Chronicles of a writer abroad


A concession

Summer is an excellent study in contrasts. I like to complain about it, and accuse it of being cruel, but the truth is that its pleasures stand in stark relief to its pains. On a 33-degree day in a city without air-conditioning, I can think that I’ll never feel cold again, but suddenly I’m swimming in the river or lake, covered in goosebumps and missing the warm air. I can think that my thirst will never be quenched, but then following an impish smile and a crooked finger from our neighborhood fruit lady (who has a crush on Stelian), we’re at home using two spoons to dig into one half of a glorious watermelon that she’d been storing in a refrigerated case. The forecast can show days of unrelenting heat, and then a fierce summer storm can blow in out of nowhere. A sweaty, muggy day can be followed by a deliciously cool, starry night. So yes, Summer, you deserve points for keeping things interesting. I’m still in agreement with a lot of this, though.

A now-deflated flotation device used to cruise 2km down the river during last weekend’s Limmatschwimmen



Street art in Zürich

Zürich has a bit of a reputation for being stodgy and old-fashioned. And while the city can be maddeningly uniform in places, and it can sometimes feel as though the cleanliness is bordering on obsessiveness (remember that the garbage cans are polished regularly), some bursts of gritty creativity occasionally break through the orderly facade. One thing our visiting relatives often notice is that there is a lot of graffiti covering the city. Most of it doesn’t qualify as artful — its sole intent seems to be to mar beautiful places and things, which I think is a shame.

But street art is a different thing altogether — it’s something that I appreciate when carried out with a passion for creativity. Here is a complex on Rötelstrasse (in the Wipkingen area), painted by Zürich artist collective One Truth Crew. The mural sort of unfolds from different angles as you go past. I’ve been admiring this since it appeared on one of my running routes a short while ago, and I finally got around to photo-documenting it.

What do you think? Do you like this kind of street art, or do you consider it an eyesore?


Swiss National Day, Take 2

Here we are again: another August 1; another Swiss National Day.

It’s a good time to think about what’s occurred since last Aug. 1, and how our relationship to this country has changed (or not) during this period.

There have been times over the past year when I’ve felt rather integrated — running the marathon in April was one such instance, because it was something I could do alongside the Swiss, and I had the sense of doing it in a city I knew well and had already logged hundreds of miles in. There have been minor victories, too, in the form of full conversations with shop clerks, tailors, waiters, etc. conducted in German. There are times when I think, maybe I do sort of belong.

But then again, I don’t. Because what often happens is that when I need to go and talk to someone, I rehearse the German version of what I want to say, and then as soon as I’ve said it, the person responds to me in English. There are a few reasons why this might be happening: because the High German I’m speaking is not actually the language that these people are comfortable with  (Swiss German is, but it’s not something you can take classes in); because my “English” accent is ridiculously strong; because Swiss people take pride in the fact that they speak English well, and they enjoy practising it; or because Google Translate has led me to say something ludicrous in German, and my interlocutor wants to prevent me from embarrassing myself further.

In any case, the language issue is one that keeps us feeling like outsiders. The permit issue is another — we still have an “L” permit, which is the worst type. It has caused our bank to deny us a Swiss credit card, leading us to continue to rely on our Canadian ones; it causes other companies (like those dealing with cell phones) to demand huge deposits before they will give us a contract; and it makes it very difficult for us to move apartments (which we considered doing after learning that Stelian’s contract was extended and we have the possibility of staying through 2014).

So, in some respects, Switzerland can be a hard place to live in. But in other ways, it is easy: the food — especially the summer produce — is beautiful, excellent jogging trails are practically at my doorstep, the big mountains are only a couple of hours away, and everything is clean, efficient and running on time.

I’m not finished figuring the country out, either. The weekend before last Stelian and I had the privilege of attending the wedding of one of his Swiss coworkers. Here is a brief list of things we witnessed that day that surprised me:

– the minister wielding a rolling-pin as a symbol of the importance of fighting in marriage;

– the congregation being invited to sing non-traditional songs like Bob Marley’s “Is It Love” and the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week”;

– a multitude of Swiss children being allowed to not only attend the ceremony but also to roll in the church aisles in the throes of boredom;

– a very easygoing attitude about various uncontrollable events (the rain that poured during the mostly-outdoor reception; the flower girl who became very cranky and decided to attack the guitar-player during his solo performance).

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I’m grateful to Switzerland for providing  challenges, for giving me insight into new ways of doing things and into what it feels like to be a newcomer trying to assimilate, for allowing me to traipse all over its beautiful soil…and for giving me the chance to stay and experience it all a little longer.

P.S. Here is a recent video by Monocle magazine, explaining why they think Zurich is the world’s “most liveable” city.