The Swiss Sense of Humor

The longer I live in Switzerland, the more I start to notice the deeper, more subtle differences in cultural norms in my adopted home. Recent migrators may comment on the funny German, or how clean the streets are, or about how we can’t throw away our recycling on Sundays, but that’s kind of old hat within a couple months. They are surface differences you can get past quickly. The deeper things are harder to write or talk about and sometimes I just avoid them entirely- they are easy to get wrong or to describe without causing offense.

Nevertheless, I want to tackle my thoughts on one of those topics this fine Friday afternoon as I take a break from my literature review. The Swiss sense of humor. How can one describe a sense of humor? Yet it is one of the most fundamental things our culture imparts to us, the more I think about it. Even between cultures with a shared language, like British and American, there are significant differences. Sure, there’s some overlap, but our slapstick sense of physical humor, especially in Hollywood movies, has no parallel across the pond. Mister Bean may make us laugh, but it is still a fundamentally foreign sense of humor for most Americans, in my very generalized experience.

So how do the Swiss differ? It is a little difficult to describe, but I will do my best (remembering always that I see the world through an American lens, and that a population of course varies widely). Firstly, it can be pretty dark. Lots of gallows humor, the kind that Americans keep well hidden away from the workplace, for example. Second, it is very sarcastic in an outward focused way (as opposed to British humor, which I think is often very ironic, but almost always self-directed). This is the part of Swiss humor I find the most difficult to negotiate- such jokes can often feel very confrontational to my ears, and if the recipient “doesn’t get the joke,” I often find myself worrying about offense being taken.

My first encounter with this brand of humor began, really, with my Swiss ex Michel while I was still in the US. I always thought it was particular to him that occasionally I just didn’t get the joke, but I do remember one time in particular that I had an aha moment. His family had come to visit him in NYC and they saw some terrible musical that they all hated. If this were my family, we would have probably laughed a bit about it and let the topic drop, regretting the waste of money. For his family, this became a HUGE laugh and something they talked about even during subsequent get togethers. Seriously, they would sit around fondly talking about how terrible this musical was for ages and getting serious enjoyment out of describing exactly HOW and WHY and WHEN this musical was terrible. The complaining was a bonding experience and great source of hilarity!

Now that I have lived here a while I get it more. The Swiss do not like to boast like perhaps some of my American compatriots could be accused of. They like to complain. They have the number 1 or 2 on time train system in the world, but they are by far number 1 in complaints about timeliness. If you ask them about their holiday more times than not the first thing you will hear about are the bugs or the terrible food that one night. Sometimes I even find myself falling into this pattern, and remembering with amusement my childhood lessons that if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. This could not be more opposite to Swiss values.

I have always secretly somewhat enjoyed dark humor, although I rarely engage in it myself, so I often find myself laughing (with some large, very un-entertained exceptions). The exception, though, is when I have a visitor from the US. We have a different culture and sometimes…jokes just don’t translate properly. And then dark jokes with strangers, in my opinion, are like unexploded land mines. It’s just not worth tripping through the fields at night. Luckily most Swiss reserve their spiciest jokes for their own language, from what I’ve noticed.

Alright, I’m ready to get torn apart by my Swiss readers, but unless you have some decisive contrary points I stand by my words. Warning ahead of time.

P.S. One thing- Chuck Norris jokes are apparently universal 🙂


The Swiss Sense of Humor

“settling down”

I’ve been kind of puzzled by myself lately. I feel like I’m fighting a constant mild-mannered battle between two selves- the restless person who has moved no less than 13 times in the past 10 years (!!) and the person who is admiring my strawberry plants and spending Saturday mornings buying soil and fertilizer at the local home goods store. In some ways,  I made my decision on the way I want to live my life when I finished my PhD and decided to start genuinely putting down roots in Switzerland. There’s this whole other life I could be living doing field research in Thailand and trotting around Asia on the weekend, but I turned it down and felt nothing but relief. However, that doesn’t seem to stop me from daydreaming about exotic locations, from finally hiking to Mount Everest in Nepal to marveling at the pyramids in Egypt and scaling volcanoes in Borneo.

Is this just a weird in between phase everyone goes through? Or am I doomed to a lifetime of wondering what is going on on the other side of the world? I read an interesting book a while ago, The Fifth Extinction. The book posits that our need to explore is one of the defining characteristics of the human species (and also, coincidentally, what makes us so environmentally destructive). No other animal roams with the sheer scope and whimsy of a human. Birds might migrate long distances but they tend to stay on a defined path, barring changes in climate or natural disaster. We are the only ones with the urge to get into a boat and float off over the horizon. It was just an aside in a book otherwise focused on other things, but it has stuck with me.

The thing is, I am really happy in Switzerland. I love skiing and the Alps and the climate and hiking and my friends and work and my boyfriend, etc. There are things I don’t love, realistically (see recent post), but overall it is a good fit. But I just can’t scratch that itch to experience new places. And I don’t mean necessarily a two week holiday, but really dive deep into a totally new culture, learn the language and feel a little uncomfortable and learn some new stuff about the world. In fact, I’ve been feeling a bit disenchanted with the world of whirlwind weekend trips and superficial traveling of late. I hope to get to a point with my career where I can take prolonged sabbaticals at research institutes in other countries- I think that might be the best way to keep on exploring without losing a home base that I love so much. Meanwhile, I will practice being still(er).

“settling down”

When the honeymoon is over.

This week I got something done that I’ve dreading for quite some time- the much hated Swiss “Grundreinigung.”  See, when you hand over an apartment here, you are expected to leave it clean.  Not “Besenrein” (=broom clean), but CLEAN CLEAN. They give you a checklist that includes removing the faucets and decaulking them, polishing the baseboards, cleaning and replacing the filters and general moving parts, repainting, and just generally scouring between every possible crevice that exists.  They’ve got you, too, because deposits are normally 3x monthly rent, which for me was almost 4,000 CHF, and you sure aren’t getting that back if you leave it Besenrein.  It took me SEVEN HOURS after my subtenant left to get it cleaned, and that’s just for my tiny studio.  Next time I am definitely paying someone to do it.  It costs around 1,000CHF, but man is that a lot of work and time.  Our current much larger apartment gives me literal hives even thinking about doing that level of cleaning.

All this was just the latest stage in my ponderings, though, about the process of moving to a new country.  There is a pretty well established literature about the stages of adjustment to a new culture (see the graphic below.  I don’t know how scientifically rigorous it is, but you see this type of graph everywhere.

Основные RGB

There was a honeymoon period for me with Switzerland for sure- everything is great and perfect and heavenly and there’s Alps!- and then a minor dip as I got frustrated with the fact that I couldn’t even navigate minor interactions in German and generally had no idea how to do anything from buying fruit at the grocery store to figuring out health insurance. Then I made friends, I became familiar with the rhythms of Swiss life, I felt like I had things Figured Out in my life in Zurich.

Then I started dating Benno and moved to Baden.  MAN, do I now relate to the whole second dip of “confronting deeper cultural/personal issues.”

In a way, I realized I was living a very specific type of life in Switzerland.  I was learning German, but the bulk of my socializing was being done in English.  It was just a fun hobby, really. Sure, I had lots of local Swiss and international friends, and often met their parents or friends on the weekend, and traveled all over the country, but the people I met living in Zurich and in big cities in general are systematically different from people on the countryside.  They are used to dealing with foreigners, and generally their lives are not such a different shape from my own life in Boston or NYC.

All of this has culminated in a (for me) extremely unexpected sense of culture shock since moving to Baden.  It also coincided with my illness and moving in with Benno and an extremely stressful time at work, so perhaps part of it is that I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to deal with these changes.  The problems I have been having are utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things- run ins that would normally roll off my back.  But I was just so freaking unexpectedly FRUSTRATED ALL OF THE TIME.

A few petty examples- since taking my new job and setting up shop more semi-permanently in Switzerland, I decided I needed to start doing all my medical stuff in the country I live in.  I started with contact lenses.  I attempted to set up an eye test FOUR TIMES- I won’t bore you with the details, but it was a combination of their incompetence and my lack of understanding of the medical system here.  Each time I lost a little work time and patience.  Finally the last time I walk out frustrated and decide that I am going to set up an eye appointment RIGHT NOW come hell or high water.  I had all of one weeks left of contacts anyway.  The first shop I call in Baden had a receptionist that just COULD NOT understand my accent (in my own defense, I regularly navigate much more difficult situations in German, and Benno said I was perfectly understandable.  She just didn’t seem to be able to understand any kind of accent that wasn’t Swiss).  I’m getting more and more frustrated, Benno hears my struggles and comes and grabs the phone and sets up the appointment.  Meanwhile I have embarrassingly dissolved into tears.  It just sucks to sometimes feel like I am a child instead of the full blown competent PhD holding adult that I am. (Note: I was able to have the eye test immediately and the doctor had NO TROUBLES conducting the entire examination in German with me.  It was literally just this receptionist).

Another evening I was really tired from work and the lingering effects of my illness and went out with Benno and another Swiss couple.  It was the first time that Benno had met this friend’s new SO and they all kept switching to Swiss German without realizing it.  This is common in the countryside, especially among older people- they probably haven’t spoken High German since their young schooling.  I still don’t understand a lot of Swiss German, and in particular have troubles with the dialect from Benno’s area, and that night I was too tired to even try to keep up or keep asking to speak high German.  Sure, they could have been more careful to include me, and usually Benno’s friends are, but it’s just hard.  Imagine speaking basically a foreign language without slang 100% of the time with your oldest friends or family.  Naturally you would fall inevitably back into old habits.  They were making a lot of jokes as well, and Swiss humor can be very dark and different from American humor.  I just felt very…foreign.

I could go on, but there have been a whole sequence of these minor frustrations writ large.  Part of the reason I can write about this clearly is that I now see the way forward- clearly I must learn to at least understand Swiss German in order to live the kind of social and independent life I want to live.  Period.  The rest of it will come.

There are some pros to the rose-colored glasses with my new(ish) country being off.  I can still say with certainty all the things that I love- the fact that I still think it probably has the most natural beauty per square inch of anywhere I have ever seen, the efficiency, the generous work-life balance, the general sense of cosmopolitan internationality.  The cappuccinos and cheese.

But like any country, there are negatives.  Efficiency can also translate to rigidity.  Swiss German is a nightmare to learn.  Emotions are more subdued (whether this is a positive or a negative might depend on the foreigner :P).  They make you clean your apartment like a crazy person.  But I still do love this country, and I love my life here.  It’s just starting to take a shape I never expected.

In my positive coping upswing, I have implemented several changes.  Benno and I have labeled items around the house with post-its with their Swiss German name.  I can practice the word for mirror while brushing my teeth (=”Spiegu”).  We’ve also started having two Swiss German dinners a week where I speak High German and he speaks very slow Swiss German to me, and stops to answer all my questions.  It’s really helping!

This entry is an attempt to keep it real with myself and the four people reading this blog about what moving to a new country is really like, or at least what it’s like for me.  I’ve always felt like the best things are worth working for, though, so for me this is all part of a larger satisfying process of integrating into a different culture.

It’s (mostly) not all chocolate and cheese.

When the honeymoon is over.

Thoughts on a very international postdoc experience

Wheww, just finished a rather large undertaking (writing the study protocol detailing the 3 year research plan of my massive new project, which lemme just say the hardest part is herding together all of the various people involved and getting them to tell me what their individuals plans are, SCIENTISTS ARE LIKE CATS), and now I feel like doing something ENTIRELY non-work related.

The problem is that I haven’t been doing much of that non-work related stuff, lol. I am a big fan of work-life balance. It’s part of the reason I moved to Europe, for god’s sake. But these last months have been an intense period for me professionally. It’s my first time supervising people, and I am starting with SEVEN. From SIX different countries, and I didn’t realize that would also make a difference. It is great and cool and I am learning so so much both personally and professionally, but the flip side of that is always that semi-overwhelmed feeling that accompanies periods of growth. I’ve kind of mastered how to be a scientist myself, but how do I successfully mentor others to be scientists as well? I’ve learned that I’m really bad at delegating something I know I can do well myself, and relatively good at smoothing over rough patches or personality differences to drive a project forward.

The cool (and at times frustrating) thing about doing a PhD, at least at my institute, was that you were in your own little bubble with total power over your own world and doings. When I wrote my dissertation, I did it in about a week of almost zero contact with the outside world, just lost in the zone. I went to random coffee shops to change up my environment and focus on writing. My study was completely MINE- I owned all its successes but also all its failures. Now, I am learning how to rely on others, how to collaborate, how to delegate, how to identify the strengths and weaknesses of not only me, but also those around me. And also how it feels to have time commitments to other people literally all day long. I do really miss sitting down at a computer and messing around in R, brainstorming research questions and answers of my own, writing up papers of my own ideas.

Luckily, there is a bit of a deadline in terms of this intense period of supervision and pushing. The PhDs head back to their home countries at the end of April to begin data collection, etc, which hopefully will leave a lot more time for me to hang out at my desk writing code. But it is bittersweet, as I will really miss them as well!

In that spirit, Benno and I spontaneously invited 5 of the leaving PhDs (or actually invited all of them, but 5 could come) over to our home in Baden for a Swiss style feast. On Wednesdays they’ve been taking a course at the ETH in Zurich, so afterwards we strolled around Zurich on a picture perfect day with the Alps positively smiling on us in the background. Then we took the train towards Baden, where I gave them a second little tour of the medieval city and the castle above our apartment (which promptly became “Andrea Américaine’s castle.” Long story on the name, but basically there are 2 Andreas on the team, and our colleague from Burkina Faso who has only recently started learning English needed a way to differentiate us, which has quickly spread through the team). In a way I think they got even more of a kick out of Baden- they are all from very large cities, and this tiny beautiful town with its storefronts and clock towers from the 1400s is not something every tourist sees.

Meanwhile, Benno was cooking up a storm back at the apartment, as per usual. By the time we made it back, he had whipped up a batch of spinach/ricotta and bacon mini-croissants as an apero treat, along with plenty of local Swiss wine. None of my colleagues from India/Africa had ever tried much Swiss food, so of course we had to prepare fondue and raclette. Unsure of whether that much cheese would fly in cultures that are often largely vegan, Benno also baked some wähe, which most closely translates to a cross between a quiche or a pie. One was with rhubarb and one with apple (they eat it as a main course, and often the savoury ones include cheese and not fruit). But we need not have worried! They all took to buckets of cheese like fish to water! Their reaction on us explaining the whole cheesy process was, however, one of my funniest cultural exchanges I have ever had.

Afterwards, Benno served a homemade nusstorte (cinnamony and walnutty pie that is DELICIOUS) and everyone sat around patting their bellies and drinking homemade schnapps before rolling off towards home. Let me tell you, a restaurant has got nothing on Benno. RIP to my waistline 😛

I was so so glad that we did this, because it reminded me how lucky I am to be able to sit and have dinner conversations over schnapps with people from all corners of the globe. We all have such different lives and experiences and perspectives- it is easy to forget that. But the one common denominator- everyone always loves to laugh.

I am happy to be part of such an interesting project with colleagues from all over the globe for the next few years. Even if it makes for a sometimes exhausting work environment or adds extra communication challenges, I think that overall international collaborations are incredibly rewarding and productive for the entire world. Especially collaborations involving lots of cheese 😛

Thoughts on a very international postdoc experience

An eventful uneventful start to 2018

There is that old aphorism that there are only 2 things constant in life, death and taxes. However, I find it more entertaining to find our own personal constants, the ways we measure the daily beat of our lives: for me it is usually reading, running, and writing. If that is true, the last few months have been entirely without my normal metronomes except for reading. I feel a bit unbalanced. A quick chronological summary of what’s been happening instead since I last updated in Decemberish:

  1. Official move in with Benno in small town Baden! Nary a stray cross word, despite my lack of box and elevator skills. This move represents the most grown up apartment I’ve resided in since leaving the parental abode at whatever age that was. We have spare rooms and beds and office space and printers and a view on a Habsburg castle. So far my friends seem to be enjoying this fact, as in the space of a short few months I have hosted several at the apartment- luckily Benno seems fully on board with house guests, even the eccentric statistician ones 😛 Have discovered some strange habits I have now that I have so much spare space- for example, I tend to fill a water glass, take a single sip, and leave the glass in an odd location. Secret water hoarding tendencies?
  2. A surprise bachelorette weekend in Prague for a dear friend. Was asked by several Americans on a pub crawl “where in Europe do you come from” which was extremely confusing and alarming.
  3. Experienced my first Fasnacht with Benno, which is sort of like Swiss Mardi Gras. A hugely fun multiweek experience of music and partying that I will write about eventually.
  4. Somehow contracted a really horrible invasive bacterial blood infection that is the sickest I’ve even been in my life. Flat on my back for two weeks at home and still taking naps almost every day after work. Am still quite winded walking more than a couple km now, which is very frustrating given my usual activity levels, not to mention the level of energy work normally requires. As a secondary effect I lost my voice for a week, which is not easy to deal with in constant meetings and lectures. Can’t wait to be well again. Benno was away on work travel in Brussels the week and particularly day of the really acute onset of my illness and there is nothing like waking up in a cold sweat hallucinating to make you feel acutely your foreign status. Now all the emergency numbers are written by the door 🙂
  5. Other complicated things and travel I won’t get into here. I have tried to keep up with my usual breakneck pace with mixed results. I guess sometimes life decides to throw a bunch of things at you at once, which is a good lesson in the futility of overplanning and also appreciating the small things in life. These days I have felt very grateful for the help and support of all the people I have in my life, which is the most important thing of all in the end. It was surprisingly hard for me to relax and stop checking my email and just focus on recovery (and the Olympics, I am now an expert, still don’t like curling though), but I did eventually get there. I feel grateful as well to live in a country where even though it was a stressful time at work, my boss immediately insisted on focusing on my health for as long as I thought it was necessary, with no fear of losing my job. When the doctor mandated that I not leave the house for two weeks I initially panicked a bit, but it ended up being surprisingly nice- in our year together I’ve never spent so much time with Benno, and it is nice to realize that “boring” days on the couch can be as much fun as partying at Fasnacht. We have also discovered our joint love of difficult puzzles 🙂  All the important things in life, I tell you.
An eventful uneventful start to 2018

2017 in the books

Eek, another New Year’s come and gone.  Hope everyone has had a good “slide” into the new year, as one says in German.  I spent it celebrating with my brothers, Liz, and a tabby cat named Floyd in the Arctic aka Milwaukee.  This type of prolonged time together is very rare for us, so I am very grateful.  And there was not a SINGLE argument about Andy Warhol this year!  (Don’t worry, we adopted new discussion points)

Last year I did a mini roundup of my top ten books of the year, and thought it would be fun to do so again this year.  BUT.  Remember how I said last year was a bad year for me?  I did EVEN LESS reading in 2017.  It’s the worst year probably ever for me, definitely since I’ve been keeping track.  The lack of reading almost entirely corresponds to the latter half of the year.  In fact, I can tell you exactly where my reading time went.  I developed this weird nervous habit of playing a cooking game on my phone in most of my down time this late summer/fall.  I am not normally a gamer at all, and when I left for Japan after defending my PhD and finally began to relax, I just completely lost interest and haven’t looked at it since the day I got on the plane.  Does this happen to anyone else?  I think when all your energy is consumed elsewhere, there’s not a whole lot of extra mental space to consume stuff in your private life that is intellectually challenging.

I did manage 30 books and 10,509 pages, so I can still tell you my favorites, just maybe not 10.  That’s pretty much a full third of what I read this year and I have to keep some standards on this blog 😛  And I do have one that I’m very proud of- I finally tackled that behemoth of the English language Ulysses this year, after an inspiring trip to Dublin and the James Joyce pharmacy (complicated story, buy the lemon soap!  The proprietor told me that “even the binman reads James Joyce in Ireland”).  This in general kicked off a very Irish inspired beginning of the year for me, so I guess I would call 2017 my year of learning about the Irish literature tradition (and playing a weird cooking game I never want to see again).

SO.  Here are my favorites I want to tell you about, which just happen to add up to 5.  I read other good books, don’t get me wrong, but these are really the highlights of my year.

  1. Ulysses by James Joyce.  I’m not pretending I understood all of this or anything so extreme as that, but I did hunt down the companion guide AND start relistening to the whole thing on a podcast, so I guess it’s clear I liked it.  I don’t really think Ulysses needs my introduction, though.  Here’s my review anyway: My Ulysses Review
  2. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien.  Another weird as hell Irish classic that I thoroughly enjoyed: My At Swim-Two-Birds
  3. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor.  A book of short stories by one of the fabled masters- this is classic Americana with a bizarre twist.  These stories pack an incredible shocking punch.  My A Good Man is Hard to Find review
  4. Just Kids by Patti Smith.  This book is exactly what every person who moves to NYC trying to make it as an artist THINKS it is going to be like, but no one is quite as badass as Patti Smith.  Really one of my favorites.  My Just Kids review
  5. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.  Harrowing account of POWs building the Japanese a railroad through then Siam during WW2.  Beautiful prose and interesting deep dive into the psychology of atrocities.  My TNRttDN review

Cheers to you all and to another good year of reading!  Would love any and all book recs for 2018!

2017 in the books


The things I do for blog post fodder.

I’m mostly kidding, but sometimes I do look around me at whatever weird Swiss antics I’m up to this week and think that I need to write this up. A couple weeks ago (I’m a bit behind on, oh, everything in life), I spent a snowy Sunday afternoon in a tiny town in the Swiss countryside selling lotto cards at a Bingo convention.  Or at least that is the closest English translation my tired brain can come up with for what I did.

How did I end up in the middle of nowhere watching a bunch of seniors aggressively shush anyone breaking the deadly silence while trying to win sausages and chocolate? Well, Benno is as per usual the culprit.  Once a year his shooting club organizes a Bingo fundraiser in a gym hall in his hometown, population 9,000.  This year they needed someone to man the moneybox at the front, and Benno’s friend asked if I could help out.  I was halfway flattered to be asked (sometimes it is not immediately apparent whether a Swiss person likes you or not, especially given I am the strange foreigner bungling grammar and confused half the time), but was apprehensive about my level of German being sufficient for dealing with hundreds of old people who have probably not spoken to a foreigner in years communicate about their specific Bingo needs.  However, Benno and his friends are definitely aware of my limitations so I thought I’d give it a go.

So, I’m all set up with a buddy at the front door. The first person hobbles in with their walker and makes some rapid fire Swiss German joke and I am immediately lost.  I decide to enter onto firm, non-small talk ground, “Lotto card 20 francs,” plus a 100 watt American smile (a good replacement for small talk).  This continues on repeat for around an hour and hundreds of people.  Luckily my desk buddy and occasionally Benno step in to help me with the small talk, but this is just WAY above my Swiss German level.  It’s one thing to have one on one or even group discussions with Benno’s friends, who know I’m a foreigner and more or less which things will go over my head (sidenote: I never realized before how much of language is based on habits or previous knowledge.  For example, when we say, “When in Rome…” that actually makes no sense unless someone contextualizes the rest of the expression.  Benno’s friends will usually explain the rest of the expression to me after they say it.  Old people from the countryside just repeat the same thing again, louder, and then conclude that I am “special” when it is clear I still don’t understand).  Adding to my confusion is the fact that every single person seems to be speaking a slightly different dialect, so I’m sweating it out a bit as I’m trying to figure out exactly HOW MANY cards they want and then count out the change while keeping up with whatever these people are asking me, which usually has to do with explaining the rules of a game I’ve never even heard of before.  It was a fun mess, which pretty much describes a lot of my life now that I come to think of it.

There’s one thing I can say- if you want to learn the numbers in a million different Swiss German dialects, manning the moneybox at an old person event + playing Lotto (what they call it) is A++ for learning. By the end I was a pro, even with 2 (high German zwei, Schwiizer Duutch ZWO), 10 (H.G. zehn, S.D. ZA), 11 (H.G. elf, S.D. OYEF)- I am convinced every Swiss person says these numbers differently.  Anyway, because of the bad weather there were fewer people than expected, and I was actually able to play a little under the watchful eye of Benno, with whom I verified my understanding of the trickier numbers because God knows a false Lotto would cause a riot. You could practically cut the tension in that room with a knife, I’ll tell you.  The Swiss take their recreational gaming seriously.  I did win a box of chocolate, though!  And Benno won some sausages.  So overall a complete win in the Swissness contest.

After about 4 hours of relentless concentration and silent giggling (on my part) the crowds dispersed promptly at 6pm and we broke down the tables and decorations with typical Swiss efficiency. Plenty of money was raised for Benno’s club and I confused many many Swiss seniors, so I count the day as a win in the life of Andrea in Switzerland.