Monday, February 28, 2005

28 February 2005

I experienced a momentary pang of regret yesterday when I realized I wouldn’t be able to watch the Oscars, due to the time difference and the fact that I only get two channels in my apartment, both of which are local Swiss channels that were featuring, I kid you not, accordion music and German puppet shows last night. Then I realized that I never watch the Oscars, anyways. My regret is more that I don’t get to see some of the movies I would like to see here, as not all movies make it over here.

An article in the newspaper today announced that a study had found Swiss movie theatres to be the most expensive. This doesn’t surprise me, since a movie ticket generally costs about $15 or $16, unless you go on Monday, when the tickets are about $10.25. This definitely raises the bar for how good a movie has to be to be worth the ticket price. On the other hand, during intermission, everyone leaves their coats and bags at their seats while they go smoke or have an ice cream, so I have wondered if anyone recovers their ticket money by swiping other people’s personal effects during the break. How trusting is that, to leave your purse in an unguarded room full of strangers? I don’t have that kind of faith in humanity, and so I make a compromise; I leave my coat and hat at my seat, but my wallet, phone, and keys come with me.

I find this phenomenon especially surprising, given that the Swiss tend to carry a lot of cash. Many people eschew credit cards in favor of cash, and so it is not uncommon for people of all ages to carry hundreds of dollars in cash at all times. [Note to self: if lawyering thing doesn't work out, start new career as a pickpocket and petty thief in Switzerland.] Go out to dinner with a bunch of Swiss people, and everyone has cash, so you don’t have to deal with the typical New York dining experience, where you ask the waiter to split the tab between a pile of crumpled bills and four credit cards.

Given that there are more banks and ATMs in Zurich than there are Starbuck’s in Manhattan (based on my unofficial at-a-glance evaluation), I am not sure why they need so much cash to tide them over until the next time they are near an ATM. All of the ATMs look legit, too. I only recently realized that it has been ages since I’ve seen one of those questionable McDonald’s 99-cent ATMs, or the stand-alone $2 ATMs you see in 24-hour corner grocers. ATMs here are affiliated with and usually attached to banks. Period. They don’t show up in all-night stores or dive bars, and they don’t come from sketchy third-party providers. It’s sort of reassuring, actually, and there isn’t any loss in convenience or accessibility caused by eliminating the random ATMs, since every other building here is a bank, anyways.

Anyways… I am endlessly entertained by the issues that come up when people speak a non-native language. When I speak French, I play fast and loose with genders, pronouns, and verb tenses, making me sound dim-witted, and when French speakers speak English, they just sound crazy. Because everything is gendered in French, there is a tendency to carry those genders into English, making the French speaker sound a little delusional. The world comes to life, and the speaker seems to believe that everyday objects have acquired personalities and wills of their own. “My telephone, he is acting a little crazy today.” “My computer, he is not getting along with the internet connection. She is not working so well. I will disconnect her and reboot him and see if they work better afterwards.” Don’t people get thrown in the loony bin for entertaining such delusions? “So, tell me about your friends, Mr. Telephone, Mr. Computer, and Ms. Connection… Do they talk to you? Do they tell you to break things? Do they tell you to kill people??”

One final and completely unrelated item: Eggs. (Wasn’t there a Delicious Dish skit on SNL where the next episode was about eggs? Sorry, random thought. I miss Delicious Dish. And SNL, for that matter). So, eggs, right. You can buy them raw or hard-boiled in the grocery store. If you buy them raw, they have a date stamped on the end, so that you know how old they are. If you buy them hard-boiled, they are dyed, like Easter eggs. I asked my friend why it is done this way, and he said that it was so that you could tell that they are cooked. Although the carton they come in is labelled as such, I suppose this way, the individual eggs are identified, as well. However, I pointed out that they could just stamp the eggs with the word “cooked” (or its equivalent), since they have egg-stamping technology that is used on the raw eggs, and after some hemming and hawing, his only reply was that this way is prettier, and don’t the hard-boiled eggs look nice?

Monday, February 21, 2005

21 February 2005

Did you know that they don’t eat jello in Switzerland? I just found this out yesterday, and for some reason it was a big surprise. It was just such an important childhood food that it seems strange to imagine a childhood devoid of jello. I am not sure what they have that could fill the role that jello plays in childhood desserts. Certainly not the black licorice-flavored hard bread. Probably not the dry, crumbly caramels. The hot chestnut stands wouldn’t fill the gap, and neither would the heavy cream poured over scratchy meringues. I’m at a loss.

Slowly but surely, but mostly slowly, the technological revolution is coming to Switzerland. The Swiss have discovered the iPod, and just as it was in New York five years ago, so it is here. People on the cutting edge impress people with their iPodness, and proudly sport the white headphones, which are not such a ubiquitous sight here. My decision to disguise my iPod by wearing black headphones was met with disbelief, as it is a badge of honor here, and not a sign of consumer conformity. How funny, iPods are still the rare status symbol they once were across the Atlantic!

The Internet is working to connect the world into one, happy, emailing family. Switzerland is joining the spamfest, as well. My friend said that he got his first email account when he was taking a computer class in school. They told the students all about the Internet and email, and then had them all learn more about it by signing up, in class, for a Hotmail account. That’s right, their teachers signed them up for a lifetime of spam about Cialis and barely legal teens. I guess their school didn’t have a server.

Telephone deregulation. Not a trend here at all, unfortunately. The phone plans for both cell phones and landlines charge the kind of prices you would expect if you were living in a remote village in Tanzania, and you were trying to call your friend in New Guinea. To overcome this problem, I use Vonage, a U.S.-based Internet phone service that gives me a New York number, unlimited incoming minutes, unlimited minutes to the U.S. and Canada, and cheaper rates than my Swiss numbers, for about $25 a month. By comparison, you can pay about $40 a month here to get 100 minutes of phone calls. Understandably, my Swiss peers are rather incredulous when they find out how cheap phone plans are outside of Switzerland.

Anyways, I’m trying to get ready for my upcoming dive trip to Belize. I went to a local dive shop over the weekend to get a part replaced on my scuba gear, and noticing that the shop was fairly empty, I asked if it would be possible for them to replace it while I waited, so that I wouldn’t have to make another trip to pick it up. When I had called the dive shop owner earlier in the week, he had intimated that this was possible, since it was just a quick job. On Saturday, however, I was given a rather long-winded explanation that because Saturdays are so busy, their policy is to only do while-you-wait repairs on weekdays. I pointed out that they weren’t busy at all on this particular Saturday, and that the repair in question was a fast one. The girl said she would check and see, but that she wasn’t sure if it was possible. In the end, she spent ten minutes finding out if it was possible to fix it that day, ten minutes looking for the right part, and about two minutes having it fixed. They seemed dead-set on having me come on a weekday, on the principle that they don't like to do same-day repairs on weekends, but finally relented when I told them that their shop closes before I can make it over from work. But really, if she had just looked around and noticed that I was one of two customers in a shop manned by three people, the two-minute repair wouldn’t have taken quite so long.

It’s been a long time since I’ve driven a car, but I’m pretty sure that if I got back behind the wheel, I would be able to manage OK, since automatic cars are… automatic. Apparently, however, they aren’t so automatic. Here, almost everyone drives stick, and automatic is very foreign and unnatural. My friend, who has been driving for seven years, had never driven an automatic until recently, and his dad took him out, learner’s permit-style, to show him the ropes and make sure he could figure out the complexities of driving an automatic car. That seems somehow backwards to me, to have to learn how to drive an automatic car if you already know how to drive stick. The reverse makes sense, having to learn stick if you’re used to automatic, but I thought that the whole point of automatic was that it was automatic, and didn’t require much learning.

Also, I watched Swiss Music Star (like American Idol) for the first time last night. Whoa. Nothing like watching untalented people wearing ridiculous clothes singing songs that they don’t understand (most sang in English, with varying degrees of comprehension).

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

15 February 2005

I spent a long weekend in Barcelona (where, as in Rome, they seem to have an objection to absorbent napkins; must be a Mediterranean thing), and it has been a bit of a shock to come back to Zurich. Barcelona was sunny with temperatures in the 60’s, food was plentiful, good, and cheap, and restaurants were open for dinner past midnight. Meanwhile, back at the ranch (or back in Zurich), temperatures are in the low 30’s, food is bland and expensive, and restaurants close early (although it doesn’t really matter, since it’s not really worth going to them in the first place). I am a little ashamed to admit what I spent my time doing in Barcelona. I know that there are tons of sights there, but apart from the aquarium and the Miro museum, I spent the entire time eating and sleeping.

This past weekend was Carnival weekend in Catholic areas, and I was able to “enjoy” the festivities, mostly when I was trying to sleep. In Barcelona, I was awakened one morning by the Loudest Puppet Show on Earth, which was being performed in the square outside of my hotel, and in Zurich, as I was trying to sleep last night, a marching band took up residence under my window, wearing fluorescent costumes (if you’re from Philly, think Mummers, and if you’re from New York, think Halloween), and banging on steel drums (I guess that traditional Swiss instruments would have been a little out of place).

Anyways… No matter how much the Swiss French insist that they are more laid back and easygoing than their Swiss German counterparts, deep down inside, the fact remains that they are, first and foremost, Swiss. One example of this is in their avoidance of personal contact beyond the requisite three-kiss greeting. Hugs are seen as overly intimate and off-limits between friends. Even the best of friends will shake hands or do a formal three-kiss greeting. Long hugs, short hugs, bear hugs, all are seen as involving too much personal contact for non-romantic relationships.

Also, there is the ironing. I acknowledge that certain things need to be ironed, such as dress shirts and wrinkled pants. However, I believe that jeans and t-shirts, if they are taken out of the dryer and folded (or even if they are taken out of the dryer and tossed on the floor), do not require ironing. The Swiss believe differently. Everything must be ironed, including t-shirts and jeans, otherwise, as one Swiss person put it, “Your jeans aren’t perfectly smooth.” He hastened to add that he does not iron his socks or underwear, although I would not have been terribly surprised if he ironed those, as well. If you’re going to iron your jeans and t-shirts, what’s to stop you from ironing your socks and underwear?

I imagine that it must be difficult for the Swiss to travel. Although they must appreciate the low prices and wide selection available in other countries, the lack of order and cleanliness must drive them mad. Emerging from a restroom in Spain, my traumatized friend said, “Thank God for Swiss toilets.” This is the same person who said that he spends his entire time out of the country dreaming about cheese, and upon returning to Switzerland, rushes to his favourite restaurant to gorge himself on fried cheese balls.

It is true that other countries lack the obsession with cleanliness that is so prevalent in Switzerland. Where else can you find little kiosks in the street that dispense tiny bags meant for dog poo? Where else are there specially designed cleaning machines that suit various cleaning niches? There are ride-on cleaners for the street, different ride-on cleaners for tram tracks, push-style cleaners for narrower sidewalks and alleys, and handheld units to reach corners and crevices. Some cleaning machines are scrubbers, some are more like leaf blowers, and others are giant vacuum cleaners. Where else is recycling akin to religion? The Swiss bundle their papers into perfectly rectangular packages, leaving them out on the appointed recycling days. They even make a point of looking at their neighbors’ recycling, and are quick to point out flaws. One expat had called the recycling authority to find out exactly what she could include in her bundles, and she followed the guidelines exactly. Nevertheless, her neighbour continues to tell her that she is violating recycling regulations by including this or that, despite being informed that the recycling authority had approved the contents of the bundles. Imagine if everyone had the time and determination to inspect our neighbors’ trash. Honestly, don’t they have better things to do?

Monday, February 07, 2005

7 February 2005

So at work last week, I had a few Swiss moments. At long last, after several months of dirtying up my phone through telephone conversations, I received the email notifying us that the phone cleaner would be coming around. While still recovering from that joy, I was treated to air raid sirens for the first time since getting here. Yes, they still have air raid alarms here. It sort of sounded like a herd of dying cows playing broken trombones and accordions, if that makes any sense. Switzerland is in many ways like America in the 1950’s. Air raids, belted pants, belief in the system, kitchen appliances, and rules.

I found out something that I think is somewhat Big Brother-ish. When you have a child in Switzerland, you have to pick a name that is in the Swiss register of approved baby names, with the “correct” spelling. The government will tell you that you’re not allowed to pick a non-approved name or unorthodox spelling, and will demand that you pick a more acceptable name. For instance, if you try to name your child “Elizabeth,” they will demand that you change it to “Elisabeth.” Don’t even think about trying something like “Latoya,” or using your grandmother’s maiden name as the baby’s name.

Big Brother also reads magazines. A woman here who runs an English language magazine about Zurich meant for expats recently received a letter from the Zurich tourism office asking that she change her magazine so that the city is called Zürich instead of Zurich, as the office had decided that all publications should use the umlaut, as it is sexier and more attractive to potential tourists. She responded, telling them that she uses the official English spelling for everything, including cities, for consistency’s sake, and because it is an English language publication aimed at English-speaking expats. No word from the tourism office yet.

Anyways, on Saturday, a few of us made our way down to Lausanne, where we managed to make enough food for a dinner party of 25. In preparation for the event, I had put together a bunch of recipes, scaled them up to feed 25 instead of 4, and converted them from English to metric. It felt like the longest grade school math class ever, practicing fractions and conversion factors. A Swiss friend once tried cooking based on a recipe that used the English system of measurements, and said that the cookies he was trying to make were virtually inedible. He asked what the trick was, how do we know how much of each ingredient to put in? I said that the recipe tells you, and was confused about what the problem was. As it turns out, he hadn’t realized that “cup,” “tablespoon,” and “teaspoon” were actual units of measure, and just used the cups and spoons he had in the house.

The other week, I went to a restaurant here in Zurich with two friends from college. The restaurant, which is called the Blinde Kuh (Blind Cow), is served by a blind wait staff, who bring you dishes cooked by a visually impaired chef. The restaurant has no lights. The website describes it as being darker than the inside of a cow, and it really is. Even after sitting inside for two hours, we were still unable to see our hands in front of our faces, and walking back into a lighted room was painful. After a few minutes, we gave up trying to eat with utensils, and ate our fish, rice, and spinach with our fingers. In any case, I realized that such a restaurant couldn’t exist in the U.S., because there were no exit signs, violating fire safety regulations, and I’m sure that someone would trip and fall after trying to walk too quickly in the dark, and would sue the restaurant for not lighting the room properly.

Another restaurant that might not be so popular in the states, but for different reasons, is a traditional Swiss German restaurant that is near my apartment. When you show up, they bring you what looks to be a large and extensive menu, until you actually open it to take a look inside. There are two full pages of different types of sausage. Who knew that there were so many different ways to grind up meat and put it in a tube? If you decide that you don’t want sausage, the pickings are decidedly slimmer, but they do serve venison, pork, and other vegetarian-friendly dishes.

Two quick notes on Rome that I had forgotten about last week: they aren’t big fans of absorbent materials there. I stayed at a bed and breakfast there, and I was given a bath towel and a hair towel, as you might expect, but they appeared to be made out of tablecloth material, which isn’t very effective when it comes to drying off after a shower (compare this with Switzerland, where they make sheets out of towel material). The restaurants also provided paper napkins that were single ply, translucent, and highly ineffective at wiping anything up.

Second thing on Rome: the guys who stand outside the Vatican, ostensibly guarding the Pope, are all Swiss. They appear in thousands of tourist photos a year, wearing their Swiss Guard uniforms, which sport orange and purple striped legwarmers, funny hats, cloaks with tassels, and other court jester gear, which probably reduces their enemies to helpless laughter, thus keeping the Pope safe. In any case, my conclusion was that, no matter where they go, the Swiss like to be, let’s say, original in their choice of apparel.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

1 February 2005

Sometimes it all of a sudden occurs to me, “Whoa, I’m in Switzerland.” I had one of those moments when I left work on Friday and ended up in Rome a few hours later. Pretty cool, considering that if I had taken the same length flight from New York, I would only have been able to go to D.C. or Boston. Rome was Rome. Big place. Photogenic architecture. Delicious, cheap food. More art from all of your old textbooks than should be in one place. Good cappuccino. Lots of old buildings that are falling apart. I found myself wondering, if Rome had been in Switzerland, would there still be ruins, or would the Colosseum and the Forum still be intact and in use? It’s hard to say, given the Swiss obsession with keeping things new and whole.

Some odd things about Rome. Despite the fact that it is winter, and it is cold enough outside to warrant a coat, hat, gloves, and a scarf, shops keep their doors open to the outside, and hotels and restaurants think it is appropriate to turn the heat off. I don’t think I have ever slept anywhere so cold that didn’t involve pitching a tent and eating Gorp. And no matter how good the sales, I refuse to try on clothes if I can see my breath in the dressing room. Also, is it a European customer service thing, to not want to answer questions, take food orders, give directions, or sell merchandise?

Disturbing eye contact was a big thing there. After living in Zurich, where everyone is politely treated as a stranger, and New York and Boston, where strangers and serial killers are lumped into the same category of people you can trust, it was quite a shock to go to Rome. On the subway, instead of feigning deep interest in the ceiling, or shoelaces, or the inside of their eyelids, passengers would stare at each other without embarrassment or fear. I had to overcome my initial thoughts of “Is that a psychopath staring at me?” and “Do I have pizza on my face?” and then feign deep interest in the ceiling, my shoelaces, or the inside of my eyelids.

Back to Switzerland. I have been puzzling over this episode since it happened on Sunday night in the Zurich airport, as we made our way towards customs. My friend and I were amused by the fact that the escalators here have motion sensors, so that they only turn on when you trip the sensor. Spotting an idle escalator, we started running to be the first to trip the sensor; as I reached the escalator, I turned to laugh at my friend, who was (I thought) right behind me (I thought this because I had heard someone running). As I turned, it was some random Swiss guy, who had also been running for the escalator, and he laughed strangely as he got on behind me. My friend was a little behind Swiss Guy, and said that when we started running, he did, as well. Now here is the puzzle: was he running because he also wanted to be the first, or was he running because he saw other people running, and, being Swiss, figured that he should follow the herd? No, he was not in a rush; we were coming from the gates, not going towards them, and he stopped running once he reached the escalator. I’m putting my money on the herd mentality, because I don’t think he would have been all that excited about the escalator. And he’s Swiss. They like herds here.

American television culture has made it all the way to Switzerland, with such pervasive influences as the Simpsons, the O.C., Nip/Tuck, and MTV. One amusing pastime is to listen to the voice dubs or to read the subtitles on American shows. On Die Simpsons, Homer Simpson expresses his frustration by saying, “Nein!” instead of “D’Oh!” The Simpsons has just recently started airing with the option of listening to the original voices, and a Swiss person told me that the American voices were all wrong, and that the Simpsons don’t sound like that. Uh… yes they do, they were made like that, and only acquired German voices in later re-dubs. Even stranger, though, is the fact that loads of hip-hop and rap-influenced shows on MTV have made it here with subtitles. I have been asked some confused questions about Pimp My Ride and Doggy Fizzle Televizzle, and I can assure you that if you were to watch those shows with German or French subtitles, you would have plenty of questions, as well. Does that stuff even translate??

American English has infiltrated Switzerland to varying degrees. People here often have a surprising command of English grammar and vocabulary, but even when they have good grammar and vocabulary, you can still get them on slang, heh heh… One Swiss German asked me what I meant when I said, “What’s up?” I explained that it was a casual greeting that you might say in place of “How are you?” After that, whenever I said “What’s up?” he would reply, “Good” (imagine Arnold saying it, more like “Goot”), no matter how many times I then tried to explain that you would probably say something like “Not much” or even just “What’s up?” I want that one to catch on. “What’s up?” “Goot.”

How to Pass for a Swiss Person, Part III, Section 6: Living in Switzerland; Language

Switzerland is a small country with a population of about 7 million people, spread out over an area about the size of New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware, (which rank 47th, 48th, and 49th out of the 50 states, when it comes to size). In this small country, there are four official languages spoken (German, French, Italian, and Romansch), and several unofficial languages, (including Swiss German, which is the dominant language, despite not actually being an official language; English; and other smatterings here and there of other languages, as well.

Living here sometimes makes conversations feel like a giant game of Taboo, as people navigate around unknown words in conversations not held in their mother tongue: “I am looking for the place where you go to get things that are yours, but you do not have them anymore.” “The lost-and-found?” “Yes, and I have a map here that I made with the machine in my office.” “The printer?” “Exactly.”

Despite not having an official language that is uniquely their own, the Swiss are very keen on distinguishing between “us” and “them” when it comes to language. French spoken with a Parisian accent is seen as snobby, as is High German that is spoken using correct grammar and pronunciation. Swiss German is generally not taught to outsiders, and attempts to speak Swiss German are usually countered with English or High German. It sometimes leaves foreigners at a bit of a loss, since the Swiss will never include outsiders who speak the “wrong” languages, or who speak the “right” languages the “wrong” way, yet they also do not want to let outsiders in on their linguistic secrets.

So what does it sound like when people speak here, you ask? Well, the Swiss French speak a French that is quite comprehensible to non-Swiss (Assuming that said non-Swiss understand French), with some slang and other turns of phrase being region-specific. If only we had learned how to count using the Swiss system in high school French!! No more four-twenty-ten-seven, thank you, a simple ninety-seven will suffice here. Swiss German, on the other hand, is almost entirely impenetrable, even to fluent High German speakers. It has been described as “sing-song, “guttural,” or “something like Danish, maybe,” and I have also heard the comment that “somehow it has more consonants *and* more vowels than High German.” I prefer to make a simpler aural image: imagine the Swedish chef from the Muppets trying to hack up a hairball. (Note: the Swedish chef is one of my favourite Muppets, so that isn’t an entirely bad thing.)