66: Foreign fears

You can never have too much Nutella. Note: Dave is only admiring, not thieving, this bin of Nutella we found at Zurich's airport shops.

When overseas, I live in fear of several things. One of them is being arrested for shoplifting. I don’t shoplift, not since I pinched a package of gum  from a Pembina Highway drugstore in Winnipeg circa 1966. My father caught me and that was my last foray into criminal life.

But I have a guilty visage. Maybe it comes from being raised Catholic, or from belonging to a genetic group fair of hair and skin with a highly responsive endocrine system that means I blush deeply and quickly. This bites more than one would think.

I count it as the cause for many troubles. For example, when Jim Chambers spent our eighth grade year at Acadia Junior High whacking me on the head whenever teachers were not looking, if my surprised cry at being blitzed drew the teacher’s attention, it was me who was sent to the principal’s office. There I was subjected to lengthy waits and grueling interrogation sessions with principal Mr. R.D. Biggs slapping the proverbial strap threateningly against his palm while trying to get me to confess that I had hit Jim, and not the other way around.

As a side note: Having an authority figure trying to force a false confession out of me was worse than the slugs I took to the cranium.

It was all because I broke out into a crimson blush while Jim looked away as though he did not notice me nearly passing out from the latest blow. The teacher, taking in this evidence, assumed I was the abuser. Yes, their names are Jim Chambers and R.D. Biggs, and if they by the slimmest of chances read this, my message to them is: Yes, I remember your names.

Oddly, I had similar experiences in adult workplaces. Perhaps public school really does prepare a person for the rigours of the job market.

So, I look guilty, almost always. This is inconvenient in Canada or other English-speaking countries, but downright discomforting in a place where I don’t speak the language, so when I notice a store undercover patrol tailing me as I troll through the local shops, I get nervous, and when I get nervous, I blush, and then, because I am also a menopausal woman in the season of hot flashes, I start to sweat.

If they cuffed me and dragged me into a tiny backroom, I would not be the least surprised. I still would not confess though. Good luck with that, I say to store security personnel.

There is nothing like the fear of false accusation or imprisonment to spark new solutions to old problems, and I have discovered one. This week, as a female security staffer in plainclothes followed me over two floors at Biel’s Loeb store, I did something I have noticed also sent Victoria and Saanich Police’s undercover cops* hightailing away from me. I started following the security patrol. Nothing upsets the universe’s natural balance like tailing a tailer.

The officer quickly moved to another part of the store, but still within sight. I followed, and soon was flipping through the same rack of dresses as her. Her discomfort increased and she shuffled away. I drifted after her, as if I were the store patrol. Her cheeks reddened and did I detect sweat on her brow? She looked guilty as heck. I would have arrested her, but then, I was playing, she was not, so I let her off with a warning glare.

* The Victoria Police and Saanich Police undercover incidents occurred while I was working as a reporter. They were not following me, but they were following/surveying people I was following/interviewing.

** Jim’s reign of terror ended when I finally figured out that I was going to get sent to the principal’s office no matter what, so the last time he hit me in the back of head with a textbook, I punched him in the face until his braces flew out. Appeasement, reason, avoidance, bargaining – nothing worked with that bully like a solid hook to the jaw. I’m sorry peace-advocates, but sometimes that is the only way.

A few things I’ve noticed in Biel

 

A secondary canal in Biel. Locals here think this town is trash, but I don't see anything wrong with it.

It is our first Monday in Switzerland and Dave’s first full day at work, and so now we settle into whatever normal looks like for our time here.

 

Of course, there is no “normal” yet – there’s too much we don’t know about this country, mostly because we are arrogant Anglophones and not very good with the local languages, although, I am improving.

I managed to tell a shopkeeper her wares were too expensive (tres cher), but only for today  (seulement pour aujourd’hui) because I had topped out my shopping budget and I would be back (retourner moi – although, I’m not sure about this particular phrase, maybe it is retournez moi).

No one has slapped me or thrown out onto the street, so I suppose my French is not so bad.

Shoes, shoes, shoes and more shoes.

I’ve also discovered that  European arrogance about fashion is well-deserved. Ordinary shops here carry fascinating clothes – some too fascinating for me, and others that are very forgiving for my middle-aged figure.

And for reasons I cannot yet unearth, shoe stores are everywhere, even in the farmers market.

Farmers market shoe sales. Go figure.

Within a few blocks of our home are three large grocery stores, making downtown living very easy. To put that in perspective for Victorians, imagine seeing a Safeway at Broughton, Fort and Pandora, or for Winnipeggers, grocery stores at Portage, Donald and Hargrave.

The police here are invisible. Where Victoria Police can be seen biking down Wharf  Street, Saanich Police cruising down Tillicum, and the RCMP just about anywhere at any time, we’ve only seen the Swiss police on the streets twice – at the Tamil demonstration in Bern and a few blocks away corralling an intoxicated man outside a grocery store.*

I don’t know what this means – if Switzerland has low crime rates or underfunded police departments, but I am not going to think about that. I am going to think about how to explain how we got lost on the train ride to Murten, which I plan to write about tomorrow.

* It may look odd that I list three police departments when describing Victoria, B.C.’s policing, but that is what there is. Victoria-regional law enforcement is made up of multiple municipal forces.

Bern, pronounced Behhhrrn

Telling any Swiss person that we were travelling to Bern (burn) produced puzzled frowns. Now we know why. We were saying it all wrong. We would feel bad about this, but how can the Swiss expect us to grasp place-pronunciation when they themselves can’t make up their minds what to call anything.

Bern: This clock tower was once a gate in the town ramparts, however, the city outgrew its boundaries twice.

We are sitting on a French-German cusp, and to keep everyone happy, every place has both a French and German name, such as our current place of residence Biel-Bienne.  Murten is also Morat. All along the train tracks are villages and towns with German names such as Mongbratzverstenspiel and a corresponding French name that doesn’t bear any resemblance to the German counterpart, such as Le Bleu. Okay, I just made up both those names, but if I had the strength to look at a map, I could pull out a few excellent examples.

Bern, happily, seems to run along on a single name, perhaps because it is the nation’s capital and they can’t afford to have a Franco-Germanic squawk about it without creating terrible unrest. I don’t know that. I am still making up things, owing to the linguistic spaghetti forming inside my brain.

Dave seated at Albert Einstein's desk when he worked at the patent office in Bern. Einstein is said to have made his greatest discoveries while living in Bern between 1901 to 1909. Then he left his wife and married his cousin. Ugh. In the meantime, Dave developed several new theories while seated at Einstein's desk.

A 30-minute train ride from Biel (pronounced Beeeel), Bern’s historic quarter covers over a peninsula formed by a bend of the Aare River. It was founded in 1191 and is built of porous green-grey sandstone that, like Spain’s famous golden sandstone buildings, can be scrubbed away rather easily, hence the Swiss have built into the walls to create what they call “arcades,” broad covered walkways drawing pedestrians behind the exterior, theoretically preventing them from touching the sandstone portions.

Of course, the first thing we did on our arrival to Bern was to head to the sandstone walls and scrub away,  just to see if our guidebook was right. It was. I should say, Bernese sandstone is not as delicate as Spanish sandstone. Nor is it as pretty. The entire town is a murky gray-green, but this does not take away from its impressive architecture.

While there, we saw a large group of dark-skinned people filling the town square as Swiss police took positions and parked paddy wagons around.  I approached the Swiss police as though they were Saanich police*, ie. friendly, non-combative and wishing something would happen.

“Is this a concert?” I asked. They laughed heartily while tasering me a few times before throwing me into the paddy wagon.

No, they did not do this, but can you imagine if they did? Now this would be one heck of a blog. In fact, they gave me some evasive answers (a la Victoria police, aka VicPD**), so I did the only thing I could and that was walk into the midst of the protesters and look for someone who did not look away as I approached.

Bern Munster Cathedrale, dating back to 1421. While we were inside, the organist kicked the massive pipe organ into gear. Stunning.

This is what retired reporters do – look for trouble. Although, we don’t know it, because years of angling to get as close as possible to ground-zero of any event has numbed our common sense. We are in a stupor.

I found an affable 35-40-year-old man, rather pudgy who looked like someone I could possibly outrun and asked him “what’s up.” He very kindly explained this was the Swiss Tamil community and they were demonstrating to dissuade the Swiss government from deporting Tamil political refugees, also sometimes known as terrorists.

My sons later scolded me, saying that walking into a large group of black people surrounded by police never ends well, but they are wrong. It ended well, with me unharmed, except for my arm which is a little sore from my  husband dragging me out of the crowd.

Bern is, by the way, highly recommended as a must-see on any trip to Switzerland. It is truly outstanding.

* Saanich Police is one of the many police departments covering the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Their area is generally considered a low-crime one, but I don’t actually know for sure. Because of this, they are constantly getting teased as “soft” by …

** Victoria Police, the department that covers the urban centre of Victoria, which is full of gritty stuff – drugs, homeless, homicides, and the like.