02 May 2016

Elixirs of Lithuania

During a recent short visit to Vilnius, Lithuania, I did not taste the local wines because I'm suspicious of wines made from fruits other than grapes. I did taste 6 or 7 Lithuanian beers... Moving on, I bought a sample of three Lithuanian liquors.

In the Vilnius airport on the way home, I asked the guy at Duty Free if he drank the liquors he was selling. He said yes, of course, without being condescending, and recommended this 3-pack of traditional Lithuanian liquors.

 The packaging describes each liquor.

Starka "in the days of old, used to be made on the occasion of the birth of the first son." It's made from apple extracts, pear leaves and secret ingredients.

Malunininku "has a slightly burning, savory taste with a touch of rye-bread flavor." That's it almost exactly -- also a little sweet and thick.

Devynerios has secrets that "run back to the depths of ages." This elixir contains 17 ingredients, including bark and roots and probably magic spells. It's my favorite for now.

A scientifically conducted comparative tasting yesterday by three judges reached no common conclusions, yet remained civil. Two of us thought all three liquors were delicious. One of us didn't like Malunininku so much. One of us liked it the most. The three-pack costs €10 in Duty Free at the Vilnius airport. If you're going, pick me up one and I'll pay you back.

28 April 2016

Of Currencies and Concepts

It’s hard for expats to resist comparing our home country with our current home. Sometimes events conspire to make that impossible.

The U.S. has just announced that the new $20 bill will replace 19th century president and slave owner Andrew Jackson (in office 1829 - 1837) with escaped slave, abolitionist and Civil War spy Harriet Tubman (1822 - 1913). She will be the first woman, the first black person and the first non-President to appear on the front of a U.S. monetary note (except for the brief appearance of Martha Washington in the 19th century). Other great American women will soon be ensconced on the back of other U.S. bills.

Bravo U.S.A. But gosh, if only we had an image of dear Harriet that is less, uh, glum.
Though goodness knows she had plenty to be glum about.

If she were alive today she might even be glum about the old-fashion design of her new $20 bill. It will look like every other U.S. dollar bill has looked for many years now, drab blue and green, with few sophisticated safeguards against counterfeiting. It will also still have on it the laughably unconstitutional statement, “In God We Trust.”

Coincidentally, my new home country of Switzerland is also unfolding a new monetary note, the first of a full series to come. The design is the exact opposite of the U.S. approach.

The new recently released 50-franc note, doesn’t have anyone’s face on it at all. Until now, the currency notes in circulation have featured, not dead presidents as is the habit in the U.S., but an architect (Le Corbusier), a composer (Arthur Honegger), artists (Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Alberto Giocometti), a writer (Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz), and a historian (JacobBurckardt). The new 50-franc note is a colorful collage featuring not a personage, but a theme: wind. There are images of mountains, a paraglider, dandelion seeds being blown by a breeze and our planet covered with arrows indicating wind directions – innovative yet still in that lithographic style that says money. Also intriguing to graphic design nerds: the designs for both sides are vertical, not the horizontal normally seen on paper currency. The beautiful note, suitable for framing if only you didn’t need the whole thing to pay for the kilogram of scallops you just bought, also includes many sophisticated safeguards against counterfeiting, which I could disclose, but then I’d have to …. However, I can reveal one thing: The note is heavy, made from layers of materials that might even possibly include an embedded interactive holographic disclaimer against formerly vaunted Swiss banking secrecy guarantees now null and void. Nevertheless, the note feels as solid as the swiss franc itself.

But it’s only money. 

22 April 2016

Book Sale Feast for Anglophones in Geneva

Today is the first of three days of book-buying joy at the twice-annual book sale by the Library in English in Geneva. The books range from CHF 2 to 6 francs. You'll find fiction, history, biography, cooking, humor, journalism, travel narratives -- and tea and pastries at the bookside café where you can start tasting your new books.

I scored five promising novels for 20 francs. The one on bottom you can't see: Playback, a classic by Raymond Chandler.

The sale continues through Sunday, with new books being put out continually. The Library in English is a private library on rue de Monthoux near the lake in the Paquis quarter. The library smells exactly how book lovers would hope. Memberships are being offered during the book sale for a 50% discount.

If you're in Geneva and you like to read, you'll love that you went. The next sale: Nov. 4 - 6. 

18 April 2016

Vilnius and Us

The first surprise Vilnius gave us was that we were there at all. 

No offense Lithuania, but you aren't exactly on most people's bucket list. I found myself there last weekend thanks to an invitation from Time Out Switzerland, which I write for sometimes. I went with a small, mostly well-behaved herd of travel writers on a trip offered by the Swiss branch of Germania airlines, which will start direct flights from Zürich to the Lithuanian capital in June.

More surprises soon followed. 

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is not much recompense for having been invaded and controlled by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (twice). Lithuania is now a member of the European Union; your euros will go a lot further here than in some other Eurozone countries.

We met a tour guide who is an ultra-marathon runner, and gives, not walking tours around the city, but running tours. Clearly, the runners do not stop for a traditional Lithuanian lunch, which typically includes meat-filled dumplings and potatoes in countless forms, even "sausages" of mashed potato wrapped in a casing you probably don't want to know too much about.

But Vilnius also boasts some fine modern restaurants. At Dublis, its 27-year-old owner-chef, Deivydas Praspaliauskas, is always putting together new menus based on what fresh ingredients are available at local markets and his Berlin purveyors. He also designed the waiters' shirts. And went to Italy to choose his flatware.

And he collaborates with Grafo, the modern art gallery in the restaurant's cellar.

Even the winding cobblestone lanes of the city's Old Town are home to modern art -- and a tattoo parlor or two.

Other Old Town art is millions of years old, as you can see in the Amber Museum-Gallery. Lithuania's pine forests are a treasure trove of the fossilized sap that sometimes becomes a perpetual prison to unlucky insects (but no dinosaurs).

Near Old Town is "The Other Republic," Uzupio, a few ramshackle cobblestone blocks where artists, political activists, satirists and surrealists have declared their own "republic." You can even get your passport stamped in a bar there.

Along one street, the republic's constitution is engraved on metal plaques in 23 languages. The inalienable rights of the citizens of the Republic of Uzupio include: "Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance," and "A dog has the right to be a dog."

Aimless wandering through the quarter reveals more of its psyche.

Such communal creativity is thriving in Vilnius, even as many young people here and in the rest of the country are drawn to the bright lights and better job prospects around the European Union. But some of the economic émigrés eventually return, never quite content away from their homeland. Many others never consider leaving, far too attached to Lithuania's yesterdays and tomorrows.

03 April 2016

"He has come down from the moon!"

Yesterday in Geneva, when this vehicle glided up beside us, a lovely old lady and I looked at each other bug-eyed, and she said, "Il est descendu de la lune!" (He has come down from the moon!)

24 March 2016

Coinus Interruptus

When you sign up to be an expat, one of the things they forget to tell you is that you will be required to think simultaneously in not only more than one language, but more than one currency.

My Swiss wife and I live in Switzerland, but earn money both here and in the U.S, my home country. We have Swiss and American bank accounts and credit cards. Sometimes we need to move money one way or the other. We often wonder if we’re being idiot-savants in our multi-currency choices, or just idiots.

In January 2015, that got instantly more complicated when, with no warning, the Swiss National Bank ungallantly pulled out of its promise to continue to couple the voluptuous Swiss franc with the not-very-sexy-anymore euro. The bank did this, its sages said, because it was costing the Swiss government ga-jillion francs per month to cap the rate of exchange, and "that just wasn't turning us on."

However, those people who work in Switzerland but live in one of its surrounding Eurozone countries were very turned on. On the day of the announced coinus interruptus, they got an instant de facto 20-percent paycheck raise. Likewise true for Swiss residents living close to those countries, because everything from muesli to Mercedes was suddenly for sale across the border at an automatic 20-percent discount.

The other day in Geneva I went to a multimedia store’s camera department to compare prices. I was the only customer. The clerk was smiling serenely, perhaps enjoying having no customers to bother with even while he continued to draw his Swiss salary, which he would spend in France, 15 minutes away, where his former customers were now shopping.

Most Swiss companies are not smiling. They feel jilted by the SNB decision. Swiss ski resorts began receiving cancellations faster than you can say "French Alps." Some Swiss businesses exporting products to Eurozone clients have already folded. Only time will tell how much this will hurt the sexy Swiss watch industry, which is normally as immune to market fluctuations as penthouse call girls.

All this decoupling has raised questions for my wife and me, even though our discretionary funds are usually limited to long weekends in nearby Eurogenous zones like Paris or Prague. Should we spend our American money only in the U.S., and use our Swiss income here in Switzerland? What about when we travel in Euroland? When should we use our American credit card? Or is it altogether more fiscally responsible to simply steal old ladies' purses?

We sought advice from our American accountant and a Swiss financial wizard. They both said the old ladies’ purses option would yield short-term gains outweighed by long-term risk. Instead they advised: Spend money from your American accounts only there. Spend Swiss money here in Europe. Avoid transferring U.S. dollars to Switzerland. 

Clearly brilliant advice. Which we pretty much ignore. Because if you need the American credit card to buy a fine Swiss Pinot Noir in Geneva, you just do it.

~ reprinted and revised from my article in Global Connection magazine

20 March 2016

The Best Thing About When Outta-Town Friends Visit

The best thing about when outta-town friends visit is that we get to share with them some of the sweet spots we love most around one of the places we live. This weekend, dear Zürich friends Dimitri and Mamiko visited us in Neuchâtel.