Tuesday, April 16, 2019

big decision

Moving house is a pain.  There must be very good reasons to do it, to uproot one's life and start again.  There's so much effort and time involved, before, during and after the move.

We have been looking for a new flat for about a year now.  Finding one isn't easy in Switzerland.  The real estate market is rather tight.  Not being Swiss probably doesn't help.  And my standards are high, one of the perks of living here.  I've seen a few nice flats but not a single one where I was devastated when I didn't get it.

I like our current flat a lot.  There's not much wrong with it.  It's large enough for the four of us, relatively new and in good shape, close to the train station and the childcare right next to it, and halfway between my and Flucha's places of work.  It has a large garden that the children love.  It doesn't get much direct sun but is very bright nevertheless because it has more windows than surface area.

The things I don't like about the flat are the relatively small and impractical kitchen with insufficient counter space, the lack of a separate freezer compartment, the sad balcony that has never invited us to spend much time there and the single curtain rails.  If this sounds like nit-picking, it's because it is.  Were it for the flat only, I would not seriously consider moving.

A bigger problem is that the flat is in Dietikon.  Dietikon is a town without attractions, at least in my eyes.  Besides a lovely little library, there's nothing that makes me want to spend time there.  The neighborhood where we live, north of the train station, is even worse.

It's a new development that has grown over the past ten years to cover a former industrial site with rectangular buildings of concrete and glass, in the style of international tedium, with no obvious flaws but no charm either, disconnected from the place, entirely without identity.  There's no decent café, the bakery is closed on weekends, and the few restaurants are pathetic.  With two thousand people living here, our neighborhood should be thriving but it just doesn't take off.  The main square epitomizes all that's wrong.  A gravelly expanse of nothing, it seems abandoned, though it's more likely that no town planner was involved in the design of the neighborhood in the first place.  None of this matters much to us.  We're a happy family and we'd happily stay.

The real problem, the issue that will drive us from this place in the end, is the lack of a school.  How you can build an entirely new neighborhood and not think of a school is beyond me.  (There's word of one for 2026, but don't hold your breath.)  School children as young as six currently have to walk to and then through the train station and then a fair bit on the other side, across the busiest street in town to reach the city center schoolhouse.  It's not something I'd like my children to do every morning.  A kindergarten – more relevant for the next two years - is only a few steps from our flat, but it's a depressing, sterile place in a lifeless courtyard, surrounded by concrete, artificial.

Here's the deal.  After months of looking for a flat, we've finally got a yes.  It's in a thriving small town a few miles downriver, so close to work that I could ride my bicycle no matter how poor the weather, and right next to a nice kindergarten and school.  I should be jumping up in the air but I can't.

The flat is by far the worst I've seen in Switzerland.  The kitchen is so old I keep joking it would be like moving back to the UK.  The kitchen is obviously much better than that.  Maybe it's what a Swiss person – ignorant of the true extent of the misery – would imagine a kitchen in an English rental to be.

The flat isn't bigger than ours but 10% more expensive.  No big deal, but it doesn't feel right.  There are fewer windows than we're used to, though there's direct sunlight in the mornings.  We wouldn't be on the ground floor and the children couldn't just run outside when the sun's shining.  No more garden.

The basement is a frightening little dungeon – with washer and drier for our personal use but not inviting to store anything delicate.  I'd have to find some place else for the wine.  Bicycles were scattered all over the parking garage when we viewed the flat.  There was no dedicated space for them.

The floor of the living room is stone tiles, the floor in the bedrooms some sort of worn out plastic.  This might require carpets.  And while I'm traditionally a fan of carpets, I must admit that I've grown rather fond of the hardwood floor in our current flat.

I wouldn't think the flat worth a second look, but here I am considering signing a lease.  The flat is the least of the arguments pushing me in that direction.  School and kindergarten in close proximity, and the center of an enjoyable, happening little town within walking distance weigh much heavier.  Will I say yes tomorrow?

Saying yes would send us down a mad scramble of a few weeks to pack up our possessions, disassemble our furniture – not much, but not much for four people is still a lot – and deep-clean the flat.  We'd need to have the appliances checked, a job that I'd think in the responsibility of the landlord if I didn't know better, and find new childcare places.  Then we'd need to find replacement tenants or risk paying twice the rent for several months.  This is probably easier than it sounds because our flat is nice, but it will take effort.  Lastly, we'd need to organize the move itself, which I can't see as a walk in the park with two small children.

I'd much rather just sit on my sofa and update my blog, but this is not getting the children the education they deserve.  Strange how even big decisions aren't my own anymore.

Friday, April 12, 2019

failed democracy

I don't believe in the evil of taxation without representation.  When – many years ago when I still lived in London – a bunch of aggravated American expats threw three and a half bags of builder's tea into the Thames, I had nothing but mild condescension for them. If you don't like the way things are, go back to where you came from.  This was easy for me to say.

Back then, I didn't consider myself a migrant.  I was a mercenary of science, joining labs where there was excitement and staying until the money ran out.  I didn't grow roots, and I didn't want to.  There was no sense of permanence.

Things have changed over the years and my situation and my attitude are much different now.  With a job without an expiration date and, especially, with children, I perceive my surroundings differently.  I have already written that I don't find the idea of taking up another nationality as absurd as I did in the past.  I feel a strong urge to belong, but it's not easy.

Dietikon, the town I live in, is rather underprivileged by Swiss standards.  Unemployment is around 4%, and the ratio of people on benefits is higher than anywhere else in the canton.  The town is far from the picture-perfect Alpine village one often associates with Switzerland.  It is also full of immigrants, some naturalized but many not.

When Switzerland played Albania in the Euro 2016, the game shown on a big screen on the town square.  Excitement and good spirits were all around, but more flags showed black birds than white crosses.  I cannot blame the Albanians for showing national pride and for not picking up the colors of the locals, the colors, after all, of their adopted country.  They are – all we foreigners are – welcome to a limited degree only.

At 45%, Dietikon has the second highest share of foreigners in the canton.  The strongest party on the town council and the executive is the populist and angry Swiss People's Party, a right-wing outfit of questionable values.  Instead of representing immigrants, it detests them and tries to keep them away.  How can they win elections here?

This is easy.  Only slightly more than half of all (tax-paying) residents are eligible to vote.  Foreigners, no matter how involved they are in local issues, how much they care about their hometown, how hard they work to make it a better place, are ignored.  Elected politicians, even if they came close to getting every vote from every eligible voter, represent only a minority of residents.

I accept that national elections are for nationals and that the right to vote is bestowed upon citizens only, but for local elections, this is a farce.  Keeping residents from voting in local elections – with their direct repercussions on local affairs – is a travesty of democracy.

If national law doesn't let you kick foreigners out of the country, you have to make it possible to integrate them politically.  Otherwise, you'll create a parallel society of people who don't belong, don't care, don't do.  In Switzerland only very few cantons allow municipalities to let foreigners vote locally.  Zurich is not one of them.  I will thus be disenfranchised until I apply for Swiss nationality, which is a few years off if I do it at all.  Until then, why should I care about anything that happens in Dietikon?  It's all imposed on me anyway.

At the most recent local elections here in Dietikon, just a bit more than a month ago, participation was a pitiful 25%.  How representative are the representatives, even disregarding the residents that are barred from voting?  There's an easy way to fix this.  The silent majority would be much more eager to cast their ballot if hordes of Albanians or Germans were suddenly allowed to vote – and thus threaten to annihilate centuries of Swiss culture with their savagery.  You'd probably also find, at least locally, that the important issues – development, education, traffic, crime – remain the same no matter who is allowed to cast their vote, except now decisions would have much broader support.

Opening local elections to all residents would be an unambiguous gain for democracy.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

comfortable reading

The other day in Leipzig, I went into the huge bookstore next to the university to buy entertainment for the flight back to Zurich (and possibly any number of successive flights).  Strange how unappealing the seat-back screen is when you're not up to date with the movies anymore.  The books I had in mind, my personal shortlist of recent smash hits, were all bound in hardcover.  This is not very practical for traveling.  The only softcover I looked for was Dostoyevski's "The Brothers Karamazov", at 1200 pages not exactly a lightweight either.  It was then that I remembered the e-reader lying ignored in some dark drawer.

My mom had given me the gadget for a birthday a few years back.  I had read a few books on it but never really got into it.  Why would I spend the price of a good book to just get a file in return?  This is not my kind of reading.  But for traveling with Dostoyevski, a file sounded just right.

Back in Switzerland, I went hugendubel.de, my source for German books.  They had a few hits matching my search.  There was the current translation at 15 euros and a handful of older translations out of copyright that could be had for a euro each.  After an exhaustive study of the relative merits of the various translators, I decided I wouldn't be able to tell the difference anyway and went with one of the cheap options.  "This item cannot be delivered to Switzerland," is not what I expected for a file.

To help the online retailers in their feeble efforts to sell me things, I went to orellfuessli.ch, Switzerland's biggest booksellser, hoping for better luck.  I found nearly the same selection, at comparable prices, as on the German website, but then started to think.  If this new translation is really better than the others, as many claim, I might as well splurge for it.  At the cost of two Economists, it would keep me reading much longer.

The transaction was quickly finished.  The book showed up in my online bookshelf and invited me to start reading right there in the browser.  That had not been the idea.  After a while I figured out the download.  That's where the problems started.

In the Guardian, a number of British authors were just bemoaning the fact that a fifth of all ebooks were pirated and that the government, the "morally bankrupt government" wasn't doing anything against to stop this.  Not only are writers cheated out of their deserved rewards, literature itself was also suffering as a consequence.  Two thumbs up from me.  Why would you not just buy your ebooks legally, download it to your reader and immerse yourself in written beauty in seconds?

Here is why not.  My e-reader, a Tolino Vision 2, is not recognized as a removable storage volume by any of the computers I own.  It will only talk to hugendubel.de natively because that's where it was bought.  Connecting to my just opened account on orellfuessli.com through the pre-installed browser failed because of unspecified technical issues.  Trying to open the Tolino's own web reader was met with an unsupported browser error.  How can the browser that's installed on the damn device fail to open the online library written for it?  By now I was getting rather aggravated.

My next long flight is still a few weeks away, but I don't want to have to leave without Dostoyevski's many words.  Adobe Digital Editions might be a solution, but I don't see this as very likely if the reader isn't recognized as a USB device.  Dropbox came to my mind for data transfer through the cloud, but this would require digging out credentials that might not work anymore anyway.  Then there's the option of linking my accounts at hugendubel.de and orellfuessli.ch to make my purchases visible to both.  Could this work?

For now, the file is online, on my two laptops and on one USB stick.  In a few weeks, it'd better be on the Tolino as well.