Mastering the language of my second home

Vocabulary and cadences, phrasings and simple expressions shifted from canton to canton, even valley to valley. 

Staff/File
A 1952 bronze by Swiss sculptor Hermann Hubacher depicts the myth of Ganymede and Zeus (in eagle form) in Lake Zurich, Switzerland.

In 1975, I married a man with dual U.S.-Swiss citizenship. His father was Swiss, his mother Norwegian-American, and Rob grew up in Connecticut. 

Shortly after our wedding I applied for and was granted Swiss citizenship, snappy red passport and all. Our honeymoon, delayed until the following summer, could be no place else but Zurich, replete with welcoming relatives. Who was I to argue? I’d been to Europe several times, but never to Switzerland, and certainly never to lakeside luxury. Language tutorials commenced.

“After a meal,” Rob suggested, “say S’grüezi.

“Say what?”

S’grüezi.”

“How do you spell it, and what does it mean?”

This drew a blank look. Rob explained that Swiss dialects are spoken, but not easily spelled (the above was his stab at it). In High German it would be “Es ist gut gewesen!” or “That’s been good!” But the family was Swiss, and proudly so. They would tolerate High German, but I’d further endear myself to them if I abbreviated and mangled the phrase as per their own dialect. It would speak to their hearts, Rob said. 

I s’grüezied after every meal for weeks before our flight, and did myself proud at the dinner table in Kusnacht that first evening. Surely the family laughter was a seal of approval.

I slowly learned other simple phrases in Zuri-Deutsch, all of which sounded incomprehensible to me at first. 

But even six months in Switzerland during one of Rob’s sabbaticals failed to make me truly fluent, and so many other dialects vied for attention. Vocabulary and cadences, phrasings and simple expressions shifted from canton to canton, even valley to valley. In other parts of the country, French, Italian, or Romansh ruled. Everyone spoke English, anyway. 

After our divorce, I was grateful that many in Rob’s Zurich family kept in touch. Decades later, I even took our grandson to visit cousins near Zurich. As Connor and I walked to the beach on the Zurisee, mingling with the crowd, I felt immersed in Swiss once again. I began to wonder: Was I still a citizen? 

Once home, I contacted the Swiss Embassy in Washington. Sure enough, I was still a citizen, though under my married name, which I’d long since abandoned. 

Making the name change required a massive effort and documents I thought I no longer had, including an expired passport under my old name. I dug through files, finding everything but that passport – until I found a long-untouched folder simply labeled “Docs.” And there it was.

The next hurdle was a trip to the Washington embassy. The staff took biometric data and a rather large check as they helped me apply for an ID and passport – both of which arrived in my mailbox a month later. It was official. 

Meanwhile, ballots for referendums on everything from footpath design to agricultural policy and financial reforms began appearing in my mailbox. Having never missed a chance to vote in any election, I read up on the issues (grateful for the summaries in High German) and posted my responses the next day.

I realized as I struggled through those exercises that if I did take up residence near Zurich, I had to master not only High German but a local dialect: Basler-Deutsch or Zuri-Deutsch – or both.

I live in a university town, so I put an inquiry on my local group email list: Any Swiss nationals willing to tutor me, or simply share conversational visits over lunch? The first responses came within an hour, and my calendar is filling up with Greutzi’s (Greuss Gott, in High German, but a cheerful “hello” either way).

And so I spent an hour recently with Julia on her porch a few blocks from home for some conversational practice in Zuri-Deutsch. And just today I shared coffee with Lislott, a Basel native. I am delighted to realize how much I understand even as I struggled to speak it. 

I may become fluent before the cows come down off the Alps this fall. And whether or not I spend half years in Switzerland, I can keep practicing with newfound friends and so deepen my Swiss roots right here.

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