Blue Collar Helicopters?

I know helicopters might be a rather common sight in the US (according to your pop media, every local TV in urban areas has at least one traffic helicopter, plus maybe one to follow police chases), but believe me… where I grew up, I only ever saw a helicopter up close once a year during they cycling race “Milan-Sanremo”, because they were doing aerial shots and the race passes right in front of my parent’s house.

Even after moving near Monza, you only ever saw several helicopters when the Formula1 was in town: VIPs coming and going from Milan Linate airport to the racetrack, once a year.

Here in Ticino… it’s odd. It seems like helicopters for “blue collar” tasks are more common.

Eliticino chopper on firefighting duty (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

There’s a company, imaginatively named Eliticino (it’s Elicottero in Italian, vs Helicopter in English), whose choppers I see pretty often: they are used to move heavy loads up and down high hills and mountains, or to-and-fro in places with little in the way of roads, almost always flying around with some 50 meters of steel cable dangling from the aircraft. One time there was one a few meters above the building in front of where I work: it was acting as a crane to put the glass-cleaning gear on the building. I mean… a job you’d expect from a normal crane, not a flying one (the building is like 6 stories, not a skyscraper).

Oh and we often see one of their helicopters (with the black and white livery) “parked” in a grassy field enclosed by the on-ramp of the highway: they have a chain-link fence and gate, they cross the road and go eat their lunch at the mall nearby. Then they’re back to work. It’s… odd.

Bonus: Switzerland is very mountainous (duh, I know), so heli rescue is very important. Many people here (I might even say MOST people) have a Rega membership: it’s the non-profit org that comes to your rescue if you are stuck on the Alps, but also if you crash your car on a small road up the hills, or you get lost while looking for mushrooms in the woods. If you are a card-carrying member, you get a big discount on a (not small) part of the fee (that is generally not fully covered by health insurance).

Oh and they have really stylish full-red-with-white-cross liveries (the Swiss flag).

A Rega rescue helicopter (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

License Plates

There are no “vanity” license plates in Switzerland, just like there are no vanity plates in Italy.

Well, kinda.

The car of the Neighbour of the Beast!

See, in Italy, the way I grew up with, the license plate is tied to the specific car for its entire life: when a new car is bought it gets a plate, and it stays with that VIN forever, even if the car is sold, until it gets officially destroyed (there is paperwork involved). If your license plate is stolen, you are in a world of trouble: issuing a new one is a hellish (and costly) procedure.

In Switzerland, on the other hand, the license plate is personal: it gets issued to a person, and only linked to a car while one owns it. More than that: the plate is mounted in a way that makes it fairly easy to remove it, and the law allows you to have one set of plates for more than one vehicle (you just need to inform the DMV-equivalent of the switch IIRC)… you can even get a discount on your vehicle tax if the second one is of a different class and gets secondary use (classic example, using the same plate on your car and on your RV/Camper that you use only for vacations and trips). When you sell your car, you keep the license plates, and put them on your new car (or you hand them back).

But… what about vanity plates?

Well, technically Switzerland has no vanity plates, but there is a sort-of-exception: plate numbers get reused all the time, and are originally issued progressively, with the exception of very low numbers. Plates with 4 digits or less are the Swiss (or at least Ticinese) vanity plates: they are sold at annual auctions by the DMV (the few that become available) and very low numbers can cost A LOT (like… 5 digits lot).

I heard that “TI 1” (Ticino’s number one plate) is on a Rolls Royce in Lugano. Spiffy cars often have very low digit counts on the plate, or some special number: I know a man in a nearby town gifted his two sons with 83 and 85 (or something like that… the years they were born). I remember seeing TI 7777 on a fleet car of a Casino.

So yeah, they managed to invent a way to make something exclusive when it was fairly prosaic.

Bonus oddities: licenses can’t be sold privately. It’s yours for life, but you can inherit them. Five digits licenses can be exchanged between two willing parties if they convene at the DMV and pay a small sum (I have no idea why). And finally… yes, people did find a way to circumvent the prohibition on selling licenses, in a very Swiss way. If you have, say, a 1984 Ferrari GTS (Magnum PI’s car), and you paid for a special license (1984), you create a company which owns the car as its only asset and then… if needed, you can sell the company!
The license goes with the owner… which is the company, not a person.
Yes, that’s a LOT of effort for a number on a couple of metal plates.

Oh and a final oddity: did you know? License plates are searchable on the DMV’s website, and you get name and address of the owner. Madness!
Luckily, you can ask for it to be unlisted for privacy reasons (und I diiid!).

Stock Photo Rep?

This is kind of a follow-up to the post about the tendency of the Swiss to estabilish personal, real-human to real-human relationships when interacting with institutions and companies.

Sometimes this translates in people being very trusting of your word (another thing we Italians tend to notice as odd), sometimes… Sometimes you get an email from your ISP, and instead of the usual super fake stock photo of some random young and good looking guy (more often, girl) depicting your “generic customer services rep”, you get this:

I mean, I can’t tell for sure, it might still be a stock photo, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to discover this lady actually is one of the people that will answer your calls.
It’s a small thing, but… they didn’t choose the run-of-the-mill young-and-pretty (and fake) image: this is an older lady, and certainly not a model. A nice change of pace.


Look at those stark reinforced concrete walls!

Switzerland has a deep connection with Brutalist architecture (after all, the movement is considered to have its roots in LeCourbousier among others), and while by and large Brutalism has mostly died down around the world by the early Eighties… Not so much in Switzerland! Or, at least, here in Ticino (the Italian-speaking, southernmost Canton).

I mean… Mario Botta, famous starchitect, has his studio less than one km from my house, and boy does he like the geometric shapes, the stark lines and the naked concrete. And it’s not just him: the propensity for the use of naked, unpainted concrete in very rational-shaped buildings is alive and well around here.

But, you might think, how is this a “Swiss Oddity”?

Check again the opening photo. I drive by it almost every day. Fancy, uh? You’d think it was some office building, or modernist house. But no…

It’s the tractor garage of a farm!
A fancy, super modern, brutalist tractor garage.

To compound the oddity, the farm is part of the Canton’s Agronomy School and Farm (translating roughly) and its main building, on the opposite side of the road, is a 1700s villa.

Potted Plant

Yes, it’s an abstract plastic bonsai.

It’s deliciously silly and I love it.

It’s a tiny plastic kit (it’s like… 3cm tall?) I just got from Japan yesterday and decided to spiffy it up a bit: the original pot is the same brown plastic/color of the trunk and you are supposed to stick some black cardboard to it… no way!

I busted out my Vallejo acrylics and layered some white primer, then black, then old brass, and finally some verdigris effect; all finished with gloss varnish. Oh and the “dirt” is black plus flat brown plus smoke wash. I gotta say, I’m surprised how nice the overall effect came out.

It’s the latest addition to my nerd corner in the office. It will fit right in.

Bureaucracy with a human face

On the left sign, under the canton colors, the names and direct phone numbers of the employees.

One of the things I noticed coming to Switzerland as an Italian, and something that really surprised me, was how personal the relationship with the “bureaucracy structure” tends to be.

Most of the times in Italy one dreads the prospect of interacting with bureaucracy at any level, because it always feels like you are going against a Brazil-like faceless leviathan that not only you can’t relate to, but will screw you up if you did anything remotely wrong, losing a ton of time in the process (assuming you don’t get a fine, too). Many institutions barely have a public contact phone, and it generally goes to a call-center that is either always overloaded (and you get endless horrible hold music) or basically unmanned (the phone rings and rings and rings… And nobody picks up). Or both! Like, you get past the IVR and then the call goes to an unmanned phone. And you will probably interact with different people each time, never really getting to know the person that’s working on your case… The person you are interacting with is probably not the one, either.

Here in Switzerland, the names of the people that work in public offices is written on a sign by the front door, with their direct phone number and email. Yes, really.

Taxes? If you are Swiss, or have been living here for a while, you get to do your own taxes (and there’s a free multiplatform software to help you, my Italian and American friends! And yes, it works quite fine on Linux too!), but that’s not all. You are assigned a “tax person” from the Canton, and they will be your single point of contact: they are the person that will check your filing, will ask for clarifications if you wrote something that doesn’t check out, that you can call if you have doubts about some deductible or another, or whatever. Again… Yes, really!

The whole feeling is much more… Human. And, yes, quite odd.

From Bell tower to Bell tower

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia (CC-BY-SA)

This story needs a short preamble: I’m attending an evening course for adults set up by my Canton on how to do your own taxes here in Switzerland (and some of this topic is worth an oddity post on itself), and the teacher (a smart young man who works for the Taxation office by day) was explaining how you can deduct some expenses, and specifically the ones to go back and forth to your job.

Now, Switzerland likes to encourage people to use public transportation, so you can deduct the cost of the annual ticket, or even a hefty 700 CHF for a bike. Yearly! But sometimes it can’t work out: you can explain why you need to use your car, and, assuming the Taxation Office agrees with you, you can deduct a sum per Km of your daily commute.

Our teacher went on to explain that they use Google Maps, or ViaMichelin, to plot the shortest road path between your home and your workplace, and use that (which makes sense), but then as an aside added, to an old lady asking about it (and here’s the kicker)… “Oh yeah, we used to have an official Federal document that allowed to calculate the distances between towns… but it was dismissed years ago! It used to tell you the distance from bell tower to bell tower”.

I was this close to burst out laughing: is there anything more… European than measuring distances that way? The missing bell towers from pictures of US towns is one of the things that I had not noticed consciously for a long while… but when you do, it’s really glaring. There are some obviously, but they tend to be really short, square and made of wood. Here, and in most of the continent I’d say, they really are an element of the basic fabric of territory: the kind of parochial “my town is better than yours” is called “campanilismo” (campanile is the Italian word for bell tower)!

And on the other hand, the idea of making such a system the mandated federal standard I think is the kind of adorable/quaint/odd that warrants this story a place in my “Swiss Oddity” collection.

A “Swisstalian” dictionary

Got it! No, it’s not a Swiss passport (that’ll have to wait another 10 years at least), even if the cover is almost identical: it’s a semi-humorous book of “Swiss Italian” language.

The “Svizzionario”

I think I talked about this already, but tl;dr, Italian from Italy and Italian from Ticino (the main Italian speaking canton), where I live, diverged a bit, for various reasons, and it leads to rather funny moments of incomprehension (and laughs, sometimes).

This is a book written by two Ticinese gentlemen (who are not primarily writers) and its name plays on the Italian word for Dictionary, turning it into a “Swiss Dictionary” portmanteau (Svizzionario).

(this is a repost of an older g+ post)

Well, Switzerland is famous for clocks right?

A recent ad I received in the mail. It’s… quite a thing.

Oh yeah, it’s a clock. Like a cuckoo clock, but chopper themed.
Bask in the details.

When the hour strikes, the garage opens, the choppers roll out, with realistic sounds. Oh and lights. And weights in the shape of pistons.

Why? I have no idea, but you can have it for a measly 200 bucks (plus shipping and handling).


(this is a repost of an older g+ post)

Swiss Trust

On my town’s local facebook group a guy posts: “I’ll give away this semi-new weed-whacker for free to whoever comes to pick it up.”

I say I’m interested, if it’s still available… the answer is “Sure! Come pick it up from my garage whenever you want, it’s open! In so-and-so road, up the path with cypresses, where the road ends.”

Ok, to some of you USicans who live in rural areas it might not sound so strange, but believe me, the notion of “don’t worry, pick this thing from my garage at your leisure, I’m not ever closing it” is super bizarre to my Italian-born mind. 😀

Addendum: some American friends remarked how, with their “Castle Doctrine”, they would never risk something like that because it’s a nice way to get shot. Happy to report that I got the weed-whacker and I didn’t get whacked (ha!): Switzerland is one of the countries with the most guns among private citizens… but it is also one of the safest countries in the world, with negligible numbers of gun-related deaths.

Bonus Swiss Oddity: the weed-whacker, in italian ‘decespugliatore’ (literally, bush-remover) actually has a name in Swiss-Italian (not present in Swiss-German or Romand aka Swiss-French): the “Zekiboy”.

I don’t know the etymology of the word, but nobody in Italy has ever heard of it… nor in the rest of Switzerland. Like several other swiss-italianisms, it is probably a corrupted form of some dialectal pronunciation of an early brand, or some strange nickname for the tool.

Anyway… it’s funny 🙂

Highway Sticker

Swiss highways cost 40 bucks.

The 2018 vignetta

That’s it, 40 bucks for the whole year. There are no toll booths anywhere(1): you must buy a sticker called the Vignetta with the current year on it (they are sold at pretty much every gas stop drugstore) and put it on the inside of your windshield. That’s it: the police mostly checks at the end of January (when the previous year sticker expires) and especially near the border… but this is like most things in Switzerland; the rule is there, and they do check… and if they find you on the highway without your sticker they are not amused. It’s a 300 bucks fine, plus the 40 to buy the sticker. On the spot, or you can’t leave.

Anyway, it’s neat (and much cheaper than Italian highways), only… the friggin sticker is designed to stay stuck and break in tiny messy pieces if you try removing it, as an anti-tampering device: last year it took me a lot of time and swearing to tear it away little piece by little piece, covering my fingers in glue, and then cleaning up the mess of glue on the glass. The devilish thing.

So this year I learned a True Local™ trick: Swiss DIY stores sell a small sticker removal kit with a magic spray that does something to the glue, turning it into a jelly-like substance, plus a handy razor blade with a handle to pry it from the glass and a sponge to soak the excess spray. Best 10 francs spent in a while, worked like a charm.

(1) not entirely true: there’s some toll booths on tunnels, including the super pricy one going to the Italian enclave of Livigno from Canton Graubunden… but it’s a private tunnel, after all.

(this is a repost of an older g+ post)

Silence is golden…

“Silent Electric Woodchipper
Automatic feeding, no vibrations.”

…’cause just because you need to dispose of the body, it doesn’t mean you can be a nuisance to your neighbours!

The Swiss take avoiding noise and disturbing your neighbours very seriously: and if one calls the police on you because (say) you are using a noisy lawnmower on Sunday, rest assured they will come and fine you.

(from an ad found in my letterbox)

(this is a repost of an older g+ post)