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. :)

1 comment:

Leah said...

Whatssup Alane.

I liked your post because it is true that we notice what is foreign to us. I probably would have noticed the same things. Teaching kind of puts you in a weird place too. You have a kind of parent role with lots of kids. I feel the same kind of alienation because I can't communicate with my class moms, and because I am in lots of cases older than them but don't have kids, and they don't understand why. It just brings home how small the niche you carve for yourself is, and at the same time how universal (so if that wasn't deep, I don't have anything else to give yah).

Luv yah!