Thursday, December 30, 2010

1968 Letter from Europe

My mother-in-law kept many of our letters from Europe in a scrapbook.  After she died three years ago, my wife kept the scrapbooks.  This week she has been rereading our old letters.  She pointed out to me one I wrote from Basel 29/30 October 1968.

I was in Basel, Switzerland to prepare a demo for a potential Univac customer.  Univac didn't have one of its own computers in Europe yet, and so we borrowed or bought time on customer computers.  For this demo I was working with an 1108 at Sandoz in Basel.  Sandoz is now called Novartis.

I don't remember much of the trip except I was introduced to raclettes, cheese melted on a board in front of a fire.  The German I was working with took me to a restaurant near the bahnhof that specialized in raclettes.  I've had and have made raclettes since then, but none have compared to those at that Swiss restaurant.

And I don't remember if we made the sale for which we did the demo.

Letter to my in-laws, Jean and Fred Smith, 29/30 October 1968

Dear Folks,

I am back in Basel on a four week assignment and back to learning German, but tomorrow or Thursday I go back to Rome for the rest of the year, I hope.  Not quite, we hope to take a two week ski vacation at Christmas time, but in Switzerland.  I tried calling three hotels in Davos yesterday, and found out you have to make your reservations in the spring or in January when you leave, so we will probably spend this year in Italy.

All this travel is not as exciting as it may seem.  As I generally work nights and have to see people during the day it often becomes an eat-sleep-work cycle.  Right now I am writing this while waiting to get on the machine [a Univac 1108 computer].  Hah, just as I finished the last sentence, the machine became free.  Now I am baby-sitting the machine at the console.

The most interesting and frustrating experience of being in Europe is the language problem.  My minimal French, German and Italian gets me throughout quite a variety of situations, but general conversation is a rare and difficult thing.  The missing ingredients are vocabulary and listening ability.  I really think that in the U. S. not enough emphasis is put on foreign language ability and they are are treated as an academic subject.  Throughout most of the world to much importance is given to grammar and not enough to vocabulary.  I always cringe when a grammar author boasts that he only introduces 20 words per lesson.  I have found, especially in Italian, that one can use a grammarian's nightmare of a sentence but still convey the thought if one has sufficient words.  Conversely with a bit of vocabulary and little grammar one can at least get the sense of newspaper stories.  To me the best method would be to have classes using conversation and reading newspapers and magazines.  Tests would be on the things read just as they might be in English lit or History.  (Most Europeans who graduate from high school can speak 2 foreign languages, of course not all finish, but still.)