Wednesday, September 8

All Apologies

You, my fans, must feel roundly rejected since i haven't blogged in, what a week and a half? (Those of you who didn't notice a leave of absence--you're not my real fans.) I read recently (in an Esquire interview with blogmaster Nick Denton, I think it was) that with blogs, what readers like most is lots posts, regardless of how long they are. If you're cynical, you might suspect that frequency trumps even quality. Not here, I assure you. I do my best to keep the frequency low enough that it's always below the quality.

I just returned from a long weekend in eastern Switzerland, the land of my roots, sort of. My great-grandfather left his tiny village there about 130 years ago. Planning to come to California, he travelled as far as he could, then stopped and set up shop--in Indiana. Starting as a hotel concierge--hired because he spoke five languages or some such, the story goes--he eventually started the Home Stove company, which was once the largest stove company in the country? or the world? I know for sure it was Indiana's biggest user of steel for a while--or was that my other relative's company, the Perry Buggy company?

Anyway, I do know that both of these branches of my family lost most of the dough as they apparently failed to adapt as the Industrial Revolution stretched its legs--and then the Depression hit. Now the Home Stove company owns a few properties around Indianapolis--here a car parts warehouse, there a gas station lot--and made enough profit recently to pay for all the shareholders to stay in Switzerland for a share holders meeting, which conviently can be written off on taxes and doubles as a family reunion. Let's hope the IRS doesn't read my blog.

I'm not a shareholder, though, so what do I care? It just happened to work out that I was already in Switzerland, so I could jump on the train and six hours later (whoops, seven--I missed a connection), I was in Ilanz on the Rhine River. My relatives were from a small village on a high terrace overlooking the river valley. Their village, Affier (rhymes with fire, tire, mire, lier), is one of five that formed a German-speaking enclave amidst a sea of Romansch speakers.

In case you're not familiar with Romansch--I wasn't til I got there--it's a weird hybrid language that exists in pockets across southern Switzerland. It has many dialects, each unique to a different river valley. The version I saw, at least, seemed a hodge-podge of German, Italian, and French. Most restaurants around there have "poulet flugli," a melding of the French for chicken with the German for flying. They're chicken wings.

We had a guided tour through the nearby city of Chur, which has been inhabited continuously for 5000 years. Recently when digging for a parking garage in the old town, between a hotel and the jail, the construction crews unearthed some artifacts. Archeaologists got busy and found there were about 14,000 years old, making them the oldest known artifacts of some kind in Europe--I wasn't totally clear on that part. But anyway, the tour guide said the non-Romansch Swiss used to laugh at the Romansch because of their strange tongue, but it turns out that their hybrid language makes it really easy for them to later learn French, Italian, German, English. "So we stopped laughing," the guide said.

On the train ride there and back, I read most of a biography of Murray Gell-Mann, one of the most famous theoretical physicists of the century. He had a nearly photographic memory, and he had a freakish ability to pick up new languages. I wished I could be like that, because it seems like it would be fascinating to learn Romansch and the history of how it came to be. But as it is I'm still struggling with my French, and tonight I didn't understand when the guy at the falafel place asked me if my order was to eat in or to go. Then he gestured at my table with my backpack and said (I think), "Mange elle," eat her, or more probably, "Mange ici," eat here. But really I understood only the gesture at first and then figured out what he said. So I've got a ways to go. Wish me luck. In French, that's bon courage.


Blogger Tom said...

Sounds like you are reading Strange Beauty. That is a great book. Turns out that Murray had his own penchant for artifacts. In fact, most of his were confiscated because they were illegal!!


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