News Irish abroad

Monday 19 March 2018

An Irish mother abroad: The Swiss don't do small talk

When I’m feeling homesick or grumpy or tired I tend to think the Swiss are cold, unfriendly, mean
When I’m feeling homesick or grumpy or tired I tend to think the Swiss are cold, unfriendly, mean

Winifred Power

I ran down to the local shop yesterday – Peter’s Laden – to get some tomatoes. I came back raging.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ my son wanted to know.

Bloody man, I said. I go all the way to his shop and not the local supermarket and he can’t even bother to be friendly.

I had decided to give Peter in his Laden business for once – small shopkeeper competing against the Migros and Coop, the giant supermarkets.

And while I knew I’d be paying over the odds (it ended up costing 5.60CHF for two tomatoes and a bag of peanuts), I didn’t mind as I figured it would be supporting our friendly neighbourhood shop.

I was wrong, I realised walking home: he’s not friendly. And then I remembered why I go in there only once or twice a year. It's because he is never friendly. He doesn’t do any of the small talk I consider obligatory in a small shop.

'Bloody Swiss', I thought walking back up the road reading about One Direction in the free newspaper. I’d gone in. His silly doorbell thing had rung twenty-five times. He’d come out.

'Haben Sie Tomatoes?' I’d asked.

'Ja' – he replied in what I heard as a ‘Can you be a dumber stupider customer’ tone, pointing at them.

Then he stood there.

'Kalt', I said.

'Ja', he replied.

And he said nothing more.

This is his job, I thought, not mine. I’m paying here. He should think up the chit-chat. Isn’t this why I’m paying 25 per cent more than usual?

'Noch ein Wunsch?' he asked – and I saw those peanuts they do here. Unlike at home, here they roast them in their shells and they’re really good. So I bought some and then pointed at Zwanzig Minuten, the free newspaper – ‘Gratis?’ I asked.

Natürlich, he answered. (Slightly sarcastically I thought but I wouldn’t be able to prove it.)

'Typical Swiss, typical', I thought as I made my way home. But I caught myself.

You see: when I’m feeling homesick or grumpy or tired I tend to think the Swiss are cold, unfriendly, mean.

When I got here first, I felt (and probably sounded) stupid with my broken German. It was easy to find the woman at the till cold and unsympathetic if I couldn’t understand what she meant by Säckli? (Did I want a bag?) It was embarrassing.

I don’t think the Swiss feel an obligation to do small talk. Most Swiss people I’ve met here are extremely polite and helpful. But they don’t chat the way we do at home.

This can be awful on a bad day because it can compound any loneliness or homesickness I’m feeling.

But it’s great on a good day when I just want to mind my own business and get on with buying some tomatoes. On those days it's a relief not to have to think about things to say about the weather.

And I'm not so sure it's even about nationality or culture – it’s easy to blame ‘them’ when you're an immigrant. Peter in his Laden might be having a bad day; or he might be always like that – everybody in the Quartier might think he’s unfriendly. And he mightn’t even be Swiss.

I realised the other day that the very cross woman on the till at Migros is actually French. She probably comes in here to work from one of the border French villages like many others working in Basel.

We had a shopkeeper at home in Ireland – he was so well known that my children call his old shop by his name – even though he’s been dead since before they were born. He was never particularly friendly – and he hated parting with plastic bags.

But I didn’t expect him to be. And I didn’t think it was because he was Irish.

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