Sunday, April 21, 2013

Smoking and Salads

First Few Weeks at Work

Two Swiss, two Belgians, two Germans, and one American all walked into a bar.

No, this isn't the beginning of one of those bar jokes.  This was an after-work cocktail hour that my coworkers and I attended last week.  I work in a very international environment, and although the company's official language is English, more often than not German or Dutch (Flemish) is the language of choice between co-workers.  This leaves me in an interesting position.  When German is being spoken around me, I can often understand what is being said, but can't put together a cohesive response, so I jump into the conversation in English.  It doesn't bother anyone, but if you were a fly on the wall of our office, the conversational dynamics might puzzle you.

Additionally, I am having to learn very specialized legal vocabulary in German.  I was given a 100-page document last week containing the entire immigration law code of Switzerland.  In GERMAN.  I am still taking German classes at night, but I am not yet officially at the intermediate "B" level.  In other words, I am still learning the basics.  So, as you might imagine, when I had this massive file dropped on my desk with instructions to try to read it, I slightly wanted to crawl under my desk and cry.

But you know what?  This feeling was so common to law school that I realized I could attack this challenge in the same way I might try to get through a horribly dense law school reading.  I focused on the general shape of the document.  I didn't allow myself to get bogged down in all the details, but I made sure I could understand what the chapter headings meant, along with about one sentence per page.  Oddly enough, this strategy really worked.  I have a good idea of which laws are located where, but I didn't get overwhelmed.  If you ever find yourself in a similar pickle, I highly recommend this method.  German is tough though...I am still wrestling with it, and I think it is still winning.  Hopefully one of these days the tides will change.

I love my new job.  I find it intellectually challenging and sometimes just plain fun.  I studied Italian and French at the U of A, enjoying every moment of Dante and Camus, yet knowing that I might never get to use these language skills I was learning.  At my new job, however, I am doing just this.  I read through Swiss immigration law, and as it is available in the three major languages of Switzerland, (German, French, and Italian), I skip around sections in different languages depending on how my vocabulary serves me in that particular bit of text.

The Lone American

I am the only American in my office.  If you ever find yourself as the only American in an all-European working context, here are some things that you should avoid.  As I have recently learned, if you do them, your co-workers will likely think you are nuts.

1.  Don't eat at your desk for any reason.

I made this mistake on my second day of work.  We typically take an hour for lunch, and I had used my hour taking care of a few errands and had run out of time.  I got back to the office and decided it would be best if I simply ate lunch at my desk.  I sit in a room with three co-workers, and as I carried my salad dish in, they all looked up at me in surprise.  Concerned comments immediately followed:

"You really don't need to do that!" one woman said.

All three of them looked horrified, as if I was cutting my wrists over my keyboard.  The woman in the cubicle next to me continued,  "Really.  Take it into the conference room and enjoy.  There is no need for this."

I slightly poo-pooed them, and politely said it wasn't a problem.  They didn't look convinced.  And then my boss came in.  He walked into the room with a smile on his face, as if he was about to say something funny.  However, he looked down at me, saw my plate, and frowned.

"You are eating at your desk!  What are you people doing to this poor girl?!"  He then looked directly at me very seriously,  "You don't have to do that you know."

I then decided it would be best for everyone if I ate in the other room.  The little bit of work I could accomplish during my lunch wasn't worth the stress it caused.  Just relax and enjoy your food.

2.  Don't ever belittle your illness if you aren't feeling well.

I came down with a serious cough my first week of work.  On Friday, it got so bad that I decided I needed to see a doctor that day and would have to leave work early.  I looked over my cubicle wall and peered over at a co-worker.  I didn't want to make a fuss, but I wanted to know what would happen for my pay for the day if I left early.  I whispered, "So, if I leave early, I get docked half a day's pay, right?"  Although my employment contract includes vacation days, it was silent on sick days.  I assumed this meant I didn't have any.  How wrong I was.

My co-worker raised his eyebrows and looked up at me.  "No no.  This is Europe."   At this point the other two co-workers peered over at me over their cubicle walls.  First, one said, "You should take care of yourself.  Go see a doctor and feel better.  Unless you are sick for like a month, it isn't a problem and you will be paid normally."

I was utterly shocked.  I have never been paid for a sick day in my entire life.  I was accustomed to downing medicine and just pretending that everything was fine, alone in my misery.  I could feel my brain short-circuiting.  It didn't compute.  I was going to be paid for a sick day!?!?

I nearly got weepy.  I wasn't feeling well, and I felt so lucky to work somewhere that valued my health so much.  No need for a doctor's note.  Just go home and stay there until you feel human again.

A German co-worker, a very kind young woman of around my age looked at me, perplexed by my surprise.  I decided to ask her another question, curious how this approach to sick days worked if you were ill for a longer period of time. 

"So, if I have a flu for two weeks, what happens?"

My poor co-worker's level of perplexity climbed to new heights.  She looked so confused by my question, she had to pause to search for the right words.  After a few seconds, the looked at me with total kindness and said gently, "Nothing.  We believe that if you are sick, are...sick."  The way she said it sounded like she was saying something so obvious that it was hard to articulate.

3.  Don't eat salads every day for lunch.

I am viewed as a health-nut because I eat salads, fruit, and yogurt at work.  I once declined an offer for ice-cream and was looked at as if I was some sort of alien.

4.  If you are a non-smoker, expect commentary.

Almost everyone in my office smokes.  They all go out on the balcony of our building for smoke breaks and chat, smoke, and laugh.  When they take their smoke break, I take a "text Hodge" break, in which I find a way to poke Hodge and say hello somehow with my phone.  They have noticed my habit, and think it is very fair.

4. Don't eat low-fat dairy products.

This is perplexing to many.  I bought low-fat yogurt and again was looked at with a bit of suspicion.  One co-worker asked, "Are you worried about your weight?"

I answered honestly and said, "No, not worried really.  I am just trying to be healthy."  I decided it was too early in our co-worker relationship to reveal that I only fit into half of my suits because I gained ten pounds since moving to Europe.

It started with eating crumpets in London and then was compounded with repeated delicious cooking by Hodge.  When you are in a country whose recipes are all based upon bread, butter, cheese, or chocolate, it isn't easy to stay lean.  I have been able to lose about 4 pounds in the last month, but it has been challenging.

Attempting to cut out carbohydrates in Switzerland is hell.  As I wait at my bus-stop in the morning, I smell freshly baked bread from the bakery next to the bus stop.  I then take the bus to the train station, where there are more bakeries with delicious smells oozing out of them.  I then get on the train where many commuters have a coffee and a "gipfeli."  (Swiss-German for croissant).  I then get off the train in Zurich where I smell more bakeries.  And yes, when I get off my subway train I walk up to the street where my work is and guess what!?  A beautiful boutique bakery with fresh bread, donuts, muffins and god knows what else.  Difficult.

5.  When you do start eating something in the presence of a European co-worker, don't forget to say your "bon appetit."  It is a little bit unseemly to just dig into your food without this sort of official "let us begin" tradition.

My co-workers don't care so much about this.  We all sat down to lunch in our conference room the first week and I quickly noticed that this was the norm.  It isn't a big deal, actually, but it is a habit I seem unable to remember.  I am hungry and I just want to eat, so I do.  I frequently give a belated and retro-active "än guete,"  which is "bon appetit" in Swiss German.  Oh well.  I am who I am, and there are certain things I am perhaps unable and unwilling to change.  This leads me to another little story.

I take a banana to work every day, and I often eat it on the train to Zurich.  They are portable and delicious and I love them.  I rather prefer to be ignored when I eat on a train.  I just want to sit happily with my banana and look out the window.  My first banana, on the way to my first day at work a few weeks ago, created a bit of a situation.

I sat by the window, pulled out my banana, and peeled it back halfway. I then noticed that a man sitting across from me was watching with interest.  He looked at me and said "än guete" and smiled.  He looked at me as if he had done me an immense favor, and that now I could eat, thanks to his blessing.  I smiled pack at him politely and said "Danke."  But the interaction didn't end there.

He watched me eat my banana, and then I threw away the peel in the bin next to my seat.  (Yes, Swiss trains have these and they are very convenient).  He was still staring at me.  I rubbed my hands together to get the little bit of banana off my skin.  He looked concerned.

I wondered what he wanted.  I felt as if I had suddenly entered a Mr. Bean skit.  As I had this thought, almost on cue, he reached into his bag and pulled out a kleenex.  He smiled brightly, shook it out ceremoniously, and nodded as I took it.  He looked happy, as if he yet again saved me from a very undesirable situation.  I had clean, banana-free hands.

He then stared at me for the rest of the train-ride, and then as we both got off at the Zurich main station he tipped his hat to me and told me to have a wonderful day.  He was harmless enough I suppose, but it was an awkward train ride.

Hodge met me on the train from Zurich after my first day of work.

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