My Swiss life (post 5)

September 17th, 2012

I’m still an outsider, of course. It’s never so clear to me as when I take the boys to the village playground. I don’t really know the other mothers on the playground, except on we recognize each other from picking our kids up from Kindergarten terms, and I don’t really know how to get to know them. There are language barriers, and cultural barriers, and the barriers that exist when everybody but you already knows each other. I’m recognized around the village, am greeted by name in the bakery, but I’m still an outsider here in this small town.

The boys, especially SB, fit right in. They speak native Swiss and can negotiate the playground; thanks to school SB has a lot of pals and when I take the boys to the playground (SB could get there and stay by himself, but Boychen’s not old enough for that yet) he almost always runs into kids he knows to play with. Now, slowly, Boychen too recognizes kids his own age on the playground and, slowly, is starting to try to play with them instead of automatically tagging along after his big brother. The boys are fine, and if people sometimes look at us a bit funny when I speak to them in English, I also know that these same kids are going to be angling for ways to do their English homework with SB in a few years’ time. Preferably at our house.

But I am still an outsider here. Some days, some locations, more than others.

(Previous “My Swiss life” posts can be found here.)

My Swiss life (post 4)

May 7th, 2012

I can’t remember the last time I dreaded going into an evening knowing it would be a crowd of Swiss folks speaking dialekt, I can’t remember the last time that gave me paralyzing anxiety. I remember the first time, the worst time. It’s been ten years, but I can still remember when I first arrived in Switzerland, that first summer when I had been in Switzerland for six months and R and I went to a barbeque hosted by Old Friend of R. I remember perfectly not understanding anything, not being able to follow the conversation let alone take part it in, I remember feeling lost and left out. The barbeque was at Old Friend’s farm, and the farm cat had just had a little of kitten in the barn and I remember leaving the tables where everybody was eating and talking and going to the barn and watching the kittens for half an hour. Using the kittens as an excuse to go hide.

Friday night was the end of season dinner for the Small Boy’s hockey team, an evening full of Swiss parents and Swiss kids. I looked forward to it all week, and when we showed up, a bit late, and walked into the crowd of people sitting outside enjoying the weather we immediately started saying hello and chatting and greeting. So many different people to talk to, so many conversations to move in and out of. I chatted in German all night (everybody speaks to me in Swiss and  – and I love this part so much – nobody asks anymore if I understand when they speak Swiss, nobody asks if they should switch to German). When R and I finally left it was only because Boychen simply had to get home to bed. I would have happily stayed longer, I would have happily moved from table to table chatting with different people. Finally, finally an evening full of Swiss language and Swiss people and I fit in. Oh sure, I still speak “written German”, I still sometimes won’t understand a single phrase or expression, but I fit in. I belong. I’m one of the crowd.

It didn’t take the full ten years, though it took longer than I care to admit. But I’m here now. Sometimes it takes a long time to find your footing in your new expat life. Sometimes, it might be best to cut your losses and return home. Sometimes that’s not an option. Or it’s an option but you know in your heart it’s not a good one. And then you just have to keep trying, keep finding new possibilities, keep looking down different roads. Sometimes it’s just a waiting game. Sometimes you’ll find the way yourself, and sometimes your children will lead you.

You can read more “My Swiss Life” posts here, here, and here.

My Swiss Life (post 3)

February 24th, 2012

Today was Kinderfasnacht in Bern (Carnival for children; tomorrow is Carnival for the grown-ups); I took the boys for the children’s parade, and in a crowd estimated at nearly five thousand we ran into people we know twice and saw several more families with whom we’re on nodding terms. It happens more and more – I see people I know when the boys and I go skating in our free time, I run into people in the city or in the near-by shopping center.

It never ceases to amaze me how long it has taken me to feel like I have a life here; a Swiss life; a life of my own. I thought it last night when I was on the ice for the hockey school, in charge of the pick-up hockey end of the rink for the first time. (All the little ones can skate now, and I got a chance to see some of the older kids in action.) I love being on the ice at hockey school – all my hand-wringing seems so ridiculous to me now – and I am comfortable in the role of Trainerin and I genuinely enjoy my fellow trainers. After the Saturday hockey school – which runs right over lunchtime – we all go to the restaurant after the practice and eat something and have some beer (there’s more beer associated with hockey school than I expected; it’s fun) and it’s nice.

Some of it is the boys – people kept telling me that as the Small Boy got older he would be the wedge opening the door to Swiss life and certainly I’ve seen the truth in that. A lot of it is the hockey, and I think the reason the hockey is working so well for me is that, yes, it’s an activity that I’m involved in because of the boys but I got the boys involved in hockey because it was an activity that had been, for a long time, a big part of my life. So I don’t feel as though I’m being dragged hither and yon by my kids’ interests but that I’m being reintroduced to something I had forgotten that I missed.

And a lot of it is the job, and although the job is hockey related I suspect it would be much the same with any job, because here is something I have learned: friends are important, friends are essential, but I have come to the conclusion that colleagues are just as important. Having work colleagues I see twice a week has added to my life enormously in ways I would never have guessed. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve had work colleagues, and I didn’t even realize I was missing it until I started working at the hockey school and suddenly there it was: “Oh. Wait. So this is what it’s like to  really feel like I fit in here.” Before, I’d always figured I was integrated, and I was in all the surface ways, but this feels different. This is past integrated, this is enmeshed. This is having Swiss-speaking friends who did not come through my husband. This is being expected to show up at places, and being missed when I don’t.

It took so little – yet so much – and I feel like life here has finally settled into place. It amazes me how long it took. It amazes me more that it is only in retrospect that I see that I was never really settled in the first place. That this, with these small changes, feels like a different life. A real life. My real Swiss life. Finally.

(Previous Swiss life posts can be found here and here)

“Everybody was expecting you” (My Swiss Life, post 2)

February 6th, 2012

(These “My Swiss Life” post are not, strictly speaking, chronological, but for anybody interested, post one can be found here.)

SB had a hockey tournament yesterday, in the blinding cold, that I had to miss. I was at the Geneva Writers’ Conference (more about that in another post). It’s only the second match I’ve ever had to miss – the only other one I missed was when SB got his concussionso I was feeling a bit superstitious about missing this, but the conference ran most of the day on Sunday; it’s only held every two years and is far too good an opportunity for an English-language writer in Switzerland to pass up, so there I was in Geneva while SB was playing in Bern.

Earlier in the week, it looked like the tournament might have to be cancelled. We, as the home team for this set of games, were responsible for coming up with two time-keepers and two referees and as of Thursday evening we were short one referee (or Schiri in Swiss – pronounced “she-ree” and short for Schiedsrichter and one of my favorite Swiss words). Thursday night we parents received a scathing e-mail from the program head – not SB’s coach, who stayed diplomatically above the fray, but the head of the program, whose job it is to make a fray when a fray must be made – that somebody better step up and volunteer to be the second Schiri or the tournament would have to be cancelled and that would be a shame for the kids and a true embarrassment for the prestigious SCB Future program. Surely not all of you have some other obligation on Sunday, right??

I would have stepped up – I teach in the hockey school, after all, and can certainly handle reffing a Bambini match and I really do want to do my part – but I had the conference and I headed off to Geneva hoping somebody would volunteer. I didn’t receive any angry emails canceling the tournament for Sunday, so I assumed the match was on – in spite of temperatures hovering at minus 15 Celcius – but on Sunday I sent off a quick SMS to R asking “So SB’s tourney is on? Tell him mama says good luck” and received this in reply:

“They are doing warmup now and will start soon. Having coffee with the others. Everybody was expecting you.”

I smiled – everybody had been expecting me. That’s where I’ve finally gotten to in my Swiss life. I have people expecting me. I’ve written before about how most of these people probably will not become friends outside of the hockey context – though possibly two or three families might – but that’s also okay. I remember my mother and the other hockey moms, winter friends, stadium friends, the way they sat together and drank their bad coffee from styrofoam cups and I think: this is good too, this locational fellowship, this contextual friendship. When I show up at SB’s practices and games, I’m welcomed, I have people to sit with and chat with, I am part of the crowd – no longer hovering around the edges – and when I don’t show up, people ask where I am. That feels like a huge thing. It’s a good thing in my life, and if it is bound my the time and space of hockey seasons and ice stadiums that’s fine. I think we all have contextual friends – work colleagues we enjoy but somehow never socialize with outside of the office, the people in our yoga or boxing classes we see every week but rarely if ever meet for lunch. And those people occupy important places in our lives, they anchor us, they make us feel as though we belong. They add texture and dimension to our lives and I’d been missing that for a long time and now, thanks to the Small Boy and his love of all things hockey (which is, at heart, thanks to me for enrolling him in the first place all those years ago), I’ve got it. And when I’m not there, people notice.

It’s a little thing, being expected. Except that it’s not really so little at all is it?

(And if you’re wondering, SB’s team won all three games and SB scored three goals.)

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.