7: Snarl

A dog snoozes at his owner’s feet, happy inside a Starbucks restaurant.

A dog attacked me on my morning jog yesterday. It was leashed to a young woman who only laughed as her snarly snapping border collie made a go for my shins.  I say “only” because she showed no reflexive movement to her dog’s lunging at me. A little jerk of the leash would have been nice, but that did not occur.

That is about what I expected.  My experience of dog-owners, particularly owners of aggressive dogs, is that they are clueless about their beloved Bowser’s behavior, because they are at the tail-end of the leash. The view is different from the other side, the one with fangs.

This brought to mind my hometown Victoria, British Columbia, where tightened leash laws came into force this week, a move that I doubt will do much except produce a more stressed dog population.

I loathe it when North Americans shore up weak arguments with “that is how they do it in Sweden” defenses – a lazy myopic debating tool if ever there was one, mostly because people using that device are operating with a scant understanding of how Sweden or any faraway land really works. But here I am about to dive in with a “this is how they do it in Switzerland argument” against tighter leash laws. My only defense is that I live in Switzerland.

Over the past year, we have seen countless unleashed dogs of all breeds trot past us with nary a glance in our direction. Un-neutered males frolic in parks, beagles bumber about inside housing goods shops as their owners browse, retrievers relax under restaurant tables and  train-riding chows tolerate total strangers stepping over them. Unleashed dogs walk at a perfect heel on busy streets and in packed parks. A dog is a dog the world over, so the difference has to be something to do with the Swiss.

I had previously believed Swiss dogs’ docile natures was a product of their socialization – that is, that they are allowed nearly everywhere: Trains, buses, stores (some restrictions apply inside grocery stores), malls, wherever there are people, there are dogs. I assumed this to be the driving civilizing effect on canines and very likely this is the case. But there is more to it.

Switzerland is swathed in bureaucracy. For example, no one is allowed on a golf course until they have been certified. It seems a bit far-fetched but there it is.

The same thinking applies to dog-ownership. Switzerland demands that dog-owners become certified before they actually own a dog, and certification does not mean just paying a fee and getting a piece of paper; it means taking a course in dog-training. After successfully completing the course, the person then gets the dog and later goes back for further training and certification.

Fifteen months ago, learning this would have made me roll my eyes and groan at an all-reaching bureaucracy, but now it seems like a very good idea. It elevates the general base of knowledge of all dog-owners. The result is a very polite pooch population.

A leash law would not have done anything to protect me from yesterday’s dog-attack. The problem was not with the dog on the leash, but with the obtuse woman holding the other end of it.

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67: Swiss dangerous dog-breed bans and restrictions on using a gun to discipline a dog

Most dog bites reported in the U.S are from retriever breeds, however, their bites are less likely to require stitches or surgery than some other breeds.

Winnipeg is one of the few North American cities to enact a pitbull ban, partly in reaction to a particularly savage attack in the 1980s. After 1987, when the ban came into the effect, the number of severe dog bites (necessitating treatment at a hospital emergency) dropped dramatically.*

While a staff-reporter at the Times Colonist, I mentioned this in an article, particularly because the statistics on dog bites suggested that there may be something to the concept of dangerous breeds after all. If you were a Times Colonist reader, you never saw this data.

It was edited out of the story, and thus I was personally introduced to one of the fascinating rules of sociology which is this: Society has many invisible rules that only become visible when they are broken. Suggesting a particular type of dog might be behind severe attacks just because that breed was the one most often identified by the victim, victim’s family, police, witnesses and the animal control office, was a bit too much for my respected editor.

Canadians fuss that they don’t really have their own culture, but they do, and one element of that culture is to refuse any direct line between cause and effect. Sometimes, refusing the data is challenging, but Canadians prove they up to the task time and time again.

Swiss police with an adorable black labrador. I once interviewed a U.S. police dog handler who in response to the question about why they don't use pitbulls said that while pitbulls are intelligent and athletic dogs, they fail to make the standard because once they start an attack, they do not respond readily to commands to stop. This is another quote that never made it to print.

This is how a committee studying the high costs of a university education, came up with a recommendation to extend university studies from four years to five years (true). Because they did not actually say, “let’s buck up the price by 20 per cent while depriving students of a year of job-earnings,”  the committee felt they had fulfilled their mandate. It appears counter-intuitive, but there it is. That is my beloved homeland.

I think of this today because while I wander about noticing the quirks of the Swiss, I can’t help but wonder what Canadians look like to outsiders.

But to get back to the dogs: The Swiss have lovable quirks of their own, but fussing over a way to deal with muscle-mawed breeds is not one of them. Restrictions over breeds are decided on a Canton by Canton basis. One district lists 15 restricted breeds, along with any mongrel descendants of said breeds. The government veterinary office, to which foreigners must report with their dogs, will also examine dogs for any signs that they are related to the restricted breeds and subject them to behavioral tests.

Dog owners must complete a theoretical and a practice course, showing how the Swiss believe a person must be trained and certified in all aspects of life, including golfing – this is a true fact – golfers must take classes and be certified before they step on a golf course.**

We do, however, see pitbulls on the streets of our little town, because we happen to live inside the Canton of Bern, where there are no breed restrictions. None of them appear vicious, but curiously, their owners appear to be so. We always give them a wide berth.

In other news you might not know about Switzerland’s laws governing dog-ownership: It is prohibited to use a gun to train a dog. I am trying to imagine how a logical person might use a firearm, but the Swiss law suggests people use it to fire “warning shots.” We had a labrador retriever who slept through fireworks, even when living in Spain where fireworks sound more like bombs  It’s unlikely a Glock would have impressed him much.

*While pitbull breeds were the culprits in the most damaging attacks, they are not the most prolific biters. The United States reports most bites comes from retriever breeds – particularly labrador and goldens. This is not because these dogs are more inclined to bite, but because they are the most popular breeds. There are just more of them around.

** Dog owners who can prove they owned a dog prior to 2008 are exempt.  

Dog import rules:  If you are going to import a dog to Switzerland, click here for the rules.  Here are more rules you need to know (click here).

Note: I do not hate pitbulls. I have known many who are very sweet. 

83: Language lagunas – A topic about which we never tire

When we learned we would move to Switzerland, Dave and I approached the impending language lapses in different ways.

I bought a “French for Dummies” book, logged onto a fabulous Youtube French language tutorial, pasted post-it notes of useful French words and phrases all over the house (such as “Why are you being so mean to me?” and “Your country is not as great as my country.”) and spent hours everyday expanding my French vocabulary and working toward mastering at least a four-year-old’s level of grammatical expertise.*

Dave, in the meantime, went out and bought a pocket Franklin language gadget.

While my process seems more laborious, it turns out it is much better than the gadget. I cannot speak French well at all, but arguably, I don’t speak English well either – nevertheless, I have an instantaneous grasp of what the French-speaking Swiss are saying to me as long as they stick to a preschooler patois. It’s a helpful skill that enables me to discern whether to stand in place or run like heck. While I am absorbing the message, Dave has not even whipped the pocket translator out of his pocket.

All of which shows that even though my French pronunciation is an offense to French-speakers everywhere, the hours of studying were not wasted. I highly recommend it because a fractured understanding of a language is better than a big black hole of incomprehension.

But we have no linguistic illusions. We cannot speak the language and that confines our social world along very tight borders, not to mention that the Swiss are a pretty reserved lot.

And yet, yesterday we seem to have passed a threshold.

Our neighbourhood has a “dog lady;” you know the type: A slightly batty dishevelled older woman who talks loudly to her dog, and then about her dog to anyone who will stop long enough to listen. I see this woman numerous times everyday, but she never gives me the slightest acknowledgement. That is okay. I have enough batty people in my life already. I’m full up.

But yesterday, as Dave and I were about to pass her, I pointed out to Dave how I am non-persona to this woman, whereupon she turned on us and delivered a truckload of French liberally spiced with the word “chien.” One could suppose she had not made her canine-convo-quota and decided to try to top up with us, but more likely it was because her poodle leapt up at Dave and demanded an ear scratch.

Have passed muster with Fifi, the woman turned exceedingly friendly and gave us the lowdown on her seven-year-old dog who is mostly deaf and prefers men to women, although in this instance the dog did seem to like me, but her owner could not figure out why, all of this in French that to my ear sounded quite garbled, but I’m not one to stand in judgement on this point.

All I could do was tell her what a charming, lovely dog she has, but as it turned out that was enough to earn a pat on the arm and a warm farewell. Now I’m afraid of our next impromptu meeting, and what I will say to her to move the conversation along, but maybe I am lucky in that as long as her dog likes me, whatever I say will be just fine.

In the meantime, our hotel’s wonderful cleaning staff have completely given up on schooling me in French, something they’ve done whenever we’ve passed in the hallway over the past 12 months. This week, they’ve switched over to Portuguese/Spanish, but already I am failing them. At least they will only be disappointed for 83 more days.

* I failed. My Gaulish grammatical grasp is somewhere in the 12-to-20-month-old range.

Blog Bits

As of this moment: 

  1. Most visitors to this page come from India. 
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  4. Weirdest search term that landed someone at this site was “modern antler decor.”
  5. As always, the blog post about see-through public washrooms and traveler toilet tips appears in the weekly top 10 of most-read blog posts. 

Maid in Switzerland, or Jennifer Lopez makes it look all sparkly, but really it is not. And, our weird worries about maid-theft.

I sit here wrapped in a silk leopard print wrap, a stained white tank top, over-sized fleece shorts, a black guard on my overworked right wrist, and floor debris on the bottoms of my bare feet. My hair, strapped into a ponytail last night, has evolved into a tropical island assemblage complete with the dreaded ‘palm tree’ up top.

This is normally a private moment in my day when I take in my required caffeine dose (a quart before 10 a.m.) and align my cranial synapses, however, five minutes ago a woman tapped on my door. I am not normally in the habit of opening my door this early in the morning, but it is a hotel and I’ve heard the cleaning staff puttering down the hallway for the last 30 minutes. I was pretty sure if it was some freakoid, the maids would make short work of him.

It was not a freak at all, but a maid, speaking Spanish and French, which is a lot better than a maid speaking German and Italian. This way I have a 20 per cent chance of communicating, as opposed to the .03% chance with the latter. Armed with towels, she said something about the bathroom.

Housekeeping and maintenance is constant in the hotel – they change vent filters, tinker with the plumbing, install new smoke detectors,  upgrade the phones, and so forth. They’re busy people, and so I loathe to send them away. I let the woman in thinking she was going to replace the towels in the bathroom.

I was wrong about that. As I sit here like the Queen of Sheba, she is engaged in all-out housecleaning, scouring the bathrooms, doing the floors, the sheets and so forth.

I don’t speak enough French/German/Spanish/Italian to tell her we get maid service once a week on Saturdays, not daily, and to send her away might distress her, so I tidied up the kitchen in an effort to stay out of her way while giving the appearance that I am a contributing member of society. Now I am out of things to do, so I just sit here and tap away on my keyboard.

I am always a little uncomfortable with maid service. It is because I expect them to be something like the first maid all of us know: Our mothers. Maybe I am waiting for the scolding about leaving the sink full of soapy water soaking socks or failing to pick up after myself.

We have employed maids twice in our lives. In Spain, we hired a Filipino maid who spoke not a word of English, except to state her hourly rate, which was quite steep. We had a yellow labrador at the time who shed buckets in the Madrid heat (no air conditioning) and I could not keep pace, so we tried out the hired help route. It turned out that maid was worth every penny. I have never seen, or even aspired to the standards that she set.

Google the word "maids" and up will come a lot of images of sexy short-skirted women, but the truth is most maids look like this. We have a friend who for a time worked full-time as a maid, and she had muscle definition that would make Jillian Michaels' jaw drop. It's physical work.

She also gave me the weirdest and most delightful moment I have ever had in my housekeeping career – when she came in the house, I only had to point at something and she would set on it like a doberman on a rabbit. I had spent more than 18 years trying to get my own children to do house chores on command, so it was a singular experience to assign a task without having to apply a tremendous amount of argumentation, pressure and browbeating. I don’t even remember that woman’s name, but I adored her and recommended her widely to all.

We hired our second maid in Victoria when the boys were in university and Dave and I  both worked full-time at demanding careers. She had a house key and came during the day when we were away. That felt odd to us, but it was that or perish in a bacterial stew of our own making.

Then one of our sons came home early to find the maid’s five-year-old daughter and teenaged son hanging around while she worked. That did not feel good to me, although I could certainly understand the pressures a working mother feels. I wished she had asked me first. The five-year-old made me nervous because I have never trusted a child to not swallow bleach, or pull things down from the counter onto their heads with dreaded effect. Having heard emergency doctors exclaim, “Hi Jo, what’s he done now?” more than once, my apprehensions are valid. My house at the time was not childproof.

Jennifer Lopez, all starched and pretty, but if she saw what our hotel maids saw this morning, namely me in my sleepwear, she would have looked for other work.

The teenager made me nervous because who isn’t nervous around teenagers? What is to say he wouldn’t scope out the place and then return some night with his friends and a pick-up truck. I’m not saying all teenagers would do this, but I would like to have eyeballed the kid first to make my own appraisal.

We tolerated this for a while, but then some DVDs went missing. Too mortified to make accusations, we discharged the maid on the grounds that we just felt weird having a maid. She was very gracious and went on her way. She was a fabulous maid. We had two labrador retrievers at the time, so our house’s shed-fur content had reached factory-rated levels.

We fumed about the suspected theft, until some weeks later we found all the missing DVDs in a laptop bag. Our guess is that the five-year-old fiddled about while her mother worked, and just put them there, probably to be helpful. We were very glad we had kept our suspicions to ourselves.

The hotel maid is now done. Someone will probably tell her she did the room for nothing. I haven’t seen her before, so she must be new. I know all the maids here – they school me in French and Italian every time they catch me in the hall. It is a lot like having a dozen mothers, waiting to correct me, improve me and appraise me every time I leave my room. They are adorable, and they work hard. We should respect them, just like we should respect our mothers.

Post-note: The Head Housekeeper is now in my room. She has discovered the new maid’s mistake and is rattling on in French that curiously I understand. My mother is French. I’ve heard this tone many times before. She is put out that the new maid goofed. The Head Housekeeper, Isabella, runs this hotel with an efficiency that NASA administrators could appreciate.  Amid profuse apologies over the mistake, she has explained that the room will not be cleaned tomorrow.  Just as when my brothers were in trouble with my Mom, I am glad that I am not the one under fire.

The Third Space

We call "dibs" on this tree in our town square. It's our biggest yet!

We don’t have a Christmas tree this year, unless we count the 50-foot one in our third space.

Never heard of a third space? It is a jargon-piece belonging to architects and city planners. The first two spaces are the private and public rooms inside the home.

The third space is the exterior public space, such as restaurants, town squares, parks, bus stops. Okay, I added bus stops on my own, but they seem like third-spaces to me.*

"Our" Christmas decorations this year are bigger than basketballs!

Here’s why. The third space is a sort of living room for the population. Anybody can be there. Third-spaces are everywhere in Europe, especially in densely populated areas where private living spaces are too small to adequately serve the social and emotional needs of their occupants. And so, the occupants head out elsewhere, as a preventive measure against roommate or family homicide. In North America, Starbucks fills this role nicely.  Playgrounds are another example of third-spaces. But I ramble …

Stand still for longer than two seconds and you run the risk of being grabbed and festooned. This is actually a mild form of dog-decorating. We used to outfit our yellow lab in a complete harness of bells, antlers, etc.

With this in mind, I’ve decided to look upon the magnificent Christmas tree in our town square as my own. It’s the only tree I will have this year, which is going to be something of an experience.

Even our neighbour's dogs are not safe from my decorating mania. Deck the dogs in wraps of woolens, fa la la la la, la la la la.

Why? Because, I am a Christmas-decorating nut. Every year, my house turns into a red, tinsel and bauble warehouse with trees of all sizes appearing in every corner and on every countertop.  It is out-of-control. It takes weeks to pull together and weeks to take apart.

I don’t see anything wrong with this.

This year, however, I am restricted to two little white-poinsettia plants on our dining room table on the strength of the reasoning that there is no point in buying decorations I cannot bring home.

How sad, but not too sad because the time I used to devote to decking the halls is now spent in endless browsing through Christmas decorations in local stores, a pastime that is feeding my imagination for when I decorate next year (my husband will not be happy to read this).

For those wondering: The current craze in Swiss Christmas decorations leans towards a style that would fit in nicely with Canadian cottages. They are very earthy, roughshod and fuzzily charming.

Lights of Life Christmas display at Marietta, Georgia, Chiropractic College

In the meantime, there’s all these third-space decorations to enjoy.

*As explained to me by a Montreal architect whose name I forget, calling into question whether I remember his “third-space” monologue well enough. Would it not be interesting if I was fascinated enough in my topic to actually fact-check it?