Monday, March 14, 2005

14 March 2005

I was at a birthday party over the weekend, and it struck me yet again how much it sucks to celebrate your birthday in Europe. Birthday parties are great, and Europe is great, but the two just don’t mix if you’re the birthday boy or girl. The custom here is for the birthday girl or boy to either take all of their friends and family out to celebrate, or, if they can’t afford to buy dinner and drinks for a dozen or more people, then they have them over and make dinner for them. So each year on your birthday, you have to decide if you want to pay for all of your friends to go to a restaurant, or spend a whole day in the kitchen preparing dinner for your friends. Isn’t your birthday supposed to be the one day when everyone else buys your dinner and drinks, and you don’t have to do anything at all?

Anyways… one of the first things that struck me when I first moved here, coming from Manhattan, was that Zurich was amazingly devoid of Starbuck’s. I could walk for 10 minutes and not see a Starbuck’s. There were a few here and there, but it wasn’t anything like Starbuck’s Land, I mean, New York, where you could throw bricks through the windows of three Starbuck’s from any given street corner. Not that I would do that. Although I have been tempted. But Starbuck’s is stalking me. Late last year, they moved into the neighborhood where I work, and a few weeks ago, a brand spanking new Starbuck’s opened up within brick-throwing distance of my apartment. As much as I miss certain things about New York, Starbuck’s is not one of them, so obviously it is the only thing that has crossed the Atlantic and taken root in my new city of residence.

The one good thing about Starbuck’s is that it is a non-smoking establishment. Period. Most places here still allow smoking, and you will see people with a fork in one hand and a cigarette in the other, apparently unable to wait long enough to eat before getting their next nicotine hit. I can’t imagine that it does much for the flavor of the food. Other, more “progressive” restaurants have smoking and non-smoking sections, with no partition between the sections, rendering the distinction about as effective as having talking and non-talking sections in a movie theatre. (No, they don’t do that, but it’s the same idea).

I found out something I found amusing last week. Swiss schoolchildren are graded on cleanliness and organization until they are about ten years old. This means that their teachers will randomly search their desks and book bags for signs of disorder, and assign them grades based upon how clean their desk is, how well-organized their pencil case is, and so on. I suppose if you’re going to raise a country full of OCD cleaners, you have to start young, and you have to enforce it at home and at school, but I can’t imagine having my teachers go through all of my stuff. My parents did it all the time, which was enough of an invasion of privacy, but to have such practices institutionalized and graded? Eek.

Like American schools, Swiss schools also grade their students on penmanship when they are young. Students are only allowed to write in pencil until their handwriting is deemed to be pen-worthy, upon which the teacher presents the student with an official “Your Handwriting Is Good Enough For Pen” pen. Students vie to be the first in their class to write neatly enough to get a pen. It’s the little things in life...

One thing that has been puzzling me: the train system in Switzerland is extensive and efficient. During the day. At night, the trains run infrequently, if at all, and take literally three times as long to cover the same distance. For instance, the train between Zurich and Fribourg takes under an hour and a half when it is running during the day. Around 10 p.m., it starts taking about two hours, and then after midnight, it takes almost six hours to cover the same distance, without any big detours. What is it doing for the extra four hours? Why does it take so much longer? Does it just stop somewhere for four hours, or is it just going extra-slow?

Anyways, I leave Friday to go to Belize, with a stop in New York on the way back, so I will be on a short hiatus, although I may be able to get some bits and pieces in here and there. Yay for going from 30 degree weather to 80 degree weather!! Even more yay for vacation, especially when diving is involved!!

Monday, March 07, 2005

7 March 2005

Last week, I was puttering around in one room of my apartment, and my Swiss friend called out to me from the other room, informing me that there was a “rowboat” in my room. I sat there digesting that information for a while, wondering if I had overlooked the advent of a rowboat in my apartment, then decided that I definitely did not have a rowboat. I then tried to think of anything that might resemble a rowboat, but concluded that I had no rowboat-shaped objects anywhere in my apartment. I went up to check it out, and the rowboat turned out to be my underwater camera setup, which, with its knobs, buttons, heavy metal case, and strobe arm, may, by some stretch of the imagination, resemble a robot. Such are the hazards of learning a language from non-native speakers and from the printed word: you may never be able to clearly express the difference between a small, man-powered water vessel and R2D2.

I just read an article that stated that the average Swiss woman spends over two hours per day doing housework. I’m not sure what she does for over two hours a day, since everyone cleans up after themselves constantly and makes as little mess as possible. I suppose that the laundry takes a lot of time, since the machines run on slow cycles, and are extra-small, requiring multiple loads. And then, since the clothes are hung out to dry, there is all of the ironing. Even jeans and t-shirts. And then there is the fact that the stove has to scrubbed with every use. But still, it’s no wonder that my place doesn’t look Swiss. I’m lucky if I spend two hours a week on housework.

If you spend over fourteen hours a week cleaning your house, I guess it makes sense that you want other people to keep it clean, as well. Swiss men are expected to always sit when using the restroom, although that rule is sometimes relaxed in one’s own home, or when visiting close friends who are not too anal about tidiness. One of my expat friends objects to sitting, just on principle, and will choose to kneel in front of the toilet, instead, as a compromise between his refusal to sit and his host’s preference for splash-free toilet usage. He was living with his Swiss girlfriend, and would even kneel at home, as she insisted that he not stand. American men complain that they have to remember to put the toilet seat down after every use, but I think they have it easier than the Swiss, who have to sit (or kneel, as the case may be), to satisfy the powers that be.

Even if you keep your apartment immaculate, moving out requires an even more fanatical devotion to cleanliness. Most landlords will conduct a housing inspection at the end of your residence, to ensure that the place is exactly as it was when you moved in. This sounds similar to how things work elsewhere, but it is taken to much greater lengths. The usual American apartment inspection: are the walls still there, are there holes, and is the paintjob OK? Are the drawers and closets empty? Is the kitchen emptied out and cleaned? The usual Swiss apartment inspection looks at the same things, but expects everything to be absolutely immaculate and like-new. The inspector will take apart faucets and look for calcification. He will look behind the radiator for a cobweb. He will look in the fuse box, in the backs of drawers, in storage closets, anywhere that might harbor a speck of dust. He will peer at every square centimetre of carpet for flecks of anything that wasn’t there before (and he has a record of each pre-existing fleck). It’s rather daunting, so many people will pay about $1000 to have a 1BR professionally prepared for inspection.

Before you even get to the cleaning inspection, however, you have to arrange to move out. Most apartments require at least a one-year lease, with move-out dates occurring twice a year. If your building has move-out dates on April 1 and October 1, and you moved in in May 2004, your first possible move-out would be October 2005, as it’s the first move-out date after your one-year lease. If you want to move out in October, then you have to give your landlord three months’ notice that you intend to use the move out date, or he can keep you on your lease until the next move-out date. If you want to leave before you are allowed, you can ask permission to transfer your lease, and once you have permission, you have to present your landlord with three acceptable candidates who are all ready and willing to move in, and your landlord then chooses one of them. Craig’s List just started up here, but I’m wondering how it will mesh with the housing policies that are generally in place…