I didn't really advertise this on the blog, but our situation with the residency permit was certainly not the ideal. Remember, our goal was to get to Switzerland early enough so that the children could be settled in to the life in Switzerland, get to know the area, find some comfort, before we sent them off to school. To meet that goal, our scheduled arrival date in Switzerland, along with the apartment rental, the shipping, all the everything else involved for this relocation had a date of August first, 2007.
Unfortunately, nobody informed the Swiss Visa and Fribourg Canton authorities of our tight schedule.
There were many forces conspiring to delay our trip to Switzerland, but one force -- Stacy -- (yes, she can be described as a force) that continued on course to meet that date. All the other stuff involved in the US was closing out. We had the furniture get shipped out. We had people come in and rent our home in Virginia. We had everything packed. The United States Department of State, which was responsible for issuing passports, took their sweet time in issuing the passports for the family. Also, my passport had to be renewed, as it was due to expire in less than two year's time. My passport didn't take any time at all: it was returned within a week's time.
As I was saying, the Fribourg authorities were not apprised of our plans, and also took their sweet time in preparing the work permit. Stacy and I were at a point where our departure to Switzerland could not be delayed, and we were forced to embark on our journey, work permits, entry permits or not. We found a loop-hole in the system: to enter the country as Tourists. Stay for a week or two while the permits were getting prepared. Exit the country, acquire entry visa. Enter the country. Register with the local authorities. Live peacefully as legal aliens.
The catch for the resident tourist strategy is that only 90 days was permitted here, and no working! Once the 90 days was up, if no permit, I was required to leave the country and not come back for another 30 days. (Yowza!)
It did not take the predicted 1 or 2 weeks overlap, in this country as tourists. It took 4 and a half weeks overlap. As each day went by without a permit, we grew increasingly nervous of the following scenario:
We do not like Americans named Piet in our country. We have had problems with them in the past. Therefore, permit registration denied!If this event was to transpire, I had a special place on Monbijoustrasse bridge over the Aare prepared in just such an occasion.
That long-awaited day finally came. That lovely e-mail announcing the arrival of the work permit, and the appointment with the Swiss embassy in Washington DC to acquire the entry permit. Remember the original plan. Since we were here as tourists, we had to leave. And when we left, we had to re-enter. Also, the entry permit was a special document affixed to the passport, and required a Swiss consulate to handle the passport for a short time.
We had the possibility of mailing our passports back to the Washington, DC office; having them mailed back through FedEx. We also considered the possibility of going to Lyon, France for the day, and visiting the Swiss consulate there for the same activity. It was decided: Lyon is a short (3 or 4 hour) train ride away, and we could spend the night at a hotel there. Since we had to leave the country anyway, this was the perfect opportunity to finally get some travel done in Europe.
Also, during this period of living as tourists in Bern, we were growing desperately poor. This was due to fact that some of the funding from the company was dependent on the successful acquisition of the work visa. Our financial desperation was bordering on destitute. We were one or two meals away from brushing the bread crumbs from the cupboards into bowls of water, to call them soup. The acquisition of the permits could not have been any later.
To Lyon via Bern, Lausanne, Bern, Geneva
Sunday, 9th of September, we all awoke early, got on the train to Bern Bahnhof, Stacy purchased the tickets to Geneva, and purchased an open ticket and return to Lyon, France. Since by that time, I had my "General Abonnement" card (allowing me unlimited access to any bus, train, ship, and go-kart in Switzerland), there was no need for a ticket for me, except for the ticket from Geneva to Lyon.
We boarded the train before 10 AM, and headed westbound. It was quite crowded, and I sat with some of the large bulky luggage in my lap. Past Fribourg, and the kids started getting hungry. I set out with Joey and Cecilia to find the Restaurant car on the train. We go four cars forward, until I see the train conductor. He is collecting tickets, checking that the passengers all have their GA tickets. Infractions cost 80 CHF in cash-money. If you do not have the cash, then they send a bill for 100 CHF.
Since Stacy is such a type-A personality, and needed to gather all documents involved for this journey, she gathered all the passports into her folder with all the other immigration documentation. Earlier in the week, I begrudgingly gave up my passport, and didn't think much about it since then.
Upon the site of the conductor, I realized that I had my wallet, which contained my GA. I then realized that I did not have the appropriate documentation (Junior Karte) for the two children who were in search of the restaurant car with me. So I turned around. The Junior Karte is a document which allows children, while accompanied with a parent, to travel anywhere in the country for free. So if I have a GA, and the Junior Karte, I can go anywhere in the country, and only Stacy has to buy a 1/2 fare ticket. The Junior Karte resides in my leather envelope along with my passport.
Cecilia and Joey and I set back to where Stacy was sitting. "I need my passport pouch", I announce to Stacy.
"You're kidding!" she shouts. Swiss trains are generally very quiet, and the volume of this was well obvious, and noted by the startled, mild-mannered passengers. "You don't have your passport." A statement of incredulous interrogation.
"No, I don' thave my passport."
"I gave it to you yesterday."
Ach. Now I know what happened. Let's rewind a bit. I spent Saturday, September 8th at the glider port, getting some familiarization flights at the new field with the new flight procedures, etc. I will get to that in more detail later in this chapter. Before I left for the day to go to the gliderport, I acquired my passport from my wife's pouch of important documents. Stacy had collected all of these documents so we would have everything when re-entering the country. I feared that I might need my passport, because somebody might take me to the Airport authorities and get me checked in, an airport badge, and a key for the fence onto the airport grounds.
"I know exactly where my passport is. It's on my desk." I had walked by that desk two or three times, but never sat at my desk, to see my passport staring me in the face, asking to be taken along. The reason I never got to sit at my desk, is Jake was hogging my computer for some sort of game that doesn't play on his computer.
By this time, we were halfway between Fribourg and Lausanne. The conductor came to us and asked for our tickets. Stacy thankfully had her Junior Cards, and the kids were safe from being fined 80 CHF. I asked the conductor (in German) for the connection information back to Bern. Now the title of this section may make sense. To get to Lyon, my journey now included the following connections: Bern, Lausanne, Bern, Geneva, Lyon.
Thankfully, Stacy called our local American friend, who had been tasked with feeding our rabbit creatures inhabiting the balcony. (This friend happens to live in a castle.) (Yes, really). (Yes, we would like them even if they didn't live in a castle). The friend wasn't put out by doing this favor for us, and found her way to our apartment, grabbed the missing passport, and met me at the Bern train station. Peggy, our friend replied, "I can see myself doing this exact same thing for my husband."
Stacy rode on with the kids. I took one piece of luggage, with the sleeping bags. Stacy's connection in Geneva to Lyon was a short one. She had 8 minutes to get off the Geneva train, get on to the train to Lyon. There was no time to stop for food. Did I mention I never made it to the restaurant car on the train? Did I also mention that there was no restaurant car on the French train to Lyon? Stacy had a miserable trip with whiny, hungry children. Of course, this is my fault for forgetting my passport.
The good thing about trains in Switzerland, Bern in specific, is that the trains leave regularly. I connected with a very short turn around time in Lausanne, less than 3 minutes, and waited 34 minutes in the train station in Bern. Actually, there was a train leaving right back to Geneva, after I got in Bern, but I wanted to make sure I got some lunch at the train station, and Peggy wasn't waiting at the station to hand over the passport anyway. I bought a book, in German, that I had read about in Scientific American.
By the time I got to Geneva, it was about 13:30. My next connection was 14:21, nearly an hour away. By this time, Stacy was almost all the way to Lyon, hungry starving children, and wife with a growing migraine. I spent that hour walking around the train station. I made it down to the lake, took a few quick pictures, and turned around to get back to the train station in time to get to my train.
Trains: Follow Your First Instinct
(or learn French)
The procedure for customs between Geneva and France are a lot less elaborate than... say entering the United States off of a plane from Amsterdam. It is simply a door where they check your passport, your ticket, and let you through with a pleasant "Bonjour, Merci!" I walk up the ramp to my train. The sign is big and bold and obvious. Lyon -- Part Dieu. I stow my luggage, and settle in for the two hour ride ahead of me.
There are a lot of people sitting outside the train. They look like they're waiting for another train. Hmm. That sign in the train. It doesn't say Lyon. It says "Grenoble".
Hmm. I wonder what Grenoble is. Is it the brand name of the train? Why does it say Grenoble? I wonder if it's a city. I wonder if all those other people are waiting for my train to Lyon, and this is the train to Grenoble. Where the hell is Grenoble? I pull out the Blackberry 8800 with a GPS unit, and a connection to Google Maps. I type in Grenoble. I find it's significantly further south than Lyon.
Holy crap! I'm on the wrong train! Nobody on this train speaks (or pretends to speak) English. I exit immediately, but I'm not quite sure. After exiting, I start looking for a conductor. Nowhere to be found. I ask two strangers, neither understood me well enough, or pretended to, at least. Here's your situation, see how you fare:
The train says the name of a city that is not obviously in line for where you are going. Nobody can help you. The sign outside the train, on the track where the train sits, tells you the correct city location. There is nobody to help you. Do you:
- Get on the wrong train and risk having the wrong ticket and getting fined very heavily.
- Wait around a bit and see if this train looks like it's going to depart at exactly 16:21 (the time of departure shown on the sign)
- Wish you went to the consulate in Austria instead, where they speak a language you can understand and are quite comfortable in.
The train pulled out of the station at precisely 16:21. For a few seconds, the sign was blank, then changed to "Paris"
Crap. Wrong choice. Apparently this train does go to Lyon first, but ends up in Grenoble eventually.
Oh well, shouldn't be a terrible delay. Lesson learned. No problem. I'll just look at the schedule and find the next train to Lyon. It's now 16:22 and
The next train doesn't leave until 20:37. I check the schedule at least 3 times in disbelief. Nothing named Lyon between the departed 16:21, and the 20:37. Retard.
Unanticipated Day in Geneva
Well, there are worse cities in the world to be stuck in for a day. (Champagne Illinois comes to mind). I find a place to store my luggage for the afternoon, in a locker for 7 CHF, and start walking around this beautiful city. For you geographically challenged Americans reading this blog, Geneva is right next to a big lake, named... C'mon guess: Lake Geneva. Along this lake in Geneva are a zillion boats, little restaurants, lots of tourist attractions.
View Larger Map
I spent the 3 hours walking up the lake and taking pictures. I found a very neat sundial, a park with zillions of old bicycle tires which have been converted into swings. I walked along a rocky shoreline, with boulders to protect the shore. I also enjoyed the views of the lake. It was too windy and cold to go swimming, but there was a beach for the children to play in the sand.
I got back to the train station with about 45 minutes to spare. If I missed this train, there was no way to get to Lyon that day. I sat in the train station, and saw this sign:
So, faced with this situation, do you:
- Realize that you could have gotten on this train, it goes to Paris, and stops in Lyon on the way.
- Better to play it safe. Don't get on that train.
- This sign says something like "reservations obligatory" on the bottom, and I don't think my ticket would qualify.
I eventually got on the right train. Passport in hand. Luggage retrieved from the locker. Sitting in my seat. My neighbors look confused. They keep looking at their tickets, then look at the numbers on the seats. They look like they're looking for an assigned seat on the train. I check mine. No where on that ticket does it look like an assigned seat location. All the fields that look like they should be an assigned seat have a "*" symbol, which to me, the programmer, sees that as a wildcard. "I can sit where I want!" I sure hope I don't get a yellin' at in French from the conductor.
The conductor eventually found me, and punched the ticket with no comments. He did comment to the two people trying to find their assigned seat number that looked like they were in the wrong assigned seats or something. I don't know. It was French. Or Italian. Or something I didn't understand.
I arrive at the Lyon -- Part Dieu train station at 11:00 ish. With luggage in hand, and Blackberry 8800 with GPS and Google Maps, I head out. The blackberry is my tri-corder. I have the address for the hotel plugged in, and I start following the streets that looks like it will eventually get me there. Only 4 kilometers! I'm too scared to get a taxi, and if I get mugged, they can have this luggage with two sleeping bags in it. It will lighten my load. It's also not as if I have any cash either.
I eventually get to the hotel, and check in. I find my bed. It is near midnight. What a day.
It's a Zoo with Imaginary Animals!
The next morning, the family had breakfast at the Hilton breakfast bar downstairs. The food was excellent, the service was even better, and everybody was so nice and friendly. We enjoyed our stay at that hotel very much. The cool thing about that hotel, is that it is a part of a long string of interesting buildings adjoined with an art museum, a casino, and right next to the biggest garden with zoo that you have ever seen.
View Larger Map
Stacy makes her way via taxi to the Swiss consulate to get our passports prepared with the correct entry visas. My mission was to take the kids to the zoo. The kids had spent lots of time in the gardens on the previous day (while I was discovering Geneva), and were terribly disappointed that they did not find the zoo.
We made our way to the zoo around 10:00 am, and started to look for these animals. Lots of cages. No animals. We went to the first exhibit, an empty area. Maybe birds are supposed to be here. We go to the second. There are supposed to be monkeys here. Third. Bears. Nowhere to be found. "What kind of zoo is this!" Jake asked.
"It's a zoo with imaginary animals, Jake! You have to imagine you're seeing a bear!" Jake found that funny, and for the first few minutes in this zoo, this is really how it felt. Maybe the animals were all sleeping in. I don't know. Eventually, we found the crocodiles, which were out sunning, warming up for another exciting day at the zoo. That's when we started to see all the animals that were probably getting fed or maybe just not yet woken up.
We saw the elephants (Indian, not African), zebras, bears. After the kids started complaining about needing to go to the bathroom, they repeated what they were told by their mother yesterday. "They don't have bathrooms here, just showers."
This I don't believe. The kids take me to these "showers"
They are not showers, they are squatters. How primitive! And the kids, especially Cecilia, really have to go. Jake has to go too, and it has to be in the squatter, too.
"How do we use it?" the kids ask. I demonstrate (clothed).
This sure was entertaining listening to the kids complain. After the experience was scarred on their psyche forever, we exited. I saw the handicapped bathroom. I couldn't help but wonder how the squatters were adapted for the people in wheel chairs.
"Oh look at that Jake, a regular toilet!"
Boy was he angry.
Parlay-vous Number Deux on le Sides?
Stacy found us, and we had lunch. We headed for the train station for a 14:00 departure. Unfortunately, when we arrived, that train was a "Reservee Obligatorie" or something like that, reservations only-train ride. The 15:45 train was a bus to Geneva. Our next train didn't come until 16:45. Ugh. It's like Geneva all over again. We tried sitting in the train station for a little while, until we realized that we were going to kill the children for whining too much before the train ever came. So we set out on a new journey.
I love doing this in cities: pick a direction and go. You'll find something interesting in most cities (Except maybe Champagne, Illinois). I found the Tokyo dome in Japan, and watched a baseball game. I found a Coast Guard Station in San Diego, I found the Pornography museum in New York City. (oh, that's another story).
Here in Lyon, we picked a direction and just "went." Stacy and I have been giving that look to each other for the past few days. You know, the look of "Gee, Jake is starting to look like a Hippy." So we found the first Coiffeur that we could spot, and walked in. No English. It's like living in Miami, almost.
We managed to convey our interest in having the boy's hair cut (See section title). Mostly with the typical American who doesn't speak French's favorite method of communication. Hand gestures, grunts, slow talking. Jake was miserable that we were forcing him to get a hair cut against his will. The hair stylist did a great job for a fee that was far less than we would have ever paid in Switzerland.
Cecilia got her hair cut too, with a very short haircut that she loves.
We eventually got onto a very crowded train with a boring pizza that took forever to cook and almost made us miss our train. There was no place to store our luggage except for our legroom. We had a stranger sit on the same bench as us. Nobody spoke English, of course. (or at least everybody pulled a Quebequois and pretended not to be able to speak English).
The entry into Switzerland with our visas was pretty uneventful. We had to ask that our passports get stamped, and that is not a normal occurrence at this customs station. So much effort for so little ink. But we're now legal, no longer tourists.
These poor kids. Wherever we go on a train, it is so boring for them. Be quiet. Sit. Don't scream. Don't poke your brother. Stop pulling his hair. Stop yelling. They have so much energy built up on these restless train rides that they go crazy. The ride from Lyon to Geneva was a constant struggle of independence versus the Parent-Police-State laying down the law.
It was on our train ride from Geneva to Bern that we were blessed with the dream of all parents: The Kinderwagen! This is a car on the train where the kids are allowed to be kids. It is a train that has a little playground in it. Not a big one, but certainly big enough to entertain the kids for the few hours on the train ride home from Geneva. Stacy and I sat quietly, while the younger three kids, sans shoes, climbed over the slides and ladders on this wonderful wonderful train car.
There was some guy with a laptop, who looked like he was trying to work. Too bad for him. I never told the kids to be quiet once. If this guy needs silence to work, he picked the wrong car. He eventually disappeared to seek productivity elsewhere. We eventually got back to Bern around 10:30, and the kids went straight to bed.
Fitting in with the Glider Club
Prior to the adventure in Lyon, I finally made my way to the glider club to get some flying done. Prior to this, I had not yet even flown with the club, and was starting to get very irritated with my decision to come to this country. My flying has been unacceptably low this year, and this trip to Switzerland is only going to harm my currency even worse.
I arranged some instruction with the same guy who gave me the first ride in Belp back in June; Kurt. The plan for the day was to put me in the Duo Discus, and do the four flights necessary to get me ready to fly any of the club's planes. I am not permitted to fly to the alps yet, until I get a few check flights. But in principle, after these four familiarization flights, I'm set.
The flying part is easy. The Duo is a dream to fly. This one is brand new. It is less than a month with this club. This makes their third Duo-Discus. This one is actually the "Duo-Discus 'X'" with extra capable spoilers, my only complaint about the Discus, is the less than stellar spoiler capabilities.
Like I said, all the flying part is easy. I find myself enjoying this glider very much. The part I have the most trouble with was the communication with the radio tower. See, it's not like the communications with the tower is in German. Or Swiss German. Or French. It's English. I should be able to muddle my way through radio communications in English. This is a new procedure for the airport. The club has suffered a large drop in membership, as many of the members decided they did not want to have to learn English to communicate with the tower, and have gone on to other gliding clubs. No sweat! I should be able to handle this English thing!
Radio communications is hard. You have to fly the plane, and talk to somebody who is sitting at a desk and critiquing your radio manners. As a native English speaker, you can not draw from the power of improvisation, you can only recite the appropriate lines from this play: like a pull-down menu of only the correct words to say back to the tower. Also, whenever you're given a clearance, you have to hear it well enough, and say what they told you back to them, in the correct syntax. I'm not liking this very much. I was never comfortable with the tower communications in the three flights, and it might be a few more months until I'm fully comfortable.
Reporting to Work
Of course, the first thing I want to do once I got my work visa is actually go to work. That is why I came here, in the first place. Stacy, however, had different ideas. "Now that we have our residency permit, we can actually go get a car!"
"Now that I have a work permit, I can actually go to work!" was my response. I won on the first day. I reported to work on the Wednesday after our day at the Police station, registering. That was pretty much all the work I was able to do that week. My day at work was spent mostly getting my workstation operating, getting caught up on the 3000 e-mails that I didn't really have time to read, and meeting all the people in my office.
Car Purchase Adventures
One of the luxuries of this country is not needing a car. Back in Virginia, caught in Suburbia hell, riding my bike to work is an impossibility. Most Europeans do not easily grasp the concept that nobody walks, nobody bikes, and nobody uses public transport to work; unless you live in the close-in suburbs, or in deep urban areas ... on the east coast only (with a few west-coast exceptions like San Francisco). I really have been enjoying using the train and buses so that I don't have to drive. My conscience is lighter knowing I'm not supporting evil Mid-east regiemes with my commuting habits.
But Stacy will have no more of this "spend the whole day on trains" bit. As you may have read in previous posts, she takes the kids to school, takes a tram to drop off Joey at his babysitter, takes a tram back, then repeats the whole process in reverse, sometimes not getting back home until 4:30, having spent the whole day on trains.
During this time of no permitness, Stacy has been stalking used car dealers. She found a used car in the small village of Worb, on the southeastern outskirts of Bern. The car she found was an Opel Saffira, a year old, and with only 9,000 km on it. We got a reasonable lease deal, and it was certainly much cheaper than purchasing a car in the US.
Getting insurance was rather difficult, our American insurance company, USAA refused to insure the vehicle as the Opel "did not meet United States crash safety criteria" Which really means that I'm driving a vehicle that hasn't gotten into any crashes in the US; not that it's a rolling deathbox.
The conversation to purchase the auto was entirely in German, and I of course, had to be there, as Stacy couldn't sign the papers herself, or couldn't understand what they meant anyway. The financing was with GMAC, and was a pretty good deal. Hopefully, we won't drive too many miles.. kilometers on the car, and be able to return it to the dealership with a little bit of money coming back to us at the end.
The day before we drove home with the car, Stacy made a special trip to find a car navigation system. We got a Magellan NUVE 660, which has lots of neat features. The experience of driving to the school to pick up the kids, and the experience of having the computer tell us exactly where to go was much more simple than my journey in the Monster-Van last month. That would be the journey where I pissed off at least 2 dozen people, had 3 near accidents, and probably went down the wrong way on one way streets at least 3 times.
"I never knew that the school was so close to the house!" Stacy remarked. The train trip is 30 minutes or so, by car it's a mere ten minutes. I thought that the school was on the outer skirts of civilization, not just on the other side of the river. I guess the perception of distance really is reduced when driving around.
Cinderella on the Train
A week later, the company had a grand opening ceremony for the Fribourg office. The whole affair was rather quite a big deal. It even made the local newspapers. There were press conferences, trading of business cards, tours, newspaper reporters. The party with all the schmoozing was for the VeriSign officials only. Directors, VPs, etc. Not me. Not pee-on me.
But that was made up for with a company party the night after: Thursday. The company put on this party, starting at 6:30, where we had a bus pick us all up, and take us to a restaurant with a beer brewery, on the southwest edge of town. The party included an open bar (yay), and a variety of three locally-brewed beers for our tasting. After the beer tasting, we went upstairs for a wonderful meal. There were two choices, the pasta or the chicken. The chicken didn't turn out to be chicken. I was given the option of pasta and the strange French-named bird I never heard of (and can't remember). I looked it up on wikipedia, and it was too cute of a little birdy, so I opted for the less guilty pasta. Besides, pasta doesn't have bones to pick through.
The party bus left at 11:30, so we all staggered out to wait for the bus. We waited. And waited. The bus didn't come until about 11:45. A short bus ride home, and we found a ghost-town of Fribourg, late on a Thursday night. I got a car-ride to the train station.
I was kind of worried about finding a train back to Bern this late, so along the way to the train station, I was scoping out nice bridge abutments I could sleep behind, like a homeless person. Oh by the way, did I mention that there were no hotels available in Fribourg? Many of the people who came to visit on this Fribourg special event had to stay in Bern, or stay at two star hotels.
Upon entering the train station, I found that the blue board, which lists all of the trains coming and going, usually full with the next 30 minutes worth of trains -- was completely blank. This place is a ghost town. There was one puny measly entry left on the board. I squinted to see the one train left was the 00:34 train back to Bern (whew). I waited 15 minutes for my train, and at 00:40, I was starting to get rather nervous. Finally, in typically un-Swiss fashion, the train arrived fashionably late at 00:49. I hopped aboard the nearly empty train, and headed for Bern.
The train was stopping for the night in Bern. It's a good thing I don't live in Zurich. I exited the train to find that the Bern station was completely empty too. The S3 to Belp stopped running maybe 2 hours earlier. The S2 to Schwarzenburg also. Buses? Nope. There is something called a "moonliner" -- a bus that runs late hour routes. I didn't see any of these buses, and didn't know where to pick one up anyway. So a long walk home was ahead of me. In terribly uncomfortable dress shoes. I got home a few minutes before 2 AM. Next time I'll do the American thing and drive to the party, or drive to the office.
Taco Bell, How I Long for Thee!
"You always want what you can't have" It's not that I especially like Taco Bell. And it's not that I especially like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Or sweet pickles. Or cake mix. Or Cheerios. Or the little baked gold-fish crackers. But as far as we can tell, these things do not exist in Switzerland.
A co-worker alerted us to the "American Market", a store in Geneva that has stocked up on these very things that we miss so much. Except maybe for the Taco Bell. Once I learned of this location, I immediately informed Stacy, and we planned a weekend excursion to Geneva.
I will tell you of the tale of our trip to Geneva in the next issue.