Friday, February 27, 2009

Ex-Pat Invonveniences

It's really nice living here. But occasionally, there are really annoying inconveniences. These inconveniences mostly come in the form of wanting or needing something that is available only in the United

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Plans for Kindle-ing

This is a guy who has a lot of free time on his hands: Me. I spend more than 2 hours a day in the Swiss public transportation system, and end up reading a lot, if I am not staring out the window or trying not to be obvious about gawking at the pretty Swiss ladies.

In response to all this reading, my German reading skills have improved remarkably on this two year mission. I suppose this is not an unexpected side effect of reading a daily free newspaper that has trashy content and lots of pictures. The trashy content keeps the subject matter simple, (example); the pictures keep it entertaining, and help me along when there is vocabulary I don't know.

I also read magazines. The three you might catch me with are the Scientific American, Soaring, and the Scientific American I really enjoy, except occasionally the articles about microbiology that are way over my head. I have a much easier time reading articles about astronomy, technology, psychology, public policy or chemsitry. The Soaring magazine articles are a perk of the membership in the Soaring Society of America, which I must maintain in order to remain a member of my flying club: Skyline Soaring Club. The third magazine is a similar deal: I must maintain a membership in the Aeroclub der Schweiz, as I am an active member in the Bern Flying Club (Segelfluggruppe Bern)

Other occasional reading I might do are some non-fiction books that enhance my focus on some of my more nerdy intellectual interests, such as the recent book I have been reading from Neil Shubin, called Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.

The main problem I have is that these things weigh me down. Literally. The backpack is a tedious thing to carry around; weighed even more by the library I carry on my back. If only there was some sort of technology that would allow me to have all these books, without the extra weight.

Another item to consider is that books in English are terribly expensive. I could buy the equivalent books in German, and read those, but the reading is much less relaxed, and a very strenuous exercise. Consider the German-language book that I bought about a year ago, and still haven't had the will to read it (they use really big words! :) )

In order to get books here in Switzerland, I would have to go to the Stauffacher , conveniently located in downtown Bern, or to the Thalia, even more conveniently located in the train station. But buying books at these stores in English are terribly expensive. To give you some sort of an idea about the prices involved:

Amazon (US): 13.95 USD
Stauffacher: 31.50 CHF (27.11 USD on 25 Feb 2009)
Thalia: 31.50 CHF (27.11 USD on 25 Feb 2009)

On a recent trip to Stauffacher, I bought Stacy the whole series of books from Stephanie Meyer, that cost over a hundred francs. Maybe the ability to buy cheaper books over the Internet, without the need to support a brick and morter

Recently, I have been wondering about electronic books, in general; the Amazon Kindle specifically. I often find myself wanting to read something that is not in my backpack, on my long, daily, boring train trip. The convenience of having my whole library with me would be really handy.

Enter the Amazon Kindle, (and the reason for the title of this article). Many years ago, when I was riding the Metro to downtown DC, to work on a contract at the GSA, I read a few classic books on my Palm Pilot Professional PDA. The acquisition of books was kind of a hassle, and the reason they were classic books and not modern books is because the classic ones such as Candide, were expired from copyright. The screen was pretty small, and didn't view very well in many situations, but I did enjoy reading e-books in such a compact package.

With the Kindle, I can purchase the latest books from Amazon, and read them in a convenient-for-Piet format on this small device that doesn't weigh much.

Disadvantages: they don't sell the Amazon Kindle in Europe. The Kindle has a wireless network called "Whispernet" that makes purchasing books (while standing in the United States) very convenient. Just click, and the purchase is made. With my current situation in Switzerland, it is not as convenient.

Amazon has deals with books to get the books into Kindle format, but that deal only applies to people in the United States. In order to get a Kindle, while living in Europe, you have to present Amazon a US-based Credit Card with a US-based Address. (And I have the advantage of being an American with these things at my disposal). There is a work-around to download these books to an Internet-connected computer, and download them to the Kindle over a USB cable. So the incredible convenience of downloading books over the Whispernet is lost, but the convenience of having a lightweight copy of all my books in one place is not lost.

I think I am going to go ahead with this, and I'll let you know how it all works out. In the meantime, I am planning all of the e-books that I have been meaning to read all these years, that I will add to my reading list. The BBC allegedly put together a list of the fiction that everybody should have read, and the average person has read only 6 of them.

The BBC believes most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here. How do your reading habits stack up?

( ) 1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
( ) 2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
( ) 3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
( ) 4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
( ) 5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
( ) 6 The Bible (most)
( ) 7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
( ) 8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
( ) 9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
( ) 10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

( ) 11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
( ) 12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
( ) 13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
( ) 14 Complete Works of Shakespeare (most)
( ) 15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
( ) 16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
( ) 17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulk
( ) 18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
( ) 19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
( ) 20 Middlemarch - George Eliot

( ) 21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
( ) 22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
( ) 23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
( ) 24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
(x) 25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
( ) 26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
( ) 27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
( ) 28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
( ) 29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
( ) 30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame

( ) 31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
( ) 32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
( ) 33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
( ) 34 Emma - Jane Austen
( ) 35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
( ) 36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
( ) 37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
( ) 38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
( ) 39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
( ) 40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne

( ) 41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
( ) 42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
( ) 43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
( ) 44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
( ) 45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
( ) 46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
( ) 47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
( ) 48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
( ) 49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
( ) 50 Atonement - Ian McEwan

( ) 51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
( ) 52 Dune - Frank Herbert
( ) 53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
( ) 54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
( ) 55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
( ) 56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
( ) 57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
( ) 58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
( ) 59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
( ) 60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

(x) 61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
( ) 62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
( ) 63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
( ) 64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
( ) 65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
(x) 66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
( ) 67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
( ) 68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
( ) 69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
( ) 70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville

( ) 71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
( ) 72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
( ) 73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
( ) 74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
( ) 75 Ulysses - James Joyce
( ) 76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
( ) 77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
( ) 78 Germinal - Emile Zola
( ) 79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
( ) 80 Possession - AS Byatt

( ) 81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
( ) 82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
( ) 83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
( ) 84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
( ) 85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
( ) 86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
( ) 87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White
( ) 88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
( ) 89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
( ) 90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton

( ) 91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
( ) 92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
( ) 93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
( ) 94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
( ) 95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
( ) 96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
( ) 97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
( ) 98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
( ) 99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
( ) 100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Wow, I suck; I have read only 3 of these, and two of them were because of a class in college. Maybe the person who came up with this list was one of those evil English teachers that simply likes to torture children with melodramatic crap from the Victorian era. Now that I see this list, I honestly don't see myself buying any of these books online.

Maybe the real reason I want a Kindle is summed up in this episode of xkcd:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

All Good Things...

...must come to an end.

On my trip back to the US in January, I had my performance review, and in it, essentially the discussion was with regard to WHEN I was coming back the United States, not a matter of IF I was coming back.

So here is what it looks like my schedule will be:
  • 20 June 2009: SGBern Saanen Operations begin. (And I plan on being there!)
  • 4 July 2009: Kids last day of school.
  • 18 July 2009: Last day of SGBern's operations in Saanen.
  • 31 July 2009: The family living in our house in VA must be out.
  • 31 July 2009: We must be out of the house in Rüfenacht.

Now some of the less certain dates:
  • When the family goes back to the US: Unknown for certain, but Stacy wants out of Switzerland before the kids are out of school. I am not sure on the reasoning behind this, she's explained it to me many times, but it still doesn't click for me.
  • When the movers come to pick up the house's furniture and such
  • When I have to have the car returned to the dealer.

I do plan on living in a tent for like 3 weeks in Saanen, and living like a mountain man. I think the only stuff I will have will be a suitcase of a suitable number of clothes, my tent, my pillow, my air mattress, and my flight-related papers, such as logbook, etc. Oh I guess I will have my work laptop, too.

Now that we realize the end is near, I am trying to cram as much Swiss time in as possible, and trying to enjoy or savor every moment. I think Stacy and the kids all see this as the end of a miserable saga of torture and pain (Especially Jake would think that), and I know the relatives back in the US will all be so happy to see us come back to the US.

But me? I'm not as excited as everybody else.

The real estate agent has already started showing the house to prospective buyers; the real estate market is pretty sour right now in the US, and also in Switzerland, although to not the same extent that it is in the US. I suppose the owners wanted to have as much opportunity to try to sell the house while there are paying renters in the house, as they can.

October Trip to London

I had a 2 week trip to London that I didn't know about until the weekend beforehand (short plans) Luckily, the kids had off school this week anyway, so Stacy considered the financial implications of joining me on this trip to London.

"Beware, I never get any personal time on these trips at all" "You may not see me more than 10 minutes at a time" "Beware, I usually work 14 hour days on these trips"

No matter. She had her plans anyway, that did not necessarily involve me being around.

We flew out of Geneva to London City airport, which is incredibly convenient. We took a taxi cab to our hotel, which we knew wasn't in the best part of town, but not the worst part of town either, London Limehouse. For the short cab ride the cabby charged us FIFTY POUNDS! What robbery! Now that I know London better, it would have been far more economical to put the kids on the light rail, that drops us off not more than a block from the hotel. Oh well.

I met with the one co-worker who was on this trip with me, Tim; a Limey ex-pat living in Northern Virginia, and works in the Dulles office, where I used to work in VA. We met at Picadilly Circus, and had dinner in some American restaurant chain that I don't remember the name of. TGI Friday's ? Aw heck I don't remember.

Anyway, since the vacation was Stacy's, and I was in a data center busy the whole time, you'll have to see the pictures for yourself; I can't add much more to the dialog.

Ski Gürten

You will hate living here if you hate the Winter. And you will really hate the Winter if you don't ski. We don't ski, mostly because the inertia of getting so many kids moved early enough to go skiing is nearly impossible. Also, skiing for so many kids is also a very expensive proposition.

In January, while I was in Northern Virginia on a business trip, Stacy took the kids skiing at the local hill here, called Gürten. They have a very small ski lift (more like a T bar), that is just right for kids. Along with a very affordable ski rental, the younger 3 kids got a day with a very gentle sloping bunny hill, quite appropriate for the beginner. Since I wasn't there, I can't really give a lot of details, outside of the following bullet items:
  1. Joey was not interested in skiing at first
  2. Cecilia did very well
  3. Josh did all-right
  4. Joey finally got the courage to put back on the skis after watching his brother and sister successfully getting down the hill
  5. Jake stayed at home, since the age limit on this hill is 8. (and technically Cecilia wasn't allowed to ski here either, but she got away with it)
For more details, you'll have to discern them from the slideshow, or you'll have to ask Stacy.

Am Zibelemärit

November 2008:

Every year in Bern, there is a festival called Zibelemärit (Onion Market (EN DE)). Last November, I managed to drag the family out. The prior year, I had guests in from America (Hi mom!), and we spent the day in Fribourg, wandering around instead. Since this was likely the last opportunity for me to experience this unique festival in Bern, I had to take part in it. The warnings from everybody else who has been there before is usually "Get out by noon!" Of course, we did not follow this advice, instead; getting in just before noon.

This is a festival unlike anything else I have ever seen. Just about anybody who has a booth in Bern, sets up one along the streets; so street after street has store vendors selling their stuff; anywhere from the traditional kitsch trap of any touristy place, to food, to just about anything having to do something with onions. The city is quite crowded as the streets hold just about as many people as can get crammed in.

The Swiss, usually a rather "reserved" type of people, let loose on this day. They carry confetti, and throw it at passers-by in the street. The curlier the hair on the target, the better. The ammunition for the confetti assaults are sold by the bag-full by many street vendors on this day. Also popular with the kids, are plastic hammers that make an adorable squeak sound when you hit somebody on the head with them.

Me? I'm busy finding the Glühwein (Mulled Wine), a very thick, red, citrusey wine that is served undrinkably hot at first. As the cold November day wears on, the wine cools to a more drinkable temperature.

The kids all got armed with bags of confetti, and start throwing handfuls at the strangers in the street. This is OK, as the strangers in the street throw back their own bags of confetti in retaliation. By noon, the streets are covered in a thin paste of rained-on-smooshed-up yucky muddy confetti, that sticks to your feet.

Every once in a while, Joey would get a face-full of confetti thrown in under the rain shield on the jog stroller he was riding in, and would get very upset. He did not enjoy the day so much, as his view was not much more than lots of butts, and an occasional blast of confetti to the face. I don't think he enjoyed his day until the tram ride home.

At our lunch break, the rain came. The good news about the rain, is that it chased away a lot of the people on the street, giving me that window of opportunity to get food from the street vendors, without having to wait in a long line. I got a bowl of Rösti, which Stacy took a taste of, and immediately decided she needed a bowl of her own. Jake had a similar reaction, and actually ended up eating two bowls for himself.

We managed to escape the city center around 2 PM, where I understand a huge confetti fight takes place at 4PM with all the kids who have confetti left to throw. We were finding confetti in our pockets for weeks, and still, in February, find an occasional small unexpected bit of confetti.

Here's the slideshow of Onion Market day:

Friday, February 13, 2009

Car Crash!

3 February 2009:
I woke up late that morning. I had been having problems sleeping, since I was getting over a cold. Stacy thought that I was taking Tuesday off as well. Since I was feeling much better that day, I was ready to go to work. But it was too late for me to catch my train, and if I took the next train, I wouldn't get into work until about 11:15.

Since the kids were all home sick (all four of them), and I needed to escape the house of virus, I took the car to go to work. Taking the car to work is a pretty rare event, and can turn a 1:15 commute into a 39 minute commute. I only get to do it once or twice a month.

I was headed north on one of the final roads to get the office. Thoughts were going through my mind of the huge amount of work I have ahead of me. I have a large deployment of software, and some pretty tricky work that lies immediately ahead of me.

Suddenly, the car is at a complete stop. The airbag is deployed. The car is turned 120 degrees to the right of the direction I was previously going. There is a smelly, smoky dust floating in the air. The radio was off. The hazard lights were on, clicking away. "Sh%$. I must have been in an accident!"

I had no notice that the crash was going to happen. I had no idea the car was going to impact. I had no idea the car had been destroyed. I was driving along, minding my own business, a clear road in front of me, and then I was in a wrecked car. It is amazing how quickly it all happened. There was no slow motion "OH NO WE ARE GOING TO CRASH" No screeching tires, no dramatic music, no anticipation at all. Just driving, and crash.

I get out of the car, probably faster than I should have. In retrospect, I didn't even look for other traffic. If they too weren't paying attention, I would have been a pedestrian smear on their bumper. I see what must obviously have been the other car, a fair distance away, and go to check on him.

As I walk to his car, I look at the intersection again. My initial reaction was that the accident MUST have been fault, since I am a foreigner, and often am confused by the rules of the traffic here. I looked over to the big white triangle painted on his side of the road, and confirm that I, indeed had right of way.

I'm the first person to the other driver's car as he opens the door. He seems to be all right. His face isn't wedged in the windshield or anything, and I don't see any blood. He gets out of the car without any need of assistance. I ask him if he's OK, in English (I seem to have forgotten German at that moment). He responds that he's OK.

Me? No pain so far. I do notice that my knee feels like I fell and scraped it. It doesn't hurt, though. By now bystanders are showing up to see if everybody is OK. The old guy driving the Mercedes, gets out of his car, and speaks Swiss German to me. I don't really know what he is saying; it wasn't Bernese German, but some other dialect of Swiss German that I don't know at all. The bystanders who rushed to the scene to aid us all spoke French. Maybe it was a mild case of lingual aphasia on my part.

One helpful bystander, who was driving a motorcycle behind me before the accident (and saw the whole thing) spoke both German and French. He was awesome. He translated everything for me into German, and directed traffic, from all the other cars that were starting to get stuck at the intersection, not knowing what to do. The smoldering twisted hulk that was once my car was in the dead center of the intersection, immobile. The new traffic is routed around the broken glass and twisted metal.

The old guy had a pretty deep cut on his right hand, and he goes with one of the bystanders to the hospital. He opens the trunk to get his walking stick, and they are gone. People ask me over and over again, "Are you hurt?" No, don't think so. My knee is a little scraped, but not much else. "No neck pain?" Nope.

I call the wife promptly. "I'm OK. The car is destroyed."

I instant-message my co-worker, Chris, and tell him to come over and see the car wreck. He is an avid photographer, and loves to photograph cool stuff, I am sure that car crashes would also qualify as stuff he likes to shoot.

The police show up. None of them speak German, they are all Francophones. The first officers show up to direct traffic, more show up to take pictures, measure distances, make chalk markings on the pavement, scribble details in their notepads. One officer shows up to me and asks me if I have any injuries.
He has a brethalyzer in hand. "It's protocol to measure all drivers involved in an accident for blood alcohol content" I blow. It's a zero point zero (as was expected). Chris had the presence of mind to snap a shot of the event. It made a pretty funny picture.

I had to retrieve all of the documents out of the car, the license, registration, the GPS, anything I could stuff into my backpack.

The traffic cop who does speak English and German shows up. He tells me that he prefers German, so I go along in German. He drives me back to the police station, where I give my statement.

This was an odd experience unlike any I have had before. The office was a small room with just enough room for a desk with a computer, and my chair on the other side. I had to present all of my documents. My Ausländerausweis (Foreigner's permit), my passport, my drivers license, my title of the car, my proof of car insurance.

We described the events of the accident, as he wrote all of the happenings for me. The final document was half in French, half in German. The first part of the document was in French, the basic information, like the names of those involved, the location, the time, the types of cars, etc. The part where we described the accident was in German. I can't imagine a document in America as being in two languages, but this is Switzerland, and things are different, I guess.

Here's a map of the accident.

View Larger Map

I am coming from the south, heading north on Route de Chandolan. You can see the cross-street, Route de Petit Moncor, where the other guy was coming from the west, headed East. If you look closely at the satellite photo, you can see the white triangle painted on the road. In America, this would be a stop sign, but here, it is simply a "give-way", meaning, you have to yield to the oncoming traffic. There is no need to stop if there is no traffic. His view up the street probably couldn't see me so well, as the sun was behind me, and the street was wet. When looking back up the street, the sun and the wet road lined up just well enough to shine very brightly.

I have gone down this road a few times more, and my view of the oncoming traffic from the left is very limited. Limited both by the car wash, on the southwest corner of this inter section, along with lots of parked cars, and snow banks piled up high, preventing a view of the oncoming traffic from the left. In addition, every car has this blind spot just in front and to the left of the driver, where the frame of the left side of the window blocks a small part of the view of the driver. These issues combined are probably why I never saw this guy coming.

Here's my pictures (with comments) on Facebook:

Here's some more pictures:
From Blogger Pictures

From Blogger Pictures