Polyglot Night

Looking down onto the house where Markus grew up, the Dumbach House and its attached barn, our rental, and the train crossing.

A summer night. The kids in bed. Our windows open. Lights dapple the pollarded chestnut trees of the Gartenwirtschaft across the street. Two teens occupy a bench at the train station visible from our living room window, and their conversation rises above the restaurant’s banter and laughter. The language they speak is Schwyzertüütsch, a Swiss-German dialect, lovely and lyrical.

A pollarded chestnut tree in Kaiserstuhl.

From her upstairs bedroom, our ten-year-old daughter shouts, “I can hear you!”

The teens immediately switch to French, which they learn in school.

It just so happens that we’ve only recently relocated here from a five-year stint in France, where our kids attended the local kindergarten and primary school. We had the chance to settle there but chose to return to Switzerland, to live close to my husband’s family. We’re renting next door to where my husband grew up. His parents live a block away, in a house they built after their retirement.

I go to the living room window and gesture to him to join me in eavesdropping on this exchange.

Our daughter usually falls asleep quickly, but within minutes of being asleep, she’ll be on her feet and sobbing, heading to the top of the stairs. One of us will always listen for her, fearful that she might trip over something or stumble down the stairs. One of us will go to her to offer comfort. We’ll lead her back to bed where she’ll promptly fall into a deep sleep that sees her through the night. Her two younger siblings, inured to this odd ritual, sleep on.

Recently, between hiccups of sobs, our sleepwalker expressed frustration about something being left undone. Without having any idea what it was, I said, “Oh, I finished that for you. Go to sleep, darling.”

“Really?” she said through sobbing hiccups, “It’s done?”

I said, “All done!”

Within days of this trick being employed, she stopped sleepwalking altogether; but that summer, her father and I were still habituated and attuned to listening for her somnambulate sobs and treads.

Fully awake now, though, she yells, “Je comprends français, aussi !

The teens on the platform exchange looks of astonishment, their mouths open. One whispers something, and the other says, considerably louder, “Okay, then. English.”

View to our old house from the train station.

It just so happens, I’m from the States. I speak North American English with the kids. I’ve learned Schwyzertüütsch and French, but my accent falls harsh on native speaker ears. While we still lived in France, our daughter told a plumber, “Maman parle anglais parce qu’elle est anglaise. Papa parle allemand parce qu’il est allemand. Je parle français parce que je suis français.” I laughed. Wrong on three accounts.

Upstairs, our daughter shouts, “And I speak English, too! So, shut up!”

One of the teens cries, “Who are you?”

Our daughter, now grown, lives in LA. On a recent visit, she says, “Here, I feel so American. But there, I’m so Swiss.”

“Don’t fly back home over Charles de Gaulle,” I say.

She laughs—indeed, she will be, and probably feeling totally French.