Sunday, March 11, 2012

If Henry Higgins had horns...

Ahh, you’ve already guessed from the title that this post is going to be a far-ranging ramble, have you?

You’re correct, but if you come along, we’ll touch on such disparate (or not) elements as “My Fair Lady,” languages and dialects, ibexes, some recent photos, and a vignette or two dealing with some favorite places and experiences in Switzerland. 

It all started a couple of weeks ago, when I was editing some images from my October sojourn in the Swiss Alps – specifically when I posted the photo below on my pages on the European web site Foto-Community.

Normally, when I post a photo, especially a landscape, I tend to identify it by location, if not in the title, at least in my narrative. But this one was different, as it reminded me so vividly of a new word I learned on my trip…a term that immediately springs to mind when I remember the early autumn Graubünden afternoon in 2011 when I took the photo.


So…not a place, but a very special state of mind.

I first experienced it in 1989, in the autumn afternoon sunshine, high in the Bernina Range of Switzerland’s Canton Graubünden. I’d experience it again and again on future visits to my beloved Graubünden, in 1994 and 2010, whether riding the bright red trains of the Rhätische Bahn, hiking with my cameras in the Bündner Alps, strolling the cobblestone streets of ancient Chur, or reflecting on such activities at the end of the day, while dining on hearty Bündner Gerstensuppe (the regional barley soup) and other tasty fare.

I was certainly feeling “patschifig.” I just didn’t know it – yet!

Beatrice and Ruedi on the Heidsee
Until last October. Because, on that particular trip, I not only once again enjoyed my favorite region in Switzerland, but I got to do so, for the first time, with lifelong residents of Graubünden, my new Foto-Community friends, Beatrice and Ruedi. 
Beatrice decided it was time to "up the ante" on my rudimentary and somewhat rusty spoken German by coaching me not only in Schwyzerdütsch, but the Bündnerdialekt as well!

A Calandabräu or three in the shadow
of  the Calanda massif  chases away any
reserve trying out some Bündner-Sprache!
So, over heaping platters of Bündnerfleisch – along with ample amounts of Calandabräu (to chase away any last vestiges of reserve in trying out some of those initially intimidating “sounds”) – the classes in Bündner-Sprache took place.

And it was then that I finally learned the name for that easy-going, Gemütlich feeling of well-being I always experience the moment I arrive in Canton Graubünden -- Patschifig.

I’ve always had an ear for languages, and a facility for reasonably accurate pronunciation in the “foreign” varieties.  Helped me jump right into classical music radio as a young radio guy, as well as in my current occupation as an international broadcaster.

I also love getting into regional dialects – no surprise, perhaps, as I spent my impressionable youth in the city of Bawlmer, Murlin. So, yes, back before all-digit dialing, I actually spoke to Ma Bell teleph(a)one operators who provided numbers in the Mohawk exchange with dat-dere special Bawlmer pr(a)onunciation of “Melhawk.” Oh yes, if you’re wondering about th(a)ose “a’s” in parentheses, it’s simply ma ph(a)onetic way of explainin’ to yewse that certain denizens of the Queen City of the Patapsico drainage area, Baltimore, have a rather idiosyncratic diphthong-y way of pronouncing their o’s. And a uniquely glottal “fing” they dew wif dere “L’s,” tew, which defies a phonetic representation in print.

There, you’ve just had a teaser course in Bawlmerese. (Raosetta Staone, ah’m available, anytahm yewse wanna add a Bawlmerese course.)

OK, now you were warned this would be a ramble…

Small wonder, given this love of dialects and the barely suppressible habit of trying to place a person geographically from his or her first words, that my all-time favorite musical is “My Fair Lady.” Not only the superb music of Frederick Loewe combined with the lyric genius of Alan Jay Lerner, and of course the literary wit of GB Shaw (on whose “Pygmalion” the musical was based)…but Henry Higgins, the irascible (not saying I’m always irascible, mind you) dialectician and grammarian and scholar of the English language, who can immediately place a person with GPS-like accuracy based on the first words he utters.

Now that interest of mine in regional dialects – including the non-stop desire to emulate them – extends to European languages, especially German.

There are probably as many sub-varieties of German as are found in English, as spoken in North America. Indeed, an East Frisian fisherman from northwest Germany might encounter the same comprehension barriers in sunny Bavaria as, say, a Michigander finding himself in deepest Louisiana. And vice-versa, you heah?

Cast your ears beyond the German border into Austria, and you can add even more. Switzerland? Well, there, you’ll hear another set of takes on German: Schwyzerdütsch. Ah, but it doesn’t stop there. Not surprisingly, for a nation that grew out of many isolated communities separated by formidable Alps, and with a history going back to Roman Empire times, there is an unbelievably rich set of regional variations of language.

And, as you might imagine, I’ve been enjoying my exposure to the Bündnerdialekt heard in Canton Graubünden.

Are you lost yet as to where we’re going with this?

Consider “My Fair Lady.” It has seen native language productions worldwide. One of my favorites was the Theater des Westens Berlin production starring Swiss Actor Paul Hubschmid (Johnny Vulkan in “Funeral in Berlin,” by the by) as Henry Higgins, Karin Hübner as Eliza, and Alfred Schieske as Alfred P. Doolittle. The cast recording (conducted, incidentally, by the great Franz Allers, Music Director for all of the Lerner and Loewe shows on Broadway) is a hoot to listen to, especially considering the challenges of finding a German equivalent to the Cockney English of Eliza and her father Alfred P.  And an autocratic, irascible Henry Higgins auf Deutsch? Bravo, Paul Hubschmid! „Himmel, welche ein Geräusch!“ ("Heavens, what a noise!") as he reacts to the sounds of Cockney-auf-Deutsch.

But how did this production do in equally cosmopolitan and German speaking Vienna? Well, as good as it was, it bombed. Why? It wasn’t the German that is exactly the “Music of the Spheres” to Viennese ears. The sounds clashed with the sensibilities, or as Herr Hubschmid derisively declaimed, „Himmel, welche ein Geräusch!“

The solution, obviously, was a Viennese version. And, of course, new challenges, as the down and dirty dustman Alfred P. Doolittle would now, more appropriately, speak in a lowly Viennese dialect. He’d be more a sort of Frosch, the deliciously lowly “Schligowitz”-chugging jailer in “Die Fledermaus.” Now, for a bit of delicious irony, my all-time favorite Frosch, the versatile Viennese comic actor Josef Meinrad, played not Alfred P. Doolittle in the Viennese production, but HH himself!

Like the Berlin cast recording, also delicious, aber ein bisschen mehr Gemütlich!

Or, as my Graubündner friends Beatrice and Ruedi might say, „Patschifig!“

OK, guess it’s time now to explain the reference to a “horned” Henry Higgins.
I can not, at the moment at least, tell you anything about what sort of German language production of “My Fair Lady” might fly in Switzerland, although by now I am convinced it would be wickedly delicious if performed in Bündersprache.

And the closest I can approximate the experience would be this wonderful TV commercial for tourism in Canton Graubünden. I mentioned ibex as we set out as one of the elements upon which this ramble would touch. In Bündnerland, one does not call these splendid creatures ibex.  Here, the animal is called a Steinbock. Indeed, the Steinbock is nothing less than Graubünden’s Wappentier – its heraldic animal symbol. It is part of the cantonal crest one sees on the locomotives of the Rhätische Bahn, indeed on buildings all over the canton.

And, when it came time for a television ad campaign for this special region, they decided to use “spokesBocks,” as I call them. Most of their spots involve two seasoned male Steinböcke, Gian und Giachem, carrying on their conversations – in Bündnersprache, natürlich, high in the Bündner Alps.

But, perhaps my favorite, for the resonance it provides with “My Fair Lady” and the German language “differences” we’ve been tripping merrily around, is this one. Imagine an impatient Henry Higgins, als Steinbock – oops, Staibock – only his “student” is not Cockney Eliza learning her English vowels, but a young Steinbock from Zürich, who, try as he might, cannot master the Bündner way of speaking.

And I thought Bawlmerese was rich ;-)

If you'd like to view more of the Graubünden Travel spots with talking "Staiböcke" Gian and Giachem, check the links under my Patschifig photo on F-C.

Last October, I enjoyed a pleasant surprise of being able to shoot a group of young Steinböcke at an altitude of 10,000 feet on the Gornergrat. Of course, they were Valais (Walliser) Steinböcke, so I'm sure ol' Henry would have terrorized them with his lessons in Bündner-Sprache!

And If you’d like to see these magnificent furry mountain climbers in their natural habitat, check out this great video.

©2012 Steve Ember

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Monday, March 5, 2012

I was wrong, Mr Webber...

At Her Majesty's Theatre, London         Nov. 2011

Now, there's a photo I was firmly convinced would never get made.

I would call it my "crow-eating" photo. But the smile's too broad, and as I recall, it was mighty difficult to remove that night - and for a long while after.

Crow just couldn't taste like that...
could it?

Text to follow - Please journey back, or from my underground lair, I shall see that terrible things (like ornate chandeliers) fall upon you...

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