Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Sexagenarian heartthrobs: Sergio, Benoît and Beat

I would like you to meet three of my favourite Swiss. Admittedly, they are fictional characters, so I've never met them in person, but they are no less delightful for that. They are the sexagenarian SBB leisure time testers, Sergio, Benîot and Beat, (SBB is the Swiss railway company). Their mission is to test and report on the wide and varied Freizeit (leisure time) offers of SBB through advertising and infomercials, and their slogan is "für Sie getestet von Sergio, Benîot and Beat," ("tested for you by...," but I like it better in German)you can meet them here.

The Swiss of all ages take their Freizeit very seriously, and enjoy more opportunities for an active, healthy and outdoor lifestyle than I can shake a walking pole at. It's not unusual to see a Swiss 20 years older than SBB's veteran testers setting out from the Hauptbahnhof (main station) kitted out in understatedly expensive outdoor gear with hiking boots, snow shoes or skis. SBB has a different package of leisure time offers every month, based around a theme. In January, it was 'snow festival,' February was 'indoor experiences,' (a bloody good idea given the atrocious weather), and June was watersports. The offers are usually good value and well-designed, combining railfares, entry tickets to an activity or experience, and discounts on equipment hire. For example, in the winter, we went skiing to Adelboden with a heavily discounted rail ticket, money off a day ski pass, and a discount on ski hire.

Together, the SBB testers represent the three main Swiss linguistic/cultural groups. Beat is a down-to-earth and outoorsy German-Swiss, representative of the largest group in Switzerland. Benoît is a preposterously mustachioed French-Swiss in a leather jerkin with a passion for photography. Sergio is the suavely dressed Italian-Swiss from Switzerland's (second) smallest (native) linguistic group*, who seems to get into slightly more than his fair share of mischief. S, B and B star in their own advertising photo shoots and videos, write reviews of the special offers in the SBB's monthly offer booklets, and are thoroughly charming in every medium. The quirky humour of their video reviews in particular is something to behold. You don't need to understand German to enjoy them - my favourite is June's watersport videobut they are all worth a watch and a giggle. In July's video, a love interest for Sergio is introduced, and the Italian Stallion charms his lady with mountain views and a glass of Prosecco (with a little assistance from his friends).

The SBB offers can be combined with our half-fare rail cards for an extra bargain factor, but as well as enjoying my Freizeit, I keep hoping to see the SBB boys out filming for a rail journey that starts at Zürich Hauptbahnhof. So far I've not been that lucky, but if it doesn't work out for me and Greg, I might just give Beat a call...

*with thanks to Greg for added pedantry

Friday, 1 July 2011

Reflections on our first 6 months

On the 1st of January, as we lugged our 10 pieces of luggage from our hotel to our tiny temporary apartment, I don't think I had any idea what we'd let ourselves in for. Perhaps that's for the best, or I might have given it a long hard looking at before jumping in with both feet. Fortunately, I didn't have that foresight, and besides which I have a bit of a penchant for chucking everything up in the air and seeing where it lands. It keeps things interesting (for interesting, see scary).

It's a very common experience for new immigrants to any country to be overwhelmed. I have enormous sympathy and respect for those who make far more momentous moves than ours, often in difficult circumstances, and with so little by way of resources and resilience. For anyone to leave behind friends, families, jobs, a familiar language and culture, and trade a much loved homeland for the insecurity of the unknown takes a serious pair of stones. To do it whilst fleeing conflict, persecution, poverty, or worse, and running into the arms of an indifferent and unwelcoming recipient must be terrifying. For so many people, emigration is a life-changing necessity, not a capricious roll of the dice in search of some greener grass. In comparison, I feel extremely fortunate and spoilt.

It's no surprise that a rather under-prepared and over-eager pair of newly-weds would run into a few hiccups getting settled in. For starters, I had no idea what a headache my total lack of German would be, and even Greg's pretty strong German is no match for the impenetrable Schwiitzer Düütch. Of course I can get by perfectly well in a country where almost everyone speaks English beautifully, but there are so many resources, experiences and interactions that remain tantalisingly just out of reach.

I also had no concept of what it's like to be a trailing spouse. Like lots of expats (mostly women), my presence in this country is defined by my partners's job. I thought I would be able to snap up my own inside of 3 months; needless to say I'm still looking. As a woman who has always worked and been financially independent, it's a big challenge to my self-identity to ask for more money for groceries or to get my haircut. I have an inkling of what the women of previous generations might have felt, albeit in a world where the barriers to entry to the workforce are dictated more by my language skills than my gender. I am discounting the view of one recruitment agent, who insultingly insinuated that because I'm a married woman, I am a ticking time bomb of a baby factory, so I'm not a serious prospect in the labour market. I don't seriously believe that the Swiss view of the role of women is limited to the family sphere, or that employers here are that short-sighted, despite the country's chequered history on gender equality.

Cultural challenges of all sizes have abounded. For a start, absolutely everything is expensive. That's partially offset by Swiss wages, but I've become a lot more savings savvy. I have sensed a mentality that, perhaps in exchange for the high prices paid, things are expected to work. Processes and customer service experiences are expected to be startlingly efficient and well-organised, and so they are. In general, the Swiss seem to be courteous and respectful towards others. It's tricky to gauge that because of course my interactions are extremely limited and I can't understand most of what goes on around me. But I have felt very welcome and in many cases people have gone out of their way to accommodate me.

The small things are also quite quirky. It is normal to greet and make small talk with your neighbours. A serious challenge for me, but a cheery "Guten Tag" can go a long way. We are tucked up in bed at 11pm, which is late by Swiss standards, and by then most things are shut and the TV is rubbish if you stay up any later. The shops are all shut on Sundays, so we do our shopping during the week, or forgo the necessary vittles for a Sunday brunch. Nobody queues for anything, although everyone is generally very polite, and that's quite a thing to get your head around. How do you queue jump in a courteous fashion? At the supermarket, you're expected to pack your shopping bags after you've paid rather than before, and woe betide you if you get that one wrong.

Traditional Swiss culture is embraced and made relevant to the modern Swiss in a way that I never experienced in the UK. An affection for Alpine horns, Gügge bands, traditional dress, yodelling, parades and festivals, and a love of Swiss food and drink are highly contagious things. It helps that all of the above are delicious, engaging and a delight to my limited British range of experience. The outdoorsy lifestyle is also very appealing, with skiing, swimming, cycling, walking and so many other things on offer. Of course I'm generalising, of course there are all sorts of Swiss people, and in Zürich there are international lifestyles of all sorts jostling together. Zürich is probably the most diverse and alternative of Switzerland's cities, and that in itself is a blessing for me.

Although it's been quite a whirlwind, we haven't had any major meltdowns. I'm still sane, Greg's still employed, and we're still solvent. We've successfully negotiated such atrocities as finding an apartment, setting up many kinds of insurance, and hauling all of our stuff over from the UK. We've got phone contracts, bank accounts, cable TV, supermarket reward cards and all the other commercial relationships that facilitate daily life. We've got the basics in place, and we're beginning to enjoy it.

Today we have been living in lovely Switzerland for 6 months. It's been a roller coaster ride, characterised by revelations, unexpected discoveries (good and bad), the language barrier, and a surprisingly high level of culture shock. Occasionally I still catch myself thinking 'oh my God, we live here,' as the enormity of it sinks in. But I also find myself smiling about that, and I'm hopeful that we've made a change for the better.