Ruined by Switzerland?

IMG_4749My regular followers might remember that I follow the blog One Big Yodel by Chantal Panozzo, an American expat from Chicago who recently returned to the Windy City after eight years in Switzerland.

Her most recent article, How Switzerland Ruined Me for America and Its Lousy Work Culture, has the expat community all abuzz. Panzanno writes about differences between Swiss (and really, European) Work-Life balance and what many Americans experience. For example, Swiss companies must give their employees at least 4 weeks of paid vacation a year, and we all know that maternity leave is better in many countries than here in the US.

Her points are well-taken, but, of course, she paints only a partial picture of life in Switzerland. Yes, the Swiss make better salaries, on the average, than Americans, but the prices in that country are extremely (and I mean it) high. From rents (very few people own real estate) to food, and that fabulous public transportation will run you a pretty Franc.

Another issue is that it is extremely difficult for foreigners to find work in Switzerland. An employer must prove that they cannot find a citizen for the job, and one must usually speak the language at a pretty decent level (this is no small effort as it takes at least several years to become somewhat fluent). If you work for an American country that moves you to Switzerland, that helps, but you generally do not know how long your contract there will be. I know people who have been there longer than they anticipated, and people whose contracts have been shortened.

It is not culturally easy to be an Ausländer in Switzerland, either. It can take years to feel as though you fit in. If you are not willing to live within the Swiss parameters and follow rules, and you like your freedom to be who you are and do whatever it is you please, it can be a tough adjustment.

Not all American jobs are as horrible as the one Panzanno was applying for in her article. Some are, but others are much better. I know that H and I are among the fortunate who have flexible time and enjoy our work, especially when it allowed us to spend a great year living in Zürich.

There’s always a trade-off.


What We Don’t Need to Miss: Or, What We Brought Back

Back in our first months in Zürich,Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 10.40.49 AM a friend asked me what we might be bringing back with us from sabbatical. I can’t remember what I said, but I’m sure it wasn’t very much, and I’m very glad that we did not come back with any additional suitcases. For everything that we added to our bags, we left something behind. Mostly.

Of course we did bring back a few souvenirs. I already wrote about our Freitag bags, and I have just ordered some Sigg water bottles here (which are Swiss, but much cheaper to buy here than there).


Not one of our bags. Just one I saw in Lucerne.

What we did bring back and required no additional space in the luggage are some attitudes and habits that I would like very much to keep up.

First, I got used to eating regular-sized portions of food and to not stocking our pantry with so much excess food (which would sometimes go to waste – and waist). Right now our refrigerator has enough stuff to last for the next few days, as does our pantry. Although they look pretty bare, they also look very clean and uncluttered.

Second, I want to continue to walk to many places. I didn’t have a bike in Zürich, but I was so happy to ride mine here the other day that I want to ride it more. To be fair, I did walk quite a bit here before since we live close to the library, post office, shops, etc., but I want to see if I can squeeze in some more calorie-powered transportation.


Scientific Progress Goes “Boink”

Third, I am still practicing German on Duolingo every day, and I look forward to speaking at German Table at Pomona College soon. To enhance our enjoyment, we bought a Calvin and Hobbes book (in Bern on our last full day in Switzerland) so we can read one page a day over lunch as we used to do.

What I Will Miss – Part Six: Ruhetag

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 5.11.27 PMWhen our AirBnB host gave us our orientation to Haarlem, I mentioned that we didn’t have to worry about stores being closed on Sundays since we would not be there on a Sunday. She smiled and said that actually many stores in Holland are open on Sundays.

One tourist complaint here is the lack of opportunity to spend money on Sunday. New expats wonder what might happen if one runs out of bread or milk on a Sunday. Nowadays there’s always a store open in train stations, so it’s rarely a dire condition, although inconvenient.

Now that we’ve gotten used to planning ahead for the Ruhetag (Rest Day), I have to say I really like it. On nice Sundays it’s a pleasure to wander by the lake and see families out with their children in strollers, or people sitting and watching the swans or reading books. The arboretum is also a pleasant place to enjoy a relaxing day.


In Haarlem we did discover, however, that many shops close early on weekdays, which is undoubtedly lovely for the people who work there.

* * * *

What I will not miss: the reserved nature of the people on the street. I will be glad to see smiling faces out and about when I am home.

Rules in Switzerland, Rules in Italy: Knowing Your Culture

Before we moved to Zürich, I read up on the possible ways I could make a faux pas in Switzerland. I was ready to be chided and reprimanded by neighbors, people on the tram, and I hoped not by the Police. Well, with still a few months to go, I still have the chance to make a fool of myself; we’ll see.

We did NOT, however, read up on Italian etiquette. We’d been before, so we thought we were good to go.

So, there seem to be actually unwritten rules in Italy, and now you can learn from our experience. First of all, do not sit on the steps of the Carabinieri (military police) office to eat your lunch. And don’t pull out an apple in Pompeii and sit on a side step to quell your hunger pangs. You will be told where it is OK to eat, but it won’t be there. In Pompeii you will be told disdainfully that we are trying to treat the site as a museum. I totally understand that, but it had not been clear to us exactly where we were supposed to eat.

IMG_0618In Italian restaurants, there may not be a host/hostess to seat you, but please do not sit where you want to, and, especially, do not sit down at an empty table if it has not been properly cleared and reset. I wanted sometimes to lay claim to a table because there didn’t appear to be a way to make sure you, who were there first, got a table. In the end, we always ended up with a table and service.

In Switzerland you do not need to have reservations to ride a train. IMG_5603You can buy them, if you want to, or if you are traveling in a group, but it is not mandatory. In Italy you must have a reservation to ride the fast train. There are no fast trains in Switzerland. (There are trains with fewer stops, but they never get as fast as Italian or French trains.)

Of course, there are extremely slow trains in Italy, too. These could make for some interesting Relativity experiments, if you were so inclined.

A Tale of Two Neapolitan Dinners

IMG_5473Our two dinners in Naples proved to be as different from each other as poetry and prose, and we enjoyed both of them.

First of all, we love the promenade that proceeds dinner in Italy. When the sun starts going down, people come out and stroll, or go to a public place just to be. In the Piazza Dante we sat and watched boys playing soccer (and crossing themselves like their favorite soccer stars before the penalty kick), the girls at the ballet school taking a break on the balcony to watch the scene before them, couples strolling arm-in-arm and people walking home from work, not to mention many others sitting, just as we were, and watching the world go by.

Our chosen restaurant did not open until 19:00 which is pretty typical in Italy from what we remember. Around that time, we wandered over to AI 53 and were greeted with a handshake and a smile by the headwaiter. (It’s for sure now that we are not in Switzerland.) We chose an outside table and settled in. One of the reasons we chose this place was for its set menu which includes just about everything from drinks and appetizers to firsts and seconds. A bottle of wine, some mineral water (with gas – the bubbly stuff), and a plate of antipasto, Neopolitan fried goodies were followed by the Primi and Segundi. Both were quite tasty.

Fried Antipasto

Fried Antipasto

Nothing was rushed, nor was service slow, but by the time we ate what we could, and enjoyed the strolling musician on his small guitar, it was two hours before the waiter, in his sharp black tux, came out to shake our hands and give us a few pleasantries before we walked back onto the Piazza and back to our flat.

Before our day trip to Pompeii, we had chosen a very different kind of eating establishment for the next dinner (and had pre-located it on a tiny side street). Trattoria da Nannella promised a raucous evening, based on reviews, and we were not disappointed. We also knew to show up around 19.00 or so. Opening time seems to be 19.30, but we walked into the outside eating area and took up residence at a red-checkered table, and soon we were not the only ones waiting for the fun to begin.

The set price menu is photocopied every day, and then one of the waiters in his red Nanella t-shirt comes by and writes in an additional item or so. A bottle of water is plunked down on your table, and soon someone comes by to find out what you want for your first course. We made a good choice of the pasta/potato combo which was probably enough for my whole dinner, but you must order at least one more dish. Most of the food is ready to go, so service is lightning fast, but when the waiter came out with H’s salmon, he proclaimed, “Out of salmon. This is a local fish. Is okay?” Sure, why not?

All the while the waiters are moving around quickly, yelling at each other, greeting customers, slinging food and reminding me of the fish mongers in Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

The couple at the next table asked us about our pasta/potato dish to see if they should order it, too (they opted for the meal with antipasta, so we were one course ahead of them). They hoped that we spoke French, but, alas, we had to make due with what we had. They had a little English, (no German) and it turns out that the husband is Italian, the wife French, and they now live in Geneva. We all remarked at how staid and somber the people in Switzerland are and how fun-loving it is in Italy.

When are almost-finished plates were whipped away (I guess we were done with them!), we saw that the line of customers was getting long, so we made our way to the cashier (who charged us €25 for two €12 dinners) who gave us tokens for coffee and a little dessert bite.

The food was okay, not great, but the price and entertainment value were just right.

Napoli, Neapel, Naples: We Came, We Saw, We Ate

IMG_5375With all of our traveling this year, my brother-in-law just asked me, “Does anybody do any work around there?” Theoretically, yes. In actuality … yes, too. Maybe not in the crazy American way of an 80-hour work week, but in the sane Swiss way which requires employers to grant at least four weeks a year for vacation plus a large handful of religious and state holidays thrown in along the way.

Mixing work with pleasure, H decided to attend a conference on photovoltaics in Rome so we could return to the city we enjoyed touring in 2009 with our daughter who was studying dance in Italy, and so that I could continue my quest to try more gelato.

Because said daughter had enjoyed Naples during her time in Italy, we decided to front-load our trip with a few days there. Naples has a well-deserved reputation for being gritty and emotion-filled. As much as we love living in Zürich, it is always refreshing to go someplace with a lively culture. We stepped into Naples, smiled at each other and said, “We aren’t in Switzerland anymore!”

The traffic whizzes by, the white zebra crossings and red lights are mere suggestions for negotiating between pedestrians and cars and Vespas. We successfully navigated our way from the port to our AirBnB without incident. We just followed the locals and crossed streets with them.

Our first day involved wandering through the old part of town. We usually like to get the lay of the land and sense of the culture.

The Naples National Archeological Museum was a must-see either before or after a visit to Pompeii (on our agenda) since it houses many artifacts recovered from Pompeii and other Vesuvian cities.

In with the usual kind of marble statues were a few that are different enough to look at for at least a few minutes each. Usually I can stroll right through these kinds of rooms with cursory glances at each ancient statue. They begin to blur together for me.

The Farnese Bull is the largest statue out of one piece of marble. It dates from the second century BC. It took a little while to circumnavigate the statue to appreciate all the action taking place.

The mosaics and frescos were worth the price of admission and in amazingly good shape for how old they are.

The Secret Cabinet (Room) is filled with erotica. Here is one example which greets visitors at the door.

I particularly enjoyed the Grammar Police that had helped this sign:


Repatriation Blues?

In preparation for our sabbatical, I read a slim book called Sabbaticals 101: A Practical Guide for Academics and their Families. It offered good advice for planning a year abroad: what to pack, what to expect in your first months, what emotional things might happen. Then there was this chapter about returning home. I think I read it. (I left the book at home, so I can’t refer to it at the moment.)

H told me a few weeks ago that I could not talk about going home, yet. That’s actually kind of hard to do since we are now just beginning to make plans for our return. We bought plane tickets, we officially told the ETH that we plan on moving out on the day we had originally told them we would, they sent us a letter with all the stuff we need to do in order to have a smooth check-out here, and H has started researching what car we might buy upon our return since we currently own no car.

I have been following the WSJ Expat page on Facebook for a month or so, and this article on Repatriation Blues popped up a few weeks ago. In fact, there have been a number of blog posts from different writers about the difficulties with returning home.

I do expect to have some culture shock upon arrival at LAX and for the next month/s or so, but I don’t expect it to be as difficult for us as for others, although only time will tell. First of all, we’ve known all along that this was a one-year adventure, and many expats are gone from their homes for a longer time. Second of all, many of our academic friends have gone to other cultures for sabbaticals, so we now have something in common with them, and when we talk about our year, they will understand, giving us a community of academic expats already. We haven’t had to deal with kids in local schools here and then moving them back, so that part has been easy.

And as much fun as it has been to unwind for a year, and inspiring to travel, once I get back into teaching in September, I will be glad to have a creative direction once again, now with recharged batteries. And a chance to eat a real burrito…