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  • Writer's pictureMekki Amal

Parallels never meet. Even in Switzerland.

Updated: Mar 29

Oct. 12, 2022, by Amal Mekki

I made many mistakes in my life. I've never regretted any of them, even when they broke me. Not learning German prior to moving to Switzerland, now, that is a regrettable mistake.

All my previous mistakes were "committed" in Tunisia. Some of them had high emotional and psychological costs, but all of their material costs were in Tunisian dinars. Affordable, no matter the price.

I paid for my mistake of not learning German with hard currency. And that is unforgivable.

In Bern, I took four weeks of German lessons at Klubschule Migros language school. By the last class, I had made up my mind not to continue, to the teacher's disappointment.

One of the lessons was about hobbies. Our teacher was absent that day and a very nice substitute came instead of her. There were 11 students in our class, and 12 nationalities. Tunisian, Moroccan, Pakistani, Turkish, Indian, Colombian, Japanese, etc... Most of us were still new to Switzerland.

In order to make the new words stick in our minds, the substitute teacher asked us about our hobbies. The answers followed, with the features of disappointment rising on the face of the very nice teacher, and little by little, expanding.

"Reading", "cooking", "listening to music"... It was clear that the teacher did not find a single hobby to admire.

She could have let the "disaster" pass, though. Her pedagogy could have stopped at her obvious disappointment, but she chose "to go deeper in pedagogy".

In the middle of the classroom, the very nice substitute teacher stood before everyone and began to give a speech in English with a very calm Swiss voice: “You know? Hobbies are important. It is important to have one or more hobbies. Listening to music is not a hobby. It is something that everyone can do.. Playing a musical instrument is a hobby. You know? Here in Switzerland, all children learn to play at school one or more instruments of their choice..."

Silence fell on the classroom. From my strategic position, I looked at the faces of the rest of the students. The Japanese girl was raising her head vaguely towards the ceiling, the Turkish wincing at the teacher, the Colombian playing with her long, thick hair, the Iranian looking at her new nail polish.... The Moroccan girl turned to me with a sarcastic smile on her lips, and I replied with a bitter one. Then I looked to the window, getting lost in the rain.

Rain, which in a country I know turns into floods in a matter of minutes. There, hundreds of children still travel kilometers every day on their way to school. On foot.

While the rain here flirts with the windows of the building, leaving over them little grains of longing and lust, rain there steals every year the lives of students who leave behind nothing but their little shoes and a lot of heartbreak.

Children who did not go to school that day.

Children who will not grow up.

Children who will not learn music.

I was there. The rain didn't wash me away. And I grew up. I learned music in middle school. Theoretically. Like everyone. I learnt by heart the musical scale and a number of songs that the professor sometimes called us to perform in front of the class. One of them was the famous "Elif, O my sultan", from the Tunisian-Andalusian Maluf (also, Malouf).

That was the music course. Lessons we write on a music booklet prepared for the purpose. Musical instruments, on the other hand, we only played them in our dreams.

I've recently read a text by the philosopher and sociologist Didier Eribon, extracted from his memoir "Returning to Reims" (Retour à Reims). Eribon, who comes from a working-class family with his two parents being factory workers, talks in the book/biography about his experience of "social ascension". In it, he mentions a "funny" situation that happened to him when his father passed away.

Eribon tells one of his "bourgeois" friends that although he doesn't intend to attend the funeral, he will go to Reims (his birthplace) to be with his mother. The friend replies: "Yes, anyway, you must be there to attend the reading of the will."

Didier Eribon comments on his friend's response in the text by saying how much it reminds him that parallels never meet, even in the framework of friendship. He asks sarcastically, "Reading a will? O Great Lords... what will? As if in my family we have the custom of writing and recording wills. Anyway, what do we have to bequeath it?"

The French writer concludes here that members of the bourgeois class speak to those they mix with, from other classes, as if they had gone through the same existential and cultural experiences.

That's what happened with the very nice substitute professor. She assumed that because Swiss children learn to play musical instruments in school, all children everywhere do.

She was unaware that outside Switzerland there is a parallel world. A world where children still dream of going to school... or of just "making it" to school.

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