If you’ve ever had your heart broken, felt crushed, used and discarded, Swiss poet Angelia Maria Schwaller has something to say to you. I recently interviewed the award-winning poet for swissinfo.ch – my first introduction to Swiss-German poetry.
Angelia writes in her unusual Freiburg dialect, which is not taught as a written language in Switzerland. Her first collection of poetry dachbettzyt was published last year. If you’ve never heard the Swiss German language, it’s worth listening to the clip of Angelia reading her poem crumbs (‘verbroosme’ in Swiss German) below. The desolation in the sparse lines written by this 25 year old reminds us that everybody hurts sometimes.
crumbs (unofficial translation) by Angelia Maria Schwaller
I am dry and old bread
lie enclosed in your hand
being crushed by you
when it’s all over
you throw me
on the stone floor
Like to know more ? Read the full interview with Angelia published last week. It’s interesting that Angelia is a self-taught poet who picked up most of what she knows online, starting at the age of 12! Shows what a great resource the internet is for writers.
As an Irish person, I sometimes find myself in awe of how articulate the English are. I’m talking about the really clever ones, usually with cut-glass accents, deftly crafting arguments in flawless phrasing on television – my main point of contact with the English. It’s not only the ideas they are expressing, it’s their absolute mastery of the language. Well it’s almost as if they owned it.
You do hear affectionate remarks about the original use of English by the Irish, shaped as it is by the ghost of the old language underneath, but people in a position of security can afford to give generous praise. Part of me suspects most of this positive spin comes from Irish writers who have taken the compliment and run with it.
Now there could be a post-colonial, 800-years-of-oppression explanation for this respect, after all generations of my ancestors variously feared, loathed, mimicked and looked up to the English – but how would that explain the very similar reaction I observe with some Swiss Germans towards “real” Germans.
When it comes to live debate, Germans, with their natural command of the language, outshine their Swiss-German counterparts. Pit the Swiss finance minister against the German one and it’s like watching the receptionist take on the CEO. Swiss Germans only speak German when they have to, the rest of the time the cling to the comfort of their dialect.
Or maybe this is nothing to do with linguistic superiority and everything to do with superiority of numbers. Yes the Swiss can beat the Germans at football in theory, just as the Irish can beat the English but it takes a very lucky day. In the same way, the teams of leaders and thinkers from more populous countries have the advantage of being drawn from a much bigger pool.
Do the French-speaking Belgians feel the same about their big showy neighbour? Do they look at the French and sigh, giving up all hope of ever competing with their confidence and academies, their glorious language?
My best guess is that small neighbour complex is one phenomenon found all over the world, borrowed language syndrome is another and one should do everything possible to avoid having both together.
I’ve been dwelling a lot lately on what I’m missing out on by not living in Ireland anymore so in the interests of positive energy I’ve put together a list of 10 wonderful things Switzerland has to offer.
1. The Alps: They take up almost two-thirds of the country’s landmass and play a big part in national consciousness and history. Whether you are sailing up in a chairlift over green meadows in a warm summer’s breeze, hiking over a glacier or swooping through a pine forest on skis, any visit to the Alps brings breath-taking moments where you just can’t get over the sheer beauty of it all.
2. Languages: For a language nut like myself, Switzerland is a fascinating mini Tower of Babel. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of cracking Swiss German, completely impenetrable the first time you hear it, even to Germans. Living in a town on the French-German language divide, there’s a lively mix of both cultures; people in my neighbourhood switch between the two languages effortlessly. How do you say hello in Switzerland’s fourth language, Romansh? Allegra!
3. Public Transport: Switzerland demonstrates what public transport should be. The service is frequent, reliable and synchronised, and can take you anywhere. Amazing that the Swiss still feel the need to have five million cars for eight million inhabitants.
4. Location, location, location: Imagine living in a place where in a couple of hours you could visit Germany, France, Italy or Austria. That place is Switzerland. Coming from an island on the edge of Europe, I still get a thrill when I stand in Zurich station and see destinations like Milan, Vienna, Warsaw and Prague on the timetable display.
5. Egalité: Go to an ice hockey match and you’ll see how strongly the Swiss feel about their local identity. People are very attached to their canton and recognise each other’s regional accents straight away. On the other hand there is no such thing as class-related accent and children of all backgrounds are educated side by side in state schools.
6. Built to last: Here’s something that amazes me. There are farmhouses in Switzerland still standing that were built in the 13th century. Not forts or castles but simple farmhouses. This surely is a sign of a great country. For more on that subject here’s a story I did about Switzerland’s oldest house in canton Schwyz: http://bit.ly/ddypTP
7. Traditions: With a huge variety of traditional celebrations and rituals still thriving, Switzerland is all about continuity. Carnival is massive, people spend half the year preparing their costumes and rehearsing with bands. The things people celebrate here feel authentic. Instead of Santa Claus, children wait excitedly for a visit from St Nicholas in early December, a man dressed as a bishop who goes from house to house giving out nuts and chocolate.
8. Waterways: For many people water is about boating and fishing – for me it’s swimming. Switzerland has a wealth of beautiful clean, accessible lakes and rivers. The water warms up by mid-summer and you can walk in without getting a heart attack. The beaches are well kept and there are numerous public pools built on the lake and river shores. So far I’ve swum in a dozen different Swiss lakes, each experience unforgettable – dozens more to go!
9. Cheese: I’m completely hooked on the national cheese dishes raclette and fondue. These melted cheese meals are an institution here, part of the weekly menu all through the winter. I can’t decide which one I like the most so I just have to keep eating them both until I make up my mind.
10. People: One in five Swiss marries someone from outside the country. Like many foreigners in Switzerland, you may start off loving one Swiss person but for those of us who stay and make the effort, the rewards are great. The Swiss I now count as friends are fun-loving, kind and generous. They make me feel at home.
It’s been a good exercise for me to count my Swiss blessings. Have you ever done the same for your adopted home?