Mr. Marx’ and Mr. Engel’s Nightmare

You guessed it! Whenever I don’t have time to write it’s because life has grabbed me by the neck and thrown me into a turmoil of things so new and throbbingly fresh that there is no chance to sit down and wiggle my fingertips to tell some well-polished stories. Summer has arrived on the Mittelland, the Swiss plains edged between the jagged Alps with their gleaming peaks of eternal snow to the South, and the rolling wooded hills of the Jura to the North. This hyper-densely populated area is the hub of the proverbial Swiss industrial diligence. Every square millimeter of space is put at man’s service and an ant’s nest under the midday sun would look like a global conference of sloths, were you able to contemplate it side by side, from a safe distance of course, with this gentle landscape transformed by centuries upon centuries of Puritan work ethics. Busy highways crisscross the area in a dense web of concrete strips that tunnel through hills and mountain ranges as if they were made of soft slabs of Swiss cheese. A mix of ultra modern cars zip at 140km/h between urban centres and giant industrial areas and after sailing the vast waters of the South Pacific I have been reduced to a minuscule co-conspirator of this accelerated madness. I’ve entered the Swiss labor market with a shaky foot on the bottom rung, learning the demanding trade of a CPD* delivery driver. This 21st century form of slavery is a complicated art requiring a sharp eye and impeccable memory.

I’m sitting at this moment on the passenger seat of the notoriously yellow-sided vehicle, and I’m staring out into a slither of sultry greenery left lonely between some imposing blocks of concrete and steel architecture. My trainer is taking a power nap slouched behind the wheel with his feet stretched out through the window of the open driver door. Soram* is his name and he is originally from Bosnia. Nowadays though a French citizen and therefore under the Schengen Agreements of Free Movement allowed to work in Switzerland. He stayed up late last night to root on his previous countrymen. They were bravely fighting a battle of soccer against the world’s greatest, the mighty and agile Brazilians, hosts of this year’s Soccer World Cup that has managed to bring the social tensions in this giant of South American nations to the boiling point. We are waiting for the feeder truck that is supposed to appear shortly on the parking lot and transfer a couple dozens of international packages to us to take along for delivery on the remainder of our route for the day. Soram’s eleven countrymen had suffered an honorable 3:1 defeat the previous evening. But for us, defeat is not an option!

We had started our day at a quarter to six in the morning. This is my third day of initiation into the arts of delivering packages and my shirt sports the corporate colors yellow and red of the global logistics giant CPD. Already we had picked up and initiated the scanner, the courier’s weapon against all odds. It lives in a holster on our waist loaded and ready to shoot its gleaming laser cross at bar codes on worn cardboard boxes of all sizes in split seconds. Our delivery truck stood eager amongst at least two dozen others with its back doors flung open wide and angry, waiting to be stuffed to the brim like a Thanksgiving turkey with goods in portioned packages.

The shrill sound of a siren had announced the end of every hint of sanity and the distributor band started rolling. Two hundred meters of turning stainless steel rollers became a conveyor belt for an avalanche of packages and my eyes also transformed into a scanning machine, sifting through a slurry of black and white patterns to extract vital information about the destination of those morsels of merchandise. Packages marked with our tour number had to be dragged off the conveyer, their bar codes scanned and then sorted according to their location on our tour. Those at the end were loaded first only to be buried under a carefully choreographed sequence of post to be delivered. Over a dozen other drivers were immersed in this same highly mental activity, and the jokes flew back and forth over my head. It was an international salad bowl of languages with Turkish predominant and the dialects the splintered pieces the imploded Yugoslavian Republic had left behind after the latest of Balkan wars a very close second. The rowdy and happy humor reeked of testosterone, everybody played the alpha male but no one seemed big enough to take a lead.

After a good hour and a half the stream of cardboard slowed to a trickle and finally ceased. The tally in our scanner had stopped at one hundred and seventy three. According to Soram this was at the high end of things and a dense day of running and shoving lied ahead. And those were only the domestic deliveries. We had already scanned in an additional twenty or so international packages and were now waiting for another batch coming at us with the feeder truck.

Soon we are under way again. Soram has done this for a couple of years now while I’m still struggling to hit the big yellow button that fires the laser on the scanner. But that’s what I’m here for: to become a master of the tool! The routine is this: Soram stops in front of a building, usually the delivery ramp of some factory or the main entrance of an apartment complex. He indicates the exact place where the package needs to be delivered and tells me the name of the business or person. I jump down from the passenger seat of the van and race to the back door, pull it open and search for the right pack amongst the mountain of dirty milk coffee brown melange of merchandise. Once I have homed in on the corresponding unit, I grab it without delay and run towards the indicated place, shout out a hearty good morning and with the most serviceable of smiles announce the visit of goodies delivered by CPD. All deliveries need to be signed, so I shop around for a willing victim to scratch his or her mark on the little screen of my scanner. That person’s name needs to be input with the most cumbersome keypad you can imagine. A sentence or two of spiffy small talk is then in order to cultivate crucial customer satisfaction before shooting out of the establishment again with a resounding well wishing for the remainder of the day. A full two hundred times a day this is repeated between zippy driving through the verdant limestone landscape of the northeastern Jura. Our yellow van snakes its way over and through the regular ranges of the characteristic geologic folds I remember drawing neatly in my notebook during geography class way back when. Mysterious rock formations tower above our way seemingly fit for camouflaged hideaways to a slew of gremlins and hobbits and their doves and foxes. The work is tedious, it’s a tour de force for the memory cells. Within a couple of weeks I will have to be able to do this all by myself. A quick glance in the back of the truck should by then be enough to memorise the next couple addresses and strategise the route for the delivery, while in the morning the vehicle’s loading deck will need to be organised so that the day can rum smoothly. Once learned and practised it will become mechanical and automated and I will be transformed into yet another robot in the system. There will be absolutely nothing special or extraordinary about that.

What is extraordinary is that most of my fellow drivers are extraordinary human beings, once you sit down to get to know them. They do these twelve-hour days five times in a row every week of the year to bring up their families and provide their children a better future. At least that’s what they say, if you ask them why they are putting up with all this. Soram grew up during the war years and he spent his first five years of economic productivity in the army fighting at times his friends and neighbours because he was told to do so. This whole thing with the ethnic hatred is a cruel invention of those who profit from the war, says Soram in our short conversations interrupted again and again by my delivery runs. The common people don’t care if their neighbours are from here or there, they get along just fine. We were taught to hate and forced to make distinctions. But that’s the past! We have to get over it. Still today down there they hash about who has done this and who has done that. This makes no sense at all. I’m French nowadays, because there ‘les gens s’en fou! People don’t care! Look at France’s national soccer team! They are all from Africa, but the French drink their good wine and have made it all theirs a long time ago.

Mid afternoon we start going down the list of pick-ups, visiting factories and businesses to take along the products they have been manufacturing. They now also need to make their way along the frantic highways of economic development and arrive at other businesses who will further assemble machines and gadgets, or end up in the hands of consumers, who, in order to pay for those machines and gadgets also need to run around and sell themselves as labourers, doing things they don’t really like to do, but think they have to do in order to acquire this shady wealth that isolates us from the living things that grow right under our feet and in front of our eyes. Fear is the fuel in this machine of running madness and only once we have delivered our entrusted goods to the giant depot where we started our day in the morning do we breath a deep sigh of relief and head each back to our homes. Soram to his family of three to tranquillise the never ending longing for more and better goods his wife has written down on her mental list, to take his two kids for a stroll in the neighbourhood to wring them away from the fatal attraction displayed on the latest smart phone screens. During his short rest at night, while his closed eyes stare at a concrete wall he dreams of a simple life planting potatoes and raising pigs. Life must make more sense to a farmer who works the land, he had confessed to me earlier on and wanted to know nothing of my concerns about the hardship particular to this age old profession. He will wake up like me at five o’clock tomorrow morning and present himself timely and diligently for another day in the life of a delivery driver, a life very few Swiss can imagine, and even fewer would even consider doing themselves, and be it just for a while to get a first hand understanding of what’s behind this enormous machine of convenience that is never ever good enough!


*Names has been changed to respect privacy


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One Response to “Mr. Marx’ and Mr. Engel’s Nightmare”

  1. Thomas Says:

    The trick, I think, is to be the best delivery person you are capable of. Remembering that those packages are going to be delivered to human people. You might be the friendliest person they see during their day.
    In the larger scheme of things, Aluna will be ready for a haul out when you return to her, or at least a vigorous bottom scrubbing ;-))
    Aloha from the BIg Island.

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