Pure Gold

I think I’m a nice sort of person. I smile and sometimes nod as a greeting when passing someone on the street to acknowledge them. I learned that in Switzerland you actually say ‘Gruessech’ too. Before we were married, Ben and I went “hiking” (this is in quotes because what I call hiking a Swiss would call a nice little walk or stroll). Every time we passed, crossed or saw someone along the way we said hi. I learned all of the Swiss German variations that could be used and practiced them.

When I moved to Berne, the capitol of Switzerland, I noticed that greeting habit took a back seat. There is something about city-people, they like being anonymous. Don’t ever, ever try and talk to a stranger you just happen to be sitting next to in the tram. That is not considered friendly, you are invading the personal space of that person and they may very well tell you so. If not in words then in stares. Unless, of course, you speak English but that’s a completely different story and not the subject of today’s blog. Berne is a city of pedestrians and not cars. There are a lot of people walking around so the idea of greeting every passerby is absurd, you couldn’t possibly do it even if you wanted to. You still smile and are friendly but it was a long way from my hiking experience before I moved here. The ‘my space’, ‘don’t talk to me’ attitude is seen everywhere. When travelling by train (and we do that quite often) you try to find a seat in a compartment where no one else is, and if you are lucky no one will want one of the free seats next to you or across from you the whole trip. Of course, if someone does come and asks if a seat is free, you very graciously smile and say it is but you seldom say more. It’s an unspoken pact that is rarely broken.

When we moved from big city Berne to little, itty bity town Lengnau there was a noticeable shift in the way people act, among other things. All of the sudden people call you by name, like the cashier at the local supermarket or they stop and talk to you if they see you on the street. People actually stop and talk to you if you have never met them before!

One of the first times I went to the local post office (they now use the ‘one-line, next counter free’ system here too!! So you no longer have to figure out which line will get you to the counter the fastest) when I came in there were maybe 9 or 10 people in line. They all, in unison (and it really did look like on cue) looked up at me. That’s a bit scary. You wonder if you buttoned your shirt wrong or if your fly is open. After a moment everyone went back to their start positions. No giggling or pointing, I guess I was dressed okay but still scary. A minute later someone else came in. On cue all heads bobbed up again. The person who came in said in a nice, loud and clear voice for everyone to hear: “Gruessech mitanand’ which means “Hello everyone”. Everyone, including me, said hello back. No hand shaking, just acknowledging. Then a person who was leaving said goodbye to everyone.   Ah-ha. Small town. The next time and every other time since then I know exactly what to do.

One time when I was leaving to go grocery shopping, I saw the package delivery-man (we have a mail-delivery and a package-delivery) was stopping in front of our house. I was already out of the driveway and thought “Oh, well, I guess I’ll just have to go to the post office to pick it up this evening.” I waved ‘hi’ to him as I was leaving (you are constantly waving to people here). About two hours later the doorbell rang and he was standing there with my package! He said he saw me leave and thought he would deliver some other packages first and come back to me later. He got a box of chocolate as a thank-you from me for that one.

Something similar happened the other day. I was out back in my slinky bikini, setting up the chair so I could do some serious sunbathing. (Don’t worry, we have a hedge around the backyard, I wouldn’t want to scare the neighbors.) Then I heard a voice call me by name from the other side of the hedge, it was the mailman. He said he had a signature letter for me and he would bring it around back. And presto, he was standing there. I didn’t have time to put on a shirt, towel or anything. So there I was, standing in my bikini doing the best I could to make it look normal.

It’s refreshingly nice; people talk to each other here. Sure, I had heard the horror stories of the small towns where newcomers are outcasts; if you weren’t born there, or better yet if your grandparents weren’t born there you were nobody and had nothing to say. Glad to report nothing like that has happened here; we found pure gold.

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