Intolerance 2, Integration 0.

29 11 2010

Yesterday, the Swiss electorate voted in favor of another xenophobic, inward-looking, unbelievably intolerant referendum. The world champions of direct democracy approved a measure that now allows the government to automatically deport any foreigner who has come into any possible conflict with any law, regulation or statute. The final vote was 52.9 percent in favor, 47.1 percent against. The initiative was sponsored and supported by the Swiss Peoples’ Party – to be found on the political spectrum slightly to the right of Attila the Hun – and must now be anchored in the constitution.

So as a foreigner in Switzerland, that means if I get caught stealing a crouton from my salad before paying for it, or maybe for making noise after 10 p.m., or parking in a no-parking zone, I run the risk of being kicked out of the country.  This initiative applies to only non-Swiss criminals, or criminals with a foreign or immigration background, even if they have a Swiss passport. Swiss criminals are more equal than foreign criminals, you see, and they get to stay.

The growing animosity towards anything non-Swiss that dares to settle within its borders is rather disturbing. The “Yes” committee advertised with this poster:

Get the hell out of here if you don’t look like us.

So this to me says that anyone who is a not a white sheep will ostracized from society and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out. This placard is only slightly more insulting than last year’s advertisement for the referendum banning the building of minarets. This was also approved, a year ago exactly, to the incredulity of the rest of the world. (FYI – there are exactly four minarets in the entire country. That’s about half of the number on the poster.)

Minarets are actually missiles – did you know that?

So where does this intolerance come from? An ignorant, closed, hillbilly perspective on the world. The arrogance of exclusivity and special-ness. The avid refusal to believe that those not born and raised in lily-white Switzerland are just not good enough.

And even though I wrote about all the things I love here in Switzerland a few weeks ago, I pretty much guarantee that this is the one issue that will make me leave this place someday.

The longer I live here, the less welcome I feel. Even though every month I pay a boatload of taxes and do more than my fair share to help keep the state pension system liquid. And that’s the irony of it: the Swiss know they need to import workers from abroad in order to keep the country running – they can’t educate enough doctors, tradesmen and other skilled workers to cover their own local needs. Without foreigners, Switzerland’s economy would come to a screeching halt. Its trash would lie on the street, its health system would collapse, its IT logistics would crash and its banks would go bust.

I honestly do not get the logic of yesterday’s referendum. Maybe one of my Swiss friends can explain it to me someday.

But after this vote I will once again advise my non-Swiss friends to avoid the place completely because you never know if you will run into an over-enthusiastic citizen policeman that just doesn’t like the way you dress. Before you know it, you could be on a plane back to wherever it is the authorities think you came from, even if the place is mired in war and violence, and you and your family will not be safe. Even if you never spent any significant time there and know not a soul.

With no chance of appeal.

Giving Thanks

24 11 2010

A friend of mine once revealed to me a few techniques she uses to fight insomnia. Counting sheep doesn’t do it for her, so she developed some exercises of her own. One was to count backwards from 100 to 0 by threes. In French, German or Swahili. Another was to think of all the different languages you can say “please” in.

A third exercise is to go through the alphabet and name at least three things per letter that she is thankful for.

I like that one, and in honor of Thanksgiving tomorrow – the most important day of the year – here is some stuff I am thankful for (in reverse alphabetical order). People, events, things and places that make my life a little happier, and each day a little more meaningful.

  • Zebras, Ziploc bags, Zippers
  • “Yes we can!”, Yosemite and Yellowstone, YOU – my reader(s)
  • Xtra cheese in my fajitas, Xtra gin in my drink, Xtra cash in my paycheck
  • Winter sports, Washing machines, Wine of all colors
  • USA, Uhu-glue, the Universe
  • Velcro, Vacation days, Voracious appetite
  • Tulips, Time, Tea with lemon
  • Sweetie, Sourdough pretzels, Sunshine, Strong women, Swimming pools, Scallopine al Limone, San Francisco, Skate-marathons, Speed, Singapore (Slings), S-L-E-E-P!

(Sorry, went a bit overboard on the S’s…)

Very few bartenders know how to make these well.

  • Rollerblades, Relatives in South America, Rose-colored glasses for the proverbial rainy day
  • Questions, Quaker Oatmeal, Queen’s University
  • Pa, Petra, Philadelphia(ns) and the Flyers
  • October 11th, 2008, Oceans, Opportunities
  • Naaahfick & Co., Non-violent civil disobedience, New shoes
  • My big brother and his kid, Many old and new friends all over the world, the Month of May
  • Life, Love, Latte Macchiato
  • Kindle, Kiwi-raspberry juice, Knowledge
  • Journalism, July 4th fireworks, Jet airplanes

BOOM! Nothing like a couple of good explosions on a warm summer evening.

  • Ironic Mom, Ikea, Italian pasta dishes with white sauces
  • Happy landings, Hershey’s Kisses, Hot showers
  • Grand Canyon, Good health, God
  • Fritzi the dog, Fitness, Freedom of choice
  • Early mornings, Eighties music, Eucalyptus trees
  • Dairy Queen, Driving my SmartCar,
  • Columbia University, Cell phones, Common sense
  • Bagels, Blogging, Black Jack
  • Autobahns, Aviation, Apt.#410

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Make it a great day.

Swiss winter fun

19 11 2010

Now that the first snowflakes have fallen in the lowlands of Switzerland, many of my Swiss friends are making plans for the six months of the year when a grey fog the consistency of cream soup descends upon Zurich. What do they do? Head to higher ground of course. Where the sun shines and the danger lurks.

While I too look forward to enjoying good couple of crisp, clear days above the fog-line in the picturesque mountains during this, my sixth winter here, I now know where I’m capable of holding my own, and where I should just not bother to try. Having grown up in the tropical sunshine of Southeast Asia, I will never be a snow bunny, no matter how much money I spend on the accessories.

Nice try, Evelynn.

Analog to Swiss Summer Fun a few months ago, here are a few of the astounding and crazy things that the locals enjoy paying good money to do during the winter. For more information on any of these, or to create your own wild winter adventure, check out the Swiss Tourism Website.

Alpine skiing – A world cup race on TV is kindergarten compared to what Swiss skiers are capable of on their slopes. No wonder helmet sales are up by something like 500 percent every year.

Cross-country skiing – The skis are much thinner and exponentially more unstable requiring exponentially more strength and coordination to stay upright. And Swiss people don’t just go out for a Sunday ski-stroll. Nonononono. When Swiss people strap on their cross-country skis, they end up doing things like this.

Igloo-building – And here I thought this was just for semi-nomadic native peoples in northern latitudes. No, the Swiss have a thing for building igloos, too. A winter weekend in the mountains is not complete unless you spend part of it constructing your own accommodation and then sleeping in it. Believe me, this is nothing for claustrophobics or folks who chill easily.


Please don't try this at home unless you're an architect.

Ski jöring – For the truly insane. Instructions: Attach skis to feet, attach self to galloping horse.

HA! Yeah, right!

Tobogganing (winter version) – Nothing against some harmless sledding down the slope behind your house. But we are talking serious, professional-grade tobogganing here, on near-frozen tracks many kilometers long, almost vertically down the sides of mountains, while sitting on rickety, unsteerable wooden sleds invented in 1883. This sport is generally done late at night (i.e. in the dark), helmetless, and only after an illegal amount of alcohol has been ingested.

This was an activity at my company’s “Rookie Camp,” a sort of basic training for new employees I attended a few years ago. It was scheduled for 11 p.m. and the toboggan run was a sheet of ice. After narrowly missing a large fir tree in the first turn, and then flying out of control, twisting a knee and landing on my butt in the snow in the second turn, I decided my long-term health was more important than any dumb rite of passage. So I walked the rest of the way, all the while keeping eyes in the back of my head and diving for cover numerous times to avoid others who careened down behind me. At the base, hours later, I found out that one member of the group lost control of his sled, flew off the side of the mountain and ended up in the hospital with a concussion and a gash over his eye.

Peanuts, my Swiss colleagues said. Anything less than a crushed vertebrae gets no sympathy.

Coming Home

15 11 2010

It’s always a bit like coming home. Maybe that is because it IS coming home, as close to it as it gets for me. I have known this condo in South Florida for ten years, though I have no real emotional ties to the geographic region in which it is located.

Nothing in particular binds me to this sprawling, non-descript city with a beach except these four walls and what rests within them. No friends whose birthdays I need to remember, no social activities I need to plan around, no neighbors I could rely on in an emergency.

If I would have had the choice, I would not have put this place in pink plastic flamingo South Florida. But it is here and I have made my peace with that. I’m not too proud to admit Florida might just actually be growing on me. In a way I have come full circle – born just a few miles south of here, fled far and wide, and now as an adult I return again and again.

Florida, flamingos & me.

When my father died in 2007, I was reluctant to clear out his condo and sell it. It seemed too brutal to erase a man’s earthly existence within a week of his passing in order to save a couple of hundred dollars a month in maintenance fees. The wounds were fresh and his spirit still lingered. A year later the real estate market had crashed and selling was out of the question – even if I had been ready to. I’m still not ready.

It used to be a place I visited my father, and now it’s the only place in America I can call home. Faded, yellowing family photographs still hang on the walls – I hardly recognize my smiling, 4-year-old self, complete with long blond pigtails, sitting in a sky-blue photo studio. The oriental carpets I have been walking on since I was 12. The artwork we bought on a family vacation. A reupholstered TV-chair that reclines to almost horizontal. My big sister’s sofa. The black-and-white snapshot of my father as a successful manager, posing with foreign dignitaries in whose faraway country his corporation had just established a subsidiary and created jobs. The only kitchen table we as a family have ever known. And a million other things. Inside each is locked a memory or two.

It doesn’t matter what happens out there, beyond the balcony where my father and I spent hours philosophizing over gin and tonics or red wine, solving the world’s problems, and suppressing our own. These days, R. and I sit on that same balcony, sip the same drinks, plan our present and our future together: Should we go to the beach? What’s for dinner? And what about that work project I have to get done by next Wednesday? What will become of us, after all?

My father’s spirit is still around, I feel him here. Maybe that’s why it is always so wonderfully comfortable to come home and so terribly difficult to leave again. Every time.

Happy hour on Pa's balcony.

No, seriously. Switzerland is great.

9 11 2010

Ok, so I insulted a few of my Swiss friends with my last post. And the truth is, there are a lot of things I actually really do like about Switzerland, even if I tend to complain all the time. So, here is my list of the good stuff:

1) The nature – unbelievably stunning in every way. Mountains, glaciers, lakes, you name it. Switzerland has it all. And it’s all very clean, breathtakingly pretty and easily accessible.

"MOO." Even the cows are photogenic here.

2) The geographic location – If you do feel overwhelmed by the picture-postcard beauty of every panorama and have an urgent need to get a dose of a gritty big city, complete with dog poop on the sidewalks and the smell of urine on every street corner, it’s fast and easy to get there from here. Since Switzerland is located at the geographic center of (Western) Europe, you can fly to everywhere else, pretty much, in an hour or two.

3) The trains run on time – Yes, you can actually set your cuckoo clocks by them. On average, 97.43 percent of all Swiss trains arrive and depart within 3 minutes of their scheduled time. Unless there is a massive electricity outage. Since a majority of the population commutes by public transportation, one severed or shorted electrical circuit can bring chaos to the entire country. On a hot summer day a few years ago, trains across the country stood still for four whole hours during afternoon rush hour, stranding more than 100,000 passengers. So just FYI: any hostile power that wants to take over Switzerland doesn’t need an army… a couple of wire-cutters and/or a hungry, suicidal hamster would probably do.

4) High salaries and (relatively) low taxes – Who doesn’t want to keep more of their paycheck at the end of every month? Let’s just ignore the fact that the cost of living here is higher than anywhere else in the world, and the amount of money you spend on a bag of groceries would be more than enough to buy food to sustain an extended family in a developing country for at least six months. You will end up shelling out unbelievable sums to other people for goods and services, to the state, your local community and your canton, but then again an equally unbelievable amount of cash will remain in your pocket.

5) The fact that Switzerland is a tiny, inconspicuous, safe, neutral, friendly, peaceful country in the middle of Europe where the President can get up on a Saturday morning, stick on a pair of dark sunglasses to hide her hangover, and go shopping in the supermarket alongside all the rest of us – without a security detail.


Hangover? What hangover?

Swiss people really have no idea how great it is not to be the target of any terrorist organization. (The Jurassian separatists don’t count.) One day recently R., who is Swiss, and I, who is not, had this conversation:

Me: “What if there was some terrorist attack here? Or if there was an assassination attempt on your President? How would you Swiss people react?”

Him (looking very confused): “Why would anyone want to kill our President?”

Me: “Well, because she is PRESIDENT!”

Him: “Yes but… what would be the purpose?”

Me: “To destabilize the country. Demoralize the population. Exercise gratuitous violence. Bring the reign of terror right into your own neighborhood. There are a million reasons… just go ask Al Qaeda.”

Him: “Um… Sweetie, nobody cares about Switzerland. Nothing like that ever happens here. There would be no reason for it. And besides, our banks manage Al Qaeda’s finances, so they would not be doing themselves a real favor if they started killing Swiss people.”