17 March 2010

Apparently, It's OK to Smile

Well, a week from today, I'll at last be winging my way to Confederation Helvétique and my sweet wife to begin our new life. 

But yesterday afternoon, Switzerland came to me here in the rainforest on top of Kilauea volcano, where I have lived for 7 years. There, on my doorstep, were Marlise and her husband Peter. Marlise, from the Swiss consulate in San Francisco, has been patiently shepherding me through the punctilious immigration process. She and Peter are vacationing here on the Big Island, and had asked for hiking tips, so I invited them over. Little did they know that I'd be performing cultural vivisection upon them. 

They brought a good bottle of California cabernet, and I put out some hors d'oevres, including a ridiculously expensive cheese, which, though technically French, originated in udders along the Jura mountains just a few pastures north of the Swiss border. I should have bought the cheap pre-sliced squares of Kraft "Swiss Cheese," but I was afraid they wouldn't get the joke.

I shouldn't have worried. They're a spunky couple -- and they hardly touched the cheese, which I'm now rationing to myself like Communion wafers.

I spent about 5 minutes showing them the best hikes around Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, which is just past my backyard. Otherwise it was mostly me interrogating them about Switzerland.

And here's the best thing they told me: It's OK to smile in Switzerland.

I've been reading a lot about CH. Here in Hawai'i we have an acronym: FOB. It means "fresh off the boat," and refers to immigrants who clearly don't get local culture yet. I realize that, beginning next week, Swiss people I meet in Geneva, then Neuchatel and Montmollin will be looking at me, and listening to my fractured French, and thinking whatever the local equivalent is of FOB. (Gotta ask the wife about that, tout de suite.)

So it was great to have Marlise and Peter clue me in a little. I asked them about something I've been reading: We Americans tend to smile a lot. Apparently, it's our default non-threatening facial expression meant to disarm whomever happens to be studying our visage, so we can either really begin to make friends, or cut their throat before they know it. Generally, we are just trying to be friendly. But many Europeans take our incessant smiling as a hint of possible idiocy. What the hell is there to be so happy about? That's why the Swiss don't tend to smile so much; and if you want to be spoken to as an actual adult, you might want to dial down the grins. At least that's what I'd been reading.

I asked Marlise and Peter about this. Peter, who's Austrian, averted his gaze -- enough said. Marlise said, "Don't worry about it. Just be yourself."

That made me smile, but then I wanted to kick myself. Meanwhile, we can all take a lesson from this gal, who is quite Swiss, by the way.



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  2. Bill, you crack me up! A little nervous, are we, about making the BIG leap over? Don't worry, I'll fight off the border guards like no one and rescue you and Loki from the dungeons of the Cointrain airport! All aboard!!!!!!!!

    Just bring your smile, babe - and leave that nasty cheese behind!
    Your crazy wife,

  3. In the Valais canton, they would say of a guy coming from another Canton, that he is "un étranger". For an FOB guy like you, they'd say that you are "un étranger du dehors"...
    That should wipe off that grin of your face real quick - I'm sure, and perhaps raise an eyebrow?

    Na! Marlyse is right: Just be your sweet self!
    With love,

  4. Hey Bill, it was a pleasure visiting you in your jungle home and chatting about your fear to smile in Switzerland - don't worry, they usually don't bite... Have a safe trip over the oceans
    and good luck with everything!