Introduction: When I told my dad

My father’s a retired university professor, and a pretty worldly guy. He and my mother have traveled widely, from youth to old age, have spent time over the years living in four countries on three continents, and his global outlook rubbed off on me. So when I told him early this year that I would be moving to Switzerland with my wife and his two grandsons, I was surprised and amused by his nonplussed reaction. “Switzerland, huh?” he said. I could almost hear him scratching his head over the phone. “That’s not someplace I ever thought I would go.”

His response made me laugh, because in some respects I felt the same way. I lived abroad when I was young, spending a total of a little more than three years studying or working in Thailand. My first stint there was in high school, accompanying my dad on the first of his two Fulbright fellowships. (I also visited him when he and my Mom were on the second, in Pakistan back when it was a peaceful little military dictatorship). I was an exchange student for a few weeks of the last gasps of the Soviet Union. More recently, my wife and I have traveled abroad as often as work, life, and eventually children would allow.

But apart from a delightful month-long sabbatical in Italy when the kids were preschoolers, most of my, and our, travel had been… a little exotic. Safari in Kenya. Angkor Wat. Turkey. A few trips to my old stomping grounds in backwoodsy parts of Thailand. Our vacations were nearly always quite a bit different from our pleasant family life in San Francisco, and typically at least a little more exciting.

Switzerland is a lot of things, many of them wonderful, but nobody would call it exotic, and it’s not likely to inspire too much excitement. It’s none too extreme (arguably apart from the spectacular peaks of the Alps, which are of course pretty intense, but we’re living in Basel, on the opposite side of the country from the mountains, with naught but some gentle rolling hills on our horizon). It’s… quiet. Mild. Perhaps a bit uptight (much more about that by and by).

Jessica and I are not campers, hikers, skiers, or other outdoor sports enthusiasts. I’ve been known to refer to myself as ‘indoorsy,’ and I think Jessica mostly feels the same way. I liked short camping trips in the not-all-that-wild wilds of Western Massachusetts as a lazy Boy Scout, and Jessica relishes an annual pilgrimage to a ‘family camp’ on a farm in Mendocino County, California, where one is half an hour from town and never too far from dirt, but the cabin has an outlet to plug in a hair dryer, there are three high-quality catered meals a day, and the rustic-looking outhouses have flush toilets. I have yet to attempt downhill skiing; Jessica has done some time on gentle slopes, but not more than a dozen times, and not in fifteen years.

So what is without much question Switzerland’s major draw for tourists–extraordinary natural beauty, much of it mountainous, and the various sporty pursuits such a remarkable setting inspires–is arguably a little lost on us, making our choice to make a home here all the funnier.

But when Jessica’s company got purchased a little over a decade ago now by a large firm with global reach, headquartered here in Basel, she took on a global role that sent her frequently to Switzerland and other parts of Europe, and started engaged with a diverse international array of colleagues. She also started to get a wide range of sometimes titillating international job listings in her inbox, and these became the focus of frequent flights of fancy for us both.

Me: Sure, let’s move to Singapore! Food’s great. Hot though… I’d move to Hong Kong, too. Or Malaysia. Let me know when there’s an opening in London. I’d go anywhere in Europe, maybe except Basel.

Her: Hey, Basel’s cute! It looks like Swiss Disneyland. Swissneyland. (She was right about that–the little medieval old town is movie-set charming from many angles.)

Me: [Chuckling quietly to myself about how nobody would want to move to Switzerland…]

And on and on it went–we talked idly about moving abroad for literal YEARS. And then one day, a job that was a good fit for her opened up at the HQ, and we realized that if we didn’t go, we never would. We’d have immobile, sullen teenagers instead of brave and pliable first-graders, our parents would be too old to come visit, and we would eventually just stop thinking about it, perhaps save for an occasional regret.

So we did it. I now live somewhere I never thought I would go.

Inconvenience Culture

Switzerland is famous for a deep, broadly shared commitment to a sense of social order that I mostly respect a great deal. Swiss people place a great deal of emphasis on not imposing on or inconveniencing others. As someone with a sense of solicitousness that is certainly exaggerated, and probably borders on the psychotic (the arrogance/selfishness of people double parking, or doing nearly anything an Uber or Lyft driver does, makes me deeply angry; I am literally ashamed of myself every time I hit my hazards, because I don’t think it’s OK to value your own time and convenience over those of those around you), the idea of looking out for your fellows before yourself, as an understood part of keeping a good thing going, as job #1 is in theory very appealing.

It also gets a bit absurd. Our temporary building, like virtually all of its fellows, expects quiet at lunchtimes and all day on Sundays, and forbids showering before 7AM or after 10PM. I’m glad we got an apartment with an in-unit washer and dryer, because in buildings with shared facilities, assigned washing and drying days and times are supposedly rigorously enforced by tut-tutting neighbors–you have Wednesdays at 2! If we catch you in the laundry room after five or anytime on Thursday we’re calling the super! I’ve heard legends of neighbors calling the police to complain about improperly disposed garbage (but more about trash later). And both laundry and vacuuming are universally forbidden on Sundays, the day of rest, when all-day silence is theoretically expected.

Sunday is also the day when pretty much everything is closed. Some restaurants and bars offer limited hours, trams and buses run on a much slower rota, and anything to which one has free access and doesn’t have to pay an admission fee is probably available. The zoo, curiously, like its sibling in San Francisco, and perhaps in solidarity with other zoos around the world, is open 365 days a year. But the two big chain supermarkets,[1] where nearly everybody seems to do pretty much all of their shopping, shut all their branches except the ones at the train station, which stay open until six.[2] A participant in a Swiss expatriate forum I’ve been perusing postulated that the near-universal prohibition on commerce on Sundays had to do with a profound commitment to Sunday as a day of leisure. Shopping isn’t fun for the Swiss; it’s a chore. No chores on Sunday. Period.

“So what the hell are people supposed to do all day on Sunday if they can’t clean or shop?” I asked Jessica before we came.

“They go hiking,” she said.

“So if all the neighbors are outside, why do we have to be quiet in the house?” A mystery for the ages, that one.

It was with a little anxiety, then, that we arrived in Switzerland on a Sunday afternoon–even less conveniently, on Sunday afternoon immediately before a religious holiday I’d never heard of, Whit Monday. Despite most Swiss people not seeming especially churchy, particularly by American standards, they get a lot of days off in the name of various friends of Jesus (Jessica thinks she lost count of the number of Ascensions during which she couldn’t get Basel-based colleagues on a teleconference). And everything is closed.

…at least theoretically. Leave it to hard-working immigrants to solve problems for themselves and one another, as they do worldwide. Not a block and a half from our home, we noticed what appeared to be an open corner market as we drove toward our apartment on a rainy Sunday. Bins out front laden with attractive early-summer fruits. A cheerful bright-yellow sign with cartoon sheep advertising halal meat.

Our indefatigable relocation consultant (remind me to tell you sometime about how much easier it is to expatriate with a multinational executive contract than it is with a newly-minted useless Bachelor’s degree and a duffel bag), who was driving us in from the airport and whose office is literally just around the corner that the corner shop occupied, expressed surprise to notice it was open.

“Oh, looks like that place is open, too! Hm. Probably Turkish food?” Her tone made it clear that she’d never been in the shop, indeed, may have barely noticed it, despite the near-certainty of having walked past it on her way between the parking garage under a nearby Migros where she mentioned parking her car and her workplace, perhaps hundreds of times.

But there it was, the Alima Supermarket, fulfilling an unmet need, indeed selling a lot of Turkish foodstuffs (the array of olives and pickled vegetables is dazzling, and the semet and breads are excellent), but also, as markets run by immigrant families often seem to do in Switzerland, featuring a small assortment of products to cater to other foreign communities. Thai fish sauce. Indian papadams and paneer. One of the brands of durum (Turkish flatbread) helpfully labeled “Tortillas”–they are indeed a fine, nearly indistinguishable, if lardless, substitute for massive burrito wrappers. The largest jar of sambal oelek (Indonesian/Malay chili paste) I’ve ever seen. Sriracha. In the decidedly non-Swiss cheese case, alongside plenty of good Turkish varieties of curds, feta and several Balkan cheeses with unfamiliar Albanian and Serbo-Croatian names. Then, right around the corner from the Turkish Delight, looking as if it was looking for my children, the most patriotic peanut butter I’ve ever seen (notwithstanding the fact that it was manufactured not too far away, in the Netherlands, on behalf of a Swiss company that has been in business since 1932):

I have since learned that just about all the major brands of Swiss-market peanut butter are patriotic Americans. Stars, stripes, the odd eagle adorn every label. And it’s actually quite good, if a little overpriced. Sweetened, unlike the hippie peanut butter to which my California family has become accustomed, but nowhere near the candied, greasy Jif I was expecting. The brand pictured above is barely sweetened at all, and made a great base for a sauce for peanut noodles.

…from one immigrant to another, I offer a hearty mässi/teşekkür ederim to the good folks at Alima and all those like them around the world.

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