Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Switzerland: So I am not quite a Swiss Miss...

I really try to keep the following quote at the forefront of my mind whenever possible:

...she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring...

No prizes for guessing which of my favourite songs that line also inspired.

Which makes me feel more than a little bit guilty about writing this post. On the bright side, if anyone is sick of the posts when I am all happy-happy-joy-joy-this-is the-most-awesome-place-ever, than this is the update for you.

I was in Switzerland mostly because the trip to Val d`Isere included a free transfer to Geneva Airport. And since I have always found free to be a compelling answer as any to the question why, I just kind of went with it.

So, on to Switzerland. Yeah. Your pulse is racing, I know.

Geneva
Geneva is a major diplomatic and NGO centre. Very important place. An International Canberra, if you will.

In addition to the UN, Red Cross, WHO and other really important...associations... Geneva is crowded with amazing furniture and interior decorating stores. Which should have been my first clue.

Now, I love a good homeware store as much as the next person (Hi Lana!), but I also have a theory about places with too many of these kind of establishments. I think its a pretty reliable indicator that the people who live in that place are more interested in making their private homes fabulous than making their public spaces exciting and vibrant and in any way, shape or form... fun. Which is awesome for them, and I really hope the people of Geneva are rocking out with the SingStar in their living rooms as we speak, but does not make for a great place to visit.

To be fair, I was there on a Sunday and Monday, which are never my most sparkling and witty days, but at least I will make an effort and wear interesting shoes or matching underwear or something, but no such effort from Geneva. On the Sunday, the only thing open was Starbucks. On the Monday, the only things open were Starbucks and the UN.

And the I was so psyched for the UN. I was totally going to see someone famous wandering the halls of power, and they were going to hear me ask the guide a really insightful and non-judgemental question, and I was going to be hired to, like, bring about an end to worldwide bad-stuff, and they were totally going to replace the Talking Dog outside the QVB with me and for generations to come Sydneysiders would meet at the Talking Penny before going out to dinner in the CBD, before realising that there isn`t actually anywhere both nice and affordable in the CBD to eat, and getting a bus to Newtown or Surry Hills or Potts Point or whatever.

I had a dream, man. And instead I went on an hour long tour of meeting halls. Really nice meeting halls, but meeting halls nonetheless.

Bern

The other thing about Switzerland? Really bloody expensive, so it drove me to new levels of backpacker stinginess. I was only in Bern for a few hours because it was about 20 Euros cheaper to buy a train ticket from Geneva to Bern, then a train ticket from Bern to Zurich, rather than buy a ticket straight from Geneva to Zurich.

And Bern, to be fair, was lovely. Very pretty. Lots of bridges. And a river, which explains the bridges.

I think its hard to get disappointed with a place when you`re only there for two hours.

Zurich
Zurich sounds really interesting, doesn`t it? Like, every single Zoe and Zach I know is interesting. And the zoo is interesting. As are zebras.

And Zurich did contain the most gorgeous church I have ever visited (and I`ve toured both Italy and South America, so I have been to some churches, girlfriend). The Fraumünster is really lovely. Massive yet intimate and very feminine. Plus, the Marc Chagall stained glass windows are just amazing and so different and generally awesome.

Aside from that, I got pretty bloody bored in Zurich. Plus, I was suffering from acute paranoia, because one of the girls in my dorm was studying to be a dentist. Our sink was actually in the bedroom part of the dorm, which meant that everyone could see and hear you brushing your teeth, and every time I brushed my teeth I felt as if I was being judged against a very professional criteria to which I could never possibly measure up. Very stressful situation, let me tell you.

It all got to me on the last day. I was wandering around a university campus when I saw a sign advertising some free museums. Great, I thought. Free heating and captions to tell me what to think. I am so there!

One of the museums was being advertised with a man wearing one of those pointy beak-like mask things that doctors used to wear during the Black Death (I think), and its name was prefixed with `Medi` (the rest was in German, which, despite 3 years of German in High School, I do not speak or understand at all. Cheers, NSW education system!). Terrific, I thought. A medieval museum! Maybe there will be knights! Courtly love! Right up my alley!

Erm, so it turned out to be a Medical History Museum. I only caught on to this after viewing the `Obstetrics Instruments Through the Ages` exhibit. After which I needed a whisky. Sitting down. With my legs firmly crossed.

So, to sum up: I would never say don`t go to Switzerland. I would, however, happily say don`t go to Switzerland without a very good book.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Val d'Isere - Because there's a little bit of Eurotrash in everyone.

OK, first up, anything I write about Val d'Isere is going to be tempered by this news story. I almost fell of my chair when I read the story, because I always felt so completely safe in Val d'Isere - once I was off the slopes, the only thing I really feared was my credit card bill after running out of Euros and deciding it was cool to put a round on my MasterCard. I am a very blessed girl who was lucky enough to be travelling with people who always made sure I got home safely every night, basically.

So, three days into 2009 I escaped Oxford under the cover of darkness for a week of skiing in Val d'Isere, a lovely, very posh ski resort in the French Alps.

I'd had the trip planned for ages - before I left Sydney, even. I went with a really old friend from the 'Wood (OK, I'll begrudgingly admit that no one has ever referred to Castlewood Estate - the part of Castle Hill I grew up in - as the 'Wood, but they totally should!), Sam, and her fiancee, who happens to be British, and his brother and a friend of theirs.

My time in Val d'Isere was a time of learning. For instance, I learnt the following:

*I'm a dreadful, no good, very bad skier - this all centres around my fear of going downhill. Its a slightly restrictive fear, I'll admit, but also a totally rational one. Nobody ever hurt themselves climbing up a hill, did they (rhetorical, no comments about Everest mountaineers, thank you very much)?

This all makes for a very slow skier who somehow manages to hunch over (so it hurts less when I fall forward) and lean back (so it hurts less when I fall backwards) concurrently. Imagine Quasimodo refracted through Picasso's cubist period, and you're getting there.

Luckily I have a lifetime's experience of being absolutely terrible at sports (netball, jazz ballet, touch football, squash, kickboxing, er, handwriting), so I was quite content to be really bad at skiing.

Although they did always ask me to be the anchor of the tug-of-war team in primary school. Which really involves:

A) Being heavy
B) Standing still
C) Resisiting momentum

Its a sport designed for me, really.

* 10 shots of Jaegermeister for 15 Euros might seem like an excellent investment now, but probably won't seem as sensible tomorrow morning when you're on the ski life at 9am.

* I could really happily live on French bread and cheese - OMG, the food. The food. THE FOOD! We were staying at a UCPA Lodge (somewhere between a hostel and a school camp venue, except, like, clean), and all meals are included. I was wary of this before we arrived (remembering scullery duties at Year 5 camp after casserole and strawberry mousse... oh, the horror) but I should have trusuted the French. Because the French rock the kitchen kazbah.

Every lunch and dinner there'd be a red meat and chicken/fish option, plus a salad bar and soup and potato dish and a self serve ice cream bar with waffle cones...

And the cheese and the bread. Oh, the cheese and the bread. Breakfast lunch and dinner there was a never-ending table of crusty baguettes and massive circles of different cheeses (blues, bries, 'berts...). And every was great, and fresh, and plentiful...

Does anyone know why we just don't all eat French bread all the time? Since it is so obviously superior to any other kind of bread on earth?

Basically - I'll give the French a pass on the supposed arrogance, since, well, they are better than us. Arrogant away, Frenchies... just keep baking.

* Every nationality on Earth can speak a second language, except those who speak English as their first language - and its embarassing. In Val d'Isere, the ski instructor, the bar staff, even the dish washer at the hotel all spoke perfect English (in addition to their native French). It just makes me feel so dumb and isolationist.

I saw the new Woody Allen movie, Vicky Christina Barcelona (and, oh man, some of the lines about white middle class girls going backpacking and trying to discover what their cultural contribution should be cut very close to the bone... very Stuff White People Like) the other day.

One of the characters, a poet, refuses to learn to speak any language other than Spanish because he is afriad that it will contaminate his relationship with the toold of his work.

Ah, I thought. Maybe that's why native English speakers rarely learn a second language.

Then I reemebered that we're the same liguistic group to give the world such charming phrases such as "wife basher" for a sleeveless t-shirt, and I decided that in fact it could just be pure laziness.

Anyway, I'm now mucking about Europe for a few weeks before trying to tackle the terrible no good UK job market. Wish me luck!

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Oxford for Dummies (also known as "professionals")

So this whole thing, you see, happened, where I had a full time job in Oxford that involved me staring at a computer screen typing all day. It made staring at a computer and typing all night seem fairly unappealling. So this blog got a teensy bit abandoned. Oops.

But now my contract has finished, and I've left Oxford (for the time being, at least). Which means I finally feel ready to update here about my first three months in the UK (yes, it really has been that long).

Oxford was fantastic. Social. Busy. Tipsy. The highlights package includes:

* Attending guest dinners in the dining halls of two different colleges (not sure what a college is, or how it relates to the University proper? Me neither! The wiki page is pretty good on the topic).

The locations were pure Harry Potter. The conduct and dress code begins all Oscar Wilde: Collected Works (ooh! We're all terribly sophisticated and knowing and well-dressed! Let us flirt and display our wit and eat rabbit). The conduct and dress code slowly devolves into Oscar Wilde: The Actual Life, meaning there's lots of debauchery and intrigue and behaviour that risks imprisonment. Good times, basically.

* Cheesy Christmas clubbing until the lights were turned back on at closing time. I told Shelley that my Christmas wish was to dance to Wham's Last Christmas as many times as possible. Wish granted.

* Working at an office located about 10 miles out of Oxford in a genuine English village. I walked down a country lane to work every morning, and I used to pretend that I was a Bennet sister walking to Meryton to hear the latest news about the officers of the regiment. Because I'm that cool, obviously. Incidentally, I read Mansfield Park again recently (50 pence at Oxfam). Was Fanny Price always so dull and annoying? And does anyone else wish that Austen had written the novel about Mary Crawford instead?

* Christmas in London and New Year in Coventry. Being away from the people you love over the festive season sucks. What doesn't suck, though, is how the isolation makes you seek out other people stranded on the same cold island. People are better and more interesting and generous than Miranda Devine or Ray Hadley or Today Tonight would have you believe.

Also, Christmas Night in London turned into Boxing Day sales at Selfridges, which turned into a fabulous jacket that Santa bought me for Christmas. Thanks Mummy and Daddy!

* Working weekends at Marks & Spencer. When I quit my last job in a shop, I was all Scarlett O'Hara in the vegetable patch at Tara, swearing that, "With God as my Witness, I'll never work retail again".

But then a greedy desire to earn as many pounds as possible hit, so I applied for a job at M&S, which is a bit of an institution in the UK. And I loved (almost) every second of it. I know its a cliche, but British people really are very polite, and many seem to have a slightly insane amount of respect for M&S and its employees. As such, I was subjected to none of the fun abuse and condescension I've experienced working retail in the past (yes, I'm looking at you, customers of Castle Towers).

Things I didn't love:
* Being the only housemate who felt compelled to clean the (shared) bathroom. House was fine, and housemates were... lovely in most cases and tolerable in others, but, dude, seriously, our shower shouldn't look like a petri dish growing anti-biotics.

And to the members of my family who are amused at the thought of me cleaning, I will send home the pants I ruined with bleach as proof. So there.

* The gym. I really miss C2K. I really miss RPM.I really miss instructors who don't say things at the end of a Body Attack class like, "now I want everyone to point to someone who really inspired them with their efforts tonight". Needless to say, I. Did. Not. Point. I did almost throw up, though.

I was surprised at the dire gym state, though, because the streets of Oxford are riddled with joggers and runners 24 hours a day, no matter what the temperature. I guess its just a town of driven and successful people, and they apply the same ethics to each aspect of their lives. Or maybe they just like to parade around in lycra tights. I know that's why I run.

* Working seven days a week. Felt great for the first month, then I just started to fantasise about sleeping in incessantly. Between Christmas and New Year I spent on average 12 hours a day in bed, just catching up on sleep. Woohoo, the wild life of a twenty something living it up on a working holiday.

I'm travelling again now, which means I will be updating the blog again regularly. At least, that's the plan. We'll see.