Archive for January, 2010

Jan 28 2010

Vive la Bizarre Swiss Interactions

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Three magical stories from the last three days to fill you with joy:

1) On the bus, about 10 pm on a frigid Tuesday night, returning home from choir rehearsal.  I get on the bus after waiting 10 minutes or so freezing my tush off.  Ticket control people step on the bus and ask everyone to take out their tickets.  I fumble through my wallet with my cold fingers looking for my all-inclusive Swiss transport pass.  Suddenly, a little electronic machine that they carry to verify everyone’s transport cards is poking at my wallet.  I continue to fumble, not understanding what’s going on.

“Wait, I have a general subscription!” I say to the guy poking at my wallet to get him to stop so I can actually get at my pass.  Turns out, his fancy card reader can read cards through wallets—but not the kind of card I have, only the Lausanne-only transport cards.

“Oh, I’m very sorry,  Madame,” he answers apologetically, immediately backing off.  He was so embarrassed!

2) I needed to get a final exam back to see the comments.  For some odd reason the professor dropped them off at the student services reception desk, which is every student’s go-to desk because no one has any idea how the administration actually works and the student services people tend to know, even if they often seem unhappy about sharing their insider knowledge.  The trick is getting to the student services desk when it is actually open.  I had to go the library, so I hung around school until 2, when the secretaries would finally be back from their 2 hour lunch break.  There was a long line when I got there around 2:15.  The student in front of me requested a transcript.  The secretary gets it, hands it to her, and quotes some smallish fee.

“Can I ask you a question?” requests the student.


“Why isn’t my transcript free?” (Note that it is usually free.)

“Oh, because we are printing it out specially for you.  Even though grades are in, they can be changed up until February 15th, so we don’t print out everyone’s until then.  So for now, we’re taking extra time to provide a service just for you, which is why we’re charging you for it.”

Right.  As if everyone is supposed to know that bit about the grade changing thing and that they print out every student’s transcript after it, which is why they don’t normally charge.

Immediately after, a guy asks the same receptionist what happens if he fails the required French comprehension exam that every student at IHEID must pass before graduation.  It is his last semester.  They beat around the bush with her saying things like, “Oh, it is noted on your transcript” before he outright asks, “Will I graduate if I don’t pass?!”  “Oh,” she responds, as if startled by this question about a supposedly required exam, “Yes, of course you will.  It’ll just say on your transcript that you didn’t pass.”  He laughs, relieved.  He’ll be able to earn a degree after two years of hard work after all. He thinks.  But can you really trust these secretary/administer people?  No one ever knows how much power they actually have…. And now that she’s answered rather than pointed him to a higher-up to ask, he’ll never figure out which higher-up to ask…

3) And how could any post be complete without talking about laundry?  It couldn’t, I’m sure.  Perhaps the name of this blog should have been “Watching our Swiss Laundry for Two Weeks before Washing it in One Craaaazy Night.”  Yeah.

Anyhow, since my sister is coming tomorrow for a week and Seth will be at a conference on game theory in the alps, we were unclear on how we were going to take care of our laundry this coming Monday.  We decided to check the laundry room yesterday afternoon to see if it was in use, and, hallelujah!, the designated laundress seemed to not have taken his/her turn.  We stuffed in our towels, left a note where to find us should he/she arrive, and happily went upstairs.  Approximately 5 minutes later, she was at our door, demanding politely that we let her use her laundry time.  Darnnnnit.

Seth ran down to the basement, pulled out our soaking, soapy, steaming towels, put them into an ikea bag, and brought it outside to drain over a sidewalk grate.  Up in our apartment, I packed up the rest of our laundry into a big suitcase.  We were headed to our friends’ apartment in the center of Lausanne (they have open access to their laundry machines, there are TWO machines in their laundry room, and they have a total of 5 neighbors or something!!!), soaking hot laundry and all, which, incidentally, was INCREDIBLY heavy.  Really really really heavy.  All went well, our laundry was completed, we had a nice dinner with our friends, etc.  But I can’t end this wonderful tidbit without recounting the conversation I had on my way downstairs to meet Seth, who was outside attempting to wring out towels.

Our neighbor, an elderly man who lives with his wife in one of the other 2 apartments on our floor, emerges from his apartment at the same time as do I.  He seems to be struggling with the bags he is carrying.

“Bonjour!” he says, as all of our neighbors always say when they see us.

“Bonjour!” I respond, taking note of his bags.  “Ca va?” I ask, attempting to indicate that I am concerned for his welfare because of the bags he is carrying and that I might be willing to help him. (Hello!  How’s it going?/Everything all right?)

Pause.  He reflects.

“Euuuhhh…oui, ca va.  Et toi?” He finishes brightly. (Um… yes, I’m fine.  And you?)

Apparently, his struggle was only in my imagination.  Or one might say that I, in fact, had caused his struggle.  To understand why a neighbor asked him how he was.  Fancy that, saying something to a neighbor other than “Bonjour!”

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Jan 25 2010

The Cheese and the Bread

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Everyone knows that Swiss people don’t know what real sandwiches (or real cookies) are.  Usually, a sandwich (especially a vegetarian one) here means huge chunk of bread, thin layer of cheese, thin layer of butter, maybe a grape (yes, one!) or a cornichon pickle (that’s right, one), or a sliced egg.  They are always premade; one can never choose the ingredients and then watch skilled sandwich makers assembling it all.  Anyway, they’re good for a few days or in times of great need, and then I get really disappointed, so usually Seth makes us sandwiches.  I miss Darwin’s amazing sandwiches (see “Hubbard Park”).  For more information on the oddness that is the Swiss sandwich, see here.

What is perhaps even stranger than the Swiss sandwich is the Swiss custom of bringing along sandwich parts.  Whenever people pack their own lunch (never in a lunchbox, mind you), which is a rare enough occasion in itself, they call it a picnic.  Yesterday, CJL had choir rehearsal all day in preparation for Bach’s Passion of St Matthew which we’ll be singing right before Easter (during Passover).  Six of us, rather than going out for lunch during our lunch break in search of an open food-place on a Sunday, brought our “picnics” and ate them in the rehearsal room on a spare table.  One of the women, a German taking a gap year between high school and college, asked the others, “Is it a Swiss thing—or a French thing—to bring things separately for lunch instead of a sandwich?”  Three out of the four Swiss people looked down at their spreads of chunks of cheese, bread, endives, and meat, all in their own wrappings and containers.  They were pulling these various chunks apart and putting them in their mouths together.  (Sidenote: It is particularly awesome to watch how much cheese these people can consume at one meal).  “No…” one answered.  “We just grab whatever is in our fridge because we don’t have the time to make a sandwich.”

So, this was code for, “Yes, it is a Swiss thing.”  While eating cheese and eating bread is a very Swiss thing, not eating them in sandwich form, unless purchased from a bakery, is also a Swiss thing. And why is that?  My theory goes:

  • People don’t pack their lunches often enough to know how to pack them.
  • Instead, they (or restaurants) cook for lunch and thus washing machines don’t work during lunch hours. (note: laundry machine idea is still just a theory.)  Sometimes if they’re in a rush, they buy bad sandwiches.
  • There are no incentives to make lunch (other than cost, of course).  Lack of incentives include the nonexistence of:
  • sliced bread (know that slogan, “the greatest thing since sliced bread”?  Switzerland has yet to discover that first greatest thing.  Also bakeries don’t want to provide sliced bread because then they wouldn’t be able to sell bad sandwiches to people.)
  • sliced cheese (it is hard to cut wedges of hard cheese into sandwich-sized pieces, especially when the bread is not sandwich sized.  And what point is it for dairy shops to have cheese slicers on hand if no one has sliced bread around anyway?)
  • lunchboxes
  • workplaces outfitted with places to eat a packed lunch (this, my friends, is why I always eat lunch at school in the library foyer at a coffee table, with no microwave or hot water heater or fridge in sight.)

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Jan 08 2010

Kibbutz Nir David

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For three days (two nights) while we were in Israel, we went up to Kibbutz Nir David, which is sort of in the corner between the northern border of the West Bank and Israel’s eastern border with Jordan, below the Sea of Galilee. It is kibbutz country up there, with one kibbutz after the next lining the roads.

We stayed on the grounds of the kibbutz in their little village of Swiss chalets, which actually looked Swiss, down to the interior decoration!  The surrounding date palm trees?  Not so much Swiss.  The chalets were pretty, spacious, comfortable, and clean, and apparently they are all full every Shabbat. More info and booking here.  Tourism is a big party of the kibbutz’s livelihood these days, and they do a good job of it.  The kibbutz itself is beautiful, with a river running through it, residents biking around, mountains in the distance, and houses fronted by amazingly creative flower and herb gardens.  It serves up a delicious and enormous Israeli breakfast to its guests every day.  There is plenty to do, too.  One can rent bikes or fishing poles, go swimming in the indoor sports center, or send kids on pony-rides on the in-house stable’s ponies.  There is an archeological museum, Gan Hashlosha (a park surrounding natural warm springs that source the river) with a nice dairy restaurant, a kangaroo zoo thing, an outdoor exhibit of kibbutz bells from the area, and the tower and stockade settlement site open for visits, all operated by the kibbutz on adjacent land.  We didn’t have time to get to everything, and besides, we were too old for the pony rides and it was a bit chilly to hop into the warm springs (though we saw one person swimming), but we banged on a lot of bells, climbed the tower, wandered the grounds, and watched a beautiful sunset over the mountains.

An old kibbutz bell

Two kibbutzim down the road at Hefzibah is the Beit Alpha ancient synagogue mosaic floor, which was restored to incredible condition.  It is beautiful and fascinating in its incorporation of non-Jewish symbols, such as the zodiac.  In the other direction, a short drive away, is the Beit She’an archeological site, featuring a Roman ampitheatre, a bathhouse, toilets, mosaic road, etc.  The enormous excavation uncovered not only Roman ruins, but Hellenist, Byzantine, and Ottoman Muslim ruins as well.  On our visit, we ran into a Harvard friend who came along with us and translated our guide’s Hebrew and read Ancient Greek engravings for us.  There are also a number of surprisingly good restaurants in the area.  Besides the one at Gan Hasholsha, just next to the Beit Alpha synagogue in Kibbutz Hefzibah is Dag Dagim, a nice dairy/fish restaurant, and we went to an amazing, informal Middle Eastern restaurant with salads and falafel balls galore located in a nearby gas station, of all places.

The Zodiac
The Zodiac of Beit Alpha synagogue

Attending to the Toilets
Sitting on Toilets at Beit She’an

Our family friend’s sister, who has been a member and resident of the kibbutz from the day she was born and who took us around the kibbutz, says, “Now we do everything here as in everywhere else in the world.”  I don’t think that’s quite true, and I hope it doesn’t become true.  The kibbutz has only in the last year switched from a communist system to a salary system, and many of the old, idealistic ways of the community have disappeared.  New members buy into the social future of the kibbutz rather than the economic one.  On the other hand, it has adapted admirably well and diversified its products and services from industry to agriculture to fish farming to tourism.  The children’s houses have become nursery schools and after-school programs, but the school yards are still packed with discarded appliances and furniture for the kids to play with.  Even though not all of the kibbutz’s employees live on grounds, everyone still knows everyone else.  It is still a very different way of life from that of the cities, and hopefully, even if children are raised in their parents’ houses and individual occupations are not determined by the community based on community needs, some of that original idealism will remain.

Sunset Tower
Sunset over the mountains, silhouetting Nir David’s stockade tower

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Jan 07 2010

Planes, Trains and Automobiles … and Cabs, Sheruts, and Peds

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We just got back from our two week trip to Israel. Our baggage, however, did not. Two days after landing, we took the train back to the airport and successfully retrieved it ourselves (there’s a huge backlog because the baggage handlers were on strike a few days ago.)

While we sit in comfort on our direct train from the airport (for which I paid 11.50 CHF = US$11.10!) I’m reflecting on the contrast with our transportation experiences in Israel. Surprisingly (or not, if you read Jackie’s post about trains in Switzerland), Israel’s train system was the real shocker for us. Driving was very frustrating, buses were very confusing, and taxis and service taxis got us where we needed to go without too much hassle, eventually…

The Good

Trains: after landing in Israel, we took a fast, cheap, and direct train to Modi’in (where part of my family lives). Usually we take a sherut (service taxi) to Jerusalem, and by comparison this was much more relaxed, less cramped, and quieter. There were even AC plugs for laptops and the like! My uncle later told us that on the morning commute into Tel Aviv from religious areas there’s always a minyan.

Getting around, even during Shabbat: we spent a Friday in Tel Aviv with Hilary and Yakir, who live in Rehovot, 40 minutes south of Tel Aviv. We took a train in but after sticking around to watch the sunset over the beach, all public transportation had closed because of Shabbat, so we caught a cab to the central bus station to get a service taxi back to Rehovot. On the way, the cab driver suggested to Yakir that he could drive us all the way back to Rehovot and we’d only have to pay a bit more than if we took a service taxi. We agreed and the driver turned up a radio station playing and singing along to classic (i.e. 1970’s and 1980’s) Israeli music for secular listeners to enjoy Shabbat. Quite pleasant.

The Bad

Driving: My Dad rented a car (thanks Dad!) and thus had to contend with traffic in Jerusalem, plus the usual challenges of navigating the city’s confusing, poorly marked, windy roads. This was made even worse by the ongoing construction of a new light rail system. (No one we spoke to was optimistic about it being finished anytime in the foreseeable future.) When we weren’t in the car, we took buses or cabs. Driving around the rest of the country, navigating by GPS, was mostly fine. Modi’in is very confusingly laid out (it always seems like you’re going in circles). Hertz’s insurance says you can’t drive in the Territories, and in particular, the GPS always avoided Route 443, which would have been a faster way to get from Modi’in to Jerusalem. This was fine by us (and the big news while we were there was that the High Court ordered that Route 443 can no longer be restricted to Israeli use only.)

Buses: The buses in Jerusalem are really confusing, insofar as they seem to be ever multiplying and no one person I’ve ever spoken to seems to have any kind of comprehensive understanding of where they go, when, or even how to obtain this information. (Egged’s website is pretty unusable, most, but not all, bus stops have signs indicating bus lines and final destinations, and that’s about it.) We didn’t do so badly, however—my grandmother knows all the buses that go where she needs to go. And like most things in Israel, you can usually muddle through if you just do something—once you go wrong, someone will be happy to tell you the many ways in which you have erred (or help you, depending on your point of view). More than once, I got on the first bus that came, asked your driver if the bus goes to my destination, and then had him either wave me on, or wave me off, hopefully telling me the number of the bus I was actually looking for.

Once, I sat on a bus for a few stops while a woman told me and everyone young-looking nearby that they needed to get up to give our seats to other people who needed them more than us, even though the older “needy” people turned them down. I decided I might as well stand and move to the seats farther back on the bus. As I walked towards them, the bus stopped and lots of people piled on, so I stayed standing. Then, the bus tried to make a tight turn past the light rail construction and its back wheel got stuck on a concrete block. 15 minutes later, with the help of construction workers or maybe just random passersby, and after holding up all the traffic on Jaffa Road, we were on our way. Inevitably, every subsequent stop was torture: we were the first bus to reach the stop so dozens of people were now waiting to get on. I should have walked (or maybe not, see below).

Cabs:our experience was mixed. One time, we got an amazing cab driver who didn’t mind when we changed our destination while in the cab, knew exactly which restaurant we were going to, pointed it out to us when he dropped us off, and somehow found a very quick shortcut avoiding both the craziness of driving through Mea She’arim and the construction from the light rail. Another time, a driver suggested we just pay him a flat rate of 30 shekels. Worried about being cheated, we demanded he turn on the meter. We got stuck in traffic and ended up paying 38 shekels. Oh well.

Walking mostly, walking was fine: my Dad and I took a long walk from my grandparents place in Ma’alot Dafna (near the Mt. Scopus campus of Hebrew University) through Sheikh Jarrah to the Old City, stopping at the American Colony Hotel. It’s amazing how close the overwhelmingly haredi neighborhood of Ma’alot Dafna is to the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and yet, how separate the two are. We thought about walking back, but it would have been up hill, down a very busy street, so we took a cab.

Surprisingly, people don’t seem to jaywalk in Israel, so I always felt bad doing it in front of them (but not nearly as bad as in Seattle.) Cars do stop for you, sometimes, especially if you’ve studiously avoided making eye contact in what amounts to a game of chicken. Once, I got to an intersection at which the traffic light was out. While a man on a cherry picker worked to repair it, three uninterested men (and one woman) ineffectively directed traffic, including two haredi men wearing bright green reflective vests over their black suits.

Meanwhile, when we took a day trip to Bethlehem to visit a family friend, at one of the two traffic lights in town there were PA men (soldiers? police officers? They had big guns…) on all of the corners, directing traffic and pedestrians a bit more energetically than the people in Jerusalem.

The Ugly

Motorbikes: weaving in and out of traffic, and going on sidewalks when they’re really desperate. They’re a real menace. My uncle told us that there’s a debate about insurance premiums for motorcyclists, who apparently don’t think they should have to pay for the fact that they’re always getting into accidents. My uncle didn’t mention that the protest involved bikers riding around in their underwear. Oh, Israel.

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