Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad

A manifesto

5 Comments

“What would you say…you do here?”

Anyone remember this classic line/scene from the hilarious movie Office Space? The staff of Initech are made to meet with some efficiency experts who have been brought into the office to figure out who is redundant or expendable. The employees are shown, during their meetings, desperately trying to make their jobs seem essential, and themselves irreplaceable. It’s obvious, however, that some of the jobs are completely pointless. As they endlessly grill an employee who appears to have no real roles or responsibilities, one of the efficiency guys, his mustache twitching in agitation, suddenly blurts out “what would you say…you DO here?”

I’ve been feeling scrutinized since coming to Switzerland. People here like to put things in boxes (boxes, of course, are what comprise that most holy of Swiss pastimes — paperwork). As a married woman, it seems, you are either employed, or you are a hausfrau. When we registered at the kreisburo, the clerk looked at Stelian’s work contract and surmised that he was a Post-Docktorand: the occupation was duly noted on his forms. But he became troubled when filling out the forms for me. “So…what are you doing here?” he finally asked, in much the same manner as the Office Space efficiency expert. The bluntness was probably due to English being his second (or, given that this is Switzerland, third or fourth or fifth) language, so while I tried not to be insulted, I was a little taken aback. A number of unsatisfactory responses were running through my mind (“I’m trying something new,” “I’m wanting to explore your country”) but there was nothing I wanted to say out loud, so I just blushed instead. The man eventually suggested, “OK, you are here being Mr. Coros’s wife?” And I assented, and this is what went on the form. Another government survey form came in the mail a few weeks later, and for lack of a better option, I had to tick the box beside “homemaker” when describing what I do.  I am sure that a number of people I meet mentally check this box for me as well, since I don’t have a job to point to.

But here’s my chance to furnish additional explanation, outside of the boxes. It is true that I am here by virtue of being married to Stelian, who has his job. If not for that, I would not be having this opportunity to live in Europe (at least not in Switzerland: as I explained the other day, if you don’t have a good reason to be here, you can’t be here). And because Stelian is working full-time hours, and I am not, I will be doing a greater share of things like shopping, cooking, and housework. So yes, I am like a hausfrau in that regard.

There is more to the story, though. One reason why the opportunity to come here was enticing for me — apart from the draw of Switzerland and Europe as beautiful places to live and explore — was that it would be a challenge. It would involve a new language, a new way of living, and (I hoped, and still do) a new way of thinking. I even thought (and still think) that not being able to work would be an excellent creative challenge for me.  (In this regard, I am encouraged by research showing that living abroad is associated with increased creativity).

“Work” has never been a satisfying proposition for me in Canada. Though I’ve done a number of different things, I’ve never loved what I’ve done, and I’ve never been so absorbed in and enamored of what I’m doing that the hours roll by unnoticed, as they do for Stelian when he’s working on a project he enjoys. I know that what I can get lost in is writing — pouring more than 10,000 words into this blog during its first month of existence has reaffirmed that for me. I’ve been writing outside of it, too, and if my writing wanes somewhat in this forum it is hopefully because it is waxing elsewhere. I have certain goals in sight, including producing material for a writer’s workshop happening in Zürich in late spring.

So, for anyone wondering what it is that I “do here”, this is an early, tentative explanation. I currently have the luxury of exploring something that I am actually passionate about (in addition to doing other things that I’m not as passionate about, like cleaning and learning to cook). Whether my dream of writing full-time pans out or not, my goal is to spend my time in Zürich giving it a fair shot.

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5 thoughts on “A manifesto

  1. What an opportunity to fulfill a dream! We have all enjoyed the quality of your writing, Kristen. In fact, your Mother and I commented to each other how well you write, allowing us to see what you are seeing, to laugh at yourself and to make us smile at the same time.

    Carpe diem…… seize the day for those who don’t do Latin 🙂 and good luck!

  2. “OK, you are here being Mr. Coros’s wife?”. I had to laugh. It sounds so elegantly casual. Just as the actor portrays the character, but isn’t, so you are “being ” the wife.

    Next time someone asks, offer them 3 choices with instructions to place a check next to the one that works best for them:
    – Writer in Residence
    – Laureate Canadienne.
    – Sage

  3. and to all I add, carpe manana – seize tomorrow too – and live your dream. Let it take hold of you and see what happens. Frau Coros, you have the heart of a writer! Love you lots, Mom

  4. Erna would be proud 😉 You have really followed up with what we discussed with her years ago. Very brave. And your writing is so engaging!

  5. Thanks for the encouragement, all! Kim, you are right about Erna. She would be proud. Maybe I’ll get around to blogging about our experience with her at some point.

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