Lost in Helvetica

(This piece comes from American travel blogger Miranda Moure. You can read more about her adventures here.)

“Why do you say this, why do you say this word, zee?”

“I’m not sure that we say that?” I responded, genuinely unsure of what he was talking about. “What word do you mean?” 

“I mean like the last letter of the alphabet. You call this one ‘zee’ when it’s much better as ‘zet.’ We say ‘zet.’”

“Oh right, well,” I stumbled a bit, as I truly didn’t care what anyone calls it, “I dunno, I guess we just don’t. We just call it zee. Maybe because it rhymes in the alphabet song?” At that point, I was getting more curious myself and was wondering if any other English speaking countries besides the United States say zee. I couldn’t remember off the top of my head.

I was in Zurich, Switzerland on the patio of a hipster bar with my friend Janne. We met in Austin, Texas, the summer before. Months later, I heard from him while I was in Copenhagen about to catch a flight to Marrakech. He gushed about how beautiful fall was on Lake Zurich and invited me to come and stay with him. Normally pretty rigid about my travel plans, I surprised myself by scrapping my Morocco flight, letting it take off without me. 

A few days later, Janne and I were sitting together in the Jewish Quarter drinking $12 Moscow Mules. 

“Okay, okay. So what’s the third letter of the alphabet?” Janne asked me.

“Um…see?” I leaned toward him a bit, wondering where this was going.

“And the last?” He asked me.

“The last what?”

“The last letter of the alphabet, what is this one called?”

“Zee,” I answered definitively.

“Miranda, can you not hear it? Those sound exactly the same.”

I was shocked that someone who speaks two different dialects of German had a hard time making this distinction. Personally, I know two words in German: apple, and apples. To my untrained American ear, they sound identical. When I told Janne this, his response didn’t change my understanding at all. 

“No, no, no. One is ‘app-fell’, and the other is ‘app-fell’. It is easy to tell, they sound completely different.”


“You could learn German,” he assured me. “If my cat can learn another language, you can too.”

“Your cat?” I answered, thinking I had heard him wrong. “Did you just say your cat?”

Janne speaks perfect English, but most of the time he speaks either Schweizerdeutsch or Hochdeutsch, so from time to time an English word or two can illude him. I thought maybe that’s what was happening.

“Yeah, you know our cat. Bili.”

I had been staying with Janne at his parents’ house. Janne was finishing his Master’s in chemistry, so his parents had invited him to live at home to save him from the hyper-inflated Zurich real estate market. With them lived their beloved cat Bili–a huge, aging orange tabby that the family doted upon immensely. Still, I wondered how it was possible that their precious Bili had managed to learn another language.

“What does that even mean?” I asked, “like, he understands many languages?”

“No, he speaks them.”

Janne thought this had cleared things up, but continued when he saw me staring at him, dumbfounded.

“Okay, okay. You know this…prison? This prison you take an animal to,” I did not, obviously, and shook my head no as he continued, my brow furrowed deeply. Janne continued. “Yes you know: like you go on vacation, and you take your pet to a special prison.”

“Oh, the kennel!” I exclaimed, laughing, suddenly wondering if our collective pets feel like they’ve been jailed when we go on vacation.

“Yeah!” he exclaimed, “the kennel. So my family and I went to Italy a couple of years ago, and before we left we dropped Bili off at the kennel. But they have dogs there, too! So when we came home, he was making all of these barking noises.”

“WAIT,” I said, cocking my head a bit, “it sounds like what you’re telling me is that you think your cat learned how to bark from the dogs at the kennel.”

Janne stared at me, completely straight-faced, then shook his head, dejectedly.

“But Miranda,” he pleaded with me after recovering, “WHERE ELSE DID HE LEARN IT?”

But this was exactly why I had come to Zurich. Though we only spent a couple of days together before I had decided to high-tail it to Switzerland on a dime, I remembered those days being patently hilarious. Janne is one of those people that can talk to anyone, and I was suddenly so glad that he had decided to speak to me that morning in Texas, commenting on the immense size of a Big Gulp when he found me grabbing a coffee at the 7-11 in my pajamas.

7-11 Coffee turned into brisket ramen, turned into Korean tacos, turned into late-night Lone Stars, and by the time he was due to leave for New Orleans I didn’t want him to, but was scribbling down my recommendations for the rest of his trip regardless. After he left, I spent weeks wondering if I’d ever see him again.

So I just laughed, deciding it better that we just clink our glasses rather than waste our warm, Swiss afternoon debating whether or not barking is a language.

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