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.



Monday, March 27, 2017

Anabaptists and Reformed Siblings of Reformation in Zürich

“Zürich has always been known as the seat of the (Zwingli) Reformation in Switzerland,” stated Peter Dettwiler, retired pastor of the Grössmünster Reformed Church in Zürich. “But Zürich was also the seat of the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement.”

“Anabaptists are siblings of the Reformation in Zürich,” declared Nina Sonderegger, pastor of the Reformed Church in Heimisbach, near Trachselwald.  “Unfortunately, this has been ignored for nearly 500 years.”

“Reading the Bible in small groups in their homes does not make (Anabaptists) a sect,” affirmed Catherine McMillan, in her “Das Wort zum Sonntag“ (The Word for Sunday) broadcast to the Swiss people on November 5, 2016. She is a Reformed pastor from Dübendorf and a Reformed Church Ambassador for Ecumenical relationships. “Their Jesus is the same as ours; they read his words in their Bible study groups from the Sermon on the Mount with different eyes.”

“Many Mennonites and Amish, descendants of the Anabaptists, came to visit Switzerland from the United States and Canada,” said Don Siegrist, visitor from Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania. “We visited sites related to Anabaptist history, but we had little contact with the Zwingli Reformed people themselves. We had been erased from their history.”

Peter Dettwiler shows slides of his visit
Amish country in Pennsylvania. 
These statements came from two recent meetings in Switzerland which I attended. The meetings were reunions of Swiss Reformed delegations who visited Anabaptist peoples in the United States, many of whom trace their roots to Switzerland. These efforts for more contact between Swiss Reformed and Anabaptist groups began after “A Day of Reconciliation” held on June 26, 2004, in which ambassadors from the Zwingli Reformed Church of Switzerland, asked representatives from various Anabaptist groups for forgiveness for the years of ostracizing and persecution. As a result of these efforts, a plaque in honor of the first Anabaptist Martyr in Zürich, Feliz Manz, and the last, Hans Landis, was placed along the Limmat River in Zürich, near where they were drowned.
The plaque honoring Felix Manz and
Hans Landis, Anabaptist martyrs. 

Throughout Switzerland in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is being celebrated. As part of these celebrations, there has been increased interest in the forgotten part of the Reformation for most Swiss; the Anabaptist story that arose at the same time as a sibling of the Zürich Reformation. For example, at the St. Matthäuskirche in Basel, Switzerland, I will join with Swiss Mennonite historian, Hanspeter Jecker, in sharing the history of Anabaptists/Mennonites; he about those who stayed, and I about those who emigrated.

Another example of these celebrations were the two recent meetings that I attended, both with the title, “The Reformed and the Anabaptists.” The first meeting was held in Heimisbach, a village nestled in the Emmental Valley, near Trachselwald. There is still a strong Anabaptist presence in this area, even though they were pushed to farm on impossibly steep mountainsides (see photographs from blog post Whither the Wengers). Trachselwald is also the site of the castle where many Anabaptists were imprisoned and tortured.  

An unexpectedly large crowd of over 60 people showed up to hear the story of the Anabaptists, see a slide show of visits to Anabaptist-related groups in the USA, and to hear words from tour hosts Don and Joanne Siegrist. The presenters were peppered with questions related particularly to the Amish.

Grössmünster in Zürich, Switzerland,
where meeting took place. 
The meeting in Zürich took place in the facilities of the Grössmünster, perhaps even where Zwingli debated with early Anabaptist leaders Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz. Even though it was mostly a reunion of people who participated in the Reformed-Anabaptist exchanges, it was clear that there was great interest and respect for Anabaptist groups among the Reformed who were present.

“Tell an Amish person that you are from Switzerland,” stated Don Siegrist in his remarks at both meetings. “And you will see their eyes light up. They still consider Switzerland to be their homeland.” In fact, the Siegrists have compiled a list of cultural characteristics that the Amish and the Swiss have in common. The respect went both ways.

Joanne Siegrist (second left) speaks
with representatives of the Reformed
Church in Zürich, including Pfarrerin
Christine McMillan (right). 
It was refreshing for me to hear directly from people of the Zwingli Reformed Church, especially the words in the video by Reformed Pastor Catherine McMillan. My visits to Switzerland stretch over 36 years, and Mennonites (Anabaptists) have mostly been considered by the general populace a sect to be scorned and shunned. Even though this is still the case, the fact that church leaders are providing an alternate view on the national media, is a change in the right direction. Also, the fact that these two meetings generated such interest in Reformed-Anabaptist relationships is an encouraging sign.

Siblings of the Reformation. In Switzerland, through actions taken and show by leaders in the Zwingli Reformed Church, Anabaptists have been elevated to a position alongside the Zwingli Reformation. This not only gives credibility to the long-ignored Anabaptist movement, but also helps to forge new relationships with fellow Christians.
Retired Pfarrer Peter Dettwiler, right, was one of the
original promoters of "A Day of Reconciliation" from
the Zwingli Reformed movement. He has led Swiss on numerous
tours of Anabaptist areas of the USA. I met him originally
when he spoke at an EMU chapel on the reconciliation between
Anabaptist groups and the Zwingli Reformed Church.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Whither the Wengers? A Bit of Family History from Switzerland

Christian Wenger arrived in Philadelphia on September 30, 1727 on the ship Molly. His birth was registered on May 1, 1698 in Eggiwil, Canton Bern, and his death recorded on February 9, 1772, in Lancaster County, Pa. His legacy includes some 250,000 descendants; of which I am one.*

View approaching Shallenberg,
near the Wenger homestead.

I am working on a project for a Swiss Reformed Church in Basel, Switzerland, honoring the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. The Anabaptist/Mennonite movement, of which I am a part, was part of the Reformation, sometimes referred to the “radical wing”. My associates with the Reformed Church want to hear a report from the perspective of Anabaptists/Mennonites who have remained in Switzerland, and from the perspective of those who have emigrated to the USA. It will fall on me to do the emigration part.

In order to bring my project alive, I’ve been doing work on the origins in Switzerland of some of my forbearers. My great-grandfather, John Clemmer (Clymer) married a Catherine Wenger, and from her I get my Wenger heritage. I had heard that the Wenger homestead still exists somewhere near Eggiwil in the Emmental Valley of Switzerland, and I was determined to fine it. I had driven around the Eggiwil, Röthenbach and Martisegg area in previous trips just to sniff the air, knowing that these were places where the name Wenger was found.

Then I discovered a website* that gave a more precise location of the family homestead. Armed with that information, I headed to the area. The drive from Eggiwil to Schallenberg was gorgeous. There was a restaurant near the Schallenberger Pass, so we stopped in for a cup of coffee and a chat with the hostess. I told her I was from the USA and was looking for the farm of my ancestor who had emigrated some 300 years ago. “Do you know where “Schinegg” is,” I asked her. “Indeed,” she responded. She pointed to a hill right outside the window of the restaurant. “That’s it up there,” she said.

The Wenger homestead
Schinegg, Switzerland
The path to the farm was covered with about 6” of snow, and with the temperatures nearing 50º, it was slushy in places and packed ice in others, making our ascent precarious to say the least. Undaunted, we started the climb.

Halfway up encountered a couple descending. Emboldened by my conversation with the lady in the restaurant, I told them that I was a descendant of one of the people who lived in the house on Schinegg, and was visiting from the USA. A very interesting conversation ensued. Discovered that their son-in-law currently occupies the house during the summer. The whole hill on top of which my ancestral home sat, was owned by an association of farmers, and that each summer, they would take their heifers up on the hill to spend the summer eating the lush grass on the hill sides. This is a long-standing tradition in Switzerland. Farmers don’t have enough pasture or grass to feed their milking cows, so they send the young ones away for the summer.

Many people find it hard to understand why someone from such a beautiful place would leave. Indeed, the surrounding scenery is breathtaking, but the fields on which they had to work are almost vertical; not an easy life by any stretch. In addition, the Anabaptist/Mennonites were persecuted fiercely in the Canton of Bern. They literally did their best to get rid of them in any way possible. Many were pushed to the least workable lands, many lost their farms entirely. So the reasons for leaving were both economic and religious.

For more pictures of the Wenger house and our adventure, visit this album: Pictures of the Wenger house in Switzerland

*Thanks to this website for some of my information Website with information on the Wenger family history