I turned 36 last Tuesday. As the years go by, my birthday ceases to be a special occasion and I don’t feel much like celebrating it. This year would have been no different, except for the fact that it happens to be the Year of the Snake in the Chinese zodiac, and my brother and sister-in-law came to visit me for the first time since I moved to Switzerland in 2009.
It was just a coincidence–my birthday wasn’t their original intention for visiting–but I was very happy that they could come visit both Switzerland and Europe for the first time and also be with me on this special day.
My first birthday in Switzerland was in July 2009. At the time, I was working here for the summer and didn’t know about the Swiss custom of bringing treats to the office and hosting your own birthday.
In the U.S., you usually get treated by others on your birthday. I remember many a time where my coworkers and I would go out to lunch, and we would all chip in to pay for the bday person’s food and drinks.
One year when I was working in Long Beach, my coworkers took me to Hooters for lunch. It was a bit funny because I was the only female in the group, so I kind of wondered if all my male coworkers were really there to celebrate my birthday, or if it was more of an excuse just to go to Hooters. 😉 The waitresses at Hooters usually asked the birthday boy to stand on a chair while they dance around and sang, but since I happened to be wearing a dress that day, they let me sit down on the chair while they did their bit.
In Switzerland, even if you don’t feel like celebrating your birthday, I think that the rest of your coworkers still expect you to bring something in. So while I unknowingly committed a faux pas the first year, I was able to keep it on the down-low, as I was only working here on a summer rotation, and I don’t think anyone else knew it was my birthday. I was actually busy with work until 11:30 pm that day anyway, so there was no time for celebration.
The following year and in all the subsequent years since I moved to Switzerland permanently, I followed the Swiss tradition of bringing a home-baked good to the office for my birthday. The first year I baked two marble cakes (or Marmorkuchen, as it is called in German). I found an awesome technique online to make zebra stripes and turn it into a zebra cake, but alas–due to an uneven cake tin–my stripes weren’t clean, and the result was more of a marbled effect rather than vertical stripes.
I proudly brought my homemade cakes to the office, put them in the common area, went back to my desk, and promptly wrote an email to the whole department to come ‘n get some! Little did I know that no one would touch the cakes until I had cut them first. And I was expected to cut and serve and sit and chat. And oh yeah–each person would look me in the eye, shake my hand, and congratulate me before taking their slice of cake. Oops, faux pas #2.
I found a great post online that explains the Swiss birthday tradition quite well:
You need to participate. You have to let everyone look you in the eye; to wish you well for the year and to thank you for the gesture. You cannot rush through a birthday ritual.
This is one of the few times when people go out of their way to make small talk. This is the process of building relationships in Switzerland.
~ Sandra McLellan
Over the years, as I changed offices and the number of Swiss vs. foreigners in the team came and went, the number of handshakes would vary depending on how familiar my coworkers were with the local custom. But every year I still baked a marble cake and brought it to the office.
This year I decided to make brownies instead, because I found awesome recipe on English Forum that uses ingredients found in Switzerland. And it represents the American side of me. I had toyed with the idea of also making something traditionally Taiwanese, such as a baked Nian Gao (年糕), but my mother convinced me not to, as the taste and texture might not be suitable for Western palates. So brownies it was, especially since I’ve made this recipe several times in the past to rave reviews.
Unfortunately, I guess my baking skills aren’t what they used to be, because I completely screwed up the directions and dumped the flour into the sugar and egg mixture before adding the chocolate and butter. Oops. But I think it all mixed up okay.
I made a double batch, baked them, put them out on the counter to cool, and then cut them… only to discover that the bottoms were completely under-cooked! :O The recipe did call for gooey brownies, but I think liquidy wasn’t what they meant. Double oops.
So I flipped the whole thing over and put them back in the oven to dry them out a bit. I think the end result came out okay. I did eat several of them just to make sure. 😉
Because of the double-baking after I had already cut them, my brownies turned out a bit more crunchy and chewy and not as gooey as my previous attempts, but I think they were still delicious. They don’t look so pretty, so you can tell that they are definitely homemade. I hope my coworkers like them tomorrow.
Chocolate Walnut Brownies
I doubled the ingredients and made a double batch. Watch out for the bake time, as 18 minutes wasn’t enough for my double batch.
- 50 g butter
- 200 g dark chocolate
- 2 eggs
- 100 g sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla sugar
- 1 pinch salt
- 75 g flour
- 100 g walnuts
- Melt 50 g of butter and 200 g dark chocolate together.
- In a bowl, mix 2 eggs, 100 g sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla sugar, and pinch of salt.
- Add the melted chocolate mixture to the egg mixture and stir.
- Mix in 75 g flour and 100 g walnuts.
- Bake at 180 °C for not longer than 20 minutes (you want them to be moist and even a little gooey) in a 20 x 20 cm pan.