17: Pick a Language, Any Language.

BERN   This rooftop garden in Bern is a good representation of my linguistic life – I can see the German/French/Italian-speakers and they can see me. We can even reach between the bars a little bit, but we cannot cross over completely. There is, however, a passageway, but that would be the language lessons I did not take. My bad.

Yesterday, I asked our Italian maid in Spanish how to say “towels” in French. She didn’t even blink at my Spanish. This makes perfect sense.

In other language news, I am reminded of the fact that we all have our own accents. Mine wanders from French-Canadian, Prairie-Canadian, Slavic and American Deep South (Virginian to one of the Carolinas, I’ve been told, although we lived in Georgia).  It is possible there is a touch of a Spanish accent in there, but more likely that only shows up when I am rolling my ‘r’s.

MURTEN   I can’t speak with the locals much, but I can still enjoy the view. This is overlooking Lake Murten from the village of Murten/Morat.

The reminder of dialects and accents came when I visited at a park with an Indian friend of mine. She has an Indian accent, but now I realize that to her ears, I have a pretty thick accent, too. With us was her sister-in-law visiting from India. She speaks perfect English, but she needed my friend (her sister-in-law) to translate half of what I was saying. I don’t only live in a proverbial tower of Babel; I am a tower of Babel.

Despite this, I am only fluent in one language. I have the curse of multilingualism without any of the benefits.

BIEL    It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, harbors full of sailboats are always pretty.

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83: Language lagunas – A topic about which we never tire

When we learned we would move to Switzerland, Dave and I approached the impending language lapses in different ways.

I bought a “French for Dummies” book, logged onto a fabulous Youtube French language tutorial, pasted post-it notes of useful French words and phrases all over the house (such as “Why are you being so mean to me?” and “Your country is not as great as my country.”) and spent hours everyday expanding my French vocabulary and working toward mastering at least a four-year-old’s level of grammatical expertise.*

Dave, in the meantime, went out and bought a pocket Franklin language gadget.

While my process seems more laborious, it turns out it is much better than the gadget. I cannot speak French well at all, but arguably, I don’t speak English well either – nevertheless, I have an instantaneous grasp of what the French-speaking Swiss are saying to me as long as they stick to a preschooler patois. It’s a helpful skill that enables me to discern whether to stand in place or run like heck. While I am absorbing the message, Dave has not even whipped the pocket translator out of his pocket.

All of which shows that even though my French pronunciation is an offense to French-speakers everywhere, the hours of studying were not wasted. I highly recommend it because a fractured understanding of a language is better than a big black hole of incomprehension.

But we have no linguistic illusions. We cannot speak the language and that confines our social world along very tight borders, not to mention that the Swiss are a pretty reserved lot.

And yet, yesterday we seem to have passed a threshold.

Our neighbourhood has a “dog lady;” you know the type: A slightly batty dishevelled older woman who talks loudly to her dog, and then about her dog to anyone who will stop long enough to listen. I see this woman numerous times everyday, but she never gives me the slightest acknowledgement. That is okay. I have enough batty people in my life already. I’m full up.

But yesterday, as Dave and I were about to pass her, I pointed out to Dave how I am non-persona to this woman, whereupon she turned on us and delivered a truckload of French liberally spiced with the word “chien.” One could suppose she had not made her canine-convo-quota and decided to try to top up with us, but more likely it was because her poodle leapt up at Dave and demanded an ear scratch.

Have passed muster with Fifi, the woman turned exceedingly friendly and gave us the lowdown on her seven-year-old dog who is mostly deaf and prefers men to women, although in this instance the dog did seem to like me, but her owner could not figure out why, all of this in French that to my ear sounded quite garbled, but I’m not one to stand in judgement on this point.

All I could do was tell her what a charming, lovely dog she has, but as it turned out that was enough to earn a pat on the arm and a warm farewell. Now I’m afraid of our next impromptu meeting, and what I will say to her to move the conversation along, but maybe I am lucky in that as long as her dog likes me, whatever I say will be just fine.

In the meantime, our hotel’s wonderful cleaning staff have completely given up on schooling me in French, something they’ve done whenever we’ve passed in the hallway over the past 12 months. This week, they’ve switched over to Portuguese/Spanish, but already I am failing them. At least they will only be disappointed for 83 more days.

* I failed. My Gaulish grammatical grasp is somewhere in the 12-to-20-month-old range.

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96: Mulling around in Mulhouse, France

He was a big Frenchman in a wrinkled militia-styled jacket, shaved head and stubble-shadowed jaw. As we threaded through the medieval square’s cafe’s tables, he blocked David’s way, smiled and said something in French.

Dave tried to turn the rugged and somewhat aggressive panhandler away, but before things could get worse, and by worse I mean us not getting a table, I jumped in and told the man we prefer to sit in the sun.

Our French maitre'd did not look so scary once he took off his scrappy jacket and shed the shades, but he still has a bar-bouncer physique. We dared not leave any food on our plate, lest we insult him or his establishment's chefs.

This is the problem with not speaking the local language – all a person has to draw on are appearances and my beloved thought the man was about to demand his wallet, although in a very engaging and musical way because after all, this was France, the land that we cannot stop loving no matter how many times it offends our sensibilities.

The rough-cut maitre’d somehow blended coquettish charm with a bullish demeanor. Don’t ask me how. It is a mystery. After delivering us to our table au soleil, we watched him marshall the area with a militaristic machismo. When a motorcyclist parked his bike in a spot deemed inappropriate, the maitre’d took on the appearance of a gendarme. It was impressive.

The funny thing in France is that they all seem to have a good understanding of English, but they refuse to speak it. And while they are famous for being snotty on this point, our experience is that they are quite gracious. In fact, the only place where the French have gotten uppity with me over language is in Canada, which is ironic given what an old-French pioneering family I come from.

But enough rambling. Our Swiss watchmaking town is only 100 km away from France, so given that by this time next year we will be 100 km away from Vancouver or Chemainus, we decided to take the opportunity to visit the French.

Mulhouse's Rothus Museum has some cool Neolithic skeletal stuff in it (some in orange ochre soil, excavated from local tombs). Small towns in France and Switzerland all seem to have their own tiny museums with really amazing collections, the likes of which would be unthinkable in comparably sized Canadian cities. How do the Europeans do it?

Mulhouse is famous for its many museums, some of which focus on specialties that would never occur to anyone else as collectible items of interest. There are museums for textiles, railroads, cars, electricity (yes, electricity), art, artifacts, history and that killer of all museums, a museum of wallpaper. It’s a pity that I loathe museums with such intensity that my entire objective in visiting Mulhouse was to avoid all of them.

It was not possible. We accidentally stumbled into one that appeared to be a tourist office-combination-hotel in Mulhouse’s central square. Once inside, the suave French smiled and charmed us into visiting their museum in the upper stories of the building, which happened to have the unbeatable attraction of free admission.

It turned out to be a lovely place to spend 30 minutes, which is the outside limit of my attention span. As we asked for directions out of the building, a burly French guide took us to another room where he opened the window and pointed the way to the Musee’ des Beaux Arts, extracting from us a promise to visit there next, but which we never did.

I feel bad about that, but if we did not make the promise, we ran the risk of insulting our French hosts, and yet, if we kept the promise, I might have dunked my head in a bucket of water just to avoid the prospect of more of my life lost to museum-trolling.

Tomorrow: More on Mulhouse and the wonders of France’s relationship with sugar, butter and chocolate

Dave reckons medieval key chains must have required a lot of muscle.

 

 

 

Languishing in a linguistic laguna

Don't be fooled by this photo. This blog post is not about the Vienna Opera House.

What do these people have in common?

A blond long-haired woman with a man in a blue-and-black sports coat chattered their way down our town’s main retail avenue yesterday. They were speaking English, but more than that, the man’s coat colour screamed “North American” to us. Swiss men usually wear black, grey or brown coats. So do Swiss women, now that I think of it.

In our hotel lobby, we overheard a man trying to get a French translation from our hotel desk staff to explain kitchen drawer and cupboard liners.

In the same lobby shortly after, another man approached the desk and asked in an American accent if the staff could tell him where to find a good German restaurant, to which Jean Philippe, one of our affable front desk staff, held up his chin, reflected, then said, “No. There aren’t any.”

What do all of these people have in common? It’s not only that they were fluent native-English speakers. They were also all besieged by us.

Yes, we have reached the point where we will talk to anyone, anywhere at any time on the sole qualification that they are native English-speakers. And, it doesn’t matter whether they want to talk to us. This is a matter of social conscription.

Looking up at the Vienna Opera House. This photo has nothing to do with this blog post, but I am trying to get through all our holiday photos.

We’ve been here for about 10 months, which is a long time to go before breaking into this uncontrolled yammering, but that’s because English is not so rare here. We enjoy conversations with many, but those conversations still hang up on cultural reference points, a fact under-scored when we make a joke that fails to hit its mark.

When we lived in Spain where English was more of a rarity, we entered this yammering phase within the first week of arrival, just to give you an idea of how starved we were to hear our own language.

It changed our perspectives on immigrants who are often accused of forming their own insular communities in Canada. I know now that if I showed up in Toronto fresh from China, I’d head for Chinatown, too. There’s no intention on the immigrant’s part to stand apart from their new country – they just need that fresh drink of water that is conversing in a language in which they can be their eloquent, witty selves… or in which they can be jerks, if that happens to be what they are in their home country. Being a jerk in your own language is still more fun than being a jerk in someone else’s.

In the meantime, the man looking for the French translation came and sat with us. He’s also from New York and is transferring here for a 10-month work assignment. We thought he was American, but he corrected us on that count: He is Indian. Nationality matters not a whit, of course. As he said, “English! It’s so nice to hear English!” We’re getting together with him later today at Starbucks. Where else would we go but to our own English version of “Chinatown.”

As one other English-speaking former Manitoban’s husband, a couple who is also “stuck in Switzerland,” might quip: The English colonial beachhead has been established.

If you grasped the flow of that last sentence, and you show up in our town, you just might become one of our best friends.

Note: It turned out the man in the blue and black jacket was Swiss, but his shopping friend was from New York.

While were at the Vienna Opera House, the stage workers were prepping for an evening performance - the stage itself is an impressive engineering feat that is essentially a rotating elevator that can shift 40 tonnes 28 feet before and 10 feet above. This picture does not do justice to the size of the stage either. Those Viennese - where opera is concerned, they are not just kidding around.

How friendly are the Swiss?

When the woman took a seat across from us on the train ride back from Murten, she looked normal.

She had come on with a pack of senior citizens, all rattling in lively conversation. She hovered over some people who we thought must be old friends, clutching about half-dozen twigs in her hand. They were only about two feet long – too short for basket-weaving.

Snug alleyway in Murten.

She then eyed our cluster of seats, flopped down with an exaggerated gasp of exhaustion, and appraised us silently with her enormous brown eyes. Her chin-length hair was auburn brown and her posture suggested she was fit, but she had bags under her eyes and what looked like a patch of skin cancer on her cheek – she could have been 55 or 80.

She addressed us in German, then raised her eyebrows at our fumbling response: “No German,” not meaning that there are no Germans, or that we refuse to associate with Germans, much less attempt the language.  She leaned closer, waved at the bundle of twigs and said in English,  “I put sticks  in and get wine. You know, sticks, water.”

No, we didn’t know, but we were sitting knee-to-knee within grabbing distance so we nodded politely and mentally calculated how long to the next train stop.

Was she insane? Would she pinch one of us by the arm and force more alcohol-related recipes on us?

As she pressed us into conversation with her not-totally-broken, but not quite all-there-English, we tried to not look like we were thinking about the distance to the next train station, but it didn’t work. She somehow deduced that our estimation of her mental faculties was not as it should be, even though neither of us gave into the rising urge to claw madly at the stop-buttons and demand the train doors open (we had already done that earlier on the ride into Murten).

She returned to the wine-twig topic and elaborated until her meaning became clear: That she would stick the twigs (dried vines) in the ground, water them, and eventually they would take root, produce grapes and then wine. She was not expecting to get wine from them that evening.

Swiss trains are spotless, their schedules and routes relatively easy to understand, but be ready for a sociable time as the Swiss love to chat.

Her mental stability established, we relaxed.

We have seen signs of such friendliness before. The day earlier,  in a grocery store line-up  a woman discerned our foreign-ness and invited us on a boat trip over Lake Biel. Suspicious North Americans that we are, we politely evaded the question, but we can’t help noticing that overall the Swiss are extraordinarily friendly.

Either that, or they are all stalkers-in-waiting. We shall see.