Saturday, December 19, 2009

Brrr! Living in a Cold Climate


Well.  It’s here.  Winter.  This is one of the things I have really been dreading.  Unrelenting cold weather.  It is no secret to my friends and family that I truly abhor cold weather.  I had to live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for 17 months approximately 20 years ago and I still go on and on and on about how dark, dank and dismal it was.  If Mr. Big were peering over my shoulder right now, he would be saying, “Enough already about Pittsburgh!  There’s not a person left breathing on the planet who is not aware of your issues with Pittsburgh!”

Sometimes I am a trial to Mr. Big.

For the last 20 years, I lived in Southern California and South Carolina.  I have thin, wimpy blood.  The only time I am ever in cold weather is when our family goes on its’ annual ski trip to Europe.  I am one of those people who wears “Hot Hands” and “Toastie Toes” inside my gloves and boots and sits in the lodge drinking Bailey’s and Coffee between runs.  OK, I am the first to admit it, I become a miserable, whiny, (that’s whingy? whingey? for all you Brits) grousing brat when I get cold.

And then I learned two key things.  A)  It’s all about layers, and B)  Your coat IS your outfit.

I swear, I spend half my time here in Switzerland checking out what people are wearing.  It’s because I can’t seem to get it just quite right.  Their scarves always looks incredibly, casually cool and mine look like they are trying to asphyxiate me.  They walk effortlessly on these friggin’ cobblestone streets in boots with spike heels which,  when I try to mimic, just looks like I’ve had too much to drink.  Which I probably have had, but that’s pretty crass of you to point that out.

So, unlike in warmer climes, when planning a winter outfit for the day,  you start with the coat first and work your way IN, all of the time attempting not to look like the Michelin Man.  These are the questions you must ask yourself before you even take off your towel, post-shower:

1.        Long coat below the knee, medium, which covers the hips or short, which only goes to the waist?
2.       Wool, leather, twill, down, or other waterproof?
3.       Dressy or casual?

This is just for the coat, mind you.  Next, boots:

1.       Above the knee, to the knee, half-calf or shoe-bootie?
2.       Leather, waterproof, Ugg or fur?
3.        Black or brown (Note, must match coat).  (Also note, no other color choices acceptable).

Now, if you are just going into town shopping and have no plans for eating out or stopping for coffee,  THE REST DOES NOT MATTER.  You could wear a gunny sack or footie pajamas or a goriilla costume.  It will never be seen by the general population.  If your coat is long enough to reach the top of your boots, you could even be naked for the rest of the day.  You would be cold, but you could be naked.

Me, I’m freezing.  Plus, I do tend to indulge in the random wine or coffee bar, (where one is expected to shed all outer layers),  on my excursions out on the town, so my outfit planning must go on to include the following:

1.       Camisole
2.       Long sleeve tee
3.       Tights
4.       Sweater
5.       Pants (or skirt if I am shopping in Geneva where one “dresses” to buy loo rolls)
6.       Scarf, casually wrapped 2.5 times around neck
7.       Stylish hat
8.       Polar-tec gloves

By now, it is approaching 11:30 a.m. and I haven’t even left the house.  But, I am dressed!  This dressing warm stuff is still a learning experience for me so I am sure that I will touch upon it in future blogs.   I am aware that all of you out there who are well-used to cold weather are laughing at me, rather than with me.  That’s OK.  I hope your thick-blooded selves get transferred to Macon, Georgia someday.  Then we will see who is laughing at whom!

Dressing for hot/humid weather is an art form, as well.  A jean jacket suffices as a winter coat.  You might as well just pre-admit yourself to the hospital for heatstroke if you are foolish enough to wear panty hose or tights in any month that does not start with Jan- or Feb-.  There are legions of adolescent boys who do not even own a pair of long pants except for their “church pants”.  The concept of the “summer weight” scarf is beyond comprehension.  People from the Southern Hemisphere know that they don’t even need to exercise in the summer.  They can just walk to the mailbox and back and lose 5 lbs. of water weight.

I promise, I am not complaining.  Even when the mercury never rises above 20 degrees Fahrenheit here, it is still breathtakingly beautiful.  Literally.  Ha!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Shopping a la Suisse

 The Christmas Market is a charming European tradition that I have embraced with abandon not only because these markets are just so impossibly cute but mostly because every other booth, or mini-chalet, is serving Vin Chaud (or Gluhwein in the German-speaking areas) which is a delicious hot, mulled wine.  It’s quite proper, even expected, to have a Vin Chaud at, say, 11 a.m. and continue throughout the day into the evening.  One must love a tradition that combines drinking and shopping.

The markets have a variety of offerings by local artists, winegrowers, cheesemakers, toymakers, bakers, chocolate-makers, etc.  They are usually outdoors and set in the old parts of the towns beginning in one of the main squares and meandering along the pedestrian-only cobblestone streets.  It turns the hassle of Christmas shopping into an enjoyable experience.  A chilly experience, but enjoyable.  (The Vin Chaud helps here as well!)

However, my chauffeur to these events, Mr. Big, is really not much of a strolling, shopping, meandering kind of guy.  He is a Point A to Point B kind of guy.  So, we have worked out a system that keeps his antsy self busy while I am shopping.  He is in charge of the camera.  If I see something picture-worthy, I point it out and he shoots.  The rest of the pictures are up to him and I must say the man has a thing for clocktowers.  A high percentage of the pictures are of the back of my head or me turning around, cup of Vin Chaud in hand, because he has called my name.

His other job is planning out the walking route to insure that I don’t miss anything.  This is not an easy task because no streets in Europe are straight.  They are bendy and twisty and involve bridges, alleys and little tunnelish passageways.  He really gets excited when there are booths on both sides of the street—his planning becomes much more intricate.  He also sets a goal for himself that we are not “allowed” to double-back and see the same thing twice.  Consequently, he never actually “sees” anything in any of the booths because he is too preoccupied with where we are headed and not where we are now.  It’s not like he really cares, either.  His feedback is usually limited to “Uhuh, that’s nice” or “Whatever, Trailing Spouse, just buy it” or “Do you need more Vin Chaud?”

Using this system, we have set a personal best of three Marches des Noel in one day in two different countries.  For those of you reading this from the local area, here’s my synopsis of the ones we have been to so far:

Lausanne:           Don’t bother, only about 25 booths.  Vin Chaud, delicious.
Geneva:               Don’t bother, way too many vendors of cheap, crap Indonesian stuff.
Montreaux:        Cute, crowded and very photogenic.
Bremgarten:      Mr. Big gave a big thumbs-up to their Park-N-Ride system.  Gluhwein, excellent.  Large, 190 vendors.  Also, Christmas tree farm 2km outside of town where you can cut your own tree.
Morges:       Covered market inside hall of the train station, big plus.  High percentage of artists, good gift ideas.

Besancon:           Just OK, not worth a special trip
Montbeliard:     Fabulous in every way.  My favorite.  The lightshow is super.  Here’s the link, sorry it’s only in French but the pictures are worth a click.

It is not even 8 a.m. here but today is Sunday so I am already Google Mapping trying to outline our plan of attack for today.  Mr. Big is still lying innocently asleep upstairs, completely unaware that he has yet another day in store stomping around outside in the cold drinking Vin Chaud.  Bless his heart!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Returning "Home"?

For ex-pats on temporary assignment, the word “home” can be confusing.  Is home your new country or is it the place you will return to someday?  For people who have kept a home in their country of origin, it’s even more muddled because they technically have homes in two places.  I have found my answer just listening to the running commentary inside my own head.  Right now I’m packing to return to Switzerland after a Thanksgiving stay in the US.  As I’m packing, I’m going through my mental checklist:

“Don’t forget to bring home more banana peppers.”
“I can’t wait to go to the Colmar Christmas Market when we get home.”
“I wonder if it snowed while we were away?”

See?  Home has subconsciously become Switzerland and away is now what used to be home.  It’s like an Abbott and Costello movie.  Just because you know I like to play “What’s in Your Suitcase?”, I will let you look inside the empty one I brought with me from home to fill up with stuff while I was away.  (If you followed that you are really paying attention!)

2 bed pillows
2 twin sheet sets
5 jars of banana peppers
All of the silver and gold Xmas balls and garland from the attic
A box of brown sugar
A box of Arm & Hammer baking soda
A bottle of Vanilla Extract
The couch cushion cover that got red wine spilled all over it during Thanksgiving

Why, you ask, is she bringing part of her couch?  Because her sewing machine is in Switzerland, of course!  It makes perfect sense to me to tote a stained couch cover 8,000 miles only to use it as a pattern and then throw it away.  Perfect sense.  Although, with the strict recycling laws in Switzerland, I will probably not be able to throw it away at all and will have to bring it back with me next time I return to the US. 

I had to write up a chart to help me throw away my trash without receiving a fine.  There are certain assigned days of the week for yard waste, glass, paper, plastic, etc.  If you dare attempt to dispose of anything on the wrong day, you will be reported to the Trash Police by a “helpful” neighbor.  And, God help you if you attempt to throw away your glass bottles on a Sunday, the National Day of peace and quiet.  Glass bottles make noise, you see.  They clink.  You can receive an actual fine for clanking on a Sunday.  I’m pretty sure you can be deported if you’re stupid enough to fire up a lawn mower on a Sunday.  Here’s a word of warning to any army out there that might be considering attacking Switzerland.  Do not attack on a Sunday.  We will be able to hear you coming while you are still in Austria.  It’s that quiet on Sundays. 

My Trash Chart also tells me the one day per quarter that it is OK to throw away something bigger than our regulation-size trash bags.  Which encompasses pretty much everything and will definitely pertain to the couch cover.  So, if I miss the next Oversized Trash Pickup Day, I will have to “store” it for another 3 months.  Where, I don’t know.  I’m thinking under the bed.

One last word on Swiss trash.  No, not Roman Polanski, the other Swiss trash.  I am only allowed to throw away my “ordures”, aka my non-recyclable trash,  in a regulation-size bag.  All of Switzerland uses the same trash bag.  All.  Of.  Switzerland.  So, Mr. Big, who is not very good with rules, needs to be monitored.  He is forever trying to use yard waste bags as trash bags.  I have explained nicely and also, not so nicely. 

“Mr. Big.  If you put that whomping huge trash bag out on Monday with everyone else’s teeny Swiss-sized bags, you are going to make us the laughing stock of the neighborhood and possibly get us deported.”
“Well, Trailing Spouse, then just put the big bag out on Tuesday with everyone else’s big bags and no one will know and we will live to see another week.”
“But, Mr. Big.”  (Gnashing of teeth).  “Ours will be so much heavier than theirs.  Theirs are filled with leaves.  Ours is filled with coffee grinds, potato peels and a random couch cover that I snuck in there.”

Ahhh! Can’t wait to get home!