Reality Check: Back to the “Real World” Lessons in Real Life 101



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It was always bound to be a transition, moving out of Africa. Really though, Tanzania to Switzerland! Could I have found two more disparate locations?

For me Tanzania, Vietnam and to a lesser extent Borneo had been refreshingly real places to live. First world problems were put into perspective rather quickly, especially in Africa. There is also an immense amount of freedom that comes from living in a country, which has yet to develop the infrastructure and systems needed to establish a so-called modern society. To start with you are forced to take accountability for your actions. If you screw up, you pay the consequences; there isn’t anyone else to blame. There certainly wasn’t a complex web of laws and rules designed to protect the entire population at the expense of individual freedoms and common sense. Instead, rules and regulations often seemed to be made up on the spot, depending on the figure of authority you happened to encounter. As frustrating as this may sound, it did allow for reason to play a part as opposed to having sometimes seemingly inane rules covering every possible eventuality. Even when they were applied the often-farcical nature with which the law enforcers would conduct themselves made it hard to take them too seriously. In this respect, I was in many ways removed from the notions of reality that my friends and family who live in the developed world would often talk about. Plus, I hadn’t had to cook or clean for myself in years. Talk about being in need of a reality check. After 6 years living in the developing world, life was about to change.

As an expat living in Africa, my life had been simple. I worked hard, travelled often and lived well. It was perhaps too simple at times! Yet I enjoyed my uncomplicated existence. I even came to enjoy not owning a television. I had never been so productive with my spare time. Writing blogs, enthusiastically planning lessons for my students, reading more books than I can ever remember having had the time to, and always planning the next travel adventure. “Who needs a TV?” I remember thinking perhaps rather prematurely after only 12 months without one, and rashly vowing never to own one again.

Leave it to the Swiss to shake me from my reverie, ascetic lifestyle and deep contemplations, and get me plugged back in to the modern era in next to no time. Two years spent without a TV, car, radio, putting up with an intermittent Internet connection, continuing power cuts and no landline and I suddenly found myself in Lausanne, hooked up and reconnected with all the hallmarks of modern living you can imagine- and probably some you can’t. A great apartment, a fridge full of cheese, wine and chocolate, a resident permit imbedded with biometric identification (which I guess means Interpol can now keep tabs on me), a car and rather unexpectedly my very own bomb shelter!

As an aside, it has to be said, the Swiss do seem a paranoid bunch. Having a reputation for neutrality and never actually having been at war themselves (at least not in the last 150 years anyway) they are perhaps the most prepared nation on earth for such a possibility. As such, I do not have a place to park my car undercover, but I do indeed have a bomb shelter. It is in fact a legal requirement that every building provide them, although, in the event that Switzerland is ever invaded, I suspect it may be an effort to find space amid the usual clutter of ski gear, tools and old garden furniture, such is their more practical purpose nowadays as a storage area.

In true Swiss style however, it was initially the efficiency, which most impressed me. In two short marvelous hours I had opened a bank account (although rather disappointingly without an offer of free ice cream and a marriage proposal, as you may recall was my experience at the Barclays Bank in Dar es Salaam), applied for two credit cards, obtained a travel card, lodged an application for my resident permit and signed a contract for 12 months of cable TV (yes, I relented!), telephone connection and the fastest Internet I have ever known. Essentially, the Swiss don’t muck around. Remarkable, given that any one of these would be either impossible or take weeks to accomplish in Dar.

Yet it is the little things you appreciate the most. I don’t know, say, sitting on a verandah without worrying about contracting malaria. Or being able to wear my hair down, without a humidity-induced bad hair day, which guaranteed you either left the house looking like you were trying to evoke your inner lion (on a good day) or tragically resembling a Rod Stewart impersonator (on a not so good day). For me though, the biggest novelty of all, were the sidewalks and more specifically, the prospects of actually being able to walk on them, without being hit by a car or falling down a hole that is. Yes, this is Switzerland, and I think I am going to rather like it here.

However, it seems old habits die-hard. For the first few weeks, I would catch myself boiling tap water. Replying to people in Swahili, and perhaps most worryingly of all, asking confused strangers who were coming from the direction of the nearest bathroom, “what are the toilets like?” Boy did I have a lot to learn. How quickly you forget that there are bathrooms on the planet, which do not require strategizing a Macgyver-esque special ops mission of resourcefulness every time you pay them a visit. The days of rolling up my trouser legs and arming myself with my own personal supply of toilet paper were behind me. This was the land of free standing loos, with pristine floors, soap dispensers, taps that actually worked, and that most unexpected of surprises, my very special first encounter with the concept of the self-cleaning toilet seat. One thing was certain, I was not in Africa anymore Toto!

Lausanne sure isn’t Dar, but I was surprised to discover some obscure connections. To start with, I have moved from living on United Nations Road, to having the UN HQ itself just across the lake from me in Geneva. Zanzibar’s most famous former resident, Freddy Mercury, also spent much of his life on the shores of Lake Geneva. Only 20 minutes away along a UNESCO World Heritage Route referred to, as The Swiss Riviera, is Montreux. A town known for its famous Jazz Festival, as much as it is for being an old stomping ground of many a famous artist. Charlie Chaplin lived nearby and Deep Purple’s classic Smoke On The Water tune was composed there, after a fire in a building caused…you guessed it, Smoke On The Water. Freddy owned a recording studio here, and like Stone Town in Zanzibar, Montreux likes to recognize its link with one of rocks most iconic legends. Coincidentally, my new school has many ties to Tanzanian. One of my colleagues lived there for 5 years and speaks Swahili well. Every year, for the past 8 years, the school has been taking students to Northern Tanzanian to partake in a community service initiative. I hope at some stage I will get to join them.

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Of the many things I miss on an almost daily basis, the energy and vibrancy of the people, the colours, the sunsets, the endless blue skies and the Swahili language, are high on my list.

As for real life? Well the rules will take some getting used to.

For instance in Switzerland the following activities are punishable by law:

Flushing the toilet in an apartment after 10pm at night

Washing your car on a Sunday

Hanging your laundry out to dry on a Sunday

Mowing your lawn on a Sunday

And, the newest regulation is that citizens must pay $2 for every plastic rubbish bag they buy. Which effectively means it costs me $2 every time I put a bag of rubbish in the bin.

Yet perplexingly, 16 year olds can buy alcohol and you can legally grow your own marijuana???

Such is life in Switzerland so far.

So until my next blog, although you may have noticed it took me 6 months to write this one. What with cooking and cleaning chores to take care of, in between browsing the fastest Internet connection I have ever known, and 200 channels of pay television to joyously work my way through (not withstanding most of it is crap and only 20 of those are in English anyway) my days of prolific blogging may well be behind me. As I turn my attention from observing reality to becoming a more active participant in the ‘real world’, I find myself thinking, so THIS is what all the fuss is about, this is why people enjoy living in developed countries, I might finally get it. The question is, will the novelty wear off?

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