Monday, October 22, 2007

Why the Swiss I think I’m Crazy

“If pigs have wings, then some winged animals are good to eat; now, some winged animals are good to eat; therefore pigs have wings.”

The weather took a turn this week and it is cold cold cold in Basel. Cold enough to make the neighbors cover all their plants with plastic for the night, and the African students take off at least thirteen layers of clothes when they get to class (and they are still perfectly decent!!). There were even rumors of snow flurries today (!!), and when I walk to and from the tram, it feels like my lungs are going to up and freeze on the spot. Fortunately, my coat finally decided to show up Saturday after taking its sweet time getting here from home. By Friday it was already near-freezing weather, but despite the cold, I set out that morning in flip flops. Most of you know I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with shoes—love to buy them, hate to wear them—and when I have to sit in class all day, there is nothing worse than claustrophobic feet for hours on end. So I wore my flip flops, figuring that as long as my torso is warm, the rest of me is fine, and until my toes are at risk of getting frostbite and falling off, flip flops are the way to go as far as I am concerned. Well! Apparently people don’t do that here! Half of Basel, not to mention the lower part of Germany, were quite concerned about my health and scolded me profusely in three languages! My teachers, classmates, friends at church in Germany, teenagers on the train—they all thought it was quite a scandal, and clucked disapprovingly, prophesied I’d catch cold, offered me their own shoes and otherwise generally insisted that really, flip flops in freezing weather is just too much. Vitaly even said he was older and wiser and I should therefore listen to him (he is 23). They don’t really have to worry though, because I got my coat and I’ve been much warmer the last couple days even though the weather is colder and, just as importantly, flip flops don’t match my coat so the whole footwear issue has rather taken care of itself, don’t you think?

Saturday I bought a scarf, and I look like I real European girl now. I must pull it off pretty well, because people are always yakking away at me in Schwitzer Deutsche, sometimes getting whole paragraphs out before I can get a word in edgewise to apologize for not understanding a thing they are saying. This especially happens with old people on the train, and I am probably most disappointed about not being able to talk to them. Just Saturday, for instance, I was on the tram on my way to the train station. I was sitting in the handicap section and had a potted purple pansy in my hand and was busy reading a book by historian Mark Noll about Christians in colonial America (Colonial history is 10 times more interesting than normal when I supposed to be reading African history). Oh, and of course, I was wearing my magical Europe scarf. An old Swiss couple got on the train and the man said, “Ahh, schöne! Die Blumen.” and he leaned over to admire my flowers. I understood that much, of course. He was saying, “oh, what pretty flowers,” and I smiled and agreed in my best German. But THEN I think he asked what kind they were, or possibly what they were for, and when I said, in English, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German,” he and his wife smiled and nodded approvingly and continued to talk about the type of flowers. I don’t think they heard me, I thought. So I said again, this time in German, “I only speak a little German,” and they said, yes, they thought I was right—that was the name of the flowers, only they say it different in their dialect (and they demonstrated the difference). Clearly, they hadn’t heard me, but I didn’t know what else to do. By that time they thought we had just had a lovely conversation, and I didn’t want to spoil it for them. So I smiled and agreed again in German, and I don’t think they had any idea that I couldn’t understand them!

Now, you probably want to know why I was carrying around a pot of purple pansies, right? I was going to Dan’s house to watch Walk the Line, the movie about Johnny Cash, and the pansies were for his mother. I bought them Saturday afternoon when I was planting flowers and procrastinating on my homework, because I thought they were so pretty and perky that they had to be given to someone. When I got to the train station (after the miscommunication with the old Swiss couple) I was standing at a counter by a coffee shop. I had nearly an hour before the next train and I had just gotten off the phone with Dan to tell him I would be late when a French guy about 12-15 years older than me walked over. He stood beside me for a second looking around the room, not at me. You know how undercover police officers work on the movies? Always watching the room, never looking at the other cop when they are having an important powwow about the bad guys? He did it just like that—came out of no where, looked around the room and then finally nodded toward my flowers and said in a hushed tone, “You know in Europe, we only give zees kinds of flowers at funerals.”
“What!?!” I said, a little startled, while I mentally noted to myself that either my magical scarf was not working or it was no defense against telephone conversation eaves-droppers as it seemed likely that this guy was. How else did he deduce he should talk to me in English, and that I was from nowhere in Europe?
“Really?! You give pansies at funerals.” I repeated. I was a little dubious. “What do you call zees?” he asked. Pansies? Yes, they are funeral flowers.” “Well!” I told him. “I thought they were pretty, and they are for my friend’s mom.” He laughed and said again they were definitely funeral flowers, but when I gave him my most squinty-eyed skeptical look, and asked, “Who told you that?” he said he read it in a book once, which I hardly thought proved the point. We talked a little longer about why we were both in Basel, about Portland and how far away it is from Canada and Seattle and other famous places. He was eager to see what I was reading and seemed to have an unusually keen interest in American Colonial history. Remarkably keen for someone who appeared to know nothing about it, I thought, and that was about the time I decided I would go wander around and see what other conversations my potted pansy and I could get ourselves into. We didn’t talk to anyone else though (not that I was disappointed), and when I got to Germany Mrs. Boschbach said he was wrong—they aren’t funeral flowers—and she thought they were pretty too.

I went to the English-speaking church in Basel Sunday. A girl invited me to her house for the afternoon along with a bunch of other mostly young/mostly single people for lunch and visiting. They were friendly and fun and I will certainly go back, although it might be a bad move for my German. There was some good natured teasing between the Americans and Brits over proper English. The argument about tomAHto/ tomato confused the guy from Hungary. He thought we were talking about two separate things, and wasn’t sure what the difference was. “Oh, it’s only pronunciation,” one of the Brits explained. “One way is right and the other way is American.”

So…That’s what’s going on. At least, that’s the important stuff. Then there are classes and things of course, but nothing much to say there, except that this week I learned some very interesting things about Swiss Missions, Anthropology in the 1920s, historical cartography in Cameroon, and the rise and fall of the black peasantry class in South Africa. Oh, and I learned in my epidemiology lecture on causality that the number of births in Germany between 1965 and 1980 decreased in proportion to the declining pairs of storks in the area. Correlation or cause?? You decide...
Beyond that, not a lot to tell. People are still completely at a loss for why an American would study African Studies, of all things, and in Switzerland, of all places. I’m asked several times a week, in fact, and I answer each person with a creative variation of “I haven’t the faintest idea.”


  1. My toes are cold and I'm in Mississippi! In France, chrysanthemums are the plant of choice to put on graves on All Saints Day - Glad you found a church.

  2. Funny, when I tell people my boyfriend's sister is studying African studies in Swtizerland they look very confused as well. I wonder why that is....? :)

  3. I'm up at 5 am for no particular reason, so I decided to check in on you. It was nice to get your lighthearted update. Glad things are going well. ECFBC just had a missions conference... it was good. We had some missionaries from Rwanda & they were really interesting. Other than that, we are busy as usual in Electric City.

  4. Oh Stephanie! You write up your adventures so well! I think you will have a novel by the end of your time here. ;) That is funny that so many Swiss spoke to you about your flip flops. I run barefoot and for some reason they just stare, gasp, or run away without a word.

    I had to laugh so hard at your last comment. I think you have my medieval music beat!