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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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.

Stumblebum

We’ve been laying low over January, recovering from our Christmas jaunts and mapping out our “should we go there” list as we round into the last leg of our time here. In the meantime, I am discovering more wonderful things about the Swiss that I would never have guessed from afar.

For one thing: They are not as worried bout natural gas explosions as are Canadians. I know this for a fact. When I was a reporter, any sign of a natural gas leak brought out the police and fire departments who would evacuate entire city blocks rather than deal with flying body parts should the leak turn lethal.

Not so with the Swiss. Walking down one of our town’s beautiful canal strolls, I saw police cars and other emergency vehicles arrive at a building. I say “arrive,” because to suggest they sped up and raced from their vehicles would just not be true. The officers and emergency workers strolled up a building that had several windows open. There were no signs of smoke, fire, or rabid protesters, so I thought maybe it was just a training exercise. Then I walked past the vehicles and noticed several with the word “gas” on their sides.

Sure enough, a few feet past the building I caught my first whiff of natural gas in the air. I turned back to see how the emergency workers were doing, and they were busy scratching their heads, which is maybe how they signal to the population to “be calm.” I just hoped no one decided to light up a cigarette (this country is packed with smokers).

Pass me a wrench, wilya?

I went my merry way, walking faster than I normally do until I reached the distance I estimated Victoria police would have cordoned off, and then I relaxed and waited for the boom. It didn’t come, which goes to show that sometimes everything works out just fine.

Later, I checked out the site and discovered a giant hole dug into the sidewalk and in that gaping hole lay pretty yellow gas lines. To leave a gas line exposed is another thing that Canadians are fussy about.

The hole has been there since January 12th, unguarded, unsealed and just unsane. No dogs or small children have plunged in, but that’s because it the workers erected rails around it, which by Swiss standards is high-security. They normally just dig holes and leave them unmarked for unwatchful walkers to fall into.

Note: This post is not to suggest the Swiss are in any way lazy. They are not. As proof, the grounds keeping staff in our lakefront park have been mowing, leaf-clearing, debris-disposing, pruning and showing a degree of industry that is impressive. Maybe they’re getting the place ready as a refuge centre in the event of a natural gas explosion.

 

Still trying to figure out this country, the sweet and the sour

 

It’s funny what thoughts the town drunk will inspire.

For a teensy weensy little nation, Switzerland occasionally shows up in the top 10 richest countries in the world, which is something when you consider that it is competing against Qatar and the U.S.  In fact, according to Business Insider, it even topped the U.S., coming in at #6 over the U.S. at #7, based on GDP per capita.

Of course, where a country ranks depends on how the ranking is measured. For example, if a country’s riches were determined by the quantity of chocolates it produces, you would think Switzerland is #1, but guess what, it is not.

The top chocolate confectionary producer title goes to a U.S. company, Kraft Foods Inc. As a top consumer of chocolate products, I am stunned by this revelation from the International Cocoa Organization, a very real entity that I would love to work for.

Biel the beautiful.

Switzerland is the third-largest chocolate producer with the Swiss Nestle’ corporation placing it there, just behind “Mars,” a U.S. company. The U.S. is home to three of the world’s top-ten chocolate-makers.That is pretty impressive, but consider that Switzerland has two companies in the top ten, then compare the two  nations’ population and geography (the U.S. is gumpteenzillion times bigger, for one), and Switzerland is all the more outstanding. You have to think that if the U.S. applied the same degree of diligence that the Swiss do, we would be swimming in chocolate. This would be okay with me.

When the GDP alone is tabulated, Switzerland sadly gets bumped off the Top Ten list (the U.S. wins that one, even beating the legendary industry of the Japanese and the population-giant China who come in second and third respectively (according to 2008 GDP figures).

Switzerland still makes #21 on GDP alone, a real feat for a country that is one-tenth the size of Montana.

Thoughts of Switzerland’s relative wealth came to mind as I walked past Biel’s preeminent town drunk, a roguish, handsome white-haired man with an unfortunately crushed nose.

He is the fellow of whom I wrote early into our stay here, the same man who urinates openly in the square in front of the train station. He usually keeps to himself, and everyone gives him a wide berth, what with the urination thing, but lately he’s started lurching at passersby. It unnerves everyone, but he remains a fixture at the train station. He is the same fellow, by the way, who made loud freaky sounds as he walked behind me on one of the canal walkways.

Back in Canada, I’ve interviewed lots of homeless people, drunks, mentally ill, and so forth. People always talk about how harmless they are, but that is the same kind of wisdom that says bears are more afraid of us than we are of them, in other words, it’s bunk.

I’ve never felt completely safe in the presence of those who hand over their sensibilities to a bottle of booze or the drug-confection-of-the-day. These are ridiculously unpredictable people. As a reporter, where my job was to face up to them and engage in conversation, I found them somewhat fascinating, mostly because they weave such great fictions.

I know it’s politically incorrect to say so, but the volume of lies told to me by street people is amazing in its pure bulk, and mostly I discovered those lies by standing around long enough for the drug addict/drunk/street person to forget their original story and start into a second one.

On one occasion, I interviewed a man who alleged he had been roughed up by the police. I asked for his name. He gave it. Then he waved some kind of summons or ticket in my face to prove he had interacted with Victoria’s finest. I asked to see it and saw the name on the summons differed from that which he gave me. When I asked about this, he grabbed the summons and quickly fled on his bike. At least it may have been his bike. Give the high rate of bike theft in Victoria, I would guess he had “borrowed” it. This was not an unusual exchange.

Where this all goes is this: Switzerland is rich, and with a lauded social safety net, and yet we still have citizens veering on the streets with open beer cans in hand.

Yesterday, outside of a grocery store, I watched a few of the town drunk regulars (who have not risen to preeminent status) heckle a white-haired woman, her back a badly disfigured mountain range curved over so that she was a virtual comma when in her best upright position. She pulled her grocery cart past them, stumping along with her cane and unable to effect any getaway should one be needed. She kept her gaze fixed resolutely ahead while they shouted at her. I am not much in the way of personal protection, but I rushed up to walk just slightly behind and alongside her, signalling to the vagrants that perhaps she was my aged relative and my glare silenced the drunks who turned their attention in the opposite direction, as though perhaps they had been yelling at the crows.

Smarter people than me have puzzled over the problems of deviant behavior, drug addiction and such, but it seems that a crippled senior should be able to fetch some milk and eggs without having to run a gauntlet of yahoos.

We haven’t fixed this social ill  in Canada, but we shouldn’t feel too bad about this. If the Swiss with their smarts, industry and attention to detail haven’t figured it out yet, how could we?

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.