It is summer time. In a small community center decorated with paper hearts, a group of Americans and Swiss learn tradtitional folk dancing with the aid of champagne and a teacher with a lot of patience.
"Mmm, wie sagt Man 'jemand fremd'?" The dance instructor's english up to this point has been understandable and sweetly accented. Proud that she had turned to me to translate, I promptly answer: Foreigner or Stranger.
Were we doing this dance in america, the leader would probably call out "turn to you partner, turn to your own". At least, this is my understanging, based on Bugs Bunny cartoons. Our leader, possibly overwhelmed by the new additions to her vocabularly looks to her partner and says "foreigner" then to the person on her other side "stranger". The Americans who were already laughing in surprise at the two synonyms, chuckle all the more. The rest of the night, simply saying "foreigner - stranger - foreigner - stranger" would elicit giggles.
When I first moved to Switzerland and needed to organize my foreigner ID, I had the same reaction. I was to go to the neighborhood police and was confused by the use of the word "Fremd". Apparently I had only heard that word as "stranger" before and the ID of regitering myself as a "stranger" made me a bit sad. I thought back to the answer my half brother gave when I asked him what a "stranger" looks like. "He's a man with a black mask and has all black and wants to take you away."
Months later, the reaction of my american friends to "foreigner - stranger" made me laugh from my belly with relief. Their shock showed that they found it absurd that a foreigner would be a stranger. Of course our use of the word "alien" does not seem that much more friendly, but they had likely never been called an alien and here in Switzerland they were foreigners; strangers. Though I've been a stranger here for 3 years, I still feel a very deep relief when someone else is surprised by culture or language in the same way I was, at first. When a German or American in Switzerland first hears "Hana wasser" or "gksi". I laugh and nod my head. That's right. You weren't expecting that, were you? I feell a relief at the evidence that, though I do not understand everything, I know to order tap water and that I am a stranger.