Chronicles of a writer abroad

Swiss National Day, Take 2


Here we are again: another August 1; another Swiss National Day.

It’s a good time to think about what’s occurred since last Aug. 1, and how our relationship to this country has changed (or not) during this period.

There have been times over the past year when I’ve felt rather integrated — running the marathon in April was one such instance, because it was something I could do alongside the Swiss, and I had the sense of doing it in a city I knew well and had already logged hundreds of miles in. There have been minor victories, too, in the form of full conversations with shop clerks, tailors, waiters, etc. conducted in German. There are times when I think, maybe I do sort of belong.

But then again, I don’t. Because what often happens is that when I need to go and talk to someone, I rehearse the German version of what I want to say, and then as soon as I’ve said it, the person responds to me in English. There are a few reasons why this might be happening: because the High German I’m speaking is not actually the language that these people are comfortable with  (Swiss German is, but it’s not something you can take classes in); because my “English” accent is ridiculously strong; because Swiss people take pride in the fact that they speak English well, and they enjoy practising it; or because Google Translate has led me to say something ludicrous in German, and my interlocutor wants to prevent me from embarrassing myself further.

In any case, the language issue is one that keeps us feeling like outsiders. The permit issue is another — we still have an “L” permit, which is the worst type. It has caused our bank to deny us a Swiss credit card, leading us to continue to rely on our Canadian ones; it causes other companies (like those dealing with cell phones) to demand huge deposits before they will give us a contract; and it makes it very difficult for us to move apartments (which we considered doing after learning that Stelian’s contract was extended and we have the possibility of staying through 2014).

So, in some respects, Switzerland can be a hard place to live in. But in other ways, it is easy: the food — especially the summer produce — is beautiful, excellent jogging trails are practically at my doorstep, the big mountains are only a couple of hours away, and everything is clean, efficient and running on time.

I’m not finished figuring the country out, either. The weekend before last Stelian and I had the privilege of attending the wedding of one of his Swiss coworkers. Here is a brief list of things we witnessed that day that surprised me:

– the minister wielding a rolling-pin as a symbol of the importance of fighting in marriage;

– the congregation being invited to sing non-traditional songs like Bob Marley’s “Is It Love” and the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week”;

– a multitude of Swiss children being allowed to not only attend the ceremony but also to roll in the church aisles in the throes of boredom;

– a very easygoing attitude about various uncontrollable events (the rain that poured during the mostly-outdoor reception; the flower girl who became very cranky and decided to attack the guitar-player during his solo performance).

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I’m grateful to Switzerland for providing  challenges, for giving me insight into new ways of doing things and into what it feels like to be a newcomer trying to assimilate, for allowing me to traipse all over its beautiful soil…and for giving me the chance to stay and experience it all a little longer.

P.S. Here is a recent video by Monocle magazine, explaining why they think Zurich is the world’s “most liveable” city.


4 thoughts on “Swiss National Day, Take 2

  1. This is the first word I’ve heard of you staying in Switzerland beyond this year! How exciting or were you hoping to come back to North America?

    There must be many strange customs to adjust to, living in a foreign country but the pluses are greater than the minuses from what you have written. Enjoy the experience which most people would give their eyeteeth to have.

    Good news on the cancer front. Saw the Oncologist today and apart from having to take a hormone for the next five years, he gives me a clean bill of health and doesn’t want to see me again! Wheeee!!!!

    • We’re happy to stay a little longer. The idea is that we’ll be alert to opportunities and make a plan for where to go next during that time, though, so we could only end up staying for part of it. I know I’m very lucky to be here and that many people would want to be in my shoes, and I remind myself of that when things become frustrating.

      The clean bill of health is excellent news! Congratulations!

  2. I like the little details from the Swiss wedding :-). My conception of Switzerland and the Swiss is also evolving on a daily basis and that’s what makes life here interesting.

    About the language, I’d say, stick to the German even if people reply in English. As you said, they probably just want to practice their English with a native but you don’t have to switch back to English.

    • It was a very cool wedding! Not at all what I was expecting.

      Thanks for the advice to continue conversations in German, in order to practice. It might be difficult but I will try to do it!

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