Thursday, January 31, 2008

"No Motto Please, We're British"

I feel bad that I always pick on the Brits, but it can be difficult to avoid. Sometimes they just bring it on themselves, with their properness and whatnot. Anyway, I suppose it's to be expected.... Do robins get along with eagles? Not really.

In any case, today I neutrally share that Britain has decided, as part of some new measures to "boost pride" [Insert your own quip here], they would like to develop a motto. The Times of London had a motto-writing contest for the general public, and among the top suggestions were "One Mighty Empire, Slightly Used," "We Apologize for the Inconvenience," and (the winner) "No Motto, Please, We're British." Love that dry British humor. (Really!)

Until today, I had thought the motto of the United States was the first sentence I learned in Latin, the one that Latin teachers like to point out first to illustrate "Latin is everywhere," the phrase stamped optimistically on American currency -- i.e., E pluribus unum (Out of many, one). But, actually, I regret to inform you, Congress passed a law making in 1956 making In God We Trust the official motto. (Congress was certainly busy making all kinds of symbolic rhetorical changes at this time, weren't they?) 

How do you reduce an entire nation into a single phrase that means anything? Since America no longer has anything very special, maybe Britain should follow Switzerland's example.  Their motto -- Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno! (One for all, all for one!) -- is everything you could ever want a slogan to be: elegant, enthusiastic, hip, and Latin.  

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Pop quiz

To an Italian, which one of these is pep(p)eroni pizza?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bus blurb #2

Since, really, what else is there to do on a bus if you can't eavesdrop on conversations, I've spent a lot of time looking at what little there is to see. "New: If you didn't receive proper change at the ticket machine, please retain your ticket and contact the main office in Lugano centro."  "80 CHF fine for riding without a ticket."  "This step is not a trampoline."

A new set of promotional ads for the bus system recently meant new visual fodder for curious americani. (Never mind that the only people who see these ads are already on the bus and thus likely already convinced.) After a few rides, I started to notice something funny these posters, something off. I couldn't put my finger on it, but something was not right with that girl striding confidently with her shopping bags. And with the "Convenient...for meeting someone" guy in the gray suit.

And then I realized it. A pernicious little design trick they thought no one would notice. Yes, a careful examination proved the undeniable truth: someone had swapped out the heads in these ads. The shopping girl's long arms and big shoulders, her anomalous shrug, the businessman's tiny head, the way the suit seemed just a touch too old for his age -- it all made sense. 

I am not a designer, but I'm pretty sure that head-swapping, although perfectly appropriate for Fashion Plates, should not be done in real life advertising unless it can be done properly (i.e., so we never know). It has to be a design faux pas up there with scaling a photo incorrectly and getting font happy.  But maybe someone with a degree can corroborate.

In the crockpot

Today's post needed to stew a bit longer. Perhaps it will be ready later after work.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Bus blurb #1

There are a lot of things to complain about when you consider the public transportation in Chicago, but lack of visual interest is not one of them. No matter what form of transport you choose, you've got layers of advertisements, graffiti, warnings, policies, and maps to look at. I've whiled away entire trips gazing up at those gauche rectangles of brightly colored marketing. Who is this Robert Morris, exactly? He sounds like my next-door neighbor. Why is it that women in equivalent positions still don't make as much men, and why are they making me mad about this on the train? And does anyone actually do those sleep studies offered by Rush University?

Who has not spent a few moments considering who it was that took the time to carve that four-letter word into the window? Or where gangs get those thick markers they use to... claim the sought-after fourth car of red line run 842? (Do they fight over who has to take the pink line, do you think? Why on earth, by the way, did they pick that girl's essay on the pink line to win the "Name the New Line" contest? I heard it. It was not a winner.)

If I'm not too distracted by stuffing coming out of the duct-taped crack in the seat in front of me, I also like to read "The Passenger's Bill of Rights" each time I am in a cab. I find I am always impressed by how much we riders are entitled to. My admiration is always immediately ascribed to Mayor Daley, whose anachronistically young face is conveniently right there on the page waiting for credit.

Well. The situation is much different in Switzerland. You have to look hard to even see that someone wants your attention. Please, sir, if you're not too busy, sir, and you have nothing else to look at, perhaps, maybe you're interested to hear about this new bus route we're starting? Swiss ads whisper where American ads scream and wave their arms.

But what advertisements on Lugano buses lack in quantity, frenzy, and seediness, they make up for with usefulness and tact. Just like the billboards, the bus ads are tastefully sized, no bigger than a sheet of paper. They advertise new bus routes, local festivals, the convenience of public transportation. Useful! But oh so boring.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Fluency update

In case you were wondering, though I imagine you were not, here are some things I can currently say in Italian without thinking too much.

"What did you do today?
"Be careful! Be nice! Wait!" (very useful in certain lines of work)
"Why don't we go to the 'Caffe degli artisti' to have a coffee together?" (admittedly has low probability of actual use, but it's good and long)
"I'd like a hat, a magnificent hat."
"One of these, please."
"I'm just looking." (usually delivered with a "please don't ask me anything else" look)
"85 kilometers and the department stores are closed!"
"Yes, the bus came early.  Yes, I'm annoyed too."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A collision of cultures?

I haven't ruled out the possibility that the reason this car-pedestrian accident seemed strange was simply cultural difference.  I do come from the land of direct, easily-engaged do-it-yourself-ers, where personal freedoms and rights are king, and the threat of litigation looms around every corner.  (Though I point out from personal experience that my compatriots didn't exactly engage to help while Frau B. and I were crunched upside down in a highway ditch a few years back.  You let us down, central Michigan.)  I can think of many reasons I seemed to experience this recent incident so differently than the other participants and passers-by.

More time and input is required to figure this out, if indeed there is something to figure out.  If secret trysts, parish coverups, or small town nepotism are involved, I doubt I shall uncover anything of substance. But if there's a simple explanation, it should eventually come out in the wash.  I think.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

No news was good news: A recent adventure

I was strolling when I stepped out of our building yesterday, enjoying the sunshine and browsing for a new Italian lesson on what, for some reason, I keep incorrectly referring to as "my mp3 player." As I think about it in retrospect, I'm surprised at how much I noticed during these few complacent moments.  I must have seen the woman about to cross the street, seen her groceries, seen the blue car coming up the other street just a few meters away -- as when I heard the squealing tires and sickening crunch I knew exactly what had happened.  

I looked up to see the woman thrown through the air. I think. Or maybe my mind just put the scenes together like a flip book, I don't know. In any case, I ran toward her, feeling my pulse acutely.  

The driver of the car was soon by her side as well, but neither said anything.  Had it somehow already been said before I arrived?  I asked her (I think) "Are you okay?"and her disoriented gaze replied "Not exactly."  I had instinctively whipped out my telefonino, ready to place a call, so, in a bit of special eloquence, I asked the driver, "Should I call 1-1-2?  1-1-2, right?  I'm not from here."  

He looked tense but remarkably calm for having driven into someone moments earlier.  Did he actually respond to me?  If he didn't, something about how acted seemed to communicate that I should not, so I stood in the road with nothing to do with my adrenaline.  A car drove by and someone asked the man if we needed help.  They had a remarkably jovial conversation which made me feel for a moment like I was in one of those movies about the small town folks who freakishly cover for one another, in spite of (because of?) their small town morals. The car left. 

Not able to serve any other purpose, I felt it my moral duty to gaze disapprovingly at the driver.  I thought he might be a priest -- though I did not see a collar, the subtle sheen and perfect starch seemed to suggest clergy.  The woman said to the driver, "just my stomach," and started to pull herself up and pick up her groceries.  Finally prompted into action, he said "You shouldn't do that.  Should I take you to la civica?"  She said yes.  I verified that she was okay with this and he packed her and her groceries into his little blue VW and drove away.

Somehow all of this took only five minutes.  I made the bus and went on with my day.  But, of course, it took me a long time to stop thinking about it.  So odd, how they kept looking at each other expressionlessly, without emotion, saying nothing. Did they know each other? Were they keeping secrets? Or was it just shock and Swiss reserve? 

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sei triste?

This morning as I was eating my M-Budget chocolate muesli (which is more or less Cocoa Puffs for grown-ups), I started to think about this billboard I keep seeing, which says Sei triste? (Are you sad?) Its fluorescent colors and perky phrasing makes me think it would be hard for anyone to say yes to such a cheerfully-posed question. I was thinking, if they want people to admit it and call the hotline, they should maybe use a drabber palette so that people aren't tricked into thinking they're not. 

Then I sat down at my computer here and started thinking about how much sadness there can be found in our communities, great and small, and how amazing it is that we actually carry on, day to day, with so many things to be sad about at our doorsteps (if not inside the door). [Lengthy period of conclusion-less reflection about suffering, "magical thinking," heart-breaking times fallen on dear friends, getting old, hope, wrinkles excerpted.]  Not necessarily fluorescent thoughts.

As you see, I am having difficulty finding an adventure to write about this week, unless you count the adventure of having so much time to think.  Which I guess I will.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Prossima fermata: Sardegna

Since I have been gainfully employed of late, I haven't had much time for doing things of much interest to the general public (or even the specific public, really).  I apologize for that.  TASM without TA is but SM: just another boring expatriate.

It's hard to find Adventure around here, especially in winter, so we've decided to take a holiday to Sardinia in a few weeks.  (You all understood that use of "holiday," didn't you?  Cheeky Brit is spreading the rumor that Americans are so small-minded, they can't even figure out what that means. Rumor dismantled.)  Sardinia, in case it's been a while since social studies and it didn't come up on the geography quiz, is the large non-Sicily island off Italy, near Corsica.  We will fly directly from Milano to Cagliari, Sardinia's capital.

The weather should be pleasant and mild, but it's not exactly tourist season, so we're expecting it to be quiet -- hopefully just us and some locals! Over the course of history, a good number of developing civilizations have found Sardinia's location just too temptingly strategic, so it has an understandably chaotic political history and a diverse and fascinating culture.  Though Italian is used for most official purposes, the Sardinian language is apparently very closely related to Latin. Neat. 

I believe we will keep busy eating, hiking, hunting up some music, and checking out archeological sites.  Though I'm not sure how/if my Italian will support me in the venture, I hope to find a way to check out the sheep-herding/cheese-making process there.  Agritourism, you know, is all the rage for city slickers who like to pretend they've discovered a place and aren't so very removed from nature after all.  (I am not party to this trend, of course, which allows me to make salient observations as such from a safe distance.)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

These are the times that try men's souls.

Have you ever spilled something in such an awkward location that, no matter how many times you clean it, you are still wiping up spill residue in newfound crevices, months later?  

Yeah, me too. 


First there was KNIE, the traveling circus. Then there was KNUT, a post-Christmas festival hosted by IKEA. I have a feeling KNUT is a Swedish thing, rather than a Swiss thing, since I seem to recall that I had an Uncle Knut up the road somewhere.

Actually, I am reading the materials now and it seems Knut was a famous Swedish king from 1086 who died in tragic circumstances. Ah, and January 13 is Knut day in Sweden.  This day also marks the return of light hours.  They dance around the Christmas tree and then throw it out the window.  I did not make this up. 

Back to KNUT, the festival.  Last weekend, IKEA had a tree-throwing contest downtown to celebrate. We were deeply disappointed that our schedule did not allow for throwing trees. First prize was a 5000 CHF gift card.  (Just imagine the deeper level of IKEAfication that would allow.) Consolation prize was a hotdog and mulled wine. (What they mean, I think, is that if you eat an IKEA hotdog, you will actually require consolation shortly thereafter. I speak from experience. Anyone who has shopped at IKEA knows that grievous compromises must sometimes be made to ensure a shockingly low price.  In this case those compromises (on flavor, texture, and coloring) proved ruinous (i.e., completely disgusting). Only one person I know takes exception to this, and I find it totally baffling.)

Stylishly heading for a consolation prize

I wonder: Does IKEA do this everywhere?  Or is it just that the Swiss seemed likely to get into this cold-weather fun? Or enough people kept getting Switzerland and Sweden confused so they just consolidated?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Reflections on the Traveler IQ Challenge

Some observations about the Traveler IQ Challenge, which may or may not have real-world implications: 

  • Non-Egypt Africa did not show up until at least Level 6 (medium-difficult).
  • The islands are so tiny you can't even see them.  Hawaii was miniscule; Tuvalu had no chance!
  • The following countries are much huger than we're led to believe: Turkey, Kazakhstan, and New Zealand.  
  • From my limited data points, it's clear that the Germans prevailed (I'm not suggesting a conspiracy, but did anyone notice how many locations in Germany there were?).  Or perhaps eine gute Karte ist halt ein guter freund.
  • The midwestern United States appears to be a barren wasteland no one needs to know (or they saved it for Level 12).
  • Croatia never showed up either.
Make of these observations what you may.  

If you took the quiz under duress of guilt at work, I suggest retrying at home for better results. Likewise, if you feel moderate to considerable shame about your score, you should really take it again. Unlike real IQ tests (I presume), you can easily raise both your score and your self-esteem (not to mention your map savvy). 

This quiz clearly reveals that you can think you know where something is without having any idea of its scale or relation to the rest of the world.  Maybe this is the real reason 1/5 of US Americans are unable to find America on a map.  

Traveler IQ Challenge

Ah, geography -- America's Achilles' heel.  I, like most other Americans, I think we can safely assume, shuddered to imagine quantifying my geographical literacy for anyone, including myself, to see. But you'll find that doing so is like touching a bruise: painful, yet oddly satisfying.  (Maybe there is a bruise on our collective heel?)  

Some advice for the quiz:  Speed actually does seem to matter, so if you have no idea, I suggest pinning anywhere ASAP.  Also, do not try to be too precise.  I spent too much time with my face up to the screen, trying to pin specific places in Italy, and I don't think it even mattered. They are generous with the points and accolades in this game.  

On my first try, I made it to level 6, but sadly didn't have enough points to move on.  Got stumped on Castries, St. Lucia, and Victoria something or other which was not actually an island but somewhere in London.  I found the US locations to be very hard.  Apparently I can locate Bern within 30 kilometers, but can't find Las Vegas to save my life.   

How did you do?  I'm interested to hear which country produces the most level 12 jedi heroes of cartography, so 'fess up.

Now if I could only find out where Croatia is....

Monday, January 14, 2008

Pollo fritto per americani tristi

During some intense feelings of what Swiss Mr. appropriately termed "food malaise" this weekend, I thought I would never enjoy eating again. Truly. For at least six hours, there was no light at the end of this tunnel of gastronomic despair. Even the thought of dear, blessed cheese could not raise my spirits.

Eventually my hunger required some satiating, so my clever and kind husband cooked me up a comforting American meal of chicken fingers with honey mustard sauce.  After some delicious fried food and Michael-KITT repartee, I was feeling right as rain.  

Should you ever find yourself in this same season of discontent, here is the therapeutic.  Never mind the fact that the recipe is called "The Lady and Sons Chicken Fingers." (In truth, The Lady is unnaturally attached to her sons and to butter, but this scarcely hurts the recipe.)   

I no longer really feel the need to try my hand at "real" chicken nuggets. I had once read that in order to make them taste authentic, you have to puree the chicken first.  (I can't now find where I read that, but as a consolation prize found The Chicken Nuggets of Switzerland -- Why don't they have music on their web site, do you think? hmm....). Although the idea of desconstituting/reconstituting my own meat seemed truly unappetizing, I was for a moment in time interested in trying, if only for the thrill of accurately reproducing restaurant food at home. But The Lady and Sons have saved me from this lowbrow impulse: from here on out, it's chicken fingers or bust!  

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Free etiquette lessons

Okay, now that I know some rules of etiquette, I can now begin judging locals by their own standards. Actually, this thought would not have occurred to me, except that, moments after writing yesterday's post, I rode the bus with the worst example of Swiss behavior possible. Now it seems only natural.

So, little punk kid from the bus, here are some tips:

1. Do not chew pear with your mouth open, if you have to eat a pear on the bus at all. In many cultures, including your own, this is rude.
2. Do not allow your dog to take up a seat. That way, you won't be tempted to feed him your fruit and a human can sit. Your girlfriend will have to save the "drinking from a juicebox" training for your dog until another time.
3. Do not rile up the town crazy if he is sitting next to anyone, but especially if he is sitting next to me.
4. When you finish your pear, please try to wait until the bus stops to throw it out the bus door. Then you won't have to pry the bus doors open. That is alarming to other passengers and is probably not good for the bus.
5. Even better, wait to dispose of your pear until you are off the bus and put it into a trash receptacle conveniently located a few steps away. That way, you won't also be littering to boot (see yesterday's post if you're confused about that).
6. "What are you looking at?" is impolite.  But, to answer the question, the man in front of you was observing your violent attempts to open the doors and wondering why you couldn't wait two seconds until the next stop.

Contingency etiquette

As of this moment, we are personally acquainted with three Swiss people. And one of these people thinks I can't clean up the laundry room properly, so there are really only two Swiss people with whom we've had normal social encounters. Lest you think we live in vacuum, I should say that all of Swiss Mr.'s colleagues hail from outside Switzerland. And you know how foreigners stick together. It's no wonder we spend more time with Italians and Israelis.

But in case one of our new neighbors happens to know English, or we stop speaking like cave people, or a Swiss friend falls from the sky, I am reading up on Swiss etiquette. I think this will also help me be a better citizen (ahem, "citizen"), lowering the chances that the Alienspolice will come after me and export me home like a Swatch.

This research has been useful. I now know that slouching in public is greatly frowned upon (eliminated lazy bus posture immediately), as is putting your hands in your pockets (will now freeze fingers out of cultural sensitivity), and littering (never was one for littering; I'll have to start picking it up). Respect for privacy is an important value so I commit to stop watching neighbors out the peephole and peeking into others' shopping bags. Please hold me accountable -- our nation's reputation is at stake. Thank you.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A Confession

Once in a while,
I'm standing here, doing something.
And I think,
"What in the world am I doing here?"
It's a big surprise.

—Donald Rumsfeld, 5/16/01

(But maybe the real confession should be that a former bureaucrat is becoming my favorite poet....)

Tetra Pak

One of the many wondrous things I've learned in Germany is that Tetra Pak is recyclable. (As you know, the Germans are gifted recyclers, some of the best in Europe.)  Tetra Pak (henceforth TP), in case you never knew or hadn't yet thought about it, is the coated cardboard box often used for beverages, soups, and whatnot. The cardboard is coated with aluminum and plastic making it light, sterile (aseptic is the official word for packaging, I just learned), and recyclable!  I cannot stop being fascinated by this. 

If you think about it, it's really amazing.  They are able to separate all these layers into reuseable byproducts.  The plastic becomes paraffin, the aluminum foil can be recovered and reused, and the cardboard paperboard becomes fiber for new paper.  For someone who was not so very long ago taking labels off soup cans to recycle them, or rather to try to (now is not the time to get into Chicago's heartbreaking recycling system), this is a miracle of technology.  Let me be clear -- I'm not so simple that I think this is as exciting as NANOTECHNOLOGY or anything, but what I am struck by is that it is actually occurring now -- that the system is in place and it is happening! 

I must admit that the details also interest me in a way that makes me wonder if I was a paper engineer or at least a packaging major in a previous life.  (I won't be offended if you're not and stop reading.  I've taken my fair share of bemused and strange looks for this obsession already.) The composition of TP is usually 75% duplex paper, 20% polyethylene, and 5% aluminum.  The aluminum keeps the air and light out, keeping things fresh.  I finally found some details and it appears that during recycling the packages are broken down into a slurry, which allows the plastic and aluminum to be separated from the paper.  If the plastic and aluminum are heated, they can be further separated into paraffin and aluminum.  

Some Brazilians wrote a very interesting technical paper on this that I was able to make some sense of, if, like me, you're wondering how the plastic and the aluminum don't form a big glob.  (There are photos!)  

The next time you use corrugated paper, cardboard, egg cartons, shoe soles, paper towels, or molded metal parts; stack juiceboxes into a pyramid; buy unrefrigerated milk; or get a paraffin treatment, know that chances are these products are not recycled from TP.  But just spend a moment thinking about the miracle of Tetra Pak anyway. 

Monday, January 7, 2008


While the rain ruined all of our pretty snow this weekend, Swiss Mr., a sullen-looking guy in a suede fringe vest, and I road the train together toward Foxtown factory stores.  Swiss Mr. and I went to see about some sales.  Cowboy he did not seem to be traveling for pleasure; he gravely drank his beer and looked out the window until our stop.  Maybe he knew something we didn't?

Foxtown was crammed, primarily, it seemed, with Italians eager to make good use of their mighty euros.  After an hour or two of shuffling in and out of stores without seeing one thing to buy (at any price, really), I started looking into people's bags (will foreigners stop at nothing?) to see what they found worthy of purchasing at this rambling complex of disorderly designer stores. I spied a suit coat and some t-shirts.  I did not see anyone with the heavy gold Salvatore Ferragamo handbag (1,100 CHF) or the gilded cigarette case (845 CHF).   

We had been optimistic but realistic about the trip, so we were not disappointed that our only purchase turned out to be a mini rolling pin (3 CHF).   The fashion was just too high, the dollar too low, the crowds too great....  Cowboy, it turns out, didn't buy much either.  He rejoined us on the train with just one new purchase, and it was consumed before we reached Lugano.

Friday, January 4, 2008

"Modified Mediterranean Climate"

Lugano's weather is confusing.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Switzerland made me do it

A short list of things I never thought I'd find myself doing, ever, in my life, but now do regularly:

1. Eat cereal with a big spoon
2. Hide from neighbor who thinks I can't clean properly
3. Consider $65 shoes a good deal (in one case, such a good deal that I bought them without noticing they say "Fun & Co" on them)
4. Drink 2.7% milk
5. Watch "Who Wants to be a Millionaire"
6. Buy DVDs I will only watch once

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

I'm trying to remember if I'm the kind of person who makes New Year's resolutions.  I can't really recall any that I have made or kept in the past, so I don't think I am.  And I generally try to avoid being the source of my own disappointment, when I can.  How boringly pragmatic.  

Yesterday on the short 8:00 a.m. flight from N├╝rnberg they gave out fortune cookies for breakfast dessert.  This seemed odd for a number of reasons.  But anyway, my aptly-timed "fortune" reads: 

The past belongs to the past; 
now the time is right for
a new beginning.

So now I am thinking.  For some reason, "What's past is prologue" immediately came to mind on the plane.  Shakespeare wrote that in The Tempest, but I didn't know this until a few years ago when I looked it up, remembering the vintage wartime poster in our basement which quoted this phrase.  The design of the other posters -- Uncle Sam, Joan of Arc, "Buy War Bonds" -- are clear in my memory, but I can't remember what the background of this poster looked like.  Was it a flag? A peaceful field? Marines at Iwo Jima? A woman working in a factory?  I am forced to guess which part of the past Americans were supposed to consider prologue. 

In any case, because of its context (on a propaganda poster) and because I probably only thought about its meaning lazily, during breaks between movies at sleepovers, "What's past is prologue" always seemed to have negative connotations.  What happened before is just a shadow of what's to come -- watch out!  This is just the beginning.  If you think this is bad, just wait until Act II.  You!  Do something!

It didn't occur to me until now to think of this positively -- as something other than a manipulative threat or a wistful recollection.  Could it be instead that what happened before, whatever it was, simply sets the scene for future greatness?  A new beginning doesn't necessarily take leave of the past.  But then again, as the fortune cookie points out, the past doesn't preclude a new beginning, either.  So, whether you make resolutions or not, it seems a good time to consider both the past and the future, to mark the passage of time, and to hope for a great future. (Join me in thinking too much!)

I hope Shakespeare wouldn't be offended to be in the company of a fortune cookie.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year!

Christmas gifts put to good use