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.