Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Front row seats to the crazy show.

Over the last year, I have answered countless questions from students, friends, neighbors and fellow expats about this year's big event.  Yes, I'm talking about the POTUS poll, the vehement vote, the exasperating 2016 election!

The most asked questions were generally about how it works.  In Switzerland, it is a direct democracy.  Every single vote is counted and the majority rules.  It also seems that politicians in Switzerland don't have a deity-like, popularity status.  They keep their day jobs and it really is civil service.  I was told by my German teacher that they are even affectionately called "cervelets"- after the iconic Swiss sausage beloved by all.

With this being the way things function in Switzerland, laws and referendums can change very quickly in comparison to the US system.  And nothing quite like the circus of the campaign season is evident.  It is just mind-boggling to a Swiss person - it's too complicated, inefficient, and just...too much insanity.

And I couldn't agree more.

It was one thing to watch from what was essentially the sidelines for the better part of this year.  Sure, we kept up with the news everyday.  Sometimes the Blick am Abend or 20 Minute would even publish some of the bigger pieces.  Once we were informed, we could walk away from it and join society for the rest of our day.

Being back on American soil, especially in Washington D.C., it is impossible to escape.  It's everywhere - every sentence uttered and every tweet is breaking news.  It's exhausting.

The bombardment of constant election reports is further exacerbated by people actually asking me who I'm voting for.  I didn't mind being asked questions from my Swiss friends and students - they were curious about the election.  They all had a pretty good idea of which side of the fence I was on before asking anyway and were very tactful about how they went about asking - knowing it is a touchy conversational topic.  Cultural fluency for the win.

I was very surprised to be flat out asked by fellow Americans once I got back to the US.  Especially strangers.  When did this become a polite, small-talk question?  Would you like to know my blood type, email password, and PIN as well?

One of the most poignant lessons I learned when talking to people abroad is that you shouldn't share such personal information so freely.  Many of the people I spoke to had survived wars and genocide; were forced to emigrate or potentially die.  They were understandably confused as to why many Americans freely share what their political affiliation and religious views were.  And rightfully so!  So now I personally am of the mindset that who you vote for and what you believe are very private things indeed.

There also seemed to be some confusion among Americans as to what rest of the world really is like. It's like there is a bubble.  They believe everything inside the bubble is greater than what's outside. This is why I think it is so important for people to travel, and if they get the chance, live abroad.  It really opens your mind to new ideas as well as understanding your own culture in a new way.

Sadly, someone said just the other day that they bet I was glad to be back in America where it was safe.  Wait, what?

Another person said that they bet I was glad I was able to vote now that I was back. WHAT?

Just to set the record straight - expats CAN and SHOULD vote.  Both major parties have overseas organizations to join and you can complete a mail-in ballot.  Furthermore, I rarely felt threatened or unsafe the entire time I was in Europe.    But I can tell you that after watching the news showing radical rallies, police shootings and the general xenophobia being exhibited by some Americans in this election, I can see why many Europeans think that America is a violent place.  Thankfully, it isn't usually so, but I now understand where that idea comes from.

Here's to all of you who voted, survived this stressful election season and cheers to working toward improvements in the next four years no matter the outcome.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The beautiful side of creepy...

As you travel throughout Europe, you see a lot of tombs, sarcophagi, bedazzeled saints and such.  I always find them intriguing.  Just in time for Halloween, I decided to share some pictures of one of the most hauntingly beautiful and strikingly eerie cemeteries I ever experienced on our travels.

Welcome to a taste of Milan's Cimitero Monumentale di Milano:

While the theme of the art is obviously grim, some of Milan's most notable sculptors are featured within, making it seem a mix of museum and tranquil resting place.  

You Don't Have to Go Home, But You Can't Stay Here. A Brief Survival Guide to Getting Out of Switzerland.

I will never be mature enough not to laugh at this.
So three years ago we managed to get through the massive mountain of red tape getting into Switzerland.  That's not even mentioning the paperwork that was done by the HR department at PSI to get Nick set up for employment.  It's no joke - there is a form to fill out EVERY SINGLE STEP OF THE WAY.

Surely leaving was going to be easier, right?  Not a chance.  I was surprised at how hard it was to get out given how happy the border guards at the airport always looked when I was leaving Switzerland and how they consistently put us through the ringer when we were coming back in from vacation.  ***On a side note, the Swiss border guards are so much more polite about it than those in the UK, where they treat everyone like they are secretly trying to get in to slap the Queen and steal all of the scones for the rest of eternity.  

The reality is that it feels like there is at least six-times as much paperwork to fill out when you leave.  Much of this is because cancelling services or leases can't be done online in most cases.  Registered letter is usually the way to go.   Plus, having lived in the land where paper is still king, I am now tied to this box of paperwork.  Some until I reach Swiss retirement age.  

So here is my crash-course for anyone that might be leaving the land of cheese and chocolate anytime soon.  By "soon" I mean, as soon as you know you are leaving, you'd better get started:

1.  Check your employment contract to see how much notice you must give before leaving your job.  Even if the reason that you are leaving is because your employment is ending, which was our case.  

Because I was still in my first year of employment with my school, I ONLY had to give 1 month notice, but it is considered common courtesy in most positions to give at least 3 months notice, which is what I did. Nick, even though his project wasn't continuing and it was at the choice of his employer, still had to formally resign 6 months in advance.   This makes the standard 2-week notice in the USA seem like taking a random sick-day and just deciding to say "Screw it!  I'm out."

2.   Check your rental lease.  There are pretty standard move-out dates within cantons in which, if you have given your landlord 3 months written notice (and no, an email doesn't usually work), you are free and clear to leave your apartment.  These dates vary, but there is usually a date in the spring and one in the fall.  If you are moving outside one of these designated dates stipulated in your lease, you are responsible for finding a person to take over the apartment or you may have to pay the rent up until one of these dates.  We were in the latter category of people.

If you read the previous post about our troubles with the bar below our apartment, you know exactly why this made me panic at first.  Who was going to want to live above a bar?  Especially a bar where random drunk-os tend to wander upstairs looking for the bathroom, let themselves in, stare at you as you are sleeping on the couch, and then argue with you about the toilet while you scream at them to get out of what is clearly not the toilet!

Fingers-crossed, we posted the apartment and told everyone we knew about it.  I was shocked at the interest, despite it having 6.5' tall ceilings that only hobbits can enjoy.  Note: most Swiss people are not of hobbit height and I saw one gentleman try to get into our bathtub to test the shower height, all 5'6" of it.  Needless to say, he would have had to shower on his knees.  Plus, we were showing it to potential renters during EuroCup games being blasted from the evil booze den south of us.  But because it was centrally-located and cheap for the Altstadt, it was quickly snatched up.

3 and 4 and 5.  Cancel everything you ever signed up for and de-register from your Gemeinde.  Why are all of these steps lumped together?  Because this is where deep breathing into a paper bag comes in handy.  There is a certain art to patiently juggling this paperwork.  The first step involves telling the Gemeinde that you need to deregister.  For Baden, we tried to complete this step as soon as possible, but we were told to wait until we were about a month away from our move out date.  The cancellation period for many services is about 3 months, but many services require proof that you are leaving the country in the form of the official letter issued by the Gemeinde.  See where that got confusing?  I need the letter 3 months before I can get the letter.  Then this letter needs to be sent with a letter explaining that you are cancelling services; some of which accept this in English...others in one of the 4 national languages.  It's always nice to have those Swiss friends around to take a look at what your sending to make sure it makes sense!

One of the final steps to getting the golden Gemeinde letter is a stop off at the tax office.  I have often mentioned that much of Switzerland seems to be based on the honor system.  I find this not only refreshing, but also really really amazing that it works.  At the tax office, the gentleman simply asked us if we had paid our taxes.  We replied that yes, our taxes are taken out "at source" because we had B1 visas.  He smiled and stated that that was wonderful, stamped our paperwork, and wished us a good trip home.  That was it.  He didn't look anything up in the system, didn't ask for the mountain of paper proof I had lugged along.  Just asked.  

6 Get rid of your shit.  Yes, we tried to live a very minimal lifestyle.  So minimal that friends and family who came to visit were often scared that we were either 1) extremely poor 2) had lost our minds or 3) had become engineering geniuses with the multiple uses that we had developed for what would otherwise be considered trash.  Despite all that effort, one still has a way of collecting, and some of the items we had picked up on our travels were treasured keepsakes.

My advice?  If you can replace it where you are going, do it.  Having priced out the costs of moving furniture and boxes overseas, it was astronomical.  Within Europe, it is a bit more reasonable, but there was no way I was going to pay 10,000 CHF to move my 6,000 CHF IKEA furniture.  Nope, nope, nope.

So how do you get rid of what's left over?  Ricardo (Switzerland's version of Craigslist) is one option that we had some success with.  Working the network within your workplace is another great place to get rid of household stuffs - new people move to Switzerland everyday and it can be great to just hand off the lot to someone just learning the ropes.  There are a number of non-profit organizations (such as CARITAS) that help people in need that will often take items, albeit rarely IKEA furniture since it doesn't tend to withstand being taken apart and back together very well.  

7 Throw your own going away party.  The going away apero is always bittersweet.  In the USA, co-workers will often throw the party for the leaving person, but in Switzerland, this is reversed.  Provide a little food and drink and a little more drink and tell everyone just how much you love them.  

8 Have your apartment cleaned and prepare for the handover to the new renter.   I can not recommend getting a professional cleaner enough.  Ask around for recommendations and  you can get a decent price since the market for this is fairly competitive (we paid a flat 600CHF for a full move-out clean and removal of anything we had left).  Everyone's got "a guy".  Feel free to message me and I'll give you my guy's info.  He's great.

9 Eat as much of your favorite cheese and chocolate trying to convince yourself that you never want to eat it again.  Whitefang it.  Seriously, I thought we were going to give ourselves gout.

10 Get your ass to the airport. Throw in a few prayers to the airport deities that your bulging suitcases make weight despite the fact that you have stuffed every nook and cranny with chocolate, cow bells, and schnapps.  You can buy more underwear wherever you're going...make room for the chocolate.

Deep breaths, you'll make it just fine.

If you need a really comprehensive list of what to do, it doesn't really get better than  Really great information for moving to Switzerland as well as from canton to canton.  

Friday, August 26, 2016

I'm NOT crying...I've just got something in my eye...

So, if you are having a sensitive expat day, don't read this post just now.  It's been a long time coming, and I have been putting it off.  Our adventures in Switzerland have come to an end.  I was in denial for a long time - I avoided telling my students and several other people until the last possible, socially-acceptable moment.  I threw 150% of myself into making it my new home, so when we discovered that we would be leaving (due to Nick's employment change), my heart was broken.

It was getting to the point where it was actually time to come home, at least for a visit.  The last time I actually set foot on American soil was when I went to visit my friend at the army base in Germany in 2014.  Three years that have just flown by.

Technology allowing you to connect with family and friends is great and it can really ease the homesickness, but when a tragedy hits or big milestones are passed, it shakes you. Seeing pictures of nieces, nephews and children of friends who were barely born (or not even yet born) walking and talking tugs at the heartstrings.  Trying not to panic when a family member goes to the hospital, even for routine things, is nearly impossible.

Recently, it was the passing of our family dog that really did me in.  Not being there for my brother, who I actually suspected that the dog considered a fellow canine and the two were nearly inseparable, was even harder.

New friends you meet during your travels become like family.  And the whole process starts again, feeling like you are torn between two or more places...

No one ever really tells you how difficult it is to cope with these things when you are an expat.  And when they happen before you actually get back home, you get a bit nervous.  Home has changed.  I have changed.  And you learn that "home" is a movable concept.  I have so many homes now.

So I'm leaving home and going home at the same time.

Goodbye Switzerland.  I love you.

P.S. I still have tons of stories to tell, so I will continue to write about my experiences.  Just the move and relocation to the USA is a pretty intense experience.  So please keep reading, enjoying and I promise that the posts will not all be tear-jerkers like this one.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Entschuldigung - Sind diese deine Unterpanties?

They were red.  Like Swiss flag red.  With little cows on them.   They were men's.

And they were definitely not mine.  Or the hubby's.

But they were in my laundry.  Along with a pair of Adidas socks.

Ask anyone living in an older flat in Switzerland and they will tell you that the biggest beef you will likely have with the neighbors is over the shared washing room.  In most flats, you have a specific washing day.  That's "a" as in singular so, you know, clear your schedule.  Some people even have to jet home early from work because it is their day.  And, of course because it is Switzerland, there are rules.  Just ask the lady who was recently locked into her apartment building's washing room by her neighbor for doing her laundry after 10pm.

I thought we were lucky - our flats are fairly laid back so it's a first come, first serve.  Plus, jackpot, most of the neighbors above us are single dudes in their 20s who still take all their washing home to mommy.

Never mind the fact that you literally have to climb six-century-old tower to the top (it is exactly 82 steps, by the way).  Never mind that the light regularly goes out in the stairwell, leaving you in the middle of a "so this is how a lot of people broke their necks in the Middle Ages" scenario.  Never mind the fact that I suspect that at least two of the neighbors are Rugby players and tend to leave the washer smelling like a wet poodle after using it.

We had it good.

Until I opened the washing machine and found them - saucily peaking out from among my bedsheets in all their crimson glory.

The neighbor's man panties.

Naturally, I didn't want their owner to go without them.  He obviously needed them so badly that he took the effort to stop the machine by tricking it into thinking that the cycles were complete, open the hatch, toss them in, and start the whole washing business over again.  So I hung them on the laundry sink, with a note.  They eventually found a home.  Hopefully the right one.

I kept the socks.  They're super comfy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Adventures in Teaching

For the past eight months, I've been a comedian, a referee, a public speaker, a grammar ghoul, a cultural ambassador, a translator and a mime.  Once, I even did a magic trick.  Sounds like a lot for one job.

Welcome to the world of teaching English as a second language.

In November, I finished my certification to teach English and it has been an amazing experience. Tough work, but well worth the reward.  I tip my hat to teachers of all subjects everywhere and sincerely apologize to all of my teachers for ever being a pain in the ass in class.

Except to my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Birch.  She totally had it coming.

Teaching English is a fabulously fun way to spend the day - I love interacting with my students and finding out more and more about them as they increasingly become more comfortable using the language.  They are wonderful and it is really hard not to get attached to every single one of them.  Plus, in Switzerland the pay isn't anything to sneeze at either.

And it can be hilarious.

Take, for instance, the day that I caught my 60-something year old student trying to set fire to his homework.  Why look up a word like 'flint' when you can just whip one out and show everyone how it works?  Since we're not going to use that dictionary, let try it on that next!

Or the night that I got locked in the school.  In my classroom.  With my students.  Finally all those cheesy jokes my uncle told me through the years came to really good use - instant entertainment and a bonus lesson for students while you wait for the world's most patient and kind school administrator to come set you free.

Or the cheeky student who has learned a lot of English from HBO and thinks that the f-word (or c-word because he also was a fan of British telly) should liberally be peppered into everyday conversation.

Or the email where my one female student in a class full of guys was going to be absent from class and wished me a "fun day with the gays."  Thanks - I will have a fun day with the gays.  All the gays I know ARE super fun!

Or the cheese rape.

Now, it's not what you think.  No one actually raped anything - that's a horrid idea.  However, sometimes languages mix in the mind.  I myself accidentally say "thanke" rather than either "danke" or "thanks".  When one is learning a new language, a word from another language may randomly pop in to join the party.  In a country with 4 national languages, this happens pretty often and it actually has a name - interference.

A few months back, I was teaching a conversational course and we were going over giving commands in English and reviewing some vocabulary about food.  It seemed like a great idea to have the students make short presentations about how to cook their favorite dish.  One of the ladies in the course, a lovely and polite woman in her 60s, was explaining to the class how to make fondue from scratch.

For a little background knowledge:  grate (v.) as in to grate cheese is "reiben" or "raspeln" in German. Mix in a little pronunciation troubles and we get:

"First, you rape the cheese."


"You rape the cheese."

                                                  "Ah ha!  It's 'grate'" * I write it on the board and mime it to make sure                                                                                       this is right.*

"Yes. Grate.  You have to rape a lot of cheese."

                                                  "Gr. Gr. Grate. The other word means something else not good."

"Grate the cheese."


"So after you have raped the cheese...."

We took a short break and came back and practiced the word "grate" for a bit more. I decided not to bring up the meaning of "rape" to the student, lest it discourage her from speaking in class anymore and potentially making a mistake.

But that is the essence of learning a language.  You have to be brave enough to make the mistakes to get past them.  When I was learning ASL, I thought I was telling a group of teens who I was trying to help learn to use their new iPads that I was thinking about something, but I really accidentally signed that I was a "lesbian expert." They thought it was hysterical.  And, to be honest, it is.

God and random German speakers überall only know what kind of crazy things I've said thinking I was saying something legit.

So here's to all of the students everywhere, being brave enough to make the mistakes.  Cheers!

Note:  No cheese was raped in the writing of this blog post.


Saturday, August 6, 2016