Monday, 30 May 2011

Strawberry Fields Forever

CSC_0544

Is it possible to overdose on strawberries?

Because you would not believe how many of these I have eaten in the past two weeks.

I believe scientists would quanitfy the sum as: A Shameful Amount.

Oh, I also don't share.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

On Switzerland: Swiss People Live Here

"Switzerland would be better if it didn't have Swiss people." - An asshole

I live in Bern, so the following observations about Swiss people can really only be classified as observations about Bernese peoples. One thing to note about Switzerland is that from Canton to Canton, region to region, everything from politics to traditions can vary greatly, and so you should know that I haven't actually gone to live amongst the Italian or French or Romansch tribes, and I haven't spent a lot of time in the wilds of Zurich or Graubuenden studying their homosapien wildlife; therefore, I can't make a broad sweeping generalization about what all Swiss people are like. However, I'm willing to bet they're all pretty much the same: regular people who are generally nice.

So a lot of expats feel that Swiss people are a cold and unwelcoming race who hate foreigners. I call bull shit on that.

Now I certainly do not discredit those expats who have been on the receiving end of a cold Swiss shoulder (I have a friend who has unfortunately had quite a few bad experiences), and I do acknowledge that Swiss people can seem to be abrupt and aggressive, especially if you're trying to get on a bus or a train. Why, just last night I was out with some friends and unbeknownst to us there was a lady behind us wheeling her work luggage and trying to get around us. Did she say excuse me? Did she clear her throat to let us know she was there? No. Instead she shoved right through our little trio and her luggage slammed into my friend's ankle.

Our one companion called after her in Swiss-German, but instead of an apology we received an over-the-shoulder withering stare before this rude woman continued on her way.

Am I to classify all Swiss people as rude, just because of this one woman?

Absolutely not.

There are jerks all over the world, and if you're in a densely populated environment you're going to encounter more of them: that's basic statistics peeps. That said, Swiss courtesies are not Canadian courtesies so there's no point in expecting as much.

When I walk into a store, chances of me being greeted, let alone asked if I need help, are slim to none.

I'm cool with that.

When we're at a restaurant, our waiter or waitress is not going to engage in pleasant conversation and chat us up: s/he is there to take our order, bring us our drinks, and that's it.

I'm cool with that.

If I'm running for the bus, and the bus driver sees me coming, but he's already late (ie. he should have left two seconds ago) he won't wait for me.

That's just the way it is.

If I pass people in my village, just two of us passing each other on a sidewalk, there won't be eye-contact let alone an exchanged hello; the cashier ringing in my order doesn't give a crap how my day is going and won't pretend to care; the girl cutting my hair wouldn't dream of being privy to the terrible and personal morning I've had; and you are not on a first name basis with people you have just met.

Now, conversely: if I pass people out for a hike, all of us will acknowledge each other with a friendly and formal hello.

When I am sitting down to eat, and I must closely pass a table of people who are just receiving their meal, it is the courtesy to wish them a pleasant meal.

Before taking a sip of our beverages, every one at the table will toast each other and wish each other good health.

In the evening, on a bus that isn't too busy, passengers getting off will wish the remaining passengers a good evening.

If I see a close friend or relation on the street, or meet them at their home, we will tap cheeks (think of it like an air kiss) three times--left, right, left--and ask how they are.

These are Swiss courtesies, so even though they might not queue for a bus or a train, it doesn't mean the Swiss are a population who have no respect for each other or for you, the expat. When I need assistance, I will ask the person in the store for help in my shaky German-English hybrid that still relies heavily on English. Am I shunned because I'm obviously not Swiss? No. The person in the store will help me...as briskly as possible; there is no point feeling slighted by this: they're helping me for five minutes so I don't need them to be my new best friend.

Now that said, do Swiss people get annoyed with expats? Yes. From what I have been able to discern, the biggest sticking point with people in Bern are individuals who move here and never bother to learn any German. The Bernese people are not so totalitarian as to believe that expats are going to learn Swiss-German (a spoken dialect that is not written), but the effort to learn German is appreciated and expected.

I speak horrible German.

It is terrible.

And it won't improve until later this year when I can get back to classes. However, every single time I try to attempt a transaction in German, the person helping me always says I speak 'very good German'. They're lying of course, but they're also encouraging me. They appreciate I'm making an effort and want to express as much.

Switzerland may seem quaint or funny to us expats who are coming from informal and boisterous societies, but it's not and you do it a disservice to classify it and its people as such. Just as Switzerland's foreign policy has been to keep itself to itself, so to do its people appear to keep themselves to themselves. This is a formal society, and I know it is really hard to break into it. I'm married to a Swiss guy who only has Swiss friends, and I haven't been able to break into any inner circles on my own. However, that doesn't mean I can say with sweeping certainty that all Swiss people are rude and they hate me just because I'm not from Switzerland.

If you don't understand a country's history, it's principles, and it's traditions than you can't say you really understand its people. To write off an entire population as being rude cold-fish is ignorant. Tally up every bad experience you've ever had in your own country, every government official who has been less than helpful, every customer service experience that didn't go as you wanted it to, every parking lot altercation, every confrontation with an inconsiderate neighbour, work colleague, or client.

Are you going to also classify all your own country's citizens as rude cold-fish because of these experiences? Or does the fact that your cashier might ask how your day is going, before she tunes you out, make it all better?

Friday, 27 May 2011

On Switzerland: It's Ironic

"It's like rain on your wedding day / It's a bad Swiss experience when you've already praised."
- A liberally modified quote from that 90's hit 'Ironic'

So I think you all might have guessed by now that I'm generally down with Switzerland, and today was to be my post on my thoughts about the Swiss (that will come tomorrow). However, just in case anyone at home is reading my generally positive remarks, and are foaming at the mouth (because they just ate pop-rocks and chased them with cola) because they think I'm the most unrealistic asshole to not experience problems or find fault, I will shake things up for you with a little anecdote courtesy of yesterday.

To prove, I'm human too.

You're welcome.

So as I already mentioned, Dan and I have been living sans-vehicle for the past year which means I haven't had much use for a driver's licence. However, in the back of my mind I was always carrying around the knowledge that if I wanted a Swiss licence, my Canadian one had to be converted BEFORE my one year anniversary.

So naturally, three weeks ago, I decided I best be getting on that.

Then I waited another week.

Then I began the process of hunting and gathering everything I needed to accompany my licence exchange, which included having to go and get my eyes tested. Now getting my eyes tested has nothing to do with the story, but I want you all to know I have found the most marvelous glasses shop in Bern where you can make an appointment with a personal optician who will hand select frames for you based on the look you want, and what they think suits your face shape.

I would really like to make use of this service, but alas (and per my post on 'Mo Money, Why 'Mo Complaining?) I must live within the perimeter of my wage, and the first pair of frames I fell in love with as I did a walk-by-glance on my way to the eye-testing station were CHF 500.00, and that's before my awkward prescription could fill them.

Darn.

I mean, DAMN. Fools. Those frames weren't made-a gold! Gold is strong, plastic's cheap! Dem pricing bitches be crazy, yo!

(Have to remember to be angry sometimes.)

So anyhow, the point is one of the things I had to do was prove to the Swiss that without my glasses I couldn't see a rocket ship if it landed 400 yards in front of me on the plains of a bald ass prairie. The vision test went fine.

Then I packed up all my required paperwork, grabbed my Canadian licence, and went to the Zulassung Fahrzeugführer offices and handed everything over the counter; then I left and continued to keep one eye on the mailbox to await my Swiss licence and the return of my Canadian one.

So my Swiss licence came in the mail yesterday, but my Canadian one wasn't returned as promised. Wondering if perhaps they were mailing it back under separate cover, I called my Swiss to get the low-down. He said that when he switched his licence, he was pretty sure his Canadian one was returned with his Swiss one, so he did me a favour by calling the offices to find out what was going on.

Well, when Dan got home last night he was pretty pissed.

"Did they throw it away? THEY THREW IT AWAY. Oh god, I'll have to pay like $200 to the B.C. government to get a replacement licence. This is so inconvenient: my picture was rocking on that licence. I'll never pull that look off again."

"No, they didn't throw it away, they gave your Canadian licence to the police."

"What?! Am I under surveillance? Is it because one time I felt rebellious and didn't want to wash out the glass bottle of tomato sauce, so I recycled it...dirty. Why did they give it to the police?"

"They gave the licence to the police for training purposes, so they'd be able to examine its security features. What a bunch of god damn bullshit. They said they thought you wouldn't need it anymore! Just assumed! Didn't even ask if they could give your licence to the police, they just went ahead and did it. You should have heard us just ranting about it today. And I gave the person on their end an earful. God damn bureaucracies, such a bunch of--"

"DO I GET IT BACK?"

"Oh, yeah, wait I haven't gotten to the best part. I had to send them a formal email requesting that I wanted returned the licence that was automatically supposed to be returned. I got an email right away saying they'd get it back from the police, but you won't get it for like ten days."

"WILL I FOR SURE GET IT BACK?"
 
"Yeah, you'll get it back--pretty sure."
 
"Well, this is ironic."
 
I mean: I be angry now! Those suckas aren't making any sense; talkin' smack, assumin' what I do and do not need, makin' me ask for what is mine. Their brains must be turnin' to jelly. I pity the fool who stands between me and my licence! 
 
***
 
But seriously, work with me here Switzerland. Work with me.
 
I'll let you know how it turns out in ten days.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

On Switzerland: Play By The Rules

"Damn I hate this country."  - Forum guy who must be lactose intolerant, because otherwise--I don't get it?

Switzerland is notorious amongst expats for having some fairly strict "dos and don'ts", with emphasis being placed mostly on the 'don'ts'. Since I only concern myself with the rules that affect my daily living in so far as getting along with my neighbours, here are the ones that I must adhere to:
  • No doing laundry on Sundays
  • Can't have a bath or shower after 9 p.m.
  • Must buy proper garbage bags for all waste
  • No raves or acid parties after 10 p.m
  • Can't vacuum on Sundays
  • Must correctly bundle all paper recycling for the garbage persons (loose paper results in the death penalty)
  • Not allowed to host air band competitions or talent searches in my apartment
  • I have to sign up for a laundry time
  • Singing "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" on my balcony at the top of my lungs whilst in full costume is only allowed between the hours of never and never
  • Not allowed to do glass recycling on Sundays
  • Not acceptable to leave my clothes hanging in the drying room for longer than 24hrs
This extensive list is obviously highly inconvenient. Especially the fourth, seventh, and nineth bullet points. At least I can rest easy knowing that my building is quite new-age in that I am allowed to flush my toilet after 10 p.m. Watch out world, we're coming to get you!

Now as you might be able to tell, generally most of the house rules are targeted at minimizing noise in communal living spaces. For those people who have detached homes, a couple of rules they would have to follow is not washing their cars on Sundays, not mowing their lawns on Sundays, and keep the noise from backyard barbeques to a hushed murmur after the witching hour of 10 p.m.

I think in general most expats sort of roll their eyes at the apartment rules, but are okay with having to follow them because if there's one enemy you don't want to make, it's an enemy of your Swiss neighbour. And let's not be so arrogant as to classify all Swiss people as being noise police and hall monitors: it's generally the men and women in their golden years who have taken it upon themselves to make sure everyone in the building toes the line. Well, there's also the thirty and forty-somethings who can also be all up in your grill, but if they got laid I'm pretty sure they'd be chill too.

I do try to be open minded about the rules because Switzerland is tiny. For you British Columbia residents, Switzerland is roughly the size of the Cariboo. That means there are 7.4 million people living in 42,000 square kilometers, of which 60% of that dimension is allocated to the Alps (and its corresponding peaks and valleys).

This means living quarters are tight, and by necessity a lot people live in apartment buildings. And though we'd all like to think we're reasonable adults, the fact of the matter is at our very core all of us have the potential to be selfish pricks who just want to play Guitar Hero (extra heavy on the bass) at two o'clock in the morning with no regard for who is trying to sleep, or we just don't give a crap and want to leave our wet laundry in the machines all day long without any concern for whomever else needs to use them.

I come from a country where a person can move smack dab into the middle of a quarter section of land, throw their middle finger up in the air and say "Screw you all! I'm living by own rules and doing laundry whenever I feel like it and making as much noise as I want!", before turning up the volume and rocking out while the deer and bears look skeptically at their new neighbour and wonder how they can get him to piss off.

The Swiss don't have this luxury, which is precisely why Dan's parents left Switzerland in the first place. They wanted to live by fewer rules and make some noise. But for Dan and I (and this will make us sound like octogenarians) we are relishing the Swiss quiet because for the past six years we had been living in an apartment building where we endured some of the most ignorant neighbours possible. So ignorant that knocking on their door and asking them to please be quiet was about as productive as apparently asking Arnold Schwarzenegger to keep it in his pants and not knock-up the hired help. Further adding to our irritation was the fact our landlords were incredibly negligent and wouldn't enforce complaints; however, this same negligence also meant they never raised rent so it was capital 'K' ka-raaa-zzz-yy how cheap our rent was considering what a sweet location the building was in. And yes, you get what you pay for, but it's also not too much to ask that you should be able to live in your own home and not have to endure listening to your neighbours fight on a regular basis about the fact the dude is sick of eating his girlfriend's spaghetti, while she cries that he doesn't love her anymore.

So the point I'm trying to make is that Switzerland doesn't have the same space luxuries and so every square inch of land allocated for living, producing their own foodstuffs, accommodating industry, having room for waste, and also space reserved just for pleasure (the walking trails and park lands), is carefully planned. And thus it is unavoidable that you will have close neighbours; therefore, the way I see it is that the rules serve the purpose of keeping everyone and everything moving along tickety-boo.

After all, the Swiss are the original watch-masters: efficiency is integrity, integrity is fair play, and to play fair we sometimes need to be reminded of the rules.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

On Switzerland: 'Mo Money, Why 'Mo Complaining?

"I just ate the most expensive Big Mac I've ever had in my life." - Shocked Forum User

I'm just going to go out on a limb here and say that if you are Don Gorske, that infamous Wisconsin native who averages two Big Macs a day and is said to have consumed over 25,000 of these burgers in his lifetime with an extra supply stashed in his freezer 'for emergencies', Switzerland will not be the country where he can afford to support this addiction.

A lot of expats experience sticker shock when they get here, and I was definitely no exception. My first day here, Dan and I went to the Migros to pick up a couple of things to fill our bare fridge and I needed a few toiletries. My first reaction upon reaching the shampoo aisle was to note that it was not in fact an 'aisle' at all, but rather only a couple of shelves holding a medium selection of brands; as a person who was always used to shopping in a chain store that offered, at minimum, forty different shampoo brands, I was surprised at this selection. But then I noticed how small the bottles were and how LARGE the prices were, and I staggered backwards and asked Dan if Migros was the Canadian equivalent to Safeway? Then we ventured further into the rest of the store for our groceries and I almost started sucking my thumb for comfort.

"Why are we shopping here?! We should save money and go somewhere else."

"You know sweets, the prices around here are all pretty comparable. I can't really think of one store that really undercuts the others in terms of all round pricing where you can get everything you need."

That was difficult to wrap my head around.

And it's not just groceries where we expats feel the sting of Swiss pricing.  Because Dan and I have chosen to not have a vehicle we rely on public transit, and if we choose to do a week of steady hiking in the mountains (keeping our apartment as our home base), the price we pay on transit (even with our half-fare cards), lift tickets, the mandatory alpine patio beer, et al, is the same as what we would have paid if we wanted to take a small and simple Italian holiday. So even though this defies my sense of logic, holidaying in Switzerland when you are a resident of Switzerland isn't always the cheapest option.

Getting your first dentist bill here will probably cause you to revert to your five year old self who vigorously brushed and flossed her teeth until they shone so the dentist would give her a toy from the toy drawer; except, this time you are brushing with a different purpose because you never want to have to see that mofo's masked face again: not here in Switzerland anyhow.

For the information of BC residents who are living as a couple, your monthly mandatory Swiss medical bill will not cost $95; just go ahead and multiply that figure by about seven.

Twice a year you will get a delightful bill in the mail that is charging you just because you have a cable hook-up in your home, thereby you have the option to have a television so you are being charged for that.

And what else? Well, lunch in a restaurant for two people will probably set you back about fifty francs, lunch at MacDonalds for one meal will set you back around fifteen francs, if you want to use the toilet in the train station that will cost you two francs, and if you want the guy who is selling cookies to sponsor street kids in India to leave you alone that will set you back at least five francs because if you give him four francs he will accuse you of being soulless.

Now, am I bitter about these costs? About these charges?

No.

Though, my feelings on the guy selling cookies are not exactly PG so I can't share them here. Let's all ignore him now.

I won't pretend to understand the fine details of the odd tax bills or our medical bills, but I do know they aren't bankrupting us. Not by a long shot. So with a shrug of my shoulders I pay the television tax bill, then enjoy watching an evening of Swiss television with no commercial interruptions (that means no one subtly telling me every eight minutes that I'm hungry, or I'm unfit, or my eyelashes are too stubby). Similarly, a frustrating auto-immune disorder that I have has painfully been back on the scene for quite a few months, but it sure hasn't been painful getting the medical attention that I need.

Now with respect to commodities, I can appreciate why the groceries and products cost what they do in Switzerland. It's as my Swiss said to me on our first trip to the Migros when I was almost curled up in the fetal position at the cash register watching the total go up and up and up:  "Don't even worry about it sweets. We always shop responsibly, and people get paid more money here than they do in Canada. It really evens out."

So yes, things are pricey, but you have to consider why. Though Switzerland doesn't appear to have a set minimum wage (someone please correct me if I'm wrong about this), it is frowned upon that employers would pay their employees any less than CHF 3,000 a month, and the generally accepted medium is CHF 3,550 a month. Now the pay figures I have come across vary from industry to industry and also employee work experience (are you an apprentice, first year on the job, etc...) so it's hard to nail down an exact national average, but for the purpose of this discussion I will use what is considered to be the 'acceptable' minimum monthly salary of CHF 3,550 for a non-apprenticed employee.

So if we consider that a minimum monthly salary is likely around CHF 3,550 and a work week sees your average person clocking in 42 hours, that means that the hourly rate is around CHF 21.00. So if the person packaging your 'grown in CH' potatoes, and the person hauling the delivery truck to deliver your 'Aus der Region' preferred products, and the person cleaning the grocery store, and the person stacking the produce, and the individual manning the checkout register, are all receiving an at minimum average of 21.00 an hour, can you not at least appreciate why your goods cost what they do?

Doesn't this help to put in perspective why your movie-going experience doesn't financially stack-up to what you're used to back home, when the person tearing your ticket there only makes $8.25 an hour?

And since expats who religiously complain about Swiss pricing are living in Switzerland, I  have to assume that they too are making a Swiss wage; therefore, though the sticker price might be shocking when you convert the price to what you would have paid back home for the same item, it still doesn't mean you can't afford the product. And obviously people, use common sense when reading that last line: you still have to live within the boundary of your wage, but the point is an individual can make a living wage here.

For those who live on the border, and can hop over to Germany or France for a cheaper grocery shop, all the power to them. Their Swiss wage should technically mean they have more buying power--even with the Euro--and they will still be saving money. You really do have to appreciate that.

So is Switzerland expensive?

Yes.

That doesn't mean it's unaffordable.

(But remember boys and girls: don't forget to brush and floss two times a day, just to be safe.)

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

On Switzerland: No, You Can't Go Grocery Shopping At 2 a.m.

"The stores are fucking stoooopid here. I hate that nothing is open past six cause I like to shop at night. Open your stores and make some MONEY you idiots."

I came across the above quote on a Swiss expat forum before I ever left Canadian soil. And though perhaps not always voiced quite as eloquently as was managed by this talented wordsmith, the lack of 'convenient' shopping is a grudge that many expats hold against Switzerland.

In Kamloops I could shop on Sundays, I could go to the grocery store until midnight, and if I woke up at 3 o'clock in the morning and realized with burning fervour that I needed to rush to Wal-Mart to do some Christmas shopping, well: that was possible. Oh, and let's not forget that with the exception of Christmas Day, every single business was open on every single statutory holiday. In short, if I wanted to shop I could shop.

Why?

Because we are a society that if we aren't shopping and running around to different stores, we don't know what to do with ourselves. Stores pander to the North American consumer fire monster and try to make everything as convenient as possible so that we will happily keep throwing money at any person who wears a nametag and stands between us and the 'Move, I'm Trying To Speed' bumper sticker.

Soon-to-be-Swiss-expats who hail from countries that have consumer fire monsters stamping around, shopping hours here vary from canton to canton, but this is a generalization to know about Switzerland as a whole: No, you can't shop on statutory holidays; No, you can't go to the grocery store past six o'clock; Yes, your village Coop and post office will probably close for two hours in the middle of the day so the employees can break for lunch; and No, you will not be able to shop on a Sunday.

Deal with it.

The fact that stores are closed on Sundays is the biggest shopping grievance of disgruntled expats, and some people on the forums take it very personally that everything is closed on this one day. On this matter I have read forum complaints that range from people believing that it should be within their own right to decided when they will and will not shop, to people moaning that closed shops on Sundays make them feel sad because they're all alone in a strange country with nothing to do, and the Swiss are bastards for not caring about that.

But as people angrily decry that it should be their right to buy chicken and underpants past six o'clock or on Sundays, who they are conveniently forgetting about is the person who has to be working in that store in order to serve their consumer fetish. The Swiss have not forgotten about this person, and I can really appreciate this.

Switzerland's customer service philosophy isn't necessarily 'the customer is always right', and though the stores here are obviously meant to serve a consumer purpose, there is a limit to how much service they're going to provide you. We, the consumer, are not demi-Gods here in Switzerland. The people working in these retail shops and grocery stores have all been superbly trained and with such training comes a respect by their peers for a job well done, and a job well done demands job satisfaction. Not having to work late into the evenings, and getting one weekend day off every week that their family and friends also (on average) have off, contributes to job satisfaction because their personal life is prioritized, and I applaud the Swiss for this line in the sand. And though this line is moving, I hope that it doesn't waiver too much because I really respect this about Switzerland.

Of course the angry people on the forums, when finding somebody in favour of Switzerland's current shopping hours, immediately attack the lone voice of dissension by shouting SOME OF US WORK YOU KNOW, as though to imply that just because you don't have a problem with the store hours this must mean that you have nothing to do with your day but have it revolve around said hours. Sorry, angry forum users, but that's not a valid argument. A lot of Swiss people work weird hours, yet when you tell them about 24/hr shopping in North America, they look shocked and shake their head in general distaste.

Sure WE the expat coming from consumer fire monster countries might shake our heads at the 'disallusioned' Swiss because obviously they are so regimented here they can't open their minds to the wonders of  round-the-clock shopping, but it is in my opinion that what convenient shopping has actually done is create a nation of people who are more quick to feel put-out when they can't have what they want when they want it.

And when you continue to carry this disgruntled prejudice around on your back in a different country that has a different lifestyle and different cultural priorities, well--that must be really inconvenient.

Monday, 23 May 2011

On Switzerland

Let's talk about Switzerland.

So I've mentioned it here before, but apart from knowing firstly that the Bernese Mountain Dog originated in Switzerland, and then later, so did Dan, it was a country that I never gave any thought to and I don't think it would be unfair to say that a lot of North Americans that lack a Swiss connection probably think the same.

In fact, my point might be proven by the fact that Dan's biggest pet-peeve in Canada was when people would meet him, then meet him again and say, "Oh right, you're the guy from Sweden."

Switzerland is a country that keeps itself to itself, and wants to remain that way. Therefore, I like to think it's a bit forgivable that on my first trip here with Dan it was not the country I wanted to spend most of my vacation in; in fact, I was really just planning on 'grinning and bearing it' while I waited for our time in Switzerland to end so that we could get on with exploring Italy.

And I'm not alone in that mentality for I have spoken with a few expats who tell me similar stories that family and friends plan to visit them, and their plans are usually like this: Yeah we're going to stop in and see you in Switzerland for a couple of days, but then we really just want to see Europe.

It's forgivable, really it is, because Switzerland doesn't have the same international PR as romantic Italy or charming France, and people don't usually know what they're in for when they arrive here. However, the expats that I talked to all tell me that once arrived, their guests usually cut other plans short in favour of exploring more of this modest little country and its quiet charm.

So, what is so great about Switzerland?

Well, obviously a lot if Dan and I decided to uproot our comfortable Canadian lives in favour of trying out a new adventure. BUT: vacation and real life are two different things.

****

When we knew for sure that our Swiss dream was going to become a reality, I immediately began to do what probably all soon-to-be-expats do: I started doing some internet stalking of other people living in Switzerland. I logged onto expat forums and discussion boards about Switzerland to get other people's take on CH. Should I have done this *before* we pushed all our chips to the centre of the table and told the dealer all or nothing? Probably not, because the majority of words I read by other expats were so discouraging that it might have prevented me from wanting to seek my own first hand impression of living in this country.

At the risk of making a gross broad assumption, I think that the people who spend time on the forums that I visited were expats that didn't actually want to be expats. These seemed like people who were more interested in complaining about Switzerland than going out and living in Switzerland. There were conversations devoted entirely to questioning why Switzerland didn't have Target, or Wal-Mart, or some other big box giant that offers cheap goods at all hours of the day and night; there were threads devoted to how ridiculous it is that stores close at five o'clock and that you can't go shopping on a Sunday, except at the Bahnhof, because store owners actually close their doors; there were entire forums dedicated to how expensive it is to eat-out, how expensive the groceries are, how expensive the transit can be, how expensive going to the cinema is, etc....; there were warnings to wannabe expats saying that Swiss people are cold, uncivil, and unfriendly to foreigners as they are standoffish with their own countrymen at the best of times; there was ridiculing about the Swiss rules, about the OCD cleanliness, and even about the punctuality of public transit.

Every time I read a negative comment, I was absolutely gutted. These people's complaints were their experience, were their feelings about tiny Switzerland, and the people on these forums all sounded miserable to be living here. I felt frustrated because there was no guarantee that I too wouldn't feel this way. Vacation and daily living are two different things, and what if over time I also would be unable to accept the fact that I'm living in a DIFFERENT country, and instead wished it came with all the shallow conveniences of my old home?

I can say that it was because of these negative comments that for the past year, I have been living with the purposeful intent of seeing the positive and trying to understand 'Why' when I imagined that the people on the forums would instead chose to yell 'WTF' before sinking their rabid and angry teeth into poor Switzerland.

If people can bitch, why can't I be bright?

****

June 1st is going to be my one year anniversary of living in Switzerland, and so over the week I will do a series of posts dedicated to the biggest stereotypical Swiss grievances that I read about on the forums, with my own thoughts on the topics.

I will also preface this series of posts by saying that I KNOW I'M MARRIED TO A SWISS GUY. My experience as an expat in Switzerland is still my own, but I also acknowledge that it is a different one from those people who have arrived here and basically been told to sink or swim. I want to acknowledge that I know this because while I don't think that my experience here is an exception, I also wouldn't classify myself as the rule. Just as I also wouldn't classify the experiences and comments by those despised forum trolls as a rule.

And as we'll get to later, rules are very important in Switzerland, but I am going to be tongue-in-cheek now and dare to incur the wrath of any Swiss rule makers and followers, and state you really should only treat the posts to follow as a guideline as to what you yourself might expect upon arrival.

Of course if you choose to read these posts as The Rule, that's cool too.  I've always wanted to create my own binding law and think I could successfully manage a handful of followers. Just know that I won't mediate any disputes or pick sides in the custody battle over the last Toblerone bar.  Consider me more of an untouchable law maker, sort of like the people who run Parliament or the nameless faces who have given the totalitarian decree that fashion law must now force us back into high-waisted jeans and to make us toe the line they have removed all other pant options from store shelves.

Yes, I'm like those people.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Irrational Things That Affront Me

  • Adults who wear patterned rain boots. I find these to be neither cute or stylish. Tricks are for kids people, tricks are for kids.

  • And on that note, the fact that the cartoon kids in the Trix cereal commercial used to bully the Trix rabbit by not sharing their cereal with him. My seven year old self would be sitting in front of Saturday morning cartoons (eating warm and buttery cinnamon toast!), and every time that commercial came on I'd get a little tense.  Maybe they'll share their cereal with him this time? This time? THIS TIME? But they never did. The Trix rabbit never got any cereal. [Frowny Face]. Though I couldn't verbalize my frustration at the time, I now realize  my rage could be articulated as follows: SHARE YOUR F-CKING CEREAL WITH HIM YOU LITTLE TURDS. JUST GIVE HIM A BITE.

  • The song Sunglasses at Night by Corey Hart. If this song comes on the radio, I literally scream as I try to change the station. The reasons I hate the song are as follows: It opens with irritating 80's techno; Corey Hart sounds like a sad nerd who got dumped in biology class after dating a girl for two weeks, turned into a bit of a stalker but then was found out, so he channeled his raw pain into singing about his hurt with his one man garage band; and the chorus...oh cringe...is terrible: Don't switch the blade on the guy in shades, oh no / Don't masquerade with the guy in shades, oh no / I can't believe it 'cause you got it made with the guy in the shades, oh no.  Oh Yes! That is the chorus to this terrible song! Listen Corey Hart, unless an individual has had lasik eye surgery, no one 'has it made' if they're hanging out with the douche who wears his shades at night. Please have your reign of vocal terror end. Stop singing on my radio.

  • The feeling of velvet. Oh yuck. If I touch something velvety, my hand quickly recoils like it's been burned by a flame, then I rub my hand vigorously on my pant leg like I'm trying to disinfect it of cooties.

  • Lawn statues. This one is perhaps the most irrational of all, but I can't help it. Anything from Greek gods and goddesses standing proudly in the carrot patch, to those Nessie water monsters that people have artfully arranged on their lawn to make it appear as though *wink* ol' Nessie is actually swimming through the lawn *wink*. I don't like them.

  • The fact that Mariah Carey named her son "Moroccan". I classify this as 'irrational' because what she names her kid is not my business and it's terrible how much brain space I've allocated to being annoyed with this name choice, but come on. She hasn't given him a name, she's given him an adjective! She didn't name him "Morocco" or even the slightly better "Rocco", but actually "Moroccan" because that is a room in her house where her husband proposed to her. Good lord! Does anyone give any thought anymore to the fact that their kids will one day grow up and want to be taken seriously as individuals? That maybe they won't want to be known all their life as the spawn of famous parents? Do these parents want to permanently keep their children in the fragile bubble of celebrity, so that's why they name them Zuma and Moroccan and Banjo? So they can't blend into a crowd? Because they're projecting onto their kids what they eventually want them to be: NOT ORDINARY. Even us ordinary folks (and I mean people who aren't getting papped for People magazine) are trying to follow the celebrity trend for picking the most unique moniker possible for the little tykes. What if one day your daughter wants to be Prime Minister of Canada, but you've named her Rainbow? Then there's the guy in Egypt who just named his kid 'Facebook'. WTF? Individuals who think they've given birth to dolls or pets (instead of humans) and then name them as such, affront me.

So surely I can't be the only person out there who gets annoyed by seemingly trite things (please, say I'm not the only one). What irrational things annoy you?

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Left Brainy

On Saturday morning, Dan turned on the television and had it in the background as we got our breakfast ready. Because it's Dan, he made sure the channel 'just happened' to be one that was play a kid's cartoon. Specifically, The Fantastic Four.

Dan pretended to continue to try and help with breakfast, but really that means he stood in our eating area with a placemat clutched in his hands teetering between setting it on the table, and just holding it while he watched the cartoon.

He's very good at this and can successfully avoid entire meal preparations by taking forever and a day to set the table.

In the kitchen I was listening to these stiff 1960's cartoon voices worry about time-travel, and making sure they didn't end up in a time where they already existed, because that might crease the fabric of time (or something).

Personally, I think it would be unwise to time travel to a time you already exist in, because if you show up in front of your past or future self, you're going to give yourself a heart attack and then you're really screwed because chances are you have just killed off your past self, which means your time travelling self can't exist, and you'll just disappear, or you've killed your future self, in which case aren't you now just like a jug of milk in the fridge? The expiration date clearly looming over your head?

Since this was obviously an important query, I mentioned it to Dan.

Then he broke his gaze away from the television and looked at me in confusion.

"You understand the cartoon?"

"Of course, it's not that early in the morning."

"But...wait? Is this cartoon playing in English????????????????????????"

"Yeeeeeeees," I replied as slowly as possible.

"I didn't even think about it, I just thought it was German. That's weird."

****

Dan switches between English and Swiss-German like nothing, which stuns me. I can't comprehend it and probably won't for awhile yet. And the fact that he watches television and simply understands it, without giving two thoughts to the language it's being broadcast in, well: that's insane to me.

****

In other news, he channeled those fantastic superheros and ran a race that very day.

In the pouring rain.

With 25,000 other people.

In the pouring, pelting, pummeling rain.

Where it also was thundering and lightening.

Poor me, I had to wait under my big umbrella at the finish line where I remained toasty warm and as dry as my old history professor's personality.

(Dan's a giant, in case I haven't mentioned that.)

It's (not such) a tough life being a fan girl.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Hey, I Never Pretended I Was Cool

A couple of Sundays ago, Dan and I went to the BEA expo that was here in Bern. I didn't really know what it was all about, but the posters advertising it had a Bernese Mountain Dog puppy and a piglet hanging out in a window, with a cow peering through.

Yeah, I was definitely excited to go.

The grounds were enormous, and I can tell you a few things that were there:

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There was a ferris wheel.

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A skateboard balancing station.

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An awesome barbeque restaurant....

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That served awesome skewered meat.

And that's basically the handful of activities that I know of that were happening outside of...THE ANIMAL PENS. Because essentially I spent a good three hours exploring about 0.02% of the expo before going home, and that 0.02% was the stables.

(Though I did get to see Bernese Mountain Dog puppies! They were all passed out and sleeping soundly, and there was a lady in the pen with the dogs making sure that no one tried to scare them or (in my case) run off with one. I had my fingers curled through the chicken wire, with my face pressed up against it, staring at those sweet pups with--what I realize now--to be crazy eyes. Basically I was silently screaming I WANT ONE and I think I was scaring the lady who was taking care of them. Dan had to lead me away by the hand, otherwise I'd probably still be there.)

I got to see:

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An Arabian Princess.

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The Three Stooges.

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A displaced gold-rush pack mule.

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A country gentleman atop an ENORMOUS horse.

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Beer wagons and harnesses.

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The steeds that pulled that wagon.

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And their handler.

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The equine voted 'Best Hair' for the class of 2011.

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The ass voted 'Worst Hair' for the class of 2011.

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(Though in all seriousness, this is the Poitou Donkey, which is a severally endangered breed so it was awesome to see one of these dreadlocked beauties in real life.)

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The stud voted 'Cutest Smile' for the class of 2011.

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I also got to see this beautiful grey wowing the crowds with its athletic prowess and beauty.

But really, who I was most excited to see were these guys.

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Apparently Bern has a Western Club, and I was so excited to see some Western showmanship on display. These guys all preformed in the ring, doing some basic reining, showing off a cutting horse, and some roping. English riding is really typical here in Switzerland, so it was great to see a style of riding that I was so familiar with.

Except...

But...

Only...

Oh geez.

Watching those guys in action really made me homesick and nostalgic. I mean, I actually said to Dan, "If we don't leave right now, I'm hopping on a plane." The smell of a barn, the sweet breath of a horse sniffing your bangs, the trembling legs of a newborn foal. I saw it all, and know it all so well. It was gut wrenching the ache I felt, so when those riders took to the ring, well it was game over.

So I went home, and to make myself feel better I...

...oh geez...

...I don't know why I'm anxious to tell you this...

...I obviously don't mind that people know, otherwise I wouldn't post about it...

...here goes...

...I downloaded a whole bunch of....country music.

Whew.

AND IT'S BEEN GREAT. It has totally soothed my soul listening to those twangy ballads because sometimes the only thing that is going to get you through is Faith Hill and Tim McGraw singing a duet that is so beautiful, you'd cry if you weren't so happy that when you closed your eyes, for a split second you could swear you smelled sagebrush rolling in with storm clouds.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a...?

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It's a...postmodern totem pole water feature, meant to draw attention to societal obsession with the derrière?

Possibly titled: Junk in the Trunk (?)

Sunday, 8 May 2011

My Mom

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This is my mom and dad.

You may remember these two crazy kids from this post back in November when I sung their praises.

Well, today is Mother's Day so how about I clear out my vocal cords and....oh, don't worry Mom I won't sing.  But I still reserve the right to boast about how rad you are.

I consider myself really lucky to have the mom that I do, because we have a great relationship. Of course I'd be lying and airbrushing my life if I said this relationship was, "So rosy and perfect, and we never disagree or get annoyed with each other," because I don't really consider that healthy for any relationship let alone a realistic description between that of a parent and a child.

Because growing up, that was the distinction: my mom was my mom.

She wasn't my friend, she was the woman who was there to nurture me, to scold me when deserved (and sometimes when it wasn't: I mean come on Mom, no one cleans their room anymore. It's so 1800's), to buy me a treat when I was feeling down, but then to yank me back up from the ground when I'd been there too long. To praise me when I did something outstanding, and to hold me accountable when I hadn't. I always knew that my mom loved me even if I thought she was being unfair.

I think I can confidently speak on behalf of both my sisters and say that our Mom (and Dad too) is our rock.

So, did anyone else used to watch Darkwing Duck? Are your heads officially spinning right now at this old school Disney cartoon reference? I still kind of remember the chorus:

Daring duck of mystery,
Champion of right,
Swoops out of the shadows,
Darkwing owns the night
...
(lala something I can't remember lala).
...
 Darkwing Duck!
When there's trouble you call DW.
Darkwing Duck!
Let's get dang-er-ous.

So the line 'when there's trouble you call DW' reminds me of Mom because those are her initials. And I used to sometimes sing that line to myself mostly just for fun, but on an unconscious level also realizing it to be true.
 
When there's trouble you call DW.
 
I remember one time standing confusedly on our front lawn while the lady who delivered the junk mail flyers stood at the end of our long gravel drive, yelling for me to 'get control of [my] dog!' I looked to my canine companion who was peacefully standing by side. Was this lady speaking of Bess? Our Setter with the Irish red coat and who had blind milky blue eyes and a bark that didn't exist?
 
Internet, because I want you to know how wonderful my mom is, I will summarize with the story of Bess.
 
One of my Dad's postings was a town way way way up in Northern British Columbia. We had neighbours (and remember, we were living in remote British Columbia: neighbour means the person up the road, not over the fence) that had a gorgeous dog, but the husband abused the dog. He left her outside on frigid Canadian winter nights, he wouldn't feed her, and he used to beat her with whatever instrument he could get his hands on.
 
That dog was Bess.
 
My mom would be walking with me and Meghan, and Bess would timidly come to the road to greet my mom. She was starved in more ways than one, and what Bess wanted was a tender touch.
 
It would have been easier for my mom to just start walking another route, or to not stop and stroke the silky red hairs on Bess' trembling frame. It would have been easier to not see. But mom did see, and she announced to my Dad that she absolutely was not going to stand idly by and let that man continue to treat his dog that way anymore. She was taking her. So, in the night, with the blessing of the man's wife's purposefully turned blind eye, Mom took Bess.
 
Then Bess had to immediately be taken to the vet's office in a city over an hour away, because in addition to a long list of ailments she was also suffering from distemper, which everyone knows can be fatal to dogs. I can't remember how long Bess stayed at the vet's but it was long enough to warrant a very pricey bill. A bill that my mom paid for by sitting hunched over her sewing machine, crafting doorstop ducks that she sold around the community.
 
My Dad laughs when he says that Bess was the first one in our truck when it was time for us to move away from that town.
 
When there's trouble you call DW.
 
So I am ten years old, standing on our front lawn with lanky Bess by my side, and she's blindly sniffing the air wondering about the commotion as the junk mail lady stands at the end of the drive yelling hysterically for the dog to be contained. Obviously alerted to the commotion, my mom comes outside to see what's going on.
 
It took exactly 3.3 seconds for my mom to loose her temper as this woman shouted at us to control our very placid dog.
 
"WHO ARE YOU YELLING AT? The dog's nowhere near you. Are you so stunned that you can't tell that the she's blind! She never barks! She will not approach you!"
 
"If you don't keep that dog contained, I won't deliver you these flyers!"
 
"GOOD. I don't want that garbage anyhow! Give them to my neighbours!"
 
Then my mom slammed the front door and the junk mail lady remained standing at the edge of the drive for a second before she walked away.
 
A couple of days later her superior paid us a visit to find out how we could resolve the issue. Could we keep Bess in the garage? In the house? In the backyard?
 
No. No. No.
 
"My dog has done nothing to her, never would do anything to her, and will not be shut away as though she has."
 
That's my mom. She will always go out of her way to help someone if they are in need. She will do anything in her power to make sure she has the means to help someone. She will defend them if they can't do it themselves.
 
And most importantly: she will not take any shit, from anyone.
 
When there's trouble you call DW.
 
Love you Mom.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

It's Official: I'm The Worst

Today I fake-called myself on my cellphone so that I could avoid being approached by a pack of teens who were selling tealight lamps for a school function.

And I didn't even feel bad about it. In fact, I wish I'd thought of this avoidance tactic earlier.

Now this isn't really excusable behaviour, but I'm going to damn well try and justify it anyhow. You see, it's not the pretty flowers that signal spring has arrived in Bern: it's all the GD soliciting that starts up as soon as the sun shines. These people want your support, they want your signature, they want your money, and they will not leave you alone.

Walking through the crowds, without fail, the first people to approach you are the hippies who work for Greenpeace.

Do you care about the earth? Do you care about global warming? DO YOU CARE?

Since I can't really speak German, and I'm not 100% sure what they asked, I usually reply: No.

This offends them.

They follow you, badgering you into trying to make you understand their dreadlocked and pierced point of view. But rest assured if you walk fast enough you will soon be rid of them because there seems to be a strict perimeter they have to stick to, and once you cross the invisible boundary line, they stop dead in their sandled shoes and continue to call after you for being (I imagine) such a disgrace to humanity.

But don't get too comfortable because you're not in the clear yet. Now you have to confront the enraged idealists who want to banish nuclear power, and they make the Greenpeacers seem downright mellow. It's no use joking with them and saying you couldn't possibly support something that would put Homer Simpson out of a job, because they won't laugh.

So soon you've escaped that deadpan nuclear crowd, but now you have to deal with the different religions clamoring to be heard:

Come to my booth. We have aliens and Tom Cruise! Come on over you lost little immortal because you've got it all wrong silly: being auditted is actually fun [smiley face].

Don't go there! Come over here, our religion is the right one and there's the added bonus that you get to stand as still as a mannequin  at bus stops, and hope that people will take the magazine you're offering. Don't worry, it's only slightly embarrassing if you run into someone you know.

Don't go to either one of those booths! Come to mine! We literally stand on soapboxes on street corners and yell at everyone for being Godless sinners. It's great for anger management!

If you can escape those people, you now have to pass the two men in wheelchairs who park themselves on either side of the sidewalk, and dejectedly jingle the change in their tin cups as you walk by.

Then you have to pass the different artists who are strumming their guitars with their caps on the ground; the school kids who will swarm you and try to pick your proverbial pocket by selling you the most expensive chocolate bar ever, and trust me it doesn't come with a golden ticket; then you have to pass the young couples who are spread out on the ground with dogs sleeping at their feet and they appeal to your animal loving nature by requesting money so they can feed their dogs; then when you get to the bus you will be asked for money twice in three minutes by the same person and he isn't even representing a cause, selling chocolate, singing a song, or even owns a dog. He just straight up wants whatever is left in your pocket.

It is getting exhausting and expensive.

So you see, I really have to fake call myself because if I don't take these precautions pretty soon I'm going to end up clutching a clipboard and running after Thursday afternoon shoppers:

Excuse me? Do you care about the fact that I hopped a bus and wasted energy to get down here to buy new shoes? I belong to that religion called "embarrassing consumerism" and really need your support. I spent all my money on the street arts, and feeding other people's animals, and buying candy from babies, and now I don't have enough left over to get those cute wedges I've been coveting.

Help a girl out?

I'll braid your hair.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Nature's Little Housekeepers

For most of the day today the sky poured with a cold and driving rain that prompted most of us sensible creatures to try and stay as snug and dry as possible.

But there were two little visitors who took advantage of the weather to use it as an opportunity to make repeated visits to my front balcony, without the irritation of being ambushed by a house cat that moves with the grace of a boxer in pointe shoes (of course I speak of Cosmo).

These two little birds were building a nest, and apparently my balcony (that is void of any sort of plant life) was the jackpot of nesting materials. For hours, on and off, I'd look up from my work and see these two either just landing or just departing, and what they were collecting from my deck was...cat hair. Specifically, a lot of Poppy hair (our resident perma-shedder).

On our deck there is a groove in the cement that is to catch water, and funnel it to the eavestroughing. Well, what this groove actually does is make an excellent catch-all for Poppy's blowing coat, and two days ago I inspected the build-up of white hairs in the trough and wondered if I should maybe sweep it up.

Then I laughed at how ridiculous a notion that was: Sweep up an outdoor space. What am I, Swiss? Or my dad? I'll just wait for a good wind.

(hehe, sorry Dad!)

Well, the wind has come and it was in the form of two wee birds that proved very mighty. After hours of work in the driving rain, clutching five or six long white Poppy hairs at a time, those two little birds have removed almost all the hair. I have mixed emotions on this: (a) I am very happy that the hair is gone, and I never had to exert any effort to remove it; but (b) I don't want the baby birds to be sleeping in a nest padded with Poppy hair, and to wiggle cozily down into the warm fibres with their fellow nestlings, or chirp happily when mom or dad return with a juicy grub, for what if they associate Poppy's smell with love, and food, and comfort? And seek her out? Think of her as their mommy, after their actual mom boots them out of the nest so she can have a moments piece and not have to clean up after anyone but herself.

This worries me.

Because Internet, it's not the house cat that's as graceful as a boxer in pointe shoes that the birds who come to our deck have to be careful of.

It's not him at all.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds

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Okay so I don't know anyone named Lucy (except for the character of Lucy Eleanor Moderatz from While You Were Sleeping, a movie that I bust out every Christmas and have seen waaaaay too many times, yet still not enough), but the sky was full of diamonds last night.