Zelg, Appenzell, Switzerland: 9 February 2016
There are brief moments when I envy some of my peers in the academic world.
They have what I call “the Holy Grail for freelance teachers”: a permanent contract with one school that provides all the benefits an employee could wish for – pension, sick leave, unemployment insurance, written notices of changes to status, health insurance, etc.
I foot the bill for any future benefits I may need.
I have no real job security.
Yet despite these disadvantages I cannot imagine any other life like it.
The endless variety of experiences offered by a ever-changing roll call of students wanting a constantly changing curriculum makes me feel that every day as a teacher is a brand new adventure.
It is only the second month of the year and I have bankers and a legal clerk who want BEC Vantage (Business English Certificate)(Cambridge University), an IT engineer who wants technical English, two housewives and an artist who wants conversational English, a CEO who wants a combination of legal and business English, and a medical clerk who wants BEC Preliminary.
In the past I have taught a prison guard, a sailboat purchaser, pilots, aircraft mechanics, a driving school instructor, lawyers, doctors, people in pharmaceuticals from the manufacturing level to the pharmacy level, accountants and insurance agents, actors and stage designers, chemists and electricians, professors and tourists, secretaries and executives.
I have taught in private and public schools, in high schools and universities, in Europe and Asia and Canada.
And like any other profession there have been moments when I have encountered either difficult clients or unexemplary employers.
But generally no other profession has thrilled me as much as freelance teaching.
Part and parcel of this thrill is the ever-repeating butterflies-in-the-stomach anxiety of Day One: meeting the student(s) for the very first time.
Day One – today- has not begun well.
I made a rookie´s mistake.
I confused the name of the canton´s capital with the canton itself.
Two thirds of Switzerland´s canton capitals share the same name as the canton over which they dominate, so when the school manager told me that the family I will be teaching lived relatively close to St. Gallen I assumed that she meant that the family lived close to the city of St. Gallen.
Not only does the family Frei not live within St. Gallen city limits, they do not even live within canton limits.
From my apartment in Landschlacht to the family house in Zelg requires a three-hour journey involving a train and two buses or a bus and three trains depending on the time of day and the route chosen.
Now every country has one: a region that is the butt of everyone´s else jokes, a region that is considered parochial, backwards, barely civilised.
Southern England laughs at northern England, the US laughs at Appalachia, Canada pokes fun of “goofy Newfies”, France of its north, Italy of its south and Switzerland of the two half-cantons of Appenzell.
Appenzell is a special place…
First, it is not one canton, but rather two half-cantons: Appenzell Innerrhoden (AI) and Appenzell Ausserrhoden (AR).
Being half-cantons translates to having only half-votes during elections within the Swiss Parliament, the Federal Assembly.
Once a year they gather together in town squares, some dressed in traditional costumes, to cast their votes publicly by raising their hands. If each citzen over the age of 20 does not show up to vote then they are forced to pay a large financial penalty.
Twice a year Appenzeller farmers and their families in their finest traditional clothes will lead their livestock to higher or lower slopes.
Appenzellers once went to war over a dead man´s clothes.
Following increasing conflicts between the Appenzellers and the Abbot of St. Gallen’s agents, including the bailiff of Appenzell demanding that a dead body be dug up because he wanted the man’s clothes, the Appenzellers planned an uprising.
On a certain day, throughout the Abbot’s lands, they attacked the bailiffs and drove them out of the land.
Appenzell. after achieving independence from St. Gallen control and after joining the Swiss Confederation, was split in half by religion during the Reformation, with AI remaining staunchly Catholic and AR defiantly Protestant.
AI and AR both have their own half-cantonal capitals: Appenzell and Trogen.
Appenzell is an alpine region, particularly in the south, where the Alpstein limestone range (culminating in Säntis mountain (8,216 feet or 2,504 metres) is found, though towards the north the surface is composed rather of green hills, separating green hollows in which nestle neat villages and small towns.
It is mainly watered by two streams that descend from the Säntis, the Urnasch joining the Sitter (on which is the capital, Appenzell), which later flows into the Thur.
There are trains from Appenzell to St. Gallen either through Gais or through Herisau, as well as lines from St Gallen to Trogen and from Rorschach to Heiden.
Appenzell still uses the Julian calendar to determine when New Year´s Day festivities will take place.
Appenzell has its own type of chickens: the Spitzhauben (pointed hat)(pictured below) and the Barthuhner (bearded chicken).
Appenzell also has its own type of Sennenhund (“cattle dog”):
I finally arrive in Zelg, after a train to St. Gallen, a bus to Heiden and another bus and a 1/2 hour walk (the driver forgot to let me know where to disembark despite my requesting her to do so when I boarded).
I find myself in the middle of a U2 video.
The streets of Zelg are unnamed.
The house numbers lack any logical progression and seem to be determined by some mystical system known only to the locals.
I visit the only public establishment I could find in Zelg – the local butcher/grocery store.
The cashier, toothless and humourless, directs me to go “up the road” to “the new house”.
The two customers, good ol´ boys of indeterminate age or profession, are already swilling their beer and claim total ignorance as to who my client family is and open-mouthed astonishment that a Canadian is not only in their town but he is able to speak German.
I go “up the road” and climb the hills above the road without finding the house number listed on my client´s business card given to me by my school.
By European standards all the houses in this town look “new”.
Time to resort to modern tech.
I call my client´s mobile phone and tell him to meet me at the store, but until the meeting I decide to go “down the road” and see if I can find the desired household anyway.
Ten minutes remain until I am supposed to teach.
I meet a short hairy man driving a fancy car on the road.
It is my client, Noel.
His house is only 500 metres down the hill from the store, directly across the road from a prominent landmark, a manufacturing firm called Bopp.
I meet his wife Sabine and their son Alex.
Their English is non-existent, yet they plan to move to Canada sometime later this year.
I ask myself what I have gotten myself into.
Welcome to Appenzell.