Grezi Mitenand from Switzerland

Published 5:49 pm Monday, November 30, 2009

Editors Note: The following is a letter wrtten by Keaton Nager, an AFS exchange student from Polk County studying in Switzerland.

Grezi Mitenand,

(Hello everyone),

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As some of you may know, I am an AFS exchange student spending my junior year of high school in Switzerland. North Carolina born and Tryon raised, this year Im spreading my roots beyond the beautiful foothills of North Carolina to seek my fortune and see the world. And so far, it has been amazing.

I have been here for three months now, and those three have been some of the best in my life. I have seen the gorgeous Matterhorn (the most famous mountain in Switzerland and also the one on the wrapper of every Toblerone bar, a Swiss chocolate which everyone needs to try).

Ive been hiking at over 10,000 feet, in 16 degree weather, through snowin mid-October. Ive eaten llama meat, made friends from all around the world, and, probably most unbelievably, learned a new language, despite an impossible dialect.

Naturally, the first problem that comes to exchange students is the language barrier, if there is one. Switzerland officially has four languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansch, which is currently the closest thing the world has to spoken Latin. Basically, one of those things one has to be born with. I live in the German speaking section in a town called Baar.

I came to Switzerland having had no German classes in school, without any idea how to pronounce any of the words that I had tried to teach myself over the summer, and no German word that came naturally in conversation except Gesundheit (which actually means health and not bless you).

However, after three months of gratefully received help from teachers, classmates, and my host family, after three months of wear and tear on my heaven sent Berlitz Trademark Standard German English Englisch Deutsch Pocket Dictionary (New Blue Headword Edition), I can now finally consider myself fluent. Looking back, I do not know how I was able to survive as long as I did without being fluent.

Howeverwhat I have not yet mentioned is that the Swiss have their own dialect of German, rightfully named Swiss-German, and I cant speak that at all. Germans have trouble understanding it, and I have yet to make headway into speaking.

But enough with that; let me talk a little bit about Swiss culture, which is probably the reason you are reading this anyway.

First of all, the Swiss are obsessed with the weather. It comes on after the evening news and they have to watch it. Then, they will honestly get depressed if it says it will be rainy or foggy. But I understand why. Switzerland is a beautiful country. When you get out of the city and onto a mountain it really is breathtaking.

When it was warmer, I would go hiking every weekend with my host family. We would walk up the mountains, serenaded by the bells of a million happy cows, and then stop for lunch halfway up at a log cabin restaurant with all outdoor seating, the only building in sight, for a deliciously simple spread of cheese, bread, and salami. There are great views from the top of the mountains and a foggy or rainy day can easily ruin a good hike.

And they all love to hike; in fact, here is a typical Saturday conversation from September:

Host Dad (HD): Hey, we should go sometime with you to the Zugerberg. (Zug being Kanton Zug, berg meaning mountain. See, German isnt so bad)

Me: Ok, sounds like a great idea (thats what I have rehearsed saying). When were you thinking about going? We should probably go before winter when it gets cold.

HD: Can you be ready in 5 minutes? Is that enough time? Ok, we are leaving in 5.

Me: Ok. Cool, lets go!

That has happened at least five times so far. However, another characteristic of the Swiss is that they are intense hikers. My host dad always says we are going on a `Ganz Kurz Wanderung` (a quite short hike).

Now, the Swiss and the Americans have different ideas about what it means to be ganz kurz. We would leave and then return 8 hours later. I am not saying that I hiked 8 hours up and down the Swiss Alps without stopping, or that I did not completely enjoy myself doing it. I am just saying that here is a big cultural difference.

Naturally, there was 45 minutes for transportation and we stopped for drinks a couple times and for lunch. But in America, a `very short` hike is somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour.

Let me talk a little bit about my surroundings. In Switzerland, there are 26 Kantons, basically counties. I live in Kanton Zug, the smallest of the 26, but also the richest. We have 12 towns in Kanton Zug.

Baar, my town of 19,000 citizens, is one of those, but the distances really are not far. I could easily bike anywhere in Kanton Zug. There is a lake in Zug, the Zugersee, and when it was nice weather, we would go swimming or make use of the public volleyball nets right next to the lake. Absolutely gorgeous.

Zurich is 20 minutes north on the train, and also the biggest city in Switzerland. We have an ice hockey team, EVZ, and root for Football Club Zurich (FCZ) in all the soccer matches. They actually made it to the European Champions League which was pretty exciting. Also, Switzerland won the U-17 World Championships in soccer against Nigeria.

Well, thanks for reading and I hope that all is well back home in Tryon.