Swiss Culture Shock [en]

We sometimes feel like the German-speaking part of Switzerland is almost another country. Indeed, we often feel culturally closer to France, which is within eyes reach on the other side of the lake, than to our fellow countrymen who live behind the Röstigraben”.

Maybe “culture shock” is a bit strong to describe what happened to me in Zürich University library – but I was told “welcome to Zürich!” when I told the story back in Lausanne.

First shock: no bags or jackets allowed in the library, compulsory lockers, and a guard in front of the entrance. I used to like guarded entrances in India, because they usually guaranteed “safe space” where I could relax. But in Switzerland, it gave me an uneasy feeling. What is there to guard against here? In Lausanne, the only “entrance guards” I’ve seen are in front of night-clubs or bars in evenings (and preferably in the—relatively—worst areas of town).

Second: no Internet connection at all in the library building (apart from very limited access to the library research site). How do these people do any research? Anyway. It was very bad news for me, because I had forgotten the carefully written-down list of articles I had to photocopy at home, and was hoping it could be quickly scanned and emailed to me. No luck.

(Actually, I had the list dictated to me on the phone, and it was a lot simpler. That shows how web-dependant my thinking is becoming.)

Third: I was allowed to go into the library storeroom myself to retrieve the volumes I needed. (They’d never let you do that in Lausanne, no way!)

Fourth: I was actually allowed to borrow these publication back issues and take them home with me! (I’m almost positive you can’t borrow publication back issues here… I’d have to check. I wasn’t expecting to be able to, anyway.)

Fifth: after having signed up for an account (online!) I asked how many books I was allowed to borrow at the same time: fifty! In Lausanne, I can take 16 (which is really not enough, honestly, especially when you’re doing your dissertation). You get to borrow fifty if you are doing your PhD or teaching.

So, in summary, what seemed to be starting out as a very unpleasant experience indeed ended up being pretty positive. Maybe this strange mixture of “worse than at home” and “better than at home” is characteristic of cultural variations…

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English Culture Shock [en]

I don’t often get culture shocks in England. I did get one this time, though.

At the end of a live performance like a concert or a play in Switzerland, the audience applauds the artists until their hands ache too much to continue. The quality of the show usually determines how keen everybody will be to continue clapping despite the pain.

Curtain call follows curtain call until the audience wears out.

So, after the excellent performance that Danielle and I had travelled down to London to see, I was prepared to keep on clapping my hands until my skin went on strike.

I remained in mid-clap with my mouth wide open when after the second curtain call, everybody went silent and started getting out of their seats. They all knew that the artists had left for good.

It took me a couple of minutes to come back to my senses, close my mouth, put my hands on my lap and pick up my jacket. Obviously, two curtain calls was the rule in the country of dreary winter days.

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Voyages [en]

A lire absolument (pour ceux qui aiment les gens qui savent écrire): Voyages.

Très joli texte de Romain qui, je l’espère, nous en réserve encore bien d’autres du genre!

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Cold [en]

In India, I have often been asked how we survive the cold in winter. Having cold winters is the norm for us over here, and that makes it hard to find the words to explain it.

The answer I usually give amounts to “well, we heat our houses, have windows and doors that don’t let the cold in (well, not too much of it), and have coats and boots which protect us from the cold when we go outside.

Having just come home from the cinema on a chilly night, I can tell you the statement above is a little idealistic. Here is what a cold winter in Switzerland is like.

First of all, sitting at my computer I can feel cold air around my hands when I type. It gets outright chilly when I reach for the mouse on my right, nearer to the window. Yes, I have double-glazing. No, the building isn’t very old – thirty years or so. Yes, the windows could do with some sticky foam around them to keep the draught out. Or I could at least fit curtains on my windows. Or pull the blinds down everywhere as soon as it gets dark enough.

But apart from that, I’m just normally dressed inside: trousers and a blouse or pullover. I tend to snuggle up in blankets more often than in summer, though.

Outside is a different story. People don’t stay outside unless they have to. If they do plan to stay outside (for work, walking, or any other good reason), they’ll make sure to put a few layers on, warm shoes and a serious coat. If they are skiing that’s another matter – we have ski-gear for the occasion.

But if you’re just going to work, you don’t want to turn up there with three pullovers or your ski-gear. It’s warm inside. It’s warm in busses and trains. It’s warm in cars too, if the trip is long enough for them to heat up (which isn’t the case with the 10 minutes or so it takes me to get to work or university).

So either you pile on layers for the journey, run the risk of finding yourself caught in a warm place and sweating, and having to peel everything off on arrival – or you just dress for work, put a big coat on and walk quickly.

That’s what I do, of course. Shiver my way to the car. Turn motor on, start driving (with gloves, the steering-wheel slips in cold hands). Wait for the temperature in the car to become bearable (a human body in a small closed space does heat it up a bit – especially when the motor is running), get out of the car, and shiver off from the car to the destination.

Repeat for return journey.

The point being: if the aim of your expedition is not to stay outside, you’re bound to be pretty cold outside. Shivers, nasty draughts where the coat lets them in, numb fingers, runny nose…

If I have a choice, I’d rather be too warm than too cold. That being said after having lived one year in a tropical country where I was too warm.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. As we heat our houses, we need our fridges the whole year around.

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Paris… [en]

…Il faudra repasser.

Pour apprivoiser une ville, j’aime flâner dans ses rues, me poser dans ses cafés, manger dans ses bistrots et baver devant les vitrines de ses magasins. Activités qui sont loin d’être compatibles avec mon état actuel.

Enfer et frustration, comme dirait quelqu’un de ma connaissance.

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Prague [en]

J’ai ramené de Prague trois rouleaux de film et un rhume, mais aussi d’autres choses plus intérieures et invisibles au premier abord.

  • Ma vie en Inde a chamboulé mon cadre de référence. Prague ne m’a pas paru délabrée. L’hôtel m’a semblé luxueux. Les prix m’ont paru chers.
  • Dans un restaurant, il reste une table à  trois places. Nous sommes quatre. Je commence poliment à  demander au couple qui occupe une table à  quatre places si cela ne les dérange pas de changer de table afin que l’on puisse manger là , quand la serveuse se met à  me parler en Tchèque, l’air furieuse, avant de repartir derrière son bar, en me jetant des regards noirs.
    En Tchéquie, il est visiblement d’un impolitesse inexcusable de demander à  d’autres clients de changer de table. Magnifique expérience de cultural clash, en pleine figure s’il-vous-plaît. Vous êtes prévenus.
  • Les élèves ont tous des téléphones mobiles, qu’ils utilisent durant tout le séjour. Les parents ont de l’argent – je doute que ce soient les “chers petits” qui paient les communications, au prix où est le roaming international.
  • Pour une raison étrange, j’ai trouvé le marché très déprimant. Il y avait quelque chose de très triste à  voir ces gens acheter leurs légumes. Ne me demandez pas quoi, je m’en étonne encore.
  • L’architecture communiste n’est pas exactement conforme à  nos standards esthétiques…

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Afghanistan [en]

Like I had, you have probably heard of the sad plight of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban fundamentalist gouvernment. They are not allowed to study or work. They are not allowed outside unaccompanied. They are deprived many rights we take for granted, even in the poorest countries.

Their fate is probably an abstract problem for you, a sad situation over which you have no hold, somewhere in a distant part of the world. At least, that’s how I saw it before I read an article in Marie Claire: Women Risking Their Lives for Education. I had received the email petition and dismissed it, as one should do with email petitions, but I just hadn’t realized how serious the situation was. And most of all, I hadn’t realized there was anything one could do about it.

RAWA is an underground organisation of Afghan women who fight for human rights and social justice in Afghanistan, amongst other things by providing education to girls. Their website provides information about RAWA’s social activities as well as an overview of the situation of Afghan women. You can also see some of the restrictions they suffer, as well as a frighteningly long list of links to individual stories. Of course, there is a photo gallery, but I haven’t had the courage to explore it.

Last but not least, they provide a very detailed page about how we can help them. They have published a booklet which one can sell or distribute, and are presently trying to re-open a hospital in neighbouring Pakistan. It is possible to specify for which purpose a donation is being made (web-based payment possible via PayPal).

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Life [en]

In Switzerland, I would go simply everywhere with Cali. In rare cases, she would wait for me in the car, or tied up in front of the library. I took her in restaurants, went shopping for clothes with her, and she was even accepted in two of my university classes.

In England, you aren’t expected to go into town with your dog. The only ones around are those which inevitably accompany marginal people. I understood this yesterday when we went out for a walk/shop/coffee in Birmingham New Street.

We were asked to take her out of the coffee shop we had sat in, after our drinks had arrived. We were asked to take her out of the shopping mall, after we had been in there for an hour. No where did I see a sign forbidding dogs – I really had to look for it. Dogs aren’t allowed loose in the park. They aren’t really supposed to be on the university grounds, either.

Switzerland must be dog-owner’s paradise.

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India [en]

One of the things I missed the most when I arrived in India was the long evenings. Today, at something past 10 pm, the sky has only just become black.

The first day I arrived in Pune, we went out to eat around 7 pm. My plane had landed at 5 o’clock, I had had time to dump my stuff in my room, have a bath, and get changed. We stepped outside and it was pitch black. All of a sudden,
it felt as though my internal clock had broken down: it couldn’t be dark already!

I learnt to live with it. Being closer to the equator, India sees less difference in night length throughout the year than a country like Switzerland. It’s logical, it makes perfect sense, but I never would have thought about it. Not before it hit me straight in the eyes. I guess
Switzerland sounds to Indians like Scandinavia sounds to us.

One thing Indians tend to find really weird is the fact that we don’t have a rainy season. “You mean it rains all year long?” Well, of course it doesn’t rain every single day here. But it can rain at any given date. Simply enough, the idea of living in a place where there is no monsoon must sound quite incredible to the indian mind – just as we have trouble
imagining what the monsoon can be like before we have lived (swam) through it.

Today was the last lesson of my class on “Visual Hinduism”. We explored architecture, iconography, miniatures, but also rituals (hence my presentation on indian weddings) and finally even cinema. The teacher, who was doing this kind of “visual” class for the first time, was curious about our feedback.

Actually, I thought it was a great idea. Academic teaching often neglects the realm of the eye – unless you are studying history of art. And the visual world is very important for grasping indian culture.

I remember the first time I saw real pictures of India. My interest for India came late, as I was studying, so I had never spent much time looking at books, documentaries or other hippy friends’ photographs. All I had seen were photographs by Benoît Lange (or similar artists), which are
beautiful pictures but hardly prepare you for what you are actually going to see in indian streets.

So the first “real” indian photographs I saw were pictures of a pilgrimage that my teacher was giving a conference about. I had already started planning my trip to India, although it was still a long way off, and I can remember the surprise of seeing the stretch of brown earth, the
rickety stalls next to the road, and people scattered everywhere. “Gosh, it looks like that over there!?”

During my first days in India, my most intense culture shock was visual. I wasn’t prepared for it at all – I couldn’t have prepared myself, had I even wanted to. Everything I laid my eyes on was new and
unknown. Nothing made sense. All I could see was a mass of colours and shacks and rubbish and puddles and dogs and people. I just stayed there for hours on end, stunned, perched on my small terrasse above the street, looking at the strange world outside and trying to get over the
indigestion.

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