Swiss small-mindedness extraordinaire

2 11 2011

It’s time for me to make fun of the Swiss again. Point out another trait that is not exactly endearing.

It is also NaNoWriMo and I need to produce 50,000 words in 30 days. Let the month of marathon writing begin.

Yesterday morning I was amused to read in the newspaper about a conflict in our fair city of Zurich. An old building which looks like it was built in, say, the 16th century or so, was recently renovated, and new lettering went up advertising for the café in the ground floor – its name: “Haus zum Rüden / Restaurant und Bar”. Those are the white-colored words you see in the photograph below, just above the arches.

The freshly renovated building in downtown Zurich.

Now, the city administration took offense at this new lettering. Even more so when it found out that the letters extended beyond the façade of the building by a whole three centimeters (1½ inches). The lettering was placed upon the building without a permit, and thus the city imposed a fine for this offense. The owner of the building is now required to pay 214 Swiss francs (about $190) per year in order to have this writing stay where it is.

Wow. Infringing upon Zurich air is expensive.

As you can tell from the picture, the lettering does not, however, stick out from the façade as far as the flower boxes with geraniums do, or the actual building wall on the third floor and the roof. So why this lettering is offensive to anyone at all remains a mystery to me.

The newspaper article answers this question with the explanation that rules are rules, and rules are not to be broken, not here in Switzerland. Nonononono.

A few years ago we too experienced the wrath of a dictatorial city administration more focused on following building code rules than dealing with reality. We had bought an apartment in a building that had been completely gutted and renovated a year prior, including having two new roof windows installed, bathing the top floor in warmth and light. We were ecstatic to have found our perfect love nest.

Sixteen days after we moved in, we received a letter from the city stating that an observant neighbor had watched us put in two roof windows without a permit, and that said windows were to be immediately removed, the holes sealed up and the roof returned to its original state. (Oh, and by the way, the entire top floor of the apartment – our guest room and a very cool bathroom – was to be torn out and returned to the state of an unfinished, unheated attic.) This superfluous (de-)construction would cost us and reduce the value of the place by about one-third.

A nerve-wracking, unhappy year later, the previous owner – who was responsible for this mess in the first place – agreed to buy it back only after we threatened him with a million-dollar lawsuit. The city was not willing to budge, even after we had offered to pay a fine for the building code transgression that we did not even commit.

A few months after we moved out, he actually tore out the windows and returned the roof and the attic to their original state.

Three morals of the story: 1) There are con-artists everywhere, even in nice, orderly Switzerland. 2) Watch out for your neighbors… every single one of them is a spy with an overactive imagination. 3) Swiss civil servants have too much time on their hands, and a small-mindedness that could drive all the rest of us to jump off a bridge.

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