It is 29 years since I first arrived in Switzerland when I was recruited by a Geneva-based U.N. specialized agency. In those days, the housing market was as tough for new arrivals as it is today, taking a considerable amount of our time and effort to find apartments at an affordable rent. Therefore, I was forced to stay in a hotel near Cornavin, Geneva’s main train station, for some time.
There was a post office near the hotel I first stayed at. Surprisingly, it was open from 7 a.m. and some people stopped there, before going to work, to do errands. Before coming to Geneva, I had worked and lived in Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world, but had never seen any post office open as early. They all started at 9 a.m. This gave me the impression that the Swiss were early risers.
Arriving in Geneva, I had thought that I would be able to find a suitable apartment in no time, but I had no such luck after two weeks of serious searching. Besides, I was told by the hotel receptionist that I would no longer be able to extend my stay as all the rooms were fully booked beyond that day. I managed quickly to secure a room in another hotel, also near Cornavin, but on the lake side this time, and moved. Thinking that having a car would be convenient for apartment hunting, I also bought a used car in haste at the same time. Luckily, there was a public parking area near the hotel. My car was safely parked in the office garage during the day on weekdays and I thought it could be kept at the public car park without any problem during the night on weekdays and over weekends.
The first Saturday after purchasing the car, I went out all day, leaving the car in the parking. Then on Sunday, I needed to go somewhere far away to take a look at an apartment for rent, so I walked to the spot where I had parked my car after work on Friday. As soon as I got to the car, I noticed something left under the windshield wiper. Thinking that an ad had been left there, I removed it and took a look at it. To my surprise, it was a parking ticket stating that my car had been illegally parked there on Saturday. If I remember correctly, the parking fine amounted to CHF 60.00.
I was puzzled why parking was not permitted there on Saturdays, but the mystery was quickly solved. As a new-comer to Switzerland, I had missed seeing the notice there, which I recognized at that moment. Having read it carefully, I understood that the area was closed for parking during the hours when the Saturday market was held. This meant that my car had been left in the middle of the open market without being towed away the previous day. I was thankful for that.
The parking ticket indicated that the fine should be paid at the office located in the Pâquis area, a bit further than the police station near the hotel, which handled parking and traffic violations. Surprisingly, the office was supposed to be open from 6 a.m. I wondered if it opened so early to make it easier for people to pay fines before going to work. Perhaps because the parking ticket had been on my mind, I woke up before 5 a.m. on the Monday morning. As I was curious about any government office being open so early, I decided to go there to check it out.
The place had probably never received any Oriental woman as early as at 6 a.m. The officer who dealt with me appeared rather surprised to see me, but handled my case in a friendly manner. Showing the ticket, I explained to him in my very poor French that I had not known that parking there was not permitted on Saturdays. He asked me when I had arrived in Geneva, so I replied that I had come two weeks earlier. He said that in that case he would waive the fine this time, while reminding me to be careful in the future. I was so happy about this unexpected gesture of understanding and leniency that I put on the brightest smile I could despite the time of the day. This incident made my impression of the Swiss being early risers even stronger.
A few years later, however, I had another experience that strengthened my image of the Swiss as early risers even further. I was then living in an apartment in a town called Versoix on the outskirts of Geneva. It was such an embarrassing event I am sure I will never forget it for as long as I live.
It occurred when I had just returned to Geneva after undertaking a mission to rural areas in Tanzania, where I had been conducting a survey on women’s labour force participation in selected villages. When I began writing my mission report back in the office, I realized that I had thrown my important memos, the contents of which would have to be included in the report, away with the trash. A mission report, which should be summarized in a few pages in a clear and concise manner, normally contains the objective and the destination of the trip, the work accomplished, the points requiring future follow-ups and a list of individuals met. My bad habit had been that I would scribble the names and the titles of the officials I met down on anything I happened to have, such as a pamphlet or an advertisement. That was why, on my return to Geneva, I had carelessly thrown away the piece of paper on which I had scribbled down some important information.
At that time, my contract was not yet stable. It would not be an exaggeration to say that my future depended on the quality of the mission report and the survey report I would submit to my superior. So I had to weigh my situation seriously. If I remembered correctly, the list of the officials I had met in Tanzania had been jotted down on the pamphlet of the hotel where I had stayed during the field-work in rural areas. I absolutely had to recover the trash bag I had thrown away the previous evening and get that pamphlet back.
On returning home, I immediately went to the waste collection room where two large dust-bins for the apartment residents were situated. The bins had considerable width and depth so as to be able to hold many waste bags thrown away by the households in the building. When I had tossed my trash bag into the bin the night before, they had been both almost empty, but by this time were both quite full. How awful the situation had become for me! I knew that the municipal garbage collection truck would come at about 6 a.m. the next morning and that the caretaker of the apartment would push the bins out and place them in front of the apartment building at around 5.30. That meant that I would have to find the trash bag I had thrown away out of the heap of the garbage bags either that evening or by 5.30 a.m. the next morning, at the latest.
I recalled which bin I had tossed my bag in. Also, most waste bags were made of black vinyl with the name of either one or the other of the two major Swiss supermarket chains printed on them. I knew which name my bag had, so I could sort out the bags based on this. I could also separate those bags that, I was certain, had been thrown by someone else because of the way the string had been tied. However, sorting out the bags was not that easy because the bin was full by this time. The bag I had thrown in had to be lying at the bottom of the container, which was too deep for me to reach.
While I was desperately looking for my trash bag, some apartment residents came down to throw their bags. They knew that the next morning would be the day of garbage collection. As it was embarrassing to appear to be scavenging, each time someone came I pretended that I had just arrived to throw mine. However, I could not be productive this way in achieving my objective. So I decided to go up to my apartment and to return at 4.30 the next morning to avoid being interrupted by anyone.
I was sure that no one would come there so early in the morning. When I went back down there, both waste containers had even higher piles of garbage bags compared with the night before. Thinking that sorting out the bags while standing outside the deep bin would require much more time, I decided to climb up and get inside. While sorting out the bags, I tossed out the ones I had already checked and which, I was certain, did not belong to me. Of course, I planned to put them back into the bin after accomplishing my task. Standing inside the waste container, I made a rapid progress and finally found the one I was certain belonged to me. I quickly untied the string and confirmed that the trash inside was truly mine. I felt so happy and relieved to have found my own trash bag after all that trouble.
At that very moment, however, I heard a noise outside the waste collection room. Suddenly, the door flung open and in came a middle-aged man carrying a trash bag. As soon as he was inside the door, he looked totally flabbergasted not only at seeing so many garbage bags scattered on the floor but also at finding an Oriental woman standing inside one of the deep garbage bins. As if he had just seen something absolutely awful, he silently, but quickly, tossed his bag toward the other bin and stepped back out of the room immediately. I had wanted to explain to him what I had been doing, but everything happened in such a flash that there was no time for me to do so. I had also been so shocked to see anyone come in at such an early hour that I was nearly paralyzed with terror. Furthermore, I tasted indescribable embarrassment for having been caught inside a trash container.
After that, I became extra careful with the notes I took during missions and double-checked before throwing away any trash as I would never wish to have such an embarrassing experience again. The effort I had made in that incident must have paid off, however, as I managed to obtain a stable contract thereafter.
Still, the Swiss’ habit of rising early can sometimes have its drawbacks.