I am …

We were having dinner with a group of people, one of Marc’s work things, introductions were being made, and someone said to me, “How about you, Mary? What’s your career?”

It caught me by surprise, and I burst out laughing. I knew it wasn’t very elegant of me, but I couldn’t help it. “That’s a very good question,” I said. “I wish I knew.” Continue reading

Neatnik, Swiss-style

A while back I wrote a post on stereotypes. Okay, it was a long while back, when Harold Camping was predicting that the world was about to end. In that post I recapped some pretty standard Swiss stereotypes:

The Swiss go on eating Rostis and chocolate and dipping day-old bread into oozing pots of cheese fondue, occasionally heading down into their fallout shelters for another bottle of Chasselas or Pinot noir, which they deftly open with their ever-handy Swiss army knives, accordions playing cheerily in the background.  When they’re not conducting secret bank deals involving covert Carribean cash transfers, that is. Or cleaning their ovens with toothbrushes. Or hiking up an Alp behind a herd of fat cows whose bells ding and dong sweetly into the picture-postcard valley far below.

Today, I came across something that made me laugh. It’s a story of a Swiss person who has taken the Swiss neatnik stereotype to such an incredible extreme that he completely defies another Swiss stereotype: the one that says the Swiss have no sense of humor. It seemed like an appropriate thing to share on April 1st. It’s no joke, though. Continue reading

Time of reckoning

Last week, when I was writing about the kilogram and got sidetracked into calendars, I realized two things:

One. Gydle is a year old now! The first post was on March 2, 2011.

Two. We’ve been living in Switzerland for 7.5 years, 8.5 if you count the sabbatical year in 2002-2003.

Time flies, huh? There’s way too much in these two momentous events for a single post, so today, I’m just going to bask in the glow of Gydle’s one-year birthday. I’ll write about number two tomorrow (maybe).

Continue reading

How to Swiss kiss

Bonjour! (Kiss, kiss, kiss)*

Hey! (hug)
Hello. Nice to meet you. (right hand extended, waist level)
* language and number of kisses may vary

These appear to be the accepted Western greeting rituals. But which to use? With whom? When? And how are they properly executed? It’s no big deal until you screw it up. One moment is all it takes to go from potentially interesting person to totally awkward inept proto-caveman. That first impression is everything, right?

As an expat, this issue comes up frequently.

Take the first time I delivered Brendan to the carpool point for his out-of-village soccer match, the year we were here on sabbatical. Turns out this was not a simple drop-off. Oh, no.
People pulled up in their cars and then got out. The kids went around the whole parking lot kissing everybody – kiss, kiss, kiss. Left cheek, right cheek, left cheek. The adults also went around the parking lot kissing each other. The men shook each others’ hands. But the women got to kiss and be kissed by absolutely everyone. Anyone new came in, they got out and made the rounds. They stayed out of their cars until everyone was there and had been properly greeted.

It was 7:30 am! I was barely functional. I’d thrown on a pair of sweats, my hair was tied back in a hasty ponytail, and I had coffee-breath. I was horrified. I knew they all kissed each other at matches. But the carpool drop-off? Sweet Jesus, what planet have I landed on? I stayed in the shelter of the car, the only parent not to exit, hoping no one would notice me as I tried to be very still and small behind the wheel.

I discussed this a while ago with my friend and fellow ex-pat Liz, who has been here a lot longer than I have. Which cheek do you offer first? Do you touch their cheek with your lips? Do you touch their arm, too, or just offer your face?

She laughed knowingly. That’s how they check out what perfume you’re wearing. Perfume? That had never occurred to me.

There are some men who try to sneak a real kiss in there, too, she said. You have to be on the lookout, and offer them “air kisses” instead (see below).

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
1. You don’t kiss with sunglasses on. A good rule of thumb is if someone is removing glasses as he/she approaches you, a kiss is in the offing. Best not to extend your hand at that point unless you really don’t want the kiss.

2. Men don’t usually kiss other men unless they’re really good friends. They shake hands. Even teenagers greet each other formally like this. (The girls all get kissed, though.)

3. As far as I can tell, you offer your left cheek first. The French kiss twice, the French-Swiss thrice. But apparently some French people kiss as many as four times. Depends on a multitude of factors. Context is everything.

4. After extensive experimentation, I think it’s best not to actually kiss the person’s cheek, but just make a light smacking sound in the air next to it. The distance that should be maintained between your cheeks is also debatable. In this regard, it’s much more sanitary than hand-shaking because cheeks aren’t exposed to the same stuff as hands.

5. I still haven’t figured out whether you touch the person at all, or whether you just lean in to kiss. A good friend might grab your shoulder(s) warmly as you greet each other. Others shake hands and kiss at the same time.

6. If you meet somebody in the middle of a run and you’re really sweaty (or if you’re sick), you just kiss the air three times, turning your head a little between kisses. This is the “air kiss.”

7. The first time you meet someone, you don’t kiss, you shake hands. However, you don’t have to know someone very well at all to be expected to kiss him/her when meeting in a social context. I haven’t yet figured out when this transition takes place. This makes for many an awkward moment.

8. As an American, sometimes you can get away with shaking hands in situations where other people are kissing, without seeming too rude. I do this in crowded social settings where the potential kissing overwhelms me.

9. Authority seems to play a role – you don’t kiss your kids’ teachers or your boss or your kids’ soccer coaches, unless you’re in a social setting and you have passed the kiss-no kiss transition point with them (which, as I pointed out above, I have not yet figured out).

10. Beards present their own special issues. I really enjoy seeing my friend Greg, but I always cringe when my cheek hits his beard.

11. You don’t just make the rounds kissing people when you arrive somewhere, you also have to kiss them all when you leave. No sneaky exits allowed. If you happen to be the hostess of a large dinner party, you get a lot of kisses. Best to put on some good perfume.

12. Speaking of making the rounds, when greeting a group of people, it seems that the protocol is to kiss the ones you know and shake hands with the ones you don’t know. The downside of this is that the more people you meet, the more kiss- no kiss transitions you have to try and figure out later on. But that’s no reason to become a recluse. Get out there and pucker up.

13. Don’t assume just because another person is not Swiss, they won’t follow local customs. Most of my American ex-pat friends here greet each other with kisses (see Greg, above). The members of my writing group – none of whom is native Swiss – kiss each other when meeting and again upon leaving.

14. If in doubt, a handshake is always okay. Not the lengthy American oscillating version, just a single pump. And pay attention to the grip – you shouldn’t be aiming to either break bones or give a limp fish impression.

There are, like I mentioned above, endless ways to screw up. But the lovely thing about the Swiss is that they’re so understanding. Nobody here will label you an impolite oaf just because you screw up your kisses a few times. You have to work harder to earn that moniker.

The other night we had Marc’s entire lab group over for dinner, plus a couple of American guests. I kissed about half of them, had a few half-handshake-half-kisses, shook hands with the rest, and one of the American visitors gave me a hug. And it was all okay with me.

Mindset Mapping

I keep returning to the idea of stereotypes. Or perhaps the idea keeps finding me. 

As the poet John Donne so aptly put it:

No man is an island; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

That’s the human dilemma, isn’t it? We’re alone, yet not alone. We each have our own unique perspective, the way things look from the island of moi. And yet we want so badly to belong, to make sense of all those other islands whose views are so unlike our own.

On that geographical note, I thought I’d share a series of maps designed by Bulgarian-born London-based “graphic designer slash illustrator” Yanko Tsvetkov. He has taken the idea of stereotyping up a notch, with maps that stereotype how different people stereotype each other. The whole idea is wildly politically incorrect, yet …  You’ll see what I mean.

I’ve attached just a few of the maps below. Visit his web page to see the whole mapping stereotypes project, including a map of his own set of stereotypes. If you pass the images along, please be sure to credit the artist and link to his website. And, as he puts it on his Maps of the World Flickr page, remember: “sense of humor highly recommended.”

You can buy the maps in calendar format on Zazzle.

Europe according to the United States of America

Europe according to France
Europe according to Switzerland
Europe according to Germany
Europe according to Britain

Europe according to Italy

Pop that bubble

If you can, take nine minutes and listen to this TED talk by Eli Pariser:


If you don’t have time to watch it, I’ll sum it up: Google and Facebook and so on track just about everything you do online and feed this data into algorithms that personalize the way you experience the Internet. What you see and who you interact with are invisibly decided for you based on your past preferences, and you probably are not even aware of it. You’re living in a “filter bubble” surrounded by people just like you and things you’ve already expressed an interest in, and you’re increasingly cut off from differing viewpoints, unbiased information and new ideas.

My friend Ellen shared this video on Facebook a while ago, and it has been simmering in the back of my brain ever since, along with my thoughts about “Internet Privacy,” which can be summed up as follows: The Internet is an utterly fantastic and magnificent thing. Of course I’m willing to barter a certain amount of my privacy to keep it coming, because I have become completely and utterly dependent on it. I have no desire to go through information withdrawal.

This is because I’m old, and I know what it’s like not to have everything just a mouse click away. I still remember using microfiche and going to the library. When ‘travel agent’ was a legitimate career choice.  When “communicating” meant telephones, postage stamps or face-to-face encounters. When a 3 am headache meant just imagining the tumor taking over your brain, not verifying its statistical likelihood. I love my computer. It has opened up the world!

An interactive community has to go both ways, by definition. I don’t mind if everybody knows my birthday, that I’m a registered democrat and I have two children under the age of 20 and I’m married and I have a college degree. In exchange, I’ve re-found old friends and enriched my knowledge base enormously. Go to town on it, I say!

Just don’t interrupt my internet connection! Plus, there are so many simple safeguards you can put in place to protect yourself, like not answering e-mails that have grammatical mistakes in them and checking your credit card statement every month.

But the filter bubble thing brought me to a full stop.

Wait a minute, I’m telling myself. Someone else thinks they’ve got me figured out. Is my world getting smaller, not bigger? Not good. Not good at all.

I cannot abide an algorithm using personal data to pigeonhole my personality and then making assumptions about what I want to see and who I want to listen to, all behind my cyberback. Being in a bubble not of my own making really ticks me off.

I wanted to write about it right away. But I couldn’t because first, I had a five-day headache, and then, when my brain recovered, I couldn’t quite get my mind around it anymore. In fact, the longer I thought about it, the more difficult it got. My filter bubble has gone from black and white to thoroughly grayscale.

First, it’s obvious that filtering has to happen, because the Internet is a gargantuan monster. There is simply too much information. It has to be sifted somehow; an algorithm has to be involved at some level. Pariser is playing off our fear that computers are going to take over the world. (Which they will, I promise, but I’ll tell you about that in another post). No matter how you boil it down, at some point a human will be involved in setting up the filtering rules. Since I’m a geek, I want it to be me. But unlike the average geek, I don’t write code, so this is a problem. Even true geeks haven’t cracked this, yet. (But I’m sure they will. I’d like to be notified.)

Second, Pariser has obviously never worked at a newspaper. He has a very romanticized view of editors as information curators. Any journalist knows that editors are evil beings from alien planets whose sole desire is to quash original thought and wonderful writing, while simultaneously removing any truly controversial content that will in any way jeopardize sales or ad revenues or lead to libel cases. News Flash, Eli! Editors don’t make content decisions based on what they think you need to read. They make content decisions on what they think will sell the paper. As filter gurus, they’re not much better than zombie algorithms.

That brings up the whole meal analogy. I don’t want anyone telling me to eat my spinach in reality, so why would I tolerate it metaphorically? The idea of some “ubereditor” out there deciding what my intellectual spinach is and then determinedly feeding it to me is just as repellent to me as my cyberexperience being decided by a market-based algorithm. Pass the dessert and keep it zipped, Eli, and nobody will get hurt.

Then there’s “relevance.” Everyone hauls out this quote from Mark Zuckerberg as “chilling” evidence of the nefariousness of Facebook’s hold on our psyches:

“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” 

We’re being dumbed down to the level of backyard rodents! But look at it from a Zen perspective. Is it really that bad to inhabit our immediate present? (Maybe the squirrel is carrying the West Nile virus!) In short, who’s to decide what’s “relevant” and what isn’t? Is death in Africa more relevant, say, than rape in downtown Milwaukee? There are a million issues in the world, all of which deserve our attention. Some of us are better at this than others. Some of us can eat a whole cup of spinach while others reach their limit after just a few tablespoons. It’s simply not one-size-fits-all.

In fact, these algorithms just underline what we all know already, don’t they? People like to hang out with other people who think like they do. That’s why we go to church and PTA meetings, join soccer teams and orchestras. We stereotype ourselves and other people all the time, and willingly. It’s not necessarily a good thing, but for most people, it makes life easier and it’s what they choose to do. Ambiguity is uncomfortable, particularly if you’re really attached to your way of looking at things.

And that gets right to the root of the problem: What I do think filter bubbles have done is lower the general level of discourse within and between non-intersecting bubbles. When you know that everyone you’re talking to shares your opinion, you can lambast the other guys without a qualm. Nobody calls you to task for it. You don’t have to be polite. On the Internet, everyone’s a journalist without an editor. And to make it worse, they’re all clamoring for attention. The more outrageous, rude, and polarized their statements, the more traffic they get and the more legitimate they feel. The absence of outrage in their listeners and readers is interpreted as carte blanche to carry on. And those who guilelessly wander in and get an earful learn very quickly not to stay and debate. Like a cheeto on an anthill, they’re quickly torn to shreds. I think that this has had a truly noxious effect on the level of civil discourse in the US, online and off. You don’t have to worry about getting along with your neighbors anymore, because you can go and hang out online with people who think just like you. There is no more room for differences of opinion or civil debate, because the doors are shut and the algorithms are holding the keys.

See why I’m stuck? I see why the filter bubbles are there, and it kind of makes sense. There is not really a good alternative at the moment. But I also see what it’s doing to us, and I am deeply chagrined.

I think the only real solution is to hand the problem over to the geeks, and get them to show us how to take back our control of how we see the world. We need to pop our bubbles and set up filter sieves, where we retain our own right to decide how big the holes are and where they’re located. In the meantime, I did find one site that has a few practical tips on how to limit the extent of your filter bubble.

Any other tips are most welcome.


Well, only one more day to go. Over here, several time zones away from where Harold Camping is campaigning, no one has said a thing about the Rapture. I’m sure if the local press got wind of it, they’d love it, but the news is full of Strauss-Kahn’s arrest and the odd Schadenfreude of watching a French politician go down in flames. Continue reading