Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A tale of two stories

B and I are celebrating two years today! So, as promised, here are our two stories.

As I tell the first one, it's purposely misleading although technically true. Unless I get to the very end, in which case I do actually lie. Usually I don't have to go that far.

NPIMFTFT: So how did you meet your husband?

Me: Oh, well - we met in Strasbourg [true]. I lived there for eight months, working as an English assistant at some local high schools, and while I was there I got involved with an English-speaking theater group at the local university [also true, although if you know B, you'd know he wouldn't have been involved in any capacity with a theater group]. He grew up in Basel, which is right across the border [yep, still true]...

(I'll stop there if the person is nodding already, but if not, I'll continue to elaborate....)

- and he was doing a semester abroad, since he went to school in the UK [also true - I simply fail to mention that his semester abroad was actually in Knoxville, Tennessee in the US]. I mean, we didn't start dating then - he's younger than me - but we were in contact for several years...

(80% of people are nodding at this point, allowing me to stop before I actually utter my first lie)

- and then we reconnected years later when I was visiting France [not true. Technically we connected then, no 're' about it]. 

This series of misdirections is usually sufficient. If not, I do occasionally get more explicit in my lies, sometimes saying he was friends with people in the theater group or that he actually attended the university in Strasbourg. But for the most part, I simply provide somewhat-unrelated facts as if they are tied together and let people draw a false conclusion.
If anyone reading this is one of the people whom I laid out this first, short version of how we met, my sincerest apologies. In my defense, I probably didn't exactly lie. I just laid it out so that you'd draw the conclusion I meant for you. Unless you didn't, in which case I did actually lie. Yep, sorry about that.

B and I did, in fact, meet in Strasbourg, France, back in 2009. The important part that I leave off the first version is that we had been in contact, off and on, for almost 9 years prior. We first met online, in a game. Actually in a text-based game (because we are just THAT cool). He claims that he remembers me from when he was as young as 14 and still living in Peru - I have one vague memory of this, so apparently he didn't make a very strong first impression (in my defense, what 14 year old does?). We didn't start talking regularly until several years later, when he was in university and I was in Boston working. We drifted in and out of contact over the years and progressed through various games together (we upgraded from MUDs to MMORPGs during this time - and if you don't know those abbreviations, basically it means computers got way better). We 'saw' each other through multiple relationships and breakups on both sides, using each other as an anonymous confessor/sounding board in many ways. We never broached the topic of meeting in person, as I had told him at the outset that I didn't meet people from online due to a bad experience and he never challenged it.

Then, in 2009, I found myself in France with some time to kill - I was staying with a wonderful (and luckily for me, open-minded) friend in Paris and decided to go visit some old haunts in Strasbourg (I did actually work there as an English assistant, back in 2005-2006 - see, that part of story #1 is also true. And he actually did do a semester abroad during that time - in fact, just down the road from my grandparents in Tennessee). B was living in Basel with his family in 2009 - he had finished university and was job hunting (I think).
Honestly, I can't remember who suggested actually meeting, but the convenience of being only a couple hours' train ride apart after years of communicating from different continents was hard to ignore. I do remember that I had to ask repeatedly for a picture so that I would recognize him (yes, after all those years, I still had no idea what he looked like), and finally receiving a blurry one mere hours before leaving my friend's apartment. The official line is that we were meeting as friends, but his reluctance to share a picture did concern me (later I realized that this was simply because he makes a weird face in every single photo anybody ever takes of him). Anyway - like a responsible adult, I forwarded the picture to my Paris friend and gave her what info I had in case I was never heard from again.

B and I spent 2 days in Strasbourg together. When I returned to Paris, my friend asked how it went, and I said simply that there were no surprises. The person that I had gotten to know online was exactly the same person that I had just met. It felt like seeing a long-lost friend again, with very little of the awkwardness of an initial meeting. It just fit - he was comfortable, fun, and wonderful.

Less than a year later we were engaged (for which I blame that whole Icelandic volcano ash cloud thingy), and a year after that, we were married (and six months later we had our big family celebration, of which today is actually the anniversary). But those are probably stories for another post.

Of course, this is my written version of our story. Which is much more comprehendable than how I actually tell it in person. Rather than ease people into it, I usually end up dropping all the bombshells at once, as if testing the NPIMFTFT's limits of understanding.

NPIMFTFT: So how did you meet husband?

Me: Ok, so, actually *nervous laughter* ok, so we met online. (BOOM, pause) In a game (BOOM, pause). But we knew each other for years before we met in person! See, he's five years younger than me (BOOM, pause).

And then I launch into a garbled explanation of why I am not a cougar and how I gave B plenty of opportunities to witness my full amounts of craziness but he stuck around anyway. Good times.

When I think about it, people's reactions may have more to do with how I present our story than the story itself. As evidenced by B's approach - after my last post, I inquired what his response was when people asked about his American wife:

B: I just say, "We met in Strasbourg after knowing each other online for a while."

Me: Oh. Huh. Well, that sounds pretty reasonable, actually.

B: Yep.

(Note to self: try that next time).

In the meantime, happy anniversary, B! It's like, in a way, you complete me... kitchen, matey :)

Monday, February 24, 2014

What we've been eating

Thanks so much for everyone's comments about the last post (on fb, if not on here) - although now it's possible that I have blown the entire story way out of proportion and everybody will read it on Wednesday and be like That's the big deal? and be all disappointed and send me hate mail. I think I'm ok with that - I don't get much personal mail, so I'll be excited.

Anyway! I posted a chocolate cake recipe a few weeks ago, but we've been eating more than just that. In fact, I've been trying out new cooking recipes just as much as baking ones, which is good news for my waistline (other than the cinnamon roll cake that B and I almost finished off singlehandedly - I didn't get any pictures of that, unfortunately).

In anticipation of possibly hosting another couple, I spent one weekend messing around with various courses.

As an appetizer, roasted garlic and avocado on baguette slices. No recipe for this - after roasting the garlic in the oven for about 45 minutes, I smashed the cloves with avocado and added a generous dollop of goat cheese, salt, pepper, and lime, then spread it on some lightly toasted baguette slices):

They were two bites of addictiveness.
As a main dish, I attempted my first ever rack of lamb with some roasted potatoes:

But I think B and I enjoyed the oven fried chicken with scalloped potatoes the following night better:

I used just a bit of butter in the pan for the chicken rather than the full amount of oil. The onions in the potatoes made these the best scalloped/au gratin/whatever I've ever tasted. Also, I only used bacon, left out the ham - there was enough flavor without it, imo.
And then for dessert, I made my first-ever chocolate souffle! I think it turned out like it was supposed to, but I realized after devouring it that I'd never actually eaten one before. But I have seen every MasterChef episode, so I'm pretty sure that makes me an expert.

Whether or not it turned out like a souffle is supposed to, it did taste good. So I marked it as a win.
The next night, to celebrate the return of berries to Zurich-area grocery stores, I made berry shortcake using my favorite baking powder biscuit recipe. Which, upon extensive searching, I realized I have never posted somehow. This is a terrible oversight on my part, so the recipe is below.

One of my favorite desserts, hands down.
Baking Powder Biscuits (recipe from my mother):
(Light enough for dessert, healthy enough for breakfast!)
2 c. flour
4 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter (cold)
1 egg
2/3 cup milk

Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Cut in butter with pastry cutter (not too fine! Should look like big coarse bread crumbs). Beat egg with milk and stir into dry ingredients until just moistened. Turn dough onto well-floured surface and knead briefly until the dough comes together. Roll to 3/4 of an inch and cut. Bake at 450F (220C) for 8-10 minutes until the tops turn golden.

Note: when I'm making the biscuits for shortcake, I often add in a splash of vanilla to the liquid and double the sugar. Because I'm naughty like that.

Then, yesterday, I made a rustic caramel apple tart, but I used pre-made crust, which made me feel like a bit of a cheat (although I did make the caramel from scratch - does that even out the baking karma?).

Definitely goes on the 'make again' list. Preferably with from-scratch crust next time. Although it might be good with puff pastry as well.
Delicious! It's been fun branching out to new types/cuts of meat - mostly dictated by what is on sale at the grocery store, as I take the 50% off stickers as personal challenges - and experimenting with how to make the ever-present potatoes here in Switzerland more interesting. And I think B also appreciates the expanding repertoire of recipes as well, although he still requests Mexican (by which he means guacamole and chips) about twice a week.

Friday, February 21, 2014

"So how did you meet?"

B and I will celebrate the second anniversary of our pseudo-wedding (I call it the 'white-dress-big-celebration') day next week. We actually got legally hitched several months prior to this anniversary, on a Friday afternoon at a Massachusetts town hall. We lived large afterwards, by which I mean we followed the ceremony with tapas and non-alcoholic drinks, and then we drove to a mall for a 'temporary' ring for B. The jewelry store clerk may have judged me when I announced that we wanted to look at wedding rings that were in the double digits, max.
Anyway - we did have the big fancy celebration eventually. It was wonderful, amazing and everything that you could want your special day to be. My family flew in from all over the country, while B one-upped me by having several relations fly in from Peru and Switzerland. I met his large, exuberant extended family, who all welcomed me with lots of hugs and excited declarations in Spanish, while I smiled sweetly and subtly pinched B's arm, which was meant as a reminder to remember what was being said so that he could translate later (he never remembered. Or maybe he wanted to shield me. Either way, I never found out. But I did discover that his family gave my loud, boisterous one a run for its money, so I loved them all immediately).
Last month, I got an email from one of B's young cousins asking if she could interview me about our wedding for a journalism class. I started to write her back immediately, then hesitated. That evening I had this conversation with B:

Me: So, I got a message from <your cousin> today. She wants to talk to me about our wedding! Isn't that fun?

B: What? Why didn't she message me? I'm her cousin! Why did she want to talk to you?

Me: Challenge - tell me one thing you remember about our wedding.

B: It was in Florida.

Me: Where in Florida?

B: Orlando.

Me: Nope.

B: I meant Tampa.

Me: Still no. When was it?

B: January.

Me: No. And that's why she messaged me.

B: Fair enough. Are you going to talk to her?

Me: Well, I was going to, but she wants to know how we met. And then I realized - does anybody in your family actually know how we met?

B: Hmm, not sure. *shrugs*

Me: Well, does your mother? Or at least your brother and <other cousin [B has a lot of cousins]>, right? I mean - I played WoW [World of Warcraft, an online game] with them years ago. Do they know I'm the same person?

B: Yeah, probably. Well, maybe.

Me: Maybe? How did you explain our wedding to them?

B: I didn't, really.

Me: But they showed up.

B: Yep.

Me: *blink blink blink* You don't find that strange?

B: Nope. Is there any dessert tonight?

/end of conversation

To this day, I still don't know how B ever explained our meeting, courtship, and subsequent engagement/marriage to his family (many of whom read this blog, and I just want to say that your unquestioning acceptance of me has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life, especially now that I know you may have never received an explanation of how I appeared in B's life. And it's a bigger gesture than I myself would be capable of - if my cousin/nephew/son/sibling/grandchild got engaged to a woman, I would be way nosier).

From what I can tell, B has never had to field questions about how we met, so he doesn't need to have a story ready (I mean, if he hasn't told his own family, I assume he hasn't felt the need to divulge to strangers). I, however, - perhaps because of my transplantation to Switzerland or the fact that B isn't American - get this question all the freaking time. Almost daily. It's the most common conversation opener. Well, not quite. In reality, it's people's third question. The first two are these:

Nice Person I'm Meeting For The First Time: Oh, so you're American. What brought you to Switzerland? [Question #1]

Me: My husband.

NPIMFTFT: Oh, he's Swiss? [Question #2]

Me: *grimaces because I still haven't found a way to answer this question clearly - and I know it* No, no. I mean, he's lived here since he was a teenager, he came over with his family. He's actually Peruvian - well, I mean, not really, technically he's a Spanish citizen, but he's never actually lived in Spain, it's just that it's EU, so it's more useful here than a Peruvian passport would be. So his native language is really Spanish, but he does speak German - I mean, high German, he doesn't speak Swiss German. Although he understands it - well, I think he does. At least he understands Baseldeutsch, but he moved to Zurich for work as an adult. So he just replies to Swiss people in High German, so yeah. And I mean - we speak English together, so he speaks that, too.
(Note: sometimes NPIMFTFT mercifully interrupts me before I get through all this. If not, however, there are several followup questions in which I have to clarify a multitude of assumptions: that I speak Spanish or have lived in Switzerland previously, that he is a Peruvian or American citizen, that he speaks Swiss German, that he has ever lived in the US.)

NPIMFTFT has one of two reactions. Either their eyes go wide and they involuntarily draw back to distance themselves from the crazy rambling lady or they lean forward, fascinated by this person who isn't able to answer basic questions in a concise manner.

NPIMFTFT: Wait, so then how did you meet him?

And there it is, the question. After approximately ninety seconds of interaction that were largely dominated by my verbal rampage, I now have to decide which story to tell. Because I always have two stories of our meeting prepared. A short, purposefully vague one without a real ending that people nod, smile, and move on from (but which makes for extremely awkward followup if I get to know the person more closely), or a longer (technically more accurate) one that inevitably leads to multitudes of follow up questions and very often thinly-concealed judgment that I and/or my husband make poor life decisions.

Honestly, the main reason I came up with the short story was to avoid judgment. B doesn't care about such things, but if we're together, he will gamely go along with whichever version I decide to tell (however, after one unfortunate experience, he is strictly forbidden from adding his own embellishments).
I have slowly realized that after a year of living together and maintaining a ridiculously happy marriage, much of my concern about being judged has dissipated. How we met has begun to lose significance as we navigate our relationship, which is as real as (and in my biased opinion, a lot more fun than) everybody else's, regardless of how or when we met. So, for our anniversary, I plan to share the long-but-true story of how we met. Some people consider it romantic, while the majority probably lean more towards 'totally insane.' Regardless, it's worked out for us. I feel so lucky to have found a life partner that makes me laugh, feel safe and wonderful and this is getting too mushy, so I'll stop.

Ok, almost. Just one more thing - my life is so much better with B in it and, supposedly, the feeling is mutual (although he does point out that his life is also more expensive with me in it. Then I point out that he's welcome to stop eating his rack of lamb that I prepared and go back to his nightly salami-and-mustard-on-hot-dog-bun sandwiches. He'll then make a crack about my yarn cabinet and I threaten to dismantle his so-top-of-the-line-that-he-had-to-build-it-himself gaming computer and we move on).

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Tentative Spring

I've been hesitant to blog about this, as I was concerned the day I did would be the day Mother Nature found her sense of humor and decided to dump feet of snow on Zurich (or maybe because it snowed well into April last winter). But it's been almost a week now of almost daily sun and blue skies, and green leaves are starting to assert themselves above the damp earth.

Flower! I get disproportionately excited about these things - it's been a dreary winter.

These buds are significant because they were personally planted by moi (and moi's parents) last fall, and now they're poking through. They're like my dozen little children that only need occasional watering.
Pictures of Switzerland in winter usually portray gorgeous snow-topped mountains against a striking blue background:
Gorgeous, right? And with just a few wispy clouds. Also unrealistic. However, if you go to the Wikipedia page of the Matterhorn (which this is a picture of - don't call it the Jungfrau like I once did. It's the equivalent of some visitor in the US referring to the Statue of Liberty as the Washington Monument. Very uncool and does not go over well with the locals) - what was I saying? Oh yes - practically every picture of the mountain has it against beautiful clear skies. I'm not saying they're lying, per se, I'm just saying that I've been told by people in the know that if you want to even see the Matterhorn (not to mention take stunning pictures), you probably should book three or four nights at Zermatt, the local village, to up your chances.
These photographs are beautiful, no doubt. However, they don't mention (perhaps because pictures don't talk) the fact that the majority of the Swiss population don't live on these majestic peaks above the cloud cover, mainly because we like an indoors to retreat to (no diss to abominable snowmen - in fact, major respect). The vast majority of us live in lower elevation valleys, surrounded by peaks of various heights. 

And as you may remember from middle school science, valleys surrounded by mountains often have fog due to something about evaporation of water (I said you may remember it - I don't). Lots of fog. Switzerland, as special and lovely as it is (and honestly, it is - no sarcasm intended), is no exception to this. Thus, in winter - especially in one as warm as this has been - there are often days or even weeks straight of heavy, gray skies that may or may not spit rain or something vaguely resembling it. Occasionally the fog or cloud cover may dissipate, but by that time it's usually close to 4 pm and the sun, having done its minimum, has already retreated behind the nearby mountains. I believe that I made comparisons to All Summer in a Day (short story here and short video here - I won't judge which one you click on) last year, and that comparison remains apt.

To prove my point, this is the picture I just pulled from the webcam on the Matterhorn's official website:
Yep, that looks about right.
Except this winter, it hasn't even had the courtesy to snow in the valleys. I like snow - the whiteness brightens things up and it's nostalgic and it crunches and it's purty.

This is the most snow I saw ALL WINTER - pathetic. My family in North Carolina got more than this (although they probably are just as thrilled about that as I am). Also note the grey and fog, as per my original point.
I'm not sure I trust a Swiss spring that begins in mid-February, but I remain cautiously optimistic. Meanwhile, I will join the random cat on our patio in soaking up the sun while it's around - however short that may be.

PS - I took too long to write this, and of course the sun has not come out today. I will hold off judging the mean sense of humor Nature has until tomorrow, but then I'm calling her on it.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Reflections on a year

January saw my one-year anniversary of arriving in Zurich, and my perspective on my new adopted home continues to evolve.

I admit, I've spent much of the last year being frustrated. Frustrated that I couldn't understand people, that I couldn't make myself understood, that I didn't know how to accomplish things or where to find things. I have always been a rule-follower, and it was unnerving to be unsure of what the rules (written and unwritten) were. Patience has never been one of my virtues, and my entire family always likes to share stories about how, as a young child, I would burst into tears at a moment's provocation when I couldn't do things, however small or absurd. As an adult, I'd like to think I'm less prone to tears, but I often feel that frustration bubble up at a moment's notice.

Among the frustration, though, are lulls - and as I settle in more, those periods last longer.

A fact that I've finally learned to accept just over the past month is that I will never fully integrate into Zurich. B and I will forever be marked as outsiders to some degree. One huge reason, obviously, is the language barrier. And it will always be there - even if, twenty years down the road, I am able to comfortably converse in German (or, more unlikely, Swiss German), I'll have an accent that immediately marks me as "other." I will never truly feel or be perceived as Swiss.

I was surprised to find that once I accepted this fact, I felt, quite unexpectedly, a sense of calm. It took me another few days to understand that this new calm came from realizing that I no longer had an unattainable, impossible goal. I won't integrate, but I can focus on building a happy, fulfilling life here. I don't have to self-isolate or surround myself with only Americans, but instead I can meet a variety of people and slowly build a network of friends who come from all over the world. And that's what I've been doing. I've met amazing Swiss women who are more than happy to speak English while I struggle with my German. I've also met wonderful people from Germany, Colombia, India, Britain, New Zealand, Korea, and South Africa (Zurich's population is 1/3 non-Swiss). I still have a long-term goal of improving my German, but that doesn't need to prevent me from making connections in the meanwhile.

The large expat community here in Zurich means there are many fascinating, interesting people to meet. Unfortunately, I have also learned that the negative side to this is that there is a high rate of turnover. I have already said goodbye to one friend that I only grew close to in the month before she left, and I got an email last week announcing the departure of another amazing woman that I didn't take advantage of getting to know well enough. I've served on the board of the American Women's Club now for five months, and at least four of the women I've gotten to know through my work there are departing the country over the next three months.

As I was discussing my new revelations with my parents over Skype, I was surprised to see them nodding. Although they've never lived abroad, they moved to a small community in rural West Virginia as adults and even, after 30 years, were still seen as outsiders. They often made connections with visiting astronomers who would only stay for two or three years before moving on. It was a surprising admission to hear - we moved to West Virginia when I was four and I am proud to have been raised there. Growing up, I was different from most of my classmates (no local relatives, no television, reading books, and a desire to leave the county all marked me as 'other'), but in my childish selfishness, I never considered that my parents would feel a similar sense of isolation.

It doesn't take a move across an ocean or a place with another predominate language to feel out of place or as if you don't belong. But if you're in that situation, please know that it's not unusual to feel that way, you're not alone, and it will change. It takes time and effort to build a community, but I firmly believe that, no matter where you go, there are warm, welcoming people that are worth getting to know and who can enrich our lives. I'm still in the midst of the process, but I am so grateful for all the wonderful people that I've met here in the past year and I am optimistic about the future.