Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Punk Plane

This is a little belated now but still worth writing about.

Last Thursday I went on my first client visit in my new role. This was a day trip from Zürich to Münster and back via Düsseldorf airport. Not only was it a long day in terms of time and distance but trying to concentrate throughout a four-hour meeting conducted exclusively in German was exhausting. It turns out I did understand some of it but there was an awful lot I didn't.

However, most notable in the day was the journey from Zürich to Düsseldorf in the morning.

I left the flat around seven and it was starting to snow. By the time I got to the gate it was snowing quite heavily (think the weekend before Christmas in the UK) and a couple of inches of snow had settled on the tarmac. More was to come and by now Heathrow (and, to be fair, Schipol, Düsseldorf and Charles de Gaulle) would have shut down for the foreseeable future.

There was a sense of nervousness amongst the awaiting passengers but the word was 'delay' not 'cancellation'. Indeed, when the delay to my flight was put on the departures board it was set at five (yes, 5) minutes. I can't remember being in a airport where a five minute delay was even announced as such.

We boarded the plane a little late and, once the departure protocols had been completed, we got underway.

Now, I've never flown in such conditions before and so what came next surprised and fascinated me. Sorry if this is old hat for some (especially any previously Swiss-resident aeronautical engineers!?!).

The plane taxied not to a runway but to a de-icing pan. At this point a vehicle loomed into view out of the window that looked like a cross between a transformer, a giraffe and a dragon. On a truck was mounted a platform with a cab containing a driver and controls a bit lit a crane. On the front of the platform was a hose on extending tracks. A bit like the ones in this article

First the de-icing truck sprayed the wing with orange liquid to remove the ice that had formed. Then a second spray, this time a green liquid, to prevent new ice forming. Imagine being in a car wash but sitting in a plane, minus the rollers. The outcome looked a bit like a dodgy dyed mohican.

After the spraying had finished there wasn't much to see out of the green/orange window. A surreal experience though. And one that lead to only a forty minute delay by the time we landed in Düsseldorf.

Hydrotherapy Swiss Style

This weekend just past we went to Baden, a short train trip from here, and lazed about a bit in the thermal baths. The sun was shining down on the snowy hills behind the town, and the sky was blue, making the setting rather lovely. There are two hydrotherapy pools, one indoors and one outdoors, and also saunas and so forth (which I decided to give a miss just in case nudity was required). Rest assured that everyone in the main area was appropriately attired, those Swiss present not seeming to go in for skimpy swimmers for either sex. I saw no banana hammocks and only one inadvisably small bikini (see sartorial note, below). However, there were some very hairy backs in evidence, Homo Alpinus clearly being a rugged beast. 

For the uninitiated, the hydrotherapy pool consists of a big swimming pool with a series of high pressure water jets around the edges. The water is toasty warm, and also mineral rich, and the idea is to relax, soak up the minerals, and get massaged by the jets. They start at ankle height and move up as you move to the left, ending up at neck & shoulders, and then they repeat so you get 2 cycles head to toe. This being Switzerland, there is a very organised procedure to follow. Every 90 seconds a doorbell sounds and everyone moves one jet station to the left.  One watches the procession for a little while to identify where the start/finish point is, and then one joins the back of the queue. This leads to a very equitable system of everyone getting evenly massaged all over, twice, but it does feel like being a sausage in a sausage factory! On a sartorial note, to any ladies who come to visit and would like to go to the baths, I strongly recommend bringing a snug fitting and modest one piece (the jets are rather powerful).

However, just as I was beginning to feel unnerved by how organised it all was, I was relieved to observe that teenagers are teenagers the world over. There were 3 who pushed into the line in front of me, and sometimes shared 2 jets and sometimes took one each, causing all sorts of havoc and bunching up behind them. They got many stern looks.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011


Just a link to another page which explains the Swiss-German situation far better than I ever could

Especially fun to click on the sound clip for anyone who speaks any other kind of German (German German, Austrian German...)

And for those wanting the sound of yet more melodious Züridüütsch: and click on "Live hören." Be warned, musical Russian roulette will follow...

Monday, 17 January 2011

Matters Social

The social occasion in question: Greg's work xmas/New Year party

The context: A midweek company dinner for all divisions, wives and partners invited, an international crowd and one rather nervous Helen

Cultural compare & contrast: To help illustrate the experience, below is a summary comparing and contrasting my general UK work Christmas party experience to the Swiss experience. 

Disclaimer: all social observations are based entirely on the author's own field work, and may not be typical or accurate. They are also meant very nicely and with great fondness for both cultures.

Item 1: Greetings

UK: Enthusiastic to friends, polite to colleagues, studious avoidance of eye contact with all others. Expect zero interaction with groups well known for being cliquey/introvert , e.g. finance (both).

CH: On arrival, grab a drink asap. Then greet as many people as possible, regardless of level of acquaintance, through the ingenious approach of toasting glasses, saying ‘prost’ (cheers) and then doing brief introductions as necessary. Any eye contact, accidental or otherwise, is followed with more or less alacrity by a rapidly approaching glass held at chin height. Seems to be no requirement for further lingering or small talk, as there is a whole room of other people to greet. The initial 20 minutes were excruciating, but as the room filled up with the sound of tinkling glasses and multilingual chattering the environment was most congenial.

Top tip: gleaned from one of our essential Swissness books – arrive early so others have to greet you, not vice versa. 

Helen’s top tip: if not especially Swiss/outgoing, get the first apero down you sharpish.

Item 2: Speeches

UK: Tend to be late in the evening and somewhat rambling, depending on level of alcohol consumption. Can cover almost any kind of topic, include injokes, ribaldry and general inappropriateness.

CH: At 7.15pm sharp, lasted almost exactly 15 minutes, 5 in English and 10 in German. The English version was (relatively) clean. It comprised: a warm welcome, including to an impressive number of retirees; a concise summary of the business performance; some techy jokes and a touching 1 minute silence for a colleague who died in service. This was followed by the German version, which lasted considerably longer, was delivered by a Dutchman, and contained a joke rude enough to make Greg blush and refuse to translate it - 

Top tip: I Must and Shall Learn German.

Item 3: Dinner

UK: A blur, with frequent refilling of glasses and much small talk. Can go on for a very long time, with much waiting between courses.

CH: A blur, with frequent refilling of glasses and much (multilingual) small talk. Delivered to a ballet of Swiss precision timing, choreographed by a man wearing very white gloves. Dispatched with German-Swiss efficiency.

Top tip: If leaving the table during dinner, check left and right wing mirrors, signal and manoeuvre, or risk a collision with somebody's incoming main course

Item 4: After Dinner Entertainment

UK: If a disco is involved then expect musical taste Russian roulette. Non-dancers head to the bar for safety.

CH: No Russian roulette about it. Euro-pop and power ballads all the way. A small number of intrepid couples took to the stage (yes really) to do a very square and formal style of quasi-ballroom dancing. We were assured that most Swiss young people attend classes of this kind.

Top tip:  It also seemed to be thoroughly acceptable to sit at the table and chat, or to take an early leave (see departures).

Item 5: Departures

UK: Late, stumbling, taxis, kebabs, 'I love you guys' and big hugs all round, even of people whose names will never again enter one's consciousness.

CH: A general level of sensible tipsiness prevailed, so overelaborate expressions of undying loyalty were not required. Leaving seemed to be acceptable as soon as coffee had finished. Style of leave-taking varied by nationality. The Swiss tendency was to say goodbye to as many colleagues as possible in a slightly more selective version of the Apero routine, in reverse. For all others, there was an awkward cross-cultural clash of hand shakes, waves, and cheek kissing (1,2, and 3 kiss variants in evidence with no way of telling which was coming in to land until the nose bump moment occurred).

Top tip: A general policy of smiling pleasantly and getting in a pre-emptive handshake seemed to deter most would-be cheek kissers.


I (Greg) thought it was about time that I posted something.

It's been two weeks and a couple of days and, although the transition has its challenges, things seem to be going pretty well thus far (knock on wood).

In terms of work it has been a fascinating couple of weeks. It's a new type of role (business analysis in product management) in a new industry (software) serving a new industry (car insurance) in a new working culture in a new city in a new country and partly in a foreign language.

It's been great to have the routine and the social contact to help feel settled in and people have been very helpful. I've been introduced to a range of local lunchtime eateries and educated in some of the local Züri-Tüütsch dialect and generally made to feel very welcome.

That said, there are things that turn the head (it wouldn't be much fun without some cultural differences!).

Last week there was a dog in the office. Just for a day but still, a dog. And not a seeing-eye dog either.

Also last week there was the office Christmas party. Handily held in January it was a great opportunity to socialise a little with new colleagues and to experience at first hand some of the intriguing social mores in Swiss culture and the Apero in particular.

However, today has trumped the lot to date. I arrived at my desk a few minutes before 9am to find a truly surreal sight.

I have never previously worked for a company that engages people to clean the computer equipment. I have worked in offices that were negligible in cleaning the desks but not where people clean the monitor, telephone, keyboard, mouse, docking station and any other equipment lying around.

And I don't mean wipe them over with a damp cloth. I'm talking cleaning chemicals in the type of plastic bottles seen in fancy restaurant kitchens with sauces in. I'm talking toothbrushes with two brushes facing in opposite directions. Add in microfibre cloths and an assiduous attention to detail (including removing the keyboard keys and cleaning under them) and you've got some very clean computer equipment. But that's not it. The staff of the company engaged for this bi-annual activity was entirely made up of women of at least sixty-five and significantly older. All members of the blue-rinse or aggresive auburn brigades. Clicking and clacking for most of the day as they worked their way around the workstations brought to mind the Shreddies Knitted by Nannas advert.

And I thought that the state retirement age (64 for women) in Switzerland was mandatory!!

A great day's entertainment to add to the list of things I'm enjoying about Zürich.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Matters Financial

To help with cultural assimilation I am trying to gradually adopt Swiss attitudes and behaviours. This week I am beginning my Swissness financial training. Specifically, this so far involves:

  • Learn not to tip. Service is included and waiters are well paid. This feels a bit mean to me, the accepted compromise approach is to round things up a bit. Extra Swiss-points are available for grumbling about the bill and look mildly put out at having to pay it at all.
  • Don't pay the full price for any kind of public transport. There will be a railcard or a special deal for everything (and they are generally fantastic value). 
  • Use price comparison websites for everything. I have downloaded an iPhone app which tracks the price of groceries and alerts me, the savvy shopper, to the best deals in my local supermarkets.
  • Buy in bulk. Especially for household products like washing powder. Swiss people must have enormous utility rooms.
  • Never pay for anything in advance. In general, invoices have 30 days payment terms and consumers are trusted with credit a lot more readily than at home.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Out and about

I have been exploring a little this week. The public transport system is a thing of great beauty and efficiency, and for a modest CHF8.20 (about £5) I can go anywhere within the city limits for 24 hours. The network consists of exclusively overground transport, including trams, bendy buses, trains and a cable car – so no more London Underground-induced black bogies for me (Londoners you know what I mean)! Greg tells me that the Swiss have recently bemoaned the fact that 2-3 in 10 of their trains now leave 2-4 minutes late, up from 1 late train out of 10. To me that seems rather wonderful. My favourite so far are the trams for their silent but deadly stealth attacks on unwitting pedestrians. If you come to visit us in Zürich, be warned to look both ways (the wrong way first) when crossing tram lines because they are whispering death. They may look friendly, but secretly they are plotting to take over the city.

Matters domestic

Matters domestic and the language barrier

Having been assigned the role of Haus Frau by the Kreisburo official, I have been getting to grips with matters domestic whilst Greg is out earning the Francs. Challenges have mostly been linguistic, and point to the conclusion that I Must and Shall Learn German – more on this soon, but I am looking into lessons at the local night school.

Firstly, laundry, specifically deciphering the programme names on the washing machine and tumble drier when faced with many German compound nouns. Undeterred, I jotted them all down in my vocab book, and after about an hour of carefully consulting my dictionary I returned to the laundry room triumphant. At this point I discovered the second washing machine, which has the familiar universal symbols instead of German words. However, I am still stumped by Frottierwäsche – the closest I got was rub down, but for a tumble drier label this is a little opaque.

Secondly, lebensmittel – groceries. I have never seen such an abundance of everything edible as in our local Migros (a bit like Sainsburys). The food is familiar, and yet also very different. There are about 10 metres of shelving dedicated just to pickles. The mayonnaise comes in tubes, not jars, the mince comes in bags instead of packets, and there are more kinds of yoghurt than you can shake a big stick at, none of them low fat. The language barrier has led to some interesting mistakes and near-misses: coffee beans instead of ground coffee; and, dishwasher rinse aid instead of washing up liquid (I spotted the latter just before the check out).

Thirdly, the cleaner: we have a cleaner, who comes twice a week, which was somewhat of a surprise when she tried to let herself in whilst I was in the bath – knowing the German for ‘hang on a minute’ would have been helpful. She is very friendly, but speaks little English, and my German is still too woeful to manage more than good morning. We have devised an ingenious system of speaking to each other in our own languages, pointing and making gestures, which is working well – I have procured an iron and ironing board, a tea towel, and 2 more glasses via this method. Much to my great relief, she is also responsible for all of our Ablauf (rubbish) and recycling. My attempts to decipher the instructions and collection times have not been fruitful.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Registration: Auslandische Personen

Today we registered as foreign residents in Zurich, which involved going to the Kreisburo (a bit like a ward office), and giving our details and identification to a very friendly and helpful man who put it all into a computer. We were issued with our papers, a guide to Zurich, and very detailed information about recycling and rubbish disposal in our neighbourhood.

I am rather proud and humbled to now have a very important piece of paper that says I am a foreigner resident in Zurich. This unlocks diverse doors of great magnitude, including help finding a job from the employment bureau, registration with a doctor, buying the Halbe Tax (an ingenious rail card that makes all rail tickets half price), getting hold of a Swiss sim card, and many other useful things. I'm also astonished at how easy and friendly the registration process was - no difficult questions, no bureaucratic inefficiency - considerably more enjoyable as a process than registering our intent to marry in Hounslow last year. My occupation was listed as 'accompanying/kept by her husband' - I am reminded that as newly minted, unemployed immigrant anything that makes it easier for me to stay here must be welcomed - being a dependent means I am much less likely to be sent home again when my initial visa expires. But it does feel a bit odd.


Sylvesterzauber is Zurich's New Year street festival and fireworks display, held along the banks of the river and lake. It involves a cheerful mixture of meat, cheese, beer, gluhwein, fireworks, europop and precision Swiss timing. 

For us, Sylvesterzauber involved getting stuck into Gluhwein and Wurst before contemplating dancing to dubious europop at outdoor sound stages. I am far too Englishly reserved to actually participate, but watching the Zurchers of all ages throw some shapes was a joyful and bizarre experience. Maybe next year. 

At precisely 23.45 all of the city's church bells rang out in minutely choreographed unison to mark the end of the old year, and rang in the new one, which was an atmospheric and rather lovely moment. This was followed by the much anticipated (and breathtaking) fireworks display, lasting exactly 20 mins, and including a humorous false finish at about 16 minutes in, which wasn't fooling anyone (except me). 

The Swiss do not go in for the British 'oooh' and 'aaaah' approach to firework appreciation, preferring more exuberant cheering and whistling at particularly impressive moments, with ooh and ahh reserved for use by small children at very pretty bits. There was no evidence of house key jingling, which is presumably only applicable as an accompaniment to Christmas songs rather than as a general sign of approbation - duly noted.

We wrapped up with more Gluhwein, Raclette and Madonna mega mixes before a long walk to a tram home.

Here we are on Munsterbrucke with obligatory glasses of prosecco watching the build up to the fireworks.