Saturday, January 31, 2009

Don't need to know German to know this is funny! Happy weekend!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Not in Appenzell

(photo from Der Spiegel)

You know, those Germans are always getting naked. In the park, at the beach, in the mountains – you name the activity, some German has done it naked. Can you really become one with nature, I now wonder, with all those constraining clothes? (Sad, I shall never know.)

The growing "free body culture" movement, though evidently rather accepted in Germany, is not so popular across the border in Switzerland, where the idea of being oppressed by anything, much less clothing, does not compute. The recent invasion of au naturel hikers into the canton of Appenzell pushed creeped-out locals to immediate action. "We have do something to prevent this objectionable behavior before the weather gets warm again," the local official there said. "After all, children also spend time in the mountains in the summer." So, in true Swiss fashion, they will put the issue to a vote.

Soon, if you get naked in the Swiss part of the Alps, it's going to cost you – 200 CHF (about $175) to be exact. Where you will come up with the cash they do not care. They just "want to live a quiet and undisturbed life." Without noisy nudists tramping around their mountainside. Is that so much to ask?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The cosmic event sorting machine must be broken. Why otherwise would I spot a 24-hour dog wash station, catch a fancy woman checking herself out in a window, exchange a joke with the ticket inspector on the bus, and observe an old man walk by several paintings hanging in a store window, then make an abrupt stop in front of the young female nude, all in the same day? My insides got tired from all the smiling.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I am continually amazed by just how inadequate my collection of mental maps is. I know I seem to be stuck on this topic, but I really just can't get past how inexact and usually also inaccurate my apprehension of the world has turned out to be. Whatever the cause – lacunae in my education, inability to retain, lack participation in world politics, a faulty mind's eye, secret conspiracies – a nice byproduct is that I get to have lots of geographical epiphanies. Did you know that the east side of South America is many time zones east of NY? (Credit that realization to my personal patent adviser.)

Anyway, if you would like to confuse the topography in your mind a bit further, Worldmapper has collected a vast array of area cartograms, "density equalizing maps," on all kinds of topics. They have a bulging, potentially guilt-inducing cartogram for your every mood. In keeping with the light tone of my adventure log here, may I bring to your attention "Travel Destinations" and "Travel Origins," below.

Travel Origins

Travel Destinations

I am left to conclude that the world tourism industry is supported primarily by the Germans going to France.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Enigma wrapped in mystery

Here's something no one mentions very often: Switzerland is a country that is very open to foreigners. Seriously, I've read it many times and it's true; the facts support it. As you can see below, Switzerland and Austria (another country not exactly known for its warm embrace of diversity) are at the top when it comes to percentage of foreign-born:

Foreign-born population as a percentage of total population, 2005: 

This easily forgettable fact came to mind today as I read that Switzerland is considering to "host" some inmates from Guantanamo after it closes. "For Switzerland, the detention of people in Guantanamo is in conflict with international law. Switzerland is ready to consider how it can contribute to the solution of the Guantanamo problem," the government said in a statement (full story here). 

Um, some questions for you, Switzerland government. Since when are you such a big fan of international laws? Is keeping ahead of Austria that important? Why shouldn't the US keep these people? Where do you hide this high percentage of foreigners? Are there rules about coming out in daytime? Why let them in but make it so hard to get citizenship? Do you see yourself as "the maverick"? Why do the people of African descent sit together at the back of the bus? Are all the bridges in Switzerland really wired with explosives?

The high profile of controversial right-wing political groups (especially here in Ticino) almost certainly contribute to misconceptions of the whole. Lately, the SVP/UDC has been trying out some new imagery around town. It's not as controversial as the black sheep ad, but the point is still clear....

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Some interesting, if slightly odd, advice from a nearby sidewalk chalkboard.

"Listen to your woman when she is looking at you, not when she is talking to you."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I hadn't been planning to mention this, but it turns out I am still very perplexed by it, so I will. The this I am talking about is the fact that most all of the people of African descent here in Lugano seem to sit at the back of the bus. The first time I noticed it about a year ago, fresh off the boat from America, I blushed and looked fervently out the window for the rest of the ride.

It turns out this was not a freak occurrence – it's just the way of the bus here – so I have had ample opportunity to observe, ponder, and adjust to it in the last year. I have managed to tame my easily excitable superego, but I still can't help a faint sense of outrage.  It's pretty much a useless feeling, though; as far as I can tell, there's really no one to direct it at. (And believe me, I have surveilled bus interactions carefully, looking – hoping – expecting – some sort of transgression, but no dice. These Swiss hold their cards, close, man. Saying they keep to themselves might be an understatement. I couldn't even catch a dirty look.) It seems to be a self-imposed segregation. 

But why? Why? There doesn't seem to be an obvious explanation (e.g., they are all friends, the other doors were broken, etc.). Are there metaphysical forces acting on the seating arrangements? Is it somehow engrained into the subconscious of the bus? Is there subliminal social pressure? Feelings of powerlessness? Social awkwardness? Has nothing from the Rosa Parks story resonated here? Or am I just imposing my story on the place? 

Okay, so, as per the usual, I have no conclusions about this cultural matter, only more questions and some odd reflections about myself and my own weird milieu. I do have a feeling, however, based on a several conversations about the "dangerous" neighborhood in which we live, that I am not off-base in suspecting something. I just don't know what exactly to suspect. Thankfully I am just a visitor and not the culture police so I can leave it at that. 

Monday, January 19, 2009

Io ho un sogno

You can read Italian, too!

Risuoni la libertà. E quando questo accade, quando lasciamo risuonare la libertà, quando le permettiamo di risuonare da ogni villaggio e da ogni borgo, da ogni stato e da ogni città, saremo capaci di accelerare l'arrivo del giorno in cui tutti i figli di Dio, neri e bianchi, ebrei e gentili, protestanti e cattolici, potranno unire le mani e cantare con le parole del vecchio spiritual: “Liberi finalmente! Liberi finalmente! Grazie, Dio Onnipotente, siamo liberi finalmente."

-Martin Luther King, Jr., 28 August 1963

Friday, January 16, 2009

At 11:00 a.m. at a cafe with some friends, drinking beer may be cultural. At 9:30 a.m. in your backyard by yourself, I think it's something else.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


“We knew the truth would come out. But before that we wanted to find out if Europe is able to laugh at itself.”

–David Černý

To mark its presidency of the EU, the Czech Republic commissioned David Černý to make a sculpture to be installed at the EU Council building in Brussels. Actually, he was supposed to coordinate the "joint work of 27 artists, each one from a different Member State," but decided it would be more fun to create each piece himself and credit some fake but suitably pretentious artists instead. 

Holland, Italy / Germany, Bulgaria

Entropa plays on stereotypes, which is always a fraught endeavor, but some of the references truly are meaner than others. Bulgaria, for example, is a bunch of interconnected (apparently Turkish) toilets. Spain is a big void of cement and rebar. Italy would seem to have gotten off easy with the football field but for the smug caption. And Britain is altogether missing. But then Sweden is an IKEA box and Belgium is a box of chocolates. 

Bulgaria wants out of the sculpture, as does Slovakia (apparently a body in the form of a Hungarian sausage?).  Given the suspicious shape of the German highways, I wouldn't be surprised if Germany did also. The artist denies he was making any allusion there but I don't believe him. 

The clever representation of Poland (left) depicts priests putting up a rainbow flag, Iwo Jima style. 

In conclusion, all I know is that PJPII is not laughing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I spent the day with a cranky child genius, I overbaked the brownies, I'm starving, the pan smells like the cumin from five days ago, and I bought prosciutto instead of bacon (again). This is the worst day ever.

And I burned the toast to inedibility while I was posting that.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

Life is perfect in Graubunden. 

Photo: Keystone/Arno Balzarini (via SI)

The kitty and I noticed an odd quiet noise this morning, a faint ringing of some sort. I assumed was some sort of construction noise in the distance. Kitty gave up his investigation. We went about our respective businesses.

A bit later I went into the kitchen and noticed the ringing got a bit louder. I stared at the cabinet in front of me for a while until I made sense of the fact that the noise was coming from within. I opened the door. For no apparent reason (seriously, I can think of none), the glasses were shaking. I rearranged them and it stopped. 

This is probably some everyday type of occurrence easily explainable by sound waves or nanosheets or something, but I have to say I enjoyed the brief mystery and the thought, just for a moment, that I might have a ghost in the house. Yes, a friendly ghost with a subtle sense of humor – the best kind.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Los tres reyes magos, estilo puertorriqueño

And why not celebrate Epiphany all week? I'm sure the kings didn't come all that way for one evening. And I'm also pretty sure this creche didn't come down on January 7. 

Thursday, January 8, 2009

La Isla del Encanto

Something about Puerto Rico really endeared itself to me, and also to my quirky brother-in-law, during our recent family vacation there. BIL spent most of his few waking hours in the car envisioning tropical careers for each one of one us, so that we could all relocate to the island together one day. Well, I assume it would be together, anyway. In any case, even if he wasn't, I was myself thinking literally about moving to this island. (Living in Lugano has convinced me I could be perfectly happy in a nice climate. I have discarded my tough midwesterner persona.)

Puerto Rico, as someone there reminded me, not without pride, is the world's only remaining commonwealth. This means, very basically, Puerto Ricans get US passports but no vote in federal elections. But it seems they are perfectly happy to remain a commonwealth. 

The mix of political and cultural realities really fascinated me. The juxtaposition of the jungly green rainforest and the familiar brown retro Park Service sign for some reason brought tears to my eyes. The language, made kooky by intermingling with English, made signs seem like personalized notes in some special shorthand. Its history is both long and short, iron and sand. In short, it is a place that feels full of history, lived-in, proud, idiosyncratic, complex, rich... much like my definition of home.

I'll be the amarillos-maker. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Mangiamo pasta!

Since we have a very limited number of those precariously poised USDs and still have about 57 trips we'd like to take in the next year or so, we are doing our best to cut back on our eating expenses. Food is like gold in Switzerland. So yes: pasta pasta pasta! Mamma! 

Here are a few simple recipes we've gathered from friends here and there, which I think you will enjoy, even if you are not on a strict budget.

Pesto Tradizionale
Serves 4

100-150 grams basil
50-75 grams extra-virgin olive oil
30-50 grams pecorino cheese
50 grams pine nuts
1 clove of garlic

Grind everything together with a mortar or food processor.
(Be sure to add the oil before grinding so that basil does not turn black.)

For each person, cook:
120 grams of pasta (trenette, linguine or trofie)
a small potato, diced (approximately 30-50 grams)
a dozen of green beans, in pieces

Put potatoes and beans in the water before it boils, then add the pasta when it boils. Cook and drain pasta.
Add pesto and serve.

Pesto Trapanese
Serves 4

100 grams peeled almonds
20 baby tomatoes
1 clove of garlic
50 grams olive oil
30 grams parmigiano cheese

Grind everything together in the food processor.
Cook 120 grams of fusilli, or mezze penne, or casarecce per person.
Add pesto and serve.

Alfredo Sauce

1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter
2/3 cup grated parmigiano

Cook 2/3 of the cream with all the butter briefly to thicken. Toss with cooked pasta to coat. Add the remaining cream, the grated cheese, and the seasonings. Toss and serve with additional cheese.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Today is Epiphany, the day traditionally chosen to commemorate the arrival of the three wise kings with their gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh, candy, toys, argyle socks, and ipods. Here in Ticino, we got a day off and a bunch of pretty snow – a very nice way to conclude the holiday season. 

Special Epiphany riddle: Which party in the amazing moulded plastic tile with custom easel below overcame the spacetime continuum for this historic meeting?

Monday, January 5, 2009

The cute connection

The double-A battery has a special name in France: mignon. I think it's really cute that they have a nickname for a battery type. I'm trying to think if we do something so charming in English. I can't think of much (Bring me that lil' batt'ry, you big git!), but maybe I am just blind to the cuteness of my own language. I do wish we had a more flexible diminutive ending in our language, like Spanish does. Pilita (or would it be pilacita?) sounds pretty cute. Even German, when it's not saying things like "small-stored-energy-capsule," has a nice diminutive ending which can be put, at least by old ladies, on practically anything.

Anyway, because, up to the point of learning this, mignon suggested to me something along the lines of "hunk of meat," I decided to research this mysterious battery-meat connection. I was pleased to find mignon to mean "cute, sweet, nice, kind." Or, in the context of meat, apparently, "dainty." A relative term, obviously, since beef is one of the less dainty foods I can think of at the moment. To confuse the issue further, in France filet mignon usually refers to pork. Filet of beef is called tournedos.

So now you know all about mignon and can impress people next time you're out ordering meat at some tony steakhouse, or asking your French friend for a battery. Just remember to pronounce it correctly or you'll lose all your credibility. 

Friday, January 2, 2009

Happy New Year. Check out the British version of this old roller skating fav – I guarantee you will be singing it for the rest of the day:

The Hokey Cokey
You put your left arm in, your left arm out
In out, in out, you shake it all about
You do the Hokey Cokey and you turn around
That's what it's all about
Whoa-o the Hokey Cokey
Whoa-o the Hokey Cokey
Whoa-o the Hokey Cokey
Knees bent, arms stretched
Raa raa raa

via BBC