Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Angry Callers

Even after almost a year and a half, I still cannot master answering the phone correctly. No matter what, picking up a phone almost always seems to result in thirty seconds of confusion.

For example, yesterday I could see on my caller ID that someone from my office was calling so I just answered the very American way with, “Hello.”

Then the person said, “Madeleine.”

And I said “No, this is Chantal.”

And she said, “Chantal, this is Madeleine.”

And I thought. Oh, duh. Me and my crazy American brain again.

In the German language, typically you are greeted on the phone with someone barking their name at you. Often there is no “hello,” just a crude, “Herr Helmut”. Their tone usually sounds angry and/or serious so to a happy American used to a friendly “Hello?” it is very strange and I always do a second take and try to focus my brain to say my name and realize that others will also say theirs in a somewhat strident tone and expect me to say mine before they say anything else.

One time, a male called me and said “Ann-Charlott”. So I took the German approach and said my name. As it turns out it was the secretary, Charlie, telling me that he had Ann-Charlott on the line for me. After I made a fool out of myself for thinking a male could be an Ann-Charlott (hey, stranger things have happened around here), he transferred me.

In the US, if someone was going to transfer me, they might say, “I’ve got Ann-Charlott on the line. Can I transfer you?” Here, there is no such thing. Just a barked name said with a heavy accent and I never know who I’m talking to or how to react.

However, I am good at saying good-bye. Everyone here uses the Italian good-bye. Or in English, “chow.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Another American Assumption

A week or so ago my husband spotted gifts that we thought would be nice for our fathers. We finally both had time to go to the store together on Saturday to check it out. But the Baden store didn’t have the one I wanted for my father in the right size. So I went to the store in Zurich on Monday to find even poorer selection. So I went back to the Baden store to find they only had a few left, none in any of the right sizes. I was too late. And it was too bad.

In the U.S. there is rarely an occasion where you cannot buy what you want—especially before Christmas. Stores are open 24-7 or at least most waking hours and have plenty of goods in stock most of the time. Having a full range of size choices and “running out” is not usually an issue.

Well, I learned my lesson yet again in this little country. If you see something, buy it right then. If you need spinach, buy it when you see it in the grocery store. Don’t wait until tomorrow—it might be gone. Groceries. Clothing. This rule applies to almost anything apparently. So I will try to remember not to take time to consider a purchase. Even though once you buy things, you generally can’t return them. The opinion here is that it’s the buyers fault if it turns out to be something they didn’t want or doesn’t fit. End of story. (See also the 1-800-PAY-ME-MORE entry on customer rights and services).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Gambling Frau and her belching cat

Last night we had dinner over at our neighbor's place. She was so impressed by our Thanksgiving cooking that she set aside the raclette grill and made an elaborate dinner with three courses--(an apertif) salad, curry and rice, and dessert (plus grappa and espresso).

The most popular topics of conversation were gambling (we even got to see her "Casino Tasche" (Her special casino purse that is black with gold tassles.) We learned that she had spent the afternoon at the casino (losing 600 CHF) as well as the day on Wednesday there. She was very excited to learn that Brian knows how to play poker and so our next evening spent together will be a poker night so Brian can teach her the subtle art of poker playing. Then the three of us will at some point next year go to the casino together. Since I am the only one that has yet to visit the Baden Casino, this will be an interesting time. I've already labeled it "Gambling with the Frau."

The other popular topics were Swiss politics (got a little lost during this conversation), crime, and music. On the crime front, we got the alarm demo. Frau is very proud of her new alarm as she installed it herself on her door. It makes the loudest noise I have ever heard and the poor cat was beside herself. Anyhow, Frau informed me that she keeps a cell phone by her bed, so should anyone break in while she is asleep, she can promply call the police from her phone. We were also given a light timer as Frau is very concerned for our apartment since we will be gone for over 3 weeks during xmas. She informed us that people stand up on the castle that overlooks Baden and search the town for places to rob. We tried not to laugh and accepted her timer. We decided not to tell her how the street we used to live on in Richmond was a hotbed for various murders and break-ins. Baden, from her perspective, is just as scary. I guess it's all in what you know.

On the music front, our Frau has taken piano lessons for 12 years and can play Offenbach's Barcarolle and proudly started playing it from her electronic keyboard in the back room while we were finishing our salads. Between dinner and dessert, we all went back and she played it again for us. It was a very Swiss rendition. By this I mean, she played it to the exact tempo and with it's own background electronic waltz. This meant she could play a very full version by only using her right hand to play the melody. She was very exacting in her tempo, saying "Eins, zwo, dru" throughout. (The Swiss German numbers for one, two, three). It was very funny.

Then she wanted me to play some of her songs. Of course, they were about the level I played back in the 4th grade, so I had no trouble playing the right handed melodies along with her crazy electronically programmed left hand accompanient to Frank Sinatra's "My Way," and La Donne Mobile" and "Strangers in the Night". I sang too. I think she was truly amazed as she kept showing me every song she had in her entire binder. Some had crazy titles like "Something stupid," and "Frau Meier". Needless to say, I didn't know those.

Her cat, Schnoerli, threw up 3 times during our dinner on three different Oriental carpets (of course like any spoiled animal never once throwing up on the regular floor). Then she slumped over the couch for most of the dinner in the "woe is me" position, but by the end was feeling much better and got up into the drawer where Frau keeps little mice and she threw one down for all of us to realize she wanted to play.

So that, in a nutshell, was 3.5 hours of fun with the Frau. All in German of course, with certain points in Swiss German when Brian and I just shrugged at each other and let her babble on. And the guessing is over, as tonight she told us her age: 73.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cry me a (Schweitzerdeutsch) River

The worst part of living in a country that does not function in your language is that you end up always feeling like a two-year-old. The other night I burst into tears because even after a year and a half of diligent German study I still cannot read most of my mail—especially the important stuff like details concerning our rent being raised, etc. These documents seem to consist of one 20-letter word after another and my English speaking mind just does not have the endurance to sift through such immense letter combinations.

One recent piece of mail I have pondered for the last two weeks. It was for heat and hot water. We pay 350 CHF per month (310 USD) per month in addition to our rent and then at the end of the year they determine if this 4,200 CHF (3,700 USD) was really enough. So we got our first note, and I didn’t know if we owed 250 CHF or they owed us 250 CHF. So I carried the note around for two weeks in my purse hoping to have someone help me with the mystery. I translated the words on my own, but it still made no sense. Finally, today my German teacher told me what to do—it seems they owe us the 250 CHF (should make up for the week we had NO heat and hot water)!! But they will send it to us via post minus 20 CHF unless we tell them within 14 days a bank number. Well it took me 14 days to understand the letter, so I guess we will lose 20 CHF because of it, but that is the price you pay for living outside your culture and language. You end up losing a lot of money in misunderstanding things or not knowing where to get the best prices (I used to spend 3,20 CHF on 1 Liter OJ before I realized I can get that same amount at a certain store in a non-refrigerated section for ,90 CHF.)

Another thing that is bugging me but I feel helpless about is our rising rent. A few months ago, they told us that in December our rent will go up from too expensive to really too expensive. But we just figured that was normal and accepted and are paying it.

Last night we received another note telling us our rent was going up again in April from really too expensive to really really too expensive…Anyhow, a German friend at work said he thought it sounded fishy and directed me to an organization that serves the rights of renters. Well, guess what. The site is all in German and I can’t for the life of me get up the enthusiasm to try to deal with any of that either. So here we go again, possibly overpaying but being helpless in the process.

I can’t wait to go back to the US sometimes. One country for taxes. Cell phone contracts in English that I still can’t read, but at least feel good about knowing for sure that it’s not my fault. A 15 page housing contract, no problem. For the first time in my life, I will revel in English legalese. I can’t wait. Bring it on, English-speaking lawyers. I’ll challenge you to outdo a German word on my latest piece of mail—Betriebskostenabrechnung. And if you think that’s bad, just add a few more words of the same length before and after it. And then you’ll have a real German sentence. And then you can move on to paragraphs. Or just take the easy way out-- Break down and cry.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Grocery Store Gripes

I am heading back to the states next Friday and I can’t wait. A whole year away and Switzerland is really starting to get on my nerves. It’s bad enough that now it’s rained for a week straight, everyone wears black and no hint of a smile, but then they also have to be pushy on top of that. Literally. Yesterday I was minding my own business trying to look at something on a bottom shelf in a grocery store. I just had a small basket as usually I don’t get a cart as it involves one, having the correct coin for your cart deposit, and two, because Swiss grocery stores are not built for heavy cart traffic.

My situation was classic. A woman wanted to pass by me with her cart, but the aisle is only big enough for one cart and NOTHING else. This did not phase her. She began pushing her cart towards me until I had the choice of either getting bruised or moving. Being less of an Anglo-shopping wimp than in the past, I held my ground until it was clear there was no stopping an impending doctor visit. Then I got up, gave her a dirty look and stomped out buying only a banana.

Last Friday was no different. Except this time I had the Swiss weapon of choice, a cart. The event took place as I was coming up the ramp (yes, this particular store has the smart design of two levels, so to get anything besides fruits and veges and chilled items you must go up and down a ramp with your cart). I got the creepy feeling that I usually get in most Swiss stores that someone behind me was about invade my American-sized personal space. I could feel this woman’s breath literally on my neck. But all she had was a basket and she wanted to get past me. Now I am all for the whole stand on the left, walk on the right concept of escalators, etc, but most Swiss ramps give no such option based on their size. And I was stuck like a statue on this ramp because it’s designed so that a cart can’t move once a cart is on it. (Alas, the Swiss designed the ramp to prevent accidents from carts, but they failed to consider the consequences from their impatient people stuck behind such a secure cart.) So as I get to the top of the ramp, it takes a second to get the cart to come out of its protective groove and back on the normal floor. Well the lady behind me couldn’t take it anymore and plowed her basket right into my back. I stormed off the ramp and into the produce section, only narrowly missing an employee throwing a rotten onion into a crate beside me. As I checked out, again my cart caused an older woman behind me angst, because I was not fast enough grabbing my items after they were rung up so she pushed my cart into a corner and blocked me from getting it and my 2 franc deposit back until she was done packing her things. I could have pushed her back, but I was trying to handle my own personal cart, the store’s shopping cart, and an additional bag full of groceries that wouldn’t fit in my personal cart, so I just grinned and beared it.

I went home dragging my purchases, another day, another grocery store escapade. And another night of wide aisle dreams.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Language Learners

There seem to be certain "types" of languages learners in my experience of taking language classes for over 7.5 years. (Unfortunately these 7.5 years have included 3 languages making me not compentent in anything except analyzing how people learn a language).

Anyhow, language of the past year and a half has been German.

In my class there are various characters. But this seems to be the case in any language class, but here it's more interesting because the people in the class aren't all Americans or native English speakers.

Language Learning Types:

1. The guy that talks non-stop like he's fluent but still can't conjucate the verb "to have."
2. The Frenchman that talks perfect German most of the time but because of his accent, it sounds like he's speaking French no matter what.
3. The American guy who looks like a deer in headlights throughout the entire class and always has to clarify everything in English.
4. The constant dictionary reader--the language learner that can't read past one single word he doesn't know without looking it up.
5. The perfectionist that can spit out a difficut sentence in class, but then faces the real world and can't for the life of her remember how to say that very thing.

Anyhow, learning a language makes life interesting. Even if all you really learn is how others act!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Cooking Thearpy

I don't have much of a record as a cook. In fact, in previous years I have gone out of my way to avoid cooking. Frozen pizzas, Pasta Roni, Mac and Cheese, you name the processed food, and I ate it.

A couple weeks ago I was desperate as the stores had closed at their usual 7pm and I got home at 7:30p. We had nothing much to eat in our apartment. But I found some old packets of good ole US chicken noodle soups. I made it, thanking the US for its practical food. It was so easy, all I had to do was dump the packet of dried soup into boiling water. It even detailed how you could save time by microwaving it instead. But I made it the traditional way on the stove praising my patience in the act.

It was done in 5 minutes. And then I couldn't eat it. It tasted horrible. What happened? It's not like I could have mistaken how to make it as the directions were in English. Not to mention I used live on this stuff.

What happened was that while I became a foreigner, my American food slowly did too.

After living in Switzerland where pre-prepared, frozen, and boxed food is as prevalent as, say, a sunny day in Zurich (fact: Zurich gets more rain than London) I have been forced, along with all the other Swiss housewives to make peace with raw, unprepared food.

At first, we really didn't get along. I burned many things in my centigrade temperature oven. I couldn't figure out for the life of me how many grams made up a pound. Or how many liters a cup was. I went to the store and wanted to cry because there was every cheese on earth except chedder. Or I'd get home and realize the steak I bought was pork, not real steak.

But like my German, I improve a little in my cooking every day. Today, for example, I had to work on a really boring project for work. But luckily I could work from home. So inbetween the paragraphs I cooked.

I cooked French Onion soup and my husband came home for lunch to eat it. I cooked banana bread from scratch. And then for dinner I baked oven-roasted vegetables in olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and fresh basil. There was no cutting corners. No buying already minced garlic (doesn't exist) for example.

I have been so upset at work lately, that I have used cooking to calm me, to get me praise that I'm not getting elsewhere in my life. It's easy now, as my husband is used to having a wife that never cooks, so anything I make he is amazed.

Going to 3 grocery stores for ingredients for one meal no longer phases me. I have made peace with cooking. And I'm going into the kitchen now to throw out the remaing pre-made soup packets. And then I'm unloading the dishwasher for the second time today. Cooking, you see, makes lots of dirty dishes.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

I survived the holiday party

The evening began at the bar next to the theater. Then we watched the play Dom Jaun (by Moliere) in German. I actually understood a lot more than I thought as the play was in high German and the actors spoke very clearly. There were two scenes in particular that I understood almost all of. Towards the end I was zoning out, but overall I actually enjoyed the experience.

After the play we headed to a restaurant in Zurich's old town for dinner. We had a long table that seated all 20 of us. We were promply informed that the restaurant was a smoke free place, so the smokers had to keep getting up and going outside. This was bizarre, because somehow, all the smokers had ended up sitting all on one side of the table, so when they all got up one whole side of the table was empty. This didn't last long because one person just lit up anyhow, got yelled at by the waitress, but then they just let it slide, brought ash trays, and then 10 people were smoking at once (cough). I was very disappointed!

Anyhow, we stayed at the restaurant until about 12.15. My friend entertained us with some English songs--he brought an amp and mic and sang for the last 1/2 hour. I joined in a bit on "Let it Snow."

I ended up taking the last train to Baden at 1.06--had to keep speaking German until almost 1.30 as it turns out another lady from our office also lives the Baden area. Whew. But I did it. I heard myself make mistakes the whole evening and many people kindly corrected and helped me but I also surprised myself with some good speaking and listening (except at the times the conversation switched into Swiss German).

So, here's the after party conclusion.

1. My German held out for 6 hours. This is a new record.
2. Jerks at work remain jerks at parties.
3. Company parties usually end up being more fun than you think ahead of time. But I'd still rather have the money.


Holiday Fun

Today we went to two different Christmas markets-one in our hometown of Baden and one in Waldshut, Germany. We enjoyed both, but the one in Germany had many more exciting (and cheaper) food options as well as a carosel for children and some carolers singing Jingle Bells in English. I sang along.

In Baden, all the market offered to eat were sausages, raclette (melted cheese on bread) and mulled cider or wine. The garlic bread machine was broken (I asked since I'm not a big fan of sausage but have learned to eat a bit or two since usually there aren't many other options.) Anyhow, we ended up with one sausage and one mug of mulled cider.

At the German market, the food options were endless. Yes, many sausages, but also flammkuchen (a kind of pizza), mulled cider and wine, schnitzel with potatos, chickens, etc. Here a cup of mulled wine was 1.50 Euros. Compare this to Switzerland where a cup is the equivelent 3.60 Euros. (This is one reason there was a line of cars to cross the border back into Switzerland after shopping hours with no one going the other way!)

Both markets had about the same types of xmas items for sale--ornaments, candles, etc. but the Swiss market had more wooden toys for children.

While in Germany we enjoyed doing some shopping for some random items that are ridiculosy priced in Switzerland. For example:
1. applesauce (almost 4 times the price in Switzerland)
2. Qtips (2 times the price in Switzerland)
3. Soap bars (almost 4 times the price in Switzerland)
4. canned beans (3 times the price in Switzerland)
5. meat (2+ times the price in Switzerland)

It is so interesting to go only 12 km (Baden to the border of Germany is only 8 miles and have things change so drastically.) The other thing we enjoy is hearing real German. I understand people talking and can ask for things without getting "ah, you're a foreigner look." It was really refreshing to order some bread at a bakery and have the transaction go completely smoothly.

There are 2 new German grocery stores right next to the station in Waldshut and this is awesome. I may go back there more often because of this. It is only a half hour train ride from Baden but we hadn't been there for a few months. The other great thing about German grocery stores as opposed to Swiss ones is that they are huge and American feeling. They have many more choices of products and have many additional American food items Switzerland only has in their "speciality department store grocery stores". For example, I was excited to find a bag of mashmallows for .99 EUR just in an everyday store as opposed to an overpriced departmen's international grocery store--the same bag in Switzerland is the equivalent of 3.7 EUR--almost four times the price!

Friday, December 07, 2007

Company Christmas Parties

Since I am off to a company Christmas party and my husband is taunting me because he's glad not to have one tonight, I start to wonder about the point of company Christmas parties since I really have never known anyone that is really too excited about going (with the exception of the occasional delusional HR person).

I guess it's something companies feel they have to do, it's tradition like anything else. But a great new tradition would be to give everyone a portion of the Christmas party money instead. I'd much rather have say, 100 CHF to go out to dinner than my husband than to spend yet another five hours with my work colleauges. (In Switzerland spouses are never invited to company parties; a mistake I learned the hard way last year when I made my RSVP for both of us. Silly me to assume the company having us in double bedded hotel rooms meant your spouse was invited).

At least this year, the company party sounds much more appealing than last year's overnight drunk fest where employees were required to share hotel rooms. This year we are going to see a play at the theater. Despite the fact that it is in German, I am looking forward to not having to try to talk German for at least an hour out of the evening. Then we go to dinner afterwards where I will either understand 50% of what's being said or will smile and nod when conversation switches to Swiss German. I know I will be very tired by the end of the evening from the German alone (not to mention the cigarette smoke at dinner), but at least there is no overnight stay involved and I have the excuse that the last train to Baden is at 1:06.

Poor Brian has already had one Christmas party and has two more next week. He's organizing a dinner for his team and I told him they're probably all already moaning in secret about the fact that they have to go. He thinks so too, but is still organizing it! Some traditions never die, that's why companies mantras will always say, long live the Christmas party!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Thanksgiving Lessons

I guess I never reported the outcome of our Thanksgiving dinner.

It was a very nice evening. We managed to speak German for 1.5 hours and to smile and nod at German for an additional hour.

We learned the Swiss German word for cookie and various other words in Swiss German that we caught our neighbor saying inbetween her high German.

For the second time, I was able to pick out mistakes that our neighbor made in her high German speaking. (Mainly word order issues) Alas, I was the polite American and did not point them out.

During Thanksgiving we also learned a few things from our neighbor:

1. Too many English words are invading German and it is not good. (French was not a culprit even though the Swiss Germans say "Merci" after every transaction.)
-we pointed out that English has German words like "Kindergarden" and got a very surprised response.

2. Americans are to blame for stores in Switzerland having opening hours on Sundays in December.
-I decide not to say that my mother and sister were excited to do a 5am shopping spree on Black Friday.
-But then a half hour later we are told how our neighbor got a lovely orchid at a store in the next town over on a Sunday. Hmm.

3. All she knew about Thanksgiving before this was from the movies. She was a bit let down that Brian did not bring a giant cooked bird to the table. However, Swiss ovens cannot fit giant birds in them. (See entry about cooking one pie at a time).

4. She really liked the stuffing and the cranberries despite the fact she had no clue what they were before the dinner.

5. We were told to use both locks on our door. One is not good enough and we should also follow her example and install an alarm system because there are creepy teenagers in our buildling. I figured it was useless to ask if she had ever lived in New York. Heaven forbid if Baden is dangerous I don't know what she would think of our old place in Richmond). I held back my urge to tell her my DC Sniper stories. Not enough vocab for that anyhow.

6. Brian and I sleep until 11am the day after. Cooking with strange ingredients and appliances along with German really has a way of doing us in.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sexism in Switzerland

Switzerland may think it's neutral, but my experiences and facts prove otherwise.

Here are some facts:

1. Swiss women are paid 20% on average less than male counterparts. (
2. Swiss women did not get the right to vote until 1971.
3. Swiss women that do work and are married are taxed at a higher rate.

Here are some personal experiences:

1. Being taken to a strip club for a meeting while the top boss laughs because he can't wait to see my reaction.
2. Having a top manager consistently say "hi" in a different tone of voice than is used with male colleagues.
3. Having a boss saying he was excited about employing a new female worker because she was "hot"
4. Watching as a top manager gives a stripper his business card so he can hire her as the new secretary.
5. Having a boss show me an "inspiring" movie clip on YouTube that is scantilly clad women dancing.
6. There are no Swiss women employed in anything other than secretarial positions in my office. All women in higher positions are foreign like me.

My husband has also seen poor behavior among men towards women in his office and other female friends who have worked here have similar experiences. Not that this kind of thing doesn't happen in the US, but because sexual harassement are grounds for dismissal, I just don't think it's as prevelant although I have some personal incidents from the U.S. as well. I'll save those for another time.

Don't Take My Groceries!

I had lunch today with a former German colleague. He always has lots of stories about the US to compare to my strange Swiss experiences.

The first time he shopped in a US grocery store he was in NYC. As he was checking out, he became very flustered when an African-American man started taking his groceries and putting them in a bag. He yelled at him, "Hey what are you doing, those are my groceries," before noticing that this man had a supermarket shirt on and actually worked for the store and was merely providing a service Europeans have never even considered--free bags and free packing services.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thanksgiving Cooking

This year, we are actually attempting to cook a Thanksgiving meal. Never mind that we are doing it on Saturday instead of Thursday and that all the conversation during the acutal dinner, since we've invited our Swiss neighbor, will be in German. It will still be nice. I even got an orange pointsetta for the table.

So far, the cooking is actually going well despite a few desperate internet translations for strange German cooking words, figuring how much 200 grams of sugar really is, and doing the usual conversion of cups to grams to buy ingredients.

I am so advanced in my European cooking at this point that I don't even have to convert 400 degrees F to C because I already know the conversions. So right now as I write, the second of at least three pumpkin pies is baking in our microscopic oven at a well converted temperature.

Yes, at least 3 pumpkin pies will be made out of what is ingredients for one US pumpkin pie. This is because the Swiss don't eat pies, they only have tarts. So the only ready made crust I could find after looking in 4 stores is really a shallow crust meant for what else, to cook cheese in. So we'll see how it goes. My husband ran out to buy another shallow crust after I put in the second pie. We can't waste the precious US pumpkin mix!

Oh, and I can only cook one thin pie at a time due to the small oven. So baking what should be one pumpkin pie is a three-four hour process here as each pie takes about an hour. Thank goodness I made the cornbread yesterday.

Yesterday was actually the most difficult part--trying to find things like a ready-made pie crust and whipped cream. But I've learned to never expect to find what you are looking for in the packaging you expect it nor the place in the store you'd expect it. For example, the ready made crust can only be found in one store (Migros) out of the four I checked. And it's not in the freezer section (because the freezer section is actually a joke), it's refridgerated and near all the vegetables. And it's got a photo of cheese on it.

The whipped cream caused a lot of unnecessary pacing in an entirely different store (Coop). It was not with the chilled dairy products nor the butter, but near the bread section, high above a few boxes of warm milk. I had almost given up and bought a yogurt size container of double cream when I finally spotted it. Whew. It was a very tiring shopping experience yesterday--2 stores, 1 cart, 1 purse, 1 plant for the table, and me--with two hands! Not to mention I had to drag it all up two flights of stairs since our buildling isn't exactly handicapped accesible! No wonder the Swiss don't do actual gym work-outs, just shopping is more exercise than anyone should have to do in a day.

Anyhow, hopefully all will be worth it. I'll keep you posted!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Like Any Other Day

My Swiss friend Tom thinks there could be potential for Thanksgiving in Switzerland. After all, 10 years ago there was no Halloween here and now there's a few pumpkins here and there as well as a few crazy people that dress up and go to parties besides expats.

But for some reason, I just don't think Thanksgiving will work. There's not enough money to be made since Thanksgiving is all about eating. But then again I saw that the Marriot here in Zurich will cook a turkey for you for a mere 208 CHF. So who knows, stranger things have happened.

But for that price, I will be settling on eating raclette tonight. After I get home from work, of course.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Glowing Pumpkin

Happy Halloween. Here is an image of our pumpkins. My husband did a cat face and I did a confused expat face. A confused expat consists of starry American eyes, a Swiss nose, and a stripe for a mouth. It's a face of someone that doesn't fit in in either place any more. Oh, could that be me?

Trick or Treat

Despite the fact that the Swiss don't celebrate Halloween, I wore my orange shirt and black pants all day and I'm about to light the pumpkins we carved on Sunday and enjoy them. But I did have my own set of trick or treating today--I met a friend who is moving back to the States in town and we walked back to her house and I got to go "shopping" in her house and choose any American food products I wanted to take. It was so great it felt almost more like Christmas than Halloween. Here is what was in my goody bags today:

2 bags of marshmallows
BBQ Sauce
Stuffing mix
Chip dip mixes
Seasoning packets
Cans of chili
Peanut Butter cookie mix
Crystal Light drink mix
Corn Starch
Brown sugar
Maple Syrup
Pancake Mix
A1 Steak Sauce
Gatorade Mix
Mac & Cheese
Ritz Crackers
Dryer sheets
Pumpkin Pie Mix
Bleach Sticks
Fajitia Kit

Wow. I guess it was a good Halloween after all! Thanks to my friend for the generosity!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Shiny Certificate

Last week in class, our German teacher announced that after completing the next course, we could go to the city of Aarau and take the official Goethe Institute German test and upon passing receive a shiny certificate that says we have mastered German.

After being in the real world for over 4 years (gosh, how have I survived) I find this whole test/certificate thing a little funny. Especially because what one can do on a test seems to be about 6 months ahead of what one can do in real life. For example, about four months ago, we learned to use sentences with "weil" (because). I got 100% on the test from that chapter. But it wasn't until now that I'm starting to actually be able to use "weil" in normal speaking circumstances without stopping to really ponder the word order.

On paper, my German looks great. In the hardware store, it appears I have not taken German at all. So while I'll go and take the test to say I've mastered the German language, I'll come home and show my certificate to my Swiss friend Tom and pronounce in English that I've now mastered German.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Jumbo Breakdown

Every time we go to the Jumbo there is always some kind of crisis. Yesterday we took the bus there to buy an electric heater/fireplace since our apartment buildling can't seem to provide guaranteed heating services. Once in the Jumbo, we found the fireplace we wanted on the display but couldn't find it on any shelf in the entire store and we searched every department in order to avoid the worst case scenario--having to talk to someone.

Finally we gave up looking and I wrote down the name and model of the unit we wanted to avoid any kind of misunderstanding due to bad pronunciation. Then we went to the customer service desk and I managed to get across my point. I understood the woman when she told us that the last one left was the floor model and we could have it if we wanted it. We thought we understood that someone would bring it up for us (hopefully in a box) so we waited near the desk. And waited. And waited. Finally, annoyed and frustrated we went and got it ourselves. But first we wanted to test that it would actually work. So we plugged it into an extension cord and plugged the extension cord into the wall. And then we blew a fuse.

Actually I was glad about the fuse as I was annoyed with the service we had received anyhow. So after that, we pushed the electric fireplace up the ramp on our little orange cart. The size of it was very awkward--especially without a box as it couldn't fit in our cart, but rather set precariously leaning against it. At the check-out register, the woman looked at us strangely with this out of the box fireplace leaning against our cart and asked us something unidentifiable in Swiss German. We pointed to the woman over at the customer service desk. So she called that woman and made sure it was legal for us to be taking their floor model.

In the US, normally if you buy a floor model with no box or instructions, you get a discount, but like I said in a previous e-mail there is no such thing in Switzerland. So we paid full price and hoped for luck dragging the fireplace, boxless and vunerable, 3 blocks to the bus stop.

My husband has had a lot of practice manuvering strange objects on an IKEA cart and his previous expeditions paid off as he expertly leaned the fireplace on the cart and held on to it when we had to go over curbs. When we got on the bus he expertly lifted the entire thing along with the cart it was resting on, onto the bus and then off, down an elevator, across a busy road, and then up the steps into our building and finally our apartment.

Of course, when we got home 2 hours after the expedition began, our heating was working again. But I didn't care. I was happy to have my little fireplace, even if it is just a glorified glowing hairdryer. To me, it's beautiful and makes me feel more at home. And hey, anything in this strange country helps.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Wincasa is terrible

We still have no hot water or heat after a week now. And the problem has really been going on since March. All I want is a hot shower. Is that too much to ask? I feel like I'm living in Africa not in Switzerland! Check out the link below on Wincasa.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Pumpkins After All

Today while I was dragging my cart of groceries home I passed a small market and eyed two large pumpkins. Well, let me revise that and say two large Swiss pumpkins. This means small American pumpkins, probably the smallest size possible you could carve without hurting yourself. Finding a pumpkin of this size--and two no less--is very unusual--I had been checking for a few weeks now, but this was perfect timing. But my cart was full, so I ran home, dragged the cart up two flights of stairs, unloaded, and returned to the market with an empty cart.

I asked in German how much they were, knowing I didn't care anyhow, that this was my final chance for a decent sized pumpkin before Halloween. I have never spent so much on pumpkins before, I think in the US maybe we paid 5-7 dollars for one? These were 36 CHF total for two small American-sized pumpkins. But I didn't care. Somehow this week I've been missing home more than usual due to 5 days of no hot showers and the failed attempts to communicate something greater to our landlords than "the hot water is not working again. this is not good." And work has been hard too, with briefings for projects entirely in German that take me so much effort to figure out that I have no energy left to actually do the work after I've finally understood the assignment.

Anyhow, as I was buying the two pumpkins the seller switched to English and asked, "Are you from England?" I guess who else would be buying two large pumpkins. The Swiss just buy them to cook with. I said no, I was from the US and then the guy asked me if I went to Pickwick's Pub (the English pub in Baden) a lot because he had never seen me there. I said no, I never went to Pickwick's. Then he smiled and asked how long I had lived here. It was really amazing just the fact that he was friendly as most people around here never smile let alone talk to me, so all-in-all it was a good exchange. It was almost American in style.


A couple of years ago, I might not have been too excited about the greatness of customer service in the United States. Especially after being on hold for what felt like hours listening to bad elevator music only to have my hopes dashed by a human voice that transferred me to another set of musak. But, hey, the call was free, so what can you expect?

In Switzerland, there is no such thing as free. It doesn't matter if the company you are giving business to messed something up, you will still pay them more for the privilage of trying to resolve it. There are no toll-free numbers, rather special extra toll numbers for issues like this.

For example, with the SBB online ticket ordering, they send you an e-mail stating that if you have a problem with your order you can call them for only 10 cents a minute (plus whatever outrageous rate your phone company charges you) for the pleasure of trying to get to the bottom of your unresolved order. They put it so nicely, like they are doing you a big favor by making you pay to call them.

However, despite the overpriced calling scheme, (the Swiss will make money off of you no matter what!) you never have to wait for someone to talk to and there is only one short automated menu to get past which asks which language you prefer--German, French, or Italian. So I just stay on the line and hope for the best. Both times I called I got someone to speak with me in fairly good English and today, the young woman I spoke with acutally called ME back within ten minutes after having solved my problem. So despite having paid I don't know, five dollars, I did not waste 20 minutes like I would have on a toll free number in the U.S.

So while there is no perfect customer service in the world (and I'm a cheap person, so I can't believe I'm saying this) I'd rather pay a little for service. Even if it's to resolve an original service that was non-existant. After all, time is money. And I deserve a raise.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cold and Helpless

This morning I woke up to a freezing apartment and got into the shower, thankful to warm up. But only cold water came out and I had no hope for improvement as this is a recurring problem at our apartment. I was too cold to even attempt washing my hair at this point so I wore a hat all day at work thinking that when I got home it would all be fixed since my neighbor, wearing the thickest sweater I had ever seen, told me the experts were coming to take a look. Between her nagging to our building maintenance guy, and my husband's cute attempt at a German e-mail to our leasers, I decided it would be taken care of.

At home at 7pm, I finally took off my hat, my head itching from the long hours of wear. The apartment was warm, so at least the heating was fixed. But still no hot water. To me this was unbelieveable. It's been on and off since Saturday, not to mention on and off since March. We pay a staggering amount for rent (think over 2,000 USD a month--this is the norm in Switzerland, it's not like we would choose to pay such an amount). And our neighbor is very angry as well--she went out and bought an electric heater--and given prices in Switzerland, I'm sure it wasn't exactly a bargain.

But believe it or not, the most frustrating thing isn't the lack of hot water, it's the feeling of powerless to do anything about it. In the US I would have been on the phone, I would have been writing e-mails or even letters using my persuasive copywriting skills to get across my disatisfaction. While the problem may not have been fixed right away either, I would have at least felt like I was getting my feelings out.

In March, when our hot water went out, I had to deal with it myself since our neighbor was on vacation. I wrote out a German script and read it over the phone. But I never understood what was said back to me so I just kept repeating my script. Then I'd call another number and repeat the same thing, wondering the entire time what the final outcome would be.

Six months later, my German is much better, but I still can't get across something like issues concerning building maintenance and anger. I want to write a letter of dissatisfaction, and I'm going to try it out--using the few words I know like "unbelieveable". I know it won't be what I really want to say, but maybe I can get a little closer now that I can write sentences greater than 4 words in length. Tomorrow morning is German class, so I will have my teacher check it and we'll see if I can shake my helplessness away--at least with a few tedious hours of work.

Monday, October 22, 2007

I no longer fit in anywhere

When you live abroad, you see new places, but you also see where you came from in a way you never could before. When I visit home now, I question the people that drive from one store to the next in a strip mall, waiting as long for the closest parking spot to the next store as possible when they could have walked much faster. I question the big cars with one driver in them. I question the necessity of 24-hour shopping. I will never be able to live in my own country again as a blissful citizen, one who knows no other way of doing things.

But I cannot become Swiss either. No matter how good my language gets, I will never speak like a local. I will never feel comfortable barging in front of people in lines, even though my skills are improving. I will always complain about the lack of choices in grocery stores—there is no such thing in Switzerland as an aisle of only soda and no concept whatsoever of root beer. I will always want to call someone by their first name the first time I meet them, not have to wait a year while we politely size each other up. I will always start a business meeting with a topic like what I ate for lunch instead of the business at hand—small talk is in my blood.

In both countries, I have seen the good and bad, and understood each by separating myself from them even though I have lost my old identity in the process. But I still hope that when I return to live in the United States—even though I may question many things I never would have before— that I will never question that I am home.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Despite the fact that I haven't gotten a raise in over a year of working in Switzerland, I am making more money than before, at least in US dollar amounts. The falling dollar only makes the Swiss Franc worth more--despite the fact that both currencies are struggling against the Euro. When we arrived in June 2006, 1 USD was about 1.27 CHF. Today 1 USD is 1.18 CHF.

My Swiss friend Tom recently returned from a trip to the US where he practically bought out the US. (All this week he was dressed Ambercrombie and Fitch style--jeans, converse sneakers, button down and zipped sweatshirt). He didn't check the rates beforehand and was just assuming the amount from that last time he went, which was 1 USD to 1.5 CHF. Boy was he happy when he returned and saw he had spent much less than he thought!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Posh in Poland

This morning when I checked my voice mail, there was a message from last night from my husband. He had complained all evening about having to go to Poland for a couple days for work to drink whiskey with clients. But the message was a very enthusiastic, "I've got an amazing room! It's a corner suite and I've got a huge bathroom!"

Where was he? Where else? At the lap of luxury in Warsaw, the Holiday Inn. I can't wait to hear about the breakfast.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Fashion Victim

When I first moved to Switzerland I swore I wouldn’t change my clothing style. Let them stare, I thought, as I wore shorts in the 90-degree heat.

Baseball hats, white socks, you name it, I was wearing it. I was a non-stop tourist in my own town. I had the camera. I had the sneakers. The only thing I didn’t have was the fanny pack.

I laughed at the Swiss fashion and I’m sure they laughed at me. They wore leg warmers with capri pants; I wore sweatpants with Illini written across the butt. They wore big boots with tight pants tucked into them; I countered with bell-bottom jeans and flip-flops. Women that wore stilettos on the old cobblestone streets amazed me. As I’m sure my NASCAR baseball hat amazed them.

But then one fateful day as I was about to pull on my sweats and head to the grocery store I thought twice and put on a skirt. And I fought the urge to put on my hat and instead fixed my hair.

This was the turning point. Because when fashion changes so does your mindset. Three months into my move to Switzerland and I was tired of being a tourist. I wanted to be a part of Switzerland rather than just an observer. In short, I wanted to feel like it was my home.

Fashion is a part of culture, and I joined. It was one area that I could control. Unlike my German, I could be sure of what my new knee-high black boots looked like with my capris. But as my Swiss friend pointed out, I could never be sure I wasn’t saying “Zehnartzt” (toe doctor) when I really meant “Zahnartzt” (dentist).

And while I wore Swiss fashions, I also wore a look of bewilderment whenever someone tried to talk to me in Swiss German. But if I wore an iPod I could tune everything out. This is when I was at my most Swiss.

I’d warn visitors from the states that people here didn’t wear shorts or white socks. Or sweatshirts and sneakers. But they didn’t care. My mom put it best, “Well, I’ll look like a tourist because that’s what I am.”

But a year into being in Switzerland, I could no longer get away with the tourist look. Except of course, when I crossed the border.

Anywhere else in Europe, I was free. I didn’t feel self-conscious about putting on my ball cap, or wearing my gym shoes. My vacation clothes would have some Swiss elements, but in Prague, Budapest, and Paris, I wasn’t ruled by fashion like I was at home in Switzerland.

But as I observed other American tourists in various European cities, I realized something. White socks and gym shoes aside, people wore silly straw hats, bright obnoxious polyester shirts with hula dancers on them, and sunglasses with neon pink frames. Stuff they never wore at home.

My husband has had something called a “vacation shirt” for years. It’s only for vacations, as he would never be caught dead in it any other time.

So maybe it’s not so strange that I’ve changed my wardrobe despite telling myself I never would. After all, you can only be a tourist for so long. Then it’s time to go home. Even if that means never leaving.

Monday, June 18, 2007

A year in Switzerland

So a year ago today we were having our father’s day brunch and saying goodbye to the family and to the states. It’s crazy to think it’s been a year. Now all things should magically be easier, right?

Well, some things maybe are, but it’s still often difficult with the whole language thing. But in summary, here’s a list of things I really like about life here and things I don’t. They are in no particular order.

Things I like:
1. Long, unrushed lunch breaks (usually!) (The whole eat a Subway sandwich at your desk to prove your devotion is so lame)
2. Having more creative time to myself (I find myself more and more just loving typing away at my computer about anything and everything)
3. Our view and balcony (Let’s find a real estate agent in the U.S. that can get us a view of a castle and a clock tower…)
4. The spa and the pool, both a 10 minute walk away
5. Sunny Sundays when you’re forced to hike or do something outdoors since nothing else is open
6. Being able to get to so many places in Europe
7. Learning a language
8. Fresh foods and breads
9. Efficient transport
10. Not having a car (except when you really want to buy 4 chairs and can’t)
11. Having a hiking path that’s within a few yards from practically anywhere you are
12. Fairly easy to make friends with expats (hey, we speak the same language, let’s be friends!)
13. 4 weeks of vacation plus a whole week at Christmas
14. Saturday markets below my balcony
15. Creative inspiration that comes from living outside your culture
16. The fact that all people are paid well here (Note: there are no Walmarts in Switzerland)
17. Not having worked a weekend since my job in the US (where I seemed to have worked every weekend for no extra pay)
18. The active lifestyle (people in their 80s are out hiking and this is not a rare thing!)
19. Discouraging the use of cars
20. Drivers that actually stop at pedestrian cross-walks
21. Petit Buerres
22. Free Swiss train transport (thanks, Alstom!)
23. The sound of cow bells
24. The rush you get from finding a good deal (this is rare, so the rush you get is really extreme)
25. Being able to have so many friends and family visit us here

Things I don’t like:
1. Rude, pushy people who have no sense that anyone exists except them
2. Cigarette smoke everywhere
3. Kids that speak German better than me!
4. Lack of a concept of a line, um hello, I was here first…
5. Overpriced everything
6. Never being completely sure of anything including menus
7. Feeling stupid most of the time
8. Rainy Sundays when there’s nothing open
9. Stores closing at 7 when I have to work until 7
10. Being a bag lady and dragging recycling and groceries around town
11. Sharing a laundry room with the world’s smallest washer, slowest dryer and most anal neighbor.
12. Always being corrected by my neighbor
13. Being so far from friends and family
14. Always debating whether to use the formal or informal “you”
15. Swiss rules that make no sense (don’t take a bath after 10pm because you’ll wake your neighbor. But go play in a brass band from 6pm until 6am outside during Fasnach)
16. The stress that comes from being an outsider and trying to fit in
17. Swiss German. It makes me feel like I’m never making any progress with my high German.
18. Not being able to have a simple conversation with a cashier.
19. Freaking out at simple things like a man on the street who wants me to save the animals or something.
20. My stressed husband
21. Being taxed by two countries and good ole W raising the taxes on already stressed expats this year—please!! We are the only citizens in the developed world paying taxes of a country we’re not currently living in.
22. The looks you get from wearing shorts, white socks, or baseball hats
23. Having a freezer the size of a shoebox
24. Foods spoiling the day after you buy them
25. Tying my paper recycling into neat stacks with strings every 6 weeks

Saturday, June 16, 2007

In Search of a Swiss Sale

I used to laugh each week when I saw in the paper or on TV that Kohl’s was having its biggest sale ever. Bigger than what? Last week’s biggest sale ever? Biggest sale after biggest sale and you think the effect on Kohl’s shoppers would wear off but nearly the opposite is true. This is a strange phenomenon in the United States. A store can have “the biggest sale ever” week after week and people buy it. Well, ok, maybe some are skeptical. But their actions prove otherwise as they fight for parking spaces in the Kohl’s parking lot. I should know. I was one of them.

In Switzerland, all the stores have sales all at one time. A little like the United States. Except it’s not 365 days a year. Sales in Switzerland are rare. They happen twice a year. Once in January. Once in July. So for a sales-deprived expat like myself, a Swiss sale is really an event not to be missed.

Unlike in Switzerland, I honestly can’t remember the last time I bought something in the United States that wasn’t on sale. The strategy there seems to be to price things a little too high in order to always have an excuse to keep things on sale.

But in Switzerland, things are priced way too high in order to keep people buying them. A completely foreign idea to an American like myself. So naturally, this pricing strategy plays quite the havoc on a shopper like myself used to buying anything and everything on sale. I find myself scouring stores for sales and the only thing I leave with? Disappointment.

But I’m not the only one here that took awhile to understand the Swiss affinity for high prices. A fellow American from the Midwest started a custom-made shirt company in Zurich. He figured since custom-made shirts are outrageously expensive in Zurich, he would be able to compete by offering reasonable prices instead. But offering great prices actually kept away the Swiss customers. After he added $30 to the price they came in droves.

Wal-Mart, take note. You may take over the world, but you will never conquer Switzerland. Because here, people know: If the price is too low, something must be very wrong. And in some ways, this is something to be learned from the Swiss.

I complain like any other American about paying so much for things here. $5 to drink a glass of water in a restaurant. $12 for two pieces of chicken in the grocery store. $80 for a dress shirt. But then on rare occasions, I actually think, well, it’s only because people are paid well. All people. Farmers. Waitresses. Grocery Store Clerks. A starting wage for what people in the U.S. would deem a minimum wage job here is over US $18 per hour. I wasn’t even getting paid that much per hour in a white-collar job back in the states!

And when one looks at the Big Mac index to compare prices of Big Macs the world over to determine what country is the most expensive in the world, Switzerland always comes out near the top. This year, the price of a Big Mac in the US was $3.22 versus $5.05 in Switzerland. Only Norway and Iceland were more expensive.

And on that note, I must be going. My husband just called to say the sale signs are up in the store across the street two weeks earlier than expected. I must get there before all the other expats. The Swiss most likely will wait until August. When the prices go up.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Visited States

I went out to dinner with a Swiss friend last night and we got to talking. He wanted to know what states I had been in. Needless to say, I couldn't name them all of the top of my head. So I used this program to help me later. You can see the results. I'll be adding one more state--Alabama--next January! Who hoo. Try it yourself! Then keep traveling!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Hallmark Moments

Being in Switzerland changes even the smallest things that you do like the way you shop for a card. If I am trying to find a card for a birthday and someone is looking in the section I want to look, I will calmly watch until they move off to the side before I start flipping through cards. But not the Swiss. They will charge right in front of you and start picking cards almost out of your hands, pushing you aside until you become the Anglo wimp that you are and back away, not wanting a nice thing like choosing a card for someone to turn into a war zone. In my experience it takes about a year to get over it, and then the next time a Swiss charges in front of you, you just keep looking like they're not there, pushing and grabbing the birthday cards you see them eyeing just so they won't get the upper hand. Until of course, they cut in front of you at the register.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Luxury in Europe

If you want luxury in Europe, check into the nearest Holiday Inn. The biggest hotel room I've stayed in in all of Europe is the Holiday Inn in Frankfurt. I stayed there on a business trip. It was 25 floors and all rooms had a wrap around balcony. Not to mention at the breakfast you could actually get things like Frosted Flakes. Even the coffee tasted American according to a guy a work with. And the shower came complete with a tub which is not to be taken for granted in Europe!

Granted, normal people not traveling on business may not be able to afford a Holiday Inn. In Europe, they are very expensive. In Frankfurt, the Holiday Inn cost $275 a night with breakfast. Crazy. All for American comfort. So revel in them while you can in the states. Here in Europe, if you're like me, you'll stay at the local Ibis, a cheaper chain, when traveling on your own.

When my husband traveled on business he stayed in the Holiday Inn in Warsaw. They are the place to be in Europe on an expense account!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Feeling Stupid

As an expat, feeling stupid is just something I’ve learned to live with. Every day it happens to some extent. Here’s some of the ways I’ve felt stupid:

I’ve said “Grüezi” to the women at the check-out as I’m about to leave when what I meant was, “Danke.”

A little kid will say something to me and I’ll just have to smile and nod. That’s the worst. When you fail to understand a 2-year-old you know you’ve really hit rock bottom.

I can’t read much of my mail, since every German word seems to be about 20 letters long, and so every piece of paper that comes from any form of Swiss government makes me think I’m being deported. Or fined.

It took me six months to figure out how to record a voice message on my answering machine at work, no matter how many combinations of buttons I tried.

I pondered what the “E” button meant in the elevator for weeks.

I’ve put soap in the wrong compartment of the washing machine and gotten a lecture from my neighbor in French, of which I only understand words like “quelque chose.”

I’ve written down a script for a German phone conversation before I’ve had it, and when the person doesn’t follow the script, I’ve been lost and just kept repeating my part, hoping that they finally would follow theirs. They never do.

I’ve asked the bank if I can open a checking account. They’ve laughed and said that’s an American thing.

I’ve pondered the many types of ATM machines. Especially the one with the entire alphabet keyboard.

I’ve stared at the ticket machines at tram stops for hours wondering why the stop I need to get to isn’t printed on it while others are.

I still don’t understand all the deductions on my paycheck. After 10 months, I finally understand that the long word that starts with a “Q” is the tax they are deducting since I have a B permit.

I’ve forgotten that it’s paper recycling day until 11pm the night before and have had no string to tie my little stacks of paper and cardboard with, so I’ve resorted to thread.

I’ve told my Swiss neighbor that I speak a little French before understanding that the Swiss definition of “little” is very different from mine.

I’ve taken two buses and a train to get to MediaMarkt only to check-out and be 40 CHF short and be told they don’t take credit cards. I’ve gone home empty handed only to find out on my next trip that there’s an ATM inside the store.

I’ve realized that becoming stupid every day actually makes me really smart. Otherwise, why would I put myself through such humiliation?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Switzerland: City of Lights...You can swim in the lake, drink from the fountains, but can you breathe the air?

As the announcement is made in long-winded German, followed by slightly smoother sounding French, that we are arriving in Zurich, impatient passengers grab their belongings and make a beeline for the door as if there is a contest to see who gets there first. As the train makes its final bends and jerks while it decides on its final track, people grab hold of seats and sometimes an unfortunate person’s shoulders to keep their balance while they make for the door.

While I can understand that there may be a few people that really need to get somewhere fast, what I can’t understand is that usually the passengers that are dying to get off are the very same people that stroll along the moment they disembark. So while I can’t really see what the big rush is, as soon as I walk on the platform, I can smell it.

About a third of the Swiss population, or an estimated 2 million people smoke. And the average Swiss smoker smokes (according to ASH) more than 20 cigarettes a day. If you count 8 hours of sleeping in there, each smoker smokes more than one cigarette an hour. Since the Swiss train system banned smoking on trains in December 2005, a half-hour train ride is really pushing the limits of almost any addict.

Unfortunately for the non-smoker, while the trains may be smoke free, not only do smokers light up the second they disembark, making train platforms a popular place for non-smokers to practice the art of breath-holding, smokers also tend to wait until the very last second to board the train before it leaves, throwing their cigarette butts under the tracks, and taking a seat next to someone like me, who then spends the trip burying their nose in their scarf.

A pack of cigarettes costs over 6 CHF and has one of the largest warning labels I have ever seen. This does not seem to deter anyone. And since warning labels seem to be a rare thing in Switzerland, one would think that people would at least take note.

For example, my Swiss-made hairdryer has no big tag hanging off of it warning me of death by electric shock. The free plastic bags at the grocery stores have no warning that they could possibly cause suffocation. And there’s no signs at the local pool (which, by the way, has 10 meter platforms) that you should swim at your own risk because there’s no lifeguard on duty.

No, in Switzerland, these things seem to be common sense and there’s also no culture of suing someone for something as ridiculous as coffee being served hot. But the cigarette packages clearly say, in much bigger font than used in the U.S., that “smoking kills.” But as I shut my office door and open the window to diffuse the smoke that has billowed into my room while I was out for lunch, I think there must be a better way to stop Swiss smoking. Especially since it’s about 30 degrees outside and I’m forced between shivering or breathing in carcinogens.

Perhaps in Switzerland the warning about smoking shouldn’t be about death, it should be about the environment. This seems to be something the Swiss are very concerned about. They run electric trains, trams, and buses. They have reusable ant traps. They have separate recycling collections for everything from plastic to oils to old machinery. They personally go through regular garbage for signs of say, a piece of aluminum that could have been recycled but wasn’t, and fine the criminal. But then, they go and smoke 40 million cigarettes a day, blowing smoke into the air and throwing cigarettes onto the pavement.

Ok, so never mind the pavement, as the street sweeper is on constant duty. But what about the air? Second-hand cigarette smoke contains many toxic chemical compounds including carbon monoxide, ammonia, formaldehyde, benzene and arsenic. Many of these are known carcinogens and respiratory irritants. So drive your Smart cars and ride your electric trains all you want, but if you take the electric bus to work, and then light up the minute you get off, you’re as guilty as anyone else for pollution. A recent study by Tobacco Control found that the air pollution emitted by cigarettes is 10 times greater than diesel car exhaust.

So maybe if the warning labels on cigarettes sold in Switzerland said, “Smoking kills the environment,” instead of “Smoking kills you,” there would be more headway in reducing the smoking habits of the Swiss. Raising prices does no good, since the Swiss are rich. And apparently dying is also no big deal.

Friday, March 23, 2007

From Zurich to Paris. 346 miles and a world apart.

Ah, Paris. The garbage that litters every sidewalk below the empty garbage cans. The unabashed young men who can’t believe you’re not interested in buying decorative string at the footsteps of the Sacre Coeur. The airport where once you go through security you are locked in a glass room with no sign of a toilet. What’s there not to love?

But somehow, when one sees the Eiffel Tower lit up, all the things Paris lacks somehow melt away into the darkness as the city of lights refocuses your mindset to one of love and never-ending wonder.

This is something Zurich, less than the length of Illinois away from Paris, cannot achieve. So it cleans its streets religiously, runs buses that are so spotless you could eat off the floor, and has no signs of pushy young men trying to sell tourists a piece of string. In Paris, dirt and other annoyances are somehow forgiven; in Zurich, they never would be.

Outside the Zurich main station at a tram stop, an impatient Zuricher looks at his watch. It’s 8:59 and the tram should be here. It comes at 9:00. He glances at the driver to let her know that he disapproves before throwing his cigarette butt under the tram and taking a seat in his Armani suit that has never known a dirty form of public transport. Two minutes later, a street sweeper arrives and the cigarette butt is history.

The clean cobblestone streets of Zurich’s old town are charming. The Bahnhofstrasse gleams with expensive shops that lure you in with spotlessly cleaned windows. Cars actually stop at pedestrian crosswalks. The lake is so clean you can swim in it. You can drink from the public fountains. Even the dogs on the trams somehow smell nice. But that’s all Zurich is. Very, very nice. There’s nothing wrong with nice. Except you feel like something’s missing.

Paris has dirty metro cars. Dogs that you actually see evidence of on streets. And an affection for running over pedestrians. But it also possesses something Zurich does not. Magic.

Maybe it’s the culture of Paris that has made it a haven for artists that inspires this magic. Artists, good and bad, still paint on streets there. Accordion players serenade passengers on public transport. And no one is in a hurry.

In Zurich, you can go to school for all of your childhood without ever having the benefit of a school choir. Or an art class. Creativity is not encouraged. Productivity is. On trams there are signs with an illustration of a musician with a red line around it, signaling “no”. And at lunchtime, streets in Zurich are filled with successful bankers and lawyers and the city feels rich. But rich does not magic make.

I never feel threatened in Zurich. I walk alone in the woods. I don’t put my wallet into the inner pocket of my purse like I do when I’m in Paris. I hardly ever see a beggar. And when I do see one he has a British accent. But I rarely feel charmed either. Even during Carnival, when the streets fill up with costumed brass playing bands, I somehow get mad when they play after 10pm. Because then they are breaking the rules. And rules are to Switzerland as what art is to Paris.

In Switzerland, even in hotels, you can get in trouble for taking a bath after 10pm for fear of the noise you might make. And forget about trying to put a glass bottle in a recycling bin after 8pm or on the weekends. But these terrible marching bands are allowed to play the same song all night until 6am. Maybe if their playing improved over the course of the night you could forgive them. But as you are promptly yelled at the next day for cutting your grass during lunchtime, you can hardly find a band playing in the middle of the night charming.

Paris doesn’t have rules like this. Maybe that’s why too, it can get away with more. Instead of expecting cars to stop for pedestrians and trains to run on time, you are pleasantly surprised when they do, instead of having a rise in blood pressure when they don’t, like you do in Zurich.

Somehow, when there’s an abundance of filth you forget about it as it somehow blends into the landscape. But when there’s one big wrapper being blown down a spotless street it stands out.

Perfection is always admired, yet rarely memorable. The spotless Swiss train, with its quiet train car where talking, cell phones, and MP3 players are not permitted will get me there on time. But the train in Paris, with the man playing rap from a boom box, the British tourists reading to each other from Top Ten Paris guidebooks, and the accordion player trying to serenade me above it all is the ride I’ll always remember.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Grocery Store Marathon

Last week while shopping for lunch, my Swiss friend Jan turned his nose up at the Italian strawberries on display at the local grocery store.

“I’ll wait until Swiss ones get here,” Jan said, as if eating an Italian strawberry would somehow be sacrilegious.

Unfortunately, since it was only mid-March he was going to be waiting awhile. And as he was shopping in Switzerland, where there are usually only one or two choices at the most, it was either the Italian strawberry or no strawberry, the only other option being heading to another grocery store for better luck.

But for him, no strawberry it was. The Swiss are very good at self-restraint. If it’s not good enough in their eyes, they just won’t bother with it. They won’t go looking elsewhere. They won’t settle for second best. They’ll just forget about it. One or two choices are sufficient in their eyes. Any more and they just can’t handle it.

A good example of this is another Swiss friend of mine who lived in New York City for a year. Never mind what he thought of the dirty streets, (the Swiss clean theirs at least once a day), think of what he thought of the grocery stores.

“I just couldn’t believe the butter,” was his main comment when asked to compare living in Switzerland versus living in the United States.

“It’s just butter,” he said, still somewhat in disbelief, “but they’ve got a whole aisle for it.”

His solution to dealing with the butter madness? Shop at CVS where the entire dairy section is limited to one fridge. And for an entire year, that’s where he bought groceries, never mind what kind of nutrition was the result.

In America, the Swiss stick to the convenience stores. But what about the American in Switzerland who is craving a ranch and onion flavored chip in a grocery store where the chip “aisle” is the length of one shopping cart? Well, here the only way to triple your choices is to triple your grocery stores.

As Americans, we are used to choices. In fact, we are so used to choice overload that we don’t even notice the ridiculousness of an entire aisle that’s devoted to cereals. Or chips. Or sodas. For example, in Switzerland you can usually get a cola, a lemon-lime, an orange, or a grapefruit soda. But that’s where the choices end. There’s no root beer, dr. pepper, cherry cola, strawberry, frutti tutti or any other crazy combination that Americans crave.

Yes, not only is grocery shopping a more frequent affair due to my American urge for choice, but it’s a more frequent affair as well because of the lack of preservatives in foods. And not only might I visit three different grocery stores in one week, I may visit three different grocery stores in one day.

Now back in the U.S., I might shop at various grocery stores. Kroger. Ukrops. Food Lion. They all got a share of my business from time to time. But it was only because one was more convenient at the time of my weekly shopping pilgrimage. Because really, the products offered were about the same. You could get a Coke anywhere. Or 2% milk. Or that bag of Rold Gold Pretzels.

But here, I’ll trek on foot to Migros, Coop, and Manor all in one day, just to buy the milk with the preferred milk fat. Now that I’ve been in Switzerland almost a year, I’ve tried almost all the variations there is to know about and I have my favorites. Since they don’t all come to me in one store, I go to them.

Chips from Manor (the green bag seems to be a mix between Doritos and tortillas—excellent), cheddar cheese from Coop (the only store to sell cheddar). 1.5% Milk and Pepsi from Migros (the only store to sell either.) The list goes on and on.

Yesterday, for example, I wanted to make potato soup. This was no easy matter and involved going to three grocery stores on foot in order to find all the necessary ingredients. And bringing a full cart of groceries up two flights of stairs to your apartment is no piece of cake either. I figure here in Switzerland, you don’t have to choose between going grocery shopping or working out. They are one in the same.

Even for a simple lunch during the work-day, I’ll find myself at two grocery stores. The pre-packaged salad from Coop. The chocolate bar from Migros. The daily treks to grocery stores never end. Except of course on Sunday, when the stores are closed. Then you are out of luck and find yourself scouring the fridge for anything that hasn’t gone moldy, which, if it’s been more than two days since you shopped, is highly improbable. But not to worry. By not grocery shopping, you are saving yourself a lot of calories burned. And hopefully that thought alone can get you through to Monday, when the grocery store marathon will start once again.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

White versus Black (Socks)

One thing I’ve learned from hanging out with my Swiss friends is their utter disregard for their countrymen. Because the German speakers are forced to learn French and vice-versa, they tend to hate the other’s language and prefer to speak to each other in English, a more neutral language.

Ask a Swiss German about French and he’ll wrinkle his nose and answer you in English despite his multi-lingual abilities. And when my Zurich office deals with the Geneva office, more than likely, all e-mails are exchanged in English.

In fact, there was a Swiss riot (mind you a Swiss riot—think extreme loud yelling and nothing more) not to long ago in Zurich over changing the first language taught in the school system to English instead of French. The young people want it because of the Internet, movies, music, and for business reasons. But the traditional people fear a loss of culture somehow, and who can blame them. And the traditionalists seem to be losing out. Somehow, American culture really is taking over the world.

In Switzerland, English is trendy and cool. An entire ad might be in German, but you can bet the tagline will be in English. Movies aren’t dubbed as much as they are in Germany, and something like “Swiss Made” would never be translated, but just be written in plain old English despite what language might appear around it. While the four official languages are German, French, Italian, and Romansh, English appears to be the common ground among young people worried about their image.

But the Swiss segregate themselves with more than language. The tiny country, only about a third of size of Illinois, divides itself into 26 states or cantons. And each canton has its stigma and prejudice.

The people from Zurich think the people from Aargau (my canton) are old-fashioned, boring, white-sock wearing people. When people in my office found out I lived in Baden, they wrinkled their noses and said that they personally, would never be found dead with an AG (canton of Aargau) on their license plate. Being the unknowing American, I just shrugged and said, “Well I didn’t know.” Plus I didn’t have a car anyway and have tried to adjust to wearing black socks for all occasions lest I find myself in the sleek and refined canton of Zurich.

When I went to Zermatt, my German teacher (from Seengen in the canton of Aargau) said she doesn’t go there as the people are rude and standoffish.

In a country that seems so peaceful, neutral, and conflict-avoiding, it seems funny to see people segregate themselves as much as they do. But then I think back to my good old college days at the University of Illinois where we Chicago suburbanites laughed at the drawls of our southern Illinois friends. So maybe it’s just human nature. No matter how neutral you are, segregation, no matter how harmless, is just part of life.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Free Water (And other differences between the U.S. and CH)

Differences between U.S. and CH noticed on first trip home after 6 months abroad.

1. Disorganized airport/customs in U.S. vs. über organization in CH—even candles at the check-in counters. That would never happen in the U.S!
2. Casual dressing in U.S., looser fitting clothes, less black, no boots
3. Larger people, whew!! In U.S. (see #5, 9)
4. Waiters and waitresses bother you much more in the U.S. interrupting conversations all the time.
5. No path/forest always right around the corner to walk on—less walking
6. Huge grocery stores/huge everything/all stores. I missed Kohls!
7. No need for a cart to pull your stuff around in!! (See #8)
8. FREE grocery bags!!
9. Big cold, ice-filled drinks with FREE refills that are brought to you before you even finish the one you’re on (see #3, 150 calories, every 12 oz).
10. Free WATER! (versus $5 for one glass, really cuts down on meal costs!)
11. Cheap food! (see 8, 10) Cheap gas!
12. Food is much greasier
13. More informal
14. Space/Distance. Everything is sprawling, big, and spread out. (The grocery store, post office, library, train station, shoe store, department store, etc aren’t just a 5 min walk away). People act accordingly and don’t stand as close together. It’s interesting how geography affects how people behave as well.
15. Enjoying the simple fact that I can talk to anyone and aren’t worried all the time that someone might say something to me I won’t understand!
16. Doggie Bags, bigger portions
17. No tying paper recycling in little packets with strings!
18. People actually stand in line!
19. I can use my credit card anywhere! So I charged $3 just because I could!
20. Debt is a part of life in the U.S. (see #19)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

1st class country. 3rd world waiting.

In line at the Thermalbad in Baden, Switzerland, my monthly visit to relax in the healing waters started instead with a rise in blood pressure. After waiting patiently behind two men in what appeared to be a line to get into the spa, a lady walked in and cut right in front of me, proceeding to go through with a transaction that involved filling out some paperwork while I sighed, still not quite used to such rudeness, and tried to keep my temper from flaring.

Looks can be deceiving when it comes to lines in Switzerland. What may look like a line to an American is really just a bunch of expats and/or tourists lining up and for some transaction and who will, in due time, be left completely stunned when a Swiss person charges in front of them and goes about their business, seeming to not notice any hatred being sent their way.

It’s not just that the Swiss have no concept of a line that’s baffling. It’s that in such an orderly country it’s hard to believe how this could be possible. At the airport, there are vast quantities of lighted screens to allow you (and people picking you up) to see just how many minutes until your luggage arrives on the belt. At bus stops, signs show which buses are approaching next and in how many minutes. And in grocery stores, there are never carts floating into an abyss, rather, people put them right back where they found them (of course there is that one Franc incentive).

So things are orderly. But people are not. In retail shops, clumps of people fight their way to pay. At the grocery store, if you’re not careful to keep within centimeters of the person in front of you, you will pay the price. And on any form of public transportation, people will force themselves on while people are still getting off.

Fine. So the consequences of no lines in Switzerland make you become either more aggressive or make buying things take ten times as long. But what about situations when not having a line could be dangerous?

For example, at the swimming pool in Baden there are no lifeguards and you will find bunches of children at a time standing on a 10 meter platform ready to dive in at any given moment (not to mention many more on the 3 meter board below them). A line for a diving board is also apparently unheard of, never mind the consequences.

Now to give the Swiss some credit, a few stores and businesses, like the post office, have taken matters in their own hands when it comes to lines. They make you take a number. This makes foreigners happy as they don’t have to constantly survey the scene to see who is sneaking up behind them for the pass and the Swiss don’t complain because this way they still don’t physically have to stand in a line, but can mill about and stand in their preferred position, the bunch.

I’d say all stores should have such a system, but that wouldn’t solve all problems either. Because at some stores, like the SwissCom in Baden, they call out numbers instead of displaying them. Even if you know German numbers, you may be out of luck to understand when they call your number in Swiss German. Instead, like me, you may have to rely on watching who takes a number in front of you so you know when you are next. But this person may be unreliable. They may turn to you and say, “Excuse me, but do you speak French or English because I can’t understand a word they are saying.” At which point, you’ll sigh, crumple your number, and head to a different phone store. One where at least at some point, you’ll fight your way to the front, thinking, “This wasn’t so bad after all.”


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