Sunday, November 30, 2008

Emily Postum rides the Swiss tramway!

For us non-upper-crusters, etiquette is more than just pairing the right fork with your truffle canapés and instructing the serving maid not to clatter the dishes. You may think the rules of when to serve canvasback (à la Age of Innocence), or which seasonal stationery and flower combinations are appropriate for your haiku or waka (à la Tale of Gengi) are far more complex than the rules normal people have to deal with on a daily basis. Maybe. But I'd like to see Gengi try riding the tramway in Switzerland.

This is one of the first cultural items I learned upon moving to Zürich from Bordeaux. The tramway system in Bordeaux was brand-new, so the social rules were still sort of in flux. There were cute little zoo animal posters inside illustrating how to make everyone's ride more pleasant (eg. retract your quills and backpacks, avoid loud cell-phone conversations). People were willing to make an effort, but the entry and exit procedure was still a little chaotic, like they didn't really have it down. Yet. Not like in Switzerland.

Rule #1: When the tramway (or bus or commuter train) stops, you walk up to the door and stand beside it, forming a bit of a wedge-shaped line on the platform or sidewalk whose apex is just beside the doorway.

Rule #2 important: Do not block the doorway of the tram. at all. Every single person getting off the tramway must have a clear path straight ahead in order to exit. If there's a crowd coming out and you are blocking someone's exit path (because you're hoping to get on), the exiter won't just squeeze around you (like in France), they'll just walk up to you and wait until you get the hell out of the way. And this will hold up the entire exit/entry procedure. And it will be all your fault.

Rule #3: How do you know when you've screwed up? This is the easy one. You will know. You'll get a (free!) crash course in Swiss tramway etiquette from the school of (polite, furtive) shocked and horrified facial expressions.

I've just learned, however, that #3 is one that actually varies within Switzerland. I had Switzerland's other two fabulous exmo expat ladies over for drinks and jokes, and naturally we ended up comparing notes on Swiss customs. Wry Catcher -- who lives in a smaller city than Zürich -- said that the folks in her town will actually lecture strangers for infractions that are too serious for mere dirty looks. Say, you break Rule #4: Don't even think about getting on until everyone who's getting off is off (even if they're taking a long time and there's plenty of room to go around them). Or you break Rule #5: Do not come running up to the tramway and cut in front of someone who is politely waiting (in accordance with rule #4). You'll get an earful of Switzerdeutsch. And if you try to get out of it by feigning incomprehension, your instructor will gladly (or rather, angrily) give you your lesson in English.

Those stories surprised me quite a bit because it's not like that in Zürich. My experience is somewhat limited since I've been here less than a year, but I love public transportation, so I'm in the S-Bahn (commuter train), tramway, and bus all the time, and -- from what I've seen -- I'd be very surprised to see someone chew out a stranger. Here they have more of a "politeness one-upmanship" thing going, where you silently let people know they've screwed up without ever descending to the level of being impolite yourself.

The incident that really captured Zürich-style politeness for me was one I saw a few weeks ago while I was riding the escalator up from one of the underground train platforms. The escalator has a standing lane and a walking lane, clearly indicated by the yellow shoes painted on the steps. Yet, up ahead, I saw two ladies standing abreast in flagrant violation of what I'll call Rule #6: no standing in the walking lane. This wouldn't be a problem except that some guy was coming up behind them in the walking lane and clearly wanted to continue. Rather than saying something or trying to squeeze around the offending lady, he just leaned forward -- ever so slightly in her space over her left shoulder -- in hopes she'd see him in her peripheral vision and catch a clue and get out of the way. But she never did notice. She just continued conversing with her friend as the guy repeated his subtle leaning-in hint several times as we all rode up to the top. (Personally, I was standing in the right lane, so this situation didn't concern me except for the chuckle factor.) At the top we all filed off, and Lady Wrong-Lane was none the wiser about her infraction.

(Actually this story kind of contradicts my Rule #3, but perhaps it should have an addendum: "You will know unless you're totally oblivious to social cues.")

As amusing as this restraint is, it can actually get to be a little annoying to have to constantly keep a (peripheral) eye out to make sure you aren't blocking (hence inconveniencing) someone. I kind of miss the French system where (when things get crowded) you can just say "Pardon" as you squeeze your way through. "Pardon" is a convenient all-purpose word that can mean "I'm genuinely sorry I bumped you," and can also mean "FYI -- you're in the way -- coming through," depending on the tone and context. My two expat friends assured me that this is just a Zürich thing and that there really is an equivalent word in Switzerdeutsch, but I haven't learned it because it seems like here you just don't bump people no matter how crowded the trains or the aisles of the little city shops may be.

Then, of course, there's Rule #7: Keep your kids well-behaved.

Nico is demonstrating correct tramway procedure

Some conversation is fine, but letting your kids run around, yell, scream, and generally bother people is not okay. Oh, and the parent is responsible for ensuring that the kids follow rules 1-6, and all of the other hundreds of rules. (Actually, I think I'm going to have to give up on the numbering because I don't think I'll succeed in getting a comprehensive list.)

Sometimes when my kids are being a little rowdier than they should, people turn and smile, as if to say "It's okay, kids are like that, and the tramway's not too crowded today." But it really is an indulgence that they're granting you because they can just as easily turn and give you that horrified look that says "The nerve of some people! In my day children were polite!" Parents here catch their kids immediately and give a quick but firm lecture the second the child might be bothering someone. It seems like it's as much for the benefit of the bystanders as for the kid, as if to say "Don't worry, I've got it under control." It may be my imagination, but it seems that the minorities are quicker about it than the white people, quieting the child and then looking up and around with the smile that says "See? under control" since nobody wants to be someone else's example of "what's wrong with those people".

Personally, I don't care that much if I'm giving a bad impression of Americans by scolding my rowdy little boys in American English (though occasionally I'll talk to them in French to give people a bad impression of the French for variety). But I do try to follow all of the unwritten rules as well as I can. After all, they're not just totally arbitrary rules that show off the "good breeding" of the people who are in the know. Rather, for humans (social animals that we are) everyone's ride on the train, bus, or tramway is a little simpler and more pleasant if we know what to expect from the millions of strangers we share the city with each day.


Craig said...

Ahhh, this brings back memories.

Germans will tell you, politely but firmly when you've broken some rule. My favourite memory was on the Bahnsteig in some German city (I think it was Karlsruhe) and an obvious American was waiting for his train, it arrived, and he waited by the door (no one else was dis- or -embarking) and it didn't open, and then his train left. We laughed and laughed (politely and quietly, of course). The whole, you-have-to-push-the-red-and-yellow-button- so-the-door-will-open-thing was obviously not known to him.

Also, once when I was in the Zug in Austria, I had my (unshod! thank you very much) feet on the seat - it was a very empty car - and an old lady walked by to get to her seat, and decided to yell at me in barely comprehensible Österreicherisch, so I looked at her and smiled, and explained (in Hebrew, for variety) that I had no idea what she was saying and to have a good day.

In Germany, at least all the places I lived, all of those rules are in effect.

Aerin said...

It brings back memories for me to - more specifically being stuffed in trams in Russia with no personal space! The trams would be so late, everyone would hop on the first tram - we felt like sardines.

Thanks for the rules - interesting observation about parents and kids. I've found something similar here in restaurants. While we get lots of looks, no one ever says anything. Well, at least, not yet.

Varina said...

I think I would make a modification to rule #3. you're right, if you crew up you definitely will know that you screwed up, but the why can be mystifying. One time I was waiting for a train with my kids and they were sitting rather quietly reading on the bench but this old lady was giving me the death stare indicating we had made some horrifying faux pas. I couldn't imagine what it was so I ignored her, until I heard her nearly croak "chassures" and I realized my kid was actually squatting on the bench and therefore putting his feet on the seat, so I of course swiftly corrected him lest the old lady begin swatting him with her newspaper (which probably wouldn't have happened but she was looking a bit dangerous). I have frequently blithely ignored the death stares though. Living in China made me completely blaise about being stared at (foreigners get stared at, I wasn't especially offensive there or anything).

Anonymous said...

I wish I lived in an area with public transportation and rules of order for public transportation. It seems so...modern...or maybe I just have an ideal image of things.

I wish escalators here had walking lanes. My mom looks at me crazy for walking on escalators -- the very idea she thinks is absurd.

Anonymous said...

For pushing or squeezing through, try "Entschuldigung". It works every time, even in Zürich.

AnnM said...

"Retract your quills..." :-) That's clearly directed at me.

re Sabayon's comment: Unlike France, where everyone will correct your children. A woman scolded my son for putting his shoes on the seat once, at a pediatrician's office in Paris. If my French had been better I might have pointed out that if they cleaned up after their chiens they might not have an aneurism every time someone put their feet up.

The thought of the crotte de chiens still makes my quills stand up. And I suspect I'm repeating myself.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Craig!!!

It's fun to learn how things work in new places, isn't it?

Hey Aerin!!!

I'd be really curious to try the public transportation in Russia! Even here in Zürich, there's one part of our tramway commute where the boys and have to squeeze into a packed tramway each day. They know what to do if they have to reach around people to grab a bar and ride standing for a while.

Hey Sabayon!!!

That's too funny!!! Here there are signs in all the tramways that tell the official rules (such as no shoes on the seats, no playing music, etc.) with glyphs, so I knew from the start to keep my little guys' feet down. But surely worrying so hard about other people (and other people's kids) breaking tramway rules can't be good for that lady's health and well-being.

Hey Andrew!!!

I can't say whether it's modern or not, but it's definitely necessary with so many people rushing down the one escalator (not to miss their train), and so many people going up the other one at once as soon as the train stops by and drops its load. ;^)

If you haven't lived in another country, it's an experience not to miss! If you're not already settled in a permanent job, it's not too hard to find opportunities to study or work abroad such as teaching English in China -- I know lots of people who have done it.

Hey Victor!!!

Thanks! Now I just have to learn how to pronounce it. ;^)

But seriously, I should be listening for this word to see if I can learn it in context. It still seems kind of weird to me not to have learned this word since I spend so much time in crowded public places (I'd learned "Gruetzi" by the end of my first day), but I really think that people here are (in general) more careful not to bump each other.

Hey Sam-I-Am!!!

That's funny, I was going to say that this thing about correcting one's own children immediately is the same in France as it is here, but maybe it's to proactively keep other people from correcting your kids for you. ;^)

On the other hand, I think there may be a degree of randomness to it, in terms of people feeling justified in correcting strangers' parenting skills in public: it seems like every culture has 'em. I remember some stranger in Hawaii scolding my sister for letting her son chase pigeons (they're dirty! he could get sick!). And in my usual blog readings from just this morning, apparently some overzealous science proponent pissed off some parents by criticizing them for telling their child that evolution is something "some people believe in."

So true about the dog stuff though! I imagine you've read my merde, alors ! post. :D

Our sons are a little afraid of dogs, so one of our selling points for this move was supposed to be that there are fewer dogs here. We've discovered that that's somewhat true, but there are still quite a number -- and at least here the people clean up after them! :D

Anonymous said...

When my dad was in the military, he brought us to Canada and Korea. We never went to Germany, even though *all* the other army brats I know have been to Germany. Grrr.

I don't remember much about public transportation in Ottawa, but in Seoul, the subway was awesome. But even that was a long time ago.

Since I'm now at university, I have a few options for study abroad, and I'd like to travel to China, but I just don't know if it would fit with my major. I also have internships to do relatively soon, so between all that and classes, I may have no time for traveling abroad :(

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Andrew!!!

That's right, now I remeber you'd said on your blog that you were a miltary brat and had lived in Canada and Korea. I've actually been to Seoul -- that was my most awesome business trip ever, so I'm willing to believe you about the awesomeness, even though I was only there a couple of days and never got to see the public transportation.

Even if there's not any obvious opportunities for world travel in your major right now, something may arise if you keep your eyes open. As long as you're not yet settled with family committments, there are always possibilities. Personally, I'd never lived abroad until my late 20's -- as soon as I finished my Ph.D., I decided it was time to set off on an adventure! :D

Anonymous said...

Entschuldigung. Learn it. Love it. Live it. I probably say it at least once every single day. Though Pardon also works.

Rule #whatever's next ordinally: It's never called a tramway, only a tram. Or a Draamlii in super-precious Swyyyyyzerduuuuutsch. I've never heard it called a tramway before you called it that. Hey, I'm all easy going and shit, but you never know when you'll get yelled at, or passive-aggressively STARED or GLARED at for using the wrong word. :-D

Also? The BEST glyph on the Zurich trams is FOR SURE the "don't use a large hand saw on the seats in the tram" glyph. Seriously, some guy, with a large hand saw, and little bits of seat flying about. With a "don't do this" red circle around him. LOLOL. There surely was a rash of tool-related tram crimes...

Have you noticed that people don't really take their kids out to dinner here? I can't remember the last time a (non-English speaking) child was in a restaurant in the evening. Weird.

LOVE your list of rules. Made me laugh several times.

- wry

PS -- I once did the very same thing Craig laughed about, above ^^^. I stood at the S-Bahn door in Munich, waiting for the door to open. My experience with public transportation, though fairly extensive by that point, had not included the blinky door button you had to push... Some helpful German came up and pushed it for me, also saying (in English -- I wonder what gave me away?) "you didn't know?!?" with a large helping of baffled disbelief. Color me red...

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Wry!!!

Oops, I guess tramway must be one of those words I brought with me from France. Back in Bordeaux, it was le tramway. And since it doesn't look like a French word, I'd assumed it was some sort of international term or something...

I like the glyph with the saw, but I the one with the guy who has his empty pockets turned out is funnier. Léo likes to make a joke of breaking all the rules one by one (following the glyphs), so he pretends to play the guitar, then he turns out his pockets and makes the "I dunno" sign with his hands, then he pretends to saw the chair, etc.

JulieAnn said...

Bookmarking this

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey JulieAnn!!!

Planning to visit Europe (or at least some public transportation somewhere) soon? ;^)

Anonymous said...

Chanson, Anonymous - that series of exaggerated glyphs was part of a tongue-in-cheek campaign to get people to be even more correct on the public transport.

Just like any city, Zürich has its share of vandalism. 2-3 years ago a big problem was scratching graffiti on the windows. That seems to have died down in the meantime. Now we're just left with little expat kids practicing for when they can pick up a real saw at Migros :-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Victor!!!

Well, I think they succeeded in the tongue-in-cheek aspect. Léo thinks they're hilarious, and through joking about it he's learning that there are rules about how to ride the tram. He's five, and he's just starting to grasp public communication through signs, asking me what various signs mean or say.

Unknown said...

The Swiss wouldn't survive a day on the buses and metros in Rome. Oh my gawd, if ever there was a free-for-all the public transpo in Rome is its heart & soul. I did love as a virginal missionary being groped from time to time on the buses. That was fun. But what I didn't like was getting trapped in the doors and hanging half in and half out of it while the bus is taking off.

I'm sure the Swiss would die in Rome. The Germans do OK. :-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Tom!!!

Culture is so much fun!!! ;^)

Ms. Hermit said...

Here in Boston, rules one and two (and five and six) are harshly enforced, not just by the other commuters but by the conductor of the train. Some of it probably has to do with the influx of new, clueless, self-centered college students every September (don't even get me started on what that does to the rental situation here), but they will yell at you to move out of the way or wait your turn over the loudspeaker so everyone can hear and stare at you.

And rule whatever-you're-on: Never hold the doors! there's nothing quite so satisfying as hearing "Please clear the doors" late one September evening switch to "You in the Harvard (or BU) jacket, get on, get off, or get hauled away by T police. Now." Don't know why those two colleges get so prejudged as arrogant and careless of the rules, but there you go. (By mid-October everyone's figured it out, but there's a solid month and a half in there where you don't know whether or not someone will ruin your whole morning/evening timetable. And boy can they. When the center of the mass transit system is also considered one big historic landmark, you get all kinds of quirky issues)