With the right hat, maybe I can fit in?
PART FOUR, Can I fit in?
So apparently not.
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. And I’m moving to Switzerland.