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.


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