Things have been quiet on the blog for a few months. I’m happy to say it’s because I’ve been working steadily on my novel and organizing this spring’s Zurich Writers Workshop. New posts about our recent trip to Vienna and this year’s snowshoe hike will be up soon.
On our first day back in Chicago for the holidays, we made a quick trip to the grocery store with my parents. The following dialogue ensued in the check-out line:
Me: “Um…I think that woman’s taking our beer.”
Mom: “She’s bagging our groceries.”
For more examples of being in Switzerland too long, check out Chantal’s post at One Big Yodel.
I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time, ever since I learned the meaning of a sugary treat called Mohrenkopf.
A mohrenkopf is a wafer topped with a cyndrical cap of marshmallow, enrobed in chocolate. Kind of like a moon pie or a Nabisco Pinwheel cookie.
For an American who grew up in an era advocating political correctness and cultural sensitivity, and with a degree in anthropology, the mohrenkopf puts me in a sticky situation between wanting to gobble up anything with marshmallows and wincing when ordering them from the little old Swiss lady at the bakery.
Because mohrenkopf literally means ‘Moor’s head’. It can also be more crudely translated as the same name as the former name of former U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry’s hunting ranch in Texas.
Yeah. That word.
So first there’s the issue of whether to get over it and enjoy the sugar high from these little treats, or avoid them in support of a society no longer living in the 1860s. So far I’ve avoided buying them. My conscience and my blood sugar levels feel good about this.
But there’s the other issue of whether to voice my opposition to this traditional Swiss treat to the people of my host country. Not just my opposition to the mohrenkopf but to racial slurs in general. There have been a few instances of acquaintances tossing around language that would not be tolerated in America. Not at all in a way meant to offend or demean anyone, but more in a, “we listen to American rap so we assume this is how everyone speaks” way. These times are awkward because it’s never really the right time to go into a sociological explanation about who in America is allowed to use slurs and toward whom. In one instance where we mentioned that in America those words are rarely used in casual conversation and are considered offensive or even aggressive, the response was along the lines of, “Oh really? Huh.”
Am I overly sensitive because of the drastically grimmer history of race relations in America? Is it not such a big deal here because there wasn’t slavery or a brutal and somewhat ongoing fight for civil rights?
Living in a country where I am welcome but am a guest nonetheless, where’s the line between accepting cultural mores as part of living abroad and standing up to outdated, discriminatory language and ideas? It seems to be somewhere in the vicinity of a chocolate-covered puff of marshmallow.
The U.S. Presidential election absentee voting ballot application recently prompted an existential crisis when it asked me to choose between the following options:
1) I am residing outside the U.S., and I intend to return.
2) I am residing outside the U.S., and I do not intend to return.
Umm…neither? We don’t have actual plans to move back to America, but I also don’t necessarily see us living in Switzerland forever. I’m quite comfortable with the idea of continuing our current situation until it doesn’t work for us anymore. Yes, it’s vague. We’re not very good long-term life planners, but we are pretty good at adapting to changing conditions and making major life changes fairly quickly when the opportunity presents itself. (Case in point: The time between our deciding it’d be fun to live in Europe and landing in Switzerland with 12 pieces of luggage and boxes on the way was fewer than 10 months.)
Unfortunately the California Secretary of State doesn’t consider “yeah, maybe, someday, we’ll see,” an acceptable option.
Whenever I have to run a new errand that requires me to speak to someone in German, I spend at least 30 minutes with Google Translate trying to figure out exactly how to phrase my request. Recently, I finally worked up the motivation to take our kitchen knives to be sharpened (motivation being frustration at the dullness of the knives). I knew all the words that needed to be in the sentence: Messern (knives), schleifen (sharpen), and lassen (in this case, to have something done for you). But I didn’t know the correct word order. Here are just a few of the results from my attempts with Google Translate.
Ich lasse diese Messern zu schleifen./I’ll grind these blades.
Ich hätte gern diese Messern schleifen werden./I would be happy to grind these blades.
Ich hätte gern diese Messern schleifen lassen./I would have liked them sharpened these knives.
Ich lasse diese Messern schleifen./I let them grind knives.
And by far the best:
Ich habe drei Messern zum lassen schleifen./I grind to get three knives.
In the end all my translation work was in vain, as my conversation with the woman at the knife shop quickly had to switch to English when she started explaining that my knives were made in China/made of very soft metal/probably unsharpenable…which I don’t even understand in English. We’ll find out today when I go to pick them up and get the manager’s opinion on the sharpenability of the knives. Which means another 30 minutes with Google Translate before I head to the knife store.
German speakers: What’s the right way to ask, “I’d like to have these knives sharpened”?