Monday, May 30, 2005

30 May 2005

They definitely do things differently here. Office culture is so unlike the working world to which I was accustomed before coming to Switzerland last year. As noted in prior entries, the Swiss tend to start and end their days early, often going to work at 7 so that they can leave at 4. They are legally entitled to have a lunch break, and many offices also have two scheduled coffee breaks per day. They also have no idea what normal people should make doing normal jobs. Swiss secretaries routinely take home an annual salary of $50,000, and complain that they are grossly underpaid for their 37.5-hour workweeks. (Edit: Keep in mind that, what with taxes and exchange rates, to make the same take-home pay in the U.S., your gross salary would have to be over $65,000).

On top of those general guidelines, however, are some smaller oddities. For instance, many Swiss wear regular shoes to the office, and then change into slippers for the day – Birkenstocks, flip flops, sandals, house shoes, the kinds of shoes you would usually avoid wearing in a business setting. It is the complete opposite of what you see in the States, where people wear comfortable shoes for their commute, then change into dress shoes for the office.

Also, the Swiss see nothing strange in wearing the same clothes three days in a row. In New York, if I saw someone wearing the same shirt and pants for more than one day, I assumed that they had unexpectedly slept elsewhere and hadn’t had time to change. Not the case here. The Swiss will wear an outfit all day, go home, take it off, go to bed, get up, put the same outfit back on, go through another day, go home, take it off, go to bed, get up, and wear it yet again, without ever thinking twice about it.

My office building is currently undergoing some renovations on the ground floor. The building management unilaterally decided to shut off water in the entire building one afternoon, so that the renovations could continue, informing all of the people working in the building that we would have to use the restrooms at the grocery store down the street, instead. When asked why they couldn’t shut off the water and do the work after hours or on a weekend, they replied that it would be more expensive to hire workers outside of business hours, and that it would cost the building tenants additional money to do so, which seems absurd, since most of the tenants have nothing to do with the construction. In my opinion, the one tenant instigating the construction should be obliged to pay the additional construction costs to allow the rest of the building to continue using their normal bathrooms and kitchens, instead of making bathroom migrations to the grocery store. But that would be logical, and we never said that things were logical here, did we?

Speaking of water, some residential buildings shut off the hot water after 10 p.m., since people clearly don’t need hot water after 10. These are often the same buildings that prohibit nighttime toilet-flushing, require men to sit down when using the toilet after 10, schedule laundry days a year in advance, and ask that walking be kept to a minimum during quiet time. How are you supposed to fulfill all of your hot water needs by 10 p.m.?

The weather forecasts are rarely accurate more than a few hours in advance here – Zurich weather is terribly unpredictable, with clouds, sun, hail, and rain coming and going on fast-forward, like in those accelerated weather pattern clips you see on TV; the weather can rarely make up its mind and stick to a plan, resulting in weeks where the highs are in the 80’s on Monday and the 50’s on Friday, with sun showers and hailstorms in between.

For the past four days in a row, however, the weather has been perfect summer weather, 80 and sunny (although there were thunderstorms predicted for three out of the four days), and I have been spending lots of time outside, having picnics in the park, reading on my terrace, napping by the lake, or just walking around, and it doesn’t get dark until 9:30, so by the time I go home (which has been after 10), sleepy and sticky from spending hours in the sun, I want to take a shower. It’s so great that the weather has been nice, and that I have the time to spend so much time loafing around outside, and (I feel ridiculous saying this), I’m so lucky to live in a building that lets me take showers after 10 p.m.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

24 May 2005

So I went back to the doctor’s office early Sunday morning, the bronchitis not having cleared up yet. The doctor prescribed three more medications this time around: antibiotics, another kind of fizzy pill, and cough syrup. In the past, cough syrup always came in fairly large bottles, the syrup itself was clear and relatively watery, it tasted bad for a moment, but it was OK, because you only have to take one spoonful. This cough syrup comes in a bottle that only has six doses in it, which, at three doses a day, only lasts two days, which seems rather optimistic for a bad cough. The syrup is opaque, almost the color of Pepto, the consistency of cream of mushroom soup, and tastes the way that Vick’s Vaporub smells. It also leaves my entire mouth numb for a while after taking it, especially since I have to take three large spoonfuls each time. You would think that its thickness would mean that it’s more concentrated, and therefore requires a smaller does than traditional cough syrup. You would think.

Since I’m on the subject (sort of), let’s talk about other products that have unexpected incarnations in Switzerland. I have always been obsessed with ice cream. The Chinese word for ice cream was part of my earliest vocabulary. The Swiss love ice cream, as well. They advertise it in posters and movie trailers, and there are ice cream stands all over the place. They have also realized that sex sells, and so they advertise their ice cream with suggestive ad campaigns that remind me of American beer commercials. I thought it went a little too far, however, when I picked up a box of bite-sized ice cream bonbons, and they were called “Magnum Moments,” which sounds more like a line of condoms than chocolate-covered ice cream balls.

Another fixation of mine is gummy candy. I could live off of gummy candy, and fortunately, it is popular here, as well. In the past, I was accustomed to eating gummy bears, gummy snakes, gummy cherries, and so on, but each package of candy followed some sort of theme. Bears came with bears, fruit slices came with fruit slices, snakes came with snakes. Here, gummies mix together in one package, and they are not limited to the traditional gummy shapes. Guitars, race cars, camels, letters and numbers, tennis rackets, bottle openers (yes, they make gummy bottle openers), lips, men with ties, they all come in one big package of delicious gummy confusion.

I never cease to be amazed at the Swiss ability to assemble and disassemble large structures quickly and completely. One day, it’s a parking lot, the next day, there is a giant Ferris wheel, and a couple of months later, the Ferris wheel disappears overnight, leaving nary a trace that it was ever there. They also do this inside the main hall of the train station. Since I have been here, there have been large sculpture installations, farmer’s markets, a large Christmas market, and rock concerts inside the train station. Currently, there is a movie theatre. They built an entire movie theatre, complete with stadium seating, velvet curtains, and a box office in the middle of the train station.

Not everything remains a novelty, however. Despite efforts to maintain my own identity and fight Swissification, I have learned to go grocery shopping early and often (although I still sometimes go hungry out of laziness), to take the trash out on appointed days (although I still smuggle trash and cardboard out from time to time), to time my days according to the tram schedules (although I often end up taking one tram later than I had planned, due to my own absent-mindedness). I like the fact that I have adjusted, but I also like the fact that I haven’t adjusted perfectly – my own identity is in there somewhere, fighting against total Swissification. One area in which I have become Swissified, however, in which I never thought I could, is with morning bells. I have clear sightlines, and therefore “hearinglines,” to three churches, and the bells that chime every quarter hour around the clock, with extended ringing before church services, are quite loud. When I moved in, I thought I would never get used to the 15 minutes of bells at 7 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on weekends, but somehow, I now sleep through them. With the help of earplugs, of course. But they used to wake me up, even with the earplugs. Let full Swissification begin.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

18 May 2005

I got sick just as my travel schedule picked up, and had my first experience going to the doctor’s office here. She listened to my lungs and ordered blood work and X-rays, which seemed a bit excessive, but I went along with it. At the end of the visit, she told me that I didn’t have TB or pneumonia, but that I did have bronchitis, and she wrote a few prescriptions, which required more explanation than I’m accustomed to. America is all about the magic pill: take two of these and call me in the morning. Here, I received three medications: one was a set of blue and white pills, marked with suns and moons, to be taken at different times of day; one was a box of tablets to be dropped into boiling water and inhaled under a tented towel; the third was a tube of large tablets to be dropped into cold water and drunk once they finished fizzing and dissolving. I got to keep my X-rays, instead of leaving them on file with the doctor. Just what I’ve been needing – pictures of my lungs!

As I’ve mentioned in the past, mobile phone culture revolves around text messages much more than actual conversations, due in most part to the fact that cell phone calls are prohibitively expensive. However, SMSes are not limited to personal messages, as the many SMS spams I receive can attest. Upon picking up a new network, your phone receives several SMSes welcoming you to the network, telling you how to call a cab or check the weather, or which operators speak your language. Your phone company sends you system-wide SMSes detailing promotions and changes in policy. Dating companies advertise their services.

Yesterday, I received an SMS from the city of Zurich, informing me that the city was providing free beer in a public square to celebrate the victory of the local soccer team, which was perhaps the only useful spam SMS I have ever received. (Can you imagine the mayhem that would ensue if New York told everyone to come to a party with free beer?) I arrived, had a few glasses of free wine to celebrate the victory of a team I don’t follow in a sport I don’t watch. The square was packed with Zurichers (Zurichans? Zurichfolk?) drunkenly and happily sharing this moment of glory, drinking their free alcohol, eating grilled sausages, and singing some team anthem that shares the melody I have always known as “Be Kind to Your Web-Footed Friends,” but is also known as “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The DJ played music for the crowd: “My Way,” “Forever Young” by Alphaville, “Song 2,” “Beautiful Day.” It was a fun impromptu party on the river, with scores of happy people shooting dangerous fireworks at will, and it was all thanks to an SMS about free beer.

I spent last weekend in Paris, catching up with friends from college and law school, and eating my way through the city. I didn’t hit any of the big tourist places, having done that on a past trip, although I did see the Eiffel Tower from a distance while walking from one place to the next, if you would really be upset if I didn’t see a single attraction. While there, I realized something that entertained me, really quite a small thing. In French, the word for “lawyer” is the same as the word for “avocado.” I went to law school for three years just to become a delicious, mushy, green fruit that is excellent on salads and in guacamole. There are worse vocations.

One of the best things about living here is that everything is so close. I have travelled to Vienna, Budapest, Paris, Barcelona, and Rome without ever flying for more than 2 hours. I can’t take a train for more than 3 hours without leaving the country. France and Spain become weekend destinations that are highly preferable to the places that were similarly accessible from New York. Instead of going to Pittsburgh, I could go to Florence. Instead of Newark, why not check out Berlin? Rather than going to Scranton, I can go to Seville. Not bad. The Swiss are used to this, and have difficulty imagining life any other way. A journey of 45 minutes is seen as one of epic proportions, and many will never travel to Zurich, the largest city in Switzerland, because it is two hours away. These warped concepts of distance are even more comical when they apply them elsewhere. One friend had to dissuade her sister from her initial plans for a one-week trip to the States. She was flying in to New York, and was hoping to rent a car for the week, during which time she would drive from city to city, exploring New York, Boston, D.C., San Francisco, and L.A. By car. In a week.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

10 May 2005

I spent four days in beautiful Budapest this past weekend, and despite being sick the whole time, I loved the city, which means it’s a great place, if I still liked it despite feeling like I was about to die the entire time. Like all places, it had its quirks, which I am only too happy to set forth here, not wanting to limit my snide remarks to one country. Let the record henceforth show that I am an equal opportunity mocker. Great city, though.

At one point, I tried to go to a pharmacy to get something for my throat, and the first place I went carried plenty of shampoo and candy, as well as some herbal remedies, but no medicine. I wanted to take a picture of a mysterious product called “American Aloe Vera Juice” that was made in China and labelled in Chinese, but the manager didn’t seem too keen on having pictures taken in his shop. When I finally did find a pharmacy that stocked medicine and started speaking to a pharmacist who spoke English, she nodded when I told her that my throat hurt, and nodded again when I asked if they had anything for a sore throat. Then she stood there. Finally, I asked her if I could perhaps buy something that they had for sore throats, and it was only then that she went to go find it (they keep all medication, even OTC, behind the counter, even cough drops). I’m not sure why she waited until then, and if she just thought I had gone in to make conversation.

Budapest has a population of about 2 million people, and an extensive public transportation to get them from point A to point B. When you go underground to take the subway (or when you are coming back out of the station), the escalators are the fastest escalators I have ever seen. To my litigious eye, it seemed like a tort waiting to happen, these staircases moving on fast-forward. Having successfully made it downstairs without being caught and shredded by the escalator, you validate your ticket and head for the platform to catch a train. A timer posted by the tracks tells you how long it has been since the last train left, rather than how much time remains until the next train comes. How useful, knowing how close you were to catching the previous train!

While travelling, I try to avoid the big tourist restaurants, both for budget concerns and for the experience. My friend and I headed out for lunch, and managed to find a cheap hole-in-the-wall with a long line of Hungarians waiting to be served. Not being able to read any Hungarian, we turned to someone in line with us for help. She told us to order one of the varieties of meat (most of which were breaded and fried), and one of the varieties of vegetables (most of which were finely diced or pureed, and served swimming in sauce). She then explained that most dishes had traditional pairings (sort of the way you would think fish and chips, or meat and potatoes). For instance, if you get pureed spinach, you should always get it with a hard-boiled egg. If you order chicken, you should get the carrots, and so on. I ordered the breaded, fried pork with a side of peas and carrots. The pork was quite good, but the “side” of peas and carrots was about three large portions of what looked like baby food, and was heavily sugared, rather than salted. I watched several Hungarians attacking their egg-and-spinach, and I believe my friend and I were the only ones who did not finish our Super-sized, sweetened vegetable puree. Cut us some slack, though, we tried.

America is world-renowned for, shall we say, the generous size of its citizens. I would like to propose that Hungary take its rightful place next to the U.S., as there were very large numbers of very large people roaming the streets of Budapest. Unfortunately, they were not only wandering the streets, but also the Turkish baths, where clothing is optional. I sat and tried not to stare as elephantine women sweated in the saunas, soaked in the heated pools, panted in the steam room, and lumbered and jiggled their way between rooms. I sat and definitely stared as one many-folded woman meticulously kneaded some oily, gooey substance into every crack and crevice on her beyond-voluptuous body. It is an image that will haunt me for life, and which will be forever linked in my head to Budapest.

Pictures coming soon, and next weekend I'll be in Paris, so the weekly update will be on Tuesday.

Monday, May 02, 2005

2 May 2005

I met a few expats last week, and it turns out that in most Swiss offices, all workers are required to clock in and out, to ensure that they are working the right amount of time. In many offices, the “right amount” is 8 hours and 9 minutes each day. The standard work day is 8 hours, but some offices give their workers an extra week of vacation between Christmas and New Year, and they compensate for this by working an extra 9 minutes a day for the rest of the year. Many offices also have scheduled coffee breaks twice a day that are sort of like “recess for grown-ups,” as one expat put it. One coffee break is at 9 a.m., as most Swiss like to get in to the office around 7:30, so 9 o’clock is a good time for a mid-morning coffee and snack. At my old office, if we had had a coffee break at 9, very few people would have been in the office in time to make it.

Yesterday was Labor Day in Switzerland, and the police were out in full force, decked out in their riot gear. I haven’t seen so many policemen since leaving New York. Apparently, the Labor Day traditions here don’t center around sales on school supplies, picnics, and barbecues. Instead, they have a workers’ parade (to go with the Labor Day theme), and the local Communist and Socialist organizations try to get the workers to unite. They have a yearly march down one particular street, and the riot police patrol that street very closely, as well as other key points in the city, because if they don’t, the marchers will sometimes decide to do a little bit of once-a-year, organized looting. It sounds like hooliganism, but if you think about it, at least you always know exactly when and where the looting might take place. It’s mob behavior, Swiss-style: planned, scheduled, and organized.

This Thursday, we have a day off for the Ascension, or Himmelfahrt, as they say in German. Being the mature person that I am, I am definitely not sniggering to myself while repeating the word “Himmelfahrt” under my breath. Definitely not. Just like I don’t find it at all amusing to see the word “Ausfahrt” painted on the asphalt at the exits from parking garages. Ahem, right. So I'll be spending Himmelfahrt weekend in Budapest. The next weekend, we have Monday off for Whit Monday, so I'll be in Paris for that weekend. Life is rough, I know.

Holidays and weekends are a source of both stress and relaxation here. Yes, it’s your time off, and there is no chance that you will have to work during that time. However, it is also time off for people who work in shops around town, so if you were hoping to do your shopping and run some errands, you had better get it all done Saturday afternoon, because everything shuts down after that until Monday morning. If you have a long weekend, get everything done beforehand, and shop as if a hurricane were coming, because if your office is closed, it’s a safe bet that everything else will be closed, as well. Planning for a long weekend now entails both figuring out how to spend the weekend, and stocking up on food and supplies, even if the weekend is to be spent lazing around the apartment (which it often does, since nothing is open on Saturday evening or Sunday, and so that standard weekend activity of “going shopping” is nixed).

Movie theatres do stay open all weekend, so if you’re willing to shell out about $15 a ticket, plus some money for snacks and drinks, that’s one way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Be careful what you see, though. Zurich is unique in that most movies are shown in their original language, so British and American movies are shown in English, with German and French subtitles (there are also dubbed options, so that you can see Vin Diesel moving his mouth with German voiceover, which would probably be more entertaining than the original, actually). However, if you go see a movie that was originally in Spanish, for example, the subtitles will still be in French and German, so unless you are fluent in one of those three languages, you could find yourself making up your own storyline and dialogue to go with the pictures.

Himmelfahrt. Heh heh...