Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Thursday, November 23, 2006


It's only 9 am, but already in the hallways of my apartment building I can catch the distinctive whiff of charred meat. Hello, isn't it a bit too early to be burning your turkey?

New York is a city where no one seems to cook. Look around, and it's not difficult to understand why. In my immediate neighborhood the choices are almost mind-boggling. Would you like French, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Peruvian, Cuban, Argentinian, or Mexican tonight? No? Then perhaps southern comfort food, steak, or "new American" would fit the bill better. And would you like to eat in, or take out, or get it delivered? For the overworked, harried professionals who inhabit this little island, restaurants are an irresistible convenience.

But the holidays roll around, and then suddenly everyone - even the socialite who's converted her kitchen into a giant shoe closet - turns domestic. Half of them can't find the way to their oven. The other half end up cutting themselves while peeling potatoes. And I putter around under a cloud of carbonized meat, assembling the side dishes I'm taking over to my sister's apartment.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

News of the weird

In case you haven't got a time-honored stuffing recipe passed down from grandma, White Castle wants you to know that they've got your Thanksgiving covered. You can make stuffing from their hamburgers!

Just make sure you don't order pickles in these Slyders. (Seriously, it's in the directions.) I guess no ketchup or mustard, either.

Thank goodness. I couldn't go another year eating homemade.

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Tis the season for... kale?

It's almost midnight, and I have the strangest craving right now: I want kale. And the funny thing is, I'd never cooked it before today.

Kale first got on my brain during my book club's discussion of The Omnivore's Dilemma last night. We were talking about CSA, community supported agriculture, which allows individuals to pre-buy one season's worth of a local farm's crop. Then, once a month during the growing season, the farmer delivers the produce (or meat, or eggs, or whatever else they've got) to a central location, and the "shareholders" come and pick it up.

Farmers like it because it gets them money earlier, to cover their production costs. Consumers like it because it's usually a lot less expensive than buying organic at the supermarket. However, the selection is dependent on whatever that particular farm produces; it is also obviously quite seasonal, which is both good and bad. One girl mentioned that a friend of hers had signed up with a CSA. In summer, she loved it, but when winter rolled around, all she got was boxes of kale - acres of kale, month after month after month.

We laughed. What could you possibly do with all that kale? Kale soup, kale salad, kale chutney, kale ice cream... We were starting to sound like Forrest Gump.

But in the midst of that recitation, I realized that I didn't really know how to cook kale. I'd never bought it myself, never prepared it, never paid attention to any recipes. I'd seen it in the greens section, but with its stiff, crinkly leaves I considered it somewhat scary looking, especially next to its tamer cousin spinach.

I must have considered the gauntlet thrown, because on my way home, I stopped by Fairway for a bunch of locally-grown kale. This morning, I began to brainstorm ways to cook it. Breakfast was clearly on my mind, because what did I come up with?

Kale pancakes.

It's not as crazy as it first seems: we've got potato pancakes and zucchini pancakes. Why not kale?

So, I assembled:

  • a generous handful of kale, stems included as long as they look fresh
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons flour, more as needed
  • salt to taste
  • Tabasco, Red Devil, or some other vinegary hot sauce
I sliced the greens about 1/4 inch wide. It made for approximately 5 cups of loosely packed kale, which was then mixed with the eggs, flour, and salt. (In case the quantities are confusing, I was aiming for very little batter - just enough to coat most of the leaves, no more.)

Then, I scraped the whole thing into a 9-inch crepe pan, tamped it down, covered it, and cooked it over medium heat, about 5 minutes on one side and 2 minutes on the other, until the eggs were fully cooked.

I turned the pancake out onto my plate and sat down with a bottle of Trapper's Red Devil. Prep time: 5 minutes. Cook time: sub 10 minutes. So far, kale ranked high on the convenience scale. But how did it taste?

Pretty good, actually. To my surprise, the pancake had an almost meaty texture, similar to the soft-but-not-quite-spongy mouthfeel of portabella mushrooms. The bits of stem I encountered were crisp, bright, and slightly sweet, like a flash-cooked green bean, only sharper. Even on its own, it was a satisfying dinner.

Kale was delicious. How could I have ignored it for so long?

Well, no more. Tomorrow I'm going to make my oven-"fried" chicken and braise some kale to go alongside. For Thanksgiving, I'll try this potato and kale galette. And on Friday...

Well, on Friday, I'll be on a plane. But I'm sure I can find kale in Switzerland, too.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Is Swiss food really that expensive?

I've just finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. While the book is an eye-opening account of the state of the American food chain, the analogies that have been made to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle are not entirely fair. Not only is Pollan a more engaging writer, the issues he deals with are far less stomach-turning. (Nor is he a communist, as far as I'm aware.)

The book is divided into three sections: one that explores the corn-based industrial food chain, one that follows the organic and sustainable food movements (they're not quite the same thing), and one that recounts his adventures as a hunter and gatherer. It is impressively researched, and full of interesting (sometimes shocking) tidbits. While I knew corn in this country is absurdly overproduced, I didn't realize the ramifications of that. Nor did I realize that fertilizing our crops consumes fully one fifth of the crude oil that the US uses each year. That's the same amount that we use for driving, and more than most countries, even other industrialized ones, demand. But as mainstream consumers, we don't have many alternatives: organic products, though marginally better, have gotten quite industrialized too. Whole Foods in particular comes under criticism for not buying from local farmers - something that the company has moved to address in recent months.

I enjoyed this book partly because it was a pat on the back for me. Pollan advocates "local" and "sustainable" agriculture over the not-very-meaningful "organic" label; I've been approaching my food this way since long before it was fashionable. While I do buy organic products (Muir Glen has excellent canned tomatoes), I'm usually more concerned with buying local. I pass on Horizon's organic milk from Whole Foods in favor of the non-organic but better tasting Ronnybrook dairy at the farmer's market. I mostly buy fruits and vegetables that are in season. Not that I'm perfect - far from it. As if my willingness to purchase yogurt from Switzerland weren't enough, I love avocados, and I only splurge on organic meat for a special occasion. But I do feel like I'm on the right track.

The book also got me thinking about the vast gulf in food prices between the US and Switzerland. One of the conclusions that Pollan draws is that as American consumers, we don't come close to paying for the true cost of our hyper-industrialized food: prices don't reflect the billions in subsidies the government pays for corn (which goes into much of our food supply, either as food additives such as corn syrup or xanthan gum, or meat that's been corn-raised), or the cost of pollution from artifical fertilizer that's dumped onto the fields.

The Swiss, on the other hand, don't have an industrialized farming system at all. I used to think it was merely quaint to see (and smell) the farmers spraying their fields with manure in the autumn, or workers mowing the grasses on particularly steep hills by hand. It was charming to cycle past cows chewing their cud, lambs out to pasture, and goats grazing next to the autobahn. (It was also irritating to get stuck behind a herd of cattle that were being moved from one field to another.) Now I think they're on to something. The food does taste better over there, after all. And where else can you interact so directly from the farmer? For example, you can purchase a lamb (or pig, or cow) when it's born. The farm then raises it for you; you can visit it whenever you want. I can't imagine most farms in the US doing that.

Food in Switzerland is expensive, no doubt about it. But that's a whole lot different from overpriced. And now, at least, I don't mind paying for it.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

All quiet on the Western front

Today I went to the yuppie supermarket down the street and discovered that not only did they stock good Swiss Emmi yogurt, but that it was on sale as well! For a mere $0.99, I could imagine - via the Proustian powers of a creamy spoonful of pink grapefruit - that it was August in Bern again, and that I was sitting on the terrace of Swissy Pie's home, admiring the early snow that had descended overnight upon the Alps.

A bout of homesickness has seized me. And Switzerland has never even been my home.

The whole situation is ridiculous. I've spent a total of 4, maybe 5, weeks in that country. How can I possibly miss it? But I miss it all the same.

Most of it, of course, is because I miss Swissy Pie. That comes and goes. Sometimes, I have so much to do that the whole day passes without me thinking about him. Other times, it feels like I'll never make it over there. The companies that ought to hire me without thinking are incommunicando; and while the interviews I do have are for jobs that I'd love to land, I'm horribly afraid that I'm entirely underqualified to do them, and that this will become very apparent during my interviews.

I look toward Thanksgiving with a mixture of dread and anticipation, because the day after, I fly out to face my fate. I can't help but think of the last meal of the condemned.

I'm going to have to stop being so melodramatic. After all, the Emmi yogurt I just ate was made in at Plant No. 36-9865 in Valley Cottage, New York. And I'm just an un-Swiss Miss.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou

Mark Bittman is a genius.

Actually, not Mark Bittman - Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery. But Mark scores points for having spread the joy.

In the last Dining In/Dining Out section of the New York Times, Mark shared a recipe for the easiest bread you'll ever make. On the simplicity front, it beats the bread from King Arthur's Flour by a long shot, though it results in a very different loaf than the dense, satisfying round that previously claimed the title. Jim Leahy's bread requires no kneading (although this my favorite part of making bread), only a smidgeon of yeast, and a lot of time - 14-20 hours. But since most of that time can be spent doing something else, there's no reason to complain, unless you're very, very hungry. (In which case, you won't be baking your own bread anyway.)

Here's the recipe:

Recipe: No-Knead Bread
Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery
Time: About 11⁄2 hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
1⁄4 teaspoon instant yeast
11⁄4 teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 11⁄2-pound loaf.
I started mine late last night when I came back from meeting friends. It took less than five minutes to pull out the ingredients (King Arthur bread flour for the bread, oat bran for the coating) and mix them together in my KitchenAid. By 3 pm today, the dough was bubbly, and when I poured it out of the bowl, it elongated into gorgeous, elastic strands that weren't too sticky. The trickiest part was getting it into the hot Corningware casserole without either missing or burning myself, but I managed. 45 minutes later, I had a lovely deep brown loaf.

Flavorwise, it doesn't quite achieve the heights scaled by the Poilâne bread it resembles: it doesn't have the same wonderful sourdough tang. That being said, it certainly beats most of the bread that's available in this country. It's got a fabulously crackly crust and a hole-y, chewy interior. Slathered with butter fresh out of the oven, it's heavenly. It's also fantastic with preserves, Nutella, slices of roast chicken... well, pretty much everything.

No surprise that, along with a glass of intense red wine, it ended up being my dinner. This is happiness, pure and simple. All that's missing is Swissy Pie.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Power to the people

I've decided: no matter what happens with the job situation, I'm going to Switzerland at the beginning of the year. If I have to, I'll stay for 3 months on the tourist visa. If I'm still not gainfully employed by the end of that period, I'll either leave for a month and return, or apply for a long-term residence permit.

So the past few days have been occupied with headache-inducing move-related tasks: finding a mover that isn't sleazy and unreliable, for one, and trying to figure out whether to take my beloved kitchen appliances - into which I've invested a minor fortune - over to Europe, for another. Swissy Pie may have lots of dishes and knives, but as I recall, he doesn't have much in the way of Hausgeräte. (Today he couldn't even find a can opener, and had to resort to a Swiss Army knife.) Besides, have I mentioned that I really, really love my KitchenAid mixer?

I knew that Europe (and the rest of the world) runs on a higher voltage than the US - the 220V range instead of the 100-120V range. I knew that some electronic goods, like laptops and cell phones, can run on both - those just need a plug adapter. But how can I tell what items can accomodate both voltages? What to do about my computer, which has a grounded (3-prong) plug, when all the travel adapters I've seen only accept 2-prong ones? And what about the rest of my stuff?

Once again, Google came to the rescue. As I discovered, Europe is not only on a higher voltage than the US, it's on a different frequency as well. The frequency doesn't make that much of a difference - motors run slightly slower, but that seems to be about it. The voltage, though, is critical. Some electronic devices that are designed to be portable, such as my laptop, automatically detect and switch between the two voltages. Other (generally electric) devices, such as my travel hair dryer, need to be manually switched. But the vast majority can't use the higher voltage at all.

So, depending on the device, there are several solutions of varying expense and unwieldiness.
  1. Plug adapters - These don't change the voltage, only the shape of the plug, so they only work with things that can run on both. Both grounded and ungrounded adapters are available, though travel stores only seem to sell ungrounded ones.
  2. Converters - These somehow reduce the voltage electrically and can only be used with electric devices - ones that don't have computer chips inside, such as hairdryers. Furthermore, they can only be used for short periods of time, and I've yet to come across one that accepts a grounded US plug.
  3. Transformers - These are the most robust solution, and can be step-down only (for using US devices in Europe), step-up only (vice-versa), or step-up/step-down. The transformer's power capacity should be the total power needed for all the devices that will be simultaneously run off of it, plus some slack.
After a few fruitless minutes of wondering - and cursing - whoever came up with such a harebrained scheme, I got down to business. Each electric or electronic device has a UL label which specifies voltage limitations and either wattage or current requirements. All I had to do was make a list of all my devices, track down each item, find the label, and record the information. Then I could figure out what kind of adapters I needed.

The job proved more difficult than I expected, partly because I couldn't remember everything I owned, and partly because those UL stickers hide in the most unobtrusive - and therefore inconvenient - spots. Some were on the plug, which would be behind the desk. Others were on the back of a difficult-to-move object. But the one for my flat-panel iMac was the worst: it took me three attempts and a magnifying glass to make it out, because it - along with a bunch of other information - was engraved in tiny block letters that formed a ring on the metal bottom of the computer.

By the time I finished, I was dusty and sneezy, but at least I knew: only my computer and my hair dryer can run on high voltage. If I want to take the rest of the stuff - like Swissy Pie's wireless router, or my laser multifunction machine - I'll have to spend a good chunk of cash to purchase some heavy-duty step-down transformers.

Something to think about over the next few days. In the meantime, it's back to The Ripoffreport and the Better Business Bureau to weed out more about those dodgy movers. At this point, I can't imagine how I'd have managed before the internet.

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Friday, November 03, 2006

After all... tomorrow is another day

Not that it necessarily improves matters.

Yesterday, while trying to find out more about Swiss residency permits, I'd come across a company that specializes in obtaining them. "You don't need to be a movie star to live in Switzerland," they claimed. "Call us for a free consulation."

So, first thing this morning - 6 AM! - I rang them up and explained my situation.

"I'm sorry," the lady with the not-quite-French accent said. "For you, it's impossible. Switzerland no longer gives permits to Americans."

"None at all?"


"But my boyfriend is Swiss."

That earned me an impatient tsk. "If you are not married, that does not help."

"Isn't it possible to start a business, or something along those lines, the way your website suggests?"

"Non," she replied with grim finality. "Not for Americans."

A hurry-up-you're-keeping-me-from-lunch tone had crept into her voice. So, realizing that I wouldn't get any more information out of her, I hung up.

After moping around the apartment for a couple of hours while the rest of New York woke up, I plodded out to engage in some retail therapy at the farmer's market. By the time I got back, it was after 9, so I tried the Swiss consulate in New York. No love there, either: yes, someone was available to answer questions Monday through Friday, but only between 2-4 PM. By that point I'd started wondering if anyone in the country worked. No wonder they were so keen to keep everyone else out.

By the time the clock read 2:00, I'd gone through a pot of coffee and an enormous cheese danish from my favorite stall, and I'd worn down the floorboards in my hallway from all my pacing back and forth. When I called again, I half-expected to get the answer machine. But to my surprise, someone picked up immediately. I was even more surprised when that someone proved sympathetic.

"I know how you feel," the Swiss lady said. "I've been doing the reverse arrangement for years."

Though she couldn't tell me the odds that I would receive one, she encouraged me to apply for a visa, and include all the documentation to show that Swissy Pie and I are in a serious, long-term relationship. Get affidavits, she suggested, and copies of his passport, as well as any other evidence of your life together.

Dating 5+ years would have been ideal, but factors like co-habitation, his Swiss citizenship, etc. are all supposedly helpful. It's also nice to know that if I'm turned down, it doesn't affect my chances of getting a work-related permit. (Though she didn't know whether it was possible to convert this residence visa to a work one.)

Ultimately, she didn't really tell me too much that I didn't already know, and my odds of getting the visa are probably still close to zero. But it was nice to hear advice from someone who acted as if she cared.

Guess what I'll spend the weekend doing?

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A nasty surprise

Since I've been back in New York, I've been busily looking into moving-related issues - getting quotes, figuring out how to sublet my apartment, etc. Until today, when it occured to me to double-check Swiss residence requirements. And boy, was a nasty surprise waiting for me.

I'd assumed that Switzerland's requirements for residence permits would be similar to Germany's: show that you can support yourself, and you're good to stay (though not necessarily to work). Boy, I couldn't have been more wrong. To get a residency permit, one should:
  1. Be at least 60 years old and very, very wealthy. (I'm guessing on the private banking level, not merely "mass affluent.") Or
  2. Marry a Swiss national or someone else with a Class-C permanent residence permit. Then one is courteously exempted from the foreigner quota restrictions, though one can still be denied permission to live. Or
  3. Get a job, apply for a Class-B temporary residence permit from one's home country, and pray. Or
  4. Invest lots of money into a Swiss business, or into starting up a Swiss business.
Damn. Not married, not old, and not feeling very entrepreneurial. I guess I have to land a job. This could take a while. As the website of the Swiss embassy in Washington states:

"The very restrictive immigration policy of the Swiss Government has made it extremely difficult to obtain residence permits for employment. As a rule, only individuals who have been offered jobs which cannot be filled by Swiss nationals have a chance of obtaining residence permits." (emphasis added)
They might as well have said, "Americans, don't bother." Even better, it's recently gotten even more difficult to get a job, because due to a treaty with the EU, that bit about "Swiss nationals" has been changed to "Swiss or EU nationals." What's more, it takes 6-8 weeks to process an application once it's submitted. And did I mention that each canton has a quota for foreign residents?

It could be a long, long time before I get to move in with Swissy Pie.


Now what?

I could go there without a job, but I can only live there for 3 months at a time, 6 months out of the year, with at least 1 month in between exits and re-entries. After the first month of each visit, I have to register with the police. This sucks, but I suppose it's better than nothing.

Tomorrow I'll call the Swiss consulate to make sure I understand this all correctly. And then I guess I'll start applying as fast as my little fingers can type.

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