This weekend Switzerland celebrates its 720th birthday. Every year on August 1st, the Swiss gather with their families, raise the flag, fire up the barbecue and shoot off some fireworks. They sing traditional yodeling songs, dress up in funny clothes and celebrate their unique identity, culture and language.
Hm. Kind of like we do on July 4th.
And though I cannot with a good conscience completely disparage my life here (it has its merits), and with all due respect to my Swiss friends and readers (they are great folks to have around), an incident last week once again made me wonder what the hell I ever did to piss anyone off in this tiny insignificant piece of overpriced real estate at the center of Europe. Other than live here and breathe air.
For six years and eight months I have attempted to learn the rules of one of the most exclusive places on earth. And the Swiss set very high standards for immigrants like myself, expecting them to internalize these rules from the moment we set foot in the country. They also have a tight surveillance network of spies for the purpose of enforcement. They call them “neighbors.”
In addition, those Swiss people in the German-speaking part of the country do it in an archaic language made infinitely more complex for the unknowing foreigner by its many dialects. I call this phenomenon “preserving linguistic discrimination.” My Swiss friends call it “preserving linguistic pluralism.”
The other day at work I had a lady on the phone who was looking for a report my company had recently published. She spoke a Swiss German dialect that I had trouble understanding. I asked her in high (proper) German for her name and the company she worked for. She responded with something unintelligible, to which I said, “Excuse me, could you please repeat that?” This was the answer I got (in dialect of course, at increased volume):
“If you want to speak with me then you will have to speak with me in my Zurich dialect of Swiss German because the only other language I speak is Swahili.”
Well, I thought. So much for friendly natives.
(And for those of you who have never actually heard Swiss German – you would be forgiven for thinking it really was Swahili. At least by me.)
I responded that unfortunately I could not send her the report, and that she wouldn’t be able to read it anyway, because it was only published in English, and not in her Zurich dialect of Swiss German or Swahili. And I hung up.
So this coming Monday, while four million German-Swiss wave their flags and proclaim in their myriad of dialects how wonderful their country is (and three million more doing the same thing in French, Italian or Rumantsch), I will quietly enjoy a day off work, a month late. We will surely also raise the Stars & Stripes, fire up the grill and light a sparkler or two.
Do me a favor and pass the steak sauce and the Miller Lite, will ya?