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. ├╝ber 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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