I never thought I would see Switzerland before Ethiopia. Traveling to Ethiopia would mean learning my family history and my mother’s language, Amharic. Apart from its chocolate, neutrality and banking, I had always known very little about Switzerland. Still, when I discovered there would be a Global Seminar on multilingualism in Geneva, I felt learning about linguistic diversity would be helpful. Maybe it would bring me closer to Amharic, or perhaps push me towards the work I’ve always hoped to do in Latin America.
For either reason, I wanted to take this seminar. But I could not predict just how close to home it would hit.
I can easily recall the first time my lack of understanding of Amharic was brought to light. We were in seminar, discussing the generational gains and losses of languages. It was a very sobering moment when I announced I gained Spanish independently, but lost Amharic. My professor explained, “Many first-generation children lose their parents’ languages, but in an effort to reconnect to their culture, second-generation children will learn.” Unfortunately, this did not set my mind at ease.
Not only would I be unable to talk with my mother through her mother tongue, but also my own children would regain a language they would not be able to speak with me? I felt a sudden disconnect and found myself homesick not for my hometown, but my heritage. I searched for whatever piece of Ethiopia I could find in Geneva. With three friends by my side, I went for lunch at a little place named Awash. Confidently recommending dishes to my friends and sharing platters of injera, I was relieved to feel like a part of my culture again, even if in this small way.
As my friends planned their next adventure, I noticed an Ethiopian boutique next to the restaurant. Peeking in, I saw scarves and habesha kemises, beautiful Ethiopian dresses. I bid my friends goodbye and walked into the store. There was no one to be found inside, but that didn’t keep me from scrambling for my size. While examining a particular garnet scarf, I heard a soft voice speaking Amharic. A woman, short and in her late 20s, stopped at the sight of me. Bemused, she asked, “How did you get in here?” I told her the door was open. “Is it alright that I’m here?” She smiled and nodded, going to sit behind the register.
I asked for her name. “Hanna,” a very common name in Ethiopia. Midway through our niceties, she asked, “Are you habesha,” a broad name for many Ethiopian ethnic groups whose common facial features I have. I smiled and told her yes, but half. “My dad is Jamaican, but I’m from New Orleans!” From there, the conversation rolled.
We talked about New Orleans, Addis Ababa and Geneva, my seminar, how she had moved with her husband and daughter three years ago so he could work at the UN. As we talked, I modeled dress after dress for her. We chatted so freely, it felt like I had known her for years. Though I had been there for three hours, I would have been content staying longer. Yet, as happy as I was talking with, I knew I would have been happier if we could speak in Amharic.
It was ironic that although I knew not one of Switzerland’s four official languages, my greatest concern was an entirely different tongue. After meeting Hanna, I went from hearing no Amharic to hearing it everywhere. On a tram to the UN, my ears perked as I heard two Ethiopian men speaking. Walking near Geneva’s central train station, I saw two women in habesha kamises talking. My last day in Geneva, a few friends and I were in a neighborhood zoo when I ran into an Ethiopian family. The father smiled at me and said, “Salam.” I took randomly meeting an Ethiopian family in the suburbs of Geneva as a cue to visit Hanna before leaving.
I only had about 20 minutes to spare, as my seminar’s last dinner was that night. But I knew I had made the right decision as we fell into easy conversation again. She ordered spiced tea from the restaurant next door, cut cake from her daughter’s recent birthday party and offered me a chair as we caught up. After adding each other on Facebook, she grabbed a beautiful scarf and keychains, folding them up in bag. She handed them to me with a hug and kiss. “Good luck!” she told me.
Many things moved me while in Switzerland—the sheer awesomeness of the Alps, the French language, and the ease in which everyday life moved. But nothing surpassed the realization that Ethiopian hospitality had touched even this part of the world. I had never been gladder to be a part of this culture, but juxtaposed with my physical and linguistic distance from it, my seminar has revived old concerns—concerning the importance of language in culture and the issue of how deeply one can be connected to her heritage without this language.
When my parents began discussing possible graduation gifts, I told them the only thing I wanted was a family trip to my mother’s land. My culture is not in jeopardy, but whether I can learn through and communicate with others in that culture may be. I have never thought that language is the only way to express one’s heritage, but my own experiences with my incomprehension make me think it is the greatest.
~ Lea Trusty '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler