I grew up near Chicago, a big, modern city. But I’ve chosen to make my home in the centuries-old Swiss capital, Bern, and to adapt to a new culture and customs. After a 20-year apprenticeship, I’m about to become Swiss.
I was a newlywed when I arrived in September 1992. My first month was spent exploring the Swiss capital. I strolled through the cobbled streets of the old town, gazed down on the bears in the bear pits, and swam in the frigid water of a popular outdoor pool, looking up at the massive parliament building ruling over Bern from its seat on the hill.
Hiking, skiing and climbing are all common pastimes in Switzerland. But I prefer the mountains from afar. There are times when they are completely invisible, hidden by fog or by clouds. But on other days, behind the city’s red rooftops and green hills, the Alps stretch across the sky like a backdrop for an opera. Travelling by tram across the Kornhaus bridge, I’m used to seeing dozens of heads crane to take in the view.
Speaking the language
I remember being impressed by the multilingual aspect of the country early on. One night I was listening to a radio programme in which two men were discussing the US presidential race between Bill Clinton and George Bush senior. I had never heard anything like it: one person spoke in German, the other in French!
I was able to get by in both languages. But it took about eight more years before I understood Swiss German. I was introduced to the local dialect, Bärndütsch, while volunteering as a girls’ gymnastics coach.
My six- and seven-year-old gymnasts decided to help me improve my speaking. We were doing the splits on the floor-ex mat.
«Say ‘Chuechichästli’(kitchen cupboard),» they ordered.
I reproduced the term used to test all foreigners’ ability to speak Swiss German. No problems there. My problem was all the other words that had to be strung together to make a sentence.
Today, I’m encouraged by the fact that Swiss people can’t quite place my accent when I speak German. They look at me quizzically. «Are you from Holland?»
Early on I realised I didn’t want to be labeled as a foreigner. My attempts to fit in weren’t always successful, though. One February I joined a group of American families who took part in the annual Fasnacht (carnival) parade. Instead of watching from the sidelines we donned horns, tails, and white coveralls painted with big black spots, and marched proudly through the streets of Bern pulling a cart labeled «The Happy Holsteins».
Sometime later a local man saw my photos and said: «You did know that Holsteins come from Fribourg, didn’t you? Bernese cows are brown.»
Being a foreigner in Switzerland isn’t always easy. There have been several people’s initiatives aimed at controlling the foreign population – ranging from installing quotas to deporting foreigners convicted of crimes. Behind many of the initiatives is a desire to maintain Switzerland’s high standard of living for those who already are living here.
Often I heard my Swiss friends discussing the «foreigner problem». They always turned to me as an afterthought and said: «But of course we don’t mean you.»
But some people did mean me.
One day I was helping friends move into a new apartment. In the lobby of the building, a disgruntled old man complained that we were monopolizing the building’s two elevators. He asked whether a group of students were moving into the apartment upstairs.
«No,» I answered in German, «a family with four children.»
He wrinkled his nose at my accent, then launched a single word with the force of a missile:
We entered the elevator together, and he faced me, sneering.
«Is something the matter?» I asked.
«I don’t have to answer you,» he said. «You wouldn’t understand me anyway.»
But I did understand: in Switzerland it can take quite a while to fit in.
The Swiss national identity
I appreciate many things that are considered characteristically Swiss. For example, precision – from the Patrouille Suisse flying team to the fact that I can travel by train all over the country to the apology that comes over the train’s PA system when we arrive four minutes late.
Or tradition – from yodelling to the handiwork used to create the parquet floors in my apartment and the stained glass shield that hangs from my front door.
As an American, though, what I admire most about Switzerland is the accessibility of politicians, even high-ranking ones.
In 2011, on the Swiss national holiday, I sat a couple steps away from future President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf as she gave the August 1st address in four languages. I didn’t have to make reservations or provide identification or be a campaign contributor. I just showed up, sat down, and listened to her talk about what it means to be Swiss.
What do I value most about my life in Switzerland? Besides the scenery and languages and customs and political system, it is the people I know. My students, teachers, and classmates, fellow club members, board members, and coworkers, neighbours, family, and friends. Everywhere I go in Bern, I run into someone from my present or my past.
Geography, language, race, religion, age and education are all important parameters that define who we are. I am, in fact, an American; I was shaped by where, when and how I grew up. But I’ve lived in Switzerland for 20 years – longer than in my home town – and now Bern is my home.
In January 2011 I picked up the application to become a Swiss citizen. But the process actually started 20 years ago, when I arrived in Bern.
Soon, if all goes well, I’ll be the bearer of a Swiss passport, able to vote in Swiss elections.
I look forward to celebrating August 1st – the founding of the Swiss Confederation – as a Swiss citizen.