Monthly Archives: August 2010

To Veal or Not to Veal

The boys’ school in Basel offers hot lunch. When we reviewed a sample menu, veal seemed to show up 2-3 times a week. Jessica is against veal: She says it is cruel, it tastes bad and the name offends her aesthetics. I don’t disagree except about the taste: Those thin little medallions are soft velvety loveliness. Blanketed in lemon butter or Marsala sauce, and, well, culinary perfection.

But I haven’t eaten veal since my youth because, well, people say the boxing and execution of those tiny baby cows is cruel. But I think signing the boys up for the lunch will help them assimilate into local culture, and, of course, get me off the hook from packing lunch every night. Jessica thinks that forcing our boys to confront a tray with hot veal and gravy (apparently with no alternatives) is cruel to both the children and the poor little cows.

But what if it is part of the local way of life, as it apparently is in Switzerland. Isn’t traveling about putting aside your usual approaches to life to embrace local customs? Is it rude to turn down something you wouldn’t normally encounter — say an ant-filled stomach sack of rotting river cat fish offered as a sign of friendship by an Amazonian tribe? Butchered dog in Hanoi as a host gesture of welcome? Veal for the boys to blend in with the lip-smacking pleasures of the other kids? If we reject veal so early on, are we resisting truly experiencing the culture?

Happiness is (???)

Why are we moving?

To seek adventure. To confront the “Other,” the daily unexpectedness of living in a new place with a new language, different customs, a different perspective on life. Un-used-to money, brands at the market which have never been encountered, the challenge of figuring out “place.” How do we get to the school, the doctor, the market, the movies? Where do we shop, what parks and cafes make us happy?

We are moving because we are a little bored, and we have the opportunity for change. We like our friends, we like our town, and yet we are seeking more. Some challenges that will define us as a family, bring us closer together as we confront the new together, and also define us as individuals. Expats, parents in a new country, different career opportunities.

In a word, we are following a path which we believe will make us happy.

Conventional psychological wisdom has it that humans are terrible judges of what will make them happy. Daniel Gilbert, in Stumbling on Happiness, made a splash with this point. In a nutshell, he says that humans are unique in the animal kingdom for imagining their future. It’s just that we suck at determining what will make us happy in this future.

There are some tricks, however, to help predict happiness. One is to find people similar to yourself and see what has brought them happiness. And then reproduce it. For me and Jessica, we can look back at our younger selves and see the great adventure we had in San Francisco. We left great friends and New York City which we loved for the prospect of the new. It worked out then. We’re hoping it works out again.

The Difference Between Boys and Girls

Adam was playing around in the bathroom as Jessica was getting ready to go out. Jessica sat on the toilet to pee.

Adam: “I’ll give you a penny to see your vagina.”

Oddly, that was the same gambit I used with Jessica on our first date. It didn’t work for me, either.

Which leads me to the subject of penises and vaginas.

The boys were on the Cape staying with Grandpa Michael and Granny Merle. We check in and are told by Grandpa M that for the first time, they do not want Granny M to see them naked.

A few months before Jack had started being “shy” in front of baby sitters, not wanting them to see him undress. No underwear, and definitely no penis. Now, both Adam and Jack were banning all women from seeing their naked bodies.

Jessica is not a woman, Jessica is Mommy. But it is inevitable that at some point Mommy’s Womaness will emerge and lead to banning her, too. I reach back into my memory and don’t know when this happened to me. I don’t remember being naked in front of my mother. But I do know that at some point it would have been horrifying to be wiggling my butt and penis in her view. We will wait and see when that time comes for Jack and Adam. Any guesses?

See the World, and While You’re at it, Pick up the Donkey Meat and Dry Cleaning

Margaret, the corporate relo gal from Basel by way of Scotland, takes us around the city to see neighborhoods and apartments. But more interesting to me is that I learn Basel is bordered by Germany and France, each about 15 minutes away from the city center. It’s like the part of the US where four states come together and you can get an appendage in each. Margaret’s advice: Buy meat in Germany and get your dry cleaning done in France.

The meat thing is about Switzerland having all those damn cows and, I guess, having the cows stand in for their national identity. It’s like our eagle, an equally shameful thing to slaughter. But eagle meat is extremely tough and gamey and yields a low meat-to-bones ratio. And cows are just delicious. Switzerland never adopted the slaughter as factory model prevalent in the US, so their meat is extremely expensive and sadly, not so tasty. Cow is milk here, not meat.

But Germany, well, we know about Germans. They like their cars big and fucking fast and extremely well engineered, and their meat every-which-way. This is a nation that has never found a creature they couldn’t turn into sausage, steak, burgers, cold cuts and whatever category wienerschnitzel falls into. The Eskimos have a thousand words for snow, the Germans have 2,000 words for bloody dead flesh and they all translate as “delicious.” So Germany is the place to get your meat. Fun fact: You can only bring in 10 kilos of meat per person per day into Switzerland. And, yes, this explicitly does include donkey meat. Word to the wise: Do not bring a slow or trusting pet into Germany. And if you should get sick there, do not in any way smell delicious.

Why dry cleaning should be cheap in France I do not know. Except it is a nation that really does the fashion thing well and I am guessing has more lovely clothes per individual than any other nation and thus needs dry cleaning more often. So supply/demand, prices come down. It’s why there’s a nail place on every corner of Manhattan and it is cheaper to get a mani-pedi in NYC than the surrounding suburbs.

Jessica immediately latched onto the Ken picking up the dry cleaning in France idea. And I was thoroughly amused. Because in Brookline, where we still live, I am charged with dropping off the dry cleaning. Because, as Jessica points out, it is on my way to work. But it never happens, because while I do indeed pass the dry cleaner while walking to work, it is on the other side of the street. Which means crossing four lanes of traffic and over T tracks. Twice. Thus adding 15 minutes to my morning routine. I am generally already late by 30 minutes, so this is a non-starter.

So now she thinks I’m going to go out of my way to a different country for the dry cleaning? When I start wearing a striped shirt, beret, smoke Gitanes and stop showering. Here’s the thing: I look terrible in stripes and hats, get sick from second-hand smoke and live to let hot water cascade over my naked body. Note to Jessica: Wrinkle-free fabrics.

Checking out Basel

Switzerland. I can’t believe I’m still in Switzerland. When I’m here, I want to be there. When I’m there, I want to be here.

Stage Direction: Hotel room, Basel. I stumble with jet lag across the floor and trip over a giant half-eaten Toblerone. I fall on the bed and pass out. Jet lag is a bitch. And chocolate, even the crispy crunchy kind, will just make things worse even if for a time it seems to make things better.

My wife is Practical. Just like the Swiss. She has business appointments. I have all day of nothing. She admonishes me to get out of the hotel room, to take a walking tour of the city, to go to a museum, to get to know the place we may be calling home.

I wish her well as she goes off to do Big Business.

I stumble back into bed and sleep. And sleep. And wake up and pee and sleep. Jet lag is like dosing the body with variable release antihistamine. And I am a sensitive fella. My body doesn’t like being subjected to the unusual, like being put on the rack and stretched, I imagine. Definitely not being hurled across an ocean at 600+ mph and landing in a place where time has changed. We may not intellectually acknowledge time travel, but our bodies’ know it happens. So I wake up, take an aspirin, guzzle water and sleep. So far my day is going exactly as planned.

Finally, I wake up and no longer need to go back to sleep. I decide to figure out what Switzerland is like without leaving my hotel room.

I look out the window and see a sex shop and some apartments. Holly shit, I’m still in my apartment of 10 years ago in the West Village in NYC.

I look at the TV… Philips. The art on the walls is tasteful architectural photographs. Maybe I’m at the W in San Francisco. The bed has big white down covers and the furniture is high concepty post modern. Yup, it’s the W, anywhere.

Except it’s SwissHotel in Basel.

I get bored, get back in bed, put on my earphones and get on the iPhone. Episode 6, True Blood. Suki is being fucked by polite vampire Bill. For the next hour-and-a-half I watch and relax. I now have a feel for Switzerland. It’s just like home.