Wie geht’s?

How are you?

How are you?

Comment ça va? I mean really, how are you doing?

Thinking about this most common form of German greeting makes me realize something. No one asks me that anymore. Or hardly anyone. It seems that between people staying home, working remotely and not seeing one another, and our move to a new place where we’ve hardly been able to meet people, there is little opportunity to ask each other how we are. That strikes me as sad.

That’s aside from every email that begins with a wish in which the sender hopes this message finds me well, in good health, etc. It seems now that we are either dying from coronavirus or we are all fine. But there are so many nuances of how we can be. Perhaps a little sad. Tired. All Netflixed out. Needing something to look forward to. Or alternatively: feeling like a happy dance. A tipple. Joyfully pursuing an activity that makes our hearts sing.

So how am I? Not too bad (a very Canadian response) all things considered. Healthy, gainfully occupied with my freelance life. Yet longing to get out, to go places, see people, connect. And this Covid-thing is starting to feel like living in a perpetual groundhog day alternate reality where you live the same day, every day. The future has officially been cancelled.

And yet. A few signs may indicate that a shift could be happening.

I saw a couple of reports on the news that were not pandemic-related. In France, they are beginning to talk about climate change again. I’d just been wondering, not so long ago: whatever happened to the planetary emergency? And voilà! Here it is again, back from beyond. Not to be glib, I do realize it’s important. Just not as important when everyone is worrying about imminent death from a mutating virus.

I’m also itching to plan a holiday. I’m talking about a real vacation where you go somewhere completely different, preferably involving nice weather and the sea. Where you kick back and think about all the things you’ve done to deserve it. And I’m not alone. This blogger perfectly sums up the dilemma for me. And I sense it will not be long before I bite the bullet and book something.

So that’s how I am. How are you? Really. Tell me.

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?

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?

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?

Swedish for ‘I’ll kill you’

Ikea GuyI used to read a column in the newspaper called “Can this marriage be saved?” Both halves of a troubled couple would tell their side of the story, then the marriage counsellor would pronounce an opinion as to whether or not the relationship could survive, and what needed to be done. It was pop psychology at its poppest. Needless to say, I ate it up.

I have never felt the need for this kind of advice. I know my marriage can survive. I know it because we have survived the true test, the only one that matters. My husband and I have survived – you guessed it: Ikea.

Labor and childbirth, bringing up two kids, multiple cats and dogs, an international move, teaching me to drive a standard – all of this pales in comparison to the stress of the ultimate relationship test: Shopping for, loading and assembling furniture from the retailer whose ad campaign – ‘Swedish for common sense’ – I long ago transformed into: ‘Swedish for I’ll kill you.’

Not only have we survived Ikea, we have done it on two continents and in two different languages. No, make that three – we’ve also shopped Ikea in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.

In our early days, we went there because we had no money. We urgently needed a fold-out bed that was cheap without breaking his mother’s back – Ikea was there. Then we needed a Billy bookcase because, well, we’re both readers – there were books. Whenever in the store we discovered we needed a whole bunch of bizarrely named items. Ektorp. Kvarnvik. Tidafors.

Then we needed a crib. Heavily pregnant, we schlepped through Ikea in Toronto. Biblical thoughts ran through my head: “She grew hungry in Kitchens, broke waters in Bathrooms, lay down in Bedrooms.”

Our different navigating styles became evident as I instinctively sought the shortcuts (long before they became official, going against the flow of packed humanity). He followed the official routes while moaning and complaining about the whole thing. Ikea for me was a challenge, for him it was plain old suffering.

Our different approaches became even more apparent when it came to loading the car. I wanted to strategize the trunk and figure out a plan, but before I could even think he had shoved it all in (what can I say, it’s a male thing!).

And our differences came to a head when it was time to assemble the f**ing things. While I methodically sorted the various parts, he had the main frame assembled and had thrown out boxes and instructions. Inevitably, there were tensions. We would be missing a screw (I always knew this to be true about myself) or some other essential widget. He would become furious about Ikea and its crap quality, swearing never to return. I would go back by myself the next day, swearing never to allow him access to a screwdriver again.

The crib got assembled. I did not give birth in Bedrooms. Miraculously, our furniture stood straight. Some of it has lasted as long as our marriage.

I have learned how to make the most of our differences. I let him do the heavy work while I hide the instructions and save them in a file. I shop by myself and just ask for his help in unloading the car. Solo, in my Micra, 5’2’’ of determination, I have managed to transport entire wardrobes. Where there’s a will, there’s a woman.

In the latest chapter of my love-hate Ikea relationship, the dog left his mark upon a footstool where the cat was lording it up. I felt love for the Swedes when I saw that the cover was removable and washable. Then I saw how (insert that word again) hard it was to remove the thing, ripping my cuticles in the process. Mostly husband is way more patient than me. And he has stronger hands. So when I washed the cover of the *unpronounceable name* he promised to put it back on for me when it was dry, then promptly forgot and left for the week. I waited three days and then decided to do it myself (did I mention patience is not my virtue?)

If he could do it, I could do it. First, I put on one corner. This did not work, as it would not stretch to fit the other corners. I tugged and I pulled and it started to rip. I cursed and I swore and examined my bloodied cuticles.

I reasoned the technique was just to get it over the entire frame more or less straight, then fix the seams. I did this, congratulating myself on the triumph of rational thinking. Then I tried to fix the velcro. It was upside down. I cursed and swore a bit more. Arv! Flört! Kortvarig!

Sometimes people ask: after so many years in France, which language do you curse in? Both, of course. And occasionally, in Ikea.

What’s your most memorable Ikea moment?