Month: May 2015

Language Barriers

Don't talk to me!

Don’t talk to me!

Deutsch, or my lack therof, has once again reared its ugly kopf.

Himself has been away so I’m in the rather tense situation of feeling like everything’s “on me” when it comes to taking care of the house and kids. Of course, there’s friends about, but it’s not quite the same as having family here to help me or even two adults around the house. It’s stressful.

I tried to prepare but it seems like all the stuff I did got messed with. I arranged Son no 1 to have extra days in Krippe but the Krippe only really deals with me in German so it all became a bit confusing and upsetting with filling out forms and not being 100% sure what’s going on. I’ve also had forms to fill out for his admittance to Kindergarten later this year. How to describe the disheartening feeling when a letter postmarked “Stadt Zurich” drops into my box – the general lowering of spirits felt when confronted with officialese, compounded by the stupid-feeling frustration of a letter in German telling me there’s something important that needs my attention and requires a response (presumably), if only I could work out what exactly it was… Google Translate is terrible on German too.

I also arranged a babysitter for Baby S. It seemed like a great idea – make sure you take a break yourself, they said. He’ll be fine with someone else for a few hours here and there, they said. Then the babysitter the agency sent (after rearranging several times) speaks not a word of English. Or refuses to. Which I find very stressful.

How can you properly trust someone you can’t adequately communicate with? Am I crazy to leave my most precious thing with her? It’s impossible to know what she is like with this language barrier in place. But I am desperate so I take the help I am offered. I cringe at being in this vulnerable position.

I completely get it, that I’m in a German-speaking land and that I should be making the effort to speak the lingo. But hey, give me a break. I’ve been here less than 18 months; 9 months of that time, I was pregnant and depressed. I’ve done the classes but I’m still only one above beginner level. It takes a long time to learn a language. And it’s basically impossible to continue classes with a newborn. Sure, I could be watching the news in German, listening to German songs, attending sprachschule meetups where people get together to practice their language skills… but currently I have approximately 1 hour a day to myself, which occurs in the gap between both kids falling asleep and when I need to put myself to bed so I can get up and do it all again tomorrow without being completely exhausted. Please excuse me if I use that hour to drink a glass of wine and flake out in front of some mindless English-language TV!

It’s got me thinking. Although Australia is the Best Country In The World in many ways, when it comes to languages, you’re at a severe disadvantage being an Aussie (American too probably, but I can’t speak to that). In Europe, there’s a constant swirl of other lingos and it’s both practical and reasonable to learn at least one more. Switzerland, of course, has four official languages. Being an English speaker too is a huge advantage in most ways, but when it comes to learning another language, it can be tough to find the motivation. You’ve won the language lottery! Everyone can speak a bit of English…. or wants to. Right?

OK so I don’t want to complain too much – definitely #firstworldproblems BUT at the end of the day, when I’m trying to deal with stuff for my kids, the mind-numbing, angryupset frustration of not speaking adequate German Just. Engulfs. Me. I hate it. I feel like I’ve failed the kids, failed myself, and the world has somehow failed me too.

I do also wonder if the people I’m dealing with really comprehend how alien and difficult it is for me to get my head around this other language. Maybe I’m being naive and stupid – maybe everyone who’s ever come to another country where they don’t speak their mother tongue feels this way. Maybe it’s just as hard for everyone and I should just shut the hell up because at least most people speak a bit of English, if not a lot of English. I thought that because I loved language, it would help my situation, but in a way it makes it worse, because I hate being wrong and looking stupid around words. Words. Words. Words. My joy and my torment.

In a funny twist of fate, I’ve also started doing some work for Time Out Switzerland. An online publication aimed at tourists and locals (expats and Swiss) where most of the job so far has involved wading through websites for events and venues in different languages and trying to glean information then write intelligently about them in English! Maybe this has inadvertently added to my frustration…

Zurich’s population is about one-third expats. OK most of them are German but most of them also speak English. Lots of them work at Zurich University or ETH, where all postgraduate classes are in English (I was surprised to learn). So why did I have to get the only bloody babysitter in town who doesn’t speak English?

Oh and I also managed to find a cleaner who doesn’t speak English either. Ironically (?) her Deutsch is as bad, possibly even worse, than mine. She does speak French, which I learnt for 2 years in high school 25 years ago. I could croon Sur Le Pont D’Avignon to her but not sure how that would help. She also speaks Mongolian. Handy.



Zurich Zoo

Rhino at Zurich Zoo. Photo: Iain Scott

Rhino at Zurich Zoo. Photo: Iain Scott

It’s been ages since I’ve blogged. So much has been going on but I’m not going to talk about that now. I’m going to talk about the Zoo instead. Because Zurich Zoo is, for want of a better one, a great metaphor for all that’s awesome about this city.

The location is lovely, if not utterly breathtaking (by Swiss standards!). Situated, high up on the hill (Zurichberg) near the home of Fifa and crazily expensive, super-indulgent luxury hotel, the Dolder Grand, the zoo has some of the best views in Zurich. It’s clean and well designed but still friendly with it.

It’s obviously affluent but spends its funds well on continuous improvements (IMHO). The recently-opened Elephant House (or Elephant Hilton, as Himself calls it) is incredible. A huge indoor-outdoor complex with its own river, waterfall and elephant swimming pool! It’s part of a wider African Savannah section that’s due to open this summer, which looks like it will be equally impressive.

It’s got great connections – I was impressed by Zoo Zurich’s link to Thailand’s Kaeng Krachan National Park, where the zoo supports a project to help protect Asiatic elephants. I also liked the fact they sold Thai food there and it has inspired me to make this satay sauce, ohmygoditisgood.

It requires some effort, but you get out what you put in and it’s probably good for you anyway. Some of the walkways are quite steep and/or unmetalled but you can get around OK – a trip to the zoo thus constitutes a pretty good workout! And the air up there is clean and bracing.

It’s sustainable. The new elephant house features cool sustainable design elements – rainwater is recycled, and there’s clever, low-power air conditioning and heating systems in place. I wouldn’t expect anything less in a city that sends most of its rubbish to biomass and even has a “recycling tram” to collect bulky waste.

It’s manageable and knowable but still interesting. The zoo is not massive, but there’s new bits all the time and the various sections mean you can visit quite regularly but continue to have relatively different experiences.

It’s expensive but good value. Like so many things in Switzerland, zoo entry comes at a hefty price: CHF26 entry for adults. But you get what you pay for. And for locals who buy an annual pass (not exactly a snip at CHF210 per family) it’s well worth the money.

It’s surprisingly convivial. Because pretty much everyone in Zurich with zoo-age kids does have said annual pass, you’re bound to see someone you know here. Plus, because Zurich is such a managable size (pop. 350-400k) you’re even more likely to run into your mates.

It’s child-friendly. Like most zoos! In many ways life is very easy in Zurich with kids.

Transport is amazing. We are so spoilt for public transport in this city, it’s not funny. Two tram lines run from central Zurich up to the zoo and a tram leaves every 5-10 minutes, so even when there’s weekend crowds, you pretty much always get a seat, buggy room and a hassle-free journey.

It’s open on Sunday. I’ve come to like the fact that most shops don’t do Sunday trading here. It really puts the brakes on the relentless retail addiction. And it kinda forces you to do nice family stuff – like visiting the zoo and/or enjoying a leisurely Sunday brunch.

It’s a bit daggy. Zoos are not by their very nature particularly sophisticated places. I’ve said many times it’s like the 80s here in Switzerland (mostly in a good way) and this is no exception.