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

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Monday, April 30, 2007

What's illegal in America, but very common here?

Two weekends ago, Swissy Pie and I had our closest brush to date with the border police. We'd spent the morning shopping in Germany, the early afternoon walking around a nature preserve in France, and around 3 pm, were finally heading home, across the lightly monitored border in the northern part of Basel. More often than not, there aren't any agents at the booth, but today, as we drew closer, we could see a two-car queue ahead of us.

At first we figured it was no big deal: it just meant the Swissies were home today. But when we crept closer and closer, and still neither car had moved, we realized customs was playing hardball. And that meant we could be in big trouble. In our back seat, we had more than the kilo of meat that was our daily duty-free allowance, not to mention a crate of beer that added up to well over 2 liters. (Swissy Pie is blithely certain beer counts as water rather than alcohol. I hope we never have to prove him wrong.)

A customs agent was interrogating the driver of the first car. As we watched, a second agent strolled out of the booth and joined him. With a brusque jerk of the head, they motioned the car over to the side for further attention; and then a third agent emerged to question the two men in the (French) car just ahead of us. Papers were produced and handed back and forth. More questions were exchanged. At last, the passenger, who evidently didn't have identification on him, got out and scuttled into the Zoll booth, while the driver, curiously, continued into Basel. And then it was our turn.

Perhaps it was our Baselstadt license plate. Perhaps customs had already stopped their quota for the day. Or perhaps we looked entirely uninteresting. Whatever the case, the blond, broad-faced customs officer merely peered into our car (somehow ignoring the very visible contraband in the back), scanned our faces, and nodded for us to continue. Relieved, we drove on, past the hapless Arabic-looking men from the first car, who were still off to the side, watching the customs officers comb through their vehicle.

"I guess customs just isn't interested in people who aren't dark-skinned," Swissy Pie noted, nodding at the searchees. "Those guys get stopped all the time."

It's true: everyone we've seen pulled over to the side of the road and being searched has looked either Muslim or African. And frankly, it bothers me.

Part of it is the injustice of the whole situation. Why should perfectly innocent people be continually harassed, just because of the color of their skin? Granted, I haven't heard any stories about police brutality, like the ones we hear about in the US, but that doesn't change the fact that being stopped and searched is embarrassing, not to mention inconvenient.

But what really gets me is how little good the policy does. I seriously doubt that the majority of people stopped have any criminal intent; stopping them routinely doesn't make me any safer. And if terrorism is the concern, there are plenty of cases in both the US and in Germany where the criminals were home-grown. Plus, not all Muslims look Muslim, for lack of a better word: I went to school with both men and women who would've easily passed for Caucasian.

No wonder that Turks and other minorities feel so alienated in Western Europe. Even for the ones who are successful, how could they ever feel at home in a place that continually singles them out for "special" treatment?

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What a long strange weekend it's been

There's no longer any doubt in my mind: the climate of the Rhine river valley is downright surreal. I've lost count of how many sunny, precipitation-free days we've had. But over the past two weeks, we've had 9 days where the thermostat's shot past 75°F. Despite a slide back into the comfortable 60's in the middle of last week, the arrival of the weekend sent the mercury climbing again. Great for Swissy Pie, who loves hot, sunny weather. Not so great for me: I'm an Eisbär. (If you've got any doubts, see my photo.)

Friday, when Global Librarian and her friend Laurie came to Basel, was the transition day. When we set the date last week, the forecast had called for rain. So I was thrilled to wake up to see the sun glittering in a clear, haze-free sky. Nor was it too warm: it was actually chilly enough that I debated putting on a sweater that morning.

Good thing I didn't. By the time we finished our little walking tour of the Altstadt and enjoyed a leisurely al fresco lunch on the charming terrace of Au Violon, the weather was starting to warm up. Things were just about perfect when we made our way over to the Tinguely Museum. But after we'd clambered and clanked and whirred our way through the exhibit, which Global Librarian recounts perfectly here, it was downright hot. (The lead photo of the fantastic chairs, by the way, is courtesy of her.)

Our journey back along the banks of the Rhine was like a walk through the Garden District of New Orleans, only without the mosquitoes, crime, or vampires. Heavy boughs of wisteria draped themselves across beautifully maintained old houses. Just past a screen of exquisitely tortured sycamores, a languid river rolled toward the sea. At times, the air was so thick it didn't feel like we were walking: we were wading through hot, liquid sunshine.

Saturday and Sunday, it only got worse, but each day Swissy Pie managed to draw me out of our nice cool apartment: first, with the prospect of frog-viewing in the Petite Camargue d'Alsace, and then with a Geissenfest in the Black Forest. I'm not sure why a goat festival sounded so interesting to me, but it did. So I slapped on some sunscreen (Swissy Pie managed to evade my minstrations), we got out our bikes, and off we went to Germany.

But the goats were not to be easily reached.

First, Swissy Pie had equipment problems halfway there, so he sent me racing back to Basel to get his other bike and drive it out. (Now that's dedication.) Then, we found that you had to be able to climb like a goat to see them: the road up to the Geissenfest, which was probably an unpaved goat path in the not-so-distant past, was so steep that at one point I swear my front wheel lifted off from the ground. Eek! Thank goodness Swissy Pie allowed that not everyone has Geissen genes, like he seems to. So, we headed back to get the car, and even with its 170 hp engine, it needed to be in second gear the whole time!

At last we made it to a make-shift parking lot, judging by the number of Mercedes SLKs adorning the meadow. (Apparently there are a lot of rich goat-lovers out there!) We pulled into an empty expanse of grass. I pulled on my shoes, which I had conveniently needed to drive over, but Swissy Pie was forced to go barefoot to the upper meadow, where the goats were. There was also another parking lot up there: that was probably meant to distinguish the regulars, who knew about it, from tourists like us, who parked a long way off. But at least the walk was scenic!

The festival itself was very small. Like any self-respecting festival, anywhere in the world, there were booths selling food (in this case, bread, bratwurst, and fries), drink (beer), and random souvenirs (bottles of sour cherry schnapps, jars of local honey, leather collars with goat bells attached, free trade coffee beans, and hand-woven baskets). And while there were a lot of people milling about, there was one thing the goat festival was noticeably short on: goats. Perhaps we arrived too late in the afternoon, and missed the fun, but there were less than 20 goats at the entire show!

Still, the kid goats were adorable, and the scenery was fantastic. And it was worth going, just to see the other attendees gawking at our funny cyclist outfits and Swissy Pie's bare feet!

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Deliver the puddings or the blog gets it...

I was quietly catching up with blog reading this morning when the latest recipe at Once Upon a Tart jumped off the screen, dove straight for my stomach, and took it hostage. At least, that's what I assumed happened, because after that, said stomach started to send out distress signals, and nothing would satisfy it except a batch of the mouthwatering Yorkshire puddings that Myriam had just posted about.

Fortunately, the puddings were phenomenally easy to make, requiring nothing but a bit of flour, milk, eggs, and salt. The only thing about the instructions that made me pause: Myriam specifies that the batter should rest for an hour. I briefly considered following the instructions to the letter, but the hostage squealed in alarm. On went the oven. In went the custard cups I was using in lieu of muffin tins. Ten minutes later, out came a lovely, buttery-warm aroma. Gorgeous golden puffs followed in short order.

As soon as they were cool enough to handle, I ripped into one. It was a revelation: crisp outside (though the rest softened by the time I got to them), and soft and tender inside. Though Yorkshire puddings are traditionally eaten with gravy and the Sunday roast, I made a pretty good lunch out of them and the wonderful bauern ham we get at our favorite butcher.

They were so good that I couldn't stop thinking about them all afternoon. My stomach kept sending out hopeful queries: is it dinner yet? What about now? No? Then can we make a snack?

So on the spur of the moment, I decided to introduce Swissy Pie to the joys of British cuisine. But I wanted to play with the recipe a bit. I happened to have two egg whites left over from making Hollandaise sauce - more on that in another post - so I subsituted them for an egg. And because the Yorkshire puddings reminded me of gougeres, I chopped up a bit of Gorgonzola and mixed that in, too. (Yes, I probably should've used a good English Stilton or something like that, but Gorgonzola was what I had in the refrigerator.)

Wow. WOW. WOW.

After the first bite, Swissy Pie asked, "What's this again? It's really good."

That's high praise from him. Usually, to indicate his approval, he says, "Not too bad."

Yes, I cheated a bit. I know he's a sucker for anything with blue cheese in it. But still, it really was scrumptious.

What was that? Oh. Just my stomach, informing me that very soon, we'll again be making some version of Yorkshire pudding.

Yorkshire Puddings with Gorgonzola

  • 100 ml milk
  • 40 g flour
  • 2 egg whites
  • 2 Tbsp Gorgonzola cheese, finely diced
  • oil for ramekins, custard cups, or muffin tins
In a bowl, mix together eggs and milk. Add flour, and whisk until the batter is smooth and there are no lumps left. Stir in Gorgonzola, making sure the pieces don't stick together. Set aside.

Take 3 ramekins, custard cups, or muffin tins. Pour approximately 1 Tbsp oil into each container. (The bottom should be covered with oil.) Place the ramekins on a rack in the middle of the oven.

Turn on the oven and preheat it to 220 C. Once the oven is at the desired temperature, carefully pour in 1/3 of the batter into each ramekin. Be careful, as the oil will be hot.

Immediately close the door and bake until the puddings are puffed and golden, 10-15 minutes. (This will take longer in non-convection ovens, and if the recipe is doubled or tripled.) Do not open the door prematurely, or the puddings will fall.

Yield: 3
And don't miss Myriam's recipe over at Once Upon a Tart!

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

What next?

America is, with some justification, considered one of the most consumeristic countries in the world. However, in some ways Switzerland is just as bad. When I was here back in October, I saw that many shops had already started displaying their Christmas wares. Then, Fasnacht cakes took the place of Christmas lebkuchen and läckerli cookies, and those in turn were nudged aside by enormous chocolate Easter bunnies and elaborately decorated eggs. Whenever I'm here, there's been something special for sale in the stores.

Now that Easter is over, I've been wondering what they'll come up with next. As far as I'm aware, there are no religious, national, cantonal, or city holidays coming up. So what excuse will Coop and Migros use to get people to indulge?

Well, yesterday I went into Migros for the first time since Easter, and the answer seems to be: BEETLES.

Yes, you read that right. Beetles, and I don't mean the car, either. For some reason, an artful arrangement of fist-sized, creepy-crawly-shaped chocolates was perched in the middle of the grocery store, between a refrigerator case filled with yogurt, and a display stand of melons.

After a bit of staring and obligatory photo-taking, I got down to the serious business of wondering. Who would want to eat a bug, chocolate or not? (On second thought, I can imagine a lot of grade-school boys thinking this would be really cool.) And were there actually beetles inside? (The American Museum of Natural History used to sell similar stuff for its Insects exhibit, and some of those candies involved real bugs embedded in lollipops; they were meant to ressemble flies in amber.) And why, of all things, beetles?

Swissy Pie clarified things somewhat when he got home. Those were Maikäfer, or May bugs, which were once a terrible pest in Europe. Both the larvae and the adults are voracious eaters, so infestations could wipe out the entire year's crop. Nevertheless, since they appear in late April or early May, they are a sign that spring has arrived, so apparently as long as they don't behave too terribly, they are welcomed.

That still didn't quite explain why people ate chocolate Maikäfer. After all, spinach, asparagus, lamb, strawberries, raspberries, and all sorts of seasonal stuff was appearing on the market at the same time. Why bugs? Was it some sort of "we'll eat them before they can eat us" mentality, I asked? Swissy Pie only shrugged.

Possibly, as a little bit of research showed, but more likely it's an evolution. Back in the dark ages before DDT and other lovely pesticides were invented, farmers attempted to keep the Maikäfer population under control by catching and killing the adult beetles. These efforts were only marginally successful, so presumably crops were often destroyed. People might then have turned to the beetles for food. There are recipes for Maikäfersuppe, which evidently tastes somewhat like crab soup. Even as late as the 1920s, some students ate sugar-covered Maikäfer. Just as the Karneval Nubbel has taken the place of a real human sacrifice, chocolate Maikäfer may have taken the place of the real thing.

Which is probably for the best, as far as the Swiss retailers are concerned. But what will they put in the aisles after the May bugs are gone? June bugs?

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I don't know how he does it

After five days off, we had a really tough time getting up this morning. Part of the problem was that we'd gotten used to sleeping in, until after 10. (At least!) But the bigger problem was that my legs didn't want to move. Actually, never mind the legs. My whole body aches, and unlike Swissy Pie, I didn't even get on my bike every day. (Though 4 out of 5 ain't shabby, if you ask me.)

Not that we spent the whole weekend cycling. With the longer days - at the moment, the sun doesn't set until 8 pm - we have the luxury of running errands and/or exploring the region before saddling up. Friday, for example, Swissy Pie hurried me through breakfast so we could get to the Basel Zoo.

We weren't the only ones there: the whole city had apparently decided to visit the animals. (I guess it was one of the few attractions open on Good Friday.) Although we weren't spared the typical family dramas (dropped ice cream cones, lost toys, etc.), Swiss efficiency was very much in evidence. So, despite the long lines, we obtained our tickets and got past the gate quite quickly.

Though a few of the particularly cold-sensitive creatures were still indoors, most were outside basking in the sunlight, like these hippos:

I also liked the monkeys, especially the guys pulling on each others' tails...

...and the baby giraffe...

...and the wild birds infiltrating the zoo (a grey heron and storks)...

Oh, honestly. I liked all the animals!

Afterward we headed to the Black Forest for Day 2 of Swissy Pie's Great Adventure. Since we'd gone up to Sallneck Thursday afternoon, I needed a "recovery ride." Swissy Pie went back to Sallneck, but I took a more leisurely spin up past the town of Wies. Going out, it was a slow, steady climb, which made the downhill return really fun. The turns were broad and sweeping, so even someone like me, who's notoriously afraid of descending, only had to tap the brakes a few times!

On Day 3, Saturday, we attacked Hochblauen via Marzell. Swissy Pie had first taken me up there last autumn, by car. Even back then, the long and frequently steep climb made me wince. (12%+?! Oh, my knees!) But on the bike, it looked even more daunting. I really didn't think I would make it all the way up, but somehow, I put my head down, and inched my way up.

The reward? This (somewhat hazy) view. The glittering band on the horizon is the Rhine River. In the foreground, a few patches of snow are visible. (It was cold up there!)

I was so thrilled to have conquered Blauen that I didn't even feel particularly tired that evening. (Usually, after a tough ride, I'm a zombie.) The full effects didn't hit me until the middle of the night, when I woke up with so many aches that I thought I should move to a retirement home!

Fortunately, I figured I was pretty safe from further pain: I knew we had plans to visit Swissy Pie's family in Bern for Easter. Plus, I had to finish baking this Easter Bread. So I guessed that neither of us would do much cycling on Sunday.

But while I was waiting for my dough to finish rising, Swissy Pie shimmied into his cycling gear, stuffed a change of clothes into a backpack, and stuffed the car keys into my hand.

"Can you drop me off in Liestal?" he said. "I'm going to ride toward Bern. Call me when you head out - you can pick me up along the way."

I was in shock. Alright, so it was sunny and gorgeous outside, but it was also windy. I should also point out that about 100 km, and a nice mountain range called the Juras, separates the two cities... And did I mention that we'd been cycling the past three days? Yet, he nearly beat me there: I ended up meeting him about 5 minutes from his parents' house. Unbelievable.

Yesterday, needless to say, we were both back on the bike again. This time we went to Freiburg, a lovely university town in Germany (which is not to be confused with Fribourg/Freiburg, another lovely university town near Bern).

I quickly discovered my body was still in krank mode, so partway up the mountain Swissy Pie wanted to climb, I turned around. Good thing, too. He told me that after that, the going got really ugly: a 14% incline for the last 8 km that I didn't even attempt. So while he labored up, I sunned myself down in the charming little town of Oberreid.

Even after all that abuse, he was still bouncing around last night, full of energy and looking for the next mountain to conquer. Preferably today.

Fortunately for me, I've got other plans for this evening.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Alles, was Osterhasen suchen?

At first, the signs were so subtle that an outsider might have missed them: bags of onion skins being sold at the supermarket, little egg tarts that replaced the Fasnacht specialties. But when the Migros ads began to feature demented Roger Rabbit lookalikes, chocolate bunnies in various sizes and flavors began to reproduce in grocery store aisles, and otherwise ordinary branches began to sprout brightly dyed eggs, two things became obvious. First, Easter was approaching. And second, the Swiss were no strangers to Hallmark-ified holidays.

Though few Swiss are very religious (at least by, not by the standards of Jerry Falwell), Easter here is a big deal. Hundreds of different confections, from Easter eggs and bunnies to dove-shaped Columba breads, stuff the shelves. Children dye eggs and go on egg hunts. But what excited me the most was the fact that Good Friday and Easter Monday are holidays, giving Swissy Pie a four day weekend. Actually, make that four-and-a-half. He got half of today off, too.

So what does one do when faced with the prospect of a glorious long weekend? Some head out for short vacations: based on the traffic reports, ski resorts and Ticino top the list of favored destinations. Others go home to visit their families. But if you're Swissy Pie, you plan daily bike tours around the region. And if you're his girlfriend, you shudder when he inevitably gets too ambitious, and when your attempts to dissuade him fail, you start carbo-loading to muster your strength. (That's my excuse, anyway, and I'm sticking to it!)

Our journey through the Alsace last weekend was a typical case of Swissy Pie overestimating my capabilities: we had to cut out a chunk of the loop he'd planned because at some point he realized I simply couldn't climb any more. The ride itself was lovely, though. We wound through bucolic valleys, where women gathered wild herbs in the fields, and up pine-blanketed slopes. We climbed past goats and sheep grazing on the mountainside. Hawks crouched on fence posts, waiting for lunch to emerge. Grey herons splashed down into mountain streams, and storks stood watch over their chimney-top nests.

For our own lunch, we stopped at a little inn/restaurant near the Col Haut du Ribeauvillé called Auberge du Petit-Haut. It served hearty, well-priced food, and seemed popular with locals. We both ordered Roestis, expecting to see golden pan-fried Swiss potato pancakes emerge from the kitchen. Instead, we got sizzling hot skillets, straight from the oven. The only similarity to Swiss Röstis was the presence of shredded potatoes. Swissy Pie got one with five cheeses and ham; mine was studded with ham, morels, oyster mushrooms, and champignons. Both were topped with a dose of heavy cream and baked until hot and bubbly. As if that weren't enough food, we got a huge bowl of salad and a basket of earthy wheat bread to share. All that for about 11 euros each! Perhaps I was just very hungry, but I liked the Alsatian version of Rösti better than the Swiss one.

The end of the ride took us through wine country. After we descended from the Vosges, we must have passed hundred of vineyards, and thousands of visitors wobbling in and out tasting Rieslings, Crémants d'Alsace, etc. It would have been nice to join them, but given I was sweaty and disgusting, it seemed like a bad idea. Not to mention, drunken AND tired cycling would have probably led to disaster!

In any case, Sunday's ride completely drained me, and despite my best efforts to do some "active recovery" this week - OK, so maybe running errands on my bike doesn't really count as cycling - today my legs were still a little weak. Fortunately, I didn't discover this until we were well on our way up the aptly named Bergstrasse (Mountain Road), somewhere in the Black Forest near Hofen. Though I was tempted to quit on a couple of steep spots, I managed to grind through to the top. (Swissy Pie's description of the last leg, after Kirchhausen, as a "bump" didn't really help.) But he seemed inordinately pleased that I'd made it all the way up. Perhaps he thought he'd have to carry me home?

So that one ride down, four more to go, if the stubborn guy sticks with his plan. Pass the bread basket, please!

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