Ready or Not

Go into any little shop or bakery in Switzerland and listen. You’ll hear a series of melodic exchanges between server and served, from the moment you walk in until the moment you leave, happily clutching the puffy little crackly sack full of warm pastries and Brötchen. The music of Swiss greetings and goodbyes bounce off the walls in shops and restaurants. I found out that this functions not only as an expression of courtesy, but also of community. It’s an aural filter separating Swiss from non-Swiss German speakers, because although the German and Swiss can understand each other, Hochdeutsch is certainly not Bärndüütsch, a fact which just one morning in a Swiss bakery can demonstrate.

As an English speaker, I could perhaps compare the somewhat stiff reserve of the British to the casual warmth of a down-home American Southerner. But that analogy fails to capture the uniqueness of both German and Swiss, and all the connotations their language use suggests.  As much as Swiss culture emphasizes community for the insider, there is a palpable sense of not belonging to that community for the outsider. I may be able to pass for a German because of my fluency and accent, among the Swiss, but I can’t master the melodic greetings and leave-takings which punctuate such ordinary exchanges as shopping errands and bakery counter purchases.  No one ever mistakes me for Swiss.

“Grüezi wohl! Sie wünsche?”  

The initial greeting is meant as the first part of a pair. If I don’t supply the other half, or if I supply something that doesn’t fit appropriately, there is slight drop in the social energy. It’s rhythmic. And the morning shift of a bakery, like a coffee shop, has a naturally quick pace. It’s routine and flow. I get the feeling that I’m expected to know exactly what I want the moment I walk in. All the regulars do. When I let my eyes wander, lingering over twenty different possibilities of bread, roll, fruit tart, croissant, danish, cookie or unrecognizable delicacies, I get the feeling that I’m taking too long, and as I raise my hand to gesture towards an item and begin to say, “Ich hätte gern…” then the counter person has already guessed my wish, called out its name, “eine Speckbrotstange?” plucked it from its brothers, and stuck it in a sack. Then I get the expectant look and a quick prompt for another item. Even when I beat them to the punch and come in ready, the feeling of small accomplishment I receive by requesting exactly what I want from the bakery shelves is often interrupted by the automatic prompt from the counter person: “Und noch was dazu?” or “Sonst noch was?” Being finished, I often don’t expect another question, and sometimes don’t catch the exact phrasing of the question at first, at which point I have to ask, “Ähm, Entschuldigung?” The prompt is repeated, and I can end the verbal barrage with a simple: “Nein, danke.” At which point comes the chirrupy announcement of the price.

“Ein Eurro füfüfüfsk, bitte.” This is what I hear as the Swiss version of “Ein Euro fünfundfünfzig.”

After I’ve paid, there is a little drum roll of leave-takings that can bounce back and forth, or simply stream from the employee, but most of the other customers I observed continue to chatter their leave-takings as they left the store.

“Dankhe!  Schöne Sonntig!  Ade!  Gleichfalls!  Eine Schöne Tag noch!  Ihnen auch! Tschüüüüüß!”


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