Rediscovering the “homeland”

It wasn’t a surprise, but it also wasn’t necessarily the easiest solution:  my former employer World Radio Switzerland was sold by the public service, destined to become a local commercial station in Geneva.  That change has happened, and the vast majority of regular news staff from the public service were let go.

Our station had a tough history–one better explained in person and over a beverage–but it had accomplished an impressive task of producing award-winning coverage about Switzerland, and educating Swiss and ex-pats alike as to how that idiosyncratic country works (or doesn’t.)

The staff of WRS was given about a year to prepare itself for the eventual sale.  Some claimed our jobs would be secure until 2014, others, myself included, expected less.  We lost our political reporter and news director right away, and others were looking at the door.

As my family had to begin to think about schooling for my child, and I had to focus on my dissertation for my MA, we made one of the hardest decisions we have ever made: quit, leave Switzerland, and leave Europe, after four years abroad.  Shortly after we made this decision, and I gave my notice, the station’s sale was finalized and a timeline was in motion.

Staff had about three months before they would be laid-off, and the station and all content would disappear to be reborn as another kind of radio.  It is not my kind of radio, but it didn’t really affect me; my plans were already in motion.

Readjusting to the USA, which I hadn’t visited in two years, has been difficult.  It is even more difficult than when I returned from two months in Germany back in 2008.  At that time I wrote this: “People ask if it’s hard to readjust after two months abroad.  In some ways it is: the little German I know is now less useful, and I have to be careful not to use it without context.  It’s weird not using trains and public transport, even walking everywhere.  And it’s weird answering the question “is it hard to readjust after two months abroad.”

US CheeseFrench Cheese
One US cheese case, and the French offerings. Worlds apart..

The differences in living abroad to coming “home” are many, and range from the existential to the ordinary.  To successfully live abroad, for example, we have learned foreign languages, learned to navigate foreign cultures, and have lived ourselves as “foreigners.”  (This doesn’t fully illustrate the strain, when our language was learned for Germany, and not Switzerland..a small distinction that grates over time) No matter how hard we tried to integrate, the fact at the end of the day was: we are foreign, we are guests, and we can leave or be forced to leave at any time.  Having such a knife hanging over you can affect how comfortable you let yourself be.  But the mundane tasks were different, as well.  We didn’t have a car, so we did walk or take trains everywhere.  Grocery stores and other shops were mostly closed on Sundays, so we arranged our schedules accordingly. And the products in those stores were different.  Some items were easier or harder to find in Europe, or what was “normal” was different.  Brie bought in a US grocery store is not the same as in France. C’est vrai.

Branded veggiesWhat?
TV show brand celery and Maple Brown Sugar jerky

While it may seem silly, the grocery store is actually a place of great confusion for me after so long abroad.  The number of products in a standard box store in the US dwarfs all but the biggest store in Europe.  While there are products labeled “low fat” in the US, European labeling has focused more on whether something is organic, or grown locally.  These can be found in niche shops in the US, but the mass market is something else all together.  Walking through stores with products like Maple Brown Sugar Jerky–Jeff Foxworthy brand, no less–is like walking through a dream world where random items are combined in the subconscious self.

These things may have been around before we left for Europe, and are totally reasonable if the market wants them.  But I have not been in this market for a while, and all things are new again.

Swissness

I have spent the last three years trying to learn all I could about Switzerland and its news.  I tried to immerse myself in the stories and issues that they paid attention to, and those that they maybe should pay more attention to. (like the realities of asylum policy, not just the rhetoric)  That familiarity alone is something that places me far apart from the standard understanding of Switzerland or “Swissness” in the USA.  But the fact that my life was over there, too–my friends, church, child’s play mates, etc–moved my family into a weird space between cultures.  When you see “Swiss cheese” or “Swiss cakes” in the store, you do chuckle a little, because you know that there is a physical place called Switzerland which has more nuance than the common stereotype.  But you also yearn for someone else to understand that nuance, and it can’t always be.

During one night in Zurich I produced a tape synch for NPR.  This entails my recording a person who is having an interview with a radio host over the phone.  I send my side of the conversation to the network, and they combine it with their side, and voila–it doesn’t sound like a phone conversation.  While my official job was just to hold a microphone and make sure the quality was okay, I also spoke with the interviewee, Alex Zhang Hutai of the band Dirty Beaches.

Hutai’s music, and personal story, is peppered with the idea of acceptance through transit.  What does it mean to be accepted?  Can you be accepted in a place after leaving?  What happens if you don’t feel like you have a home anymore?  These questions are 100% relevant for me after four years abroad.  The USA is just foreign enough that I am surprised by products in the store or the lack of news magazines in bookstores. (maybe a Northwest US problem)  And Switzerland was always foreign.  So I am stuck in between a culture I am part of, but different, and a place that was never really mine.

Readjustment will happen with time.  Already I am more comfortable driving again, though I miss walking.  Already my family knows to go to the grocery store with a list, so as not to be overwhelmed.  But even with baby steps of improvement, we are conscious that our moves abroad and back were epic events and it is okay to take our time to get our footing.  And hopefully we will find out where the path will next lead.  After the dissertation is finished.

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