Friday, January 27, 2012

Nice Things About Switzerland #1: Toilets

There are always spare toilet rolls in Swiss toilets, which are normally spotlessly clean.

'Please use me.'

See the spare rolls? In England, they'd be stolen or used to clog up the toilet.
See the graffiti? No? Exactly.

(There's an amusing story behind this photo. Ask me about it next time you see me.)

Twin Toilets

Meanwhile, the setup in the above picture is becoming more common in Central Europe. Not sure if it's spreading to other parts of the world. It's a twin toilet for women who don't want their bowel movements to interrupt their non-stop flow of bitchy gossip. I'm pretty sure twin toilets is how the decline of the following empires started: Roman, Ottoman, Cylon.

All the Nice Things About Switzerland:
1 - Toilets
2 - Political Posters
3 - Children
4 - Snow
5 - Croissants
6 - Dwarves


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Nice Week (Days 3 to 7)

Nice Week
Part Two

Read the first part first, obviously...


I went to play badminton with Cecile and Nick. Cecile had been at her father's birthday party and had drunk some wine. This made her even more inept at the game than usual. I tried saying things like "Oh, good try!" and "Nearly! You'll get it next time!" Strangely, she didn't like it.
Later, we went to their place to have fondue. I didn't really want to go, because their flat is really far from the rest of society. It's like going to Albania. On a goat. They promised me that it was really simple to get there. "You can take this train or that tram or even a bus. It's sooo easy!" Then they spent fifteen minutes showing me an iPhone app with all the super-easy routes we could take.
So we took a train, got out, waited in the cold, took a tram in the direction of a bus stop, then suddenly decided we could take another train. This involved a mad dash across several busy roads, with my badminton racquets slapping me in the back of the head at every step.
I didn't say anything.
We finally arrived at their flat a mere thirty minutes later than they'd promised. I sat down to relax a bit before the fondue was served. "Cut this!" demanded Cecile. She'd placed a cutting board, a sharp knife, and a loaf of bread on the table. "Cut!" she barked. I thought of lots of things to say in reply, but didn't say them, because of Nice Week.
"Hmm," said Nick, ominously.
"Quoi?" asked Cecile.
"We don't have any fondue gel, a basic requirement for making fondue. Well, we have one. But it has evaporated."

Left: gel at Chez Butcher   Right: one of the many full tubs at my flat

I stared at the empty tub in astonishment. My mouth opened, but I closed it again, and stared at all the bread I'd cut. Maybe we could just put ketchup on the bread cubes. Maybe it'd still be nice.
Nick was undaunted. "I'm going to put a tea candle under the caquelon. It might be hot enough."

My reconstruction of the tea candle/caquelon incident
My astonishment nearly turned to apoplexy. I remembered Nice Week, and said, "It was very nice of you to invite me to your home to eat. That's more important than whether food is ultimately served or not. But... maybe you could put more than one candle?"
With about 8 tea candles artfully arranged under the caquelon (generating more than enough heat to slightly melt a marshmallow), Nick brought the cheese in. I eagerly speared a cube of perfectly-cut bread and dipped it into the cheese. Or at least, a substance with the colour of cheese. What emerged from the bowl was a damp, oily piece of bread. I redipped the bread and stirred the mixture. There was some cheese in there somewhere, if you poked around long enough.
"Um, Nick," I said, politely, "I think maybe you forgot the corn starch?"
"Ah, yes!" he said, snapping his fingers. "I did." He lifted the rapidly-cooling caquelon from its frame and brought it back to the kitchen, where he began adding corn starch, stirring the yellow mess, and saying, "Hmm... perhaps a little more." Again and again, for about ten minutes. At this point I began to wonder if the whole evening was a stress-test of the Nice Week concept organised by Nick and Cecile, or even one of those hidden camera TV shows.
"Um..." I said, wondering how to be nice about this. "It smells good, though!"

When I got home, I found a message from a friend called Terry. "This Anna girl, if you could package that smile and sell it, you would be a millionaire."
I sent the quote to Anna. It would be the first thing she read when she woke up.


I was nice both days. Almost. I did have a slight slip-up when a student told me he'd tried and failed to invite me to his Facebook event, claiming the email link didn't work. (For anyone not on Facebook, this involves copying and pasting a link, which is utterly foolproof.)
I became so exasperated I started to splutter, but became progressively more calm as my Nice Week training took over:  "What?! I mean, just, just, it's so... but that's fine. It could happen to anybody."
I even managed to keep my cool when I was rudely awakened at the ungodly hour of 09:30 by a phone call. "Andrew speaking, how can I help you?" I said sweetly.
For some reason I decided to dress up for work, even wearing a waistcoat and my best shoes. I didn't really see how looking nice fit into the Nice Week concept, but it seemed to work. It felt right. I bumped into a gorgeous au pair I'd met a while back and she was so taken with my niceness that she invited me out for a drink. High five!


Niceness was now becoming commonplace. My default reaction to anyone saying anything was to pause and think about how I should reply. It didn't seem like such a bad way to live one's life.
I had dinner with Anna and Lisa, and didn't say anything mean to them the whole time. I even gave them some nice compliments about the largeness of their breasts, even though they didn't do anything to earn that compliment. It's true that I left early because of the strain placed on me from working so hard not to be a dick. But still, I think they appreciated me trying to be nice.
Anna told me that the 'smile' compliment I'd passed on to her had 'made her day.' I told Terry. He was having a bad day, and the fact that he'd made Anna's day made his day.
I can't say that it made my day, but it didn't cost me anything to pass on the messages, except a fractionate amount of time. And Anna booby-bumped me (deliberately, I think). So it was worth it.

On the last night of Nice Week, I had drinks with the au pair and five of her young female friends. It was as pleasant as it sounds, and as the two of us waited for her bus home to come, I gave her my blue Nepalese woolly hat, because she was cold.
"That's so nice of you," she said.
"When I first met you," I said seriously, "I thought you were really attractive." She looked pleased. "But now I've seen you in that ridiculous hat, I don't think I'll ever be attracted to you again."

Nice Week was over.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Project: Nice Week

Nice Week

It was a typical Tuesday. I learned how to say 'You're so mean!' in German because an annoyed student kept muttering it under her breath in the face of my relentless teasing. I also received a one-word text message from a friend which simply said 'DICK'.

But surely inviting a German girl to watch a movie and buying her a drink would get the day going in a more positive direction? Maybe not. I accidentally made a joke about her and she exploded.
"You're a shit friend," said Anna, slapping me with her scarf.
"Who me?"
"Yes. You're a jerk and a shit friend."
I couldn't think what I'd done to deserve this. Last year I'd gifted her a cute pink cat calendar for her birthday (how could I know she hated cats?). This year she'd shown great interest in Cats That Look Like Hitler and the House That Looks Like Hitler, so I spent ages on Photoshop creating a personalised internet meme just for her (see picture below). Instead of thanking me, she raged at me to delete it from Facebook, repeatedly calling me a jerk.

The day after the 'shit friend' comment, she suggested we go to a cafe and talk. I had to go to my next class, so I said no, without saying why. She kept hassling me about it until finally, to make her stop, I said (with extreme irony, stopping just short of actually winking), "Okay, I'll see you there!" This made her smile.
Half an hour later I got a text which said simply "WORST FRIEND EVER". So she hadn't understood that I was joking and had gone to the cafe. Amazing.
Curiously, when I told people this story, they - without exception - looked horrified and agreed that I was a terrible friend and person. Many of them told me that while I was fun and interesting, I wasn't nice.

The CEO of Barclay's Bank had started firing people for being jerks. "No one should ever not be nice," he said, revealing he'd fired 30 people for being assholes. Maybe nice was the new black? I thought I'd at least give it a try, so I created Nice Week - seven days of me trying extra hard to be nice to people.

Anna, who had quickly forgiven me for the 'see you there' incident, was excited when I told her about Nice Week.
"Yep," I said, "It will be interesting. Maybe I'll learn something about the world or myself or whatever. It's going to be the 20th to the 27th of December."
"But that's when I'm away on holiday. Those are the exact dates." I just smirked at her until she understood I was joking. I planned to start it in two days. "Jerk," she announced.
"It ain't Nice Week, yet, baby. Now buy me a coke."


I was ill. Cecile texted to say she'd left some medicine in my locker. I replied with "Thanks, that's very kind of you." I expected to experience a burst of smugness like when I invented Microfinance. But I didn't feel like a better person. Then she sent back, "I love nice week :-)" which briefly made me furious. As though I never say thanks! I'm a well-brought up English gentleman. God.

In my lunchtime lesson, I didn't make fun of the students or laugh at their mistakes. But I didn't feel like doing that anyway, because I was still a bit poorly and feeling sorry for myself.

Cecile had complained that I never give enough praise. So when I discovered one of my students had made another loan on Kiva, to a guy in Georgia who needed the money to send his wife to hospital, I wrote to the student immediately and told her she was a great person. Would I have done it without Nice Week? I'd probably have waited till the next lesson and said it to her face. But maybe I'd have forgotten by then. And the student subsequently made a lot more loans, so maybe my instant response made her feel even better about it.

A friend texted me that he was in a bar talking to someone from Cecile's region, and told me an insult I could use on her that would probably be amusing. I replied that I couldn't use it yet because of Nice Week. "Nice Week? Can I have 500 Francs?" "Yes," I replied, "Anytime you actually need it. Otherwise I'll send it to Bangladesh to buy pigs."


Still sick, I didn't really feel like going out, so I tried to be nice via the Internet. I had an opportunity to do it while helping Cecile improve a post she'd drafted about weird Swiss parenting. Before we started to write, she told me she'd failed to get a cat from the cat place. She had gone to a cat sanctuary to get a cat, and failed to get a cat. I nearly had pizza coming out of my nose when I read that. I typed something funny slash mean but deleted it.

Then we moved on to the editing. I normally use the 'Steve Jobs feedback method', where things are either Insanely Amazing or Total Shit. Being Nice Week, I had to give her great notes to help her improve, but without being mean. So I didn't laugh at her when she kept talking about that famous punctuation mark, 'the coma'. Then I typed out another great zinger about her curiously inexpressive forehead. And again, I deleted it.

We edited and improved the post, but it was much less fun than normal. I enjoy pretending to get furious at mistakes she's made and exaggerating things to the point of obnoxiousness. And quite often, by pushing her to the edge, we come up with some killer joke, or a metaphor that brings everything together.

And she goes to bed grumpy but wakes up realising the post has become brilliant.
But that's not nice.
Still, the post turned out adequately.


Friday, January 06, 2012

Mastering/Outsourcing Online Dating: The Dates

I failed to get any dates through the internet, but Cecile's hard work got me three. I dutifully turned up and tried to enjoy them. It seems ungentlemanly to write about them on my blog, but everyone insists I have to do it. So here's what happened. My sincere apologies to the women involved, should they happen to read this.

Date One

I'd had a long day at work - stupidly long, actually - so it wasn't a great time to go on a date. But I really didn't have any other time that week. These days I don't get nervous about dates but I couldn't remember who I was supposed to be meeting or anything about her except her name.

I called Cecile. "Ello?" she said. She sounds 300% more French on the phone.
"Hi, I'm about to do this date."
"Ah, oui. Ze date. Gud lock." It sounded like she would hang up.
"No, wait. Who is she?"
"Quoi? Who she is? Just check ze emails. You ave the password."
"I didn't have time. I worked twelve hours non-stop. And she's supposed to be here in a minute. Just quickly tell me."
"Ah, I understand now. This is the English way hof joking."
"No, it's no joke!" I was starting to get stressed. Why wouldn't she just tell me a couple of key facts? "Is she the French one?"
"No! No! No she is not French! Ow many times must I say these? She his Swiss-French. Putain de merde!" And then she hung up.

'Sunny' showed up on time, looking exactly like her photo. She was attractive. A bit short, but not so short that it would be like having sex with a dwarf. I checked her out thoroughly, using car wing mirrors and reflective shop windows to secretly check for weird deposits of body fat or anything misshapen, but things seemed good. She had a nice belt, too, I remember thinking.
I didn't want to do a datey-date but I had worked all day and was hungry and whatever, so I took her to an Italian restaurant near my school. It's pretty much the most typical first date in the world, but I guess it doesn't hurt to be normal sometimes.
Our table seemed to be well-located so I accepted it and sat down. But on her side there were no chairs, just a ludicrously high bench. It was too late to change tables. We spent a very nice evening with her peering down, quietly judging me.

I kept hoping she'd give me clues about her life story so I could remember what she'd said in the emails I'd skimmed. For example, she might say 'My brother called me today' and I'd say, 'Ah yes, your brother who lost his legs in Vietnam' and she'd be impressed with my attention to detail.
But the conversation was difficult. She didn't refer to anything from the emails. It was hard to connect with her. She didn't ask me many questions. She did react well when I stopped analysing her every micro-gesture and just started talking passionately about something I love, like how I make fun of my students, or why Master of Orion is better than Master of Orion 2.

The main problem was that she didn't laugh at my jokes, even my one about the Eskimo and the constipated pig (punchline: a pigloo). Still, we spent about four hours together after a loooong shift at work. If she'd been a bit more into my humour, maybe it could have worked. But she wasn't, and it didn't. Happy now?

Date Two

I took 'Cloudy' (the cupcake girl) to a cool outdoor event with lots of things to do, eat, drink, and look at. I was very nice and charming and tried not to check out other women.

"Where are you from?" I asked her.
"I grew up near a military port. Horny sailors used to come and get drunk and try to pick up women at the local bars. The Americans were fun. The Italians were sexy. The French were the worst. They'd just come right up to you and start humping your leg. My sister liked that a lot more than I did."
Oh. Okay. "What about other online dates you've had?"
"Well, the worst was with this one guy who said he was 180cm tall."
"What's that? Six foot?"
"Yeah, about that. So I met him and he was only 175. I was disgusted. And then he said 'Let's go to the Irish bar' and I said, 'What, so you can meet other women?' and he said 'Yes.' So we went there and he bought me a drink then went to flirt with some au pairs."
"Um. Yeah. I probably wouldn't do that. So what else?"
"Oh this one guy! It just didn't work with him at all. We didn't click and he gave off kind of a creepy vibe. Anyway, he texted me every day after that."
"And you never replied?"
"So how long did it take him before he gave up?"
"Gave up? No, he still does it."
"What? How long ago was this date?"
"About a year. Ten months or so."
"Wow. And you never saw him again?"
"No. Well..."
"I did see him one more time. He came to my flat about a month ago. Somehow he worked out where I lived and one day my buzzer rang and it was him. He asked if he could come up and use my toilet."
"So, I didn't want to, but he insisted. I buzzed him up, and he came in, said hi, and ran into the bathroom. He was in there for ages, then I heard the toilet flush and him starting the shower."
"The shower?!" I exclaimed.
"Then after the shower I heard him using my hairdryer for ages. That was weird because it was in the cupboard under the sink."
"I think it's just weird regardless of where it was."
"But then the strangest thing -"
I interrupted. "The strangest thing hasn't happened yet?"
"No. The strangest thing was that when he came out of the bathroom, his hair was still wet." We walked in silence for a while. Then she asked me, "Why are you an ovo-lacto vegetarian?"
"I'm not."
"Your profile says you are."
"It doesn't. Why would it?" I didn't realise that Cecile had put that on my profile as a joke.
"It does."
"You want me to kill a cow and eat it right here? Is that what you want?"

Date Summary: A very nice woman. Quite cool, intelligent. Some weird, funny stories, well told. Would be a fun friend, if that's what I was looking for. I actually meant to call her to hang out again, but I forgot. Because I'm a dick.

Date Three

I wasn't confident about 'Rainy,' what with her being five years older than me, so I decided to go to a cafe with great cheesecake, because if the date was bad, at least I'd get a cheesecake. She was lovely, but not my type. She kept laughing at everything I said. It was irritating. She was clearly very attracted to me, though, so I decided to do a social experiment and see how much shit I could say to her and still get a second date.

"I like men with tattoos," she said.
"Oh?" I said, noisily chomping down my cheesecake. "I only have one tattoo. It's on my back. It's a vampire girl taking a shower. She's crying. Oh, and she's a lesbian. How do you know she's lesbian? Because there's another vampire girl in the shower with her. It takes up most of my back, actually. The tattoo artist went a bit mental with it. I passed out three times. He overstepped his brief."
"You're funny. Tell me a joke."
I thought for a second. Then said, "Why has no woman ever been to the moon? Because there's nothing to clean there."
"What's your best pick up line?"
"I just stare at the girl like this," I said, eyeing her with hate in my eyes, "and say, 'Hey baby'. Gets them hot."
"I love the British sense of humour."
"I'm not joking. Two words. First word, hey. Second word, baby. The end."
"Can you speak German?"
"Yes. I can say 'du hasst einen shrumpkopf.' (You have a shrunken head)."
"Giggle. That's cute."
"Oh," I said, "Did you want some cheesecake?"
"It does look quite good," she admitted. "Maybe I could have a little bit."
"Okay," I said, but then accidentally-on-purpose coughed all over the cheesecake. "Hmm... maybe it's best if I don't give you any."
"Um... yes," she said, worried. Then she brightened up. "But I'll get one next time and share it with you!"
Next time? Win.


I took the train back to my flat in kind of a weird mood. I'd met three lovely women in the space of a week. Each of them would make a great life partner for someone, and I'd spent a lot more time with them than I'd expected.
So what was the problem? I didn't know, and it depressed me a bit.

The train station near my house is bleak. It's dark and depressing, especially at night. Morrissey would have written songs about it. I got out of the train at the wrong end, and as I walked back past all the carriages, I stared inside, looking for help. Looking for answers. There were attractive people and ugly people. Lonely singles and hugging couples. I wondered what it all meant.
Then I saw a stunningly attractive woman, staring at me through a window. I stared right back. And kept staring. She burst into a huge grin, and I just couldn't help but smile in return. It was like a dam bursting, and it felt awesome.
The train pulled away, and I stood there, smiling and shaking my head. Chemistry. Maybe you can find it through the internet. Why the hell not? But you have to have chemistry. When you do, the world is a beautiful place.

Monday, January 02, 2012