It’s an Expat Thing

December 5th, 2010

The Small Boy is back in hockey school for the winter and with him, the Boychen. It’s Small Boy’s third winter now at the SCB hockey school, which is the training program associated with Bern’s professional hockey team. The hockey school rents out a full set of gear for 50 Francs and charges…well, I’m pretty sure they don’t charge anything. It’s in their interest – they want the first crack at young talent. The hockey school is the first step in the talent development program for the professional team. It’s the program Roman Josi came up through, and he got drafted by the Nashville Predators before his twentieth birthday. It’s a competitive program – only about ten percent of the kids in the school will be selected to play on the kids’ team, and you age out of the school at 8. Some of the kids in there are already really good little skaters and you can tell that they, or their families, take it pretty seriously and those kids spend more time on the ice than two trainings a week. A lot of the people associated with professional hockey in Bern have kids in that program. People associated with the hockey team or the stadium in front office capacities have kids in that program. Two of this year’s active players have kids in that program and the son of at least one former SCB player is in there right now too. It is the prestige hockey school in Bern. I don’t have any illusions about the Small Boy’s talent, I don’t see him being selected for the official youth teams, but it makes him happy and proud to be associated with the SCB so for as long as he’s age eligible for the school I’m happy to take him. And I’ve written before about my respect for the program and the trainers. Small Boy is learning a lot, and if he ages out of the school without getting selected – which is how I see it happening – we’ll find a club for him somewhere.

This is our third winter, and I’m on nodding familiar hello terms with a handful of parents I’ve been seeing over the past two winters but not much more than that. Except for one couple R and I are becoming friends with and it’s the funniest thing, because he’s one of the professional players and R and I are so not connected in the Swiss ice hockey world, but it’s totally the expat bonding thing. The English thing. He and his wife are Canadian, and our hockey practice friendship started one Thursday night last year when he overheard me trying to shepherd Boychen around the seating area – last winter, at 2 years old, Boychen was the tag-along little brother. And I was talking to him in English as I always do. The player, who was at practice with his kid,** overheard me speaking English asked me about an email the school had sent around – in German – about some changes to the upcoming Saturday training. So we started chatting off and on about this and that. Turns out he used to play in the Chicago area, where I’m from. So we’d chat about this and that and laugh at what the Swiss consider a traffic jam, because if you’ve ever been on the Dan Ryan at rush-hour you have to laugh at a Swiss traffic jam.*** This winter his wife is doing the same thing I was, taking the tag-along little sibling too young to be allowed into the hockey school onto the ice next door. So we started chatting as we bent over double to hold up our little ones. I’m pretty sure we devolved into bitching about our aching backs pretty fast.

No matter how long I have been here, no matter how good my German is, it is still so much easier in English. I’ve been seeing some of the same hockey moms for going on three winters now and have never gotten past hello and in just a few weeks I’ve gotten to the point with this Canadian couple where R and I are trying to find a date to invite them to a something. There’s just a click – it’s more than just sharing a mother tongue, although it’s hard to underestimate how much easier that makes things – when you find somebody who carries the same (or similar) cultural baggage you do. I know the invisible rules, the standards for when you’re allowed to broach which subjects. When you are allowed to make a joke about your family, when you are allowed to complain about your kids, when you are allowed to tell a story about your childhood. When you can bitch about your aching back. I know where the lines are – or at least I have a much better general idea of where the lines are than I do when I’m talking to Swiss people. Even after all this time – and I think I’ve gotten pretty good at following the Swiss social script, I think I catch my cues the overwhelming majority of the time – there are these invisible things going on under the surface threatening to pull me into a faux pas like a rip tide. And when you find somebody who’s got the same underwater currents as you do, it clicks. Sure, over time you find out if you have more in common than just the English. You learn, living abroad, to ask yourself: would I be friends with this person at home, or is it just because we both speak English? But at the beginning, it just all works in a way I’ve never been able to make it work with a Swiss person. It’s an expat thing.

* Why yes, Boychen is only three. Technically he’s not allowed in the program and I started out the season teaching him to skate myself on the rink next to the training rink, but three weeks ago the trainer in charge of the first-timers said she would take him on the ice, seeing as how he was able to stand up and walk on the ice in his skates. Score!

** Sometimes he gets on the ice during practice and helps out with the training, which is unbelievably cool. SCB is the reigning Swiss National League champions, so him getting on the ice to help with the 6 year olds is the equivalent of a Chicago Blackhawk getting on the ice with the little kids. Which is another reason I’m happy to schlepp Small Boy to these trainings, because that’s just cool to get tips from a professional hockey player.

*** Except for that one that made Small Boy and me late for practice two weeks ago. That qualified as a real traffic jam.