Petit nègre

Petite annonce mal écriteThis note turned up in our mailbox last week, along with the usual jumble of ads from takeaways and real estate agents. (The latter despite the ‘pas de publicité’ injunction displayed loud and clear above our names.)

I was horrified. Not just by the lack of spelling and grammar but by the fact that someone might think that this is the way to find a job.

What does it say about the candidate?

  1. She’s a ‘young’ female student, 21 years old (Questionable, but you don’t technically become an ‘étudiante’ in France until university)
  2. French is not her first language (and clearly, she’s not a language student)
  3. She’s willing to do household labor during the month of August

Those are the facts. But to me it also says that this young woman has no sense of presentation, and presumably doesn’t care about detail. Not exactly the ideal candidate, even for house cleaning.

The ad reminded me of the importance of presenting oneself professionally at all times, no matter what your level on the job ladder. It also spoke to how very French I’ve become in my attitudes towards language. To be able to express oneself correctly in simple written French seems to me the absolute minimum prerequisite for a job in this country.

My French wasn’t that great, either, when I first put together my résumé and started knocking on doors. All the more reason to make sure my CV contained no spelling or grammar mistakes. Okay, I had a little help from husband. But these days, anyone with access to a computer can use spell check.

There is a proverb in French that says: “Les paroles s’envolent, les écrits restent.” Meaning that while the spoken word vanishes into thin air, anything you put in writing has a way of sticking around. It’s one thing to make mistakes when you speak French – that’s understandable for any non-native. A mistake in writing is far more shocking.

There’s also an expression to describe someone who speaks or writes in pidgin English. It’s called petit nègre, and it’s also a kind of creole from the French colonies.

Here is a corrected version of the ad text. Compare the original and see how many mistakes you can find:

“Jeune étudiante, 21 ans, cherche travail pour le mois d’août, repassage, ménage, baby-sitter.”

I count at least 8.

How about you? Would you hire this person? Do spelling mistakes and typos matter to you? Or is literacy over-rated?

Crossing the border

We live in France, just across the border from Switzerland. Geneva is our closest big city and we’re as often on the Swiss side as we are in France. Work is in Switzerland. So is the airport, the bigger department stores and many of our favorite restaurants.

Crossing the border is no big deal. In fact, it has become largely a technicality, since the Schengen accords abolished the need to control the borders between 26 European countries.

La Haute Savoie

La Haute Savoie

In our corner of Lake Geneva, the border weaves a crooked line through hills and along rivers. When you’re driving around, you may change countries without even realizing it.

Recently we had visitors from Canada who wondered: how can you tell which side of the border you’re on?

It’s not all that obvious. Here in the Haute Savoie part of the French Rhône-Alpes region, we have a toe in Switzerland, a heel in Italy, and a long history of belonging to various sides. Like our sister region, the Savoie, our departmental flag is almost identical to the Swiss flag. Geneva was taken over by France during the revolution and at one point in history, the area where we now live was supposed to be part of French-speaking Switzerland.

« Entrée Savoie » par Florian Pépellin

Sign from our sister department, La Savoie « Entrée Savoie » par Florian Pépellin

But Switzerland is another country. Other than the Swiss flag itself, which proudly flies at every border outpost, here’s what to watch – and listen – for when you cross the border into Switzerland:

  1. Prices in Swiss francs
    One of the first things you will notice is the prices in Swiss Francs. Even if you don’t notice it right away, you’ll soon feel the pinch. One Swiss franc (1 CHF) is worth about .80 EUR cents, but the cost of just about everything is much higher than the exchange rate seems to justify.

2. Bus stops and public transit
The Swiss are great believers in public transit. Even small villages on the outskirts of big towns are well served by buses and trains. Ferry boats run by the CGN (Swiss national navigation company) take commuters from France to the Swiss side of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva).

3. Better roads and cleaner streets
Everything is well maintained in Switzerland. Which may be one reason why prices are higher.

4. Recycling bins
Even in public places like train stations and on the street, you often see bins specifically for recyclables like plastic.

5. Accent
The French like to make fun of the Swiss Romand accent, a kind of lilt that makes the phrases go up at the end. But then again, the French make fun of accents from everywhere – even within their own country.

 6. English spoken
After so many years in France, it surprised me at first to hear so much English spoken just across the border. You will notice that many different languages are spoken in Switzerland, but most commonly: French, German, Italian and English.

Caninette  7. Dog poop
Along with cleaner, better maintained streets comes a certain mania for picking up. Stoop-and-scoop bags are available pretty well everywhere in Switzerland. And beware of fines if you don’t pick up after le chien!

8. License plates
The plates on Swiss cars begin with the two-letter abbreviation of the Canton: GE for Geneva, VD for Vaud or ZH for Zurich, for example.

9. Vignette
You can’t drive on the Swiss motorways without paying an annual highway tax. I love the efficiency of it – a small price to pay instead of all those annoying tolls in France. La vignette (which you must display on your windshield) costs 40 CHF (33 EUR) and the borders on the main roads (ie, Bardonnex in Geneva) are often patrolled to catch visitors who haven’t paid up.

10. Frontaliers
You will also notice a lot of French license plates on the Swiss side. That’s because jobs are more plentiful and better paid. Les frontaliers, those who live in one country and work in another, are an unpopular bunch: Disliked by the French, who assume there’s something illegal or immoral about earning more money or paying less tax; and tolerated but not really liked or trusted by the Swiss.

I should know. I’m one of them.

What about you? Ever been confused about which side of the border you were on?


Juilletiste ou Aoûtien?

Juilletiste ou Aoutien?If one thing is sacrosanct in France, it’s vacation time. And when the schools close in July and August, it’s more than just the summer holidays: these are les grandes vacances.

Ain’t life grand? Everyone, but everyone – goes away. It’s not enough to simply take time off from work. Il faut partir. The question on everybody’s lips is – “Vous partez? Où?”

A question of only slightly lesser importance than ‘où’ is: ‘Quand?’ When you are leaving is almost as vital as where you are going. And as with any question of faith, there are different schools of belief. The two main camps are those who go away in July – les Juilletistes – and those who wait until August – les Aoûtiens.

Les Juilletistes – These are people who just can’t wait to get away. They long to be first and to come back tanned and relaxed while everyone else is still stressed. And they look forward to a second break when they return during the dead weeks of August. No traffic. No line-ups at the lunch counter. Hardly anyone haunting the office. Not surprisingly, Juilletistes are viewed with suspicion and perhaps a hint of envy.

Les Aoûtiens – They are the traditionalists, the moral majority. Also the self-employed (moi). They are the worker bees. They cannot afford to take off before the half-year financial results have been put to bed, the president has spoken to the nation on the 14th of July, and it is safe to assume that France has rolled up its sidewalks for a long summer’s sièste.

I’m normally an Aoûtienne. Not just for the reasons above, but because I’ve always found it unbearable to be coming back to work when everybody else is on their way to the beach. But this summer is different…this year we have decided to stay put.

We’ve been intending to do this for years. Ever since we entered that enviable bracket of those whose kids have flown the nest and are no longer required to stick to le calendrier des vacances scolaires. When prices often double in France.

For once, we decided to be smart and enjoy the summer in our own backyard. Then take a break in the lower season when most people are back at work.

I didn’t think this would be a problem. I’m a real homebird and looked forward to enjoying the season in our parts for once. We’re lucky enough to live in a beautiful region that attracts a lot of people on holiday. We have a lake nearby and a pool. And this year, this idyllic location has attracted quite a few of our own family as visitors. So we’ve been busy.

But I have to say it feels wrong somehow not to be going anywhere. Last year it was Corsica and the year before, Dubrovnik. Both of which were beautiful. Now, without a trip in the offing, I’m feeling a little antsy.

There’s an expression for this in French: ‘Il faut se dépayser.’ You need to get away, discover something new, have a change of scene.

Don’t you love the fact that the French have specific words to describe the need for a holiday? And for different summer vacationers?

What about you? Juilletiste, Aoûtien or not at all?

For those who read French, this article from Le Figaro drolly explains the entire philosophical debate around the choice.


Ode to my favorite land

Geneva FireworksIt will probably come as no surprise that this is not about France.

After twenty-two years in this country, I still entertain a love-hate relationship with my adopted land.

Nor is it about my homeland. Dear Canada. My fondness for mon pays d’origine grows with each passing year. But if I loved it so much, why did I leave it? It’s like an old boyfriend, one who holds a special place in my heart but is still relegated to the status of ex.

My favorite country is Switzerland. Here’s why:

  1. A great brand
    320px-Flag_of_Switzerland_(Pantone).svgI’m a sucker for smart marketing and the Swiss have got a fabulous brand. That graphic white-on-red cross says everything about them: clean, safe, financially sound. The founding land of the Red Cross and home to all the major international organizations. Beyond the flag, the Swiss Confederation manages to unite the culturally and linguistically diverse citizens of all 26 cantons (provinces) with shared values and a true sense of national pride.
  2. Truly international
    Switzerland is a country with four official languages and shared borders with France, Italy, Germany, Liechtenstein and Austria. Expats abound. Geneva and Zurich are truly international cities.
  3. Swiss trains
    A marvel of efficiency, the Swiss trains are almost always on time and never on strike. You can travel almost anywhere in Switzerland by train and connecting public transit networks while admiring the spectacular scenery.
  4. The hills are alive
    Sound of Music_Julie AndrewsAs a child, Julie Andrews captured my imagination and put a song in my heart with the Sound of Music. When Maria escaped with the children across the Alps to Switzerland, I knew this was the place for me.
  5. Cleanliness
    From the toilets to the streets. People use the garbage bins, recycle and pick up after their pets.
  6. They speak my language
    French, of course. But also English, Switzerland’s unofficial 5th language, which is spoken pretty well everywhere. And whatever language you speak, there is a degree of tolerance for mistakes given that so many people are non-native speakers.
  7. Health and wealth
    Swiss Franc notesThe Swiss have a healthy attitude towards money. Okay, so it’s a country of bankers and they’re rather attached to their Swiss Francs. But I like the fact there’s no shame about wealth in Switzerland. And even the working class makes a decent living. All of which adds up to make Switzerland one of the most expensive countries in the world. (One of the reasons why I live across the border in France.) And non-coincidentally, the Swiss have the world’s second longest life expectancy.
  8. Armed neutrality, not war
    The Swiss have a history of not taking sides. It also means that they work hard to find consensus, holding referendums on every major issue. That’s something I can believe in.
  9. Small but independent
    Switzerland is a small country crisscrossed by mountain ranges. Surrounded by bigger, more powerful countries, they have kept their independence and identity. They are part of Europe but not a member of the EU.
  10. August 1st
    And finally: we share the same birthday. I knew there was another reason I liked working in Switzerland. Any country that gives me the day off on my birthday gets my vote.

Happy Swiss National Day! Happy birthday to me.

Et vous? What’s your favorite country? Adopted or home?

Merde alors!

Une mouche à merde

Une mouche à merde

Shit happens, as the saying goes. And for whatever reason, it happens a lot in France.

I noticed this on the first day I arrived in Paris. Walked straight off the plane in search of les toilettes. When I finally found them (‘toilettes’ are always plural in French), it was too late. Not for me – thankfully, I was able to hold it. But someone else, presumably multiple others, had got there first. Shit. Lots of it.

Took my first stroll around town to admire the Eiffel Tower. Walked straight into a steaming mass of dog do. I scraped the merde de chien off my ruined shoes and spent the next several months in Paris with my eyes cast down, avoiding sidewalk art.

Got to my new home, opened the fridge and gasped. It smelled like something had died. Mais non! It was just the cheese, happily ripening. Camembert, in particular, always smells like a dirty diaper.

When we moved to the country near Lyon some years later, I flung open the windows of my new home one sunny day and breathed deeply, enjoying the fresh air. Then noticed something a little off. No, very off. Seemed the farmer next door had just taken delivery of this:

Also, manure happens

Also, manure happens

Le fumier. Manure. For the rest of the summer, the farmer spread it, our dog rolled in it and the flies it attracted invaded our home. After a few days, I didn’t even smell it anymore.

Shit is everywhere. In fact, shit is life. And guess what? I like the fact that we live in a world that isn’t completely asepticized. Where food still bears the traces of its origins. Where eggshells have a few flecks of excrement and a bit of feather stuck on.

Merde was probably the first ‘gros mot‘ I learned in French. So it is dear to my heart.

In France, shit is associated with luck. When you want to say ‘break a leg’ in French, it’s ‘Je te dis merde.’ (Literally: ‘I say you shit’.)

Another oft-heard expression is: ‘On est dans la merde’ (‘We’re in deep shit’). Happens so often, it seems to be the norm. And of course, you know the story of the Gallic rooster.

Since I posted about turning my home into a no fly zone, it seems les mouches have been exacting revenge by multiplying in droves. It may have something to do with the fact that the farmer down the road has been spraying his fields all week.

Merde alors!