Chronicles of a writer abroad


Take a look at my fallout shelter

It’s hard to know what to blog about, sometimes. Now that I’ve mostly adjusted to life in Switzerland — in other words, I take entirely for granted the fact that everything is spotless and punctual, I run errands in German, and I not only accept but enjoy sparkling water — it’s become difficult to comment on the remarkable nature of my surroundings.

Sometimes, though, I can still glimpse Switzerland’s mystique, shimmering on the horizon of my quotidian landscape. At those moments I remember the image of the country that was in my head before I moved here and made it a home.

Such a moment took place when I realized that the basement of our new apartment building offered not only communal washing facilities and a bike rack, but also a bona fide bomb shelter.


Like all the apartment buildings Stelian and I have lived in (for the record, we’re currently on our fifth), this one offers a storage locker in the basement. But we’ve never accessed any of our previous storage lockers through a door like this.

Apparently Switzerland has the most shelters of any country, and new buildings are required to be outfitted with them. According to a sign on the door,

the space can accommodate 41 people, which should be enough to cover the 12 apartments in our building. I wonder if we’re the only people not storing rations in our locker. Also notice that this never-used door is serviced at regular intervals. The fact that fallout shelters are still embraced in Switzerland is so telling, smacking as it does of cautiousness, preparedness, and a tinge of paranoia.

Anyway, I love this foot-thick door for reminding me that I am living somewhere that is very different from where I come from. Each time that I do a laundry-schlep in my new building, I pass by it and remember that I’m not in Canada(s) anymore.

The shelter’s disappointingly normal interior



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.


7 ways in which the Supermarkt is a microcosm of Swiss society

The supermarket: a microcosm of society?

I think so. And it makes sense: everyone has to go to the grocery store, and we do so in order to meet one of our most basic needs. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we behave in very characteristic ways in these spaces.

If you think about it, many quintessentially Canadian things are in evidence when you pop into your local supermarket. I’m not referring to just the plenteous bacon and maple syrup. I’m talking about the way in which people say “sorry” (in a way, I’ve learned, that Americans who say  sah-ree find amusing) when they merely graze each other. Everyone queues politely to pay. A generous bubble of personal space is granted, whether you are in the produce section or the checkout line.

Here in Switzerland, the workings of the Supermarkt are different — and these differences, I believe, help to illuminate important aspects of Swiss culture. Here’s a list I’ve been mentally forming during my many trips to my local Migros and Coop stores.

No apologies. The Swiss have actually adopted the English word “sorry” as a more informal alternative to entschuldigung or es tut mir leid. Whether they say soh-ree or sah-ree is hard to tell, but you’re unlikely to either one in this context. There seems to be a rule that in order to get your shopping done, it’s perfectly acceptable to push, bump, and squeeze past with nary a word. This used to really irk me, but I’ve grown somewhat used to it with time.

Workers are intensely productive. To put this in context, it’s important to understand that Swiss supermarkets are not staffed in large part by teens/young adults, as is the case in Canada. Instead, most of the workers are middle-aged, and I’ve learned that this is actually considered a career track for those who get spat out of the very complicated Swiss schooling system (where tests are highly determinative) at an early stage. So first you have to get used to the idea that people work as stockpersons and cashiers their entire working lives, and secondly you have to accept the fact that they work like crazed automatons. It is not uncommon to see a person asking “where might I find X?” as a stockperson continues to unload boxes at lightning speed, not seizing this opportunity for momentary rest. They work so continuously, so ardently, that I have wondered if they are operating under some kind of threat or quota system. Also, the “push, bump, and squeeze past” rule reaches its highest octave here — the customer is not someone to be deferred to; no, the customer is someone who better get the heck outta the way when a certain area is being stocked.

Aversion to queuing/merit-based queuing. It’s every person for her or himself in all areas of the Supermarkt. There’s little sense of you-were-waiting-so-I’ll-let-you-use-the-scale-before-I-barge-up-to-it. There is (to a Canadian eye) discourtesy and disorder until shoppers enter the corral-like structures that lead up to the cash registers and force people to stand one behind the other. But even then, there is bargaining and place-swapping: some degree of filial piety means that the elderly will sometimes be ushered to the front of the line, and there will sometimes also be requests by people buying only a few items to go ahead of you when you have more. I don’t disagree with either of these practices, but I have become bewildered when a request to do one of them is being issued in Swiss German.

Lots of small talk and advice. Living in Zürich, I sometimes feel that I have a few thousand well-meaning but overbearing grandparents. Standing in line to pay, I have been scolded, chatted up, interrogated, sometimes all at the same time. The Swiss love to be a part of each other’s lives (I have many other stories about this in other contexts, too). I suppose I wouldn’t mind so much if this didn’t often constitute a language bomb situation for me.

Peaceful Sundays mean hectic Saturdays. I have previously lauded the tradition of no-business Sundays that Switzerland observes, but I must add that these Sundays come at a price, and that price is the all-out havoc that is Saturday at the Markt, as everyone tries to do their shopping at the same time. As someone who shops during the week and on the weekends, I would say that on Saturday there are at least 400% more shoppers in the supermarket. It is a blood-pressure-raising experience…for me, anyway.

Decadence in everyday life. Yes, I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to reiterate in case the foregoing comes off as sounding uniformly negative — the amount of gorgeous chocolate and cheese in these Supermarkts is enough to bring a tear to the eye of a hardcore dairy-lover such as myself.

Trim, healthy figures. I’ve said this before, too, but the customs of a people who load up their carts with fatty milk, chocolates, starches and meats and still manage to have healthy body weights, as well as a very impressive average life expectancy, are worth paying attention to.

Anything I’m missing? Care to share any of your observations of supermarkets in other countries?


A grocery store gamble

One of my favourite things about living in a foreign country is that when you go to the grocery store, you are faced with things like this.

This would be a seasonal food item — one that is so well-known that the company producing it can sell it in an opaque sac with no description of what it is (except the “mit honig” or “with honey”). I knew that it was bread of some kind (this is what “Brot” means, and I was also in the bread section), but I couldn’t remember “Magen” (which will be revealed below), and the general sense of being excluded from something that everyone else is familiar with niggled at me. I decided to risk a few francs and gain some culinary education.

So, what was inside the bag?

Imagine, if you will, a gingerbread-flavoured and slightly dry Timbit with a honey glaze. Mmm.

So, score one for experimentation. I’m glad I didn’t realize beforehand that the literal translation of Magenbrot is “stomach bread” (since it is believed in this part of the world that spices like ginger and cloves are good for your stomach). The name doesn’t do much to entice. But I suppose it is, in the end, as irrelevant as the opaque bag — these things fly off the shelves, despite bad packaging or bad names, in a country with strong traditions.

On another food-related note: if you’re in the mood for a laugh, read the reviews/comments on this recipe for Salted Water. This is perfect satire, encapsulating all of the types of annoying comments one normally sees on recipe sites.

P.S. My blogs now come to you from my shiny new Mac. That’s right, I’ve crossed over. Still taking in how pretty everything is!


Beware the Föhn

A warm wind blew into the room as we sat in German class today. “Here is the Föhn,” our teacher advised.

Ah, the Föhn– I’d read about this phenomenon before coming to Switzerland. A beguiling aura of mystery and superstition surrounded it. I was curious to know more, and luckily our teacher can be convinced to prattle on in English about matters culturally related to Switzerland. Through him, and subsequent internet research, I have learned the following.

The word Föhn, in German, means hairdryer – and it thus serves as a nice metaphor for the hot air that blows in regions north of the Alps at certain times during the spring and fall. This air can cause wildfires, spur rapid changes in temperature, and bring on anxiety or migraines in certain people. While it brings a welcome increase in visibility, there are anecdotal accounts of it triggering psychosis, and researchers have documented increases in accidents and suicides during its active periods. Our German teacher explained that Innsbruck (a lovely resort town in Austria that Stelian and I visited five years ago) is the heimatstadt or hometown of the Föhn — they are particularly affected by it, he said, due to their proximity to the Alps, and so when the winds are blowing, they cancel exams for students, as well as all but the most urgent surgical procedures.

Before I’d ever heard of the Föhn, I heard similar reports of weird behaviour and wariness relating to the Santa Ana winds in California, but I’d always assumed that this was mostly just folklore; something that people legendize and enjoy getting a little spooked by.

“Also, das ist ein bisschen…superstitious, oder?” I asked our teacher, in my quality Denglish (Deutsch + English).

“Nein, das ist nicht aberglaublich,” he replied. “It’s quite real.”

So, dear family and friends, the next time you are blowdrying your hair, think of us, caught in the blast from a large-scale version of your seemingly innocuous appliance…our hair becoming perilously overdried and our fortunes “blowin’ in the wind.”


Storybook Switzerland

I have been waiting all winter and spring for a chance to get up close and personal with one of these beauties.

In the Switzerland of my dreams, this is what I saw: cows in pasture, framed by beautiful snow-topped mountains and lush valleys. This vision was no doubt influenced by that little red-haired girl named Heidi.

I am happy to report that this storybook Switzerland exists — on this particular hike (which we did a few weeks ago), I was gobsmacked by the scenery. I mean, this is kind of ridiculously beautiful, is it not?

It’s enough to make one spontaneously bust out “The hills are alive…” and other VonTrapp family classics.

The gateway to this little paradise is a charming town called Engelberg.

It’s sort of like Banff, AB…but Swiss. Which means there are restaurants serving up killer Geschnetzeltes und Alpermagronen, as well as a cheese factory (not to worry, we took advantage of both of these things).

We took a gondola part of the way up the mountain, and then began to walk steeply upwards — our group gained a few hundred meters of altitude in the first short segment of our walk. We were overtaken by a group of intense Swiss children wielding hiking poles, and were quite tired when we reached this:

In Switzerland, there is always a refreshment stand. So just when you think you’ve climbed away from civilization, you happen upon a group of tourists, drinking latte macchiatos. To be fair, this particular spot was also accessible by a chair lift, since this is a winter skiing locale, but still…I felt like I’d earned some wilderness after all that huffing and puffing. Thanks, Switzerland, for making me feel terribly out of shape (again).

Another  ego-denting aspect of this excursion was that, by Swiss standards, it wasn’t even a hike, because we only gained a few hundred meters, and the whole shebang only took us a couple of hours. The Swiss are very strict about what is considered a walk and what is considered a hike. Diccon Bewes from Swiss Watching has shed some light on the difference:

“If it takes less than three hours, involves negligible height differences (ie under 400m), doesn’t include at least one mountain view, and has any part that is asphalted, then sorry but it’s just a walk, even if you are a panting wreck by the end of it.”

So, our group continued this walk in single-file along a foot path which threaded along the side of the mountain, giving us great views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

I’m hoping to go on a real hike this coming weekend, so I’ll report back on that. I couldn’t imagine anything being more magical or beautiful than this walk, but this country does continue to surprise me.


Day tripping: Bern

I gather from comments that people are enjoying the picture-heavy, travelogue-style posts. I’m having fun writing them, too. Today I’m going to tell you about the second excursion that Leah and I took outside of the Zürich city limits.

We decided to visit Bern (Berne if you’re French), Switzerland’s capital. Like other capitals that I’ve visited, Bern is pretty, and, uh, kinda….pretty boring. But nice to look at. Definitely.

In my opinion, you shouldn’t come to see the parliament buildings — I didn’t go inside, but from the outside, they were underwhelming. To spare you the visit, I will tell you the interesting facts about the way in which this country is governed, because the system, rather than the buildings in which it is housed and enacted, is what is worth looking into, in my humble opinion. So: in Switzerland, there is no one person (such as a President or Prime Minister) sitting at the top of the totem pole — instead, there are seven Federal Councillors who share power equally (currently, four of them — a majority — are women).

The Swiss Federal Council (plus one extra woman, who is Federal Chancellor)

The seven are elected as representatives of several (currently five) different parties according to their number of seats in the Swiss Parliament.  Decisions are made jointly by the septet, and there is a policy that once a decision is made (even if it passed only because three against were outvoted by four in favour) all seven will support it publicly — the public is not supposed to know who voted for or against a given motion.  Okay, I think that’s enough lecturing.

I also wouldn’t go to Bern to see the Zeitglockenturm, a tower with a clock which keeps several different types of time (including current astrological sign). I mean, it’s pretty. But it’s not much to write home on your blog about.

You also won’t want to go to Bern just to see this statue of an ogre capturing and eating children. Be forewarned: your Lonely Planet Western Europe guidebook may make this fountain sound like it is a can’t-be-missed highlight, but really it is just a pretty ordinary fountain, and the sculpture sitting atop it is actually not so big and consequently, hard to see or get a good picture of.

Don’t worry: Stelian has already accused me, on several occasions, of having become a Europe snob, so there’s no need to scold me again. It was bound to happen, no?

Now, you may have heard of Bern’s Münster. Is this worth a visit? Well, yes. And no. Yes because it has a unique carving depicting The Last Judgement at the entrance that is fun to look at.

It also scores points for having a very lovely interior, with beautiful stained glass windows that are not well-captured in the following image (sorry).

However — I feel I must bring you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — the church’s exterior, and especially its steeple, are currently undergoing repairs. Therefore, you will not be able to take pictures of it to share with your loyal readers. And many of your Bern-skyline shots will be marred by the steeple which, from afar, appears to be wrapped in something bulky, like a giant piece of bubble-wrap. Quel dommage.

But wait! I’m not all pessimism and Bern-bashing. I do think there are several reasons that you might want to visit Bern, should the opportunity present itself. First of all, go to Bern if you like bridges — the River Aare cuts through the city, and the city itself is built high above as well as down close to the river, meaning that there are bridges of different sizes and shapes that are fun to look at and photograph.

Now, you also might want to pay Bern a visit if you are a fan of Albert Einstein. And really, who isn’t? As a mathematician, my sister might have more legitimate reasons to want to visit Einstein Haus, but I think I enjoyed it just as much as she did. The small museum is housed in the apartment where Einstein lived while he worked as a patent clerk and wrote the series of papers which proved utterly game-changing for him and everyone else.

The main floor of his apartment shows the Einstein family’s living room, complete with family portraits, and the upstairs contains a series of placards telling the story of Einstein’s life.

Einstein's living room

I especially enjoyed some of the German-to-English translations on the placards. Where, in German, a period of Einstein’s life is described as unerfreulich, or “unpleasant,” you can see that the person translating to English decided to take a more blunt approach (“Einstein’s situation is rather annoying”). Isn’t it nice to know that a genius such as Einstein could, just like you and me, be downright annoyed with things from time to time? It made me really relate to the man. Touché, Einstein-story translator.

Einstein's life is annoying

A couple more things about Einstein Haus: there’s a pretty nice view from Albert’s former window…

And his street is full of these cool and creepy looking cellar doors (why don’t we have these in Zürich?)

Finally, go to Bern if you like bears. The city was named after them, after all: its founding father, Berchtold V, declared in 1191 that he would name his settlement after whichever animal he first successfully hunted on site. Guess what his first trophy was?

Bears are still a major attraction for visitors to Bern today. Until a few years ago, they were displayed circus-style, in these depressing and seemingly inhumane cement pits:

But now the bears have larger, grassier accomodations, with trees and an upgraded swimming pool. They looked pretty happy.

Mama bear (just back from a swim) and her offspring

In fact, standing at the new bear enclosure you get a taste of many things that make Bern what it is: the bears, the bridges, the river, the buildings close to and high above it, including the Parliament buildings. Even the bubble-wrapped cathedral is visible from here.