Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Where are you from? I am from Costa Rica but live in the US...

The other day, over a few beers and a nice discussion about countries and culture, someone pointed out that I used the word 'home' to refer to both Costa Rica and Chicago. This seemingly simple observation about the overload of the term 'home' struck a chord with me.

Over the course of this trip I have found myself representing and explaining things about both Costa Rica and the US. I've lived in the US for 5 years now, and in a way I'm identifying with their way of life a bit more everyday. Don't get me wrong, I am and always will be a Tico (and proud to be one!), but I can't help the cultural assimilation. I got my graduate education in the US, married a beautiful girl from the Iowa, I bought a house in Chicago, and our kids will probably be little gringuitos!

Obviously this is from a cultural perspective, as any immigration officer will quickly point out that I am Non-Resident Alien, but nonetheless this cultural duality is interesting and seemingly unavoidable. It allows me to play both parts – from speaking Spanish and hanging out with the Latinos, to switching to English and 'fitting in' with the native speakers The simple fact that I am writing this blog in English is a concrete example of this phenomenon.

I remember that during the Fulbright orientation, they told us that we had to become 'dual ambassadors', representing Costa Rica when in the US, and the US when in Costa Rica. I guess this is what they had in mind.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

International Zürich weekend.

This weekend I attended another of IASTE's events: the International Zürich weekend. About 90 or so trainees from all over the world came to Zürich for fun activities. On Saturday we did a rally around the city. It was very fun they had us doing all kinds of silly things, and I got to see some new places that I hadn't been to. We then had a BBQ along the lake. The night ended with a party at ETH (one of the local universities). The only downside of the day is that when I got home I realized that I didn't have my wallet – which had all my Ids and cards! I freaked out, called the banks and canceled all the cards. Luckily, when I got the party someone had found it at the BBQ place! So for the next few days I will be without any bank cards... I also learned that in Zürich they charge you 50 francs to get a new card.

On Sunday we did a short trip to Üetliberg, which is the tallest mountain in Zürich. From here you get a great view of the city and the lake.

Having slept only four hours, and a still little hung over, I came home early in the afternoon. I was craving Costa Rican food, so I made myself arroz, frijoles molidos con Salza Lizano, and pollo en salsa. This is was only the second time I've cooked since I came here (no need to since Google feeds us). I must say I miss cooking, I also noticed that maybe (just maybe) I've become a bit of a cooking snob.. The cheap IKEA pans, a crappy serrated knife, and a stove you have to light with a match aren't exactly the same as our All-Clad pans, and professional German knives at home :)

Again a pretty cool weekend here in Switzerland.

Swiss Flag:

On top of Üetliberg:

View from Üetliberg:

Yo! (city and the lake in the background)

Zürich from above:

At the BBQ:

Lake Zürich:


One of the stops in the rally:

The city rally team (we didn't win, but we had fun!)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Google Interns

Here are some pics of the other interns and nooglers. The silly hat is because last Friday was our official presentation, so they made us slide down to the cafeteria, they gave us the silly hats, and showed a slide of fun facts about us!

Weekend in Basel

This past weekend I went to Basel with an organization called IAESTE (www.iaeste.ch). This organization is in charge of requesting visas for internships and they also plan fun activities. Basel is located in the corner where France, Germany and Switzerland meet. It is a pretty old town divided by the Rhine river and about an hour train ride from Zurich. Back in the day it used to produce paper and lace, which in time turned into chemical and pharmaceutical industries. It is also the grave of Erasmus von Rotterdam and quite a few other scholars (such as a couple of the Bernoullis).

The weekend itself was really fun, but it was wet and cold. On Saturday we did a guided tour around the city, went to a modern art museum, had an indoor BBQ, and then went out to an Irish pub. The place we were staying was an old war bunker turned into a hostel – lets just say it that on a five star scale it probably had about a -1... On Sunday we took a boat, a bus, a train and then another bus to a place called Wasserfallen (http://www.wasserfallenbahn.ch/Neu/startE.htm), where we did a fun (but wet and dirty) hike – and I also did a few zip lines :) The place was gorgeous, and on a nice day they say that you can see some of Switzerland's tallest mountains from there.

The group of people were quite nice, all very cultured and educated, and a bit younger of course. There was a fairly big group of Canadians, a Irishman (who did not drink!), some Ecuadorians, Brazilians, a Finnish, a Greek, a Japanese, and some other nationalities. For me this is one of the best parts of these kind of groups, seeing how despite our cultural and physical differences, we are all much more similar than different.

All in all a good weekend.

The hike:

View from the Wasserfallen:

Not sure how a llama got here?

Along the Rhine:

The irish pub:

The war bunker:

Downtown Basel:

Oh modern art...

The Basel flag:

Small boats used to cross the river, they have no motors:

Inside a church were we sat for an organ concert (thought of you Kyle!):

The Rhine:

Basel city hall:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Random things I've learned about Zurich/Switzerland so far

  • Drinking in public places is allowed – and almost encouraged.
  • Beers come in 0.5 liters (which is about 17 ounces) – quite big!
  • They are pretty serious about their beers, to give a point of comparison someone told me that they didn't like Heineken because it tasted like water... They better not try a bud light!
  • People from the other cantons say that natives from Zurich are a little stuck up.
  • Swiss german (the language spoken here) is different in every canton, and it is only a spoken language. When they write, they write in 'high-german'
  • Someone told me that the linguistic distance from Swiss German to high German is about the same as from Spanish to Portuguese – enough to identify them as related and catch a few words
  • The swiss are not very fond of the germans, and eventhough they all speak 'high german' most don't like to.
  • On the other hand, the germans make fun of them because of they way the speak – apparently they add 'diminutives' to all their words. Kind of like us ticos with the 'tico' diminutive.
  • The Swiss flag is square – not rectangular.
  • You can tell that they are really proud of their country, they have national and local flags everyone.
  • Absolutely everything is closed on Sundays.
  • Zurich is one of the birthplaces of the protestant religion. Most cantons in Switzerland are either protestant or catholic (stay tuned for an upcoming post on religion).

Social outings

I know... I am a little late on my posts...

Its just that I've been very busy with work, second week in and I already feel like I am behind – that I should be producing more.

Anyways, the recent social outings have been quite fun:

On Thursday night all of us Nooglers went out, led by the only Swiss that started with us, and walked around downtown Zurich. Most of the places I had already seen, but it was nice to get the local commentary. He pointed out what the buildings were, and tidbits and curiosities about Zurich (like the hotel were Hitler stayed, the best place for desserts, authentic Swiss restaurants, etc.) We finished the night by the river having a beer.

On Friday we went to an Italian restaurant – supposedly the best pizza place in Zurich. My cheese-less pizza was OK – but nothing impressive.

On Saturday the people from my dorm invited me to a BBQ. It was really nice of them. We went to a public park and grilled outdoors. This was my first time will all Swiss people (two from Basel and two from Bern), and I learned quite a bit about Zurich/Switzerland (see next post).

On Monday night and Tuesday night we watched a couple of the world cup games. Monday we saw it here at Google, and Tuesday at a bar. There is an area of town where all the old stables have been converted to pubs and theaters, quite fun.

Today we just saw the Swiss vs Spain game (1-0) here at the office. Needless to say, the Swiss people are SUPER pumped about their team!

Will post some pictures soon, it is just that my internet connection here at the dorm is very slow...

Friday, June 11, 2010

First week at Google

Today I finished my first week at Google. I can't blog about the specifics of my work, as everything is confidential, but it is pretty cool! There is a big learning curve, they have tons of in-house tools and frameworks, and a massive code base, which takes a while to understand. But they have structured their 'Noogler' orientation quite well, and there lots of classes and resources to help you out. One of the things that I've found to be quite interesting is that everything has to be designed and coded to work on massive data and it has to be executed extremely fast. From an Software Engineering perspective, the main non-functional requirements are scalability and performance. I have never seen anything at this scale!

The people that work here are all very helpful, and extremely smart. I think about one third of their engineers have PhDs. There are people from all the ivy league schools, winners of the programming competitions, famous guys (like the creators of vim and emacs), etc. My boss/mentor has been very helpful, and has gone beyond just teaching me the technical aspects. He has been helping me out with lots of good career advice.

The free meals and the amenities are also quite cool. For example, every Friday they have a TGIF (Thank Google Its Friday) event. Today, because of the world cup, they were streaming the opening match and serving beer. So everyone that wanted to see the game just went downstairs (you can take the slide if you want to) and spent the afternoon drinking and watching football! How cool is that!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Zürich bureaucracy

Yesterday I had to run a couple of errants in the morning. First I had to register at the local Kreisbüro – which is your local municipality – I guess they need to know where to allocate the taxes .

Then I had to open a bank account (in order to get paid). I must say I felt kind of important opening a bank account in Switzerland! Zürich is a banking town, the call their bankers the Zürich gnomes – sort of made me thing of Harry Potter and Gringotts. One thing that I did learn is that, contrary to popular belief, Switzerland has never had 'unnamed accounts' like everyone thinks. What happens is that if you bring in a suitcase full of money you get a personal banker and a lawyer, and then the lawyer is the contact for the account and your name remains hidden. But since I forgot my suitcase, I had to give them my name :)

And finally I had to go and get a monthly tram pass. I'll blog about the trams one of these days.

I must say that everyone is pretty helpful here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

First day as a Googler / Noogler / Zoogler

Today was my first day at Google! People that work at Google at referred to as Googlers, new Googlers are called Nooglers, and the Googlers from Zurich are called Zooglers.
First let me say that they have the coolest offices I have ever seen! Full of fun and quirky things like slides, fire poles, micro kitchens with themes, game rooms, meeting rooms in the shape of eggs, etc. You are obviously not allowed to take pictures inside the office, but they do have an official album of what the office looks like at: http://picasaweb.google.com/photos.jobs/ZurichOfficePhotos#
Most of the day was filled with HR stuff and different presentations. I did get to meet my boss and my team and they all seem very nice. Everyone there seems to be extremely smart, talented, and eager to help. I can't wait to start working on my project.

Exploring Zürich

Feeling a little better, I woke up early and the first thing I did was pull out a map and try to get my bearings. Zürich center is divided into two parts by the Limnat river which ends in lake Zürich. My dorm is located in west side of the river, right downtown. The city is quite pretty, and it sort of looks like straight out of a fairy tale. With tiny winding roads that crisscross haphazardly, with lots of old buildings and churches. At every turn you find tiny restaurants and little stores.

The first place I went to was to the Google offices, I wanted to make sure that I didn't get lost tomorrow. It is actually quite easy, just a tram ride away. The trams are these sort of San Francisco style trolleys, but with 5 enclosed train cars. And speaking about the trams, you know you are not in Chicago or Costa Rica, because there is nowhere (and no one) to scan your tickets. People here must be really honest and buy their pubic transportation tickets just because they now they should... crazy!

The map I got at the airport had a suggested walking tour, so I gave it a try. I walked along the Bannhofstrasse (the equivalent of the Magnificent mile), the old down town, visited St Peter and Fraumunster churches, and walked along the river and the lake. I stumbled on a street fair, where I had a very good bratwurst with crusty bread and a curry sauce. Very pretty city indeed.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


I took a train from Robert and Mafe's house this morning to the airport, ending the first leg of my trip. Thanks guys for being such great hosts and friends!

The flight to Zurich was pretty easy – just a little over an hour. You could tell that it was Swiss airlines because they served cheese and chocolate as snacks. Immigration was a breeze, the guy barely even looked at my passport.

I arrived pretty tired, and it took me a bit to figure out the public transportation. I had to go and ask for help because the instructions that I had printed took me via a train that was not part of the same system. After a 40 minute tram ride I finally got to the place I'm staying.
This place is a basically a dorm, meant for visiting students, academics, interns and the like. It is not fancy AT ALL, but at least it looks clean. The management had left me my keys in a security box, because their office is closed on the weekends. Unfortunately the forgot to leave me the Internet access code, so I will be without Internet until Monday. Luckily (and also kind of sad) Starbucks has taken over the world and I can use their WiFi for free.

I was feeling a bit exhausted today, and a little overwhelmed. I once again find myself in an new city, not knowing anyone, and with limited communication (no cell phone and temporarily no Internet). The day had a striking resemblance to the first Fulbright day, except that now I don't speak the language and can't read any of the signs. It is a little tough, but just like before, I know I'll manage.

PS/ I missed you a lot today...

Some random thoughts on London

- Coming from the 'new continent' it is very hard to grasp the notion that this place has been around for almost 2000 years.

- It is deceptively expensive – because what happens is that the numbers resemble the prices you would pay in dollars, but then all of a sudden you realize that you are paying in pounds.

- Love their accent! It brings me right back to high school!

- It is SO confusing seeing the cars on the other side of the road. You just don't know where to look when crossing a street, and then all of a sudden you are like 'a little kid is driving that car!' and then realize that the kid is just sitting in the passenger seat.

London - Day 3

Today we hit some of the major touristy places that I hadn't seen yet. We started with the London Tower which has been around since the romans. The place was mostly used as a prison and a military stronghold along the river Thames. Nowadays it houses the crown jewels and several museums. The crown jewels included all the crowns, orbs, scepters, and things of the sort; among them are the world's largest cut diamond. They were really impressive! One of the exhibits was on medieval weapons and armors. The little kid in me (who used to play Dungeons & Dragons) found it very cool.
Next we saw London Bridge (which didn't look as if it was falling down), the Big Ben, the London Eye (a huge Ferris wheel), the house of Parliament, Westminster Abbey (which unfortunately was closed), Trafalgar square, Covent garden, West End (where I thought lots about my favorite musical theater dork :) and Piccadilly Circus (sort of a Times Square).
We then met up with Robert and him and I went out to Camden. For all you ticos out there, this part of London is kind of like 'la calle de la Amargura'. A bit rough around the edges, but plenty fun. We mostly went bar hopping and eating. Early in the night we ate some vegan food, and late at night we had Tapas. I believe we went to 4 bars or so. It was really nice, and we chatted like hadn't in a while. We were looking at back and we realized that we have been friends for 20 years now! And it's cool because every time we talk, its like we pick up exactly were we left off. Exhausted, and a bit tipsy, we headed back to their place – in a cab because the Tube does not run all night (big disappointment London)!

Friday, June 4, 2010

London - Day 2

Today we walked across Green park to Buckingham Palace to see the change of guard. Wow! Really cool! Buckingham is the residence of the queen during the weekdays. It is interesting seeing these military traditions coming from a country with no armed forces, it is very regal, proper and perhaps a bit too much.
We then took a train to Windsor castle – my first medieval castle experience. It was truly breathtaking! Windsor is the weekend residence of the queen and it has been around for about 1000 years. We walked the grounds, went into St. George's Chapel (the burial place of a lot of the royal members), and the State Apartments. In here they host fancy dinner parties and diplomatic events. The art work, decorations, weapons and armors, were amazing! In the height of the British empire, during queen Victoria's rule, one fifth of the world was under the control of the UK, and this place emanates a great sense of power and tradition. Very cool really.
Later we met up with Robert and had dinner at a Nepalese & Indian restaurant – very tasty! I'll have to look up Nepalese restaurants in Chicago.