Monday, December 27, 2004

27 December 2004

Just got back from a week in San Francisco yesterday afternoon, and jetlag is not treating me well. It was good to go back and see friends and family (pictures coming soon), and to eat a bunch of the things I have been deprived of while in Switzerland. I ate Eritrean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Chinese food, various junk foods, and lots of sourdough bread and American cereal (it really is quite staggering, the variety of cereals available in American supermarkets).

On the way to San Francisco, I had a stop in Frankfurt. My first flight got in late, and so I missed my connection, and had to go back and forth through security and passport control to get rebooked, checked in, and so on, and consequently had my luggage and my person scanned and checked several times, including full-body pat-downs with metal detecting wands and everything. On my final trip through security, the security person stopped me and said that I had a fork in my carry-on, and that it would have to be confiscated. I had no objection to this, although I was surprised that it had gone through 3 or 4 times without comment. When they took the fork out, it was a child’s fork with rounded tines, and I pointed out that you could probably stab yourself harder with a pencil than with this fork, and also that I would receive a grown-up fork upon getting dinner in the plane. The security person sputtered and stammered, and finally said in an authoritative voice, “Well, this is Germany.” Apparently, they frown upon forks in Germany. Obviously, once I got on the plane, I had dinner, whereupon I received not one, but two very pointy forks of the stabbing variety. And a plastic knife.

Before going on my little trip, I was out for dinner at a sort of pan-Asian type restaurant here in Zurich. The menu offered such redundant dishes as “tuna sashimi tartare.” Is there any non-tartare sashimi? In any case, over dinner, my friend was saying that he wanted to take a vacation somewhere, and was trying to come up with somewhere to go. He elaborated, saying he wanted to go somewhere weird, with strange rules and customs that he could laugh at. Um, look around you? No need to spend your hard-earned money looking for a society based on weird rules. You’re here!!

One thing that is great about Switzerland is that the mail here is very fast. If you post a first-class letter to anywhere within Switzerland, it arrives by noon the next day. Granted, it’s a small country with only about 7 million people (fewer people than New York spread over the area of two New Jerseys), but that’s still pretty damn fast. In any case, I was expecting something in the mail right before I left on holiday, and it wasn’t coming. It turns out that the person had posted it second-class, instead of first-class, but my Swiss friend was completely sure that mail can never get lost, and that if something is sent, it will arrive. How charmingly naïve, to think that the mail never gets lost. Although maybe it never gets lost in Switzerland.

And in exciting events, I was at work the other week, and there were crazy sirens outside. As we watched from the office, about a dozen police cars and ambulances gathered in the main road, and started cordoning off bigger and bigger areas. As it turns out, there was a double homicide in a bar about 100 meters from my office building. A man shot two other people in a bar at 4:30 in the afternoon, then ran away before he could be caught. This being Switzerland, the story made the news big-time, and everyone was so shocked that someone would use a gun to kill people. This being Switzerland, the closing line of the big story on the newspaper’s website was that the incident caused traffic jams and delayed and re-routed trams.

Finally, speaking of trams, since coming here, I have only had my tram pass checked three times in almost seven months. I ride the tram about 15 times a week. So the odds are pretty low that your ticket will be checked on any given ride. Last week, however, I was going to the airport at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, and the tram guy came on and asked for everyone’s tickets. Doesn’t he have better things to do at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, like sleep? Sometimes they gang up and make a sort of blitzkrieg ticket-check. The second time I had my ticket checked, four regular guys got on the tram, joking and bantering as if they were everyday citizens. Two got on in front, and two in the back. Once the doors closed, the two pairs barked out in Swiss German, “Tickets!” They then swept inwards, leaving no ticket unchecked, then got off at the next stop, resuming their mild-mannered guise of four friends waiting for the next tram of unassuming victims. It seems sort of silly. Everyone here obeys the rules whether or not you check, so I’d say they should either just have automatic checkpoints where you can swipe your ticket, or not bother checking at all, since these random assaults don’t seem to turn up many offenders.

Monday, December 13, 2004

13 December 2004

Apparently, Santa also has a day job here, because I saw him driving a tram full of children around Zurich the other day. I guess it’s not cool enough to just go visit Santa at the department store, tell him what you want, take a picture, and move along. He should also drive you and twenty of your friends around the city, pointing out Christmas decorations, or whatever it is that Tram Driver Santa does.

The Swiss also have strange takes on other imaginary figures meant for children. For instance, instead of the Tooth Fairy, they maintain that mice come and take your teeth and leave you a present in the middle of the night. First of all, why would a mouse want used teeth? Second of all, where does the mouse get money to leave under your pillow? Third of all, how does a mouse carry all those teeth and all that money? Fourth of all, how can a mouse travel so quickly to take care of all of the lost teeth? And finally, how can a mouse leave you a note telling you that they’re proud of you for losing a tooth, and to take care of the new one? Honestly, you might as well have a Tooth Roach or a Tooth Boll Weevil. The Easter Bunny does not frequent Switzerland, but it is unclear who actually leaves eggs and candy for the children. Someone does, it’s just not a giant, magical rabbit.

Anyways, I was in Lausanne for the weekend, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, which is both surprisingly similar and surprisingly different from German-speaking Switzerland. One thing that they do there that would horrify many of my beer-guzzling American friends is to drink beer mixed with Sprite. Why do they do this? Apparently, because beer has such a bitter taste, adding Sprite makes it more palatable. I agree on the bitterness, but I usually just opt for wine or a mixed drink, rather than trying to doctor the beer into drinkable form. I think that they smoke more heavily there, as well, if that is possible. Smoke-free New York, I miss you so…

To give you an idea of how important cheese is to the Swiss, especially those from the French-speaking parts, I was playing "Which is worse?" with a friend over the weekend, and when he was told to decide whether he would rather give up fondue or booty for the rest of his life, he only half-jokingly said that there was no way he could ever choose only one, since fondue is "like oxygen" (direct quote; I guess he's saying that there's nothing like filling your lungs with some cool, fresh... cheese?) I don't think it would have taken most of my American friends more than two seconds to make that decision.

My shopping woes in Switzerland continue. It amazes me how hard it can be to find something that is so easily found elsewhere. It becomes a sort of small, private victory when you decide you want to buy something, and you actually find it in a store that is open when you are there, and you are afforded the privilege of spending your money to buy it. Example: I am looking for a large air-tight container to store dog food. I have been to several department stores, housewares stores, pet supply stores, and grocery stores, but none of them carry such items. One pet supply store said that for their best, regular customers who buy large quantities of goods from them, they will sometimes order these containers and make them available, but otherwise, they don't have them. Um, if it is something your customers need and want, and it's something you can sell for a profit, why don't you just carry it in your regular line of products?

On a different note, how computer-dependent are you? I’m currently on personal computer #4, and before personal computers #1-4, I used family computers #1-4. I think I first started sending emails through my parents’ accounts back in 1993, and then got my own primitive AOL account later that year. I go through severe withdrawal when separated from a computer for more than a day or two, and when I am in front of a computer, I check email constantly. This addiction has been long-lived, and shows no signs of abatement. However, connectivity is not such a big phenomenon in Switzerland. Few people I know have their own computers, and few have a high-speed connection at home. Email didn’t become prevalent until 1999 or so, and I think I have only seen one BlackBerry since getting here (in fact, after reading this, a Swiss friend asked me, "What is a BlackBerry?") Few people use eBay, blogging is quite new, and IM is not the time sink it is in the States. “Can you imagine life before Google?” is not a valid question here, as many people are still living that life. Whoa.

This Saturday, I leave for San Francisco to see the fam, and I’ll be flying back on the 25th, getting in on the 26th, just in time to go back to work on the 27th. Fiver will spend the week getting pampered by my friend's fam in Lausanne; I can only hope he will still remember me when I come back.

In case you're wondering what I'm looking forward to most in San Francisco, here's the short list: seeing the fam (I haven't seen Kazu since he started walking!), catching up with a few friends in the SFO area, shopping, sleeping in on weekdays, sourdough bread (no one has even heard of it here), fresh sushi (raw tuna should never be the greyish pink color it is here), Ethiopian food, Chinese food, Korean BBQ. Yes, there are restaurants here that hold themselves out as serving the aforementioned types of cuisine, but I am highly suspicious when a Japanese restaurant is run by Indians, a Chinese restaurant serves pad thai, and an Ethiopian restaurant is also a pizza joint. So far, these suspicions have been well-founded.

Happy Holidays, I'll be updating again in two weeks...

Monday, December 06, 2004

Addendum -- 6 December 2004

So I got some clarification on the Swiss Santa thing. Sort of. On December 6th, Chlaus shows up with his friend Schmutzli, who is "a small, dirty man," and a donkey, and they give out candy or whippings. Kinky, right? Chlaus lives in the woods, and is single, and dresses just like Santa Claus. On December 24th, the Christkindli, a faceless, shapeless, undefined entity, sweeps through Switzerland and distributes gifts. No one knows who or what it is or where it comes from, but it brings the loot, so that's all that matters. (Incidentally, my information source thought that the elves and Mrs. Claus were really weird, as if the "small, dirty man" and the donkey were perfectly normal. Who needs a wife if you have a small, dirty man and a donkey, right?) In Germany, instead of Chlaus and company, they get St. Niklaus, who used to be a bishop and also dresses like Santa and lives in the woods, and also gives candy and beatings. He puts candy, nuts, and oranges in the shoes of good children (mmm... I love eating food out of my shoes). On December 24th, Weihnachtsmann ("Christmasman") gives out gifts. He, too, dresses like Santa, and like Santa, spends all year making presents for the children. Even though he and St. Niklaus seem to fill similar positions and wear similar uniforms, they are apparently independent contractors with no affiliation or friendship. I think that one of them should sue the other for copying his big idea of dressing up in red and white and giving stuff out to kids in December.

Editor's note

Thanks to everyone who seems to be interested, for some unknown reason, in my random ramblings about life in Switzerland. I've had over 5,000 hits since this low-budget, low-tech, low-quality site was launched (if it even deserves such an important-sounding word) at the end of July. Keep coming back, and I'll keep writing...-AC

6 December 2004

This morning on the tram on the way to work, I saw Santa Claus walking down the street. In Switzerland, he arrives early, on December 6th, actually, and hangs out for the rest of the month making house calls and public appearances. And there are two of them, apparently, although I don’t understand this part, so much. There is Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus, and they have different arrival dates, and one of them gives you candy, and the other gives you presents or a beating, but I don’t know which is which or who comes when, or anything like that. I always thought that Santa Claus was St. Nick, but apparently they maintain two identities and two job descriptions here. And one of them beats you. Maybe.

The Swiss way of thought is slowly warping my mind. It’s Christmas season, which I have always associated with rampant consumer culture, packed malls, and strategic shopping to avoid the crowds. Stores stay open until late at night, or even all night the night before Christmas, and they are always packed. Here, on the other hand, things are somewhat different. I was out in the city center on Saturday afternoon and noticed that one store had signs up announcing that for two Sunday afternoons this month, it will be open for business, and I am slightly ashamed to admit this, that fact both surprised and impressed me. Wow, I thought, I can’t believe the store will be open on Sunday afternoons! Then I gave myself a mental kick and realized that stores are supposed to be open on Sundays year-round, not just twice in December. Must… fight… Swissification…

A few odd anecdotes from other expats living in Zurich. A friend of mine works in a newly opened medical office. They arranged for some large plants to be delivered and distributed throughout the different rooms in the office. Upon the arrival of the plants, the doctors started taking them to their offices, but the plant people (Swiss, obviously), were much distressed, and insisted that they cease and desist, because each plant was earmarked for a specific office, based on the varying light conditions in the different rooms, and putting the plants in the wrong rooms would have been nothing short of catastrophic.

Car inspection is taken very seriously here. Ostensibly, the purpose of a car inspection is to ensure that your car is safe for driving on public roads. So you would think that they would check your engine, your lights, your brakes, and so on. What you might not expect is that they would check your paint job, your car interior, and the cleanliness of your carburetor. Expats have been told to bring their cars back in for second inspections for various strange reasons, including: 1) the car was rusty; 2) there were papers in the back seat; 3) there was grime on the car parts. I am not quite sure how a messy back seat, a rusty paint job, and a dirty oil indicator affect a car’s ability to function safely, but maybe the Swiss know something about cars that is not known elsewhere. The common practice here is to take your car to the garage the day before a car inspection, where they will test the working parts of the car, clean and wash the car’s innards (which, being car parts, tend to get unacceptably dirty, by Swiss standards), and then drop the car off at the inspection point before the car has a chance to get dirty again.

A similar point of expat confusion arises upon moving out of an apartment. Sweeping, vacuuming, and scrubbing the apartment is seldom sufficient. Landlords will take the knobs off of your stove to see if there is grease underneath the knob. They will take apart your faucets to see if there is accumulated calcification inside (which there almost always is, since the water here is very hard). They will look inside the toilet and under the sink. They will peer at every square inch of carpet and every bit of the walls. They will check to see if the terrace has leaves on it, and if the plants are well maintained. The windows must be cleaned, inside and out, and in between, since there is a double layer of glass for noise and temperature insulation. Very few people attempt to clean their apartments themselves upon move-out, because no matter how much you clean, they will find something even more absurd. Common practice is to hire a professional apartment cleaner, who will clean like mad and meet apartment inspection standards, guaranteed, for about 800 bucks for a one bedroom apartment.

Friday, December 03, 2004

How to Pass for a Swiss Person, Part III, Section 4: Living in Switzerland; Dating

You may want to know how Swiss culture differs from American culture when it comes to your social life, or more specifically, when it comes to your love life. Well, rest assured, you love life will remain completely unchanged. Hahaha, sorry, I can’t say that with a straight face! Enjoy your love life while you can, because once you come here, it’s back to junior high for you and your relationships!!

First of all, the Swiss often resort to the age-old tradition of informing their crushes of their interest through mutual friends. Remember the old, “Hi, my friend thinks you’re cute” trick? It is still used here, even when said friend is in his late 20’s! The only part missing is the note written in secret substitution code, with a checkbox to confirm or disconfirm your reciprocal interest.

Second of all, the Swiss are a little bit slow when it comes to making a move. We all know what the “three date rule” is in New York, so I won’t elaborate on that here. In Switzerland, it is not unheard of to go on ten dates with the same person, with nary a kiss. One Swiss guy I know, who is in his late 20’s, is known among his friends as a smooth talker who gets along well with the ladies. He met his current girlfriend, and after three dates (and by dates, I mean the old-fashioned kind, with dinner and movies, not just coffee or a beer), he KISSED her. His friends were so impressed by his smooth moves and fast action. Kids move so quickly these days, don’t they?

Third, what happens if you’ve made it through ten dates and decide you want to move it to the next level? Most people here go to college in their hometowns, and as people start college at a later age, and college runs for at least 5 years, it is quite common to have a 26 year old college student living at home with his parents. If his girlfriend also lives with her parents, then they are in a bit of a bind, by American standards. Here, however, it is not seen as an obstacle at all. Although they are slow to get involved, once they are involved, the Swiss see no problem in involving the whole family, as well. Parents are completely happy to have their children’s significant others (or non-significant others) staying the night in their children’s rooms, and the children are perfectly happy getting their groove on next door to their parents. The Swiss equivalent of the walk of shame between dorm buildings is the walk of shame from your girlfriend or boyfriend’s bedroom to the breakfast table, to have some morning grub with the parents. Freaky deaky.

A final junior high parallel is the duration of relationships, or lack thereof. Once the Swiss go through the agony of "Do you like me? Check yes or no," and the numerous action-less dates, they settle into relationships that are about as long as the life cycle of a fruit fly. A three-month relationship garners impressed faces and awed congratulations, as well as queries regarding the distant future. A couple that seems hopelessly infatuated will almost surely be hopelessly uninfatuated when the season changes. Despite earnest feelings and a tendency to make mountains out of emotional molehills, or perhaps because of them, relationships come and go, just as they did in junior high. Don't fall behind on your gossip, or else you'll be several breakups and crushes behind on the news!

NEWS FLASH -- 3 December 2004

Ugh, so I got a flu shot this year, like a good girl, but I caught something this week that was acting suspiciously like the flu. Not only was I pissed that I was sick, I was pissed that maybe my flu shot hadn't protected me against the flu, and it was a twisted sort of relief to find out that I had managed to catch a 36-hour stomach virus, instead, and that the flu shot was not being proven useless, which was really only a very small consolation while I was burning down the house with my fever, and making good friends with my not-very-huggable toilet bowl. Fiver, good little boy that he is, realized that something was wrong, and stood guard by my feet, protecting me from who knows what for hours on end. He knows he did a good job, because he is back on his hypoallergenic chicken-and-rice diet for the rest of the year.

Monday, November 29, 2004

29 November 2004

OK, the award for “weird museums” officially goes to the German-speaking world. Back in October, I went to one of the oddest museums I have ever seen, the Gletschergarten Museum in Lucerne, which featured Ice Age tools, a reconstructed Swiss living room, and a house of mirrors (see 11 October 2004 entry). At that time, I thought maybe it was just a Swiss thing. But this past weekend I was in Vienna, and I went to see the Criminal Museum, which focused on crime in Vienna over the years, with old murder weapons, bloodstained clothing, casts of victims’ faces, and drawings of various murders from the past few centuries. I went to that museum because the Pathology Museum was closed, which is a shame, because I could have seen pickled limbs, preserved skin diseases, and jars of human organs.

I did make a couple of token visits to more conventional museums, but I have to admit that the bloody sheets from an actual murder were more interesting than the paintings of bowls of fruit by little-known Austrian artists. I did not make it to the museum that is entirely dedicated to funerals and death (yes, there is one), but I did manage to have dinner in one of Hitler’s favorite cafes. I didn’t see the National Library, but I did see a priest’s robe that had a 2-foot tall Jesus-on-a-cross in deep relief (about two inches deep) on the back. No opera or carriage rides, but I had a good snicker at the ticket machine that, during payment, advises you to, “Be aware of strange looks.” Heh heh, I really shouldn’t laugh, since I wouldn’t be able to say that in proper German, but what can I say, me likes English funny.

So in Vienna it is getting towards Christmas (well, I suppose it is getting towards Christmas everywhere), and around Christmastime, there are lots of booths in the street that serve hot mulled wine, and people buy a mug of wine and sip it in the cold before going on their way. The wine is doled out in mugs. Real mugs. And no one steals them or walks off with them accidentally. Wouldn’t you think that plastic cups would be wiser, both in terms of minimizing losses and cutting down on labor, since the mugs need to be washed after each use (I hope)?

Switzerland still beats out its neighbors for politeness. I had forgotten that the rest of the world isn’t as meticulously proper as are the Swiss. While I was waiting to disembark in Vienna, a jowly gentleman reached over me to get his briefcase, with which he swiftly conked me on the head, apologizing only after I delivered a furious New York-style scowl at him. Apparently believing that his briefcase blow had stunned me into stupidity, he then tried to push past me in the aisle of the plane. I’m skinny, but he was not, and there was no way we were fitting into the aisle together. So then he tried to push in after me, cutting off my friend, who like me, is a New Yorker at heart, and unlike me, is fluent in German, both textbook and gutter, and gravely told the man exactly what he could do with what and where he could put it and how. We then exited the plane, feeling that we had won one for the good guys, spreading peace and goodwill towards men, except for those men with the chutzpah to whack little Asian girls over the head with their hard briefcases, to which we say, !@#$%& to all, and to all a good night. Ho, ho, ho, and bah humbug.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

NEWS FLASH -- 24 November 2004

Just booked last minute tickets for the weekend. My friend Charles is visiting for Thanksgiving (which isn't a holiday here, so I had to use some of my precious 5 weeks of vacation for something I always took for granted). After not being able to find reasonable ticket prices in advance, we decided to take a gamble and take whatever came up. Vienna, here we come!! Sweeeet...

Monday, November 22, 2004

How to Pass for a Swiss Person, Part III, Section 3: Living in Switzerland; Food

As we all know, food is an important part of life. On top of its ability to keep us from starving to death, which is one of its main attractions, food is one of the defining factors of culture, identity, and waistlines. What is American food? Burgers, fries, apple pie, potato chips, pizza, meat loaf, tuna casserole. Even specific regions have their own culinary identities, whether real or stereotypical. Californians love their alfalfa sprouts, New Yorkers love their hot dogs, Texans love their beef, and Southerners deep-fry everything.

The same applies to Switzerland. Get ready for your new dietary staples!! Because they are Swiss, the Swiss will only eat certain foods at certain times of year, because everything needs to go according to its proper schedule. Summertime is warm, sunny, and perfect for cookouts with friends. When shopping, head straight to the sausage section. Sausage, sausage, and nothing but sausage. Yum! If you don’t feel like having a hot meal, you can make a delicious and balanced sausage salad: take two kinds of pre-cooked sausage, chop them up, throw in cubes of cheese, some mayonnaise, mustard, salt, and pepper, and you’re all set. If you want some color, add some diced tomatoes or apples, but not too much, or you’ll ruin the sausage-y goodness!

At any time of year, you can have rösti. Take some day-old boiled potatoes, grate them, and fry them up with some onions, cheese, milk, salt, and pepper, into a big, soggy hash brown. You can top it with some meat and gravy. Just like Mom used to make, right?

Wintertime is approaching, so it’s time for fondue and raclette!! Raclette is slices of potato, grilled with some cheese and maybe some onions and ham. Fondue, as you know, is a big pot of melted cheese, which you dip bread or potatoes into. If it’s made right, it should smell, as one Swiss friend described it, like you took dirty, wet gym socks and squeezed them into the pot. In the mountains, McDonald’s serves up, you guessed it, McFondue, which I’m guessing is not good enough to smell like nasty gym socks.

If you hadn’t noticed already, you can make almost every Swiss dish with sausage, cheese, potatoes, and onions. If you want to try something off the beaten path, however, restaurants serve horsemeat. I’m sure it comes with a side of potatoes and cheese.

For non-Swiss food, you have plenty of enticing (by enticing, I mean puzzling) options. Want some pad thai? It is served, obviously, at the Chinese restaurant, since it is Thai food. Hummus is considered exotic, and has been upgraded from New York’s take on hummus. You don’t buy it at the green grocer and eat it in front of the TV with carrots. You order it in the restaurant, and it comes as a stand-alone dish. California rolls are considered to be real sushi, despite their lack of sushi-ness. I think that the source of the problem is that few ethnic foods are centered around sausage, cheese, and potatoes, so the Swiss aren’t quite sure how to make them.

22 November 2004

This past weekend, I went to Solothurn and checked out the Kunstsupermarkt, which is the Swiss equivalent of New York's Affordable Art Fair, encouraging people to buy original art for their homes, instead of having the same museum prints as everyone else. After that, I checked out the Art Brut Museum in Lausanne, which is dedicated to outsider art. In general terms, this refers to untrained, nonmainstream artists, but practically speaking, a large percentage of these artists are mentally handicapped or psychologically disturbed. There were, however, a few artists represented who were well-adjusted members of society who just happened to dabble in art in their free time or after retirement. All I could think was, would you really want your work to be displayed in that context, since people then just assume you were either stupid or crazy? Although I have to admit, the crazier the person was (based on the bios provided by the musem), the funkier and more interesting the art they produced. The coolest pieces were by people who heard voices, molested little girls, or grew up in insane asylums. The everyday people just couldn't compete, I guess because they weren't guided by voices. Voices that told the other artists that burnt siena would be better than yellow ochre for painting in the monster's eye that was staring at the naked shemale under the serpent-tree.

Anyways, back to real life. Well, no, back to Swiss life... Non-Americans apparently have a very, let’s say, interesting view of American life. One person I know has what he calls “American parties” once in a while, where they entertain American-style. What is an American party, you ask? Well, in basic terms, it’s a cookout. OK, so I thought that was a good start. I should have left it at that. They don’t have ribs or steaks or chicken or hot dogs. (Seriously.) They serve burgers. (Makes sense.) But they eat them with BBQ sauce or honey mustard. (Huh?) They don’t put American cheese or Swiss cheese on their burgers, since they don’t exist here, and I didn’t want to know what cheese they use, instead, after finding out that Monterey Jack also doesn’t exist, and cheddar is something they have heard of but don’t eat. Instead of hot dogs, the ubiquitous sausage stands in as their processed-meat-in-a-tube of choice, also served with BBQ sauce and honey mustard. What about the Tostitos and salsa, guacamole, Doritos, hummus and pita? No way, paprika-flavored chips all the way, since that’s what they do in America, right?

Another friend, who is actually German and has lived in Switzerland for many years, and who is generally amazingly familiar with American culture and turns of phrase, as she comes into contact with a lot of foreigners, made me laugh the other day. I was eating a granola bar, and she asked me, “What do you call those in America?” I told her we called them granola bars. She expressed a lot of shock and surprise, saying, “Well, I had heard that they were called that, but I couldn’t believe that anyone would call them that.” What, then, are they supposed to be called? I awaited her response, anticipating something so logical that “granola bar” would be strange in comparison. “We call them Farmers.” Uh, and that makes more sense than granola bar?? (Farmer is a generic brand of granola bar here, in case you were wondering where that came from.)

Anyways, here are two related things that have baffled me since I got here. The Swiss have several different types of electrical and phone outlets still in use. So if you want to plug your microwave in or hook up your phone line, it isn’t a simple matter of just taking the microwave or phone and plugging it into the wall. You need to check and see what shape the outlet is, and then get the appropriate adapter for the outlet. It’s bad enough when you’re traveling and need to try to plug things in, but to have to deal with that in your own home?? The other thing that is sort of strange is that at any given outlet in the wall, it is quite likely that there will only be one socket. When is the last time that you only needed one socket at each outlet? How about never? My computer area alone requires nine, which entails plugging a power strip into the lone socket, and then another power strip into that one, in order to have enough outlets. I wonder if that’s why that fuse blows more often than any of the other ones in my apartment…

And finally, for all of the law dorks out there, the Swiss have a completely different approach to “fixtures” law. In the U.S., when you put in a fixture, it is, by definition, fixed, meaning that when you leave, your landlord can either get pissed at you for putting it in, or he can let it slide and keep it. Fixtures run with the property, as BarBri so earnestly told us. Not here. Fixtures run with the tenant, so that when a Swiss person moves out of his apartment, he will take all of his light fixtures with him, and install them in the next place. If fixtures aren’t fixed, who knows what else is no longer true here!!

Monday, November 15, 2004

15 November 2004

I am taking this opportunity to announce to the entire world that I have officially lost my mind. Several friends are visiting me over the course of November, and like a good little person with OCD, or a good little Swiss person, I dutifully marked their visits on my calendar, making sure that each one had their own weekend so that they could have my undivided attention. This past weekend, my friend Jon was coming, next weekend, my friend Liwei, and over Thanksgiving, my friend Charles. Excellent. So I get a voicemail Thursday night, asking if it's possible to get into my apartment during the day on Friday and to meet up later that night. From LIWEI. I check my calendar, and she's not coming until next weekend. I check my emails, and she definitely said this weekend. So I was just retarded. So Liwei and Jon graciously agreed to share the weekend without killing me or each other. Whew, disaster averted.

Liwei and I had fondue and wine for dinner on Friday, once I got out of work. Alcohol and dairy, two things that don't usually rank high in an Asian diet, for various reasons, Asian blush and lactose intolerance among them... Haha...

So then on Saturday night, I went to a water park. Yes, a water park, even though the temperature was right around freezing. I thought it was an insane idea, as well, but all of the slides and rides are indoors, and the water is heated, so that it stays open year-round. Then there are thermal baths that are outside, so your entire body is warm, and your face is freezing. A few observations:

Don't wear a swimsuit that has white parts if you're going to sit in a pool of iodine-infused water. It turns your swimsuit yellow. And then, if you ask a Swiss attendant how to get iodine out of a white swimsuit, she will say, "Don't wear it into the iodine pool." Thank you, that was helpful. Unfortunately, the damage is done, and I am asking for remedial measures, rather than preventative ones.

The Swiss are clearly not as litigious as Americans, and I am definitely a lawyer. I was walking around the entire night spotting examples of potential liability. The iodine pool has a sign that says, "Don't get into the iodine pool if you have iodine sensitivity," which seems like a liability-reducer, except that it is posted at the far end of the pool, and to read it, you have to get into the pool and go to the other side. Too little, too late. There were no American-style signs saying, "Caution, floor may be wet," "Walk, don't run," "Children should not be left unattended," "Wet surfaces may be slippery," or other similarly obvious but necessary warnings. The floors were tile, rather than rubber mats. Children wandered around alone at will. There were no attendants at the top of each slide to tell you when to go and when to wait, or to say if you were too short, or too heavy, or whatnot. Instead, the park guests were expected to read the instructions and judge for themselves (never let them do that, because they will do it wrong and then sue, I was thinking). One particularly helpful sign said something like, "Children under a certain age should not go on this ride." Um... details, please? What age, or at least what weight or height are you looking for here?

Outside of the water park, Switzerland is similarly blithely unaware of all of the potential lawsuits lurking on crumbling staircases with no guardrails, or waiting in coffee cups that don't indicate that contents may be hot. A lot of plastic bags don't tell you that they are not toys, and that children may suffocate on them, and the tram stops don't tell you to watch out for approaching trams. It is only upon entering little embassies of American lawsuit culture, such as McDonald's and Starbuck's, that you are reminded of such dangers. I don't know what is more entertaining, actually: seeing these warnings against stupidity, or trying to figure out where the anti-stupidity warnings should be posted.

Speaking of Starbuck's, there are about seven in Zurich, I think, which is the densest Starbuck's concentration in Switzerland. Imagine a Manhattan where you can walk 10 blocks and not see a Starbuck's. Instead, here we seem to have lots and lots of banks and private equity firms, with some shoe stores thrown in.

Friday, November 12, 2004

NEWS FLASH -- 12 November 2004

Enough with the crazy parades, already! I was in my apartment minding my own business like a good Swiss person around 8:30 last night, and a marching band started doing its marching band thing around my block, finally settling in the square directly outside of my window, where they played until 11:15, playing such hits as "Que Sera Sera" and "New York, New York." They were decked out in Carnevale gear, inexplicably enhanced with CDs stuck all over them. They were about 30 members strong, and had learned to play their instruments, oh, last week, I would say, based on their skill, or lack thereof. Imagine your 5th grade marching band, drunk and seasick, playing two different pieces at once, and that's what it sounded like. Oh, the humanity...

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

How to Pass for a Swiss Person, Part III, Section 2: Living in Switzerland; Services

Just a warning, but the term “services industry” is very loosely interpreted here. Because most salespeople and wait staff work on a real wage, and tipping and commissions are minimal, customers are left to fend for themselves if they have the gall to want to purchase something at a service-oriented establishment.

Before moving to Switzerland, take one last shopping trip to Barney’s, Macy’s, Bergdorf’s, Nolita, Soho, Chelsea, or wherever it is that you buy your clothes. Revel in the prices, variety, and selection. Enjoy the assistance of the attendants who are always willing to find you something different or stay past the end of their shift to get a smaller size. Welcome to the land of “one style suits all,” “find your own damn size,” and “please leave, we’re closing in ten minutes.” What if you go to a chain store, and they are out of the size you want. Can they call the other branches, and check to see who has the one you want? Hahahaha… what a silly question. Maybe they will be helpful enough to tell you where the other stores are. If you’re lucky. And if you’re very, very nice.

Walk up to the post office, a restaurant, a store right around closing time, and you may just be S.O.L. It is not unheard of that an attendant will close the door in your face as you approach the entrance, and, raising an eyebrow, lock the door. God forbid that they stay open even a minute past closing time to pick up some extra profit.

Are you a late eater? Sorry, restaurants often shut their kitchens down at 10 p.m., even on weekends. Delivery is almost unheard of, which, although it lessens the amount of junk shoved into your mailbox and under your door in the form of take-out menus, can really cut back on your lazy late-night eating habit, and you my very well find yourself eating an egg, a bar of chocolate, and some stale cereal at 11 p.m., if you weren’t forward-thinking enough to buy some groceries at lunch time when you were at the grocery store.

How to Pass for a Swiss Person, Part III, Section 2: Living in Switzerland; Services

Just a warning, but the term “services industry” is very loosely interpreted here. Because most salespeople and wait staff work on a real wage, and tipping and commissions are minimal, customers are left to fend for themselves if they have the gall to want to purchase something at a service-oriented establishment.

Before moving to Switzerland, take one last shopping trip to Barney’s, Macy’s, Bergdorf’s, Nolita, Soho, Chelsea, or wherever it is that you buy your clothes. Revel in the prices, variety, and selection. Enjoy the assistance of the attendants who are always willing to find you something different or stay past the end of their shift to get a smaller size. Welcome to the land of “one style suits all,” “find your own damn size,” and “please leave, we’re closing in ten minutes.” What if you go to a chain store, and they are out of the size you want. Can they call the other branches, and check to see who has the one you want? Hahahaha… what a silly question. Maybe they will be helpful enough to tell you where the other stores are. If you’re lucky. And if you’re very, very nice.

Walk up to the post office, a restaurant, a store right around closing time, and you may just be S.O.L. It is not unheard of that an attendant will close the door in your face as you approach the entrance, and, raising an eyebrow, lock the door. God forbid that they stay open even a minute past closing time to pick up some extra profit.

Are you a late eater? Sorry, restaurants often shut their kitchens down at 10 p.m., even on weekends. Delivery is almost unheard of, which, although it lessens the amount of junk shoved into your mailbox and under your door in the form of take-out menus, can really cut back on your lazy late-night eating habit, and you my very well find yourself eating an egg, a bar of chocolate, and some stale cereal at 11 p.m., if you weren’t forward-thinking enough to buy some groceries at lunch time when you were at the grocery store.

Monday, November 08, 2004

8 November 2004

Another election come and gone. I won’t talk about it, though, except to say that the whole thing was a big disappointment to me, and I hope that people’s priorities will change over the next four years.

A few anecdotes for your amusement. I was waiting for a tram to go to the Halloween party last week, and that particular tram stop also served as a bus stop. When I got to the stop, there was already a guy waiting. Pretty laid-back looking guy with long hair and a guitar. So we waited. After a few minutes, he asked if the bus wasn’t running, or if there was a change in the schedule. It turns out that the bus, at that time of night, was supposed to run every 12 minutes, and he had already been waiting for 13 minutes, and was rather concerned. Imagine looking at a bus timetable in New York, and actually expecting it to have any relevance to the actual buses!!

This is something that never occurred to me but probably should have. I was (as I often am) daydreaming out loud about the foods that I miss, and I said something about turkey and Swiss in some sort of sandwich context, and my friend turns to me and says, “What’s Swiss?” “Swiss cheese” is not a term that is used here (just like “Chinese food” is probably not used in China), and so they also lose phrases such as “when they recovered the corpse, it was so riddled with bullets that it looked like Swiss cheese,” which I think is a great loss. I did get back at him immediately thereafter, however, when he said, “Well, why would you think we would call it Swiss cheese, it’s not like you have something called American cheese.” Ha, yes we do! So, there.

Also, the crazy people here are unlike the crazy people I’m used to. After 9 years of living in Cambridge and New York, I thought that I knew crazy people, and I thought I knew every kind of crazy person – some of them are even my friends. But upon coming here, I realized that there is a whole other kind of crazy person to study – the Swiss crazy person. The Swiss crazy person is almost always male. He rarely smells bad, but if he does smell, it is only of too much beer. He is generally dressed appropriately and acts quite politely, considering the fact that he is completely insane. He doesn’t pick fights, scream obscenities, or molest people in the street. If he asks for money, he will generally walk up to you, and ask you for some change, if it’s OK with you. Sometimes he will show great fascination with his imaginary friend and with stationary objects, such as light posts and trashcans, and will laugh over jokes with the first, and make new friends with the others, skipping merrily the whole time. Sometimes he will serenade his neighbors with great flourishes of the hand and facial contortions, but always in a non-threatening way. Where are the spastic screamers, the belligerent stinkers, and the trench-coated fondlers? And where are the angry panhandlers and twitching junkies? I have no idea. It appears that the Swiss have rules regulating their crazy people, albeit a different set of rules, and the crazy people, being Swiss, stay within those boundaries.

A report on the computer cleaning that took place last week: the computer cleaner was the same person who had cleaned our office telephones a while back, and she showed up with her toolbelt full of tools, as well as a bag about the size of an old-timey doctor’s bag. Using various cloths, brushes, sprays, and scrubbers, she cleaned our monitors and keyboards. My monitor and keyboard took about 8 minutes to clean (yes, I timed her). If you ever feel the urge to clean your keyboard, get some mild sprays, soft clothes, large paintbrushes, and a toothbrush, and you’ll be good to go. Turn the keyboard upside down and beat it to get crumbs out. Wipe the keyboard briskly with cloths and spray, then go over it with the big brush. Finally, get in between each key with the toothbrush and a corner of a cloth soaked in cleaning solution.

And finally, some strange things that are going on. Coming up soon, there is an onion fair in a nearby town. Farmers bring in all of their onions, and there is a street festival celebrating the onion. You can buy onions and delicacies made out of onions, and people take a half-day off of work to go look at the onions. Seriously. And also, posted at many tram stops around Zurich are signs in German that proudly announce that one a certain day, you can reserve a seat, a table, or a whole car on the tram, and they will serve fondue, and you can ride around on the tram eating fondue. Just what I want to do: sit backwards on a lurching tram and eat a pound of melted cheese. I get motion-sick just thinking about it.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

NEWS FLASH - 2 November 2004

Yesterday I was at work, as usual, and I got an email:

Subject: cleaning the computer

hello all,

just to let you know on wednesday the 3rd of november at 8am, someone will come to clean the computers.

have a nice afternoon

Score!! After witnessing the phone-cleaning ritual a while back, I am avidly anticipating the advent of the computer cleaner. If it takes a toolbelt full of tools and 5 minutes to clean a telephone, it must take a cart full of tools and at least 10 minutes to clean a computer!!

Back in the real world, I am anxiously awaiting the results of the election. Perhaps within a month we will know who the next Supreme Court-appointed president will be.

Monday, November 01, 2004

1 November 2004

So on Friday I went to see The Bourne Supremacy, and I realized that the whole movie experience in Switzerland is unlike any that I’ve had anywhere else, and it therefore deserves attention. First of all, movie listings are standardized and listed all together on one big poster, regardless of location or type. You can find these posters at tram stations or bulletin boards, and they are all-inclusive. Whether you want to see Garfield, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Hot and Horny Housewives III, they will all be listed on this movie poster. Once you’ve picked a movie, location, date, and time, you need to book your tickets in advance. Seats are by reservation only, so the earlier you reserve, the better your seat will be. Tickets cost about $11. So you get to the theater and find your seat. Even if the theater isn’t full, you’d better sit in your own seat, because if you accidentally sit in someone else’s seat, they might come up to you, show you their ticket, and ask you to get out of their seat, regardless of the fact that an almost identical seat is sitting empty right next to you. So you sit down and start watching the movie ads, which are mostly for the two main grocery stores, the two main cell phone companies, the tram system, and ice cream. I understand that the ice cream makers want to push their product on moviegoers, but really, where is the logic in advertising for the tram or the grocery store or cell phones in the movie theater? People will buy groceries and take the tram, regardless, and everyone already has a cell phone, which can’t be used in the theater, anyways. It seems like a waste of advertising money. So then the movie starts, and you’re getting into it, even reading some of the German and French subtitles, especially when the English is cutting in and out for that “inaudible dream sequence” effect. All of a sudden, in the middle of a scene, the picture blinks out and the lights go on. Power failure? Equipment malfunction? Intermission. 90 minutes in, they stop the movie so that you can go to the restroom, smoke a cigarette, or buy some ice cream (and if you’re fast, maybe a tram ticket and a cell phone). I sort of wonder if they do the same thing in the porn houses, halfway through the movie. I don’t think that their audiences would appreciate sudden, unannounced houselights being turned on, so I’m inclined to think not, but you never know, this is Switzerland.

Saturday, my theory on fall being “strange parade season” was further strengthened when all of a sudden, about 80 or 90 people started marching through my neighborhood, playing fifes and drums. For an hour and a half. My first thought was, “The redcoats are coming! The redcoats are coming!” And then after a while, it was more, “When are they leaving? When are they leaving?”

And yesterday, of course, was Halloween, which has only just started infiltrating Swiss culture. I went to a little get-together of expats, and while we were there, the doorbell rang. Six Swiss kids were standing at the door, two dressed as devils, two as ghosts, and two as some sort of bloody-faced characters, and they awkwardly squawked something like, “Trickletree!” We gave them some of the candy that we were eating at the party, which I never would have been allowed to take as a child, since they were unwrapped, and each kid took one gumdrop, until they were encouraged to take more. They then stood there dumbfounded and overwhelmed as these strange foreigners in even stranger costumes asked them questions about their Halloween costumes. They finally made their escape, and will probably never go trick-or-treating again. Upon leaving the party, I witnessed the Swiss version of eggs thrown on the windows, toilet paper strewn on the lawn, and baseball bats taken against jack o’lanterns and mailboxes. On one section of one guardrail was a neat line of shaving cream.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

How to Pass for a Swiss Person, Part III, Section 1: Living in Switzerland; Products

So you’re living in Switzerland! Congratulations!! If you’re not a Swiss citizen already, then that means that you’ve managed to get one of the hard-to-get work visas for foreigners, that you’re wealthy and retired (and have obtained government permission to buy Swiss property, despite your non-citizen status), that you’ve married a Swiss citizen and are hoping to apply for a passport in five years, or that you snuck in illegally and will soon be kicked out. Hopefully it’s one of the first three, and if it’s the second, please contact me as soon as possible, as I would be interested in loafing around on your new couch in your new home.

I see that you’re curious as to what you should bring with you, what you can leave behind, what you can buy here, and what is hard to find.
Assuming that you are able to get to the shops when they are open, your shopping experiences here will be quite different from those you are accustomed to. While I won't go into every similarity and difference, here are a few for you to chew on. Let’s start with what you will find here in great quantities and with the utmost ease. Cheese, chocolate, and kitchen appliances exist in hundreds of shapes, sizes, and prices. The first two, I’m sure you expected, but kitchen appliances? Yes, my friend, if you were a housewife from the 1950’s, Switzerland would seem like a futuristic utopia of automation and culinary gadgets. Here, we have a special machine that hard-boils eggs. Next to it, feast your eyes on the little grill for potatoes and cheese. You needed a hotdog cooker with a bun warmer? Look no further. The list goes on, and whatever it is that you’re looking to do, there is sure to be a machine to do it, and it is also certain that the machine will have no other useful functions. (If you love your George Foreman grill, however, you should bring that, as it’s too multi-functional to have market appeal here).

Bring medications in large quantities, if you are the kind to take them, as the pharmacies, and only the pharmacies, are allowed to dispense such highly dangerous substances as Tylenol and Advil, and only 10 or 20 pills at a time. Vitamins are available in bottles of 60 pills, but those, too, are dispensed by the pharmacist, who, I’m sure, is checking you out to make sure you’re not one of those vitamin-junkies looking for your next fix.

Say goodbye to Skippy, Jif, and Peter Pan, and say hello to mini-jars of generic peanut butter, which are strangely gritty and oily. Cereal comes in flakes or puffs, plain or chocolate, so bid a fond farewell to the silly rabbit, Lucky, Count Chocula, Cap’n Crunch, Fred and Barney, and all of your other cereal friends. If you are a lover of fresh vegetables, seafood, and herbs, you will change them in for salad greens, canned veggies, frozen fish, and mostly dried herbs. Your red meat will be doled out by the gram instead of the pound, and your milk will come in room-temperature boxes, with all of the original milk fat included. Your eggs will come in fours or tens, but never by the dozen. Goodbye, Wonder Bread, and hello to bakery bread that is delicious for an hour, before it turns into an excellent “large, blunt object” used to commit unsolved murders. Drink your last Dr. Pepper and root beer, and savor the plenitude of Sprite, ginger ale, and Diet Coke, then prepare to spend your meals sipping tiny glasses of iced tea, Coke Light, Fanta, and Schweppes Bitter Lemon.

Monday, October 25, 2004

25 October 2004

So on Saturday, I put Fiver in one bag and my camera in another, and took a 94-minute train ride across the country, ending up in the town of Fribourg, population 30,000. It was sunny and unseasonably warm, about 70 degrees, and my friend Jon met Fiver and me at the train station. We then headed to Gruyeres and had a fondue before wandering around Gruyeres a bit. (Yes, I finally had fondue in Switzerland, and I had forgotten both how much I like fondue and how much cheese is involved). Gruyeres is the kind of town that makes you think of Heidi and the Sound of Music, all at once. It is a Technicolor green kind of place, complete with Disney-esque cobblestones, painted backdrop mountains, woolly little sheep, and placid cows. It was gorgeous. And then, strangely, there was a little museum in the midst of this quaint town, celebrating the creator of the creature from the Alien movies. The museum is in a pretty little building with a cobblestone courtyard, and has statues and greenery like every other building, but the statues just happen to be of aliens. We then headed back to Fribourg and wandered around there a little bit. It’s a very hilly town with narrow, crooked streets and old buildings perched precariously on the steep slopes that tumble down to the river. One particularly high bridge is the suicide point of choice, and apparently some of the recently departed end up in the backyards of the people living by the water, which I imagine must cause much consternation.

Yesterday was again warm and sunny, and since it was Sunday, everything was closed, so Fiver and I took it easy, reading and napping on the terrace, wandering around town taking pictures of some of the details of the city that lend Zurich its charm.

An interesting tidbit learned over the weekend: The official hours for practicing an instrument, according to the Swiss civil code, are between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., except on Sundays, when no practicing is permitted. If you practice outside of those allotted times, your neighbors can call the police and have you stopped. If only that had been the case in the U.S. when I was young, I would have just stalled and stalled until 7 p.m., after which my parents would have been breaking the law by making me practice piano!!

So, the average Swiss person eats about 11 kilograms (about 24 pounds) of chocolate per year. I, however, have never been one to settle for being just average, and seem certain to far outpace the average Swiss when it comes to amount of chocolate consumed this year. If you think about it, 24 pounds of chocolate, when spread out over an entire year, isn’t that much. That’s just 10 “fun-size” candy bars per week, not even the full-size or king-size bars!! After realizing that eating a full-size chocolate bar every day would bring me in at about 80 pounds of chocolate per year, I decided to make a slight effort to curb my habit. After all, I’m happy to be in the 99th percentile for chocolate consumption, but there is no need to be in the 99.999th percentile. So last week, I bought about 5-1/2 pounds of chocolate of various types (all on sale, I might add), but was careful to buy it in smaller packaging, in the hopes that I would eat the same number of bars per day, but less chocolate, since the bars are smaller. Nothing doing, I just eat more bars per day to maintain my breakneck chocolate consumption pace. I am leaving the rest of the country in the dust, and I haven’t even had a lifetime of Swiss-chocolate-consumption training; imagine how good I would be if I had grown up here and developed a disciplined eating program. Next areas of focus for out-Swissing the Swiss will be maintaining neutrality, laundering money, and yodelling.

In my defense, I would like to point out that I chose healthy chocolate. At least that’s what the packaging proclaims. This particular chocolate is aimed at parents buying snacks for their children, and the kind I chose is fortified with extra milk, so that if I eat a mere 250g per day, or about 12 or 13 fun-size bars, I can meet my calcium requirements! This would only require eating about 200 pounds of chocolate per year! (Now that I think about it, 200 pounds isn’t *that* much. It’s less than twice my weight, after all… I think that would be a good rule of thumb to go with ones we already have: never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear; never put marbles up your nose; never eat more than twice your weight in chocolate per year.) The same brand makes chocolate that has 5 different kinds of grain in it. Apparently, instead of having cereal and milk in the morning, I could have chocolate and chocolate.

Monday, October 18, 2004

NEWS FLASH – 18 October 2004

So I lost my hat on the tram yesterday morning, and didn’t realize it until much later. Now, when such things have happened in the past, I’ve written items off as lost causes: I’ve had hats, gloves, scarves, wallets, and a cell phone swallowed whole by the abyss of the world, and in some cases, have even been in contact with the person who had the item (cell phone), and could not get them back. This being Switzerland, however, I went by the city lost-and-found today. It was a small, very well organized office with keys hanging on a pegboard, bags and briefcases on shelves, coats and sweaters on hangers, and hats, scarves, and gloves in a bin. It looked like the neatest thrift shop you’ve ever seen, or a good-sized coat check room. I located my hat in about 7 seconds, in perfect condition, neatly tied up with string with a blue identification tag on it. I signed and paid a 5 franc fee, and walked out completely amazed, first that everything makes it there, and second that it isn’t abused. Hundreds of people find things, and instead of keeping them, throwing the away, or ignoring them, they turn them into the nearest police office, tram driver, or store owner, who then take it to the police or tram depot, who then take it to the lost-and-found, who then sort and index them for return to their owners. Apparently, no one feels it worthwhile to go in and say, “I lost my coat, hat, scarf, shoes, and handbag,” pay 25 francs, and walk out with like-new clothing and accessories. Crazy.

Since I’m already writing, I might as well add that the latest trends below the knees are as follows: guys like to wear white socks pulled up over their pants, and girls like to wear gaudy knee socks with their pointy, high-heeled shoes. Whenever I see someone sporting such foot fashion, I cannot tear my eyes away, and rubberneck as if it were the biggest train wreck ever.

18 October 2004

I realize that I am turning into one of Those Dog People. Fiver parades around my office and apartment with impunity, defending his territory from evil and demanding a tithe from the people protected. He wears coats and sweaters when it’s cold out, because he has so little fur and shivers pathetically without them. He has had really dry, itchy skin since coming here, which has gotten much worse over the past few weeks, and so I have bought humidifiers, applied hydrocortisone, filed his nails, given him special baths, and have now reached a new high (or low, depending on how you feel about Dog People). Last week, I researched hypoallergenic diets, went grocery shopping, chopped, boiled, mixed, and packaged two weeks’ worth of rice, chicken, olive oil, and carrots for him, and he eats this new diet twice a day. I’m trying to see if he has a food allergy, and if it turns out that he does, I will have to find a new brand of dog food. In the meantime, he thinks that this is a permanent thing, and gets quite impatient when it’s mealtime. The hypoallergenic diet he is on is pretty good; I tried some of it!!

Anyways, if summertime is street festival season in Switzerland (I went to four in three months), then fall seems to be weird parade season. Last week there was the cows-coming-home parade, and this past weekend, as I was walking home along the river, I see hundreds of people lining the street. Being a sheep, I obligingly went to the side of the road to see what was happening. As it turns out, there was a parade celebrating the past 100 years of transportation in Zurich. Representing the first few decades were old bikes with 2, 3, or 4 wooden, rubber, and metal wheels of various shapes and sizes, ridden by happy Zurichers in period costume. Soon came old motorbikes and strange cars, each of a completely different look, since they were the pioneering models made before anything became standardized: side view mirrors sprouted at all angles, headlights were cross-eyed, spare tires were attached haphazardly, car horns mooed like cows or growled like broken sirens, leather trunks were strapped onto the backs of squared-off cars (is that why we call it a trunk now?) It was quite amazing that such a small city has so many antique car aficionados, and that they are so dedicated to their hobby that they even have period costume to go with their carefully maintained and highly polished vehicles. But then it got cold, so I went home as the 1940’s were rolling by.

How to Pass for a Swiss Person, Part II, Section 3: Acting Swiss; Consumer Culture

In the U.S., the customer is always right. In Switzerland, the customer is lucky to consume, and the stores will dictate what the customer can buy, as well as when and where it is allowed. Want to buy something on a Sunday? Nothing is open, unless you’re hoping to go to church. Some shops are open in the main train station and the airport, but otherwise, expect a ghost town. What about evening shopping? Not if it’s after 6 p.m. for most stores, although a few stores keep their doors open until 8 p.m. This seems to be the trend with most establishments: open 5 or 6 days a week, but only during hours when everyone is at work!! It may be a scheme to induce saving, since no one is able to actually go out and spend money if all of the shops are closed.

What about food? Surely food is available at all hours? Not as much as one would expect. Some places that sell lunch food in business areas not only close on Mondays, but they also close for lunch every day, so that people wishing to buy lunch from these establishments must buy their lunch ahead of time, or be confounded by a locked glass door, with the shopkeeper visible inside, watching TV, eating his lunch, and ignoring potential customers.

There is a time and place for everything. Contrary to popular belief, fondue is not a year-round Swiss specialty. It is only to be eaten in the winter, and it is never made out of chocolate. Cheese fondue is happily eaten during the wintertime, and the rest of the year, it is seen as a tourist-y gimmick. The same goes for sausage: sausage is only a summertime food, so when it’s warm, revel in the unforgettable image of big Swiss men in tight jeans chomping away on 9-inch sausages in the street, because after summer is gone, the sausages go into hibernation until the next year. Until recently there was even a particular kind of bread that was only available once a year, which was wildly popular, and it took decades until some canny baker realized that this ultra-popular bread would generate some profits if sold more often. So it is now available once a week.

Choice is over-rated. Why have 5 brands to choose from when there could be two? Why have 10 trends, when one would suffice? Why have ten colors or flavors, when three would be enough? Why offer bed sheets in cotton, silk, satin, and flannel, when clearly, people would be much happier to have a choice of bed sheets made out of t0shirt material, and bed sheets made out of towel material? Granted, these aren’t seen as traditional bed sheet material, but those will be the only ones available. T-shirt or towel, flat or fitted, take it or leave it.

Self-promotion is still in its early stages, and companies are still trying to figure out how to portray themselves in the most favorable light without trying to seem as if they were doing so. 20 Minuten, a short newspaper available for free at every tram stop, recently trumpeted its own status as the most widely read newspaper in Zurich, carefully ignoring the fact that the other newspapers are not free, and are not given out at every tram stop in the morning.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

12 October 2004

An addendum to yesterday’s entry. So after going to the top of Titlis, I took the gondola back down, and I kept hearing bells. They weren’t church bells, but cowbells. You can imagine how many cowbells have to be ringing so that an entire valley is echoing with the sound of cowbells. Upon arriving at the bottom, I saw that there was a sort of parade in progress. A parade of cows!! Apparently, Swiss cows spend their summers in the Alps, and they return to their winter stables on appointed days, and on those days, their owners put flowers, embroidered harnesses, and cowbells as big as my head on their favourite bovine friends. They then walk them all the way down the mountain to much noise and fanfare. In New York, we have parades for cancer awareness, Puerto Ricans, Italians, Easter, and so on, and in Switzerland, they have them for cows.

In any case, these cows, being cows, poop as they walk, sullying the footpaths. My friend had opted to take a scooter down instead of the gondola, and had to ride through the muck, which was kicked up all over his pants and jacket, much to the chagrin of his clean Swiss sensibilities. The best (worst?) part of it was that it was only partway through the day, and he had to sport his poo-pants and poo-coat for the rest of the day.

Monday, October 11, 2004

11 October 2004

So those of you who know me may have to sit down for this one, as I have gone and done something that is completely out of character. I am a little bit ashamed to admit this, but it’s true. I’ve gone and joined a gym. Wait! Before you jump to any conclusions about some newfound desire to exercise and stay in shape, let me clarify. I joined the gym, but I have no intention of using the gym facilities, lifting weights, taking courses, or any other such silliness. I joined the gym in order to have access to the hot tubs, saunas, swimming pools, Turkish baths, and other “wellness facilities,” as they are called here. You will note that all of those amenities involve me sitting on my ass and relaxing, so if you were about to go into shock, rest assured that I am standing firm by my long-standing policy of minimal exercise, recently amended to make a small exception for diving-related activities that involve hauling tanks and swimming.

Confession aside, I have to say that the gym is pretty nifty. I have no idea how they work in the US, never having been to one, but at my gym (a phrase I never thought I would use), we get these chips on wristbands that give us entry and exit, and also serve to lock and unlock the lockers in the locker room – you can use a different locker every time, and the chip becomes the key for whichever one you choose! You can also use the chip to charge snacks, drinks, massage, and so on to your account, so that you don’t have to carry your money around with you, and they scan it when you leave and you pay as you go out the door. It’s tech-y, organized, and efficient, in a Big Brother sort of way.

Side note: so I have kept a New York landline here in Switzerland, which has been “soo-pah,” as they say here, as it cuts down on phone bills and eliminates international dialling confusion. One very annoying pitfall that I had not foreseen, however, was that telemarketers and customer service people make calls until about 8 or 9 p.m., EST, which means that I get “special offers” as late as 3 a.m. Yes, I am on the Do Not Call Registry, but some of the calls are from my credit card company, and others, I don’t know who is calling, because I’m so groggy at the time that I don’t pay much attention, and just tell the person to stop talking, I’m not interested, take me off every list, and let me go back to sleep, because I am 6 hours ahead of New York time.

I must now make mention of the weekend, which will make this entry rather long, but it is quite necessary. I went to Titlis, which is the highest Alp in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and also to Lucerne. In general terms, it was as to be expected: the mountains were tall and pointy, with snow, the glacier (on the mountain) was big and icy, and Lucerne was charming and picturesque. In specific terms, some items of note: “Titlis” means “little tits” in Swiss German, although I’m guessing that that is not where the name of the mountain comes from. There were large tour groups from India and China there, mixed in with the mostly Swiss skiers and snowboarders. The Indian tourists were gravely under-dressed, wearing lightweight saris on a glacier and snow-covered mountain, and the Cantonese tourists were gravely tourist-y, posing for pictures in from of everything: picnic tables, ski lifts, and welcome signs, and expressing much delight upon discovering some skis on a snowdrift. They then proceeded to take turns posing for photos while standing backwards on the skis. I will repeat the key word there, in case you missed it: backwards. In Lucerne, we went to one of the most astonishing museums I’ve ever seen, and I only wish that more had been there to witness the wonders therein with me. This museum was built around a “glacier garden,” an area with traces of glacial activity from the last Ice Age, but also featured very related exhibits such as a replica of the living room of a Swiss historical figure, a room about lions, a house of mirrors, a room about reindeer, and so on. Each doorway was a portal into an equally baffling and unexpected exhibit. I have to say that it was highly amusing and much more interesting (in a quirky, trippy sort of way) than if the museum had stuck to its original intention of being about glaciers and glacial activity.

How to Pass for a Swiss Person, Part II, Section 2: Acting Swiss; Public Places, Private Spaces

So how do the Swiss act in public? Conformity is the safest path, whether it is expressed through following the rules, or doing what everyone else does. Be predictable! If you are at a club, dress like a Swiss person (see Part I, Sections 1 and 2), and then take the Charlie Brown Christmas approach to dancing. This means that you should pick one specific movement that lasts at most one second, and repeat that movement over and over again. This is your dance move, and you cannot vary from it. Possible motions include: shaking your hand in time to the music; turning your head from side to side; alternately shrugging your shoulders; alternately swinging your elbows forward and back; pelvic thrusts; and the always-classic side-to-side shuffle. Stick to what you know. If someone approaches you to talk, and you don’t know them, dismiss them with a wave of the hand. Sure, you came to the bar or club to meet people, but not new people.

Be openly shocked by everything you don’t know or expect. Is the tram one minute late? Something must have happened! Has someone tipped over a trashcan? How shocking, tell the police immediately!

What about at home? Well, your apartment was in like-new condition when you moved in. Any existing flaws or damage were carefully noted to the smallest detail on your lease after a lengthy inspection with your landlord (“small chip on rear base of toilet basin,” “three paint flecks, about 1 mm across, at top of stairs,” “wall underneath bathroom sink cabinet not tiled” are representative examples), and your duty is to keep the place in exactly the same condition during your stay. For a Swiss person, this means doing the equivalent of spring cleaning once a week: mop the floors, wipe down the walls, scrub the kitchen and bathroom, vacuum the rugs, and clean and tidy everything else. Good thing you only work forty hours a week, or else who knows when you would have time to do all of this, what with your strict laundry schedule, quiet times, and day of rest on Sunday!

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

5 October 2004

My friend Liz Aston was in town for a long weekend, and we managed to get out and about a bit, but mostly we just missed buses and trains, because everything runs exactly on time here, and we were always about 30 seconds late. There is little more annoying than trying to get on the train, seeing smug Swiss passengers smirking out at you, and watching the train pull away. We missed our train out to my co-worker’s dinner party, and we missed the train back. We missed a train out to Basel, and then had to wait ages to get a bus out to Weil am Rhein in Germany. But in between missing our transport, we ate, drank, and made merry, and also looked at lots of chairs and buildings (at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein).

I can’t think of anywhere else that you can take a local city bus that will then take you out of the city and across an international border into another city for the regular fare. I also can’t think of anywhere else that has such friendly, helpful people. I asked the driver on our Swiss local bus to Germany which stop was closest to the museum, and when the stop came, he turned around, looked for me, then gave me detailed instructions on how to go once we got off the bus. The ticket seller at the museum noticed that we weren’t in the tour group as it was about to start, so he came to the gift shop (in another building), found us, and brought us back into the fold. The tour guide, on finding out that we had come over from Switzerland, drove us back to a stop on the Basel tram system, so that we wouldn’t have to make bus connections again.

Back in Zurich, we took a little boat ride around the lake, then spent a couple of hours at the Turkish baths in my neighborhood, which I highly recommend, not only for the gross-out factor of seeing how much dead skin you can scrub off of yourself, but also because it’s damn relaxing… On a completely unrelated note, for some reason, I find this to be really funny:

How to Pass for a Swiss Person, Part II, Section 1: Acting Swiss; Following the Rules

“Rules were meant to be broken” is not an expression that has many (any?) followers in Switzerland. Rules are rules, and are not to be questioned. This explains much of Swiss behavior, and can greatly aid an outsider’s effort to blend in among the Swiss, assuming that said outsider also knows the rules, which is highly unlikely. At any given moment, even if you are following one rule, you are probably breaking another. But for starters, let’s just get the basics. You need to register everything here. When you move into an apartment, you need to register your new address. If you have a dog, register him. Cell phone? That, too. Health insurance policy? Big Brother needs to know. Everything needs to be registered, and each thing needs to be registered at a different office. Those offices generally open at the buttcrack of dawn (“BCOD”), close for an extended lunch break, and then close again before you leave work. All registration should therefore take place either on a day off, or at the BCOD.

Noise is the enemy. Don’t flush your toilet or take showers after 10 at night, unless your building allows it. No loud talking, walking around, radio, or TV after 10 p.m., either, if your neighbors might hear it. If your neighbors engage in insane behavior such as the activities listed above, you can complain to your landlord, and they will be dealt with forthwith. Noise at the BCOD is OK, since everyone gets up by 7, anyways.

At a crosswalk (because that is the only place you can cross the street), don’t look at the street to see if there are cars. Look to see if there is a green man on the crossing sign. If he’s there, then cross. If there is a red man, wait until the green man comes up, even if there are no cars within sight. But you probably don’t know if there are any cars, because you are only looking to see if the little man is green or red.

Remember how we had the honor system in grade school, which quickly degenerated into every man for himself, lock anything that opens, and bolt everything to the ground? The honor system is a mainstay of Swiss society, as there aren’t many policemen wandering the streets. The ticket police rarely board trams, buses, or local trains to check if people have valid tickets, but everyone buys them anyways. You can ride every day for months, and no one will check. But if you are truly trying to assume a Swiss identity, you’d better have a valid ticket, and be ready to whip it out a couple times a year, when you actually happen to get checked. And taking things “just for the hell of it?” Nope. Street signs, giant chess pieces, chairs, signboards, construction lights, and other favorite prey that end up in American college dorms all remain safely where they are left, free from molestation and theft. Is that a wallet lying on the ground in front of you? Did someone leave their purse on their seat? You didn’t see it, so keep moving. Leave it there, and the original owner will come back to find it, or it will decompose naturally, fertilizing the soil, before someone will take it.