Letter From Chur

The first in an occasional series.

The last Saturday in January, mid-morning, I left Montpellier. It was cold enough to wear a down vest under my long coat; where I was going would be much colder. The transfer at Mulhouse was uneventful, if awkward: moving my luggage (a massive rolling suitcase, a backpack/duffle bag, and my beloved Menlo Masters swim pack, which was my new computer bag) involves several trips in and out of the train, then a specific order of loading so I can carry it all.

The passengers on the TGV Lyria, the high speed train between Paris and Zurich, were a bit more homogenous than those of my Montpellier-Mulhouse leg. They were mostly white, a few Asians, generally older, as evidenced by the odd book seen here or there. Of note was the sameness of the attire worn by many of the women: dark corduroy pants, turtlenecks under a dull colored wool sweater, they wore eyeglasses with simple steel rims, lacking in the style of the designer frames favored by French women. Their hair was cut short, defiantly grey: they were getting an early start on the neutering effects of old age.

My rowmate as far as Basel was a long haired hipster, his decal covered computer was closed on the tray in front of him, while he played a game on his phone. He was replaced by an early 30’s, dark haired woman. After she sat down she passed the entire trip to Zurich, fingers tap dancing on her phone, her body very still, only her fingers moving quickly, like a spider that has caught then neutralized a fly, using only its two foreleg to quickly wrap the fly in a bundle, spinning it around and around, until it is properly sealed.

When we stopped in Basel, a man and two women walked through the train, looking at luggage in the overhead shelves, under seats, and in the luggage storage areas. Under waist length brown leather coats or wool jackets, they wore thick turtleneck sweaters, and looked like French resistance fighters from a movie about World War II. They were not looking for collaborators or planning to blow up the train. On their arms they wore yellow bands, in black the word ‘douane‘, customs. They were looking contraband in the form of purchases made by residents of Switzerland, who had gone shopping in France, where prices were much lower.

This would become a frequent subject of conversation in my new office: depending on where you lived in Switzerland, excursions to France, German, Italy, or Austria for shopping, especially food shopping. I already knew the cost of living in Switzerland was much higher than the neighboring countries, but my first time in a food store demonstrated just how high: after an initial glance at a per unit price of meat, I wondered what were people complaining about? The price listed was a fraction of the price per kilo of that same meat in France.

Then I looked closer: the price listed was not per kilo, it was per 100 grams.

Absent from the list of border shopping destinations is Liechtenstein – here the scenario is reversed. The wealthy citizens of Liechtenstein can’t be bothered to slum it in those other countries, and they come to Switzerland to do their shopping.

I changed trains again in Zurich where it was quite cold: like many European cities, the main train station is open on most sides, and being made of stone or similar, there is bone penetrating cold. I found a train for Chur, and I arrived in the early evening.

I’d like to write that when I arrived into Chur on that dark, bitter cold Sunday night, that the train station was empty, a few tumbleweeds skidded by, a crow cawed then looked down at me from a telegraph line, and there was only the sound of the wind, howling wolves, and of a lonely halyard clanging in the wind. But that wasn’t the case.

There was a surprising hubbub of activity. Chur is a vacation town: alpine sports in the winter and hiking in the summer. There were travellers arriving for a week’s stay, others leaving after the same. More peculiar were the many skiers and snow boarders, clunking around the train station in their boots, skis over their shoulders or board under their arms. I later learned that Chur is situated in such a way that you can leave your hotel or apartment, as if you were walking out of the ski lodge slope-side, and take the train directly to any number of ski areas. The walk to the train, even a slow ski boot laden walk, is not more than ten minutes from downtown Chur. It’s not unlike Santa Cruz, where you can see surfers walking around town with their boards under their arms, sometimes while riding a bike; except here the comparison ends, because there’s no train shuttling you from inland directly to the beach.

My home for the next month, and longer, was the Hotel Post, about a ten minute walk from the train station. Annie and I had stayed here last September when we came for my interview, and among all the temporary housing options, it was the best price for its location. After checking in and unpacking, I went to Jamie’s Restaurant, the only restaurant Annie and I had liked, and the only one that was relatively reasonably priced. For an average sort of pizza and a very, very small glass of wine, it was only twice as much as you’d pay in France.

I didn’t start work until Thursday, so I had a few days to get some things taken care of. The first stop was the Einwohnerdientsamt, a sort of local residents service office. It’s where I had to go to register; two weeks before Annie and I had been to Paris to pick up my visa, and the staff at the Swiss embassy emphasized that upon arrival in country, I had two weeks to register.

It’s still a curiosity to me: registering with the local government authorities when you arrive, leave, or change your address. We have had to do the same in France. The libertarian in me, he doesn’t take up much space, rebels ever so slightly against this government oversight. This is, of course, a mirage: while it’s true that in the United States there is no prefecture or Einwohnerdienstamt, Americans and their movements, real and otherwise, are heavily monitored, be it by internet companies or their government. It is in fact the European governments which have the superior laws protecting the rights and privacy of their citizens.

Next was to set up local communications. I had internet at my hotel, but needed a phone plan. I went to the local phone store which sells all services, and ended up with a 20CHf card that included calls to France. Afterwards I went to the train station to buy a monthly commute pass – there are numerous train pass options, but best for me as an unlimited pass between Chur and the office, and for not much more I could get a city wide bus pass.

I had been worried about the process of getting set up in a new country. For the past six years, living as a foreigner in France, I’ve spent too much standing in lines at the prefecture, filling out forms, or requesting documents from different states and counties in the United States (for example: I or my parents were at one time residents of the following: Kansas, Virginia, Maryland, Vermont, California, Texas, and Arizona). For our family in France there was no U.S. government entity to help with the logistics of a move or all the paperwork, no multi-national employer providing resources and support to make the transition easier. It was all on us, logistically and financially, a lot of it on Annie for her French ability, all done on our own resources and initiative.

I wasn’t looking forward to repeating the process in Switzerland, and I didn’t have to. Most of the time Bianca in Human Resources told me where to go and what to do and how to do it, or if I had any questions, she quickly answered them.

Now it was Wednesday. I was in need of a swim and took the bus out to the city sport complex, where there is a 50 meter pool, outdoor in the summer, but covered in a massive heated white bubble in the winter. Even though it was in the early afternoon during the week, I was still surprised that there was no one in the pool. At the Olympic pool in Montpellier this is never the case, and at best you can get a lane with only two other people in it.

I swam slowly, not at all in shape. I wasn’t thinking much about swimming. I was thinking about the next day.

For almost nine years I had not worked, except for a couple of short term contracts (and these I worked the hours I chose). Thursday that would all change. In 2010 Annie and I left the Bay Area, choosing time over money, and over the years, I sort of intellectually understood how good I had it. Time! Now, in this new pool in a new town in a new country, away from everyone, the prospect, the reality of loss crystallized, and made me glad for the balm of sport and especially swimming. The bill had come due and it was time to pay.

Push off the wall, biceps to ears, hands on top of each other, look straight down to streamline. Try to undulate the body into the dolphin kick like Phelps or Coughlin. This is always the best moment, the fastest moment.

Of course there are other ways of looking the situation. I might be quite wrong, I often am.

How about this? Shut the fuck up, stop whining, and get on with it. Hasn’t all that time spent in lines and waiting at the perfecture taught you anything? Don’t you remember seeing Laos last summer? Or are you really that thick? Most of those people waiting and hoping at the prefecture are from second and third world countries, they’re just hoping for a chance at a better life. Oh, you lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for twenty-five years, then moved to the south of France, and now you have to go to work at a job at a technology company IN SWITZERLAND??

For my stupidity I pushed myself to 2000 meters – not much, but it was a start.

To be continued…

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