Thursday, July 26, 2007

Editor's Note

It's concert season!! Four concerts in one week, and heading out to Poland and Slovakia for a looong weekend before coming back in town for my annual birthday party. Celebrate with me and forgive my lackluster posting schedule :)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

18 July 2007

It’s been a while since I’ve hung out with Asian people. There just aren’t that many of them here, although the numbers are growing, due to a booming restaurant business and the increasingly common phenomenon of Swiss men bringing back Asian brides. I’m only half-joking. Recently, however, I’ve met a few other Asians, who seem just as surprised as I am to no longer play the role of “token minority friend” when we’re in a group together, especially if they happened to grow up here in Switzerland.

A good friend of mine works for the local subsidiary of a major international company, which happens to be located out in the suburbs. Compared to New York, Zurich can already feel a little bit suburban (population-wise, Zurich wouldn’t even break the top 50 cities in the States), so the suburbs of Zurich are, to put it in the words used by a Swiss friend, “provincial” (as is the case anywhere, the city folk enjoy sneering at the country folk, and vice versa). My friend’s colleague started talking about a “black woman” working in a different department, much to my friend’s confusion, because she wasn’t aware that there were any black people working there. After further probing and clarification, it turned out that the “black woman” was actually Asian, and that the colleague just called her black because she wasn’t white, and really, what else is there?

When I told that story to an acquaintance who has Tibetan relatives who immigrated to Switzerland, she started laughing, because when her relatives took an outing into the “provinces” when they first moved here (granted, this was perhaps twenty years ago), the villagers followed them around, gaping at the “black people,” and trying to touch them. I would have been tempted to say, “Greetings. We come in peace, take us to your leader,” but I wouldn’t have known how to say that in Swiss German.

The other week, I was taking an elevator with three Swiss friends, one of whom is Asian, one of whom is half-Asian, and the third of whom is white. It was the first time since coming here that I’ve been part of a (localized) ethnic majority, so I pointed it out to our white friend, “Hey, do you feel outnumbered and marginalized?” His eyes widened in astonishment, then we all burst out laughing. Of course, as soon as we stepped out of the elevator into the general population, he was once again part of the extremely dominant majority, and the rest of us were back to being the funny-looking outsiders.

Last night, a friend and I organized an after-work hangout by the river, and perhaps two dozen assorted friends, coworkers, and acquaintances showed up, including five (that’s right, five!!) Asians. Four of us were expats, so it wasn’t a new experience to be more than just token minority representatives, although it definitely felt a bit strange to be hanging out with multiple Asians in Zurich. For the one Swiss Asian, however, it was a bit mind-boggling, and the rest of us were highly amused by his amazement that several non-tourist Asian people can hang out in one place without causing a huge tear in the space-time continuum.

It’s mid-July, and the weather has finally warmed up in Zurich. April was hot, but since then, we’ve had a lot of cold, rainy days, and nothing is more disheartening than wearing wool sweaters and scarves in July. So we’ve been grateful for the change in the weather, although a bit annoyed that half the summer was wasted as a faux winter. The rest of the summer looks busy – in the next six weeks, I’ve already got three concerts, three visitors, two parties, and several trips planned. If there’s no rest for the wicked, there’s even less rest for the expat.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

11 July 2007

Last weekend was Zürifäscht (roughly pronounced TSU-ree-FESHT), the once-every-three-years party that takes place in Zurich, well, once every three years. Last time it happened, I had only been living in Switzerland for one month, and I didn’t think I’d be here for a second Zürifäscht, but obviously, I was. After living here for three years and getting to know the place and the people a bit better, I think Zürifäscht was an even bigger surprise the second time around.

First of all, about two million people are in town for Zürifäscht. Considering that the population of Switzerland is about 7.5 million, that means that during the big weekend, over a quarter of the entire population descends on Zurich, which usually has a population of 370,000. If one-fourth of the US decided to go to a party at the same time, you’d have 80 million people all of a sudden showing up in New York for the weekend, which would pretty much be a logistical nightmare. Granted, it would be much easier to deal with two million people than 80 million people, but you have to hand it to Zurich for managing a sudden quintupling of the city’s population with remarkable aplomb.

Secondly, I didn’t quite realize the full scope of the party last time. I didn’t know my way around the city much, so I just followed a Swiss friend around. This time, I saw a schedule of events and the geographic area covered by the festivities, and it’s pretty mind-boggling. We’re talking multiple Ferris wheels (because the Swiss can never have enough Ferris wheels), an air guitar contest, dragon boat racing, Jewish folk dances, a petting zoo, fireworks, air shows, diving contests, bobsled tracks, freefall rides, cotton candy, ring tosses, bars, salsa dance floors, and just about everything else you can (or can’t) imagine.

And this is Switzerland, so it goes without saying that there are sausage and beer stands, plenty of trashcans and toilets, and trashmen scurrying around picking up the litter. Gotta feed the people and keep things clean.

People who happen to come into Zurich for the weekend of Zürifäscht must think that the Swiss are wild, crazy, and into littering. None of which is really true, except for when there’s a triennial party going on. True to form, the party was set up and swept away with mind-boggling speed. Since it’s a big one, it actually took a couple of days on each side, but if you could see the amount of equipment (and garbage) that was trucked in and out, you wouldn’t expect it to be done faster than a couple weeks each way.

Zürifäscht is really the only occasion I’ve seen where the Swiss go all-out with state-sponsored fireworks. Swiss National Day (their equivalent of the 4th of July) is more of a private affair, with measly little store-bought fireworks. Zürifäscht is when the government steps in and buys boatloads of explosives for public display. It only happens every three years, but then they do huge shows (about 30 minutes long) for two nights, so I guess the cost balances out, because each show was a bit bigger than the Boston 4th of July show, which happens every year.

One great thing about Zürifäscht (for Americans, anyways) is that it happens at roughly the same time as the 4th, so once every three years, we get to see a good, old-fashioned, bombastic display of pyrotechnic delights that are a taste of home, amidst the sausage stands and people frantically texting each other, trying to figure out which Ferris wheel they’re supposed to meet under.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

4 July 2007

Happy 4th of July, and here’s to the fact that the 2008 elections are drawing ever closer! Dubya, your days are numbered.

A Swiss friend recently commented that he likes the German mentality more than the Swiss mentality, because the Germans are “more relaxed and laid-back.” That made me laugh, because it really showed how everything is relative. I don’t think that Germans are world-renowned for their relaxed, laid-back personalities, but compared to the Swiss, maybe they are.

One friend who has been living here for a while told me how she once met an older Swiss woman who was grumbling about how the country is falling apart and chaos was taking over. My friend asked her what she meant. The woman said that in the past, if a train was supposed to arrive in the station at 11:14, it would pull in just as the second hand swept past 12, at 11:14:00 on the dot. Now, she complained, the train could show up anywhere from 11:14:00 to 11:14:59! What is this world coming to?

Some work colleagues and I were having drinks at a bar a couple of weeks ago to welcome a new coworker to the office. We had made reservations for a table for 20 for 6 p.m., and the first of our group walked in at about 6:10. There was a lone woman seated at our very large table. She looked up, told us that the table was reserved, and told us to find another table. We pointed out that the reservation was for our group, and started sitting down. She protested that it was already 6:12, and that it was too late for us to show up. After some back and forth, and much grumbling on her part, she vacated our table and went to one of many smaller tables that were free.

There was recently a “Laugh Parade” in Zurich. I didn’t attend, but apparently, people congregated on a Sunday afternoon at a pre-appointed time and place, and then they walked through downtown Zurich, laughing. I’m not sure what they were laughing about, but it was to promote health through laughter. But seriously, who schedules a time and place to laugh at nothing with strangers? The Swiss do.

Scheduling is paramount in Switzerland. Punctuality is right up there with cleanliness and godliness, and scheduling things well in advance is also a great virtue. Take my apartment lease, for example. It’s a pretty standard lease for Switzerland. There are two built-in termination dates each year – April 1 and October 1. In order to actually move out on one of those dates, I have to give the landlord three months’ notice, on January 1 or July 1, respectively. Otherwise, I would have to find a subletter (whom my landlord has to approve), or I would have to pay all of the extra rent myself. This is definitely not a culture that is accustomed to the transient nature of young Americans.

Most Swiss people stay close to home. Zurich probably has the most “transients,” but even they come from only an hour away, and visit home often. I haven’t been to my parents’ house in almost four years, and I have very few friends left from the “olden days,” but I have met many Swiss people my age who still see their parents and childhood friends almost every week. Moving to a town that’s an hour away seems to be as big of a step here as moving from New York to San Francisco in the States.

Even for an American, I’m relatively rootless, but compared to the Swiss, I’m probably akin to a hobo with a work permit.