Thursday, June 28, 2012


It costs 3 times more to feed this beast in Switzerland

I've nicknamed the little corner of the world I live in, Switaly.  It's technically Switzerland, but it's pretty much Italy.  Life in Switaly is pretty sexy. Then again, after 15 months in Franconia and the experiences I had, everything but an Uzbeki prison would be sexy!

So yes, I'm probably wearing light rose tinted glasses and the ecstasy will probably wear off eventually, but so far, it's great.   I hadn't realized how much Germany had beaten me down until I caught myself wincing every 5 minutes.  In Germany, I just expected things to go wrong, because well, 90% of the time it did!  If my parking ticket expired at 5:01, by 5:02 I'd get a ticket.  If the speed limit was 50 km/h and I was going 57 km/h, I'd expect a speeding ticket.  If I accidentally cut someone off on the street, I'd expect the driver to follow me and road rage on me in German.  I think I'm "finally" breaking out of the wince.  Today for instance, I had a ticket stub for parking. The first 30 minutes were free.  I put my ticket in the machine and happily discovered, I was still within the free time.  I looked down at the ticket and realized I had pulled in 29 minutes ago! By the time I got to my car, drove down 4 floors, surely the free time would be up and I'd have to pay.  If it was Germany, the story would go down like this:  I'd go up to the machine, it'd be free.  I'd get to my car, drive the 4 floors to the ticket machine.  The ticket machine would tell I'd have to pay.  By then, I'd have 4 cars behind me without the possibility to reverse.  I'd run to the machine only to discover it doesn't take the only coins I have.  The drivers of the 4 cars would all come out of their cars in Germany and ream me out.  Guaranteed.  That's how it would go down.   So as I approached the ticket machine, this scene was playing out in my head.  Put ticket in, machine says "grazie", gate rises. No drama.  And that's pretty much how it's been here.  No drama.  Just the way I like it.

Though it's great here, this nirvana does have it's downsides.  Luckily, I've found a workaround for most of them.  For instance, some things here are expensive.  prohibitively so.  ridiculous.  Not everything, but the things that are, are ridiculous.  Face cream, plants and laundry detergent are at least double what I used to pay in Germany.  Meat? I'm practically a vegetarian by sheer cost!  Dog food?  You'd think I was buying caviar.  Instead of the 12 euro a bag it cost me to feed Lucy, here it's about 40 chf a bag! (about 3 times more)  But because I live in Switaly, it's a quick 15 minute drive to Italy where prices are a lot more reasonable.

Also, there's traffic in nirvana.  A lot of it.  Even though only 75,000 call this little city home, you'd think it was 10 times that from just the traffic!  it can take 10 minutes to travel 1 km.  Ride a bike you say, gladly.  Only when it's 35C, the last thing I feel like doing is building up a sweat to show up at work with hair plastered to my head and my clothes soaking.

So far, those are my only Switalian complaints and I'd say both are reasonable.  Life could be worse.  A lot worse.  I know, I lived it for 15 months!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Escaping the employer from hell

2 years ago, I was sitting atop a mountain, contemplating life.  Cheesy, I know, and not at all unique.

However, what was unique was the fact that at that point, I had gotten to said mountain by carrying a 40lb pack over 100km and climbing up about 10.000 feet of mountain.  Why pray tell would anyone in their right mind attempt to do this after never even having carried a backpack heavier than a bottle of water and granola bar.  Well, simple really.  I was bored.  As the cliche goes, an idle mind is a dangerous thing.  After building a career, having a comfortable life and getting over a traumatic short lived marriage, I needed a challenge.  Yeah, I suppose there were more reasonable ways of accomplishing this, but I'm not known for taking the easy way out.

After proving to myself that I could do something as absurd as carrying a backpack for a month in Northern Canada, I thought of other ways I could push myself without the need for "nature's toilet" paper or needing to make bear calls constantly to stave off bears.

Long story short, I thought living overseas would be a much more glamourous option.  I didn't put any thought into how it would happen and it turns out, I didn't need to.  Shortly after adjusting back to civilization, I was contacted by a recruiter for a large german company.  6 months after standing atop that mountain, I was living and working in Europe!

Moving to a new country is not an easy task. Doing it alone and in a language you don't speak is hard.  Doing it when things go sideways, is sheer hell.

Problems were apparent in my first few weeks at work.  From a delayed work permit (cause it sat on someone's desk) to not having a computer for 3 months (& needing to wait another 2 for all the right programs) to not having basic information about what was what.  When my boss said to me "Katherine, it may seem like we didn't want you, but we really did" I giggled and chalked it up to bad luck.  After all, this was a huge international company.  When my German colleagues would "forget" to speak English, I'd apologize for not knowing any German and vowed to learn ASAP.  Even though the "official" working language of the company was English, I wanted to fit in and be part of the team!  When I realized that by them not switching to English, I was missing really important info, I was concerned.  When they got mad at me because they claimed to have told me about the issue, I was pissed.

Despite all that, I made efforts to learn German and my colleagues agreed to speak in the company's working language for issues directly affecting me.  Yeah, so what if I couldn't partake in office niceties, at least I wouldn't be accused of not paying attention.   I raised these issues with my boss and my requests for German classes was met with "Well, THIS is your German class!" I even attempted to discuss this with my HR manager, but she was too busy, forgetful or stupid to show up for either of the 2 meetings she scheduled and held a grudge against me for not giving her a 3rd chance to reschedule a meeting.

Yeah cracks were evident from the beginning, but what do you do? You just moved your life across an ocean.  So I made the best of it.  When I realized that I wouldn't in fact be working on industry leading products and that a trained monkey could do my job, I expanded my social life.  After all, I had 6 weeks vacation and lived in the middle of Europe!  I started to hit a groove.  Sure, my job killed my soul every day and I had 5 minutes of interaction with colleagues, but I'd manage.

My breaking point came after the threat of legal action.  I went on a work trip representing said big international company overseas and it resulted in the national train company trying to sue me over the big international company's error.  Then I put my foot down.  NO.WAY.  I had had enough.  Not one of my managers nor the employee who booked the trip was willing to help me with the situation.  After sending emails to everyone and their manager, the situation got dealt with and the lawsuit dropped. 5 months later.  After that, I vowed middle of Europe or big international company, it didn't matter.  I would not and could not be treated this way!

Since I wasn't ready to give up the European 6 weeks vacation anytime soon, I considered my options.  I researched what options in my specialty field were available and like a lighthouse in the middle of a storm, I found the perfect opportunity for a different large international company in Switzerland.  That job was mine if it killed me! Well....little did I know that it would nearly try!

It turned out getting a different job was the easy part.  Leaving the employer from hell, was well, hell! You'd think that since I had "fallen thru the cracks" and had these endless issues there would be a reasonable reaction to me leaving.  Well, it was anything but. Even though everyone was well aware of the situations I'd experienced, me leaving would mean that someone would have to accept that I had slipped thru the cracks and if there's one thing I learned about living and working in Bavaria is that Deflecting Responsibility is priority one.

Before giving notice in hell, I verified what the legal resignation notice period was.  It was a full month's notice.  There was a blip in my contract that stated I had to give 90 days notice, but I foolishly assumed that law would precede contract and that was the company's way of making their life easier because which foreigner was going to take the time to consult the law.  After handing in my notice and stated my exit date, I heard nothing.  1 week went by, then 2, then a month.  Randomly, and I'm convinced because of the cumulative stress on me, I ended up in the hospital needing emergency appendix surgery which also infected some other organs.  While I was in the hospital recovering from the loss of my organ, my HR manager contacted my lawyer (which I had to take for other reasons but turned out to be the best decision I made) to say that my desired leaving date wasn't accepted and the earliest they'd "let" me leave was 3 weeks later.  Well, by this point it had been 5 weeks since I'd given notice, confirmed my start date with my new employer, gave notice at my apartment and now with the surgery, wouldn't be able to work for weeks anyhow.

My lawyer attempted to approach the hr manager with logic and reason, but logic and reason are not part of big international company's motto.  Despite the fact that I wouldn't be returning to work and that my doctor told me not to return to them after the surgery, I refused their non-negotiable offer and and basically told them in nice legalese, to take the job and shove it.  Well, even though it's completely acceptable in big international company's operating motto to treat an employee worse than shit on the bottom of a shoe and taking my experience and learn from it, they decided to sue me.

I should mention that I wasn't exactly the ceo of said international company. Nor was I even management. And since it had only been 15 months since I'd been there, it's not like we had a long standing relationship or that I had any industry secrets.  But, Katherine was bad and "didn't follow the rules".   Let alone the fact that any reasonable person would have bolted long ago or started counter suing them, we were now approaching putting out a cigarette with a fire extinguisher territory.   This. was. happening.  

The first step they did was trying to present me with an injuction preventing me for working for anyone else.  I didn't have this clause in my contract, so it was absurd.  But because I no longer had an address in Germany, they couldn't do anything.  The next step is they tried to email me with the injuction and I requested an extraordinary dismissal citing my health issues.

The next step is that they contacted my new employer with a later stating that they wanted to sue either them or me for damages relating to me not living out my contract.  Right.  Again, I could have been sitting on my couch in Nurnberg indefinately collecting full pay on sick leave, but big international company would rather have that then let me leave.  It makes no sense, why would you attempt to sue a trained monkey whom you wouldn't have gotten work from anyway.  My suspicion is that someone got wind of my experiences and started asking questions.  Instead of taking ownership over treating someone poorly, they decided to proceed with the German CYA (cover your ass) tactic of dealing with things.  

So here I am, in Switzerland, a sort of fugitive from big international company.  I'm trying really hard not to let the experience sour me and I'm at the point where I accept my German work experience as perspective.  Had I gone straight from Vancouver to Switzerland, it would have been too easy.  I wouldn't have known how bad things can be.  You see, I love my new job.  I love my colleagues.  It's truly an international company and the working language is English.  Yes, people talk in Italian, French, German and who knows what else daily.  But my colleagues know, accept and respect that the working language is as stated.  I'm not an alien or an outsider here, I'm just one of the crew.   I had a fancy new mac book pro waiting for me on my first day.  My mom says that "normal" is only a setting on a washing machine, but I dare say that it's been "normal" here.  The new big international company is aware of the situation and is fully supporting me thru it.   It's been hell yet mentally, I'm close to heaven knowing that I don't have to live in that situation anymore.   I did learn a very important lesson though: be careful what you wish for.  Or at least be more specific.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Reluctantly holding onto my independence

Successfully moving to a new place involves several skills: patience, resilience and the ability to ask for help. I've come to discover I only have one of those traits: resilience.

When i lived in Canada, I considered myself to be independent, but looking back, I took things for granted. Sure I could do "most" things myself, but I had family and friends I could call for help and if I couldn't, I could speak the language to find the help I needed.

When I first modes to Germany, I redefined my independence. I found furniture stores, bought furniture in charades, dragged it up 3 flights of stairs and installed it myself. I borrowed a drill and I rocked that drill by installing shelves and pictures into masonry walls.

Hell, I even tackled my dreaded fear of electricity! I'm afraid of very little but toads and electricity are tops. The toads are another story, but the electricity fear comes from treatment involving electric shocks I had as a kid to correct facial paralysis.

After weeks of my "I am woman hear me roar" adventures of setting up house and a new life in a new country, I exhausted myself. I finished everything up and concurred that just because I COULD do it all, I didn't WANT to do it all! So if I was in that position again, I'd hire someone, ask someone or be with someone that could share the load.

Well.... Here I am in Switzerland and nothing's changed. I'm too impatient to find someone and too hesitant to ask someone. The second time around, it wasn't so hard and I didn't have as much to do. I did however, have to face that damn electricity again though!

I went into it feeling confident. I've done this before! Drill, anchor, screw, connect wires and voila! Oh yeah, and turn off the electricity. Should mention that. The first day I tried to install the light, I didn't have electricity yet. The wires wouldn't fit into the light and after endless frustration of trying, I gave up.

Day 2, repeat. Get up on ladder, connect wire, HOLY SHIT, what is that sensation? Oh yeah, 220 volts. Electricity is on. Go to control panel, find fuse that says cucina, repeat, FUCK me, AGAIN!!! Fuse that says cucina, lied. Because of said electric fear, I've avoided being shocked by 110 volts most of my life, but let me tell you, 220 volts is not fun. I thought it could actually kill you so was thankful it didn't!

After my 2 shots of 220 volts, I reconsidered my impatience. I tried to find someone and ask someone with no success. So for a month, that light was taunting me. Because I'm a woman, the light fixture became so much more than just a light fixture. It represented defeat and losing my independence! Was I going to let this fixture win? So, for a month, I've been having an internal battle. Independence vs another potential shot of 220.

Well, today was try 3. Turned of ALL the electricity in the apartment, wiggled with the too short wires and got the god damn fixture up. Went back to fuse box and cringed and I flicked all the fuses back on. And like magic, there was light in my kitchen!!!!

So the score might be 220 volts 2: Katherine:1, but I did get to keep my independence. Reluctantly.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Trading in the vag for the fart

One of the funniest aspects to life in Nurnberg, was the public transit system.  One of my friends referred to it as “cute”and it is.  Nurnberg is not a large city (maybe pushing 500,000 people) but it has this ridiculously comprehensive subway and tram system.  I say ridiculously comprehensive, because there are easily 5 times the amount of stops/stations in Nurnberg than there are in Vancouver which covers a larger area and population.

If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written in the past year, you’ll know I’m obsessed with the Nurnberg transit system.  Not because of it’s cuteness, but for the sheer fact that of ALL the possible abbreviations, they chose to go with “VAG”.  Obviously comical in and of itself, but in German, the ‘v’is pronounced ‘f’and it becomes that much more awkward.  The potential for vag jokes was and will remain endless.  I thought the days of awkwardly anagrammed transit systems were behind me, but no.

The FART is the public transit system for Locarno.   Ok, so it’s not ‘exactly’ the town I live in, but it’s a town over.  And the fart has handy buses and trains to take you all kinds of cool places like 


and here as a website would be too good to be true, so thankfully they’ve named the site Centovalli ‘centovalli’(100 valleys) instead.  Which is also one of the cool places the fart will take you.  The fart will take you on one of the most memorable train journeys of your life.   A memorable ride on the fart.

Ahhh….let the jokes begin!

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The pain about choosing healthcare

I know there's a lot of debate on in the US world lately about healthcare and specifically, socialized healthcare. Coming from Canada, I know nothing other than socialized healthcare. For 37 years, I had the comfort of knowing that if I was sick, I went to a doctor or hospital. I didn't have to worry about what or with who I had coverage. Of course, medications and supplementary healthcare like dental, massage etc... was dependant on your employer, but for most of my life, that was looked after and deciphering what you were covered for was "fairly" straightforward. For the cost of about $40 Canadian dollars a month, most of my medical and dental needs were met.

Then, I moved to Europe. When I lived in Germany, I was introduced to 2 tier healthcare: public and private. There were a plethora of companies you could pick from, but you had to pick one. I wasn't really clear on the differences between the two, but in the end I picked private. I figured that I needed a perspective after 37 years of public healthcare. As to what my private insurance covered, I have no idea. Though my welcome letter was in English, everything else was in German. When I had a friend read thru it, they just said "everything" was covered. It turns out that in my 15 months of living in Germany, I got a pretty good idea of what "everything" entailed. For the ripe price of 380 euros a month (of which I paid half) "everything" was covered. Because I had private insurance, I learned that that meant I could get a same day appointment with my doctor and he encouraged me to come back because as he said "It's nice to see you when you come back, I make money" he was half joking. I think. My insurance seemed to cover me for everything from doctor's visits, blood tests, ankle braces, crutches, dental visits and everything I could dream of when I was in the hospital. Including, the very random clause of choice of doctor and using the chief doctor. I'm not sure if being in agony with appendicitis and communicating in charades is the time to start asking for the doctor's qualifications because at that point in time, I would have settled for a drunken Romanian butcher with a rusty knife. But the option was there. I do remember 5 minutes before the operation being asked to sign a paper saying I couldn't have the chief doctor because he was off that day. Again, I wasn't in a position to argue, fight or understand what was going on!

Now that I've moved to Switzerland, I have to go thru the whole rigmarole again but with a different system. The Swiss system is different in that it's exclusively your responsibility and not at all tied to your work. For a population of loosely 7.5 million people there are something like 150 different health insurance companies. Insurance companies have to run not for profit on the compulsory insurance. For the compulsory insurance, you choose a deductible ranging from 300 CHF a year to 2500 CHF a year. Insurance companies are not allowed to refuse you compulsory insurance and cover any pre-existing conditions. You usually pick your insurance company based on supplementary insurance and that's where the big business is. You can pick an insurance company that will cover your exercise classes, cover medical spa treatments and everything in between. Most insurance companies require you to fill in a questionnaire and can limit your treatment accordingly. For instance, if I hurt my ankle again, they'd have to cover doctors visits and medication, but they could refuse physical therapy. If I have any further internal complications, they could limit the procedures they'd cover. It's all extremely confusing. What makes it more confusing is that until I moved to Germany, I didn't really have any health issues. Other than allergy pills and muscle strain from sitting at a desk all day, I was pretty good. And now with all of my recent health issues, it makes picking health insurance that much more confusing! Which one do I pick? What deductible do I pick? I've found an insurance consultant that's helping me thru and he's encouraging me to go with one that doesn't have a medical questionnaire and to pick a low (300CHF) deductible. of course, the lower the deductible, the higher the monthly premium and right now, most premiums are in the 350-400CHF PER MONTH range and forget about that including any dental care!  I'm getting a headache just thinking about it.