Monday, April 25, 2005

25 April 2005

Yet another mystery in the world of Swiss laundry... Being my typical absent-minded self, I had forgotten to put a towel in with a load of laundry I was running, so I ran back upstairs to grab the towel to add to the wash. Upon returning to the washing machine, I grabbed the door of the machine to open it, and… nothing. The washing machine had locked itself shut once it started the cycle, and there was no way to open it. I tried turning the machine off, I tried resetting the dial, I tried pushing all of the buttons, but the machine had decided that it was going to finish what it had started, and it was not going to put up with any interruptions or added towels. Can someone explain why you would design a washing machine that locks? Do people here never need to throw something in one minute after they start a load of laundry?

Anyways… every time I go back to the States, I go to the drug store and stock up on all kinds of things: shampoo, conditioner, lotion, face wash, Advil, Dramamine, Claritin, and all kinds of other things that I could admittedly buy here in Switzerland, but which would come in much smaller packages with much higher prices. Yes, I actually lug back a bag full of things from Duane Reade because I am so opposed to the idea of paying an extra two bucks for a bottle of lotion in a brand I don’t recognize. I was much relieved to find out that other expats do this as well, and was chagrined to find out that there was one thing I had forgotten, which has an even higher mark-up margin: contact solution. I had forgotten to buy a bottle on my last expedition, and as it turns out, a bottle of contact solution costs about $15 here. D’oh.

Speaking of lotion and body wash, I come from a culture where those things are reserved for girls and metrosexuals. Here, however, such products apparently have universal appeal. Swiss boys buy body wash and facial lotion like nobody’s business, and try out new scents, foaming action, and cleansing beads with undisguised interest. I suppose they have more time and brain capacity to devote to such things, as they are only interested in one sport, soccer, as opposed to the big three that infect the minds of most American boys. When not watching soccer, they often go shopping (they adore their shoes here), often of their own accord, and not as a concession to a consumption-hungry girlfriend. And yes, Swiss boys really care about shoes. Before coming here, it was very rare that a guy would notice my shoes, but here, I have had several instances where a guy has noticed my shoes and complimented them or said that I really shouldn’t go out in them. (Being an American, I wear sneakers and flip-flops a lot. What can I say, they’re comfortable.) I haven’t figured out if it’s liberating to see such gender-bending behavior, or if it’s just sort of weird.

OK, so my landlord had to get into my apartment the other week to let a handyman do some roof repairs, and afterwards, he called me to tell me that he was also going to schedule a gardener to go onto my terrace to pull up the weeds and trim the plants and so on, because I had failed to do so myself. I was more than happy to let someone else do it, although I found it rather strange that he had expected the terrace to be perfectly manicured, seeing that it’s been winter for six months, and who does any gardening when it’s wintertime? Apparently the Swiss do. In any case, my terrace and I are now ready for summer, if only it would stop being rainy and cold.

It’s hard to believe I have been here for about 11 months already. Some things you get used to, and that’s a good thing. Some things you get used to, despite not wanting to get used to them. And some things you never get used to. One of those things is money. I still have difficulty with the money here. It’s colorful and differently sized. It’s like Monopoly money, and it’s hard to remind myself that it should not be treated as such. And there is on way to fold it neatly into your wallet, since they all fold to different sizes. And the people whose faces are on the money all look rather confused to be there. One man is in the act of taking off his glasses. One woman is wearing the kind of hat you use to cover up a bad hair day. One man looks distracted, as if someone asked him a question right before taking his picture. Come on, you’re being immortalized on widely used currency, can’t you wear contacts, comb your hair, and look into the camera?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

19 April 2005

Yesterday was Sechseläuten. I'm still reeling, trying to convince myself that everything I saw actually happened. For the entire weekend leading up to the big day, there were marching bands, fife and drum bands, bagpipes, and drum lines marching around my neighborhood, getting themselves parade-ready. Makes sense, music ensembles need practice. What I found more puzzling was that there were often packs of people wearing period costume following them around; I wasn't sure if they were practicing wearing their costumes for the parade, or if they were just trying to get maximum wear out of these once-a-year outfits.

The big parade started yesterday afternoon at 3, and the twenty-six guilds of Zurich marched through the streets, accompanied by their standard bearers, marching bands, and guild-themed floats. The guilds were sort of the labor unions of yesteryear -- tanners, fishermen, blacksmiths, tailors, beermakers, merchants -- everyone had their own guild. The floats in the Sechseläuten parade reflect these old-time affiliations, so that the carpenters came by with a float made of large pieces of unfinished lumber with tools on display, and the blacksmiths had a group of hale young men hammering away in a mocked-up forge on wheels. The guilds no longer serve the same function that they once did, probably because there aren't blacksmiths and tanners anymore. Instead they are now social networking organizations for the Good Ol' Boys. If you want to be a member of the stablemasters' guild, you had better hope Grandpa is in it, because there is no other way you're getting in.

The guild members took the parade quite seriously, donning elaborate costumes that showed their allegiance. I have never seen so many men so excited to be wearing tights, velvet jackets, buckled shoes, feathered hats, and curly wigs. The spectators showed their appreciation by giving flowers to their favorite parading guild members. I heard that in the old days, when the guilds were for men only, they would bring the flowers home to their wives to show how much they loved them, but also to remind them of how popular they were with the ladies.

Each guild had a marching band of 50 to 75 people, and another 100 to 200 members, so that works out to over 5,000 costumes, and a very large but temporary rise in the demand for white tights. If you stop and think about it, there were perhaps 1,500 people in marching bands, all of which were quite good. If the same percentage of people were in marching bands in Manhattan, there would be almost 9,000 people running around on Fifth Avenue playing Sousa.

Some guilds went even further in showing their guild pride. One guild, which apparently was once made up of the men who harvested apples and made cider, was passing out apples. Other guilds threw flowers and candy to the crowds, and the winemakers gave out plastic cups of wine. The fishermen, on the other hand, had a basket full of whole fish that they were hurling at lookers-on. The group in the balcony behind us were carrying umbrellas to avoid the fish that were raining down on them, since the balcony was a prime target. After the fishermen had passed, the crowd continued tossing the fish around, sort of like beach balls at a rock concert, only messier.

Many of the guilds had dozens of horses, and it was quite a spectacle to see all the horsemen in full traditional costume, parading down the street. It almost made me forget to look out for the fish... And then there was that other guild. I have no idea what guild it was, but they were dressed like stereotypical desert sheiks -- long robe, spotted cloth tied over the head, rope belt. And, I kid you not, they were in brown-face. Each of them had taken paint and painted his face brown, which I hadn't realized was still socially acceptable. To complete their desert sheik chic, they had live camels and potted palms on wheels.

The parade kept going, with more over-the-top costumes and animals and projectiles, and the marching bands played such traditional Swiss numbers as, "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Living La Vida Loca," and "Blue Suede Shoes." By 6, however, everyone squeezed their way to Sechseläutenplatz, and the Böögg was set on fire. The firework-stuffed, gasoline-soaked cotton snowman was sitting on top of a huge wooden pyre, and it took 18 minutes for his head to explode, which is the defining moment in forecasting the summer. A couple informed me that 18 minutes is quite long, and the last nice summer they had, the Böögg only took 7 minutes to lose his head.

Later in the night, at around 11 p.m., the Böögg's funeral pyre was still burning, and the marching bands and guilds were still romping through the streets. Insane. Good times.

Monday, April 11, 2005

How to Pass for a Swiss Person, Part III, Section 7: Living in Switzerland; Calendar

If you're thinking of living and working in Switzerland, one question that might arise is, "How many vacation days will I get?"" You're in luck, if you're coming from anywhere outside of Europe. Under Swiss law, all companies have to give their employees at least four weeks of paid vacation, and many give up to six weeks. Compare this to the starting vacation plans in the U.S., where new employees are lucky to get more than two weeks, and it sounds pretty good. Even crazier, people actually take all of their vacation days here. And if they want to take two weeks of vacation back to back, their employers are required to give it to them, because it takes a full two weeks to unwind from the high-stress lifestyle of working 37.5 hours per week (the standard Swiss work week; at many companies, if you work more than that, the extra hours can be banked towards extra vacation days).

On top of that, there are the Swiss national holidays. There are the ones you might expect, such as Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Labor Day, Swiss National Day, and since Switzerland is predominantly Catholic, there are the religious holidays, such as Whit Monday, the Ascension, St. Stephen's Day (the day after Christmas), and Good Friday. And then… well, there are two really peculiar holidays, both of which seem somewhat dangerous, but are big local traditions.

One is Knabenschiessen, roughly translated as "Boys' Shooting Day," recently expanded to include girls. This September celebration revolves around a shooting contest, in which 12 to 16-year olds show off their marksmanship with rifles, competing to win prizes or the overall title. I suppose this prepares them for later military service, which is compulsory for all able-bodied males, when they will all have their very own pistols and assault rifles to take home with them between training sessions.

The more bizarre tradition is Sechseläuten, which happens in April. Sechseläuten is sort of the Swiss equivalent of Groundhog Day, in that it is used to predict the end of winter. All similarity ends there. To start with, there is apparently a children's parade, in which children wearing traditional clothing are chased around by adults, who are carrying large pairs of scissors. I am not sure what the significance of this tradition might be. Afterwards, everyone gathers around the Böögg, which is a large snowman made out of cotton, stuffed with firecrackers, doused with gasoline, and perched on top of a giant pile of wood. They torch him, and the faster his head explodes, the sooner summer will come, and the nicer it will be. Forget Punxsutawney Phil checking out his shadow, we want scissor chases and exploding snowmen!!

It seems odd to me that many restaurants here are closed on Sundays. Sunday seems like it would be a prime eating-out kind of day, and yet many places are closed. It's not some sort of blanket regulation, as it is with shops, which are also closed on Sundays, because there are some restaurants that are open on Sundays. I think the owners and staff just can't imagine working on a Sunday, profits be damned. With the grocery stores and restaurants closed on Sunday, you'd better hope you have sufficient provisions at home to tide you over until Monday. Don't forget that the grocery store closes early on Saturday.

One thing that I have always done in restaurants is to have my leftovers wrapped up to take home. Sometimes I eat them later, and sometimes they sit in the fridge until they are unrecognizable, but I like having the option to eat them. The first time I went out to eat with a Swiss friend and asked the waiter to wrap up my leftovers, my friend was shocked, and said that he had never heard of anyone getting a doggie bag. Apparently, if you don’t finish your food, you just leave it. Since then, I have noticed that restaurants are not always prepared to wrap food up to take home, and in some instances, for lack of takeaway containers, I have asked to have half a plate of pasta wrapped, and gotten it back wadded up in a big piece of aluminum foil.

Also, tap water isn’t a big thing here. If you request water in a restaurant, they will bring out a bottle of mineral water unless you very specifically ask for tap water. I’m not sure why tap water is so unpopular here, as the water is very clean and tastes fine, as far as water goes. Offices even provide bottled water for their employees, so that they can keep bottled water at their desks, rather than being forced to drink tap water or huddle around a central water cooler. Thus, when we are at work, my dog only drinks Evian, since that’s what I have at my desk.

You may recall my friend whose office had a very strict plant-allocation plan; each room in her office was assigned a specific plant according to the room’s lighting conditions, and that plan was strictly enforced by the building’s professional Plant People. Her story continues. She also brings her dog to work, and at the end of the day, if there was a bit of water left in her dog’s water bowl, she would dump it in the pot of her very large potted plant, thinking that plants like water, so there was no harm done. The next time the Plant Person came in to water the plants, she started showing signs of extreme agitation and concern, saying that either the plant hadn’t been taking in enough water, or that someone had been watering it. She accused my friend of being the perpetrator of the unauthorized watering, as if it were a heinous crime, which my friend, feeling cornered and put on the spot, vigorously denied. She now dumps the extra water in the office sink, so that the Plant Person won’t think of her as a criminal.

Upon hearing this story, another expat friend chimed in with a Plant People anecdote of her own. Her office also had a plant allocation plan, whereby there were a certain number of plants per people in their shared offices. When one of her colleagues switched rooms, he took “his” plant with him into his new room across the hall. Upon discovering the change, the Plant People informed him that they were only paid to water a certain number of plants per room, and that his plant was in excess of their contract, and so they would continue watering all of the other plants in the office, but he would have to water that plant himself. When he pointed out that they had watered the plant before the move, and that there was no increase in the total number of plants, they said that they were required to water it in its old location across the hall, because it fell within the plants-per-room limits in that room, but that in its new home, it was a superfluous plant! He now waters the plant himself, as the Plant People are unwilling to acknowledge its existence in the new room.

Monday, April 04, 2005

4 April 2005

Back in Switzerland, once again… Vacation was amazing, as vacation tends to be. A week of diving in Belize, living on a boat with 30 guests and 10 crew members, doing three to five dives a day. It was the perfect life: wake up, have breakfast, go for a dive, have cookies, go for a dive, have lunch, go for a dive, have an afternoon snack, go for a dive, have dinner, watch a presentation, and either go for a night dive or hang out until bed time. Rinse and repeat. Unfortunately, I had some leakage issues with my camera housing, so the pictures I do have are from above water.

Highlights of the trip? I played with my first octopus, saw my first stingray, and found out that bubble rings, which I had previously thought were myth, do exist. Coming out of the water on my last dive of the trip (dive #22) was terribly sad, knowing that the next time I hit the water won’t be until July. The guests were a fairly mixed group, ranging from a 13-year-old doing his certification dives to a 79-year-old (the 13-year-old’s grandfather) logging his 500th dive, with all ages in between. Props to the crew, as well, who worked their butts off the whole time. I highly recommend Nekton as a full-service, but low-key and not stuffy dive operation. And they’re not even paying me to say that :P

A quick stop in New York on the way back: dentist, doctor, dinner, and… I can’t think of a word for shopping that starts with a D. Some time to recover from the travelling and time changes here in Zurich, and I’m back at work like nothing ever happened. My mom is breathing a sigh of relief that I didn’t get bent (although I think she worries more about sharks than getting bent, even though getting bent is a higher risk… in July, I will be diving in Egypt, where there are sharks, which may very well give her a heart attack. Don't worry, Mom, it's very safe.)

Divers and Americans are both very friendly populations, so going to Belize and New York, and coming back to Switzerland really highlights the contrast for me all over again. In New York, it’s impossible not to strike up a conversation with someone in a bar, in the park, or in a shop unless you are wearing headphones (and I admit that I have worn headphones with no music playing to discourage conversation on days when I was feeling particularly unfriendly). Reach for the same shirt as someone else in a small shop, and ten minutes later, you know about her divorce and upcoming vacation. Hit the dive deck at the same time as someone, and you spend the rest of the week talking about yellow-headed jawfish with her. Sit next to someone on the plane, and you might find yourself eating dinner with him later that night. Here, it’s totally the opposite. “Don’t talk to strangers” is a motto that is taken seriously, and so people stay in their own little social circles that they’ve occupied for the past 10 years. If I were only friends with people that I've known for at least ten years, I would have a lot more empty spots in my cell phone, and no need for Gmail.

So yeah, this vacation made me realize that I miss some things really badly: breathing underwater, swimsuit weather, food, folks, and fun. Thankfully, it’s sunny and in the 60’s right now, so I’m not quite as sad to be wearing office clothes instead of neoprene. And this week, twenty points for Switzerland, because I’m going to dinner with three friends on Wednesday, and we’re bringing our dogs to the restaurant, where they will be happily greeted by the wait staff, and will probably get more service and attention than we will.

On the other hand, there is always something absurd that makes me think, “Wow, I’m really not in Kansas anymore.” If your sink gets clogged, what do you do? Get out the Drano, right? And where do you get Drano? The supermarket, the hardware store, the convenience store, anywhere that’s open and has disgruntled cashiers, right? Not here. To get the Swiss equivalent of Drano, you have to go to the pharmacy, request it, and then sign a form that acknowledges that you know that it is a dangerous substance that must be handled with care. Sometimes, the Swiss are really lax about warning labels and notices, and then sometimes, you gotta wonder...

Unrelated, but on my mind: was anyone else disturbed by the deathwatch news coverage of the Pope? It's one thing to report that someone has died, but it's another to sit outside his front door reporting that he is minutes away from death. "Tom, I'm reporting LIVE from Rome, where Church officials say that the Pope could die at ANY MOMENT. We're here to bring you the LATEST on this BREAKING STORY."