Friday, October 19, 2007

19 October 2007

Switzerland has turned up on international news radars as it prepares for elections, mostly because of an initiative that has been proposed by one of the parties (any initiative, once it has enough signatures, can be put to a national vote). This particular initiative concerns whether non-citizen felons and their non-felonious families can be automatically expelled from the country, and was proposed by the same conservative party that successfully blocked the granting of Swiss citizenship to third-generation, Swiss-born, fully-integrated immigrants.

This right-wing party has about 27% of the popular vote, and they have been splashed all over international newspapers over their ad campaign that depicts several white sheep (representing good Swiss people) standing on the Swiss flag, kicking out a black sheep. There are games on their website where you can kick black sheep. I don’t know who thought this ad campaign wouldn’t be offensive to foreigners or minorities (but then again, this is also the country where a couple years ago, the transportation authority, wishing to prevent musicians from begging on trams, posted signs depicting a man wearing a poncho and sombrero, because clearly anyone who begs on a tram is a stereotypical Mexican).

In any case, it’s a little lesson about stereotypes – just as not all tram singers are Mexican, and not all foreigners are criminals, not all Swiss are neutral and polite. In some ways, I feel as if I’m in junior high again – back then, being Asian and intelligent (and having a bad perm) marked me as an outsider, a black sheep to kick out from some fabled inner sanctum of acceptance. And here I am again, a black sheep in a country full of white sheep. And I don’t even have a perm anymore.

Anyways, planning for Kenya continues. My new passport came back less than two weeks after I sent the old one in – how’s that for efficiency? The new one has been mailed off to the Kenyans to get a visa. I went to my doctor to get some “just in case” prescriptions for antibiotics and so on. My German isn’t great, and her English isn’t great, so we get by in a mixture of the two. I sometimes forget that when language is an issue, sarcasm often goes undetected, so when she mentioned the possibility of getting bloody diarrhea, I said, “Ooh, that sounds really fun,” and she very earnestly told me, “No, actually, it’s not fun at all.” Oh, really?

My two travel buddies and I went to the university travel clinic last night to get all the necessary shots. We showed up, took numbers, and sat and waited to be called. Then we were matched up with doctors who reviewed our travel plans and told us what shots we would need. Then we waited in line to pay. Then we waited in line to get the shots. With all the red tape and long lines, it was sort of like Disney World meets the DMV.

The consultation with the doctor was done in German (looking back, I’m still amazed that I managed to tell her all the necessary information, and even more amazed that I was able to understand everything she told me), and covered the exotic risks I would have expected, like polio and malaria, but she also spent a fair amount of time cautioning me to stay hydrated on the plane, and to periodically stretch my legs to avoid blood clots. While waiting in line to pay, a German man told me that he was told that because he often leaves Zurich to go into the mountains (in Switzerland), he should get a special shot.

It's apparently a dangerous world out there, once you venture forth among the black sheep.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

4 October 2007

The big news this week is that I’m going to Kenya next month! One of my friends (who is also a coworker) asked me Friday morning if I wanted to go on a trip in November. I expressed interest (everyone knows I’m a bit of a travel fiend), and he said he had a timeshare in Kenya next month. I caught another one of our friends right before she was about to go to lunch, and by that afternoon, the three of us had decided to go.

Sounds simple enough, but as with most fun things, it was a bit more complicated. We had to request the vacation days and wait for approval, and there was a bit of a panic when the ticket prices fluctuated. And then there’s the fact that the Kenyan consulate in Zurich apparently no longer exists, so we have to apply for visas through the embassy in Bern. Not a big deal, you just send your paperwork, money, and passport to them, and they send it back to you a week later with the visa. The passport just needs to be valid for six months after your trip.

Oh. Six months? Mine expires in… April. Wasn’t there something about big delays with American passport renewals or something in the news a while back? Uh oh. I called the embassy here and they assured me that the processing times for American passports being renewed through Switzerland is about three weeks. OK, whew. I just need to send in my passport, a form, two pictures, and some money (which I’ll have to do again to get my Kenyan visa, once I get my new passport back).

First things first, I went to go get new passport pictures taken. The embassy website listed the few Swiss photo places that were known to make regulation American passport pictures, so I went to the closest one. The guy sat me down, and I put on my best “I hope I don’t look terrible because I’m stuck with this picture for the next ten years” smile, and he told me to stop smiling. Swiss people aren’t allowed to smile in their passport pictures, so apparently they don’t want Americans to smile in theirs, either.

Too lazy to argue the point, I suppressed my smile (although not entirely), and thus ended up with a smirking photo that is sure to endear me to immigration officers everywhere. I went to pay and it cost 35 Swiss Francs, or about $30, using the current exchange rate (these days, I am so glad I get paid in francs instead of dollars). For two passport-size photos of me smirking!! If it hadn’t been so expensive, I would have considered getting them re-taken.

Then, I dropped the whole package off at the post office, and sent the fee to the embassy. I’m not sure how it’s done in the US, but here, they don’t want checks or cash, and I’m guessing that an online transfer is harder for them to match to the paperwork, so they want a post transfer. This entails bringing a wad of cash to the post office (because they don’t take credit or debit card, unless you keep an account with the postal service), writing down your address and the address of the recipient, and handing it over with the wad of cash (plus a $16 service charge). The post office then sends the recipient a post card verifying that you did indeed hand over the correct-sized wad of cash, and business gets taken care of. I hope.

In any case, I have to stay in Switzerland for the next few weeks, until my passport comes back, and it’s funny how restrictive it feels to say, “Oh, no, I can’t leave the country for the rest of the month.” Think positive passport thoughts for me, so that it comes back quickly, smirking picture and all, and so I can pass it along to the Kenyan embassy for my visa.