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!


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