Sunday, November 30, 2008

Emily Postum rides the Swiss tramway!

For us non-upper-crusters, etiquette is more than just pairing the right fork with your truffle canapés and instructing the serving maid not to clatter the dishes. You may think the rules of when to serve canvasback (à la Age of Innocence), or which seasonal stationery and flower combinations are appropriate for your haiku or waka (à la Tale of Gengi) are far more complex than the rules normal people have to deal with on a daily basis. Maybe. But I'd like to see Gengi try riding the tramway in Switzerland.

This is one of the first cultural items I learned upon moving to Zürich from Bordeaux. The tramway system in Bordeaux was brand-new, so the social rules were still sort of in flux. There were cute little zoo animal posters inside illustrating how to make everyone's ride more pleasant (eg. retract your quills and backpacks, avoid loud cell-phone conversations). People were willing to make an effort, but the entry and exit procedure was still a little chaotic, like they didn't really have it down. Yet. Not like in Switzerland.

Rule #1: When the tramway (or bus or commuter train) stops, you walk up to the door and stand beside it, forming a bit of a wedge-shaped line on the platform or sidewalk whose apex is just beside the doorway.

Rule #2 important: Do not block the doorway of the tram. at all. Every single person getting off the tramway must have a clear path straight ahead in order to exit. If there's a crowd coming out and you are blocking someone's exit path (because you're hoping to get on), the exiter won't just squeeze around you (like in France), they'll just walk up to you and wait until you get the hell out of the way. And this will hold up the entire exit/entry procedure. And it will be all your fault.

Rule #3: How do you know when you've screwed up? This is the easy one. You will know. You'll get a (free!) crash course in Swiss tramway etiquette from the school of (polite, furtive) shocked and horrified facial expressions.

I've just learned, however, that #3 is one that actually varies within Switzerland. I had Switzerland's other two fabulous exmo expat ladies over for drinks and jokes, and naturally we ended up comparing notes on Swiss customs. Wry Catcher -- who lives in a smaller city than Zürich -- said that the folks in her town will actually lecture strangers for infractions that are too serious for mere dirty looks. Say, you break Rule #4: Don't even think about getting on until everyone who's getting off is off (even if they're taking a long time and there's plenty of room to go around them). Or you break Rule #5: Do not come running up to the tramway and cut in front of someone who is politely waiting (in accordance with rule #4). You'll get an earful of Switzerdeutsch. And if you try to get out of it by feigning incomprehension, your instructor will gladly (or rather, angrily) give you your lesson in English.

Those stories surprised me quite a bit because it's not like that in Zürich. My experience is somewhat limited since I've been here less than a year, but I love public transportation, so I'm in the S-Bahn (commuter train), tramway, and bus all the time, and -- from what I've seen -- I'd be very surprised to see someone chew out a stranger. Here they have more of a "politeness one-upmanship" thing going, where you silently let people know they've screwed up without ever descending to the level of being impolite yourself.

The incident that really captured Zürich-style politeness for me was one I saw a few weeks ago while I was riding the escalator up from one of the underground train platforms. The escalator has a standing lane and a walking lane, clearly indicated by the yellow shoes painted on the steps. Yet, up ahead, I saw two ladies standing abreast in flagrant violation of what I'll call Rule #6: no standing in the walking lane. This wouldn't be a problem except that some guy was coming up behind them in the walking lane and clearly wanted to continue. Rather than saying something or trying to squeeze around the offending lady, he just leaned forward -- ever so slightly in her space over her left shoulder -- in hopes she'd see him in her peripheral vision and catch a clue and get out of the way. But she never did notice. She just continued conversing with her friend as the guy repeated his subtle leaning-in hint several times as we all rode up to the top. (Personally, I was standing in the right lane, so this situation didn't concern me except for the chuckle factor.) At the top we all filed off, and Lady Wrong-Lane was none the wiser about her infraction.

(Actually this story kind of contradicts my Rule #3, but perhaps it should have an addendum: "You will know unless you're totally oblivious to social cues.")

As amusing as this restraint is, it can actually get to be a little annoying to have to constantly keep a (peripheral) eye out to make sure you aren't blocking (hence inconveniencing) someone. I kind of miss the French system where (when things get crowded) you can just say "Pardon" as you squeeze your way through. "Pardon" is a convenient all-purpose word that can mean "I'm genuinely sorry I bumped you," and can also mean "FYI -- you're in the way -- coming through," depending on the tone and context. My two expat friends assured me that this is just a Zürich thing and that there really is an equivalent word in Switzerdeutsch, but I haven't learned it because it seems like here you just don't bump people no matter how crowded the trains or the aisles of the little city shops may be.

Then, of course, there's Rule #7: Keep your kids well-behaved.

Nico is demonstrating correct tramway procedure

Some conversation is fine, but letting your kids run around, yell, scream, and generally bother people is not okay. Oh, and the parent is responsible for ensuring that the kids follow rules 1-6, and all of the other hundreds of rules. (Actually, I think I'm going to have to give up on the numbering because I don't think I'll succeed in getting a comprehensive list.)

Sometimes when my kids are being a little rowdier than they should, people turn and smile, as if to say "It's okay, kids are like that, and the tramway's not too crowded today." But it really is an indulgence that they're granting you because they can just as easily turn and give you that horrified look that says "The nerve of some people! In my day children were polite!" Parents here catch their kids immediately and give a quick but firm lecture the second the child might be bothering someone. It seems like it's as much for the benefit of the bystanders as for the kid, as if to say "Don't worry, I've got it under control." It may be my imagination, but it seems that the minorities are quicker about it than the white people, quieting the child and then looking up and around with the smile that says "See? under control" since nobody wants to be someone else's example of "what's wrong with those people".

Personally, I don't care that much if I'm giving a bad impression of Americans by scolding my rowdy little boys in American English (though occasionally I'll talk to them in French to give people a bad impression of the French for variety). But I do try to follow all of the unwritten rules as well as I can. After all, they're not just totally arbitrary rules that show off the "good breeding" of the people who are in the know. Rather, for humans (social animals that we are) everyone's ride on the train, bus, or tramway is a little simpler and more pleasant if we know what to expect from the millions of strangers we share the city with each day.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Well, now I know what I'm missing...

Here's another Internet miracle for you skeptics out there!

Since I've moved to Europe, it's not as easy to go "home for the holidays" as it once was. And Thanksgiving somehow doesn't quite make the cut of holidays that warrant a transatlantic voyage.

But I might wonder -- as I'm preparing my kids their "lazy mom" dinner of PB&J and/or nutella on whole wheat with a fruit -- what I'm missing out on back home in Minnesota...

[Screen goes wavy as we cut to the imagination sequence, which you can experience too by clicking here!]

Yep, over on By Common Consent my brother posted a video of the Thanksgiving dinner I'm missing!! And -- as an added convenience for the busy blogger -- he sped it up to be only three minutes from table set to table cleared, and added some homey twangin' background music! It's (sorta) just like being there!!

The video is actually last year's Thanksgiving, but I'd be very surprised if this year's is any different.

(I wonder if they've set up a web cam, just in case...)

Happy Holidays!!!

Saturday, November 22, 2008


There's a great new batch of carnivals out there for your reading pleasure!!

My favorite new one is the 2nd Skeptical Parent Crossing!!! This one finally allowed me to live out my secret fantasy of being ruthlessly chewed-out by a super-manly drill sergeant... ;^)

Then there's 28th Humanist Symposium, where Jeffrey Stingerstein has matched up a bunch of great new humanist articles with corresponding clever atheist quips!!! The homosecular gaytheist brings us the 104th Carnival of the Godless, and get that one while it lasts since the organizers are talking about discontinuing it!! Paul's analysis of the god-shaped vacuum deservedly made it to both (I'll add that I don't have a "god-shaped vacuum" in me, either).

Then, I was thinking of doing this meme that King Aardvark tagged me for, mostly because I think now is a good time to link to his blog and recommend his fun and fascinating epic adventures at Alpha Course. But I started on the meme -- and got to the question "5 things on my to do list today" -- and realized that I'd already already wasted too much time on the Internet today just reading the blogs in those carnivals and in my daily reader. :D

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Is it really better to have loved and lost?

This is a question I've tried to answer since I was a teenager.

On the one hand, feeling your heart on fire with passion is being alive; wishing for calm tranquility is like wishing for death. As an atheist, I suppose I should know that emotions are in your head, but I believe in the metaphor, at least, of feeling it in your heart.

On the other hand, is there anything more crushing, more utterly humiliating, than unrequited love?

To look forward to that one moment per day (or so) when you know you'll see him; to replay your brief exchange over and over in your mind, not wanting to do anything else but remember it; planning, rehearsing the clever things you'll say next time; knowing all the while that he doesn't care in the slightest and hasn't given you conversation a second thought.

I remember studying Dante in High School, and learning how noble his unrequited love for Beatrice was. I didn't buy it. Sure, I thought, maybe it seems cool if you're that one-in-a-billion who can turn it into a fantastic epic poem, but for the other nine-hundred ninety-nine million, etc., it just means you're the loser that someone else didn't want.

So I spent many years trying to rid myself of this emotion at all costs, trying to convince myself not live and not pine. The memory came back to me recently when by chance I heard a familiar chorus:

It's too late baby, now it's too late
Though we really did try to make it
Something inside has died and I can't hide
And I just can't fake it...

And suddenly I was transported back to a moment many years ago:

Myself, sitting in an airplane on the tarmac, waiting to take off, with this song blaring from the plane's interior speakers as the passengers took their seats. The words seem trite, yet the deepest emotions are somehow the simplest.

There I was, setting off on my fantastic adventure that I'd built for myself, willing myself to believe the words. It's too late, yes, yes, it's too late. Yes, that painful ember in my heart is dead, though I knew that it wasn't.

Unrequited love, the humiliation of it, has become my favorite topic for a sort of cynical humor (see Youth Conference). It's so horrifyingly absurd not to be able to let go of that razor-sharp shard of hope -- sometimes for years -- that there's nothing to do but try to make light of yourself. Add a little distance in hopes of turning tragedy into comedy.

That and pour a glass of wine and listen to sad songs, and feel it; get it out.

Ah, it's hard to love.
Ah, it's hard
not to love...

This is me 2

Okay, no more hiding behind old photos like I did last time -- here's what I look like now, at age 37:

I'm thinking this photo is a good metaphor for my life these days: I'm not sure there's a point to my efforts -- maybe it all just leads to sitting on top of a wall in the sunshine for a little while.

But why not? It's fun.

On the other hand, I feel like this is the one that really captures my life in Switzerland:

Looking through my recent photos, I noticed that -- despite my goal to try to dress better to fit in with all these snazzy Swiss people -- I still don't have any fashion sense:

And when I found this next one, it hit me that it's one of the only photos of me at home:

When I was living in my old house in Bordeaux, my excuse for not cleaning (see here) was that the house was in such a state of disrepair that it never really looked nice inside -- even when clean -- so why bother? But now that we've moved to a nice apartment in Zürich, I've discovered that I just have some sort of Midas touch for turning a dwelling into a total pig sty. Of course, I do have some help on this task:

You may also be wondering why my husband is never in any of these photos. Actually, he's in all of them, just on the other side of the camera. Here's what he looks like these days:

Actually, he doesn't look quite like that this week because I gave him a much better haircut since that photo was taken.

And now, if you'll indulge me, I'll throw in one old photo:

This is one of my favorite photos of myself with Nico as a baby. The lighting makes it look (to me) like a religious painting.

One time (a couple of years ago) I posted this photo to my blog with the caption "Madonna and Child" or something stupid like that. Then I woke up the next day -- wondering how I could ever have thought that was clever -- and deleted it in a fit of embarrassment. That incident was the inspiration for my post on booze. As I explained at the wedding in Brittany, the Internet provides whole new dimensions of ways to embarrass yourself while drinking. ;^)

Or maybe I don't even need the alcohol to be ridiculous on the Internet. Oh well, I've gotta be me!!! :D

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Napkin art!

I'm looking forward to the day we won't have ot pay for dinner anymore -- Nico will just leave one his dinner napkin masterpieces and that will cover it. ;^)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Finally getting a little respect around here! ;^)

My little visit to the solar system got picked up by the blogosphere departments of both Wired and Discover magazines!!! (Read the comments of both articles to discover whether there's a scale model of the solar system near you!)

Thanks Chris Radcliff and Phil Plait!!! :D

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Zurich: Transportation Paradise!!

Here's what I love most about Zürich: amazingly convenient transportation!!!

I was thinking about this while writing up my latest Rational Moms post: Our Visit to the Solar System! Not only is it cool that there's a "Planetenweg" (planet trail) up in the nearby mountains, but in fact the trip there is quicker and simpler by train than it would be to go by car. As much as I raved about public transportation in France (see here and here), I think Swiss public transportation may be even better, especially in terms of taking the train to all sorts of nature hikes all over the countryside.

Here are some pictures to illustrate why I love being car-free:

I don't have to keep my eyes on the road, so -- during the ride -- I can pay attention to my kids!

And if you read my Solar System post carefully, you may have noticed that it's no big deal for my kids (ages 7 and 5) to spend a few hours hiking through the mountains. That's a typical Sunday outing for us. The thing is that -- while the train network will take you just about everywhere in Switzerland -- it might not take you right up to the door of where you're going. So walking becomes second-nature.

Walking's good for you, it's fun, and feels great! Even for kids!

Despite all this, many people in Zürich drive everywhere they go anyway. (Why? I have no idea -- it is a great mystery.) To get people thinking about transportation, the city threw a fabulous downtown street festival called "Zürich Multimobil" -- my kids loved it!!!

So, we're off to find something fun to do. Ta!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Haven't we moved out of this constellation yet?

So, I totally failed in my goal to stop writing about proposition 8 and move on to other topics. Mercifully (for those of you who have moved on), I've confined my latest batch to Main Street Plaza: Resign in protest?, Sunday in Outer Blogness: broken promises Edition!, and Free expression basics, and LDS newsroom meme. (My MSP co-blogger Hellmut seems to suffering from the same inability to stop writing about this, producing such articles as Peace, Order and Religious Freedom and Taking the Long Term View on Marriage Equality.)

Thanks for bearing with me, and I promise I really do have some fun, positive, and totally not-election-related stuff in store for this coming week!! :D

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Every problem can be solved with a laser

Nico: I'm going to be one of those guys who solves other guys' problems!
me: How are you going to do that?
Nico: I have a laser.
me: [laughing] So every problem can be solved with a laser?
Nico: No... [thinks about it a long time] Yes, every problem can be solved with a laser.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Now for the real election news...

My little brother and his wife were interviewed for their local news while standing in line to vote!!! My sister-in-law is the one around 2:19 who says they should have brought snacks. (You may recognize them from the wedding photos I posted eons ago.)

I've looked forward to this day for so long, and I wish I could be out whole-heartedly celebrating Obama's victory! But I'm really disappointed and disheartened to see that Proposition 8 has probably passed. (Is it really over and lost?) I was hoping that the Mormons would learn a valuable lesson from this about love vs. hate, and that all those families' legal protection would be spared, and the healing would begin. I kept thinking that if you appeal to people's better nature and hold them up to high expectations, they'll come through. Pretty stupid, huh?

I'm looking out my window at the black silhouette of leaves waving against a gray sky. I don't have anything clever or scathing to say to my people for the moment, I'm just disappointed.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Still "Cultural Mormon"? Even now?

With the Proposition 8 race all over the national news, it's a bit of a difficult time to be any kind of Mormon, even an atheist cultural Mormon. This huge and dramatic effort to stop gay people -- as the one moral question of our time worth standing up for -- puts the spotlight on the institutional LDS church's shameful history with race (which continues to some degree to this day). Many Mormon moderates want to claim that bigotry isn't what Mormonism is all about (as Hellmut and I have been trying to do over on Main Street Plaza), but then why are so many Mormons so quick to drop everything for this fight as soon as their leaders tell them to? Either intolerance is a central tenet of the religion or unquestioning, (I normally refuse to use this word, but) cult-like obedience is. Either way, it looks like there's something very wrong with this people.

I'm currently reading The Bookseller of Kabul, and was touched by a powerful chapter about a teenage boy (on his first trip away from his family) who sees the problems around him and prays that one day he will be proud of being an Afghan. What can I say? I would like to be proud of my heritage as well. I hope that people who feel that there's more to Mormonism that this ugliness are in a good position to make it so.

I've talked about being a cultural Mormon from the beginning of this blog, about my fondness for literary portraits of Mormon culture (even faithful ones), and my adventures with the mishies. I've written my own stories of Mormonism, and have even tried my hand at being an ambassador from my tribe to another.

And, regardless of what Mormons and others think, for better or for worse, I doubt I'll stop any time soon... ;^)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

I'm glad we're trying new and original things, but...

I read the first four chapters of Bryan Trent's Remembering Hypatia: A Novel of Ancient Egypt. And, well...

I just couldn't convince myself this was taking place anywhere near ancient Egypt. I felt like I was reading a modern story dressed up in hokey period costume.

Now, that alone wouldn't make me reject the story. After all, I like Errol Flynn's Robin Hood -- silk tights in Sherwood Forest and all. But in this case, the characters and their situation didn't hook my interest enough to make me want to overlook the questionable trappings and keep reading. Not when I was tempted by a pile of other books on my nightstand that I'd so much rather be reading, like Girls of Riyadh,
Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran, and The Bookseller of Kabul. (The last one won out, and now I'm in the thick of it -- I hate to put it down even to write).

Then, of course, I feel like I'm being a really bad sport here, favoring my own weird taste over other people's taste. Especially since I just got done asking the group to read The Flight of Peter Fromm, which many N.L. members found weird or annoying. Now I feel like (when it was my turn) I should have gone with my earlier idea of asking the group to read Contact, by Carl Sagan. I rejected that idea as "too obvious," but maybe I should occasionally go with the obvious choice.

Anyway, I gave it a (half-hearted) try. If many of the other Nonbelieving Literati like Remembering Hypatia, I'll try again and finish it...