Even though my brother has been living in Zurich for years, he's never been able to learn German the proper way. He can say a few things, ask questions, tackle some basic conversation, little more than that. There are many reasons for this: he's often abroad and, even when he's in Switzerland, he only speaks English with his colleagues. Secondly, in Switzerland they don't speak "official" German but some sort of "mountain" dialect, not too easy to understand. There is also another reason why he never really studied the local language thoroughly, and it's a surprising one: anywhere he goes, a restaurant, a shop, a public office or even on the street, the probability that he meets someone who can speak Italian is very high indeed. And we're not talking about those coming from Ticino, the Italian speaking part of the country, 100% Swiss from many generations, proud of their origins and in some cases not too fond of the Italians. These are real Zurichers, people who come from the German part of Switzerland. One has to remember that most of the Italian immigration to Switzerland took place between 1945 and 1975, mostly from the north until 1960 and from the south later on. Nowadays in Zurich those who will address you in Italian are the children or grandchildren of people who came from Italy, or sometimes there won't even be a drop of Italian blood flowing in their veins: they just learned the language at school, from their friends, on holiday or out of interest.
When my brother first told me these things I couldn't realize what the magnitude of the phenomenon was. I have met quite a few Argentines, Brazilians, Americas or Australians whose ancestors came from Sicily, Veneto or Marche. They have an Italian surname, maybe an Italian passport as well, but they can only speak a dozen words in Italian. When I got to Switzerland I soon realized that the situation in that country was very different indeed.
There is a festival at the nice little mountain village where my brother lives. We are at a restaurant and my brother is struggling to order some home-farmed fried fish for all of us: he's doing the best he can to tame that complicated tangle of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and special expressions. In a respectful and partly sadistic way the lady doesn't interrupt him and lets him torture himself for a few minutes. Then, when he's done talking, in correct Italian, with a strong German accent, she sums up our orders and, using an accurate and polished vocabulary, she also adds up a few recommendations of the house. My brother looks disconsolate, he politely thanks her but would like to say: "Why didn't you do that before I started to make a fool of myself?" By the way, it is to be noticed that the lady was not of Italian descent.
We'll witness similar scenes again and again. Still at the festival, at the beer counter another lady who works at the Zurich airport teaches us how to order in German and then talks to us in Italian for more than an hour. Her family is not Italian either: she learned the basics of the language at school and improved it during her summer stays in Liguria.
At an IT store a young guy is answering our questions in good English. When we switch to Italian to comment on the products he politely interrupt us and lets us know that he prefers to continue our conversation in the same language, that he's more familiar with than English. Unlike the two previous cases this man at least has Mediterranean features.
The most bizarre encounter takes place just beyond the border with Germany, in the city of Konstanz. We are in a shop to buy some pillows. The lady-owner hears us talking and addresses us in perfect Italian, even her pronunciation is spotless. Before we leave I ask her where she learned it. She says that her family came here from Pula (Pola in Italian), the largest city in Istria, a region in nowadays Croatia that was part of the "Serenissima" Republic of Venice until the end of the eighteenth century. She adds that she can also speak the local language, similar to the one of Trieste, a city in North-East Italy. Then all of a sudden, a surprising thing happens. A local customer enters the shop and starts to speak German. When he hears the lady greeting us in Italian he happily switches to the same language. While I'm going out I hear them talking about mattresses: she has a slight Venetian accent and he speaks with a vaguely southern one. You'd almost think you're in Rome, but this is the border between Germany and Switzerland...the German speaking part, of course!
Photo of the St. Gotthard Pass Monument by Markus Schweiß (CC)
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