Tuesday, August 29, 2006

How to Pass for a Swiss Person, Part IV, Section 1: Swissification; Jobs

An expat email forum I read has recently had a thread on applying for jobs in Switzerland. A typical job application here includes a cover letter, CV, references, and a photo. Yes, they want a picture of you clipped to your CV. They also expect you to list your date of birth and marital status on your CV. Imagine the uproar if an employer in the States asked for pictures and marital status before even granting an interview! They also expect you to submit copies of your college and graduate school diplomas; if applicable, these are also forwarded to the government when applying for a visa. Official school transcripts are only acceptable if copies of your diplomas are not available. I remember finding it strange that the Swiss government would rather look at a shrunken-down photocopy of my college and law school diplomas (which would be easy to fake) than official, signed and sealed transcripts that not only prove that I graduated, but also indicate whether I was a decent student.

If you're lucky enough to land a job, then you sign a contract setting forth the terms of your employment. That seems fairly normal, right? Typical Swiss, the contracts set out working hours in precise detail. "Full-time" and "part-time" are too vague. Standard full-time employment contracts for professionals will state that they are to work 42.5 hours, 40 hours, or 37.5 hours per week, with pre-ordained office hours and a fixed-length lunch break at a set time each day. Part-timers get contracts for 80%, 60%, or even 40% of a full schedule, with similar terms regarding start times, lunch breaks, and so on.

Based on a person's contract, you can predict exactly what time they will walk in the office, when they will eat lunch, what time they will come back, and when they will leave for home. Because most people in the city take public transportation, which runs on a precise-to-the-minute schedule, you can also predict exactly what time they will leave the house in the morning, and you can also determine what time they will walk in their front door and take off their shoes. Me? I leave the house at 8:44 a.m., take the 8:52 a.m. tram (missing the morning rush by a good hour, since the busiest commute time is between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m., as Switzerland is a country full of "morning people"), start work at 9:00 a.m., have lunch from 1:00-2:00 p.m., finish work at 6:00 p.m., putter around a bit before leaving, and get home by 6:25 p.m., usually with a stop at the gummy candy store downstairs on the way up to my apartment. Swissified? Perhaps.

29 August 2006

After getting fed up with the non-stop rain and cold here in Zurich (in August, nonetheless!) I fled to Verona for the weekend. It's funny, but when the weather reports in Zurich forecast a 20% chance of rain, there's a good chance you'll need an umbrella. Some Verona forecasts predicted a 40% chance of rain, but the only weather gear I needed all weekend was a pair of sunglasses and some sunscreen. It did rain once during the weekend, and it was a thunderstorm to end all thunderstorms, but it had the courtesy to wait until the middle of the night, and to end well in advance of daybreak. Even though Switzerland is all about having everything as it should be, Swiss weather apparently doesn't realize what August is supposed to be like.

Italians know what weather and shopping should be like. Sunny days, warm nights, summer that lasts longer than two months (we were wearing wool sweaters in the office in the beginning of June, and we've been wearing them again since the beginning of August, despite the Böögg's prediction of a nicer summer at this year's Sechseläuten). Instead of only offering cheap, mass-produced clothes or exorbitantly expensive designer clothes, they also have interesting clothes at all prices in between. Some stores were even open on Sunday afternoon! I felt rather sheepish, being impressed by the fact that their stores sell a variety of goods with a range of prices at convenient times. I guess my consumer expectations have become Swissified.

It is only when I leave Switzerland that I realize how much my expectations have aligned themselves with living in Switzerland. For instance, I always forget that public restrooms are usually not nearly as clean as private restrooms. I forget that walking into a public restroom can assault your nose and make you worry about stepping in puddles of unknown constitution. I forget that people pee on the toilet seat and don't wipe it up afterwards. I forget that there might not be hot water and that the air freshener might be both deeply necessary and pitifully inadequate.

And the public transportation, where do I even begin? Verona, for instance, only had buses. And the buses only ran every 20 minutes, except on Sundays, when they only ran every 40 minutes. Compare this to Zurich, where if you miss the tram, you only have to wait another three to eight minutes until the next one comes, depending on which tram and what time of day it is. While in Verona, I checked the bus schedule and realized that that next bus was scheduled to come in a minute, so I ran out to the bus stop, not wanting to have to wait for another twenty minutes for the next one. A minute passed, then two, and I figured, "Well, it's Italy, maybe they don't run things quite as on time as they do in Switzerland." A few more minutes passed, and I decided, "I must have just missed the bus, there's no way it's this late." Then an Italian sauntered up to the stop, looking completely unconcerned, despite it being a good five minutes after the scheduled stop, and a couple minutes later, the bus pulled up to the stop. Why post a bus schedule that is so precise, if the actual buses don't run on anything resembling the schedule? If things aren't that precise, why not just do as they do in New York, and say that buses will come "approximately every X minutes"?

I'm not Swiss, I'm not Swiss, I'm not Swiss, I'm not Swiss. (If I say it enough, then it's true). But I guess I'm not Italian, either, although I must admit that they have excellent food, weather, and shopping.

Another busy few weeks coming up: my parents will be coming in town, then a college friend, then Munich for Oktoberfest, and more planning to get some weekend adventures lined up...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

23 August 2006

Oops, didn't realize that yesterday was Tuesday, hence the delayed update.

In any case, without further ado, three things I've realized over the past couple of weeks of recuperating...

The first is that the doctors here prefer to take the "wait and see and then come back" approach to treating patients. I had a vicious case of bronchitis a little over a year ago, and the doctor refused to give me any antibiotics until I had been coughing like a TB patient with pneumonia for a week. This time, I went in with a concussion, two massive lumps on my head, a hand-sized bruise on my back, and a visible knot in my back muscles, and the doctor told me to take Advil. That's it, Advil. It was only after I returned two weeks later with continued symptoms that he prescribed some muscle relaxants and time-release, high-dose Advil. I can understand not wanting to over-prescribe antibiotics, to some extent, but if someone comes in with obvious sources of pain, wouldn't it make sense to give them something?

Second, one of the medications I was prescribed is called Brufen Retard. Seriously. I'm taking Retard pills. I know that they aren't sold under the same brand name in the States and that "Retard" probably doesn't have the same connotations here as it does in the States, but still… I'm taking Retard pills that the doctor gave me. The same doctor who looked at an X-ray of my head and said that there was nothing there. I think he might be trying to tell me something.

Third, I learned how accident insurance works in Switzerland. Employers are required to get accident insurance for full-time employees, and the accident insurance covers all accidents, both on and off the job, with "accidents" including anything from falling in your own home to wiping out while snowboarding to totaling your car. As it turns out, there are very specific conditions that must be met for the insurance to be valid. For instance, employees who work 40 hours a week (as I do) are required to have at least one 45-minute break each day, which is why employers have a one-hour lunch policy that requires employees to take a real lunch hour every day. If you skip lunch and eat while working, or if you take a short lunch, it doesn’t count as a full lunch hour, which would therefore theoretically void the accident insurance.

It makes sense for people working in a physical job, where not having a break could decrease alertness and increase risk, but seriously, I sit at a desk and work on a computer. There is no scaffolding or heavy equipment, no power tools or hard hats. If I'm less alert, I might get a paper cut. Maybe. In any case, knowing exactly how accident insurance works here makes me feel like a truck driver: OK, so if I work this many hours, I have to stop and take this many minutes of break before working this many hours again. Maybe I'll get some donuts. Except for there aren't good donuts here.

I'll finish with a random weird moment from Street Parade a couple weeks ago: we were checking out a late-night party in the square that is right by my apartment, and the DJ was mixing beats in with some sort of vaguely classical-sounding music. I suddenly found myself thinking about jewelry, and after some mental probing, realized that the music was the tune that has been used for as long as I can remember in deBeers commercials, the "A diamond is forever" ads, where a shadow man gives a shadow woman a diamond ring. The music is linked so strongly to the brand in my consumer-culture-infested brain that even played in the street, using different instruments, with techno beats added in, the song still made me think of diamonds.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

15 August 2006

Back again, and slightly worse for the wear. My birthday was quite memorable, mostly due to the fact that I ended up with a concussion and a few bruised or fractured ribs, due to extreme clumsiness on my part. When my friends finally dragged me to the clinic the next day, the doctor showed me X-rays of my head and said, "Good, there's nothing there," and when I started laughing, he rephrased to reassure me that I hadn't knocked my brains out, that they were still there, and that there were no clots or fractures.

After the heat wave in July, we had a complete reversal, and cold, wet weather descended on Zurich, forcing me to wear pants, thermal shirts, cashmere sweaters, and rain jackets in the middle of August. Unfortunately, the cold rain spanned the weekend of Street Parade, the annual techno festival held in Zurich that usually features thousands of drugged people running around half-naked with body paint, moon boots, and extreme piercings in order to dance frantically to the overwhelmingly loud music being blasted from every direction. There were still some brave souls who shed their clothing and inhibitions despite the weather, but most people (my friends and I included) decided that we would be happier with sweaters and rain jackets. There was still dancing in the street, but after seeing the last two (sunny) Street Parades, I was less than impressed by the lack of nudity.

In other news, I am finally in possession of my new and improved work permit. For the first two years that I was here, I was on a temporary annual permit, but I have now been upgraded to a permit that implicitly acknowledges that I've been here for a while and might stay a little longer, as well. The Swiss government is funny. I guess all governments are funny, so it's just that the Swiss government is no exception. Despite being in charge of fewer than seven million people, the government here is highly bureaucratic and compartmentalized, so to get your permit renewed, you have to communicate with several offices, which are located near each other and ostensibly have to deal with each other on a regular basis (seeing that almost one-third of Zurich inhabitants are foreigners, and therefore need permits to live here), but the way things actually work, it's as if they are as unrelated as a post office in Kenya and a grocery store in Fiji.

They claim that they will forward your information to the other offices and automatically send you paperwork and updates when your permit requires renewal. And once you've sent your papers in, they claim that they will be processed and you will be notified to come in and do the actual renewal in time for your new permit. Ha. The first time I got my permit renewed, my paperwork was submitted over a month in advance, and the permit was finally issued almost a month late. This time, the paperwork was submitted almost two months early, and I've just received the permit two-and-a-half months late. When we first checked with the offices in charge of processing the paperwork, they said that they were behind. When we checked again, they said that we had never submitted anything. We had the proof of receipt, but they insisted that they didn't have it, and so we were charged a late fee and a processing fee. Apparently, the Swiss are so much more organized than anyone else, that if something went wrong, it couldn't possibly have been their fault, receipt or no. And of course we paid, because without payment, no new permit would be processed and issued, and without a permit, I would get to taste firsthand the cloud that hangs over the head of every stranger in a strange land: deportation. No thanks, I'll pay your silly fine, take my permit, and go through the whole rigamarole in another year. Oh, wait, less than a year, since I'll submit the paper work a month early, and my permit is already almost three months used. Argh.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Editor's Note

Slight delay this week, due to unforeseen weekend aftermath. Instead, for now, I leave you with this, the description of a Celtic-inspired pendant that was being sold in the duty-free magazine on board our flight back from Dublin:

Salmon of Knowledge Pendant

Handcrafted in silver from a design in the Book of Kells. The pendant depicts the story of Finn and the greatest salmon ever caught. While the salmon cooked, he touched it with his finger. It was so hot he had to suck the pain away which made the old prophecy come true - that he who first tastes the salmon of knowledge possesses all the knowledge their mind can hold.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

3 August 2006

Back from the long weekend in Dublin, and the heat wave has finally broken, so that my bedroom is 26 C (79 F) instead of 32 C (90 F) at bedtime. Much more bearable. It's a three day work week, but there is no rest for the wicked, as this coming weekend is my birthday, so I will go from a long weekend in Dublin to a short week at work to a weekend of celebration. One of these days, I will catch up on my sleep.

Dublin was good, although it was a hassle to get there. We were supposed to fly out Friday evening, but our flight was cancelled at the last minute due to malfunctioning de-icing equipment. Yes, it was hot as hell in the summer, but apparently the planes are not allowed to take off without de-icing equipment, just in case you have to divert to Siberia or something. Two of my friends waited in the long line at the transfer desk, and two of us decided to go out to the main ticketing desk to see if they could do anything about it. It took us 20 minutes of constant, brisk walking through corridors, up and down escalators, in and out of buildings, through passport control, and so on to get to a spot that was probably only 100 meters from where we started. Guess the Zurich airport was not designed for complications. They operate under the assumption that things will work. Period. So there is no reason to design the airport to allow for easy movement between terminals.

In any case, we eventually got to Dublin on Saturday morning, and my friend came to get us at the airport. He's in his mid-20's, a normal beer-drinking Irishman, and he suggested that we go back to his place for breakfast and then we could sit around and have "tea and cakes," which to the American ear sounds rather granny-ish, but it's apparently the normal thing to do in Ireland. So we went back to his place and he started pulling together some breakfast. First he gave us "Scotch eggs," which were whole hard-boiled eggs encased in sausage and breading, then fried. They seemed like they were quite enough for breakfast, but then he fried up three different kinds of sausage, a pile of bacon, and some eggs, tossed in some toast, butter, cheese, and other things, then said that we were just having a small breakfast, comparatively. Compared to what, I shudder to imagine. If that's what breakfast is in Ireland, there is no good reason why Americans are the fattest people in the world. There was enough pork on the table to feed a small village, as long as none of the villagers were vegetarian or kosher.

At various points, my friend expressed his love of the following foods: cheese sandwiches with a salty-sour jelly-like spread; "French-fried toast," which is basically French toast made with salt and pepper and eaten with ketchup; Nutella and butter sandwiches; and peanut butter and butter sandwiches, and was disgusted by some of my suggestions: Reese's cups; French toast with maple syrup; bacon dipped in maple syrup; and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They say that Americans, the Irish, Brits, and Aussies are separated by a common language, but I'd say that we're also separated by rather uncommon foods. Like French toast with ketchup. Eek.

Coming back to Zurich brought one unexpected perk. Tuesday was Swiss National Day (their version of July 4th), and fireworks had been banned in the city itself, since the dry spell and heat wave increased the risk of fires, so if we had stayed, we wouldn't have seen any fireworks. As we descended towards the airport, however, we could see all of the fireworks people were setting off outside of the city center, and for the first few seconds, it looked like faraway paparazzi or signal fires, until we realized what it was, and enjoyed the show from afar.

Birthday party this weekend, wish me luck.