Day 52. A little overdue

August 9, 2007 at 2:50 pm | Posted in life, switzerland, travel | Leave a comment

Updating this thing has proven a little harder than I thought. A good old list, because wit and embellishment takes time, money, and patience, none of which I currently possess. Or wit, for that matter.

  1. Wine tasting in Lavaux.
  2. Swimming in Lake Como. Going to where Anakin and Padmé got married. There was so much magic in the air you could cut it with the blunt part of a Swiss Army knife.
  3. Bond. James Bond.
  4. Seeing Arcade Fire. In rural French Switzerland, of all places. Like Bonaroo or something, not that I know what that’s like.
  5. Climbing this attached to this with my back to this.
  6. Visiting Bern, where Einstein published Special Relativity and where the Swiss artist Paul Klee originated. Saw a street accordionist playing the fast movement from Summer, of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Compare to man playing 4 chords repeatedly at the Harvard Square T stop.
  7. Seeing (and felt) fireworks on Swiss National day, August 1. Apparently they celebrate like Texans on the Fourth. Except they’ve been doing it since 1291.
  8. Learning French from Spanish people, and how to roll a German cigarette, while squinting to see Evian, France across Lake Geneva under a full moon.
  9. Eating a kilogram of pig knuckle and washing it down with beer that tastes like milkshake, in the seat of the Holy Roman Empire.
  10. Doing lots and lots of experiments, and making very very very little progress.
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Day 23. Be careful what you wish for.

July 20, 2007 at 10:10 am | Posted in life, switzerland | Leave a comment

She crossed her legs and gave me the look one gives when trying to seem very reasonable, complete with pursed lips, innocently raised eyebrows, and a slight shrug of the shoulders. “Of course, I don’t want to be the new one making up all the rules, you know? But I definitely don’t want to be always cleaning up this room. It’s just that, one puts away one’s things after a meal, you see what I mean? It’s not nice to see other people’s stuff in front of you all the time.”

I see. That cup on the dining room table was the problem. Never should have had that orange juice.

We’ve been found out. Ever since the two German Swiss moved out of the room, Sameer, Germán, and I have been secretly competing with each other to see who could demonstrate the most un-Swiss-like housekeeping habits. Germán’s specialty is a little game called “stacking unwashed dishes in the sink,” and he plays it with a vengeance. My forte happens to be “putting old food on other people’s refrigerator shelves.” In fact, I am so good at this that nobody, not even bacteria, has dared to challenge that dangerous-looking piece of goat cheese I put on the vegetable rack — until I got hungry enough to not see the expiration date and ate it with some stale bread. Sameer, the lightweight among us three, can only manage to “forget a cup on the dining table” once in a while. How ironic that this feeble, half-hearted attempt at uncleanliness would be the first thing noticed by the newest member of our suite. Of course, it wasn’t the only thing.

“Is that a dishrag?” She pointed at the yellow cloth on the table that I sometimes use to wipe my face when I’m too lazy to get a napkin. “That really should go in the kitchen.”

“Oh I don’t use it, ” I shrugged. “You can talk to the other boys about it. They might just not have seen it, since it blends in so well with the color of the wood.” Continue Reading Day 23. Be careful what you wish for….

Day 21. Lucerne

July 8, 2007 at 8:16 am | Posted in switzerland, travel | 1 Comment

The only thing more boring than writing a blow-by-blow account of a weekend trip is reading one, so for everyone’s sake, I think it suffices to simply state that I went to Lucerne on Saturday. For the curious, highlights of my stay include: hiking (i.e. strolling) at the top of an Alpine peak on a paved path; sharing that paved path with some sort of horned mountain goat animal (see below); and gleefully patronizing such tourist gimmicks as the world’s steepest cogwheel railway, as well as Switzerland’s longest summer toboggan run. (On an unrelated note, I hold the record for being the world’s wittiest Chinese-Canadian-American under 25 and older than 18 who has been on the world’s steepest cogwheel railway exactly once, and who can move his left ear but not the right.) Unfortunate oversights from this weekend include: not actually spending any time in the town of Lucerne itself.

I had intended to make this a world-record filled weekend by hiking Mont Blanc on Sunday, but that trip was cancelled due to inclement weather and unforseen circumstances on Saturday night involving another member of our expedition and a bottle of port. Without any tales of mountaineering and bravery to bring back to my coworkers at the LMNN (my lab), today at lunch I instead extolled the efficiency of my Swiss-German waitress at the Lucerne train station buffet. My story was received with semi-impressed nods all around, which I take to be a success rivalling my critically-acclaimed “rant about the rain” last Thursday during coffee break.

Luckily for all the Swiss people I have yet to meet, my capacity for making conversation about weather is severely limited by my vocabulary. In particular, I do not know how to say “Torrential shitshow,” “Overcast hellhole,” or “It’s raining cats and dogs with stomach flu” in French. This has been pivotal in preserving my friendly acquaintance with the one native Swiss person I know. For those who think that one is a pathetically small number, I’m just going to point out that it is also the first number in the Fibonacci sequence. And what other numbers are in the Fibonacci sequence? Really big ones. Coincidence? I think not.

Day 15. Word of the day.

July 5, 2007 at 5:41 am | Posted in life, switzerland | 1 Comment

“Ambianceur,” said Martial, pointing at the bags under my eyes and chuckling slightly.

I looked up from my reading, an engrossing treatise on the minutiae involved in dissecting and preserving rat brains. “Pas du tout,” I said, “not at all.”

The word “ambianceur” was first explained to me at last Friday’s apéro, or afternoon cocktail. This is a bi-monthly attempt to make all the scientists and students of the Brain Mind Institute socialize with each other, but like hydrophobic micelles in water, all the labs invariably end up in in their own circles and discuss the weather amongst themselves. Add in a little alcohol, of course, and the circles disperse quite nicely. My French speaking skills — along with Asian glow — peak at about 1 and 1/4 beers, so I dutifully consumed the equivalent amount of wine and set about interrupting as many conversations as I could. When I ran into Martial, he pointed at me, said “ambianceur,” and then gave one of his trademark grins. Then, despite there being other people involved in the conversation, I asked Martial to say the word repeatedly and spell it out, just to make it clear to the others that not only did I have a poor grasp of their native language, I had also a rather fuzzy concept of how to carry on a proper multi-person conversation.

Ambianceur, shockingly, means “one who is drawn to ambiance” (pronounced in a French accent, OM-bee-ON-ce — the more exaggerated and nasal, the better).” Continue Reading Day 15. Word of the day….

Day 9. A culturo-linguistic eye-opening experience.

June 28, 2007 at 8:27 am | Posted in life, switzerland | 1 Comment

“What is the German word for ‘Western Blot’?” I asked Valerie, the Bavarian PhD student in our lab. We were working at the same lab bench and I’d been pipetting for most of the last hour. My mouth was dry from the sheer concentration it took to stare at a little drop of liquid come out of a tapered plastic tube.

“Western Blot,” she said, pronouncing the W as a V.

Moments like these really make the language barrier here seem unbridgeable.

I’ve been here a week and one day and haven’t reached the point of being comfortable working in total silence around the other people in the lab. I always feel obligated to say something to break the serious atmosphere, even though I notice most of the people here have no problem with it or are working too hard to notice. Half the time I open my mouth I’m probably interrupting an experiment or someone else’s train of thought. Good thing no one ever seems to mind being interrupted.

We are the LMNN, a French acronym for some kind of neuroscience lab. Besides Valerie, there are about 7 other grad students and postdocs in the lab. Continue Reading Day 9. A culturo-linguistic eye-opening experience….

Day 2. Still no groceries.

June 19, 2007 at 3:16 pm | Posted in switzerland | 1 Comment

Not to be a Debbie Downer or an impenetrable black cloud of negativity or anything, especially since it’s my second day here, but I have to get this one out of the way and off my chest–especially since it’s my second day here.

I’m a little disappointed. Not hopelessly so, nor bitterly so, nor even irrevocably so. Just a little disappointed.

And I know why. It’s because I don’t understand geography or the idea of multiple foreign cultures. Mind you, this is not the same as not appreciating foreign cultures or not enjoying the existence of the abstract concept of foreign cultures. In fact, I love abstract concepts. I just have difficulty grasping the difference between Spain and Switzerland, or between movies and real life.

And yes, this is probably my ninetieth–or as the Swiss say, nonantième–time making that trite observation.

Remember that guy on “L’Auberge Espagnol” who had the time of his life studying some unspecified subject at a school in Barcelona while actually spending his entire time having photogenic drunk moments at bars and unphotographable moments with some other guy’s wife? I’m not going to lie that I secretly expected something of the sort. I’ll also be the first to concede to any one who points out that the only similarity between me and that fictional character is that we’re both in Europe. (UPDATE: According to the Spaniard in my suite, nobody in his country seriously considers Switzerland to actually be “part” of Europe.) And maybe also our slightly weak Body Mass Index.

Nevertheless, in the interest of me becoming a more positive person, and also in order to turn everything into a competition, I shall offer the following scorechart: Me vs. fictional character from L’Auberge Espagnol. Continue Reading Day 2. Still no groceries….

Day 1. Everybody’s favorite quote.

June 18, 2007 at 4:50 pm | Posted in switzerland | Leave a comment

Everybody who hates neutral states, that is:

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. (Too bad this quote is bullshit.)

The countryside can speak for itself.

Over Geneva

Right now I have a feeling that my brains are going to drip out the back of my head because of how jet-lagged I am (do NOT volunteer to go to the lab for work on your first day of arrival.) However, I will make one observation. My apartment looks like it was built by Ikea. Spacious, efficient, and not just a little bit sterile. It’ll take some getting used to.

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