Thursday, June 28, 2012

Six Years in Switzerland, Part II

In honor of the Frau’s six-year Swiss anniversary last week, she discussed three reasons that living in Switzerland can be as sweet as the chocolate. But like everything—even chocolate—there’s a darker version. 

This week, it’s all about things in Switzerland that can make you as crazy as a clock tower that dings every 15 minutes 24/7. Oh wait, the Frau’s been living right across the street from that very clock tower for six years. That’s 96 dings a day, 35,040 dings a year, and 210,240 dongs in the Frau's short Swiss life, people. Enough to drive the Frau to sometimes say, there’s no place like the good old USA. 

Three Things That Make the Frau Never Want to See a Cervelat Again

Swiss German

German lesson
Don't come to Switzerland to learn German
If the Frau could do it over again and actually have a choice in the matter, she would live in French-speaking Switzerland. By now, she’d most likely be totally comfortable and fluent in French. 

Living in the German-speaking section is much more complicated. You must learn two languages if you really want to fit in. High German for reading and writing and Swiss German for speaking and listening. The Swiss talk about how they want foreigners to integrate, but let the Frau tell you, it’s not easy. She was fooled into thinking if she learned High German she’d be fine and Swiss German would be its natural conclusion. But instead of understanding Swiss German after six years of High German, all the Frau has perfected is a good smile and nod. 

Luckily, the Frau is not alone. Swiss German appears to frustrate practically all foreigners who try to integrate as well as most of the 36% of the Swiss who speak other languages. The Frau herself is having another wave of disillusionment after working so hard for the last six years to understand High German. Sure, she can read Blick Am Abend and understand cashiers in Germany, but for general everyday life in German-speaking Switzerland, the Frau still feels like an outsider. 

Window Games

The Frau has never seen a group of people more concerned about drafts. And it’s that time of year again. Time for the Frau to sweat the moment she walks in the office, open her window by her desk, and find it closed by someone the minute she gets up for a coffee. 
A Swiss colleague once tried to convince her (when she was pregnant, no less!) that it would stay cooler if she wouldn’t keep opening the window. She doesn’t see the logic of this at all. It’s the same on trains and buses. People here would rather sit in an oven than in a convertible. A breeze doesn’t make you sick, people. It’s all that coughing without covering your mouth…but that’s another story.

Lack of Lines

Nothing like moving to the world's most organized country to have you pining for a good old-fashioned line. Here's a secret for the uninitiated: the only people who stand in line in Switzerland are expats. The Frau has lost count of how many people have just barged in front of her at cheese counters, when getting on trains, and even when she was waiting in “line” at McDonald’s when she was 8 months pregnant. The Frau asks you, Swiss people, how you can have a bus that connects you to the train that connects you to the cable car that connects you to the mountain restaurant in the middle of nowhere exactly at noon for lunch but not be able to form an orderly line at the department store when buying your socks?

What keeps you in Switzerland? Or what makes you never want to hear an alphorn being played in a Tunnelfest again?


Made in Suisse said...

Another great and spot-on post about La Suisse. Having every Swiss town turn into a ghost town every Sunday (even Zurich) is also still frustrating after 18 months. Shared laundry rooms and weird tenancy rules (no toilet to be flushed after 9 pm) still baffle me and the difficulty for women in la Suisse to go back to work full time and find appropriate child care is going to very soon become my number 1 allowance. Where else in the world would you find "creches" that are closed for 13 weeks holidays a year and open from 8am to 5pm only 3 days a week?

Chantal said...

Hi Made in Suisse,

The Frau used to be frustrated by dead Sundays, but now she likes them. Still fed up with shared laundry rooms. And yes, "forced vacation" at the childcare places is frustrating. Ours closes for two weeks in the summer and two in the winter...the Frau knows when she has to take vacation...

mikatu said...

I agree except for the windows situation. Swiss (and Germans) tend to open the windows even in the middle of the winter with a freezing cold. News flash, if you have AC you shouldn't open the window in the first place otherwise it won't work properly. Besides, if it is freezing outside it means inside=warm/outside=cold … but they don’t understand the concept.

The swiss german language is even better when you realize that it changes according with the region. Even in Basel you have two forms of the same “language”, Gross and Kleinbasel... well, try not to open your mouth and you should be fine :)

Chantal said...

Yes, they open the windows in the winter and shut them in the summer. The Frau is still very confused. She's decided that maybe they are scared of bees. The Frau is. She misses screens.

Don't get the Frau going on Swiss German. She was told to count to ten by a Swiss friend helping her with the language and couldn't even get to two before she was stopped. Once the Zurich-Swiss person understood she had the Baden version of Swiss German, she was told, well, her version of "two" was right Baden. But not for Zurich, 15 minutes away! Like the Frau said, she is losing hope fast.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog. As a native, it is always interesting and fascinating learning what foreign people think about, and experience Switzerland and its people.

Regarding learning Swiss German: I think it's like any other language. The problem is, that Swiss people tend to change their spoken language to the other person's. It happens to mee too, for example when I talk to a German guy that perfectly understands Swiss German, I still switch to High German.

As for standing in a line, I noticed that too. But I also noticed that it depends on the canton. I don't see poor manners so often in Berne as I do in Zurich. Also, younger people tend to be more "aggressive" than older people (say 40+).

Just my 5 cents ;-)

Chantal said...


Just wanted to say I really appreciate when Swiss people also join the discussion. And I'm glad you like the blog. It's great to hear that it is also interesting to natives.

I think Swiss people are too good at switching languages! If my German wasn't always answered with perfect English, maybe I'd be better by now. Oh well. On the other hand, it's always reassuring that I can usually be understood.

I actually find that older people are more aggressive with the line thing. But maybe that's just in Canton Aargau. Never fear. The Frau has learned to be much more assertive when it comes to being waited on!

Hattie said...

In all the years I lived there, I knew exactly two (2) foreigners who could speak Swiss. It's a combination of interference with German and the fact that the Swiss believe Swiss is not a language but rather a hereditary condition.

Chantal said...

A "hereditary condition" that my daughter is going to inherit not from me, but from the Krippe!

Anonymous said...


I am a Swiss native and I enjoy reading your blog. Thank you.

I'm glad you only dislike window games and lines in Switzerland. If these are your major issues, then I guess it's all right here. ;-)

And I do understand that Swiss German really is sort of disturbing. But hey, there are only two tenses which is - at least - one advantage...

I used to live in the US and yes, everyone was so welcoming and warm to me when I first got there... Just this phrase "glad to have you here" was said so many times and even if it may not have come straight from the heart every time it was said, it still made me feel good. I wish foreigners here were treated that way (though, I doubt I would have been treated that way in the US if I would have been Hispanic). But anyway, I still am grateful and I wish the Swiss could become a little bit like Americans. But in spite of this welcoming atmosphere that helped me so much, there were many nights I laid in my bed crying because all I wanted was getting back home to Switzerland. So, I suppose this is the destiny of every immigrant. Also, I started to idealize Switzerland and to bash the US for everything that was better in Switzerland. But in the end, like you, I made my peace with the US and today, when I get back to the US, I feel like coming home. I hope you feel this way in Switzerland. And it's even worse: I start bashing Switzerland for everything that is better in the US.

Good to read your blog, I will stay tuned!

Chantal said...

Interesting that your U.S. experience was similar in nature to my Swiss one--the expat phases are the same no matter what!

I agree it would be nice if the Swiss would be a bit more outwardly friendly. It can feel very cold here to an American at first. But you do get used to it. It's also one of the reasons that integrating and learning Swiss German is very difficult since conversations never usually go beyond "hello" and "en guete!"

Anyway, thanks for reading.

Dilly said...

Haha, as a Brit, the lack of queuing ability of the Swiss completely threw me when I first arrived here. My favourite was when I was standing no more than about twelve inches from a cashier's counter, allowing the person finishing up to leave, when an older lady pushed right in front of me! She looked entirely surprised when I challenged her. I've got better at pushing a bit myself, although it's still difficult for my British sensibilities.

I think all the things that frustrate me are pretty minor and liveable with: shops closing ridiculously early (and not opening at all on Sundays), terrible and insanely expensive curries, constant roadworks, everywhere being overheated in the winter (although bear in mind I don't have children, I think the childcare and women's rights issues surrounding it would certainly upset me). Overall, the good things definitely win out for me, and it's making me a little sad that I might be moving away soon.

Chantal said...

Yeah, most of the annoyances are little things--I could certainly add all the cigarette smoke as well as overly priced restaurant food to the list!

mikatu said...

I don’t agree we can compare learning Swiss German (SWG) as learning any other language.
Other languages, easy or hard to learn, have a written system. Something you can start with and go from there. You can write Swiss words for sure but you cannot say if it’s correct since you are just transposing sounds into letters. Virtually every Swiss could write the same word differently since it has no official form.

Without an official standard version learning SWG becomes virtually useless since it changes from city to city, and sometimes within the same city. If one day you listen to a conversation in “Baden Swiss” and the next other conversation in “Zurich Swiss” how could you create your own learning system if you don’t recognize what is common and what is local? Please remember that the accent also plays a role here since it changes how a same word will sound to an untrained hear. Also how could you apply both forms when your go to Basel or Bern? You will be perceive as foreigner and the High German would be required anyway.

I’m not saying all these forms aren't part of the rich Swiss culture and shouldn’t be preserved. I’m just saying that if the Swiss don’t make an effort to unify their own language why should a foreigner make that effort when he/she is already fighting to learn the High German that is the official written form.

The funny part is that also the Romantsch, the official language spoken by only 0,5% or 1% of the population has not one but three variations and the unification was not possible so far.

Martin said...

Hi Chantal,

well, there are always also some inconveniences independent of where you are. But you picked up some really minor things at all. Probably you had some reason to do that, I suppose.

Nevertheless, may I add some thoughts I had while reading your recent post and comments from readers:

Swiss German

I agree and I totally understand the struggles produced by this situation to immigrants. And I can only admire people who are able to manage it, nevertheless; probably I wouldn't be one of them, since language ability is not one of my best advantages.
Nevertheless, me as Swiss, I am also - yeah let me say it that way, since you are an US-American nevertheless, so I can use this term - proud of it. It is a very strong part of my Swiss identity. And I like it that I can derive from the kind of talking from where people are coming, where they grew up, where their parents are from, may it be Lucerne (one hour away from Zurich), Bern (one hour away from Zurich), St. Gallen, Solothurn (one half an hour away), Aargau (15 minutes from Zurich), Basel (obviously) and even further, such as Wallis and so forth. And I like the sounds from the different dialects, the different music it makes and therefore is able to produce, not so much different meanings, but rather different pronunciations on the same things, the same words. I really love these diverse varieties on such an astonishingly small area, very much.
Of course, I am jealous about men from Graubünden that they have such a sexy perceived dialect ;)

And just in the danger to grow your and your fellows aversion to learn Swiss dialects, let me point you to the following website, which gives you an even better idea of how diverse Swiss dialects can be for words such as candy, kiss, hiccup, puddle, to pinch:

Window Games

Especially elderly people still have the very wrong assumption that a breeze, especially in trams and trains, could make them sick, that they could catch a cold (in German 'Erkältung'). What is so wrong, since you can only catch a cold when there are some viruses involved (spread out by another person by a so-called 'Tröpfcheninfektion', e.g. by spreading drops through the air during speaking or sneezing), and not, as the name goes, by cold temperature. But they still BELIEVE it. I remember a lot of annoying discussions in trams during hot summer days regarding this … gdm. In fact, the probability that a few virus-filled drops of a sneezing person in tram hits you, would very much be reduced by the fact that there are some open windows tearing the drops out of the tram ;)

Lack of Lines

Well, that's really annoying. There is no excuse, at all. It is just stubbornness combined with ignorance. Me personally, I only can handle it that I repeat to tell myself that "people from the countryside are just badly raised", "they do not know better". Well, finally, they are 'Agglos' (i.e.: being from the agglomeration, urban areas, you don't have to expect a lot of civilised behaviour from them, their parents still used to be farmers, …) … and so forth. But of course, the prejudices do not really solve the problem, nor are they correct.
Well I hope, they will learn it as well, though even a lot of juveniles don't even know the concept, neither! Is there any hope!?

Best regards,


Chantal said...

Agree, there are inconveniences everywhere. There is no perfect place. And Switzerland is pretty good if these are the main downfalls!

Bea said...

-coming late to the party here, but inspired to leave a comment. I'm flummoxed by the 'express lanes' at the supermarkets that seem to clog up with any and all shoppers who then dart in front of each other in order to catch the next available checker. It stresses me out just to watch the fray let alone participate, so, even if I have any a few items to purchase, I tend to stand in the non-express check-out line. Sometimes piece of mind is better than a speedy purchase.

Aida said...

Problem with lines: where do you live? I have lived in Lausanne, Neuchatel and now Bern and that has happened rarely to me.

I would need to say that I am Spanish, so when I am in a line, I focus! Any wandering of your mind in Spain and you will find new people in front of you in the line :)

Sunday ghosts towns still freak me out ... and I have been here for 8 years now :(

fabiola dueri said...

Ghost towns, sill freak me out after 18 years in Switzerland. Where are they? Do they go "spazieren" or do they go "wandern" or do they stay quiet an silent at home? Until now i couldn't discover it.

Long time ago I decided to concentrate in learning a German, which is classified as a Language. It has grammar and clear orthographic rules. I truly believe there is nothing I can do to learn the Swiss dialect, specially considering that each Canton and almost each person has its own. Swiss people are able to understand German,so I don't bother any more.
I must say, after all these years I understand almost everything they say in dialect, but they have a very strong habit of meta-communication: unfinished sentences, closed with words like "ebbe" or "gell" can mean whatever or everything. I think one has to think Swiss-German use these expressions properly. I prefer to stay in German to avoid missunderstandings.

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