Mark and I left Zürich yesterday morning for Laax, a tiny village in southeast Switzerland. We got the train to Chur, the capital of Graubünden canton, then grabbed a connecting train to Ilanz, west of the city. From Ilanz it was a short bus ride to Laax.
The road to Laax was very narrow and twice we had to “push” cars back because when faced with an oncoming postal bus, guess who has the right of way? It was one hairpin turn after the other and there were no guardrails at all. I wonder how the driver can stay on course when there’s such beautiful scenery around. Now I, who haven’t even seen the Canadian Rockies, was staring at the soaring Swiss Alps in total awe. Mark said the Canadian Rockies were even more impressive so maybe I should visit my own country if I want to be impressed before I start raving about Switzerland. However, all over the mountainsides there were houses on green lawns stretching to the sky and mist shrouding the peaks. Swiss houses typically have overflowing flowerboxes and these houses were no exception. It was raining and misty, so I cannot wait for a clear day to see the peaks unobstructed.
Everyone here speaks Romansch, or, specifically, Sursilvan Romansch. The only German I heard were the teachers’ instructions to the new students (such as me). The Casa Caltgera learning experience is total immersion. My first class just ended and it was given entirely in Romansch. My Finnish classes from five years ago were also conducted entirely in Finnish, even for those who had no prior introduction to the language.
At first I was worried, scared even, when last night at the opening reception I heard only Romansch. I honestly felt scared, and worried if I had made a good decision to come here to learn the language. It assuaged me slightly to compare the course programme with the Finnish programme and how easily I picked up Finnish in an all-Finnish environment.
We learned the basics today, viz. greetings, the verbs to be, to have, and to reside, how to make introductions, and how to pronounce sounds in Romansch. Part of the curriculum is singing and we learned two Romansch songs and the teacher asked the class to translate the lyrics before we sang. Romansch is the remnant of Latin that the Romans spoke when they invaded the region and kicked out the Rhaetians many centuries ago. Romansch evolved into five distinct and intelligible idioms in Switzerland in different valleys; a speaker of, say, Sursilvan Romansch cannot understand a speaker of Vallader Romansch and the irony is that speakers of two different Romansch idioms must both speak German to make themselves understood.
Compare the Sursilvan word GLATSCH ( = ICE) and SULEGL ( = SUN). GLATSCH resembles the French word “glacé” and SULEGL is pronounced similar to the French “soleil”. One cannot look at a Romansch word and pronounce it phonetically; we learned a lot of diphthongs and consonant combinations that are not pronounced as they might appear. Note the U in SULEGL; it is pronounced like the O in “soleil”.
Laax is a village of a few hundred and there is a small library here, only open two hours a day for three days a week. There is a post office plus two small grocery stores and an electronics store, travel agent, bank, fitness centre, pool, sauna, football field. No one in Laax lacks recreation facilities.
Mark left this morning for Prague, and since it was raining this morning he had to wait for his bus in the downpour. He has a twelve-hour trip to Prague, taking the bus and a few train connections. He must pass through Liechtenstein en route, so the lucky guy gets to see the country before I do! During the walk to my first class I got very choked-up and feared if anyone spoke to me I would start bawling; I think my sudden sadness was a combination of parting with Mark plus being worried that I would fail miserably in my first class.
My class was anything but worrisome and I loved every minute of it. Students could ask questions in German,
French, Italian or English (I am the only student in the class of ten whose native language is English) yet the answers were almost always in Romansch. We got our language text and this evening I must go through the first chapter and learn the vocabulary. It will be at first difficult to learn the pronunciation I think because I know German already and I must train my mind to regard these words and their sounds as not German. For example, the diphthong EI in German is pronounced “eye”, yet in Sursilvan Romansch it is more like a shorter “oeil” (somewhat like “oi”) as in French. I must look at these diphthongs and consonant clusters differently. The homework will take a couple hours and I hope to do that after dinner. This afternoon (it is now 15.30) I want to see the village and pick up some groceries. All meals are provided in my tuition fees, however if I want to eat any snacks, I must pay for them in the kitchen.
When my course is over I would like to stay in Liechtenstein. There are two hostels in the tiny country and I will contact them through E-mail to see if there is any room at the end of the month. If not, hmm, I don’t know what I’ll do, but I can always visit Chur as I hear from the locals that they have an amazing Romansch bookstore.
Now to study, and to write to some of you. There is no bookstore here so perhaps that’s a blessing!