Table Decorations

by Shachi D. Shantinath, Ph.D.

Originally published in the Basler Zeitung English Section, 2001.

There is a peculiar problem in Switzerland that afflicts native and immigrant women alike, and it gets particularly bad around the Christmas season. Although one can translate the disorder into English, calling it “Table Decoration Anxiety” just does not carry the same impact as saying it all in one giant compound German word: Tischdekorationsangst. Over time, I have come to see that quite a lot of women – both in my professional and private life – seem to be affected by variations of this.

For a long time, I had a growing sense of uneasiness, that somehow I was not measuring up to those unspoken aspects of life in Switzerland. I was slowly mastering German grammar, had learned to turn down the stereo at 10 p.m. at night, and was never intimidated by regulation garbage bags. Yet, I could not quite identify why I felt a sense of discomfort, especially when inviting guests to my house.

Then, one day, when I was working at the University of Basel, I happened to talk with one of my colleagues about an upcoming visit from my in-laws. I explained to her that although my in-laws enjoyed my cooking, I felt that my table settings were not up to par. My colleague, a Swiss woman, who had just returned from a long stay in the United States, empathized. It turned out that she too felt uneasy and unsure about how her table looked when her in-laws came to dinner during the holidays.

“It was different in the US,” she said. “There I felt freer. But here, I feel this pressure again to put on a nice looking table.”

Ganz Genau!

Finally I had understood those high-pitched cooing noises people made as they approached the dinner table: “Ganz Herzich-Gal”. One of the secrets of Swiss life had just been revealed to me!

I understood the meaning of those carefully placed foil covered chocolates that were meant to convey a casual sense of décor. Then there were those painstakingly detailed floral centerpieces larger than the average bridal bouquet. Oh yes, there were also the color coordinated napkins that had been folded into elaborate Origami forms that said look but don’t touch.

My colleague had put her finger on the problem. Apparently, I was not the only one suffering from this affliction. I decided then and there that we both had a case of “Tischdekorationangst” something never before reported in the scientific literature.

Never mind that both of us had doctoral degrees and had track records as public health researchers. What mattered the most at that moment was that our tables might not be up to par for the holiday season, especially in the eyes of Swiss people who had never experienced American freedom in the form of paper plates and plastic cutlery.

Although I tried to draw from the strength of Betty Friedan, in the end Betty Bossi and Betty Crocker won out. I became a woman on a mission. Armed with an attitude, I put myself into the hunter-gatherer mode as I left my office that day and headed down to Marktplatz searching for the perfect table decoration.

First, I bought pine twigs from an outdoor stand. Then I went into Märthof, where on the ground floor, I found a candle with glitter. Encouraged by my success, I continued my hunt upstairs and bought a large colored glass plate.

Suddenly I remembered the Christmases of my early childhood in India. While my childhood in the United States was marked by more elaborate gifts such as Barbie dolls and Monopoly, in India I always got the same thing each year: tangerines, walnuts, and chocolate.

“Yes, that’s it,” I said to myself. “I will recall the more down to earth feeling of Christmas before it turned commercial.” Saying that I headed into the Migros and bought tangerines, walnuts and foil covered chocolates.

Happy and relieved, I arrived home and assembled all the purchases together into a casual centerpiece that never let on how hard I had really worked to create it. It was worth the effort and struggle, because finally, I had found a way to reduce my case of Tischdekorationsangst.

This ought to satisfy the most critical of Swiss guests, I thought to myself: simple, elegant and understated. After two years in Switzerland, I had finally mastered Table Decorations. I was proud of this achievement and could not wait for my in-laws to visit.

But then I received a phone call. My mother in-law called to inform me that unfortunately, both of them had come down with bad colds and were not in any shape to travel or enjoy holiday dinners. She wondered if they could postpone their visit by one week.

“Oh no,” I shrieked into the phone. I forgot to say things like “schade” or “Gute Besserung”. Instead, the only words that came out of my mouth were “Aber… aber… die Tischdekorationen”.

If my mother-in-law was confused by my remarks, she was too polite to let on. I am sure there are many things I have said over the years that have confounded her, and she probably just thought this was yet another instance of our cross-cultural differences.

After that disappointment, I forget the details of what followed. I think I ate the chocolates and tangerines in an effort to console myself. I recall tossing the nuts into a cupboard.

Occasionally I find them when I am rummaging for something else. There they sit – silent reminders of the Sprit of Table Decorations from Christmases past. And when I come across those walnuts from time to time, I smile. I smile for where I once was, and I smile for where I am now.

Inspired by those Origami napkins, I have moved towards another Japanese theme – Zen minimalism – for all of my table decorations – all year ’round. I have yet to discover the sound of one hand clapping. But in the meantime, I have discovered how wonderful it is not to suffer from Tischdekorationsangst any more.

Copyright 2001 S.D. Shantinath, Ph.D. All rights reserved.