Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

In Beverley Hills, they don't throw their garbage away...

...they make it into television shows.
Woody Allen

It's been a long time since I've posted. Somehow, while I was in Basel, I never found the time. I wasn't particularly busy. Cleaning and grocery shopping could be stretched to occupy an hour each; job hunting took perhaps two; exploring the city on foot got old after about a week. Instead, I was waylaid by that evilest of human inventions: the television.

Despite the fact that there are only three English channels, I had the TV on quite a bit. Not because the programming was good (though I admit I developed an addiction to The Good Life on BBC Prime). I simply needed to hear noise. The noise of people speaking English was just a bonus: at times, when I really couldn't stand whatever was on (ahem, Jamie Oliver), I switched over to the unintelligible babble of one of the German channels. (Swissy Pie, I believe, neglected to program in the French ones, which I might have actually understood.)

That first week, the TV probably saved my sanity. Whether it's because I'm used to the bustle of New York, or because there are few cars in the city center, I found even the main streets of Basel to be eerily quiet. Since we're on a side street, and our bunker-like building houses all of 8 other families, our apartment is even more... stifled. More often than not, the only people I spoke with on a given day were the cashier at the grocery store and Swissy Pie.

Fortunately, I'm introverted by nature, so once I adjusted, I didn't particularly mind being alone. But there were consequences. As my inclination toward spoken communication dwindled, so did my interest in written communication. The English language books at Thalia, the big bookstore in Basel, failed to interest me. It was far easier to sit passively on the couch and allow mediocre British real estate shows to lull me into a coma. (Seriously, about 80% of the shows must have been about finding a new house, selling an old one, or redecorating!)

Still, there were times when I felt lonely instead of merely alone. Like I didn't exist. One day, at a nearby Coop, the butcher ignored me while I stood patiently in front of him, waiting to order pork chops. He helped everyone else first. I don't know why. Perhaps he was worried my German would be unintelligible. Perhaps he didn't like Asians. As I didn't really want to tell him he was an ass when I might encounter him again, I gave him my most disdainful glare before accepting my package and going on my way. Another time, after it had been raining for days on end, I thought I'd go mad from being cooped up inside for so long. I kept checking my contacts on Skype, even though I knew most of my friends weren't awake yet. Thank goodness for one of my college roommates, who now lives in the Philippines. Though we only talked once, just seeing her little green checkmark lit up made me feel connected to the rest of the world.

At other times, I felt homesick, which shocked me. Even when I went away to college, homesickness had never afflicted me. But after the initial excitement of being in Switzerland wore off, it began to strike at unexpected moments: when I couldn't find cheddar for the macaroni and cheese I wanted to make for supper one night, or kale for soup, or dumpling wrappers at the Asian market; when I went to sleep, but simply couldn't get as comfortable as in my own cozy bed at home; when I had to wrestle Google into searching English-language sites instead of the default German ones.

But there were triumphs as well. I cooked a rabbit for the first time - and it was good. I managed to make bread using fresh yeast, which I'd never worked with before, and a metric measuring cup; and it actually turned out even better than in my own kitchen. I discovered a children's library near our apartment that contained tons of German and English-German dual-language books. I stopped getting lost every day.

Most importantly, I managed substantive conversations with not just one, but two people who spoke only German - Swiss German, at that. First, with the super for our building, who needed me to do a walk-through of the apartment with him. (Swissy Pie was always at work, so he'd been unable to take care of it himself.) While I went through and pointed out flaws so that we wouldn't be charged for damage at the end, he talked to me. About my neighbors, one of whom is apparently also American. About the building's shoddy construction - "Schweinemachen," I think he called it, which translated literally means pig-made. (The place is actually quite solid, but he was angry that the roof was leaking water all over the fourth floor.) About cars, which he considered unnecessary. He complimented me for biking and told me that he himself got around by motorcycle.

Obviously, he was making an effort to speak slowly, but I was pleasantly surprised how much I understood. (Pantomimes helped too.) Not only was I understanding, but I talked back as well. My responses would hardly win any rhetoric prizes, but at least I was speaking.

Then the morning after, someone with a very thick Swiss accent called, speaking very fast.

Er... entschuldigung?

(Improper response, anyway: I should have said, "Wie bitte?")

More gibberish. It was a bad moment, the aural equivalent of staring stupidly at a blank wall. I thought I'd have to call Swissy Pie at work to deal with it, and I wasn't even sure if he was around. But once the caller understood that I was a foreigner, he began speaking loudly and slowly, the way one might speak to a retarded person. (The way, incidentally, I see Americans speaking to tourists all the time. I'm sure I've done it myself.)

I didn't care, since I eventually managed to piece together the message. He worked for the builder; our super had called him about a problem with our apartment. I confirmed that one of the doors didn't shut properly, since it had been hung crooked in its frame. He wanted to come by to fix it that day. We settled on 2 pm.

I stayed in the apartment all morning for fear that I'd misunderstood him. (Perhaps he meant he'd come sometime before 2?) Also, I'd been in obsessive-compulsive Switzerland long enough that I wanted to clean. I kept seeing strands of my hair on the floor. How embarrassing! He might think that I was a bad housekeeper! (Which truth be told, I am.) But precisely one minute before 2, the doorbell rang. I hadn't made a mistake, after all. He came in, fixed the door, and left. No small talk (and no comments about the state of the rooms), but I felt a sense of accomplishment nonetheless.

After that, there were smaller victories. Trying to order a coffee filter at Migros but being told they didn't take orders - if it wasn't on the shelf, I was out of luck. Asking for directions in unfamiliar areas. Chatting with a neighbor about his new baby.

Then the Friday before I left, Swissy Pie and I sat in front of the TV, watching a German cooking show. And that night, to my delight, I understood almost everything.



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