Day 25: Bern, baby, Bern

Bern, Switzerland

I awoke with more complaints than a British Gas call centre, which immediately decided that my trip to the little German-speaking Swiss capital of Bern would be by train rather than by bike. I bagged an expensive but pretty looking train ticket – a rather fetching blue with white mountain peaks on it – and put my feet up for duration of the journey.
It felt quite alien to go from a French-speaking city with French signs to a German-speaking city with German signs with both locations being in the same country. Such a huge divide throws up questions such as how on earth the Swiss manage to cultivate a national identity. Whilst we have a faintly similar situation with diverse languages in the United Kingdom – perhaps best demonstrated by the prominent numbers of Welsh speakers just over the Severn Bridge – it’s by no means as pronounced as that in Switzerland, where roughly 64% speak German, 20% French and 7% Italian, with the remainder being made up of languages such as Romansch.
It felt comforting to be surrounded by German once more. I had studied German at school and chose it as an option at university, which allowed me to spend a year of my degree course at a German university. In the eight years that had passed since then I had gradually forgotten most of the German I had learned, and so I was eager to get back into using it on this trip.
I ambled into the old part of Bern towards the hostel I had picked and was immediately charmed by its appearance. The View Photo pristinely-preserved buildings dated back to the 15th century, their non-bombed completeness clearly a fringe benefit of Switzerland remaining politically neutral ever since its inception. Such a policy, however, doesn’t do much for your international reputation for compassion; it has been recently been revealed that Switzerland turned back tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany for fear of inviting invasion. They seem to be making up for past wrongs, however. Geneva in particular was surprisingly multicultural, demonstrating that the immigration policy has been somewhat relaxed since then.
The hostel was perfectly located slap bang in the centre of the old town, and the owner kindly let me stow Ron in his office rather than leave him sullenly chained to the railings. I was assigned a room occupied by a shy, mute Japanese chap who embarrassedly shrugged off my attempts at polite conversation, and so I immediately chipped out again to explore some more.
The buildings of the old town had been tastefully housed with shops and restaurants, with one of them being the nearest thing to a pilgrimage for me as I could get, as it was the house where Albert Einstein had lived at the turn of the century and where he had written his landmark theory of Special Relativity whilst working at a patent office. Christmas was also getting into gear, with decorations lining the streets and Christmas markets in several of the squares. I fixed myself up with a mulled wine and a fried sausage liberally spread with mustard and took in the festivities.
That evening I did a circuit of the town to pick a drinking spot, and found a fairly quiet bar to prop up and scribble, next to an utterly ratarsed scarf-wearing Swiss football fan who was soon breathing 100% proof Swiss German at me.
“Du bisssssss linkshen”, he slurred.
“Wie bitte?” was all I could manage back. Apparently I was something, but I couldn’t work out what.
“Du bisssssss linkshen”, he repeated, striking the arm my pen was holding. Realisation dawned that he was pointing out I was left-handed – linkshändig in proper German. I explained in German that I was English, and that I spoke some German but that I couldn’t understand Swiss German for the life of me. It’s practically a whole other language, with radically different pronunciation and a pleasant singing style of speaking in stark contrast to the harshness of the German of Berlin. Nevertheless, he continued to speak in Pissed Swiss German at both of me, and so defeated I made my excuses and left him to celebrate his team’s victory into the night.

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