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.



On how Canadians can be backward, too

I realize that in many of my entries I’m hard on the Swiss, making them out to be pretty provincial. In this post, therefore, I’d like to flip the script, and tell you about how I, as a Canadian, sometimes am left feeling uncouth in Swiss society. There are a number of ways that this happens, actually, but one stands out for me.

It’s pretty simple: I’m accustomed to not acknowledging the presence of other human beings.

Generally, in the world that I grew up in, unless someone is your friend/family member/acquaintance, or unless you need to have some kind of transaction with them, it’s acceptable not to greet each other. This means that if you find yourself riding an elevator with strangers, for example, or sitting in a waiting room with them, you don’t have to say anything to them.

Here it is different. For example, last week I went to the doctor’s office (relating to my anemia issues, which I’m still “ironing out” — ha, ha) and, after checking in at the front desk, I went to the waiting area, where everyone looked up at me. I took a seat, thinking, why are you all staring at me? In the course of my 1o-minute wait, other people arrived, and none of them failed to offer a “Grüezi, mitenand” (how the Swiss greet more than one person) to the group, which made me realize my faux pas. As we continued to sit, a nurse came to ask one man if he’d eaten anything yet that day. “I had a coffee with sugar,” the man said. “Oh, this is no good,” replied the nurse. “The doctor wants to take your blood on an empty stomach. We’ll have to reschedule for tomorrow morning.” The man was understandably annoyed, and went on a mini-rant about how he wouldn’t have wasted his time if someone had communicated this to him in advance. Then, even in his worked-up state, he turned to those assembled and offered a polite “Ade, mitenand” (how the Swiss say goodbye to more than one person).

I was impressed.

Of course, the Swiss don’t feel compelled to offer a greeting to everyone when they ride buses or enter supermarkets, or in other situations where it would be impractical. But they do it when they’re in close quarters with other human beings. And doesn’t that just make sense?


So geht es – A German-language progress update

When we arrived in Switzerland, one of the things I did in those first few weeks of unending administrative muck was register for the loyalty cards at Switzerland’s two main supermarkets. These programs are pretty good: I get sent “free money” (i.e., coupons for certain amounts of money off in proportion to how much I’ve spent) each month from one of them, and the other one is the kind where you save up your points and redeem them for things later. While registering online, one of them asked me to check a box if I wanted to receive their weekly Zeitung. This word means newspaper, but at the time I thought they meant that I would get a flyer with the week’s specials, which I thought would be useful, so I checked the box for it.

What I end up getting each week is a newspaper of 150 or so pages. It looks like this:

And while it does tell me about new items and sales, it also contains a lot more: comic strips, travel articles, food features, interviews with Swiss people of importance, advice columns and recipes. It’s basically a great free newspaper, especially for a person trying to learn the language. In the beginning, I could understand mere snatches of the interviews (the parts where someone would say something simple like “I like dogs” or “I have two children”), but I eventually progressed to reading the more complex features, and when Stelian’s boss was featured in an article a few months ago, I could read and get the gist of most of it without difficulty. But one thing has always eluded my comprehension, and that is the comic strip. I think it’s because they often tend to use highly idiomatic expressions that I haven’t learned, as well as Swiss German words. But this week only two frames contained text, and I understood both of them.

First frame with words: “What a hectic racket this day has been. I’m glad it’s over.”

Second frame: “Now to enjoy my free time in peace and quiet…”

Har har. Another regular feature is one in which a famous person talks about a dish that they like, what it is, and why they like it. Here’s this week’s:

This is one of the instances in which German becomes truly exasperating. Please take another look at the name of the dish: “Tschechische Weihnachtssuppe” (translation: Czech Christmas soup). I think you’ll agree that the first word is objectionable for its difficult and repetitious consonants (N.B.: if I ever have occasion to pronounce this, I’m gonna say “cha-cha-cha” and hope for the best), the second for its sheer length.

Mark Twain was someone who understood the frustrations and illogicalities of the German language well. A writer buddy of mine recently tipped me off about this excellent 1880 essay of his, entitled “The Awful German Language.” If you are currently a student of this maddening tongue, I suggest you read this in its entirely — it will have you nodding in recognition and howling with laughter. And for those of you not currently experiencing this brand of torture, I offer just a couple of delectable excerpts:

“Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it. So overboard he goes again, to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand.”

And this, my favourite:

“The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the other half at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that? These things are called “separable verbs.” The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance. A favorite one is reiste ab — which means departed. Here is an example which I culled from a novel and reduced to English:

“The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his mother and sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom his adored Gretchen, who, dressed in simple white muslin, with a single tuberose in the ample folds of her rich brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale from the terror and excitement of the past evening, but longing to lay her poor aching head yet once again upon the breast of him whom she loved more dearly than life itself, PARTED.”


So, my learning is coming along, slowly but surely, and it helps when I can commiserate about the language’s difficulties with funny, intelligent people (such as my friends and Mark Twain). It is also imperative that my sense of humour be maintained, so that I can withstand the embarrassments and difficulties of learning the language, as well as the politically incorrect commentary of our class instructor. To put it politely, Herr German Teacher possesses certain old-school notions about gender and racial equality — notions which are insulting to females and people accustomed to multiculturalism. And sadly his views cannot be taken as anomalous. As I’ve noted before, coming up against such attitudes seems to be an inexorable part of life in Switzerland.

But aufwärts, vorwärts (upwards, onwards)! And Happy December (I know –I’m nicht so auf den Ball this month).


Google-translating my way through expat life

I think we can all acknowledge how vastly the internet has changed our lives. Though I didn’t have an internet connection until I was at least halfway through high school, it’s difficult for me to remember what life was life before the All-Knowing Internet appeared. Imagine, or recall: we used to have to find the appropriate book when we wanted to look up a piece of information, which meant that factual disputes could have to wait hours or days to be resolved — today, you run to your computer, or someone whips out their iphone, and the answer is revealed almost instantly. The world really is at our fingertips.

And online tools continue to evolve and make our lives easier, all the time. One tool that has proved immensely useful to me as a person living abroad and possessing a, um, language deficit, is Google Translate. It translates German webpages for me; it helps me read German novels (yes, I try) and newspaper articles; it is the reason that my landlady thinks I’m capable of calling workers to arrange to have them fix things.

Of course, I could do these things without Google Translate — they would just be so much more painstaking. In fact, last week I had a nice reminder of this. Sadly, it began when I broke my little friend. It was one of those this-could-only-happen-to-klutzy-me moments: I was reaching for something on top of a cupboard, and knocked over something which caused a domino effect which culminated in the water tank for the espresso machine, which was on the counter to dry, falling to the floor and sustaining a very large crack. The tank was kaputt, as a German speaker would say.

I did nothing for a few days (we are not regular coffee drinkers, after all) and then I plucked up my courage and called Nespresso. A recorded voice came on, asking me to choose between the German, French, and Italian languages. After a moment’s deliberation, I chose French. I used to be fluent, and I figured I could hack my way through his conversation more easily in French than in Deutsch.

A lady came on the line, and I was able to explain my problem with the reservoir d’eau. It seemed that things were going swimmingly, until she asked me to provide her with a number. After that it went something like this:

Me: “OK, il est uehn…” (my rendition of the French number “1”)

Her: “Dites-vous eueh?” (as in the French letter “e”)

Me: “Non — uehn

And so it went for a short while — we kept making nasal vowel sounds at each other, and she was insisting that I should be giving her only numbers, not letters, and I was insisting that I was telling her a number. And then she broke the impasse by ascertaining that I was an English speaker and offering to transfer me to an English-speaking representative. I spoke to this person briefly, explaining the reason for my call, and they said, “oh, well you’ll have to speak to this other department.” I was transferred again, and hello, Swiss-German language bomb. But eventually I understood that I would have to sign up for something on the internet in order to receive  a specific code, and call back.

I obtained the code, and then I prepared for the second call using Google-translate: in less than two minutes, I had created this one-sided script for myself:

You can see that it contained some very elementary things — of course, at this point, I know how to say “Good afternoon,” but it’s amazing how much I can freeze up in the immediacy of a phone call, and it’s comforting to know that all the words are there in front of me. The script also plans for the case that I won’t understand what the person is saying, or that I will have to abandon the call entirely. But happily, neither of these things happened — I was able to “fake” my way through the conversation, and the new Wassertank was delivered and is now snugly installed in the machine.

Don’t worry: I know that Google Translate does not always provide top-notch translations. I don’t plan to use it in lieu of learning the language (after all, there are still a lot of real-life interactions where it can’t be used).  At this point in my language learning, though, I’m so happy to have it at my disposal. I don’t want to think about how much time it would have taken me to create a script the old-fashioned way, with a two-way dictionary — but then again, I guess I also shouldn’t think about how I probably just squandered the time I saved on Facebook and other inane internet content. I just want to thank Google Translate for making expat life a little bit easier.


Some things I miss

I’ve been asked this question, and I think it’s only fair to address it: what are the things I miss about living in North America?

I could start by saying that I miss understanding people — the supermarket cashier, the tram conductor, my landlord. I marvel over how easy it used to be: you could just tell someone what you wanted or needed, without needing to rehearse your lines carefully or translate the response. You could listen to the endless chatter that fills your day, and quickly decide what’s important, and what’s not, instead of straining to process each syllable. You could easily do small talk. There is a flip-side to this, though: as a person who doesn’t understand a language, you can choose to adopt a zen attitude and let it just flow around you, like a senselessly babbling brook, as you luxuriate in your own private bubble of introspection. It doesn’t intrude on your thoughts if you don’t concentrate on it, because you don’t understand it. In fact, several expats have described the sensation of being overloaded by their native language when they return to their home countries. So, incomprehension can be good…but it would still be nice to know that I have the ability to order and obtain the exact sandwich that I want.

And speaking of food, I really miss sushi. I remember the first time Stelian and I tried it in 2007, our first spring in B.C. We were both thoroughly disgusted by the experience, and vowed never to repeat it. But it was hard to avoid, living in Vancouver: it popped up on various occasions, and we tried it – gingerly – again and again, until it was like a switch flipped, and I realized I was craving it.  And from that point on, we ate it regularly — often once a week. It was fresh, cheap, healthy, and capable of satisfying that umami taste bud  in a way few other things can. But alas, we’re in a landlocked country now, and when you do see sushi sold in restaurants, it’s ridiculously expensive.

A food that that is curiously missing from Zürich (considering how easily you can obtain marzipan carrots, whole vanilla beans, and other specialty baking items), is brown sugar. Well, they have “brown sugar” here, but what that means is granulated brown cane sugar, which is not the same as the moist, packable sugar that Canadians depend on for baking and sweetening things like oatmeal (which I’ve already discussed my obsession with). Stelian is headed to the UK today, for some meetings at a game studio there. He’s only staying two nights, but I’ve urged him to find time to visit a supermarket in order to bring home some real brown sugar!

Lastly, after living in Vancouver for a bit more than four years, I miss the ocean. Sure, there’s a lake here, and it’s very pretty. But it isn’t the ocean. The ocean smells different. It is more temperamental; it is much more wild and uncontained than Zürich’s pretty little lake. When we lived in downtown Vancouver, I ran along the seawall at all times of year. Often, in the winter, I had long stretches of it to myself, passing only the odd other runner as I went. The feeling of being alone in a big city with a huge wall of rock on one side and so much water on the other…well, few things could match it. I witnessed the most beautiful sunsets and moonrises while running around the ocean, and had some great moments privately observing otters, raccoons, crows, or other wildlife.

But again, I’m not complaining, and I’m not ready to come back yet. I’m eating very well, despite the foods I miss, and Zürich takes your breath away in different ways, such as with the magnificence of its architecture. Besides, summer will be upon us before long, and I can’t wait to see what kind of hiking and adventuring will ensue.


Language books vs. Handyman tools

There are certain things that you dread when you move to a new country. You ask yourself questions like, “how will I communicate my needs to a landlord who doesn’t speak my language?” After all, it can be awkward enough to do this in your own Muttersprache – landlords can be hard to nail down, and you have to be very specific about what is in need of fixing, otherwise it can be a fruitless process.

If you’re going to go ahead with your plan of moving to a country where the tongue is one that feels thick and awkward in your mouth, you have to brush aside these kind of concerns. “It will be fine,” you tell yourself breezily. “I’ll simply deal with that problem when I come to it.  I’ll be fluent in German in a few weeks, anyway.”

Since moving into our apartment, we’ve had little to complain about — most things are working beautifully — but we do have a shower enclosure that needs additional caulking, since every time we shower, it leaks a little bit. I decided I had to let our landlord know about this problem, and spent some time carefully composing an e-mail in German to her, asking that a repairman be sent in.

When I received her response, I discovered that my bluff (Ja, natürlich spreche ich gut Deutsch!) had led me into a snafu. Well, wrote our landlord back in German, since the workers are already in the building renovating the attic space, you can just call the foreman at the following number, and arrange for him to come by and fix it…

Quick expat quiz:

Q – How do you call someone who doesn’t speak your language?

A – You don’t. You avoid making such phone calls at all costs.

So, yeah. Here I am, faced with the prospect of making such a phone call. To make such a call is to invite a language bombing of gargantuan proportions. I cannot imagine such a phone call going well, for even if I carefully script my lines, I cannot anticipate what will come back at me, how much of it I understand, or how I will respond. I’m bound to end up asking the foreman to drown my cats.

You understand that my German is currently at the level of a primary school child. In fact, I’d probably be most comfortable in a Kindergarten where the alphabet and numbers up to 100 are prime topics of discussion. As an example of my proficiency (or lack thereof), today I went to a sandwich shop and tried (in German) to order a tuna sandwich, topped with lettuce, tomatoes and pickles. What did I end up with? A turkey sandwich covered with corn and carrots and olives. Stelian stopped laughing at me long enough to say, “Put that on the blog.”

So, Readers, here is the conundrum laid bare. What would you do? As I see it, the only options we have vis-a-vis the shower are the following:

1) Telling the landlord that we are incapable of making the phone call (I really don’t like this one); or

2) Physically finding this handyman in the building and explaining to him, with the aid of two-way dictionaries, gestures, and possibly interpretive dance, what needs to be done; or

3) Learning how to caulk and doing the job ourselves. Can it be that hard?

Your suggestions and opinions are welcome!


The language bomb

“Language bomb” is a term that I’ve begun to apply to the situation in which you are confronted by someone speaking to you earnestly in what is (to you) utter gibberish, and your mind reels as you try to comprehend or plan a response. Example: the other day, I was in the supermarket buying cat food. I hefted one of the big bags off the shelf, and the lady buying cat food beside me made a friendly-sounding little remark with a smile on her face — I imagined it was something like “heavy, huh?” or “your cat must have a healthy appetite!” So I said “ja” with a smile in return. And before I could walk away, she gestured at the bag and proceeded to launch us headfirst into a Swiss German conversation. At which point I had to cop to the fact that I had never understood her, since “mein Deutsch ist nicht gut.” How embarrassing…

And then I’ve also been guilty of language-bombing others. Stelian and I went to the bank the other day, to pay the deposit to our rental company, and set up a standing order so that the rent is debited from our account next month (cheques are not used here:  it’s refreshing). When we stepped into the bank, an employee approached us, and we received a full-on language bomb. When she was finished speaking (having merely said, no doubt, “Hello, and welcome. How may we assist you today?” though it seemed to go on forever) I bashfully brought out the “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” And as soon as she indicated that she did, I sighed with relief and began explaining at a mile a minute what it was that we’d come in for. At which point, she became overwhelmed and asked me to repeat, which I did, careful to speak more slowly.

It’s therefore worth bearing in mind that if someone says they speak English, this doesn’t mean they speak it the way I do, just as I hope to soon “speak” German, but I will likely never parse it as easily as native speakers do. Language is a gift, but it can seem an affront if it is not presented with due care and respect.

I’m off to my first German class at Disney this afternoon — there is a teacher who comes in twice a week to help the employees learn the language, and spouses are welcome to attend the classes, too. Exciting!