The Chameleon and I

I remember the first time I saw a picture of a chameleon, bright green on a bright green banana leaf. Its tongue was rolled out, and those eyes! I was fascinated and wanted to find out more. I wasn’t disappointed, learning, among other things, that they can actually change their colour according to their background. Immediately I felt a kinship – emotionally, that is. There are indeed animal species that can change their colour for camouflage purposes and even according to their mood (though that could get rather complicated)!

They do what I did growing up, what I had to do time and time again. When I was a newcomer to a place, as I often was, adapting to my surroundings was a vital strategy to surviving in the new school and in the new neighbourhood. I had to observe first and learn how “they” do things before wiggling my way fully into the new habitat. It is what most of us do when we travel and few of us do at home.

At home we naturally feel a part of our surroundings, because we do things in similar ways to the people around us. We speak the same language on all levels and we know what the rules are for not attracting unwanted attention.

So what happens when a journey takes you to a place that is supposed to be your home, but that you know only from your parents or from holidays? Or when you arrive in a country that you were educated from but only afar. All the British history and photographs were real enough in my imagination, growing up with stories of Victorian England or Paddington Bear arriving in London, and then finally aged sixteen actually sitting on the top front row seat of a red London double-decker for the first time and squealing in excitement like a three-year-old, feeling like I knew it all, having been there so many times but never for real. That was the fun bit. In England I was still the visitor. I don’t have the passport, and my parents are both Swiss. It’s only my education and my friends that bring out the English part of me.

Arriving in Switzerland was different. Here I was “home,” according to my passport, anyway, and I’d been here regularly over the years, but only ever to visit my grandparents. Settling down soon proved to be quite different. I knew about the punctuality thing and the cleanliness. Those parts were easy. But what about the parts of communicating that we don’t see? Some cultural parts are harder to observe (and anyway, why should I need to “observe” if I’m on “home” ground?) – the loud laughter that is seen as rude; the silence in the teachers’ room when you say “Salli!” (Hallo!) only to find out that all this time all I needed was to include everyone and say “Salli zäme!” (Hallo everyone!); or remembering to ask any other party guest an array of questions about their background and what they do (and bear the same line of enquiry with a smile) rather than make silly conversation about a recent film or other public topic of interest.

Because I assumed I knew the culture, I ended up learning the hard way. I went through quite a turbulent emotional journey – from surprise at people’s obvious dislike, to sadness at not being invited again, to bitterness at how unfair and closed “the Swiss” are, to having kids. In Switzerland, with a Swiss husband.

Now it is the kids who put me straight. They are interested in my view of things, but boy do they put me straight: whether I’m running late, or too loud, or I make a silly remark. Maybe that’s just them being teenagers, it’s embarrassing enough having a Mum but a Mum who is different even though she is the same – that’s a toughie. Maybe it is their chance to learn about the art of observation. As when they met their own first real-life chameleon while travelling in Gozo, and we all knelt down around it and just watched in fascination without judging or commenting, simply enjoying the thrill of diversity.

By Karin Mohler

Karin is a former expat, having settled down in her native Switzerland after a childhood abroad. She is challenged daily with balancing the peculiarities she picked up on her travels and integrating them into daily life in what is supposed to be her homeland. Her three children aged 15, 13 and 9 help her bridge the gap in understanding the culture she is now living in. Failing that, she gains insight and inspiration from the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, by D. C. Pollock and R. v. Reken (2009).

Illustration by Laura Munteanu

Laura has studied journalism and advertising, and has been working as a journalist and an illustrator. She has been illustrating for magazines, websites, charity and diverse campaigns. She lives in Zurich with her husband and nine-year-old daughter.

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