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.)





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.





Back to work!

12 02 2012

So last Thursday I started a new job.

Fortunately, it’s a really great job, with a lot of good benefits and an interesting, wide-ranging scope, and I really hope that I can keep it for a while. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal the name of my employer here because, well, I’m just a little paranoid about these things.

It’s a corporate job, and one which finds itself at the crossroads where doing good business meets doing good for society and the environment. It’s in the relatively new, wide-open field of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Companies are finally figuring out that it helps to consider the ethical consequences of their actions, rather than steering directly to maximum profit and ignoring the world around them, or the problems they may be creating.

Taking responsibility.

CSR is a controversial place. Some (neanderthal) corporate executives complain that it’s an expensive waste of money with zero return on investment. Some (dogmatic) non-profit organizations on the other hand complain that companies are engaging themselves in areas in which they have no expertise – and are going to screw it up anyway. Or that their efforts are not sincere. Or that they are interested only in the public relations benefits (also known as “greenwash”).

I’m very aware of the quandary CSR practitioners find themselves in. Nevertheless, I think there’s a lot to be said for the efforts that are being made. And after all, no single company or person can save the world. My employer has a huge interest in the subject, with a correspondingly significant budget as well.

For me, it’s something completely new. So new that in addition to my (full time) job I will also be attending university courses part-time for the next seven months to get a theoretical grounding in the basics. And that’s another challenge – going back to school almost exactly 20 years after I completed my last degree.

(What do I take with me? A pencil case? Or just a laptop?)

This will be my third career. When I got my Master’s degree two decades ago, I read that this was the direction in which society would be moving: While our grandparents’ generation generally stayed at one employer for many years, members of my parents’ generation changed jobs two, three and maybe even four times during the course of their working lives. My generation would change careers that many times.

Et voilà. Here I am.

This new job is waaaaaayyyyyy outside my comfort zone. In, like, Siberia as far as I am concerned. But judging by the winter we are having, I just also may very well be in Siberia right now. Nothing to be afraid of though, just a matter of dressing warm enough, right?

I know I’m smart (kinda), I know I have my head screwed on right (most of the time, at least), and I know that I have mastered incredibly difficult professional situations before – perhaps not with the greatest panache and elegance, but you don’t get points for style here.

Stay tuned, if you’re interested. This is going to be fun.





Monday in the Swiss mountains

19 01 2012

I live in Switzerland, so that means the Alps are not far. In fact, if I walk up the street from where I live, I can even see them, every day. And that means, in winter, there is some serious skiing to be done.

First though, the photographic evidence, to prove that I actually went and returned, to tell the tale:

Monday afternoon. Lovely, isn't it?

Every time I see a photo like this, it makes me want to jump in the car and head for the hills. I admit, I don’t get out enough. And in the last few weeks, the northern side of the Alps has gotten more snow than it knows what to do with so it really is a crime not to take advantage.

The main deterrent is when I start thinking about all the stuff I have to take. First I have to find it all, and then I have to either put it on or take it with me in the car. Long underwear, turtleneck sweater, ski pants, ski jacket, ski gloves, goggles, a furry hat, my balaclava – for particularly frigid days. Then come the ski boots, poles and the actual skis themselves.

For the moment, I draw the line at a helmet. I know helmets are all the rage… safety arguments, setting a good example for kids, and all that… yadayadaya… Yes, okay, maybe someday I will go buy myself a ski helmet. But for now I will stick with my furry hat.

I love my hat. It's so much more fun than any helmet.

I also usually take along a hot tea for the drive out, and a snack of some sort and a sports bottle of flavored water as an ice-cold refreshment for the drive home.

The most important piece of skiing equipment, at least here in Switzerland, is a credit card and/or a wad of cash because one will, inevitably, be paying large sums of money for the privilege of waiting in a crowd for the gondola to the top of the mountain. (On a weekday! Don’t these people have to work?)

And it really is exhausting. I mean seriously… I consider myself pretty physically fit. After all, I have been skating marathons for 13 years. But when it comes to schlepping my ski stuff across an icy parking lot, cloding along in clunky ski boots, dressed for a day in the sub-freezing outdoors and feeling like the Michelin woman, all that junk is unbelievably cumbersome. I always forget how much work it is. And I hate sweating underneath all those layers, especially before I have actually done anything heroic at all.

The temperature was minus 12 degrees Celcius (10 degrees F) in the valley when I headed out last Monday morning. When I finally got to the top, at 2200 meters (7260 feet) above sea level it was, of course, wonderful. I snapped into my bindings and started swishing down the pistes like a pro. (Okay, no, not really…)

By venturing into the great outdoors, not only am I doing my body something good, I’m also reliving a lot of really great memories. Like last winter, going skiing in St. Moritz with my friend Pascale, before she died in a tragic hiking accident this past summer.

So sure I was glad I went – the life-affirming, glorious sunshine and the crisp clear air makes it all worthwhile in the end. But… ugh, the effort that it takes… every time.





I Amsterdam

13 01 2012

So my big brother, S., and I decided to give ourselves (or each other) a Christmas gift: We went to Amsterdam for a long weekend.

It has been more than 15 years since I was last in the city, but it made an impression enough to make it on my “Top 10” list. (Along with, in no particular order:  San Francisco, Berlin, Helsinki, Sydney, Philadelphia Vancouver, Singapore, Toronto and Boston.)

In the meantime, the city has given itself a very catchy advertising slogan: “I amsterdam”.

Nice.

And here I thought “Be Berlin” was pretty cool.

S. is on the meatmarket again, after a failed 10-year relationship-that-turned-into-marriage, which is in its final throes. (The entire Starr family will throw a three-day celebration when all THAT is done and dusted. Stay tuned.)

And what better place to test your self-marketing skills than Amsterdam.

He has been a few times, and on his last visit he discovered a special, secret, by-invitation-and-with-reservation-only bar. It was the highlight of his trip, at which he took the opportunity to tweak his flirting skills. So of course the experience had to be repeated, with his kid sister. (Even though the mere presence of something that looked like a “date” – me – would be insurance enough against scoring any action at all.)

The club is located in an inconspicuous row house on a non-descript street, tucked between a sex shop and kebab kiosk. I walked by it twice without realizing anything was there – to his amusement. The windows are blacked out, and all that distinguishes it from any other abandoned storefront is a single tiny doorbell.

We arrived fashionably late for our 930pm reservation. The staff remembered my big bro and greeted him very warmly, like he was a regular, or an old friend. The two bartenders, already hard at work, stopped to chat with us and offered a round of bourbon on the house. And the Singapore Slings were truly the best I have had in a very long time.

I think this was what was left of the second sling. But it could have been the third.

I have rediscovered evenings out ever since Europe went smoke-free. Thankfully, I no longer come home from a restaurant or a bar smelling like I washed my hair in cigarette ash. So my still-smoker-brother had to occasionally abandon me step outside to get his nicotine fix.

During one of these absences, a man sidled up to a beautiful tall Dutch woman standing at the bar next to me and I overheard his feeble pickup line: “I noticed you since the moment you walked in the door.”

Obviously, a raw beginner. Or someone trying to get back on his dating feet after a looooooooooonnng time. Kind of like my brother. Too bad he wasn’t around to witness the poor fellow crash and burn.

Her eyes opened wide and she said something to the effect of, “Uh, gee, I think I have to go now,” high-tailing it back to her date, a balding banker-type in a monogrammed shirt sucking down his fourth cocktail.

I categorized the performance in the column: “Most spectacular strikeout”.

When my brother returned and I told him the story, he didn’t understand what the big deal was.

Damn…. I’m just hoping his pickup lines are way better than that.