Flexible Integration: Bending Without Breaking

Swiss life offers plenty of challenges for new arrivals, such as decoding the etiquette at a farmer’s market or discovering the meaning behind the exploding snowman on Zurich’s Sechseläutenplatz. One essential aspect of integration is the mental flexibility to let go of old cultural concepts and ideas and remaining open to new experiences. Switzerland offers plenty of these, especially with the festivals and holidays throughout the year. I was once walking through Bern’s yearly Ziebelemärit (Onion Market) when a teenager came up behind me and whacked me on the side of the head with a squeaky plastic toy hammer, apparently a Bernese tradition. It was a perfect metaphor for integration: you are making an effort to seek out new experiences and assume that you’re starting to understand the culture, when reality knocks the sense back into you. 

Literal and figurative hammers notwithstanding, a general openness to adventure has been important for integration, especially because daily life can be challenging, even during celebrations. It is a highly confusing experience to hear techno music echoing off our building during Zurich’s Street Parade (billed as “Europe’s largest open-air rave!”) or hear a 1:00 a.m. fireworks show during Züri Fäscht while otherwise carefully maintaining quiet hours in our apartment the other 363 days of the year. Basel’s Fasnacht is an incredible experience (and a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Experience). However, it also begins at 4:00 in the morning, when the lights go out throughout the city, and masked Gugge bands roam the streets, looking like something out of a medieval fever dream. It’s one thing to be open to new experiences, but it takes an entirely different level of curiosity and determination to enjoy early-morning renditions of “Yankee Doodle” while trying to dodge the giant, confusing illuminated floats with slogans written in Baseldeutsch

It’s also easier to be flexible with advance planning. Research has helped the family prepare for the aforementioned 1 a.m. fireworks shows and to plan all the grocery shopping when we know that the supermarkets will be closed for four days over Christmas. So many aspects of daily life can be challenging in unexpected ways – for instance, many American recipes call for ingredients that might be out of season or difficult to locate in Coop or Migros. Knowing the German (or French or Italian) names of ingredients in advance is incredibly helpful when there’s only five minutes to locate all eight ingredients for pulled pork before the store closes. However, advance planning only goes so far. We’ve learned to add explanation (“Our train leaves in ten minutes!”) when we need to ask for the bill as soon as our food arrives at restaurants, after we watched one waiter stop in his tracks and do a double-take when our server explained that we needed a bill immediately. 

The other advantage of advance planning is that it’s possible to “rehearse” some foreign-language conversations, therefore potentially avoiding such hazards as asking for a Topf (pot) for your coffee instead of a Deckel (lid). It is a challenge to integrate when Schweizerdeutsch can feel less like a dialect and more like a hazing ritual, meant to weed out the less-determined Ausländer (or Ussländer, as it were). Ordering a Chäschüechli in front of an audience at the bakery can bring the same kind of dread that usually accompanies public speaking. I’ve learned to adapt and to be flexible when inevitably mispronouncing a Swiss word, often by stringing together a list of related words like a malfunctioning Google Translate (“I would like this tart of cheese that is the small, please…PLEASE”). 

Many Swiss people speak English and are happy to switch as soon as they hear a horrible attempt at pronouncing the town of “Chur.” This has been a fantastic help in situations when it would be very unfortunate to be misunderstood, like with the doctor or the SBB ticket inspector. However, in everyday low-stakes interactions, I’ve resorted to an ongoing game of chicken, when one person responds in English while I continue in the other language, until one of us switches (depending on the complexity of the situation and the level of irritation from both parties). Unfortunately, this can also result in strange brain malfunctions, as when once, for no apparent reason, I ended a conversation with “Gracias!” It appears that the brain can occasionally be too flexible when it comes to languages.

When speaking to someone in person, miming often comes in handy, particularly when I have the wrong version of a word. Although the English-German dictionary assured me that I had the correct word for “plunger,” the sales assistant at Coop brought me to the section for craft stamps. It took mimicking the act of plunging to be redirected to the right department (this is where the determination and/or desperation comes in handy as well). There’s also an unfortunate point in language acquisition when I grasp the gist of the conversation (“You would like to fix my dishwasher?”) but not anything that delves beyond the conversations in the textbooks. Phone conversations often require more creativity and more naive and foolish hope. (“If I just start reciting times, this man will choose one and he’ll show up to fix my dishwasher…”) 

It’s an ongoing struggle to understand language and unspoken etiquette in a foreign country. Although some aspects of Swiss life are still confusing (“Why are the church bells ringing NOW?”), a little flexibility and creativity help make daily life both more amusing and more satisfying. Whether it’s impersonating a plumber or having the patience to deal with a late-night fireworks show, planning and research also help make cultural differences less challenging and more rewarding. 

By Tracy Wellons

Tracy lives in Zurich with her family. She currently serves as a board member and treasurer for Zharity and assists with social media for Family Matters Switzerland. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, skiing and collecting Swiss-German vocabulary words. She has one beautiful infant son.

Illustration by Lemady Rochard

Lemady is an artist and illustrator who also runs Storycraft classes and parties for children at the mal_Raum art studio in Ruschlikon, ZH. She has a background in theatre arts and children’s literature. Lemady lives near Einsiedeln SZ with her family. Contact her: Storycraft.ch@outlook.com  Facebook: www.facebook.com/lemadyart

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