Caught in the act

I’ve been sneaking around Switzerland feigning interest in adopting a second language, but I got caught yesterday, not once but twice.

Back to the books!

I studied French in the months leading up to our move here on the grounds that our Swiss town is formally bilingual in German and French, suggesting that all things are equal between these two languages.

And then my French vocabulary outnumbers my German: Bonjour, je voudrais, et, j’ai, nous somme, vous etes and adieu and the always handy “sacre bleue!” (which I have since learned is mostly a product of Hollywood stereotyping – the French here don’t use it, at least not around me). This is not to mention a few phrases I picked up from my French Canadian relatives when they were really upset, but I will spare you that.

The only words I know in German are “Achtung!” and “Ober-fuhrer.” The latter is the name by which my long-ago German manager Alf Buelow addressed me, his then-secretary. Yes, I was pushy even in the 80’s.

Since arriving here, I realized that I chose poorly: There is much more German spoken than French, and then came the revelation that most people here speak some English, with many being quite fluent. And finally, every time I try to speak French, some Spanish shakes loose (an after-effect of living in Madrid), rendering me unintelligible in a freaky triangle-shaped dialect understandable only to me. That formally makes whatever I say gibberish.

My motivation hit rock-bottom, and so I’ve taken on the practice of greeting people with “Bonjour, hello,” to signal that I’m not a complete cretin and I am trying to learn their language while simultaneously indicating that I am an Anglophone. After this, I say in French “J’apprendre le francais, mais je ne parle pas bien,” which means “I’m learning French, but I don’t speak it well.” Having thus satisfied the requirements of attempted multilingualism, I then switch to English.

This has worked beautifully, up til yesterday when I made the mistake of shopping at 1:30 p.m. when the store traffic hit a lull, giving the clerks some free time. Ordinarily, they are in a hurry. They smile, they say something in English, take my money and get me out of their way.

That did not happen yesterday. Instead, the helpful Swiss took me on.

Beware the helpful counter staff.

First up was the lady at the cosmetics counter who smiled sweetly when I gave her my line about learning French. She then gave me a vocabulary/grammar lesson that left me reeling, pulling me into a protracted French conversation that I still am not sure I completely understood, but it is possible that $895 of Estee Lauder goods are going to be delivered to our hotel room sometime later this week. She was being helpful. What could I do but succumb?

Mentally fatigued from this exercise, I went upstairs to purchase a soap dish (live large when in Europe), and found myself face-to-face with a semi-snotty Swiss Francophone 20-year-old male cashier who had no one in line behind me, and so took great pains to explain French sentence structure and did not give me my goods/change back until I had properly learned how to say that I did not have the store card because the application is in French, which I am only just learning.

I returned home and collapsed, my brain frayed from the amount of new language tracks laid in only the space of 30 minutes.

And now I must stop writing and turn to studying French verb charts, lest I run into those clerks again and don’t show any progress in my language skills. There just might be a test.

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