Saturday, May 28, 2011

Even the Bubbles in Switzerland are of Better Quality

For the 2005 fall semester, I studied abroad in the gorgeous, breathtaking, mesmerizing, and incredibly boring country of Switzerland. I say boring because...well, it is. Anybody who has lived there and in any any major city outside of Switzerland knows this is true, so stop pretending to be angry. Your display of bias and emotion is sooo un-Swiss. To be fair, I still find it amazing that in a country where the only thing that can be bought for less than one Swiss franc is a bar of chocolate, no one is fat!

Anyway, the majority of my fellow study-abroaders used much of their time and money for the most common American study abroad in Europe activity: live in a constant state of drunkenness. I, however, chose to engage in the second most common American study abroad in Europe activity: pretend I'm European. In the nearly six years of reflection since, I have seen enough idiot Europeans to be happy with just being one of those cool Americans who understands that Andorra is not in Africa.

Since my primary interest at the time was showing my fellow Europeans how Europeany I was, when the opportunity came to stay in the house of a friend of a friend in Geneva, I couldn't resist. My friend said that his friends would just put the keys to the house in the mailbox for me. So I put on my best French jeans, coolest Italian shoes, new Swiss watch, and favorite German shirt, carefully hid my annoyingly blue US passport, and Europeanly walked to the train station while Americanly scarfing down 50 grams of chocolate. Old habits die hard.

Riding the trains in Switzerland is always hilarious. The Swiss Italians in the south HATE the rest of the country for their total neglectfulness. Still, the Italians recognize the merits of having more than 30 seconds in between a train arriving and departing at the station, as well as having a postal system that has been updated since the 19th century. They therefore choose to stay in Switzerland, but refuse to show any national pride. In fact, most wave the Italian flag on the front of their Swiss homes. The Swiss Germans, on the other hand, loooove their country. They don't bother learning the other national languages, and instead all speak English and fly the Swiss flag everywhere. This in turn confuses German tourists (from Germany), because Swiss German sounds like gibberish to them, and flying a flag reminds them of a dark-haired fellow with a mustache from World War II who talked about...well, you know. The Swiss French just don't give a damn, and tend to fly flags that represent a bank, the UN, or perhaps even Andorra. This national culture via flags is clearly seen from train rides in Switzerland.

Finally having arrived at my destination in the part of the country where they don't give a damn, I walked to the correct maze of city houses, and realized I had no idea where the hell the mailboxes were. Slightly panicked, I ate another 50 grams of chocolate, while Europeanly walking around the block. I eventually found them tucked away in a corner. Thankfully, they were clearly labeled. Not thankfully, it required a code to open. This being before the time of smart phones, I had no way to check my email to see if my friend sent me the combination. This being Switzerland, sending a text or calling would require 7,204,587 francs, and so I had insufficient credit.

Completely annoyed, I went back to the train station area, and got a room in a hotel close by. After I paid the full non-refundable price, I sat down at their computer station, checked my email, and found the combination sitting in the top of my inbox. Brilliant. When Europeans get frustrated, they blame Portugal or take a bubble bath. Sometimes both. Portugal seemed out of grasp, so I went to the closest Manor (department store) and bought myself another 200 grams of chocolate, a bottle of red wine, and Swiss bubble bath.

The French instructions on the bubble bath said to use with caution, but French instructions also sometimes say this about sugar. That so, I poured half of the bottle in the tub, turned away for two seconds, and then turned back around. In those two seconds, the Swiss bubble bath managed to cover nearly half of the surfaces in the bathroom. I didn't have the heart clean up the mess, so I piled the bubbles in one corner, and went to bed thinking they would be gone by morning.

WRONG. Apparently even the bubbles in Switzerland are of better quality than in America. American bubbles would have moaned for three hours about being in a socialized country, then passed out from drinking too much beer. But these damn Swiss bubbles stood tall and attentive 9 hours after being summoned from the bottle.

Still too tired to clean up the mess, I found the sink, brushed my teeth, and went sightseeing for the morning. The bubbles had to be gone by check out, right? WRONG. Two hours of trying to dissolve the bastards later, and I had only managed to make a small dent in the seemingly indestructible pile of fluff I had created.

I heard a knock at the door. It was the concierge making sure I would check out in time. Not knowing what to do, I tried throwing some of the bubbles out of the window, putting as many as possible in the trash can, and covering the rest. After surveying my work, I decided to cancel the credit card I had used to book the hotel room. The bathroom was a total disaster.

Since I hadn't responded to the knocking in awhile, the hotel employee used his key to let himself into the room. I tried slamming the bathroom door shut, but it was too late. He saw the mess, walked into the room, and started laughing hysterically. He turned back at me and said (translated for your convenience), "Not Swiss, huh?" "Uh, what?" I said. "You're not Swiss, are you?" He asked again. " How did you know?" I replied. He said, "You used too much bubble bath! I'm from Morocco. The first night I got here, I poured the entire f-ing bottle in!" My face fell with relief. I told him I'm American...a very sorry American. "Don't worry," he said, "The maids can clean it up. We get a lot of tourists here."

And so the bubble saga ended. The cool Moroccan even let me store my stuff the rest of the day, and let me hang out on the hotel couch until my 5 AM train ride that morning. 40 hours after I gave life to the millions of indestructible Swiss bubbles, I sat on the train, Europeanly gazing at flags while Americanly eating more chocolate.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Subway Proposition

For the impact the city has had on my life the past three years, I don't write enough about New York.
Here goes.

Last week, I was coming in from JFK (Airport) to my friend's apartment in the Lower East Side. This subway ride is one of the few I enjoy, because the J train is always clean (by NYC standards), most of the ride is above ground, and I always get plenty of room to sit down and pass out. In fact, most J train rides from the airport are usually much more comfortable than the plane trip that got me there.

When the J train pulled up to the station, I walked on determined to relish the next 50 minutes, as this was definitely the only subway ride that week that would not be filled with the stresses of fighting rats for the food I bought at the deli, pretending to not notice obnoxious couples making out in the middle of the car, or fighting aggressive homeless people for even the smallest piece of pole to hold on to. So you understand my annoyance when a pudgy little Indian man in a wrinkled suit and his overzealous father walked onto the train and proceeded to awkwardly stare at me for the next two minutes.

Despite the fact that there are more than a billion Indians on planet earth, most are still absolutely dumbfounded when they see another Indian walking on the street anywhere outside of the motherland. Those of us who grew up in a country heavily populated with white people tend to hide this amazement well. Those who grew up in the motherland...not so much. Typical signs of amazement include intense staring, waving, pointing, grunting, the Indian head nod, and complete paralysis. I was hoping this might be the cause of said excessive staring. It was not.

After five minutes of ruined subway ride, I finally looked over at the little man and his father. Man might be too generous of a term - this kid was somewhere in between puberty and my little's brother's age. I suppose this is part of the reason why his overzealous, now bouncing father said to me, "What are your qualifications, Madame?"

"What are your qualifications" is Indian for any of the following:

- How educated are you?
- How much money do you make?
- How much money is your family worth?
- If I gagged you, tied you up, threw you in my car, and wrote to your parents for ransom, how much would they pay, and would any of the payment be made in gold?

Asking this question is also step one in figuring out suitable matches for your child in an arranged marriage. The other steps are:

2. Listen to the answer in step one
3. Say yes or no

It appeared this little Indian...boy and his father were riding around in expanse of the New York City subway system to find a potential suitor to marry. At this point, I had two options: engage in this conversation to any capacity or appear to be crazy. Crazy it was!

To answer the question, "What are your qualifications, Madame?" I simply looked at the little boy's father, and very poignantly said, "Schwein!" This of course means "pig" in German. I spent the next ten minutes drooling in my sleep, dramatically twitching, kicking my bag, and making weird noises...basically anything to seem as undesirable as possible.

Convinced I had done my part in playing insane, I looked back at the little Indian boy and his father, who WAS STILL LOOKING AT ME. The father blinked a few times, then very carefully asked, "What are your qualifications, Madame?" Somehow my Schwein-filled, drooling, twitching, kicking self was still desirable enough for this man to pursue me for his son. Since I already had half of the car believing I was some kind of schizophrenic, I couldn't continue with crazy. So I looked back at the father and said, "I dropped out of high school. I work as a bartender."

The father and his son got off at the next stop.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I Wish I could Travel by Submarine

I have been on more flights than I can count. (Meaning I lost track, not that I am only capable of counting to around 130.) This experience has led me to one conclusion: I wish I could travel by submarine.

Though social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Four Square expound more detail about our lives than anyone should ever need to know, Google Analytics has not yet bridged the gap to computing trends of my aerial life. If it could, I’m sure it would look something like this:

- Crying baby within three seats of you on 23 percent of flights
- Creepy Indian stares at you for more than 10 seconds on 78 percent of flights
- 1465 peanuts, 128 cookies, 23 pounds of genetically modified chicken, 45 ounces of alcohol consumed
- Seat located right over plane turbine on 56 percent of flights
- 32 in-flight movies that would not be worth the time in any other situation
- Obese, hypertensive man sitting next to you on 83 percent of flights

For any of you who have the sad fortune of partaking in short domestic flights, I’m sure you’d find this last statistic particularly harrowing. In some Indian crowds, my stature is considered Amazonian in nature. For the vast majority of the Western world, I’m average at best. Average-statured people tend to fit comfortably in current domestic airplane seats, unless of course they try to move or breathe. The rest of the world, including the obese hypertensives, find sitting in domestic airplane seats a challenge. Sure, the airline requires some to buy the seat on either side of them to accommodate extra…luggage, but us average-statures know this is rarely enforced, and in fact, on 83 percent of flights, I am next to one of them.

Obese, hypertensive man is usually a nice person. In fact, he might actually have a good reason for why his body weight went so astray. But in the moment when I realize that I will once again be sitting next to an obese, hypertensive, I. don’t. care. All I can focus on is whether there is a conceivable exit strategy to avoid another set of the most uncomfortable 60-120 minutes of my life. I’m sure Google Analytics will be tell me this is not possible 71 percent of the time.

Usually domestic flights are the only time I am truly distraught over the prospect of this particular set of people. There are so many other fascinating people to worry about on international flights: droolers, snorers, alcoholics, and tourists with the insatiable desire to tell you about the exotic lands they are coming from (usually the Eiffel Tower or something lame in London). However, on my last Dubai to New York flight, I began to worry about the obese, hypertensives once more, as volcanic ash decided to make a European Air Traffic Control nightmare from hell.

As the co-pilot and head flight attendant began to explain the trajectory, I knew this would be the worst flight ever. Emirates has a policy of only hiring gorgeous people who speak 4+ languages and have very soothing voices, but even their models couldn’t bring me comfort at the prospect of being on one single plane for 16 straight hours. We’d basically have to go against the air stream, fly through the entire Mediterranean Sea, cross half of Morocco, fly across the Atlantic Ocean, and travel up from North Carolina to New York.

I looked over at the seat next to me. Empty. Ha. Like that would ever happen. My obese, hypertensive was probably just running late. Right on schedule, I felt someone walk up behind me and wait for me to get out so they could get in to the aisle. In a painstakingly slow fashion, I got up, turned around, and saw…a short skinny guy!

It turns out this wasn’t the worst flight ever. The beautiful flight attendants of Emirates and the quietest, short, skinny guy ever made the 16 hours relatively comfortable. Sure, it was a bit odd that short skinny guy would use indecipherable hand motions when he wanted to get up or drink something, but I’m not complaining.

I can now happily report my flight statistics as such:

- Crying baby within three seats of you on 25 percent of flights
- Creepy Indian stares at you for more than 10 seconds on 80 percent of flights
- 1465 peanuts, 140 cookies, 25 pounds of genetically modified chicken, 50 ounces of alcohol consumed
- Seat located right over plane turbine on 59 percent of flights
- 37 in-flight movies that would not be worth the time in any other situation
- Obese, hypertensive man sitting next to you on 82 percent of flights

But I still wish I could travel by submarine.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Sophistication of Wine Tasting en France

There are two kinds of people in this world: me and everyone else. Unfortunately, this distinction does not narrow down the latter category by any significant amount, so many Americans seem to draw a line between the "Average" and the "Sophisticated." The "Sophisticated" group enjoy finer things of life, such as the theater, dark clothes, gym memberships, and WINE. Some "Averages" also try to partake in the joys of wine, though the "Sophisticated" tend to pair their wine with aged cheese, pretentious topics of conversation, and corkscrews that cost more than the GDP of many countries.

For many years, in an attempt to place myself with the "Sophisticated," I would partake in wine tasting parties, while overusing words such as "crostini," "aroma," "palate," and "delightful." Though I tend to ride comfortably between the "Average" and "Sophisticated" of America, when it came time to prove my wine abilities in a tasting in France, I was prepared to take the plunge into the land of sophistication with no intentions of turning back.

The Rhone region in which the city of Lyon (where I lived) sits, is home to a type of French wine known as Beaujolais. Most of the small, private wineries in the area debut their Beaujolais wine in the late fall in "caveaus" (large underground cellars), where the wine is aged in barrels. Veeeeery Sophisticated!

Nearly all of the French roommates I had in France were, how to say this in a sensitive manner...f**king crazy. Before I discovered the dormant crazy in the second set, I managed to secure a ride to a Beaujolais caveau, owned by a family friend of one of my roommates, at the debut of their wine season.

Did I mention Americans think of wine tasting as a "Sophisticated" endeavor? Well, French people think of wine tasting as a "Everybody" endeavor. That is to say, rich or poor, black or white, "Average" or "Sophisticated," EVERYONE in France goes to wine tastings. I was not prepared for that fact.

For starters, I was the ONLY brown person that had ever been in this particular Beaujolais caveau. I had chosen to wear a black sweater, dark jeans, and black shoes. Combined with the dim lighting, the very pale selection of French people had trouble separating rock formations with my person, and made it a habit of bumping into me as I drank copious amounts of free wine. Second, most of the people in caveau looked as though they had just come from a long day of shopping at Wal-Mart. Granted, they were still better dressed than actual regular patrons of Wal-Mart, but I attribute this to the lack of obese people. French women really don't get fat.

Needless to say, I was uncomfortable. Somewhere between my fourth and fifth glass of Sophistication, a man heavily bumped into me, and my dormant crazy began to unfurl. He turned around to see what he had hit, and was shocked to see it was an angry brown person brimming with Sophisticated insults. Unfortunately, none of my Sophisticated French words made an appearance, and I instead noticed this poor country Frenchman was wearing...A YANKEES HAT!

After I sloppily set down my glass of red Sophistication, I said in my best slurred French (translated for your convenience): "Why are you wearing a YANKEES hat!? Do you like BASEBAAAALL!? Do you have ANY idea of the cultural significance that hat bears? Do you!?" Then I started to growl. Seriously. For some reason, I assumed a threatening posture, and I started to growl. My roommates were having a fantastic time letting me go about my Sophisticated business, but at this point, decided it was best to stop my Sophisticated drinking, and feed me cheese.

Half an hour later, I was sober enough to realize that I am quite good at growling, but unfortunately, had discovered that in public. Monsieur Yankee casquette had mercifully disappeared, so I bumped my way over to the sales table, and bought three bottles in the hopes that all would be forgotten. As I got out my money to pay for the bottles, the cashier and daughter of the winery owner leaned over to me and said (also translated for your convenience), "You must come back next year! This was the most fun beaujolais debut we've ever had, thanks to you! They are usually so...average."

So there you have it. In my attempt to be a "Sophisticated," I was inadvertently thrown in with the "Average," only to end up thoroughly entertaining. Riding the fence once more. You're welcome.