Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Exercising My Democratic Rights Sounds Too Much Like Hard Work

I really enjoy voting*. One of the things I like so much about it is the place where I usually go to do it. As you Australians will know, we generally end up voting at schools. The school I often vote at is one at which my sister was briefly a student when she was 8 or so. The room in which voting is conducted is a room in which she was a munchkin (the girl from over the road was the Wicked Witch, I think), and also where she was in the chorus for Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (always the bridesmaid and never the bride, it seems). On the wall is Captain Scott's sled from his "journey to discover the South Pole" (or so says the accompanying sign). I like the little carboard booths and the sausage sizzles and cake stalls. I don't even hate all the electioneering people who grin like morons and harrass you with their "how to vote" blurbs (well, actually I do hate them, but for the sake of my own mini-melodrama I am prepared to lie).

Anyway. Here I am now in Switzerland with a state election looming back in sunny Australia. Last time something like this happened I was slaving away in a ski resort in the USA for $7 an hour, and my postal vote form was inadvertently sent to my address in Australia instead of my address in Leadville, highest town in America (10 430 feet). To try to avoid this happening again I thought it would be good to fill in the relevant forms as soon as possible. Off I went, therefore, to the electoral commission website and everything was looking shiny and promising until I came across the bit about getting an "authorised person" to sign my form for me. Apparently "authorised persons" include the following:

(a) an officer of the naval, military or air forces of the Commonwealth or of some other part of the Queen’s dominions;
(b) a person employed in the Public Service of the Commonwealth or of a Territory of the Commonwealth or of a part of the Queen’s dominions;
(c) a Justice of the Peace or a minister of religion or medical practitioner resident in a territory of the Commonwealth or a part of the Queen’s dominions; or
(d) An Australian citizen.

Hmm. I'm nowhere near anyone in the employ of the Commonwealth or a part of the Queen's dominions, and, strangely enough I haven't come across any other Australian citizens in the whole time I have been in Switzerland.

So, what to do? When I was 17 the electoral commission used to send me the occasional threatening letter suggesting that if I didn't enrol to vote immediately they would be taking me to court at the soonest possible time and crushing me under the full weight of the law. Apparently they know who I am and like to keep an eye on me to make sure I make the most of my democratic rights. Does this mean that if I don't pop down to Ye Olde Penny Farthing tomorrow night, attract the attention of the entire room and say "Is anyone here an Australian citizen? Can you just sign my postal vote form for me?" that I will again have the book thrown at me (or at least be fined $50)?

* For those of you who are either foreign or extremely poorly informed, voting is compulsory in Australia and if you don't do it you are fined.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Mein Name Ist Robyn

As the enthusiastic reader (ha, as if there is any other kind) will have noticed, I have been somewhat quiet for the last few days. This is because (as the enthusiastic reader will no doubt already know) I have been off making my life difficult with german lessons. And for this reason, I may also be erratic for the next three and a half weeks.

It all started on Monday morning. I got up bright and early (grr), I handed over vast sums of money and was given vast quantities of textbooks and a room number in return. I went to the allocated room and smiled tentatively at the other students (as one does in these situations. After all, you don't want to accidentally befriend the class lunatic before you know who they are). The teacher arrived, looking all doe-eyed and friendly. It all seemed very promising until she said in a ridiculously loud, slow voice, enunciating every syllable clearly, "Guten Tag. Mein Name ist Kathrin". For those of you not familiar with german, this is kind of basic stuff. For those of you not familiar with me, I have been learning german for a while now. As it turned out they had sent me to the wrong class, but there wasn't really any way out until the break, an hour and a half later, so I spent that time telling people my name and feeling a bit pleased that I hadn't forgotten everything I ever knew.

A short trip to the admin department later and the books I had been given were taken away from me, I was given a new lot, a new room number, and suddenly I was flailing around in a class full of people who all seemed to already be friends, and who have no language in common other than semi-garbled german (which is therefore all we speak). It's far more terrifying than the first class I was in, but I suppose it might all be worth it. It seems that I might be learning things.

Anyway, the short version of all that is that now I am spending my time getting up early and doing homework and so on, as well as making the most of the train ticket I now have (which is of the "go anywhere you like as much as you like" variety), and frankly, I don't have that much time left to spare on you lot. So don't get your hopes up.

..And Another Thing

Oh, and I can't tell you the number of strange looks I have had since I started my german lessons. All the teachers, all the admin people, I tell them my name and they look at me as if they aren't quite sure what's going on. And no, before you become all critical and suggest I go back to the beginners' class, it's not because I have no grip on introducing myself, it's because "Robyn" (or "Robin", more accurately) is apparently only a boy's name here. The second teacher I found myself with, who seems kind of cranky at the best of times, glared at me when I gave her my student card thing, then she glared at my name, and she glared at me again. I was used to the drill by then. "It's a girl's name too in Australia", I said, and she glared for a while longer (possibly with a hint of bemusement thrown in) before subtlely altering her expression to create the "welcome to my class" glare and letting me sit down.


This is Dave, weather and homoeopathy sceptic. He doesn't normally wear dresses (as far as I know), and I'm sure he'd be vaguely appalled to find that I put this picture on here, but as far as I know he doesn't actually read this blog. Which makes it all okay.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

A Very Cheesy Valentine's Day

This being the year of the Grand Romantic Gesture, I decided that abandoning a lifetime of apathy and embracing a Grand Romantic Valentine's Day was in order, and I bullied my boyfriend into agreeing with me. In the spirit of schmaltz and Switzerland, we decided to eat melted cheese in the freezing cold of our balcony.

There's nothing much you need to know about our sappy fondueathon other than that Reto was not very helpful (he stirred the fondue at one point, but only so I could take a photo and make it look like he was contributing. He was helpful with moving furniture and plates etc, though), that it was ridiculously heavily Swiss-themed:

(apart from the melted cheese theme, note also the flag cup, which apparently was a present, the "Swiss fondue" pot, which was the cheapest in the shop, and the generous use of winter woolies), and that it was fantastic.


Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Can Anyone Give Me Wood?

Switzerland is apparently the home of board games, card games, any sort of distraction that is sociable but that means you don't have to make conversation. Reto's family is obsessed (well, possibly that is a bit harsh but they are definitely enthusiastic) with playing a boardgame called Die Siedler von Catan which is all about colonising a new country or something similar. The game involves building bridges and houses (or something) by trading cards representing things (such as brick and grains and wood and sheep) with the other players.

The other day I was listening to Reto and assorted others playing this game (I was taking part in the less sociable but more entertaining pasttime of reading my book because I am the sort of spoilsport party-pooper who can't stand board games or card games or any type of organised activity at all), and it seemed to me that every minute or so, someone would earnestly say "Does anyone have wood?", "Does anyone want to give me wood?", "I've got wood but I've got no stones". This was a largely ESL* crowd, and possibly they might not appreciate the humour in these statements, but I was quietly giggling to myself until I could take it no more. "What the hell is wrong with you people? Don't you realise how hilarious this is?" I yelled at them, and they stared at me blankly, before ignoring me and carrying on.

"I need some weed" said the next player, pronouncing "wheat" slightly strangely.

These foreigners are crazy.

* English as a Second Language

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

How Do You Say "eek!" In German?

As you may or may not have heard, I have enrolled in an intensive german course that starts next week and means I will be tormenting myself for 4 hours a day, 5 days a week for the next 4 weeks (or possibly longer, depending on how much I can stand). I went to see them last week and did their placement test, in which my appallingly ordinary score (58%) led them to believe I should be in a level 5 course. This meant as little to me as it does to you until I had a look at the blurb they gave me and found that level 5 courses involve reading lots of newspapers, discussing current events and embracing simple literature.

Good lord. I panic when checkout chicks talk to me at the supermarket. If you don't hear from me for a while it's because I'm off panicking and trying to learn everything I have already learnt in the last year and a half of decidedly non-intensive TAFE lessons (not that they weren't fantastic; thankyou to everyone involved), in the potentially vain hope that I can manage to flail together a sentence or two before I collapse. Sigh. And I thought unemployment would be fun.

Monday, 12 February 2007

The Day We Sat On A Train

I am currently living in the smallest country in the world (no correspondence will be entered into) and yet on Sunday I somehow managed to spend a good 11 hours in a train without once needing my passport. How is it so?

It all started on Friday night when Reto said to me "let's go to St Moritz" and I said "okay!". One of my hobbies, as a dedicated non-skiier, is going to fancy-pants ski resorts all over the world (and also some in Tasmania which are less fancy-pants and more ghost-towny) and then telling all my skiing friends how boring it was. And so, bright and early on Sunday morning (actually, 7am and it was dark and cold) we caught the train with the intention of heading straight for St Moritz to watch horses run around on a frozen lake. Apparently it's that time of year.

The train trip started out really nicely. In general, I have no problem with sitting in cars or planes or trains or whatever for hours and hours on end, and even less of a problem with it when there is someone lovely to talk to and interesting things out the window.

About two hours into the trip Reto and I decided we would alter our plans slightly and go to Poschiavo (a small town really close to the Italian border) before heading to St Moritz. We were doing this mainly to cross the Bernina pass, what with it being apparently idyllic and a good opportunity. And so we did, and it was idyllic, but it also meant that it was something like 5.5 hours from the time we left Aarau to the time we got out of the train in Poschiavo.

Happily, this was 5.5 hours well spent. Poschiavo is a lovely little town, full of interesting buildings and doorways and laneways and friendly dogs and so on, and the train trip to get there really was stunning, but really, that is all just background compared to the lunch we had. That meal will remain happily in my memory for quite some time. The meals we shared were not fancy (a mushroom risotto and this buckwheat pasta called pizzoccheri), and perhaps it was the extended train trip and lack of other food I had eaten during the day, but they were more fantastic than I can possibly express. A friend of mine has been known to become orgasmic at the mere mention of a certain Indian restaurant in Sydney, and frankly, I can understand what she means.

And so, after a cigarette and a short nap we were back on the train and off to St Moritz. The train trip being tortuous owing to all those pesky mountains that tend to get in the way in Switzerland, it took 1.5 hours and we didn't arrive there until quite late. So late, in fact, that we only had time to see the last 100m or so of the last race of the day being run. Not that I have much interest in seeing horses running around in circles anyway, but it was entertaining if only for the fact that the carriage things (for this was a trotting race) were on skis:

Happily, there was much to be looked at in St Moritz that was not horse-related. Never in all my life have I seen so many fur coats in one place (apart from perhaps at a zoo, but that's a bit different). As you might imagine, my downmarket fake-fur trimmed coat did not really cut the mustard:

The weather, as you can see, was fantastic, and had I been a skiier it would have been a great day for it (from what we could see there were only about 5 people on the slopes, the entire population of the town being down where we were instead). I'm not a skiier though, and hopefully never will be again (although we did spot some people going kite-surfing with snowboards on another frozen lake somewhere in the mountains, which looked kind of excellent) and so I concerned myself instead with the other things that were going on. Barely did we have time to admire the slaughter that must have gone into making the coats we saw, drink a hot chocolate, marvel at the wattle that the outdoor champagne bar was using as table dressing, laugh at people wearing high heels in the snow and complain about how cold it was once the sun went down before it was time to bundle ourselves back on the train (along with all the other downmarket visitors. We watched the better class of people driving off in their unfeasibly large and cosy looking Mercedes and so on while we packed ourselves in sardine-like) for the four hour trip home.

The last 3 hours of the trip back were where it really started to go downhill (both literally and figuratively, hahah). It was dark, so there was no admiring of the view to be done. I had finished the book I had brought with me. The train was kind of packed and so I had all my junk piled up on top of me. I was ridiculously thirsty. Reto had no interesting conversation to make (nor did I, for that matter. We were both fed up with everything). The people sitting next to us seemed to be really bad at crosswords, but owing to linguistic barriers I didn't think it was appropriate to try to help them. We didn't get home until 9pm, and yes, those of you eagle-eyed enough to notice, this does in fact mean that we spent a total of about 3 hours not in the train.

Eleven hours. Sigh. I never want to see the inside of a train again.

Friday, 9 February 2007

What The Swiss Believe In (part 2)

The more entertaining and simple statues of Aarau having been dealt with previously, we now move on to Statues 201. What can you assume about the nature of our Switzy friends from this:

I think the following should be considered:
  • A fondness for weaponry and killing (as previously discussed), hence the sword;

  • A fondness for leg-revealing dress-wearing (as previously discussed), hence the dress and legs;

  • A fondness for precision, hence the scales. Who other than a nation of pedants would garner a reputation for their watchmaking abilities?;

  • An unwillingness or inability to see reality, hence the blindfold and peep-toe sandals. With their neutrality and their choice not to join the EU, it's as though the Swiss choose not to acknowledge the world around them. Similarly, what sort of insane weather-denier would wear open-toed shoes in the depths of a Swiss winter (I realise that I shouldn't be casting such aspersions given the poor quality and inappropriateness of my shoe choices, but no one can actually see my toes so I retain the moral high ground)?; and

  • A flair for efficiency. They are obviously packing as many stereotypes into the one statue as they possibly can.

The only other statue we will consider today is this one, and I think that it really speaks for itself:

It's obviously a declaration of proud sense of isolation that all Swiss people feel in their hearts. That they stand alone, quiet and dignfied, and they stoically bear (no pun intended) all that is thrust upon them. They don't need to hide behind details, and they have within themselves all that they need to defend their people and their nation. They might have a reputation for being a bit impenetrable and cranky, and maybe they would go so far as to climb a tree in order to swat you out of it and eat you to death, but then again maybe they are just furry and misunderstood.

Either that or Switzies just like bears, I guess.

Inside Information

Here's a tip that might save you some confusion next time you find yourself at a loose end in Switzerland. Your local "nightclub" is less likely to be full of Saturday Night Fever-style dance moves, and more likely to be packed to the rafters with ladies with minimal clothing and men with dubious conversational skills.

What I am saying, in case the subtle nuances of my wording have gone over your head, is that nightclubs are strip clubs here, and that discotheques are nightclubs.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Sardine Ice Cream, Anyone?

It has occurred to me, thanks to the torrent* of emails that I have got from you lot saying "Does Reto look at your blog? Does he know how much you complain about him and his country?", that perhaps you think I don't appreciate the wonders of the land of cheese and chocolate. How wrong you would probably be.

The weather here is my kind of weather. I don't get sunburnt. Already I can see what little I had of a so-called tan fading into blessed non-existence. All the fog and drizzle is heartening, and on those occasions when there is a miserably half-sunny day, I really appreciate it and I stand in the pathetic warmth with no fear, as mentioned, of being sunburnt. Admittedly my toes are usually numb and my fingers don't really function and my nose turns red every time I step outside, but at least I get to enjoy all the complaining that goes with that, and everyone gets to marvel at just how bad my circulation is. Plus there is something about the combination of my cold, cold hands and the toasty-warm stomach of an unsuspecting boyfriend that will never cease to cause me joy.

I have accumulated an enviable array of coats. This isn't necessarily something I had aspired to, but the recognition that I am relentlessly cold has led to the acquisition of this fantastic retro-carpet looking green thing (that Reto says puts him in mind of Kermit the Frog) and a super brown (fake) fur-trimmed coat that makes me think I should be out killing seals in a slightly glamorous way in Greenland or something. Both of which were heavily on sale, too, which makes it even better!

They have the wackiest flavours of yoghurt here. Never mind all that boring strawberry/raspberry/banana and passionfruit humdrummery, they take it far more seriously in Switzerland. Rhubarb, coffee, aloe (blergh), apple strudel, walnut, chestnut, you name it and you can probably find it. Actually, it kind of reminds me of this icecream stall in one of those Faraway Tree books that I used to read as a kiddy. This icecream stall said they could give you any flavour you asked for, and so one of the smart-arsier of the boys asked for a sardine ice cream, or something, which they then gave him and he ended up making a cat eat it.

You can't help but appreciate the cheese and chocolate, obviously.

Ditto the boyfriend, obviously. Now that he is not pretend any more (ie. I actually see him) I am starting to remember why I liked him in the first place. Oh, and look what he brought me from the army:

It's chocolate you can defend a nation with!

I like how peculiar everything is. You say hello to people relentlessly. You have to use the regulation garbage bags (this isn't really all that charming, but it is undeniably novel). When you want to pay in a cafe or similar, some waiter comes at you with the world's biggest purse and it's all settled at the table (none of this fancy "cash register" nonsense). There's a highly distinctive bonging sound at the train station when a train is arriving (not dissimilar to CityRail in Sydney, but not that close, either). There are ludicrous statues galore, and less ludicrous but equally plentiful fountains. You never really know what you are buying at the supermarket because everything is labelled in some weird foreign language(s).

I can happily ignore everything that everyone says, safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be talking to me, and that if they are, I am unlikely to understand them anyway.

There are swans everywhere and they are hilarious. I may prove this to you in photographic form at some stage.

It's a strange place. I'm glad I'm here. And one of the happiest things about being here is the fact that it offers me so many shiny new complaining opportunities.

* at least 2

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

When Art And Life Overlap (part one)

Shortly before I left Australia I was given a copy of The Swiss Family Robinson by a very dear friend. Now that I have read it (actually, I started it on Saturday night and I haven't finished it yet, thanks to my relentlessly annoying boyfriend and his apparent need for constant attention) I have some extremely interesting and relevant points to make about the unchanging nature of the Swiss psyche. Please bear in mind that the book was written in 1812.

1. The Swiss are a bunch of misogynistic bastards. This should come as no surprise to anyone who realises that WOMEN WEREN'T EVEN ALLOWED TO VOTE IN THIS COUNTRY UNTIL 1971. In 1812, our friend Frau Robinson, aka "the wife" or "the mother" (as in "The mother found the scene all too horrible, and hastened into the cave, trembling and distressed") is one-dimensional to say the least. Her only emotions seem to be negative ones. She is usually fearful, anxious, horrified, aghast. Rarely does she get the chance to speak in whole sentences, and when she does it is usually only to panic needlessly, or to say something that, as her husband kindly points out, is incorrect (after suggesting that her sons should not eat the snake they just killed, her husband corrects her. "Excuse me, my dear wife", he begins, before elaborating proudly on all the reasons why she was wrong to hamper her sons so). On the occasions when she manages to escape her husband's withering embrace and actually do something herself, she is patronised almost into a coma ("You have done far more than I could have expected, wife", "Did you not find the work too hard?"). She can never be left at their house alone without at least an 8 year old boy or a dog there to protect her. She cannot be trusted with a gun, even though everyone else, even the 8 year old, is armed to the teeth. Not to ruin the plot for you, towards the end of the book another person turns up, an English woman in her 20s. She has been self-sufficient after being shipwrecked some 3 years previously (and has achieved much, "the quarter of which would completely have appalled the generality of her sex", apparently), but as soon as the Swiss Family Robinson find her they can hardly wait to get her into a dress, leave her to wait with "the mother" whenever there is work to be done, and to insist that even inspecting all aspects of the house where TSFR live would "tire the poor girl out".
Compare this to Switzerland today, where, as mentioned, women have only recently begun to vote, they are vastly underrepresented in full time work, in parliament, in upper management type employment, where they earn significantly less than men in equivalent roles, where childcare places are scarce to the point of non-existence and where school hours are so variable that women have often little choice but to entirely leave the workforce when they have children. At least the wife Robinson was only the last of 6, not the last of 7 million.

2. The Swiss like weapons. In TSFR (as it shall henceforth be known) the menfolk are obsessed with running around the island and shooting everything in sight (obviously Mrs Robinson is at home cooking and cleaning and sewing new clothes for everyone, as befits a woman. Hopefully she finds time to have an affair with an impressionable young graduate, too, in between peeling kangaroos and being thoroughly patronised for managing to collect a few acorns). Every time the menfolk see a flock of flamingos wading in a marsh or a brace of penguins frolicking on the beach, little time is spared for wonderment at these scenes of natural beauty before someone whips out a gun, shoots everything they possibly can and then they all comment on how well they will eat tonight. Even better is the opportunity to slaughter some sort of animal that has never been either seen or killed before ("Franz was overjoyed to find that he had shot a 'new creature' "). Rarely does anyone walk more than a few metres without first arming themselves with at least one gun, usually more, as well as a bow and arrows and a lasso. Sticks are often flailed against the treacherous creatures they come across (such as the wildly dangerous angora bunnies), and they have no hesitation in throwing rocks at monkies, setting their dogs loose on porcupines, or harpooning tortoises.
Note the current fondness of the Swiss for being in the army and bearing weapons. Note their obligatory target practice twice a year (or however often it is). Note their souvenir of note, the Swiss Army Knife. Note my boyfriend's bayonet (no innuendo, please).

3. The Swiss like to eat dead things. See point number 2 with regard to killing everything they see. No animal is safe from being eaten by the Swiss Family Robinson.
I don't know about actual statistics or so-called evidence that the Switzies are a bunch of carnivores, but every time I go anywhere here I feel like someone is making me eat another rabbit or cow or mystery-meat product. You have no idea how happy the sight of a chick pea makes me these days.

Once A Psycho, Now A Sicko

If the army had rented Reto from me for these last 3 weeks, they would not have got their deposit back. Three weeks ago we had a fond farewell at Z├╝rich train station and my boyfriend was looking all shiny and healthy and clean-shaven (albeit kind of annoyed and laden down with mountains of useless army junk). When he dragged himself home on Friday night he was still annoyed and burdened with crap, but also bedraggled, stubbly and sick, sick, sick. Frankly, these are changes I could have done without (although I am a fan of the unshaven messy look. Tidy people always make me feel a bit inadequate).

Anyway, since Friday things have degenerated. I have spent the last four days listening to him cough, sneeze, blow his nose, cough, complain, snore, hack up big gross globs of phlegm and slurp at his tea relentlessly, at all hours of the day and night. All the time. You have no idea of the sleep I have missed out on or of the oceans of snotty tissues I have had to wade through.

We had garlic soup for dinner last night. It was as bad as it sounds, but at least if it doesn't exert its therapeutic power and make him better and stop me from getting sick, it should at least keep us both safe from vampires.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Things I've Been Attacked By Lately

Things often attack me. When I was little the neighbours had a dog. It used to bite my toes. I'm sure I wasn't the only one not wearing shoes, but I am pretty sure I was the only one who was ever bitten by it.

When I was 13 or so I had a friend who had a ridiculous little yappy white puppy dog. It used to go into a frenzy of yapping and salivating and attempted-attacking whenever I went to her house. I remember arriving at her place one day, and seeing this white whirlwind of fluff and saliva and fangs come charging down the hallway at me. It leapt up (and for those of you who may not have noticed, I am quite tall. I don't know if I was quite this tall when I was 13, but I imagine I must have been tall-ish, at least compared to some midget dog) and bit me on the top of the back of my thigh. It must have really made a good leap to get that high up on my leg. In my memory it latched on and flailed around and then took a big hunk of flesh out of me, while I ran pathetically around in circles trying to swat it away. I doubt this actually happened, but I do recall the subsequent trip to the doctor's office for a tetanus shot. My friend and I parted ways shortly afterwards.

A few months ago I was in a nursery (pot plant shop, not small child hangout) when I was attacked by a bird. I was by no means the only person around, but I was the only one who got swooped, and repeatedly swooped at that, by this pesky territorial bird. The first time I was surprised. The second time I was vaguely amused, although the wind in my hair hinted at how close the bird came to me. The third and subsequent times I was a bit terrified and announced this to everyone by yelling "eek!", covering my head and ducking like I was in a war zone. Some stranger in the nursery said to me "wow, those birds really like you. Can you just stay over there and keep them away from the rest of us?". Sigh.

In late December I was attacked by a cat I tried to pat in the street behind my house in Sydney. I was left with big slashes down my wrists and blood dripping all over my hands. I was on my way out and I had no tissues, so I ended up arriving where I was going (a pub) with a big, red, swollen hand, coated with dried blood. Nice way not to be mugged - look more insane than your potential attacker.

Anyway, I have discovered that one of my close neighbours is a horse. This horse lives in a stable at the end of my block, and when I walk past he looks at me with his big friendly horsey eyes, and Anne-of-Green-Gables-style visions of some sort of quasi-rural idyll flit through my mind (I never actually read any Anne of Green Gables so I don't know if this is a reasonable description or not). I would go and make friends with him, but there is a mysterious sign below his window. It is in german, obviously, and partially obscured by weather-beatenness. I suppose it only says something like "don't feed the horses", but I can also imagine it might say "don't pat the horses because they don't like you and they would bite your hand off as soon as look at you". So I am keeping my distance. Which is a pity, because I like patting strange animals that I come across. I have the scars to prove it.