Tag Archives: Switzerland

Mark Twain on Switzerland & the Awful Language of German

This past week I’ve been quite busy getting ready for a big change in our lives:  Taking in an exchange (high school) student for nearly a year.  She’s coming from Thailand, and wants to learn German; I’m not sure she knows what she’s getting herself into, as we don’t speak the German she will need to learn for school; we speak Swiss German, which is about as similar to High German as Old English is to modern English.

In preparation, I’ve been doing a bit of spring cleaning too – might as well, right?  My main work room, our library, is also where I keep folders full of stories I’ve saved over the years, and while sifting through them I was reminded of an article about Mark Twain’s observations on the German language.  I found what I was looking for in a Kindle book; it would be astonishing (and perhaps a bit discouraging) to Mark Twain if he could see his entire life’s work reduced to an e-book for less than $ 2.00, but so it is.  I was surprised to find a short description of his time in Switzerland, as part of his Grand Tour no doubt.  And as I mentioned above, the German dialects we speak are not the German Mark Twain describes, so I can laugh along with the rest of you (and I can laugh at the fact that the WordPress spell check is going berserk).  I’ll need to resort to High German for the sake of our exchange student, but it grates on my ears and tongue like sandpaper on the eyeballs.  Mark Twain seems to have had similar sentiments.  I will first share his impression of Switzerland, and then bombard you with his opinion of the German language.  This post is a bit longer than my usual offering, but Twain is well worth it!  So put your feet up, get a cuppa, and enjoy!

On Switzerland

Interlaken, Switzerland, 1891.

“It is a good many years since I was in Switzerland last. … there are only two best ways to travel through Switzerland. The first best is afloat. The second best is by open two-horse carriage. One can come from Lucerne to Interlaken over the Brunig by ladder railroad in an hour or so now, but you can glide smoothly in a carriage in ten, and have two hours for luncheon at noon—for luncheon, not for rest. There is no fatigue connected with the trip. One arrives fresh in spirit and in person in the evening—no fret in his heart, no grime on his face, no grit in his hair, not a cinder in his eye. This is the right condition of mind and body, the right and due preparation for the solemn event which closed the day—stepping with metaphorically uncovered head into the presence of the most impressive mountain mass that the globe can show—the Jungfrau. The stranger’s first feeling, when suddenly confronted by that towering and awful apparition wrapped in its shroud of snow, is breath-taking astonishment. It is as if heaven’s gates had swung open and exposed the throne. It is peaceful here and pleasant at Interlaken. Nothing going on—at least nothing but brilliant life-giving sunshine. There are floods and floods of that. One may properly speak of it as “going on,” for it is full of the suggestion of activity; the light pours down with energy, with visible enthusiasm. This is a good atmosphere to be in, morally as well as physically.

DCF 1.0

Vierwaldstättersee, taken 2006

“After trying the political atmosphere of the neighboring monarchies, it is healing and refreshing to breathe air that has known no taint of slavery for six hundred years, and to come among a people whose political history is great and fine, and worthy to be taught in all schools and studied by all races and peoples. For the struggle here throughout the centuries has not been in the interest of any private family, or any church, but in the interest of the whole body of the nation, and for shelter and protection of all forms of belief. This fact is colossal. If one would realize how colossal it is, and of what dignity and majesty, let him contrast it with the purposes and objects of the Crusades, the siege of York, the War of the Roses, and other historic comedies of that sort and size. Last week I was beating around the Lake of Four Cantons [Vierwaldstättersee], and I saw Rutli and Altorf. Rutli is a remote little patch of meadow, but I do not know how any piece of ground could be holier or better worth crossing oceans and continents to see, since it was there that the great trinity of Switzerland joined hands six centuries ago and swore the oath which set their enslaved and insulted country forever free…”

On the Awful German Language

What he had to say about the German and their language is quite different, however:

“Even German is preferable to death.”

“Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following EXCEPTIONS.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it. So overboard he goes again, to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand.”

“German books are easy enough to read when you hold them before the looking-glass or stand on your head—so as to reverse the construction—but I think that to learn to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner.”

“…in a German newspaper they put their verb away over on the next page; and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along the exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting to the verb at all. Of course, then, the reader is left in a very exhausted and ignorant state.”… “It reminds a person of those dentists who secure your instant and breathless interest in a tooth by taking a grip on it with the forceps, and then stand there and drawl through a tedious anecdote before they give the dreaded jerk.”

Mark Twain, Young“Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. Observe these examples:

Freundschaftsbezeigungen.

Dilettantenaufdringlichkeiten.

Stadtverordnetenversammlungen.

These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions. And they are not rare; one can open a German newspaper at any time and see them marching majestically across the page—and if he has any imagination he can see the banners and hear the music, too. They impart a martial thrill to the meekest subject. I take a great interest in these curiosities. Whenever I come across a good one, I stuff it and put it in my museum. In this way I have made quite a valuable collection. When I get duplicates, I exchange with other collectors, and thus increase the variety of my stock. Here are some specimens which I lately bought at an auction sale of the effects of a bankrupt bric-a-brac hunter:

Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen.

Alterthumswissenschaften.

Kinderbewahrungsanstalten.

Unabhängigkeitserklärungen.

Wiedererstellungbestrebungen.

Waffenstillstandsunterhandlungen.

Of course when one of these grand mountain ranges goes stretching across the printed page, it adorns and ennobles that literary landscape—but at the same time it is a great distress to the new student, for it blocks up his way; he cannot crawl under it, or climb over it, or tunnel through it. So he resorts to the dictionary for help, but there is no help there. The dictionary must draw the line somewhere—so it leaves this sort of words out. And it is right, because these long things are hardly legitimate words, but are rather combinations of words, and the inventor of them ought to have been killed.”

“My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.”

 

Quotes from the Complete Works of Mark Twain (Illustrated). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.

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A Page in History

As a writer, I’m constantly absorbing information; I never know when something might come in handy!  It may inform my scene with more realism, or infuse a character with a quirk or a background that gives them depth.  History is full of oddities and amazing events that can spark our imaginations; the event below is one such event:  If you ever need to write a scene about an explosion, or the effects of wrong decisions gone awry, look to history to teach you how it’s done (or in this case, how it should not be done).  This story shows the importance of decisions, and begs the question, “What if?”  What if one of those factors had changed?  What if the captain of the SS Imo had given way to the captain of the SS Mont-Blanc?  We’ll never know, but as writers, we can use our greatest tool:  Imagination.

This day in history:  The Halifax Explosion

6 December 1917 will live on in infamy in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in Canada, as one of the worst disasters in history.  On that day, the largest man-made explosion prior to the Nuclear Age occurred, wiping out several communities and reshaping Halifax forever.

The events that led up to the explosion that killed thousands and maimed thousands more reads like a thriller:  The delay of a shipment of coal; the climate of war that complicated the comings and goings from the harbour; an experienced captain now behind schedule who “bent the rules” for once; the captain whose impatience at previous delays pressed him to disregard the harbour speed limits and refuse to give way a third time; the third ship in his path who, because of their cargo (tons of explosives), could not make sudden manoeuvres and was relying on him to give way; a right decision made too late.  Curious onlookers who gathered at their windows to watch the blazing ship in the harbour had little idea that it would be the last thing most of them would ever see; if they were not obliterated in the initial blast, the light from the flash or the window glass shattering [in virtually every window within a 2.6-kilometre (1.6 mile) radius] blinded them; some 5,900 eye injuries were treated, leaving over 40 survivors permanently blind.

Confusion after the initial blast was compounded when people began evacuating thinking that it was a German bomb attack; fires throughout the city (caused by tipped oil lamps and ovens in collapsed homes) added to the confusion and hindrance to rescue efforts,  but within a few hours the true cause had become widely-enough known to calm initial fears.  Rescue teams started arriving from as far away as 200 km (120 miles), their help hampered by damaged roads and fears of secondary explosions from a munitions magazine at the Wellington Barracks.  To make matters worse, the next day blew in a blizzard which dumped 41 cm (16 inches) of heavy snow on the area; this blocked train transport with snowdrifts, and tore down hastily-erected telegraph lines.  Halifax was isolated, though the snow did help to extinguish the fires throughout the city.

Here in Switzerland, the NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) reported on the 7th of December:

“Zerstörung der Stadt Halifax? New York, 6. Dez. (Havas.)  Aus Halifax wird gemeldet: Die Hälfte der Stadt Halifax sei ein Trummerhaufen infolge einer Explosion.  Die Verluste werden auf mehrere Millionen geschätzt.  Der Nordteil der Stadt steht in Flammen.  Es gibt hunderte von Toten und an die tausend Verwundete.

[“Destruction of the city of Halifax?  New York, 6 December (Havas – a French media group based in Paris.)  From Halifax was reported:  Half of the city of Halifax lies in ruins as a result of an explosion.  The loss has been estimated at several million (unclear whether it means Canadian dollars or Swiss Francs).  The northern part of the city is in flames.  There are hundreds of dead and thousands injured.”]

On the 8th of December, a similar footnote was reported, adding, “Kein Haus der Stadt ist unbeschädigt geblieben…” (“No house in the city has remained undamaged”)

That it even made it into a footnote of the international news section is actually remarkable, considering that Switzerland was surrounded by war at the time and had far more pressing matters on the home front and in neighbouring countries with which to keep abreast.

In the end, it is estimated that over 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 injured (of those injured, it is unclear how many died of the injuries, and how many were permanently disabled in some way).  The blast was so hot that it evaporated water in the harbour, exposing the harbour’s floor momentarily; as water rushed back in to fill the void, the resulting tsunami erased a settlement of  Mi’kmaq First Nations along the shores of Bedford Basin, on the Dartmouth side of the harbour; how many were killed is not known, though around 20 families lived there at the time.

Halifax Explosion, 6 December 1917To read the fascinating history of this event, please click here.

Sources:  Wikipedia; NZZ digital archives

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Happy Birthday, Switzerland!

Swiss National DayHere in Switzerland, today’s Google Doodle is in celebration of our Founding Day, 1291.  It is actually the day on which the Federal Charter was written and signed by the three originally united cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, neighbouring cantons situated in the heart of modern-day Switzerland.  As in America, the signing of the Declaration of Independence was not the actual day of peace and freedom; it had to be hard-won thereafter; but it’s the day recognized as the pivotal moment when going back was no longer an option, and going forward meant fighting for what we knew was right.  So, 724 years on, I say “Happy Birthday, Switzerland!”

Google Doodle 1 August

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A Postcard from Lugano II

Lago di Lugano, Switzerland, with San Salvtore beneath the moon.

Lago di Lugano, Switzerland, with San Salvtore beneath the moon.

I’ve been absent from posting for a few weeks now, as I was away on holiday and I left most of my writing at home.  Most.  Last summer I wrote you the first Postcard from Lugano; and I will say that not much has changed.  It’s still beautiful, with lazy hot days with a cool breeze coming off the lake, and warm evenings with glistening stars  overhead and a glittering city below.  This first photo was taken at about 4 in the morning (I have no sleeping rhythm, which is handy when such scenes present themselves).

 

Villa Helios:  The back of the mansion with the terraced walk leading toward the lake.  Under renovation.

Villa Helios: The back of the mansion with the terraced walk leading toward the lake. Under renovation.

But as I told you, I left most of my writing at home – not all.  When in Lugano, I’ve been working on a novel the past few years; it started out as a fun idea to explore, and gradually developed into a  more serious endeavor.  I thought I’d share it with you as it may inspire you to take on such a writing project of your own on holidays (it may not classify as travel writing per se, though in some ways [like my postcards] it may at times take on those characteristics):  Our family flat overlooks a sprawling mansion that we have watched decay from neglect for over 20 years; it was most likely trapped in an inheritance dispute.  It had been boarded up, its windows bricked in, its magnificent garden going wild until it was an impassable jumble of green.  About three or four years ago suddenly a crane was set up, and renovations began!  Of course it sparked my writer’s brain – who had inherited it, or purchased it?  What was its history?  From the looks of it I will have several more years to ponder its end as the renovations continue; but by now the gardens and the terraced walls have been brought to life, a new drive laid with mosaic stones, and the house itself has been set free of its bricked-over, blinded windows, the roof replaced, and the beautiful stones (I would venture to guess Bath Freestone) sand-blasted and cleaned to their pristine beauty.

Villa Helios, as seen from our balcony.

Villa Helios, as seen from our balcony.

Called Villa Helios, it was designed by architect Otto Maraini, who was born in Lugano on 8 November 1863 and died there 16 January 1944. Villa Helios in Castagnola was built in 1901-1902, including a series of walls and terraces that formed part of the lake shore.  I came across a few historical photos at arteeidee – thank you to them for sharing the old magazine photos (“The Modern Building” monthly magazine of architecture and construction practice, August 1904)!  Check out that blog post for the older photos (click on them to enlarge); The photos I’ve added here are current shots.  I’ll just say two things about the crane:  Note the box hanging from it, near the vertical shaft – that is the tool crate, hung up at the end of work days to deter construction site thieves.  Also, though the crane interrupts our view of Lugano at times (it shifts freely with the wind when not in use, so sometimes we barely see it), it gives us a brilliant view of birds that take over when the workers are gone – there’s a constant conversation between the seagulls and the Hooded crows.  I’d love to do more research on this building, but most of the information is in Italian, which I can fight my way through only passably, but as I said I still have plenty of time.  That’s the beauty of holidays.

To you writers out there:  Find an interesting old building in your own area, research into its history, and create a story with the building as one of the characters and not merely a location.

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A Postcard from Lugano

Gandria, Switzerland

Gandria, Switzerland

Just put your feet up on the edge of the glass balcony, lean back and enjoy the breathtaking view:  straight ahead is San Salvatore – the signature mountain of Lugano, Switzerland (also known as the Rio De Janeiro of Europe) – rising out of Lake Lugano.  A sunny day will see the vast body of water dotted and streaked with lazy boats, speed boats, water skiers, and the occasional swimmer who ventures far away from the shores to swim long distance.  A sunny, windy day will see the lake bloom like a field of wildflowers with sails unfurled.  If you look straight down from the balcony, you’ll see six stories of uninterrupted view and a private swimming pool shimmering Caribbean blue in the garden below – all yours whenever you feel the urge.  Sitting there gently beckons you to breathe deep, slow down, forget time, and be as lazy as you want.  Being is the thing here, not doing, unless that doing brings pleasure.

Overhead, hawks circle, coming so close to the balcony that you can watch them turn their heads to look you in the eye.  I’ve been fortunate enough to see them swoop at the lake and come up with fish, but more commonly you’ll simply see the results dangling from their talons as they fly nestward.  Birds of all shapes and sizes are there for the viewing:  Ducks that fly past squawking as they flap furiously determined to reach their destination, always in a hurry; swans that pass each morning toward the town, and each evening toward their roost; silver-backed crows that fight for the highest treetop, chasing each other from tree to fence to roof to tree to lamppost to tree; sparrows that have learned the advantages of sharing their domain with humans; seagulls that pester hawks for their fish, pester each other for their prizes, and pester simply because they enjoy pestering.

To the right in the distance is the eponymous town, the shoreline rimmed by a walkway, boating and ferry docks, a giant fountain spraying five stories straight up – when the wind doesn’t use it to spray onlookers – and swans, coots and ducks competing with sparrows, pigeons and silver-backed crows for the breadcrumbs of passersby.  Every little corner café and ristorante has a place in the sun, with tables and chairs moved out onto the sidewalk, the giant umbrellas providing welcomed shade.  Gelaterie dot the shoreline, offering relief from the summer heat with generous portions of creamy Italian ice cream.

Gandria, as seen from the lake

Gandria, as seen from the lake

This first evening, let’s head down to Gandria:  A small, steep town tucked around the lakeshore hidden from Lugano, it’s accessible only to those who can walk.  There is one parking lot high above the town, but I prefer the walk high above the lakeshore.  For the first few minutes, we walk past luxury mansions, usually veiled in the silence of loneliness as the occupants are rarely in residence.  We pass a parking area and enter a narrow stone pathway that takes us past the back door of a few stucco homes, eventually giving way to steep cliffs to our left and a steep drop to the lake below on our right.  The forest grows thick here despite the rocky cliff, but if we take this walk early enough in the evening, we’ll see countless lizards sunning themselves along the stone path or cliff face; we may even glimpse a sunning snake, though they are usually quick to disappear into the underbrush.  We come at last to the village of Gandria, a labyrinth of stone houses and arched passageways, where swallows can be found nesting, and a postcard in the making at every turn with a picture perfect atmosphere.  The restaurant we choose engulfs the stone path, with the building on one side and the covered terrace on the edge of the lake (or out over the lake) on the other.  We order our meal (Italian, of course), complete with a bottle of local wine, and watch the shadows of the mountain grow steeper, swallowing the glittering lake as it climbs the forested Italian mountains across the invisible, watery border between the two countries.

Happily satisfied with a good meal and a good year, we begin the walk home.  By now, the dense forest is darker still, and conceals a deep ravine in the rising cliffs; at dusk, out of that ravine dart tiny bats by the hundreds.  Contrasted against the sky, we watch them deftly echolocate their meal of insects that have thrived on the lakeshore all day and have risen to soak up the last rays of the setting sun.  If you hear well, you’ll be able to hear their small shrieks as they swoop past – unaware that humans are there except as obstacles to be avoided in their flight path.

At last, we return home.  The view from the glass balcony has now changed: The lake is a blanket of darkness surrounded by the glittering lights of the towns splashed along the winding coast.  Sometimes a bright light suddenly flashes across the lake, where a car has turned directly toward us briefly on the winding roads and streets, but it is only the size of a firefly at this distance.  The peace that settles over the lake calms any thoughts of home, responsibilities, appointments, work and schedule.  Sitting in the dark and watching the stars come out as dusk fades to a black curtain, we whisper as our tangled thoughts unravel, our minds drawn to the deeper things of life than mere living.

Another place I’d take you is to the top of our mountain, Monte Brè, to the village of Brè Paese.  It seems to be a magnet for artistic abdicators of the outside world, with every corner, door, window frame, stair, archway, path, woodpile and every other possible canvas artistically arranged, painted, sculptured, framed and ready to grace a postcard.  My favourite and eponymous restaurant has a garden that reflects the philosophy of the town, being a dessert for the eyes and soul.  There is a large chess board in the garden with potted plants as the pieces; a wooden bench made of barked branches winds its way around one of the large shade trees, and a swinging bench ready to receive visitors at a moment’s notice sways in the warm breeze beneath another tree.  Our table is shaded by a kiwi fruit vine laden with fruit, winding its way up the trellis and taking its sweet time to reach a nearby balcony.  Sparrows flit between the terrace tables in search of morsels and are friendly and bold enough to even land on our table occasionally.

As night falls in Lugano, the city sparkles to rival the stars.  On a clear moonless night, the mountains surrounding the lake are etched black against the sky, contrasted by the city lights reflecting along the shore.  Some of the brighter stars even cast their reflections onto the water below.  A swan drifts past, asleep with its beak nuzzled under a wing, not caring where the gentle currents carry it by morning.

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