Friday, December 5, 2008


(The images to accompany my two Thanksgiving meals and my wanderings through Zürich are here)

I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving for two years now. Last year I was in Brazil presenting my research on crinoids at the University of Sao Paulo. I was surrounded by other Ohio State researchers, but most of us had just met, so it wasn’t exactly a family meal when we gathered for our Thanksgiving churrasco. This year I was away from the Borths/Kemble family table on the fourth Thursday in November yet again. I think of Thanksgiving as the family holiday so it was tough missing the feast for a second year in a row.

Many of my fellow expats felt the same way, so I was invited to two Thanksgiving celebrations, one the weekend before the official day, and the other the weekend after. The first was organized by the Ohio State design students who let me tag along for Oktoberfest in Munich and the Federweisenfest in Wiesbaden. Their Thanksgiving celebrations were the same day as the Michigan/Ohio State game in Zürich, Switzerland. Ian, one of the design students, is studying there for the semester. Since I wanted to be surrounded by Buckeyes for the big game and I wanted to get some turkey in my system, I bought my train ticket to Zürich and headed south.

Ian lives in a dormitory that has two large communal kitchens for the entire building and large common spaces for mingling. While it might be tough to share a kitchen with a couple hundred people on a regular basis, the set-up was perfect for making all the fixin’s for Thanksgiving. I would never be able to host such an event as I have a very small kitchen and the common area in my dorm wouldn’t be able to accommodate all the guests. All us American interlopers slept in the attic of Ian’s building which had extra mattresses and six couches. Again, perfect place to host a bunch of people.

I arrived Friday, exchanged my Euros for Swiss Francs and puzzled over the bus map with Lindsay and Chris. A note on Swiss money: Switzerland is not part of the Euro zone. As always, the Swiss want to stay out of the affairs of the rest of Europe in just about every way. They don’t want to be exposed to the economic fortunes (and misfortunes) of the neighbors. By hanging onto the Franc the Swiss have made themselves one of the wealthiest and thus most expensive countries in Europe. This makes it a nice place to visit, but I’m glad I’m living in the more affordable Bonn. As an illustration of the expense: It’s about 1.20 Swiss Francs to the dollar. A meal at McDonalds in Switzerland costs 15.00 Francs. Crazy. Eventually Chris, Lindsay and I were met by Boron, an Ohio State students studying in Potsdam. He led us to the correct bus, then on to Ian’s building.

Saturday morning it was snowing, leaving a powder sugar coating over the city and surrounding hills. Because I woke up in the attic in a building rooted into one of these hills, I had a spectacular view of the valley and Lake Zürich. I can’t tell you how badly I wanted to yodel across the rooftops, but thought that might not sit well with people trying to sleep in on their Saturday. I wanted to get out and explore while the snow was on the ground so I went grocery shopping with Boron and Ian. I admired all the premium Swiss-made cheeses and chocolate and helped schlep the makings of the feast back up the hill. Ian and Boron were our main cooks for the day, so the rest of us were free to explore the city a bit.

As we wandered into the old medieval part of town, a little sign labeled “Scotch Shop” caught my eye. I joked that on a wintery day, that didn’t seem like a bad place to hang out. Chris agreed and headed towards the small wooden door. I followed, fully aware that I didn’t know a thing about whiskies but was probably about to learn something.

The shop was run by a small, Swiss woman who was ready for any question we had. She knew every bottle in the shop as if it were her child and is proud of them all. Chris and I had an opportunity to taste a few varieties and compare the “smokiness” of different batches. I sampled a few from bottles I won’t be able to afford for another decade. I tripled my knowledge of single malt Scotch in the thirty minutes we were in the store. The proprietor asked where we were from. When Lindsay and I said Cincinnati, she was excited to say she knew the city because a troupe of Cincinnati businessmen frequent her store when they’re in town. At least the Cincinnatians have good taste.

After the Scotch stop we picked up two other Ohio State students, Tylon and Katie, who were coming to join the feast. I met Tylan at Oktoberfest, but hadn’t met Katie. She joined us right as we entered a Swiss Army knife store, so there weren’t formal introductions. As we left the store and strolled along the lake, I introduced myself. “Oh sorry. Hi. Yeah, I know you are. You’re in all the pictures. I forgot we hadn’t met yet!” I suddenly felt even more accepted into this group of designers.

When I go into a new city, I’m usually paying attention to signs for museums, but industrial designers have a different search image. Swiss and German design runs rampant through the boutiques and furniture shops, so I was given a crash course in design fundamentals as we went into different interior design stores and kitchen appliance retailers. It wasn’t so much a shopping experience as a tour through an art gallery with the designers evaluating and critiquing each piece on display.

Finally it was time for turkey. We headed back to the dorm and helped set out the spread. Ian also invited his entire design department to the meal so they could experience a real American Thanksgiving. The room was packed when we started serving the turkey and the bird was reduced to bones in less than twenty minutes. By the end of the meal, everyone was fed, but no leftovers remained, a first in my Thanksgiving experience. The meal wound down just in time to start watching the Buckeyes clobber the Wolverines. Ian’s dad had his computer set up in front of the TV in Columbus and we watched on Ian’s computer via Skype. Oh the wonders of modern technology.

The next morning everyone packed up and started heading to the trains. I wanted to explore the city a bit, so I bought my ticket for late that night and spent the next couple of hours roaming Zurich. I checked out the Swiss National Museum that houses everything from the earliest Stone Age artifacts of Switzerland, to Cold War memorabilia. The early archeological history was particularly fascinating. As an American Anthropologist I have primarily been taught about the prehistoric cultures of my home continent. Images of Native Americans erecting lodges and building canoes are very familiar. But to see similar dioramas with blond-haired people that look like my family members, making flint arrowheads and carving elk horns was arresting, a part of my history I hadn’t thought about very much before. Somehow European history, as I was taught it, just begins with Classical Greece and spreads north as the Roman Empire. The pre-Roman cultures usually aren’t discussed much.

I also saw the earliest known complete wheel. The incredible invention was just sitting there, with little fanfare in an exhibit about early transportation. I wasn’t allowed to use my camera in the exhibit, but know that it was a fantastic artifact.

The museum also had reconstructions of a medieval convent , a palace and collections of Roman gold and pottery. I rushed through the museum a bit because I wanted to walk along Lake Zürich and see the Alps rearing up along the skyline before the sun set around 4:45. I sprinted through the requisite “Arms and Armor” displays and headed out into the brisk afternoon. The wind picked up a bit and I was very glad to have my warm pea coat to snuggle into as I walked along the shoreline snapping photos of the mountains and the idyllic city with its regular bridges, boats and clock towers (it is Switzerland).

The next weekend (last weekend), the West German Fulbrighters gathered at Ashlan’s house for a Marburg reunion and turkey. She also has a pretty impressive living arrangement in an apartment with a couple other students. Their kitchen has every appliance and utensil you could possibly need. If my meal the previous week was a time to give thanks among friends, this week felt like a meal with family. There were common jokes and experiences to relive and catching up to do as we shared stories of life in our post-Marburg cities. Everyone is doing well but wrestling with similar struggles as we search for German acquaintances and try to figure out what exactly is going on with our research projects.

Everyone was responsible for a different side dish. I volunteered to make corn bread, before I even knew if corn meal was available at the grocery store. I was lucky to find out the Germans do have the stuff, but there’s only one brand, and it was hidden among the more common German cooking starches such as Spätzle mix. I also volunteered to bring Skyline Chili dip as an appetizer. My mom gave me two precious cans of Skyline when I met my family at SVP in Cleveland. I was saving the cans for a special occasion and this seemed like the right time to sacrifice one of them. Back in Marburg I sung the virtues of Cincinnati-style chili and wanted to share it with the Fulbrighters who had never had the privilege of sampling chili made with chocolate (among other things).

At the grocery store I found the cream cheese (Philadelphia cream cheese, no less) and eventually found the cheddar. It’s not a very common cheese in Germany, as I found out when we made burgers in Aachen, but there it was, tucked in the upper corner of the cooler, pre-sliced and a bit more expensive than the more traditional cheesy options.

The dip was a hit (even though I couldn’t find plain, salted tortilla chips and had to serve the dip with Paprika flavored tortilla chips) with everyone commenting it was weirdly sweet. I agreed and explained Cincinnati chili isn’t exactly your average bean-stuffed, spicy Texan variety.

When Marco’s beautiful turkey was finally ready, it was time to feast. This time the amount of food overwhelmed us. Every side you could want at a Thanksgiving table was served. Then there was pumpkin pie, apple pie and brownies to deal with. It was wonderful to be together again. It’s amazing how quickly you can make good friends when you’re thrown together in a new country with a little culture shock and a few language problems. This weekend I’m headed to Berlin to see even more Fulbrighters to reminisce and make new memories.

I hope you can spend some time with family this weekend, either surrogate or biological. Maybe you can even share a big meal together, unless, of course, the Thanksgiving love and Thanksgiving calories from a week ago are still sustaining you.


1 comment:

Charity said...

Hi Matt, I came across this blog entry while reading Ashlan's blog. I am actually flying through Cincinnatti when I return to the states for Christmas (my mom guilted me into it). As it stands right now, I have a 9 hour layover in Cincinnatti. Do you want me to pick up anything for you?