I love Switzerland. I am more settled than I ever felt in the UK or South Africa so I want to water my grass here. But sometimes, I stand on my little green patch and, while happily and liberally waving the hose pipe, I ruminate over how things are sometimes so different from what I am used to. These oddities range from mildly amusing to downright bloody annoying.
1. Don’t get involved, keep neutral and mind your own business
I have an American friend who is in a tizz. He and his family are leaving in 4 days for a 3-week holiday in the States and he still can’t find anyone to feed his cat. ‘Why don’t you ask your neighbour to help you?’ I suggested.
He said he asked his Swiss neighbours and they either refused or looked frightened and cornered by the request. His one neighbour said, ‘We don’t do that sort of thing around here. You need to arrange formal pet care when you go away.’
My friend said one person who lives nearby said they could do it for CHF30 a day but he can’t stomach paying that kind of cash for someone to walk a few metres to his house and open a tin of cat food so he has been frantically looking for cheaper alternatives.
I mean really, WTF? I hate cats and if someone asked me to feed theirs every day for 3 weeks, I would whimper and roll my eyes internally but I would still happily do it to bank some points for the future and for the sake of good relations. What is wrong with people here? Why can’t they help each other? Why are the Swiss sometimes such cold, detached jackasses?
Once when my mom arrived at passport control at Johannesburg airport, the guy at the counter stamped her documents and said, ‘Welcome home, sister.’ She loved that comment because it was such a contrast to the stand-offish, mind-your-own-business treatment she received in Europe.
I miss the warmth of people in Africa. Maybe we live and love more vividly in Africa because life is infused with constant tension. Daily life can be kind of Wild-Westish so you feel perishable, temporary and transient. You are more aware of your own mortality and perhaps that is why the brothers and sisters of Mama Africa are more open and willing to feed a neighbour’s cat.
2. Canadian meals
I was once invited to a ‘Canadian Meal’ and told to bring something to share. I couldn’t think of a signature, stereotypical Canadian dish so eventually I told the host that I would rather bring something South African because the Canadian requirement was putting me under some anxiety. It turned out that a Canadian meal – a repas canadien – is a just a run-of-the-mill potluck or bring and share.
Apparently the term repas canadien is frequently used in Switzerland and nowhere else. No one, not even my Canadian friends, can explain to me why the Swiss associate potluck meals with Canada. It’s so random.
3. Men in the female change room
The other day I was in the crowded female change room at the local pool and one of the male lifeguards walked in and mopped the floor.
I quickly covered up but no one else did. I blinked a few times and wondered if this fellow was some sort of optical illusion that only I could see. I’ve heard the Germans are casual about nakedness so maybe it’s their influence that makes Swiss ladies in change rooms so nonchalant about covering their bush or boobs.
4. Double duvets
When you stay at a hotel in Switzerland and there is a double bed, there is always a his and hers duvet. Each one is neatly folded in a rectangle on top of the bed like this:
This can make you overheat and leads to a tangle of duvet in the morning, assuming you like your bed partner and are open to some physical proximity during the course of the night.
5. Summer shut down
Summer is fabulous when the weather is good. There are loads of outdoor activities for kids – the lake, the parks, the mountains. On the other hand, if it rains, it can drive a parent insane. There is absolutely nothing to do indoors when the weather is bad.
The standard place people head to in poor weather is IKEA. Yes, IKEA. Can you believe it? It’s a nightmare. I hate IKEA. It’s like being trapped in an underground maze with no hope of escape until you get to the end of the course. Megan charges off and unloads this and unpacks that. It is like herding a cat. She thinks the walkways are a race track so she gallops off and I long for a lasso to maintain control.
Everything closes for the summer, often for about two months. Last week I fetched Megan from crèche and they said, ‘Au revoir. See you in three weeks.’ I didn’t realize the crèche was taking such a long break. One of Megan’s teachers said, ‘Julie you look stunned. Are you ok?’ I am almost nine months pregnant and I was looking forward to a leisurely nap and some down-time twice a week. Oh well, kiss that goodbye.
All my moms’ groups and formal activities have stopped. Even my beloved cleaner has taken a month-long hiatus. My diary is blank. Megan wakes up at first light like her bed is on springs and she is raring to go. Go where? Go nowhere. Everything is closed, even the library. It baffles me – what if you want your child to read during July and August? Not only is everything shut but most people scatter off around the globe on holiday or they are unavailable as they are entertaining houseguests. It is a lonely time, especially if the weather is bad.
On Monday it was grey and damp and I felt as if I was back in the UK. One of my few available friends also needed to escape the house as her child was, like Megan, bouncing off the walls. We couldn’t think of anything to do so we headed to the local supermarket where our children played on the three coin-operated amusement machines at the entrance to the parking lot. I fed CHF1 coins into a plastic car as if I were playing the one-arm bandits at a casino.
By late afternoon, I clock watch for Alastair to come home at 18h30. Once he was late so I rang him up to hurry him along. ‘Julie, chill. I’m 3 minutes later than usual.’ 3 minutes? 3 hours? After a damp grey day holed up indoors, there’s no difference.