Saturday, across the globe, people participated in Women’s Marches – this movement is not “just” for women, but for everyone. From Sydney, Australia to Vancouver, Canada, people gathered to march against intolerance, to take a stand for women’s rights, minority rights, rights for lesbian, gay, transgender people, rights for disabled people, rights for immigrants and refugees.
And to stand up for Truth . With a capital T. Because apparently that’s up for grabs now.
Years ago, I started writing about moving to Switzerland. My articles were surprisingly wildly popular, not just with the local expat community but with people back home who were interested in experiencing such a dramatic change in life vicariously from the comfort of their cozy homes.
Twelve years went by in the blink of an eye, (ok there was a long moment there in the middle while I dealt with getting maried, having a baby, moving twice and dealing with other major life-shaking events), but in any case, there I was, still in Switzerland.
Twelve years is the “magic number” here. It is at this point that the Powers That Be have determined I might be able to actually qualify for Swiss citizenship.
Oh don’t go jumping to conclusions and buying me a decorative cow bell or fondue pot yet! The 12 year residency rule is just the beginning of the many hoops I have to jump through in my quest to… become Swiss!
On a bright Tuesday morning in October 2013 I set out for the “Administration communale” – the local city hall for my small town. It was exactly 12 years and one day since I had stumbled off the plane in Geneva with my two kids, one black cat and small mountain of suitcases. I entered the room marked “office de la population” and waited.
A woman came over and I correctly said “Bonjour” before explaining my reasons for being there. I felt I was clearly qualified to be Swiss, having mastered the subtle bonjour/bon après midi/bonsoir rules of social etiquette as well as having the correct number of years of residence (plus a day).
She checked my C permit and then searched in the nearby file cabinet for the right paperwork, then happily handed me some sheets. I left the building a short while later clutching the forms which would pave the way for me to Become Swiss.
And then, it almost seemed too easy. I quickly filled in the various forms and mailed them in with a copy of my passport and work permit. And then I waited.
Perhaps, I considered, the true test of Swissness is patience. I would show them I was up to the task.
Six months went by. And then, lo and behold! A letter in the mail! An explanation that my request to request Swiss citizenship had been approved. Yes, you read that right, my request to request it. I now had a letter stating that I was qualified to make the request. And a long form to fill out…
This one was not so easy. The Swiss really want to know everything I’ve done since I was born. Everything. Every address I ever had, every school I ever went to, every job I ever held. E-ver-y-thing…
It took me a while to fill it in. For one thing, I have lived in 20 homes, went to 11 schools and have held 10 jobs if you count the time I was an elf. (I actually worried about that one as it might be seen as weird. Should I specify that it was only during the christmas holidays, so that they wouldn’t think I had a closet full of weird green clothes and long felt shoes with curled toes and a hat with bells? Speaking of which, what if they come to inspect my home? How will I ever get it clean enough?)
In any case, I also had to provide a variety of documents certifying I really was who I claimed to be and then also certifying that this person I claimed to be had no criminal records or bad credit ratings (both very, very bad things if you want to be Swiss).
It took me almost six months to get all the documents together and I mailed the whole package in victoriously.
About a year went by, and then one day the police called me. Now, if you’re like me, as soon as the phone rings and the person says they are the police, you immediately: 1- hope your kids are alive, and 2 – hope your kids have not done anything that makes you want to kill them. Not always in that order.
But in this case, it was ME they were after! I was being summoned for an interview to discuss my Swissness request . (By the way, they don’t actually use the word Swissness here, that’s my invention. I hope it doesn’t cause me problems. I’m already probably on thin ice with the elf thing.)
A couple weeks later I arrived for my appointment at the precinct. I made sure to park in a blue zone s
pot and put my timer-turny-thingy in the window (there may actually be a name for the thing, but anyone in Switzerland knows what I’m talking about. It basically marks how long you have been parked in a limited time zone.) Then I worried that I would run out of time and have to interrupt the meeting to come out and move my car. That would be rude, wouldn’t it? Oh but maybe that’s the test! To see if I abide by the laws enough to be willing to put my Swissness request in jeopardy by running outside during an important meeting?
In any case, the police escorted me into a small room where I sat under a hot bright light and they drilled questions at me, hoping I would crack .
Ok it wasn’t really like that. We sat around a table on mostly comfortable chairs and they did ask me lots of questions, but nothing too intense. Mostly, they seemed to be trying to determine whether or not I adhered to the Swiss way of life and Swiss values. They asked several questions which I answered as best as I could, and then they actually just came right out and asked it, the one key question, the most important element:
“What is your opinion about democracy?”
They stared directly into my eyes in an unbroken gaze, the two of them, which made it hard for me to gaze back because I wasn’t sure who I should stare back at to prove my unflinching dedication.
Believe it or not, that’s actually a hard question to answer descriptively. What do I think about democracy? Well, I’ve never known anything else, so it’s something I’ve always just taken for granted. I scrambled for an appropriate answer, something that would convey my decidedly certain absolute positivety about being resolutely in favour of the democratic way. What I actually said was probably something resembling, “Uh… I’m for it?”
I thought quickly, stumbling over unsatisfying words to add to this answer in order to assure them that I was not here to overthrow the peaceful and fair system of government in order to rule the land and change it’s name to Nicoledom. (To be fair, who wouldn’t want to live in Nicoledom? Free ice cream guys.)
I basically did manage to convice them that my political views were acceptable in a typically Canadian way, that is, I didn’t have any extreme views about politics as long as there were no crazies in charge.
55 minutes later (just in time for the parking spot! Coincidence? I think not!) I was released into the general population. Apparently, I had passed.
Step one: live here 12 years
Step two: request to request citizenship approved
Step three: citizenship request submitted
Step four: police interview passed
I was well on my way to true certifiable Swissness! I almost felt like breaking out the chocolate to celebrate.
Little did I know, more tests, challenges and chocolate were to come…
I am not dressed right. I can tell by the way I have suddenly become invisible. In Canada, the t-shirt and jeans I am now wearing seem to work for me. Dressing up would involve changing the strappy sandals to slight heels and some lipstick. But here, I am way, way, way out of my league. All of the women are dressed in very pointy (we’re talking poke-your-eye-out pointy), very high healed shoes, somehow managing to never get stuck in the cobblestone sidewalk. They are all extremely thin. They are all wearing dresses or skirts. No wait, there’s one wearing tight curvy pants. Oh no, sorry, that was a man.
They all have huge sunglasses, huge purses and are all apparently talking on their cell phone. Side note: cell phones are not actually called cell phones here, a lesson learned a few minutes ago as I made the unfortunate mistake of calling out to a woman who had left hers on the table at the outdoor restaurant where she had been sitting “Madame, votre téléphone cellulaire!”. She leaped back to the table (they all seem to be quite flexible despite their dangerous shoes, probably from all the elevator yoga they do) and grabbed the phone then gave me the coldest, stoniest stare I have ever seen and said “Mon natel, merci.” in a voice that implied I should not step any closer to her lest my uncoolness be contagious.
The men are dressed only slightly less beautifully than the women, and their shoes are also equally eye-pokingly dangerous, and they are also all talking on their natels.
They all, men and women, whether they are pedestrians on the same sidewalk as me, driving their car or more likely speeding around on their scooters, ignore me completely. To the point where it is actually dangerous for me to be out here among them. I am getting bumped constantly and once had to leap out of the way of a scooter that was manoeuvring into a makeshift parking space, which happened to be on the sidewalk exactly where I was standing admiring the architecture of a building.
I dash into a store to escape the insanity. It happens to be a camera store, and since I need batteries for mine, it is convenient. The woman at the counter ignores me and taps with very long fingernails on her cell- oops natel. I say: “Excuse me, could you tell me if you sell batteries for this type of camera please”?
Now those of you who have lived in Switzerland have probably already spotted my mistake. My Fatal Error. My Unforgivable Rudeness. But those of you who are not familiar with the rules of politeness in Switzerland, be warned, my sentence was equivalent to someone yelling after the puck is dropped (for you Americans, equivalent to calling a southerner a yankee, for you Brits and Irish, the equivalent to not buying a round of drinks when it’s your turn and for those from Australia and New Zealand, the same as… I don’t know, is there anything that’s rude down there?)
Anyway, I digress. It was uncommonly rude. A wave of cold air blows from her glare over to me as she icily says “Bonjour”. (Yep, that was it, you always start with “Bonjour.” Always. Always. Always. Well, unless it’s afternoon. Then you say “Bon après-midi.” Or evening where you say “Bonsoir”. The exact hours where the bonjour converts to a bon après midi etc , are variable and subject to change, and foreigners are rarely permitted to be fully aware of them. But we’ll get back to that later.)
I say “Bonjour” and wait. She continues to stare at me. I start to feel slightly scared of her. (Oh who am I kidding, I’m terrified of her.). A few seconds go by, while, during our staring contest, I unsuccessfully try to summon up some courage and fail. I clear my throat, and cleverly say, in heavily accented French “Do you sell batteries for cameras?”
She raises both eyebrows simultaneously (without, by the way, causing any wrinkles to form on her forehead), and replies in a flat tone: “Well yes, we are a camera store. “ A couple more seconds of staring go by, until I, not knowing what else to do, hold out my camera to her tentatively… She glances at my shaking hand and quickly spins around on her pointy toe high heels, takes two steps to a shelf, and returns with a small package of batteries. “Was that all?” she asks, jabbing quickly at the key on the cash register. I mumble “Yes thank you” and she says the price, which, despite the fact that I am fluent in French, I do not understand at all. “I’m sorry, what was that? How much?” I am babbling. She sighs and slides the receipt across the counter to me, and taps it twice with a long burgundy fingernail. I quickly look at the receipt and of course it is covered in numbers arranged in columns, which tells me the batteries are either 24.10 or today is November 15th or the batteries are 11.15 and today is October 24th, or perhaps the time is 11:15am, or… In any case, I of course pretend I have understood completely and open my wallet. Suddenly I remember that I only have large bills, having only just taken money out of the bank machine at the airport, so I sheepishly hand her a 200 franc note and ask “Sorry, this is all I have. Is this ok?”.
And again, those of you who have experienced life in Switzerland are laughing their heads off here, because of course it’s ok, you could pay for a 5 cent piece of candy with a 200 franc note without batting an eye (side note: of course, there are no 5 cent candies, or any other items on sale for 5 cents in the whole country). The Swiss carry large notes in their wallets everywhere. The woman at the counter looks at me with zero understanding and carefully takes the money with a suspicious look in her eye. She hands me back a bunch of different coloured bills and a bunch of change of various size. I stuff it all quickly into my purse and wait a moment for her to put the batteries into a bag and hand it to me. She has turned away, then, seeing me not leave, says “Was there something else?”.
“Oh! Non non, c’est bon merci !” I say enthusiastically, smiling like a mad woman, pick up the battery pack and carry it limply out of the store, feeling slightly like I might be stealing it.
I am exhausted by my first experience with a real Swiss person (well actually I guess M. DeLestrade counts, and the woman who taught me the word “natel” also… so my third experience with a real Swiss person). So I decide it’s time to eat.
Roughly 45 minutes later I have learned another hard fact of Swiss life: it is not possible to eat in Switzerland outside of “normal” eating hours. Since it is now 11:20am, I am tragically too late for breakfast and too early for lunch. In Canada this is not a problem, in fact most restaurants or coffee shops actually want people to come in and spend money on their food, but clearly that is not the case here. I feel slightly more than discouraged, and wander down the busy street aimlessly, stomach growling. I spot a bookstore on the other side of the street and stop to consider whether I could kill some time in there. Immediately, all the cars travelling at extremely high speed on the street come to a screeching halt. I look around, wondering where the accident is, then realize they have all stopped to let me cross. Not knowing what else to do, I scamper across the street to the other side.
In the bookstore I remember to say “Bonjour” to the sales lady, who responds with an unsmiling “Bonjour”. I wonder if I have already done something wrong, maybe there are special bookstore rules regarding the Bonjour. After having lived in Switzerland for a while I did find out that the Swiss do not give away smiles the way we do in North America, but that this is not out of anger or unhappiness. They simply reserve their smiles for genuine occasions. They must actually think we’re clowns, smiling insanely at every possible moment, regardless of our inner emotional state. It’s a habit I have not succeeded in changing, I smile all the time and am always painfully aware that I might be appearing comical and silly. But I digress. (Again. It’s a habit.)
For some reason I zero in on the English book section, and am peacefully browsing along when I bump in to a young boy sitting cross-legged on the floor reading a book (I actually don’t bump as much as trip over him). I quickly apologize in French (and smile), which is illogical since he’s reading an English book, and his mother, who is roughly 10 months pregnant (been there) rushes over.
She says, in broken French: “I am from the sun.”
She looks slightly scared and worried.
I say, in English: “It’s ok, I tripped on him actually, not his fault at all”.
“Oh” she sighs, relief pouring from her voice, and switches to English. “You speak English! My French is really bad. Most of the time I get it all wrong and people look at me like I’ve got two heads.”
Unable to contain myself, I laugh and say “I think you meant to say “Je suis désolé” right?”
“Uh… Is that not what I said?” She is looking exhausted.
“Well, it was pretty close.” I reply, always the optimist.
And just like that, I have made a friend. And strangely enough, though we walk to a coffee shop and talk for a while, she explaining to me all about her move to Switzerland from the U.K., me asking roughly one million questions, she being somewhat guarded and pessimistic in her responses, I feel more and more sure that I want to move to Switzerland.
That evening I go to a movie at the local Geneva shopping centre/cinema complex called Balexert. I am somewhat confused about the name of the place, which is apparently totally unrelated to the area or street it’s on. But that is nothing compared to how confusing it is to actually find the place… You would think a large shopping centre could be spotted easily, wouldn’t you? But not to my untrained un-European eye… In Canada a shopping centre is easily recognized by the roughly half-million signs announcing it’s location and the huge parking lot surrounding it. Not so in Switzerland! This one is discreetly nestled between two busy city streets and I actually have to ask someone for directions (and said “Bonjour” despite the fact that it’s 6pm, forgot, and was hopelessly snubbed by the teenager who looked at me with disdain and replied “Bonsoir” then pointed to the doors of the building behind me. Have to add, to his credit though, that he then asked me what movie I was going to see and was pleased with my choice, saying it was a good movie. )
The first thing I am shocked about is the amount of money it costs to buy a movie ticket, snack and drink. It is roughly the equivalent of a downpayment on a small house in rural Canada. The second thing that surprises me is the choice of popcorn, either salty or sweet. I take sweet. I live to regret it later, as I am sitting in the dark theatre trying to pry my molars apart.
But the movie is great. I cannot, to this day, tell you what the title was, or anything about the movie itself, but since I have lots of time before the movie starts I sit there and I get to observe them… The Swiss. The way they dress, the way they talk to each other, the way they walk. Couples, friends, older and younger, streaming casually into the cinema and taking their place. Teenage girls giggling together, much like they do in Canada. Men with their arms casually draped over their wife or girlfriend’s shoulders, whispering into their ears. Some people sitting alone, or maybe just waiting for their date to show up. One woman with her dog. Uh, did I get that right? Eyes quickly back to the woman and dog. Yep, they are taking their seats, actually at the end of my aisle, dog on the floor next to her. Everyone seems to accept this as normal. Ok, I like dogs, not a problem. But what if… Oh shut up, inner voice. Let The Swiss be The Swiss. The woman tosses the dog a piece of popcorn, which he gracefully catches and crunches loudly. I wonder if it’s salty or sweet. The lights go out. The show begins.