Chronicles of a writer abroad

The Tyranny of the Doorbell


I wrote in an earlier entry about my aversion to talking on the phone. Since arriving in Switzerland, however, I have also been haunted by a new spectre, which is the doorbell.

To fully appreciate my fear, you first must understand that every modern apartment in Switzerland, such as the one we live in,  comes equipped with not only a buzzer/intercom so that you can communicate with people outside the building and let them in, but also a little placard outside your apartment with your names on it (ours says “Stelian and Kristin,” owing to someone at the management company not having good attention to detail) and below the names, a button that you can press to ring a doorbell for the apartment. To my mind, it’s pretty unnecessary — the apartments in our building are all 75 square meters, definitely not so large that a knock wouldn’t do the trick.

Within days of arriving in Switzerland last January, my cats and I were already conditioned to hate the trilling doorbell sound, for it inevitably meant that someone intended to barge their way in. For our first month, we lived in a temporary apartment, and the landlord would show up with no warning whatsoever and want to show the suite to prospective future renters. Then we moved into our own apartment, where we thought there’d be peace, but as it was newly renovated, there were little things to be worked out still, and someone was always arriving to recaulk the shower, install something that we hadn’t known we needed, change the locks, etc. Never did we get any warning, and always was it irksome to me, because I usually spend my morning writing in…shall we say…comfortable clothes (pyjamas, okay? I’m often still wearing my pyjamas). Also, I’m what I like to call “differently-organized” (and what a more critical person might term “a slob”) so having my household disorder on sudden display, in addition to my slovenly costume, is almost more embarrassment than I can bear.

I can see how some of the Swiss characteristics that I’ve noted before — chattiness, nosiness, compulsive neatness — make it seem okay to expect to be admitted to someone’s personal space at any time. But to the highly private expat, it’s so bewildering, especially when you consider some of the requests that have faced me on the other side of the door.

One evening after dinner, for example, I answered a doorbell ring to find a staff member from the Kebab shop, which is at the ground level in the same block of buildings as ours. He began to speak in rapid-fire German, asking if I happened to occupy storage locker #20 in the basement (he already knew that I did; our names are also on the lockers). After I confirmed that I did, he said, “I will need to borrow your key, because [a complex sentence that was incomprehensible to me].” He didn’t speak English; what could I do? He’s come to borrow the key several times now — it has something to do with our locker having access to some pipes or vents or something.

Then, just today, I was showering after a late-afternoon run when I heard the doorbell ring. Once, twice, then an incredible third time. By the time I got out of the shower, I crept to the door and listened as two people stood outside talking in German. I didn’t answer — I was only wearing a towel, after all, and I don’t need that kind of embarrassment on top of everything else. Guess what the party trying to get my attention did next? Went downstairs and buzzed me. Talk about persistent.

When Stelian came home half an hour later, he was waylaid by the serial ringers, who were still downstairs — they were people who had narrowly missed the window for a showing of an apartment in the building, and were now wanting to see someone else’s apartment to determine if they wanted to apply for it. To their request, Stelian politely (and wisely) responded, “No, I don’t think my wife would be okay with that.”

There is also an apocryphal story about the Billag people, who are responsible for collecting a government-mandated tax on television and radio consumption. If you claim not to have one or the other, it is said, the Billag people will surprise-visit you, hoping to catch your TV-that-you-claimed-not-to-have blaring away in the background or sitting prominently in your living room. But I really don’t have a TV, so when I received my annual and exorbitant-seeming bill I wrote to tell them as much. Therefore, if it’s true that they do surprise visits, there could be one lurking in my future.

But do you think I’ll answer when they come? Nope, not a chance, not anymore. I’d love to be unafraid, and one of those people who can receive others for coffee at any time. But the ringing doorbell is just too dangerous a prospect for me. So friends, Roman(ian)s, countrymen: lend me your advance notice. Or at least knock in Morse code to let me know it’s you, and give me a minute to change and clean up first.

4 thoughts on “The Tyranny of the Doorbell

  1. It’s really surprising that you receive so many surprise visitors, because I heard/read that Swiss culture is not one that welcomes impromptu visits. The people who wanted to view another apartment were just rude. Now I want to talk to some Swiss people to learn some curtly polite phrases to let unwanted visitors know they’re intruding.

    • If you learn any good ones, I’d be glad to know them! Yeah, maybe it’s not a Swiss thing and we’ve just been unlucky. Stelian felt bad about turning away the people yesterday, but I agree with you that their request was inappropriate. Then they hung around the building ringing different doorbells for about an hour after a few people already told them no…

  2. I share your view on unannounced visitors! There’s something about being in your own home with the door closed … isn’t that what doors are for? And porches, for those of us who follow Jane Jacob’s vision, are for chatting and visiting with neighbours! If I’m not out on my non-existent porch, then …

  3. We have only 14 units in our condo and receive very occasional visits from just two people, who discreetly tap on the door. Mind you, if we are expecting people from outside the building, we have to ensure that the phone is handy because #6 will open the front door for them.
    My only problem just now is whether I have my wig on so I won’t scare them to death :).

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