31 July 2010


"Morgestraich, vorwärts, marsch!" is the battle cry usually heard at 4am, on a Monday morning in late February, in the Swiss city of Basel. All the lights in the city go out, and for the next 72 hours Basel is in the firm hold of the traditional cliques, the carneval groups. For many Baslers, these are the three most beautiful days of the year, and they follow a very traditional sequence of events, which after the early morning procession includes afternoon street parades, and of course the Schnitzelbank recitals at night. Schnitzelbank is not a food, but a particualar type of verse, satirically written in Basel's local dialect, poking fun at events and personalities of the bygone year. More often than not, Zurich and its residents are the butts of the jokes - the traditional rivalry between the two cities seeming even more accentuated during Fasnacht than at any other time of the year. When I was once invited to attend the Fasnacht with a Basel friend of mine, I was beseeched not to speak, for my dialect would have given me away as one of the loathed Zurichers - and by consequence put my local friend into dire straits.

Far away from home, of course, such petty differences melt away. And so it was with great enthusiasm, and a sense of privilege, that I donned an authentic Basel Fasnacht costume the other week, responding to a message from the Swiss Consulate in Montréal. It, in turn, had been invited by the organizing committee of Le Grand Charivari, Montréal's summer carneval, to showcase Swiss Fasnacht culture as the guest nation this year. (You would think that they'd rather go for the sparsely-clad Rio de Janeiro variant, but no....)

What I had expected to be a somewhat half-hearted affair turned out to be a professionally organized and apparently very well funded event. With what must have been a generous portion of the Swiss mission's cultural budget for the year, a container full of costumes and props was brought in from Basel, along with a batch of live Fasnacht musicians. The cliques in Basel have generously lent out their 2010 costumes for us to parade in, and along with the other Swiss expatriates of all ages showing up that Sunday afternoon, I quickly recognized the themes and people that were made fun of. However, as we started to get dressed as Lybian soldiers, bankrupt UBS bankers and ruthless pharmaceutical researchers, doubts started creeping up inside our Waggis helmets. Would the Montréalais "get" the jokes? Or would they just wonder why exactly an oversized camel with a weird face was being paraded across downtown?

Little did it matter, for the Swiss group was the first, but only one of many in the entire parade. Following us through the crowded avenues of the city's center at nightfall was a multitude of Montréal borough groups, which had taken the Basel concept of satire to heart, and applied it to local themes ranging from BP's oil spill to excessive credit card spending and even city government corruption. Oh, wait! That last topic was actually banned by... city authorities. Maybe, then, it wasn't so bad that the boldness of the Swiss statements was not fully understood!

Either way, we certainly had a blast and I must admit that I was strangely touched when, at dusk, the sound of drums and piccolo flutes led the way through the streets of what is now my home town. The local spectators were enthusiastic (amazing what a few chocolate and Ricola giveaways will do), but the biggest compliment came a few days later from Basel itself, in the form of a TeleBasel broadcast approving of the event!

And for those of you not mastering Swiss German, or rather the particular form of it these weird people in Basel speak ;-), here are a few impressions without words:

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19 July 2010

Man spricht Deutsch

It came as a big surprise to me, back in 2008 when I travelled to Montréal to be interviewed for what now is my job. I had expected to converse with my interlocutor in English, or perhaps in Québécois-tinted French. But I most certainly was not prepared for the cordial "Guten Tag" that came with a genuine Teutonic handshake.

As it turns out, a member of our team actually hails from Germany, but she happened to go on maternity leave the Friday before I started working there. Now, however, after taking advantage of Québec's generous job protection provisions for working mothers, as well as some pent up vacation, my Bavarian colleage is back to a cubicle near me, and it was with excitement that we embarked on our first joint project last week.

And then we noticed how awkward it felt. Logic dictates that two native (if I can consider myself as such) German speakers would use Goethe's language amongst themselves. But neither of us had ever done so within the office walls - we both very much think in English in this context. So when we sat down to discuss the project at hand, we both had to chuckle repeatedly as we struggled with finding the right words, or sentence structures, to express our thoughts in German. How do you say "key performance indicator" or "return on investment"? Realistically, given Germany's infatuation with anglicisms these days, you'd probably just call them KPI and ROI. ;-)

It's not just a matter of vocabulary, though. We also exchanged emails while my colleague was travelling. In order to write them in German, you need to have access to the Umlaut characters which are conveniently located on any German keyboard - but of course are nowhere to be found on a Canadian one. Fortunately, it is commonly accepted to replace an "ä" by typing ae, so we seemed to have successfully broken through this dam holding back the Neue Deutsche Welle.

There was one thing, though, which may have us reconsider our linguistic choices. As the project matured, it was necessary to involve a larger audience. Not thinking much, I took an email that had gone back and forth between my colleague and myself, added a quick "please see below for the latest development on this project" line on top of it and fowarded it to other departments. Suffice it to say that, while we primarily deal with air travel, our other colleagues only understood train station*!

* If this pun eludes you, then you know how the recipients of the email must have felt.

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06 July 2010


With the summer heat, another staple of the season has returned: Patriotic festivities. While I have taken advantage of the first one, Québec's grandly called fête nationale, to extend my trip to Switzerland by a public holiday, I have returned in time for the next batch. July 1st is Canada Day, celebrated from sea to sea with a rare outburst of true Canadian National Pride. This year, it featured even more pomp and circumstance, for the country's true Head of State (an elderly lady of German descent who lives in a castle across the ocean) was in town. Somewhat surprisingly, TV commentators still called her a "visitor". Well, this visitor has certainly left plenty of traces - on coins and stamps, for instance.

Québec, of course, has its own way of using July 1st, as I have noticed last year. But since I did not have to move this year, and was spared from moving other people's boxes around, I could take it easy. After a relaxing day with swimming, reading and ice cream, I met up with my most reliably federalist friends for dinner, which turned out to be so engaging and enduring that we never even made it to the Old Port for the (low-key, federally funded) fireworks.

Not that I felt like having missed much, for I knew that I was in for another healthy - and entirely unconditional - dose of patriotism very soon. The next night, I headed across the border (for the first time, without a stamp, form or fee!) to Vermont. And while that place admittedly is not Texas, there was no doubt that its residents were gearing up for a celebration of their own (they are just 3 days late, as Canadians like to say...). Saturday beckoned with blue skies and still bearable tempeartures, and so I hiked the state's highest peak, at a majestic 1340m, before joining my friends in downtown Burlington for the Independence Day fireworks.

True to its practical and unpretentious reputation, the city had scheduled the lakefront activites, with jugglers, air acrobatics, free music and plenty of street-side food stalls, for the Saturday night, so that people would be able to recover on Sunday. And I had thought that they wanted to celebrate on July 3rd because their country would be attacked by aliens the next day! Turns out the little green men did not strike after all. They were most likely discouraged by an impressive 40min display of firepower, beautifully synchronized to patriotic themes over Lake Champlain. As always, no shame or modesty south of the border!

Driving back home on Sunday, I chose a scenic route to a tiny border crossing, in a successful attempt to avoid the crowds of Canadians returning from what was, for them, a four day weekend. Unfortunately, I had not counted on another Independence Day tradition, typical for small town America: Village parades! To an enthusiastic and flag-waving audience of villagers sitting in their front yards drinking beer, the local array of tractors, fire engines and old cars, ideally sporting young beauties, parade by - with the rest of traffic obviously standing still (flashy red rental cars with Canadian plates are not allowed to take part).

When I finally made it back home, I felt throughly patriotic, albeit a bit confused about allegiances. That feeling was quickly corrected when I emptied my mailbox: Waiting for me was the Consulate General's official invitation to this years's 1. Augustfeier. I'll be a patriot once again!

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