Thursday, March 29, 2007

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Everyone knows that learning a new skill is easiest when one is very young. Indeed, in early childhood the brain is primed for the rapid growth and development necessary for learning to walk and speak. As we get older, our capacity for language development diminishes and it becomes more difficult to learn such things. After my first ski lesson at the age of 24, however, I wonder if there are factors besides the lack of a sponge-like brain which prevent older people from learning the way young ones do. I believe another reason why children learn quickly is that their minds are uncluttered with the ideas and experiences that occupy the minds of adults. In other words, as much as you may want to learn something new when you are grown up, everything else you know can get in the way.

When I was in high school, I volunteered to help chaperon the mentally and physically handicapped kids on a trip to my favorite southern California amusement park, Knott’s Berry Farm. It was a great day for them because they got to hang out with “normal” peers and go on rides all day and it was a sweet deal for us because we didn’t have to go to class. One boy in my group, Brandon, refused to go on all but the tamest rides in the park. Naturally, we were surprised when Brandon joined us in line for Supreme Scream, a new ride which takes you high into the air and then lets you free fall several stories down. We asked Brandon why he wanted to go on this ride when it was clearly a lot scarier than a number of other rides he had avoided. “I’ve never been on this one before,” he said. I sat near Brandon on this ride; he looked terrified during the drop and I doubt that he has ridden Supreme Scream since that day. In a sense, Brandon’s behavior was similar to that of many young children – what they don’t know can’t hurt.

Adults are more apprehensive about jumping into new situations. As we grow older, we rely on our past experiences and knowledge to inform decisions about the unknown. Whereas Brandon had to actually experience Supreme Scream to know that it wasn’t his cup of tea, an adult would have only had to take one look at the size of the ride to realize that he/she should sit that one out. Most of the time, using this kind of logic helps us make good choices, but occasionally it becomes a hindrance.

By some mysterious miracle, my first ski lesson began smoothly. I mastered the bunny slopes quickly and didn’t fall down even once. Mickey had to spend more time with the instructor and was jealous of my success. After lunch I felt confident enough to attempt a real slope and our experienced friends were kind enough to guide us on the lift. As soon as I saw the end of the lift, the part where you must let go, balance yourself and ski out of the way, I had flashbacks of exiting the chair lifts with a snowboard in Lake Tahoe. I crashed ungracefully every single time and crawled out of the way on my hands and knees in pain and humiliated. These memories came flooding back to me when I saw the end of the lift in Klosters and, of course, I panicked and fell. I wish my instructor had allowed me to fall just once during the lesson because then I would have seen that I could fall, pick myself up again and be okay. But this was my first fall of the day and the fear of it happening again on this steep hill without the colorful, smiling cardboard animals that line the bunny slopes paralyzed me. I barely made it down that slope; my body forgot everything it had learned that morning and I cried. It was the beginning and end of my skiing career.

When Paola told me how trying Elena’s first week at ski school had been, I wondered why she would want her child of not even three years to start learning. Now I realize that Elena will never be plagued by memories of disastrous exits from the lift and tears on the slopes; she will always know how to ski. Now I realize that Paola was doing her a favor.
I left my Monday night German class throwing my hands up in the air. “Six different ways to pluralize a noun?!” I complained to Hannah. “They need to streamline this language.” I had just learned that nouns can be pluralized by adding six different endings to the word, or in some cases, by adding nothing at all but always changing the article to ‘die.’ There are patterns, but no set rules for what kind of word must have which ending in the plural form. Maybe, just maybe I could handle all this if the changes made to the words were always suffixes, but German doesn’t work this way. Sometimes, in order to pluralize a noun, one must also change the tone of the first vowel in the word and when I learned this, my friends, this was when I wanted to throw in the towel. Why is learning a new language as a young child so much easier? Of course, it is because your brain is ready for it, you learn in a more natural setting and you aren’t as embarrased about making a mistake. But it is also easier because young children are not cognizant of the fact one needs only (usually) to add an ‘s’ to pluralize a noun in their primary language. They don’t realize what they are up against, and in this case, that is a good thing.

I have begun taking a belly dancing class with my friend Sirpa on Tuesday evenings. Because I love to dance, learning something new has been less painful, but we are still required to move our bodies in ways that feel completely unnatural. I wonder if it would be easier to belly dance if people started at an early age. I can’t teach Giulia how to ski or speak German, but maybe I’ll show her how to shake her baby belly.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

It Would Be Your Own Fault

I devoted my last post to a discussion of Swiss responsibility and I now realize that the subject deserves at least one more post.

Mickey and I spent the weekend before last in Klosters, a charming ski resort town made famous by Prince Charles' frequent visits. Worn out after a frustrating morning on the bunny slopes on Saturday (that is another story), we spent Sunday wandering the hills and visiting some friends in their newly built Klosters vacation home. The conversation turned to our wedding and Mark mentioned that he visited a castle much like the one in which we will marry, when he was a kid.

"I remember the torture chamber," Mark said. "I wanted to lie down in the spiked coffin, but I knew that my brother would have closed the lid."
"You know what the Swiss say," his wife Carla chimed in, "it would have been your own fault." I was going to ask Carla what she meant by this, but I already knew. Suddenly, it all made sense.

Last month, Mickey and some friends and I trekked out to Basel to partake in pre-Fasnacht activities. Basel's Fasnacht is a three day carnival involving parades of grotesquely masked piccolo players designed to scare away the winter and usher in the spring. Believe it or not, the madness began promptly at 4am on Monday and thus we were unable to attend Fasnacht. On Fasnacht eve we settled for Chienbäse, a parade in a small town outside of Basel featuring some of the same masked piccolo players, but with fire. And I'm not talking about 'that torch casts a festive glow' kind of fire, I'm talking about 'hold on to your kid, hope your clothes aren't flammable, Barbie melting' fire. I could try to describe the heat and intensity of this parade, but the pictures offer a better sense of the scene. (Thanks, Pete, for sharing these fantastic photos).

People carried enormous bonfires on their backs (next to their heads and hair!) and had to be sponged with water and flame retardant substances every few yards. The parade passed through narrow medieval streets and the flames licked centuries old buildings and trees. There was no barricade preventing the crowd from walking straight into one of the raging bonfires and only a couple of firefighters were staffed to survey the chaos. It was a miracle that no one was hurt and that no property was damaged.

There is no way that anything like Chienbäse could ever take place in the US. If so much as a handbag was burned, the city would be faced with so many lawsuits it would rue the day it dreamed a fire parade was possible. If Chienbäse came to the states, firefighters from three counties would barricade the parade route and protect the crowd and still it would be too dangerous. I wondered how Chienbäse could go on year after year, but Carla's words helped me make sense of it. The Swiss figure that if you get burned in the fire, it was your fault for standing too close. Perhaps in a nation where personal responsibility is of utmost importance, the fear of lawsuits does not bother parade planners.

Yesterday afternoon I took the girls to the local playground for some air and sunshine. A slide that follows the slope of the hill, a tireswing and a shaky rope bridge over a dry creek bed make this the most appealing playground I have ever seen. I didn't realize until yesterday, however, that its fire pit also makes this playground attractive to adolescents. While Elena and I enjoyed the tireswing, an older man helped two young boys build a fire in the pit. Because this is Switzerland and people seem to defy stereotypes, I couldn't tell whether this man was the grandfather of one of the boys, the principal of the school next door or the type of stranger from whom your parents advise you to never accept candy. One of the boys threw a snowball at us and said hello when it crashed in the sand next to us. When the boys grew tired of tending to the fire, they played nearby while the man read the part of the newspaper that he hadn't already burned as kindling. There were so many things wrong with this picture I felt like I was looking at the back of a Highlights magazine. Why is there a fire pit at a playground and who is this man? The teacher in me wanted to approach them, but I've only learned how to order from a menu and comment on furniture in German, so I let them be. Besides, if they caught on fire it would be their own fault. :)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The National Character Trait: Responsible

Most Americans know little about Switzerland. Some even get it confused with Sweden, but the majority conjure images of majestic Alps, fine chocolates and efficiency when Switzerland is mentioned. After living here just two months, I can confidently affirm that gorgeous views and delectable chocolates are plentiful, but the efficiency keeps me guessing. Indeed, the trains do run on time (and when one didn't the transit authority picked me up in a van), but I want to know why.

Have Mickey and I found our niche in a nation of type A citizens where emails and phone calls are returned within one day and 'punctual' is one of the first adjectives you learn in German class? Maybe. At first, I figured that centuries of adopting and abiding rules had shaped the Swiss into the meticulous watch-makers and bankers they are today. The countless rules here, ranging from the inconvenient (supermarkets close at 8pm or earlier) to the absurd (no flushing the toilet after 10pm) are astounding. When Mickey first began reading to me from The Xenophobe's Guide to the Swiss, a quick read describing the peculiarities of Swiss culture, I knew I had hit a goldmine of priceless material for this blog.

What amused me more than the endless list of dos and don'ts though, was the way rules are enforced, not by the police or a task force of highly trained St. Bernards, but by themselves. The Swiss comply with these rules because they are highly conscious of what the neighbors will think and do. In fact, the neighbors of my employers have left notes at their door asking them to remove papers that had only been sitting out for a couple of hours. Likewise, Google's neighbors have filed multiple complaints about the late hours at which Google's lights are still on.

In a scene from Die Schweizermacher, an old Swiss movie about obtaining Swiss citizenship, government officials question the neighbor of the young immigrant they are investigating. "Have you noticed anything unusual about this woman?" they ask. "Well," her neighbor replies, "she uses brown garbage bags while the rest of us use blue." Perhaps using the wrong color garbage bags was just poor form at the time this movie was made, but if Mickey and I tried to pull a stunt like that, our garbage simply wouldn't be collected. Anyway, I imagined that this post would end here and that my American family and friends would have a laugh at the expense of the Swiss. 'My, aren't they petty?" we'd chuckle. But in recent weeks, I've developed a profound respect for the Swiss and the high expectations (yeah, I said it) they hold for themselves.

For instance, there are many rules governing the disposal of recyclable materials in Switzerland. Paper must be flattened and tied up with string and is collected at the curb twice each month, glass and aluminum must be sorted by color and dropped off at a local recycling center while plastics are returned to the supermarket. This system took some getting used to and I know it would never work in the US. We can barely be trusted with one container let alone three with separate instructions. Still, the system works remarkably well for the ecologically minded Swiss. I've heard that the remaining rubbish doesn't burn very well because it is completely devoid of the more flammable recyclables.

As a former teacher, I was similarly stunned by Swiss school schedules. My friend Hannah's six and seven year old charges start and finish school at different times each day of the week. You might think that US parents could adjust to that, dropping kids off and picking them up earlier or later, but here's the kicker - Swiss children come home for lunch everyday. It was difficult for the parents of my students in the US to remember early dismissal day, forget a nutritious lunch and then back off to school. This is the reason why many feel that the Swiss system discriminates against working moms. Someone must be at home to prepare lunch for the children and if mom can't, then you need an au pair. Still, I am impressed that teachers get the prep time they deserve and that Swiss parents are so responsible.

Voting also requires responsibility here in Switzerland. Its government operates with a form of direct democracy, a system which requires citizens to vote on all kinds of issues that in the states are left to local, state and national legislatures. Paola feels burdened by this system which demands that constituents inform themselves of the many issues, but I am in awe of this government which puts so much trust in its people. I wonder what would happen if the US government, education system and even garbage collection companies put more faith in the American people. If the expectations of us were raised, would we rise to the challenge and inform ourselves better at election time, become better parents and recycle more efficiently? Wendy Kopp might think so, but I'm not so sure. If only they could export responsibility the way they do chocolate and cheese... (sigh:)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Mommy and Me

I've roamed the highlands of Scotland and the island of Mallorca, but have never felt more like a stranger in a strange land than I did at a local playgroup for mommies and babies. Being both an au pair and a non-Swiss German speaker is a double whammy that would make anyone feel like an outsider. This fact was made abundantly clear when one mommy went to introduce herself to me and another warned her in German, "she speaks English. She's an au pair." Because she said this in German, it is hard to identify the sentiment behind this statement, but even someone who speaks only Swahili would know that she had put me in my place. The first mommy smiled uncomfortably and backed away. Still, being outed for what I am wasn't the worst thing that could have happened. I would now have an excuse for sitting back and playing the role of the anthropologist.

Observing babies, mommies and their relationships riveted me and the still immobile Giulia for the duration of the two hour playgroup meeting. Any introductory anthropology textbook explains that clothing and food are two of the most basic constituents of a culture. Thus, taking note of the mommies' attire and what they served their tots for svierie (afternoon snack) was my first task. All the Swiss women I've met, no matter how old or how wealthy, are slender and dress fashionably, and these playgroup mommies were no exception. There was one hot mommy in particular who differentiated herself and her child from the rest. She was wearing a full face of makeup (think Clinique counter), a cashmere sweater set, nice jeans and expensive looking leather boots. Her daughter had one ear pierced and sported a surprisingly dangly earring for a one year old on that right ear. Hot mommy was eager to introduce herself to me, but quick to shy away once she learned that I didn't speak German. She was younger than the other mommies and something about her manner indicated that she was perhaps new to the group and/or looking for an ally. Reflecting on hot mommy later, I guessed that she may be Eastern European and may feel like somewhat of an outsider herself. (Some more xenophobic Swiss are growing resentful of Albanian and Yugoslavian immigrants who are perceived to not integrate themselves with Swiss society).

I scored an ethnographic interview with a friend of Paola's who also works part time and speaks fluent English. I wonder if she must also feel like an outsider because she is a working mum in a wealthy Zurich suburb. Later that day, I told Hannah about my exotic encounter with the playgroup mommies and she laughed. "They're not judging you for being an au pair," she said. "They are judging your family for having an au pair." Switzerland is slightly behind the US in terms of the role of women in the working world. Opinions are changing slowly, but many still believe that women should stay home and take care of their children. In fact, I've heard the term 'raven mothers' used disparagingly to describe working moms in Switzerland. I don't know if that is a translation of another term, but it doesn't sound good. The playgroup mommies were very polite and didn't present any feelings of superiority or disdain, but who knows what else was said in German?

The most culturally significant moment at the playgroup occurred when hot mommy's single earringed baby threw up all over herself, a chair and the floor. It was kind of gross, but three mommies leapt up and helped clean the mess and I wondered if I should do the same. At what point should the anthropologist, I mean au pair, get involved? I didn't help my best friend clean up her vomit after her bachelorette party so I didn't feel the need to assist a child of whom I'm not in charge. Paola later said that I could always use Giulia's immobility as an excuse for not helping in the future and I thought that was pretty clever.

One of the most important post modern critiques of anthropology is that the study of a 'foreign culture' always reveals more about the culture of the anthropologist herself. For instance, I only notice the collaborative effort to clean up baby puke because it doesn't resonate with my own sense of what is appropriate. In a way, everything I record in this blog about my perception of European culture remains just that, my perception of what is different or what is not American. Indeed, an au pair from Dakar or Shanghai might not notice the hot mommy or the rush to aid her sick baby and instead devote an entire post to the mere existence of playgroups in the first place. But you're stuck with me as your eye into Swiss culture and I'll do my best to keep it real. :)