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.


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