I have just come to an understanding about culture and it feels like my head has been cracked open and the light of wisdom is streaming in. It may be plainly obvious but I have to share it with you anyway.
Yesterday after writing the blog post about cats and intuition, I headed out to walk across town to the theatre group practice. Immediately things felt different. Firstly, a man was hovering in the doorway of our shopping centre (we live above it) looking like he wanted to stop me. Immediately my guard went up and I took steps to increase the distance between us. You see – the only people who usually stop me in the street here are the ones asking for some change – and I know who they are.
It turns out he only wanted to ask me about if I spoke German because he had won ten francs on this promotion from the shopping centre and wanted to know if there was an expiry date. I came away from the conversation feeling at one with all humanity – conversations with strangers have a way of doing that. Don’t you think?
After I’d walked through the old part of town I came to the bridge to cross the river (sounds like a tale involving a fox, I know). There were two guys dressed in black and one stopped me to ask if I spoke English. Yes, I said. He then started speaking to me in German, asking me what kind of music I listened to and what not and after a few short questions, let me pass when I said I did not listen to Linkin Park or ACDC. I almost caved on the ACDC but decided against it because he was talking so fast like he wanted to sell me something before the time ran out.
Curiouser and curiouser…
It felt funny in a good way. But what was so strange about the encounters? It is only now that I see that it’s because NO ONE EVER TALKS TO ME ON THE STREET here.
And it’s not because the Swiss are unfriendly or cold like the expats seem to think. Foreigners here say things innocently to my husband like “Wow you’re really cool, you’re not like other Swiss people.”. Imagine saying that to another group? And I have personally witnessed that the Swiss are happy drunks who enjoy singing together and daggy dance as much as the rest of us. So why this reputation?
Well, it’s because when you are new to a place, and especially if we are alone or lonely, we welcome streetly encounters to break up the silence of our day. We are hanging out to meet people randomly – people who could become friends – and if you get none of this then we lose hope and perhaps start to blame the society. We can’t accept that things are done differently here – I mean, we could if we thought ‘different’ was better but not if we think it’s worse.
A big part of being Swiss, based on the law at least, means not disturbing your neighbour. One person’s freedom ends where another’s begins. Though you have the right to do what you want with your life otherwise. That’s why euthanasia is legal, as are some extreme sports banned in other countries like base jumping and wake-boarding from a bridge (several people got strangled so they changed the law so that you had to have someone else there to cut the rope). Other peace-disturbing activities like recycling, mowing your lawn or moving house on a Sunday are forbidden. I’m sure that this is somewhat related to the lack of stranger accosting going on.
Obviously, I’m not trying to encourage harassment. When we’re working, we just don’t have time for it (we say). Those on holiday, students, pensioners and the like seem to have abundant time for casual interactions on public transport, whereas those on their way to work are looking forward to some peace with their sudoko puzzle before the noise of the day begins. People in big cities are generally more rushed and stressed and perhaps see the number of money collectors and petition holders as a bombardment on the streets.
But when we go on holiday to Southern Europe, this is what we love most – the chatty shopkeepers standing outside their stores, the nonnas shouting out their windows to the neighbour across, the people (men) who will come to speak to you as you sit by the fountain. It’s good to know you exist.
Since visiting New York this year and being so blown away by the friendliness and helpfulness of the people, I was reminded about the importance of being nice to strangers, especially tourists. I will go out of my way to help them, because I know how much it can make your day and your stay. These people have paid good money to come here – let’s show them a good time.
Yes, I enjoy being approached too and have got myself into some funny situations this way. Like the old man in the park in Paris (mum, don’t worry, it was a populated park in the middle of the day), who invited me to sit for a chat and so I did to break up the drawl of J.D.Salinger’s Catcher in The Rye going on in my head. I can’t remember what we talked about but I do remember getting up to leave when I caught on that he was slyly fondly himself with one finger poked through his zipper as we spoke. Sometimes things don’t work out – but that’s life. It didn’t put me off.
Parisians had a reputation for being arrogant – but isn’t it more arrogant to assume everyone speaks English? Well, not so much anymore when English has become the universal language and Esperanto is as retro as the rubix cube. But still, if you don’t know the language, you can really only judge a society on a very superficial level.
And Swiss German being only a spoken language means that the expats, even those that try to learn German, are locked out for quite some time. We are on the outside looking in. Often we see people as we want to see them as well. Stereotypes feel safe and give us something to hang onto. It’s not us, it’s them.
I’m telling this as much to me as to you by the way. I also judge and package – it’s easier that way and it’s what got us this far as a species if we are only going by Darwin’s theory. And there is so much talk about the judgements the locals place on the immigrants that I just wanted to say the reverse is also true.
So there are three main things I wanted to say here …
One : just because we’re not having people throwing themselves at us like knickers at a Tom Jones concert, doesn’t mean the society as a whole isn’t warm hearted.
Two : we can’t really judge a society if we don’t have the language to interact.
Three : even simple encounters with strangers get MJ singing “heal the world” in our heads and even an unexpected smile can change a mood – so you could totally make someone’s day today.