The melting pot I’m living in

There will be no underground blogging from Geneva because there is no subway (and because I don’t spend that much time in tunnels, although they exist in great numbers in Switzerland). But there will be mass transit blogging. This is the first experiment—on my first days using the tpg system (tpg is for “transports publics genevois”). The punctuality of which the Swiss boast is not at all as advertised, I must say, and especially not when it comes to early morning buses in the town of Troinex, where I live. Instead of getting annoyed with the delays, I’ll just blog.

During this first week in Geneva, I’ve been having many new experiences, as expected—learning my way around, meeting people, adjusting to the job. Yet, one aspect of this transition has struck me as the most surprising. It’s not completely new to me; just something I didn’t realize I’d encounter here. I’m talking about the melting pot of languages and accents I’m in.

On the train from Germany to Switzerland, I had a smooth transition from German to French. And when I say “smooth” I’m being somewhat ironic. The woman sitting in front of me on the train from Basel to Geneva had forgotten her discount card (uh oh!) and was trying to communicate with the ticketing officer, who was about to charge her the full fare. Her first language was Spanish and her German was not very good, so she was Italianizing her Spanish, hoping the officer would understand it. Italian is one of the official languages here, together with French and German. The officer, however, didn’t speak Italian; he replied in either French or German. I offered to translate from Spanish into French, but they managed to communicate without any translation. I’m glad. It would have been a lot of work!

French is the language spoken in Geneva and region, so that’s the default language in the street: from transportation to shopping to dining. My church shall also be francophone, I’ve decided; it will be a good opportunity to practice and to get in touch with some locals.

English is the language spoken at my office, with a variety of accents: British, Canadian, French, Indian, Italian… But on my first lunch break at the UNEP cafeteria, two young women sitting beside me were chatting in German. At some point one of them asked me, in French (the “default language,” like I said), whether I spoke German, just to find out if I would understand the confidences they were sharing. I said I did understand some German—and she said she was joking. Was she? We’ll never know. I wasn’t paying attention to what they were talking.

(By the way, UNEP stands for “United Nations Environment Programme”—yes, “programme” with a British spelling. Go figure. And ah, yes, there is some UNEP presence in Geneva, but the main office is in Nairobi, like I said.)

Finally, at home, Portuguese—my flat mate is from Portugal. We communicate pretty well, in spite of some “divided by the same language” moments, when he uses a word I had never heard of, or smiles at some Brazil-specific expression I inadvertently use now and then. Those are fun moments. Sometimes I catch myself using a word you would use in Portugal but never in Brazil. It will be funny if I end up with traits of a European Portuguese accent!

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