Posts Tagged ‘immigrants’

Swiss Swear Slurs

June 29, 2014

I’m pretty sure it has happened to you in one of your weaker moments. To impress a brand new acquaintance with acceptable curves who babbles at you in a foreign language, or to hack your fast way into the picking order of peer pressure at some late night bar in an exotic city, you ask your opponents to teach you the major swear words in their language, just so that you don’t appear too educated when overcome with the sudden premonition of becoming marginalized as a downright snob. You’re aware that you’re falling prey to a very cheap trick and that there are better ways to practice and exercise your cultural sensitivity. But you do it anyway as if a dark force with a vulgar but irresistible gravitational pull has gotten the better of you. Well let me tell you that you’re not alone and you’re in very good company. The immigrant workers of Switzerland, the Turks, the Italians and the ‘Yugos’, they all have not only learned to live orderly like the Swiss, show up on time and greet with a hearty voice and a stern look into the recipient’s eyes, they also have mastered the elaborate art of Swiss swear words. While even after decades of cultural absorption they still struggle with the subtleties of the complex grammar of Schwiizerdütsch, they have adopted the vast vernacular vocabulary of their new homeland and execute it with perfect pitch and pronunciation.

The Swiss live cleanly at the forefront of modern day wired and virtual consumption. Their shopping temples are equipped with every imaginable technocratic product in multiple incarnations and lure you into the sublime and celebrated state of material bliss, where the proverbial freedom of choice, credo non plus ultra of the modern day consumer, reveals its true face as a senseless confusion of choice, which makes you linger amongst the overwhelming display of merchandise way longer than you had ever intended. When it comes to swearing though, even the most up-to-date denizen of the urban wasteland reveals itself as a down and dirty farm boy with thick coats of cow dung falling off his boots at each and every step. Let me take you on a short linguistic research expedition into the flowery landscape of Swiss swear words.

The second trainer in my short and furious career as a DHL delivery driver in northern Switzerland comes from a little village in the bone-dry Turkish hinterlands. So remote from all civilization was his native hamlet that his birth certificate shaves a full year and a half off his true age. So long did it take his family to register his birth, to them a most cumbersome bureaucratic endeavor, which implied a strenuous journey across jagged mountain ridges and crocked crevices towards the nearest township. Infant mortality was rampantly high out in the solitary countryside and it was an efficient use of their time to wait until they could be reasonably certain that the new member of their tribe had a sufficient foothold on life before making the timely and costly investment of obeying the mandates of officialdom.

Erkom is his exotic sounding name and he now sits straight-backed behind the steering wheel of the roomy Volkswagen Transporter in flashy yellow color, just a minute or two after showing me the latest secret entry into the backdoors of a giant industrial complex in the eastern suburbs of Basel. Time is tight. We’re not yet half way through the jam-packed maze of cardboard boxes behind our backs and we’re speeding down a tight city street, when a shiny black sedan pulls out of a parking spot in front of us, only one hand of the female driver on that vehicle’s steering wheel, while the other one presses a smart phone to her ear. Erkan steps on the breaks and a tumble rumbles from the loading deck behind us, letting us know that the carefully stacked delivery order of our packages has just been destroyed by rapid deceleration. “Dummi Chue!”, exclaims Erkan raising his right hand Italian style towards the hot blue summer sky. ‘Stupid cow’ is the literal translation of this exclamation, and I’m starting at the decent end of things here. Declaring that heavy-set horned grazers and milk producing ruminants of dubious intelligence are now roaming the city streets, my co-worker obviously vents his frustration that not everybody participates in the high adrenaline rush of the post-industrial rat race, but he also incurs in the age old but ever futile effort of the human being to ascertain his intellectual superiority over the animals he managed to subdue into serving him for the pressing domestic needs while escaping the precarious existence of the nomadic hunter gatherer. From here it’s a down hill slope until it all bottoms out where there exist no more ups and downs.

The next obstacle in our hectic run through the busy city streets gets called an ‘Arschloch’, which simply refers to the bitter end of our digestive tract, also in English a well-loved term we use all too often to slap on things or beings we don’t reach very well with our understanding. And of course once the cat is out of the bag there is no holding back with our collective anal fixation. The next mishap happens to be called ‘Schiisdräck’, which is the stinky substance that comes out of the ‘Arschloch’, and where all this is deposed also becomes an exclamation if things go awry, as they unfortunately do quite often: ‘Scheisse!’, Erkan shouts after having taken a wrong turn that adds two minutes to our itinerary. Literally he means that emotionally he feels trapped inside a toilet bowl. Strangely enough this term is generally pronounced in its High German form even in the common dialect, as if calling one’s misfortune with Teutonic emphasis elevates one’s magic powers!

To bring a fitting end to this linguistic mudslinging fury of very vulgar proportion we have to land once more in the stinky end product itself, but this time the one of our milk producing servants: ‘Mischt,’ exclaims Erkan after our meeting with the feeder truck, with honest repulsion written all over his unshaven face, ‘iitz het üs doch dä blööd Schoofseckel wider zwöi Päckli mitgäh wo Gopfertami nid uf öisere Huerä Rutä si!’ On American TV this would have to be translated as: Beep! Now this beep beep gave us again two little packets that beep are not on our beep route! On the other hand a liberal interpretation in British English goes something like this: I don’t fancy it at all mate, but this rubbish of a bloke has again given us two packages that are bloody not on our blinking route! The truth is that my good friend Erkan in his verbal tirade has touched on all of the fundamental semantic pillars of swearing. We’ve already covered the fascination with fecal matter, but just to make things clear, he starts out with the Swiss German term for ‘cow dung mixed with straw to be used as a fertilizer on the fields’, to verbally underscore his disgust. Then he returns to our initially mentioned belittling of human nature by defining it equivalent to one of our domestic animals, but doubling it up with our impulsive attraction to the genitalia. ‘Schoofseckel’ means the testes of a sheep, and this term is used generally for talking about third persons we deem guilty of minor misdemeanors. The Swiss, like the New Zealanders on the opposite face of the earth were and still are skillful breeders of sheep and put their many products to excellent use. Now if those sheep would not be ‘blööd’, which is yet another word for stupid, we would quite obviously not have been able to herd them into our stables and rob them of their clothing periodically once or twice a year. By calling those innocent beings with their life force diluted by very selective breeding stupid we might be reflecting only on our own coefficient of intelligence.

Next in our juicy sample sentence religion is pulled into the mix, with the Swiss version of the hearty goddamn, where the speaker wishes the rage of the creator upon him or her self but then lets that wishing bounce off his or her shoulders and throws it right back onto the adversity itself as if clearing throat by spitting into the face of any and all offending issue. Somewhere between religion and the genitalia, or half way between god and sex, there lives the bipolar realm of prostitution, another emotionally charged grey area with magical powers if properly called upon. It is evoked a million times in the life of every German Swiss. ‘Huarä’, or ‘like a whore’ is put before any word that needs a special emphasis, just as ‘fuck’ and ‘fucking’ is in English of all class and creed all over the world.

There’s much more to the naughty vocabulary of the diligent Swiss, but I have to cut our sampling short way before the collection nears completion. Because I’m doing grave injustice to my pal and tutor in the art of worldwide package delivery. Erkan is a noble soul, in spite of his rocky verbal skills. His swearing is always done with a joyful undertone; irony and wit are right in tow. Nothing remains from the raving bitterness and crooked righteousness of many of his hosts from whom he has after all learned the precise pronunciation of all those verbs of power, exclaimed most of the times in high hopes of being able to right the many wrongs in our daily struggles against the odds of destiny.


Mr. Marx’ and Mr. Engel’s Nightmare

June 22, 2014

You guessed it! Whenever I don’t have time to write it’s because life has grabbed me by the neck and thrown me into a turmoil of things so new and throbbingly fresh that there is no chance to sit down and wiggle my fingertips to tell some well-polished stories. Summer has arrived on the Mittelland, the Swiss plains edged between the jagged Alps with their gleaming peaks of eternal snow to the South, and the rolling wooded hills of the Jura to the North. This hyper-densely populated area is the hub of the proverbial Swiss industrial diligence. Every square millimeter of space is put at man’s service and an ant’s nest under the midday sun would look like a global conference of sloths, were you able to contemplate it side by side, from a safe distance of course, with this gentle landscape transformed by centuries upon centuries of Puritan work ethics. Busy highways crisscross the area in a dense web of concrete strips that tunnel through hills and mountain ranges as if they were made of soft slabs of Swiss cheese. A mix of ultra modern cars zip at 140km/h between urban centres and giant industrial areas and after sailing the vast waters of the South Pacific I have been reduced to a minuscule co-conspirator of this accelerated madness. I’ve entered the Swiss labor market with a shaky foot on the bottom rung, learning the demanding trade of a CPD* delivery driver. This 21st century form of slavery is a complicated art requiring a sharp eye and impeccable memory.

I’m sitting at this moment on the passenger seat of the notoriously yellow-sided vehicle, and I’m staring out into a slither of sultry greenery left lonely between some imposing blocks of concrete and steel architecture. My trainer is taking a power nap slouched behind the wheel with his feet stretched out through the window of the open driver door. Soram* is his name and he is originally from Bosnia. Nowadays though a French citizen and therefore under the Schengen Agreements of Free Movement allowed to work in Switzerland. He stayed up late last night to root on his previous countrymen. They were bravely fighting a battle of soccer against the world’s greatest, the mighty and agile Brazilians, hosts of this year’s Soccer World Cup that has managed to bring the social tensions in this giant of South American nations to the boiling point. We are waiting for the feeder truck that is supposed to appear shortly on the parking lot and transfer a couple dozens of international packages to us to take along for delivery on the remainder of our route for the day. Soram’s eleven countrymen had suffered an honorable 3:1 defeat the previous evening. But for us, defeat is not an option!

We had started our day at a quarter to six in the morning. This is my third day of initiation into the arts of delivering packages and my shirt sports the corporate colors yellow and red of the global logistics giant CPD. Already we had picked up and initiated the scanner, the courier’s weapon against all odds. It lives in a holster on our waist loaded and ready to shoot its gleaming laser cross at bar codes on worn cardboard boxes of all sizes in split seconds. Our delivery truck stood eager amongst at least two dozen others with its back doors flung open wide and angry, waiting to be stuffed to the brim like a Thanksgiving turkey with goods in portioned packages.

The shrill sound of a siren had announced the end of every hint of sanity and the distributor band started rolling. Two hundred meters of turning stainless steel rollers became a conveyor belt for an avalanche of packages and my eyes also transformed into a scanning machine, sifting through a slurry of black and white patterns to extract vital information about the destination of those morsels of merchandise. Packages marked with our tour number had to be dragged off the conveyer, their bar codes scanned and then sorted according to their location on our tour. Those at the end were loaded first only to be buried under a carefully choreographed sequence of post to be delivered. Over a dozen other drivers were immersed in this same highly mental activity, and the jokes flew back and forth over my head. It was an international salad bowl of languages with Turkish predominant and the dialects the splintered pieces the imploded Yugoslavian Republic had left behind after the latest of Balkan wars a very close second. The rowdy and happy humor reeked of testosterone, everybody played the alpha male but no one seemed big enough to take a lead.

After a good hour and a half the stream of cardboard slowed to a trickle and finally ceased. The tally in our scanner had stopped at one hundred and seventy three. According to Soram this was at the high end of things and a dense day of running and shoving lied ahead. And those were only the domestic deliveries. We had already scanned in an additional twenty or so international packages and were now waiting for another batch coming at us with the feeder truck.

Soon we are under way again. Soram has done this for a couple of years now while I’m still struggling to hit the big yellow button that fires the laser on the scanner. But that’s what I’m here for: to become a master of the tool! The routine is this: Soram stops in front of a building, usually the delivery ramp of some factory or the main entrance of an apartment complex. He indicates the exact place where the package needs to be delivered and tells me the name of the business or person. I jump down from the passenger seat of the van and race to the back door, pull it open and search for the right pack amongst the mountain of dirty milk coffee brown melange of merchandise. Once I have homed in on the corresponding unit, I grab it without delay and run towards the indicated place, shout out a hearty good morning and with the most serviceable of smiles announce the visit of goodies delivered by CPD. All deliveries need to be signed, so I shop around for a willing victim to scratch his or her mark on the little screen of my scanner. That person’s name needs to be input with the most cumbersome keypad you can imagine. A sentence or two of spiffy small talk is then in order to cultivate crucial customer satisfaction before shooting out of the establishment again with a resounding well wishing for the remainder of the day. A full two hundred times a day this is repeated between zippy driving through the verdant limestone landscape of the northeastern Jura. Our yellow van snakes its way over and through the regular ranges of the characteristic geologic folds I remember drawing neatly in my notebook during geography class way back when. Mysterious rock formations tower above our way seemingly fit for camouflaged hideaways to a slew of gremlins and hobbits and their doves and foxes. The work is tedious, it’s a tour de force for the memory cells. Within a couple of weeks I will have to be able to do this all by myself. A quick glance in the back of the truck should by then be enough to memorise the next couple addresses and strategise the route for the delivery, while in the morning the vehicle’s loading deck will need to be organised so that the day can rum smoothly. Once learned and practised it will become mechanical and automated and I will be transformed into yet another robot in the system. There will be absolutely nothing special or extraordinary about that.

What is extraordinary is that most of my fellow drivers are extraordinary human beings, once you sit down to get to know them. They do these twelve-hour days five times in a row every week of the year to bring up their families and provide their children a better future. At least that’s what they say, if you ask them why they are putting up with all this. Soram grew up during the war years and he spent his first five years of economic productivity in the army fighting at times his friends and neighbours because he was told to do so. This whole thing with the ethnic hatred is a cruel invention of those who profit from the war, says Soram in our short conversations interrupted again and again by my delivery runs. The common people don’t care if their neighbours are from here or there, they get along just fine. We were taught to hate and forced to make distinctions. But that’s the past! We have to get over it. Still today down there they hash about who has done this and who has done that. This makes no sense at all. I’m French nowadays, because there ‘les gens s’en fou! People don’t care! Look at France’s national soccer team! They are all from Africa, but the French drink their good wine and have made it all theirs a long time ago.

Mid afternoon we start going down the list of pick-ups, visiting factories and businesses to take along the products they have been manufacturing. They now also need to make their way along the frantic highways of economic development and arrive at other businesses who will further assemble machines and gadgets, or end up in the hands of consumers, who, in order to pay for those machines and gadgets also need to run around and sell themselves as labourers, doing things they don’t really like to do, but think they have to do in order to acquire this shady wealth that isolates us from the living things that grow right under our feet and in front of our eyes. Fear is the fuel in this machine of running madness and only once we have delivered our entrusted goods to the giant depot where we started our day in the morning do we breath a deep sigh of relief and head each back to our homes. Soram to his family of three to tranquillise the never ending longing for more and better goods his wife has written down on her mental list, to take his two kids for a stroll in the neighbourhood to wring them away from the fatal attraction displayed on the latest smart phone screens. During his short rest at night, while his closed eyes stare at a concrete wall he dreams of a simple life planting potatoes and raising pigs. Life must make more sense to a farmer who works the land, he had confessed to me earlier on and wanted to know nothing of my concerns about the hardship particular to this age old profession. He will wake up like me at five o’clock tomorrow morning and present himself timely and diligently for another day in the life of a delivery driver, a life very few Swiss can imagine, and even fewer would even consider doing themselves, and be it just for a while to get a first hand understanding of what’s behind this enormous machine of convenience that is never ever good enough!


*Names has been changed to respect privacy