Friday, February 01, 2008

Confusion Tax

When I first moved to Zurich, I found myself making a lot of purchasing mistakes. Buying things that I thought were what I wanted, but weren't. This happened because of my bad German, or wishful thinking (it's sugar and it's brown, it must be brown sugar!), or cultural assumption (little jars of tiny cucumbers floating in vinegar must taste like pickles), or different genotypes (translate American clothing sizes to European. Buy pack of tshirts one size bigger than specified, just to be sure. Try on shirt. Nearly suffocate it is so tight, yet find it stretches halfway to the knees.) or miscommunication with clerks, especially at the pharmacy. In fact, pharmacy transactions continue to be a bane for me. Pretty much everything is behind the counter (even, say, vaseline!) and you have to ask for it (hence the expression "over the counter" for non-prescription meds). I find this frustrating for a couple of reasons:

1) The pharmacist, being helpful, will try to coerce you into the product of their choosing. If I really don't know what I need, that would be helpful. When I already know, it just seems patronizing. I know it isn't meant that way, but it's hard to put aside my cultural background

2) I feel like I'm being monitored--I'm not allowed to buy larger quantities of things. One time I asked for wart stuff and they insisted on seeing the wart (I should have said it was somewhere unmentionable) and then refused to sell me the over-the-counter medicine, claiming it was too small. Yeah, they start small and then grow, and they're a lot easier to treat when they're still small! Just sell me the damn crap.

3) I like to browse and compare packages. Which multivitamin has less iron? How many bandaids are in this box? Oh, these bandaids aren't sealed--oh, even worse, you have to cut them to size yourself with your rusty, dirty scissors. I get flustered really easily by clerks, and I can't think straight when someone is staring over me, so I wind up just buying whatever they thrust at me (or running from the store (#53)). When I wanted vitamins, I asked, and they went and laboriously got one single bottle. I could see there were others, but getting them to bring one of each so I could stand at the crowded counter for 20 minutes trying to translate the german and think under pressure? Not a good scenario for me.

So I wound up buying a lot of mistakes. I came up with the idea of a "confusion tax"--it's like a tax for newcomers and idiots. I found the idea amusing enough that it took the sting out of all the money (really, hundreds of dollars!) that I wasted. And sure enough, the monthly confusion tax outlay has steadily decreased.

But it's still there. I recently decided I needed some better lighting for knitting. At one time I had a full spectrum compact flourescent lamp (an Ott knockoff, back in New Hampshire). Lots of searching later, I found an online store in Switzerland with full spectrum CFLs (the real-store selection is very poor). I order. I wince at the ~30 dollars a single bulb is going to cost me. I wait. And wait. And wait. 7 weeks later, my package arrives (mail takes either 1 or 2 days to travel inside Switzerland which is, please recall, the slightly larger than the state of Maryland). I eagerly rip it open and install the new bulb in my it-only-faces-up floorlamp. Guess what. This is a directional bulb. I now have a very well-lit spot. On my ceiling. I've moved it to my hanging-from-the-ceiling lamp in the middle of the room. Giving me a well lit circle in the middle of the room. Far from the knitting couch.


I could try to mount a new downward-facing lamp, but the walls here are very strange--the ceilings are all plaster (I have several gaping holes from where I tried to mount things) and the walls apparently have metal cladding just underneath the weird, bumpy, looks-like-paint, but rips-off-like-wallpaper surface, and I can't get any nails or thumbtacks into it, so I've given up trying to mount stuff. My two ceiling lamps aren't mounted--they literally dangle from the electrical wires.

(It's funny how much apartment customs change. Most places I've lived in the US, all the sort of built in furnishings stay with the apartment. In the New Hampshir village I was in, somehow the custom had developed that you took your fridge/stove, etc with you when you moved. A rude shock to new arrivals having to outlay a grand. Here, the fridge and stove were left in place, but instead of lights, I just had pairs of bare wires dangling from the ceiling.)

Mostly all this seems funny to me--this is precisely the adventure I had signed up for. The great thing about living abroad is it encourages me to question all my assumptions--not just the obvious ones such as universal health care, or how do we, as a society, choose to treat people who find the basic responsibilities of life to be overhwelming. Life is a bit richer when I don't take everything for granted, and some amount of manageable deprivation just makes the enjoyment on reunion that much more intense. The best orange I ever ate in my life was the one I had on station opening at the south pole after a year of no fresh food.

P.S. I changed commenting platforms, which seems to have deleted all the old comments. Oops!

P.P.S. Oh--I guess I could buy another floorlamp, just a downward facing one!



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