A sense of humor is, in my estimation, an invaluable quality in life. Without a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at ourselves and at life, it must all seem so much more tedious and stressful. However, not all of us were blessed, as I was, with parents with a silly sense of humor and a family that ended up in tears of laughter at every gathering. I find it unnerving to meet someone who has no sense of humor. I would go so far as to say that I don’t trust people without a sense of humor, but that’s not fair on those who rarely crack a smile. It’s not their fault that they were brought up in a dull family or in a country where mirth and frivolity are uncommon occurrences. Such a country is Switzerland. We all know that the Germans are renowned for their serious demeanor and I guess it flowed across the border into the Swiss culture like a river of fondue cheese surging through an artery. Add to this the notorious Swiss efficiency and you get a nation of people who are not only efficient and motivated, but are wholly perplexed at the concepts of fun and humor. Of course this is a generalization, as I am sure (and I hope) that there are many Swiss citizens who enjoy the odd joke or two, but my experience with Swiss nationals leads me to believe that the fun-loving sect are more the exception than the rule.
I was privileged to marry into a Swiss family that had roots in both the Swiss-German and Swiss-Italian parts of the country. Some of my extended family were expats living in South Africa, but others lived in Switzerland and we would visit regularly. In preparation for such a visit, we needed to apply for passports at the Swiss embassy in Cape Town. My sons were young at the time, but they were allowed to have their own Swiss passports. We handed in our completed forms to the Swiss lady behind the thick glass window.
“Zis is fine”, she said in her mildly Germanic accent. ‘We just need photos of your children’
“We have those”, said my wife, fishing them out of her handbag.
“Do you need us to bring the children here so you can verify that they are the ones in the photos?” I asked, expecting the bureaucratic machine to grind us into quivering mulch.
“Zat will not be necessary”, she replied
I don’t know why, but I piped up with: “But what if we went down to the street below and photographed some random children?”
She blinked at me through her severe glasses and the bullet-proof window, replying : “Why would you want photos of random children in the passports?” She had completely missed the point of my teasing humor. Then again my mother always did warn me not to unleash my sense of humor on strangers until they get to know me.
Other signs of the Swiss no-fun attitude were all too evident. The way that my parents-in-law liked to barbecue their meat, for example. No marinade or anything interesting. Just salt and pepper. No more, no less. They brought a tube of toothpaste back with them from a holiday in Switzerland and we had occasion to use it one night. It didn’t foam! Nothing. Just paste. I have since dubbed it ‘no-fun toothpaste’.
There was the occasion of my then-girlfriend’s 21st birthday party. I was living alone in an apartment at the time. I was earning a small salary, but was hardly starving. However, given my dry sense of humour and the complete failure to keep my mouth shut, I said to my mother-in-law-to-be: “Thanks for having a party, or I wouldn’t have eaten tonight.” I thought this to be quite amusing and she did laugh politely at the time, albeit in a half-hearted manner. However, she had obviously taken it completely seriously and for weeks afterwards my girlfriend would bring me food parcels packed with great care by her Mom.
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