April 29, 2015

Outlawing the Hole in Swiss Cheese

Picture of Swiss voting ballots

For the first time in the eight years of living in Switzerland, I got the chance to vote.

“Yippee!” I said opening the envelope.

Voting can be done through the mail, at polling stations and sometimes online. With enough signatures referendums can be called to challenge any law and Swiss elections are based on proportional representation, which means every vote counts. It also means a lot of candidates.

“228!? Yikes!”

For the first time in my life I felt like maybe I shouldn’t vote.

For the first time in my life I felt like maybe I should run…at least I’d recognize a name.

Luckily Switzerland thought of this problem and set up a website that allows you to match your values with each candidate. Then, with groups of candidates you can pick a party political (there were nine). The party can decide who gets the seats. Alternatively, you can remove people from the list if you don’t want them elected. I would have loved that option in high school. 

Sound complicated? It was. I’m not sure waiting eight years was long enough. Fortunately  there was one value I could pick right away, and so I voted.

April 16, 2015

Are You Made for It?

Picture of girl lying face down on her plate

Last weekend I went to Paris and I ran 42.2 km. It was my first marathon and around the 35 km mark I was pretty sure it’d be my last. I completed it in 4:08:59,  fast enough to know my body can handle it and slow enough that I might try again. But not today. Today I walk like I’m smuggling drugs.

The day was perfect, twelve degrees in temperature as the sun rose between the buildings and gently lit the cobblestone lane that leads to the Arc de Triumph. My friend and I arrived an hour early but it wasn’t soon enough. We were quickly divided on the Champs Élysées by estimated finishing time and shuffled into gated corrals like cattle. We didn’t get to see the elite runners and my friend, who had been obsessing for days about her bowel movements, didn’t have time to use the loo.

The first 5 km was wide and spacious and it felt like I had the whole street, the whole of Paris to myself. Euphoria hit me early. Paris, in my opinion, is the most beautiful city in the world.

The half-way mark was along the Seine river, passed Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately I didn’t see any of it. Runners who started out too quickly came head-to-head with runners who hadn’t been running quick enough. Thousands of people on a road wide enough for six created a lot of agitation and I was constantly distracted, punching people accidently just by swinging my arms. The congestion lasted for the next 10 km.

The last part of the route lead through a park, Bois de Boulogne, which was smart because if there had been a Starbucks, all of us would have been lining up for a Frappuccino instead. We were struggling. Around the 35 km mark I got super discouraged. I wasn’t going to make my goal time and I was surrounded by roadkill—people lying down, moaning, stretching, crying and vomiting. There was a sign that read Are You Having Fun, Yet?  and I heard myself say, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ My legs felt dead—I wasn’t even sure I was lifting them anymore—but  then I looked around and somehow we were still moving. Runners who had annoyed the hell out of me beforehand, became my companions in a common battle, my posse, my push. They didn’t stop moving so neither did I.  I pumped my arms and dragged my legs to the finish line where a surprising surge of energy allowed me to sprint across and collect my medal.

Was the experience what I expected? No. Although the swell of pride came two days later (only 25% of participants are women) I expected immediate elation that didn’t come. I was sure I’d be crying for joy or smiling like an idiot but I just felt dull. Six months recovering from a torn calf muscle, four months of running in the cold and rain, a knee injury, blood blisters and gastroenteritis—I had worked hard enough to know that anything less would have been just bad luck, and luckily that didn’t happen.

Second, running a marathon is really an attitude check. It teaches you a lot about how you speak to yourself—whether you are gentle, patient, encouraging and positive—because all these traits get tested during the training and during the run. People who run marathons are testing their attitude…all the time. This is why I might run another. I wasn't made for it, but I do it anyway.

Thoughts about the Hanson’s Marathon Method

This is a controversial marathon training program I used that only requires trainees to run a maximum of 25 km. The lower mileage is designed to reduce injury but to compensate for it the program demands six runs per week, which leads to constant fatigue. I read the book, the science made sense and for someone who is injury prone, I liked the idea of spreading out my weekly mileage instead of loading 35 km onto a Sunday.

The verdict: Despite four months of constant fatigue and reduced social life, I would definitely use this method again. I would not recommend this plan to a waitress or anyone on their feet all day. I had to tweak the schedule and my paces because of illness and injury (due to improper footwear), which explains why I ran a 4:09 instead my goal 4:00 but my legs were strong for race day. During this journey I noticed several things:

1.     I began to heal a lot faster than I normally do. After a long run I might have a slight pull in a muscle, a sore ankle or a bruise on my leg and wonder if I could run the next day….and I always could.

2.     Running easy runs that didn’t feel comfortable and speed runs when I was already spent was miraculously possible. Even in a grueling six day running cycle.

3.     Maximum 10 mile tempo runs and long 16 mile runs really are all that are needed.

4.     I only lost 1kg of weight. While the percentage of fat on my body reduced significantly, I also had to eat a lot to keep my energy levels up.

5.     You should start this program from the beginning. Daily runs are designed to create structural fitness so even if you’re capable of running 21 km, it doesn’t mean your joints, tendons and bones are ready to run the next day.

6.     I recommend getting a strength training program established before training begins. This means being able to do 3 sets of squats, sit-ups, push-ups and hip exercises comfortably/easily. This way you can maintain your core body strength easily during the four months without adding to fatigue you’ll feel running. After the marathon my arms were as sore as my legs from all the pumping.

April 8, 2015

Deep like a Blueberry and Bent like a Banana

picture of blueberries

This post is brought to you by blueberries  because I just really love them. ‘I just really love them’ is a phrase brought to you by my niece. The same niece who refuses to close the bathroom door while I’m sitting on the toilet. I just really love her.

The ‘Good Fruit’ is back for another season and has started making an appearance in our grocery stores at the same time pollen has started making its way into the air. Switzerland has wisely set up an advisory website for the hundreds of thousands of people who can’t breath. In an unwise move, the same government is planting these trees throughout Geneva to beautify slabs of concrete. It seems their priorities aren’t much different than the rest of us.

So I’m sequestered at home for the next month. No cafés or runs in the park. Instead I'm on an imposed writer's retreat, like Paul Sheldon but without my number one fan. The only way I've found not to go all red-rum among four walls is music. For my birthday my husband introduced me to Spotify and instantly I'm transformed back to age fourteen,  doing calculus, listening to the rain outside and Def Leppard on the radio, dreaming about the blonde whose locker is ten-feet away from mine. The guy I fondly referred to as Mr. X while my locker partner called him Banana Man because of his hair. I miss her. And I feel like eating a banana.

While the remix MaybeYou  by Oxford and Le Crayon in my apartment competes with  Symphony no. 86  from my neighbour's, I'm compelled to just invite her over. It's hard to write and dance. The upside of asthma, friends and fruit anyone?

March 5, 2015

Another Reason to Drink Coffee

Stone sculpture of two lovers embracing

Something was wrong. I could see them through the glass. They were outside, directly in front of the entrance, and creating a roundabout for anyone trying to buy a coffee. Normal, I like to think I’m discreet but I couldn’t look away and that alone suggested something awry.

He was young, taut and rangy. Untamed curls bounced around his neck. A measuring tape hung from his pocket. He was facing the café and would have had no problem seeing me if he looked up, but he didn’t. His hands stroked her arms and then ran down her thighs. She quivered, rested her head on his chest and sobbed, prompting him to hold her tighter. Dodging customers were uncomfortable. The waitress rolled her eyes. It really was a bad place to break up with someone.

From the back I could see that she was short but well-proportioned. Her blonde hair was cut into a bob, she wore a fitted leather jacket and carried a Marc Jacobs handbag. Her distress got louder as the show, as long as fifteen minutes, continued. Poor girl, I thought. But I was also eager to see her face.

Suddenly he gave her one last squeeze, pulled away and headed down the street, cell phone already in hand. She lowered her head, wiped her face, opened the glass door and headed towards a table where her mother, her aunt, her social worker or perhaps corrections officer had been sitting the whole time. It didn’t occurred to me that it was a friend until I got up to pay at the cash.

Leaving the café, I looked over at their booth. The friend was leaning across the table holding a hand and before I reach the door I finally caught a glimpse of the blonde as her hair slid away from her cheek. Pleated skin, cavernous eyes, soft loose cheeks and a forehead marked by sun spots placed her around seventy. My shock was profound.

For hours I decrypted what I saw. Everything about the scene was unusual, dare I say unnatural and it made things more exciting. I fell into the odd moment thinking absentmindedly about it; the setting, the role of each character. The next day I went back to the café hoping to see at least one of them, but it was over. I felt disappointed. It was a story I didn't get to finish but really wanted to.

February 24, 2015

Where do you come from?

picture of receipt
'1 ppt for 10 years for his wife Natasha'

“What’s it like being the only brown-skinned person in the family?” my brother once asked me.

“Not half as bad as being the only girl.”

Sometimes, in the summer, when my skin turns thirty shades darker, I jump at the sight of the chocolate-coloured hand holding my vanilla ice cream, but this is the extent of my self-awareness. I just don’t stare at myself all day. It’s only when it becomes an issue for others that it becomes an issue for me.

“Where are you from?”


“I mean where are you really from?”


“What are your origins?”

“My origins?”

“Where do your parents come from?”


Using my skin as a conversation piece is like picking on an unusual mole or striking birthmark. It’s like asking a person with a prominent nose what religion they are.

And it makes me feel like I don’t belong. Dissimilar does not mean incompatible. I eat turkey and I watch hockey. That’s my culture. I didn’t flee war or come from a village where my one-legged father sold a goat to save me from a life of crippling destitution. I wouldn’t be ashamed if that were the case, but it also wouldn’t make me spiritually fulfilled. And above all, my Canadian passport was not given to me as a wedding gift, which is what the woman at the Canadian Consulate assumed.

Yes, I live in Switzerland, I speak English, my name is Russian and I wear brown skin. Where do I come from? My mother’s vagina. Where do you come from?