Pearls in the Sludge

It’s not easy to write about the Swiss. Like all other people on the face of earth they don’t like to be seen the way they are, but they do impose on any casual observer amongst their midst a particularly elaborate if not mysterious labyrinth of rules meant to safeguard their privacy. Names are not to be mentioned, personal things are not to be shown, flaws are not to be revealed and any hint of imperfection is to be strictly avoided. With their fragile but stubborn and unwavering self-esteem they place themselves at the absolute top of the world and everybody else is in their eyes of a distinctly lower rank. To them begins a world of chaos right outside the borders of their miniscule homeland that neatly spreads around the flanks descending from the mighty mountain ranges of the central European Alps. There beyond the reach of their territorial claims people who just don’t seem to get it live in a state of barbarian lawlessness. The Swiss do demand an awful lot of themselves, subjecting themselves to the most rigorous work ethic in the world, and they can rightfully be proud of having lifted themselves out of an economic doom by their very own bootstraps, once the fallout from those two great wars in the first half of the previous century had settled. They managed to transform their lean and backward-looking agrarian state within barely seventy years into a hyper-modern society at the very climax of material consumption. This supersonic flight to the peak of human civilization carried its price, and the Swiss’ proud sense of self is haunted by fragility, constantly undermined by a collective nightmare, where those hordes of barbarians breach the well-built borders, come to storm their fortress of righteousness and begin to plunder each and every one of their hard earned riches.

Living as a foreigner amongst them you constantly have to prove yourself and demonstrate that you are worth their while. Only if you surpass their eagerness to sacrifice your whole being to the work at hand, and the more brute the work the better, will you be accepted into their ranks. Having returned from thirty years of life out there amongst the barbarians I’m only just a small notch above the giant flock of economic refugees that have flooded this little country over that last couple decades. While wading amongst them I am of course privileged by birth. But still I’m being watched, judged and measured up. Do I still have what it takes to be a Swiss?

The last three weeks have been intense, jumping into the full-blown rat race with only just barely the needed preparation. Tasks too complex to handle have ended up in humiliating defeats, where fellow workers had to put in extra shifts to make up for my shortcomings. The colossal system of global commerce does not wait or pause for debutants. Persistence though always prevails and after three or four days the learning had kicked in and brought me to a level of acceptable performance. Adrenaline was essential, raging anger impossible to avoid. While mutating to the ranks of the working class, deep down in the wrenching guts of this maniac material consumption, I chanced upon a handful of sparkling jewels emerging from the sludge, which after some wiping and polishing happen to reflect upon a set of crucial human interactions. Let me pass two of those on to you!

 

My Back

I remember the four packages from the morning. Two feet by two feet square and about half of one deep. They are for an upper end furniture store next to the big shopping mall. And they are heavy. I also remember the loud rumble in the back of the truck earlier in the morning while accelerating up the hill to deliver the slender and plastic wrapped box with a high fashion designer label to the lipstick-clad and diamond earring-laced lady in the ostentatious house overlooking the town. My carefully constructed order in the delivery sequence of the cardboard boxes had crumbled in an instant.

I’m maneuvering the truck in reverse to bring the stern doors to the delivery gate of the store. I know I’ll have to dig those four packages out from underneath a heap of others. To my left a fancy grey car pulls up letting me know that I’m in someone’s way. Two ladies, obviously also from somewhere up the there on the sunny hills of town, stare at me sternly. I am in their way! I look around along the nose of my truck to the right where there’s a row of free parking spaces. There is plenty of space for the ladies to maneuver around me so I make a corresponding gesture towards them and refocus on my chores. After all I’m way behind schedule and suffering from a good dose of stress.

While I go and look for a suitable human presence amongst the racks of the storage room the two ladies have figured out what to do with their valuable vehicle and appear on foot next to my truck at the gate. A quick greeting is thrown their way. I swing my yellow back doors wide open and disappear into the belly of the truck, where I start digging. It’s been in general a rough and tumble day so far, my second day on the tour, where every single delivery is a labyrinth of obstacles. My mood is not on the upper side of things.

I discover the four packs under the rumble and bend my back across the ridge of cardboard before me to lift the first one out. With a guttural sigh worthy of a kung-fu flick I throw it towards the open doors in the back where it lands with a resounding bang. Out of the corner of my eye I see the younger lady’s eyes gaping wide open and her nose flanks rippling. “But it says fragile on it”, she exclaims. I calmly lift up the second pack of the four and throw it back towards her so that it lands with exactly the same kind of bang. “Well, so is my back”, I hiss in her direction, “my back is also fragile, but about that one nobody seems to care.” I hold my task in theatrical suspense for a second and stare into her artfully lined and shaded eyes, sending a clinch of my right eye in her direction to let her know that my emotions are controlled and my anger played. She understands and I’m rewarded with a half-hearted smile. The third and fourth package I set them gently on the pile, jump out of the truck and transfer the bunch onto a pallet on the side of the storage space. By this time the warehouse clerk has made his way towards us and I ask him if that’s okay as a temporary resting place for the delivery while I have him sign the scanner to confirm the reception of the lot. “And why don’t you help those charming ladies first?”, I continue with heightened charm of my own, “They seem to be in an awful rush!”

 

My Fingers

A week and a half earlier in the midday heat of downtown Basel I had just done a sharp right turn into a small alley, and with a second one had bumped my truck on its jumpy tires up onto the shady sidewalk. I turned the ignition off. It was only an envelope. No sweat involved! Three deliveries ago I had already put it on the seat next to me in the cabin. My mind had accepted it into the privileged area of its clearly structured attention span.

But it was no ordinary envelope. It showed off a sharp and bright color scheme, very crisp lettering subtly enhanced the prominent business logo and the design exhumed that despicable corporate attitude of always having to loudly demonstrate one’s own superiority. Its importance felt imposed, its style not very condescending. There was no room left for doubt. And it had a sticker on it. On a glaring pink background the numbers 12:00 stood printed as if etched in stone. This envelope had to be delivered before noon. All else could wait; we had been given strict instructions during our training.

I glanced at the clock. 11:48. The deadline was fast approaching. The entrance to the building was about thirty steps away from where I had parked. A curved row of lightly tinted glass doors and panels kept curious eyes at bay, but still from my position in the cabin I was able to confirm that the receptionist sat at her usual place pretending to look busy. The handover of the document was at most a couple minutes away. The half-eaten sandwich of my lunch had likewise come to rest on the seat next to me, and it now stubbornly pushed its way into my awareness. There was time to take another bite! Like the four previous days, it had become clear that there was going to be no time for a proper lunch break. If I had any aspiration at all to complete the day’s heap of packages behind me begging to be delivered to its intended owners, I had to work straight through.

When you’re stressed out and hungry, food can be a truly primordial experience, and I dug my teeth deep into the juicy and very skillfully prepared delicacy. Creamy mayonnaise flooded my taste buds, crunchy lettuce crumbled in between, while morsels of dark rye bread sponged up more of that sweet tomato nectar, heavenly exquisite! A quick wipe of the mouth with the back of my hand later I grabbed the envelope and jumped out of the driver’s seat down onto the sidewalk, slamed the door and started the sprint towards the middle glass door. I was doing the courier’s walk. This is a very specific gait, not running, no, never, but definitely faster than any other kind of walking, and it does increase your delivery speed! The sensors at the door were programed for less energetic forms of locomotion and I stopped sharply to let the automatic door react before my nose crashed into the glass. ‘Good day to you all!’, I exclaimed with my most resounding voice and entered the hall, where I made my way straight towards the reception desk.

There were few signs of life left in her eyes, but the slim lady at the desk handled the handover of the document flawlessly, having executed the same transaction most probably millions of times before in her professional career. She turned the envelope over in her frail hands and quenched something like: ‘I need to make sure this is for us!’ through her tight lips. ‘I’m pretty sure it is!’, I replied smartly and handed her my scanner with one hand and the waiting stylus with the other. This movement had cost me lot to master. In the beginning when I was learning this trade I had offered those two items in the most awkward fashion so that every receiving person had to manhandle them through some serious special contortions before being able to confirm the reception by scribbling their signature onto the little screen. But I was aware that here I was confronted with a situation that required the ultimate application of style. And the movement did execute beautifully. The receptionist looked at the utensils that had been presented to her with such highly polished elegance, and she looked at them for a good long while. After which she looked at them still and finally, as if waking from Rapunzel’s slumber she directed her gaze towards a nicely decorated box of hand towels sitting on the counter towards the back of the room. She strove towards them, ripped a towel out of it in a fit of exaggerated demonstration, and returned to her duty equipped with the perfect antidote to everything uncleanly.

Her facial expression had changed, her pale cheeks sagging. Utter disgust was written across her face in bold capital letters. She gingerly grabbed the stylus with a groove she had carefully made in her handkerchief, and with an epileptic series of nervous jerks she jotted down her signature.

Her slender hands once more flowed in graceful action. Having absorbed their beauty my gaze wandered across the rugged plastic surface of the scanning device and onto my own hand holding it steady against the countertop. There is no civilized way to describe what I had to witness there in front of my eyes. There was a tar grey coating of encrusted dirt all over my hands, the wrinkles in my fingers darkened like the net of a drunken spider, the fingernails framed by a black rim fit for a funeral, the crooked groove of the destiny line inside my palm filled with somber sediment, and, and this was the hardest thing to swallow, specs of shiny white droplets of soiled mayonnaise interspersed with miniature crumbs of whole meal sandwich bread squashed in a transparent plaster of some other greasy thing lined the outside of my index finger.

I clearly had fallen to the lowest of the low. At the very least my grooming level had. Bodily neglect like nothing else throws you down the rungs of social status in a fast free falling. My self-esteem shivered for an instant and threatened to disintegrate. But my always helpful mind was already looking for a way out, a way to survive the assault of this clear demonstration of class.

A smirk appeared, first as a twitching of the Zygomaticus major in my cheeks, pulling my tight lips out into a smile, then as a rush of adrenaline and a burst of joy that welled up through my body. ‘You handled this situation really well,’ I calmly told the lady while looking her sternly in the eyes, ‘very well indeed!’ Her cold clear pupils contracted slightly, like those of a tiger calmly locking its full attention onto the prey. Her glossy, blood red lipstick caved inwards like melting wax on a burning candle. But it was the slight trembling in her hand as she returned the stylus to me that gave it away: She was aware that I was pulling her leg! Human contact had been established beyond the realm of shame!

I could have been proud of my ability to turn this desperate situation around and transform it into an opportunity, but there was not time for that. A rumble tumble of packages waited in the back of my truck, anxious to be delivered in due time. And anyway, I would have had to admit, that all this had happened very much despite of myself, not because I had willingly planned or controlled it. It had simply happened because I had let go of the standard framework of restricted behavior. Stepping even further back and looking at it with a mind of absolute clarity, where things reveal themselves as obvious, I realized that it had all happened because… simply because of my very dirty fingers!

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6 Responses to “Pearls in the Sludge”

  1. Beatriz Restrepo Says:

    Aja!!!!! to much work!!!! You need a massage!!!!

  2. Rudy Says:

    Switzerland. I think I will order myself some Swiss cheese in 16 individual tiny packages in membrance of all the nice toys that you did detest and protest so much in hopes that you will have to deliver them to me. I can hardly wait til you have to deliver your very own iPhone 6 which is seated at the bottom of your truck. Oh sweet karma you are not dead yet. Where is thy sting???

    Welcome back to the real world. The circle is now complete. You stepped on our toys for seemingly forever and now you are responsible for there safe delivery. Without your important part you now play none of us toy mongernoids would ever get our toys. Welcome back home ol’ friend. What goes around comes around.

    Please forgive me for having fun at your expense but I could not pass this one up… Now you know why we must buy those toys partly so you can get paid for their delivery so from now on please be some kind of kind to us consumers. We are just part of the circle too. No karate chops with my cheese please. I’ll take mine the old fashion way with no extra spit thank you… Hope you guys are having fun… Love Rudy & Dora & Mike Jr.

    • alunaboat Says:

      To my good friend Rudy: There is no sense in debating where there is no understanding, so let me forgive your having fun at my expense by me having some at yours.
      Fun fact #1: Very interesting indeed that your ‘real’ world is a world of toys, Mr. Consumer! May I draw some conclusions about your emotional age?
      Fun fact #2: I’m proud to say that I have yet to buy an electronic toy that is less than two years old.
      Fun fact #3: The miserable one percentage I get paid from what you pay to have your goods delivered to your doorstep while you sit in a rocking chair is more of a token of exploitation than a justification for an unsustainable way of life.
      Final fun fact: I must, I must develop my bust, and collect a bit more spit!

      • Rudy Says:

        Well I only had fun once at your expense as a consumer but you have been up to bat many times and always hit a home run on said Mr Consumer. Guess we have the same rule when buying off the cutting edge. Most of the things I buy are from craigslist. I just got called senile today for buying two 10 year old projectors. From time to time I have fallen victim to the bleeding edge on HSN QVC but they usually sell near discontinued items that are more than one or two years old. Items that the big companies are over stocked on and are not moving so well so they discount them. That’s how I ended up with so many cameras.

        One thing you must admit is that you have swung HARD & Often on us gadget consumers. Our heads are still ringing. Sorry but it was finally consumers batter up day. It was a reflex strike. I am not proud of it but at the time it was satisfying for the moment.
        Kind of like fat man and a box of chocolate candy. It did not matter how much spit was on it. He just had to have it. But know this my friend. I was not making fun of your need for funds or the importance of the job because no one makes me happier than the person who bring me my toys. Its like a kid seeing Santa for me each and every time. Seems like you were having fun writing about it and I just wanted to join in admittedly with a slight twist and tug. I hope your ears are not ring as long or loud as mine and thanks for the extra spit. Even Swiss cheese can be a little tacky and hard to swallow. Kind of like peanut butter. Smile…

        Don’t forger that its my turn to sit in the lounge chair. I will probably be long gone when its your turn to sit and wait for the toy bringer.

        Just think I am your most devoted speed reader… Smile… What upsets me most is that I miss you both so. If it is true you often hurt the ones you love the most and if so you should be in a lot of pain about NOW!!!

        Fifty year anniversary coming up June 2015.
        Thank you guys for watching my house so I could met my goal and go to Rio before the above date. You support was gold to me. But don’t stop practicing your hocking exercises. You never know when I deserve EXTRA SPIT:-) 🙂 🙂 or something that rimes with spit but the word escapes my memory as does many things do when you set in the chair to long. Always remember if I don’t order more toys every day I will probably die early from lack of exercise if no one comes to the door.:-) 🙂 🙂

        RUDY

  3. Jacques Says:

    Beat, I can feel what you feel. Being myself immersed in the working world. Though not in Switzerland but in Marseille which allow for a lot more slack and which make it more bearable. With my Pilgrim dismasted, I will have to fix it rapidly to keep my sanity.

  4. Interlude: Rampant Reality from Hilo, Hawai’i | Aluna's Travel the World Blog Says:

    […] Sailing away from yesteryear « Pearls in the Sludge […]

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