January 2009 Archives

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Whenever you move to a new country, you have to figure out some surprisingly basic things from scratch. One of the things which often causes a surprise is shopping. Shops are the same pretty much everywhere, right? Well, yes.. in many ways they are, but in a few important areas they can be very, very different.

Germany and Switzerland manage to be very, very different with their approach to shop opening hours. For starters, Sunday as a day of rest is taken extremely seriously here (probably most seriously of all by the shopworkers' unions). By law, shops in Zürich cannot open on Sundays unless they're catering to the needs of travellers, or are things like kiosks and restaurants. You can't go to the supermarket and buy a litre of milk and some teabags. Coming from the UK, where we've had Sunday opening for some time, this is something of a shock. It's an even bigger shock when you find that the shops you thought closed at 7 or 8 actually close at 5pm on Saturdays and you're therefore going to starve until Monday morning unless you go to the station and live entirely on bratwurst from the kiosks on the concourse.

Of course, even closing at 5pm on Saturdays is a fairly new thing. Until not so long ago, shops in Germany were required to close by 2pm on Saturdays, except for one Saturday a month which was known (in hushed, reverent tones) as Langer Samstag - Long Saturday - when they were allowed to open until 6.

The laws have largely eased over the last decade or so. It's worth pointing out that this reverence for the day of rest is unlikely to be religious in origin. Shops were open all hours 7 days a week until the latter part of the 19th century. It's pretty much down to the retail unions. I can't say I blame them entirely - if I was required to lose my Sunday in order to work in a shop every couple of weeks I'd want to stop that too.

So what's the situation now? Well, shops in Zürich close sometime between 6 and 8 on weekdays, and an hour or two earlier on Saturdays. On Sunday, they are closed, closed, closed, and woe betide you if you haven't planned ahead. Okay, they're allowed to open on four Sundays in the year, usually the ones leading up until Christmas (a similiar regime applies in many German länder - although in some they're required even then to be closed during the times when you're supposed to be at church) but, by and large, Sunday means all the shops are closed.

Or are they? There's a loophole in the law - shops catering for travellers' needs are allowed to be open late nights as well as on Sundays. Always recognising a good business opportunity, the Swiss have capitalised on this. Both Zürich's main railway station and Zürich airport contain vast shopping centres open seven days a week, with smaller centres at a number of other railway stations. This neatly solves the Sunday opening problem as travellers are likely to want to buy things at the station and at the airport, and as a court ruling in the past has decided that it's impossible to decide what a traveller might or might not want to buy, you can shop for anything from a ham sandwich to a 10,000-franc watch. One side-effect of this, though, is that everyone else in town will be jammed into the same shopping centre as you, and trying to negotiate your way through the already-cramped aisles of the small supermarket in the shopping centre under the Hauptbahnhof is not for the faint-hearted.

Of course, retailers may trip you up in their own special ways. Switzerland's largest and most famous supermarket chain is Migros. Migros is big in Switzerland. It doesn't just run supermarkets, it runs an entire empire including banking services, mobile phones, and even language schools. Migros sells everything.. except alcohol, due to the puritanical views of its founder, Gottlieb Duttweiler. You can't buy beer at your local Migros. In fact, you can't buy cigarettes or what Wikipedia starchily calls "racy magazines" either, but people who feel the need for the latter two on a Sunday will find everything they want and probably more (much more, given the volume of pornography that takes up the shelves of the average Swiss kiosk) at their local kiosk or petrol station. (To be fair to Migros, it has also historically been an extremely socially-conscious company, having been converted by Duttweiler into a customer-owned cooperative in 1941, and to this day spending 1% of its annual turnover on financing cultural activities. Having seen some of the extremes to which alcohol abuse has gone recently in the UK, I can also see some merit in the view that alcohol is not a socially beneficial thing to sell.)

So if the supermarket in your local railway station shopping centre's a Migros, you're out of luck as far as getting a bottle of wine to go with your dinner is concerned. However, shops selling booze have an interesting habit of popping up next door to every branch of Migros. Funny that, eh?
It has rapidly become clear to me that in Switzerland, punctuality is next only to cleanliness in the list of essential virtues. The rule is simple - if you make an appointment for 6pm, then you are there at 6pm unless the world has unexpectedly ended (and even that will probably only buy you an excuse for about 15 minutes delay). "7:30 for 8" is a largely unknown and suspiciously foreign concept. If you're inviting someone for dinner, "7:30 for 8" will just confuse - should they be there at 7:30, or at 8? Most people, I suspect (not that I've thrown any glittering dinner parties of my own as we won't have an apartment of our own until February 1st) will read that as "be there at 7:30", or simply decide that they aren't sure that they want to associate with such vague and unpunctual people anyway.

Of course, I'm dealing entirely with stereotype here. What I can definitely confirm, however, is that after a few weeks of dealing with public transport which either runs startlingly on time or (disaster scenarios excepted) at the most a couple of minutes late you begin to adjust to it. Take the commute to work from where I'm currently staying as an example. There's a short bus ride followed by a train journey. Knowing in advance that the bus will leave at xx minutes past the hour and the train it connects into will leave at yy, you know that you'll arrive at the other end at zz. From there, you now know, it's, say, 7 minutes walk to the office. So you leave to walk to the bus stop at, say, xx-4 minutes. It's pretty certain that the bus will be there on time, and that the connecting train will be on time, and you'll get to the office within a couple of minutes of the time the timetable tells you you will.

This is infectious. Before you know it you're planning all your trips with military precision - after all, you're living in a country where if a tram is 2 minutes late relative to the timetable posted at the stop people start shuffling their feet and looking at their watches and wondering if they should call VBZ to ask what the big problem is. The timetable tells you when you're going to arrive to within a few minutes and it's highly probable that things will be running to time, so why not say "I'll be there at about 19:23" rather than "Sometime before half past seven"?

Fortunately, I'm a detail-obsessed nerd, so this doesn't throw me that much - in fact, I find it slightly satisfying to arrive precisely on time. I've spent enough time living with First Great Western and their habit of waiting until you've been sitting on a non-moving train for 25 minutes to tell you that actually, they don't have a driver anyway so you might as well get off the train and get onto the next one, which is six platforms away, leaves in 45 seconds and is already packed that it's actually quite pleasant to use a transport network that's run with slightly frighteningly military precision.

I'm sure I'll get used to it.

In other news, an entertaining entry from the Zurich cantonal police's online log. It's currently burglary season here:

Gemeindepolizisten von Thalwil hatten am 15.10.2008 in Gattikon (Gemeinde Thalwil) einen verdächtigen Ausländer einer Personenkontrolle unterzogen. Da er sich nicht ausweisen konnte und in seinem Rucksack Einbruchswerkzeuge mitführte, wurde er arretiert und der Kantonspolizei Zürich zugeführt. In den Befragungen zeigte sich der 45-Jährige wenig kooperativ. Dennoch konnten ihm aufgrund von DNA-Hits und Schuhspuren sechs Einbruchdiebstähle in Ein- und Mehrfamilienhäuser nachgewiesen werden.

The executive of summary is that "Police in Thalwil noticed a suspicious foreigner. They stopped him, and as he couldn't produce ID and upon being searched had tools for breaking into properties he was arrested. Footprints and DNA evidence tied him to six burglaries."

I love this because it's so impressively Famous Five. The Five, as anyone who ever read Enid Blyton knows, would always be able to spot the bad guys because old Enid would drop in helpful descriptive notes like "swarthy" and "foreign". As soon as they spotted the suspicious foreigner, off to the police they'd go, and the police would come and arrest them for being, well, swarthy and foreign. In immediate post-war England suspicious foreigners, especially swarthy ones, were clearly criminals, and it seems that this policing technique is used in Switzerland to this day. I do hope that the arresting officers (and their dog) were treated to a slap-up tea with lashings of splendid ginger pop.
This article from the New York Times is interesting due to a number that caught my eye:

Mr. Podesta said that the number of requests -- possibly hundreds of thousands each day -- could overwhelm the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is running the program. The coupons are worth $40, and the most basic converters cost about $50.

A little bit of background. The United States is currently in the process of switching off its old analogue TV broadcast networks - a wise move, and one which the UK is currently in the throes of and which Switzerland finished a while ago. These days, analogue terrestrial television is an extremely wasteful method of broadcasting - the powers needed are far, far higher than digital terrestrial requires, and frankly the quality it provides is poor relative to modern technologies, especially given the USA's pisspoor 525-line NTSC standard.

In an attempt to entice people to buy digital set-top boxes for their existing analogue-only tellies, the federal government is issuing people with $40 vouchers which can be redeemed against the cost of a digital converter box. All well and good.

However, it's fairly predictable what's happened. The voucher programme has issued all the vouchers it has funding for, and the cheapest digital boxes I can find on bestbuy.com cost $54.99. This price surprised me, as these days it's difficult to spend over £20 on a digital box in the UK. The cheapest available from Argos at the time of writing is £12.74 - at the current exchange rate, $19.28. Electronics in the US is usually cheaper than in the UK, and the market for these boxes is proportionally larger in the US as well, so why does the cheapest box in the US cost at least two and a half times as much?

Well, I guess that if the federal government's handing out $40 subsidies per box you'd be stupid to sell a box costing less than $40, and "$40 plus a few bucks" seems like a reasonable price point.

As a result, those people who can't get the vouchers are having to pay ridiculous prices, and the federal government is getting fleeced as well. I don't often say this, but this seems to be one of those occasions where the free market actually would have done this better than the government. All it needs now is for someone to sell a converter box in the US that's comparable in price with the UK, and they'll clean up completely in that market. Why bother waiting an age to see if you could get a voucher from the government when you could just plunk down $20 and get a box right away?

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