Trouble in Paradise?

I heard from colleagues that on the May 1st Labor Day holiday in Switzerland there would be protests in Zürich, which had turned violent in the past. So, of course, I had to go see for myself.

Today, May 1st, is the Labor Day holiday in Switzerland — well, not ALL of Switzerland, but certain parts of the country (yes, it seems odd that a national holiday isn’t exactly “national,” but Switzerland, I’m learning, is a complex country). The city of Zürich is in an area that DOES celebrate the holiday, and as the site of the largest Labor Day celebrations in Switzerland, it is also a key site for demonstrations and protests on this day. What?! Protests in Switzerland?! Who can possibly protest against the “world’s best country”??! What do people find to complain about in a country with low unemployment, a skilled labor force and one of the highest gross domestic products per capita in the world?? Not to mention an abundance of well-preserved natural resources accessible to all??? Yup, my thoughts exactly.

So it turns out that Labor Day is also known as May Day or International Worker’s Day, a day that is celebrated across many countries in honor of workers. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know this. In my defense though, in America we don’t officially recognize May 1st as Labor Day.  Our Labor Day is on the first Monday in September, and the essence of the holiday is a day off and great discounts at your favorite retailer.  Now that I’ve Googled and Wikipedia-ed up some knowledge, I’ve learned that May Day — ironically enough — has its roots in the US, and when the US government did finally decide to designate a holiday in honor of workers, it purposely chose not to celebrate it on May 1st. You can read more about it here.

So yes, like pretty much people in all countries, even people in Switzerland have something to protest about. The primary issue this year appears to be equal pay, with Swiss unions marching under the slogan “Equal pay. Period,” demanding equal salaries for men and women (a topic we are quite familiar with in America).

Interestingly though, the demonstrations aren’t limited to Swiss issues. I heard from several folks that foreigners also tend to congregate here on May Day and demonstrate for/against specific issues. The following video from Zürich this afternoon is an example of that with the demonstrators marching in support of Rojava, a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria.

It appears that these demonstrators were also the reason for the stepped up police presence.

Besides this and a random assortment of dirty diapers strewn in front of a storefront (and some plastered against its shutter), I saw little else out of the ordinary.

Dirty Diapers
Dirty diapers strewn on the sidewalk and plastered on the storefront shutter.

Most shops and restaurants were closed, but many in the vicinity of the train station — which itself was running on a holiday schedule — were open for business. People milled about and enjoyed the balmy weather. As for me, I had a nice bike ride around town on a free bike rental courtesy of Zürirollt. Later, I got myself a nice mug of hot chocolate and had a great conversation with a lovely Swiss couple, Claudia and Corrado, while the police vans raced past.

Across the English Countryside

On a recent work trip I had the opportunity to travel across the beautiful English countryside and hear a number of different perspectives on life in the UK.

On a recent work trip I had the opportunity to travel across the English countryside. I flew into Manchester on a Saturday, took a train to Nottingham (of Robin Hood fame), and after the weekend, took another train down to London. Then after some customer meetings I drove back up to the Manchester / Yorkshire area with two of my British colleagues.

Previously, the only part of the UK I had visited was London, and that was almost 10 years ago! So it was nice to not only revisit London but to also see a much broader swathe of the country.

The English countryside is truly beautiful. One of my favorite sights is of the sheep and cows grazing in the vast, green fields. Since it’s “lambing” season right now, there are multitudes of frisky lambs meandering around with their mothers. It reminds me of my childhood growing up on a farm in Pennsylvania. It also reminds me of Shaun the Sheep, the British animated series.

Along my journey, I had the chance to connect with various people. One was a guy named Marcus, a diehard United of Manchester football (soccer) fan, who was on his way to support his team in their match in Alfreton. Another was an Australian named Dan who was backpacking across England. I also met up with my cousin, Kamran, and spent some time with his beautiful family. Additionally, a Kellogg classmate, Nene, contacted me on Facebook, and we got together for dinner at fish! in London. These meetings gave me an opportunity to hear various perspectives on life in the UK. There were some common themes. The ongoing Champions League tournament is a hot topic, especially because an English team, Liverpool – starring the global, Egyptian phenomenon Mohamed “Mo” Salah – is in the running. I even caught the Liverpool-Roma match, and wow, what a game! Liverpool decimated Roma with a 5-2 win. Mo Salah, who led the goal scoring, is truly an extraordinary player. And it’s remarkable how his success has had such a positive spillover effect for Muslims worldwide, who are enduring a period of intense Islamophobia.

The birth of the third child, a son, to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Kate) is another hot topic. As I write this, the public still does not know the name of the young prince. Bookies are taking bets, apparently, and last I heard, “Alexander” might be in the running.

It is also a time of great uncertainty and anxiety in Britain (not unlike the US). Political scandals are splashing across the headlines and screens everyday (e.g., Windrush, charges of anti-Semitism against the Labour Party, etc.). Preparations for Brexit are underway. It’s fascinating to hear the different sides of the debate on this deeply controversial topic. There are many who are fiercely opposed to separating from the EU. They believe Brexit will be a huge mistake, and as proof, they point out that the value of the British pound dropped to a 31-year low following the Brexit vote. This severely impacted the buying power of Britons. Property prices in London have also dropped, as investor confidence has deflated. Many in this camp believe that the referendum that decided Brexit was fundamentally flawed. They believe that it was more a vote against David Cameron, the unpopular Prime Minister at the time, than an actual vote on whether to stay in the EU or not. Of course, there are those who support it as well. In this latter camp, many believe that the UK gave up too much as a member of the EU and can do far better on its own.

There’s also an element of anti-immigration involved, something that we are confronting in the US as well. Interestingly, this latter camp includes some immigrant groups as well. These are generally non-EU immigrants (i.e., immigrants from countries other than the European Union) who feel that their economic opportunities have been compromised due to an institutional preference for EU immigrants. They worry that this has affected not only their own futures but their children’s as well who will not enjoy the same access and benefits as their EU counterparts.

Lots of questions remain unanswered. Will Brexit actually happen? If so, will it be a “soft” Brexit or a “hard” Brexit? The former would mean little to no changes whereas the latter could upend everything. What will happen to EU citizens living in the UK? What will happen to British citizens living in the EU countries? Will Scotland use Brexit as an opportunity to secede from the UK? Will Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have to create a customs border (a very sensitive topic, given Ireland’s violent past)? Can the UK separate from the EU but still remain within a “Customs Union?” Many more questions abound, contributing to the prevailing uncertainty.