Chronicles of a writer abroad

Talking, mostly to myself


One thing that expats who have lived in Switzerland for some period of time will tell you is that the Swiss are hard to meet, and even harder to befriend.

Since we moved here in January, I have met a lot of wonderful, really friendly people, but they’ve all been fellow expats. Hardly any of Stelian’s colleagues are Swiss, and my language skills are simply too base at the moment to be meeting Swiss people in other capacities. Nevertheless, people have warned me not to expect to find the Swiss overly inviting and willing to forge relationships when I do have occasion to meet them. A popular English-language guide for expats, Living and Working in Switzerland, even advises in its most recent (2010) edition that

The Swiss are rather uncommunicative and tend to meet everything foreign with reserve, the general consequence of which is an innate distrust of foreigners (unless you’re a tourist). It’s difficult to become close friends with a Swiss and they rarely start a conversation with strangers.

The typical explanation for this coldness/lack of interest is that in Switzerland, people make lifelong friends in high school/university. They often remain in the places they grew up with the people they grew up with, and therefore have little need to replenish their friend supplies, especially not with inferior foreign stock (“Swiss-made” people being as highly revered by the Swiss as their “Swiss-made” products. I guess I can’t blame them if the people are as high-quality as the products).

Anyway, it’s a good theory. But I have an alternate one: the Swiss are leery of us because they see us screwing up and talking to ourselves all the time.

Case in point: letze woche (last week), I was walking slowly down the street, headed towards the grocery store, my eyes narrowed in concentration, my fists clenched, muttering “abfallsäckeHaben Sie abfallsäcke…” under my breath. Looking, for all intents and purposes, like a mentally ill person.

It was time to buy garbage bags. I think I explained before that these are sold in a roll of 10, which costs roughly 20 CHF. We make each 35-litre bag last a week, so that I should only have to buy a new roll about 5 times a year. But that also means that I may never get good at doing it. You see, the high price of the bags led to them becoming the most commonly shoplifted item from Zürich supermarkets. The supermarkets responded by moving them under the checkout counter, so that you have to ask for them. You also have to play a game of roulette, since not all counters have them underneath. Again, I haven’t bought them enough times to memorize which counters at the stores I go to have them. It is possible to get them at a counter that doesn’t actually have them, but at the cost of a beleaguered sigh from the cashier who has to run to another counter, and a number of stink-eyes from the Swiss waiting in line behind you, who would never make this mistake. But I’m happy to report that this time, I landed on a sack-containing counter and, even though I completely botched the pronunciation of “abfallsäcke,” I took a roll home with me. I can forget the word for another 10 weeks, now.

But I soon had another challenge involving language: locating my lost Maestro (debit) card. It seems that being in Switzerland has not cured me of my harebrained habit of losing important things. After I realized I had lost the card, I headed back to the pharmacy (where I’d gone to buy contact lens solution) and the grocery store, repeatedly rehearsing the line “I think I may have left my Maestro card here last week,” which was quite a mouthful. At the pharmacy, they informed me that they didn’t have it, but that they routinely send lost cards back to the bank; the grocery store client service desk asked me which bank I belonged to, and then checked and told me that they didn’t have it, either. After these exchanges, I was feeling happy, even though I hadn’t gotten the card back. And it was because I’d just initiated and survived two full conversations in German. The fact that I could say something to someone, and they could understand it and say something back, and I could then spontaneously come up with something to say in response — well, it’s clear evidence of my progress.

And I forgive the Swiss if they don’t want to be my friend yet: I’m not sure that I would reach out to my bumbling, muttering, baby-speaking, card-losing self just now either. But I’m coming along slowly. I’m working on the language and the grocery store customs. After that, maybe I’ll try to fit in by getting some red shoes.

2 thoughts on “Talking, mostly to myself

  1. “…my eyes narrowed in concentration, my fists clenched, muttering “abfallsäcke…Haben Sie abfallsäcke…” under my breath. Looking, for all intents and purposes, like a mentally ill person.” Made me laugh!

    I also enjoyed the link to the Swissness of the red shoes.

  2. Success! Garbage bags are an essential and expensive part of Swiss life … congratulations in playing the GB roulette. I think it would be good for me to look at each of our garbage bags as costing CA2.00 to make me stretch their use too.

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