Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Editor's Note

Just booked last-minute tickets to go to Paris for the weekend, leaving Friday morning and getting back Sunday night. And then realized that there are riots there. Nothing like a weekend of food, culture, hanging out, and dodging rocks :)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

28 March 2006

A friend is staying with me for two weeks while she unwinds from med school, travels around Switzerland, and catches up on her paperbacks. Her family is from Kansas, and she's been living in New York for the past few years. We're definitely not in Kansas anymore, nor are we in New York.

First of all, there's (no) security. Switzerland is not part of the post-9/11 world. When I was telling my friend how to get into my apartment, I said that I'd leave spare keys for her with the jeweler downstairs, and that she could go ask for them there. They take a lunch break, so I told her that if they weren't there when she got in, she could just go to the candy store in the next building, tell them that she knows me, and leave her bags there while she wandered around town. There was a pause on the other end of the line, and then she said, "That's very sketchy," and after I thought about it, I suppose it is a bit sketchy.

That's just how things work here. You can leave your keys with the shop downstairs and ask a shopkeeper to watch your luggage, and you know that jeweler won't break in, and the candy man won't steal your bags, and they in turn trust that you won't break into their shops or leave bombs in your bags with them. I can't remember the last time I went somewhere and had my bag checked by a security guy. I think it may have been in the Vatican, but it's never happened to me here in Switzerland, outside of the airport.

Secondly, there's food. (I don't think I have enough space to address all of the funny things about food in this entry, let alone move onto other Swiss idiosyncrasies, but I'll start). The Swiss have strange ideas regarding what to eat and how much of it is appropriate. Fondue. My visitor is a friend from college, and back in the day, we used to have girls' nights, when eight or ten of us would gather in my room, eat a pot of cheese fondue, a pot of chocolate fondue, and a few bottles of wine, and then we would go to a play or stay in and play Taboo. Not your typical college Friday nights, but then again, we weren't your typical college students, for better or for worse. So I came here thinking that I was ready for fondue. I thought wrong. The fondue here is much stinkier, much richer, and much bigger than any fondue we ever had. The amount we would make for eight to ten people is a two-person serving here. And they don't even do chocolate fondue; I think they see it as an affront to both chocolate and to fondue to merge the two concepts.

Then there's sausage. There is a restaurant that serves traditional Swiss food, and they serve sausage by the meter. They recommend a meter of sausage for every four people. That's ten inches of sausage per person, in addition to the bread, salad, and potatoes that everyone eats. I suppose that's still reasonable for some people, but it still astonishes me that they actually have sausage by the meter. I picture it coiled up on a big spool next to the emergency fire hose. And maybe the Sausage Inspector comes every year to make sure their Emergency Sausage meets regulatory standards. The street vendors also sell sausages (without buns, and not by the meter) and kebabs, rather than hot dogs and gyros, but if you're sick of kebab and sausage, other menu staples are horse, deer, and rabbit (which is sometimes listed as the equivalent of "baby bunny wabbit"). Horse and venison are mostly served in the autumn, though, during hunting season, which makes sense for venison, but less so for horse.

For people with a sweet tooth, candy options are pretty much limited to chocolate and gummy candy. Gummy candy comes in all shapes and flavors: there are gummies that taste like Jägermeister, ginger, and chili peppers, and there are gummies shaped like naked couples having sex. And yes, you can buy them from the man who is watching your luggage.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

21 March 2006

Spring is here. The calendar says so: yesterday was the first day of spring, and Switzerland is right on schedule, no surprise. Yesterday, the sun came out and temperatures reached 50 F, prompting crocuses to bloom and people to wear sunglasses. This morning, we had a light shower that was distinctly different from the soggy winter rains, and it washed away the last traces of the salt that was used to counter the snowdrifts from a few weeks ago. Leave it to Swiss weather to carefully observe the proper timing of the seasons. Of course, now that I've said that, winter will come back with a vengeance, for one last spiteful hurrah.

I'm a wimp when it comes to cold weather, and walking around outside, let alone sleeping outside, in below-freezing temperatures has always struck me as one of the worst possible fates (I suppose camping aficionados would disagree). Switzerland has very few homeless people, as their social programs are quite good and the country is quite rich. The only people I have seen sleeping outside are drug addicts who probably have places to go, but are too high to remember them.

One crackhead often sleeps on the doorstep of my apartment building when it's cold. It's one floor up, semi-private, and warmer than most doorsteps, so one of the first signs of winter is that he starts sleeping there more frequently. Despite being high and crazy, he's the most polite homeless drug addict I've ever met (and more polite than many non-homeless non-drug addicts, come to think of it). He apologizes profusely when I have to step over him, and wishes me a good evening. He is sort of like a demented, smelly doorman, greeting me when I come home, questioning people he doesn't recognize when they come to the building, and free-basing when nothing is going on. If you have to have a crackhead sleeping on your doorstep, hope for a Swiss one. Now that it's warmer, he's seldom around, but I'm sure he'll be back come fall.

With spring's warmer temperatures, the ground begins to thaw, which means, that's right, it's time for massive construction projects that weren't practical when the ground was frozen solid. For some reason, they've started ripping up the entire street that runs between my block and the river. They are doing so with remarkable efficiency; the size and number of deep trenches and craters is impressive, given the fact that they've only started digging quite recently, and only dig for 40 hours a week. Unfortunately, some of that remarkable efficiency wakes me up every morning, since the construction workers, being Swiss, always start up every backhoe, jackhammer, and bulldozer at the crack of 7. I have yet to figure out what it is they're doing. Maybe trying to dig a hole to China.

The construction project has necessitated the relocation of the tram stop by about 100 meters. Not a big deal, right? Not being particularly litigious or conscious of such risks, however, they haven't put up huge notices and warnings regarding the change, so that pedestrians blithely cross in front of trams, expecting that they will stop where they have always stopped, whereas the tram drivers keep going full speed for another 100 meters to the new, temporary stop. It's an accident waiting to happen, and I'm sure that once it happens, they'll be well equipped to clean it up very quickly, and hey, they already have lots of big holes to toss the bodies into.

A college friend is coming in town tomorrow and she'll be crashing with me for two weeks. We'll do all of the required things: fondue, sightseeing around Zurich, a weekend trip somewhere, and so on. After living here for almost two years, it's always fun to see the reactions of a newcomer and to re-notice all of the things that have become a part of life. The bells. The clothes. The waiting at crosswalks. The stinky cheese. And above all, last but definitely not least, the Swiss.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

14 March 2006

Ah, spring, when law-abiding citizens' thoughts turn to taxes... For Americans, one good thing about living in Switzerland is that we get to take advantage of lower tax rates (someone who pays 40% in the U.S. would pay about 10% in Switzerland). Uncle Sam doesn't give the taxes up without a fight. All American citizens, no matter where they live, what they do, or how much they earn, have to file U.S. income taxes every year. So even if you're living in the middle of the desert, making no money, and eating scorpions and cacti to stay alive, you still have to file.

Doing that requires lots of paperwork and currency conversions. Count the number of days you were in different countries, not a small feat considering the amount of travel that fits into generous Swiss vacation plans. Call five government offices at strange hours to take into account the time difference and government office hours, going through endless voice prompts, heinous hold music, and bored employees to get conflicting opinions on whether a deduction applies. Figure out what documentation will suffice to prove that you made money but that you don't owe any taxes. Spend more time on your taxes than ever before, all for the net effect of not paying any taxes. It's probably worth the extra time and effort, if the endless paperwork doesn't drive you mad first.

Joy of joys, you also have Swiss taxes to deal with. Yes, you're a foreigner, so they tax you at source so you won't bolt without paying your taxes. (They don't trust us, and have all sorts of deposits and security measures built in, because they seem to genuinely suspect that we will leave our jobs, apartments, and bank accounts just to avoid paying our cell phone bills, taxes, and DSL bills). And yes, they are probably over-taxing you. But if you make enough money, they still "invite" you to file taxes, whether or not you want to go to that party (Swiss people only file taxes when "invited," meaning that if they receive a big packet of tax forms, they file taxes within two months, but if not, they don't have to worry about it). The forms are all in different colors, with two copies of each form, and every form is in German, to make taxes even more fun, especially considering that their forms and deductions are different than the ones in the States. There are deductions for clothes, there are deductions for lunch, there are deductions for tram passes. They ask you about your accounts, in Switzerland and elsewhere. They ask you what religion you are, and they take more tax out for your church. And then they ask you for things that just don't really translate between tax systems, and you fill them in and hope for the best.

One strange thing about Swiss tax forms is that there is no final number, no tallying up of figures to see who owes whom. You just send it in, and they eventually tell you who owes whom what. Whoever owes money pays interest, which they calculate carefully, being accounting masters. Oddly enough, despite being so precise and punctual in every other aspect of public regulation, the Swiss IRS are slow. It takes two years to process tax forms, so taxes filed in 2005 for the 2004 tax year won't be done until 2007.

Foreigners moving to Switzerland get an automatic six-month extension on their first tax invitation. The first tax invitation may not be initially due until May, meaning that the extension goes until November. So American expats do their U.S. taxes whenever they're due, and they plow through their Swiss tax forms and hand them in in November with a sigh of relief, then receive their next Swiss tax invitation in January, with a March due date, on top of their next set of American taxes, and feel that it is indeed true that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. Lots of taxes. Well, actually, not as much tax as before, but at the cost of extra frustration and stress, which probably takes years off of your life. Yup, the only sure things are death and taxes. At least you only have to die once.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

7 March 2006

This past weekend, we had what was, according to the newspapers, the storm of the century. People who have lived here for a long time agreed that they had never seen anything like it in Zurich. We got almost two feet of snow in about a day and a half, and it accumulated faster than the plows, salters, and sanders could stave it off. Add to that the fact that some of the snow fell on a Sunday, when few Swiss are working, and there was some serious snow. There was also wind with gust speeds of over 100 kmph, so there were lots of trees falling down, either from the wind or from the weight of the snow. The trees downed tram power lines, and the snow iced up the tracks, and the entire tram system shut down on Sunday, which is unheard of.

Not wanting to venture forth in the new Ice Age, I decided to stay home all weekend. My apartment was a mess, so I did some cleaning on Sunday, but never fear, I'm not becoming Swiss, because I cleaned against all of their rules. I did two loads of laundry, two loads of dishes, and vacuumed, all of which are heavily frowned upon on Sundays (in some buildings it is strictly banned). I even took a bag of trash out, even though it was Sunday, and trash collection takes place on Tuesdays and Fridays in my neighborhood. It was still in a regulation trash bag, though. There are limits to even the most extreme forms of rebellion, you see.

Despite the weather, the Swiss were out celebrating Fasnacht, the local equivalent of Mardi Gras or Carneval. It involves lots of costumes, marching bands, drum lines, confetti, and parades. Different cities celebrate Fasnacht at different times, depending on whether they are Catholic or Protestant, and on other factors that I don't quite grasp. Basel's Fasnacht is going on right now, with all-night celebrations for several days. Here in Zurich, Fasnacht was celebrated last weekend, and it was quite something to be trudging through slushy piles of snow, hearing a band of drunk men shouting and yelling, and then looking up and seeing that the men in question are all decked out in matching red dresses, blue aprons, red wigs in pigtails, and other finery. That was perhaps the most startling thing about Fasnacht, seeing normally staid and proper Swiss men wearing ornate gowns with shiny metallic ruffles as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

A few friends and I went to Lucerne (or Luzern, if you prefer the German spelling) to check out their Fasnacht celebration last Tuesday (Mardi Gras). It was cold, and it was a work night, but there were still thousands of people out to celebrate. Performers and spectators alike wore elaborate costumes, many with huge, heavy masks. Costumes included Americans, football players, werewolves, cowboys and Indians, couches, bag-heads, chickens, and all sorts of other strange get-ups that had us double- and triple-taking the whole night. Kids had bags of confetti that they lobbed at strangers in the street. The many marching bands paraded around, playing "Guggenmusik," which sounds like what Sousa would have composed if he had been drunk and living on boat. My friends and I went straight from work, so instead of wearing big, crazy costumes, we went as Americans living in Switzerland, and finished the look off with ski jackets, hats, mittens, cameras, mulled wine, and sausages. OK, so we didn't wear costumes.

In any case, it was quite a spectacle, and it's definitely something to see the Swiss staying out late, wearing gaudy costumes, and making noise well into the night. Back in Zurich, I decided not to go see the Fasnacht festivities, due to the extreme weather. On Sunday, I was taking the trash out (don't tell), and since I was just stepping out for a minute, I was wearing flip-flops instead of real shoes. There was a steel drum band in red wigs playing outside my building, playing calypso music in the steadily falling snow, trudging through the slush, and everyone looked at me like I was the crazy one. Only in Switzerland.