Monday, March 31, 2008

Parle vous l'inglese bitte?

On the sidewalk a few weeks ago, we came across an older Swiss German gentleman peering through a fence. "Look," he instructed, pointing at two flowers facing each other, straining toward the ray of light falling between them, "never say anything is impossible!" Once convinced we were sufficiently impressed, he walked away jauntily, leaving us to contemplate whether he was a crazy street man or just a hippy professor type without anyone to talk with or tell him to comb his beard.

A short while later we joined him at the bus stop where he was happy to rejoin us in conversation, switching to English when our lack of fluency was exposed. Mostly we talked about all the languages he can speak and where he learned them: French from the beautiful first girlfriend still ingrained in his memory ("Let me tell you, the first woman for a man is the same as the first man is for a woman"), English in school (apparently Swiss Germans learn English while Swiss Italians learn French), and Italian here in Lugano ("But I tell you, some of my friends here can't even ask for a coffee in Italian!").

Lugano bus culture requires passengers to self-segregate by age (and maybe also race but don't quote me on that yet), so when the bus came we got on at the back and left him to chat it up with the old ladies at the front. And what better way to impress the ladies than with a thrilling display of lingual and cultural literacy? Be still my heart.

Friday, March 28, 2008

My pudding's cooked!

It seemed like a risk to use UHT milk for the banana pudding I made yesterday. While I don't have the shelf complex that other Americans do, I just could never adjust to its taste. (And believe me, I forced down many a glass while living in Spain.) Don't they always say never to cook with a wine you wouldn't drink? I know someone influential said that because I feel guilty every time I buy cheap wine for cooking. Anyway, I felt brave as I poured out two cups into the mixing bowl, no tasting.

Now, UHT milk ("shelf milk") has a lot of things going for it. It is cheap, long-lasting, and packaged in Tetra Pak (thereby both stackable and absurdly appealing to me). I had been eyeing it on the shelf there, wishing I didn't think it tasted so weird, for a long time. In the end, it was the good old dollar that worked its magic on my hard heart and convinced me to give it another try.

The moment of truth came even before the pudding was cooked, as there was just enough leftover milk left for a taste. And – I am trying desperately to think of a way to make this more dramatic but am coming up empty – it tasted good. I liked it. Whether it was the result of maturing tastebuds or advanced processing or the Swiss milk or simple necessity I suppose I will never know. What I do know is that milk now costs less than gas.

So the lesson (since I can't seem to help forming a formal conclusion for you) is: eat some things you don't like every once in a while and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Grande fiesta latinoamericana

Alas, we found out too late.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Segreti di Venezia

Venice may be sinking, occasionally stinky, and no longer the most romantic destination in the world, but it ain't out of tricks yet. Ten minutes on its winding streets and lumpy bridges and we were under its spell, bewitched by layers of richness and tragic beauty so great that even 100,000 rowdy tourists could not completely diminish them. It is a mystery the city keeps, along with its ghosts, deep inside its crumbling palaces, far from the eye of the tourist. 

It bade us take photos of its picturesque canals and sinking foundations – to wait for the gondolas to pass and the bridge to clear, until the sun was just right – a wink and the moment was past. We wandered around, grasping at straws, fumbling for history in this mysterious place suspended in time, or perhaps out of time altogether. You may look on my face, but you shall never see my soul, it fairly breathes.

Strangely, photos of Venice somehow capture something we couldn't experience, something ethereal, fleeting, real. It is an enchanting city, in my opinion, not for the romantic gondola rides, colorful carnival masks, or bridges to nowhere, but for its carefully kept secrets, concealed behind layers of stucco, paint, and rock, inaccessible and slowly slumping into the sea.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Il mio primo compleanno svizzero

I now return after a little break for the visit of Orangina and Kraftman (a fine summary of events available here).  There were so many lovely moments during their trip, it would be difficult to pick a favorite. But ranking high among them would be the enthusiastic round of "Happy Birthday" which accompanied this thoughtfully appointed cake.

What can even be said of such a magnificent birthday cake? Only that it would not be possible without a dear, thoughtful mother, a couple of goofy friends, and a husband with a penchant for growing facial hair in very special styles.  And thanks to its fiber wheels, the cake practically digested itself. 

Monday, March 24, 2008

Happy Pasquetta!

Having completed his holiday work, the Easter Bunny went off to the countryside with the rest of Lugano to celebrate Pasquetta (Easter Monday) with family. 

Monday, March 17, 2008

A view of Basel, plus two others that happened to be on the phone when I retrieved it

Basel and the church where Erasmus now makes his home, from across the Seine

Swiss Mr. in Milan a while back

Somehow I feel this picture was left on the phone from its previous owner

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ciao pues!

Off to the 2008 Computational Biology Conference in Basel. Can't wait to hear this year's speakers!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Art crimes

For some reason, many parts of Europe I've seen have surprising amounts of graffiti. My hypothesis is that it doesn't get painted over as promptly, so it slowly grows and spreads to all kinds of surfaces until everyone's just used to seeing it and stops minding. I guess there's not a graffiti squad waiting for your call with cleanser like there is in Chicago. And maybe the implications of letting it remain aren't as scary.

I read a book about the gangs of Chicago once. It laid out the intricate hierarchies and alliances between gangs in various cities, covered drugs and guns extensively, and explained deadly color combinations, but I really don't think it mentioned anything about gang graffiti and its purpose. Marking out territory? Are there gangs in Lugano claiming neighborhoods? If so, the gang named "Pooh" controls all of the underpasses.

Anyway, Banksy can rest easy – the graffiti artists around here won't be stealing the world spotlight from him anytime soon. Lugano's few token anarchists remain uncreative, so "we are looking for the queen of the drug" is about as edgy as it gets. Man, I hope they found her before they graduated high school.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Festa della Donna

Lugano was full of pretty yellow mimosa flowers this weekend for Festa della Donna.  Everyone on the street seemed to buying some for someone. This holiday turns out to correspond with International Women's Day which, though inspired by oppression occurring in the US, is an oddly low-profile holiday there, in my experience. Not a flower holiday, in any case.

This day came at an appropriate point during my plod through A People's History of the United States so I am fresh on the details of oppressive early 20th century working conditions.  Eighty hour work weeks, dangerous and dirty buildings, incessant factory fires, child labor, repressive rules, and paltry salaries – the individual stories are too much to bear. The numbers are likewise disturbing. In 1914 alone, 35,000 workers were killed in accidents and 700,000 were injured. The income of 44 rich families equalled the total income of 100,000 families. Locked doors during a factory fire at the Triangle Company killed 146 workers, most of whom were women. 

In commemoration of tragedies such as these, and to honor the women's rights movement, groups in the US began observing National Women's Day and, later, groups in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland adopted International Women's Day. (The progressiveness of Switzerland is apparently patchy, since the last canton held out on giving women the right to vote until they were forced to do so in the 1990s!) After 1917, it was celebrated on March 8 in honor of a successful strike by women in Russia for peace and voting rights. Italy adopted the holiday during the 40s and added the mimosa flowers. (Here's a nice timeline of events.)

I often wish we had a better sense of history in the US. I love that we are an optimistic people but we miss much in glossing over the transgressions in our narrative. Not recognizing just how often we've failed, how human we are, how wrong we've been, is tragic.  But, if you'll permit me a moment of drama, I believe not appreciating how far we have managed to straggle along may be an even bigger tragedy. 

(Worse even than not buying mimosa flowers for the woman in your life on Festa della Donna, by the way.)

Friday, March 7, 2008

I ♥ Economics

Usually economics has the same effect on me that starchy food does – i.e., gives me itchy eyes and the irresistible urge to rub my face assiduously. But thanks to our special relationship with the exchange rate, economics has become exciting! We personally get to experience the thrill of market volatility every day. Check out the dramatic exchange rate plunge which began right about when we decided to come here: had hopefully predicted, as you see in blue, that the dollar would recover in February 2008. Unfortunately, as you see in purple, and as you are likely well aware from other contexts anyway, it didn't. (Where's that invisible hand when you need it?) Can whoever has our Freakonomics book look up what we did wrong in May 1997?  

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Conflict resolution, crow style

Since there aren't any squirrels here for me to pick on, I hereby turn my attention to the second most horrible park animal: crows. There were a bunch of them in the park yesterday glaring at passersby from the trees, looking mean and up to no good. Like anyone who has seen "The Birds," I picked up my pace.

But I stopped my hasty getaway to watch what happened next. I am not making this up. A big shiny crow swooped in and knocked another backward off his branch onto the ground, where he pinned him, foot to chest. His victim flailed around while the rest of the gathered around to watch. (You can imagine all the horrid "cawing" from above.) This continued on for a good two minutes until his wings got tired, at which point it became boring for the bully bird, who let go. They all flew off together in an agitated huff.  

Not very refined behavior for the harbingers of death. Okay, but as I think of it, pecking people's eyes out and eating carrion are not very refined activities either, so maybe it's entirely appropriate. In any case, it's just further proof of what we all know: crows are mean.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Brush up on your Italian(s)

Compliments of Monty Python.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Stuck in the chorus with the rest of the conformist losers

I was in the soda aisle for some Fanta Limone but the snappy marketing of the San Pellegrino Chinò bottle sucked me in. Something deep inside of me – probably the same part that wanted those Guess jeans with the zippers at the bottom – wanted to be drinking the soda in a sleek black bottle with the nice branding. And suddenly it was in the cart with the cheese and the chocolate.

The Chinò slogan: Bevi fuori dal coro – Drink "outside the chorus"
The sophisticat's motto: Il problema di essere unici è che si vede –
The problem with being unique is that others see

Startled is the tactful way to describe our reaction to Chinò's "unique" flavor.  It was both bitter and sweet (imagine a Manhattan without any alcohol.  or a weed soaked in sugar water.) and not at all cokey. As it turns out, this is simply San Pellegrino's version of chinotto, a popular Italian aperitif made from the chinotto fruit. As much as I wanted to like it (which was a lot), I could barely finish a small glassful. 

Why don't I get to be fuori dal coro? No fair. 

Monday, March 3, 2008

Gran Premio di Lugano

This was an exciting weekend, truly. Not only did kitty have a sleepover at a 17th century mansion and not only did I for once immediately love something I baked myself and not only did the pope show up at my house in a dream but also it was the weekend of the Lugano Grand Prix.

I had never seen a bike race before so it turned out to be pretty exciting! Part of the thrill came from scurrying around to see the bikers at various locations, wondering if we'd missed them but then hearing the whirr of wheels and the whistle of breaks in the distance, and realizing –yeah! – we hadn't. Kind of like waiting for the ice cream truck. Anyway, two minutes later they're already gone, out of sight around the corner.

We didn't really get into the narrative of the event, but according to the reports the race "ended in drama." Rinaldo Nocentini (Italy) beat out another Italian and a Spaniard toward the end, who were "surging" and "attacking" as they "forced their way through the final climb." I'm not so good at understanding sports strategy (especially but not exclusively in sports that seem only vaguely strategic) but this sounds really impressive. Next time I will bring a cowbell!