In the years since I’ve been an expat, I’ve grown used to being a conspicuous outsider, a source of amusement, a bit of a novelty. My first posting was Cameroon, West Africa, where I went everywhere to a chorus of “Eh! La Blanche!”, which translates as “hey, White Woman!”. Political correctness never caught on in Cameroon.
Then I was in Singapore, where I also stood out from the crowd, mostly by being a head taller than a lot of other women. And now here I am in Switzerland, Winterthur to be exact, where I blend in nicely. No-one gives me a second glance - I’m like a spy in their midst.
Until I open my mouth.
In my personal experience, the Swiss (especially my neighbours) are extremely welcoming, but naturally enough people always prick up their ears when they hear a foreign language being spoken in the vegetable section of Migros. My skin doesn’t single me out any more, but my mother tongue certainly does. In the past, I’ve been able to hide behind tight lips – just a smile of greeting and remembering to say ‘merci vielmals’ instead of ‘danke schön’. But then I had kids and was forced to break my silence.
Which brings me to today, Migros and a toddler having a tantrum over a pumpkin. There was a meltdown next to the papayas and a lot of negotiation, an ultimatum and, finally, a good telling off. So just the usual, really: kid screaming in public; frazzled mum taking deep ragged breaths; and members of said public looking irritated by all the noise.
Except that, for an English speaker in a Swiss German-speaking supermarket, it’s much worse because no-one has a clue what the angry, shrill woman is saying to the weeping, gulping child. Pretty soon, I had drawn a crowd of onlookers, mostly drawn from the white-haired demographic, who gathered around in a slightly menacing way, saying nothing but clearly signalling that they had Social Services on speed-dial on their giant-buttoned mobiles.
When I said in my special low-toned, calming voice, “now, Curly Girlie, you’ve already been allowed to keep the three kumquats that you picked and weighed all by yourself, so can you please put the pumpkin back and maybe we’ll try that another day?”, they translated it as, “listen here, child of mine, you’re nearly three now so it’s time you learnt that Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are cynical inventions of the greeting card industry, now buck up and carry this pumpkin – no, not that little one, the big one over there”.
When I bent down to her level and adopted my no-nonsense tone to say, “I’m going to count to three and I want you to put the pumpkin back, 1, 2, 3...”, what they heard was, “and while I’m at it, the photo of the man I told you was Daddy is actually Face from the A-Team, now I want to hear no more about it. On three, grab this pumpkin, 1, 2, 3...”.
And when I stood back up and started gabbling, loudly and rapidly while waving my hands around a lot, they didn’t realise I was pleading, “this is the third meltdown of the morning, you ran away into the path of a car nearly killing yourself, then you turned over the table in the restaurant with all our food on it and now you’re having a tantrum over a pumpkin and you don’t even like pumpkin! Now let’s take some deep breaths together to calm down and get on with our shopping”, they imagined I was threatening, “look here, useless girl-child with a lower-than-optimal potential earning capacity, just stop making a fuss over this pumpkin-carrying. You already messed up the job I got you in a textile factory, you keep falling out of chimneys and you’re not cute enough to model, so you’ve got to earn your keep somehow. Now quit whining about the heavy pumpkin – I’m putting a crate of beer in your backpack in the next aisle...”
And they say toddlers get frustrated when they can’t express themselves...