Lego-man: five francs. Watching Little Boy A buy it: priceless.

July 24th, 2008

We stand in front of the shelf full of Lego toys. Little Boy A points to a firetruck set he wants. It is not in the section I’ve told him he can choose from, not in the section he can afford. But ever since we watched the City of Bern Fire Department put on a demonstration last October, complete with a practice-run of cutting the roof off of a car to free “injured” passengers, Little Boy A’s fantasy life has revolved around fire-trucks and ambulances; occasionally a police car makes an appearance, but the fire-truck is the true star of the show.

“Mama, can I have this?”

I look at the price. “Well, this costs ten francs. You have five. These ones here are the only ones you can afford. If you really want this firetruck then you have to save the five francs Grossmutti gave you and wait until you have five more francs.” I want him to pick this option, I want him to decide to save his five francs and come back later. I know he will not; delayed gratification is not his strong suit – though he’s perfectly content to wait until Christmas for this – but I want him to pick this option even as I know he won’t.

“Then can I have this?” Pointing to an ambluance.

“That’s ten francs, too. Look, sweetie, these boxes here are the only ones you can buy with five francs. If you want to, we can wait until you have ten francs and can come back then.” I don’t want to tell him what to do, but I want to tell him what to do.

“Hm.” He looks at the little boxes he can afford. He is very serious and very careful. “I like this.” He chooses a street-sweeper: a little Lego man with a little street-sweeper, a garbage can, a shovel, a broom, and three Lego pieces of garbage. It’s a pretty good deal, actually, for four francs ninety.

“I think that’s a good choice. Look, he’s got a street-sweeper and a garbage can and a broom and a shovel! Wow, that’s a lot of stuff. Are you sure this is the one you want?”

“Yes. Come, Mama, let’s go over here.” He leads me to the cash register.

Gruesseuch, mittenand (hello),” says the cashier. Mittenand – the word that is used to apply your greeting to more than one person. The man at the fish counter said it the other day when we bought salmon for dinner – Gruesseuch, mittenand, – including my young son in the transaction. The ladies at the bakery where we buy bread do it too. I have always loved how people make a point of saying hello to both of us when I go into a store with Little Boy A and now with Little Boy C.

Gruesseuch,” chirps Little Boy A – his voice is still so high, so child-like, so girl-like. How shocking it must be when a son’s voice changes. He hands up his box.

The man rings it up. “Vier neunzig (four ninety).”

Little Boy A dips into his pocket and pulls out his little wallet – it came with a pair of jeans, tucked into the back pocket and attached to a belt-loop with a chain. He unzips the coin-pocket and pulls out his five franc coin. (I love the five franc coin, heavy and solid, substantial in my hand.) A small golden five rappen piece – five cents – slips out with it.

“Whoops.” Little Boy A says. “Das passiert mängish (that happens sometimes).” He tucks the coin back into his wallet, hands the man his five francs. “Hier (here).” I am melting into a puddle on the floor next to him, the sight of him so carefully extracting his five francs from his miniature wallet, handing it up to the cashier.

Merci (thank you),” says the cashier.

Bitte (you’re welcome),” says Little Boy A.

The cashier hands him his change (“Merci,” says Little Boy A, slipping the coin back into his wallet and zipping up the pocket) and asks him if he wants a bag. “Nay, merci, isch guet so (no, thank you, it’s fine like this),” he replies and takes hold of his purchase and receipt. “Adieu, merci (goodbye, thank you),” we say together as we walk away.

I guess I’m supposed to  think about this socially or politically and be distressed that he’s such a perfect consumer, but I can’t. I see him moving through this script flawlesslly, this script that is so important socially in Switzerland. Say hello, always say hello, to cashiers and waiters and sales-people in stores even when you’re just browsing, always make greetings and return greetings; say please, say thank you; say goodbye and thank you again as you’re leaving, always say goodbye after you’ve made your purchase and you wouldn’t go wrong throwing in a have a good day as well – certainly if the cashier says “und schoene Tag noch (enjoy the rest of your day)” by all means you must return a “gleichfalls (and you the same).” These seems like such little things, these social code-words, but their omission is not just an absence, it is a rudeness in Swtzerland. I am thrilled and relieved that my son has absorbed this bit of Swiss culture. I am delighted that he knows this script, these social niceties.

And the gravity, the earnestness with which he opened his wallet and spent his five francs – these are the unexpected moments that make my heart bloom.