01 December, 2011

My wallet hurts

There are two situations in which I will buy coffee from Starbucks. The first is in airports, typically when  I haven't slept much but have given up on the idea of sleeping on a flight. The second is when I'm with my mom and sister, usually in California, and they want to go to Starbucks. In neither case do I ever pay with actual cash for the coffee because I seem to constantly have 2 or 3 Starbucks gift cards in my wallet that have been gifts from various relatives.

Maybe it's the fact that I'm in Europe and missing American things, or maybe the online advertising subconsciously got to me. But last week I had a craving for the Starbucks holiday drinks. I was in the library at the time, so another possibility is that the 1CHF vending machine coffee had finally pushed me to the point where I wanted SUGAR AND GINGERBREAD in my coffee so that I wasn't just drinking a rather tasteless, dark brown liquid caffeine. Actually the vending machine coffee here is surprisingly decent, and instead of keeping a box of useless change at home, almost all of my spare coins go to feeding the library coffee machine. With the exception of the 5 cent coins which the machine is too stingy to take. Those were saved for the US Consulate since I had to pay 72.80 in cash to have more pages added to my passport. If they were going to be assholes and make me pay an odd amount in cash, I was going to be the asshole who walks in with a bunch of change. Which I promptly dropped all over the lobby as I tried pulling a handful of 5 cent coins out of my pocket.

When I left the consulate I had over an hour to kill before class and was in a part of Geneva I rarely spend time in so I decided to try and find a local coffeeshop to sit and read. The only one I found in the area was full, but across the street from it was a Starbucks and I remembered my earlier craving. I hesitated, briefly, before saying fuck it and going in and ordering a small gingerbread latte.

Starbucks guy: "Sept franc soixante, s'il vous plait.
me: "quoi? C'est combien?"
Starbucks asshole: "Seven sixty."

No, I got it the first time. I just thought I had mis-heard because paying 7.60 for a god damn small coffee is fucking absurd. The exchange rate has improved a lot over the past month but that's still over $8.30 for a small amount of crap coffee, milk, and gingerbread syrup. I reluctantly handed over the cash, feeling too awkward to just turn around and walk out since they had already started making the drink. I'm so used to drinking black coffee that any kind of flavored drink just feels like a dessert to me. I drank the entire thing in about 2 minutes and was left sitting there thinking, "really? was that worth 8 dollars for two minutes of only mediocre enjoyment?" The drink had been served in a huge ceramic mug, and coffee mugs are in short supply in my apartment. I had thought about buying an extra mug at the grocery store recently and here I had this great big mug right in front of me. 7.60 seemed like a decent price for the mug plus some coffee. I stuffed it in my bag and walked out, feeling much less shitty about my recent purchase.

Legal disclaimer: This story is a work of fiction. I would never, ever pay 7.60CHF for a coffee or steal a mug, much less post a story about it on the internet. That would just be stupid. I do not condone theft, particularly when in a foreign country.

22 November, 2011

How to improve America's image abroad

In the picturesque Belgian square in the middle of Leuven are three types of businesses. Firstly, the bars. Lots of them, of all different types. Dark, dingy places with super cheap beers and foreign drug dealers to slightly more upscale places that will kindly tell you that yes, you can come in, but next time please don't wear Converse because we're classier than that. The second type of business in the square are the local restaurants. I believe there were three, including a frites shop, a waffle/ice cream place, and my favorite, a cheap falafel and schwarma restaurant. And finally, there were the two American chains: Pizza Hut and McDonalds.

I can't say I ever walked into that McDonalds, but several of us did drunkenly find our way into the Pizza Hut one evening with the intent of enjoying a cheap reminder of home. We were inside for all of two minutes before realizing that it was a nice, sit-down restaurant where people were actually dressed quite well. One look at the menu prices confirmed that this wasn't at all like your shitty Roxbury, Massachusetts Pizza Hut where you pick up your $10 order and get the hell out before getting shot. But we left just as quickly anyway, sans pizza.

Geneva doesn't have Pizza Huts but they do have several Dominos locations to choose from. Six, in fact. I've spotted a few while biking around but hadn't thought much of them or considered ordering from one. I would assume that with six locations in a fairly small city they're doing quite well, but even profitable businesses sometimes need an occasional boost to get people in the door, and what better way to do that than with Groupon. The Groupon deals here have been completely worthless thus far, mostly spa/beauty services and a few "deals" on 5 star hotels in the area. This past weekend they offered a 70% discount for two 30 centimeter pizzas. That's about 11 inches, so we're talking two Dominos medium size pizzas. Original value, without the Groupon? 65.80CHF.

Source: groupon.ch

65.80 francs at today's exchange rate is $71.88. That's $35.94 for one medium pizza. And we're not talking gourmet shit either, this is Dominos. They don't even stuff their crust with cheese for gods sake. Yes, Geneva is absurdly expensive and is consistently ranked as one of the most expensive cities in the world. A friend from Texas (sorry Jess, you don't have a blog for me to link to) was here this past weekend and spent $25 on a cheeseburger meal and some jalapeño poppers at Burger King. But Burger King isn't crazy expensive elsewhere in the world (as far as I know), those prices are simply endemic here in this city. What the Dominos prices show us is a worrying trend in the export of certain American goods that is undeniably effecting Europeans' perception of America.

I'm going to assume that Dominos is stupid expensive elsewhere in Europe, like Pizza Hut, and that the Geneva prices are only moderately inflated above the Euro average. Pizza from large chains is an American staple, almost as traditionally American as McDonalds or Coca Cola. And yet you can get relatively cheap McDonalds and Coke anywhere in the world. For some unknown reason, American pizza chains have decided that they want to rip Europeans off as much as possible. Even in this city you can get a similar sized take out pizza for 10CHF if you know where to look.

It's been clear to me here that European youth don't have a great view of the US, and who can blame them? They are the 99%, forced to stare longingly into the windows of the exclusive American pizza chains that they couldn't hope to be able to afford. They haven't been experienced the 2:30AM drunken Dominos trips that have been an important part of the development of American youths. With these prices, that would be like Americans walking into a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in the middle of the night to get some drunk steak and potatoes. Absurd to even think about.

Dominos has come to represent America in their minds: a greasy, overpriced behemoth that doesn't want to help out the lowly Europeans. If we want to improve the way Europeans look at America we must either force these chains to lower their prices here or begin heavily subsidizing pizza in Europe. How can the hippies camping out in Parc des Bastions give up their Occupy cause now, when American pizza is still so far out of their grasp economically? The Chinese love America because we exported KFC and made it affordable to nearly everyone (citation lacking). Until Peace Corps Volunteers are sent to Europe to begin distributing pizza aid, America is doomed to be loathed by the Euro youth.

Dominos, you are the 1%.

19 November, 2011

Things Europe sucks at, Part I

Europeans do some important things really well. For example: trains. Public health care (although not here in Switzerland). Chocolate. Wine. There's something very important that they completely and utterly fail at though. I am talking, of course, about cereal. The breakfast variety. The cereal aisle in a grocery store is not an aisle. It's a small part of an aisle. There are perhaps 20 different varieties to choose from, if you're lucky, and more than half of those are the popular American sugary cereals. Cheerios can only be found, so I'm told, at the American Store for 10CHF per box. My economics professor even used cereal choice in America as an example in class once, an example which unfortunately was lost on many of the students.

I'm not typically a fan of sugary breakfast cereals. I like hearty, hippy granola cereals that I can add fruit to. The closest thing available here is muesli, a mixture of oats and nuts. But even this has been mostly Americanized now with added sugar, chocolate, and sometimes sugar coated fruit, a la Raisin Bran raisins. I've been trying different the different brands and finally found one that seemed what I was looking for. It had "natural" in the name and the label read "sans sucre." Perfect. The first morning I tried it I realized it appeared to be just oats and something resembling sawdust. No nuts or granola-y stuff. Not what I was looking for, but I was undeterred and poured milk over it to enjoy my new find.

There's a very surreal feeling when you take a bite or a sip of something that you think is something else. Your brain is expecting a specific taste, flavor or consistency and is confused when your mouth reports differently. My brain was expecting some kind of hippy, delicious cereal. What was in my mouth was essentially raw oatmeal. I paused, looked down at the bowl to see what I was eating and realized I might have made a terrible mistake. I'm not sure why but I finished the bowl that morning. I think I might have been in a rush before a full day of classes and needed some form of sustenance to make it through the day.  I certainly didn't enjoy it. I checked the bag later, thinking that surely there were instructions saying to cook in boiling water or something of the sort. Nope, they really eat this with milk here. Now that I've checked that wikipedia page for muesli I see that it does say "raw oats," but the other muesli cereals I had tried either didn't have raw oats or they went down unnoticed with all of the sugar coated nuts and dried fruit.

There's a reason that you cook the oats. It makes them not taste like shit. The stuff was basically horse feed, and I have a feeling even horses would have demanded more refined oats. Thankfully it did not taste anything like Malta, which is essentially liquified horse feed or I would not have continued eating it. I experienced an interesting phenomenon with this particular brand in that the sawdust type substance absorbed all the milk. It didn't matter how much milk I used, I would always end up with a bowl of brown mush with raw oats. I didn't want to throw the whole package of this stuff away so I continued to eat it every morning for no other reason than to not be wasteful. I won't be buying it again though, but I've also gone through most of the European brands of cereals now (I think I've tried 4).

While I currently have nothing in mind for a sequel to "Things Europe sucks at," I'm sure I'll come up with lots more in the future and I envision this being a regular multi-part series.

12 November, 2011

Photos from Mozambique and South Africa

I went to Maputo, Mozambique for my job in March 2010 and also took a day trip to Kruger National Park in South Africa. I clearly haven't been on top of organizing and posting photos as it's been well over a year and a half since this trip. At some point I intend to write up some of the stories from this trip. They don't disappoint. I'll also post photos from Nigeria and Amsterdam at some point as well.

All of the pictures of animals are taken in an around the Kruger reserve. I hired a driver in Maputo to take me there, but after spending a couple of hours driving around the park he got tired and decided I should drive. No problem, except they drive on the left side of the road there. Straight line driving was not a problem but anytime I turned a corner I'd find myself on the right side of the road. The driver, who wasn't actually doing the driving at this point, thought it was hilarious.

I saw more animals than the ones in this album but I didn't have a telephoto lens so my pictures of cheetahs, leopards and hippos came out as nothing more than specs in the distance and weren't worth uploading. I'll never make the mistake of going somewhere like this again without multiple lenses. I also have almost no photos from Maputo itself because, as I found out, it's not exactly a safe place to walk around with a nice camera.

The full album with the rest of the pictures is here.

10 November, 2011

L'homme de Tortillas

My life has been in a perpetual tortilla drought since 2005. Sure, Boston had tortillas. You could go to the grocery store and buy a pack of overpriced tortillas that had probably been made several weeks prior. Even Whole Foods didn't have great fresh tortillas. For years I resigned myself to buying Mission brand tortillas, trying not to shed tears each time I tore into one. Not at all like the soft, fluffy, cloud-like tortillas I was used to in Texas. Friends can attest to the massive packs of tortillas I would bring in my suitcase after trips to Texas. Typically I'd make it back with 50 flour tortillas, all of which would be gone within two weeks.

In Geneva it's even worse. 6 vacuum sealed tortillas can be had for the outrageous price of 7.50CHF. And since they're vacuum sealed, you know they're as fresh as the day they were made... three months ago. Clearly at the rate I eat tortillas, prices like this will deplete my savings within the first year. And so I decided to strike out on my own and attempt to make tortillas myself. I'm a decent cook and I'd say I know my way around a kitchen fairly well, but I've never attempted to make any bread/dough related things before. I used the recipe from Homesick Texan which seemed simple enough.

Let me reiterate here: I had no idea what I was doing. Not only that, finding simple ingredients in this country ain't so simple. Baking powder? I asked a francophone friend and was told it's "levure." Nope, that's yeast. I think what I ended up with is dried yeast, but I combed through the supermarket and asked two employees (although we've already established the fact that my French ain't tres bien just yet) so I'm not sure that baking powder as we know it exists here. 

I followed the recipe from the blog, and holy shit, the tortillas turned out amazing.

Look at those beautiful things. They looked and felt just like the tortillas from Mamacita's (a favorite Tex-Mex restaurant in New Braunfels). I skimped on the salt which turns out was a mistake, but overall they were amazing and I'll be making lots more in the future. 

I wouldn't have posted this normally because, one, I realized that whenever I write about cooking it's pretty boring, and two, I've sent this picture to the majority of the people who read this blog with the caption of "LOOK HOW AWESOME I AM" or something similar. Ricky has suggested that my new nickname be "Tortilla Dan," or "L'homme de tortillas." I approve. However, something happened that made me decide this was blog-worthy: Amy attempted to make the tortillas

Amy loves baking. Or I assume so based on the fact that she has a blog that's mostly about food and is always experimenting with crazy awesome things. Like bagels. After sending her the picture of my awesome tortillas and raving about how simple it was, she asked for the recipe and gave it a shot:

I'm inclined to blame the fact that she's a New Yorker. She hasn't grown up seeing tortillas being freshly made in the kitchens of restaurants like I have. The first time I got Mexican food in New York, my vegetarian quesadilla came with broccoli and carrots in it. She probably confused the concept of tortilla with "flat, tasteless bagel" or something. And even though she's now a California transplant, she's in San Francisco which doesn't have the good stuff in the way that Southern California and Texas does. Clearly Amy does not earn the title of "la femme de tortillas."

08 November, 2011

It's all French to me

My French hasn't improved as much as I had hoped. Part of that is due to the fact that everyone's common language in this city and at my school is English. The few times I've had people approach me on the street and start speaking in rapid French to me, I've told them that I can understand but they're speaking too quickly. Then they switch to English.

I have one course that's taught in French: anthropologie et aide au développement. If there's some kind of contextual clue, say a powerpoint presentation in which I can translate a few words with Google Translate, then I can understand at least some of what the lecture is on. Without any context I'm totally lost. Basic French classes don't typically teach you vocabulary like "female circumcision."And yet I've made it through the first half of the semester thus far, but only with the help of some absurdly generous francophones.

The midterm was yesterday and I actually felt ok about it going in. For one thing, I hadn't stressed quite as much about this one because, hell, the lecture was in a different language that I can't really understand so there wasn't much of a point in stressing myself out. Since the school is officially bilingual the test would be in both French and English and I went in yesterday without too much concern. I figured I'd sit down, be handed the exam booklet and get to work.

Instead the professor came in, turned on the computer and put up a list of readings on the projector. And then started speaking. In French. You cannot know the terror I felt at that instant. Was he telling us that the test would be over those readings? Shit, I don't think I've read all of these yet. Is he giving us instructions for the test? Fuck, what if he's giving us specific instructions for this exam... maybe there's a typo, and he's telling us not to answer the third question. WHY CAN'T I UNDERSTAND FRENCH.

I was freaking out. Thankfully as it turned out he was just talking about what we'd be covering in the next few weeks of lectures. Or so I'm told. There was another brief moment of terror in the middle of the exam when someone went up to the TA and asked her a question. She then stood up and started speaking to the whole class. This time I was actually able to stop freaking out and pay attention, and loosely understood her to be saying that we needed to explain our answer for the second question.

Midterms are finally over. Alhamdulillah.

06 November, 2011

It runs in the family

Friday afternoon I was in the lounge of the student residence where I live trying to find things to occupy my time in a continual attempt to put off studying. I was trying out a new app for my phone that's supposed to manage your travel itineraries. You forward the airline confirmation email to them and they sort all the relevant info into your account on the app for easy access. Simple enough. I was sitting on a couch juggling my laptop, phone and coffee while trying this out when I realized that I'm a complete idiot.

For whatever reason, booking a round trip flight from London to San Antonio was $500 cheaper than booking it from Geneva. And since I can easily get to London and back from here for significantly less than that, it seemed like a good excuse to spend a day in London while also saving money. I had looked into flights the previous weekend while avoiding studying for midterms (this is becoming a noticeable trend) and had worked out the travel dates. Buying them seemed like a lot of effort at the time though, in that two roundtrip international flights needed to be booked separately, but while ensuring I had enough time to transfer within London's Heathrow airport on the return leg. I decided to put this off until after midterms and get back to studying.

Monday night I intended to devote myself fully to cramming for Tuesday's tests. Naturally I woke up sick and got progressively worse throughout the day. Biking home from a review session on campus that night I got into a bike crash (solo, I might add- no cars involved) and managed to fly head first off the bike (again). Banged up and bruised but in one piece, I made it home but my resolve to devote the night to studying had waned. Sleep deprived, sick, and now banged up from the crash I decided that the cost of the flights to Texas would probably increase imminently if I didn't buy them that instant. I looked up the flights, made the purchases for the dates I had settled on, took a handful of ibuprofen and went back to studying.

So on Friday when using this app I realized I had missed something crucial. I had intended to fly back to London from Texas on the 29th of January, and that is indeed the flight that I booked. I also wanted to book the return flight from London to Geneva that same day. No need to spend another day in London since I'll be doing that on the way to Texas. I had checked to see that I would arrive in London by noon and booked a flight out of Heathrow that same day at 6pm. Plenty of time in case of delays, security, changing terminals, etc. Except what I hadn't thought about in my sleep deprived and injured state the night I bought the tickets is that even though I leave Texas on the 29th, I won't be arriving in London until the 30th. Transatlantic flights to Europe are, from my experience, always overnight flights. Always. I had booked a flight from London to Geneva for 6PM on the 29th, around the time I'd be in the air somewhere between Detroit and the East coast.

This realization brought on a sudden wave of panic, the "oh shit oh shit, what have I done and how much is this going to cost me to fix," variety. I was on my laptop and tried to make a Skype call to Delta while mentally trying to tally up the potential cost. $200 change fee, difference in price of the correct flight, fuck fuck fuck. I verbally recited my Delta number for the automated system and was transferred to a representative who greeted me with, "hello Mr. Stevenson, how can I help you today?" Clearly the voice recognition with Delta hadn't worked out too well and I tried to tell the woman my correct account number. She interrupted me repeatedly. "Sir, I'm sorry, the line is breaking up. Can you switch to a different phone? Sir, I can't hear you at all, the connection is very bad, I'm going to recommend that you hang up and call on a different line." The internet connection here is the bane of my god damn existence. I can hardly stay connected to gchat much less make a VOIP call half of the time. The line went dead and I remembered that the router was located at the other end of the lounge. I quickly grabbed my messenger bag, laptop, phone and coffee and rushed across the lounge as I envisioned the cost of my mistake increasing with every minute I wasted not on the phone booking the correct flight with Delta. Surely that $500 in savings was totally eaten up by now.

I dropped my belongings on a table, sat down and redialed on Skype. The connection was much better and as I was repeating my Delta number I felt warmth spreading across my body. I was confused at first; was this a feeling of calm seeping through my skin, letting me know that everything would be ok? I looked down and saw that I was holding my open coffee mug sideways and had poured coffee all over my shirt and pants. Shouting an expletive confused Delta's automated phone system as I was told, "I'm sorry, I didn't understand that. Please say or enter your Delta sky miles number, followed by the pound sign." The internet connection in my room is even worse than in the lounge so I stayed put despite having a massive brown stain on my shirt and looking like I had pissed myself. I got through to a representative, explained that I'm a complete idiot, was currently covered in coffee, and needed help changing a flight I had booked that was clearly impossible for me to make. Thankfully due to the mileage status I have with Delta from work trips I don't have to pay change fees in these situations, so my absentminded mistake was made right in about 2 minutes with no additional costs.

After telling this story to my mom she had this to say:

Sounds like something I would do. I pulled out of the driveway this morning and as the car was going down the driveway under that big Burr oak tree there was a large crashing sound on top of my car and I saw something big and white fall off the back of the car onto the street. We had temps in the thirties last night but I couldn't imagine where a chunk of ice that big would've come from. No it wasn't ice - it was my new white coffee mug that I had set in top of my car while I was loading my stuff in the car. I just left it shattered in the street because I was already late for school. This is about the 4th or 5th thing in my life that I have left on top of the car while driving off. Uugghhh!
One of those previous items she's left on top of the car before? Her and my dad's wedding rings when she picked them up prior to the wedding. With her genes, I think I'm fortunate that this is only the second time I've fucked up booking a flight.