Joe Slater, Going Postal
The Upper Engadin valley near St Moritz
Terra3 [CC BY-SA]
First a caveat. In the following, there are no commando raids, aristocratic murders, medieval siege engines or scenes of hot sex on a Makati pool table. If that’s you want, scroll straight down to the comments nobody reads and wait for the next offering from one of our fine regular contributors. This is just a humdrum recollection of a summer spent dishwashing in Switzerland in the 1980s. The nearest I got to adventure was cudgelling trout for the table and sparring with the chef, the Old Git.

Why bother telling us, you might ask? Fair question, to which part of the answer is, I wanted to say something to a crowd that has fairly strong views on immigration (which I share), but from the other side — about what it is like being a foreign worker in a crap job in a country that doesn’t really want you to stay.

So, let us step back 30 years.

The Gasthof Edelweiss in lofty, remote Graubünden canton was quite large, with several floors and at least a dozen front-line staff. Most of them were seasonal migrants, who came over for the summer and then went back to their southern and eastern European homelands and winter jobs.

I have already mentioned my Croat room-mate Branko and my two Spanish kitchen companions, Manuel and Modesto. Manuel was the friendly one and showed me the ropes. Of moody Modesto, who I had less to do with, I knew only one thing: his main job was welding in a shipyard in Vigo. Manuel’s background was a blank. He didn’t encourage personal questions. Nobody did. Everybody was there to earn a crust and send it home to a poorer country, and that was all anybody needed to know.

Sometimes, we all sat together for meals, which at the Edelweiss usually meant reheated leftovers or just fried egg and potato. Names from my diary — the faces are forgotten now — are Radmila, the Romanian-minority Yugoslav, Vassily, a Bosnian waiter, the Portuguese chambermaid Rosa, and Irmgard, a willowy, quiet Austrian waitress. Table talk was in a confusing mix of Serbo-Croat, Spanish, and pidgin German and Italian (the two local languages). For the only time in my life, I found myself in an environment where nobody around me, absolutely nobody, spoke English.

Because of the language barrier, all we could do was gossip and talk shop, moaning about the management and laughing over kitchen cock-ups: Ma-donna Wer machen das? Du? Mein Gott! Zuviel Essig! Chef is heute sehr schlechter Laune! Salz und Zucker gemischt, Flan alles kaputt! Branko hat Mädchen gefunden in Piz Ela! (Madonna! Who did that? You? My God, too much vinegar! Chef is in a foul mood today! Somebody mixed salt and sugar up in the caramel flan, all spoilt! (I lowered my gaze) Branko has found a girl in the Piz Ela!) But the banter didn’t last long, and meals usually ended in long silences.

Nothing much enlivened the work-eat-sleep routine. Every couple of weeks, some of us seasonal workers would nick Calanda Bräu empties from the hotel bins and secretly cart them off to a local supermarket to claim the deposits on the caps. We got a few bottles of booze out of it. That was about as exciting as life got in Bergün.

* * *

After weeks of dishwashing, I developed blisters and little cuts that would not heal. In the end, I had to work wearing sticking plasters. They didn’t stay on long in the water, of course, so I needed a big box of them.

For some reason, this irked Mr Abegg, the owner of the Edelweiss. He had an annoying habit of looking around everywhere trying to spot breaches of Küchenordnung. He accused me of turning his kitchen into a “first aid station.” I must say, that cheesed me off.

But unlike the Old Git, he usually soon vanished back upstairs to be with his piles of cash, and so could be ignored. Actually, he spent most of the time propping up his own bar, and driving up and down the valley in his red Land Rover mucking around with Citizen Band radio gear. The Landrover had his initials VA emblazoned on the flank, as did his Porsche.

Our biggest gripe was management’s meanness. Once, stocking the fridge, I dropped a couple of lettuce leaves onto the stairs. The Old Git watched me, and before I could turn round and put my load down, he walked over picked up the two leaves. He held them up and said, “That costs money.” When two eggs cracked and got stuck in their box, Mr. Abegg himself scraped what he could out of the shells.

Nothing got wasted. One day, I was asked to peel a bowl of mouldy and bruised apples. I didn’t ask what for, knowing the answer would be a “never you mind.” I found out that evening, when staff supper was Apfelstrudel. When a blight swept the trout pond (happy days!), a number of the diseased fish ended up in the deep freeze, from whence, after a respectable interval, they went into sauces and pâtés for the restaurant.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh about the management. They were a local family who had become as rich as diamond dealers running what was basically a big pub, on the back of their fabulous location and the ready availability of cheap and undemanding foreign labour. There was no real social contact between us and them — it was very much an Upstairs, Downstairs relationship. But if it had really been that bad, we would all have left. This was not my first continental kitchen job and I knew that conditions were par for the course.

All the good times tended to involve my worldlier roommate, the waiter Branko. He shared gallons of booze with me. He took me to the local bars. He offered to set me up with a waitress. (Probably to get me out of the room for a few nights; but unfortunately, I didn’t fancy her). From his cosmetics hoard, he gave me salve for my cracked hands. Unlike the other waiters, he was scrupulous about sharing his tip money with the kitchen staff. It wasn’t much, but this was a thought that really counted.

Also unlike most of the other migrants, he taken the trouble to get competent in German, and could talk in full sentences about things other than work.

And he had a stock of stories. He had been on the Red Star Belgrade under-21 team, a career he said he had given up for narcotics-dealing. As a forestry worker, he had all but cut off a finger. To save money, he said, he bound the wound himself, and heroically worked on for ten days in his bandaging, to avoid the loss of wages. He liked a spot of shoplifting.

One evening he showed me his latest pair of trousers. They looked expensive. They had cost nothing, he said. At the store, he had taken two identical pairs into the changing room, one concealed under the other. In the booth, he had put one pair on, and then pulled on his old trousers over them. He had then replaced the other new pair on its rack and walked out of the shop wearing the nicked pair under his old trousers.

“But why? You could be kicked out of the country. Why risk your job and your income for a pair of trousers?”

He did it, he explained, to test his nerves. It wasn’t about the money. He stole a small something every few years as a character-building dare.

Also, he did not like the Swiss much. Though he had to have blood taken regularly for medical reasons, he refused to give blood on Swiss soil.

“They already have so much and give so little themselves,” he explained. “They don’t deserve favours from me.”

In early autumn, when the summer season was winding down, we went on a day-long boozing tour up the valley and over the Albula Pass. This was historically an old route over the mountains from north Italy.

First we walked to Latsch, the nearest village, where cottages had pretty pargetting on their plaster walls, and drank Calvados sitting on a grassy slope. Beyond the red-tiled roofs clustered tightly around the church tower, a Rhätische Bahn train coiled its way slowly up the green slopes of the long valley as it approached the pass.

We hiked back and had a beer or two and a Bündnerteller ploughman’s lunch of sliced salami and ham. Then we walked to the station and took a train ourselves, over the pass to Samedan, where we had more Calvados and coffee.

In this pleasant town, which Wikipedia tells me was a location in a 1960s Bond novel, we sat and drank and dreamed the dreams of youth. Branko hankered for the streets of Venice and Paris. He imagined himself some day opening a cafe of his own there, with pretty waitresses on his payroll and, of course, in his bed. At the time I was trying to wangle a teaching job in East Germany through a friend, about which he commented only, “You must be fucking nuts.”

* * *

The Swiss national holiday, August 1, marked the high point of the season. There were flags in the streets, alpine horns in the hills and fireworks at night. It was the first time I had seen German-speakers sincerely celebrating their nation and traditions.

In the final, quieter weeks of the season, I had more time in which to explore. The broad valley leading up to the Albula pass was historically a difficult route, sometimes passable only by sleds. Today, it was crisscrossed by quiet lanes, but still had few busy through-roads. You could wander pretty much at will, and wherever you went, you had the rumpled green pastures extending all around you and mighty Piz Ela and the other mountains towering above, their lower slopes forested and the ridges great walls of rock.

It could sometimes rain apocalyptically hard, and great smudges of mist and cloud would cling sulkily to the mountain flanks for days. But in fine weather, it was hard to imagine a lovelier living environment. In this, the richest country in Europe, the old man still walked his heifer up the main street each morning, its bell sounding another slow, pleasant day in which everybody worked in moderation, ate well and breathed pure mountain air. At eight-thirty in the evening, the old man walked his beast back, the last little red train corkscrewed its way down the mountainsides, and stillness descended once more on the ochre roofs.

I got the address of a Frau Polma, a local historian living in the nearby village, Latsch. One afternoon, after obtaining an introduction, I paid her a visit. This was the one time in three months that I conversed socially with a Swiss national at length.

Frau Polma was an elderly ex-teacher. She lived on one of those huge timber-framed houses, all deep eaves and prettily carved shutters. Over strong coffee and Apfeltorte, she talked of the history of the area — of Greifenstein Castle and the Bishop of Chur, of transports of wine, grain and salt over the pass, of the arrival of tourism with the opening of the railway; of how, after World War I, the area managed to avoid commercialisation and remained an idyll. This was partly why the St. Moritz and Davos crowd were later drawn to it, which, in turn, has helped ensure it has stayed that way.

She thought Switzerland wise rather than blessed.

“We always took care to be self-sufficient. We armed our men, we saved our money and we built up our industries. We avoided all the disasters over the centuries in the Tiefland.” I did not get all of it — Swiss German is a difficult dialect — but that word branded itself into my memory. Tiefland. The Deep Land. The rest of Europe, the place I came from and would go back to, was the Tiefland, and it would have to blunder along as best it could. She and the other 8 million Swiss would stay up here, protected by their peculiar historical and geographical good fortune, and served by the poor of Iberia and other Mediterranean lands, few of who would have a chance to become Swiss themselves.

* * *

We seasonal drudges would be called “migrant workers” nowadays. But back then, we were “Gastarbeiter” (guest-workers), a term which seems to have gone out of fashion, presumably because it has politically incorrect overtones of us and them, of homeland and sovereignty, and other nasty rightwing notions.

But the Swiss cared nothing for “inclusiveness” then, and today, 35 years later, they are still lukewarm about it. Although about a fifth of the national population of over 8 million were born overseas, including around 200,000 Portuguese, few of the coolie army that keeps the place running have Swiss passports.

In 2012, to pick a representative year, around 1,000 Swiss naturalisations were granted. Britain, by contrast, was dishing out some 200,000 passports a year in the early 2010s. On a per-capita basis, the Swiss are over 20 times stingier with grants of citizenship.

The Swiss have also been wary of the EU. They voted against joining it in 2001, and in 2016 withdrew a long-shelved proposal for a membership application. Being so dependent on cheap foreign labour and exports and wanting easy access to all their neighbours, they did join Schengen and the Single Market. But in 2014, pissed off at rising levels of crime, eroding wages and spiralling welfare costs, they narrowly voted to limit free movement.

According to Monika Rühl, director of Economiesuisse, Swiss recalcitrance is ultimately “about maintaining prosperity in Switzerland and keeping the companies and jobs here.” Or as a young Swiss traveller I met a few years back put it, “They want our money, and we want to keep it. It’s as simple as that.”

* * *

As the season wound down, the migrants left one by one. Then it was Branko’s turn.

It had been a friendship of circumstance, fuelled by plum brandy and the exuberance of youth. Later, I came to see him as the archetype of the migrant worker, a brave and hardy chancer with a half-forgotten brood to feed, a kindly gypsy with a nutty streak who brightened every workplace he ended up at. One morning he was there, snoring away while I dressed for work, and the next he was gone, and the room was left to me and the flies. I did not keep in touch with him, or even think about him again until 1991, when the Yugoslav civil war broke out.

Then I remembered Branko. Caught up in the endless troubles of the Tiefland, he would have needed his nerves then. I could easily imagine him volunteering, fighting, taking risks, getting into serious danger. Perhaps he had made it to safety in Paris or Venice, and was running a little café with pretty waitresses. But I suspected not, and I couldn’t easily have checked up on his wellbeing. Despite three months of sleeping with my head six feet from his perpetually smelly feet, I never learnt his surname.

And then my time came. The night before departure, I decided to leave the Old Git something to remember me by. Mindful of Switzerland’s obsessively strict rules about garbage disposal, I slipped down to the kitchen at night and filled a sack with leftovers — mouldy apples, diseased trout, that sort of thing — making sure there was one piece of packaging with the name of the Old Git and the hotel on it. I took the sack to the Piz Ela bar a few streets away and left it in the middle of the pavement, where you could not miss it. I then went back to the Edelweiss, scraped the side of Mr Abegg’s Porsche with a Swiss penknife, and left town at dawn.

It was the Spaniard Manuel who told me what happened, in a letter a week or two later. The garbage bag had been discovered, opened up and, with Swiss thoroughness, examined item by item. They had found the Old Git’s name, taken it over to the Edelweiss, and fined him 400 francs for fly-tipping. The Old Git apparently blew his stack, and, in his rage, accidentally kicked the cat down the kitchen stairs. According to Manuel, he quickly put two and two together and spent the rest of the afternoon cursing about il bastardo inglese.

Unfortunately, I can find no details of this episode in my diary, so I guess it is possible I imagined it.

© Joe Slater 2020

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