Bulletins from Abroad – Christmas

I have come to Switzerland to meet my boyfriend’s extended family. His mother is the eldest of six, nearly all of their collective offspring living in and around Zurich, meaning, they’re all here. By odd coincidence unconnected to my boyfriend, I lived in Switzerland, first as a student and then as a ‘non-resident worker’ which describes well the draconian conditions of the job I had at the sinister train station cafe does not cover the glamour of living abroad and frequenting hyper-hip clubs until five in the morning (when I had to be back at work). Unexpectedly, I also learned the language.

One of Switzerland?s quirks is its German. The Swiss, being a stubborn bunch (and lovable, I hasten to stress), held onto the original German language when the rest of the German world decided one century long ago to standardize on what we now know as High German (or Hochdeutsch). As invariably happens with languages, the two – high German and Swiss dialect – have grown ever farther apart and Swiss German is no longer meaningfully comprehensible to any other German. It is also not a written language, despite the quaint efforts of a handful of misguided authors. All of this is very handy for the Swiss, not just in that they can discuss those around them pretty much anywhere else in the world without fear of being understood but also because it reinforces their apartness, their clarity of history, currency and business, unpolluted by immigrants, wars and foreign or even general influence.

This is not to say that Switzerland is a tiny Brigadoon, floating apart in the center of Europe. It is very much part of Europe and recognizably so, but, like Europe?s other countries of any size, it has elusive but distinct national characteristics of which the language is likely the most prominent example. It;s not an easy language and there’s really no official way to learn it. The process is additionally complicated by the regional dialects which vary both by accent and their employment of entirely different words for the same items. Also, everyone speaks high German (the language of the educational system) and nearly everyone speaks English, further obliterating in foreigners any need or desire to learn dialect. Needless to say, learning it is a daunting and usually fruitless enterprise. Not learning it however leaves a subtle gap between you and assimilation.

How then did I, a young unassimilated student, happen to pick up Swiss German when, say, my boyfriend’s father has not yet picked it up after 40 years of marriage to his Swiss wife? I worked with children. I had no idea that taking that babysitting job for three small Swiss girls would result in such a long-lasting advantage. The three-year-old, the only verbal one of the three, spoke only dialect and French. I spoke no French, so dialect it was. It has been commonly noted that children are without fear. It is less common to note that they lack shame, which provides a great platform for learning things from them. So there we are: I speak Swiss German and, fourteen years later, find myself in Switzerland with my Swiss boyfriend, speaking this uncommon language with his multitude of relatives. How very handy and, apparently, impressive. I am the Christmas novelty. Fear me. I am the Nutcracker.

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Categories: News, Nuisance, Miscellany, Switzerland


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