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Caught up in the American melting pot

I consider myself Swiss, or more to the point, someone of Swiss descent, caught up in the American melting pot.

I think in inches, feet and yards, pints, quarts, gallons and miles per gallon. Metrics confuse me. So do European shoe sizes. I wear size 9 ½. That I understand. My sports tastes begin with American football, then basketball, then baseball, and near the bottom, soccer. Certainly these preferences would differ had I not grown up in America.

The oldest piece of history in my community falls somewhere around 1840. And, that is difficult to find. To me, that is ancient. Anything before that is almost pre-historic.

I can’t read, speak or understand German. I can’t speak Swiss dialect. My limited vocabulary would cause polite chuckles from any true Swiss citizen. I can speak and understand one language: English, although I took two years of Latin in high school.

Concerning the European Union, I can’t name the member countries. I don’t even know if Switzerland is a member. I’ve never played soccer in my life and don’t understand the rules. I can’t define the word “canton” except that there’s city in Ohio with that name. I have no idea of the meaning of the Swiss flag, and I don’t understand how a country can call itself “neutral.” However, it seems to me to be a noble cause.

I consider myself a seasoned traveler in the U.S., having visited nearly every state. But, European travel between countries baffles me. I don’t even have a passport.

While the Swiss banking system is a mystery to me, I’ve often fantasized on have an account in one. And, I read somewhere that the Swiss have a sort of recycling system of bodies in cemeteries. This is a completely foreign concept to me.

I realize the umlaut exists, but I don’t know how it is used. And, then there’s the guttural “g.” My wife’s mother carried Swiss lineage on both sides of her family. With regularity, you could count on her using it with certain words. It was her natural intonation. It’s lost to me, and to my generation. But, I recognized it and bow to anyone who honestly uses it. In its time it identified persons who grew up in a household where Swiss dialect was spoken in Bluffton. That time has ended.

You ask then how I consider myself Swiss. I’ll explain. My next door neighbors’ last name is Diller (Americanized Thüller, so I’m told.) Across the street is a family of Niswanders (Americanized Neuenschwander), two door in the other direction is a Yoder family. On the other side of the creek near my home live a family of Basingers (Americanized Bösiger).

One of my best friends is a Schumacher, and that name enters potential use of the guttural “g” when pronouncing it. Among other more common last names of people I come into contact on a regular basis include Amstutz, Benroth, Luginbuhl, Lehman, Gratz, Suter, Bixel, Bucher, Geiger, Matter, Moser, Habegger, Hilty, Gerber, Badertscher, Sommer and, of course, Steiner and Althaus.

These people and I have one commonality. Our ancestors came to from Switzerland. And, because of that, some of us consider Bluffton, Ohio, where we live today, a Swiss community. However, it’s not Europe.

What does it mean to live in a Swiss community in North America, decades removed from my own Swiss ancestral home called Tschaeggligen, a place I can’t even pronounce?

Geographically, where I live is anything but Switzerland. Home is the rural, flat lands of northwestern Ohio, about one hour south of Lake Erie. It’s so flat that Pandora, 8 miles to the northwest, has an elevation only 40 feet lower than Bluffton. On clear days you can see the Pandora water tower from Bluffton. (The highest “mountain” I’ve ever climbed is an 850-foot bluff. And, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.)

A small group of residents, perhaps a dozen or two, each older than I can speak “Swiss.” They get together in a local retirement home about once a month to converse just for fun. Each of these Swiss speakers grew up on farms outside of Bluffton, where their parents kept the dialect alive. At some point in the next 15 years no one here will be able to converse using it. World War I ended most of the German language spoken here.

Bluffton has an annual Swiss Day. It includes a large carry-in Sunday meal with much homemade smoked sausage. There’s a program attended by a couple hundred people of Swiss descent. My brother, Rudi, sister, Mary, and I provided the program one year. We talked about our great-grandfather, Rudolf Althaus, our direct Swiss descendent from the 1840s. And, prior to connecting with Heinrich Althaus, our third-cousin in Switzerland, in our minds, 1840 is about as far back as we could reach to experience family history. Heinrich changed all that as he turned the family album back to the early 1600s.

My family grew up next door to my grandmother, Bertha Althaus Hahn, who flaunted her Swiss heritage – yes, that’s how I’d describe it. Her outpouring of Swiss family stories, whether accurate, or sanitized by her father, shaped my curiosity about Althaus families who remained in Switzerland.

My grandmother’s zither is on a front room shelf. It is silent as I don’t know how to play it. She could play it. She said that her father taught her to play and to sing Swiss songs on it. Among those I remember her singing, using her own American-Swiss dialect and ending in a yodel, went something like: “In Lauterbach hab’ ich mein’ Strumpf verlor’n“ (Oh Where or where has my little dog gone?” or something like that). I was disappointed to later discover this song was written in the 1860s, long after her father left Switzerland. So, where did she pick it up?

But, more importantly, why did my great-grandfather leave Switzerland? Why did other family members remain? Did they have a choice? Where are they now? Do they wonder about me? If we met, what would be talk about?

I sometimes wonder which decision was best? Am I better off in America than in Switzerland? I have no idea.

To answer this question I must consider aspects of my own life. These include my own state of happiness, standard of living, education, outlook on world, cultural attitudes, eating habits, health care, family relationships, financial wealth and religious thought. And, I still wonder, am I better off on this side of the Atlantic or the other side? Do my Swiss cousins wonder this also?

I recognize the term “ugly American” and I know several people who qualify with this title. Am I one? I hope not. There’s a nagging feeling in me that I’d be considered one, if I visited abroad, just because of the American world stereotype. That makes me uneasy.

In World War I and II many Bluffton Swiss Mennonites were conscientious objectors to war. I registered as one during the Viet Nam conflict and continue to hold that belief. My wife shares this believe and we have influenced our two daughters to this way of thinking. Would my philosophy be different had In grown up in Switzerland? Again, I have no idea.

To my credit, I’ve passed as many of my Swiss stories and family heirlooms as possible to our daughters. It comes as very little surprise that because of this family sharing our daughters know more about their ancestors than nearly any other Americans their own age. I feel good knowing this. My sister and brother have shared the same with their children. To us, that’s important because it provides a sense of knowing who are.

Yes, I’m Swiss. I’m also a Swiss American, part of the great American melting pot experience. And, the story of our family, now on two sides of an ocean, is one that I’m a part of and one that helps me appreciate and understand where I fit in the larger global family story.



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