I get asked that a lot.
I've been in Switzerland for 7 months now, but I must admit that I haven't started German classes yet. However, I've realized lately that I know more than I think I do. Granted, often my response is still a blank stare, but I'm beginning to understand quite a bit more of what people are saying to me.
A lot of what I've absorbed has been from the process of finding a new apartment.
Yup, I'm moving again.
You would think that I enjoy nothing more than packing and unpacking my things and carrying them up and down stairs. In 4 years I will have moved my things 5 times. I've visited between 20-30 apartments and looked at countless floor plans (I do love floor plans). This one only lasted 7 months.
It's a nice place, but the first time I stepped out of the train station in Luzern, back in late September, I knew that's where I wanted to be.
The process of moving in Switzerland is very strange. In my past apartment searches, the hardest part has been finding a place I like with a price I can afford that has an available apartment.
Not here. When I first mentioned the idea at work, I had no less than 5 people try to talk me out of it. They told me how time consuming it would be, how expensive it would be, how picky the Swiss are. And indeed, it has been an intense experience. Especially since all apartment ads are in German, all applications are in German, I wrote a cover letter that had to be in German, I had to make phone calls and visit apartments where the tenants only spoke German...you get the point. I had some wonderful people from work helping me out (thanks again!), but a lot of times I just had to suck it up and do it myself. It wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be, but I'm certainly glad that it's almost over. Only one piece is still unfinished (besides the physical moving part). I am required to find a tenant to take over my lease, so I've been holding visitations over the last few weeks.
Many of the people who have come by (there have been about 20 or so) only speak German. And they will talk to you and ask questions anyway. It's slightly uncomfortable, but you come out alive and most likely having learned something. And I've discovered, to my delight, that I understood most of what they said. Granted, I can't express myself back to them very well, but I've also learned how to effectively use gestures to get my point across :)
So after nearly 5 months, moving day has finally arrived.
Luzern is quite a bit farther from work than my current apartment. One of the nicest things about where I live now is that it only takes me about 10 minutes to get to work, which includes the 5 minutes it takes to walk to the bus stop. Luzern will be at least 45 minutes by train and bus.
If you know me at all, and especially if you've ever been a roommate of mine, you know that I tend to have a slight problem with mornings. Particularly the getting out of bed on time part.
I actually love mornings. I love the peace of mornings and having time for coffee, breakfast and a book before leaving for work. It's just that my warm, comfy bed usually wins out, leaving me rushing around like mad just trying to make it out of the house on time. This has been complicated even more this year by the need to rely on public transportation.
And trust me, the buses don't wait for you, even if you're running. It's a terrible feeling to watch the bus drive away without you.
So most people think I'm nuts when I say that I am looking forward to my morning commute.
Yes, I realize this means that I have to get up earlier.
But it also means that I've been given the gift of time.
(5 points and a virtual high five if you know the reference!)
I'm very much looking forward to coffee, a book, and a train ride in the mornings. Not to mention the culture of Luzern, the wine bar on the corner, the city atmosphere, meeting new people...
I had a conversation yesterday that went something like this:
I'm on my way home from work. It's starting to rain. I walk past an old lady on the sidewalk.
Lady: Grüezi! (Then she says about 4-5 sentences in German, laughing goodnaturedly)
Me: (in German!!) I'm sorry, I don't speak German.
Proud of myself for being able to at least convey that thought in German, I smile apologetically and shrug my shoulders.
Lady: (says 3 or 4 more sentences in rapid German that I don't understand, ending with the word sprechen, which I do know means to speak)
I assume that she is asking me what language I do speak.
Me: (in German) I speak English.
Lady: (looking disappointed, but apparently not getting or not caring that I don't understand what she is saying to me, she continues to speak rapidly for about 30 more seconds, smiling and gesturing, then stops, looking at me)
Awkward silence. Confused look.
Me: Ok...well...sorry...umm...Guten Abend...
And as I walk away she is smiling and waving to me.
This was not the first of such conversations that I have had here. Gestures can be very useful in getting a point across, and people seem to appreciate it if you at least try to use German. But every once in awhile you come across the person who just keeps on talking even though it is painfully obvious that you do not understand.
I don't know how the kids at school do it. We have so many who come in speaking only Dutch, or Spanish, or German, or French, etc. They are surrounded by a foreign language all day long, and sometimes no one else in their class speaks anything even close to their native language. It takes an immense amount of effort just to get a simple point across. Despite the support and understanding given by the teachers and other kids, it must be exhausting.
I get it. Sometimes I just want to be able to read my mail, or speak to my neighbors, or understand what the conductor on the train is saying.
Looking at a Swiss newspaper I have a new appreciation for kids who are learning to read, especially in a foreign language. Most of us learned to read so long ago that it's easy to forget just how much goes into understanding a simple sentence. I know that those groups of letters are words. I can use the pictures and other context clues to help me figure out what the article is about. I can even sound out the words. But the words have no meaning to me yet. I can read an entire article out loud, with (I like to think) decent pronunciation, and still have absolutely no clue what I read about.
These encounters (plus the fact that I am tired of giving blank stares) have inspired me to once again pull out my German book and practice. I've been in Switzerland for three months now, and I'm no longer "settling in." It's about time that I started adding to my repertoire of phrases.
Besides being able to tell people that I don't speak German (a very useful phrase), currently I can count to 100, name most of the colors and many household objects, and I can conjugate verbs in the present tense. Of course, I only know about 6 verbs. But if ever I want to go, to come, to speak, to have, to order, or if I would like something...
I've totally got that.
Kelly is an American teacher living in Switzerland and enjoying everything the country has to offer.