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facts & arguments

It's Saturday morning and a long-anticipated summer breeze drifts through the room. Sounds of CBC Radio hum in the background. A new author who just made the bestseller list is being interviewed.

I absentmindedly bring the background noise into focus and listen. The words are so clear I feel like I'm sitting in the broadcast studio in Toronto. But I'm not. This morning's digression into popular culture is courtesy of the Internet. I am all the while lingering in my apartment in Zurich, Switzerland, where I moved a few years ago for work.

I shut down the computer, making a mental note that I should pick up that book next time my path crosses an English bookstore. Another day begins in the global village.

The "living abroad purists" would not approve. Surely I didn't move halfway around the world to listen to CBC Radio or drink Starbucks coffee? The purists often sit beside me in taxis driving through airport suburbs, glaring at streams of shopping centres in Sydney, Lisbon, Johannesburg and muttering, "We could be anywhere."

We could be anywhere. That's the point. We could be anywhere, but we are "here" in this place and moment. Some things are the same, and many are different.

Before I go anywhere today, I will need to deal with my flat bicycle tire. I walk toward the neighbourhood bicycle shop and turn over in my head the possible German words to explain this problem.

"My bicycle," I finally declare in German to the man behind the counter, "cannot breathe."

A communications expert would probably argue I didn't stay on message. But the shopkeeper handles my declaration of impending death with all the Swiss diplomacy one might expect. We move on to the more straightforward topic of the weather.

The bicycle is resuscitated and I am on my way. All in all, I'm reluctant to criticize the exchange. It's an improvement from my discussion with the phone company through which I now believe I negotiated my monthly fees upwards.

In a new language, every conversation is an adventure. Before calling to book a table at a restaurant or to make a dentist appointment, there must be careful planning. What exactly will I say? How might they respond? Smoking or non-smoking? How many people, at what time? What if the choices are more complicated?

Humans and their conversations are living, breathing things. They go in the most lovely and unpredictable directions, only at a much faster pace, I'm afraid, than my ability to flip through my English-German dictionary.

I ride my bike through the tourist section and listen to the single-minded determination of English visitors to make themselves understood. Why do so many people believe that speaking more loudly renders their language more comprehensible?

Success comes only when the power of language and culture can be balanced. A friend from Argentina delights in explaining how he navigates through France. "I never begin with English," he says. "I first ask if they speak Spanish, which they rarely do. But then it is their decision that we settle on English." I too use this technique. When both parties speak in a second language, their less comfortable footing is made rock solid by its equalling effect.

Will I remember, I wonder, to choose my words so carefully the next time language differences are not an obstacle? What if everyone so carefully tested each sentence for understanding and misunderstanding before daring to speak them? Can the local village benefit from the experiences of the global one?

I return home in the late afternoon to a ringing phone. An American friend has found herself in a bakery in the suburbs of Zurich. "They have pie," she whispers in such an excited, hushed tone that I wonder if certain food groups had been banned without me knowing about it.

"Pardon me?"

"Homemade American pie. Strawberry, blueberry, every kind you can imagine. This woman from Berkeley married a Swiss guy and opened a shop selling homemade pies. I'm bringing one over right now."

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Again I can practically feel the purists flinch. Hasn't the economic crisis proven that globalization is not the answer? And now, in the land of ice cream and apple strudel, I'm going to eat pie?

Yet I can't help but think that some of the answers lie exactly here. Here, where the homogeneity and the differences of the so-called global village collide. Here, where we choose our words carefully, practising in advance neither to offend nor to confuse. Here, where we live and love and sometimes laugh at the sameness - the unexpected moment when we realize we all somehow know the words to Michael Jackson songs.

We sit on the lawn by Lake Zurich amid the groups of Saturday picnickers. I recount my flat-tire story.

"Hmm, maybe you can help me," says the bearer of the pie. "I need to explain to my mechanic that I lost track of time and am only now bringing in my car to have the winter tires removed."

Now that's a tough one. In an entire country run with the precision of the finest Rolex watch, "losing track of time" is a concept that might not be translatable in any language.

"You better cut me another slice," I say. "This is going to take a lot of rehearsing."

Sandra McLellan is a Canadian living in Zurich, Switzerland.