I moved to Central Switzerland in 2010, a temporary visa shellacked to the interior of my passport. The Kanton gave me one year to achieve basic German proficiency. I would then have the honor of submitting myself to the biometric identification process and becoming a legitimate immigrant in Luzern.
I studied German at the Klubschule Migros, in a classroom above the supermarket of the same name. For two months, Monday through Friday mornings, I waddled to class during the final stretch of my first pregnancy. It was, mercifully, a wet and cold summer. Each day while we worked our way through grammatical cases and conjugations, a forceful rain would roll into the valley.
We were a little United Nations: a Russian psychiatrist trying to earn her right to practice abroad, and a group of Eritrean nurses with refugee status hoping to do the same. There was the sweet Polish girl struggling to find a job, a teenager from Finland on summer holiday, a handsome red-headed Swede, and two American retirees with huge hearts and hideous pronunciation. Our teacher, Genni (Gennaro), was a force. He was a former footballer married to a former Miss Schweiz and he had far too much charisma to be contained in a Klubschule classroom. He was quick to sniff out our ticks and hang-ups and he shamed us effortlessly. The class soon became the highlight of my isolated expat existence.
Despite the efforts of their immigration policies, it remains incredibly difficult to integrate as a foreigner in Central Switzerland. One explanation is the linguistic conundrum of learning “High” German in an environment where the Swiss dialect is the street language. After six years of living there, I could thankfully understand Lozärner Dütsch. Yet although I spoke a decent hybrid of dialect and proper German, it still felt far from authentic. Standing beside the swings at the playground, it was impossible to fit in with the other mothers as their umlaut and ach-laut-laden phrases lobbed back and forth. If we did speak, there was always this moment when they would choose to continue speaking in High German with me, or switch to the English they’d overheard me using with my children. Nothing makes a Swiss person puff with pride like flexing his or her language muscle.
Mastering a language as an adult didn’t seem to be all that different from how my children learned to speak. The primary difference was experiencing humiliation as a fully formed human being. In my first few years in Switzerland, there were countless moments walking with my daughter when a kind stranger would try to chat with us and I would chuckle helplessly, praying that whatever had been said to us didn’t include a question. It was funny, but I also realize now, kind of sad. Day in and day out, in this subtle confusion, I was snuffed out. I didn’t realize the profundity of this loneliness until one autumn afternoon in a London park. My kids were running around excitedly, making friends in their mother tongue. Cheerful, comprehensible language surrounded me and I was, somehow, home. That evening I told my husband, whom I would soon divorce, that I needed to move back to New York. Waking up every morning with a view of the Alps was not going to help me reconnect with myself. I craved loud personalities, messiness and even banal small talk.
We learn languages in leaps; it’s a non-linear process. I’ve had days where my two-year-old woke up from naps speaking in more complicated sentences, as if his brain put together the technique in dreamscapes. My leaps were always experiential. When I was pregnant with my first child, a whole new world of vocabulary opened up to me. While waiting, I would study the pamphlets and signage at the Frauenarzt, or “lady doctor.” By the end of the nine months, I had the female anatomy down, as well as other pregnancy pleasantries like nausea, high blood pressure, heartburn, and weight gain. When I gave birth to my second child, my skills had advanced so much that not a word of English was spoken between the staff and I.
Yet even after bringing life into the world in German, I still felt a disconnect between the language and my authentic self. For one, I found it extremely difficult to be funny. Let’s be honest, it’s not exactly a language that lends itself to humor (see Goethe, Schiller, Grass). The other reason I struggled was just in the basic realm of self-expression. Although I had a nice selection of nouns and verbs in my arsenal, I was still not me.
Things changed in the final months I lived in Luzern, when every week I had to tell a doctor or neighbor or administrator that I was getting divorced and heading back to the Heimatland with my children. I then had the perfect linguistic challenge—find the adjectives to explain to a stranger the end of a long, troubled love story. There, in the dénouement of my marriage, with one foot in my new life and one stuck in the old, I became a fluent German speaker. In my last few weeks, I was wandering through the Altstadt with my toddler and an old woman with a missing tooth and hairy chin approached us. She asked questions about my boy in heavy, almost crass Swiss German. We talked for a few minutes; I didn’t miss a beat. In the hour of my parting, I had finally arrived.