Independence day in Swiss German

31 07 2011

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.

A specimen of Homo Helveticus in traditional celebratory garb.

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?

Requiem for Pascale

18 07 2011

It was just another cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, one that passes for “summer” here in Zurich. I had gone out for a walk in the mud and some fresh air, and when I returned, the SMS message was waiting for me.

“Please call me,” from probably the last person on earth I expected to hear from on a Sunday. Something was up.

I called.

Gayle answered by saying my name: “Evelynn, Hi.”

“Hi, what’s going on?”


“What happened?”

“Evelynn, I have to tell you…. I… something bad… ”

She couldn’t even say the words.

“What happened? Is it about Pascale? Did something happen to Pascale?” I had sent our mutual girlfriend several messages the days before and had received no response. That was not like her and I was starting to wonder.

“How do you know?”

“I DON’T know… Know WHAT? Tell me! What happened?”

“Evelynn… Pascale is… Pascale is dead.”

And then she told me about how she just found out that our friend went hiking alone in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino last Thursday, slipped, and fell off a mountain. How an emergency search & rescue helicopter later found her body among the rocks in a deep ravine.

She was 38 years old.

Full of life, with boundless energy, and ambitious plans. With a smile as wide as Montana.

Pascale was my nordic walking buddy. She lived in the next town over and we would often meet to gossip and stride through the rolling meadows and woods that straddle the two municipalities. In summer we enjoyed brilliant sunshine, in the company of cows, and savored the smell of the flowers and grasses in bloom. In winter we would meet after sunset, the short days making for frigid and sometimes treacherous going on icy paths.

That was our favorite time to walk and talk: in the dark, making tracks after a fresh, quiet snowfall.

Pascale was the co-snow-bunny I featured right here in my blog a few months ago. On skis she was mostly fearless, but she never let me take her flying.

Pascale and Gayle were colleagues at a previous employer, and the three of us remained friends even after she and I quit our jobs there. We all are just a few years apart, similar in physique and character: tall, with long, straight, dark blond hair, athletic, extroverted, loud and very demanding of ourselves and others. We always wanted so much more out of our lives and careers than the men we had to work with were willing to concede.

We got together for regular ladies’ lunches and dinners at swanky restaurants across this outrageously expensive city to have a fantastic meal, philosophize about life and celebrate ourselves.

Our last ladies’ lunch was just two weeks ago, also on a Thursday, at a hip Fusion-style restaurant just around the corner from the workplace where we first met almost exactly five years earlier. For dessert we ordered champagne, toasted each other and the great things that lay in all of our futures. We wondered how much fun it might be to start a business together.

I still see Pascale standing on Zurich’s busy main commercial avenue, Bahnhofstrasse, that afternoon. She was wearing a light blue blouse and slacks, and carried a large white handbag. The pearl bracelet on her wrist jingled as she checked her phone for messages. We said goodbye, kissed each other three times on alternating cheeks.

“Don’t be a stranger,” I said.

“I’ll call you,” she responded.

With a flick of her long blonde mane she turned away and melted into the crowd.

Pascale. March 4, 1973 - July 14, 2011.

My new love Fred

11 05 2011

I have fallen in love, once again.

Yes, I think R. will tolerate this new love, if grudgingly. The object of my desire is just under two feet tall, weighs 40 pounds and is covered with shaggy black fur. He is seven years old and in order to protect his identity, I will call him Fred.

Fred: "Woof!"

Fred is a Portuguese Water Dog, and a distant older relative of the nation’s First Dog, Bo, who moved into the White House two years ago. And if you do the math: Fred was already around for a while before Bo and his kin became popular. Before the world had actually ever heard of the Portuguese Water Dog and that there even was such a thing.

Fred is the only dog in the world I have ever met who cozies up to an oversized yellow Sponge Bob cuddly toy. It’s the cutest thing you have ever seen.

I met my new true love in Connecticut, in the home of very old friends. They invited me to stay with them after I had spent two tense and sleepless nights at another friend’s house, desperately dodging two big, sinister orange cats, the air thick with their omnipresent dander. When I left, I had to pick cat hair off every piece of clothing that I had taken into their home. It was… distressing. Mainly because I am very allergic to cats.

Somewhere here on my blog I mentioned that I am a dog-person (married to a cat-person). And even if I was not allergic, I find dogs just so much friendlier, more accommodating, more loyal, more playful and simply more reliable than cats.

And according to the Chinese zodiac, I was born in the year of the dog so I share many of those (ahem, exceedingly positive) characteristics.

The Chinese probably had a really good reason or two not to have a year of the cat in their zodiac. Cats are infuriatingly aloof and mean, and so much less useful to society than, say, dogs, dragons, snakes, sheep, roosters and rabbits.

I just know that all you cat-lovers out there will tear me to shreds for this, with those vicious little claws of yours. Fine – bring it on. I will take a slobbering, juvenile-minded canine over a hissing, oh-so-sophisticated feline any day.

My love for Fred was sealed on the final day of my visit in Connecticut. We attended a sporting event about 90 minutes away by car. Of course there was no question about whether or not Fred would be part of the festivities. On the way home, after suffering through a miserably cold, wet and muddy day, we had a car full of people, and Fred, always the boss, was not going to be relegated to the trunk of the stationwagon.

I became his Sponge Bob as he climbed onto my lap in the front seat and nestled his head into the door’s armrest. There he slept, the whole hour and a half till we got home. 40 pounds of warm, snoozing, snoring dog, on my muddied jeans, through a wicked rainstorm down the highway as the day turned to dusk. I stretched the seat belt around him. When we pulled into his neighborhood, he instinctively knew he was close to home. He sat up, looked out the window and wagged his tail.

In thanks for the favor, I got a wet, sticky doggie kiss. And my heart was his.

An impulse and the voice of a good man

26 04 2011
Yesterday morning I experienced a sudden flash of urgent activism. I decided I needed to do a Salvation Army run, get rid of stuff that was cluttering my Florida condo.

When my father died in 2007, we gave most of his clothes to charity. Over the next two years, we renovated his condo, replaced 35-year-old kitchen appliances with modern ones, tore out the 70’s charm and freshened up the décor. The place really needed the makeover. He had talked about doing a general overhaul for years, but the logistics of life always got in the way, and he never did get around to it. He would like the new look, I think.

New kitchen!

Some stuff we left where they were – old photos hanging on the walls, personal ornaments on shelves, knickknacks in drawers and closets. These were things I just felt like I had to deal with at a later time.

There are a lot of drawers here that are still waiting to be dealt with.

So that morning, a bag with my own old clothes was filling up fast. And I found other stuff at the back of a walk-in closet that really needed to go – things that served no real useful purpose anymore. Like an old cordless telephone with an integrated answering machine. Since we no longer have a fixed land line here, I put it in the bag, along with a brand new never-used racketball racket and some dvd’s that no one ever watched.

And then it occurred to me. Before I give the answering machine away, I should probably check just in case there are any personal messages on it. So I plugged it in. It beeped and whirred, like old answering machines used to do and a little red light went on. I pressed a button.

And then a male voice drifted out of the speaker:

“You have reached 954-893-9648. We are unable to come to phone at this time. Please leave your detailed message and we will answer as fast as possible. Thank you very much.”

I didn’t recognize it. The voice came across to me as very foreign, with a heavy German accent. I don’t remember it that way. My father spent almost 50 years in the United States… and that was the kind of accent that other European immigrants had, but not my father. Weird.

I blinked and shook my head, and listened to it a second time. And a third. And then a fourth. It had to be him, who else could it be? It’s the first time I heard that voice in more than three and a half years, as if it was speaking to me from the beyond. It is the only recording of his voice that I have. The only real and tangible shred of my father that I have left. And it sounded so… different, so unusual. So not like I remember him.

The answering machine went back on the shelf, to be dealt with at a later time.

A few baseball caps that were looking a little past their prime also wandered into the bag. One had the words “USS Bonhomme Richard” embroidered across it in gold thread – a gift from a fellow journalist who spent some time embedded on the Navy’s amphibious assault ship years ago (…and all he brought me was this lousy ball cap….).

I had my second epiphany of the morning.

Bonhomme Richard.

Good man Richard.


My father’s first name.

That’s it. The ball cap stays, too.

Souvenirs from another age.

Just another Saturday night

23 03 2011

A cacophony of voices, a throng of people of all ages, all shapes and sizes, black, white and brown, mingle on the beach promenade. The stroll, skate, sit, eat, talk, run and bike away the lazy day.

I spread my towel on the beach facing the water, take off my sandals and let the clean beige sand slip through my toes. The wind comes out of the Northeast, and the late afternoon sun warms my back. My shadow gets longer and longer as the sun sinks westward, behind the beachfront restaurants, the intracoastal waterway, the Everglades, and the earth beyond. I take out my journal, and write down what I see around me.

Watching my shadow.

To my left, four generations of an extended family chatter away in Spanish. All at once and without punctuation or paragraphs. Some of them sit on blankets in the sand, others on coolers, a colorful umbrella angled away from me is their shelter. Turning right, I see some teenagers play 3-a-side soccer in the sand while, other, smaller kids watch as ice cream from their too-large cones drips off their faces, and between their fingers.

A disembodied orange flag in the ocean mysteriously creeps closer to shore, snaking around to the right. Only as the flag, floating on a buoy, approaches the shallow water do I notice the scuba diver, dressed in black neoprene, attached to it by a cord. He emerges from the waves, takes off his over-long flippers, gathers up his flag-buoy and walks out of the ocean. He looks around at his surroundings as if he was a Martian, just landed on earth.

In my line of vision to the open sea, a small girl sits in a hole in the sand that it probably took her all day to dig with her tiny white plastic shovel. Her head is the only part of her body still sticking out above ground. The incoming tide inches ever closer to her construction site. And just a few minutes after her mother calls to tell her it’s time to go home, her hole is inundated with water, the waves rolling in like last week’s Japanese tsunami.

Beyond the beach, a triathlete swims parallel to the shoreline, his labored strokes witness to the fact that he’s probably got a few miles in those arms already today. But he soliders on, bobbing up and down with the surf, moving slowly and steadily from right to left. After a few minutes he disappears to the north, continuing on his way.

Miles off shore, huge cruise ships – cities on the water – march steadily out of Port Everglades in the opposite direction, one after the other, heading towards Caribbean points south, unknown.

On the beach promenade behind me, Tony the Pizza Chef serves up his pies the size of hors d’oevres platters to a hungry clientele. Still, eyes grow wider yet when they see dinner arrive at their tables.

As dusk falls, the blood-red, radiant supermoon surfaces in the distance. Cheers go up, cell phone cameras are aimed and thousands of underexposed, shaky photos are shot, filed, emailed, messaged, uploaded.

An honest attempt with a compact camera.

A rock band strikes up the first chords of its evening set in the bandshell. People dance, tap their feet, embrace life.

On just another Saturday night at the beach.