On our first full day in Zurich (which started at 2am: hello jetlag) we headed to Zurich old town bright and early (around 7am, but felt like midday 😉 ) for some breakfast. We arrived not speaking a word of German (let alone Swiss German) but stopped at a cute café that had received great Google reviews.
As it was still early, we arrived to a mostly empty café (which had half filled up by the time we left) and sat outside on the bright, crisp morning. There was a bite in the air, not from the weather but from the waitress who served us. We politely asked, “Do you speak English?” which was met with full (and fast) sentences in Swiss German, with the word English Menu thrown in the middle (with a perfect accent).
We ended up ordering some croissants and a coffee and hot chocolate. As when we asked for some omelettes, this was also met with about 5 full sentences in Swiss German (and I think the gist of it was: we aren’t serving omelettes now/we never serve omelettes, they’re just on the menu/you can’t have any omelettes as you’re foreign and annoying). Whatever the nuances of what she was saying was, the bottom line was clear: Nicht.
We walked away thinking, she totally spoke English but she just didn’t want to. As typically when there’s a language barrier, there’s generally lots of pointing and gestures with the odd word or two thrown in. So, I walked away thinking, “what a rude woman.”
But then I thought about it, was she really rude? Was it rude to arrive in another country and not even bother to learn how to order something? Yes. I was the rude jerk. So, I immediately googled how to order in German and the internet is wonderful. I managed to find a couple of useful phrases with audio: Ich nehme (I’ll have) and Ich möchte (I would like).
The next time I went to order something, I said Ich nehme… and then when they spoke back to me in Swiss German I had to concede, sorry, I don’t speak German. And then I was asked in English if I would like anything else. I was starting to make it a game, see how far I could go with ordering in German, before I had to admit that I knew about three pointed phrases in German. But then I got lazy.
I learnt that ordering in Swiss German is not the same as ordering in German. In German, you are more direct with ordering. Which can be seen as being rude in Swiss German. I asked a Swiss guy how to order in Swiss German, and he replied with a sentence that seemed just way too long to rote learn. It was long, and very polite, “I was wondering by any chance, if it wouldn’t be such a bother, if perhaps you would care to exchange one of those bratwursts against my money?” OK, I’m exaggerating a bit, but the sentence was a lot longer and had lots of pleasantries. The Swiss think Germans speak too directly, and the Germans think that Swiss German is “cute.”
Therefore, I felt like I could either learn a bit of Swiss German, try and speak German (and sound rude) or speak English (and sound rude). I went for the lazy and rude option and chose to just order in English. And in a matter of two weeks, I had become one of those rude and lazy expats that I had previously judged. Creating their own little community, living on the fringes and never quite integrating into the city as a whole.
But you know what? I went to a meet-up group with expat Mums, and it was great to talk and laugh in English, and see the city through their eyes. But, I swear if I was there for longer, I would learn how to politely order something in Swiss German. Before, admittedly, probably falling into the expat trap 😉