After moving from Chicago to Switzerland in 2006, one of the first things Chantal Panozzo discovered was that an apartment building's laundry room can be a crucible of learning about Swiss attitudes. Early on, her new apartment building neighbor chastizes Panozzo for not knowing how to operate the washing machine.
"Wiener schnitzel odor," a voice said. I looked up. Why was this woman talking about dinner? Could she smell my helplessness? She was about five feet tall, but loomed large, peering down at me over a basket of towels. ... As embarrassment spread through my body like a case of poison ivy, my skin itched under her gaze. I didn't need an audience to share my stupidity with because that only made its encore practically guaranteed.
The strict rules of Swiss laundry rooms are a story (too) often told among expatriates, and yet Panozzo's essay, "Switzerland may be neutral but its laundry rooms are not," manages to be fresh and engaging.
In her new memoir, Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I'd Known, Panozzo returns occasionally to the laundry room and to her often intimidating, eventually lovable neighbor, Frau Lanter, for further cultural lessons.
Often hapless but rarely helpless, the author forges ahead, making the usual cultural faux pas, learning from them, taking new chances, gaining new experiences, feeling more at home, then only to suffer new humilities (one essay is entitled "Being foreign is fun 1.125 percent of the time").
No wonder the cover art of her book shows her as a Frau Sisyphus pushing the Swiss cross up the Matterhorn!
In spite of the book's title, it is no checklist guide for expats moving to Switzerland. Rather, it is a collection of short narratives often referring back to her American upbringing. Readers learn few "facts" about Switzerland, but much about the life of an expat trying to carve out a life in a foreign land.
We are generally happy to tag along on Panozzo's daily adventures: As a new resident, a traveler with her husband around Switzerland and Europe, as an advertising copywriter, or as a first-time mom. That is because she is a charming, self-deprecating storyteller who is at her best when the stories describe cultural and linguistic frustration (and there is lots of frustration).
Swiss German is an unwritten dialect with variants that change approximately every mile. Versions of Swiss German can be so different, that even Swiss German speakers don't always understand each other. This suits them fine since they appreciate secrecy.
Panozzo warns readers right up front not to expect a sonorous yodel singing Switzerland's praises. She tells us in her opening "Disclaimer" that her book was almost entitled A Bitch Abroad. As we make our way through her short essays, it comes as no surprise to find her often focusing on what makes life challenging for an American expat living just outside Zürich for seven years.
There are the gutter-cleaning and window-box gardening lessons from the stern but caring Frau Lanter, the puzzling insults at the public swimming pool, the dizzying prices, and the stink of cheeses - whether applied to potatoes or as traditional medication to this new mother's breasts.
But there is also the unexpected instant passport to acceptance by the Swiss who learn Panozzo's husband is learning to play the alphorn!
Ultimately, this memoir is not just about Switzerland, but about the expat experience of anyone who leaves their homeland for a scary new life abroad. It is about learning a new language and getting a new job (and even a new baby), in a place where "you will become a foreigner even to yourself."
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