The Good of Small Things

October 28th, 2010

It’s been cold but clear the past few days and the boys and I have gone into the woods where the pond is suddenly populated by the twenty-odd ducks that winter there. There are mushrooms sprouting everywhere, and the Boychen still calls out “Hey! Look, Memli!” (although he can now pronounce “mushrooms” in English and “Schwemli” in Swiss, he still calls them Memli) as though he’d never seen one before.

The Boychen. How to describe this boy who still cries out “Memli!” a dozen times a day, each one something new to be exclaimed over and enjoyed? This boy who, if I turn my back, will be half-way to the road on his tricycle, speeding off towards the Quartier and the world beyond it. This boy with a soul like a shiny new penny, who is growing up too fast, who wants wants wants life.

My little boy, who will not tolerate being called a little boy, who is learning to skate like his big brother and who says, literally, exactly, “That’s what happens by skating, it doesn’t matter” when he falls down. This boy who is going to be as good on skates as his older brother sooner than I care to think about and who is going to leave all of us is his wake. His shiny, glittery wake. Riding down the street towards the Quartier, and the big world beyond it, and hardly remembering to wave good-bye.

And a personal take on the language divide

October 19th, 2010

Robyn asked if I would move to a different language region. Five years ago the answer would have been, “sure.” In fact, five years ago R was looking for a new job and he was considering something in Geneva that wasn’t the greatest move for him professionally (it was a lateral move at best) but he felt that for me, as an English-speaking expat, Geneva would have offered a lot of opportunities, both professional and social. In spite of all the effort I had, at that point, put into learning German I would have made the move. Today the answer would probably be “no.” The difference now, of course, is the Small Boy starts first grade next year: to move now to French-speaking Switzerland would mean to  throw him into first grade in a French-speaking public school having exactly no French. It seems unfair to make him essentially illiterate without even leaving the country. I could understand the unfortunate necessity of setting him back if we were moving to Norway or Spain, but to become a language outsider in his own country, well, it seems a little ridiculous. (R might think differently about that, having studied for a year in French-speaking Switzerland in order to master his school-room French.) So we’re staying put for now.


October 18th, 2010

I want to write some posts about our vacation, a la Bethany’s series on her “highland fling,” but since I already committed myself to answering your questions about life in Switzerland and then promptly left on vacation, it’s probably unwise to suggest that I’m going to take on a series of vacation posts before I at least begin to write to some of the Switzerland posts I put on hold a month ago.

Both Robyn and Claudia asked about the language divide, so I’ll start there.

Switzerland has four official languages: German (spoken by about 63% of the population and dominant in 19 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons), French (20%, 4 cantons), Italian (almost 7%, 1 canton and part of another), and Rumantsch (0.5%, spoken only in parts of the canton of Graubünden). The cantons of Bern, Valais, and Fribourg are bi-lingual German-French; Graubünden is tri-lingual German-Italian-Rumantsch. (You can find a handy little map showing the language distribution here.) Rumantsch, by the way, is a lovely and musical indecipherable little language I dream of learning one day simply for the sake of it. (I love this commercial, which will give you a taste of Rumantsch and is worth listening to even if you don’t understand a word of it. The older Steinbock is speaking Rumantsch and the younger translates it into Swiss-German. And if you’ve never been to the Graubünden, you’re missing out. It’s my favorite canton.)

The percentages I listed above don’t quite add up there, do they? Those numbers measure “mother tongues” and Switzerland has a very large immigrant population – about twenty percent of Swiss residents are not Swiss citizens* and a large portion of those people speak a native tongue that is not an official Swiss language. When measured in terms of “public use” it looks like this: German, 74%; French 21%; Italian 4%; Rumantsch 1%. Take my case for example: if asked for my mother tongue I would say English but if asked for the language I use in public life (the box I check on forms when asked what language I should receive correspondence in, for example) I would say German. 

I’m coming from an outsider’s perspective on this, of course, and to make it worse I’m an outsider with a bias: I can consume the German-language media but not the French, so I get German-speaking Switzerland’s side of the story and the French story filtered through the German lens (am I giving you a headache yet, because I’m giving myself one). My take on the language divide in the country – the German-French divide seems to me the only one that matters because everybody generally ignores the Italian-speakers: for example kids in German-speaking Switzerland are required to learn French in school and kids in French-speaking Switzerland are required to learn German in school and nobody, as far as I can tell, is required to learn Italian – is that French Switzerland (or the Romandie) is ever on guard against being dominated by German-speaking Switzerland. Several years ago when Micheline Calmy-Rey was up for a seat in the Bundesrat – the seven-member executive governing body in Parliament – one of her major selling points was that she was from the Romandie; there is an unwritten rule (at least I think it’s unwritten, though it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find it’s an actual rule) about ensuring representation for French-speaking Switzerland. Which is a fair point but begs the question: what, beside the language, makes French-Swiss and German-Swiss view each other as so different? Why are they worried about being “dominated” by each other if they’re all Swiss.

The differences between the regions are real. It’s not just the language that changes when you travel from Bern to Geneva. The menus aren’t just printed in French, they feature French food. I would go so far as to suggest that Swiss living in Geneva are more aware of what’s going on in Paris than Bern, but maybe that’s just my standing-outside-peering-through-the-window take on it. (And I supposed it’s just as likely that Swiss in Zürich are more up to speed with Berlin than Geneva.) Or consider the Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton: Everything about the Ticino  is like a little piece of Italy. The architecture changes. The food. Cultural norms, wardrobes, street life.  There are also some clear political differences between the regions: French-Swiss tend to approve of closer ties with the EU, for example, at much higher rates than German-Swiss and are less likely to approve of harsh anti-immigrant/foreigner measures than German-Swiss.

The Swiss know this about themselves, they’ve even got a word for it: it’s the famous “Röstigraben,” the divide (literally trench, Graben) between the French- and the German-speaking regions (if you can read German, there’s even a wikipedia page for Röstigraben.  Rösti, a hash-brown like potato dish, is a staple of the German-Swiss diet and is far less popular in the Romandie – the idea of a Röstigraben taps into all the linguistic and cultural and, yes, political, differences between French-speaking and German-speaking Swiss. (It also reinforces my feeling that the Italian-Swiss often don’t figure into the thinking of French- and German-speaking Swiss.)

I think it’s easy to make too much of the language divisions though. My father-in-law is as German-Swiss as they get but sets great store on his French; the whole family (but for me) speaks perfectly lovely French. And when Swiss with different mother tongues of R’s generation come together for a business meeting or Army duty, rather than battle it out over who will switch to their second language, they’re likely to just all speak English together instead. (Which horrifies my father-in-law.) And the Swiss claim any Swiss as their own. It’s a small country – a population of just under 8 million people, not all of whom are citizens – and successes on a world stage for a country that small are rare. No French-speaking Swiss cares that Roger Federer hails from German-speaking Basel and nobody in a German-speaking canton is going to turn up his nose at the Neuenburger Didier Cuche. I’m seeing all of this from the outside, of course, though as an outsider who’s becoming ever more of an insider.

Two years ago I went to a reading by the German poet Jaochim Sartorius at the Leukerbad Literaturfestival. He was reading from his collection Hôtel des Étrangers and before he began he told a story about how he had to convince his publisher to publish his collection, which is written in German, under the French title. Of course in Switzerland, he said, nobody thinks twice about a German-speaking author using a French title for his book, but in Germany it’s a bit strange. And he is right. It hadn’t exactly occurred to me that the title of his book was in French, or it hadn’t occurred to me to think about it one way or the other, because after ten years in Switzerland I’m used to that sort of language mash-up.

I think the Röstigraben doesn’t always have to be a trench; when seen from a bit of a distance it can look like one of Switzerland’s greatnesses, actually.

* Some of this is due to restrictive Swiss citizenship requirements which result in plenty of people being born in Switzerland, attending the public schools, getting a job and living here their whole lives and never acquiring citizenship because their parents are immigrants. It’s a rant topic for another post for sure.


October 11th, 2010

The picture illustrating this post wasn’t really accurate; I was impatient to write about my rivers even though we had not yet visited the rivers I love most. The picture in that earlier post  is of the Snake River as it runs through Grand Tetons National Park – a lovely river, by any standard, but not the best illustration of the rivers I love most. Because I was raised by a fisherman, my favorite rivers are good trout streams: shallow and clear, broad and flat as they flow through open valleys full of grass that grows right up to the banks, with gentle riffles that sparkle in the sun. Rivers like these:

(The Firehole)

(The Gibbon flowing through Gibbon Meadow.)

(The Madison)

It seems right that of all the rivers that pass through the park, the three I love best are linked not just by my personal history but by geography: at the confluence of the Gibbon and the Firehole, the Madison is born. The Madison is born and the Gibbon and the Firehole cease to exist. Their waters continue to flow between the banks of the Madison, but as rivers in their own right they have vanished. It’s a cruel thing that so completely obliterates its creators but that is the way of rivers. They fill their banks and run downstream until they too are subsumed by a larger river. The Madison runs for just over 180 miles until it meets up with the Jefferson and the Gallatin to form the Missouri; there at Three Forks the Madison vanishes from the map. Only the Missouri remains. The Missouri flows to the Mississippi. The Mississippi runs to the sea.

So it goes with rivers. They are there, and then they are gone, and yet they are not. Perhaps that is why I love them. They teach me the thing I most need to learn.

What’s your true north, and why do you think that is?

A river runs through it, redux

October 8th, 2010

What’s not to love?

It shall have to be a clever trap, Piglet, so you shall have to help me

October 6th, 2010

That’s a bear trap. To catch a grizzly that’s been wandering town. Exhibiting aggressive behavior. Towards people. A block away from our cabin. Yep. (Word is they got him.)