Bern

I am beginning to realize that Swiss cities are a bit like princesses in a medieval fairy tale – each more beautiful than the last. I spent the day today in Bern, accompanied by my husband, who is here to visit me for about a week before heading back to the U.S. to finish his postdoc. He’ll be moving here to Switzerland permanently at the end of this summer. This happy event is clouded somewhat by our difficulties finding an apartment that is a) affordable, b) available, c) suitable, and d) not owned by a landlord who operates entirely illegally. But that is for another post!

Anyway, Bern. The capital of Switzerland! It is about an hour’s drive from Lausanne, and my first German-speaking Swiss city. Actually, although the official language in Bern (which is situated within its own canton) is German, many Bern inhabitants speak the dialect Swiss-German. I really do not know a word of either, and so was not able to communicate much during my visit. Of course, as usual, most of the people I encountered spoke perfectly fine English, but the longer I live in Switzerland, the worse I feel about resorting to it. I really do need to learn a few words of German and/or Swiss-German! I’ve been so focused on French, but in reality, less than a quarter of the population of Switzerland is French-speaking. I did learn that “Grüezi” means hello in Swiss-German, though, so at least that is some progress!

I hope you’ll enjoy this photo tour of my afternoon in Bern.

IMG_0320This is a photo up the main street of the old city. The archways that line the street on each side are called “arcades” and they are essentially sheltered sidewalks that contain myriad shops and restaurants. Thus, Bern is a great place for shopping on a rainy day, but as you can see, we didn’t need to worry about that on our visit.

IMG_0344The  city is bordered by the River Aare…but don’t get excited; as far as I know, it was named by German-speaking Swiss, not pirates.

 

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You may have noticed that a rather ferocious bear symbol decorates the flags of Bern (left). Though the etymology of the name “Bern” is disuputed, legend has it that the founder of the city promised to name it after the first animal he killed while on a hunt. In honor of this event, the city of Bern keeps a famous “bear pit” or Bärengraben that actually houses real live bears, and is a popular tourist attraction to this day. The photo on the right is one of the rather cuddly looking inhabitants of Bern’s Bärengraben.

 

IMG_0335I can’t be sure, but that looks an awful lot like an honest-to-goodness chocolate factory on the left there!

 

IMG_0324 The Swiss Parliament building, which happened to be hosting a farmer’s market in its courtyard.

 

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Hey, who’s up for a grammatically unorthodox hot-dog? Only 6 francs, and it comes in its own baguette!

 

IMG_0343I’m planning on tracking down and hiring the architect of this building someday, just so you know.

 

IMG_0359One final item of interest: I got to visit Albert Einstein’s house! Many people know that Einstein – who was actually German by birth – spent his most productive scientific years as a patent clerk in Switzerland. That patent office happened to be located in Bern, and the apartment that Einstein shared with his wife and children is still intact. For just 6 francs you can visit his sitting room, complete with parquet, furniture, old photographs and clothing. So now I can say that I’ve seen the spot where, conceivably, Einstein gazed out onto the busy street below and puzzled over relativity.

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Le Printemps

Spring has come to Switzerland!

It has been a remarkably mild winter here, even for continental Europe – rarely below freezing and very little snowfall in the valleys – but even so, spring is a welcome sight. The biggest change has been the day length…in Switzerland,  dusk starts to set in around 4pm in the dead of winter, and sunrise only comes well into the morning. Now that it is April, it is already staying light after 8pm, and it makes all the difference! The trees and countryside are absolutely mad with birdsong, and the air literally perfumed with flowers. I took a walk today to try and capture some of the beauty of it.

 

IMG_0292A pretty little woodland path near my village. All pretty little woodland paths are equipped with a dog-walking station (plastic bags and repositories for dog-walking convenience) a fountain, and a sign asking pedestrians to stay on the paths, keep their dogs from misbehaving, and refrain from picking the flowers. This is why the little woodland paths are so lovely!

 

IMG_0281The path leading out of my village. I do not know what the purple flowers clinging to the side of the wall are, but they smell as good as they look!

 

IMG_0303Just a little old chateau on the outskirts of the village.

 

IMG_0302More wall-clinging flowers.

 

IMG_0299Reptiles are not the first thing that comes to mind when one says “Swiss wildlife,” but these little guys are everywhere. They are very quick and usually only manifest as a rustling in the weeds at the bases of boulders and walls, but this handsome specimen was kind enough to pose for almost a full minute. I think he was hoping that if he stayed still, I’d lose interest and go away.

 

IMG_0283There are vineyards EVERYWHERE.

 

IMG_0290Another view of my woodland path.

 

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Interlude

I did not realize before I came here that this part of Switzerland is very musical. Thus far, I have heard about three major spring/summer musical events in the region that everyone seems to attend, regardless of the lineup. I was lucky enough to get to attend one of them, the Cully Jazz Festival, last night.

Cully is one of several Swiss towns with names that I like to say over and over to myself whenever I see them on road signs…partly because they are endlessly fun to say, and partly because I need the pronunciation practice. The neighboring towns of Cully and Pully are pronounced in a way that I cannot even figure out how to write phonetically…just know that the double-Ls are pronounced together with a “y-ish” sound that merges with the final y in the word…sort of like the double-L in “tortilla.” A couple other towns I enjoy saying are Ouchy (pronounced “oo-shee” rather than what you say when you scrape your knee) and Niederbipp, which never fails to make me giggle.

At any rate, Cully is by far the most beautiful town I have yet seen in Switzerland:

Cully, Switzerland

Sadly, I did not take this photo, as the festival was at night. However, this is actually a pretty accurate view from the parking spot I eventually found. [source]

Yes, it is breathtaking. And the hills are literally alive with the sound of music, at least in early April when the Cully Jazz Festival comes to town. It is a uniquely arranged event: rather than stages or a central venue, every bar, cafe, restaurant and basement in town opens its doors to small jazz and blues ensembles, who play throughout the night, and concert-goers simply stop in for a listen before heading on to the next spot. Because it’s such a small town, each concert is just a leisurely stroll away, with plenty of wine and food to sustain you on the journey.

It was really fun to spend some time with some new Swiss friends in a social setting, after spending the majority of my time over the last few months immersed in work. I do not know much about jazz, but I truly enjoyed the music and the artists were great performers. I was especially mesmerized by how seamlessly they all switched back and forth between addressing the crowd in native French, to singing with a perfect American bluesy-twang.

I am always conscious of being the annoying person waving their iPhone around at an event rather than enjoying the action, so I only managed to snap a couple of shaky photos, but I thought I’d share them anyway:

Cully Jazz Festival Cully Jazz Festival

The other two major musical events I mentioned earlier are the Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, and the Paléo Festival in Nyon. The Paléo Festival is in July, and I badly want to attend. It is an outdoor festival in July with a reputation for absolutely incredible music, and a carefully guarded lineup that is kept secret until April every year. I am the first to admit that I am no music buff…I inherited my iTunes library from my freshman college roommate, I’m always the last to hear about the coolest new band, and I’ve been known to spend the few rock concerts I’ve attended with my fingers in my ears. But I do know that any music festival that hosts Elton John, the National and the Black Keys in space of a few days is one I want to drop in on.

That’s about all the news from Switzerland for this week, though I am very much hoping to have a positive update on the apartment hunt soon. Stay tuned!

Wash Me!

I got a chuckle out of this today on my drive home from work, and I wanted to share.

Take a look at the grimy car window pictured below…

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Someone has — in typically politically correct Swiss fashion — written “I am dirty!” in both German and English with a finger on this unsuspecting driver’s grimy rear window. With a little help from Google translate, I can help fill in the gaps for the other official Swiss languages:

French: Je suis sale!

Italian: Io sono sporco!

Romansch: Jau hai tschuf!

‘Merica

I went on a little excursion to the nearby town of Nyon today. Nestled amongst the boulangeries and charcuteries and cafés, was the shop pictured below.

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…And what does one buy at an American Market?

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Yep, that looks about right. I managed to restrain myself though…Pop-Tarts have never been high on my list of favorite American foods. Smucker’s peanut butter is actually the thing I miss most dearly in Switzerland…or, I would miss it if my unbelievably thoughtful husband didn’t send me a dozen jars in an industrial-size padded shipping case every few months. The things you do for love!

Un Bagel

Being immersed in a foreign culture day in and day out is certainly excellent blog fodder, particularly when it comes to language. It’s the perfect topic, because as an American expat in Switzerland working at a university, I hear somewhere between two and five different foreign languages spoken around me on a daily basis. While I am definitely getting used to it, it can be a bit disorienting until you get the hang of at least one of them.

Me, most mornings.

So, for the past three weeks I’ve been taking part in a language program organized by the university where I work… I figure I’ll probably become fluent in French faster if I take a more proactive approach than just relying on osmosis.

The program is free, which is great, and also informal, which is even better. The program website provides a social-media type venue for people to post profiles, where they describe their mother tongue and language interests. User A can then match with User B who speaks the language User A wants to learn, and who also wants to learn User A’s mother tongue.  Participants can agree on whatever meeting time or place works best for them; no classrooms, exams or forced “partnering up” required.

This really appeals to me, because the great paradox of learning a new language fluently–at least for introverts–is that other people are necessary to perfect the art of conversation. And yet, letting twisted attempts at foreign words escape my lips in front of another human being is embarrassing and anxiety-provoking. I find conversations with new acquaintances in English difficult and exhausting as it is! Take away my grasp of pronunciation and word comprehension, and I’m experiencing a mild  nightmare–probably ranking slightly above being naked in public and slightly below forgetting to attend an entire semester’s worth of math classes on the terror rating scale.

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I can’t even remember the room number…NNOOOOoooo!

And yet here I am, meeting twice a week with a Frenchman recently moved to Switzerland, who wants to improve his English for his job. It is going surprisingly well, and I have the feeling this may be the key to breaking down the Language Wall in my brain. The Language Wall is that barrier that lies between recalling specific vocabulary words and verb conjugations every time I want to say something, and just opening my mouth and knowing how to speak. I’ve felt myself come so very close to the other side of that wall, only to slide backward again after a week or two of not speaking much or forgetting some key grammar rule. To me, breaking down the Language Wall is actually a lot like being able to see the image in one of those Magic Eye posters. At first you have to strain and concentrate, but with time and practice, the meaning begins to emerge, without you being able to put your finger on exactly when the transition happens.

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A kitten?

Of course, progressing in my acquisition of French is interesting, but equally interesting is observing someone else learn English. My conversation partner is probably at roughly the same level as I am in French, so he has the basics down but finds it difficult to understand if I speak a little too fast or fail to enunciate. The video linked below actually does a fantastic job of conveying how it feels to be on the wrong side of the Language Wall:

Making Language Sound Foreign to Native Speakers

Anyway, I do feel like I am making progress in my French, which definitely feels good. If nothing else, it gives me the confidence to open my mouth and risk making mistakes without so much anxiety, and less anxiety tends to decrease the number of mistakes too.

But that isn’t to say things don’t still get awkward. One day last week I was at one of the deli counters on campus to pick up some lunch. The prepared sandwiches are always pretty good there, so I was scanning the glass case when I was surprised to see some sliced bagels filled with tuna salad. Bagels are not really a “thing” in Switzerland–you can’t buy them in stores or restaurants and I haven’t had one since I left the U.S. I figured I should jump at the chance to eat one while it was in front of me, but I didn’t know if there was even a word for “bagel” in French. So, I looked into the glass case to check the label in front of the tuna bagels, which read “panini.” I thought this was a bit odd, since a bagel sandwich is not really the same thing as a panini, but I just shrugged and figured that this was the closest that the French language could come to describing a delicious bread product with processed meat inside.

When I asked the woman behind the counter in French for one of the “paninis,” she reached to a shelf above the bagels and produced an elongated sandwich filled with ham and cheese. I apologized and corrected her, pointing at the bagels and indicating that this was what I actually wanted to order. “Ah!” she said, looking at me kindly and speaking slowly as though to a child. “Ça c’est un bagel, madame. Voulez-vous un bagel?” I thanked her for setting me straight and paid for the bagel. As I ate it, I reflected that sometimes, learning a new language is not as hard as it might seem…you just have to avoid over-thinking it.

Fribourg/Freiburg

Hello readers! I skipped a couple of weekends and for that, I apologize. The first post-less weekend was due to being ill, and the second–this past weekend–to travel. I went to visit some friends who live in the city of Fribourg (or Freiburg, if you speak German)  which lies about an hour train ride to the northeast of Lausanne.

I took some fuzzy iPhone pictures to commemorate the event, which I will now share with you, dear readers:

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As you can see, it is a city built on a cliff. The newer, modern part–the train station, the clothing shops, the pavement–are all built on top of the cliff. A series of very steep stairs and narrow roads wind down from the top, taking time with them: the further down you go, the older the buildings become. The pavement becomes cobblestone and the shops trail off into barns, and there is even an old monastery with slits for windows. It really was like time traveling, but combined with a nice leisurely walk. Leisurely on the way down, that is…the hike back up the cliff was another story.

I am glad to have traveled a bit outside of Lausanne for once…I’ve been so busy with work and recovering from work on the weekends that I have not done as much exploring as I feel like I should, living in such a picturesque country. I should also seize any opportunity I can to take the Swiss train, which is a lovely experience…especially on Saturday morning when it’s not too crowded, except for skiers in full regalia hitching a ride to their next piste. The trains are punctual, clean and eerily quiet, and the swiftly passing countryside is always conducive to that deep, pondering kind of thought one likes to indulge in every now and then.

Anyway, I hope you will enjoy these images and reflections until I have time to write down some of the humorous/scrappy incidents of the past few weeks… À bientôt!