56 hours in bedlam

12 04 2011

As the Amtrak Keystone Service train slid along the tracks northward, I prepared myself for my 2-day New York City visit by trying to recall details from the time I lived there, in 1991-92.

20 years ago? Lord.

Somehow all I came up with were a couple of big blanks across my consciousness. Nothing more than a few fuzzy scenes of alleged ivy league glory. I was a graduate student, and I literally rode to hell and back in an academic year. There is nothing more to tell.

The distant skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan slipped into view…wow, that was quick… it seems like we just left Philadelphia. (It’s this close?) On the New Jersey Turnpike this trip seems to take a lot longer than by train.

We passed towns I know well from those Turnpike exits: Rahway, Elizabeth, Harrison; inching ever closer to that biggest of Apples. Planes approached the south end of Newark airport’s runways, Path trains on neighboring tracks waited for their scheduled departures. Buildings moved closer, emerging from the blue haze, their edges becoming sharper. Unlike my memories.

The biggest apple (core).

Once in the city, it took me less than five blocks to remember why I left New York all those years ago, and only ever come back to visit. If I had to live here again now, the city would eat me whole. For breakfast.

Recently I met a non-native New Yorker who has lived in the city for almost 20 years. She told me that her New York is actually just a small part of it. It’s not the whole megalopolis, from Staten Island to the Bronx, from the Hudson to Long Island Sound, but rather a tiny corner of it in which she lives, works, shops, breathes and exists. She said that the entire city all at once can be overwhelming, even for someone who lives there… every person must carefully and consciously carve out an individual community from the endless opportunities beyond one’s doorstep.

And then a tourist comes and thinks she needs to swallow NYC whole because she is only in the city of cities for a short period of time. That’s impossible, even for the hardiest of souls. I’m glad a nouveau New Yorker confirmed this for me. Some folks think I’m just too sensitive.

My couple of days in New York were full of experiences impossible to replicate anywhere else. It’s that simple. Still, I couldn’t wait to leave.

I didn’t look back when the Amtrak train left Penn station and emerged from the tunnel on the Jersey side. 56 hours in the city was enough for my delicate constitution and I don’t need any more of the smog, dirt or weirdos for the next long while. I’m done with the city and look forward to all the other wonderful places on this great earth that I will have the privilege of seeing. I gladly leave New York to those who can handle the bedlam.

Couldn't have said it better myself.

No, seriously. Switzerland is great.

9 11 2010

Ok, so I insulted a few of my Swiss friends with my last post. And the truth is, there are a lot of things I actually really do like about Switzerland, even if I tend to complain all the time. So, here is my list of the good stuff:

1) The nature – unbelievably stunning in every way. Mountains, glaciers, lakes, you name it. Switzerland has it all. And it’s all very clean, breathtakingly pretty and easily accessible.

"MOO." Even the cows are photogenic here.

2) The geographic location – If you do feel overwhelmed by the picture-postcard beauty of every panorama and have an urgent need to get a dose of a gritty big city, complete with dog poop on the sidewalks and the smell of urine on every street corner, it’s fast and easy to get there from here. Since Switzerland is located at the geographic center of (Western) Europe, you can fly to everywhere else, pretty much, in an hour or two.

3) The trains run on time – Yes, you can actually set your cuckoo clocks by them. On average, 97.43 percent of all Swiss trains arrive and depart within 3 minutes of their scheduled time. Unless there is a massive electricity outage. Since a majority of the population commutes by public transportation, one severed or shorted electrical circuit can bring chaos to the entire country. On a hot summer day a few years ago, trains across the country stood still for four whole hours during afternoon rush hour, stranding more than 100,000 passengers. So just FYI: any hostile power that wants to take over Switzerland doesn’t need an army… a couple of wire-cutters and/or a hungry, suicidal hamster would probably do.

4) High salaries and (relatively) low taxes – Who doesn’t want to keep more of their paycheck at the end of every month? Let’s just ignore the fact that the cost of living here is higher than anywhere else in the world, and the amount of money you spend on a bag of groceries would be more than enough to buy food to sustain an extended family in a developing country for at least six months. You will end up shelling out unbelievable sums to other people for goods and services, to the state, your local community and your canton, but then again an equally unbelievable amount of cash will remain in your pocket.

5) The fact that Switzerland is a tiny, inconspicuous, safe, neutral, friendly, peaceful country in the middle of Europe where the President can get up on a Saturday morning, stick on a pair of dark sunglasses to hide her hangover, and go shopping in the supermarket alongside all the rest of us – without a security detail.


Hangover? What hangover?

Swiss people really have no idea how great it is not to be the target of any terrorist organization. (The Jurassian separatists don’t count.) One day recently R., who is Swiss, and I, who is not, had this conversation:

Me: “What if there was some terrorist attack here? Or if there was an assassination attempt on your President? How would you Swiss people react?”

Him (looking very confused): “Why would anyone want to kill our President?”

Me: “Well, because she is PRESIDENT!”

Him: “Yes but… what would be the purpose?”

Me: “To destabilize the country. Demoralize the population. Exercise gratuitous violence. Bring the reign of terror right into your own neighborhood. There are a million reasons… just go ask Al Qaeda.”

Him: “Um… Sweetie, nobody cares about Switzerland. Nothing like that ever happens here. There would be no reason for it. And besides, our banks manage Al Qaeda’s finances, so they would not be doing themselves a real favor if they started killing Swiss people.”

The joys of public transportation

19 10 2010

So let’s stay with trains for a moment.

I travel a lot on public transportation here in Switzerland – it’s the politically correct thing to do. You know, when in Switzerland, try to be as Swiss as you can. The commuter rail line I use takes me from the southern suburbs where I live, clear through the city to the airport in the northeast, where I work. On a good day the journey takes about 45 minutes one way. It saves me a lot of hassle on the roads and I don’t pollute the atmosphere.

Even though public transport is a way of life around here, it’s amazing how many people think they can get from A to B faster in their cars. Ha!  Though the city is far from being a really major metropolitan area, its traffic sometimes, incredibly, is.

All these people need to get somewhere really fast.

But the public I have to share public transport with for an hour and a half every day often sends me into a rage. Call me elitist, but when I am forced into a small space with, well, everyone else, I get the heebie-jeebies and I just want them all to stay the hell away from me.

The mornings are usually okay, the mix of commuters – accidentally thrown together anew every day – either doze off, quietly read or just stare out the window and contemplate what a sorry bunch of conventional desk jockeys we all are. The afternoons, however, when everyone is on their way home and celebrating their freedom, are sheer torture.

The other day, at the peak of evening rush hour, I took a free seat that happened to be next to an individual whose voice turned out to be the difference between my minor headache and a full-blown migraine.

It was a voice that just…grates. This type of voice usually belongs to a young woman between 16 and 25 years old with bleached blonde (or dyed black) hair and too much makeup, and dressed from head to toe in S&M H&M. A kind of 21st-century-material-girl-wannabe. She has a Smartphone of some sort surgically attached to her ear. Into it, and for the enjoyment of the entire train car, she describes every detail of her day, her sex life and her plans for the weekend in a volume many decibels higher than necessary. In Swiss German. The IQ of the monologue often does not clear double digits.

Some commuters wisely isolate themselves with I-pods, while the I-pod-less like me just cringe and wail inwardly. When you think it can’t possibly get any worse, it does – as this person’s even eviler twin takes a seat diagonally opposite from you, and you have to bear this senseless blather in stereo. What a waste of good oxygen.

Some folks SHOULD just go play on train tracks.

Of course there is a whole bunch of other riff-raff using public transport as well… for example the marauding wolf-packs of young men, primed with testosterone and cheap no-name liquor, who specialize in random acts of violence. Or the anti-authoritarian, neo-hippie parents who encourage their ADHD kids to run up and down the aisle of the moving train while screaming at the top of their lungs. (One can only hope the lesson – which will inevitably be learned – is learned without too much blood splattering on one’s clothes.)

Now… the train company can’t really do anything about its clientele, except try to deliver us normal people to our destinations safe and in a timely fashion. And I’m sure they are doing their best. But there are days when I know just can’t face the crowds and the noise so I end up fighting road traffic after all. In the comfort of my luxury smart car.

So much for trying to be Swiss and trying to save the planet.