I Spent My Summer Renovating A Swiss Basement With Kosovarian Immigrants

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My new boss has a missing index finger and an unfiltered Gauloise cigarette hanging from his lips.

“Your grandfather is a good man,” he says. “That’s why I hired you.”

I’m convinced that this job is going to be The One. It will teach me about 5 o’clock mornings, 12-hour days, and physical pain. It is going to yank me from my Ivy League bubble down to the earth that my grandfather proudly carved and molded for so long. He built a construction company here in 1940 from the ground up, and much of the town of Kehrsatz owes its existence to his life’s work.

After acquiring the proper attire—heavy duty Carhartt-style pants, steel-toed boots, and a foldable meter stick—I’m ready for work. The task ahead of us is to renovate the basement of a large, three-family house nestled into a hillside with a large sloping driveway in the front. First, we have to dig out half a meter of the dirt floor using jackhammers and a Bobcat in order to leave room for a sufficiently thick concrete floor. We also have to set up an elaborate system of wooden boards that will allow us to form the walls and staircase.

My boss introduces me to my new group of coworkers. There is Mario, the Swiss man who will only be with us temporarily, and Lativi and Stolpi, two Muslim immigrants from Kosovo who serve as the small, independent company’s only year-round workers. They eye my outstretched hand with suspicion.

Lativi and Stolpi pick me up at the bottom of the hill near my aunt’s house the next morning. “Hi,” they say, without looking at me. The hesitancy, mistrust, and reticence in their greetings are palpable. I am alone and exhausted in the backseat while they quietly converse in their mother tongue.

When we arrive at the site, I carry a load of large and heavy wooden beams on my shoulder to be stacked on the bed of the truck. I wish to appear more helpful than my stringy physique and young age would suggest.

“Get me the foxtail!” my boss yells.

Despite my fluency in the Swiss dialect, I’m totally unfamiliar with construction terminology. I can’t ask for clarification: The boss will only raise his voice. And my fellow immigrants will view it as a weakness, a confirmation that their first impressions of me were right.

As I hammer a nail later that day, Lativi briefly looks up to say, “You’re not doing it right.”

I am tasked instead with digging out a crevice, where I must be extra careful not to disturb a pipe that is thwarting our progress. But evidently my inefficiency is deplorable.

“Get out of my way,” says Stolpi angrily as he maneuvers a small jackhammer into a corner. “You’ll hit the pipe.”

With time, I notice that nothing I do will be good enough for them. With my Swiss background, I’m a threat to the one thing that Lativi and Stolpi have to cling to in Switzerland: their jobs. I, on the other hand, have plenty of things to enjoy outside of my new construction gig. I feel at home in Switzerland, taking bike rides with my cousin after work, swimming in the river with my friends on Saturdays and meeting up with large groups in town to go out for drinks. It’s a stark contrast to the quiet life of a displaced Kosovoan in Switzerland.

This tiny country has become one of the most popular immigrant destinations, particularly for Eastern Europeans and people from the former Yugoslavia. Immigrants constitute 20 percent of the total population in Switzerland, a statistic that shocks most of its native residents. Those from my grandfather and uncle’s generation feel that the fabric of their long-held traditions is being threatened. The younger people feign tolerance.

I want to talk to my grandfather about this invisible tension. He knows that Switzerland, like its European neighbors, has an increasing number of jobs its citizens would rather not take, as well as a miniscule population growth rate, so he’s not opposed to foreign workers. What unnerves him, though, is their resistance to assimilation.

“They stick so close together that they barely learn enough German to get by,” he says. I can’t explain to him how Switzerland is no beacon of hospitality.

The previous year, I had attended the “Miss Bern” beauty pageant, in which my cousin was a finalist. In the final round, the audience, charged with voting between an adorable Swiss Marcia Brady and a beautiful daughter of Turkish immigrants, picked the latter. An uncomfortable murmur swept the room. Everyone seemed surprised, despite secretly knowing that they had voted for her in a self-aggrandizing attempt to appear tolerant. At my table someone said, “I am not racist. I’m not. But that girl is not Swiss.”

The truth is, Lativi and Stolpi are the new Switzerland, and I know they do not feel welcome. As the lives of my coworkers are revealed to me, in all their layers of complexity, I learn to keep to myself. I long to know them and earn their trust, but my attempts on the job are fleeting and fruitless.

Finally, one month in, I manage to get my foot in the door with a Muslim phrase, “There is no power except God.” I’m rewarded with a smile and a hint of camaraderie. The next day, over lunch, Stolpi turns and says to me sincerely, “Clinton was a great man. We loved him in Kosovo.”


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