Thoughts on technology and my little identity crisis

Life in Switzerland is comfortable. Maybe too comfortable. With my brother currently based in Cambodia, I’m reminded of the different world that exists outside of Switzerland (and Europe in general) by his photos and Snapchat stories. Sometimes I miss the grit, hustle, bustle and noisiness of certain places, often called “developing countries.” The honking of minibus taxis while a shepherd tries to herd his sheep across a busy road…thick, grey exhaust fumes filling the air…an obstacle course of hawkers lined up on the sidewalks selling fruit…beggars…people shouting. It’s a special ecosystem.

Just yesterday, I was waiting on a train platform in Zürich when two men started shouting at each other through the silent, waiting crowd of people hunched over their smartphones. Then they started pushing each other. I saw many looks of terror and shock. I considered that if this had happened in other places, it would have been drowned out by all of the other happenings.

It’s been two years since I last visited one of these special countries (Ethiopia in 2015). Maybe things have changed, but I’ve always felt they have something that we lack, and I don’t know exactly what it is. With the internet at our fingertips, we are distracted constantly. I suppose I cannot speak for others, but I have felt a huge impact on my creativity, ability to focus and just THINK. It’s a habit of so many people, including myself, to pull out the smartphone when we have an idle moment or when we are waiting for something or someone. Instead of putting ourselves out there and talking to a new person or simply letting the mind wander silently while closing the eyes and enjoying some sun, we’re scrolling those social media feeds, which feed us glamorous bits and pieces of other peoples’ lives and force us to compare ourselves. If I were to add it all up, it has already wasted so many hours of my lifetime. What did I even get out of it that’s real? A few meaningless likes and followers?

As I approach 30 and start thinking about having children in the next decade, I’ve realized that we have entered a completely different era of technology. My children will grow up completely differently than I did. I see how older people fear computers, and I don’t want to be like that with whatever’s next. But I also see how Instagram consumes young peoples’ lives, and can have a very damaging effect. I can’t help but see the dangers.

With mobile phone networks expanding and smartphone usage increasing throughout Africa, I would imagine it’s becoming quite the same. Smartphones are simultaneously wonderful and horrible, in my opinion. They are allowing farmers to better access global markets and increase learning opportunities for people with limited educational resources. Fantastic. But they also deepen the feeling of inequality through exposure to the lifestyles of foreign countries, driving migration to places where certain people unfortunately aren’t accepted. I hate to romanticize poverty, but I do have fond memories of living in an extremely poor, isolated community. It may have been poor, but people were peaceful, curious and engaged, and they were relatively satisfied given the little resources they had. They couldn’t see what they were missing out on. It was a necessary and life-changing experience that taught me a lesson about what is important in life. It’s about being genuine, maintaining good relationships and being open to creating new ones, finding enjoyment in simple things, and being engaged and present.

Maybe it’s not so evident, but over the last year I’ve suffered a bit of an identity crisis in Switzerland. Because I try not to define myself using external factors (like my job, who I’m married to, etc…) and I realize how short my time on Earth is, I’m increasingly asking myself: Who am I? What am I doing here? Who do I want to be? Life is one huge learning lab, but we only have once chance to do it.


The Death of my Southern Accent

Recently I returned from a vacation in the US: five days in North Carolina and three days in New York. Two good friends tied the knot during two consecutive weekends in September and I was determined to join the celebrations.

As soon as I stepped off the plane in Charlotte, North Carolina, my body was tired but sensed home immediately. I felt like a cozy blanket had been wrapped around me as I walked into that familiar oppressing humidity, scratched my mosquito bites, tasted southern-style biscuits and local craft beers, heard the friendly twang of the southern accents that I grew up with, and enjoyed the company of old friends. I’m loving my new life in Switzerland, but there’s really nothing like coming home.

“You don’t sound like yer from around hee-yer” was something I heard more often than I’d like to admit after new acquaintances and strangers found out I grew up in Concord, a town outside of Charlotte that I permanently left nine years ago.

After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree from North Carolina State University, I went from the southern United States to southern Africa, where I spent two years working as a teacher in Lesotho. There, I learned to speak slowly and enunciate each word carefully so that people who didn’t speak English as their native language could understand me. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I now believe this marked the beginning of my southern accent fading away. After I left Africa, I went to New York for two years to get a Master’s degree. If a hint of southern speech was left after that, it adapted to New Yorkers’ efficient, no-nonsense way of communicating (that some southerners falsely characterize as “rude”) after that.

I’m told that my twang comes back occasionally if I have too many glasses of wine, or during/after talking to my grandmother or stepdad, who have the most colorful southern accents of all. Sometimes people in Europe ask me to mimic a southern accent out of curiosity, something that I now struggle with after being gone for so long. If they giggle, I defend it with pride, but mostly they are fascinated. I will never know what it sounds like to hear it for the first time, but I imagine that it must sound quite lovely, like music. I confess: I am ashamed that I was once ashamed of my southern style of speaking.

Here are just a few of the variations I hear when back in the South (many of which I once used myself). Do keep in mind that me spelling out the pronunciation will never really capture the full effect.

“pee-un” – pen or pin (pronounced the same)

“luttle” – little

“waah” – why

“bey-ud” – bed

“awl” – oil

“tawk” – talk

And of course, I’d like to think that everyone knows “y’all” (the plural of you), as in “how y’all doin’?” This is one of the few features of southern speech that I have managed to hold on to and actively use, even in Europe. I find it extremely useful when talking to a group of people – why would anyone use anything else?

Beautiful wedding in Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan

Life Lately: 29 August, 2016

Doing: Sitting on the sofa with the windows open, listening to the sounds of people talking and eating at cafes on the street. Because there are a lot of people, the conversations sort of blur into one continuous background sound that tends to put me to sleep. F is in the kitchen grilling halloumi and toasting bread for a light dinner.

Watching: On Friday I saw Captain Fantastic in the movie theater. I always forget how nice it is to go to the movies. It was actually one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, and it brought up a lot of issues that I haven’t had to confront yet, for example, how parents can best raise their children to turn into productive, healthy and happy members of society. It elicited some strong emotions at some moments (and a few tears), but I loved it.

Reading: After finishing All The Light We Cannot See, I’ve been struggling to find a book that I love as much. I’m about to re-read The Awakening by Kate Chopin, which I first read around the age of 20. I always find it fascinating how books take on a different meaning when I read them at different stages of my life. The classic example of this is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which appears to be a book for children, but actually has a much deeper meaning. One of my favorite quotations comes from this book:

«Voici mon Secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.»   //   “Here is my secret. It is very simple: the essential things in life are not seen with the eyes, but with the heart”

Eating/Cooking: I had been wanting to make sourdough bread for a really long time. Last week, I finally began the starter. In case you are totally unfamiliar with this, sourdough bread does not use commercial instant yeast, rather “wild” yeast that you cultivate at home by making a starter. To do this, you mix equal parts flour and water in a bowl. You leave it out on the counter for a week in a relatively warm spot, loosely covered, and feed it water and flour every day for 5-7 days until it’s ready. When it’s ready, it develops a special smell and lots of tiny bubbles. Then you prepare the dough, which takes a really long time. Because the yeast isn’t instant, it takes longer for it to work. After letting the dough rise slowly in the fridge overnight on Friday, I woke up Saturday morning to find it still quite flat. Although disappointed already, I put it in the oven, not really expecting anything good to come of it. However it surprised me by doubling in size! Once it cooled, we sliced it and enjoyed with butter, a fried egg, and plenty of coffee. Given that I have never baked a loaf of bread in my entire life, I was quite pleased with myself.

I’ve also been craving Mexican food and burritos lately. Mexican food here is either not so wonderful, or expensive gourmet-type Mexican. For this reason, I decided to make burrito bowls inspired by the fast food chain Chipotle, and they satisfied the craving perfectly. I think I will make it a weekly thing until I get tired of it!

Homemade sourdough loaf

Drinking: Nothing like an aperol spritz on a hot afternoon. I wonder if this is as popular in U.S. cities as it is here. It’s a very refreshing summer drink: 3 parts prosecco, 2 parts aperol, and 1 part soda water. Serve over ice with a slice of orange. So yummy.

Planning: Although we already technically got married in New York in March, it was quite small and informal. It took place at the city hall, and none of our family members were there to enjoy the moment. Therefore, we decided to plan a ceremony and reception for our family and close friends in Italy next spring. Apparently it’s a thing in Belgium (where F is from) to have two wedding ceremonies – the civil one and the religious one. I think it’s different in the U.S. but actually, I don’t know a lot about weddings. I’m sort of learning as I go – I refuse to be a bridezilla and stress out about every tiny detail. Anyway, I’m extremely excited – it’s gonna be fuuuuunnnn!

Buying: We recently bought a really old map of middle Europe from the flea market and hung it in our dining room. It’s one of those school-style pull-down maps, made in Münich in the 1930s by Karl Wenschow. We negotiated hard for it and ended up getting a nice price.

New map and furniture painting



Intensive Language Learning and Endlich, Sommer (Finally, Summer)!

A lot of things have happened since I last wrote. Perhaps most importantly, I feel like I live here and no longer like I’m on holiday. Well, maybe a little bit; July brought a lot more hot and sunny days, which made it feel more like summer.

On weekdays, I learn German. I began taking an intensive German course towards the end of June; now, I am one week away from completing my second intensive course (A2) and will soon reach the B1 level! Here, language levels range from A to C, with B being the intermediate level. Because I am in the intensive course, I attend every morning for four hours and finish just prior to lunch. Because we are in the German-speaking region of Switzerland and there are people from all over the world in my class (Tibet, Syria, Afghanistan, Portugal, Philippines, Thailand, Cuba, and more), we do not use English as a common language, but rather German.

Most days, I speak no English until F gets home from work in the evening. On a couple occasions recently, I have found myself mixing the languages or saying strange phrases. For example, I called something “altmodisch,” which means old-fashioned, while speaking in English. Sometimes, it feels as if my brain is pushing out my English skills to make room for the German. I’m actually curious whether I will actually become altmodisch if I return to the United States after a long time, after not being exposed to the new words and slang that develop, especially as technology quickly changes and our vocabulary adapts. A former colleague of mine, who is originally from Ethiopia but was raised in the US, said that people told him his Amharic sounded “old” when he later returned to Ethiopia to work.

Overall, improving my German skills has been extremely valuable to me. The Swiss are a bit distant sometimes towards foreigners, in my opinion, although I’ve met a few exceptional cases. Instead of immediately asking “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” (do you speak English?) in a public place, I now feel confident enough to communicate mostly in German. Although I probably make mistakes and have a foreign accent, most continue to speak with me in German instead of switching to English, which gives me an opportunity to practice. I find that they are a bit more open and willing to help when I try my German with them.

Weekends are another story. There are SO many nice things to do outside when the weather is good. The Swiss seem to place much importance on enjoying and experiencing the outdoors, which was what I definitely missed while living in New York. Central Park is great, but it didn’t suffice for me.

In July, I spent two weekends carrying around a small backpack through the mountains and sleeping in alpine huts (“berghütten”). There were concerts of snorers and lots of random sweaty people crammed into the bunkbeds, but it wasn’t a huge problem because our surroundings were beautiful and peaceful and I was in great company. Side note: I’d recommend this article to anyone who wants to know more about the importance of nature to human wellbeing.

Our mountain hut, called “Schönbielhütte”
View of the Matterhorn from our room in the Schönbielhütte

The berghütten are definitely not for high maintenance individuals. There is limited electricity and most have sinks, but no showers. This means after a full day of hiking, you WILL remain stinky, sticky and sweaty. The next day you will wake up and hike more and add to the layers of grime mixed with sunscreen, because most of the huts are only accessible by foot. Additionally, there were no toilets inside the Schönbielhutte. Instead, we had an outdoor latrine – a concrete building with a hole in the ground. Secretly, I was slightly delighted, because this brought back memories from my two years in the mountains of Lesotho, during which I used nothing but a latrine.

The food was also…different. At one place, we were served ground beef in tomato sauce over instant mashed potatoes (maybe they ran out of pasta?), and at another, we were served a typical Swiss alpine dish: Älplermagronen. This is a dish of macaroni, cheese, potatoes, apple sauce, and topped off with fried onions. I must admit, I love carbs on carbs on carbs. It was actually very tasty, but perhaps it wouldn’t have been as good if we had not hiked the whole day.

With the two weekends added together, I’d guess that I hiked around 40 kilometers (about 25 miles)! This is probably among the most adventurous things I’ve ever done, and I think I’ve found myself a new hobby.

Life Lately, and Swiss Waste Disposal

Lately I’ve been enjoying some really simple things, like walking around the neighborhood, cooking, and buying new things for our apartment. As of this week, our apartment has two new items: a large rustic-looking wooden table and an L-shaped sofa. We decided those would be our two key pieces that we’d spend a bit more on, and they seem to really fill the space nicely. The delivery men from the Pfister store arrived at 7:00 am this morning with the sofa. Way too early, but now it’s there and I spent most of the morning lounging on it with my laptop, reading and writing. Neither of the delivery men spoke any English so it was quite funny. I did my best, but am hoping that my German will improve after I get a four-hour dose of German every week day, starting this Monday.

New Table

One thing here that is currently fascinating me is the Swiss system of waste disposal and recycling. First of all, you can’t just buy any kind of trash bag for your household waste. You have to buy the Züri-Sack. In Switzerland, they definitely make use of the “polluter pays” principle. The Züri-Sack is expensive: it costs around $2 for one 35-liter bag (9 gallons), which means when you get a roll of 10 bags, you’re forking out about 20 bucks. So what happens? You stuff that thing until it really, I mean really, cannot fit anything more. And let me tell you, they fill up very fast. Which means you eventually end up putting more thought into your consumption, and maybe even consuming less, because you don’t want to buy more trash bags. It works very well. And when it’s filled up, what do you do? You certainly don’t place it on the side of the street, and nope, there isn’t a container to place it in outside your front door. You actually have to take it somewhere yourself! In the Niederdorf area where we live, we bring it to what I can only describe it as an inconspicuous metal tube that sticks out of the ground. It has a lid with a handle on top. You drop in the full Züri-Sack and it disappears underground into the tube like magic. If you don’t follow these rules, the city of Zürich will figure out some way to fine you. It’s not that hard because everyone seems to follow the rules here. I once saw someone who casually threw a piece of paper on the street (aka litter). An older woman walking behind him saw it, frowned, and then she went and picked it up! The streets are indeed amazingly clean here.

My Züri-Sack, getting full.

It works the same with recycling, except I need to separate it properly. I separate the green glass from the white glass from the brown glass (there seem to be more glass containers than plastic ones here). Plastic bottles and metal also have their own special place. So after I’ve had a party, for example, I put all of the bottles in bags and walk five minutes to another centralized area to dispose of recyclable items, where separate containers exist for each different kind of item. While it seems like a pain in the ass, and sometimes it is, it means that there are no trash bags or bulky containers outside on the side of the street (and probably no rats either?), and no noisy garbage trucks driving around. I also feel like it’s a lot more clear what to recycle and what to not recycle compared to my experiences on the east coast in the US (I’d like to think there are more progressive states out west). I’m also less likely to throw the recyclables away because I’ll fill up my Züri-Sack faster!

All of this has made me wonder whether the United States will ever get to this point. I think it takes a lot of organization but in my opinion, it’s so important to engage people in these processes so they realize how much they actually throw away. Only then will behavioral change occur.

Two Weeks in Zürich

Hi everyone! This is my first post on this blog. While I also love keeping up with people via email and phone calls, it also seems practical to start a blog in order to keep family and friends updated on my new life here in Switzerland. Everything is still so fresh and I’m excited to have a designated place where I can write down my impressions as well as interesting experiences that I want to remember in detail.

I have now been in Zürich for a little over two weeks. In this time, I’ve developed an appreciation of the organizational capabilities of the Swiss. I’ve been slightly disappointed with the weather, but there have been a handful of sunny days here and there. I also…

  • Enrolled in an intensive German course
  • Bought a sofa and a big wooden dining table with F to begin furnishing our apartment
  • Registered at the “Kreis 1” District Office and Migration Office
  • Obtained a Swiss residence permit “mit erwerbstätigkeit” (meaning that I am allowed to work)
  • Opened a bank account at PostFinance, which is basically the post office (because apparently it’s difficult for US citizens to open one elsewhere)
  • Got a “Swiss Pass” (a yearly subscription that allows you to pay half price for all forms of public transportation: trains, trams, boats, etc…)
  • Threw a successful house warming party, ending with complaints from our upstairs neighbor and the cops showing up at 11:30 pm (apparently in Switzerland it’s always expected to inform neighbors about such activities, oops!)

I may not be off to the best start with my upstairs neighbor, but I really love my neighborhood. We live on a cobblestone, pedestrian-only street in the old town. There is a hotel bar downstairs across the street with a disco ball in the window where a blues band plays on Monday nights. We live just above a tattoo/piercing shop where we get a 10% discount and where I occasionally hear people talking in American English instead of Swiss German. The beautiful Predigerkirche church makes for a lovely view from our window. As I type I can hear the bells ringing in the distance, but not too loud, which seems so European to me and adds some nice background noise to daily life at our home. I’ll definitely take the far-away church bells over horns honking and loud teenagers at the intersection outside my previous room in Astoria.

The apartment is also great. I’ll probably post some pictures once we get some more furniture. At the moment it’s a bit empty, but that’s okay because I’ve fallen in love with the parquet floor, high ceilings and large windows that can open inward from both the side and the top when you turn the handle a certain way (never seen this before). It takes less than five minutes to walk to the Limmat River and about 10 minutes to walk to Lake Zürich. It’s a very central location and we are really lucky to have snagged this apartment when it was available.

I still feel kind of like I’m on vacation and that I don’t really live here. For the moment I’m still working remotely for a professor at The New School as a research assistant, and on June 20 I will begin my half-day German course, which should add a nice level of structure to my day. My last semester of graduate school was very busy so I’m really trying to relax, live in the present and enjoy my new surroundings for the moment before throwing myself into some other form of work, which I have the rest of my life to do. Everything seems so peaceful and easygoing compared to New York. I feel extremely happy and I wish I could share so many of these experiences with friends and family elsewhere.