72: Three Months to Work

72: Three Months to Work

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

Three Months to Work

As a cure for worrying, work is better than whiskey.
~Thomas A. Edison

Only in Switzerland is it possible to get hired in one language and fired in another.

I should know.

As my recently appointed German boss shut his office door behind me, gesturing me to sit on his couch, and pulling his chair closer to me than any American-sized personal space would ever allow, I didn’t even have to understand his German or even really listen. I knew what was coming. After my three-year stint as the Zurich advertising agency’s English Copywriter, I was becoming the next victim in a long line of worldwide economic tragedy.

I was losing my job. And the only word I could say was danke.

“Danke?” my boss laughed, after he told me it was money problems but also language issues that contributed to the advertising agency’s decision to let me go. But I wasn’t sure whether the language problems included my lack of German or his lack of English. But either way, since he arrived, there was no mistaking that our communication had become a series of linguistic nightmares that only seemed bearable due to my constant smile-and-nod technique.

While my former boss had hired me to work on clients for whom he needed English copy, he also didn’t care if I worked on other non-English projects since he could understand and translate my ideas and headlines later if necessary. But my new boss didn’t hide the fact that he disliked that I even dared to think in English, not to mention that I tried to explain things to him in it.

Attempting to do everything I could to appease my new boss, with my two years of German lessons, I stopped speaking English entirely and tried to communicate in German fragments and gestures, sometimes even spitting out entire sentences while making sure that every possible der, die, das, den, dem, denen, or des article was properly disguised as a “duh.”

During the last few months since my new boss arrived, I’d also spent many hours with one of my linguistically talented Swiss co-workers, who would help me painstakingly translate every headline and idea I wrote into some sort of passable German before I showed it to my boss, so that at least some of my ideas wouldn’t be lost in translation. But the problem was, even properly translated, some things, like humor and sarcasm, just didn’t come through.

As my boss relayed his layoff speech, his German passed through me in two categories—what I understood, and what I didn’t. I heard that he thought I did everything well—just in the wrong language. I heard that he’d try to help me find another job—albeit with people who understood English better than he. And I heard he’d write me a Zeugnis—whatever the heck that was. And then he hugged me—something, after watching too many Apprentice episodes, I didn’t know a firing involved.

The next part was even stranger. I had to go back to my desk.

Staring at my official layoff letter, which I had to sign myself to officially be fired (there are no pink slips in Switzerland but plenty of paperwork), I read the German paragraphs before me. May 31, said the letter. My last day at the agency. I stared out the window at the snow. Today was February 26. And I wasn’t sure how I should act from now on, let alone how I would find the motivation to create ideas. Luckily the co-worker I shared an office with was out to lunch. So I had at least an hour to figure it out.

Three months to work. Three months to unemployment. Three months to pretend everything was still normal.

Trying to continue like nothing out of the ordinary had happened after being officially entlassen werden is a new experience for me. In the U.S., people I witnessed being fired were kicked out the moment the words were uttered. Frantic colleagues, fellow writers, and art directors, would ask those of us still with jobs to save their files and print their work before their computers and last few years of their life were snatched away. Sometimes they’d sneak in at night to print a résumé or some portfolio pieces to help them get their next job. And here I was, back at my desk, with full access to a color printer and company e-mail, trying to figure out how the heck I could possibly write another witty headline at a time like this.

So maybe my danke, for lack of anything better to say, was appropriate after all. I am thankful. Not to lose my job, but for the fact that I have more than three months to collect my work, print my portfolio, and look for a job—all while still being employed. After all, it is not in an American’s upbringing to think being fired means anything other than a sneering Donald Trump shoving you, ashamed and humiliated, immediately out the door.

In Switzerland, I’m going to need these three months. Because before I can comfortably head to the Swiss unemployment office with my official firing letter bearing my signature, I’ll have to learn an entire new German vocabulary. One that includes words like “laid off” and “job seeker.” But luckily I already know the one word that should get me through it all— mut —courage.

~Chantal Panozzo

More stories from our partners