Tuesday, September 26, 2006

26 September 2006

Let's talk about numbers.

Let's say you get a call on your cell phone from a number you don't recognize. You check the area code and realize it's from [city or state], which is where [name] lives, and decide not to take the call. Not here. Swiss area codes for land lines are assigned geographically, but Swiss cell phones have area codes that are assigned by service provider, which means that everyone using the same provider, whether they live in Geneva or Zurich, has the same area code. That would be like getting a call and saying, "Ooh, that's someone who uses T-Mobile, I won't take that call."
Speaking of phones, there is an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer calls directory assistance and says, "Give me the number for 911!" It sounds stupid, but at various points in the past two years, I've realized that I don't know the number for 911 here. Fire? Poison? Kitten in a tree? I wouldn't know what number to dial (much less how to describe the emergency in Swiss German). Fortunately, my life here has been relatively emergency-free so far. I am somewhat curious as to what would happened if I actually dialed 9-1-1 on a Swiss phone, but have restrained myself, just in case it actually works as an emergency line for stupid Americans, in which case I would have to explain why I was dialing an emergency number. Uh, didn't think it would work. So why did you dial it in the first place? Dunno.

If you go into a building at ground level and take the stairs up one level, what floor are you on? Second floor, if you're American. If you're European, you're on the first floor, because the floor at ground level doesn't count. So all those stairs you climbed up don't earn you any credit, from a Swiss building's point of view. This can get confusing when mixing cultures. When telling people how to find places, or asking directions, there always has to be a clarification as to what, exactly "go to the third floor" means.

When explaining how to find my apartment, I tell people: take a flight of stairs up to the European 1st floor, or the American 2nd floor. Get in the elevator and hit 5, which goes to the European 5th floor, or the American 6th floor. Go in the front door of my apartment, which immediately leads to another set of stairs to the main floor of my apartment (European 6th, US 7th), and my bedroom is upstairs (European 7th, US 8th). So you take the elevator to 5 if you eventually want to end up on the (American) 8th floor of my apartment building.

The discrepancy gets even bigger if the building is more than a dozen stories high (which is actually rare in Switzerland). American buildings usually skip 13, so that you can take just one flight of stairs (assuming that Americans take the stairs) to get from the 12th floor to the 14th floor. They don't do that here. So the American 12th floor is the European 11th floor, but the American 14th floor is the European 12th floor.

A friend who was living in Switzerland for a summer wanted to open a bank account. Nothing fancy, just a checking account. He walked into a bank and said that he wanted to open an account. They said that since he was a foreigner, there was a minimum balance. He (thinking that Swiss banks are like banks elsewhere, which often require an initial minimum deposit of $500 or so) said that was fine. They started bringing him bottled water, giving him pamphlets on money management, and making pitches on portfolio holdings, and he thought, "No wonder Swiss banks are the best in the world. They know how to treat customers right." Somehow, he found out that the minimum deposit was CHF 50,000 (about $40,000), which was a little bit over his student means. He faked a loss of interest and then slunk away.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

19 September 2006

My parents took a "leisure tour" of Italy that involved seeing seven cities in ten days (I'm not sure how that fits in with the "leisure" description), and came to Zurich to see me for a week. The weather was impeccable the entire time they were here: sunny, warm, and dry, and I soon realized that I was repeating myself, telling them over and over again that winters are long, grey, and wet, just so that they wouldn't get the wrong idea about Switzerland being a year-round paradise.

The weather here is fickle at best. In the summer, we alternate between sun and rain, and in the winters, we alternate between grey days and rainy grey days. For some reason, however, my guests have only experienced either the best or the worst, so half of them are convinced that Switzerland is like San Diego at its best, and half of them believe that Switzerland is like London at its worst. I don't think my parents believe that it can be depressingly grey for weeks on end here, and they seemed skeptical of my dread regarding the coming of winter.

Last Monday was Knabenschiessen ("Boys' Shooting Day," which was recently changed to include girls, a competition which involves junior high school kids shooting military assault rifles, and grade school kids shooting pistols), so all offices in Zurich had the afternoon off. My parents and I went to check out the festivities. It was a little bit odd to spend September 11 at a shooting contest, but hey, this is Switzerland. As it turned out, we didn't see any of the shooting, since the shooting range was tucked away from the fairground, and we didn't really look for it.

Previously, I had only been to fairs in the center of Zurich, where space is limited, and I had still always been impressed at the number of games and rides they assembled overnight, packed into a small area, then spirited away the next day. The Knabenschiessen fairground, however, was a whole new level. Every kind of ride you've ever seen at a fair or small-town amusement park was there, sometimes more than once. I counted no fewer than four places you could do bumper cars. Four. The fairground was quite large, since it was out in the suburbs of Zurich, but even so, they squeezed rides in right up to some nearby mid-rise buildings. I watched a man inside a building calmly eating a late lunch while a ride jerked screaming kids back and forth past his window. He never looked out, never indicated that he was aware of the flashing lights or shrieking teenagers, never seemed to wonder if the ride might malfunction and send a dozen people crashing through his window.

My parents took a daytrip to Lucerne, wandered around Zurich, got their morning coffee every day at the Starbuck's around the corner (yes, shame shame, but I don't drink coffee, and so they had to go get it somewhere), accompanied me to the Asian market to tell me which foods I like (I've only seen them in cooked form, and know them by their Chinese names, whereas the market has things labeled in Vietnamese, German, and sometimes English – who knew that I liked a vegetable called Chinese morning glory?)

They met my friends, ate sausage, and went on boat rides (which are included in the normal transportation system – people can take boats, trains, trams, or buses to work). Before leaving, they commented, "Europe is so clean, orderly, and organized." I reminded them of their recent experiences in Italy (Italy is many things, but it is not clean, orderly, or organized), and explained that it's just a Swiss thing, not a European thing. In any case, they approved of Switzerland, but there's no telling if Switzerland approved of them. After over two years, Switzerland and I are still trying to figure each other out.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Editor's Note

Had a quasi-long weekend, and my parents are in town. Update postponed...

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

5 September 2006

A recent study prompted the Swiss government to issue a bulletin warning that about 50,000 people in Switzerland are addicted or in danger of becoming addicted to the Internet. 50,000? That seems very low for a country that has almost 7 million people. Does that number include expats living in Switzerland? If so, then I can almost guarantee that the figure is too low, as there are tens of thousands of us, and I'm sure our rate of Internet addiction is higher than among native Swiss.

If it's accurate, however, what addiction have they found instead of the Internet?? And is it so bad to be addicted to the Internet, it's better than heroin, right? It's cheaper, it's publicly acceptable, and it's something you can do at work or in front of your parents or small children (depending on what sites you visit, obviously). I'm not really sure what the Swiss government is trying to accomplish by warning people of the dangers of the Internet. Maybe they should focus on the smoking problem, since millions of people in Switzerland are addicted to cigarettes, and no one has ever died from secondhand Internet.

There are certain things that I never got around to doing since moving here, partly due to laziness, and partly due to an inability to figure out how long I'll be here, and whether the length of my stay is enough to justify such things. Until recently, I hadn't bought any picture frames and I hadn't bought guest towels. I figured that I could just stick the pictures on the wall in plastic sleeves, and that my guests could use one of the three towels I brought over here as part of my "single person living alone" stock of household goods. I've been here for over two years, however, so I finally decided that I could invest in a few picture frames and another two bath towels. I am not the worst of the lot, however, as I have several friends who have been here for a year or more, and who still don't have a hammer, a screwdriver, or place settings for more than two people.

A few months after I moved here, my bank called me and asked me if I wanted a Swiss credit card. I said no, as I already had a few American cards. They said it had a low, low annual fee of 99 CHF (about $80), and I again said no, as I've never had to pay a credit card fee before. They offered to waive the fee for the first year and to link the card to my account, so that I wouldn't have to bother with monthly payments unless I wanted to, so I finally caved and let them send me a card. Based on that experience, I assumed that getting a credit card in Switzerland is much like getting a card in the States: everyone and their mother will try to throw credit cards your way, as long as you are human and seem to want to spend money.

As it turns out, my experience was the exception to the rule. Several of my expat friends and colleagues have had ridiculously difficult times getting Swiss credit cards. Bank reps have told them that they can't get a card with the permits they have (the same permit I had when I got my card), and that they have to have a minimum account balance to cover the maximum charge limit on their cards at all times (which runs against the underlying concept of credit, besides which, I have gone negative on my account balance and put charges on my credit card without a problem). Perhaps the Swiss knew that I would stick around long enough not only to pay my credit card bills, but also to buy picture frames and bath towels, and they were therefore more comfortable providing me with the credit to make such long-term commitment purchases.

Parents coming in town, just in time for Knabenschiessen (the holiday when local kids shoot things).