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.

8 Responses to “It’s an Expat Thing”

  1. Gretchen on December 6, 2010 1:07 am

    I think it’s more than an Expat thing or an English thing. And I have native English speaking friends in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and more. They all have a much easier time with meeting and befriending locals than anyone I know in Switzerland.

    I’ve given this a whole lot of thought over the past four years. I think it’s a Swiss thing. Although it could possibly be a Mountain People thing as an American friend of mine who moved to the mountainous area of New Hampshire ran into very similar things as I did. And everyone there spoke English.

    For whatever reason, whether it is culturally related to it being a very small country, or to people living very close to where they grew up or to it being very difficult to travel from one valley to the next (before they started dynamiting holes for tunnels), the Swiss seem to make their friends in kindergarten and rarely feel the need to expand upon that past childhood. Many are simply not accepting applications for new friends.

    I became convinced of this when we invited a new mother into our English-speaking play group in the Zürich area. She was Swiss and discussed with us how difficult she had found to make friends with other mothers. And that the English speaking mothers always welcomed her. But, and this was vital, she was from St. Gallen. Which is at least a 30-40 minute drive from Zürich. So she was practically a foreigner.

    Our Swiss friends, and there are not that many of them, are Swiss who are from a different area of Switzerland, have lived abroad and value meeting people from where they once lived or who are married to Swiss. (By the way, in every case I personally know, the woman is the foreigner and she met the Swiss man while he was living elsewhere.)

    There are many reason why we made this move back to the US. Not the least of which was to move back into a friendly, outgoing environment. I have now been here 2 and a half weeks, have already been invited to join two different play groups and have even been invited on the monthly Mommies Night Out events.

    Even though we are only here temporarily while we finish the details of our move and wait for our home to be ready in the Chicago area and everyone I have met knows that.

    After four years of holding my breath I can finally breath again. And it feels wonderful.

  2. Trish on December 6, 2010 2:08 am

    This has really got me thinking… too much to post in a comment, I need to write it on my own blog.

    That hockey club sounds like a fantastic opportunity for your boys, whether or not they become professional players.

  3. Jennifer on December 6, 2010 8:43 am

    Trish – I do think Gretchen is right and Switzerland is a special case and hopefully some non-Switzerland based expats will weigh in as well. Maybe check out comments again to see what other people are saying and give you more to think about. And yes, the hockey school is really good for the boys. And for me. I grew up around hockey and even played myself for a time, and it’s been really fun being in that world again.

    Gretchen – The Swiss are indeed a tough nut to crack, although I do have friends with more Swiss friends than I have. These are people who had larger social networks than me in their native lands; the combination of Swiss reserve and my own natural reticence is not a good one. You’ll notice that this hockey friendship started when *he* asked *me* about the email – I don’t know how long it would have taken me to approach him or his wife, if I ever would have. I also think, perhaps because of being here longer or marrying into a Swiss family or understanding dialekt, I’ve had a happier experience in Switzerland than you did. But yes, the Swiss are famous for their reserve.

    But I do think that even in a more open foreign culture that Expat Click exists. I had a friend in London – London! – who was always delighted to find American friends who understood when she joked something culturally specific like “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!” or sang “When it’s time to change…” from the Brady Bunch. Somebody who understands not only the words, but all the shades of meaning behind them.

    I’d love to hear from some of you non-Switzerland expats on this.

  4. Gretchen on December 7, 2010 7:37 am

    You know, it is possible if I were less outgoing, I would have had an easier time of it in Switzerland. But my personality is opposite of what Swiss culture is about and it made me feel so out of place most of the time because I had to repress my natural inclination to smile and greet and chatter with complete strangers.

    In comparison to other Expats I knew, I met more Swiss than many. And stunned those who had been there much longer than I when we were invited to a Swiss couples’ house within 6 months of moving there. (Some had been there years and still hadn’t been in a Swiss person’s home!)

    But I found myself craving friendly faces and smiles. It was alright before we had children. not least of which because we traveled so frequently and visited friendlier places. But after having children? I felt so isolated and alienated that I could not breathe. It didn’t help that I never fully recovered from the bitterness over how we were treated because of the adoptions.

    Plus, I had been a nanny for a time in the US, so I knew how much easier it was to have children in a country that was more child-friendly. Your dog is more welcome in most Swiss restaurants than your child is!

    I’m glad we had the experience of living in Switzerland, but I am equally glad to be elsewhere.

  5. Jennifer on December 7, 2010 8:33 am

    I’ve always found Bern much more family friendly than Zurich

  6. Claudia on December 7, 2010 7:59 pm

    Non-Switzerland-dwelling expat here. I live in small,conservative, socially closed Denmark. What Gretchen said about making your friends in kindergarten and not accepting applications after that is exactly right. The lack of openness, the ingrained suspicion of anyone different, and something called Janteloven all serve to make it IMPOSSIBLE to know someone from the rural areas. Janteloven is a horrid concept of not thinking you’re better, more worthy, etc. than any other schmo. It is taken to the extreme, where you don’t put yourself out there for any reason whatsoever. And the most terrifying part is, this concept stemmed from a stupid novel from about 70 years ago. A novel, people. It speaks volumes of what people’s view of themselves and others is.

    Anyway, I’ve been here going on 8 years, and have become friendly with some neighbors, but not actually friends. I’ve made my real friends among the expats and the Danes who have lived elsewhere. I recently became friends with a Dane who approached ME, of all things. But she’s lived elsewhere, and laments equally the frigidness of these small-towners.

    Being an expat can really be a curse, since once you’ve lived somewhere else, you never wholly belong anywhere. You’ll always be emotionally divided. I don’t think I’d feel totally at home if I moved back to the states, but I’ll never feel totally at home here, either.

  7. Jennifer on December 8, 2010 9:02 am

    Claudia – “You’ll always be emotionally divided” is spot on. I love Switzerland, I really do. I’ve got no illusions about it’s less than perfect side (minaret ban, I’m looking at you), but what country doesn’t have its unsavory side (Tea Party, I’m looking at you)? I’m really attached: When Switzerland played the US here in Bern a year ago in the world hockey championships, I was on my feet yelling “Hopp Schwiiz! Hopp Schwiiz!” along with the rest of the stadium. It was very odd.

    About openness, I’m starting to think small and rural have a lot to do with this – many Swiss are just one generation from the farm no matter where they live. I recently met a woman who lived in Wyoming for a few years and she said “you’re always an outsider.” Small to mid-sized towns, people who don’t move around much – because for generations they’d been tied by working the land – I’m going to think more about this.

    Thanks for comments, keep ’em coming!

  8. jessica on December 10, 2010 3:49 am

    this post is so well written and spot on about what i felt when i lived there, i am jealous. damnit i wish i’d explained it this well. yes about the culture baggage being way more important that the actual language! I managed to teach myself french pretty darn well and i knew exactly what i was saying but my jokes were american. they weren’t english language jokes, they were american jokes, or stories, told in french, that made people uncomfortable. Ironically, the two women I did make friends with – meaning shared meals, time, vacations with – were both half english. coincidence? they were different.
    Gretchen – I’m like you. I thrive on open daily contact with strangers and despite it coming from a place of politeness, the reserved swiss culture just suffocated me. I felt so, so alone. And that wouldn’t do. We moved back to America and I found my smile again. I did meet the odd stranger and have the odd contacts with people on the bus, but ultimately, that was a rarity to write home about. Now I consistently spend an hour a day talking to any one of my neighbors about all the stuff that makes one intimate (cataracts, divorces, recycling day, politics). The clutch is, should we move, we’ll probably never talk again, or visit. Much like “new friends” when we move cities in America. They fade fast. I will say, after moving, a Swiss woman that had never spoken to me or expressed any interest in me, suddenly started writing such nice emails to me and she and her husband visited us in America and she was downright open and jovial.
    I am so glad to have read this post today and know it wasn’t just me.

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