Independence day in Swiss German

31 07 2011

This weekend Switzerland celebrates its 720th birthday. Every year on August 1st, the Swiss gather with their families, raise the flag, fire up the barbecue and shoot off some fireworks. They sing traditional yodeling songs, dress up in funny clothes and celebrate their unique identity, culture and language.

A specimen of Homo Helveticus in traditional celebratory garb.

Hm. Kind of like we do on July 4th.

And though I cannot with a good conscience completely disparage my life here (it has its merits), and with all due respect to my Swiss friends and readers (they are great folks to have around), an incident last week once again made me wonder what the hell I ever did to piss anyone off in this tiny insignificant piece of overpriced real estate at the center of Europe. Other than live here and breathe air.

For six years and eight months I have attempted to learn the rules of one of the most exclusive places on earth. And the Swiss set very high standards for immigrants like myself, expecting them to internalize these rules from the moment we set foot in the country. They also have a tight surveillance network of spies for the purpose of enforcement. They call them “neighbors.”

In addition, those Swiss people in the German-speaking part of the country do it in an archaic language made infinitely more complex for the unknowing foreigner by its many dialects. I call this phenomenon “preserving linguistic discrimination.” My Swiss friends call it “preserving linguistic pluralism.”

The other day at work I had a lady on the phone who was looking for a report my company had recently published. She spoke a Swiss German dialect that I had trouble understanding. I asked her in high (proper) German for her name and the company she worked for. She responded with something unintelligible, to which I said, “Excuse me, could you please repeat that?” This was the answer I got (in dialect of course, at increased volume):

“If you want to speak with me then you will have to speak with me in my Zurich dialect of Swiss German because the only other language I speak is Swahili.”

Well, I thought. So much for friendly natives.

(And for those of you who have never actually heard Swiss German – you would be forgiven for thinking it really was Swahili. At least by me.)

I responded that unfortunately I could not send her the report, and that she wouldn’t be able to read it anyway, because it was only published in English, and not in her Zurich dialect of Swiss German or Swahili. And I hung up.

So this coming Monday, while four million German-Swiss wave their flags and proclaim in their myriad of dialects how wonderful their country is (and three million more doing the same thing in French, Italian or Rumantsch), I will quietly enjoy a day off work, a month late. We will surely also raise the Stars & Stripes, fire up the grill and light a sparkler or two.

Do me a favor and pass the steak sauce and the Miller Lite, will ya?

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Columbia, Challenger, Endeavor, Discovery, Atlantis and me.

22 07 2011

Though I thought I was kind of over getting emotional about big world events, I surprised even myself at how emotional I got as I watched the space shuttle Atlantis return to earth for the last time yesterday morning.

It was still night Florida – an hour before sunrise. A shadow in the dark, the workhorse of the U.S. space program for the past 30 years arrived back on earth as she had left it 12 days ago, and as 134 shuttle flights before her began and ended: with dignity and grace and mystery.

Isn't she beautiful?

Atlantis’ touchdown was the last shuttle landing, ever. And it was like saying goodbye to a friend I grew up with, who was just kind of always around, at some times closer than at others, but always somewhere near. You know… just… there.

I can’t think of a single person I have been friends with that long.

Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavor and Atlantis and I grew up together, and we experienced the ups and downs of every lifetime. We celebrated successes together – the awe-inspiring successes, and mourned the failures – the lives and confidence lost. And then we celebrated new successes – the confidence and spirit restored.

I always wanted to see a launch live and in person, but never had the opportunity. A few months ago I came closer than ever, but in the end it just didn’t work out.

The space program was and still is something to believe in and be proud of, at least for those of us whose inclination is aeronautical rather than terrestrial or aquatic. Something fantastic and fantasy-like, a way to also escape these bonds of mental gravity, while everything and everyone else is mired in reality here on earth.

In April 1981 as Columbia blasted off, I sat in my family’s basement, to where the television had been banned. I planned my career as an astronaut – a child with big dreams.

In July 2011 as Atlantis lands, I sit in an office at a desk in front of a computer, with a live-stream direct broadcast open in a window on the left hand side of my screen. I am an adult in my second career, neither of which have had even the slightest thing to do with astronauts.

And though this is an end, it should be another moment of celebration rather than mourning. The shuttles are done flying but they are far from on their way to being forgotten. They will be on display at museums across the country and will continue to feed the dream of space exploration.

So yesterday I’m glad I watched history happen, even if only virtually, and from so far away.

At 05:56 Eastern Daylight Time Atlantis glides out of the inky black into view. Main gear touchdown, chute, rotate nose gear, touchdown, roll out, full stop. As the sun rises over Florida, the shuttle Atlantis, resting on the tarmac, takes on form and color.

Job well done, America. Thanks for 30 years of friendship and inspiration.





Requiem for Pascale

18 07 2011

It was just another cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, one that passes for “summer” here in Zurich. I had gone out for a walk in the mud and some fresh air, and when I returned, the SMS message was waiting for me.

“Please call me,” from probably the last person on earth I expected to hear from on a Sunday. Something was up.

I called.

Gayle answered by saying my name: “Evelynn, Hi.”

“Hi, what’s going on?”

Silence.

“What happened?”

“Evelynn, I have to tell you…. I… something bad… ”

She couldn’t even say the words.

“What happened? Is it about Pascale? Did something happen to Pascale?” I had sent our mutual girlfriend several messages the days before and had received no response. That was not like her and I was starting to wonder.

“How do you know?”

“I DON’T know… Know WHAT? Tell me! What happened?”

“Evelynn… Pascale is… Pascale is dead.”

And then she told me about how she just found out that our friend went hiking alone in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino last Thursday, slipped, and fell off a mountain. How an emergency search & rescue helicopter later found her body among the rocks in a deep ravine.

She was 38 years old.

Full of life, with boundless energy, and ambitious plans. With a smile as wide as Montana.

Pascale was my nordic walking buddy. She lived in the next town over and we would often meet to gossip and stride through the rolling meadows and woods that straddle the two municipalities. In summer we enjoyed brilliant sunshine, in the company of cows, and savored the smell of the flowers and grasses in bloom. In winter we would meet after sunset, the short days making for frigid and sometimes treacherous going on icy paths.

That was our favorite time to walk and talk: in the dark, making tracks after a fresh, quiet snowfall.

Pascale was the co-snow-bunny I featured right here in my blog a few months ago. On skis she was mostly fearless, but she never let me take her flying.

Pascale and Gayle were colleagues at a previous employer, and the three of us remained friends even after she and I quit our jobs there. We all are just a few years apart, similar in physique and character: tall, with long, straight, dark blond hair, athletic, extroverted, loud and very demanding of ourselves and others. We always wanted so much more out of our lives and careers than the men we had to work with were willing to concede.

We got together for regular ladies’ lunches and dinners at swanky restaurants across this outrageously expensive city to have a fantastic meal, philosophize about life and celebrate ourselves.

Our last ladies’ lunch was just two weeks ago, also on a Thursday, at a hip Fusion-style restaurant just around the corner from the workplace where we first met almost exactly five years earlier. For dessert we ordered champagne, toasted each other and the great things that lay in all of our futures. We wondered how much fun it might be to start a business together.

I still see Pascale standing on Zurich’s busy main commercial avenue, Bahnhofstrasse, that afternoon. She was wearing a light blue blouse and slacks, and carried a large white handbag. The pearl bracelet on her wrist jingled as she checked her phone for messages. We said goodbye, kissed each other three times on alternating cheeks.

“Don’t be a stranger,” I said.

“I’ll call you,” she responded.

With a flick of her long blonde mane she turned away and melted into the crowd.

Pascale. March 4, 1973 - July 14, 2011.





Real life

17 07 2011

My managers recently told me that my job will be going the way of the dinosaurs soon. As in: extinct. Quite unsettling, especially considering I had no say in the planning or the timing of all this.

I had been toying with the idea of quitting for a while now; I wasn’t particularly happy in my job. The issue of dealing with clueless and socially incompetent superiors is tough enough. But returning from a 3-month sabbatical to find no less than eight close colleagues had decided to flee the institution is a rather large blow to one’s enthusiasm.

Photo out of a recruiting brochure for a large bank. Exciting, huh?

So anyway, I have been chewing on this news for the last couple of weeks and trying to figure out how to make the best of the situation. My concentration often wanders while I am at work, I look out my high floor window at the world below and concoct complex plans involving idealistic notions of the way the world should be – and the positive difference I want to make in it.

The other day I applied to a job with exactly that in the description: “We are looking for people who want to make a positive difference in the world.” Well hell, where have you been all these years, dear potential employer?

The truth is, though, it never is like what they tell you…that’s what bothers me most about being an adult. Parents, teachers and other people of authority dangle this image of the perfect world in front of kids’ noses for the first 18 years of their lives. They are told a million times that a good education and lots of hard work will get them whatever they want, and enable them to live a life of happiness and prosperity. That anything is possible if only they put their minds to it. That there will be a reward in return for years of exertion, good sense and following real and unwritten rules.

When I was a kid, most of us actually believed it all.

And in the second 18 years of life, we found out that that’s simply a bunch of horse manure.

In the meantime – and currently motoring along in my 3rd chunk of 18 years – I am all for telling kids their dreams will never come true, no matter how hard they work or what sacrifices they make. As in: “Forget it kid, your ambitions are toast, especially in this economy.” That would be much more honest than sending them on a wild goose chase for a nonexistent pot of gold.

Certainly every generation has its winners, those superstars who proverbially fly to the zenith of their professions and are not only phenomenally successful, but also genuinely happy. But for all the rest of us who forewent things we believed in in order to bust our chops and never reach that level of success anyway because someone just doesn’t like the way we dress, or the friends we have, or the way we express ourselves, well, then, that’s just time wasted, is it not?

So now I wait for a new employer who will graciously invite me to exchange my brainpower for a pay check. I am “talent”, waiting for a place to be “managed”. Nothing more. My next job will be a transaction – a deal sealed by two signatures on a piece of paper – performed five days a week, for 47 weeks a year, for the number of years it takes before the one side is sick of the other.

Maybe I’m just tired. I know there will be idiots, intrigue, incompetence, injustice and inequality wherever I go, and I will make a sincere effort to deal with them in the best way I know how: to (try to) never again allow myself to get emotionally involved.  Hence, the positive difference I make in this world will be elsewhere.

And never the twain shall meet.





Happy Birthday, EvelynnStarr.com!

10 07 2011

A year ago this week my blog was born. This is just a short note to say thanks to all my readers and commentators, to those who suffered with me and laughed with me,  and to those who did not take my cynicism, criticism and thinly veiled insults personally.

Thanks especially to those who continue to inspire me, and to those who believe in me. These fireworks are for you:

I started my blog for no other purpose than to get me writing again. In that I was hugely successful. I never promised high-falutin’ literature, and I’m glad there are so many of you out there who stuck around to read anyway.

When I put my mind to it a year ago, suddenly, I had more ideas than I knew what to do with, or time to write about. A year on, I am once again in a bit of a trough, due to circumstances beyond my control. But this too shall pass.

The next year will bring greater and better things, I am confident of it.

Hello World, Part 2. Stay tuned for more.





On the Rocks at Gigathlon 2011

4 07 2011

We did it.

Our team of five crossed the finish line of Gigathlon 2011 in 705th place and after 26 hours and 1 minute of racing – safe, without injury, exhausted and overjoyed. Which is more than a lot of other participants can say.

For those of you unfamiliar with Gigathlon, go ahead and read my previous two blog entries, here and here so that the rest of this story makes sense to you.

The "race of death" begins.

I anticipated Saturday’s skate to be challenging, but not impossible. The night on the campground had been sleepless, frigid and uncomfortable, but 33 kilometers (21 miles) of mostly flat and slight downhill grades wasn’t rocket science. If nothing else, it would be a great morning training run.

We hit the road at 8am, and I wanted to try to get my day’s work done in less than 90 minutes. Long, straight speed passages took the pace up to about 60 km/h, much too high for some skaters. The result: mass roadkill. I sped by at least 7 bodies lying in various states of injury and disrepair left and right along the route. Later I heard that there was a huge pileup somewhere behind me and one participant even broke a leg. Ouch.

For me, the 33 kilometers flew by without incident (I will spare you the details of my close calls – tree roots peeking out of asphalt like mini-speed-bumps, train tracks popping up unannounced, hidden potholes, hairpin turns) in a solid 1 hour and 25 minutes. I thought that was pretty darn fast till I looked at the standings. But whatever. We weren’t here to set a world record, we just wanted to cross the finish line in one piece.

Bruised and bloodied (and taped and bandaged) but not broken, skaters braved a 4am wake-up call the next morning to really find out what they were made of. We were off again before sunrise, to attack a 6-kilometer flat stretch followed by a 14-kilometer climb up the side of a mountain. The vertical difference between start and finish was 750 meters – that’s about half the depth of Grand Canyon.

On skates. Poles optional.

Since I had never done anything this crazy before, I had no idea how long it would take me. I told my teammates to expect me in two to three hours. But I was in the business of just making it to the finish line before the sweeper bus, and trying not to worry about the competition or the clock.

My mantra crawling up that hill? “This is about the dumbest thing I have ever attempted. This is about the dumbest thing I have ever attempted. This is about the dumbest thing I have ever attempted. This is about the dumbest thing….”

And it worked. I arrived in 2 hours and 26 minutes. As far as I am concerned that’s closer to two hours than to three. Mission accomplished.

This is what sheer exhaustion looks like. And that gingerbread man in the background is mocking me.

36 hours later, endorphins are still playing tricks on my sanity. Despite the pain, I am enthralled. The event has a certain irresistible, fatal allure.

So when the last muscle stops aching, when the sleeping bag is washed and folded away, and when registration for Gigathlon 2012 begins, I’m not sure I will be able to take full responsibility for my actions.

In the meantime, I certainly will have one “on the rocks”. I think I earned it.

***********

Personal Note: Many, many thanks to the other four members of Gigathlon 2011 team “Isches nah wiiiiit?” –  Thierry (Team Captain and intrepid cyclist), Roman (our mountain-goat-like runner), Miriam (knock-‘em-dead swimmer) and Lauri (master of disaster mountain biker) – for taking me up into your ranks at such short notice. You are all unbelievable athletes and you accomplished the impossible last weekend. I’m so proud of you.





Counting down to the “Race of Death”

1 07 2011

The other day a friend emailed me and asked, “So when is this race of death you were blogging about?”

Ah yes, the race of death. Thank you, David, for that charming, succinct and perceptive description of my upcoming 4th of July weekend. Hoping you have something fun planned, too.

The weekend's five-star accommodations.

The gigathlon is less than 24 hours away, and I must admit, I can’t wait. Either I am committed or I am crazy, but there is no going back now. I still have not met three of my four teammates, and I have no idea what level of fitness I am at compared to the other 900 or so skaters that I’ll be competing against.

And of course, how I will feel when I hit The Wall on Sunday.

The Wall. A 20-kilometer crawl up a sheer cliff face, climbing 750 meters in altitude. On rollerblades. Ever tried that? Me neither.

Fortunately, the organizers have decided to allow skaters to use cross-country ski-poles for the Sunday skate. It will be a kind of Nordic skiing on asphalt as opposed to snow. So in addition to the natural hazards of skate-racing (which could include, for example, shaving a layer of skin off an elbow, shredding your shorts and breaking a few bones – been there, done all that!) there is the added thrill of having an eye taken out as well. What fun!

Poles: The end you want to hang on to...

... and the end you don't want to mess with.….and the end you don’t want to mess with.

In its rules and regulations, the organization committee recommends wearing glasses of some sort for safety reasons. (Whew, glad they thought of that, too!)

But of course the vast majority of participants will have never held such poles in their hands before Sunday, let alone used them to pull themselves up a mountain. So I am expecting everyone else to get in my way, and hoping, at the end of the day, that I won’t need stitches.

As for my own preparations – I skated with sticks for the first time in my life this past Monday, and thanks to instruction via YouTube I am now a pro. AND I even went out on Tuesday afternoon to practice, too! So we’re all set! Nothing stands between me and victory!