The coolest Swiss fashion accessory

August 29, 2011

When we first moved to Switzerland, Alastair and I treated ourselves to a celebration dinner at a classy restaurant close to our apartment.  We even dressed up.  It was the type of posh restaurant that plays classical music and where you feel obliged to whisper.

So, I was very surprised when, halfway through my côtelettes d’agneau, I heard a dog bark.  Not outside in the street but close by, in the room.  Al and I looked around and, sure enough, we saw a customer reprimanding the French-speaking dog at her feet.

Usually if I saw an animal near food, I would huff and puff and summon management to complain about how unhygienic it is.   I don’t kick up a fuss in Switzerland because a dog in a restaurant is our new normal.

Lap dogs (or doggies as I call them) are very popular here.  These are the dogs that go to restaurants and they are not hyperactive pavement specials that dribble slime and pant out hot, smelly breath.  Every second Swiss person has a doggie that is disciplined, clean and cootchy cute.  They are the rage and the Swiss take their doggies everywhere with them.  Dogs are common in shopping centres, libraries, hardware stores, furniture shops, restaurants, cafes and supermarkets.  If I were the size of a shoebox, I couldn’t think of anything worse than traipsing through the crowds at Ikea on a Saturday morning.

When I was commuting into Geneva for my French course, I saw a doggie in a handbag at least three times a week.  I would sit opposite someone who held a large bag on their lap and, at some stage during the 20-minute journey, a shining black nose popped out to sniff the air.  Often the dog rested its head over the edge of the bag and surveyed the carriage with its pink, wet tongue hanging out and swinging from side to side.  I itched to lean over and rub its tennis ball-sized head and say, ‘Cootchy coo, you little nunu poo’.

Some Swiss lapdogs are unusually cute and it is difficult to assess at a glance what type they are.  I must investigate further because I suspect the Swiss buy them on some sort of on-line catalogue where you can select the features you desire.  I am guessing buyers can choose ears of a King Charles, tail of a Maltese, eyes like a Chihuahua and the coat of a Yorkshire Terrier.  As I say, I must ask around but I suspect some company/person in the dog business is running a rip-roaring trade.

Most European hotels allow their customers to bring dogs for a small fee.  Our neighbours’ dogs have lived it up in posh hotels in Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland.  When I researched accommodation for our trip to Stresa in Italy in June, I wanted a dog-free hotel.  I couldn’t find one but the pet-friendly place I settled with was actually fine in the end.  There was no dog hair in the bed and the room did not smell like a kennel, as I had feared.

Doggies here are obedient and very … what’s the word … Swiss.  They don’t always veer away and pull against the leash so they can sniff and explore.  An owner does not need to drag their dog as it hops on three legs and frantically lifts its fourth one against anything vertical.  Swiss lapdogs trot close to the heel.  They have to because the Swiss authorities take a no-nonsense approach towards pets.  They do not tolerate misbehaviour.

Doggies know that, for the privilege of accompanying their owners on Saturday morning chores, they must tow the line.  If the dog is not safely inside a handbag, the owner should walk it on a leash in public areas.  They must pick up all poops and the government supplies red plastic bags for this purpose.  There are poop-bag dispensers all over our neighbourhood.

One of my new expat friends, Christa, recently had a personal crisis that led to intense anxiety and many sleepless nights.  She received a summons from the Swiss state.  She had to appear in Court to represent her dog, who was prosecuted because it bit a wild deer during the winter.  Christa was petrified and had visions they would lock up her, her dog or both of them.  The Court date was some time in May and Christa psyched herself up to plead her dog’s temporary insanity.  To her relief, the Court let them off with a reprimand and a fine of CHF600.  The dog also got a criminal record.

All dogs in Switzerland are registered with the local authorities.  This is a thorny topic for our South African neighbours because their two little terriers, Nougat and Praline, have Swiss passports and they don’t.  Owners Mike and Anne must live here for at least 12 years before the government will even contemplate citizenship yet their two South African pavement specials got passports without a fuss.  Mike says it irks him when he crosses a border and presents two worthless, green South African passports for him and his wife and two prized, red Swiss ones for the dogs.

I am at the stage in my life where people ask me when I am going to have babies.  I look at the young children around me and they don’t inspire me to reproduce.  These days, most children seem hyperactive, cheeky, overconfident and borderline feral.  They put me off.  I am leaning towards a dog.  A Swiss one, of course.  From a catalogue.


Little Miss (not) Busy

August 22, 2011

She’s back.

During the first day at my new job, I knew I would see her again.  Her return became inevitable as soon as I panted for work, threw my ambitions into the wind and was willing to accept any job offer for the sake of a routine and money in the bank.  On day three of my training and induction, I sat at a boardroom table and stared into the big screen on to which my colleague’s computer was projected.  I watched her dance between Excel worksheets, scroll up and down with frenzy and wave her mouse around like it was a hyperactive fly.  My nostrils twitched and I detected an offensive smell wafting up from beneath the desk.  It was the pong of damp, hot feet.  I thought, ‘Has someone taken off their shoes?  Are they airing their feet?’  I glanced under the desk and there she was.  I saw the tail first, and then I knew.

The Black Dog is back.

So far, my new job appears as easy as sliding down a greased pole.  It seems that a big part of my role involves waiting for emails and then once a month I must update a few rows on an Excel spreadsheet and adjust some Powerpoint charts.   They even told me I needed to go to Vienna for training on this task that I firmly believe is easy enough for the average chimpanzee.  During the sessions, I wanted to put my feet on the desk, cross my ankles, close my eyes, stretch out with my hands behind my head and say, ‘Carry on.  Keep talking.  I can listen like this.’

I am not actually sure why they have hired me.  It is as if they are using a chain saw to cut their fingernails.  I don’t mean to sound arrogant but I am a Chartered Accountant, for *&$# sake.   Sometimes I want to tap people on the shoulder and whisper, ‘Do you know I am a CA?’  Not that being one is a guarantee of superiority because some of the most inefficient people I have ever met are CAs.   It is just that I bust myself to get this qualification and it’s a shame to do a job that, on first impression, is not overly challenging.

I am not sure I have enough to keep me busy for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.  Maybe I’m wrong; in fact, I hope I’m wrong because I cannot face yet another mind numbing job.  A red warning flag appeared this week when I watched the office manager coordinating the coffee capsules and fruit box for the Pause Area and I wondered if her job was more fulfilling than mine.  Consistent boredom and under stimulation is corrosive.  It puts me in a sluggish stupor that makes me feel as if I am stuck in a mire of cold glue.  This vegetable state is not my natural disposition and so The Black Dog pops up under these conditions.  I ache, literally ache for enough (but not excessive) work that keeps my brain well-oiled and is so engaging that I lose track of time.

Some people love chilling and lurking underneath the radar at work.  I call these people ‘do-nots’.   I despise these lazy leeches and, when I have nothing meaningful to do, I feel I am turning into one.  In society, there are the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.  In the corporate world, there are the ‘do-ers’ and the ‘do-nots’.

Do-ers are genuinely busy.  They pump it and achieve results.  Do-ers inspire me and working with them is like turning up the volume.  They are willing to rock the boat to avoid doing something pointless just for the sake of it, which often annoys do-nots.  Do-ers are the 10% of a company that produce 80% of the results.  They are the muscles of a business, not the fat.  They are a rare breed and finding one is similar to spotting a leopard in the wilderness.

Do-nots want a low key, stress-free job that doesn’t spike the heart rate.  Sometimes it is a treat to be a do-not for a short period, but not indefinitely.  Do-nots are very common – they are like impala in the wilderness.  Many of them camouflage themselves as do-ers because they create elaborate illusions of productivity but if you were to investigate further, you would see they are actually chilling behind smoke and mirrors.  I cannot pretend to be busy because I find it takes as much effort as actually being busy.

My first experience with do-nots who loafed on the corporate gravy train was when I was on secondment in America in 2003.  In Dallas, we spent hours huddled around the boardroom table, in intense concentration as we tapped at our computer keyboards.  Meanwhile, most of us were instant messaging each other as we coordinated our weekend joyrides to San Antonio, Vegas or Memphis.

I once had a colleague who constantly dramatized how ‘snowed under’ she was.  She was always sighing, sending business emails in the middle of the night or arranging meetings.  One day, she wangled herself a promotion (as well camouflaged do-nots are wont to do) and she never handed over any of the responsibilities under which she was permanently snowed.  No one seemed to notice that the Emperor had no clothes, except me.

There is a sophisticated sub layer of do-nots.   I have mainly worked with people in this category.  These are people who are genuinely convinced they are do-ers.  They bitch and moan about do-nots but, when you unpack what value they add, they are do-nots too.  It is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.  They are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Many people in this category are people pleasers.  They never step back and consider whether the busyness and stress they create for themselves is necessary.  If they are asked to, for example, walk from A to B, they do it.  They don’t consider whether flying is better nor do they question why the heck they must go a dump of a place like B in the first place.

Unemployment gives great perspective so I am deeply grateful for my new job.  It’s just that I buffed up my confidence, reread ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ and spent CHF90 on altering my trousers – I don’t want all this to have been in vain.  I prepped for a hard core sprint of a race but I am wondering if I signed up for a casual fun-run instead.  Time will tell but, because I believe I’m a do-er, I will give it my best shot regardless.

If I could get one gift ever, for the rest of my life, it would be …

August 14, 2011

We’ve joined a study group at our local English-speaking church.  The first evening, we were early and no one else had arrived yet.  Our host Andrew, who I suspect is in his mid 40’s, answered the door and explained that he was finishing up a business phone call, would we mind waiting in the lounge?

From where we sat, we could hear him talking to his colleague on the phone.  There was something about the way he spoke that made me and Alastair stop chatting to each other.  We sat on the couch in silence and listened in.  The matter of the conversation didn’t grab our attention, but Andrew’s manner did.  There was something extra special, something different about this man.  He spoke in a way that, if he were a salesman, I would buy two of whatever he was selling and if he told me to jump, I would ask how high.  Alastair and I looked at each other, wide-eyed and mouthed, ‘Wow’.  I whispered, ‘X Factor?’ and he nodded.

I know exactly what the ‘X’ in the X Factor stands for.  It is not secret nor is it some elusive, unknown variable.  The X Factor is self-confidence.  It is as simple as that.  I’ve noticed that the average Joe is consumed by insecurity of varying degrees so anyone with unshakeable self-confidence stands out from the pack.

Andrew has the X Factor because he has a deep, unwavering belief in who he is and what he can do. This self-acceptance gives him poise and the ability to express himself, talk convincingly and think on his feet.  Within the first 2 minutes of meeting this man, we could tell he loved himself but not in an arrogant, look-at-me-I’m-so-great way.  I have met few people who genuinely have the X Factor and if it were possible to buy shares in people, I would buy shares in them.  They are the panther in a room full of mangy alley cats.

Tomorrow I start my new job. There are few opportunities in life where we can start from scratch, with a blank sheet of paper and a second chance.  No one knows me in Switzerland and my new work colleagues have no preconceived ideas about who I am and what I am capable of.  I can reinvent myself and be anything I want to be.  I don’t mean I will be fake and inauthentic, but I can try to be the person I always wished I could be and would have been if I hadn’t let life botch me up so much along the way.  I want to be more panther and less alley cat.

I am giving the Self-Confident Julie the kiss of life and resurrecting her from the dead.  I am taking her to work with me tomorrow.  I am also wearing one of my CHF90 trousers, for good luck (see my previous post). In fact, I plan to get my money’s worth by wearing my cheap Thai, expensive Swiss trousers every day until they look like shredded lettuce and eventually disintegrate off my legs.  With self-confidence and my special trousers, how can I fail?

My problem is that I must self-talk myself into confidence because I don’t have enough of it to make me a panther from Day One.  Dale Carnegie said that the best way to develop courage and gain confidence is to act as if you already have it.  He quotes psychologist William James who said,

Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.

Thus the sovereign path to [confidence], if our spontaneous [confidence] be lost, is to sit up [confidently] and to act and speak as if [confidence] were already there.

After this is kept up long enough, it changes form pretence to reality, and the man does, in fact, become fearless by sheer dint of practicing fearlessness when he does not feel it.

Alastair and I are devouring the ‘Brothers & Sisters’ DVD boxset – it’s my new favourite TV programme.  In one episode, Nora the matriarch starts her own business but she is riddled with insecurity and anxiety.  The business world is unfamiliar territory and a housewife is the only job she’s confident in.  Her daughter Sarah says, ‘Mom you are letting these people intimidate you.  It’s a confidence game.  Talk to them like they’re Wallis the butcher.  I’ve seen you march right up to that counter.  You are direct and you know what you want.  You never accept anything less than the best cut.’

I think it was also Dale Carnegie who said that, to avoid being intimidated by people, we should approach them with the boldness and confidence that we would someone who owed us money.  This week, I will be polite, humble and gentle but I’m also going to pretend my new work colleagues owe me cash.  Or I’ll imagine they’re Wallis the butcher.

In one of my favourite scenes in the book called One Day, Dexter gives his friend Emma some advice.  As I psyche up for this new job, I am saying his words to myself:   You’re gorgeous, you old hag, and if I could give you just one gift ever for the rest of your life it would be this: Confidence.  It would be the gift of confidence.

In future I’m sending my trousers to Doha

August 6, 2011

When we moved to Switzerland, I buried most of my old work clothes in a suitcase.   I thought I would resurrect them when and if anyone hired me.  I have a job and I start next Monday.  No more roaming around town in my flip-flops.  After all those months of whinging and whining about unemployment, can you believe it?

Last Saturday, I took the suitcase down from the top of the cupboard.  The work clothes needed airing because I don’t want to smell of mothballs on my first day.  I tried on every creased blouse, jacket, suit and skirt and modeled down the passage to confirm the clothes still fit.

Everything was in order, except for two trousers.  They are cashmere and were tailor-made for me during our holiday in Thailand last year.  I usually struggle to find decent off-the-shelf trousers because I am pear shaped and have what one shop assistant once described as ‘child bearing hips’.  After four fittings while I was in Koh Samui, my new trousers felt like a second layer of skin.

15 months later.  Now the trousers are too big.  I called Al over for a second opinion.  He lay on our double bed while I paraded my front, my back and my side.  ‘Yes’, he agreed, ‘Definitely too big.’

This was a conundrum and Al and I frowned and scratched our heads as we pondered the situation.  If they were made especially for me and fitted me in May 2010, why are they too big now?  We brainstormed whether I had lost weight but, with the move to Switzerland and my complete lack of self-control, we dismissed that idea immediately.  Alastair suggested I collected the wrong package from the Thai tailor but I distinctly remember trying on the completed trousers and then watching the little man put my bargain in the local supermarket’s plastic packet.

I was permanently breathless in the intense Thai heat and the air smelled and tasted like it had been filtered through a hot leotard.  I tried on my trousers over skin that was greasy and wet with sweat and sun cream.  When the cashmere touched my skin during those four fittings, the material felt like a wooly blanket and I wanted it off me, fast.  The heat swelled my fingers into ten fat frankfurters and my rings felt tighter.  If my fingers bulged, my body must have too.  The bargain basement, super cheap cashmere trousers were tailor made one size too big.

These are not just any old trousers from the department store down the road.  They are my special Thai trousers and they have sentimental value.  They tell a story.  They are the cheapest yet highest quality clothing I’ve ever bought.  I negotiated hard to get such a good price.  I recall Al and I bouncing and high fiving down the Chaweng high street as we celebrated our successful purchases.

The thing that breaks my heart is that, when these pants are altered in Switzerland, they will become the most expensive clothing I have ever bought.  Thailand is one of the cheapest places on earth and Switzerland is one of the most expensive.

This week, with a heavy heart, I took my two trousers to our local dry cleaner for alterations.  The lady at the shop fiddled around and decided I needed a very little taken in at the back of trousers.  Just a teeny weeny bit, a petit peu.  ‘Great!’ I thought.  If she takes in a petit peu, it will only cost me a petit peu.  ‘How much will it be?’ I asked.

90CHF.  R800.  £70.

When I heard the price, I literally yelped like my miniature dachshund used to when I stepped on its toe (by mistake).

I left my pants at the dry cleaners because that’s the rule in Switzerland – do what you need to do, live your life, cough up and never ever convert (especially into rands).

But I couldn’t let the issue rest.  I spent that evening in constant debate with myself.  Me and the other Me’s in my head tried to rationalise my decision to nip in two trousers for 90CHF.

I tossed and turned all night.  I woke up at four o’clock the following morning with an overwhelming desire to rescue my pants from the dry cleaners.  I couldn’t spend 90 CHF to alter two trousers even if they were tailor made, cashmere and had all those memories attached to them. I imagined what Ethel (our poor maid in South Africa) could do with 90 CHF.  I couldn’t hand over this precious cash to a faceless tailor subcontracted by the dry cleaner.

In the morning, before I left for my French lessons, I trawled the internet for a cheaper option. Eventually I located a person called alma18077 who advertised her sewing and ironing services on a random website.

This story does not have a happy ending.

By the time I got hold of the dry cleaner, they had already dispatched my trousers to the off site tailor.  ‘That damn Swiss efficiency!’ I thought for the first time since moving here.  I bet the tailor is a poor Thai refugee living over the border in France.

The only way I can rationalize the 90 CHF is by convincing myself the dry cleaners have taken my beloved pants hostage and the money is the ransom I must pay to release them.  I mean, wouldn’t you pay anything to be reunited with something so important to you?

When I got home, there was an email waiting for me from alma18077, whose real name is Doha.  She could have adjusted my trousers for less.

Next time I need alterations, I am taking my clothes straight to Doha.