Say What? Edition 3: Thoughts From Switzerland

A collection of random, linguistically-related thoughts that popped into my head while in Switzerland five weeks ago.

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Going abroad makes you realize that your language skills aren’t nearly as good as they should be. How did I used to be fluent in German but a few weeks ago I couldn’t even understand what the Swiss shopkeepers said when I walked in the door? Swiss German is quite distinct from Hochdeutsch, but still, I feel I should have been a little more competent. Continue reading →

Who Are You When You Travel?

When I was growing up, I lived on a small street in a rural area where having friends over to sit in the garage and drink was the main Saturday attraction. In all houses, that is, except mine. My parents didn’t drink and they weren’t particularly social, at least not in the kind of way where friends drop in and hang out without any specific invitation or plan. I’d listen on summer nights, through my open bedroom window, to the laughter and chatter going on across the street and wonder why our house wasn’t filled with people too. I swore that when I had my own place, my door would always be open and friends would come and go constantly.

That’s not remotely the kind of person I turned out to be. I’m every bit as inflexible with my time and protective of my personal space as my parents were. It drives me crazy when people stop by unannounced. Even the UPS man. I ignore invitations to go out if they come less than eight hours before the start time because that’s not enough time for me to prepare and accomplish everything I planned to that day. I don’t send read receipts on my iPhone because I don’t want people knowing whether I’m looking at my phone and therefore, presumably, available to talk or text. I always opt for “Entire home/apt” when using AirBnB because I certainly don’t want to be in the house with the owner, having to make chit chat. And communal tables at a restaurant? Whoever came up with this terrible idea should be hanged. Continue reading →

Quebec

I love Quebec. Well, Montreal that is. Quebec City is lovely and I’m sure the rest of Quebec is too, but Montreal has my heart. It is almost the perfect city. First, it’s bilingual, and as I’ve written about before, I have a passion for languages. I love the idea that you can be walking down the street and no one knows if you are a French or an English speaker until you say something. Then, there’s so much culture, so many festivals, so much delicious food, Lake Ontario, good public transportation, affordable places to live, and a passion for the outdoors. Which brings me to that big almost. Montreal winters, thanks but no thanks. I spent 23ish years in Buffalo, NY. I spent several winters in Russia. I’ve done my time. But in the summer in Montreal, everyone is in the parks, bicycling everywhere, sitting on patios. It’s delightful. If I’m ever lucky enough to own a summer home, it will be in Montreal. In the French-speaking half of town.

I lived in Montreal for what was, in my memory, an entire summer, but in reality was only 3 weeks, give or take a few days. I went to UQAM’s summer French immersion program and got to town right in the middle of the International Jazz Festival, which was amazing! I literally just threw my bags in my dorm room, grabbed my new roommate by the hand and out we went into the streets to hear performers from all over the world. And so began three fantastic weeks. My classmates were a fun bunch, my teacher was professional and patient and kind, the coursework was just the right level and intensity, the excursions were entertaining and educational. Great memories all around. Continue reading →

Alpha

I never studied Greek, but I meant to. When I was 19, I had a plan. A list of 10 languages and how many years I was going to spend studying and becoming fluent in each to be the ultimate polyglot powerhouse. It was a motley collection of languages from all continents. Norwegian, Swahili, Vietnamese. They were all on the list, as was Greek.

In reality, I took 5 years of Spanish in grade school but only placed into Spanish 102 in college and ended up walking out in the middle of a Spanish class a year later (never to return) because I just couldn’t understand the subjunctive and didn’t see the point. Continue reading →

Quoi?

Near the end of sixth grade, the school herded everyone in that grade into the auditorium. Someone explained to us that next year we would start learning a foreign language. Yes, that is a pathetically late time to start, but that decision was out of my control. We were given two choices – Spanish or French. We already knew these were going to be the options. Chinese was not in vogue in Western New York in 1991 and my school was not large enough to also offer German or Latin, as many of the surrounding schools did. We also already knew that the French teacher was a b***h and we were all scared of her, though I can’t recall a single event or detail that led to this perception. So the choice of Spanish or French wasn’t really a choice. Everyone wanted to be in tiny, perky, friendly Ms. Periera’s class.

If the administrators thought we were going to evenly divide ourselves, they were in for a big surprise when about 130 people moved to the right of the auditorium and 14 moved to the left. Obviously that wasn’t going to work and some poor souls were unpleasantly surprised to see French on their schedules when they showed up to school the following September. I – whose mother was on the Board of Education – was not one them. I was relieved not only because I was terrified of the teacher but of French itself. Even though I hadn’t started learning French, I knew that it had a lot of letters that weren’t spoken (only English is allowed to do that!) and that the letters that were spoken often sounded slurred together and nasally (only English is allowed to do that!). Who wouldn’t choose the blissfully phonetic and clipped (how naïve!) Spanish instead? Continue reading →