Six months after arriving in Zurich, I finally began working on learning German. The class was run by the local government office and met twice a week. I have studied many languages before and I was looking forward to a little motivation (as an added bonus, the course included free childcare so, for the first time since moving, I felt like I was doing something just for myself). The first class was a hour’s worth of introductions and stumbles. The second class began with the alphabet, and I quickly realized that the pace would be remarkably slow. I simultaneously realized that I was not the target audience. Of the fifteen members of the class, I was the only one who used the Latin alphabet in my native language. The relative isolation I had felt during the previous six months quickly became remarkably clear. While I struggled to meet people outside of my husband’s work and find ways to fill the days with a two-year old, the effort I needed to put in was nothing compared to that of my classmates. I observed an Eritrean couple, a Greek man, a Turkish woman and her husband (who already spoke German but came to make sure she settled in well), a Vietnamese woman who wouldn’t speak a word except to the Chinese woman who had previously lived in Vietnam, two Tibetan women, a young Nepalese man, an Egyptian woman and, finally, a young, pregnant Ethiopian woman. While I didn’t continue with the second session of the course, this final classmate has since become a friend.
Though we didn’t meet socially while the class was in session, we have since been able to get together a couple of times. The first time we met, I was not looking forward to it. I was busy, and I did not want to awkwardly make conversation in our very limited German. We met at the train station. I thought we were going to walk along the lake, but she led me back to her nearby apartment. However, the moment I entered her home, I was awash with familiarity. Due to my time in Africa and Kyrgyzstan, the layout of the home, the generosity of my host and the offer to look at her wedding video all put me at ease. Not only was I comfortable, but I realized that I missed the indescribable feeling present in that home that I don’t find in the homes of my European, Canadian or American friends’ homes. The two of us drank coffee, ate homemade bread and stared at our two baby girls with little conversation. I heard the story of how she came to Switzerland, and considered the immense isolation she must feel- far from home with no community to slide into and no support, especially as a young mother. I was spurred into reflection of the non-compassionate feelings I had earlier in the day, dreading the meet up. My distance from home and feelings of isolation were put into perspective.
Now I try to meet with her every couple of weeks. Our text messages and phone conversations are indecipherable to anyone else, but face to face we communicate well. She has given up on learning German for the time being and is working on improving the bits and pieces she learned of English while in Ethiopia. Our habits, cultures and expectations are quite distinct, but we share a common community of motherhood, and are finding our bonds within it.
Kalley is a mother of two girls. Prior to 2010, she worked as a teacher; currently the girls are her number one job. She and her family live near Zurich, Switzerland. Kalley also has an inconsistently updated cooking blog, Culinary Adventures.