The keyword is functional. The Swiss Army knife is not just a tool but an apt description of a world viewpoint. Like the Swiss Army knife that packs multiple tools in the smallest volume possible, everything is over engineered to the point of perfection. This includes use of time (see the SBB website for the epitomy of travel arrangements), use of land (compare the town plan for any and all villages), use of square footage (not a single square foot wasted in the house plan nor the garden peysage), use of words (no superfluous fiction). This perfection and the expectation of perfection leads to impatience with anything that is less than perfect.

Yesterday on the tram a black woman was sitting in front of me with her two suitcases. An old lady on crutches came on board and wanted to sit, I thought and the black lady thought, next to her. As the black lady was trying to quickly move her suitcases out of the way, the old lady started yelling at her and almost pushing her and the suitcases out of her way: “I need both chairs to put my feet up! These seats are reserved for those with disabilities! I need both chairs!” In her confusion, the black lady said: “Can you please sit down?” but the old lady would not calm down.

Why couldn’t the old lady tell the black lady “can you please give me these two chairs, I need both to put my feet up?” when she approached her? Why would she immediately retort to rudeness? Why couldn’t she wait for an extra second while the black lady was trying to move out of her way? Was it because she was black? The old lady was on crutches. The black lady was sitting in the seats reserved for disabled people. So the old lady was correct. But why couldn’t she be nice about it?

There are a lot of rules. The expectation is that everyone knows and abides by these rules. Swiss people are quiet and reserved and I am always surprised when somebody honks because I am going too slow or if I hesitate for a second more. Oppressed by the rules, they are on the lookout to catch you break them and then yell at you. Are they angry at us foreigners? Are they this impatient with each other?

In our second week here, we were supposed to have a meeting with our relocation agent. A car had parked at our parking spot (it is next to impossible to find a parking spot in the city so you rent a reserved spot) and so we were late to the meeting. When we explained what happened to our agent, her first words were “oh I bet that was not a Swiss person”. (It was.) This prejudiced view of outsiders is common even amongst long term expatriates. Outsiders don’t know the rules and disturb the perfectly tended order.

Suffice it to say, as we conclude our six months on sabbatical, I am happy to be a part of the international community.


Swan Lake and AKM

This week we went to the Zurich Opera House to see The Swan Lake. Elena Vostrotina danced as Odile/Odette and Alexander Jones was Prince Siegfried. The principals had good technique. The orchestra (Philharmonia Zurich) and the corps de ballet (Ballet Zurich Company) were very good, the costumes were very well designed and the lighting was truly masterful. The “swanness” of the four ballerinas and the other swan dancers was quite convincing. Yet, the magic of the Swan Lake did not come through. There was a lot of “acting” and miming but not enough conveying of emotion. The gesturing (miming drinking, pointing to the ring finger as a sign of marriage, the drunk old teacher) was an unnecessary addition to the choreography. The principals lacked passion for their roles and for each other in their respective roles.

A few words about going to the ballet at the Opera House. The building is very ornate, with a beautiful exterior and an even prettier interior. On the other hand, the hall is very small, as is the stage, which does not have enough room for a grandiose production that requires space (such as The Swan Lake with many crowded scenes). The scene for the duet between Siegfried and Odile could definitely have used more space. The pas de deux had to be performed framed by the other dancers and hence was not a private moment between Siegfried and Odile.  Also, Siegfried was not able to leap through the stage in his grand jetes and could make only so many turns in that cramped space.

I am but a chemical engineer, with no training whatsoever on music; how can I even begin to comment on a performance? Maybe, I am completely off base in this review, but I trust myself because I had a very good education watching incredible performances on the grand stage of AKM. This was the third or fourth time I saw the Swan Lake; the others were all at Ataturk Cultural Center, lovingly known as AKM for Istanbul’lu (Istanbul resident) music and art enthusiasts. I wish I could give you a link for its website but alas it is left to rot since 2008. (For a Turkish article about the current condition of AKM, please click here.) AKM is my childhood and my youth. This is where my parents and my friends’ parents took us for our first concert, our first opera, our first play. The repertoire for the regular Friday night and the Saturday morning concerts was always amazingly complex week after week. One of my mom’s friends took me to the Saturday morning concerts for a few years. Tickets were hard to find, you had to wait in line to get good seats. I listened to great Turkish virtuosos as well as world renowned musicians and conductors at those concerts. The acoustics in the grand hall are said to be inferior but that’s where I and many other Istanbullus first listened to many important pieces and our ears learned to hear and love that beautiful music in that sound atmosphere. As is appropriate for a culture that thrives on meeting and having food together, AKM had very spacious foyer areas, too. You would run into friends and have profiteroles during intermissions. AKM was a true congregation point for the arts; there we waited in line to get tickets for the Film Festival or the Music Festival or the Jazz Festival. (Well, you could not get the tickets straightaway, you first had to fill out a paper form to sign up to get the tickets.) AKM was a meeting point for us in my teenage years. In that age before cell phones, that was an easy meeting place. Whoever showed up would just wait in front of the ticket office. It was Ataturk Cultural Center and it was a center that attracted the Istanbul resident both for culture and for being “central”.

Then, in 2008 AKM was closed to be refurbished. Since then, every few years, one government official or another talks about plans for renovation. Latest photos tell a different story; only the pole remains of the steel staircase that once was elegance and modernism at the same time. AKM took center stage one last time during the Gezi protests. The glass panel exterior was decorated with flags and banners. One protest was that of the “standing man“, who stood for several hours looking at AKM. Others joined his silent protest. As they stood, the glass panel silently reflected back the image of the Taksim square and the protesters.

My favorite Siegfried remains as Oktay Keresteci and my favorite Odile/Odette is still Hulya Aksular. This duo was all emotion. Oktay Keresteci would soar across the grand stage turning and turning and Hulya Aksular with her slender body was both graceful and powerful. There was no hesitation in their steps and their command over their motions as well as their trust in each other were clear. I watched them at AKM. Where else?

I know, I am romanticizing a time gone by. In the 1990s, Istanbul had a lively arts and music scene. Istanbul is still “happening” with many events, but the absence of a grand opera house is hurting the cultural scene. Now you have to seek out new venues. Back then, you could always count on finding a performance at AKM. If you were a student, you could listen to an incredible concert or watch a world class ballet for less than 10 dollars. The AKM was a point of entry for all income levels to begin to love and appreciate music and the arts. Now, I cannot take my children to AKM for their first concert. Now, AKM is in ruins, and that time has passed and that Istanbul is gone.

Surviving our first month in Zurich

Here is my simple checklist for the first few weeks so far:

  • Housing: It’s a homeowner’s market. There are so few available apartments at any point in time that they know you are in their hands. You can use or other websites to look for apartments but they never responded to us when we used the contact e-mail address/phone number. Probably easier to use an agent, who also uses You make an application, they check your references and if they accept your application then you sign a contract. There are three set move-in, move-out dates. Finding an apartment was by far the hardest part of our move.
  • Registration at the Kreis Buro: You need to do this within 14 days of entry. If you change your residence, you need to change your address again at the Kreis Buro and at the Post Office.
  • Registration at the Immigration office: The Kreis Buro takes an appointment for you, you go to the Immigration Office and they take some information and your picture. Your Auslanderausweis Card will be sent to your address. This takes about 2 weeks – unless they send to the incorrect address like they did for us.
  • Getting a bank account: The banking system is extremely inefficient. We have used mobile banking in different countries so we thought it would be no problem for us. Alas. You need a machine to do e-banking. So, forget about transferring money using your phone while you are waiting for the tram.
  • Getting a phone number: You need your Auslanderausweis card to get a phone number. You can get a prepaid card.
  • Health insurance: There are a few health insurance companies that offer almost an infinite array of variations. It is impossible to pick a global optimum. Speaking with independent brokers is helpful. We spent a few afternoons on this, but I’m pretty sure we did not make the correct choices.
  • Transportation: Zurich is known for its excellent transit system and there are several options for daily/weekly/monthly passes. There is one male clerk at the Stadelhofen station who speaks perfect English and is very helpful to guide you through the various options for your needs.
  • School for children: Our children go to the international school. I am happy with this decision because the international community is always in transit and everybody is in the same boat as “foreigners” so eager to help you out. One book recommended by the fellow parents is “Raising Global Nomads”. More on this later.
  • Clothing for children: Children are outside most of the time so you need a snowsuit or rain pants during recess and school trips.