Thursday, 29 March 2007

Coffee Crisis

I have a terrible confession to make: I kind of want to go to Starbucks.

I really don't like Starbucks. Actually, I've never really given them much thought, but I'm sure they are evil in some way. I think I mainly dislike them because my friend Lidia used to always complain about them (she is Canadian and I think she secretly thought they might one day take over from Tim Hortons, coffee chain beloved of Canadians), and also because they seem to exclusively serve horrible coffee in idiotically large sizes.

The Starbucks in Aarau is pretty, though. It is in a nice location next to a park (although admittedly half the park is taken up with a kiddy playground. There are never really any kids in it, though, possibly because the ground is covered in gravel and if you fell over you would probably lose all your skin as a consequence) and the seats they have in the shop look really comfy and there is a huge outdoor section where there is always sun shining on at least some of the tables. The tables are big and people seem to sit there for half the day with their books and newspapers and laptops and sunglasses (although perhaps only because it would take half a day to drink such an idiotically large coffee).

When Reto and I walk past we often make lame, predictable jokes about going there and ordering a grande komodo-dragon half-caf skim soy americano caramello-hazelnut frappuccino (or something equally idiotic. These jokes were funny when LA Story came out; they aren't any more). It's sad because this is what it probably would be like if we actually went there (we would order idiotic things that came in cups the size of buckets and sit there drinking them until we became lactose intolerant or died of disappointment), but it would be nice because it would be in the sun, in those comfy-looking seats.

There is a coffee shop in Aarau that I really like. It's called Gossip and it's all dark and weird (the other day they had polystyrene rabbits as decoration in one corner of the room. Bizarrely, the rabbits were facing the corner of the room as though they were being punished for being naughty. Or possibly it was supposed to be reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project. This might be more likely, actually, because the next day they had mysteriously vanished. Possibly they had been hideously killed and dismembered, not necessarily in that order. Then again, maybe they had just finished being naughty. Or maybe they were just polystyrene rabbits and I wasn't supposed to take any sort of message from them). Gossip is really cosy and nice and they always give me interesting coffee cream things with wacky pictures of camels on them (I am going to explain that one day. Suffice to say that in Switzerland it is not uncommon to whiten your coffee using very small portions of cream that come in little containers like you used to get long-life milk in) and they have recently made one side of it a non-smoking side.

I intend to resist the evil lure of Starbucks. After all, their coffee is truly hideous, and I don't like being in the sun anyway. I should try to remember that.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Boring Wednesday - laundry

I've been wasting my time reading all sorts of other people's blogs lately, and since I can't think of much else to talk about here lately, I am going to blatantly steal ideas from other people and introduce Boring Wednesday, although since that has no alliterative charm at all, I am going to call it Monotonous Mittwoch (which is wednesday, people!) and talk about something uninteresting (not to be confused with recent posts).

Laundry here is confusing. The only school of laundry thought that I am familiar with is the one where you wash basically everything together in cold water. I am willing to wash some stuff on the gentle cycle, and I am even willing to do a very small amount of hand washing occasionally, but that's about it, frankly. Not here, though. Here the washing machines are covered in all sorts of stupid buttons that do all sorts of unfathomable things (I spent aaages the other day reading the manual for a weird old-fangled washing machine, trying to work out which buttons made it work properly and which were there just to confuse me. Which doesn't sound so arduous, except that the manual was in german/french/italian and frankly, I don't know any foreign words for any laundry-related terms), and Reto has some obsessive compulsive disorder about washing different things at different temperatures and with different types of laundry liquid. Which is all well and good if he wants to do the laundry, but as I am more often than not the only one doing it, I'm not sure I'm willing to play by his rules. I'm not really sure that I see the point.

Does washing stuff in warm water make any difference? As far as I can tell, the only difference is that it kills my socks more quickly. And what's the point of separating different coloured clothes? Is it to protect them from the clothes-ruining effects of washing them in warm water? Because that sounds a lot like making trouble for yourself.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Not A Very Interesting Tale

Owing to overwhelming requests from my adoring public, I am bringing to you a non-comprehensive, and largely non-offensive, account of Being A Spectator At A Curling Match.

You turn up. As so often happens in Switzerland, there are eating opportunities aplenty. The curling hall place is basically a small ice rink thing and a restaurant that sells allegedly the most delicious apple pie ever, but I am not in a position to either confirm or deny that. Their coffee is perfectly acceptable, though, and there is also the endless entertainment of seeing what picture you will get on the lid thing of your coffee cream thing (I seem to be haunted endlessly by camels lately. I realise that this probably doesn't make any sense. Maybe I'll clear it all up on some other slow news day).

I was expecting that the ice rink would be a normal one, ie. big and oval with small children falling over on the peripheries. The rink here is small and rectangular, all marked up with curling lines and things, and is OBVIOUSLY NOT A RINK ON WHICH ANY SORT OF NON-CURLING ACTIVITIES WILL TAKE PLACE. Not to perpetuate any unfair and outdated stereotypes, but you should remember that this is Switzerland after all, home of not having fun and then tidying up after yourself.

Curling, as I have said before, is basically lawn bowls in warmer clothes. Not that I really know how to play lawn bowls either, nor do I know what the rules are (in spite of the fact that I chose it for school sport on more than one occasion. When I wasn't busy playing golf, the other slacker's choice of low-impact torment at school. Sadly I didn't go to one of those schools where "going to the beach" or "dancing in a nightclub" was considered an acceptable sport substitute, and I'm sure that that was not only because the closest beach to my school was hundreds of kilometres away, nor that there was only one nightclub in town and if you went there you were in danger of running into your maths teacher who was out drinking more than can be appropriate for a supposed role model type, blahblahblah). Anyway. Curling is the same as lawn bowls if lawn bowls is like this:

There are 4 people on a team. You try to bowl your bowls to the target area, which is marked on the grass. The people on the other team try to knock your bowls out of the way, or they try to get their bowls closer to the middle of the target (aka the kitty) than yours are. You get a point for each of your bowls that are both within the designated target area and closer than the closest of your opponents bowls to the kitty. The captain of the team stands at the target end and tells you where to aim for by pointing in a strangely effete manner with a rake (which seems a whole weird science of its own, what with the curly nature of the path of the bowl and the fact that blocking the path of your opponents is often a better strategy than just trying to get your bowls near the kitty), and the other two team members either enthusiastically rake the grass in front of your bowl, or they don't, depending on whether the bowl needs help to get to where it is trying to go or not. And then, when everyone has had a go and points have been won (or not), you start again from the other end. And then again and again, up to 10 times until you have (finally) finished a match.

Obviously to fully understand the above as curling the following substitutions must be made: ice for grass, rocks for bowls, button for kitty, house for target area, skip for captain, broom for rake, and sweep the ice for rake the grass.

So. You sit there with your coffee and your book and you watch people bowling bowls or throwing rocks (or whatever it's called) and sweeping and strategising, and one of the first things you notice is that the only reason there are 4 people on the team is so that there are enough people to do the sweeping. Basically, whatever the first two people do with their rocks is pretty irrelevant, because they have long been knocked out of the way by the end of the match. Even the third player is a bit peripheral to the outcome, frankly.

The next thing you notice is that curling is a sport that all ages can embrace. There is lots of bending of the knees involved, so possibly it wouldn't be the sport of choice for my mother (who has one gammy knee these days, as well as a fake hip) but it seems that anyone with functional knees and a reasonable sense of balance can embrace it. The chance of being injured seems minimal, too, although Reto did have a big horrible blistery thing on his thumb after playing last weekend (very similar to a wound I once got while tenpin bowling, actually). Anyway, in a heartwarming display of community or the universal appeal of slow, dull sports, the ice was dotted with oldies and youngies and the odd person in between. Not that I am implying that my boyfriend is particularly old or young or odd.

And then ... well, I'm not sure there is a whole lot more to it, actually. They play thousands of ends and then the winning team buys the losing team some drinks and it's all very jovial and friendly. Then you go home and your allegedly sporty boyfriend uses his pathetic thumb wound as an excuse not to do the washing up.

Incidentally, on the weekend, Reto's team was trounced in their first match, and then they did the trouncing in the second one. I don't remember the scores. I was too busy reading.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Stealing Is My Hobby

I was reading an article in the paper a while ago about books that people never get around to finishing reading. I haven't really thought about it that much, but I can't think of many books that I have started and then abandoned. The last book I read (The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion) was annoying but I kept going. The book I read before that (Freakonomics, by two people, one of whom might be called Steven) seemed kind of patronising but I kept going (although admittedly not through all the appended articles at the back). Maybe this says more about the sort of books I read than my fondness for endurance and masochism, but maybe not.

This post could now go one of two ways. My initial thinking was that it would turn into me waffling about how I generally don't abandon things half way through (which is why I had the same job for seven years, and also why I have two vaguely useless undergraduate degrees), but then I thought of several million examples of why that is wrong wroong rong, and they are all a bit depressing to reflect on, so I am not choosing that option.

Instead, this is turning into a post about my favoured method of reading. Or rather, my favoured method of choosing books to read. I like to steal them. Only from youth hostels, mind you, so it's probably not actually stealing, but it seems that little bit more exciting when you think about it that way.

Youth hostels, for those of you too old or with hygiene standards too high to know, tend to have bookshelves full of crappy books that other scummy backpackers have abandoned. Usually the selection is ridiculously small, and half comprised of things in pesky other languages that can conveniently be instantly dismissed. This is why youth hostel bookshelves are better than libraries - you have far less choice and so you are forced to read things that you perhaps wouldn't otherwise have chosen. Anyway, you choose the least offensive book you can find, you read it, you abandon it at some other youth hostel.

I started doing this in earnest in Norway, where the selection of Mills & Boone-style romance novels is remarkable. Never have I come across so many recently-bereaved widows who had married the lovely but unexciting best friend of the man they truly loved, nor so many lovingly detailed descriptions of lingerie in all my life. Sadly this isn't the case in Switzerland. Over the last few weeks I have visited about five hostels (this is part of the charm, too, wandering in and trying to look as though you are staying there and not like some scumbag who has only popped in to nick the best books then leave) and of the 5 or so books that I have taken, only one has been really good (A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which was super). Sadly, though, it doesn't mean I haven't read them all. Which strikes me as a bit of a waste of time.

Maybe the answer is to save time by giving up on more things half wa ...

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Veni, Vidi, Vici

In spite of what I am fairly sure was determination never to go and watch Reto curl again (never to watch Reto play curling? Never to watch Reto take part in a curling match? Never to watch Reto play some moronic sport involving gravel and ice and brooms? What is the correct terminology here?), I inadvertently went last weekend. And lived to tell the tale.

It's not a very interesting tale, and I suppose that last sentence is actually inaccurate because I have not told the tale and I have no intention of telling the tale (I can't imagine who would want to hear it), but I feel quite smug that I went, I saw, I conquered (conquered my fear of going there again, that is). I won't mention the fact that I was several hours late owing to a poorly (or perhaps not so poorly...) planned visit to the Lindt factory shop, nor that I was well armed with several books and the most expensive newspaper I have ever bought ($7!), nor that I once again didn't watch most of what went on, because that sort of information is frankly irrelevant, and might take some of the sheen off my remarkable feat of endurance.

Recommencement Of The Endless Winter

And again, this morning!Although that was a few hours ago, and now it's almost all gone again...

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Beginning Of The Endless Winter?

In the spirit of being less of a slacker, I have decided to resurrect my blog a bit and start posting posts again.

It snowed this morning! Not very much, as you can see, but enough to make me kind of excited. This is remarkable in that it's actually only about the second time it has snowed in Aarau since I got here, the first time being in January or so when I was off in Stuttgart visiting my friend Annette and so I didn't even notice. It snowed in Stuttgart at the time too, and all those wacky Germans were surprisingly entertaining with their endless* enthusiasm for shovelling, but it just wasn't the same as seeing the streets of my own adopted home being covered in coldness.

The snow's appearance is less remarkable in that the weather forecasts have been telling me that it would snow this week, but I seem to have embraced the meteorological scepticism of my friend Dave who refuses to believe that weather forecasting has any scientific validity at all. According to him, the weather report is to the news as homoeopathy is to modern medicine. It's also less remarkable in that today is the last day of winter (these wacky Europeans who not only have Christmas in winter and speak unintelligible garble, they also change their seasons on all manner of peculiar dates!), and obviously nature is having one last stab at some cool weather before global warming kicks in that little bit more.

Being the weather forecast sceptic that I apparently am, I spent the morning imagining that this might be the beginning of some sort of quasi ice-age, The Day After Tomorrow-style, and I became vaguely concerned about all the flowers that have been blooming lately (this in spite of the fact that Reto, who apparently has much more experience with European winters than I do, said this morning while he was eating breakfast and I was being giddy with delight, "it'll all be gone by lunch time"). It has been ludicrously summery here for the last week or so (so much so that I have even at times reverted to my "summer weight" coat and scarf, and once Reto and I ate lunch outside and even got annoyed by the glariness and warmth of the sun) and there are cherry blossoms and daffodils and assorted other unidentifiable flowers galore all over the place. I consequently spent this morning walking around town kicking snow off said daffodils, thinking that if they were not bowed down under the weight of it all they might survive that little bit longer and continue to bring joy and colour into what will undoubtedly turn into some sort of endless winter and possibly the end of life as we know it. Z For Zachariah-style, perhaps (not that there were any daffodils in that as far as I can remember, but I think the general vibe of post-apocalyptic destruction and death is what I am thinking of).

Anyway, by lunch time all the snow was gone. Sigh.






* I was only there for a few days, so possibly "endless" is an unreasonable exaggeration

Monday, 5 March 2007

Big City Life

Aarau's environmentally friendly alternative to traffic lights:

(although note that this high level of traffic control is only required at one of Aarau's intersections, and even then only at peak hours. Note also the fetching white gloves, which upon closer inspection, provide the whole scene with an air of Mickey Mouse)

Friday, 2 March 2007

Time For A Cup Of Tea And A Nice Lie Down

Last Monday morning, Reto and I became some sort of old age pensioners. We got out of bed ridiculously early, made a thermos of tea, then went and fell asleep on a train. Well, something like that, anyway.

We got up at 1.30am. We did make a thermos of tea (although we had been planning on a thermos of gl├╝hwein, but as it turns out "buy the cheapest wine you can find" is not a wise first step. Being the seasoned expert that I now am, I would advise paying more than $1.95 a litre). We got onto a train, and I did my best to fall asleep, but sadly failed.

We went to Basel for the beginning of Fasnacht. Inconveniently, the beginning of Fasnacht is at 4am, and so there we were, huddled together with thousands of other people in the centre of Basel, yawning, eating bratwurst and hoping not to be rained on. At precisely 4am all the lights went off and everyone went "oooh!" and then it all began.

I didn't really know what to expect. Reto had explained it all to me a bit, but somehow I never really listened properly, and I had tried to read about it on the internet but that never really sank in either. I knew that what we were going for was a parade of people playing piccolos and drums and dressed up in wacky costumes, and someone had told me that it was really loud, but that was about it.

Anyway, at the click of 4am ("click" being the sound of the lights being turned off, I imagine) we were suddenly surrounded by the sound of piccolos and drums, and all these people who were standing opposite me suddenly flung themselves to the side. Not some strange sort of audience participation, as it turned out, but the paraders making space for their parade. That was kind of unexpected, because there were clear paths left everywhere that I assumed the paraders would follow, and this being Switzerland, I imagined that no one was standing where they shouldn't be. Apparently some people were, though, but not to worry, because they were flung efficiently aside by a bunch of people dressed in wacky masks and costumes, with lights on their heads and carrying paper lanterns of all shapes and sizes.


The lanterns were not really lanterns, I suppose, but big illuminated things that were decorated by each group (for the paraders travel in packs) and apparently made fun of local politics and the like. It seems, for example, that it was proposed that a "polarium" be built in Basel and that it be packed full of penguins. Apparently this was a popular plan, but it was abandoned for financial reasons, and so pictures of sad penguins abounded.


In order to actually understand what it was all about I'm sure that you'd have to be a local, or at least a person with a far better grasp of their bizarro spelling than I am, but even with my total absence of knowledge it was still pretty entertaining, and spectacular to see in the 4am darkness.

Anyway. Each group of paraders played their own tune with their piccolos and drums, and had their own themed lanterns and paraded around in an orderly (ish) fashion. After a while it got kind of cold, so Reto and I went into a cafe for a bowl of soup and some warm air. As it turns out, groups of paraders apparently decide that they want to have breaks whenever they want to too, and so stepping indoors was kind of like stepping into a hell populated by freakish dismembered heads (and drums).


By the time we had had our soup and gone back outside the whole tone of the thing had kind of changed. It was all a lot more disorganised. The parade had spread out, it seemed, and groups of paraders were no longer following other groups. One minute you (as a bystander) would be standing in the street watching paraders parade by, and the next minute you would be either mown down or flung aside by a group of paraders who decided that they liked the look of your piece of road and weren't going to let you stand in their way. It was impossible to move, really because you never knew when some troop of ghouls and crazies would leap out at you with their piccolos blaring (all of which made rendezvousing with my recently-Australianised friend Ingrid impossible, which was a pity for various reasons, not the least of which was that I was going to get her to sign my postal vote form for me).

Anyway, that's basically Fasnacht for you. Or at least the first bit, for this goes on for three days in various forms. It's loud and cold and a surprising combination of heavily organised (you have to be one of them to be in it, and you stick with your group's rules about costumes and subjects and tunes and so on) and heavily disorganised (you stop when you want to, you go where you want to, you wake up the neighbours at unreasonable hours, which I gather is as un-Swiss as throwing rubbish (or confetti) in the streets, which is also done with abandon during Fasnacht). I had an excellent time, though, and then, tragically (to get back to the old-age-pensioner/thermos-carrying theme) I also really enjoyed going home again and having a nice warm bath and a nap. Sigh.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Two Hours Of My Life I Will Never Get Back

Being the dedicated girlfriend that I have apparently become, I went to watch Reto compete in a curling match last night. I don't know what I was thinking.

Both playing and watching, I hate almost all forms of sport, and to the best of my knowledge I always have. I used to like to try to make myself feel more open-minded by trying to convince myself that I only hated team sports or ball sports or sports that had to be played on grass. Then I thought that perhaps I might not hate sports that are vaguely ludicrous and that can be played by anyone regardless of physical incapacity or drunkenness (and admittedly there are a few of these that I have some time for. Darts, for example, although it starts to wear thin unless you are in a pub with a beer in your hand, threatening the safety of people who sit too close to the board. Luge always seemed kind of nice too, involving, as it does, people doing a very, very small amount of running and then having a good lie-down).

Curling always seemed like it might be on my "tentatively approved" list as well, what with all the standing around punctuated by entertainingly frenzied bouts of sweeping, and the looks of grim determination usually only seen on the faces of ladies at the local bowling club. I now realise, however, that I was wrong.

Curling is the single most uninteresting sport on the planet*. I'd bore you with the details except I think I was too comatose from lack of anything much happening to remember any. Even if you the game holds some amount of novelty (because you have never actually seen it played before. And I am still willing to admit that the sweeping aspect is vaguely comical), even if you are going to support your beloved boyfriend, even if you have coffee and a book to help you through, it's still advisable to stay at home and watch McLeod's Daughters in italian and tear your own fingernails out than try to sit through a match.

I love you, Reto, but apparently not that much.




* Actually, this might just be hyperbole on my part. I'm sure it's no more uninteresting than any other sport (with the possible exception of luge or darts)