I'd been criss-crossing Switzerland alone by train for three weeks. On my
final day, I entered McDonald's, something I'd sworn I wouldn't do. Yet there
I was waiting in line, praying not to encounter a fellow American.
Two Zurich teens conversing in German caught my eye, probably since they
were wearing Chicago Bulls baseball caps. My gaze locked on the long-sleeved
T-shirt one of them was wearing. It was covered with MTV-inspired graphics and
random splashes of garish color. On the back, written in block letters was:
"Completely Switcher is Relax."
Intrigued, I crossed the queue, hoping that the front of the shirt
would provide a context for its garbled rear message. Instead, it read "Let's Sporting!"
With my fries and a "Coke Light," I took a seat. For the next forty
minutes I witnessed a bizarre phenomenon: dozens of items of clothing
and merchandise adorned with words and phrases in totally meaningless
"Competition winning American tactics big standards division" read the backpack of a young Italian girl.
A pudgy, thirtysomething French Suisse walked in wearing a brand-name
sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase, "University of Athletic Sport."
Moments later I saw not one, but two wanna-be members of the "Genuine L.A.
Traditional College Team."
Later I wandered Bahnhofstrasse, the main shopping street. All around me
I saw apparel sporting broken English phrases and references to American icons
and sports teams. Many of the references were accurate, and many weren't. I
saw a sweatshirt for "Philadelphia University" and a heavily
football-inspired jacket design for something called the "Alabama Beevers."
This trend -- identifying the wearer with some item of Americana --
reminded me of a time not so long ago when, if you saw a friend
wearing a Harvard shirt, it meant that he had at least been in Boston, and
possibly even to the school's campus in Cambridge. Today, all it means is
that he's been to Foot Locker.
Once you're made aware of them, the fractured English phrases
abroad are everywhere you look. They're in Paris, Prague, Milan and London.
They're on hats, briefs, bandannas, souvenir keychains and beer steins.
By way of comparison, the current stateside trend in apparel decorated with
references to sports teams, Disney figures, etc., seems linked to the
"quality" (read: cost) of the garment. Poverty-stricken
Chicago kids, living in the shadow of the Bulls' stadium, wear $19.95, 100
percent wool, black-and-red Bulls baseball caps with the cardboard tags still
protruding -- to better ensure its authenticity. The status comes from the
cap's still off-the-rack newness. Overseas, American-flavored English words do the trick.
Over the final 18 hours of my trek across The Land of Neutrality, I
compiled several examples of "old country" non-English used
as a fashion statement, and here is what I saw:
An Izod-like chemise with an Anglo crest that read, "Tennis Cup for
A T-shirt design featuring semaphore flags and the slogan, "Longitude
Favor the Young."
A windbreaker bearing the logo of the Oakland Raiders, stating
inexplicably, "Rich Boy Company Fast Label That You Prefer."
Could these abominations have been created by one company? And was it the same
one who writes the technical manuals for Taiwanese electronic equipment?
By the time I reached the airport gate for my return flight, I'd
devised a slogan-writing system of my own. Simply chose a few
words from a basic flag-waving vocabulary list (including words like "Freedom, super,
league, victory, All-American, active, California, shirt, classic, world,
club, young, way of life," etc.), and combined them in the most garbled way
As I sat in a molded, fiberglass row chair in Zurich-Kloten airport, I
mixed the words on paper randomly, checking to make sure they didn't
accidentally make grammatical or semantic sense. Among my favorite original phrases were "Race of Big Yachtings are
Victor," and "First Big American Car Shirting."
When the efficient Swiss representative of American Airlines finally
announced that our flight was boarding, I closed my notebook and grabbed my gear.
But I stood up too late to beat to the gate a large tour group of seniors
from Knoxville, dressed alike in matte athletic suits in colors that don't occur in nature.
Wearily I got in line. Minutes later, the sea of silver hair parted, and
there, printed in inch-high, raised letters, I saw the ultimate fractured English phrase on the back of a Dutchman.
The front: "Advanced Games University New Flying Baseball Certified
Sporting Adventure Company."
The back: "Let's Having Fun."