning, not even a fan. Though the temperatures haven't risen above 77 degrees Fahrenheit, it is hot and muggy, uncomfortable for sleeping. They say it will get hotter. There is no Taco Bell, no Noodles and Company. No car for massive trips to the grocery store or Costco. So each day, we will shop at the corner store, or make the trip further up the hill, to the slightly larger grocery store, and buy what we need for that day. No 300-packs of toilet paper (too much to carry back to our apartment, and besides, there is no place to put it-- we would have to sleep on it). No air conditioning or fans means that we will leave the windows open during the night-- fresh air, Italian/German/French/English voices and traffic spilling in through the window. We are more connected to the life outside our walls, closer to the noises, the smells, the time when the vegetables have been picked for our consumption. The fruit and vegetables are fresher here, even exquisite in taste, each raspberry is a small wisp of pleasure. There are some conveniences here-- the tram stops just up the hill from our apartment and takes me a few blocks from work. But mostly, life is much less convenient. No cached food and goods; no parking directly at the door of the store, no loading of large quantities into a car, slipping into the security of a garage then into the house. And in our apartment, laundry means a trip to the cellar, then hanging our clothes in a common room, on a line, for two days until they dry. For our modest sensibility, we can't bear to leave our bras and underwear down there, in the common area, For two days. So we will live here for a while, Underwear, on our chair.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Haus Frau

I've always longed to have a "haus frau." In my marriage I filled both the roles of breadwinner and homemaker-- working, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children. How I longed in those 70-80 hour work weeks for a haus frau that I could come home to-- our home spic and span, shopping done, dinner cooking. I would sit at the table with a newspaper and a glass of wine, as the children climbed into my lap for a snuggle, glad to have me home. I would give them a squeeze, then send them along until dinner was ready. My haus frau would kiss me on the head and gently call out when dinner was ready.

I jokingly tell my daughter, Emily, that she will be my haus frau while we are here in Zurich. She will shop, keep our little apartment clean, and greet me when I arrive home from a hard day at work. On Tuesdays and Fridays, she will buy flowers and vegetables at the outdoor market, and I will come home to the smell of lavendar or the delicate curl of irises. My haus frau scenario is not perfect. Emily doesn't cook anything other than boxed pasta. She's not especially good at cleaning, either. I may get a peck on the head, but she, the once small child who used to climb into my lap, is much too big for that now. Still, it feels like some small serene bliss, to come home to flowers, fresh fruits, and love.

Madame S.

I don't want my first blog to be about Madame S., but Madame S. is the most salient part of our move to Zurich so far. Madame S. is the apartment manager. We arrived at the foot of our apartment building after a madcap taxi cab, full of narrow misses with trams, street signs, and the flesh of passing pedestrians. After several wrong turns, and many exhalations of "sheisse" by the driver, we were dumped unceremoniously in front of the building.

Our luggage, guitar, and mandolin lined the walk like sentries, and we moved the instruments every 15 minutes or so as the shade slithered into the path to the entryway. We waited patiently for 3 hours for the arrival of Madame S. The residents of the building were both kind and curious, the kindest of the lot an elderly gentleman who explained, "ah Madame S., the Master of the House" when we explained who we were waiting for. Finally, Madame S. arrived in a flurry of Germanic exhortations. A tiny 50-something year-old woman with wild blond hair, a cheetah-print shirt, and round black glasses that slipped over her mouth as she spoke. "Protocol! Protocol!" she exclaimed, which we found to mean the going-over of every detail of our 200 sq foot apartment. First, we were led to the cellar, through a series of frightening meat locker doors, until we arrived at the destination-- "der waschermachine!" Then back out the doors and up to the apartment, where Madame S. painstakingly (now I know the meaning of that word) went over every dent and scuff on the apartment walls, floors and cabinets. "I script!" she would call, as she found each new problem. When it came time to actually write the problems, she had forgotten them all. In an explosion of German/French/English, she tried to explain all of the problems and what would happen to us if we caused more, "fershtay?" "tu comprend" "das is gut?" all blended into a long stream of language mishmash. She laughed madly then, her smoker's cough spilling out in sharp, dry breaths.

Madame S. returned today, wearing the same leopard-skin shirt and talking through the glasses that fell over her nose and into her mouth. Our television wouldn't turn on. She quickly diagnosed the problem as the power. Deftly, she ran to the kitchen and retrieved a kitchen knife. She stared boldly into the electric socket. Emily and I slowly backed as far away as possible. She plunged the knife into the socket, spun it around a few times, then tried the plug. "Fixed!" she exclaimed.