Thursday, September 3, 2009

Trailing Etiquette

Just like with deaths and divorces, relocating to another country causes a person to go through a series of well-documented stages.  There are a ton of these graphs out there floating around, but here is a link to one of them.
These charts all basically follow the same path with the first stage in the ex-pat rollercoaster ride of emotions being the “Honeymoon Phase”.  The Honeymoon Phase begins as soon as you accept your assignment and continues until such time as you arrive, find a place to live, get settled and actually try to start living your life.  Then comes the “Oh, Crap What Have I Done” phase.  That stage is horrible, so let’s not talk about it too much and go back to the much more fun Honeymoon Phase. 
One of the first things you will do, if you are being transferred with your spouse’s Company, is go on an initial househunting/reconnaissance mission to scope out the situation.  This is exciting stuff.  If you can get the Company to spring for Business Class plane tickets, do it!  The difference between Coach and Business on a long flight is WalMart to Nordstroms.  All of the clichés you have heard are true.  Business Class is like when you are in labor during childbirth and the doctor finally gives you the epidural.   Aaaah.  All your pain and woes just float away.  Baby, what baby?  Is someone here having a baby?  Not me, I’m just laying here relaxing, chewing on some ice, watching the soaps.  You can tell right away the Business Class regulars from the wannabees .  The regulars immediately find their little goodie bag and rummage around for the lovely booties.  Off go the shoes, on go the booties.  They hand their jackets to the stewardess FROM THEIR SEAT to be hung up.  I was flushed out as a poseur one of my first times because I made the mistake of trying to give my coat to the Lufthansa attendant as I was getting on the plane.  I was told with a knowing smirk that it would be collected from my seat, bitte, so that they would know who to return it to at the end of the flight without having to ask around, which would be tacky.  Um, OK, sorry, hangs head in shame.
No lines at check-in or Security, the Business Class lounges, the almost-completely-reclining seats, the lovely menu from which you pick your, not one, but two, meals.   You deserve all of this, you see, because you are making the ultimate sacrifice for the Company.  The Company OWES you.  You are giving up your entire life at their request.  You are relinquishing 24-hour a day shopping availability.  You are sacrificing your SUV.  You are giving up your God-given right to bagged ice.  You are owed that real silverware and free champagne, by gum, and the Honeymoon Phase is when you try and get it.  Polish up your negotiating skills because the time to really stick it to the Company is BEFORE you ever agree to the move.  Once you are already over there and your stuff is in a container being tossed about in the waves, it too late.  Much, much too late.  Your duty, as a good Trailing Spouse, is to help your little worker-bee to think of all the possible expenses you might incur THAT YOU WOULD NOT HAVE ENCOUNTERED had you stayed right there, safe and sound, in your own comfort zone.   
Onto the big adventure.  Hopefully you have been listening and have negotiated into your contract the services of a Relocation Expert in your new locale.  Ours was named Boris.  Boris’ job on this first expedition was to simply help us find a place to live.  If you are not moving to Switzerland, this will probably be a fun project for you, going around looking at all of your choices, picking the one that is “just right” for you and your family.  Switzerland, however, is a different kettle of fish, altogether.  I thought I was mentally prepared for Switzerland’s “tight” housing market.  I had done my internet research and knew the statistics.  70% of the Swiss rent, not own, their homes.  So, I was prepared to be a renter.  The rental availability in the Canton (like a county) of Vaud (pronounced Vo) was less than 1%.  See, you can read that statistic on the internet but you really can’t grasp what it actually means until you experience it in the flesh.   It is even worse than New York City where people go apartment hunting by reading the obituaries and flocking to the poor dead guy’s door.  New Yorkers have no problem tiptoeing through a pack of still-weeping relatives in their quest to be first to view a vacancy. 
On our first day, Boris shows up at our hotel in his impossibly tiny car to usher us around the canton to look at places.  All four of them.  Four.  In an area roughly the size of Greater Dallas-Ft. Worth, there were four apartments and/or houses available that had at least 3 bedrooms, 2 baths and were less than 10,000 CHF per month. 

Whoa!  Back up, you say!  10,000 CHF per month?  Isn’t that like 9,000 US dollars?  Why, yes, it is Mr. Mathematics, thank you.  According to our research and our Boris, this was not an unreasonable amount to pay for a nice home in and around Lausanne, Switzerland.  And I wasn’t even being picky!  We only needed one parking place because we were only going to have one car.  

We didn’t need a garden or yard if we had a view or a balcony of some sort.  We set the minimum size requirement at 1200 square feet, which is quite spacious by Swiss standards where a 36 sq. meter apartment (360 sq. feet) rents for 1500 CHF per month (1300 USD).   Are you over the sticker shock?  Can we move on?  We knew going in what the housing prices were like, so we were prepared.  Sorry I had to spring it on you like that.

Anyway, I’m thinking with only four places to look at we will be finished by noon in time to enjoy one of those leisurely 2-hour Euro-lunches including a cheese course and a nice bottle of wine with which to toast our successful house hunt.  Um, no.  Boris hands us our typewritten agenda for the day with our appointment times for each house.  We have two morning appointments and two afternoon appointments.  You see, there is no Lock Box System in CH.  A showing requires both the buyer’s representative (Boris) AND the seller’s representative.  This other person might be the seller, himself, a current tenant or a realtor.  The point being that this OTHER PERSON will follow you around and, consequently, you can’t say what you really think, i.e. “Is this guy out of his mind?  He wants how much for this shoebox?” or “I wouldn’t let my dog live here”, like you would if you were back in the US.  No, no, Madame.  You must be polite.  You must not be an Ugly American.  You must go on the entire tour, top to bottom, side to side, even though you knew when you pulled up out front that it was a non-starter.  You must look inside the bomb shelter.

Did she just say “bomb shelter”?  Yes, she did.  But I thought Switzerland was a neutral country, you say.  That may be true, however, it is a law in Switzerland that every dwelling come equipped with a bomb shelter to protect its’ residents from nuclear fallout just in case they ever actually enter into a war.  We are using ours to store wine and the coffee table that the movers destroyed.  Well, today’s blog-a-thon has gone on long enough.  Tune in next time for a more in-depth look at Boris and his fabulous Swissiness.

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