Thursday, August 22, 2013

Home in Switzerland

It still feels strange sometimes to ponder the fact that I live in Switzerland. As in, actually live, settle, permanent residence. I'm not here temporarily, my husband isn't here on an assignment for a set amount of time. This is it. Whenever that thought meanders through my brain, I get the urgent feeling that should be doing more to make my life here. Find a career, buckle down, get-up-and-go. Despite how I still feel occasionally, this is not a surreal dream.

A dream in which I am a constant foreigner. And, frankly, always will be. B and I could live here for forty years, have kids, raise them here, buy a house, and still I would be an Auslander - not Swiss. In a few years, B will fulfill strict requirements and be eligible to apply for Swiss citizenship, if he desires. But even then, he would likely be viewed as foreign by the 'true' Swiss. His looks channel his Italian grandfather, including dark hair and easily-tanned skin. He is comfortable in High German, but does not speak Schweizerdeutsch. These traits mark him as 'other.'
My family's German and English heritage means that I blend in with the crowd (and unfortunately seem to attract inquiries about directions, stores, and even occasionally random conversations on the tram), but opening my mouth immediately betrays me. Our (hypothetical) children, perhaps, would fit in. They would likely learn German, both High and Swiss, from playing with other children, absorbing languages and dialects like the sponges that children's brains are. But they would still be the children with the American mother. At a writer's group meeting I recently attended, an older American told a tale of her teenage son who was so Swiss that he admonished her for vacuuming during lunch (noise-causing 'work' such as this is forbidden in most apartments and neighborhoods after 10 pm, on holidays, Sundays, and sometimes from noon to 1 pm) and laughing too loud in a movie theater. "Man," I thought as we Americans shared a laugh, "that will so be me."

I am ambivalent when I think of this future. It is exciting in some ways - to live one's life in a culture not one's own. Switzerland offers so many things: travel, languages, an excellent standard of living, amazing transportation options, gorgeous scenery, efficient recycling, and little of the wealth disparity present in the US. It is also alienating, simply because it is not mine. I did not grow up within it, and I never know what is safe to assume I understand.

Sometimes I miss how much easier it was in the US. Language barriers wouldn't prevent me from switching fields or finding a job. Stores would be open on Sundays, I would understand the road signs, I could have a 'normal-sized' refrigerator and a slow cooker.

And now, an unexpected job opportunity has presented itself, making moving back to the US a real possibility. What to do? A question I still haven't answered (and won't for several months), but I have been surprised that as I spent time mulling the decision, I recognized within myself a reluctance to leave Switzerland. My new home. Zürich has become familiar, even as I still feel foreign within it. I don't feel comfortable here - yet. It is the 'yet' that is the sticking point. Adjusting takes time, and I know I am still in the process. My German won't always be this awful, I won't always be unemployed here. Given time, I will grow my circle of friends, find my niche.

Living in the US would perhaps be easier for me, but is it better? What should B and I be prioritizing? B has never lived in the US - although he would not have a language barrier, Switzerland is as familiar as it gets for him (yes, even more than Lima, which from all reports has drastically improved/changed in the 13+ years he has been away). We would be leaving his cultural bubble to return to mine. Even as I yearn for the familiar comfort, I somehow feel a hesitation in rejoining it.

Have you ever faced a decision that would affect practically every basic aspect of your life? How did you approach it?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Neighbors in a strange land

I've tipped over the edge of seven months here in Zurich, and time seems to be accelerating. Signs have gone up about school starting again (Schulanfang: Achtung Kinder!), and the air has a wonderful crispness to it. Slowly but surely, summer is starting to dwindle.

Two weeks ago, B and I missed out our somewhat regular weekend trip to Basel to see his family because a sign had gone up in our apartment entryway. I couldn't understand the details, but the general drift was - "Come and be with the neighbors! Bring your own drinks and food to grill." I insisted we go - non-optional. I was both terrified and relieved at the prospect of finally meeting the people that I'd spent months studiously avoiding. B is usually up and out before the building stirs, but I've spent my time scurrying between our apartment door and the street like a dog who was trying to sneak a chicken bone out of the trash before his owners notice it's missing. I lived in fear of running into someone in the hallway, the front stoop, or - worst of all - the washküche (laundry room), which has only one door and no escape route.

Since we moved in May, we'd met a sum total of one neighbor: a woman with two small children who lives next to us, and once brought us some left over birthday cake. She wowed my in-laws by speaking to them in flawless (Castilian) Spanish, then turned to me and switched to completely fluent, thinly accented English. She turned out to be German, and when she inquired whether I spoke Spanish as well, I said no - I caught words only occasionally, usually ones that overlapped with either English or French. She laughed and said knowingly, "Oh, that's how I am with Russian." It took all the willpower I had to appear as a mature adult and not blurt out, "Good lord, woman, how many languages do you SPEAK?" I felt very American.

Anyway - back to the neighborly gathering. I insisted we go, so on Saturday morning at the supermarket I made sure to grab some sausages for the grill. I also baked two batches of these chocolate chip cookies - as a sort of peace offering for not speaking their language (I didn't have any plum puffs). There were easily 15 people already at the playground (we were almost 15 minutes late - shockingly long in Swiss time), and only 3 of them appeared to speak English (well - were comfortable speaking English, which is probably different). Either most of our neighbors are retired Swiss people, or that's just the type of people that come to these types of gatherings.

No lie, it was awkward as all hell, at least at first. I was a nervous wreck and spent most of the time smiling nervously and wringing my hands in my lap. Luckily, the neighbor lady we'd met was there with her children, so she introduced us initially. I'd read about the Swiss custom of individually introducing oneself to everybody, but I had no idea it was so true. I trailed B around the table, shaking hands and trying to parrot back names - my success rate was probably around 25% - not great. We did finally learn the Hausfrau's name (thank god! I had been hiding from her most especially), and according to B, she's actually pretty funny (contrary to her rather severe, dour appearance). As is often the case when B and I go places, it took a while for there to be an understanding that although I'm the ignorant America, B does in fact speak German (a misunderstanding that is likely due to the fact that we speak English to each other, and his accent is probably not noticeable to a non-native speaker). Everybody was very understanding that I'd been here only six months - although I worry what the time frame is for when they will have greater expectations of my language prowess.

I did get more comfortable throughout the evening. I enjoyed listening to the conversations and trying to pick out words - I even managed to pick out some differences between Hochdeutsch and Schweizerdeutsch. By the end, I was feeling comfortable enough that I ventured a few German sentences, although they were grammatically mangled to various degrees. I managed to get out one fully correct sentence, even getting the prepositional phrase in the right place: Ich bin in West Virginia geboren, in response to whether I had always been in Boston, then realized as soon as I said it that I had just freaking lied - yes, I grew up in WV, but I was actually born in New Jersey. Unfortunately, I didn't have the vocabulary to fix my error, but also who the hell has to correct where they were born? My idiocy in foreign languages apparently makes me forget basic facts about myself. I was flush with linguistic victory only briefly; after realizing my heinous mistake, I went back to hand-wringing and skulking.

We waved our farewells after four hours (we were only the second people to leave - the Swiss take these gatherings as serious business, apparently), and retreated back to our apartment, pleased to have made contact after 3 months. We did break protocol by not making a second round of the table to individually say goodbye (where, apparently, one is supposed to remember all the names learned just hours before - I would have failed this test of Swiss-ness). In the end, despite the language barrier, it was a huge success. We made an effort, and I feel that people now know that I'm the American wife and should be treated gently, linguistically speaking. By going to the gathering, B and I can now lay claim to the concept of being good neighbors, and ever since, I have been greeting people with a much more confident Grüezi  in the hallways and, yes, even the waschküche. I no longer feel like a fugitive in my own apartment building, and I've even gotten a small smile from the Hausfrau.

Even better, people ate almost all my cookies. Who needs a common language when you've got baked goods?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Trip to Como, Italy

This past weekend B and I went on our first official European weekend getaway to Como, Italy. Thursday was a holiday, so B took Friday off as well and we spent 3 days consuming gelato and enjoying the lake views. It was so wonderful to get some time to ourselves and see B take some time off. It was my first time in Italy, and it lived up to my hopes - and a surprising number of stereotypes.

Water fountain on the lakefront in Italian colors.
- The lake and surrounding mountains were gorgeous. Super gorgeous. Stunning. Crazy, movie scenery. This was aided by the multiple million-dollar villas scattered along the lake shore.

Como, with the Duomo as the overwhelming centerpiece.

Villa Olmo, walking distance from Como.

One of the many lakefront properties on our 2 hour boat trip up the lake.

All of the villas had impeccably done gardens and grounds.

- It was hot. Super hot. According to the weather on my phone, it was around 27C (80F) and never got above 31C (88F), but B and I call bullshit on that. The humidity was off the charts, and the sun was relentless. Neither B nor I are built for heat, so we spent most of the days planning our meanderings around where there was shade. Many, many visits to gelaterias helped take the edge off the heat.

Dark chocolate gelato. One of the dozen plus that B and I consumed over 3 days.
- Grazie, Italian language, for allowing me to realize exactly how much progress I've made in German. Coz I understood NOTHING people were throwing at me. But I did enjoy eavesdropping on both German and French tourists, which made me feel all multilingual (make no mistake - I'm totally not. But compared to 0% understanding in Italian, the 30-50% comprehension of German and French made me feel positively genius).

- Our dining out experiences varied greatly, but the best meal by light years was the tasting menu at The Marketplace. If you ever find yourself in the Como region, check this place out. Five courses, 35 euros, and B also got a wine tasting flight to accompany it (4 types of wine, 15 euro). The dishes were inventive and unbelievably delicious. It was one of the top five meals I've ever eaten in my life. We also loved the decor of the restaurant - cozy, quiet, upscale without pretention. 

First course from The Marketplace - a roasted tomato salad with basil ice cream and some sort of salami and I don't know what else but it was SO GOOD.

Tiramisu at a restaurant in Bellagio.

Mango tart tatin with violet ice cream at Ciboooh (yes, that's the restaurant name) in Como.
- We took a boat up to Bellagio, which is located in the center of wishbone-shaped Lake Como, where we enjoyed walking around the gardens of Villa Melzi. I wish we could've spent more time exploring the town, but one of the afternoon boats back to Como was cancelled and we were concerned about getting a seat on the remaining one.

The gardens of Villa Melzi

- Our return train on Sunday evening was 40 minutes late arriving in Como, and then broke down 10 minutes later (Italian transportation did not measure up to the Swiss, in our short experience). We were shuffled onto a smaller regional train to Lugano, where another train was waiting for us. On the overcrowded regional train, I ended up sitting next to an Italian-speaking (only) mother and small girl in a stroller, who was fascinated with my Kindle and insisted on playing with it. The delays meant that the regional trains had stopped running by the time we pulled into Zurich, so we had to take a cab home around 1:20 am. Very, very long day.

I finished two books, started a new crochet project (almost 3 squares done on this afghan), and managed to avoid a sunburn - overall, a very successful vacation, and I'm looking forward to our next one!