One of the fun things about spending foreign money is that it doesn't feel like real spending.  It feels like play money, Monopoly money.  I don't know at what point I crossed the line, but I'm definitely past that.  Swiss francs are now real money, and I look at the green American paper in my wallet and think, "What is this?  Do people actually accept this as payment?"  No doubt that will not last long, once I am home, but it's a weird feeling.

I've long been in favor of following the lead of the many countries that have replaced their lower-denomination bills with coins.  Now that I've worked with such a system for over a month, here are some observations: (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, July 26, 2010 at 7:06 am | Edit
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While Joseph was undergoing a secular baptism of sorts at the American Embassy in Bern, Grandma had no official business other than to receive the diaper bag when it was rejected at the door for possible terrorist connections.* (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, July 23, 2010 at 9:26 am | Edit
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Living with other people for several weeks is a good way to experience new foods and new food combinations.  If those other people happen to live in another country, the opportunities multiply.  And if they also subscribe to a local organic farm's weekly vegetable delivery, get to try Swiss chard.  Verdict?  Not bad, though I think I'll like it better mixed with other things, such as in an omelet or on a pizza.  It's related to beets, but I find the taste more like spinach.  As it was with Heather and Jon's Community-Supported Agriculture farm in Pittsburgh, the weekly vegetable lottery is fun to play, and Stephan (like Jon) is particularly good at figuring out how to make good use of fennel, fresh tarragon, and eggplant as well as potatoes, lettuce, and zucchini.

What's a visit to Switzerland without trying a new variety of chocolate?  When Stephan brought home a bar of dark Ovomaltine, I was at first skeptical. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 5:23 am | Edit
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We interrupt the writing of my review of Ender's Game to alert you to the fact that Janet has now posted Joseph's birth story.  I'll add some comments later.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, July 19, 2010 at 5:47 am | Edit
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I like the trash collection system here in Basel:  You buy special blue garbage bags, each 35 liters in size (about 9 gallons), which is considerably smaller than an American "large kitchen trash bag."  They are, however, much tougher, and can be well-stuffed without ripping.  You pack your trash as efficiently as possible into as many bags as you need, and put them out in the street at the appropriate time for collection.

That's it.  The cost of trash collection is included in the cost of the bags, and thus you pay proportionately for the amount of trash you produce.  There is significant incentive to minimize your waste, yet the capacity to dispose of more is there if you need it.  Ideally, you would pay by weight rather than volume, but the system is so easy, it is a worthwhile compromise.  I think of a friend's complaint that she can't help feeling annoyed at seeing her neighbor's routine weekly pile of 10 or more large bags as she makes her own family's one-small-bag contribution to the landfill collection; she would welcome such a system in her town.  As would I.

Recycling is different here, too, though I haven't decided if it's better or worse.  Plastics and metals must be taken to a recycling station instead of being picked up at the curb as I'm accustomed to, but such stations are only an easy walk away.  Only one type of plastic is recycled ("PET," known in the U.S. as PETE or #1); our county recycles any type of plastic as long as it has a number code.  On the other hand, paper is picked up at the curb, and they recycle all sorts of paper, including office paper, which our county excludes.  Not worse, not better, just different—and not any more different than the variability from community to community in the U.S., as we discovered in moving among New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Florida.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 9:30 am | Edit
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Temperatures in the mid-90's do not surprise me in July:  I live in Florida.  I'll confess I was hoping for something more reasonable in Switzerland, however.  Somehow calling the temperatures "mid-30's" doesn't improve the situation as much as I would hope.  I miss air conditioning; I miss ceiling fans.  Even when we lived without air conditioning in Boston I could find relief at the grocery store.  Not so, here.

But there are compensations.  The apartment is wonderfully designed for cross-ventilation, and the lack of screens means we make the most of every breeze. We have two fans, and the temperatures cool off enough at night to make sleeping reasonable.  Still, there's not much incentive to be very ambitious, and Janet is really wishing she could take advantage of her membership in the pool that's only a five-minute walk away.

How about you?  I gather it's been hot for a lot of folks.

Baby update:  Doing fine, eating lots, filling out, doesn't like the heat but still likes to be held.  Has perfected the knack of filling a clean diaper within 15 seconds of the change.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, July 10, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Edit
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My original impression of Basel as a quiet place has been irrevocably shattered now that I'm here in the summer instead of the winter.  In this season construction projects are in full swing, and the noise of machinery is nearly incessant during the work day—including some sort of saw that reminds me of a high-volume dentist's drill and sets my teeth on edge worse than the World Cup horns.

That unavoidable annoyance notwithstanding, I realized this morning that in some ways Janet and Stephan's city apartment is closer to nature than our own suburban house.  (And our back yard, for its size, is an especially wildlife-friendly area.)  Light and air stream through the many windows, and when I look up from my computer I rest my eyes on a view of the blue sky, the trees of a nearby park, and a window box garden of herbs and wildflowers.

When I look up from my computer at home, I see a wall.  Well, I also see pictures of our grandkids, which is a delightful view itself, but here there is something restful to the eyes in focussing on the distant trees, and soothing to the spirit in watching the birds soar and the wildflowers move in the breeze.

Who'd have thought one could feel so close to nature in the middle of the city?  The peace it brings almost cancels out the noise.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 5:17 am | Edit
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I left the new family to their own devices on Saturday morning, when Stephan's mom whisked me away for an adventure.  There is a small farm in nearby Riehen which, as I understand it, specializes in biodiversity/heritage breed conservation of berry plants.  On this day, they opened their farm to the public for tasting!  We could take nothing away, not even by purchase, but were welcome to taste and enjoy all we wanted.

(Somewhere therein is a metaphor for life, I'm certain.) (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, July 4, 2010 at 3:20 pm | Edit
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The day I arrived in Basel on this trip, I felt in need of some "chill-out" reading that wouldn't tax my jet-lagged brain cells.  Fortunately, Janet and Stephan's bookshelves are well stocked, even after eliminating the books in German, French, and Japanese.

For much of my life, Isaac Asimov was one of my very favorite authors, first for his science fiction, and later for his non-fiction.  (I had the pleasure of astonishing him once at a science fiction convention by presenting to him one of his American history books for autographing.)  Asimov kept writing—surely he must hold some record for the quantity and scope of his works—but life took me in different directions and I neglected him for many years, except for re-reading his delightful Black Widowers mystery stories.

But there on the bookshelf was Gold, a collection of some of his last short stories and essays, and it was just what I wanted.  (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 26, 2010 at 4:05 am | Edit
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To repeat, from Part 1, lest I forget:

The first principle is that nobody should be ashamed of thinking a thing funny because it is foreign; the second is that he should be ashamed of thinking it wrong because it is funny. The reaction of his senses and superficial habits of mind against something new, and to him abnormal, is a perfectly healthy reaction. But the mind which imagines that mere unfamiliarity can possibly prove anything about inferiority is a very inadequate mind. — G. K. Chesterton, writing on foreign travel in What Is America?


I thought the diapering world was divided neatly between cloth and disposibles, with elimination communication thrown in as an added wrinkle—which only shows how limited and parochial my world has been.  Of course, the whole diaper situation here was planned to be well under control by now, but it has become an issue thanks to a miscommunication with the "diaper lady" reminiscent of my last-minute struggles with Lufthansa's baggage policy.  "No, I don't actually sell diapers; I only have samples you can experiment with to help you decide what you like.  You can't actually buy them here in Switzerland, and no, I don't have any overseas suppliers to recommend...."  (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, June 25, 2010 at 2:15 am | Edit
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The first principle is that nobody should be ashamed of thinking a thing funny because it is foreign; the second is that he should be ashamed of thinking it wrong because it is funny. The reaction of his senses and superficial habits of mind against something new, and to him abnormal, is a perfectly healthy reaction. But the mind which imagines that mere unfamiliarity can possibly prove anything about inferiority is a very inadequate mind. — G. K. Chesterton, writing on foreign travel in What Is America?

Visiting another country or culture is one thing; living there, even for a few weeks, is another.  As a sightseer, it is easy to find something funny and respect it inspite of, or even because of, its apparent oddity.  A good attitude can be more difficult when it frustrates the efforts of daily life.

I didn't need to live in a foreign country to experience those frustrations.  Soon after arriving in Switzerland, I found myself spinning in a disorientation that had nothing to do with language differences, and at the same time, puzzling over the familiarity of the feeling.  Then I remembered the first few weeks after our move from Florida to the Boston area.   Boston is a great city, and there's much about Massachusetts that I now miss—a lot, even.  Nonetheless, as I was trying to set up housekeeping in our small apartment, searching store after store and making telephone call after telephone call trying to find a source of Rubbermaid storage bins, I was very nearly reduced to tears and a heartfelt cry of, "A Wal-Mart!  A Wal-Mart!  My kingdom for a Wal-Mart!"  Although I eventually came to appreciate what Boston had that Orlando didn't, what was lacking (or apparently lacking) was uppermost in my mind in those days.  (I never did find out where Bostonians purchase Rubbermaid storage bins, or even if they use such things at all, but I did eventually find a Wal-Mart.)

Freely admitting that differences are not an indication of inferiority, but with Chesterton's permission to find them peculiar, I will be sharing some of the disorientations and adjustments of my time here.* (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 12:11 am | Edit
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The trouble with having a handicap not shared by most people is that no one appreciates it when you have a major victory.  If they care about you, they may try, but it's difficult to avoid a "well, duh!" inflection when faced with an accomplishment that is, to you, incomprehensibly easy.

Take Porter along an unknown pathway once, and chances are he will be able to reproduce it.  Take me along the same route 10 times, and if I am talking, listening, thinking, or otherwise not paying deliberate, close attention to landmarks and directions—which I find very difficult to do—and I will still have no clue how to get from A to B.  Basel is not a large city, but despite several visits I couldn't tell you how to get from Barfüsserplatz to Theaterplatz. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 9:07 am | Edit
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Stephan returned from a business trip, and graciously spent what few minutes he had free to install a new system that not only includes more reliable Internet, but wireless connection!  Whoo-hoo!  Now I am home away from home!  I think it's a good thing—one day without Internet was a nice break, but I'm not ready for a steady diet.

Among many people I know, IKEA seems to be almost a cult store, like Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and Penzey's.  I've come to understand people's devotion to the last three, but had to travel to Switzerland to have the IKEA experience.  Part of the fascination here is the reasonable prices:  pretty normal by U. S. standards, but worth a special trip here.  Or maybe it was the restaurant special:  a huge plate of Swedish meatballs, with gravy and lingonberry sauce, plus a mountain of French fries with unlimited ketchup, all for CHF 5.  I could have done without the gravy, but the meatballs were very good, the lingonberry sauce terrific, and I hadn't had French fries in ages.  Even the shopping was fun, even for this non-shopper, though I suppose I'll have to go to Orlando's IKEA to discover what was the overall IKEA experience and what was due to the local flavor.  The meal was my favorite, though—mostly because it was a good time to chat and renew acquaintance with a Swiss friend.  Actually, she's not Swiss—she's an American living in Germany—but I meant a friend we only see when visiting Switzerland.  (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 4:12 am | Edit
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I know, I know, I have many more adventures to write up, but I'm starting with this one, as I think it will be more interesting to most of those for whom I write.

The first adventure of the adventure occurred the day before I left.  I suppose I should have discoverd the problem earlier, but I didn't. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, June 21, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Edit
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We recently returned from a lovely two weeks in Switzerland (with brief side trips to France, Germany, and Italy).  I hope eventually to post more pictures and stories, but here's a start.

Just over a week before our scheduled departure from the U.S., the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, threw a spanner into the works for European flights.  Porter wrestled for a while with changing our itinerary to go through airports less risky than Amsterdam's Schiphol, but with the ash cloud as unpredictable as it was, decided the best course was to hand on to what we had.  We did what we always do when there's nothing else we can do (and even when there is):  we prayed a lot.  Unlike that of our friend who needed to get to her brother's funeral (she made it), this was not a critical flight, but the primary purpose of the trip was to attend Janet's end-of-school recital, and we would have been very sad to miss it, having not yet heard any of her grad school performances. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Edit
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