Tuesday, April 24, 2007

24 April 2007

It’s 2007, and Zurich has finally decided to cave in and open up a shopping mall. This is a country where, until a few years ago, it was illegal to have discounts or sales outside of certain government-regulated time periods, for fear of having unfair price competition, and where it is still illegal to have stores open on Sundays (except for in airports and train stations, or except for three specified Sundays each year, for those stores not located in a train station or airport). And now there’s a mall. Swiss style. Apparently, it was so mind-boggling that when it first opened a month ago, it was impossible to actually shop at the mall, because it was so crowded with people who went just to stand and stare.

The stores in the new mall close at 8 p.m. (most stores close even earlier), and are closed on Sundays. And as is practically required in every gathering of stores here, there is a large branch of one of the two major grocery stores. There is also a church, because we all know that that’s why people go to the mall – to pray for good deals and short lines. There’s a library for those who don’t want to buy anything, and a hotel for people who want to live at the mall. There’s a movie theatre with nine screens (which is quite large, considering that the main downtown theatre has four screens). For those patrons who feel that 8 p.m. is just too early to call it a night at the mall, there’s a nightclub.

Summer time is concert time in Switzerland. Although it’s a country of only six-odd million people, Switzerland has numerous music festivals in the summer, attracting all kinds of musicians of varying levels of international fame. I’ve seen Sigur Ros, Jose Gonzalez, Death Cab for Cutie, Royksopp, and Metric here, and I’ll probably see Bjork, Damien Rice, David Gray, Arcade Fire, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah this summer. Not bad.

What puzzles me about the summer music festivals is their nomenclature. For instance, the most famous summer festival is the Montreux Jazz Festival, which is where I saw Sigur Ros last year, where the Chemical Brothers, the Beastie Boys, the B-52’s, and the Pet Shop Boys are playing this year. My knowledge of jazz is pretty basic, mostly covering Monk, Ella, Billie, Louis, and Duke, but I’m pretty sure that “Sabotage” and “Time Warp” don’t get played regularly in jazz clubs. Maybe it should be called the Montreux Not-Necessarily-Jazz Festival?

Another big music festival is held in Lucerne. Van Morrison played there a couple years ago. David Gray will be there this year. It’s a well-known venue for established artists. And it’s called the Blue Balls Festival. Seriously.

Anyways, speaking of summer plans, a friend and I will be taking a trip to Helsinki and St. Petersburg soon. We found out that in order to get Russian visas, we have to give the government our flight and hotel information, our hotel needs to invite us to come to Russia as tourists, and then we can get our visas, after we’ve already booked our tickets and paid for our hotel. Sounds a bit suspect to me, especially since it involves lots of websites that end in “.ru,” which in any other context would make me think I was being scammed. I emailed a few hotels (in English, since my Russian is non-existent) to try to get a reservation. One hotel emailed me back in Russian. I translated their response online, and it’s clear that they understood my English inquiry, since they responded appropriately, so I’m just wondering why they responded in Russian. Or maybe they’re using online translations, as well, and we’ll show up and find out that we’ve ordered two ducks and an armchair, instead of three nights in a hotel room. Wish us luck.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

18 April 2007

I got back Monday evening from my trip to San Francisco, where I indulged in everything I miss out on here in Zurich – family, old friends, food, shopping, and speaking fast English to anyone who will listen. I got back to Zurich just in time to catch the tail end of Sechselaüten, the Swiss semi-equivalent of Groundhog Day, which, as I’ve described before, involves a gasoline-soaked, explosive-stuffed snowman effigy, costumed men throwing fish, apples, and rolls, fake Arabs in brown-face, and (like every good Swiss celebration) a parade with enough marching bands to populate a small country (I’ve come to believe that all Swiss men, in addition to having a military-issue rifle under their bed, also have a brass instrument tucked away in their closet).

After dropping my stuff off at my apartment, I stopped at my friends’ place to say hi to my local crew, who were celebrating the fact that the head of the Böögg (the burning snowman) exploded in just over twelve minutes, which supposedly means that we’ll have a warm summer. I handed out a few American goodies that various people had requested I bring back for them – contact lens solution, soy chips, and toilet bowl cleaner (I also brought back vast quantities of candy, beef jerky, dried mangoes, and cereal).

Then, I proceeded to instill envy in all of them as I regaled them with my doings during my ten days in the States. “I went to Costco! I went to Safeway and Walgreen’s! I had two Cinnabons! I went to Banana Republic and Old Navy, and the salespeople were so friendly! I ate all kinds of food – Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Mexican, French, mint chocolate chip ice cream! Everything was so cheap! I used the icemaker in my sister’s freezer! The washing machine was so big that I couldn’t even fill it!” Sometimes I wonder if I live in Switzerland or an alien planet.

My ticket was booked using some of my dad’s frequent flyer miles, and because coach was booked out by the time I bought my ticket, I flew business. I know this is obvious, but it’s a different world in front of that curtain – seats that recline more than three inches, so much leg room that it’s nearly impossible to kick the seat in front of you, warmed nuts, ice cream, eight movies, steak, complimentary toothpaste and booties, extra baggage allowance, priority seating, and the assurance that your bags will come within five minutes of deplaning. If all seats were business class, I’d fly a lot more.

It’s probably a good thing they aren’t all business class, because I’m not sure I really should be flying any more than I already am. I sat down and calculated all the flights I’ve taken since the day I started work in Zurich, and they total up to approximately 120,000 miles, which is equal to roughly fifteen trips around the world, one weekend at a time, in less than three years. Al Gore probably doesn’t approve of me.

Speaking of Al Gore, when I got back to Zurich, my friends informed me that for the previous week, it had been unseasonably warm, with temperatures going as high as 78 F (25 C). Keep in mind that Zurich is not a particularly hot town, and we usually only have a couple weeks each year where sleeping without air conditioning is actually uncomfortable. To be pushing 80 degrees in early April is a pretty good sign that I really ought to be flying less, or at least buying some carbon offsets to assuage the climate gods. Just don’t tell them about the trip I’ve got planned to Helsinki and St. Petersburg in May, or about the fact that I’m trying to decide what to do with my next two long weekends. Greece looks tempting.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

4 April 2007

I went to the bank to pull out some dollars in preparation for my upcoming trip back to the States, and while I was waiting in line, I started thinking about Swiss banks. Swiss banks really make quite a business of holding onto your money, moving your money, converting your money, and making money off of your money.

Unlike American banks, which only accept foreign currency in bills, Swiss banks also accept coins. Money is money, and change adds up, especially if they skim off a percentage on the exchange. Swiss banks also keep an impressive array of foreign currencies on hand, so that you can walk into a bank and immediately withdraw money not only in francs, dollars, and pounds, but also in baht, forint, and lira. Euros are even easier, since they are dispensed at ATMs just like Swiss francs. It’s great for last-minute people like me, since American banks typically require a week’s notice for ordering foreign currency.

Although there are the usual hurdles for opening a new account at a Swiss bank, the usual forms and identification verification sort of stuff, once you’re a customer at a bank, they make it ridiculously simple to open additional accounts. I walked into the bank one day to inquire about opening an account in dollars, to make it easier to transfer money from Switzerland back to the US without dealing with fluctuating exchange rates. I expected to fill out at least one form. Instead, the man at the counter swiped my ATM card, had me enter my PIN, typed a few things, then looked up and said that the new account was ready and waiting, just like that. And, of course, that it would incur a small monthly fee.

Ah, yes, the fees that come with Swiss banking. “Free checking” and credit cards with no annual fee are foreign concepts here. Free online banking? Nope. Looking at how much money I’m charged in fees here, I have to wonder how American banks can compete, if they’re giving everything away for free.

Then again, maybe it’s a cultural thing – if America is the land of the free, then Switzerland is the land of the surcharge. Even customer hotlines for orders, complaints, questions, or service are toll lines. That’s right, you have to pay to listen to hold music while you wait to order a computer, or if you have trouble with the computer and need to get it serviced. That doesn’t really add up for me – why charge people by the minute for the privilege of buying your product? And if you have a customer who is dissatisfied with a malfunctioning product and needs service, do you think that charging them byt he minute to listen to Muzak is going to make them any happier?

Anyways, back to the banks. One thing that always impresses me is that the bank tellers always speak at least three languages, if not more. How many bank tellers in the States can speak anything other than English? I think there are some American tellers that I’ve come across who didn’t even speak English all that well. It’s sobering to realize that I don’t even have the qualifications for one of the most basic jobs here. That holds true for a lot of people working in public positions in Zurich – the people running security at the airport, the ticket sellers for the tram, the police – most of them speak two, three, or four languages pretty fluently, even though their jobs aren’t necessarily the ones that are generally thought of as requiring a lot of education.

I leave Friday morning for San Francisco, where I’ll stay for a week and a half, so the next update will be in about two weeks.