06 February 2010


How do you measure anticipation? For the approaching Vancouver Olympic Games, a thermometer may not be the appropriate tool, as it would remain firmly below zero even with the opening ceremony a mere six days away. Clearly, things must be heating up by now - or so we are made to believe. But realistically, here in Montréal, some 3'700km from the Olympic Flame, people don't seem to have warmed much to the event. The section at the Bay department store where the official Olympic clothing line is sold was not exactly bustling with activity when I checked it out a few days ago, and media coverage so far was rather muted - with a short outburst of excitement when Canada's roster for the hockey tournament was announced.

Apart from that, the francophones seem to care, if at all, about the degree of recognition and application of the official language of the Olympic Movement, le français. There is a bigwig, going by the grandiose title of "Grand Témoin de la Francophonie aux Jeux Olympiques d’hiver de Vancouver", who is supposed to enforce the proper use of language during the event. He even got to meet with Canada's Governor General. Of course, the role is too politically sensitive to be assigned to just any fierce separatist Québecois, who would probably raise many a ruckus. So instead, a grandstanding but ultimately harmless retired politician from a certain neutral country was picked. (Apparently, they have run out of jobs at the UN...)

In ROC (Rest Of Canada, should you wonder) however, exicitement about the upcoming sports fest seems to be mounting, the farther west, the more. In Vancouver, they use a countdown clock, which obviously jives with the Swiss mindset as well. When I took a picture of it on my visit in early 2008, little did I know that I would live in the host country by the time the games open. And when I moved to this country, little did I know that I'd spend a grand total of three days in Canada while the games are on. The rest of the time will see me in places where they know winter sports from hearsay at best.

And yet I am merry - in anticipation of red rose service, afternoon tea, dim sum and Cathay Delight. Or, as Olympians would say: Being there is everything.

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01 February 2010

You can say you to me

They are admittedly old jokes. Helmut Kohl declaring to US President Bush "you can say you to me", or a terrified French President Mitterrand during a choppy helicopter ride, crying out to Federal Councillor Adolf Ogi "on est perdu!", to which the graduate of Primarschule Kandersteg happily responds "freut mich, ich bin Dölf".

But they do point to a real issue. Both German and French have a formal and an informal style of addressing somebody, the use of which is dictated by complicated implicit social codes. English, on the other hand, has done away with such subtleties a long time ago. This makes introductions and conversations in English much less political, and is probably the reason behind the more casual first name basis so prevalent in English-speaking corporate culture. People brought up amidst the social pitfalls of Goethe's and Voltaire's language revel the liberties of expressing themselves in English.

And then there's crunchtime. In my case, the moment of truth came yesterday, in a most unlikely location: As I was stepping into the changing rooms of my local pool, there were lots of daddies getting their sons dressed (Sunday morning is family time, meaning that by the time I get there in the afternoon, there's even more need for chlorine in the pool). Picking a locker, I exchanged a few English words of courtesy with the mid-forties dad drying off his son there, when I suddenly noticed that he was talking to his toddler in Swiss German. Intrigued, I eavesdropped for a while, but eventually succumbed to the typical expat habit that I had lambasted as annoying and provincial so many times in the past. Still, I just had to out myself as a compatriot!

I made a friendly remark in dialect to the boy, which earned me a blank stare from him but the immediate attention and a smile from his father. "Oh, also Swiss?" he asked. "Yes", was my reply, already noticing the awkwardness of the situation. "Been here for long?" The conversation went on for another two or three pseudo-phrases, with tensions mounting by the second, but let's face it: You can only omit personal pronouns for so long. We had to make a decision: Would we be Sie or Du?

I rescued myself into gesturing at the boy and resorting to the indiscriminate plural Ihr, to which my counterpart flinched and responded with a phrase that started with Sie and ended in Dir. My answer was no less clumsy. We stared at each other for a second, and then simultaneously burst out into laughter. You can say you to me!

P.S. The Economist has recently published a wonderful article on the subject.


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