Tuesday, February 12, 2019

still breathing

I'm still breathing but it's not much fun.

Monday, February 11, 2019

death by breathing

After the title of the post that described my first trip to Japan, here's another one I knew from the moment I would go.  You will find this one to be a better fit.  India, and in particular Delhi, is infamous for toxic air.  This is not somewhere you'd like to breath unless you absolutely have to.  I had to.  Work had sent me.

The trip was a bit different from all other trips.  As so often, I would represent my company at the commercial exhibition of a scientific conference, but this time I carried most of the material with me.  Sending it would have been prohibitive.  Instead we found a mutually beneficial solution that saved the company money and made my flight a bit more comfortable.  But I had to deal with the loot.

I'm not an utter novice in the temporary exportation business.  I've driven across various borders with goods I needed to declare and know how to handle a Carnet ATA, but I'd never done this at an airport, or in India.  The customs officer in Zurich was gloomy.  "You have to know how to fill these forms.  Make sure you get it right.  They have no clue in India."

My first trip, one-and-a-half years ago, taught me that generalizations about India are treacherous.  This is very big and very colorful country.  Anything can happen.  You can find total chaos, as I did in downtown Hyderabad, or an airport where you breeze through without any hitches, as I also did in Hyderabad.

Delhi airport was another pleasant surprise.  It was not as tranquil as Hyderabad but new and efficient.  The immigration staff were courteous and quick at handling thousands of visitors entering with electronic visas at one in the morning, only held back occasionally by temperamental fingerprint scanners.  It was probably less than an hour after touchdown that I had officially entered the country and recovered my luggage.

Now came the part that I expected to take at least another hour – if there would even be customs agents available at this hour.  Ominously, all "items to declare" lanes were closed, but at one checkpoint a bunch of people were huddled.  They turned out to not only know what they were doing but also do it cheerfully and with tea for everyone involved.  It all seemed to good to be true.

There is only one way for this story to continue.  When I stepped outside the terminal building, it was like entering an evil underworld.  The night wasn't black but diffusely lit by light scattered on a suspension of dust and ash in the air.  The haze hurt the eyes and the throat.  It felt like looking through dirty glasses, except I had just cleaned mine before taking off in Zurich.  Everything was dim and smelled slightly foul.

could be worse

"Where're you going, sir?"  If I had been traveling on my own account, or if my hotel hadn't been just a few minutes from the airport, I would have ignored the man trawling for fools by the exit.  This was a rip-off in obvious disguise.  But this is India, I thought, and how expensive can it be even if I overpay?  It was shocking, but after bringing it down by two thirds it was just acceptable.  By then it was too late to seek out the best value.

The driver deserves his own story, clueless about the hotels in Aerocity, a commercial development just minutes from the airport.  I would expect him to drive there ten times a day, but he had no idea where he was, ignored a big sign to the hotel and then drove boldly down a multi-lane one-way road the wrong way.  What little traffic there was wasn't particularly disturbed by this, and neither was I.

And so it happened that two hours after touching down in Delhi, I bedded down for a short night in a hotel whose biggest asset turned out to be the a/c that pushed beautiful clear air into the room.  And for once in my life I am happy that the windows stay firmly shut in my room.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019


Hard to believe that the girl is getting ready to go to kindergarten.  Hard to believe because it wasn't all that long that she was a tiny screaming bundle of a few pounds that we didn't have the faintest idea what to do with.  All that long?  It's actually been more than three and a half years.

In Switzerland, school is mandatory from age four.  This sounds harsher than it is.  What would a four-year-old do in a school?  Turns out kindergarten is part of the school system, and its attendance is mandatory from age four.  This is something I can deal with.  To help me prepare for the rest, I attended an information event organized by the municipal school system last night.

Before a slide highlighted students from 76 nations (across all grades) who speak 32 languages, the audience was warned of potentially distracting noises because of simultaneous translation of everything that was being said.  On the walls of the hall were big banners for all languages with translators present: Serbo-croat, Portuguese, Albanian, Tamil, Italian and Turkish.  Native speakers of these languages were invited to gather underneath their banners to get information in their language.  Throughout the presentations, there was a constant polyphonous whispering at the periphery, but it was really only noticeable when one was really listening for it.

This level of diversity could be a big benefit for children.  Languages and cultures of a round-the-world trip without having to leave the classroom.  The drawback is that not all immigrants came for high-paying jobs.  Some are refugees, some are just scraping by.  Those who only speak their native language face additional challenges.  Our town has one of the highest ratio of welfare recipients in the canton.  A tinderbox of dissatisfaction and anger?  Maybe it's just another aspect of diversity that we in our privileged lives should be thankful for.

We're definitely thankful that we won't have to pay for childcare anymore, at least for the girl.  Kindergarten is free.  But it's not all golden.  Kindergarten only covers the mornings.  What to do with the afternoons?  Both of us work.  Turns out select kindergartens, among them the one closest to our home, offer after-school programs.  They aren't free, but they feed the kids and keep them entertained.

Like any school, kindergarten has school holidays, an ungodly amount to a working parent.  Good thing the after-school activities are extended to optional full-day activities during holidays.  I don't know how prices are adjusted, but at least we don't need to take 12 weeks off work every year.  Only two weeks in summer remain when everything is closed.  This is exactly as it is now, and largely compatible with our routine of jetting off to Argentina for a few weeks on Christmas.

One speaker mentioned a few of the things children should know when they enter kindergarten.  Go to the toilet, brush teeth, use scissors, dress and undress.  These are not challenges for the girl.  All would be good were it not for an overambitious dead.  By the time she'll set foot inside kindergarten for the first time, the girl better know how to read and write.  Seven months to go!