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?

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