Friday, August 29, 2008

My love affair with Tetra Pak

I keep forgetting to share with you one of the most exciting events of our first year here; it's inexcusable. It's the next chapter in the thrilling Tetra Pak story. Read on, Pakfans!

First, though, let me say that I wish that I were socially active in some other, better way. The energies I put into pursuing a relationship with TP could surely have been applied in a more conscientious way, like writing letters for Amnesty International or something. I know. I am thinking of the letter I wrote to the manager of our local Jewel store growing up, because their sample server stoutly and rudely refused to serve me without my "mommy." Why couldn't I have written someone about the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa instead? In summary: I am still working on my social conscience. (The manager of the Jewel called me to apologize personally, by the way.)

But since I did already invest this energy, I am happy to report that the TP people are the best! They tried really hard to arrange a plant tour in Switzerland, even though I said I would travel anywhere for it. When they couldn't work anything out, they sent me a video! I was/am slightly embarrassed by it, as it is clearly intended for children learning about the recycling process at school, but I have to say it is a really neat free video. I was able to watch it with Kraftman, my visiting engineer friend, and he enthusiastically gave me special insights about machinery and the inner-workings of factories. (My engineer husband was really sick of my TP craze by then. But even he dropped by to admire the one-operator machine that drove into the forest, chopped trees, stripped them and stacked them into neat log piles.)

The video traced the entire TP process from beginning (tree harvesting) to end (recycling into new products). Unfortunately my burning question, the one about how exactly the layers of paper were separated was not exactly answered. I think we concluded that it was a big magnet and some sucky-air thing. But it was fascinating, and I am forever grateful to the consumer-savvy people at Tetra Pak who know how to keep a customer enthusiastic.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


After departing Verona we took a long and intermittently scenic drive to the largest lake in Italy, Lake Garda. We were in search of a fortress castle located on a long peninsula, knowing only that it was marked "interesting" on our map. When we finally arrived, we found that every single vacationing Italian in the entire country was somehow packed onto this thin strip of land. I know my Michigan references have been a bit out of hand recently, but it really reminded me of Mackinac Island sans boyscouts.

Taking away from the castle's interestingness were the facts that it was small and closed. However, whereas most moats grow grass or house bears nowadays, this one actually had water in it, as it connected to the lake on the other side. Bonus points for being completely surrounded by water. If you could ignore the jillions of people filtering through this area, you could almost imagine Legolas in a huge floating leaf leading a stealth attack of the castle. (My Tolkien nostalgia is so easy to trigger on vacation.) Anyway, it would take someone really heroic to conquer this outpost. If anyone actually wanted to conquer this outpost.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Graffito antico

While in Verona we strenuously avoided Juliet's tourist traps, probably at the expense of some great balcony shots, opting instead for some long and slow strolling. The main feature of our walking tour (besides the real watermelon-kiwi popsicle) turned out to be San Zeno Maggiore, a neat old basilica built over the crypt of the outspoken old guy himself. Even though I was partly distracted, working to ignore the epic battle going on between my stomach and the huge chunk of buffalo mozzarella I had for lunch, I was affected by the distinctive atmosphere of this crypt turned church turned monastery improved to become basilica. The place had a nice feel, like I wouldn't have minded staying a while to say a few confessions or something if there hadn't been a growing fear of my having lactose intolerance dominating my consciousness. 

The frescoes painted on various layers of the wall were really beautiful and in impressive condition; I wish the light had allowed more photos. Some pilgrims just couldn't resist adding their mark to this one. How was it ever okay to carve something into the Holy Mother's shoulder?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Enter the American optimist

I'm the kind of person that roots for the underdog, so I don't necessarily enjoy the fact that I was born in a country that, at least for the moment, happens to be a major world power whose biggest export is a weird entertainment culture that, apart from being poorly representative, subsumes almost everything it touches. If I had to pick a country that fit my personality better I would pick somewhere much less flashy, someplace smaller, a bit more buttoned up and happy to have a discussion until the wee hours of the morning. But, alas, we do not pick our country of origin. And, sadly, we cannot change its history or cover up its sins or bury it under a big ton of rocks. We are stuck with it.

I feel particularly stuck with it because we are some of a few lonely representatives of this nation around here. I hope I'm not belaboring this fact in my writings here. I don't really mean to sound dramatic. But the US is a big country to represent and there is a wild amount of misinformation floating about. It is an exhausting job.

You see, for every misconception we correct, there is some other ugly fact that we can neither conceal nor deny. Just recently: Of course someone without insurance with get emergency care at the hospital. And oh yeah, millions of people have no coverage at all. Of course there are still some native Americans left in the US. Err... let me tell you about the first Thanksgiving! And although I used to try to deny the "so many more Americans must be obese" conclusion, I've been defeated on that one. Too many people come back from visits to the US saying this. How 'bout them free refills?

Also, no one seems to know or appreciate the really great things about our rapidly aging nation. Like how many kinds of potatoes there are. Or that we have trees that are wider than a car, even the big old American kind. How you can get edible Chinese food almost anywhere. That the sky can seem even huger if you can get alone enough. That you can find a hundred languages and a jillion small businesses in a city block. How it's so diverse assumptions are useless. And so huge you could never begin to summarize it in one paragraph.

There's no explaining these things, really. And maybe I just need them to be great so they can act for me as a mental counterweight to the heavy bundle of cultural and political crimes America as a community has committed. In any case, pessimistic people usually like to stick with the dark version of the story. I cannot blame them. It's much easier to stick to a tidy narrative than to acknowledge you may have severely misjudged the complexity and diversity of a country everyone knows everything about.

America in the World

Not sure how I feel about this organization, but I think the above rant may have located me somewhere not so far away from these folks. Particularly interesting was their recent survey which determined that 58% of the British citizens surveyed believe polygamy to legal in the US. (Okay, 2,000 participants isn't exactly overwhelming, but 58% is pretty high.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Cartoons, mes amis, cartoons

In order to protect my image as a leisurely pensioner, let me just say that I've been busy this month. Watching cartoons. French ones. 

Pokemon is pretty much the same (good) in every language, but, as you might imagine, the French have a good number of their own shows which, at least to my untrained eye, seem pretty unique. My favorite was the Tom & Jerry-like show featuring two vindictive cats sharing a house with a bunch of pesky little bugs. I give them credit for mentally challenging plot twists, one of which involved some characters being within the electricity (eventually freed when the one kitty unsuspectingly prints them out of his computer).

Another might have been set in Marseille and seemed to follow some very urban orphans through daily life on the streets. Slightly depressing for a cartoon, I thought, but I guess if you think kids should know everything about the real world, this is a fairly innocuous way to do it. In the end, the police offer slipped on some oil and never found out what they were doing in that shady-looking warehouse on the wharf. (There must have been a legitimate reason for them to gather there, but I wasn't in touch enough with my inner orphan to figure it out.)

And you know you're in Europe when you're watching "Galactic Football," a cartoon that features a team of sleek futuristic athletes, counseled by an old doctorly fellow with white hair and a hip shaman-woman with a few braids mixed in with her long and flowing hair. Well, perhaps battle masters more than counselors: they seemed to be the ones setting up the team with epic battles against violent, magical football teams. In the end, it turned out to be simply another Pokemon knock-off, complete with battle cards and special powers. Except it is a bit weird to arrange Pokemon-style conflicts with real people, particularly when they are mortal. There was something creepy about the young footballer having to pay the ultimate price for the cause of galactic sports. (Again, there may have been some global issues at hand which legitimized this deadly athletic combat but this was unclear to the naive viewer.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


My memory, as I may have told you, may have told you repeatedly, in fact, is a bit fickle. It often works really well (allowing me to correctly answer trivia questions about Joe Namath and RNA transcription). But shine the spotlight on it and it's just as often likely to belch out the wrong answer. I have born false witness to the questions "How old are you?" "How long have you been married?" "What neighborhood do you live in?" and "Who told you that?" repeatedly because of this no-good, double-crossing memory of mine. Additionally, words of approximately the same length and/or consonant:vowel ratio (Fullerton and Lawrence, for example), names of people who have the same build or facial hair, and names starting with the same letter (a la those alliterative Bev, Bill, Brian, Barbara, & Brady families) become very confused in my head. This is why I frequently look and/or am lost.

All this to say, it was no surprise that pronto and presto have given me trouble from the moment I stepped foot in this Italian-speaking land. It was hard indeed to start answering the phone "pronto!" Not only is this a weird greeting (pronto means "ready"), I am also usually struck by the very strong urge to say "presto!" ("soon") instead. 

So wait. Are you also having trouble wrapping your mind around these usages? Check your passport, I bet you're American. Check out this illustrative snacking scenario:

American version: Bring that salt over here pronto! Put it on your tomato and – presto! – a tasty snack!

Italian version (in English): Is that tasty tomato snack pronto yet? I have to leave presto.

You see? It is not me, it is the weird English language which has begged, borrowed, and stolen itself.  Presto was first borrowed into the English language by magicians whose tricks happened "right away" and has become the rough equivalent of "ta-dah!"  Pronto comes to the English from the Italian/Spanish definition of pronto which also means "right away."  So it is not just my memory but the entire English language conspiring against me. [End personal validation supported by amateur linguistics]

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ferragosto = Assumption Day

courtesy of Ottorino Pianigiani's etymological dictionary

There are so many Catholic holidays around here, it's hard to be interested in all of them. Today is another one: it's Assumption Day, the day that Mary ascended into heaven. (Jesus' takes place sometime in the spring but is called Ascension Day, I do not know why.) Apparently this holiday ranks higher than Easter in some regions of southern Italy, where holy week-type processions honoring the holy mother abound. It's definitely a big vacation holiday; half the news reports last night were about how and where Italians vacation. Seriously, they spent most of the broadcast interviewing tan women in bikinis and buff men drinking fruity drinks at the beachside bar. 

Anyway, I was interested to find that Assumption Day was not declared official dogma until 1950 – "the moment appointed in the plan of divine providence for the solemn proclamation of this outstanding privilege of the Virgin Mary" (source: The Vatican's snazzy web site). They make no mention of how they came to choose this day, but it already happened to be a holiday – ferragosto – which has been observed since the time of Augustus, celebrating what else but fertility and harvestime. (Unclear to me why permanently connecting the holy mother and fertility seemed like a good idea.) I guess they got a lot of support letters.

We are celebrating this one in Swiss style, i.e., holing up in our apartment with the blinds closed. It's actually rainy and cold so even if there were a raucous festival in piazza, which there's not, I'm not sure if we'd be attending anyway. 

n.b. "It is forbidden to any man to change this, our declaration, pronouncement, and definition or, by rash attempt, to oppose and counter it. If any man should presume to make such an attempt, let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul."  (Pope Pius XII)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Lugano ghetto tour

In what turns out to be a nice tour of Lugano at night, the Metro Stars have produced a music video to accompany the scathing social commentary attempted in their local hit "Lugano Remix."  Unfortunately, the starving Ecuadorians were unavailable for participation.

Some of the more substantive lyrics: 
You will see locals that are too much the same, too rich [while] scattered Ecuadorians are walking around without food. You will see the porn palaces in Paradiso, the tags, the rap....  
This city is a ghost city, suffers from asthma, has the anxiety of people who share the same plasma. Lugano is expert at judging others.
You will see tie-wearing employees throw a whole paycheck away on two grams of joy, this city's like a Trojan horse. 
We take you to the places the tourists don't go. Come take a walk with us. Welcome to the city where we are, tonight we destroy Lugano.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

graffiti (noun): plural of graffito, diminutive of graffio (It. scratching, scribble); origin: anthropological, for ancient wall inscriptions found in the ruins of Pompeii (1851)

city art in Lugano

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Hey, this is what a glacier looks like!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Give me a break, eh?

Before I lose any more readers and/or friends, I shall break my silence. I was more "away" than away: just taking a week off to do some work and hosting. Still "here," just not exactly right here. Taking a technology break.  Ignoring my email. Keeping my computer off. Leaving my cell phone uncharged. In short, pretending to be a hardcore neo-luddite. Social networking is my Russia: enemy or overlord, nothing in-between. 

This reminds me of an ongoing discussion that my significant other and I have going, which involves brainstorming various answers to the question "What's your Canada?" (For Americans, nothing is more delightful than playfully mocking our dear northern neighbor. At least in my case, this is because I am secretly jealous of its progressive ways, the very same progressive ways which make Canadians smug and, to be honest, somewhat annoying at times.) This began when we realized that Switzerland is, in so many ways, Italy's Canada. Switzerland is Canada enough for many countries, actually. Indiana's Canada? Michigan, no doubt. George W. Bush's Canada? Tony Blair. The pancake's Canada? The crepe. You see? Everyone has a Canada. Even Canada has a Canada (Greenland). So, who is your Canada? 

I hope that I have distracted you from the fact that I have put no content into this blogpost and diverted you from your latent resentment about my technology vacation. Hey, just because you're at work and looking for something to read doesn't mean I have to sell my soul to the technology monster. Go join Facebook or something.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Le marché d'Arles

Today is a holiday here in CH, so here is a lazy posting from last week's vacation. I usually find other people's market pictures to be rather annoying so I vacillated a good deal about putting this up. But lavender is pretty. And so French. Just one can't hurt.