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.

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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.





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?





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.





A postcard from Switzerland

17 06 2011

Dear Donna R.,

Do you remember us? We met you at the Golden Nugget casino in downtown Las Vegas. Fremont Street. About six weeks ago. You were our server in the Buffet, and my three friends were the Swiss folks that inhaled Zelma’s bread pudding for desert. (You remember – I had a scoop of Cookies ‘n Cream instead.)

You asked us where we were from, and, without knowing if we were ax-murderers on leave from jail, you gave us your home address and asked us to send you a postcard when we got back. You collect postcards, you said, and you haven’t yet received one from Switzerland. Well, here it is. Sorry it took so long.

Switzerland at a glance

We chatted a bit, and you said, “Las Vegas is boring, and Switzerland is not boring.” Well, you are right, I suppose. Summer has arrived here, and it’s not boring at all. In fact, it’s quite attractive here, lots to do and generally a very pleasant place to spend one’s days.

But as I told you too, home is where the heart is, and the heart, right now, is elsewhere.

I spent three months in the United States this Spring… it was the longest period of time over on your side of the pond since I finished graduate school in 1992. Before I arrived in the U.S. I knew that it would be a watershed experience for me – either I would go back to Europe saying, “Hey, glad I finally got that out of my system!” or I would be saying, “I want to go home, now more than ever.”

You know how this story ends, don’t you?

For much of the last two decades the idea of returning home has weighed heavily on my consciousness. Europe afforded me a lot of opportunities, too many to name here – and I am thankful for every single one of them. I started a career and a followed a trajectory that would have been unlikely back home. I had cool jobs, traveled and did all sorts of neat things that were only possible while riding on the coattails of the EU passport I am lucky to have.

Yet looking past the superficial, something very basic is missing. It’s nothing concrete, material, or anything I can pick up and hold. It’s more of a feeling, a mentality, an attitude, a sense of community. It’s a deep-seated yet unnamed feeling I associate with the culture in which I was socialized – I can only describe it as a combination of longing, sadness, love and pride – that comes suddenly and unexpectedly, and always takes a while to put away again.

My time with my folk, my people, immersed in my culture taught me a few important lessons. Most important: even after living overseas for about 20 years, the United States is still my home. I can still identify with people, speak their language, laugh at their humor and feel their pain.

It was tough getting on that plane back to Europe last week, with no exit strategy and no timeline for the future. I sit here, in an job I am no longer excited about, in a land I will never be able to call my own, having to deal with the locals in a language I will never be able to speak.

So… interesting? Yes, it’s an interesting place, with an interesting history and interesting characters. (And heck, I met my husband here! He’s great!) Comfortable? Very. There are a lot worse places to have to return to. But home? No, not likely. Ever.

Hope you are well and not wilting in the Vegas summer.

Yours truly,

Evelynn and her Swiss friends





Snow Bunnies take St. Moritz

1 02 2011

Last weekend I finally got my butt off the sofa and went skiing. It was my first venture into the Alps this season, and I guess I didn’t remember how cold it is out there. And how heavy all that damn equipment is.

WANTED: A competent skier.

But first things first. The story begins like this. About three years ago I found out that my friend Pascale’s family owns a mountain home near St. Moritz.

For those unfamiliar with St. Moritz, allow me to introduce the place. It is probably the most exclusive (expensive) ski area in the Swiss Alps, on par with, say, Vail, Colorado in the Rockies. It is a place where the rich and famous (and the not-so-famous – just rich) gather to party, ski, see and be seen. Regular guests include, for example: botoxed, bejeweled Russian madams and mistresses, just-divorced German corporate captains on the rebound, and morally corrupt Italian Prime Ministers. “Fur” is not a bad word here, especially when daytime temperatures hang around a nippy -25 degrees Centigrade (-13 degrees Farenheit).

It is a place where 100 ml (3.4 oz) of fresh-squeezed strawberry juice will run you about 65 U.S. dollars.

So imagine my delight when Pascale invited me to stay at her house, eat her food and drink her fresh strawberry juice – for free.

Pascale spends most of her weekends in this picturesque valley in southeastern Switzerland. On Saturday morning she took me to her winter playground, the Corviglia ski area. I spent the first 15 minutes getting reacquainted with my ski-boots. (Ummm… how do we do this again?) Then we each dragged 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of dead weight ski equipment up a steep hill to the lift. Only here in Switzerland do they test your fitness before you even get into the gondola that will take you to the top of the mountain. If you didn’t have a heart attack, you’re good to go.

Backcountry skiers – the purists who spend six hours walking up the mountain in order to then spend 20 minutes skiing back down – frown on gondolas, of course.

Once at the top, all arrows pointed into the valley, though stubborn morning clouds initially drained the pistes of any contrast whatsoever. White on white is always tough to navigate, no matter how wide you open your eyes.

My dear friend Pascale, who has been skiing roughly 20 years longer than I have, elegantly and gracefully zipped across the labyrinth of pistes like a real snow bunny, putting my inferior (yet gutsy!) ski talent to shame. But she was kind enough to stop and wait for me every few hundred meters. And if she hadn’t been around I would still be standing at the top of Piz Nair today, wondering which run would get me back to the car.

On top of the world last Saturday afternoon.

Joy of joys, I had a good day. A really good day. Seven hours standing in my ski boots and leaving other athletes in my dust, without eating any snow myself, or otherwise wiping out in spectacular fashion – not once! Just call me Lindsey Vonn from now on.

So maybe I really did learn something by watching World Cup skiing on TV the last few weekends, and not even at the expense of my anterior cruciate ligaments or any other key body part(s). As I returned to the lowlands happy and satisfied on Sunday afternoon, my red blood cells were still jumping for joy.

And they deserve more of the same… so I’ll be back in the mountains next weekend, guaranteed.





40.

28 01 2011

This weekend a dear, dear old friend of mine turns 40. And when she turns 40, we will have known each other for just about half of our lives.

Where exactly we met is no longer relevant. What’s more interesting is when and where we became friends: on my last day at university, in a bar over numerous ales and too much high-cholesterol pub grub, our then-boyfriends at our sides. Thankfully, we both had the sense to jettison the boyfriends within a useful timeframe, and get on with our lives.

Full speed ahead.

Like all women on the cusp of middle age, I will assume she too has gotten her fair share of suggestions, tips, tricks, ideas and junk mail advertising on how to try to stop the clock, at least in terms of physical appearance. Numerous flyers promoting beauty treatments, magic fountain-of-youth serums, liposuction and plastic surgery have probably found their way into her snail and electronic mailboxes. For some people apparently, only drugs and a little “snip snip” here and there can soothe that sudden, tragic, sinking feeling of officially “getting old”.

Yesterday, another (under-40) girlfriend said to me, “You know, I need just a little teeny touch of Botox just… here,” pointing to a spot above the bridge of her nose. Unless I developed a sudden and catastrophic case of glaucoma, the spot she pointed to was pretty much invisible. There was nothing there, not even the first meager sign of a wrinkle-in-waiting.

So I was somewhat insecure the next time I looked in the mirror myself. Do I maybe need a little teeny touch of Botox too? Or perhaps a whole gallon?

Of course I don’t, don’t be silly. And I firmly believe that a woman who can’t stand the sight of her natural 40-year-old face urgently needs some kind of professional psychological help.

My 40th birthday last year came and went – it was a wonderfully warm Spring day – and I eased into my exciting new decade with grace and cool and panache. Someone once told me that turning 40 is like turning 20, except you can afford to wear nicer clothes and drink more expensive wine. I am not the partying type, but I did take the opportunity to dress up (high heels and all) and R. helped me throw a damn good one with a few close friends. We feasted on sushi and antipasti platters in celebration. One doesn’t turn 40 every day, after all.

So, dear IronicMom, Wordbitch, teacher, wife, daughter, sister, mommy, auntie and Best Woman, on the morning you turn 40, simply remember this: You are the same person, a day older, a day wiser and a day longer my friend. And please ditch that mail like you ditched that boyfriend. You look fabulous. Happy birthday, Leanne.