Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Intentions of Reinvention

Whether I knew it or not at the time that I stopped blogging, I wasn't writing the blog I really wanted to have. I'm taking a wonderful on-line course right now called Blogging Your Way and my head is spinning with ideas. On day 1 we listed blogs we read and why, as well as bloggers we'd wish to be like. Suddenly the fact that I was struggling became a lot less confusing. What I was blogging was not anything like the blogs I enjoyed.

I do intend to give this blog a rebirth. I'm not sure if it will happen before this class is over. So to my classmates that might be stopping by... thank you for coming over but I know there's not really anything here for you to critique! I really appreciate the great network of bloggers in this class; it's very inspiring and encouraging.

As for the rambling travel journaling... I think I can tell you about my European adventures without taking up quite as much of your time. Sorry Grandma, I know you enjoyed reading every last word!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Time Out!

Sorry to have to call a time out in the middle of telling you about Italy but we're heading for the airport in about 12 hours and remember what I said about not being about to blog when I'm feeling scattered? I can't believe it's time to head back to California for a visit already! I had hoped to be all caught up with the blogging by the today but obviously it ain't happening! It is so bizarre knowing we'll be back in the States tomorrow. I am thrilled to see my family and friends, I am anxious to shop all these great sales I keep hearing about (I am coming back with two suitcases and only one of them is even half full), and I hear the weather is going to be fantastic in San Francisco this weekend. At the same time I am feeling more at home than ever in Zürich, and I keep noticing new holiday decorations going up around the city... I almost hate to leave!

It's been a sprint to the finish, but I think we're going to be ready. I actually spent a couple of hours at the gym today, hitting spin class (I finally brought him a CD of good spin music, he was so blown away!) and sweating it out in the hamam (no gross men this time!). I feel like and relaxed now. Tonight we're going to the Sara Bareilles concert and then getting a few hours of sleep before we head off to the airport at 5am. Wish us luck! I'll see some of you soon... and I'm bringing chocolate.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Italy Part 1: Emilia-Romagna Adventure

The day we found out that CF would be taking this year long assignment I saw Mr. PZ on GoogleTalk. "Hey, when are you guys going to Italy?" I knew they had been thinking about going. So that was how I told the Z's the big news about our big Z, Zürich. And basically right from the start it was decided that we would all spend some time in Italy together. They picked set their itinerary, and we decided we'd like to see Siena and since they were going to Florence/Firenze for mostly weekend days we decided to revisit one of our favorite cities. Somewhere along the way we realized if CF took one more vacation day off from work we could spend two straight weekends on this trip so he and I decided to see some of the region known as Emilia-Romagna. Returning to Italy was one of the best parts of moving here, the anticipation was killing me as the date grew nearer.

We booked our train tickets to stop in Parma. We figured we'd spend a few hours in the city of ham and cheese before moving on to Bologna, where we had a room booked for three nights. The difference between Switzerland and Italy was clear to me the moment we got off the train. Italy is much more chaotic and rough. It took me by surprise, I think I had started to lump all of Europe into one too closely related image. Living here really makes you recognize the variations, and appreciate what makes each place unique. My first mistake made itself known very quickly, it turns out the reason I could not find info on the lockers at the Parma train station is that there are no lockers at the Parma train station! We went through a range of gut reactions and considered just getting on the next train headed for Bologna. We decided to feel out the situation a bit better and resolved to haul our suitcases around with us for as long as we could bear, and figured we'd just move on a little earlier than planned. I double checked with a hotel right near the train station that we couldn't pay to leave our luggage. "No, because of September Eleven." Interesting. We saw signs directing people to the Tourism Office, some place we rarely ever go, and I decided to ask them if they knew where we might find a locker. "You can leave your bags here." they said, "They're not locked up but we do not charge you, just leave identification while you're gone." Since even after just 20 minutes of dragging our luggage around had put us in a bit of a bad mood we decided to take our chances on this. We kept the laptop and camera equipment, the most anyone was going to get by stealing from us was our cheap American clothing and maybe a Tiffany's necklace.

We were so proud of making the best of our situation in Parma, so it was all the more of a blow to the ego when it turned out that all the restaurants and cafes were closing down between lunch and dinner just as we were finally free to sit down and eat. Very disappointing to see this happening just as we were about to get a meal in the foodie capitol of this foodie nation. We wandered around and saw a good portion of this small city. I suppose we were easing into Italy slowly and gradually this way. The streets seemed so empty! It was sort of odd. Eventually we found a cafe that was staying open between meals so we went inside. We actually had a really nice meal of ravioli and two different salads. And for dessert we went to a gelato place we noticed while wandering, and even on this chilly day in Parma we decided it was time to dive back into one of our favorite Italian habits! Their gelato was absolutely amazing, I had salted caramel and CF had pistachio. Delicious. I'd say our stop in Parma was justified in one small cup of frozen milk! We collected our bags, thanked them profusely for watching them for us, and made our way back to the train station and bought tickets for our short ride to Bologna. As we walked to the station we noticed the shops that were closed before were reopening and the streets had about 5 times as many people in them. Our poor trip to Parma was unfortunately timed right during a very serious siesta.

Our train was delayed, another reminder that we were no longer in Switzerland. But we got to have a nice conversation with a lady waiting with her friend for the same train. CF gave them his space on the bench we were waiting on and she told him that he was a sweetheart. She ended up telling us all about her trip to the US. She had been to so many places I have never been! New Orleans, Boston, the Grand Canyon. I think coming back after a year will make us pay more attention to not taking these places for granted. Our train finally came and everyone hurried on board. It wasn't long before we arrived in Bologna.

We were arriving a little bit earlier than expected so we took care of that by starting off in the wrong direction for a minute or two, but we corrected quickly. After a 15 minute walk we found the door to Múa Bed and Breakfast and got checked in. Our evening was a bit rough, one of our usual "first night in a new city" types of experiences. I wanted to go to a certain restaurant just around the corner from us but we went in right as they opened at 8pm and were told we could not dine without a reservation. So we went down a few doors to the wine bar I noticed on our way to the B&B but CF said he didn't feel like munching on happy hour snacks in a crowded bar. By that point we were so cranky that we just decided to call it a night and start fresh the next day. Going to bed early during one of our adventures seemed quite appealing anyway.

I woke up early the next morning after turning in for the night so early. We were the first ones in our small, 5 room B&B out to breakfast. The woman putting out the food was not the woman who checked us in the evening earlier. We helped ourselves to some great food while she made us our first Italian cappuccini. The best part of breakfast that day, and every morning in Bologna, was the prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. In Emilia-Romagna is should come as absolutely no surprise. Turns out our breakfast hostess was Danish, but some reason her accent sounded just like Catherine Zeta-Jones to me.

We spent a lazy Sunday wandering this new city, we knew very well that many places would be closed. However, we encounter plenty of good stuff. We stopped in at a coffee shop and enjoyed 1euro espresso, which after paying 4 or 5chf for crappy coffee in Zürich seemed like an amazing deal. They also had some very tasty cookies and some delicious looking gelato. Had the temperature been as scorching at 11am as it was during our first trip to Italy (in '05) we would have been ready, but we practiced a little restraint just this once. After wandering a bit more, through a park with rather strange statues and past a Spainish funeral procession, I noticed a good number of people going into an osteria. So we decided to grab some lunch. We were led downstairs and seated at a table for four. They were offering a few daily specials and then a wide variety of crostini and panini. We ordered a mixed crostini, a pasta dish and a meat dish. A full Italian meal split between the two of us. There was an interesting beer on the menu but he said it was finito. So CF order our first half liter of red wine. Ah, we're getting back into the swing of things now! I was a little embarrassed when it appeared that we were the first table in the room to get wine. But once our platter of yummy crostini showed up and the wine made them all the more enjoyable I didn't mind so much. The tables filled up, another couple was seated with us. The room was buzzing now! This was a great pick for lunch. By the time our pasta came I noticed most of the room was now drinking wine. We had to wait a bit for our meat dish, I think we got lost in the shuffle, but we made the most of it by ordering just a bit more wine.

After lunch we wandered in the direction of an award winning gelateria. Their dark chocolate gelato would make you weep! We were kind of frozen in our footsteps it was so good. We just stood outside and ate our dessert. CF went back in to use the restroom while I started to read some Bologna tips and recommendations contained in their news clippings posted outside their shop, "Could you grab me a business card while you're back inside?" I asked. I guess I sort of noticed when an alarm started going off, but I was lost in a fog of chocolate heaven. CF came back out of the door and walked right past me. I acted mildly offended, "Reaaaaally?" "Yes, really." He said. He sounded upset. Turns out he thought I was asking if he had set off that alarm I heard. And yes, he reaaaally had! He thought the toilet flushed when you pulled the cord. It turned out to be one of those emergency pulls that we had seen in every bathroom in Italy last time, but didn't think they really worked. Well, this one sure did. Hilariously, he had still grabbed me the business card even as he hung his head in shame and exited and quickly as possible.

We decided to head back for a bit of a siesta (and to shake off any lingering embarrassment). While we were relaxing in the room I heard music being played nearby and I leaned out the window to try to figure out where it was coming from. It turned out to be from the very small gang of musicians playing at the end of the alley where Múa is located. Somehow they spotted me almost right away and pretty soon they came down the alley, playing their 3 or 4 instruments and smiling up at me. CF threw down a coin and decided to take their picture. But right then they were stopped by our downstairs neighbors, it seems there was a baby napping and the music was much too loud. The buskers argued with the weary parents, while CF and I grinned down from above very amused at the scene playing out below.

We went back to a wine bar that we had gone past earlier in the day and enjoyed the happy hour culture. Basically as long as you're buying drinks you get to munch. This place had great jazz music playing and a huge wine list. For once we were just ordering the house red and the focus really was more on individual glasses of wine. I got to try a number of things I'd been curious about, like lambrusco (a fizzy red) and vin santo (somewhere between a dessert wine and port). They were cooking up little pizza bites and crostini to put out with potato chips and olives. We ordered a little extra antipasti plate and basically made a meal out of what we enjoyed there. Afterwards we went to another popular gelato place and had more amazing gelato. The girl behind the counted looked completely burnt out from a night serving rowdy University students. I selected a flavor that was a blend of white chocolate and cherries, I didn't know what flavor to combine with it (any other cream flavor would clash, but I wasn't sure it was quite right to put a fruit sorbet with it) so I asked for her recommendation. CF said that was the only time she smiled the whole time we were in there, and she picked out berry to put with my pick. Yum! Bologna is definitely a good time.

Monday morning we were the first to breakfast once again, this time because we had to get to class. I had signed us up for a one-day course in pasta making at La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese... Old School, baby! CF realized the code he thought he had assigned for our in-room safe was not working, and our train tickets from Florence to Zürich, as well as our passports, were inside. So along with a quick breakfast we got some assistance from the lady with the CZJ accent, she had the master key and we decided to leave the safe open for the rest of our stay. "It's too bad," I teased our breakfast hostess, "I thought we were just going to have to stay for good." She laughed.

We hurried off to class and found a very mixed group of people waiting in front of the school. It was in a mainly residential neighborhood, in a modest but charming little building. Everyone else was chatting in Italian, and I started to wonder if just because they said the class could be offered in English meant that they'd do it even if most of the students were Italian. From across the street we heard cries of "bongiorno!" and the fearless threesome that runs la Veccia Scuola made their grand entrance into our day. They were obviously forces to be reckoned with, beaming huge smiles and carrying armloads of cooking ingredients. This was going to be fun! We all filed inside and the youngest of the three teachers, Stefania, said hello to people and I let her know who I was. "Ah, it is you!" Turns out CF and I were her only students for the day. Her uncle was teaching the longer term but amateur course while her mother taught the regular professional students. We all worked in basically the same space, though the future professional chefs spent most of their time in the actual kitchen while we rolled out
sfoglia (pasta dough) in the prep room.

We measured out flour by weight and made it into a little bowl on our table, we cracked eggs straight into it and that was it, time to mix these two ingredients together. She showed us how to do it, first with a fork while it was sticky and then with our hands as it came together. I gently kneaded, hoping I was doing it right. But it was CF who made her gasp, "Oh NO!" He was smooshing it flat with every push of his palm. Doesn't know his own strength. Part of the appeal of fresh pasta is the little bubbles of air that remain in the dough and make it springy when you eat it. She gave each of our rounds of dough funny little taps trying to show us how mine "sang," as it was full of little holes. CF's? Not so much. We mixed filling that would later go into tortelloni while the dough rested and then it was time to role. She showed us how to get nice round flat sheets of sfoglia just waiting to be cut into any type of pasta. And for the most part we did pretty good at replicating her work. We made one sheet into bow-ties and another was folded over itself several times and then cut into tagliatelle. I liked unrolling the ribbons of pasta as CF did the slicing. Another sheet was cut into squares like the bow-ties started and then we used little gnocchi harps to roll the squares into penne like tubes. All the while the classroom buzzed with the sounds and smells of the kitchen. Stefania and her uncle would goof around while the students were focusing on a task. He'd pick her up and she'd yell for help. Every so often he'd bump into us on purpose and I would giggle. "Oh, sorry!" he'd throw up his hands and say, I couldn't quite tell how his English compared to his niece's.

The most fun we had all day was making the tortelloni and tortellini. We cut squares and piped ricotta and parsley filling into the centers. Apparently I was too modest with the filling, CF did a bit better filling them right. Pasta expands when it cooks at ultimately you want the tortelloni to be half pasta and half filling. At one point the uncle grabbed the pastry bag and went back over a few that I had done. He overloaded one and then playful scolded CF, "Is too much for tortelloni!" Without blinking CF pointed an accusing finger at me and the master pasta maker through his head laughing. He patted CF on the back. I think these two are rather like-minded. Just for the record, I had trouble folding these more filled squares!

The cooking class ended with most all of the students standing around one table filling tiny squares of thinly rolled sfoglia (Stefania rolled this one, we as beginners probably couldn't get it thin enough) and folding them into tortellini. The filling for these was a mix of pork and aged parmigiano. We had been on our feet for the couple of hours since breakfast and CF thought it smelled delicious, along with the scents of the food cooking in the kitchen. "Oh, it smells SO good." He whispered to me. The other students were whispering too, I tried to follow what they were asking Stefania but I just don't know enough Italian. I'm fairly sure I picked up that they wanted to know if we (CF and I) were only here for one day and were we already cooking students. CF said later that he got the overall feeling that they were generally impressed with us showing up and working so hard while we were on "vacation." The Italians don't realize the thrill of this for us!

Finally we all sat down to a huge meal together that we had made together. The pasta that we and the amateur students had made was the heart of the meal. The tagliatelle was served with a beefy ragú, the tortellini were in a broth so we ate them from a bowl with a soup spoon and the tortelloni were smothered in a fresh tomato sauce (the other pasta was dried so we could take it with us). The professional students had made the sauces as well as the braised beef and grilled vegetables that rounded out the meal. There was wine, there was water, there was bread that was barely touched because look at what we had to eat! Other members of Stefania's family had shown up to eat as well. It got to the point where we couldn't tell who was family, who was student, who was employee. This family style meal was just that, we were all family working together for the day and eating together was the perfect way to end this experience. Stefania's mother, who we had barely seen all day as she was ruling over the kitchen, sat across from me and teased CF that he "doesn't eat so much" after he filled his plate for the second or third time.

I left promising Stefania advice for her upcoming trip to Napa (which as I write this I realize has already happened, I hope she had an amazing time). We paid our bill once the class was over and felt that every euro cent was well spent. This class blew any class we've ever taken in the States out of the water. This is the kind of small business that you can't help but want to support. I wish nothing but the absolutely best for this amazing family.

After class we walked to the train station and bought train tickets for the next morning and then went and had a little down time after a long day of cooking. We finally met Uberto, our fabulous host, in person. I had spoken to him on the phone two weeks earlier and had managed to tell him that I spoke very little Italian but could understand a little more which he liked so he'd talk to me in Italian and then I'd respond in English. It worked well until the day's German lesson somehow slipped onto my tongue and a "Ja." came out of my mouth instead of yes or si. My poor scrambled brain!

After a rest we decided that we should take the opportunity to go see the indoor market that had been closed by the time we arrived on Saturday and was closed all day Sunday. Good thing we weren't hungry because the food there was incredible. It seemed like anything you could possibly think of to eat was in there, even imported produce for ethnic cooking. The large warehouse liking building was filled with food stalls, and along the sides were little shops where things like bread, salumi and fresh pasta were sold. It drives me a bit crazy to see stuff like this and not get to buy anything, but we were so glad to just know it's out there in the universe.

We wandered around and enjoyed the lovely evening. Eventually CF needed a restroom and I suggested stopping at a tiny little bar we happened to walk past. We ended up staying for well over an hour. They had the best happy hour spread we had seen, a huge quarter wheel of gorgonzola, little sandwiches, pizza, olives, crackers, and much, much more. They were playing even better music than the night before and the vibe there was so much fun. People were stopping in for a quick drink, a family was gathered around the high table next to ours, the father dancing a little to the music, one of the bartenders kept slipping away to flirt with a girl or two, while the older gentleman behind the counter just kept making drinks and snacks while looking impossibly cool. I could have stayed in that setting all night and been very happy. But all good things come to an end and happy hour must lead into dinner time. I tore myself away and when we left I noticed it was almost 8 and they'd want to be closing.

We wandered around looking for a place for dinner but nothing was going to compare to happy hour. How awesome is it that a tiny little no name bar can basically put Bologna way up high on my list of great cities? I'm sure Bologna was full of tourists, but they were Italian tourists, even the touristy restaurants are going to have good food. The city isn't perfectly clean, it beautiful portico covered walkways are covered in graffiti actually, but I felt safe everywhere we walked. I really got to feel la dolce vita here in this city just big enough to be exciting but small enough so that you could connect with the life in the people around you.

For the third morning in a row we were first to breakfast. This time because we a train to catch. We paid for our room and thanked Uberto's wife and our breakfast hostess (her face had even started resemble Catherine Zeta-Jones to me) for a wonderful stay. "I'm sorry about the tickets." Faux-CZJ teased me back for the joke I made the day before, "We should have kept you here forever." I quite agree.

Monday, November 10, 2008

London Whirlwind

So, now that we had started to learn some German it was time to visit an English speaking country. CF's good friend and former coworker, Mr. PB, was in London for two weeks and we had decided to go see him for the weekend in the middle. We booked plane tickets for Saturday morning and Sunday evening. That's right, an overnight trip to one of the most famous cities in the world, and I had never been there before.

It was my first experience flying out of Zürich airport, last year we left on the train. And the public transportation here had another chance to shine in my eyes. It was 2 or 3 minutes on the tram down to HB, trains to the airport run about every 10 to 15 minutes, and the ride to the airport is only about 10 minutes. We're talking come up the stairs and you're in the airport and ready to go through security. It's so sweet. Our arrival in London was not. We flew with EasyJet, and that meant landing way out at Luton airport. We had to fill out landing cards, one per household. I noted our visit was a whopping one day. "What can you do with one day then?" we were asked at passport control. I was wondering the very same thing. "Just a little weekend getaway, come to spend your money?" CF joked with him that their economy was doing about as well as ours. "We'll all go down together!" we were assured. I had consulted with JLF on the best way to get into the city center, but even if the express train hadn't been delayed it still would have taken a while. We arrived in Central London with just over 24 hours to explore.

The first order of business? A stop at Leicester Square and a visit to something rather familiar, the TKTS booth. I couldn't let my only night here go by without seeing a show, the boys would be happier without me tagging along anyway. Unfortunately the timing wasn't so good, the shows I'd wanted to see had closed, or were closed as they moved from the equivalent of "Off-Broadway" to the West End. I considered seeing a "classic," I haven't seen Les Miz or Phantom in years, it would be interesting to see them where they started. I thought about taking the opportunity to finally see Michael Ball perform, I used to think he was so dreamy and wore out my Aspects of Love soundtrack on cassette tape listening to him. Then I realized I'd just cry the whole time because he's playing Edna, the mother, in Hairspray, I couldn't bring myself to it. I was having a hard time deciding, I've seen many of the shows playing, I'm so spoiled/lucky. In my pre-trip research I somehow started reading about a brand new show, one with classically trained Flamenco dancers (Love!), sword fighting (Have I mentioned I am a huge sucker for swashbucklers?), and music by the Gipsy Kings (Really? Cool!). And even though I knew I'd be embarrassed every time I had to tell someone what I had chosen to see, I ended up buying a ticket for Zorro, the Musical. Go ahead and laugh, it's all right, I'll wait.

So after collecting a half-price day-of ticket I was feeling right at home in this city and we proceeded to our hotel. We were staying on a great street, just far enough away from the noise and chaos of Picadilly Circus. PDP stays here on business trips so we had a good recommendation, and I liked knowing we'd be so central since it was just one night! We got checked in, freshened up a bit, and we were finally ready to go track down PB for lunch. Poor guy had been waiting and waiting while we wasted the day away in transit. He informed us we were benefiting from some unusually nice weather and it was true, this was not the dark, gray London I had expected. The sun was shining, the people were speaking English and I had a ticket to the theater in my purse. Lovely! I had a nice lunch with them but then excused myself to go explore a bit.

I often say that everything I know about geography I learned from musicals. This is especially true of London. Most of the places I hoped to see were in song lyrics from one source or another. It's a quick mention but Harrods does come up in a song from Evita, a song which gets stuck in my head every time I hear something about that store. My interest was piqued, I took the Underground there. I found "the tube" to be muggy and slightly claustrophobic, but the goober in me was sold once the little voice said, "Mind the gap!" at one of the stops. Hee!

Harrods was overwhelming and mesmerizing. I wandered through the fancy clothes (I have to say, on my short visit I saw a number of men dressed in a way that can only be described as "dapper," loved it) and designer gowns a bit. I found the Aveda counter (I had learned in Dublin that they sell it at department stores in the UK) and considered buying a body spray I was regretting not purchasing before but then I realized it was more than 3 ounces so it wasn't coming home with me on the plane. I got a bit lost trying to find my way to the famous food halls and ended up in the basement looking at their branded merchandise. I bought myself a little makeup bag with a peacock feather pattern and the store logo centered on the front. The clerk who rung me up sure seemed to be sincere in all the nice things he said, and then he asked if I needed directions to my next department. At least they know how confusing their store is! I lied and told him I was fine, I'm so stubborn, I know. But I quickly found the food halls anyway, and enjoyed wandering there for a while. I did a double-take when I walked past the Galler Belgian chocolate counter, this was where I got Ms. LT the famous cognac filled dark chocolate bar in Brugges, the one that she tried to send me back for! The night before we left for London I had the funny feeling there was something I had hoped to purchase at this store and it was killing me that I couldn't figure out what it was. Mystery solved! I had looked up the chocolate brand a year ago when my beloved trainer had teased me about needing more. I was finally able to meet her demands! And I didn't even have to spend my own money, she was smart enough to send me off with a envelope full of euros she had from spending time with her family in Lucca (Italy), marked "Chocolate Fund." I hadn't expected to convert those to Great Britain pounds for her, and I also hadn't expect to be able to come home at Thanksgiving with exactly what she was hoping for. Very cool. My third and final purchase at Harrods was something that Ms. ShoppingsMyCardio had sent me after. She is a former London resident and happened to know that they had opened a Ladureé in the food halls, this is the most famous maker of macarons in Paris, and most likely the world. She had passed along some great advice on her old city and had requested I eat a salted caramel macaron in her honor. I did better than that, I had 4! The only thing I could see that I didn't like at Harrods was Krispy Kreme donuts, yes, they let them into the food halls too! And even worse, they appear to be doing good business, with people carrying large boxes of dozens away even as the business all but completely dies off in the US.

I wandered the neighborhood a little bit and then caught the tube back towards the hotel. Another tip from SMC was stocking up at Boots Pharmacy, and I was craving some skin care products! I don't quite know what's going on with my skin here but I know it's not happy. However I remembered that I was still limited in what I could get back to Zürich on the plane, stupid liquids limit! I got a few things and decided to get changed, since I had bothered to bring a nice shirt to wear to the theater. I checked in with CF via text message, they were drinking beers in a pub somewhere and having a fine time. And with that it was time to hurry over to the West End. The day was going too quickly!

My seat, as so many great TKTS seats have been before it, was up close and way off to the side. Not the best seat in the house, but quite an experience. The show was very good, a bit silly at times, but the dancing and music was seriously amazing. The swashbuckling was great too but it scared me to pieces, I was so incredibly close up I feared I'd end up a part of the action if Zorro ever lost hold of his sword. I saw sparks from metal hitting metal, it was crazy! At two different times and from two different directions Zorro swings in over the audience, and landed about three feet from where I was sitting. I ducked and was sure I was about to be kicked in the head both times. The fun part was eye contact from the flirty male dancers... some things never change. I know it was an odd choice but I thought it was fun to see something that will probably never transfer across the pond to Broadway. The show is getting great reviews and the cast is extremely talented. Given the lack of English language theater available in Zürich, I really revelled in this night. After the show I sent a text message to CF to see where he was and what was the plan. I waited for a reply and got one: he said they were almost done and just to meet him at the hotel. As I standing around communicating via iPhone I noticed members of the orchestra were departing from the stage door, and then cast members, and then, oh my god, Zorro himself. Hilarious, the actor was leaving on a motorcycle! A group of girls who were standing around wondering what to do after the show noticed him, I can't help but assume that he made sure of it. They screamed and begged for photos and autographs. I was highly amused. A crowd formed, even the drunken college students at the bar next to the theater were getting in on it, "Hey, come 'er guys! It's Zorro!" they called out. Eventually, when I'm sure his ego had been quite stroked, he put on his helmet and rode away from the crowd. What a scene! He was very good in the show, I have to say. And it turns out he recently played Che in the big Evita revival, making sure Evita stayed stuck in my head for days, and he also played the lead in a revival of Aspects of Love, the role originated by none other than Michael Ball. What are the chances?

I was very hungry at this point and decided to look for some takeout. Aha! Wagamama, an Asian-fusion place we had tried in Dublin. Ms. KZ is a big, big fan as they are very British. I ordered one dish to go and walked back to the hotel. I changed into my little nightgown I had packed to save space in my backpack and switched on the telly (it's in England so that's what it's called!). Red Dwarf reruns! It was even the episode with a guest appearance by Jane Horrocks (Bubbles from AbFab)! I sat in my comfy bed eating delicious noodles with chopsticks and decided I was having the perfect evening. And then CF came home. I don't mean to imply that it wasn't as good once he was around but he was jealous of my Wagamama meal, which meant getting dressed again and bye-bye Red Dwarf. We wandered around a bit and I showed off how I had learned to navigate the neighborhood pretty darn well in a matter of hours. Big Ben looked lovely in the distance, lit up against the dark sky. However by the time we made it past Wagamama they had just closed, so CF had to settle for scoop-and-serve Chinese food. As we walked back to the hotel he asked, "Are we going the right way?" And I knew it was a day of sitting in pubs speaking but I laughed as I answered, "Ummm, we're on our street!"

We slept a bit later than I had meant to, I was hoping to skimp a bit on sleep in order to pack more into our 24 hours in London. But the bed was oh-so comfortable! So oh well. We visited the breakfast buffet and served up a little bit of eggs and bacon along with a pastry. I noticed our plates were quite skimpy compared to the hearty appetites at the tables around us! We packed up what little we had brought with us and decided that with only a few hours before we had to start our trek back to Luton we should carry our backpacks instead of having to come back for them. We headed out with about four hours to explore.

We started with a walk through Green Park, it was another beautiful day! Then we saw a crowd at Buckingham Palace. Oh great, there was a marathon crossing our path! We walked along the runners for a ways, wondered if we could wait it out, and then followed the example set by plenty of others and ran through a break in the participants. We laughed the whole way across as our backpacks were jostled around and I hung onto my camera. Just what I'm sure those poor runners needed, American tourists tripping and falling in their way! But we managed to make it across and joked how we could now tell people we had run in a marathon. Onwards! We walked through part of St. James Park (I think I have my park names right, correct me if you know better), and then approached Westminster Abbey, the House of Parliament and Big Ben. We crossed the Thames on Westminster bridge, I believe it was pedestrian only because it was Sunday. Once we crossed we walked along the water for quite some distance. We saw the London Eye above us, St. Paul's back on the other side of the water (no time to visit up close, next time!), and bridge after bridge. We walked past the Tate Modern and the Globe theater but I couldn't see a darn thing from the outside. I had considered seeing the show playing there the night before but it wasn't even a Shakespeare play! Eventually we made our way all the way to the Tower Bridge. We sent PB a text message and asked if he wanted to meet up with us for a little while before we had to leave. We crossed the bridge and walked past the Tower of London. We got a couple sandwiches for lunch and joined the majority of people out and about that day in having a soft serve ice cream cone. PB met up with us just in time to wander around the waterfront a little longer before we jumped on the Underground one last time and headed towards Luton. There was a Boots at the airport after security so I got a little fix after all! However they didn't have the specific things I had wanted to buy, but it was still a nice little bonus. I liked London very much and will go back whenever I get the opportunity/reason. It was strange to be back in an English speaking country, but I think about half of what I overheard on the street wasn't English and a good deal of the English I heard had American accents! London is truly an international city. Perhaps even more so that expat and banker filled Zürich. Which is where we were a couple of hours later, shocked that we had only left the morning before.

Language Learning

Right around the one-month mark, I finally got an email indicating that our German lessons at CF's office would finally be starting! I was relieved and horrified at the same time. I was hoping to function a bit better while out and about in Zürich, maybe read menus better and be able to transition a conversation on the street into English a little more smoothly than, "Uhhhhhh, sorry." But I was worried because everyone always says German is so hard to learn, plus most of Zürich is actually speaking Swiss-German anyway, and really, I just don't enjoy language classes like some people I know. The first week I not only had nerves to deal with but a miserable cold. I was blown away on the first day when people seemed to pick the pronunciation in mere moments. Since then I've learned that many of these people have taken the class before and either dropped out or have come back down to the "Absolute Beginners" level. Plus the large majority of them are working on their third (at least) language, if they can learn English as a foreign language than German probably seems easier.

My pronunciation is awful, but I can already understand signs and announcements better. It's almost sort of annoying how many words I can pick up in public, but not quite enough to know what someone is saying. I took some shirts to be dry cleaned and ended up charging the 30chf the order was going to cost. As I was being rung up the woman behind the counter said something to the woman who had just come in the shop and was standing behind me, I heard the word "dreissig" and wondered if they were making fun of me. Very frustrating! But at the next shop I went into I recognized the word "fragen" when someone approached me, so I knew they were saying to let them know if they have any questions so I thanked them. Baby steps.

We have class twice a week, our teacher is great but the text book? Not so much. To avoid showing a preference for any native language, it teaches German in German, I'm constantly flipping around in my notebook looking up words. Our class is made up of people from all over. On the day we learned to say where we had come from she kept having to write different country names on the board. By the time we got around the whole room the board was full and half the world was represented there. People seem rather impressed that we've been showing up to class so regularly when we're only here for a year. I struggle a little bit with the amount of time it requires every week (trekking to the office, going to class, and all the workbook pages I have started doing just to be prepared to participate in class), but for right now it seems like the right thing to do. However, we'll be back in the States for two weeks, I'll be back for a week, then I'll be gone another week, and then we'll have house guests and holidays... hopefully I can keep up enough so I can jump back in full force when things blow over.

It gets all the more interesting when you look at the big picture. The week we started German class I was also trying to use some Italian over the phone making lodging reservations for the following week, and then we went out to a Spanish restaurant and were confronted with German speaking Spaniards... I can't tell you how confused I get sometimes! I end up wondering how well I know any language, even English. Well, we were going to speak some extra English that weekend; we had booked plane tickets to London!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

You only live once! (Warning: Crazy tales of Intoxication)

We had been in Switzerland a month, though it felt like longer and what with the French and Italian we had encountered along with German and Swiss-German we felt like we had been more places as well. But after a month in this country it was finally time to see more of Europe... and what better place to start than Oktoberfest in Munich? The train ride wasn't too long but we had reserved seats just to be sure. We left early Thursday morning, and boy, could you tell we were on the Oktoberfest train! I felt like the only female in sight, and the few others I noticed departed long before Munich. Two guys are boarded with us, one of them in lederhosen, who were very excited about where we were headed. To celebrate they were drinking schnapps and taking pictures of the guy riding across from them who had fallen asleep, as well as with a slightly befuddled train conductor. I could tell this was going to be interesting.

We arrived in Munich, hit an ATM for our first euros, and hopped on a tram towards our hotel. Another very exciting thing about this trip was that we would be meeting up with friends from back home. They had already been planning this trip and we asked if we could join them. AR and ML had lodging booked already so we decided to stay at the same place. Hotel rates during Oktoberfest are so obscene it's best just not to think about it, but the worst part was they didn't have any double rooms left! So we ended up with two single rooms next door to each other. Together our rooms made up the size of one double room, and the narrow beds were really just separated by a wall. We didn't really think about who took which room, but I later realized that if you took away the wall I was still sleeping on "my" side of the bed! Too funny.

M&A were already in Munich, they had arrived the day before from Greece, they were on a bit of an extended vacation. They had already gone to the fest to look for seats in a beer hall, so we hustled as much as possible to meet up with them. We got a text message that they were in the Paulaner tent at table 15, so that's where we headed. Hmmm, no sign of them. CF called A's cellphone. It was hilarious when they realized they were not in the same Paulaner tent because the brass band in our tent stopped playing while the music continued over the phone. We quickly found them once we were in the right structure. What fun to have company from California, well, actually they live in Oregon now, but still... They were only about half way through their first beer, which is plenty of course because we're talking liters! We toasted being at Oktoberfest together and all shared stories of recent travels. Weisswurst, Knödeln, Sauerkraut and one gigantic Brezel were all ordered and enjoyed while the beer seemed to just flow and flow. The beer hall was quite a sight to see, with the band was on a raised stage in the middle of the hall and hundreds of people crowded into tables like ours all around. The kitchen had dozens, if not hundreds, of chickens roasting. The large massen (the glasses that hold a liter of beer) were carried with ease by the bulking biceps and forearms of the servers (both male and female). Everyone was having a great time, there was singing, a little dancing on the table and we were happy to be with friends. At one point our waiter told CF to put out his hand and he tapped out a little snuff which CF was instructed to snort. He did it without hesitation, no surprise there, but what happened next thought was hilarious. We all did it, each of us later expressing shock and a little bit of dismay. M&A were particularly creeped out by the thought of it and CF just wonders why anyone would ever think that following his example was a good idea.

Usually when we reach a new city we're a bit lost and unfocused and end up dining somewhere not up to our expectations which leads to total and utter crankiness in this duo. A few hours into Munich we were quite satisfied and quite tipsy. CF decided he was done and wanted to go take a nap at the hotel, I got up and started walking out with him. That was when I made the enormous mistake of deciding that I'd actually like to stay and I sent him off to the tram and I tried to get back to M&A. First they didn't want to let me back in the hall. As the day wears on it gets harder and eventually impossible to gain entrance unless you have a table reserved (something that is not easy to achieve unless you've been going for years). To make a long story short, I wandered around a while, eventually got in through the side door but my friends were gone, and then decided to walk the long way back to the hotel since I didn't want to waste money on another tram pass (CF had carried away our double pass, A&M had a group pass so I could have gone with them). Well, remember I had just arrived in Munich and had gone straight to the hall, I had never seen a map. I didn't realize there were actually two ways out of the festival area, I followed the tram tracks but just couldn't seem to make any progress. This was because I was going the completely wrong direction! I stubbornly stuck it out for much longer than was reasonable and eventually the sun was going down and it was starting to rain, I swallowed my pride and caught a 20 euro cab ride home. Oktoberfest seems to ignite a fair bit of traffic! Remember when CF almost lost me at the station while we changed trains on our way to Cologne last year? Hmmm, he always trys to ditch me in Germany! The funny thing is because of the early start at Oktoberfest there was time for all this mayhem to go down and still go out to an 8pm dinner!

We agreed on an early start in the morning, it was the German reunification holiday, getting seats would not be easy. We decided to get to the Wiesn well before the doors opened at 10am... or so we thought that's what we were doing. I'm pretty sure you had to be there around 8am, and perhaps the doors opened around 9, by the time we arrived the halls were filled to maximum capacity and we stood outside in the crowds wondering what to try next. Of course this was when the pouring rain began and our little band of soggy "late" comers tried to stick it out for a while but eventually decided to cut our losses and try a beer hall elsewhere in Munich. We scored a table in Augustiner's hall, had some beers and a great lunch. I had venison, which was hearty and tasty and also added another point to my Omnivore's One Hundred score. The hall filled up, the line backed up outside, we were pleased with our decision to hit this place up when we did! We dried out, warmed up and everyone was happy again. The rain had pretty much stopped so we wandered Munich for a bit and somehow came to the conclusion that we should try our luck back at Oktoberfest, hoping to catch a break between the afternoon and evening crowds somehow.

The crowds were huge, there was an amazing amount of people watching opportunities. Some of the best was watching the amusement park rides, I just can't imagine those are a good idea with a belly full of beer! It is slightly easier to find seats in the beer gardens surrounding the halls, you just lose out on a bit of the atmosphere and have much less protection from the elements. When we saw an empty table we decided to make the most of it and have some dessert... an a beer. The sweets were delicious, but damn it was cold. AR was freezing and the cold beverage didn't help. He fell behind the rest of us and when a waiter came to collect our empties he decided to give the straggler a hard time and pounded the empty massen on the table while A chugged as best he could. I tried not to laugh. And A, I'm sorry for telling the story! It was too cold to sit still so we came up with the idea to see how many different gardens we could have a beer in. We moved on to a nearby garden and were looking for seats when I felt the increasingly unfamiliar feeling of warmth start seeping into my blood. Space heaters over head! My eyes went to the people at the table next to me at the moment, there was room for us if they were willing to accept us. The guys I had pegged to share some elbow room with shrugged and I corralled my shivering friends. Our frozen fingers had a hard time holding up the number "four" to show the waiter how many beers to bring. Our table mates laughed a little. But this is Oktoberfest, it wasn't long before we were all chatting and that was how I met David, Phillip, Phil and Chris. All about twenty years old, from a town near Frankfurt, and here they were enjoying their first Oktoberfest as well. New found friends and delicious heating? We settled in for the night.

The conversations had at that table were great. They taught us how to toast properly and shared their thoughts on American politics. The Germans were extremely pro-Obama ever since he spoke in Berlin back in July. "McCain is an asshole!" one of them exclaimed to my surprised and they all cheered and clinked glasses and laughed. I think there was a bit of beer talking. Speaking of beer, this is where the evening becomes fuzzy. M and I took a couple of trips to the ladies room (after being lost alone in Munich the day before I was determined to not be alone for the rest of my time there), the shock of the cold as soon as we left the proximity of our heated haven was incredible, but the wait was amazingly never bad at the restroom. Oktoberfest is clearly dominated by men, and the women who participate are appreciated, and respected, for the most part. We were flirted with in many different languages throughout the night. I was shocked to hear my name being shouted at one point and laughed when it turned out to be Chris from our table who had wandered off for a while. And on another trip back from the restroom, when my brain was particularly foggy, M grabbed my arm and leaned in and said, "You only live once." And she pulled. Later I would piece together that she had somehow tagged along with someone into the tent. We were in! But our husbands were not. Oh dear. We stayed a while, boldly joining someone's table and standing on the benches with them, beers were somehow put in our hands, we tried to sing along with the songs being played. It was almost too crazy to accept it was actually happening, "I've lost my head and it's all because M only lives once!" I thought. Eventually I wimped out and dragged the party queen back outside into the cold with me and we rejoined our guys. I think I was a bit relieved to have the group reunited, and I celebrated with a little more beer. Which is just about where my clear recollection of the night ends!

The next morning I woke up in my silly single bedroom barely remembering how the heck I had even gotten back there. I picked up my camera and looked at the last photo taken. Suddenly I remembered seeing CF taking my picture, and I remembered wondering why he had moved to the next table over. Well, it turns out that it was I who had moved. I had decided to make even more new friends, the young ones were falling asleep at our original table, and I had joined a group of guys who today I could not tell you where they were from or what language they spoke. I couldn't even tell you what they looked like if I hadn't seen their photo on my camera, with me blowing kisses at CF in the middle. Oh my.

Eventually we all rallied and made it out the door. Mercifully, since I couldn't stomach the thought of beer, we decided to see more of Munich and not try to fight for seats on the last Saturday of the Fest. We saw Nymphenburg Castle, had some lunch, and wandered through Munich's fantastic outdoor market. One booth had intriguing bottles of schnapps of different kinds, each one displaying a picture of whatever fruit or plant gave the liquor its essence. CF fixated on one bottle, it had a picture of a bear. "Woah, what is it?" He said, like we would know. He was obviously curious but started to walk away. Then he asked if we could go back, he picked it up again, talked himself out of buying it again and then walked away dismayed, "I'm going to regret not buying that bear liquor for the rest of my life." Were more ridiculous words ever spoken? "Then go get it!" I instructed and realized that A and M were both saying the same thing with me. And so, the bottle was purchased and was carried for the rest of the day. We huddled into a stand selling some tasty cappuccinos and cookies and then took a little subway ride out to the huge and beautiful English Gardens. We had a lovely stroll through the park. At one point the sun was starting to set and the autumn colors were lit gorgeously and a group of ducks had somehow decided to march single file over to the stream and go for a single file swim. So cute! We were all very happy to have covered some great ground in Munich. And now, what to do for our last night? No one could even pretend that they thought we could get in to a beer hall, but we decided to go back over there and check out the food stands that we had mostly been ignoring since arriving.

We ended up having a great meal patched together at different stands. I enjoyed some of my favorite tastes from traveling last year: frites with mayo and apple slices dipped in batter and fried. We all agreed that Oktoberfest was an amazing event. It could never happen like this in the US. Everyone would be drinking out of tiny plastic cups, there would be fights and yet also police force everywhere. I'm not saying that craziness wasn't the overarching impression here, but it somehow was all happening without much of anyone getting hurt and/or angry. A&M's flight home to the States was quite early the next morning so we headed back to the hotel. CF and I had a great time with them in Munich, we hadn't traveled with them before and we definitely found them to be kindred travel spirits. We said our goodbyes that night, by the time we woke up in the morning they were gone.

We packed up our suitcase and headed to the train station. We wanted to do something with our last couple of hours in Munich but didn't want to have to return to the hotel so we left our stuff in a locker. CF was torn between returning to the Wiesn for one last shot at a moment in the halls or going back to the market we had seen the day before. I said I thought I had done Oktoberfest right (in large part due to Ms. M) and didn't need to go back but I was up for anything. Would you believe he actually picked the market? And would you believe we actually didn't think about the fact that it would probably be closed? We wandered a bit more through Old Town Munich and realized it just might be time to visit the Hofbräuhaus. It's packed with tourists, it's what Sudwerk could have been like before the booted everything German from their menu, but everyone knows it and we had been told it was worth seeing. We went in the door around 11 and sat right down at a table. The room smelled like stale beer and the guys at the table across from us had maybe been there all night, one of them was still asleep. We decided to move further into the restaurant and the crowd quickly filled in around us. We were joined by a mixed group of Germans and Americans, one of the German guys had been an exchange student with one of the Americans (also, one of the Germans confirmed my suspicion about the "bear liquor" that CF was cradling in his backpack with a disgusted face after being shown the bottle). There was a band playing songs herd at the tents, spirits were high, I wondered if the waitresses were relieved that Oktoberfest was coming to an end. Our meal was actually very tasty and one of the cheapest we had in Munich. I got into the setting enough to even have part of another beer (my first since Friday). CF had a great time and stated that this experience was great closure to his time here. And when I let him finish my beer he said it now could not be more complete. That sounds like our cue to go get on a train!

The train was absolutely packed, thank goodness we had those seats reserved. People looked tired, a long weekend in Munich had worn us all out. At one point during the ride home a man came down the aisle selling Heineken, the gruff looking German across from me looked and laughed a little, like the mere sight of it hurt him. Further down the car there were English speakers watching little movies taken on digital cameras and the familiar sounds of Oktoberfest filled the air one last time.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Wo Wohnen Sie?

Taking a break from the story telling for a second, I just have to get this out...

From my first experience with international travel (India) to moving here most of five years later I have pretty much always answered the question: "Where are you from?" with "I am from California." It started because the people in India usually wanted a specific answer, but I also knew it told people more about me than just saying that I was from the United States. I love California. While traveling the country with the band in college I saw plenty of nice places, but where was the variety? I even met some nice people, but I met many more of the unpleasant variety. While traveling in Ireland I saw many gorgeous hillsides, cliffs, beaches... they were on a grander scale than I was maybe used to, but I felt so spoiled when I realized that every place reminded me of Mendocino, Santa Barbara, Big Sur... and so on. I have fallen in love with spending time in New York City, but I've never seriously considered moving there because I couldn't really imagine leaving California for good.

The expats in Europe are all celebrating the end of having to be embarrassed of being from the US. And it's true, it's nice to be proud to say it! But the moment is a bittersweet one right now, as one friend put it on Facebook: "More proud to be an American than a Californian for, like, the first time ever." After this week I guess I'm going to have to practice how to say "the United States" because my heart has broken a little each time recently that I've given my usual answer. The Swiss are being their usual neutral selves and no one has really shared their thoughts on the matter of gay marriage. This struggle for civil rights is not over, but right now my sadness is the lost feeling of state pride, and it kills me. 52% of the people who voted in California have made it feel further away than ever. I can't believe I have friends whose own family would vote to remove their rights. I really thought we were more accepting and loving than this. I am ashamed.

I recently got back in touch with a friend from a show I did back in 1994 who started dating this great guy at the same time that I met my great guy. Even after all these years he was so genuine when he told me that they are still hoping to get married some day (this was about a month ago). This week he said that he thinks it's great that so many people would happily celebrate their, and that he believes the other people will come around. His optimism was one of the few comforting outcomes of this stupid vote.

I don't really have anything new to say on the actual issue so I won't really get into it. I just believe in love and that it's always the right answer, so there you go.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Alternative Setting

The funny thing about me blowing out my legs hiking down Monte Bré was that back in Zürich I had a meeting with a trainer at my new gym scheduled for the next day. Luckily it wasn't anything like I was expecting, I had been told it was a "fitness test" by whoever it was that scheduled it for me. Instead the trainer showed me around the gym and wrote down a strength training program for me to follow. I think he didn't quite believe me when I told him how strong I am, he kept telling me he didn't know any women who could lift what I said I could do easily. Near the beginning of our meeting I told him how much weight I've list in the past couple of years, it took a moment to sink in as I'm sure he sort of converted it to kilograms in his head. His eyes got really big, "Mamma mia!" he exclaimed, and please note: he is not Italian.

It turned out that he did want to do a bit of a fitness test, I think he just couldn't wrap his head around what I was telling him I could do. So the next day I came back and met with him again. I was set up with a heart rate monitor on a stationary bike. He had me start pedaling at a certain speed and told me he'd increase the resistance every three minutes until my heart rate got up to a certain point. I had to go twice as long as he was expecting before I was over 150bpm. He kept asking if I was all right, "Yep, I'm just fine!" I was so amused at how I was puzzling him so. He crunched some numbers afterwards and told me I rated in above average fitness level. I guess you can be super fit and still be overweight (according to so beloved BMI chart I am actually still just into the obese category). This did encourage me to start using my heart rate monitor more at the gym, I think I had been pushing my speed too hard with the running and I was over-stressing my legs.

Speaking of my poor legs... I was still hurting from our hike down the mountain! I thought a little extra heat might help so I decided to take my first visit to the hamam. I scraped together 5chf from the coins in my wallet, this pays for the extra stuff required to bathe (a towel to wear, the scrubbing mitt, the copper bowl for rinsing, the robe to wear after). They even had brand new directions in English! I was to sit in one steam room for 15 to 20 minutes, then go scrub and rinse, then soak in a medium temperature pool for a while, then a different steam room, then scrub again... I was glad to have instructions and a floor plan! I liked the experience. It felt very refreshing, which surprised me considering the trouble I've had in humidity before. It was a little odd getting into a pool wearing just a towel, I decided to just sit on a bench but a couple of people were managing to move around the pool just fine. The instruction card said very clearly to wear your towel at all times: no nude bathing. Imagine how startling it was then to be sitting in the next steam room and suddenly the guy who just entered the room with his girlfriend rips off his towel and slaps it down on a bench to lay on. Ummmm, okay, I think I'm going to move sort of around the corner so I don't have to look at that, thanks! I managed to mostly banish them from my awareness and enjoyed the rest of my Hamam experience. It looked like some people were going back for another round of soaking and/or steaming, I just followed the directions I was given but maybe the routine is a little more choose-your-own-adventure than I thought, the dress code obviously is! The hamam appears to be wildly popular, the locker room is always full of girls putting on red and white checked towels while the cardio room where I spend so much of my time is often quite and half empty. I'm looking forward to thawing out there this winter if I ever start to turn into an ice cube.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Not quite Italy... but we can see it from here!

Lugano was chosen as our rebound from so-so day tripping to Lucerne the previous weekend. Why was I so certain this was the place to help us bounce back? It's in Ticino, the Italian speaking part of Switzerland! Ticino is actually surrounded by Italy on three sides, it just dips down into "the boot" like a little peninsula into another world. Lugano is quite close to Milan and Lake Como. We reserved a hotel room with a few days notices as opposed to a few hours like our last weekend trip. The train ride was twice as far, three hours, so we figured we should be well prepared. We packed one suitcase with a change of clothes and after reading about the hiking found in the area we packed our newly arrived boots. They were too late for a Gruyeres cheese hike but we knew we could still put them to good use! The train ride was ridiculously pretty. It was like we had been sucked into someone's ideal model train setting. Hills and tunnels, bridges and meadows... CF said he expected to see Heidi running by any moment now.

We arrived in Lugano and wandered a bit before we figured out how to find our hotel. We got a peek at the Lake and I knew we were in for some lovely views! The last time we had been in an Italian speaking setting (besides the restaurant down the street from us) was my family's 2005 trip to Italy, only the second time that CF and I had traveled out of the country together. We had taken an Italian class before going, but it had been years with no brushing up. Like trying to remember some French in Fribourg, Lugano tripped us up with Italian. But it wasn't too long before we got a bit of it back, at least enough to be polite. We mostly just wandered that day and enjoyed feeling like we got our Weekend Travel Warrior groove back. For lunch we had a disappointing pizza and for dinner some bizarre Chinese food. Hmmm, I didn't think the food would be so bad when you can pretty much see Italy right across the water! What's going on here? We did have a good time getting reacquainted with Italian culture, you know, like gelato and prosecco happy hour drinking!

The next day we put on those hiking boots and took off in the direction of Monte Bré. We hadn't done a whole lot of reading but we knew the experience included taking a funicular up the mountain and then there was hiking to be done up on top. So when we got to the ticket booth and they asked if we wanted round trip fare for the funicular we both nodded and wondered if this guy was crazy... of course we were going to come back down! We got seats on the funicular as it was filling up and off we went, into the sky. There were a bunch of kids on some sort of excursion together in the different sections of the strange vehicle. It was the littlest one who noticed CF and I speaking English to each other though, I realized this when I heard her mother, or maybe teacher slowly whisper to her, "Where are you from?" She was prompting her! The little girl looked at me but shied away, I tried to think of a way to start talking to her but got distracted by the amazing view revealed as we came to the top of the mountain.

It was incredible. Perhaps the grandest view of my lifetime. And we both agreed that my mom would cry (this is our new way of judging the beautiful things we see). We meandered around a bit, I think the view had blown our minds. And then we saw the trails sign. Ohhhh. All of the sudden we realized we had overpaid our funicular fare; if we really wanted to hike, we were not leaving this mountain the way we came. We almost got a little overly ambitious and took off in the direction that would have actually brought us down into Italy. However that hike was pushing three hours in predicted duration and we weren't carrying any water or food. So instead we decided to descend towards the water, it was estimated to take about an hour and a half and the view appeared to be dazzling. So after soaking in just a bit more gloriousness we started downwards.

It started with 10 minutes of cement stairs and then we arrived in the small town of Bré. Then we found our trail and I quickly realized this was not going to be easy. The trail was almost entirely made up of steep, steep stairs. CF's long legs climbed down the path easily. My legs are quite short and it wasn't long before my quads were tingling. I wasn't sure at first if it was muscle fatigue or if I was shaking a bit from worrying I was going to fall and go tumbling down the hillside. Maybe it was a bit of both. CF was a great hiking partner, he had brought his backpack and when he realized I was nervous he took my heavy camera and carried it whole way. Halfway through I thought to myself, "I'm not having fun. But there's no way I'm going back up that hill so all I can do is keep going!" After a little while the drop off the side of trail wasn't quite so... severe and I relaxed and actually enjoyed the hike. I hadn't had a tough work out like this in quite some time!

Most of the way down we were actually enveloped by trees, so much for the great view! Eventually (closer to two hours later), the trees opened up and we were deposited into the small town of Gandria, right on the water. Hungry and thirsty from our adventure in funicular-fare-wasting we quickly spotted Ristorante Gandria and decided to have lunch. We were given a lovely table out on the terrace and had a great meal. It was the kind of meal I was expecting to have in Lugano, aha, maybe you need to get out of the more touristy city! Once we started to get into the right mindset CF thought to order a half-liter of house red wine, and we were happily accommodated. We had a nice caprese and a great polenta dish (which is the Ticino specialty) with braised beef goulash served over it. The bad side of the hike sort of faded away and I was just so pleased to be right where I was, somewhere I couldn't have planned to end up.

Gandria itself turned out to be teeny tiny and practically spilling into the lake. We figured out this was our chance to get out on the water and bought tickets for the next boat back to Lugano. There were two restaurants right by the boat dock, each with a large back patio filled with happy diners. There was a man playing accordion in one patio and a few people were dancing. Including the chef! It was all very charming. The small waiting area we had filled with people as we waited most of an hour for the next boat. Scoring seats on the outer deck or even by a window was out of the question, so it wasn't the best boat ride but it got us back to our luggage quickly. During the 20 minute boat ride I saw little hotels and restaurants along the water. I wouldn't actually recommend staying in Lugano, if I were going back I'd stay somewhere just out of town and on the lake. This was a happy little paradise.

We hadn't learned much from our wander the day before and getting back to the train station didn't go so well. The good part was getting another gelato, I tried to order two fruit flavors together: melon and strawberry. However, my pronunciation of "melone" sounded too much like "marroni" and we ended up with creamy chestnut! CF was a good sport and ate most of the erroneous cone while I had chocolate and hazelnut. We ended up climbing a terrible flight of stairs, between CF carrying our shared suitcase and my blown out legs we were very unhappy. We just caught a train though, so we didn't have to wait at the station once we were there. Maybe we should have waited, the timing of our departure meant that we were on a route that required a train change. And oh what a change it was. A whole slew of people ran from our train to our new one just across the platform and we found one very full train. The older gentleman who had crossed the platform found a seat and I was glad for him. We were not so lucky, so we started walking towards the other end of the train, one car at a time. There were no seats to be seen. We passed some open space where two people had settled on just standing, my gut told me this was the best we were going to do but for some reason we kept going. A bunch of people in front of us just gave up and decided to stand in an exit way, leaving us bottle-necked behind them in the aisle. The seated passengers were started to look up at us annoyed by our semi-hovering. There was an Indian family behind us who were budging when we turned around hoping to go back. I guess they thought they could somehow move forward? We squished through them and then found a man standing in the aisle holding a dog. And he wouldn't budged either. It was all very weird and suddenly the language barrier seemed worse than ever, when you find yourself in a bind and needing of some extra understanding it is best if you can at least ask for help nicely. CF lifted the suitcase up, trying to lift it over his head so he could get past this man with the dog. The train car rattled a bit, CF stumbled and BAM, went our suitcase into the face of a man in the seat next to this hot mess. I was horrified. CF, who had been insisting on using his Italian all day poured out apologies in English. What an awful moment. We mostly just kept walking, we needed out of that car. We got back to the open space and found a little corner to lean in. I found looking out the window of the exit door fascinating but riding while standing up was making CF motion-sick. I'm not quite sure how long we rode like this, but finally there was a stop that was fairly big and enough people left so we were able to snag seats. The train car was muggy and smelled awful. Why is Sunday travel always so miserable? We could not have been happier to arrive back in Zürich that evening. We take the good with the bad, and this trip included that incredible view, challenging hike and rewarding meal so we did our best to shake off the terrible train ride. However we did agree that we needed to reserve seats when traveling on Sundays whenever possible from here on out!

Small World

A long, long time ago I said I was going to tell you about the small number of degrees that seem to separate the people I meet here. Now, that's not too many people really, but it is clear to see that while a large percentage of Zürich are expats (I've heard anywhere from 20 to 30%), the overlap in social circles is huge. CF let me know a while back about the spouses group made up of people (I won't lie, it's all women) from around the world. I've met great ladies from England, Scotland, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Sweden, Australia, and yes, even a few from the US. Sitting at my first coffee with them I realized that one of them knows some of the bloggers I had been following since learning we'd be coming here. Bloggers often reference other blogs with links, and clicking away from one I'm subscribed to I quickly came to a reference to one of the spouses I had met via email before moving here, but unfortunately for me she was moving back to California right around the same time. This spouse is also a blogger (are you confused yet?), and she told me I should meet up with yet another blogger who was moving back to Zürich, having lived her for a number of years not too long ago. She and I had coffee one day, she showed me where to get the best cappuccinos in town, and then it turns out that someone who works for the company from which I quit to come here was her college roommate. It almost seems silly sometimes how everyone knows everyone.

The catch is that the expat community is also likely to move on. People are more than courteous but real relationships are hard to establish when you know that chances are high that your new friend will move on. I've pretty much have come to see myself as a lousy candidate for "friend." I disappear almost every weekend and I know already that I'm only here a year. I have no expectations of anyone really reaching out to me. That being said, everyone is so nice. It's a great support system!

Even our friends from the great night out with Italian food and beer have moved back to California, they were here for two and a half years and were ready to go home. Luckily, another part of this small world theme is visits from friends from California. The internet seems to be keeping me connected with my friends and family via instant message chatting, Facebook status updates, and video conferencing (I can already see how my little niece has changed since I last saw her in person). Every so often I start to feel out of touch and somehow that ends up being the day I Skype with my mom or exchange snarky comments on Flickr with Mr. Bertha (FYI, he told me to call him this, long story involving a Lady) and then I feel okay with the world again.

And while we're on the topic of the world and whatever size it is. Here's a gorgeous sunset as seen from our balcony. The weather has gone colder and I miss eating dinner out there already! Wait until you compare the view we saw just a few weeks later!