55: The Importance of Being in a Crosswalk

Swiss woman makes power play over transit authority.

When a mother pushing a stroller challenges a bus on a Swiss street, you have to wonder if she’s hit the nadir of a post-partum-induced depression, because street-crossing in Switzerland has rigidly observed rules, one of which is, don’t mess with bus drivers. They see a pedestrian on the pavement as a challenge to their might and will push down on the pedal to make their point.

Nonetheless, the mother won, because just as rock crushes scissors, mother-and-baby beats buses. Street-crossing is, in my view, a sociological and psychological indicator of many things. Every time you cross the street, you are saying something about yourself, your culture and your country.

For example, a former work colleague hailing from Canada’s easterly region routinely plunged into downtown traffic as though she were made of impermeable titanium, not squishy skin-sheathed fluids. At first, I assumed this was part of her eastern provincial culture.

Then I observed she was very much the same off the road, plunging into rants that shredded her colleagues into confetti, not giving a thought for the reputations she raked over. Once, a colleague challenged her and she delivered a soliloquy so far removed from the truth that it can be said that she regarded people the same way she regarded cars – mere objects that were destined to get out of her way.

This is not to say that street-crossing methodology is an indication of sociopathic tendencies, but maybe it is a warning sign.

We see many people with crutches, canes and casts on Swiss streets, including young adults with twisted limbs and hobbled gaits. Other foreigners have observed the same thing, yet when we ask the Swiss about the multitude of injured on the streets, they don’t see anything unusual. We don’t know whether these are the ski or street-crossing wounded, but we sure wonder.

In Canada, jaywalkers crossing the street at any point might peeve a few, but overall society takes a benign view of the practice and  drivers will veer away should a pedestrian stride inside their trajectory. Still, something seethes under the surface: When city police in Victoria, British Columbia hold a ticketing-binge on jaywalkers it attracts heated and furious debate in the local media. But a ticket and maybe a tongue-scalding is the worst a Canadian will get for taking a shortcut.

No such luck in Australia. There, street-crossing can be suicidal, because the streets belong to bus-drivers who slingshot their multi-tonne vehicles as though they are warheads. Death could very quickly follow every time one crosses the curb. This is why Aussies drink so much. They know every hour could be their last.

I cannot speak for the dangers of street-crossing the world over, but I know that Spanish crosswalks are not to be trusted. While the Swiss abide by the rules, Spanish drivers are a hurried and opportunistic bunch, possibly because they are probably on their way home for a siesta, which might explain their current economic woes. I wish I was joking about this. Many a time at a Madrid crosswalk, I’ve seen the first car stop only to see cars two, three and even four pull up behind the first car, then pop out into the opposing lane and speed through the crosswalk. The first time I saw this, I nearly got hit. Having seen an x-ray of some Spanish orthopedic bone-mending with what looked like twist-ties, I vowed to never trust the Spanish medical establishment with my life, so I learned to never cross a crosswalk until all cars had passed.

Here in Switzerland, street-crossing is a sign of social order. Crosswalks are everywhere, and even though Swiss drivers could likely outpace those Australian bus-drivers, they show a lot of respect for people inside the crosswalk, but not so much for jaywalkers who venture beyond the yellow-striped lines.

More than once, I’ve seen vehicles speed up at the sight of a pedestrian attempting to strike out against the state-sanctioned road-crossings. Last week, a very swank looking gentleman driving a very expensive vehicle almost tapped a young man who dared cross the street against the light, and the motorist did not look one bit worried about grinding the man under his treads. The Swiss are ardent capitalists when it comes to money, but where street-crossing is concerned, they will push individualistic expression under the water every time.

As is the case in almost all areas of life, the exception to all rules across the board belongs to females between the ages of 16 to 30. These  stiletto-heeled women in their tight jeans, leather jackets and flowing manes do not even look before crossing the street. They just go without a hiccup in their pace because they know the world will stop for them. It looks like a wonderful world to be in, except for the day of reckoning that will occur sometime after they turn 30 when their toe the curb, and a car whips past without a glance at the gal. Then she will know she has passed her apex and is staring down into the nadir of middle-age. True, that is still a long ways off, but having to look before crossing a street is a sign that it will come.

 

 

 

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56: Midwifery, Sunglass Fashion Show, Car Sales and Tubas

When a festival runs low on ideas, bring in the car dealers!

It appears the Swiss festival planners’ gas tank of festival ideas ran low this week, judging by the curious menage of celebrations going on in our town square on Saturday. It appeared to be a combination midwife, car sale, marching band, sunglass fashion show complete with ear-blasting music, red carpet and velvet ropes, plus a picnic event, but hey, who am I to criticize?

The Swiss are as big on open-air events as the Spanish, which is to say: A lot. The tone is slightly different with the Spanish going for huge religious festivities that always involve marching through town carrying a massive float of a statue of a saint – often on the shoulders of men.

For the less Bible-literate, this harkens back to the Judaic Ark of the Covenant, a gold-plated acacia wood chest topped with angel figures said to contain the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, which had to always be carried by men, never pulled by a beast of burden or heaven forbid, put on a flatbed truck (no one knows where it is now, so it is safe from the flatbed truck indignity).  Not all Spanish parades are carried on the backs of men, of course, but enough are that it keeps the Moroccans from invading because who wants to go to battle against guys who carry half-tonne gold-plated saints on their backs as a leisure activity?

What is this man doing to that baby at that festival table?

If this isn’t an argument in favor of c-sections, I don’t know what is.

But I drift from my topic. As we passed through the square, we saw a woman giving a rather solemn presentation on how to assist in childbirth to a man who did not look like he was up to a career in medicine. We hoped going through this presentation did not certify the student for anything, but we can not be sure of this, because if the Swiss love anything, it is to make sure everyone is certified in any activity, however mundane it may be.

It turns out you can play tubas in the rain. Who knew?

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. 

79: Travel Turbulence for Tresses

This is how my hair looks immediately after styling. This look will last less than 10 minutes.

The life on the road looks so glamorous until you consider: How shall I pack my hairdresser.

You can’t pack your hairdresser, or her incredible wisdoms regarding your mane, so for the time that you are away from home, you are away from all that props up your personal appearance.

Before we left for Europe, my daughter-in-law, a fantastic professional make-up artist whose recent work appeared on Ryan Seacrest’s website, schooled me in the magic of make-up for the middle-aged. I swear, I did not force my son to marry her just for my benefit, but that would have been a smart move, had it been necessary. She is the reason I can walk the streets of Switzerland without terrifying the locals with my withering visage.

Sometimes a hat is the only answer to hairscare.

But I drift: I can be schooled in make-up, I can pack a box of MAC products that will see me through the year, but my hairdresser is not quite so portable. Last summer, all she could do as she gave my mop a last reshaping was advise pulling it back into a ponytail when it reached that inevitable point of unpresentable-in-public. I reached that point about six weeks after that. It’s been a serious year of ponytail-itis.

How bad can it get? When I showed up in a Sydney, Australia hair salon in 2000, the stylists were so horrified that they all stopped what they were doing to gather around. They quoted something like $400 to repair the damage, but I am morally opposed to spending that much money on my mane, so I passed, spending the rest of our time overseas in a state of shame.

This is how my hair normally looks 10 minutes after styling.

In Spain, I took a recommendation from a friend and had a hairstylist come to my home. The result was an orangey-Ringo-Starrish crown from which I am still in emotional recovery. I would post a photo, but mercifully there are none.

And so this time around, I swore off hairdressers until we get back to Canada. I’m getting by with microscopic self-trims plus Rusk haircare products recommended to me by a friend who is a theatre/film wardrobe pro (I only point this out to show that it takes more than the fashion-hobbyist to keep me presentable).

It seems extreme, but I am not alone. I know a Victoria-based editor who only gets her haircut when she’s visiting family in Italy, another woman in Victoria who only gets her hair trimmed in Vancouver and the list goes on. My own hairdresser says I am not her only overseas client who eschews salons until she hits Victoria.

A good hairdresser is hard to find, but a great hairdresser is worth the wait.

87: Dum dee dum dum dumb at the drugstore

Switzerland: Land where Nyquil & Melatonin users viewed with suspicion. Heroin-addicts and alcoholics are okay.

“Hola! Buenos dias! No! Er, hello. No, bonjour! Gruetzi! Dang! What country am I in?!”

This is what happens to me when I spend a protracted amount of time in a linguistic stew. I stumble over four languages in a nanosecond, which is what happened when I greeted the pharmacist at the local apotheke (pharmacy) yesterday.

“Why did you start in a language you can’t even speak,” my beloved asked. Why indeed. The pharmacist had Iberian skin tones and black hair, a visual cue that sprung the floodgates on the little reservoir of Spanish my brain has boxed up since our days in Madrid. The pharmacist’s responding look of incomprehension then caused the linguistic data to disperse at the synaptic cleft between my neurons, form into a ball and ping pong around my brain, hitting as many languages as possible. Given enough time, I might have recalled the Japanese that Mrs. Kirbyson tried to teach me in 1975.

I wonder if time-zone-trader Angelina Jolie has trouble sleeping.

It turns out the gentleman spoke English, but by then I had forgotten how to manage even that and so I persisted in my usual muddled melange. Dave just stood back and watched the show.

I am always in a slightly peeved mood when I go to a pharmacy in Europe, which is something like visiting a North American drug store in 1952 when everything was kept behind the counter and a conversation with the druggist was mandatory. I’m actually not sure about that being the case in 1952, but Hollywood tells me this is so and I’m too linguistically hungover to investigate further.

In Switzerland, something as mundane as NyQuil (called Medinait here, for those who need to know) can only be purchased after assuring a pharmacist that the buyer does not have asthma, glaucoma, a family history of glaucoma, neurofibromatosis, halitosis, a tendency to crack knuckles, arthritis, phlebitis, elephantitis or a cough that has lingered for over a week. Who would think a cold medication would come under such strict controls?

Costco's Melatonin: There's the good stuff.

But there’s more. Even the non-drug Metamucil (a non-medicinal soluble fibre product that does wonders for cholesterol counts, by the way) requires conversational counter-time with the drug-store staff.

Last week, I learned that melatonin* – a rather innocuous hormone that flits about in the pineal gland governing our sleep cycles – is only available in Switzerland by prescription. Melatonin has been an on-the-shelf product in the U.S. since the 1990s and in Canada it can be bought in comforting large containers at Costco stores, yet when I asked for it, the Swiss druggist gave me the studious stare associated with searching for signs of drug addiction – that is, my drug addiction. But then, considering how I opened our conversation in  a multiplicity of languages that I don’t actually speak, who can blame him?

I find this fascinating in a country where heroin and other narcotics are legal, and if I wanted such I could probably just drop in at the local injection clinic and load up my veins.

Alternatively, if I’m having trouble sleeping and can’t access my usual supply of melatonin, a cheap and ready source of alcohol of all sorts can be purchased at any food store. I looked down my nose at the men lining up at a nearby convenience store with their beer and booze during the supper hour, but now I realize they may just be fellow-insomniacs whose melatonin-prescriptions have run out.

Blogbits

On Hobonotes’ most recent daily report:

  • Most hits come from the U.S.
  • Least hits come from the Russian Federation
  • Weirdest search term that landed a reader at this site was “Paris restaurant Winnipeg”
  • Readers from Japan did not even register in my country list. I cannot break into that readership. Dang. 

DO NOT USE THIS WEBSITE FOR MEDICAL INFORMATION: To learn more about melatonin, go to legitimate medical websites, such as mayoclinic.com. 

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.