My Swiss Life (Part I)

January 23rd, 2012

I’ve been trying to write about what I’m calling my New Swiss Life for at least a month now but I’m suffering from perfection syndrome, trying so hard to express myself so perfectly that I end up not expressing myself at all – so I’m just going to start. I expect this to be an ongoing story – I can’t possibly say everything in a single blog post and there is a lot to be said because for a blogger who’s an expat, I haven’t been writing much about Switzerland or culture clashes or integration lately. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, because I’m (yes, finally) applying for Swiss citizenship, so maybe it’s time to start thinking out loud.

I moved to Switzerland in December of 2000 and for a variety of reasons that in retrospect R and I both agree were not good enough reasons, we lived in a small village near Bern even though he was at the time working in Zürich. (The price and availability of housing in Zürich was certainly one of the reasons.) I was taking intensive German lessons four hours a day five days a week; if you throw in my commute and studying time, my German classes consumed a good six and a half hours a day, but R was, that whole first year, gone thirteen hours a day. We were in a small village, I didn’t know anybody, there was not another native English speaker in my German class (for which I am very grateful – it did wonders for my German to be forced to try to make friends and small talk in German – but it certainly limits the speed and ease with which you can form friendships when, for example, you can’t even speak in the past tense), R was gone a lot, and even in the best of circumstances I am shy and reserved and not terribly good at making friends. That whole first year was miserable. Sometimes, even now, R will say to me with a sort of amazement that he can’t believe I didn’t leave him and go back to the U.S. during that first year or eighteen months. Sometimes, even now, I will think with a sort of amazement the same thing. I was miserable that first year.

The thing about learning standard German in Switzerland is that the Swiss don’t speak standard German, they speak Swiss and the two are not the same. If I had it to do all again, if I could have peeked into a magic ball and seen the way my life here has played out, the things I’m involved in, the things that matter most to me now, I would not have enrolled in a standard German course, I would have gone straight into a Schweizerdeutsch course and managed the written German later. Because not being able to speak Swiss is a real stumbling block in trying to build a Swiss life. My standard German, thanks to all those intensive lessons, is very good but it marks me instantly as an outsider no matter how long I have been here. Oh the Swiss understand me and I, at last, understand the Swiss but my German is a constant reminder of my foreignness, a little division between us, a stumbling block to overcome. A small one, perhaps, but it is there, a little hitch, a little hiccup.

The Swiss have a reputation for being reserved, hard to get to know; I myself have called the Swiss “a tough nut to crack” (you can read the comments on this post, especially those from Gretchen, for some more insight into this) and I think there is some truth to this (though I also am in the middle of seeing how very untrue it is) but I also think that half of it is simply the language and I finally understand the Swiss – not just linguistically, but emotionally – on this point. German and Swiss are not interchangeable and speaking German is not an approximation of speaking Swiss. I wish R had insisted on this point (but R is funny, and to this day thinks I did it the right way by mastering standard written German). But I wish I had done it differently; I would, if I could, go back and do it differently but I can’t, of course, so I am trying to make up for lost time and working hard to pick up Swiss. I don’t want to speak German anymore. And I think those first few years would have been so much easier if I had learned Swiss from the start. I get it now, the Swiss love of their dialekt, I really do.

I didn’t have Swiss friends, other than the Swiss spouses or partners of my English-speaking friends, for years. R’s job situation when we first moved here – working in Zurich but living outside Bern – didn’t help, because it made socializing with his work colleagues difficult, although of course now with the benefit of hindsight I can see all the ways we might have made that easier. And because if you talk to expats living in Switzerland you’ll hear the “Swiss are so reserved” line a good ninety percent of the time, it’s easy to fall into believing this and giving up; to not explore if there aren’t just little cultural differences you have to pick up on and adapt to; to not wonder what about your own personality and behavior are contributing to the situation. Yes, the Swiss are reserved but I am shy and self-conscious in German. And if I am honest with myself, I am shy and self-conscious in English. I grew up in a house where my parents did not socialize and learning how to do this – how to invite people over to dinner just for the sake of inviting people over to dinner – has been hard for me. It was, when I remind myself, hard in English. It was hard back home. At some point, it became clear that I was using the old Swiss reserve schtick as an excuse and that I needed to do some heavy lifting.

And so I started lifting. And my life now, ten years on, is so different. “Bloom where you’re planted,” Australian Friend likes to say and yes, yes, yes to this. It has taken ten years, but I am blooming.