Friday, March 16, 2012

Confessions of a former expat

I lived for rather a long time in Switzerland. Having been bitten by the proverbial travel bug in my teens, it had always been something of a life’s goal of mine to live abroad. I’d finally given up on my quest when I was unexpectedly offered a job with a small UN agency in Bern, the country’s capital. I heard about the job through a former colleague and exchanged a couple of emails and my resume with the manager in charge. They hired me sight unseen without even bother to interview me. How could I possibly turn it down? Switzerland was never my favorite German-speaking country. But the job chose me, not the other way around, and a month or so later I found myself in Bern looking for a place to live. Soon thereafter I met my future ex and what was supposed to be a one year stay turned into ten years. I came back to Texas a few years ago without any regrets.

I once read that only about 2% of the world’s population ever lives outside their country of birth. This is a shame, really, because there’s nothing like living abroad to expand your horizons. You get a rare opportunity to see your country and culture as others see it, and this can be a humbling experience. As an American, it also made me appreciate certain things that I always took for granted. Things such as air conditioning, Mexican food, being able to shop on Sundays, comfortable dwellings with spacious rooms, Target, huge bookstores full of books in English--the list goes on.

In Switzerland, business hours are for the convenience of the merchants, not the customers. During the week, the stores - that’s grocery stores, pharmacies, bookstores, department stores, everything - close at 6:30. They’re open on Saturdays until 4:00 or occasionally 5:00 and not at all on Sundays. Many larger towns and most cities have late-night shopping once a week. In Bern it was Thursdays until 9:00. I seldom left work before the shops closed and I don’t miss having to plan an entire week’s shopping in advance and rushing to fight the crowds on Thursdays to try and get everything the spousal equivalent and I needed for the week.

On the other hand, there are quite a few things I miss about Europe. Trains and viable and convenient public transportation systems spring immediately to mind. But I think the thing I really miss most is the cities. I like being able to get from place to place on foot, and European cities have character and an often quirky charm that we don’t find much over here. It’s not that there aren’t chain stores and ugly big-box retailers in Europe. There are plenty of them, but they haven’t taken over like they have in the US.

Most European cities have preserved at least part of their old towns (Paris is a notable exception), which almost always originated in the middle ages or earlier; I can think of several off the bat that go back to Roman times. Bern is not the most bustling of metropolises. But its old town is nothing if not picturesque. In fact it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of the buildings in the old town--or their foundations anyway--date to the 1400’s, although the facades are mostly later, thanks to a “modernization” campaign some time in the 1700’s. Mozart would recognize Bern. He stayed there with his father in 1762, although that it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression on him.

Now that I’m back in the States I’ve noticed that a lot of new urban development seems to be trending toward the walkable cities model. I live about a five-minute walk from one of these. Of course, there’s no history behind it and it looks pretty much like any other urban development of its kind. Still, it’s a step in the right direction and it’s nice not to have to drive to get there. More on this subject later.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Random thoughts on Davy Jones

I’ve had “Daydream Believer” stuck in my head for the past couple of days. Faced as I am now with the reality that I will never get to have my way with Davy Jones, I have been in a particularly cranky mood this week. 

Davy was my first true love. As a child, I wished fervently that my name were Valleri. It didn’t matter to me that Davy was short--he was still taller than me, unsurprisingly, as I was still playing with Barbies. Davy was just so freakin’ cute! He might have had more of an influence on me than I ever consciously realized. Looking back, I wonder if maybe this earliest of infatuations didn’t have some bearing on my preference as an adult for guys with brown eyes and a foreign accent.  Eventually, I moved on to Mr. Chekov on Star Trek; my ex is a dark-haired, brown eyed Frenchman and somewhat short of stature. 

By the time I discovered them, "The Monkees" was in re-runs on Saturday morning as a kid’s show.  It was actually kind of a fun little show if a bit surreal at times. In this respect it was fairly typical--many 60’s TV shows were really quite campy. Think "Batman", "Bewitched" & "Gilligan’s Island". At least back then shows were creative. Now all we have is reality TV.

In retrospect the Monkees seem rather iconic, though being the made-for-TV band that they were, they were often referred to disparagingly as the Pre-Fab Four. I don’t care; I still like their music. Many of their biggest hits and catchiest tunes (the theme song, "Valleri", "Last Train to Clarksville") were written by Boyce & Hart, but my personal favorites were written by Mike or Mickey.  Unfortunately these weren’t particularly big hits and didn’t have much of an afterlife. “Daydream Believer” gets played regularly on oldies radio but if you want to hear “Listen to the Band” you probably have to look it up on YouTube. 

My favorite Monkees tune is not one on which Davy sings lead. It’s Mickey singing on “Randy Scouse Git”, a most under-appreciated song. The lyrics are worth listening to. By the way, I’ve often wondered if these guys don’t find it rather galling, particularly Mike Nesmith, that they’re still best remembered for something that they did 40 years ago. 

What a sad week this has been. Good-bye Davy, and thanks.