Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Today I bought cereal called BioDinkelpops! 

Monday, April 27, 2009

American flair and the possibilities of white bread

CHÂTEAUROUX, France - In the 1960s a local entrepreneur, Paul Picard, the owner of a baked goods business, was impressed by the strange square white bread that the American servicemen ate [on the nearby army base]. Like other Frenchmen accustomed to long, crusty baguettes, Mr. Picard had never seen anything like it, yet he thought it offered possibilities.

So he visited bakeries in the United States to learn how it was baked, then returned to France where he essentially re-engineered Wonder Bread. To give it an American flair, he called it Harry’s American Bread and decorated the packaging with the stars and stripes of the American flag. No one can say who Harry was, probably just a name that sounded American.

Though the base closed too soon for Mr. Picard to sell his bread there, it soon became a hit with the French. Now Harry’s huge baking plant outside Châteauroux bakes about 130 million loaves of white bread and other bakery products a year. That is about one-third of what Harry’s produces at other plants scattered across France. Its six bakeries spread across France make it the largest producer of packaged baked goods in the country.

Excerpted from After 43 Years, a French Town’s Nostalgia for Harry and Joe Lingers (NY Times)

Some helpful clues here as to how weird versions of American products come into existence in Europe. I am still uncertain, especially in this white bread case here, how such products maintain lasting popularity once the thrill of possibility has worn off. It must be related to the flair, because it certainly isn't the taste. This may be the key to the Obama fingers.

Friday, April 24, 2009

One thing I would really like to know is how cities get their names in other languages. This is a discussion frequent among people we know here, not only because the alternate names are often just so odd, but also because the examples are never-ending. Everyone enjoys conversations in which everyone gets to show-off some recent discovery.

This is not just a matter of pronunciation. It's obvious to me why most English-speakers say France instead of Frahnce and that is to avoid Twain-style scorn from people who see it as an annoying affectation. Also it would be hard to do with a straight face. At least in most of the US, even if you know Paris is pronounced Pairree, you generally keep that bit of information to yourself (Unless, of course, you are referring to the strip club called "Gay Paris," which has always been, at least in my social circles, an exception to this rule.) Using French in English in other cases can be an unspeakable pretension. Though I'm sure if you tried Barcelona in a proper Spanish accent, you could generate a few dirty looks as well.

As an American, one must come to terms with the fact that for us wrong is often right (as in Toledo, whose American pronunciation I love dearly for being so painfully, dearly midwestern, Los Angeles, Colorado, etc.). Straightforward is actually the most practical way to go about pronouncing the names of America's cities, anyway. Does anyone really know how to pronounce things in Navajo? Is Valdosta still Italian without any spacing or punctuation? Is New Bern related to old Bern? Best to just say it like it seems and avoid all the trouble. (Plus, our personal preferences don't actually make a difference.)

Returning to the matter at hand, it is interesting how many European cities have multiple names. München is somewhat difficult to pronounce; it understandably has several other names, including Munich, Monaco di Bavaria, and Minga. But difficulty in pronunciation is not the key to the puzzle, since Milano has just as many names. Genève has many names as well (the most ugliest of which is Genf). In my brief survey, most of the major international cities, at least in Europe, seemed to have multiple names. Despite this linguistic convenience, I find it is a good idea to find out what the city (and country) you are visiting is called in the local language before you arrive in order to avoid potential confusion and embarrassment.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dandelion and Bacon Salad

Why not cook up some dandelions?

-Wash and dry 9 ounces/250 grams of dandelion leaves. Dice 5 ounces/150 grams smoked bacon and brown gently in a frying pan. 
-In a salad bowl, prepare some vinaigrette using 1 tablespoon oil, 1 tablespoon white wine, salt, and pepper. Add the dandelion leaves (and hard-boiled eggs, if you wish) and toss thoroughly. 
-Pour 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar over the diced bacon and stir, scraping bottom of the pan. Pour contents of the frying pan into the salad bowl. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Last week we saw some very old ladies collecting dandelions in a field and I haven't thought about dandelions the same way ever since. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Our friends John and Janet

I've not yet introduced you to John and Janet. They live really close to our apartment, just down the street on a patch of green hill wedged between a pool shop and the road out of town. If not for the tall stone wall, I could see them from my bedroom. Ah, goats from the bedroom, wouldn't that have been nice? 

It would seem from the picture that John (right) has a bit of an attitude; I am not sure you would be wrong in thinking this. It would also seem that while John enjoys a life of leisure on the lush grasses, Janet is confined to a depressing cement pen, but I assure you they share the same space. Janet really likes that corner - it has a pile of cement rocks that she can stand on, get a little perspective on things. 

Someday I will bring them something to eat. There is a collection bin for food scraps outside their fence, which I will one day fill with carrot peels or some such other delicious refuse that I finally remember to save. One time we threw apple cores into a pig-pen and watched a vicious fight ensue. The big sow, as I recall, fought off her large, dirty children for them. Nature can really be horrifying. John and Janet are very civilized neighbors, however - quiet, dignified, clean. They do a lot of standing and munching. 

Monday, April 20, 2009

How about orange aliens?

The orange we paid 3 CHF for this weekend turned out to be worth its absurd cost: hiding inside was a kiwi-sized sub-fruit reminiscent of an orange cauliflower! We were of course horrified and delighted by this mysterious embryonic mass.

While fully aware how alien seed pods sent to Earth can become body snatchers, we were still overcome with the same insatiable scientific curiosity that has been the tragic downfall of many an unwitting protagonist who encounters extraterrestrial life (with the obvious exception of Elliott - little lucky Elliott).

The alien brain, as it so obviously seems to be, has a tough cerebral covering which stretches around the tender juicy interior like a shower cap. Strong white fibers connect it to the round cellular mass inside.

It seems to have a brain stem.

Whether this young brain will develop into a dwarf tabletop alien or will remain in its nascent state as a sort of computer processor for a greater race of fruit is anyone's guess. But let me just say I will be watching my husband and my cat very carefully in the coming weeks.

Friday, April 17, 2009

More of lovely Bern

You must love a city with its own bear pit!

Lines and Squares

Whenever I walk in a London street,
I'm ever so careful to watch my feet;
And I keep in the squares,
And the masses of bears,
Who wait at the corners all ready to eat
The sillies who tread on the lines of the street,
Go back to their lairs,
And I say to them, "Bears,
Just look how I'm walking in all the squares!"

And the little bears growl to each other, "He's mine,
As soon as he's silly and steps on a line."

And some of the bigger bears try to pretend
That they came round the corner to look for a friend;
And they try to pretend that nobody cares
Whether you walk in the lines or the squares.

But only the sillies believe their talk;
It's ever so portant how you walk,
And it's ever so jolly to call out, "Bears,
Just watch me walking in all the squares!"

– A.A. Milne

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I returned from my impromptu overnight in Bern to find my email inbox overflowing with interest in Swiss mountain cleaning. Perhaps those interested should take an aptitude test to see if they qualify to become mountain cleaners?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Happy Pasquetta!

Whether you be cheese rolling, egg rolling, or just rolling into work late, happy Easter Monday!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Cleanliness is no laughing matter, but...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Swiss, if you didn't know, like to know where their meat comes from. And I am not just saying this because I have a picture of a giant chicken painted with the Swiss flag. The origins of all meat, no matter where you may find it, are carefully reported with a list at the back of the menu, a note to the side, or a sticker on the package. Perhaps this is even required by law, I do not know.

They're not quite as melodramatic as the "Made in the USA" labels, which have the ability to make one feel patriotic in the check-out line, but they get the job done. The Swiss like to buy Swiss, whether on principle or just because they like "Swiss quality." I find it convenient because it's usually code for "expensive."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

I forgot to post again today! ha! I was very preoccupied with the paperwork for our Russian visas and, of course, completing the laundry during our allotted time.

The form I was working on, a supplement for American citizens (which they are clear to indicate was implemented in reaction to a form the US recently put in place), has required all of my powers of memory and quite a lot of patience. Place of Birth: I [tab] [space] L [tab] [space] L [tab] [space] I [tab] [space] N [tab] [space] O [tab] [space] I [tab] [space] S. Itinerary: S [tab] [space] T [tab] [space] P [tab] [space] E [tab] [space] T [tab] [space] E [tab] [space] R [tab] [space] S [tab] [space] B [tab] [space] U [tab] [space] R [tab] [space] G [tab] [space] & [tab] [space] M [tab] [space] O [tab] [space] S [tab] [space] C [tab] [space] O [tab] [space] W. I guess you get the point by now: it's tedious. And they want to know everything about me! I bet you could get into outer space with less paperwork. Mother's name. Father's name. Criminal record. Countries visited in the last 10 years. Marital history. Educational history. Work history, including "Chief's surname," address, phone number. Military history. Charitable contributions. Mental disorders.

Imitation, as people, especially parents, like to say, is the sincerest form of flattery. But geez, Russia, weren't the stonewashed jeans enough? Did you really have to take it to this level? Whatever happened to our détente? rapprochement? all those French words we learned when the cold war ended (or in my case a few years ago in a DC museum)? Sometimes you have to take the high road, no matter the fashion consequences. We cannot count on the U [tab] [space] S [tab] [space] A.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

My Greek, your Arabic, that guy's Chinese

Greek, it turns out, is not the universal symbol for unintelligibility. The following chart traces the languages referenced in phrases corresponding to the English "It's Greek to me" to express an inability to understand in various other languages.

I personally did not need the proof of social consensus to convince me that Chinese is the hardest language but the hierarchy is pretty fascinating. (You can find some research on this subject here. I bookmarked this article twice in the last few months so it must be good.) I might also add as evidence my personal experience at a recent party, where, in an impromptu bit of amateur linguistics, a Spanish friend and I verified a good part of this chart. (I am not so sure about the Heavenly Script bit, however; the Chinese student we spoke with seemed to have no clue what we were talking about. All of us, including him, were giggling uncontrollably as he tried to guess what we might be getting at when we asked him to what language he might compare something he found incomprehensible. "I would call it difficult!  ... No? Confusing? ... Ohh... mathematics!")

Fascinating aside: It seems the term gringo has its origins in the Spanish phrase "hablar en griego." So I guess it is usually an appropriate epithet. Another fascinating (though mostly unrelated) aside: The word savvy is 18th century pidgin English, imitating Spanish "sabe usted?" ARRRRR!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Can't help thinking about our still trembling neighbor to the south and feel incredibly sad about all the loss to which it awoke this morning. Even an airy-fairy blog about an airy-fairy life must once in a while come down from the mountains and deal with reality, at least at those times when its author cannot bear wordplay or anecdotes or pretty photographs. One's arm gets tired from pointing at the sun amid the clouds; perhaps you yourself are tired of squinting into it.

"Cruelty is a mystery," wrote Annie Dillard, "and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings on the skull. Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist (who?), there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous."

Whether we are listening or not, leaves rustle, birds chirp, water laps. The sun does not disappear when we close our eyes. A field of wildflowers still smells glorious without our breaths. We may shudder, close our eyes, become willfully insensible – a rightful pause – but that does not stop life from lumbering along gratuitously without us.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Happy Friday!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

G20 BFFs

Swiss Ms. gives public narcissism a try (for 29 minutes)

1:29 p.m. Swiss Ms. can't believe it's 1:30 and all she has done today was cut small shapes out of paper. 
1:33 p.m. Swiss Ms. is glad it is raining today so she doesn't feel guilty about this. 
1:34 p.m. Swiss Ms. thinks it is clever of Lugano to wait until it rains to clean the streets. 
1:35 p.m. Swiss Ms. wonders why Swiss have not learned about beer from their German neighbors. Swiss Ms. ponders the fact that Carlsberg beer is not Irish and wonders why they serve American Budweiser on draft in Dublin.
1:38 p.m. Swiss Ms. is talking with Swiss Mr. about a bog monster in the office.
1:41 p.m. Swiss Ms. wonders if Tina Turner still lives in Zurich. 
1:42 p.m. Swiss Ms. catches up on the news of the day.
1:52 p.m. Swiss Ms. hopes Russia and the US really do get a fresh start and by July, if possible.
1:55 p.m. Swiss Ms. wonders what's so narcissistic about reporting her every moment as long as it's interesting.
1:58 p.m. Swiss Ms. finishes her coffee and the news and decides it's time to be (more) productive.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Veracruz, Mexico

Working backwards, and into warmer weather.