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.


24: Money, money, money.

Sure the Swiss annoy us with their endless palms-up-give-us-some-more-money approach to life, but no one can deny that they have cool urban spaces. This row in our town’s medieval district appears to house the drug-and-alcohol-addled, based on our observation while enjoying a coffee at a cafe across the street.

In the news that North America is still the best place to live, here’s a little tidbit: Dave’s boss incorporated his company and then leased a company car. In keeping with the Swiss dictum that all facets of life must be subject to a fee structure, Dave’s boss has to pay an annual $300 fee for the radio because his “employees” get to enjoy it, and by “employees,” Swiss bureaucrats mean the boss himself.

It just so happens that the team carpools together. It is not that much of a stretch to imagine that if this comes to the attention of the Swiss government, they could try to apply a $300 fee per person.

It may be that this money goes toward paying royalties, but it seems that radio stations already pay royalties for the music they play, so  probably this fee just goes to pay the salary of the fee-overseers.

Friends of ours renting an apartment are currently in a tangle with their landlord who is trying to charge them $600 for cleaning the lobby in their building. This is a big surprise to them. They thought they were a lawyer and accountant couple. Who knew they were also janitors?

In similar fee-nuisance news (or newsance): Buy a television set and pay $400 in ownership fees every year that you own the set. Someone is making money on this. I don’t think it’s the television manufacturers, vendors or buyers. It seems to be the government.

If you learn anything by living in different countries, it is that every place has its own way of organizing itself economically, and so perhaps this ladling-on  of fees makes sense in the broader picture, but it remains that every foreigner we know living and working here in Switzerland is here primarily for this reason: To see Europe. 

At the same time, every foreigner I’ve known in Canada gives me one reason for uprooting themselves from their homelands to move to a place where they have to learn a new language and often retread their academic credentials and endure some ethnic/cultural/racial discomfort. It is this: To make a better life for them and their family.

There is an air of fun to the first group, but an air of serious endeavor and earnestness in the second. No one in Europe yet has told me they are here for a better life, because the better life is across the Atlantic, and that is where we are headed in only 24 more days.

Note: Despite the possibly grouchy tone of this post, I still say the Swiss are sweethearts. If you get a chance to come here, take it.

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. 

Languishing in a linguistic laguna

Don't be fooled by this photo. This blog post is not about the Vienna Opera House.

What do these people have in common?

A blond long-haired woman with a man in a blue-and-black sports coat chattered their way down our town’s main retail avenue yesterday. They were speaking English, but more than that, the man’s coat colour screamed “North American” to us. Swiss men usually wear black, grey or brown coats. So do Swiss women, now that I think of it.

In our hotel lobby, we overheard a man trying to get a French translation from our hotel desk staff to explain kitchen drawer and cupboard liners.

In the same lobby shortly after, another man approached the desk and asked in an American accent if the staff could tell him where to find a good German restaurant, to which Jean Philippe, one of our affable front desk staff, held up his chin, reflected, then said, “No. There aren’t any.”

What do all of these people have in common? It’s not only that they were fluent native-English speakers. They were also all besieged by us.

Yes, we have reached the point where we will talk to anyone, anywhere at any time on the sole qualification that they are native English-speakers. And, it doesn’t matter whether they want to talk to us. This is a matter of social conscription.

Looking up at the Vienna Opera House. This photo has nothing to do with this blog post, but I am trying to get through all our holiday photos.

We’ve been here for about 10 months, which is a long time to go before breaking into this uncontrolled yammering, but that’s because English is not so rare here. We enjoy conversations with many, but those conversations still hang up on cultural reference points, a fact under-scored when we make a joke that fails to hit its mark.

When we lived in Spain where English was more of a rarity, we entered this yammering phase within the first week of arrival, just to give you an idea of how starved we were to hear our own language.

It changed our perspectives on immigrants who are often accused of forming their own insular communities in Canada. I know now that if I showed up in Toronto fresh from China, I’d head for Chinatown, too. There’s no intention on the immigrant’s part to stand apart from their new country – they just need that fresh drink of water that is conversing in a language in which they can be their eloquent, witty selves… or in which they can be jerks, if that happens to be what they are in their home country. Being a jerk in your own language is still more fun than being a jerk in someone else’s.

In the meantime, the man looking for the French translation came and sat with us. He’s also from New York and is transferring here for a 10-month work assignment. We thought he was American, but he corrected us on that count: He is Indian. Nationality matters not a whit, of course. As he said, “English! It’s so nice to hear English!” We’re getting together with him later today at Starbucks. Where else would we go but to our own English version of “Chinatown.”

As one other English-speaking former Manitoban’s husband, a couple who is also “stuck in Switzerland,” might quip: The English colonial beachhead has been established.

If you grasped the flow of that last sentence, and you show up in our town, you just might become one of our best friends.

Note: It turned out the man in the blue and black jacket was Swiss, but his shopping friend was from New York.

While were at the Vienna Opera House, the stage workers were prepping for an evening performance - the stage itself is an impressive engineering feat that is essentially a rotating elevator that can shift 40 tonnes 28 feet before and 10 feet above. This picture does not do justice to the size of the stage either. Those Viennese - where opera is concerned, they are not just kidding around.