16: The Principal’s Office for Grown-Ups

I suspect all gargoyles were modeled after people stuck in immigration waiting rooms.

Yesterday, we went to the police office to process some exit paperwork. I opened the door to the sleek glass and grey office and was met with a powerful smell. It was the aroma of fear. For the first time since we came here, the waiting room was packed. Only minutes after I arrived, people were lining up outside the door.

I was the only natural blond in the room, a racist remark I suppose but in these days when in an immigration room full of Arab types, one does get a little nervous and when I noticed two angry-looking men at opposite ends of the room signalling to each other, I eyed their jackets closely for signs of bomb-vests. No paranoia here, just a well-informed person who watches world news and shudders.

Bureaucracy is a bear.

As it turns out, they were signalling about me. I moved to a seat next to one and struck up a conversation. It is the reporter’s way of dealing with fear: Just start talking to the suspicious-looking person and see where that goes. Also, it put me closer to the exit.

The man said he only spoke German, but he was a quick study because when I prattled on, he suddenly spoke pretty good English. I have this gift that whoever I talk to magically acquires fluency in English, even as they deny it. I cannot explain this.

He lost most of his furious look when I asked him if I was in line behind him – I knew already that I was, but I suspected that with no formal line-up structure, the waiting room ‘clients’ were fearful of someone cutting in front of them. Nowhere is line-cutting more fraught with peril than in an immigration office full of people fleeing unstable countries. With the line-up firmly established and agreed upon, the two men relaxed a little, but not too much. They still had a meeting with stern bureaucrats in front of them.

Later, Dave and I went out and spent too much money on a steak dinner, just to calm our nerves. We’re not fleeing an oppressive government, but the atmosphere still rattles us.

The fun wasn’t over for me yet. Today I visited the bank on what was a mere administrative matter correcting a goof they made this month, but that turned into an impromptu interrogation.

Were I in Canada, I would have not answered any questions, demanded to know why they were so snoopy and reminded them that the error was theirs, not mine. But I am not in Canada. I have less status here than babies riding in strollers. So, I smiled, nodded, and got out of there as fast as I could, headed to the Lollipop store to load up on Jelly Bellys.

Switzerland is still a lovely country, but it doesn’t matter where you are when you’re a foreigner. You are still subject to the terrors of immigration and bank offices, which are the adult equivalent of a school principal’s office, circa 1960s, complete with leather straps.


It is only fair to add that the cantonal bureaucrat we usually deal with on these visits is the nicest person, very helpful and soothing. It is also only fair to add that one of her colleagues strikes fear in our hearts.


86: Purgatory Found.

This sign is on a small unassuming stone church building that faces a pub, a lingerie store called "Agent Provocateur" and a chocolate shop. The place ripples with temptation for a wide range of weakness (mine being the chocolate shop).

We found purgatory. It’s in Geneva and wouldn’t you know it, it has a chocolate shop, a bar and a lingerie store.

Switzerland is the first place I’ve walked down Purgatory, but the place-name occurs in the U.S. as well. According to Google Maps there is a Purgatory Falls (New Hampshire), Purgatory Chasm (Rhode Island) and at least five Purgatory Roads, none of which are near the West Coast, which is as expected because everyone  knows that is Paradise.

Canada appears to have only one Purgatory Road on the Bruce Peninsula in southern Ontario, but there is a Purgatory Trail on British Columbia’s Hornby Island and another in Vancouver Island’s Strathcona Park.  Both are in the middle of cougar-and-wolf-infested forests, and therefore not likely to ever be visited by me as I am worried that some of my friends may be right to believe I am a wildlife attractant. One observed that she has canoed in the North West Territories, strung herself across canyons in the wilds of the U.S. Southwest and hiked coast-to-coast without glimpsing a bear, but when she is anywhere near me, the things just pop out of the forest. We had a bear hang around my car at the cottage to the point where we thought we should just name the thing, strap on a leash and take it in to the vet for shots.

In this case, however, familiarity breeds caution: Bears are omnivores and therefore only 50% likely to view me as lunch, whereas cougars and wolves lean toward a steady meat diet, which means I am a walking prime rib roast. No sense taking chances. I had two cougar sightings on my roster within five years of moving to Vancouver Island and a third in our 12th year, whereas acquaintances who had lived there for 30+ years had never come close – that tells me all I need to know.

But to get back to Purgatory: There is no purgatory in England, which is as expected what with their bitter Anglican/Catholic history where both sides appeared to tell the other to go to Hell. “Go to Purgatory,” just doesn’t carry the same oomph.

As far as my Google Maps search is concerned, Geneva’s rue de Purgatoire may be the only one in Europe. Belgium has a “purgatory” at 4860 Pepinster, but it appears to be an unassuming two-story brown-brick building. We don’t know what to make of that.

Caveat: I don’t know why Google turns up so few Purgatory place names – it may be part of their algorithm – so there could be more of them.

The view down rue de Purgatoire includes a lingerie shop. Hmm, that seems out-of-place.