Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Aliens, strangers, foreigners and the real MCG

Australians and followers of the game of cricket have a sly chuckle each time they read about the exploits of Geneva’s bullish Zero French political party, the MCG. While the Mouvement Citoyens Genevois shares some of the divisive politics of France’s Front National, it shares all three of its initials with one of the world’s great sporting arenas; the Melbourne Cricket Ground, better known as the MCG.

   The real MCG

Sorry, Eric Stauffer, but there is only is one MCG, and it’s the 13th largest stadium in the world, the largest in the southern hemisphere and the stage for some of our planet’s greatest sporting moments such as this feat by Alex Jesaulenko in front of an MCG crowd of 121,696 in 1970. Back in 1959, when God was bigger than sport, the MCG was filled to brim with about 130,000 devotees for Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusade. (The new stadium at La Praille has a capacity of 32,000).

But I’m getting off-track and off-side. With Switzerland, in general, leaning towards a hermetic (hermétique) Helvetia, it’s a good time to revise the confusing vocabulary associated with being non-Swiss, or an alien in the Alps.

Alien is a weird word. It is the term favoured by governments and the judiciary and even the singer Sting to describe people who come from another country. However, for the rest of us, an alien is one of the following: a green and glutinous being with bulbous eyes, is part Vulcan and goes by the name of Dr Spock (may he rest in peace) or is the salivating endoparasitoid predator from the dark imaginings of the Swiss artist Hans Giger (may he also rest in peace).

In the US an illegal alien looks like photograph A below and a Giger-inspired alien, (posing with Sigourney Weaver) looks like photograph B.



Then there’s the word stranger, a confusing and alienating term for French and English speakers. Stranger and the French word étranger are false friends (faux amis).

Stranger is best translated as inconnu: A person whom one does not know or with whom one is not familiar; or a person who does not know, or is not known in, a particular place or community.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats said 100 years ago: There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet.'

Lovers at first sight are strangers in the night, Frank Sinatra croons beautifully.

Hello stranger is an old-fashioned humorous greeting said to a person that you know but have not seen for a long time. The Welcome Stranger was the name given to world’s largest gold nugget (71 kgs) found in Australia in 1869. (Now, that’s a stranger we’d all like to meet).

Hospitality towards strangers was not only an obligation, but also a sacred part of many cultures in the ancient world.

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares – Book of Hebrews 13:2

Times have changed. Nowadays, Yeat’s optimism sounds a little naïve, if not dangerous. Today’s stranger can be best summed up by the genre of public service campaigns known as stranger danger, that speak of the danger associated with adults whom children do not know. Hollywood’s strangers are often creepy and dangerous

It is important to know that a stranger (inconnu) is normally not used in relation to country and nationality.

There was a complete stranger sitting at my desk.

They got on well together although they were total strangers.

We've told our daughter not to speak to strangers.

Hello I’m a stranger here. Can you tell where the bank is?

A foreigner is a person from another place or another country; someone who is non-Swiss. While alien is the judicial term, foreigner is the more everyday term.  However in the media the tone associated with foreigners and immigrants (a foreigner with a piece of paper) is increasingly negative. We read about foreign invaders, foreign-backed dissidents, foreign terrorists and foreign fighters. 

There are degrees of being a foreigner. Is your French colleague in the desk opposite really a foreigner? Most definitely, Mr Stauffer tells us. 

Once upon a time in America nobody was a foreigner because everyone was a foreigner. Senator Ted Cruz who announced last week he will run for president has a different view. This extreme, slimy and dangerous candidate (not my words) wants to build a huge wall along the Mexican border and triple border security. As economic and social optimism fades the message is being ramped up: foreigners are not so welcome.

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