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

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Gluttony - it's my favorite sin

I have unduly fond memories of Devil's Advocate, the 1997 movie about a small town lawyer (Keanu Reeves) who's got a preternatural ability to get his clients off the hook. After successfully defending an obviously guilty man, he's invited to join the big leagues in Manhattan. Life's good... until he discovers that he's quite literally sold his soul to one of the partners at his new firm: John Milton (Al Pacino), the devil in disguise. (John Milton, get it? Snicker, snicker.)

The plot sounds completely silly, and Keanu Reeve's role as the lead isn't exactly a confidence booster, either. But the script is witty, and Keanu's clueless demeanor actually works well in this film, much as it later would in The Matrix. Even if it didn't, though, Al Pacino's show-stopping performance would more than compensate. As Lucifer, it's his job to exploit people's weaknesses, and he does it with a zest that's downright enthralling.

So how does he trap poor, bewildered Keanu?

"Vanity," Pacino informs us with a smirk. "It's my favorite sin."

He wouldn't have too a hard time snagging my soul with that one, as vanity is certainly one of my vices. But he probably wouldn't bother with it. Of the seven deadly sins, the easiest way - by far! - to get to me is gluttony. And on an overcast Saturday like today, this particular sin gets indulged. A lot.

It started this morning with buttermilk pancakes. Earlier this week, I'd made oven-fried chicken (which though tasty, is encountering some technical difficulties... I don't translate very well into convection oven-ese), so I had enough buttermilk left over for a special weekend treat. We haven't made pancakes since we were in New York, and I was really looking forward to having them.

Then I opened my old reliable Joy of Cooking, which reminded me that the acid in buttermilk needs to be offset with baking soda. And that reminded me that I hadn't been able to find soda last week, when I wanted to make biscuits to go with the fried chicken.

Scheisse, I thought. Oh well, I guess we'll be having regular pancakes then.

I opened the refrigerator again, only to discover that we were out of milk, too.

In short order, Swissy Pie was dispatched to search for baking soda, which he discovered is called Natron in German. But did that help? Nope, at least not at Migros or Coop. No Natron on the shelves, only Backpulver (baking powder). But on the way home, he realized that since it's plain sodium bicarbonate, the friendly neighborhood apothecary would certainly carry it. (He never did explain why the pharmacist has sodium bicarbonate.) So we were able to have our buttermilk pancakes after all!

After breakfast, we headed off for our weekly smuggling session. Today we headed straight for Germany, as there was a bike shop there we needed to visit. Swissy Pie has grand plans for a 137 km, 6 pass bike ride through the Vosges tomorrow, and since I'm a wimp, we needed to purchase a cassette with bigger (easier) gears, to reduce the likelihood of me having to walk up the mountains. While we were there, we also stopped by a charming little Italian store, where we got some wine and some truly excellent olives, as well as an amazing butcher's shop, where we stocked up on meat, reh-pastete, and liverwurst. For lunch, I tried fleischkäse for the first time.

Fleischkäse, for the uninitiated, sounds repulsive. (It doesn't look all that great, either.) Who wants to eat something called "meat cheese"? It sounds like a cold cut gone horribly, terribly wrong. But the name's misleading. There's no cheese in fleischkäse: it's only finely ground meat that's been formed into a loaf and baked. For serving, it's sliced into finger-thick portions, and (in our case at least) wedged in a crusty roll. The end result has the texture and consistency of a hot dog, but it's got a much heartier, meatier flavor. And yes, it's actually quite tasty!

We ran a few more errands before heading back home for dinner, where a couple of nice salmon filets were waiting. Initially I was just going to glaze them with some honey, rice wine vinegar, and sesame oil, but by the time we finished unloading the car, I'd decided that I wanted to show off with something spontaneous and spectacular. (Oops, what did I say about vanity earlier?)

So after some digging around the refrigerator, I pulled together some ingredients that were just screaming to be made into a salsa: oranges, onions, parsley, and some red chilis from the freezer. (A good trick for hot peppers, ginger, and many other spices you can't use right away: chop it finely, freeze it in ice cube trays, and pop them out into Ziploc baggies. Later, pull out as many cubes as you need.)

At the last minute, I remembered that I had a basket of physalis lying around, so I cut up a few and threw them in, too. Physalis are tiny orange fruits that come beautifully encased in parchment-like sepals. At their best, they're quite sweet; when I tried them once, in some fancy restaurant back in the States, they'd been delectable. Unfortunately, the ones I got here weren't as tasty as I would've liked, but at least their firm texture worked really well in the salsa.

The salmon itself I marinated in a mixture of sweet chili sauce, orange juice, mustard, and garlic. After roasting it, I nestled it in a bed of white wine and lemon risotto, and spooned the salsa over. The result was heavenly, if I do say so myself. Unfortunately I was so eager to taste the experiment that I forgot to take photographs!

Yes, gluttony is certainly my favorite sin. But at least we put something on a diet today: our energy usage. Yep, we've sprung for a bunch of those energy-saving lightbulbs and installed them all over our apartment. So tonight, at least, I can go to bed feeling virtuous.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Aktuelles Nachrichten

Here is a summary of today's top news headlines:
  1. Happy birthday to Jessica Brogan in Neuchâtel!
    Here's wishing you lots of chocolate, cake, and happiness!
  2. French press coffee and espresso raise LDL ("bad") and total cholesterol levels
    What?! Cream, cheese, liverwurst, and now coffee. Living in Switzerland may very well kill me. My only hope is that I can drink enough red wine to offset the effects! Wait... did someone say cirrhosis?
  3. Swiss man gets 10 year jail sentence for graffiti
    Well, not in Switzerland. He had to move all the way to Thailand, and go after posters of the king, before he was caught.
The weather in Basel: Sunny, 57°F, winds from the SW at 10 mph.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Border crossings

Now that we've got a car, we've joined the masses sneaking into France and Germany for groceries on weekends. It's astounding how much less expensive food in the E.U. is, particularly meat. Everywhere we've been, at least half the cars have had Swiss plates. Several shops advertise that they accept payment in Swiss francs. As far as I can tell, customs officials are resigned to the rampant smuggling. Aside from the major crossing points, most of the customs checks are unmanned, and even at the big ones, they don't seem particularly interested in stopping anyone.

This is fortunate, because last weekend, we tried out a couple of hypermarchés in Alsace, where our purchases of Riesling, scotch, and gin exceeded our duty-free allowance by several multiples. We lugged back a tank of laundry detergent that comes up to my knees. Oh, yes, and we got some food, too. We shopped as if we were stocking up in advance of a famine. I can't tell how much more it would've been in Basel, because with some of the more extravagant purchases (Swissy Pie snuck in some foie gras into the cart when he thought I wasn't looking), our bill was a lot higher than usual. So much for saving money.

This weekend, after going to our local Coop for more wine (never mind what happened to the bottles we got last week), we headed over to Germany, "just for a peek." We should've predicted the outcome. Once again, we bought so much food we were hard-pressed to make space in our refrigerator for it.

Part of the problem: we came across Jever, Swissy Pie's favorite beer. The poor dear's been deprived ever since he left New York, where I'm quite certain he was single-handedly responsible for 90% of its consumption because no one else will touch the stuff. Naturally he had to get a few bottles, but they ended up occupying half a shelf in the refrigerator. By the way, we've only got 4 shelves.

But mostly, the problem is us. We're so used to prices in Switzerland that everything in the E.U. looks like a bargain by comparison. Plus, the French and German stores are so much bigger that they can offer a lot more variety. The cheese departments are much more interesting, for example. And instead of the one type of strawberry that Coop carries (which is from Spain, at that), in France you can pick from three different breeds. And have I mentioned that I saw my first European bagel? Of course I got a package, even though there's no shortage of bread in our home at the moment.

But as much fun as I had shopping across the border, I couldn't help but notice that I'm turning into a Swiss snob. "Oh no," I heard myself saying. "That spinach doesn't look very good. I'll get some at Migros next week." Or, "This beef looks disgusting. I'd rather pay more for the stuff at Coop."

Now, I'm not sure if there was really anything wrong with the food, and certainly I've picked up sub-standard food in Swiss shops. (Don't even ask about the last cucumber I bought. When I cut it open... Yech!) But because prices were lower (and in France at least, the stores looked dodgier), I became a lot more critical. You gets what you pays for, right? At least if you're not careful, and I have no desire to be the chump here.

Here's another point where I prefer the Swiss to their European neighbors: acceptance of credit cards. On our way home Saturday, we stopped by Dehner, a German chain of garden stores. I wanted to get some house plants, but at the moment there's no space for them in our living room, so we agreed to come back later. However, I picked out some herbs for the kitchen, as well as a couple of adorable little glazed pots for about 1 euro each. The grand total for my purchases: something on the order of 6 euros.

But when I went to pay with my credit card (why would I carry euros around when I live in Switzerland?) the cashier was very upset.

"For so little?" she said, grimacing in dismay. "It takes us 30 days to get the money."

"Sorry," I said, somewhat taken aback. (If that were the reason, wouldn't she be crankier if the bill were actually larger?) "I don't have any cash."

In the US, because of the fees they're charged, many small businesses request a minimum purchase before using credit cards, but I've never seen a big chain store do so. (In part because it's illegal.) In Switzerland, I've never encountered a minimum, either. I've charged 9 CHF at Nespresso, 4 CHF at Migros, both of which were less than this purchase. Not once have the cashiers stared (the official sign of Swiss disapproval). But this German woman, who works for a giant retailer, actually cared?

Swissy Pie volunteered, rather unhelpfully, "She's American, it's common there."

The woman replied irritably, "She's in Haltingen, not America."

Really? I hadn't noticed. I must have taken the wrong turn off of I-95!

After some more pouting and lecturing, which I pretended not to understand, she ended up running my credit card. "Just this once," she said sternly. I nodded and thanked her and tried to look as clueless as possible.

It's good to be foreign, sometimes.

Despite these little issues, we'll be back to smuggle our groceries. As the weather gets nicer, I'll probably start riding over on my bike during the week - it's only a few kilometers away, after all. And some day, we may even stop shopping like it's going out of style. But I doubt that will happen any time soon.

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All that you can't leave behind

After nearly two months of floating along in my comfortable little world here, this week I was powerfully jolted back to reality. Several incidents served to remind me that I'm quite far from my homeland, and taken together, left me feeling quite vulnerable. I've been stricken by another bout of homesickness, and as usual, it came completely out of the blue.

Although I'd been a little down all week, I didn't recognize the symptoms until Friday night, when Swissy Pie and I met up for drinks with a friend from New York, who happened to be in town for a meeting. We had a wonderful evening catching up, but as we emerged from the close, cigarette-fueled haze, I remarked, "Boy, that's one thing I miss - smoke-free bars."

In that moment of alcohol-induced clarity, I realized that I miss a lot more than the carcinogen-free air. I miss knowing what to do in an emergency. (Kids, 911 doesn't work here.) I miss having a bank account. (Damn you, Citibank, for charging me inordinately high "foreign fees"!) As much as I like rösti and fondue, I miss real ethnic food. (Sorry honey, that's why you've been coming home to kebabs, tandoori chicken, ma po tofu and Japanese curry.) I miss bagels. (My favorite splurge: an everything bagel, toasted, with cream cheese, tomato, and lox.) I even miss American-style potato chips, which I never ate back home. (Yes, they have chips here, but they just taste different. Less salt, less oil... they're just off.)

So - perhaps unconsciously - this past week I've been trying to make our apartment feel more like home. Helped along by miserable weather - the high winds keep me from venturing out more than the snow and the cold - I've resumed unpacking with a vengeance. I've reorganized the cabinets, planned and plotted how to squeeze the remaining boxes of clothes into the meager space remaining. I've filled the closet that Swissy Pie helpfully assembled one night. I've spent hours browsing through the garden center at Obi, trying to decide what kind of plants I'd like to have in our living room. (Swissy Pie is singularly unhelpful on this front. His allergies to flowers helps narrow things down, but otherwise, he just says, "Get whatever you want.")

To complete my good little hausfrau image, I've even been ironing. Now, the last time I turned on my iron was probably at least five years ago, but I schlepped the thing all the way from New York, and I'm determined to use it. (The absurd dry cleaning fees here are also a good motivation - 10 Swiss francs per item!) So one day I stuffed all of Swissy Pie's dirty dress shirts into the washing machine, dragged them upstairs while they were still damp, and set to work. It took me all afternoon, but at last I managed to wrestle the pile of tangled cloth into something approaching unwrinkled shirts on hangers.

But ultimately, the most therapeutic thing I can do is indulge myself with comfort food. One day, for example, I craved Japanese curry. Now, most people associate curry with India, or perhaps Malaysia, but anyone who's been to Tokyo will recognize it as a national dish: it's a cheap, nutritious meal that can be purchased anywhere for a mere 400 or 500 yen. Nevertheless, it's alleged to be the Emperor of Japan's favorite food, and the average Japanese family eats it 2 or 3 times a week. Japanese grocery stores - as well as those in New York - carry kits that make throwing a curry together quick and easy.

I haven't come across any of the kits in the Asian markets here, so instead, I cobbled together a makeshift recipe. It turned out pretty well. It's not fancy, or even subtle, the way most Japanese dishes are. But it definitely keeps winter at bay!
Japanese Curry

1 lb ground beef
4 medium potatoes, diced
3 carrots, diced
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic
4 C water
2 chicken or beef boullion cubes
5 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 C flour
4 Tbsp curry powder
1 tsp chili powder (optional)
2 Tsp salt (or to taste)

2 C short grain rice
4 C water

In a large pot, heat 2 Tbsp of vegetable oil. Saute onion and garlic until softened. Add the ground beef and cook until it is no longer pink. Add the carrots and potatoes, stir a few times, and then add the water and boullion. Bring to a boil, and simmer for 15-20 minutes.

While the meat is cooking, make a roux out of the remaining 3 Tbsp oil and the flour: heat oil in a medium skillet until shimmering. Over low-medium heat, add flour and stir, cooking until the flour is blended and takes on a pale golden hue. Add curry powder and chili powder, using the back of the spatula to blend it into the roux. The mixture will be powdery and dry.

Take 1/2 C of the hot liquid from the meat pot and slowly add it to the curry-roux mixture, stiring constantly to form a smooth paste. By spoonfuls, add the curry paste back to the beef mixture, stirring to dissolve. Add salt. Simmer the curry for 20-30 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and the beef and vegetables are tender.

While curry is finishing up, bring rice and water to a boil in a pot, immediately reduce heat to low, cover the pot with its lid, and cook for 20 minutes.

Serve curry with rice in shallow bowls. There should be approximately twice as much curry as rice in the bowl.

Yield: 4 servings

1) Curry mixes vary in ingredients and intensity, so adjust the spices accordingly.
2) Like a stew, there should be a lot of sauce, so if the curry is too dry, add more water.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Have and have not

Since I've spent a few posts complaining about the things that Switzerland doesn't have, it only seems fair to devote a post to something that can be found here, but not in the US: the mangosteen.

The mangosteen is a small, round, purple fruit from Southeast Asia known as the "Queen of Fruits." I first read about them a long time ago, but an impression of their fabled flavor - not to mention their elusiveness - has stayed with me ever since. Legend has it that Queen Victoria offered a reward to anyone who could send them to her. Today, in the United States at least, they're still nearly impossible to find: because their flesh may harbor Asian fruit flies, the US doesn't allow fresh ones to be imported. So I'd never managed to sample the ambrosial fruit.

Apparently Switzerland has no such qualms, perhaps because customs officials know the fruit flies will never manage to fill out the appropriate visa applications in triplicate. Still, they're by no means common here. I haven't seen any at the Asian markets, though admittedly I haven't been looking. But while I was browsing through Globus today, I happened upon a handful of what looked like baby eggplants, nestled among other brilliant clusters of exotic fruits.

In case your wallet's never been ambushed by Globus, consider yourself fortunate: it's the Swiss version of Barney's, with one major improvement. Like most European department stores, it has a food shop in its basement, and appropriately enough, the one at Globus is like Dean and Deluca, only about a thousand times better. It carries a staggeringly glorious assortment of proscuittos, fresh pasta, prepared salads, wines, cheeses... In short, if you're searching for something rare, extraordinary, and/or expensive, it's the best place in the city to go.

Needless to say, it's a very dangerous place for me to venture, so usually I stay away. But since I was in the neighborhood on Friday morning, I drifted in, resolved to "just look." Then I saw the Malaysian mangosteens peeking out at me, and I knew I had to get a couple to try.

With a great deal of willpower, I made it out of Globus without further damage to my bank account, and coddled my little treasures all the way home. It took even more willpower not to succumb to curiosity and taste one right away. But I decided to make an Asian themed dinner, and to serve the fruit afterward for dessert.

As it turns out, my careful handling was unnecessary: mangosteens have a thick protective layer that start to harden after picking. Though the ones I got were still relatively soft (as is ideal), there was more than enough padding to cushion the fruit inside. Indeed, getting at the edible bit required a bit of careful sawing: once around the equator with a serrated bread knife, a little twist, and at last the shell fell open to reveal a perfectly white globe segmented - somewhat like an orange - into seven slippery sections. It was gone in less than thirty seconds.

The texture and flavor was reminiscent of a mango, though much brighter and far less sweet. (Is that how it got its name?) It had a lovely floral aroma that lingered on the tongue long after the tiny bits of fruit were gone. Without a question, it was delicious. But I suspect the biggest reason it's legendary is its relative rarity, and how much effort it takes to get at a tiny bit of fruit!

Given how much Globus charges, I won't be stocking my fruit bowl with them. But now I can cross off one more item off my personal "things to do before I die" list, and dream of having a mangosteen tree in my back yard.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tour de Suisse, Stage 2

A grey, dreary smear of sky greeted us Saturday morning in Bern. Outside it was chilly, but apparently not cold enough to transform the light drizzle into magical fluffy powder. Nevertheless, Swissy Pie and I decided to head for Grindelwald, about 45 minutes away. We hadn't skiied all year, and we figured it would be our last chance to go before spring set in with a vengeance.

The rain provided us with a chance to play with our new car's window wipers, which has a setting that magically detects spray on the windowshield and scrubs only when necessary. When it's drizzling lightly, the wipers swipe very infrequently; when the rain comes down harder, the wipers speed up. Swissy Pie loved it, of course - he's a gadget freak. But even I thought it was very cool!

But we fretted about the weather all the way to the mountain. I thought it would probably be snowing higher up; Swissy Pie pointed out that even if I were right, it isn't much fun skiing when you can't see where you're going. That was when I remembered that not only was I late to the sport - I didn't really get started until about 5 years ago - but that it's been 2 years since the last time I've gone. Back then, I was at the point where I could make it down pretty much anything, though it often wasn't pretty. But now, after 2 years... I started to worry.

Things started looking up once we got to the Grindelwald area. As we climbed into the mountains, the raindrops began swirling, and then transformed into snowflakes. Then, when we got to the parking lot, the snow was starting to give way to blue sky. The other Swiss had evidently given up on winter, so we were able to park about the same distance from the lift as when we'd come the first time, back in August. And despite five busloads of visitors from Alsace and Germany, there wasn't much of a line.

We got our day passes, which turned out to be magnetic cards that we'd need to swipe every time we got on the lift. Swissy Pie put his in his jacket pocket. Since it's not optical, like a bar code, it doesn't have to be pulled out: you can just ski up to the gate, do a little twist to pass it by the reader, and go on through. For some reason I had trouble with the card in my pocket, but it wasn't until after lunch that I hit upon a solution: slipping it into the zip-up compartment of my mittens.

Surprisingly, the Swiss weren't very orderly when queuing up for the lifts. (Or perhaps it was the Germans making trouble, I'm not sure.) People unabashedly shoved past to cut ahead. Some even used their children as weapons. Who's going to yell at pint-sized kids who barely come up to your knees? And it's difficult to figure out who the kids belong to, until those evil parents surge past in their childrens' wake. Standing in line, I often found myself contemplating alternative uses for my ski poles.

Aside from those for the gondola up and down, the crowds weren't bad. And by the time we got to the top of the mountain, it was a gloriously sunny day. Though a few banks of clouds did sweep through, by and large it was brilliant: warm, with good snow (though it got icy toward the end of the day) and lots of untouched powder.

Not that I could take full advantage of it. My skiing has definitely gone downhill with lack of practice, and all my worst habits were on full display. I even caught an edge on a very flat portion and went flying. (This is why I need a helmet!)

Still, at the end of the day, I was happy and exhausted. Some of the rhythm was coming back to me. I could identify what I was doing wrong. Even Swissy Pie's dour observation - "Next year we'll have to get you a proper Swiss instructor" - couldn't dampen my mood.

Come next winter - watch out on the slopes!

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Tour de Suisse, Stage 1

Despite my efforts to organize the apartment, one week after my move-in, our place is still completely unsettled. Slowly, things are getting better, but not fast enough for my tastes. Thanks to the Basel recycling center's odd and rather inconvenient opening hours, empty boxes and crumbled balls of packing paper still block our windows. Since we've run out of cabinet space, even after an emergency trip to Ikea on Wednesday, random packages of food - a jar of peanut butter, Viactiv calcium chews, tins of tea - remain on the kitchen table. Two enormous wardrobe boxes squat in our bedroom, because the closet has yet to be equipped.

So how does a girl like me handle a mess like that? Run away! Run away!

Yes, I'm afraid that by the end of the week, I was completely fed up with finding homes for the books, cookware, and clothes that had joined us from America. So Friday morning, I fled with Swissy Pie to Locarno, a town in the southern canton of Ticino, where he had a meeting.

By car, it was only about 3 hours away, but once we were through the Gotthard tunnel, it felt like we were in another country altogether. The architecture changed, favoring stone over wood, and earthy terracotta and parchment tones over bright blues, yellows, and greens. The signs changed, to Italian rather than German. Even the Alps felt different. In the north, the mountains are massive, dominating the landscape with sheer planes so steep that even moss has trouble clinging to their stones. But down south, they're somehow softer. The rocks seem browner and crumblier, and fall away at a gentler, less vertiginous pace.

By the time we reached Locarno, I already felt as if I were on vacation. And the small, quiet little town, hemmed in between the bristling Alpine foothills and glittering Lake Maggiore, did its best to maintain the illusion. Crisp white sailboats drifted lazily about their moorings. The magnolias were in full blushing bloom. Palm trees ringed the shore. I had to look twice to make sure I wasn't hallucinating. Palm trees, in Switzerland?

Alas, we couldn't stay long. By mid-afternoon, we were on the road again, winding through Centovalli to cut across Italy. It's an extraordinarily scenic drive. Narrow roads twist up mountains, through small bucolic villages, and across ancient arched bridges built over impossibly deep gorges. Peter Jackson could have easily shot Lord of the Rings here, though it probably would've been a great deal more expensive.

We reentered Switzerland through the Simplon Pass. At 2000 m, it's one of the lower passes through the Alps, which is why it's still open this time of year when all the other Alpine roads are closed. Still, a thick crust of snow frosted its slopes, and we saw a few solitary skiiers making tracks through the otherwise unblemished white. It was quite a change from the view that morning!

Now we were in Wallis (or Valais, depending on one's preferred language). But we still had to go north, and when I looked at the map (not to mention the horizon), I almost lost it. There were quite a few mountains directly in our way, but no roads open to take us there! (Did I mention the passes are all closed for winter?) We'd have to detour all the way to Geneva! The traffic was awful! It would add hours to our trip!

Silly Un-Swiss Miss! Never underestimate Swiss efficiency: if there's one thing they're really good at, it's digging holes, both through mountains and down into the ground. So naturally, there was a tunnel we could take. But we couldn't drive through it (which is why it didn't show up as a solid line on the map). Instead, we had to get on an auto train.

So we drove up to Goppenstein, where the train began, paid the fare, pulled directly onto a narrow flatbed rail car (right behind a minivan), and turned off our engine. About 20 seconds later, we felt a soft bump.

"Did some idiot just run into us from behind?" I asked indignantly.

No: the train had just started to move. Within a minute, it had rumbled up to a respectable speed. Ahead yawned the opening to the tunnel. And then we were plunged into absolute darkness.

For fifteen minutes, we sat sightless, accompanied only by the shakes and squeals of our own train, and the occasional flashes of life from passenger and cargo trains hurtling from the opposite direction. It was strange. It was disconcerting. It felt like a combination of the Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain rides in Disneyland, except a lot less fun.

We were in there for what felt like a long, long time. There's not much one can do in the dark (though Swissy Pie wisely took a quick nap). I suppose we could've turned on the lights in the car, but I didn't have any reading with me. Even if I did, all the bumping and jolting probably would've given me motion sickness.

So I was really pleased to finally emerge on the other end, in Kandersteg. From there, it was a quick descent to Thun, and from Thun, and easy cruise on the autobahn to Bern, where we were stayed for the night before heading back into the mountains for some skiing Saturday. But more on that in another post...

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Monday, March 05, 2007

When it rains, it pours

In this case, I mean it in a good way, because today I've got two exciting announcements.

First, if all goes well, Swissy Pie will be picking up our car this afternoon! The toy/baby/weapon comes not a moment too soon, for reasons which will shortly become obvious.

Second, my stuff is here! In the apartment! And not a single glass broken!

We heard about a week and a half ago that my container was in Bremenport, and would be catching the next train to Basel. Unfortunately, it couldn't take the ICE, and traveling with the hoi polloi in cargo meant it didn't get into Basel until Friday. Since it then had to clear customs, the moving company scheduled the delivery for Monday at 8 am.

Given this is Switzerland, I was expecting the movers to show up at 7:45. So you can imagine how nervous I got when 8:00 came and went without the doorbell ringing. Had customs decided that my tiny container was one of the 3% they wanted to audit? Did the movers have the wrong address? Had they decided to abscond with all my old clothes and 4-year old computer?

No, they were simply late. Two middle-aged men showed up at my door at 8:30. About an hour later, a third (Turkish) man joined them. I never found out what was going on, because my German isn't good enough to ask without sounding rude. (Actually, I'm not sure I could manage the task in English, either.) But I can certainly speculate and imagine: the two Swiss guys sitting in stony silence in the warehouse, getting more and more agitated as the clock grinds forward. Finally they burst into a diatribe against lazy, unreliable immigrants, and leave Herr Spät to make his own way over on his own.

To my surprise, the movers were gone before noon. Granted, unpacking takes less time than packing, and there was a lot they didn't take out, since there simply wasn't any place to put it. But if anyone has any doubts about our obsession with books and kitchenware, come take a look at our apartment. A whole corner of the living room is jammed with book boxes. (These are in addition to the 4 overflowing bookcases already in residence.) And despite my best efforts to find homes for them, kitchenware is cluttering every available surface, including the open space above our cabinets. There are even things under the table, an enormous 12-seater.

So we need the car now, so we can make a pilgrimmage to the big blue-and-yellow box out in Pratteln, so we can tame our kitchen, and so I won't be embarrassed when Swissy Pie's mother comes to visit.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Sunny day... sweepin' the clouds away

Though Swissy Pie claims that the Rhine valley has some of the best weather in Europe, it always seems to rain when I'm in Basel. These past few weeks have been no exception, with showers - if not worse - more or less every day. So a few days ago, when I read that there'd be a full lunar eclipse that would be best viewed from here, I didn't get my hopes up.

Good thing, too, because the weather Saturday morning wasn't too promising. Buckets of cold rain dumped onto our heads. The wind flipped my umbrella inside-out and drove the water sideways into our faces. The Rhine, which usually runs swift and dark and clean, was transformed into a roiling yellow torrent. It was so bad that even though we usually walk to do our weekend shopping, we ended up taking the tram both ways.

But part of what makes the weather here so unpredictable is how quickly storms blow in and out. By 3 pm, the sky was clear. Remarkably, it stayed that way. So at midnight, we were able to watch the moon turn a dull coppery red. It looked quite eerie, floating in the dark, star-flecked sky. And since I'd never seen a full lunar eclipse before, it was a pretty neat experience.

The weather today was even better than yesterday afternoon. Sunlight gilded the otherwise drab city. Not a single cloud threatened on the horizon. It was even warm enough to wear shorts! So we set out for a long bike ride through the Wiesental, in Germany. We rode past industrial warehouses, whose parking lots were empty; through quaint villages, whose inhabitants were out strolling; along swollen rivers, whose banks sprouted the first flowers of the season; and next to sun-flooded pastures, where tiny lambs tottered under the watchful eyes of sheep dogs.

Unfortunately, I'm in really bad shape right now, so there was less climbing than Swissy Pie would've liked. By the end of our little trip, my elbow hurt, my knees hurt, my back hurt... But you have to start somewhere!

Note: Since we didn't have a tripod, the photo of the lunar eclipse is borrowed from NASA.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

So that's what the bagpipers are for!

One of my college roommates, who lives in Seattle, somehow got hold of this piece of news:

Swiss Accidentally Invade Liechtenstein
Published: March 2, 2007

Filed at 8:43 a.m. ET

ZURICH, Switzerland (AP) -- What began as a routine training exercise almost ended in an embarrassing diplomatic incident after a company of Swiss soldiers got lost at night and marched into neighboring Liechtenstein.

According to Swiss daily Blick, the 170 infantry soldiers wandered 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) across an unmarked border into the tiny principality early Thursday before realizing their mistake and turning back.

A spokesman for the Swiss army confirmed the story but said that there were unlikely to be any serious repercussions for the mistaken invasion.

"We've spoken to the authorities in Liechtenstein and it's not a problem," Daniel Reist told The Associated Press.

Officials in Liechtenstein also played down the incident.

Interior ministry spokesman Markus Amman said nobody in Liechtenstein had even noticed the soldiers, who were carrying assault rifles but no ammunition. "It's not like they stormed over here with attack helicopters or something," he said.

Liechtenstein, which has about 34,000 inhabitants and is slightly smaller than Washington DC, doesn't have an army.
Honestly, can you blame the soldiers for not noticing? The people of Liechtenstein don't even have their own currency!

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