New Year’s in Verbier

This is another of my favorite parts during our holidays in Switzerland.

It begins with another fabulous dinner by John’s father, Per Erik, whose former lives were as famous imperial chefs. This year he made us pan-seared fois gras, served with toasted brioche and baked apples. Followed by braised duck legs in a delicious red wine sauce, potatoes au gratin, and a green salad, ending with slices of brie and reblochon. We finished everything off with one of my own creations: a real New York cheesecake. Two and a half pounds of cream cheese, eight eggs, cherries on the top … the works. We would have had coffee with it, but no decaf was to be found.

Then the fun starts. Actually, it starts much early on. There are no laws in Switzerland against individuals setting off fireworks. That means that anybody and everybody does it. And since Verbier is situated on the top of the mountain in the Alps, overlooking the valley and facing the mountains on the other side, and since our cabin is likewise situated above all the other buildings, and downtown included, we had a view of the entire show. All during dinner, all across the valley, fireworks went off in different directions and provided us with a nice backdrop.

Midnight, however, is when the show-offs emerge. As Verbier is a ski resort town, there are many very wealthy people. These many wealthy people then spend hundreds of thousands of francs on pyrotechnics to give the best firework displays. There are usually several such shows set off from different places, such that it is sometimes difficult to choose where to look.

There seems to be someone only a few doors down from us who gives us a show every year sometime after midnight, and this year was exceptionally good. The sparks just rained down on us and were magical. They were perfectly coordinated, amazing and big. With glasses of champagne, we toasted the new year and kissed, then went to bed with the curtains wide open to the mountains where the boom of fireworks lulled us to sleep.

A Swedish Christmas

Even though we are in Switzerland (which is easy for us Americans to confuse with Sweden), we nevertheless uphold proper Swedish traditions during Christmas. So what does that mean?

First of all, Swedes, like much of the rest of Europe, celebrate Christmas on the 24th, Christmas eve. This is a fairly strange custom for me, although I am used to it now. My family, of course, always celebrates on Christmas day (i.e. opening presents, eating a big dinner, etc).

Christmas eve here is quite nice, however, and begins with a traditional Swedish dinner. As a starter, we have smoked salmon on tunnbröd, a kind of large, round cracker made from flour, and topped with a tangy dijon-dill sauce. This is also accompanied (for those who can stomach it) pickled herring with a small glass of beer (Swiss, in our case). Next we have cold, sliced ham with mustard (very traditional), savoykål which is chopped cabbage baked in crème fraîche, different kinds of cheese along with fresh-baked bread, and homemade apple sauce. Finally, we end the dinner with hot Swedish meatballs, which are absolutely wonderful. For dessert this year, we had figs and cracked walnuts.

After the dinner, comes the gift-giving part of the evening. This is my favorite part. The Swedish tradition is to write a short poem for each gift that hints at what’s inside. Usually, one leaves out the last word which rhymes with the last word from the line before, and which gives away the gift. Some examples of the evening were:

A cd of Xavier Naidoo for Anna:

Top of the crop,
Best in German ___.

An ipod shuffle for John’s mother, Britten:

Small and hip with a convenient clip.

And the accompanying flashlight keychain:

When you shuffle around at night, use this little ___.

For the French novel by Balsac, Illusions Perdues:

Weeks in Verbier with no frost,
Talk about illusions lost.

And my favorite, for a book on evolution called The Ant and the Peacock:

How a roll of the dice,
And the fight against lice
Can get you stuck in a rut
And give you eyes on your butt.

I think Marcus got a kick out of the last one, although you’d have to read the book for it to make sense. Something about how lice messes up the symmetry of the eyes on a peacock’s tail, which makes it harder to find mates…etc.

Finally, after the excitement of the day and despite the early hour, it’s off to bed in preparation for another long day of skiing.

Actually, the days haven’t really been long of skiing due to the lack of snow, but that’s another story.

Holidays in Switzerland

I was never a fan of global warming until I started coming to Verbier for Christmas.

I remember arriving here three years ago in a flutter of white fluffy snow, a giant snowman down below our window, white rooftops everywhere. The skiing was incredible. That was the year of my first powder adventure.

The next year, we were lucky enough to have one snow fall the night I arrived and lovely, white, uncut mountains the next day. But then after that, the sun was bright and the groomed slopes revealed more and more rocks and twigs.

This year, then, was something of a shock. The roads were dry and almost empty as we drove up to the pretty alpen resort. In fact, one could see muddy, brown grass in the lift on the way up to the slopes more often than white patches of snow. Surprisingly, the skiing was not so bad. There was just enough snow to make the slopes nicer than last time, but barely so. However, not many slopes are actually open, and they have only so many snow-making machines. Last year, they had to close parts of the glacier run due to melting, and who knows if they will even open any of it this year.

The good thing is that we have had almost empty slopes for the past three days. Even Christmas eve was fairly calm. After all, John was in an awful accident last year because of too many irresponsible skiers, so it is an awesome experience to have the slope to oneself.

John and Marcus still expect a holiday rush tomorrow and the day after. We’ll see. I happen to think that many people decided not to come here this year since the slopes were so bad last year. TeleVerbier, of course, doesn’t seem to mind. For me, as an American, I would tend to take the view that with bad snow conditions, the company should do even more to attract and keep the customers that still come. The Swiss, however, think differently. To them, it’s as if there’s no point in even opening the lifts, since no one’s coming anyway. Which was why, I believe, the Savoleyeres lift fellow opened at 9:15am this morning instead of at 8:45am and had distinctly red eyes as if he had been partying pretty heavily the night before..

Christmas at the Xmas-bar Tree Flat

Last Saturday was our first annual Christmas potluck party. I was the main organizer of the thing and sent out an email to all CL students: Come join us for egg nog, cookie decorating, and a White Elephant Gift Exchange. It was a general invitation to all.

Perhaps I should have kept in mind the potential cultural disasters in bringing together Germans and the rest for North American traditions. I remembered the time my family had such a gift exchange. Everyone was told to bring a wrapped gift with a value of around twenty dollars to participate. For my family, it was a truly wonderful experience, not least because I happen to have a huge family and Christmas tended to be financially burdensome in previous years. And also for my family, Christmas games are a good way to neutralize family rivalries.

So, you can imagine how happy and excited I was with the idea. That is, of course, until I hit the ‘send’ button. I suppose I could have thought a little more carefully about the twenty euro limit, seeing as all the guests were students. And then there were all the questions like, “well, why would I get a gift when I don’t know who will get it?” Oh la, la, le stress. What if everyone hated it, or was offended by it for some reason?

And then there was the time issue. In my email, I wrote that the party started at 6pm. This was because it was a potluck and I felt that 9 or 10 was too late in the evening to eat dinner. However, when Germans write that there will be a party at a certain time, it means that one can come ‘anytime after that’, which means some might show up at 10, 11, or even later. Sure enough, all the foreign students showed up at or around 6, and the Germans showed up sometime after 9. Which meant that the early birds ended up milling about for an hour, gazing hungrily at the food, till finally I had to give in and let them at it. And anyway, not all of the German students seemed to understand the concept of potlucks. One girl actually wrote that she wasn’t bringing food since she will have already eaten… which, well, whatever.

I also tried to invite as many people as I could in order to see how many people would fit. In preparation, we bought bulk plastic-ware, removed all the carpets in the place, pushed all the furniture back and opened all the rooms.

And in the end… I think it was something of a success. Since I ended up pulling names out of a sock for the gift exchange, everyone was able to put faces with names, which made the rest of the evening very cozy. Since the kitchen was taken up with food and egg nog and glühwein, the cookie decorating happened in my room, which meant that eventually, small groups of people ended up in different rooms doing what they liked: playing cards, talking, and even dancing in the kitchen. Which, by the way, we now know that we can have dancing in our kitchen. Matthias again took some awesome photos, and I think we’re all looking forward to next year.


Last week I had to give my first presentation for a seminar in Ontologies. I worked quite a bit on it (since I really didn’t want to give something boring), but more importantly, I wanted to be able to write on my slides words like ‘modeling’, ‘labeling’, and ‘losing’ in order to point out to the Germans the wrong spellings of ‘modelling’, ‘labelling’, and worst of all, ‘loosing’. Now before I get flamed for this in the comments, just take a look at the proper spellings and see how much more elegant they are, truly.

For some reason, I can’t help but cringe when I see things like that on slides. I know I should be more understanding of non-native speakers, but it’s hard when their English is generally so good that I am already easily fooled. Some of the more memorable typos?
-[name removed to protect the unaware] well-formed linguists and lap sessions
-[name removed to protect the innocent] birectional and boostrapping (the last one sounds like a norwegian term for catching the bus..)

Foreigners in a Foreign Land


Last week I was invited to a Thanksgiving dinner by one of the administrative faculty, Bobbye Pernice, who hails from New York. Several other Americans attended, including an American couple with their sixteen year old son, and Marty, one of the professors in psycholinguistics at Coli. It was a wonderfully satisfying experience.

There is something comforting about being amongst those of your own in a foreign country. Granted, it doesn’t much feel like a foreign experience when half of my friends here are Canadian, and the other half speak English just as well as I can speak French. Even spending the day downtown doesn’t help. The other day in Saturn, for example, I asked in my very best German (halting and sputtering), “Sie haben kein mehr Xavier Naidoo. Wenn..” and it was at this point that the sales clerk grinned, “It’s so charming when Americans try to speak German.” That was, of course, one of the rare moments I actually spoke German. Most of the time I look around and say to myself, “Germany, really? Where!”

Still, it was comforting, as I was saying. Ex-pats will always notice the things you notice. And one of the topics that night was gestures. Like knocking on your desk at the end of a lecture to express your appreciation, rather than clapping as we would. This one threw me for a loop in the beginning, and for the first week or so, I refused to do it. Now I think it is amusing, especially when we find ourselves in the conference room and have only our legs to knock on, which needless to point out, doesn’t work so well.

Another peculiarity someone once mentioned to me is that, instead of raising one’s hand to ask a question during a lecture, German students will snap their finger. I found the idea extremely disconcerting, considering that is what one would do to a lowly serving girl if one were not so polite. But then, I saw someone in class do it! The nerve! Yet, no one seemed to notice.

Someone also mentioned that night that German lecturers sometimes have a habit of pointing at the whiteboard with their middle finger. But I have yet to see this.

Presumed Guilt

My syntax teacher, Valia, is quite a hoot.
The other day, she was asking us to be more vigilant in closing the doors to the Seminarraum when forgetful professors or lecturers fail to do so. She then informed us about missing items from CoLi. “Ah, but you know, it’s a reality,” she said, in her famous Greek chanting voice, “cause, I mean, people are always going to need things. I was a student once, too.” Like a copier from the CL foyer, a projector from the Seminarraum, dishes and silverware from the Mensa cafe…

Speaking of which, I couldn’t help but reflect on the flaws of this system. At the Ausländer Cafe, they charge you a 1 euro pfand for the cup every time you buy coffee. You get it back, of course, once you return the cup. Which means you never know if someone’s going to swipe your empty cup and turn it in for your euro. On the other hand, having been unceremoniously plopped into the “poor student” status, I must admit that the idea of furnishing the kitchen cabinet in this manner had crossed my mind. After all, 1 euro is a fair price! That’s probably not what they had intended by that, but then again, I never liked laws/policies that presumed the client guilty. In the end, Ikea’s prices reigned over all, and I simply keep a wary hand over my cup when I’m there, and dutifully turn it in when I’m done.

Lingbats in Cabins

I just wanted to explain the title of a previous post for those who are interested.

As my flat consists of several geeks, we all decided that we needed a really good name for our apartment. So one morning, Tobi put up on our front door a poster of some communist politician from Kerala with a yellow stickies post-it bubble bearing the title-of-the-month, and a footnote with the words:
*We share bread, milk, and revolutionary ideas.
There is some writing in Malayalam, but I like to think it is just an advertisment for dish soap.

Oktober: Welcome to the Lingbats Pad
November: Welcome to Uncle Noam’s Cabin

I will keep you posted for next month’s moniker.

Primitive Living

Still no internet, two months later.

As I have come to understand it, our landlady subscribed for DSL from a third-party provider, rather than Deutsche Telekom. However, since Deutsche Telekom has a monopoly over the phone line infrastructure, our provider is stuck having to rely on them to activate the line for DSL service. But of course, since they are a monopoly, they are incredibly inefficient, to the tune of losing 5,000 customers a day. And there is absolutely nothing you can do about it: no consumer abuse department, no class-action lawsuits, no bitching on the hot-line (since they never answer).

Long live government-protected industries.

Game Night at Uncle Noam’s Cabin

One of the interesting points of German culture is their love of board games. One of the Canadians in our group, has a passion for board games, even to the extent of visiting Board Game Expos. In any case, a game night is a great way to get people together for something friendly, innocent, and fun, and so that is what we did last night. Twelve of us or so, with wine glasses and munchies, gathered at our kitchen table or on the floor for Bohnanza and San Marco.

Which brings me to some interesting topics in International Drinking Theory:
1) If the wine bottle empties in your glass, you must make a wish, blow it into the bottle, and close it up in there with the cork [Russian/Ukranian]; and 2) If you are drinking Weißbier, not only does one chink their glass from the bottom (as opposed to the top rim with other beers), the men cheer the men first, then the woman [Bavarian]; 3) It’s bad luck luck to light a tea candle from another candle [French].

Memorable quotes from the evening:
A propos Apfelkirsche – “Did we buy church juice again? Church juice is so much better with mosque..”

UPDATE: Matthias took some great shots of the evening. You can see them here.