That night, I wander the streets until I see something promising: a bunch of old men are hanging out in front of a bierhalle, and there is no menu hanging outside to attract tourists. When I track down the one waitress working the joint, the menu she gives me is in German, and the prices are, shall we say, almost reasonable for Switzerland. I end up ordering the house special wurst over shredded potatoes, and receiving one link of bratwurst (a pack of which I can buy for 2.29 at any American Aldi) atop a mound of shredded potatoes. This runs me about 20 bucks. Oh, And a small Coke costs me another five. If this is the pensioner’s Tuesday night dinner with the boys, I don’t want to see where the old men go on date night.
As I am cursed to spend another air condition-less night in a hostel bed by an open window, I figure I might as well make the most of it. This is (in part) a language blog, and I happen to be in the Canton of Grison, the only Romansch-speaking place in the world.
What is Romansch you ask? Romansch is a Romance language, spoken solely in the isolated mountains of Eastern Switzerland, where it originated millennia ago from the spoken Latin of the Roman conquest. The segregation of the Romansch language in this mountain canton leads many linguists to surmise that it could be the most similar living descendant of old spoken Latin. As a language learner, this gets me way more excited than the Colosseum, Trevi fountain, and St Peter’s Basilica combined, and I vow to find a speaker of this rare tongue before the night is over. However, the fact that only roughly 0.5% of Swiss speak Romansch means my search poses a much greater challenge than visiting any tangible, touristic Roman remnant.
Hip young people populate the various cocktail bars and restaurants lining the streets of downtown Chur. An endangered language, I know better than to search for Romansch where there are young people. I stumble across a Latin bar, across from my hostel, and step in to grab a beer and get my bearings. The slim Dominican bartender greets me in German and is surprised when I respond in Spanish, the greater Latin American dialect of which I miss dearly as it reminds me of my home on the fringes of a Salvadoran neighborhood in Norwalk, Connecticut.
I ask the bartender about Romansch, and she tells me there just so happens to be an almost pornographically polyglottal (my words, not hers) man at the end of the bar who just loves to jabber about language. He tells me his name is Claudio, and he has lost track of the number of languages he speaks. I readily introduce myself, and for the next hour we amuse ourselves with comparative barstool linguistics in Anglo-Franco-Spanish until his dinner arrives via some sort of German-Swiss Grubhub service.
During our conversation, I ask if he sees a future for Romansch, and expresses his belief that Romansch will ultimately go extinct in the coming generations. This hardly disheartens him, however. When I inquire what other language he believes Romansch to be most similar to, Claudio refuses to answer, saying “Romansch is in everything.” He argues that—though language may die—so much of its roots are Latin and can be found in other languages like Italian, Portuguese, and French. In this way language never dies, but merely rearranges and evolves, this inevitable process being hardly lamentable.
I allow Claudio to eat in peace. After I pay my tab, I begin wandering the streets looking for another bar, another conversation, until the dorm room cools and I can get to sleep. I find nothing promising, but run into Claudio again a half hour later as he is crossing the street to his car. I ask him if he knows of any other good bars, and points down the block, smiling.
“Down there. Second floor. Octopussy!” he calls whimsically.
A sign outside says Octopussy Kontaktbar. You may be able to gather from the name what a kontaktbar is. In Central Europe, kontaktbars are places to make the acquaintance of, or establish contact with, local entrepreneurs offering particular services for a prearranged fee. As soon as I step in, which I happily do simply for the experience, I realize that this is not at all what I pictured a brothel to be. The decor is tasteful, classy, and upscale, and more closely resembles a Prohibiton-era speakeasy than a cheap motel. None of the women sitting at the bar speak Romansch, and after conducting a brief survey I learn half of them are Ukrainian, the other half Dominican. When I realize I can buy an overpriced beer (10 bucks) and practice my Spanish, Russian, and primitive American English, they are happy to indulge my langage à trois for the next half hour until I am told “eto ne schkole!” (Russian: this is not a school!) from the madam. At that point, I finish my beer and give three “good nights” in three languages to the four ladies of the night who made my night in Chur so memorable.
It is so early in the morning that the time in Russian is described using the singular nominative case, and so only the brothels and shawarma shops are still open. I grab a post-brothel kebab, where the Syrian Arab carver inquires as to how I can order a chicken deluxe in Arabic, but not in German. I shrug, spilling yogurt sauce onto my pants, which I need several European-style wax-paper napkins to clean up. When I return to the dorm I fall deeply asleep and awake past checkout, grabbing a quick pastry and carbonated apple juice (the nectar of the Gods, as far as I am concerned) and walking to the bus station. There, I babble with a German-speaking drunk man who keeps picking up my wrists as if I am a marionette, as if to say "my my, you are so thin. You need to eat more!" For some reason I indulge him, hoping that I will be able to learn what he is talking about if I let him use my limbs as a visual aid. When my bus arrives, I say goodbye and he smiles, drooling a bit from the corner of his lip. To this day, I still have no idea what he was talking about.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.