As an American leading a mostly monolingual life, it has been hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that there are three national languages here. The packaging information on supermarket items is printed in three languages; how is it that our product labels are printed in one language but still take up the same amount of space on the package? I guess Swiss manufacturers have learned how to express ideas like "containing 30 essential vitamins and minerals" pictorally as to avoid printing "enthält 30 wichtige Vitamine und Mineralas, 30 contenant des vitamines et des mineralas, Contenente 30 vitamine essenziali e mineralas."
English language films are shown with both German and French subtitles and most Swiss learn all three of these languages in school, German, French and English, that is, not Italian. I guess it makes sense because only about eight percent of the Swiss population speaks Italian, but it made me feel kind of sorry for and incredibly curious about the Ticinese. Do they feel like outsiders in their own country? Is language or nationality more important to their senses of identity? When Switzerland plays against Italy in soccer I assume the Ticinese root for Switzerland, but do they have to watch the match on an Italian channel to hear commentary they can understand?
After spending a weekend in Ticino on Lago Maggiore, I was able to answer none of the above questions, but I did walk away with a turquoise necklace and a comparison that helps me make sense of my trilingual host country. I tried to imagine what the United States would be like if it were divided into three distinct cultural and linguistic regions. The Swiss German speaking part of Switzerland is known to be a little more conservative than the rest of the country, so I decided that this region could be compared to the Midwestern and southern parts of the US. The French speaking west of Switzerland, however, is more... French actually; it's slightly more relaxed with a bit more flavor. Perhaps this region can be compared to the American east coast and New England. Those areas are not as conservative as the south or Midwest, but they can be snobby.
That leaves us with Ticino and its American counterpart. Paola (and loads of other Swiss) love Ticino; "you see the palm trees and immediately you start to relax," she says. Okay, palm trees, relaxing, known for good food... Ticino must of course be compared with California. Yes, we had a weekend away in the California of Switzerland. It made us feel so at home that we decided to play a friendly round (we usually make wagers when we play) of mini golf in Lugano.
One crucial difference between Ticino and California, however, is their relationships to their southern neighbors. Unless one has family down Mexico way or is compelled to party underage, most Californians keep their distance from Tijuana and Baja California. Travelling from Ticino southward into Italy, however, is obviously quite different. There were only a couple of restaurants to choose from in the Lago Maggiore town where we stayed so we figured, 'why not drive down to Italy for dinner?' In less than twenty minutes we were waved across the border and thinking in Euros again. The restaurant we chose was a little touristy, but good and worth the 'we drove down to Italy for dinner' story.
I'm curious about how other travellers perceive of Europe and how they compare these exotic locales to the regions of home. Has anyone found the Berkeley of France, the Vegas of China, or the Yosemite of New Zealand? Perhaps it is inappropriate to equate these places that are truly unique, but the human brain naturally loves making comparisons. Regardless of whether Ticino is the California of Switzerland or not, I feel lucky that I was able to experience it first hand and make the comparison in the first place. As my friend Daniel would say while sitting down to an espresso and gazing across the lake, "life is tough."