Thursday, May 18, 2017

Random Encounters and God Moments

The waiter came to our table to take our order. I sensed he was not a Swiss native by his accent. I thought perhaps he was Italian, since many Italians work in Switzerland, and a large number in service jobs in restaurants. When he returned with our order, I ventured to ask him where he was originally from. When he said Spain, I immediately started speaking Spanish with him. He beamed from ear to ear to hear his native language. We exchanged small talk; he lived in the apartment above the restaurant, he was here for 25 years, and so forth. Whenever he passed by our table, he had the biggest grin on his face. We connected.

We were having dinner at a restaurant by the Aare, one of Switzerland’s most famous rivers. The waitress picked up immediately that we weren’t locals. My wife Esther asked her to explain the ingredients of several dishes in Swiss German, but she heard us passing on the information to my brother and his wife in English. When she returned to take our order, my Brother ordered in Standard German, Esther and I in Swiss German, and my sister-in-law in English. She didn’t skip a beat. When she returned with the food, I complimented her on how well she could get along in all three languages, and that her English, which was not her native language, was very good. She beamed. Some chitchat ensued; she only had what she called “school book English,” and knew just enough to serve English-speaking customers. I was surprised at how good her accent was for what she claimed to know. We connected.

A waiter approached us at another café. He asked us for our order in Swiss, but soon again discovered there were some English speakers at the table. He immediately spoke fluent English to us, and said, “I’m a [US] American, but born here in Switzerland.” He had also lived several years in the USA before coming back to work in Switzerland at a resort. As he passed our table while going about his duties, we kept up a little dialog. We connected.

We connected with more than just waiters and waitresses on our recent tours of Switzerland’s natural wonders with my brother and his wife. We were eating our packed lunch in a lookout tower facing the North Face of Switzerland’s iconic Eiger Mountain. As we were finishing, a couple climbed the stairs to join us in enjoying the view. I greeted them, and could tell by their return greeting that they weren’t Swiss, so I began speaking Standard German with them. A very delightful conversation ensued. When the woman discovered that we were from the USA, she began speaking with my sister-in-law in English. We must have spent 20 minutes discovering each other’s realities. He was a retired German locomotive engineer, and had a free rail pass to travel across Europe. His wife could travel with him at half price. They usually travelled to Austria on their vacations, which was just as beautiful as Switzerland, but less expensive. We connected.
Esther and I in the lookout tower. 

On the way down the mountainside on a train that day, I was curious about the oriental couple sitting beside me. There were busloads of oriental people wherever we travelled in Switzerland. Some look like Koreas, others looked Chinese, but I was quite curious where they were from. After a few minutes in silence, I asked them if they spoke German or English. They smiled that I had wanted a conversation with them, and answered in very broken English. Imagine my surprise when they said they were from Macau.  “The Las Vegas of China,” the man said with a big grin. “We are as expensive as Switzerland,” he proudly continued. We tried to proceed with the conversation, but it was torturous. Yet he really wanted an exchange, so I plodded on. Patience, deep listening, all earmarks of a good communicator, were stretched to the breaking point. However, seeing their huge grins and exchanging a very nice, “have a nice trip” at the end of the train ride, made all the efforts worthwhile. We connected.

These interesting random encounters happened to me over the past several days. I have travelled many times in many areas, especially Central Europe and Latin America. I have been thrown together with many people from most parts of the world. There was a time, however, that I didn’t take so well to chance encounters. In fact, I did whatever I could to avoid them. Reluctance to engage in small talk and perhaps a dose of arrogance kept me from doing it. Perhaps the arrogance has mellowed with age, along with my reluctance to engage in small talk. Connections across cultures and languages can become God moments when we realize that our souls are all similarly stamped with God’s image and likeness.

Many years ago, when I was in my arrogant stage, I was travelling with a colleague and a group of students to Spain. My colleague and I went out to experience some tapas at a local café in Madrid. While we were enjoying the tasty munchies, a crew from Swiss Air walked into the café. My colleague, who was as interested in Switzerland as in Spain, insisted that I go up to talk to them. He knew I could speak (some) Swiss German, and he wanted to know what they were up to. At that time there was no way in Hades that I wanted to do that. But he insisted, and persisted, so I finally gave in. When we first approached them, they looked at us as if we had come from Mars. When they discovered that I was a [US] American who could speak Swiss, they were overwhelmingly welcoming! As it turned out, they were a pilot, a co-pilot and two stewardesses on layover for a trip the next day to the USA. We exchanged wonderful conversations about their lives as cross-cultural flyers and my life as a cross-cultural leader. We connected. It was a God moment.

I could tell endless stories of random encounters over the years, many which I initiated, and most of which I did not. I wonder how often I’ve missed, during my years as an arrogant world traveler, the many opportunities I had to witness God’s good creation in human form in myriads of manifestations. Random encounters often lead to God moments and bridge gaps of understanding that too often are forced on us by the tribal narrow-mindedness of our cultural, religious or political bubbles. I challenge you, and myself to continue to be open to experiencing God and connections to random encounters.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Sundays in Switzerland

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8 NRSV). Most of us give lip service to a Sabbath on Sunday, and consider it a “day of rest.” Indeed, the word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew, šabbāṯ, with the root, šāḇaṯ ‘to rest.’ However, If I were to make a critical observation between US American Sundays and Sundays in Switzerland, I would have to say that the Swiss follow this understanding much more seriously than we do, even if fewer and fewer attend church on that day.

Nearly every morning quite early, I take a stroll around my town, and the streets are already bustling with people and cars going to work, or to other duties, such as walking their dog or scurrying around to get bread. On those Sunday mornings when I manage to take my stroll, the streets are absolutely dead with neither flesh nor machine to be seen.

One of the necessities of life in Switzerland is bread. In order to provide for this necessity, the bakeries take turns being open on Sunday morning. This is for those who weren’t diligent enough to buy their bread the day before. One Sunday morning, being one of those non-diligent souls, I walked all around town to find the designated bakery. To my chagrin, the opening time was 8:00 am instead of the normal 6:00 am. Our normal 7:00 am breakfast had to be delayed until I could bring home the bread.

Everything else is closed. Well, almost everything. There are two convenience stores in our town that are open. One by the train station, and the other at a gas station. But all main stores and shopping centers are closed. Even though the Swiss love to shop as much as US Americans, on Sundays they have to stay at home—there is just nowhere to shop. Furthermore, trucks are not allowed on most highways, lawns are not to be mowed, and laundry in apartment complexes should not be done.

Holidays are called Sundays in Switzerland. Unlike the USA, all their holidays, except for their Independence Day on August 1, are religious holidays. In the USA all of our holidays, except for Christmas, are secular holidays, most of them celebrating events related to the nation state. Perhaps it has something to do with the separation of church and state. In any case, when there is a holiday in Switzerland, everything closes down just like on Sunday. That’s why they call a holiday Sunday. Or at least that’s what I suppose. We just passed through the Easter season. Good Friday was a complete shutdown. Easter Monday was nearly a complete shutdown. Finding bread was a nightmare, as well as any other necessity. In the USA, we are so used to popping into a store to get what we (think) need any day of the week, any hour of the day.

Reformed Church in Riggisberg,
 my wife's home church.
So what does a typical Sunday consist of, if one can’t go shopping or mow the lawn? At about 9:15 am, the church bells start ringing. It is to announce the church service at the official church of Canton Bern, the Reformed Church. Every village in Canton Bern has a Reformed Church, and one can hear bells echoing through the valleys all over Switzerland at this time. It is really a beautiful sound, except for those who want to sleep in till 10 am. Now, as stated earlier, too many Swiss do not attend church. But for those who do, the bells let them know when to arrive.

We decided to attend various churches in order to get a feel for the religious culture here. First, we attended the Reformed Church in our town. I could count on my hands how many people attended on that Sunday morning. That is typical attendance, I am told, and that is replicated all over Switzerland in the Reformed Church, unless there is a special event.

We also attended four Mennonite churches, two Methodist churches and one Assemblies of God church. Except for one of the Mennonite churches and the Assemblies of God church, the attendance wasn’t very overwhelming at any of these venues, either. It has also been my experience when attending a church regularly, that the people one sees on any given Sunday may be quite different from the people seen on other Sundays. The expectation to be in church every Sunday is not great, even in those churches that are well attended.  

Reformed Church in Aarberg, where we live.
Church fellowship meals on a Sunday usually draw a better crowd. One Mennonite church schedules them the first Sunday of every month. I’ve had the privilege of attending three of these in different congregations. They are often catered instead of being carry-in potlucks. At these functions back in the USA, I am too often guilty of “eat and run.” Can’t get away with that in Switzerland. Each course is served with deliberation and not hurriedly eaten. People stay around and talk with each other. It is truly a “fellowship meal.” It is usually 3 pm till people start leaving. This is after a 10 am church service—committing a minimum of five hours for such an event is necessary.

This kind of time commitment is common when you are invited to a meal, or for coffee as well, often on a Sunday. If it’s the Sunday noon meal, count on two hours to eat, then at least a half-hour walk after the meal, followed by coffee and dessert.

But what about the Swiss who don’t attend church on Sunday? If they can’t shop or mow their lawn, what do they do? They rest. If the weather is nice, they go hiking or take a stroll after lunch. They gather for an afternoon coffee or tea at neighbors’ homes or at a restaurant, preferably outdoors. On any given Sunday, if you walk around town, you will see family gatherings or family/friend gatherings on the lawn or patio or porch, whatever is available for community discourse. Many ride bikes, motorcycles or horses.

It took me a while to get used to everything being closed on Sunday. With stores not being open, employees get more time off, allowing more time for relationships. Many restaurants that are open on Sundays, take two other days off during the week (called “Ruhetag,” or rest day) so that the owners and their employees have a five-day work week. This is also true of many family-owned stores.

The concept of Sabbath in the USA has changed considerably since I was young. Growing up in the 50s, Sunday “blue laws” kept nearly everything closed. The idea was to allow people time to do some sort of religious activity; maybe even rest. My dad wouldn’t even but gas on a Sunday, because at that time it would make someone work on the Sabbath. Now Sundays are no different from other days. In fact, with all the extra-curricular activities children are involved in, Sundays are sometimes even more hectic than other days. The concept of rest has changed to include anything that you can’t do during the work week.

Even though the percentage of Swiss who attend church on Sunday is lower than in the USA, they seem to understand much better what it means to have a day “of rest.” Relaxing around a table, developing relationships, doing activities that decrease stress rather than build it, makes their Sundays, and holidays, truly a Sabbath.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bumbling Though Swiss Social Conventions

After years of fairly graciously weaving my way through Swiss cultural proclivities, my US American perspective still trips me up unexpectedly at times, making me feel like a bumbling idiot. Yesterday was a good example.

My nephew threw himself a 40-year-old birthday party. This is the custom in Switzerland whenever you turn a new decade. Some 50 people, family, church and close friends, were invited to help him celebrate the event in his church’s fellowship hall.

Before the party even began, my first blunder was misunderstanding the invitation. It said: “informal come-and-go, drop-in party with appetizers beginning around 3 pm.” So in my US understanding, that meant show up, grab a handful of chips, a drink, make small talk with those you know while avoiding those you can’t stand. An hour and a half commitment stretched to two hours if there was a particularly interesting person you met. I estimated that we would arrive a bit before 4 pm and leave at around 7 pm. However, by 9 pm, no one had yet made the slightest move to leave. I guess my definition of the informal “go” part went missing.

Another mix-up came by way of the invitation. It specifically stated “no gifts; your presence is enough, but if you insist, we’d be very happy for cash toward our family vacation.” So we took that literally. A little card with a large bill stuck inside. When we made our way to the gift table to proudly place our card among the others, we were surprised and embarrassed to see dozens of large, creative gifts piled on the table. Oh, my, I guess Google Translate doesn’t do so well with Swiss German.

My nephew, center, breaking balloons with clever gag gifts in them for each year.
The next gaffe was made upon arrival. About a third of the guests had arrived before us. At least our concept of “come” was similar, we didn’t need to be exactly on time. Esther and I entered, congratulated the birthday boy profusely, then shook hands and greeted those who we knew. Then we grabbed a handful of salty snacks and a drink and sat down. At a US American event, we can enter, wave and say “hi everyone,” then head to those we know to strike up a conversation. Shaking hands no longer seems necessary. In Switzerland, however, social conventions are different. As more people streamed in, they went around the whole room, shaking everyone’s hand and introducing themselves. Oops. What an ungracious, social nincompoop I am.

My next faux pas was related to drinking conventions. I was accustomed to waiting at a sit-down meal in Switzerland, until the host offered a toast before beginning to drink. But this was an informal buffet, with people milling around, coming and going as they pleased, so I could drink without the formal toast, right? Wrong! Whenever a new drink was introduced, white with the appetizer, red with the meal, schnapps at the end of the meal for digestion (yes, this was in a church fellowship hall), a new toast had to be raised to the two or three gathered nearest you. Even across the room, before anyone would take their first sip, they would offer an air toast to anyone within eyesight.

And then the refills. Swiss tend to sip their wine, and US Americans tend to gulp theirs (subject of another post). Even using my most patient sipping skills, my glass was empty before anyone else’s. Just grab the bottle in front of you and fill it up, right? Wrong again! Before pouring for yourself, you must ask everyone else near you if they want more. Only then is it proper to serve yourself.

Food provided the next vehicle for exposing my social ineptness. Informal buffet, remember? Well, by the time we finally got to serve ourselves, I was pretty hungry. I was the second person through the line, and sat down with my brother-in-law, looking to him for cues on when to begin. He wasn’t very helpful, as he kept being distracted by questions from another passerby waiting in line. Not only was the smell driving me crazy, but my food was getting cold. When nobody was looking I sneaked a bite. I knew it was improper, because before you eat, you must wait to say to everyone around you, “E Guete;” the Swiss equivalent of the French “bon appetite” or the Spanish “buen provecho.” Unfortunately, I must point out the paucity of the English language. We have no equivalent expression. Or maybe it’s a paucity of formalities. Either way, I was hungry!

After eating and conversation it was now 9 pm. My brain had dealt with as much Swiss German as possible without being fried. It seemed like time to go, but as stated earlier, no one else showed any inclination to leave. Yet, if we wanted to catch the train that would get us home before 10 pm, we had to make our move. Awkwardly, we made our way toward the door. Since we had a train to catch, I thought that people would understand if we left without shaking all 50 people’s hands. In the USA, we can make our exit, wave, and say: “See ya.” Esther assured me that I was wrong once again. So dutifully I went around the huge room shaking everyone’s hand and trying to say their name while biding adieu. Under such pressure, I doubt if I remembered a third of their names. They all seemed to remember my name. I’m afraid it was an association with the current president of the USA that served as a memory crutch for them.

We made the train in time, and on the way home I reflected on my incompetence as a Yankee in Esther’s court. In spite of my social blunders, I had a wonderful time. I made a number of new friends, particularly the pastor of the church and a woman from Canada who married a Swiss man. She spoke Swiss German better than I (boy that was hard to admit. Guess my Swiss “Demut” is taking hold). Perhaps at the next Swiss social event I can sit back, relax, and participate in the conventions without looking so foolish. Truth be told, most of my errors were due to impatience and self-centeredness.

Indeed, social conventions are important to hold a society together, and need to be learned when crossing cultures. In the end, however, more important than making exactly the right move or saying the proper thing, is the willingness to open relationships across cultural divides. I don't think I'm a bumbling idiot at doing that.