2: Swiss Surprise

Yawn. Another mountain.

Swiss cheese, fondue, chocolate, watches: These are some of the things we expected of Switzerland. It turns out, there’s a bit more than that.

Start with the spring produce: Switzerland is perched just atop Italy and is only a few hours away by train to the Mediterranean, so that should have clued us into its fresh fruit and vegetable market. The produce here is crunchy and fresh.

We did not expect to see cyclists up on the  mountainside Kleine Scheidegg trail, but there they were, introducing us to another Swiss national oddity – adventurousness bordering on recklessness. They brought the Red Cross to the world, making us think they are a cautious accident-adverse people. They are not. Their idea of safety does not follow a prevention-protocol, which makes sense – it is how they got so good at responding to disasters. They make so many of their own to start with, offering them plenty of training opportunities.

I had no idea that Switzerland has a keen wine industry. South-facing sloped farmland ribbed in vineyards surrounds our town and with French vineyards a stone-throw over the border, it makes sense that the industrious Swiss would get in on the act. As to why it never occurred to us that Switzerland is a wine-producing country: Some joke that it is because the French export their wine, while the Swiss drink all theirs themselves.

There is skiing, of course, but the Swiss are also passionate mountain-climbers, hikers and bicyclists. They love sports. Confusing us even further, they are also proliferate smokers. We cannot understand this.

They are conservative in their conduct, yet they also voted to build a facility for prostitutes to operate their business in Zürich.

There’s more. I knew chocolates heralded from this mountainous land, but so too does CaranDache watercolour pencils and crayons – the funky metal-tinned colours my sister-in-law used to paint clown faces on ours boys when they were young.

Racial and immigration issues headline frequently in Swiss news as the country, like the rest of Europe, copes with the flood of Albanian Muslims that pushed north in the wake of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, as well as Tamils and other far-flung political refugees who fled to Switzerland because of its liberal amnesty program. As Canadians, we are accustomed to hearing about immigration issues, but we had no idea that step-for-step, Switzerland has the same national debate going on that we do.

They love festivals, and they are crazy about music. It’s not just yodeling that tickles their ears: I have never seen such a large concentration of accordion players anywhere. They beat out the Americans when it comes to marching bands – they have them all over the place, some in costume and organized, while others who look like they decided to take their band practice out of the garage and on to the street, just for fun. The quality of music played by buskers here is outstanding. I am sorry to say it, but most of them would put Victoria buskers to shame.

What surprises us the most, however, is that such a geographically small place has such a globally large footprint – from the Red Cross to the United Nations to its international market for banking, pharmaceuticals (Roche, Novartis), watches, Swiss Army knives and more. They are a stunningly successful people who from so little have made so much.

But back to chocolate, more chocolate businesses than Lindt call this place home. So, too, does Toblerone, Frey, Nestle, Cailler, Camille Bloch, Favarger and more – it explains why despite the occasional scandal, Switzerland’s brand continues untarnished. After all, who can stay mad with a place so packed with chocolate?

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22: Corral Your Corporate Crew

Life overseas can be a bear for a migrant worker, blue collar, white collar or otherwise.

Some have asked how this week’s banking fiasco panned out. The answer is that our results were mixed, but more importantly, here is a real tip for foreigners who run into trouble.

Get your employer involved.

We turned to our company’s human resources department to deal with the bank. This is an advisable route for problems with any foreign service-provider be it the post office, the bank, the landlord, you name it.

This is not the entrance to our bank, but some days we feel like it is.

Here is why: You are but passing through their country. You are a visitor; they know you will not be around forever, therefore they lack a sufficient degree of motivation to see that you are satisfied. Not only are you not a second-class citizen, you’re not any kind of citizen. Citizenship has its benefits and you will never know this more clearly than when you are not entitled to any.

Your employer, however, has all the benefits of citizenship and then some. This is especially true if you work for a high-profile, vital-to-the-economy employer. Banks don’t want to get a lot of phone calls from the Swiss Cow, Pig & Goat Association* complaining about how they are treating SCPGA’s migrant workers, especially not specialists who the company have already paid big bucks to bring into the country.

Besides equalizing the power-differential in negotiations by creating a corporation-to-corporation duel, the business that is giving you ‘the business’  knows that long after you have left the country, they will still have to cope with the loss of reputation with your employer who may steer their migrant staff to other service-providers.

There is also the benefit that your company’s representatives speak the local language and understand those sneaky cultural nuances that trip you up, even if you are fluent in the local dialect.

If your employer has a relocation agent who facilitated your move, ask that agent for assistance. If you are not satisfied with your relocation agent’s response, ask them for details on the contract they have with your employer. This is a polite way of suggesting they might be in breach of their contract. They will be highly motivated to keep your employer happy, and sometimes just asking this will trigger a better response.

As a foreigner, by the way, you must always be polite. You have no choice about this. Deal with it.

In the end, you may not get everything you hoped for, but there’s a good chance you will have gotten more than if you had just tried to go it alone.

We did not get everything we hoped for, but while our debit cards are gone forever, we did end up with our bank account still active, which was our bare-bones necessity in this dust-up. With only three weeks to go, we shrugged our shoulders and moved on with our lives.

* I have made up an employer’s name. There is no Swiss Cow, Pig & Goat Association, and if there is, I apologize that someone named you that.