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.