Spring, at last!

29 03 2012

Ah, the joys of the European Springtime: Lots of brilliant sunshine, long days due to daylight savings time, temperatures climbing into the teens (Celsius) and pollen counts that go off the charts.

Ah-choo!

(‘Scuse me.)

Spring is the time that skates are brought down out of the attic and dusted off, ball bearings are cleaned and wheels are screwed on tight. It’s the time skate enthusiasts like me take a look at the new year’s innovations in the industry, and then compare the prices for these innovations to their own disposable incomes – and calculate what sum they can, indeed, dispose of.

Last year's stuff.

Is there a lighter, more aerodynamic shoe, or a newer, faster composite rubber wheel, or a ball bearing that will make gliding across asphalt even more effortless than last year? What can I buy to make me even faster? And what do I just want to have because it would make me look cooler?

Equipment-doping, so to speak. Totally legal.

In the 14 years I have been skating competitively, I have spent a small fortune on my gear, with lots of trial and error (read: wasted cash) before I figured out what works for me. It is a constant battle to find that sweet spot where technology, comfort, price and personal preference meet.

This Sunday marks the start of the summer running and skating race season in Europe – the moment when winter is officially O-V-E-R. The Berlin Halfmarathon, which traditionally takes place on the last weekend of March or the first weekend of April, rings in the new skate season very loudly. Nearly 27,000 athletes – 2,000 of them on wheels – congregate in the German capital and take back its streets from motorized traffic.

This will be my 11th Halfmarathon on the streets of Berlin. After last September’s unbelievable Marathon time (read all about it here), my expectations of myself have, of course, increased. (It would be boring if I ceased to raise the bar.) But as the first race after the long cold winter, spent mostly sitting around in a warm living room and eating sinfully tasty meals cooked my my amazing chef of a husband (with only the occasional hour on the crosstrainer) it’s always hard to gauge one’s form. I’m aiming for 50-55 minutes to cover the 21.095 kilometers in dry cool weather. The weather forecast for Sunday is for partly cloudy skies and comfortable temperatures.

Hoping, though, that the pollen count will allow me to breathe at least. In the meantime, could you pass the Kleenex, please? (Sniffle…)

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Humiliation on the soccer field

14 03 2012

Switzerland is in shock today after its top soccer club, Basel, suffered a humiliating defeat in Germany last night. Basically, the Swiss team failed to show up for what was touted as the “match of the century” against Germany’s top team, Bayern Munich.

Cauchemar, indeed.

It was a bit of a fairy-tale story, and a win would have catapulted Basel into the stratosphere of global soccer greats. It would have opened a whole new chapter in the team’s history. It was an opportunity to sweep the best squad from its reviled neighbor to the north right out of the Champions League.

“Was” and “would have” are the operative words here.

What makes this whodunit even more irritating for the Swiss to swallow this morning is that Basel’s star player – a 20-year-old pipsqueak touted as “Switzerland’s Messi” (HA!) will transfer to Bayern at the end of the season.

Normally, I’m not a soccer fan. I could care less about the sport unless Argentina (and the real Messi) is playing. But somehow I got caught up in the hype of this one.

For days ahead of time, there were exaggerated visions of grandeur dancing in Swiss heads, from Geneva in the west to Zurich in the east, from Basel in the north to lovely Lago Maggiore in the south. Every single Swiss person was convinced they were (vicariously) on the cusp of stardom.

But alas. The team from Basel decided not to show up for the game. They were basically swept from the field before even setting foot on it.

Smeared.

Creamed.

Slaughtered.

Torn limb from limb and left to the vultures.

Sent home in shame.

Terminus station Munich.

We watched most of the match from our sofa, cringing every time Bayern found the goal and Basel did not.

When the score was 4-0 I left the room.

When it reached 6-0 I begged my husband to shut off the TV and spare us this embarassment. But he chose to watch till the bitter end, reveling in the agony.

The final score was 7-0 and silence blanketed the country.

Looks like Basel needs two weeks off. Too bad that last weekend the Swiss populace resoundingly voted against a measure that would have given us those two extra hard-earned weeks of vacation.  (But then again, the Swiss don’t just strongly dislike Germans, they have an equally profound aversion to each other too.)





Jake sets sail

11 03 2012

A very good friend of mine, let’s call him Jake, will be leaving his family soon on a seven-month journey that will take him to the other side of the planet.

He is doing this not completely voluntarily, because it’s part of his job. Jake is an officer in the U.S. Navy, and his ship is about to depart on a long military deployment.

I met Jake almost ten years ago, on a different Navy ship, just off the coast of Kuwait, its iconic city skyline on the horizon on the starboard side. Back then, he was a member of the crew and I was a journalist, and we watched the politics of the region heat up from front-row seats. The ground war in Iraq was a few months away but the conflict had claimed its first lives already.

Kuwaiti sunset, October 8, 2002

Jake and I kept in touch and we became really good friends. I got to know and love his parents, his wife and their two cool daughters, too. We visited each other – I traveled to both coasts of the United States to see them, they came to Europe to see us. They played a very important role at my wedding.

On a hot night in 2003, Jake, living in San Diego at the time, was my last link to the outside world as I sat in the back of an SUV, speeding through the darkness to Iraq from Amman, Jordan. We carried on a conversation by SMS until I got a few kilometers inside the border. Our chatting across 11 time zones ended abruptly as the sun began to rise, and I slipped out from under Jordanian cell phone coverage.

Iraqi sunrise, August 8, 2003

Nine years ago this month, the world saw a superpower and a dictator posturing for the public. The dictator lost on the first night of hellfire in Baghdad. Woe to those who try to tangle with the biggest military might in the world.

The politics of the region are, once again, in turmoil. The names of the places and the actors are different, but the anger behind it is similar. This new (and still verbal) conflict has very sinister undertones – there is talk of nuclear weapons for the first time since the Cold War ended. And Jake and his shipmates are sailing into the thick of it again.

It’s his fourth or fifth multi-month cruise in something like 12 years, and while I do understand his commitment and service to his country, I wonder how much more of this he and his family will be forced to endure. His father passed away recently, and he will miss his oldest daughter’s high school graduation this Spring. Last year she turned 18 without him… because he was underway.

I wish Jake – and the thousands of military personnel he sails with – Godspeed; that they return home physically and psychologically unscathed.  For the families and friends they leave behind, the wait will be a long one.





A weekend fix-it project

4 03 2012

This weekend’s do-it-yourself home improvement construction project was one that is very close to my heart. After becoming an expert in mounting doorknobs in my Florida condo in December, I now had a chance to return to another craft I know and love: putting together a new barbeque.

Here in Europe, everything is smaller than it is in North America. So a few years ago, we got a teeny little gas grill for our teeny little balcony. I put it together all by myself. It took 6 hours.

I loved our own personal barbecue out on the balcony. We used it rain or shine, snow or drought, night or day. Whenever we felt like we needed some very good seared flesh, we fired that baby up and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We felt like we were back home on the range.

Last week then, a tragic discovery. Rust had completely eaten through the bottom of our beloved little grill, leaving a gaping hole large enough to put a basketball through. This was bad, very bad. And reason enough to go out and get a new one right away.

And here it is.

A box.

You’ll notice what it says on the upper right hand corner of this box:

"Montage facile." Uh-huh. Yeah, right.

Then take a look inside.

Hm. Hope all the parts are in there.

Okay, so I started to unpack everything and spread all the pieces out evenly across the living room rug. With the expectation, of course, just like every item of Ikea furniture ever conceived, that you never know if you have enough screws until you are missing the very last one.

For everyone who thinks my husband took over command of the situation, here is proof that it was, indeed, my own personal project. That’s the igniter I am holding in my hand, by the way.

ES can read, too.

Just a few moments after this shot was taken, I discovered that I had screwed the tub onto the frame backwards, and had to take it all apart again. Harumph.

But putting together a spanking new barbeque is not really rocket science – if you follow the instructions carefully and can figure out all the diagrams. I cut my work time by two thirds and our grill was standing on the balcony just over two hours after I first slit open the box.

Ta-dah!

Mmmm…. Looking forward to dinner tonight. Bon ap!

Organic Swiss beef - the best of the best in this country.





The THINGS take Switzerland

1 03 2012

A couple of weeks ago, some visitors decided to stop by. The timing wasn’t great because I had just started my new job and am also attending university courses for the first time in 20 years. That double whammy had me going to bed at 9pm every night for the first two weeks because I was simply exhausted.

The THINGS, as they are known, belong to my only good Canadian friend, the lovely and hilarious Ironic Mom. She is sending them around the world in place of her 7-year-old twins. (Though I’m sure that on some days she would have been quite happy to send the twins.) On their Excellent Adventure, which started last summer, they have already criss-crossed the United States and Zurich was the first stop on the European leg of their tour.

In addition to my new job, we were in the middle of an incredible cold snap, with daytime high temperatures of minus 15 degrees Celsius (3 degrees F for you Fahrenheit types). So flying and rollerblading – my staple activities when the weather cooperates – were simply out of the question. Actually, anything that required leaving a heated building was rather painful and not recommended.

(Maybe they can stop back here in the summer?)

Other hosts have been very creative with their blog entries about the THINGS’ visit – writing in rhymes and singing in harmonies – I’m afraid all I can offer is a few photos of nothing special in the land of cows and chocolate.

"We’re here!"

"Geez. Looks cold out there."

"SH*T. It IS cold out here."

"Want to go for a hike?" "No thanks, not today."

So to escape Switzerland’s harshest winter in three decades (and as a warmer alternative to any outdoor sports activity), we went to the gym. The THINGS hid in my locker until they realized that it was ME that would be working out… that they were just along for the ride.

"Get out of there, you two."

On the rowing machine…

…the bouncy gym ball…

…and the crosstrainer.

We did venture out into the city one day, and made some more friends (animal and human) in the department store’s extensive Switzerland souvenir department.

"Moo."

… as the salespeople wondered what the hell they were doing climbing into the souvenir kiddie mugs.

To end their visit we made one last stop, at the world-famous Spruengli chocolate store. After all, what do Swiss people need all those cows for, anyway? Because they are the world’s largest per capita consumers of chocolate!

The THINGS knew this, but had to wait till their final day here to partake in the experience.

"Yum, look at all those chocolate cakes..."

"...and the pyramids of macaroons."

The THINGS got enough of the “food of the Gods” to last them till they arrive at the next stop on their world tour. (Trust me.) They are off to the UK next, where I’m hoping Spring has sprung and they get to spend more time outdoors. Watch for further installments of their Excellent Adventure on www.ironicmom.com.

Meantime… I have to get back to my new job.

Shoes definitely NOT made for walking.