Picture: Dianne Dicks with a Dolmen in Donegal County, Ireland. (c) Mary Hogan
By Dianne Dicks, Founder of Bergli Books.
Switzerland may be small but the way of life is a lot more complex than in many bigger countries. When I founded Bergli Books 30 ago, the aim was to help explain things to foreigners and Swiss alike.
Using logical thinking, one would have to be out of one's mind to publish books in English where the media and infrastructure for selling books are based on another language – or four other languages in Switzerland. But after 30 years, Bergli Books shows that the challenges explain the success.
When international people get together, “Where do you come from?” and “How long have you been here?” are followed by entertaining anecdotes about intercultural encounters. I always enjoyed this exchange of personal experiences. The sharing of sometimes-trivial incidents often leads to the profound. People with a foot in more than one culture develop skills in coping with life that cannot be learned at any university. And you don't have far to go in Switzerland to find yourself in another culture, even if you are Swiss. You only have to open your mouth and you'll be labeled by where you come from, even if it is just the next village.
During several decades of living abroad, mostly in Switzerland, I've collected intercultural “stories.” The media always seems full of wars, conflicts of cultures and religions. It implies people of different cultures are destined not to be able to get along. But in my own experience, communicating across cultural barriers is a natural part of life. It often adds spice to routines, work, travels, and friendships. I found that writers, journalists, teachers, and translators living in Switzerland had valuable messages for the world—realistic experiences of how to communicate across cultural barriers and overcome cultural differences.
The Swiss are not easy to describe. Perhaps that is why the task is so fascinating. Clichés rarely work across cantonal borders or even across garden fences. Almost anything you say about the Swiss, another Swiss will disagree with. And living with the Swiss as neighbors, business associates, spouses, is like riding a bicycle. It is difficult when you try to explain it in words and in isolated steps. Sometimes it hurts, but if you stick to it, you'll eventually catch on.
I did not start publishing books in English about the Swiss to inform outsiders but to get the Swiss to talk about themselves. I wanted to help the Swiss in my English classes talk in English about their country, their values, and their heritage. My students couldn’t do that, not even in their own language. These adult “students” in Swiss firms and schools were often keener to talk about American and British ways of life.
One way of getting them to talk about life in Switzerland was to relate stories from my English-speaking international friends about living with the Swiss. It set off lively discussions, sometimes arguments, but mostly an exchange of their own anecdotes. They learned as much about themselves as they did about the English language. So I kept nagging my international friends (journalists, translators, and teachers) to write down their impressions. Soon I had quite a number of “stories” which other English teachers wanted to use as well. Newcomers to Switzerland wanted copies to help them develop “cultural resiliency” and understand their Swiss neighbors and colleagues (and spouses) better.
Tired of photocopying these stories, I decided to find a publisher. But none was willing (or foolhardy?) enough to publish a collection of personal experiences in English about living with the Swiss. So, very naïve (a polite word for being uninformed about the hard knocks of publishing), I decided to do it myself.
I arranged to have 10,000 copies of Ticking Along with the Swiss printed, confident they would simply sell themselves. By some miracle, they did. The Swiss loved it as much as international newcomers. Swiss firms bought the book for their associates abroad and for their employees who were transferred to Switzerland from other countries. I had discovered a niche and a need. Within two years, all the copies had been sold and there was a great demand for more “stories.” Hundreds were sent to me in response to the first book, and within two years Bergli Books published Ticking Along Too. Both books have had several reprints.
I admit that while waiting for the first print-run of 10,000 copies to arrive, I did panic. I was afraid that I'd start receiving hate-mail, get banned from the country or worse, have to stay here and face the you-shouldn't-have comments from Swiss friends. That was 30 years ago. Still no hate-mail.
In publishing, you have to trust your gut feelings, find a sense of scale and nuance. And above all, you need to hang on to your dreams and dare to fail. I'd like to think the Bergli Books’ success is due to my efforts and skills. But in all honesty, by pure chance I discovered a niche market. I met the needs of international people eager to find and share experiences about living in a fascinating, multicultural society.
It pleases me the most that our publications seem cherished by the Swiss. This is not because they are written to flatter them. Many different impressions of living in Switzerland are recorded. There is wonder, perplexity, social commentary, warm admiration, and critical observations. Our authors tell the stories sincerely without trying to teach or sell anybody anything, and they sprinkle them with playful humor.
A version of this article appeared in Hors Ligne Magazine in 1998, under the title of “Handling Helvetia.”