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. http://www.gletschergarten.ch/ 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: http://newyork.craigslist.org/about/best/nyc/41999656.html

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.

Friday, October 01, 2004

NEWS FLASH -- 1 October 2004

I finally have bed slats, and I now sleep on a bed, instead of a mattress on the floor!!!! I don't think anyone has ever been so thrilled to have acquired a bunch of wooden boards attached together by strips of cloth... I still maintain that they should have come with the bed.