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Writing the Train in Switzerland

By Arnon Grunberg

Last summer, I worked for almost three weeks as a chambermaid in a family hotel in the southern part of Bavaria. I wrote about this experience in a daily column for a Dutch newspaper. Later, an extract of these columns was published in the US in Culture + Travel magazine.

My objective was not to reveal some social injustice, as the German journalist Günter Walraff did famously when he wrote his book about his undercover life as a Turkish guest worker in Germany in the eighties.

I just wanted to write about what it means to be a chambermaid: how you see a hotel room not as a guest but as a maid. If I came across injustices I would not hide them, but doing so was not the purpose of my work.

Since the experience was a good one, I decided once more to take a ívacation jobë this summer in order to write about it.

I like hotel rooms and trains equally, so I chose to work in the dining car of a train.

The country most famous for its trains is Switzerland. I preferred to start working on the route Chur-St. Moritz. But on this beautiful route where they serve decent, full meals on the train, there was no availability for someone who just wanted to work for three of four weeks.

So I ended up in the more commonplace dining car service, which is named íElvetinoë in Switzerland.

My job was to push a cart through the train selling sandwiches and both hot and cold beverages, but more importantly, I was to help out in various dining cars.

The management of Elvetino knew that I was a writer doing all this for research, but for practical reasons my coworkers were not being informed.

I just was a political science student who was in need of some pocket money.

There is something slightly subversive about pretending to be somebody you are not. But while giving readings and doing Q&A I have often the same feeling: that there is a huge gap between the person answering questions and acting as an author and the person behind this masquerade.

To play a certain role does not necessarily mean that dishonesty is involved.

Since I had to wear a uniform for my job as a train steward, the most interesting thing was how people reacted to me in uniform.

On the station people asked me various questions, other people greeted me with the words, íHi, colleague.ë

The uniform forced an identity upon me, which was not altogether false, not altogether unpleasant, just temporary.

Published Jul 24, 2008   Copyright 2008 Arnon Grunberg

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