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Learning the language made trip memorable

Bob Garner
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Bob Garner


Sunday, May 19, 2019

I love foreign languages and travel, I love alpine skiing and I love interesting local color. So when I had a chance to take a four-week paid sabbatical from work some years ago, I spent more than a year researching the perfect destination that could scratch all those itches simultaneously. Ruthie and I finally decided to spend two weeks in what I consider one of the most attractive towns on the planet — Zermatt, Switzerland.

The idea was to fly to Zurich and, rather than rushing around from one ski resort to another, take the train directly to Zermatt and stay put in that one village, located at the foot of the Matterhorn. We would find as modest a hotel as possible (one still affording a fine view of the famous peak), dine and entertain ourselves as inexpensively as we could and have a chance to fully explore the three expansive ski areas that cover the mountainsides above the town, which is nestled in the valley.

Along with English, the most common language spoken in the Zermatt area is German. My rusty but reasonably fluent French wouldn’t be all that much use, I knew, and since it would have seemed presumptuous to automatically expect accommodation in English, I figured it would be practical and entertaining to put some real effort into improving my poor German before making the trip. I’ve always felt that if I’m going to travel in someone’s country, making a good faith effort to speak their language, no matter how ineptly, is a sign of respect.

Very early in my linguistic boning up, I found that Swiss German is really a quite different language than standard German. I also read that Swiss German speakers really appreciate foreign travelers who make some effort to lean at least a few words or phrases in Schweizerdeutsch, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that they know the difference between “high” German and the various Swiss dialects of the language.

Looking back, I don’t think my plan was the slightest bit unreasonable, but I have to admit that I ended up going to extremes. Rather than being content with mastering a page or two of idiomatic expressions off the Internet, I filled an entire file drawer with thick stacks of flash cards. I ordered books and videotapes. I decided that I wanted to be prepared not only to speak face to face but also to make telephone calls for restaurant reservations or to call a taxi. In short, I invested months and months in learning a language — or a dialect — that is spoken in only one country on earth: Switzerland. Ironically, there is probably a higher percentage of English speakers in Zermatt than any other city, town or village in Switzerland because of the Matterhorn’s 150-year popularity among English mountain climbers.

I’ll have to say is that all this effort paid off even more handsomely than I imagined when I started. Everywhere I tried to speak Swiss German, I received warm smiles, approving nods and handshakes. The locals invariably asked, with real interest, how in the world I knew how to even attempt their dialect. With a little help from our hotel manager, I was even able to telephone in Schweizerdeutsch to arrange a helicopter flight around the summit of the Matterhorn from a local air charter company.

The actual holiday in Zermatt lasted only two weeks, but the enjoyment I experienced in planning and researching the trip stretched out over a year-and-a-half. Learning and using Swiss German was probably as much fun as any of it.

Bob Garner is a UNC-TV restaurant reviewer, freelance food writer, author of four cookbooks, barbecue pit master and public speaker. Contact him at bgarner2662@gmail.com.


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