Friday, July 22, 2005

Bringin' Home the Bacon..

Or, as the Swiss say: Bringing home the bread. I don't know about you, but I'll take bacon over bread any day of the week. Although, put the two together with some lettuce, tomato, and a glob of mayo, and then you're talkin' my language.
I actually think about BLTs a lot. Our tram system is called Baselland Transport - or, BLT for short. So, whenever I'm standing at the tram stop and one of the big, yellow trams pull up with the big BLT on the side, it makes me hanker for a BLT.
Wait, where was I going with this? Oh yeah, this is a picture of Mrs. TBF taken this morning at the Bottmingermühle tram stop right by our house just before she boarded the tram to go to work - or, "bring home the bacon". Doesn't she look all bright and cheery in her orangy garb? And, she'll be even cheerier when she gets home because she'll be bringing home one of those Bose speaker docking stations for our iPod that one of her colleagues brought back from the U.S. Also, we found out today that the "competent Swiss authorities" have granted us permanent residency status by issuing us "C-permits". Will we ever return to the U.S.? Only time will tell.
But now...I have more important things to tend to. All this talk about bacon and BLTs has given me the urge to go next door to the Migros and buy some BLT ingredients.
It's time for TBF to bring home the bacon!

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Hey King...

Iams called and they said that they're running out of food!
Just a little progress report on our cat - King. Since he began taking thyroid tablets three weeks ago, he's gained half a kilo (that's 1.1 lbs. for the folks in America). He seems much healthier than he was a month ago, and it looks like he's on the road to a full recovery. If things continue as they are, he should make it to November when we'll celebrate the 15-year anniversary of adopting him from the Save-A-Pet Adoption Center in Palatine, Illinois (now in Grayslake, IL).
Let me tell you, King won the kitty-lotto as far as we're concerned. We walked into the shelter in November, 1990, and a ray of light shined (shone?) through the window onto this huge orange tabby. I told Mrs. TBF: "That's my cat!" And...about forty-five minutes later...he was. He lived with us in our house in North Barrington, Illinois for almost nine years along with our other cats Binky and Zane (both deceased) and our dog Dominique (...welling up here!!!). In October, 2000, King and Dominique (...fighting back tears here!) flew over the ocean in the cargo hold of a Swissair plane while TBF relaxed in business class comfort (...still feeling a bit guilty about that one...not really!), and began their life in Switzerland. So, King went from sleeping in a shelter with an upper respiratory infection to living in a nice Swiss apartment with heated floors and all-the-food-he-can-eat!.
Now, if that's not winning the kitty-lotto, then I don't know what is!

Because YOU Asked For It!!!

Mrs. TBF informed me that our neighbor - Suzanne - asked her if I had hair when we got married. The answer, as you can see from the picture, is: YES, but I was well on my way toward my current look! Sorry about the poor quality of the picture. I just took a picture of our wedding portrait that's hanging on our bedroom wall.

Where'd Everybody Go?

Basel's a ghost town these days. It happens every year during July - the kids get out of school and everybody goes on vacation. And let me tell you, it's a pleasure being among the few who stay behind.
There's even less traffic than usual (which is usually pretty light), there are no lines at the grocery and home improvement stores, and a lot of the stores have sales. For example, the special of the day at Coop was half-price, ready-made pizza. As a matter of fact, I have one in the oven right now. Everything around town seems slow paced and relaxed - and I like it!
Another great thing about not taking vacation now is that when we take our vacation at the end of August, all the kids will be back in school. So, we'll get to enjoy the Amalfi Coast in relaxed, uncrowded comfort.
The timer's about to go off. It's time to enjoy my pizza. It'll taste twice as good because I paid half the usual amount.
1:15 p.m. - I decided to snap a picture of the pizza and my half-price coupon. I actually forgot the coupon at home, but the checkout lady still gave me the pizzas for half price. The triangular pieces of cheese on top of the pizza are my own personal touch - TBF needs the extra energy for working out at the gym.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

More Airline Outrage!

Swiss is on my shit-list yet once again. If you are a regular reader of The Big Finn's Big Blog!, you'll remember that I recently ranted about how the airlines list the price of the flight and then disclose all the add-ons right before you're ready to book the ticket. Well, it's time to renew the rant.
I'm planning on going to Amsterdam to get together with John (even though he's a Packer fan) while he's in Holland on business. John used to live down the street from us here in Switzerland, and he's since moved back to North Carolina. Anyway, I went to the Swiss website to check out flights and I found a flight that left on Friday afternoon and returned on Sunday evening. The fare was listed as 239 CHF. After setting up my itinerary, I clicked to find out the add-ons and I was shocked to see that they added up to 133 CHF - a hefty 55.6% mark-up!!!! But, that's not the worst part. If you break down the components of the add-ons, you find them listed as:

Fuel Surcharge: 40.00 CHF
Airport Taxes: 68.00 CHF
Swiss Service Fee: 25.00 CHF

Wait a minute...Swiss Service Fee??? What???? For a flight that I'm booking myself on the internet??? Unmitigated outrage!!! They might be able to get away with it right now because there aren't many options for direct flights between Basel and Amsterdam, but the time will come when Easy Jet adds a Basel/Amsterdam flight and then we'll see who has the last laugh.
In the meantime, I booked the flight using my Swiss miles (just can't get rid of the damn things!), and lo and behold...they only charged me for the Airport Taxes and not the Fuel Surcharge or Swiss "Service" Fee.
So, I'm going to Amsterdam over the weekend of September 9-11, and the round-trip "free" ticket is only going to cost me 68 CHF.
All's well that turns out well.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Things I can't live without (Part I)...

This past weekend, we met a couple named Eric and Rita while at a dinner party at John and Rammy's house (Note to Rammy: Who the heck holds a dinner party the night before going away on a ten-day vacation? You're insane!). Eric and Rita lived in Basel for something like fifteen years before going on a two-year assignment in Washington, D.C. In a couple of months they'll be returning to Basel.
During the course of the evening, one of the things Eric asked me was what I felt was worth bringing back from the U.S. to Basel. In other words, what are some of the things that you can get in the U.S. which you just can't get in Switzerland. Now, I have to tell you that I don't really bring back too many things other than clothes and electronics when I visit the U.S. But, there are a couple of things that I ALWAYS bring back with me.
The first thing: Q-Tips. American Q-Tips are FAR superior to any other Q-Tips I've ever used. Using the European version of Q-Tips are akin to cleaning your ear with a chopstick. Rita and Eric (if by some chance you're actually reading this blog): prevent damage to your medula oblongata by bringing a lifetime supply of good old "Made in the U.S.A." Q-Tips!
The second thing - and I didn't think about this one until a few minutes ago - is/are: The Libman Dish Scrub & Soap Dispenser! I ALWAYS have Libman Dish Scrub Refills in my suitcase when returning from the U.S. My cuticles begin to crack just at the thought of doing dishes without my beloved Libman sponges. What do people use in Europe? I have no idea (washcloth maybe?). All I know is that they don't sell this product, or anything that even resembles it, in Switzerland, France, or Germany. Whenever I show THE Libman to a native European, they say something like: "Wow! What a great idea!"
Hey Libman Family ("Family Made Since 1896!"...): Isn't it about time somebody in your family figured out that there are about 500 million people here in the E.U. who could use your product? Maybe just take the big "Made in the USA" off of the back of the package. That might hurt sales a bit.
To be continued...

To the good people at XtremeMac in the USA...

Thank you for inventing the exercise armbands that hold the iPod and iPod Shuffle. It was good foresight on your part figuring out that people would want to listen to their iPods while they exercise.
Unfortunately, you DIDN'T realize that people who exercise tend to have larger muscles than people who do not. The larger armband for the iPod barely fits over my bicep. After wearing it for about thirty seconds, I feel like somebody is taking my blood pressure. After a couple of minutes, my hand is numb. I believe that if I were to wear the armband for my entire workout that amputation would probably be necessary - thus actually eliminating the need for your product (a strange marketing strategy to say the least). The Shuffle armband is worse. There is NO WAY I can wear it over my bicep. As a matter of fact, it actually feels a bit snug on my forearm. A good idea would have been to test the prototype on people who actually exercise.
But hey, what do I know? It was just a thought.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Wish Me Luck!

I'm about to go to the gym for the first time since June 22nd. Not counting the one workout I did in the fitness room at the Hotel Kämp in Helsinki, it'll be the first time I've exercised in nearly FOUR WEEKS!!!
I should say that this has not really been a self-imposed hiatus. My gym closes every year for the first two weeks of July for "repairs". I left for Finland on June 23rd, and I returned on July 4th - the very day that my gym closed for two weeks. So that means that due to some unfortunate planning on my part, I've pretty much been a schlub for the past month. Sure, I could have ridden my bike or something. But, every now and then the body just needs a little (or long) recovery time.
I'm going to leave for the gym in thirty minutes. This is going to hurt!

Friday, July 15, 2005

Finnish Reflections (Part III)...

The Scene: Monday, June 27, 2005 - Buffet breakfast at the Hotel Kämp/Helsinki

The Actors: TBF and Big Daddy TBF

TBF and his father are finishing breakfast and will soon be taking the 1 p.m. train from Helsinki to Kauhava. The train station is about a five minute walk from the hotel.

BDTBF: "I'm going to go to the outdoor market for a little while before we leave."

TBF: "Great, I'll finish packing and then I'll arrange for a taxi to the train station."

BDTBF: "What? Are you kidding? The train station is only a couple of minutes from here."

TBF: "Yes, but by car its only a matter of seconds."

BDTBF: "Don't even think for one second that I'm going to get into a taxi and tell the driver that we're going to the train station. The humiliation...really!"

TBF: "Well then, I guess that means that you won't feel bad when you're wheeling your luggage over those cobblestones and I'm waving at you from the taxi that's whisking me to the train station."

BDTBF: "You do what you want, but there's NO WAY I'm getting into a taxi for a thirty second drive."

TBF: "But dad...I'm supposed to drag my heavy luggage over a bunch of cobblestones? Haven't the Finns ever heard of smooth sidewalks?"

BDTBF: "You know, I think living in Switzerland has made you a bit soft. You know, I was doing a man's work when I was seven years old."

TBF: "What the heck does that have to do with the fact that I don't want to drag my heavy luggage over a bunch of cobblestones, arrive at the train station all sweaty, and then sit on a train for four hours in a damp shirt."

5 minutes later they are walking through the lobby. BDTBF says to the receptionist:

BDTBF: "Imagine, my son wants to take a taxi to the train station."

Receptionist: "'s only a five-minute walk."

TBF: "Yeah, but I have heavy luggage...cobblestones...oh, what's the use?"

About an hour later, TBF and BDTBF step out of the elevator and into the lobby with their luggage...

Receptionist: "So then, shall I call you a taxi?"

5 minutes later, TBF and BDTBF arrive at the train station. TBF is sweaty from rolling his luggage over a bunch of cobblestones, and BDTBF is obviously elated over the fact that he saved his son from spending three Euros on a taxi.

TBF: "You may have won the battle, but I'll win the war. We're going to go First Class, and I'm buying the tickets. No questions asked!!!

BDTBF: "That's fine with me."

TBF: (thinking to himself...) "...wait a minute. What just happened here?"

PLEASE NOTE: This is pretty much how things took place, but a few embellishments were added.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Why Can't the Airlines...

...just tell you the price right from the get-go? Here's an excerpt from an e-mail I received today from Swiss:

Dear Mr. [TBF]:
Early birds take note: With Swiss Summer Savers you can travel very cheaply to many intercontinental destinations in late summer - such as Miami from CHF 799.

They give a link that says "book ticket here". When you click on the link, it brings you to a page that shows the price for the Miami ticket as CHF 895. Huh? (TBF scratching his head) Oooohhhhhh, I see...that's CHF 799 plus a CHF 95 fuel surcharge. Then, when you go to the next page to confirm the price (huh? I thought it was 799!), you find out that the total for the trip including airport taxes is....CHF 1,025.50!!! I've got news for you Swiss: CHF 1,025.50 isn't "cheap"!
Please, JUST LIST THE FULL PRICE RIGHT FROM THE START!!! It doesn't cost CHF 799. It costs 28.3% MORE than that - CHF 1,025.50. Plus, the sample itinerary shows a departure and return around Labor Day weekend. When you choose that itinerary, it says that those dates are "unavailable". All other prices in Switzerland are shown including taxes. I don't see why the airlines shouldn't be held to the same standard.
Thanks. I feel much better now.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Finnish Reflections (Part II)...

Finns have a lot of national loyalty, to say the least, when it comes to Finnish products. Sure, everybody's heard of Nokia. Perhaps you've also heard of Iittala, Hackman, Arabia, and Marimekko. But, unless you're Finnish, you've probably never heard of Turun Sinappia. Turun Sinappia is mustard that is made in the Finnish city of Turku.
When I was child growing up in the Chicago suburbs during the 70s, my parents always had Turun Sinappia in the refrigerator. My sister and I called it Suomalaista sinappia (Finnish mustard), and it was a fixture on our backyard picnic table when our dad would grill hamburgers, sausages, etc. Where would my parents procure the "sacred" mustard you ask? At the Finnish bakery/deli in Sudbury, Ontario, of course. Every year, we'd make the twelve-hour drive from Wheeling, Illinois to Sudbury, Ontario to visit my grandparents. And, every year, several tubes of THE mustard would make their way back to good old Wheeling.
Fast-forward some twenty-odd years into the future, and here Mrs. TBF and I are in Helsinki. Included on the must-visit list is Stockmann's Department Store so that I can go to their grocery store and grab some of that Finnish brown gold. Mrs. TBF and I make our way to the condiment aisle, and there on the shelf is not only Turun Sinappia, but also Auran Sinappi. I had never heard of the latter, but I saw that it was also made in Turku, so I bought both brands. Mrs. TBF heads back to Switzerland the next day with the cache, and I head up to Kauhava with my dad. End of story...right? Wrong!
A couple of days later I found out that there is a major mustard controversy in Finland. It turns out that Turun Sinappia has been acquired by Unilever of SWEDEN!!! Which means Finns should no longer purchase that brand. Auran Sinappi is owned by Finns and produced in Finland. Therefore, it is truly Finnish mustard and thus the only mustard Finns should buy. I was told this fact by aunts, uncles, cousins, and...two Finns on the tram in Basel.
That's right! Mrs. TBF and I were on the tram heading into town this past Saturday. I felt an elbow nudging into my ribcage, and I saw that it was Mrs. TBF trying to get my attention. She kind of did that "flick-of-the-head-thing" (that husbands are supposed to somehow interpret) in the direction of two guys standing right next to us with suitcases. When the "flick-thing" didn't register, she whispered out of the corner of her mouth: "Those...guys...are...Finns!" How she's able to detect that people around us are speaking Finnish and I can't will forever remain a mystery to me. This has happened several times around Europe, and it always amazes me. There have actually been times where I've told her "...they're not speaking Finnish," only to find out a couple of seconds later that indeed they are.
But, to try to put an end to this never-ending tome, I started speaking in Finnish with these two guys on the tram (by the way...I've found that it drives the Swiss crazy when you speak a language they can't indentify), and I found out they're from Turku. I said something like "...where they make the mustard," and, of course, they launched into a sermon on how I should only purchase Auran Sinappi.
So, there you have it. The big Finnish mustard controversy. We better use up the "Swedish" mustard fast before any other Finn sees it in our refrigerator.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Long Live the King!

Here's an update on our 17-year old cat - King. He's a BEAST!!!
We've been worried about his health. Over the past couple of months, he had dropped quite a bit of weight and he didn't have much of an appetite. I brought him for a blood test, and Dr. Buser said that everything was normal except for his liver function which was slightly abnormal. Dr. Buser said that he could test the blood for everything at his office except for the thyroid function which he would have to have done at an outside lab.
As it turned out, it WAS King's thyroid which was not functioning properly. Mrs. TBF started giving King his thyroid pills while I was in Finland, and now King has pretty much turned into a feline vacuum cleaner sucking up any morsel of food that's put in his ever-expanding body. Our friends Dave and Jane came over for Mrs. TBF's homemade sushi (it was the first time she ever tried to make it, and it was EXCELLENT!) this past Saturday night, and we probably should have set a place at the dinner table for King seeing how much fish I ended up feeding him off of my plate.
Our little buddy's getting better and we're happy about it. A couple of weeks ago we thought he was approaching the end of his ninth life, and now I'm back to being annoyed by him tapping me on the nose and licking my head at 4 a.m. because he wants to be fed. But I guess I can tolerate the early morning wake ups if it means he's on the road to health. I mean, I DO enact revenge by randomly waking him up during the day when he's sleeping on the sofa.
Is that a weird pet owner thing? Oh...sorry.

Head On Down the Highway...

Yesterday was kind of an unusual day for us. We spent a little bit of time up on the rooftop, but then we decided that a 20˚C blustery day on July 11th was better spent indoors.
I came in and watched the end of the 9th stage of the Tour de France. This stage ended in Mulhouse (pronounced Ma-looz), which is only about 45 minutes away from our home. I toyed with the idea of going to see it live (for about 10 seconds), and then I decided that the helicopter coverage on EuroSport from the comfort of our sofa would be a much more comfortable option. Something about watching the guys ride their bikes down the roads of Alsace must have put me in the mood to watch more road-related stuff, because Mrs. TBF and I ended up watching a British car program (which we occasionally watch) called Top Gear.
Now let me preface this by saying that Mrs. TBF and I are far from "motor heads". We view cars as the things that get you from one place to another, and I tend to view cars as a sort of necessary evil. But, the show Top Gear is really entertaining. Last night, they had a segment where the host - Jeremy Clarkson (in a car) - raced a marathon runner (running) over the route of the London Marathon during London's rush hour. The runner ended up winning the race! He beat Jeremy by eleven minutes!!! It was really entertaining, and I highly recommend this program if it ever surfaces on a cable channel near you. Tempting fate, we decided to watch another car-related program. We should have stopped while we were ahead, because we ended up watching the UK version of Pimp My Ride...and it was TERRIBLE.
The U.S. version, in case you're not familiar with it, is a show where some young person (often with some sob story) with a beater of a car has his/her car transformed (pimped) into a showcase of a "pimp-mobile". The host is the rapper - Xzibit. The crew at the garage consists of guys who look like the just got out of prison. They're big, pierced, tattoo-covered, and sound right using gangsta' slang. The U.K. version, on the other hand, is a bunch of pale white guys (plus one woman) who look like they just finished tea and decided to have a go at this poor chaps car. The host, also a pale white guy, trys to use gangsta' slang and street gang hand gestures, but he just ends up looking like an idiot. I was embarrassed for the guy. He should just go back to his pub, grab a pint, light a fag, and call it a day. Actually, it was so bad that I'll probably have to watch it again just so I can let it sink in how bad it actually is.
It reminds me of my sister Diana who has this great line: "When you smell a skunk that's been run over by a car [a common thing in the Chicago suburbs], don't you have to smell it again just so you can believe how bad it really smells?"

Friday, July 08, 2005

Finnish Reflections (Part I)...

First of all, sorry for not blogging during my trip to Finland. I thought I was going to be walking into Finnish internet cafes galore and blogging everyday. As it turned out, a lot of things were closed in Helsinki the first weekend we were there because of the midsummer celebration. Then, I found out that my dad's hometown didn't have an internet cafe (at least I couldn't find one).
So, let me start by saying that Finnair is a quality airline, but they serve the worst food I've ever tasted on an airline. Wouldn't it make sense for Finnair to serve Finnish food? Instead, they feel the need to serve sweet and sour chicken on dry brown rice. It was terrible. Later, when Mrs. TBF took the early flight back to Zurich on Monday morning, she told me they served shredded carrots on baked beans for breakfast. Ugh!
The second thing I'd like to point out to all you non-Finns out there is that the Finns call Finland - Suomi. Where the Finland came from, and why the entire world calls it Finland (or some derivation), is a mystery to me. It is Suomi in Finnish. No part of the word means "fin" or "land". Go figure!
As I said before, many things were closed because of the Juhanus celebration, so Mrs. TBF and I just stopped at little cafes (including the excellent Cafe Kappeli) and watched "the walk of life" (as Mrs. TBF's Uncle Anthony used to call it) go by. Included in this "walk of life" were many incredibly drunk Finns who were in the midst of holiday celebrating. I'm talking a barely able to walk and talk while carrying a mostly empty twelve-pack under their arm type of drunk.
Along with watching the drunks, we walked a lot, rode the double-decker tourist bus, enjoyed the hotel sauna, and took in a couple of museums. The first museum we went to was the Finnish Design Museum. If you ever go to Helsinki, don't bother with this museum. It was expensive, small, and boring - basically just a bunch of Marimekko fabrics on the wall. Save yourself 8 Euros and check out the fabrics yourself at Marimekko's website. Instead, go to the Kiasma modern art museum. It's a much better value, much more interesting, and contains that element of art brut that I love so much.
We ate at a few nice restaurants - Zetor, Tervasaaren Aitta, Kappeli - gorged on the hotel breakfast buffet, and snacked here and there. At one point, I had to do a German/Finnish translation at a Mövenpick ice cream stand for a couple of German tourists - I was so proud of myself.
My dad arrived at our hotel on Sunday. We had a sauna together at the hotel, ate at Kappeli, and then Mrs. TBF left for Switzerland on Monday morning while my dad and I took the train up to his hometown - Kauhava. But, more on that part of the trip a little bit later...
Sorry that our Helsinki trip wasn't more exciting, but we just kind of took it easy. Nothing really that exciting happened.
To be continued...

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Back to life...back to reality.

I'm back from Finland after ten days of hanging out with my dad, visiting relatives, taking daily saunas, eating foods I don't normally eat, etc. Now it's back to the business of day-to-day life in Switzerland.
Mrs. TBF picked me up at Basel Airport last night at about 9:30 p.m. and told me that we are without power on our roof garden. It wouldn't be a big deal except for the fact that we have a refrigerator up there, and there were a few things in there that are now harvesting life forms previously unknown to mankind. So, I have to call the landlord and figure out how to get the power back on since I can't find a circuit breaker that controls the roof. Also, I'll have the fun task of getting rid of a bunch of asian condiments that are rotting in that fridge.
I'm going to get started on that project, and I'll recap some of the things that took place in Finland a little bit later.