(First published in Le News, 22 May 2014)
One of the most amazing revelations I’ve had in Switzerland thus far (apart from the fact that eau de parfum is not pronounced ‘err de parfyoom’) is that not everyone likes biltong. I shared my treasured store with some British and Swiss friends once, and it was an eye-opener. Half of them paled at the mere thought of eating raw, dried meat, and those who gave it a try, got a funny look on their faces after a few chews and didn’t ask for any more.
I know how they feel. I once ate two helpings of kimchi because it had been made for me by a Korean friend, even though the spices went straight through the roof of my mouth and into my eyeballs, blinding me for the rest of the meal.
Anyway, after the biltong experience, I set about observing cultural exchanges more closely. I didn’t have to look far, either. Almost the next day there was a cultural exchange in my own car. The bigger child, who spent her formative years in South Africa, wanted a Lego traffic light from the smaller child, who has grown up here.
‘Please pass me that robot,’ the big one asked.
The small one looked around in confusion, expecting to see R2-D2 or a Transformer.
‘There’s no robot here,’ she said.
‘There!’ the big one shouted in frustration. ‘The robot! In your hand!’
‘That’s not a robot,’ the small one shouted back. ‘That’s a traffic light!’
Of course they were both right. We call traffic lights robots because … we just do. We’ve had similar confusions about crisps / chips / fries and one particularly scarring experience in a French market, where I realised that hardly anyone else calls an aubergine a ‘brinjal’.
Thankfully I’m not the only one around here occasionally baffled by these Third Culture experiences. An American mother of my acquaintance looked at her small son in surprise when he asked his ‘Mummy’ for a ‘cuddle’.
‘Who is this person?’ Mommy mused, before they had a good old American snuggle.
Actually, I think my children have been the biggest beneficiaries of this fusion life we’re living: they’ve learned to make American S’mores with Swiss chocolate biscuits; they’ve had braais, barbecues and cookouts (often all at the same time, and frequently in the snow); they pepper their conversation with ‘merci’, ’s’il vous plaît’ and ‘voilà’ (and, less endearingly, ‘Vite, Maman, vite!’) and they’ve had their expectations of fireworks raised to a level that not every country can meet.
But I do believe the award for most intense fusion experience belongs to me, for one sunny summer afternoon during the Paléo music festival, when I was pet-sitting for a friend in the village. The pets weren’t that keen to go to bed, and while I gently encouraged them, I had a crazy vision of my situation: a South African running around a Swiss field, chasing French chickens belonging to a Danish-New Zealand family, while The Cure was playing ‘The Lovecats’ only a few fields away … that, surely, takes the gâteau. Or the nusstorte, if you prefer. Or the melktert. Take your pick. They’re all delicious.