Tuesday, March 27, 2007

27 March 2007

Even after being here for almost three years, I am still amazed by some of the things that are done here. Just when I think that I’ve seen it all, I’ll come across something that makes me do a quadruple-take. Last Tuesday evening, I was on my way to have a drink with friends, and there was a man playing the piano at the tram stop. The outdoor tram stop. It was cold, it was dark, and he had somehow brought his own piano to the tram stop to play the blues. In other cities, people bring their own saxophone or guitar to play for spare change. Here, there’s a guy who apparently wheels his piano over the cobblestones and tram tracks to bring his music to the people. I was tempted to stay longer to see if his fingers would get cold, or if he would decide to take his piano elsewhere, but it’s a good thing I didn’t, since he was still playing his heart out when I was on my way home, three hours later.

I met about a dozen friends at the bar that night for drinks, and we ordered an assortment of food and beverages, which were shared in various combinations. One thing that always amazes me here is the absolute willingness of waiters and waitresses to divide the bill for a large party into separate checks – you can eat dinner with ten friends, and the waiter will go from person to person, totaling up their individual tabs and making change for each one.

This also holds true in bars. At the end of the evening, the waitress patiently figured out each person’s share based on what they told her they had had: “Half an order of meatballs, one-fifth of a pitcher of margaritas, and a glass of wine,” “one bottle of beer, one draft beer, one-third of an order of nachos,” “one Coke, one glass of wine, one-third of an order of nachos, and half an order of meatballs.” Their forbearance is even more astonishing when you take into consideration the fact that tipping is completely optional in Switzerland (on the other hand, waitstaff actually make a living wage here, so it probably it all evens out in the end).

Spring is finally here – the first day of spring was last week, which the Swiss weather gods observed by sending down a big, slushy snowstorm that lasted two days. The Swiss are usually very good about clearing snow and slush from the streets and keeping everything running on time, but for some reason, perhaps because the Swiss people were unable to comprehend and counteract a snow storm in the spring, everything was running in chaos (for Zurich). The first morning of the storm, I waited for the tram for almost half an hour, despite the fact that the tram is supposed to come precisely every seven minutes! I finally reached the office in a state of Swissified shock. Daylight Saving Time started this past weekend, and the weather finally decided to act more appropriately, much to everyone’s relief.

I’m leaving for California in less than two weeks, and my brain has woken up and started reminding me of all things American that I’ve been missing out on that I need to cram in while I’m there. I’ll go to Costco and load up on beef jerky, kettle corn, Twizzlers, Reese's Cups, and instant oatmeal. I’ll go to Dunkin Donuts and have chocolate-covered donuts. I’ll make my friends here jealous by eating an entire box of Girl Scout cookies. And I’ll go to Cinnabon and have a big, goopy cinnamon roll with a tub of extra frosting.

I checked into the possibility of getting a Cinnabon here, actually, and there are a fair number of Cinnabon stores around the world, but none of them are in Switzerland. Iraq and Oman have Cinnabon, but Switzerland doesn’t. There is no justice in this world.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

20 March 2007

I’ve been to Italy seven times now, in all four seasons and in seven different cities, and I still have never had to use an umbrella while I’ve been there. Regardless of the season, coming back to Zurich from Italy usually entails putting on an extra layer or three of clothing and having an umbrella or rain jacket handy. This weekend was no exception. In Rome, we wore sunglasses and t-shirts, but after getting off the plane in Zurich, we put on rain jackets and heavy sweaters. It’s snowing today, that special Zurich brand of slushy snow that never accumulates more than a couple of inches and makes unfortunate splashes whenever you trudge through the streets. It’s not just an Italy vs. Switzerland thing, though, even the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland enjoys a warmer and sunnier climate than the German-speaking region, which makes me think that the weather gods, if there are any, must prefer pasta to potatoes.

It seems as if there are almost as many churches in Rome as there are Starbucks in New York, and we went into a few of them over the weekend. One church boasts that it has the heads of Peter and Paul, other churches have fingers, arms, pieces of skin, and other scraps of various people, long dead. Further research shows that another church in Italy has almost the entire hide of Bartholomew, who was skinned alive. Other churches around Europe claim to have other pieces of the unfortunate Bartholomew.

Assuming that all of these body parts are as advertised, it’s a bit crazy to imagine how it all happened. Take our friend Bartholomew. After he died, someone thought, "He was a great guy, I'm going to keep him." Back then, without walk-in meat lockers, Bart’s remains probably started rotting pretty quickly. Yet this person kept them until he had a talk with some other folks, and then they chopped the body up into little pieces and carried or sent them to their eventual destinations? Alternatively, were the remains all kept in one place until much later, when some priest decided to ship Bart bits to other churches to keep his memory alive? I can’t imagine anyone doing that today. Was Mother Teresa divvied up in anticipation of her possible future sainthood, or will that happen later?

We also went to the Capuchin crypt, which is made up of five rooms decorated with the bones of 4,000 Capuchin monks who died between the 1500s and the 1800s. They didn't just pile the bones up, which is what I had been expecting, they decorated with the bones. It was as if they had run out of ornate wallpaper with scrollwork and flowers, so they made the patterns with ribs, jawbones, and vertebrae, instead. It was like walking into someone’s grandmother’s apartment gone seriously morbid. The bones had originally been buried, but were dug up, cleaned off, pulled apart, and arranged. If those 4,000 monks had been told that one day, their ribs would become 3-D wallpaper, and their femurs would be stacked into peaked arches interspersed with their skulls, would they have changed careers?

On the way back, we realized just how accustomed we’ve grown to the Swiss way of life. We frantically boarded the train to the Rome airport, afraid that we would miss it, and were taken aback when it left five minutes late. Upon our arrival at the airport an hour before our flight (which would have been more than enough time in Zurich), we saw something very strange – a forty-minute line to go through security, and another line to get through passport control! We were flabbergasted, and would have missed our flight, had we not, with much begging, cut in front of hundreds of other people.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

13 March 2007

It’s March, which means that it’s tax time in Switzerland. Lucky American expats like myself get to file taxes twice a year: once with Switzerland and once with the IRS. The only thing more annoying than shuffling through pages of fine print about deductions and exclusions is shuffling through pages of fine print about deductions and exclusions twice, once in a language you can hardly handle in its everyday form, much less in its tax legalese form.

Some Swiss companies deduct tax at source, meaning that your take-home paycheck roughly reflects the actual breakdown of money that you get to keep and money that you have to give to the government. That’s the system I was accustomed to in the States. Many Swiss companies, however, decide not to take out tax at source, or to only take a small amount of tax at source, and instead opt to give a thirteenth salary payment, which is then supposed to be used to pay the taxes once they are due. Sort of an odd idea, to have your monthly salary quoted to you, and then realize that you get thirteen months of salary per twelve-month year.

While I'm on the subject of salary, there’s a proposal up for general vote now that would centralize the health care system here, so that everyone would be covered under the same government provider, and insurance premiums would be prorated according to salary. I don’t see how they’ll convince anyone to vote for it. So what they're proposing is, “Let’s make everything less efficient and more expensive by removing all the competition, and let’s charge rich, influential people more money for the same level of government-provided care as everyone else.” Somehow I doubt that will fly.

On the other hand, one thing that does seem quite practical is that in Switzerland, traffic fines are tied to salary, the theory being that when you punish someone for speeding, you want them to actually feel punished, and a rich person has to pay a bigger fine before he feels as punished as a poor person. Of course, I may also be more satisfied with this application of pro-rated payments because I am never in any danger of getting a speeding ticket, given the fact that I don’t drive in Switzerland. I do, however, have to have health insurance. So I await the outcome of the law with bated breath (and bank account), since I am unable to vote here.

It’s a strange feeling, to live somewhere long enough that you know all sorts of minutiae about the place, but to have no official voice or influence. I know when the garbage is collected, I know how often the trams run, I know what day Santa comes to town, I know where to get the best fondue, I know when my favorite summer time bar is open to the public without a cover charge, but I can’t vote for a local representative or have an impact (however small) on elections regarding health insurance or speeding tickets. Taxation without representation, I should start a revolution. On the other hand, it’s not like my interests are being well represented in the States, as evidenced by the fact that expat taxes were hiked up this year, thank you, Dubya.

The last couple of years, I’ve been absurdly pleased that Europe started Daylight Savings Time a week before the States, giving us a week with more sun, but this year, the States started two weeks before us, leaving us with a fortnight of relative darkness. In retaliation, a few friends and I are heading to Rome this weekend, hoping to get some Mediterranean sun and food. To all my friends who are Stateside, you can have your two weeks of sunshine, I'll console myself over gelato at the Colosseum.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

6 March 2007

Sometimes living in Switzerland is like looking at the back cover of Highlights magazine, where you have two pictures that at first glance look the same, but upon closer examination turn out to have some crucial and sometimes absurd differences. Many of the details of life here resemble things that are part of a normal American life, but only if you don’t look too closely.

I recently saw a poster advertising performances of Hamlet here in Zurich, which seemed normal enough until I considered two things, the first being that Shakespeare isn’t part of the literary and theatrical canon of the German-speaking world, and so live performances of Shakespeare are not as common as they are in, say New York or London. The second was the fact that the poster featured a skull, which may sound normal enough, given Hamlet’s monologue with poor Yorick’s skull. The strange thing in this case, the oddity that would appear in the second version of the poster in Highlights, was that there were bananas coming out of the skull’s eyes. It’s been a while since I’ve read Hamlet, but I don’t remember Hamlet’s speech as “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy, of bananas coming out of his eyes.”

The American Idol phenomenon has popped up in Switzerland in the form of Swiss Music Star. It’s the same idea – normal people auditioning on national TV to get a recording contract. There are judges, live audiences, viewer voting, and interviews. The contestants go through the same dramatic roller coaster ride of anxiety, anticipation, nervousness, and joy or despair. The key difference lies in the quality of the performances. Granted, Switzerland is a small country, so their audition pool is not very broad or deep, but Simon Cowell would have a field day here. Even when the show has narrowed it down to the top six finalists, allegedly the six best singers in Switzerland, the show still resembles clips from the first audition rounds of American Idol, the funny clips of the talentless people who think they can sing but are sadly mistaken.

Driver’s licenses in Switzerland were recently (a few years ago) changed from old-fashioned paper licenses to state-of-the-art, plastic, hologrammed cards. Seems normal, right? Two big differences – one is that the licenses are good for life, and the other is that you bring in your own picture. Unable to think outside the box, I dutifully brought in a passport-sized picture taken at a photo booth that looks like a standard American driver’s license picture – the color is slightly off, and I look like I’ve been doing hard time for a hard crime. Swiss people, however, knowing that they will be stuck with the photo for the rest of their lives, send in glamour shots with mood lighting and camera-ready makeup.

Easter is coming soon, and just as in the States, if you walk into a grocery store here, there are displays hawking Easter-themed products – chocolate bunnies, fuzzy stuffed ducks, placemats that look like Easter eggs, and so on. A second look, however, reveals two important gaps in the Easter lineup – Peeps and jellybeans. I find it hard to believe that an entire country full of people have celebrated Easter their entire lives without having Peeps – those fluorescent, near-radioactive marshmallow-related, sugar-covered treats that vaguely resemble chicks. And the rock-hard “dragon eggs” that they buy at Easter time are no substitute for the squishy delights of jellybeans. True, they’ve avoided the dreaded black licorice jellybeans, and the unpleasant surprise of the buttered popcorn Jelly Belly, but those risks come with the holiday, don’t they? Not in Switzerland, they don’t.