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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Happy Anniversary, ladies.

7 02 2011

Today is a very, very important 40th anniversary. It is the 40th anniversary of womens’ right to vote in Switzerland. Fortieth, you ask? Only the fortieth? Yes, folks, women in Switzerland have had the right to vote for less time than I have been alive.

Shocking, is it not? I certainly think so.

In the run-up to this anniversary, there have been a number of news reports about the referendum that took place forty short years ago. The vote was, of course, open only to men. Swiss men, not usually known for their progressive, open, liberal nature, had to decide if, in the future, women would be allowed to take part in the political process, or if 50 percent of the population would continue to live in silence. Fortunately, a majority of these men noticed that the times, they were a-changin’ (only seven years after the song was released) and voted “yes”.

In the recent news coverage, the media dug up a few classic referendum campaign posters, which I would not want to withhold from my international readership. They range from the simply unbelievable to the simply unbelievably absurd.

For the English-speakers among you, here just a quick German-English mini-dictionary of words used in the posters:

Frauenstimmrecht = Womens’ voting rights

Nein = No

So ladies – look and weep. This is what we would have had to deal with, had we been born a generation earlier, in Switzerland.

Interesting. No flies on my pacifier.

“Is this the kind of woman you want?"

(And… what kind of woman would that be? Possessed? Terrorized? Frazzled? Shell-shocked? Demented? Witch-like?)

"Leave us out of the game!"

(Somehow I can not believe this young woman actually volunteered to have her photo on this poster. And notice the very subtle claws…)

 

This last poster I find particularly disturbing, because it seems to me not only to support the “no” vote, but also to be advocating violence against women. Or maybe it just challenges the viewer to find 101 household uses for a carpet beater, at least one of which surely has to do with female suffrage.

I am simply aghast.

Fortunately, on that fateful Sunday in 1971, a majority of Swiss men had the good sense to decide that running the country alone was a miserable task. So they offered women the opportunity to join them in the political trenches. One lonely backwater Kanton in eastern Switzerland needed 20 more years to grant women the right to vote on regional issues. Today there are more women (4) in the federal cabinet than men (3), and so far, they seem to be rather successful at what they do.

In corporate life, however, there is still a veeeerrrrry looooong way to go. Don’t even get me started on that.





My best friend: My gun

12 01 2011

The tragic weekend shootings in Tucson have given me a good lead-in to today’s blog topic: Guns. There are lots of them, and they are everywhere. Legal and illegal, they rest in the hands of competitive sportsmen and -women, the military, the police and gun freaks of all colors. Gangsters have them in their toolbox, and regular folks have them in their desk drawers. And hell, what’s the harm in shooting off a couple of rounds after a miserable day, right?

Of course in the U.S. we are used to the right-wing wackos from the NRA and the Tea Party claiming their Second Amendment rights as if their lives depended on it. And last weekend we saw what happens when one of those wackos, likely influenced by an Alaskan pitbull in lipstick, short circuits. (And believe it or not, since the shooting, Arizona sales of Glocks have exploded…)

Here in Switzerland, 3,500 miles away and living among peaceful-looking alpine meadows with happy cows, an overly-efficient train network and mostly mild-mannered mountain folk, I only found out quite recently that this country has one of the highest militia gun ownership rates in the world.

The Swiss military’s standard-issue automatic weapons are very present in everyday public life, on public transport and in the public consciousness. In Zurich, men carry around their army rifles like women carry around their Louis Vuitton handbags. Last Sunday’s newspaper even featured photographs of prominent Swiss politicians sitting on their sofas – in stinky socks, no less – and cradling their firearms.

Criticize him for the weapon around his neck or just his God-awful taste in living room furniture?

On February 13th the Swiss voters – who are, as we know, professionals at direct democracy – will decide on an initiative that would ban all military weapons from private homes and require them to be stored in a local armory.

At the moment, more than 420,000 of these automatic weapons (NOT counting firearms that have been privately purchased, you know, for fun) populate closets and attics, sheds and garages across this seemingly gentle, neutral country. Why? Because two generations ago, while Adolf Hitler steamrolled across Europe, the Swiss thought it prudent that its citizen-soldiers keep their guns at home so that in case of an invasion, they could engage in urban warfare and shoot their way to their military unit.

Today, 80 years later, this law is still on the books and the majority of these lethal toys still live in private homes. Behind winter coats, under the bed, in on the ski rack – free for any child to pick up and play with, for any adult to threaten (and kill) his spouse with, for any individual to end their own life with.

What seemed thoroughly logical and sensible in the 1930’s is equally ludicrous and superfluous today. Especially considering Switzerland has Europe’s highest rate of suicides by firearms, and an alarming number of homicides are committed with army weapons, too. On average, they are responsible for one death every single day.

The perfect Swiss family

The public debate ahead of the referendum is emotional as it is gruesome. While the supporters of the ban are appealing to simple common sense, the ultra-right wing Swiss nutcases (though they lack a Second Amendment to ride around on) have proven so far they don’t have any. Their irksome habit of fanning the fires of collective panic, claiming law-abiding citizens will be “castrated of their rights” should the initiative pass is getting really old, but may just prove effective in the end.

And once again, any virtues of direct democracy aside, I come to the conclusion that sometimes governments have a moral obligation to protect citizens from their own stupidity.





The Neanderthal of Zurich

6 12 2010

A friend of mine is on the prowl for a new job. She is a little younger than me, childless, strong-minded and very well-educated. Her degrees are from ivy league schools and she has spent most of the last 15 years working her way through the corporate landscape on both sides of the Atlantic.

She had a job interview two weeks ago. The company is a service provider in an industry she knows a great deal about, and in which she has a very strong interest. She went into the interview from a position of strength – she is not wildly desperate to leave her current employer, but is kind of itching for a new challenge. The job ad she answered sounded like the perfect fit.

She tells me the interview went great till close to the end. The two (male) interviewers, the head of the Human Resources department and the head of the department in which she hoped to work, told her that the person who did the job previously had to leave the company because of illness. (“Not due to overwork, hahaha,” said the HR manager.) The other guy added, “Yes we haven’t had a lot of luck with incumbents in this job. They tend to leave after three years. And it really would be nice to have some continuity here. We had a lot of problems with pregnancies… and, well then there was that one adoption, but mainly we’ve had issues with pregnancies.”

Over in the corner, the HR dude squirmed uncomfortably.

My friend did what every late-thirties, job-seeking career woman with a brain and a pulse would do. She did not skip a beat and just continued to smile her sweet, insincere corporate smile, perfected by enduring years of bullying in the corporate trenches.Later she told me that she was so stunned at the words that had just come out of the Neanderthal’s mouth she couldn’t even formulate a sentence even if she had wanted to. She wondered if she really just heard what she just heard and it took all her willpower not to reach across the table and strangle the guy.

Though I’ve made it clear in earlier blog entries that I was not born to be a mother, I will violently and loudly defend every woman’s right to decide what she wants to do with her own body and her future – even if I don’t agree – and not be penalized for it. I think that is a basic human right (last time I looked it was, anyway).

So it never ceases to amaze me that in an allegedly advanced, intellectual, highly industrialized country in the middle of Western Europe, which, lest we forget, currently has a female president, two women leading the two houses of parliament and a female majority in its cabinet, such clearly discriminatory and misogynist attitudes seem common among men in positions of power. The fact that this person would even think something like that makes me furious, the fact that he said it to the face of a female candidate and potential subordinate is more than stupid.

They didn’t invite my friend to a second round of interviews. And she is curious to know if that was because she is a woman of child-bearing age, wielding a lethal weapon called a womb, or if she was just plain old overqualified. After all, men really hate being outshone or beat at their own game.

In my lifetime, please.





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.





Wacky American Stuff, Part II

22 10 2010

Oh man I really wanted to stay out of this one because I have no right to tell anyone what they should do on election day, least of all the voters of that great little state of Delaware. But I just can’t keep my mouth shut here.

The “I’m not a witch” commercial was amusing, and a few of the spoofs it spawned were absolutely classic. It was good to see that Americans have not lost their sense of humor despite the misery of the financial crisis. I would still be laughing my head off if Christine O’Donnell were not serious about trying to steal a Senate seat.

 

Twins, separated at birth

 

Sitting 3,000 miles away for the past 20 years, I have had a very unique – nay, privileged – perspective on U.S. politics. With the buffer of distance and only the high-level noise reaching us over here, we get what seems like a more objective idea of what is really going on back home.

As an observer across that great big ocean, you realize very quickly how wacky some of the stuff coming out of the American political system really is. Mainly because all of your European friends pester you with questions and ridicule you about it at every opportunity. You become the lightening rod for what they think is wrong with America. You get a cramp in your neck from looking up as they get on their high horses, leaving you firmly planted in the mud. Often you are strong-armed into a political corner you never in your wildest dreams expected (or wanted) to defend.

Though mildly irritiating, it’s certainly good practice and keeps you sharp.

After the international wave of 9/11 sympathy ebbed, the rest of the Bush II years were particularly rough for Americans living abroad. In 2008 a whole bunch of us voted for change, and then spent election night joining that collective sigh of relief that was audible around the world. This would be the dawn of a new era in domestic politics, too, where sanity overcomes madness, and the rifts in society would be bridged by constructive and concilliatory cooperation. Right?

Wrong. This year (my Pennsylvania absentee ballot already safely in the mail), after all I’ve seen so far, it seems like there is so much more lunacy going on out there than ever before, and the battlefront seems to have ended up in tiny Delaware.

After padding her resume, cozying up to Sarah Palin and telling the world she’s not a witch, NOW Christine O’Donnell goes and questions what’s in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Hello? Anybody home in that pretty little head? Election Day is still a week and a half away – plenty of opportunity to drop a few more verbal bombs that will shake the nation. Or just Delaware.

Hopefully the fallout will be enough to convince our dear Delawarean neighbors not to elect an intellectually challenged right-wing nutcase to the Senate. The Senate! Christine may not be a witch, but there are a lot of things she is. Like, entirely, undeniably, unbelievably unqualified for Washington DC.

I mean, where do they get these people?





Dresden, Germany, October 3rd, 2010

4 10 2010

We walk along the north shore of the Elbe River in the afternoon. It is overcast, the leaves are starting to turn and the cold wind signals autumn has arrived. A recent flood has left debris on the shoreline and the sounds of a street festival echo in the distance. We look south, beyond the swift but receding current, at the restored old sandstone city. Transformed from a scarred and neglected victim of war just a generation ago, it now glows in a brilliant new light, fresh colors and newborn hope.

21 years ago, my friend and her city tasted freedom for the first time. A cold war kid born on east side of the Iron Curtain, she and her family fought the totalitarian system as best they could for the place they were in. As practicing Christians and conscientious objectors, their feelings  toward the state alternated between ambivalence and downright antagonism, which caused moments of anguish and years of struggle. But as she says today, it was the only right thing to do. And so they did it.

The secret police apparatus that had permeated every corner of East German society dictated the course of their lives. Her father was recruited but refused to serve. Her mother’s letters to relatives in the West were intercepted. For political reasons, she and her sister were denied educations and careers they had dreamed of. They lived with a feeble hope that better days might come but also with a constant fear that their actions or their words or their neighbors would secretly betray them. She credits her family with giving her the backbone to stand up to injustice and her faith has made her an open, forgiving human being, without bitterness.

The whimpering demise of the regime in the autumn of 1989 and the birth of a united Germany eleven months later signaled to her that her opportunity had come, and that she was morally bound to seize it. After unification, she returned to her interrupted education, finished the qualification that would allow her to study, and went to university. For the very first time in her life, at 20, she could choose her own path and determine her own future. In this fresh new world, no party official had the power to tell her she was not allowed to.

Our friendship formed during that exhilarating, reckless time of fundamental change in East and West, and has lasted across the oceans and canyons of time.

In the almost seventeen years I have been coming here to visit her, buildings have been repaired, windows replaced, roofs newly shingled. Along the train tracks, pastel-colored villages now stand where that ubiquitous dismal brown-grey color of decay, so prevalent across the eastern Europe of our childhoods, used to be. The penetrating, acrid smell of burning lignite has disappeared.  Belching brick chimneys have made way for wind farms – their huge, slender blades now cut through the clean air in perfect synchrony.

For the most part, the wounds inflicted before and after the Berlin Wall fell have healed. But resentment and envy sometimes still cast dark shadows on the modern era.

Without slipping into trivial nostalgia, we agree as we walk along the river this chilly October afternoon that what happened twenty years ago is a miracle beyond words. We quietly celebrate that miracle today, together, on the twentieth anniversary of unification.

The local weekend newspaper’s front-page headline declares simply, “Congratulations Germany”.

Indeed.