Thursday, January 26, 2012

There Can Be Too Much Swiss Chocolate!?

My annual trip home to the U.S. always means stuffing a suitcase with souvenirs from Europe for my family and friends. But after 12+ years of living in Germany and Switzerland, I have to admit my ideas are becoming stale. I’ve already exported the gamut of Swiss chocolate, including chocolate fondue (which I’m not sure is truly Swiss: or is it just catering to tourists’ fantasies about Switzerland?). I’ve also brought cheese, including fondue; t-shirts and baseball caps adorned with cows; cowbells; and even cuckoo clock kitch (also not actually Swiss, but pandering to the Swiss fantasies of tourists).

Say what you will, but I'll bet this is not a souvenir you've already received a dozen times over. In fact, I purchased a dozen of them just because I was so excited to have found something different. Really different.

The more global our shopping experiences become (you can get delicious Swiss and German goodies in your local Wegman's), the harder it is to surprise and delight, I might add. There's nothing like dragging around luggage heavy with Toberlone just to find that while you were gone, it's become a resident of the shelves at your nearest supermarket. Sometimes Swiss things, such as Sigg cups, even cost less in the U.S. than in the producer country Switzerland! (It's a pretty expensive place to live, all right.)  

For novelty, I’ve also schlepped home items as diverse as fizzy candy (Brausepulver), local beer and mayonnaise in an aluminum tube... even mayonnaise swirled with ketchup in an aluminum tube, resembling Aquafresh! The latter is just for a laugh, as my fellow citizens generally know mayonnaise as inhabiting jars only – never a container resembling toothpaste.

I’ve even transported bottles of Moewenpick salad dressing, as several of my U.S. visitors have deemed it exquisite. This seems odd because an average American grocery store contains a salad dressing aisle roughly the size of the Freie Strasse, the main shopping street in Basel. Yet my loved ones find Moewenpick salad dressing to be superior to any specimen from that massive selection back home. It's odd, but I indulge them.

But now, perhaps you experienced international folks have some ideas to share on something to bring back home? It might be something special, something local, something embodying Swissness? (If it's tiny and light and unbreakable while in the luggage, that would be a huge bonus.) Or anyone out there who's on the homefront, what could an expat such as myself bring you that would make you happy? I declare, I have schlepped my last bar of Toblerone.

You used to seem so special, Toblerone. Then you were bought by Kraft. And then you just jumped right in with the Hershey's and Milky Ways at the supermarket. Don't ever change your mountain-shaped bite sizes or you'll really become just a plain old candy bar.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Frickin' Cultural Differences (Censored)

One of the things I like about Switzerland is the sheen of relative innocence. I see it in the way it's safe for kids to walk to school, and in the way I see shade umbrellas at cafes touting the logo for wholesome Ovomaltine (a.k.a. Ovaltine) rather than, say, sexy Campari or a boozy beer brand.

Yet, in Switzerland, I have overheard cute little kids yelling the equivalent of "sh*t" outside or at after-school care, and the locals do not look taken aback. At risk of coming off as prudish, I admit it still seems odd to me.

This has been a frequent cause of surprise for me in expat life - hearing words considered really, really rude in my native language spring forth (usually in German) from the lips of little kids, teachers, neighborhood mommies and daddies. It's not about a slip of the tongue in a harried moment. It just seems like no big deal at all. Even the wonderful children's choir is singing a song containing the word schyssdraegg, which is Swiss German for something I don't think Americans would hear in a kids' choir.

Elsewhere, in the German-language production of Grease, the character nicknamed "Rump" in the original English version (because of his hobby of mooning people) was nicknamed "Arschi" in German. This might be very(!) loosely translated as "*ss Guy." You wouldn't find characters so nicknamed in a musical in the U.S., would you? Fun for the whole family! And in the 1990s, there was a popular song on the radio called (roughly translated from German), "I Think You're Sh*tty."

It's not a Swiss thing, actually, but German. Mark Twain observed a precursor of this phenomenon when he travelled in Germany, noting that you might hear the primmest old ladies uttering phrases that would shock their American counterparts; for example, "Verdammt!" and "Mein Gott!" In the 21st century, the U.S. is a known exporter of crude, rude, violent, profane pop culture (movies, TVs, computer games, music), yet there are still certain expressions considered inappropriate in even moderately polite company, let alone a school setting.

At least it used to be that way... right? Maybe I've been away from the U.S. too long, and all the babies crawl around cussing nowadays. Or, if I had to do a quick analysis (and risk making annoying generalizations), I might chalk it up to the stereotypical traits of openness or bluntness in German and superficiality or keeping up appearances in the U.S. It would be equivalent to the habit, more often observed stateside, of acting warm and friendly towards strangers even if people don't really mean it. (Clearly this doesn't happen all the time, but it seems more common in the States than here!) Americans might be doing more of their swearing privately and putting on a show of good manners. We all know what's being said when Jon Stewart or a rap sing get bleeped, but people must still need that bleeping and somehow feel like the material is okay if it's bleeped and otherwise not okay.  

I wonder if this is a German vs. English thing, and if so, does it apply only to American English? Have you noticed the phenomenon? What do you notice in other cultures? Would people find it normal in the U.S. to hear a younger kid shouting a curse word? Are you teaching your kids that swearing is no big deal, or are you strict about it? I'd %#(*ing love to hear all your opinions, dear readers!