Thank god it’s Freitag

It’s Friday, not my normal day for posting here but a good excuse for sharing a few things about my new life in German-speaking Switzerland.

There is something about being here that feels right. Not that I fit in exactly but somehow I feel at ease. I suppose because no one here seems to mind about me. And because I’ve gotten used to feeling foreign.

But that’s the thing: I don’t feel foreign. So what if I can’t speak German? Most people will adapt. English is spoken most everywhere, at least a little. A few words of French here and there. And I’m getting to the point where I can pop out the odd German word. A number or the name of something. Brot. Kaffee. Freitag.

I’ve now learned all the days of the week and can do numbers up to a hundred. My vocabulary is growing daily. It’s putting the words all together in sentences that’s the problem. Especially understanding others when they stream them into sentences, even snippets. I nod a lot, that time-worn strategy, and when the going gets tough, I say ‘Kein Deutsch’ and throw up my hands. If it’s a good day I’ll throw in ‘Entschuldigung‘.

Freitag is an easy one as it’s so close to the English. ‘Frei’ actually means free, which makes sense to me. Friday, with the weekend just ahead, feels free and sort of fun. It’s usually the day when I schedule appointments and errands other than work. Today I’m going to the dentist: der Zahnarzt. Not so fun but I’m happy to have found an English-speaking dentist.

I’m also learning a few social norms. There is a thing on Swiss trains where people don’t sit in an empty seat next to you without asking, “Frei?”  And people in shops will wait for you to be finished in a particular part of the aisle before moving in to make their selection. In parking lots they’ll wait for you to move out of your spot. Which is quite strange. I mean, quelle idée! This would never have happened in France.

Still, it makes me feel oddly pressured. In a good way, I suppose. I’d rather feel I have to hurry up to be thoughtful of my neighbours than pressured by people’s anger. But the thing is, you build up a persona for yourself in public places. And for years, I had the French ‘carapace’. A kind of tough shell that you build up in defense. It seems that here the approach is more subtle. It takes some getting used to.

The other news is that I’ve quit my German language course. For a bunch of reasons but mainly because of the teacher. He was a short, macho type with a big belly and little patience for those who didn’t understand immediately. At first I thought it was me. So I tried harder. But I felt discouraged and ultimately that I was wasting my time in class. That on top of the fact that we were stuck inside a small, poorly ventilated room for two hours amidst a spike in Covid cases. And although we were all wearing masks, it felt risky.

To be fair I’ve always had trouble with teachers. I’m just one of those difficult students who can only cooperate if I understand not just what but why we’re doing something. Well, let’s just say this teacher was not a very good communicator. In fact, he was a pretty poor teacher all round. I suspect he was disorganized and made up the plan as he went along. Whatever. It didn’t work for me. Of the six of us students, I was the second to drop out.

So now I’m pursuing German on my own. And I will get there, eventually, at least to some level of fluency.

In the meantime, it’s Freitag. And that brings me to the bags of the same name. I have always loved these Swiss German messenger bags made from recycled truck tarps. They’re sort of a cult thing around here.

Ridiculously expensive. But super practical and made to last, like forever. I got my first one this year.

The feature photo was taken just outside the Freitag shop in Interlaken where we were on holiday last summer. That’s another thing I like about Switzerland. I mean, an old-fashioned gumball machine? How Freitag!

What’s your favourite thing about Friday?

Coup de grâce

My new Swiss resident’s permit states my nationality as ‘FRA’, short for ‘Französische’. It seems odd to be identified by my French-ness as it still feels new. Yet French I am, at least by adoption, and of my two nationalities it is the more relevant in the EU. Being Canadian is my trump card (and yes, I’m taking back that word), one that I play when travelling overseas. Sometimes also in the UK. Yet travel, for now, feels entirely irrelevant.

Like any newcomer to a country I seek out that which is familiar. That means sticking to my old French TV habits most evenings as I get dinner ready. Watching the news on Swiss TV in German, especially with subtitles, is far better for my language learning but hey, we’re all entitled to kick back. So the early evening talk shows on France 5 and the national news on France 2 keep me informed, if not always entertained, about what is happening in my new-former home country.

And it’s not good. In fact, it’s downright depressing. Somehow, having stepped away from the place, I now see all things French in an even darker light than before. Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, to quote the Bard. Not to suggest corruption but rather to point out that the structure is crumbling.

Let’s start with the insanity of closing all ‘non-essential’ shops and services to prevent the spread of Covid19. Define ‘non-essential’. Beyond food and water, to me what is essential right now might mean chocolate, beer, books. To others it could be clothing, live music, exercise, museums, Netflix. If we are talking about anything beyond basic survival, how can a government define what is essential? And more importantly, how can these businesses survive the interminable shutdowns?

Right now all French shops aside from food stores are closed while online retaillers are booming. People are not allowed to go further than one kilometre from home for exercise while, for those who live outside of the cities, the forests and fields beckon. Children go to school while parents mostly work from home. What kind of crazy is that?

I learned on the French news this week that Le Printemps, the grand old lady of the French department store, is preparing to shutter several stores around the country. Management blames it on the ‘coup de grâce’ of the pandemic. Meaning that they were already in trouble, but that confinement has struck the final death blow to these stores.

The government decision to close shops during the prime-time roll up to the year-end holidays seems insane. Not to downplay the dangers of the virus, but with proper distancing measures store closures could be avoided. Masks, hand sanitizing, limited numbers allowed in shops. It’s not rocket science. Here in Switzerland it appears to work. Not risk-free, certainly, but a more balanced approach to saving lives and livelihoods.

Another French talk show last night was all about the profound transformation our society is undergoing with this pandemic. The work-from-home option is probably here to stay, which means that the value of commercial real estate will likely drop. Businesses of all sizes will be affected by this change, not to mention the many that will go bankrupt, leading to more unemployment. The knock-on effects of this crazy year are going to be felt for a very long time.

The photo featured at the top of this post is a bit of a cheat. I took it at the Musée d’Orsay when we were in Paris a few years ago. I don’t know anything about the work shown here but it doesn’t seem to depict a ‘coup de grâce’, which is a final blow delivered out of kindness to end suffering. Instead it appears to be about fighting back and defending against an enemy. Perhaps we should all take inspiration from it.

Qu’en penses-tu?

The hardest word

We Canadians can’t get through a day, never mind a conversation, without using the word sorry. But as Elton John famously wrote, saying it in my new language is proving to be hard.

I’ve recently learned the German word most often used to vaguely apologize around here: Entschuldigung. Yep. It’s a mouthful.

My tongue, so used to gargling out French, can’t seem to decide how to pronounce this new language. So even though German is closer in many ways to my English mother tongue, I struggle to get a word out without reverting to French phonoemes. My ‘u’ is too ew instead of oo. My ‘ach’ sounds like French some days, English others. And I absolutely can’t decide whether ‘e’ should be ee or ay.

The other problem is public places. For years my world consisted of a clearly delimited bilingual space: French was public and English was private. So it’s a reflex to speak French to people on the street or in shops. My brain struggles to resist French now while attempting to pluck out the few words of German vocabulary appropriate for the situation.

For some reason people talk to me a lot. On the street, in shops. Perhaps I just have one of those approachable faces, or I look like a local, proving yet again how appearances can be deceiving.

“Kein Deutsch,” I say to the fellow who has stopped me with a seemingly friendly stream of babble while walking the dogs on the path by the river. Then the inevitable: “Sorry. You speak English?”

“Yes, well you seem to have forgotten something back there.” He points to a part of the path under the bridge. “From your dogs.”

I get his meaning but am not going to take this. “No, it’s not me! I always pick up after my dogs,” I insist, pointing out the red bags attached to their leashes. He shakes his head, walking away. A minute later I realize he was right: I must have dropped my bag of merde de chien.

“Entschuldigung!” I say in my head. He is long gone and I am sorry indeed.

Learning a new language is humbling.

There’s a lot to be sorry about these days. This song was recorded in 1976 at Eastern Sound in Toronto as part of Elton John’s album ‘Blue Moves’. That studio was a landmark in my hometown, and in early in my career as a copywriter I went there a few times to record commercials. It was located in Yorkville, Toronto’s once artsy-edgy neighbourhood that emerged from the sixties and seventies as the preferred location for high-end shops and hotels. Sadly the Victorian building that once housed the famous sound studio was torn down some years ago. It’s now the Four Seasons.

Entschuldigung.

What are you sorry about at the moment?

Mine de rien

I stumbled across an old to-do list the other day and was struck by how much had been accomplished. What seemed almost insurmountable earlier this year has now been largely achieved. None of it perfect, much still to do. As ever.

Some of the big items on the list from early 2020 are not yet boxes ticked. But ‘Sell house’ should be complete this week (fingers, toes and other appendages crossed please!). As to another item, ‘Find new place to live in Switzerland’, this is largely achieved. We didn’t end up buying, which feels like the right move given the current climate, but are happily settling in to our rented home. Getting it just right is a work in progress but if I learned one thing from our last place it is this: don’t rush things. You have to live in a space for a while to know how to make it work. And in the meantime, it is extremely liveable by any standard.

‘Mine de rien’ is one of those French expressions that you don’t learn but comes up in conversation. ‘Without even trying’ or ‘without seeming to have made any big effort’ is my best attempt at translating it. I can’t say this really applies to me as I’ve made no secret of the huge efforts made since we decided to move. At times it felt like we would never get there. Hurdles, frustrations, moments of doubt. Not to mention a global pandemic. Yet somehow things have more or less fallen into place, at least for now.

A ‘mine’ (pronounced: mean) is a face or a look, and it is often used to describe a person’s state of health. To have ‘une bonne mine’ means you’re looking good. ‘Mauvaise mine’ is just the opposite.

I feel like I have a pretty good ‘mine’ these days, despite the stresses of moving and adapting to a new life. The cooler air where we live now suits me, and the water’s pretty good too. It’s softer and, if you believe the local authorities, pretty well perfect in terms of water quality.

We got our new resident’s permits from the Canton of Schwyz the other day. It took a few weeks but the process was entirely Swiss: efficient and painless. We had to pay for the privilege of course, in my case CHF 70, which is sort of a recurring theme. Everything has a cost and it’s very much a user-pay mentality in Switzerland. But you do get what you pay for. I’m eternally grateful to the powers that be for not making me look like an escaped convict in my ID photo.

Perhaps my ‘mine’ is smiling a bit more these days too, which always adds to a healthy appearance. After all, there is much to smile about. We’re healthy (touch wood, not face!) for one thing, although who knows how long we will manage to escape the dreaded virus? We’re careful but we haven’t stopped enjoying life. And when I go to bed at night I feel safer than I ever did in France. Which is not to say that an axe murderer won’t come calling but somehow it feels like we live now without what the French call ‘ce sentiment d’insecurité’. That unsettling sense of insecurity is ever-present across the border, and I miss it not all.

What have you done, mine de rien, of late?

Speaking in tongues, bis

I’m borrowing this title from a post I wrote way back in the early days of this blog. Hence the ‘bis’ which as you probably know means ‘encore’ or something added, as in another address of the same number. Let’s call this one 2013 bis.

My first tongue — mother, naturally — came to life early on and was unstoppable. I was a talker from the most tender age. Family lore has it that my younger brother never said much because I did all the talking for him. I must have tired of this after a while though, or been scolded into silence, because as I grew up I became a lot more selective about who I spoke to, preferring to retreat into silence in social situations until sure of my footing. Then you can’t shut me up.

When I began learning la langue de Molière a few decades later, I quickly learned to think carefully before speaking because, well, the French don’t let you get away with much. Eventually French became more or less second nature and I stopped worrying about making mistakes or using words that don’t technically exist. Ce n’est pas oblig!

My third tongue I suspect will not be as fluent as the previous two. I am a lot older, if only occasionally wiser, going into this linguistic adventure. But far less afraid.

I have begun what they call a semi-intensive course of German A1 level here in our town: two hours twice a week. We are a group of six beginners: A Greek woman who works as a chef, a Czech woman whose boyfriend plays soccer on the local team, two Portuguese guys both of whom are called André (what’s the chance of that?) and a single mother who is a Tibetan refugee. And moi, the doyenne (elder) of the group. They are all half or perhaps even a third of my age.

On the first day the teacher asked us how long we had been in Switzerland (English is the default language, lucky for me). When I said I’d only just moved here, he seemed surprised. I explained about living near Geneva and working in the French-speaking part of Switzerland since 2007.

“So you’ve actually been here much longer. Geneva is also in Switzerland,” he reminded me. Yes, but…!  I thought but didn’t manage to articulate. My tongue had decided to retreat into my head out of respect for the teacher’s superior knowledge.

I guess he had a point, but it does feel like moving to the German-speaking part of this small but complex land here in Central Switzerland is like moving to another country.  

“And have you taken German lessons before?” asked the teacher. I shook my head. No. Nein!

“Ah, so this is your first German class?” I nodded dumbly, thinking: Yes, I am a German virgin.

Thankfully by then my tongue was well and truly silent.

I suspect my third tongue will give me trouble, as have the other two. But hopefully by the time I start wielding it I’ll have a few more words in my vocabulary than Ich spreche kein Deutch.

How about you? Do you feel comfortable speaking in tongues?