Online Exclusive

Outside: Postcards from Abroad
Here I am in Geneva. The Swiss have the second-largest standing army in the world. They can mobilize their entire force in less than thirty minutes. All men eighteen and older serve one week per year in the army, either running drills and practicing shooting, or doing paperwork when they get older. They all have loaded rifles and pistols at home in their closets. I guess they want peace at any cost. They made me wait in a crowded room for my physical exam just to be allowed into the country. I had my chest x-rayed for tuberculosis! Sitting in there, I realized that everyone around me was from somewhere else: Senegal, Lebanon, Turkey. I feel like the only one of my kind here. I feel like the outsider. 


I’m sitting on the Quai Wilson during the Fêtes de Genève (the annual carnival). To my left is a group of young women fully dressed in Arabic clothing (sharia and jilbab). One of them thinks I don’t see that she’s staring at my naked skin—bare legs, bare feet, bare arms, neck, hair being free. I assume that she’s hot under that black robe and that she wishes she could be as free to choose as I am. It’s only when they turn to leave and our eyes meet that I realize what I see on her face is not envy, but pity. 


Went out with my friends last night in Geneva. We went dancing at L’usine. “Black Night” or “Nuit Black,” as my young friends call it. Most of them are from Senegal and Ethiopia and none of them know anything about PC. They celebrate their differences in language and culture, and they know that here the Arabs and the Portuguese are “below” them (in the Swiss’s opinion). “At least we speak French” is what they say. I didn’t realize the Swiss hated anyone openly. I’m learning a lot. I feel colorless with them. It’s nice. 


On the bus on my way to work today in downtown Geneva, I saw a group of banner-carrying Serbs smash the glass bus shelter right in front of the UN. They were burning the grass into a word I didn’t recognize. Our bus driver took one look at them and lowered the electric cable on the bus—taking an alternate route. When I came back after work, the only sign of it ever having taken place was that the grass had been mowed to a new, short length and the burnt parts sprayed with what I guess was some sort of Astroturf paint. There was nothing on the news that night. 


Got kidnapped in Jerusalem! No, I’m not kidding. My friend Matthew took me on a crazy four-day vacation before his move to Hungary. We were out dining and drinking at, get this, The American Colony Hotel. What a name. We left and were forced to hitch a ride. We hopped in a 4x4 with two guys who looked fairly innocuous. After we passed the sign marked Jerusalem and got on the freeway heading the other way, I panicked and asked the men to stop and let us out. They ignored me. I then asked Matthew to open the door so we could get out. Since we were going about 60 mph, he refused and shortly afterward we pulled off the freeway and onto a dirt road. There were tanks stirring up dust to the left of us and nothing but trees to the right. I was terrified. I was convinced that the two men were Hozb’allah and that we were on the Left Bank and about to be killed. The truck stopped and the men got out, pointed at the trees, handed us a bucket, and indicated that we were to join the rest of the people (mostly women in Arabic gear) in picking apples. It was at that point that we realized that the men spoke little to no English. The heat and the drink and the fear combined to make me violently ill. Once again, the men were shoving the bucket at me and this time they were clearly upset with me. I knew that there was no way I was going to be physically capable of working all day in that heat and I was still unsure what would happen after the apple-picking, so I pointed at my stomach and through a combination of hand gestures and pointing at Matthew, I made them believe that I was pregnant and Matthew was my husband. This changed everything. I was placed in the cab of the truck with the air conditioner on and a woman was sent to wipe my face with cool water and offer me cold drinks. In the meantime, Matthew was picking apples and ran across a young boy who spoke some English. Through the boy, we were able to convince the men that we were in desperate need of a doctor and that we had to get back to Jerusalem. The men took us to a bus stop, dropped us off, and before we got on the bus, the older man handed me some money. He pointed at the cross around my neck and said, “Sunni” and then pushed his palms together as if to pray and said, “Maa baadihem” and then raised his hands, still joined together toward the sky, separating them into a gesture that looked as if he were begging for God’s word and said, “In shallah.” Christian females and Muslims (the sect of Sunni) will be together if Allah is willing. Whatever. 


Got strip-searched in Tel Aviv while trying to leave the country. I’m sure it seemed suspicious—two young Americans, holders of UN travel cards coming to Israel for a four-day vacation. But that’s what it was. They examined our bags first, x-rayed my shoes, and ripped the film out of my camera, before making me stand in my underwear while the inspector checked me out. I guess being white and female doesn’t always mean you’re above suspicion. Matthew thinks it’s his fault: He’s sure they could tell he’s gay. 


I’m in the Zurich train station, waiting for the train to Berlin. Next to me is a large family—Romanian? Hungarian?—with trash bags and battered suitcases. Their whole lives are jammed into these bulging cases. When they begin speaking, I lean in to hear what they’re saying. It’s yet another language I don’t speak. When will I know enough languages? When will I be more than just an American woman? 


Matthew’s boyfriend Nicholas wants me to marry him. It’s not like it sounds; rather, a permit exchange. He’s French and holds a Swiss C-permit (next best to being a citizen) and I, of course, have the almighty green card behind me. It’s tempting to imagine offering my future children all of these passports—all of these opportunities. Knowing me and my great guilt, it probably won’t happen. And besides, Matthew would kill me. 


Things the Merrill Lynch lawyer told me about Swiss work-permit renewals: 1) I can stay for two separate periods of three months after it expires (with 24 hours somewhere else in between). For this I’ll need to go to the contrôle des habitants with annonce de départ and get a visa touristique. 2) I can stay as a student and work twenty to twenty-five hours a week. I’d need to get a new permit. 3) I can try to get a job with the UN (I won’t need any permit to work for them). The lawyer hates this idea—of course, he’s Swiss. 4) If I marry a Swiss or a person with a C-permit, I will get a C-permit immediately. This is illegal. Guess I’ll apply to the UN.


Not one but three offers: The first is with the International Organization for Migration, the second with the World Intellectual Properties, and the third with the World Health Organization. I think I’m going to take the IOM job. I’ll be working with a team of people creating a database and statistical reports that track immigration and refugee movements. If I stay long enough, I could get sent to work at one of the missions—Africa, Hungary, Thailand, Haiti. I’ll actually be having an effect on people’s lives. 


I found out today that the man I rent a room from goes to Thailand twice a year and sleeps with Thai prostitutes. While cleaning the living room, I had found some photographs of beautiful young Thai girls and I asked him about them. He told me that if he weren’t sleeping with them, someone else would be and that at least he was disease-free, nonviolent, and generous with his tips and gifts. I had heard that this sort of thing happened, but I never know anyone who actually did it. He’s not bad looking and he’s young enough and interesting enough to get a woman over here, or so I thought. He said that the girls are young, sometimes virgins, and that they always ask him to marry them. Well, no kidding, I said. He’s Swiss and, in their eyes, he offers them a freedom they’ve never known. He says he’s even considering it. They don’t even speak his language. I think he just wants a sex slave. He’s really highly ranked in the Swiss army, and get this, his name is Christian. Perfect. Time to look for a new apartment. 


Went to L’escalade and watched people run through the windy streets in the cold. The race is run every year to symbolize the retreat of the Duke of Savoie’s army. They run through Geneva’s steep streets and climb its many flights of stairs. Matthew bought me a marmite (a chocolate cauldron filled with brightly colored marzipan vegetables). It’s a symbol of the Mère Royaume housewife who killed an invader with a hot cauldron of vegetable soup when the Duke of Savoie was trying to take over Geneva. She defeated him and the city remained free. Europeans turn all of their attacks and wars into holidays. 


I love the winter holiday season in Geneva. Mont Blanc and Le Salève (local mountain) are white-capped and the air is crisp and cold. The city is decorated in old-timey lights and ribbons, and everywhere I go are vendors selling roasted chestnuts. I wait for the tram, holding the warm cone of nuts in my hands, smelling their richness, and watching the Swiss. They stroll past, hand-in-hand, red-cheeked and smiling. I don’t know how, but they remain sweetly childlike in their fascination with holidays. I am chock-full of envy. 


Szia! See ya! That’s how you say the Hungarian word for hello. I’ve been in Budapest, visiting Matthew for a few days now, and I couldn’t understand why everyone was telling me goodbye right when I first met them. Our word for goodbye is theirs for hello. This place feels so steeped in history and yet so modern. Young Hungarian women wear such short shorts that there’s not much left to the imagination. They mostly have great bodies and they dress as if they’re waiting to be discovered by Vogue. And yet they all live at home; families of ten or more people share three rooms. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that Hungary was shuttled back and forth between the Germans and the Russians with the fact that Hungarians remain such gentle and open people. It only makes sense when I see that all of the Communist stars (on bridges, buildings, statues) haven’t been removed, merely covered with a thick canvas. Nothing is permanent. 


In Budapest, foreigners must carry Hungarian money on them at all times. If the police stop you and you can’t show them the money, they kick you out of the country. This is their solution to “squatters.” Last week a friend of mine got caught and thrown in jail. After he’d gotten back to Romania, I didn’t hear from him for a week. He’ll sneak back in later next week; he needs to find a job to support his family. I told him I’d give him some money to carry in his pockets. He said that it wouldn’t help; he’s a tzigane (gypsy) and looks like a tzigane and will always be forced to leave: See ya! 


Driving through northern Italy with friends. The beauty of this area amazes me. Mountains and water—so green and blue that only Italian could describe them. And the black gray of the tanks that appear quickly as we move through the switchbacks. Europe never lets you forget that you are fragile, that you are different from everyone else on the planet, that this difference is both lovely and awful. 

David Shields's many books include Reality Hunger (Knopf), recently named one of the hundred most important books of the last decade by Literary Hub, and The Very Last Interview (forthcoming from New York Review Books). His work has been translated into two dozen languages.