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.

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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.

 

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46: Under the watchful eyes of Swiss authorities

My son’s mother’s day card arrived yesterday, conveniently pre-opened for me courtesy of Switzerland’s postal service. In Europe, one need not worry about opening a letter-bomb because it is a sure thing the authorities have already had a run through your mail.

This often is the case with international mail. Happily, they appear disinterested in our local mail, perhaps because they are too horrified by the slenderness of the account statements our Swiss banker sends us. Nothing repulses the Swiss more than the idea of underfed bank accounts. They cannot look at them.

In a non-scientific survey conducted by me, out of five nations not named here, Switzerland’s post service turned out to be the snoopiest. They even beat the Australians who may not even open their own mail, much less someone else’s. Meanwhile the Swiss have opened almost everything of ours incoming and outgoing alike, and occasionally they have ‘seized’ some goods, such as a squishy gel-pighead that flattens when flung against a hard surface, then slowly unsticks as it resumes its shape. That was for my 33-year-old lawyer son, you Swiss nogoodniks, and he wants it back.

Last week, Swiss Post announced a quarterly profit of 299 million Swiss Francs. I am not saying this is related to the pilfering that has occurred among the souvenirs I’ve sent home, but how does a post office post such profit? The answer is, when it is not a post office. Swiss Post is also a banking institution, which makes us shake our heads in amazement. Is there no venture that escapes the notice of Swiss bankers?

It might explain how Switzerland has 45,000 “postal” employees to serve 8 million Swiss, while Canada’s 35 million citizens squeak by on only 60,000. But then, maybe one postal worker for 177 residents is needed when postal service includes opening customers’ mail.

For my American friends: U.S. Postal Services has 546,000 “career” postal workers, and I cannot say why they inject the word “career” there except that it suggests they are “lifers,” just as there are “career” criminals. That means there is one postal worker for every 572 Americans, which seems a desirable ratio given that U.S. postal workers are the ones who created the term “going postal” by occasionally unloading their firearms at inappropriate moments. As a postscript: No U.S. Postal Service workers opened our mail when we lived in the U.S. None need come looking for us. 

Day Two in Switzerland

I studied French for three months to get ready for living in Switzerland. Apparently, I made a mistake.

Things are looking up. Early this morning as we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast in the Hotel Elite’s posh dining room, a waiter with a heavy accent asked if we would like him to take our photograph together.

I said yes, thinking that he had asked if I wanted a whole pot of coffee at our table. As I said, his accent was heavy. I was pretty enthusiastic about the pot of coffee, which did not materialize. Not so enthusiastic about the picture, which accurately records the previous day’s trauma on my face.

And then I lost the digital photos – some how. Some way. It was wonderful.

After breakfast we trundled down to the Hotel Mercure to meet a representative who would walk us through our setting-up day. We waited around for an apartment rental agent who showed up fashionably attired and fashionably late. As per usual, she forgot to bring the right key to show us the apartment, but then we lucked out and discovered the cleaning staff were inside and the door was open.

Having seen  plans that took months to build fail at a rate of one-per-hour over the course of a single day, we took a run at the apartment as though we were hipsters. We didn’t ask all the important questions, paid almost no attention to any details because hanging over our heads was the biggest question of all: Why bother? If we learned anything this week, it is to be reckless.

Evidence of a parallel universe: Coke Light instead of Diet Coke.

Next came our visit to the police station for our residency papers where a genetically linked version of Attila the Hun in menopausal-woman-form handled our file. I’m not insulting her when I say “menopausal,” because I’m in that state myself, but she looked really bitter about her hormone depletion. Me, I’m too sleep-deprived to be bitter.

As one would expect, she grimly informed us that there were not enough signatures on our apartment lease. She said this in French but I understood her perfectly owing to our parallel menopausal status. I almost congratulated her on the way out. You have to respect a woman who can glance at a bundle of officious documents and pick a needle out of that haystack to make our introduction to Biel just a little more cumbersome.

We walked to the rental office where everyone told us in French that the signature was unattainable because the

Strange little garden-shed villages line the rails between Zurich and Biel.

manager was away. Again, I understood every word. There is something about rejection that I am growing to recognize.

After some verbal rough-housing with our representative, the papers were signed and we went back to the police station where we had a non-menopausal young woman process our application, and things went much better. Nevertheless, while we were told we’d get our permits today, turns out it could take another week or two. Naturally.

On a more personal note, without the benefit of my hair “toolkit,” my hairstyle grows more exciting everyday. Pictures will not be posted.