It’s been a while since the last conversation took place here. In that while I left behind the life I have known/lived, in England, for some 25 years. And, started a new life in Switzerland – from a blank slate. No home, no friends, no acquaintances, no understanding of the culture, no familiarity with administrative / legal aspects, and no skill with German.
Do you have lived experience of leaving one world behind and entering a new one – one in which you are a stranger who lacks the ‘currency’ (language/culture/friends) to be effective in the new world?
My experience summed up in one sentence: I went from being masterful in England to being/feeling incompetent and at the mercy of my fellows (strangers) in Switzerland.
It’s here in Switzerland that I have gotten present to this fact: a great way to play BIG is to speak the language of fellowship. What is it that I am pointing at? Allow me to illustrate by sharing a few examples.
At The Bank
I arrived in Switzerland late on Sunday afternoon. Monday morning I am at the UBS offices to open a bank account. I don’t speak German. And, I do not have all of the required paperwork. Yet, I am treated with care/respect by each/every person I encounter. I could have been sent away and told to come back when I have all the paperwork. Instead, Desiree, an Account Manager works with me. The end result I have one of the essentials in place: a bank account. I am so grateful!
At The Swisscom Shop
One of the other essentials is to get a Swiss mobile phone number. I enter the Swisscom shop. It feels strange as German is everywhere – written, spoken – and I don’t understand a word. I notice a kiosk. I look at it. I get that I have to use it most likely to get a ticket number. However, I cannot make sense of it. I feel helpless. Right then a fellow customer, a lady, speaks to me in fluent English and says something like this: “I notice that you are struggling. Allow me to help you…” And she does exactly that. I am so grateful!
At The Train Station
I am facing the ticket machine. It’s all in German and I don’t understand a word. I feel helpless whilst staring at the machine. Right then an employee of SBB (train operator) comes over and asks if he can be of help. In my broken German I say “I don’t understand you. Do you speak English?” He does. I explain my challenge. This young man then takes me through the entire process of buying a ticket – explaining the various options/obstacles that one encounters. I ask if he is ok with me doing this on my own whilst he observes – just in case I get things wrong. He is more than happy to do this. I get it right. He is pleased. And then he suggests downloading the SBB app – and helps me to do just that, including setting it up into English. I am so grateful!
At The Restaurant
At work we often eat lunch at the on-site restaurant. I look forward to the experience. Why? One of the cashiers – a middle aged woman with a smile. She switched to English the first time I encountered her and she realised that I didn’t understand what she was saying. Since then she greets me warmly, with a smile, every time I go to pay at her till. She complimented me on my German when I asked her “Wie geht es Ihnen?” More than once I have left my credit card in the machine. And she has found me in the restaurant and returned it to me. Just this week, I showed her my palms and said “Look at my hands. They lost their colour as Switzerland is so cold.” This made her laugh out loud. We bring a smile to one another. I am grateful!
At The Tyre Repair Shop
The valve on my front car tyre was leaking air. I hesitated in dealing with it as I had figured out that nobody at the tyre repair shop was likely to speak English. Then I faced up to the situation and made my way to the nearest tyre shop. Sure enough nobody spoke English. Yet, the combination of DeepL (language translator) and my broken German was good enough. Almost immediately the chap came to look at my tyre. Seeing the issue, he called one of the others (who was working on another car). This chap came over and fixed the valve there and then. When I reached for my wallet to pay he just nodded his head. I asked again. He was firm – no payment needed. I am grateful
I am going to be getting the keys to my ‘permanent’ apartment on Monday. With this in mind, I went to IKEA to buy the basics. Those basics included getting a set of tools with which to put the furniture together. The issue? I just couldn’t find them. So, with some hesitation, I approached one of the staff members with “Entschuldigung. Sprechen Sie English?” He responded with a smile and fluent English. He listened, and told me where I needed to go. I am present to his manner: he treated me like a fellow human being (just like all the other examples I have described her) and helped me out. I am grateful.
In the process of checking out / paying I had my second conversation with an IKEA staff member. She, a young lady, was talking to me. Noticing my broken German, she switched to English. In the process, she asked me “Do you have the IKEA family card?” I responded, “No, I have left my family behind in England!” She smiled/laughed… I complimented on her English. A very human exchange took place as in I felt warmed from the inside out by this interaction with this young lady. I am grateful!
Here is what I am getting at: When you/I encounter a stranger, especially one who does not speak our language, you/I can speak the language of criticism. Or, you/I can speak the language of fellowship.
Speaking the language of criticism, even if it is spoken in silence, is one where you/I judge the other person and belittle/criticise. Here’s how it goes “Bloody foreigner. Over here, in my country, and cannot even speak the language! Why doesn’t he bother to learn the language?” This is what is going on in the inside.
I say that speaking the language of fellowship, as in the examples I have shared, is playing BIG. It is way of playing BIG that lights up the world. Whose world? Certainly, the world of the Other. For when this language is spoken the Other no longer experiences himself as Other. No, he experiences himself in the presence of friends/family.
It is because I have been the recipient/beneficiary of this language of fellowship that I find myself grateful to the Swiss. And, why it is that I am no longer homesick.
Finally, I point this out: Do not assume that because the other does not speak your language s/he is stupid or lazy. I spend between 45 and 90 minutes a day learning German. My vocabulary is improving. And, this learning process takes time.
I thank you for your listening, and wish you the very best. Until the next time…