Carte postale

The postcard-perfect view from our holiday rental in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.

We stayed for a week just steps from Staubbach Falls, the highest free-falling waterfall in Switzerland at 297 metres. The falls attracts a steady stream of visitors daily who climb the hundreds of steps up to the lookout point on a rocky ledge behind the falls.

It is amazing to wake up each morning to this view, and to go to sleep with the backdrop of water rushing down from the glaciers.

It seems that the name ‘Lauterbrunnen’ can be interpreted to mean ‘clear spring’ or ‘many springs’ or even ‘noisy springs’. My vote goes to the latter version. Below us was a road that goes to the Jungfrau campground, with a pretty constant flow of traffic. And just across from was a lovely church spire. The bells chime every 15 minutes between six in the morning and ten at night, and every hour on the hour all night long. That means that if you’ve just fallen asleep, exhausted from a day of cycling or hiking, there is a good chance you’ll be woken when the church bells chime out twelve strokes at midnight. One, two and three a.m. seem much lower-profile but are still enough to waken the light sleeper.

Among the tall tales Swiss rental owners will tell you: “Pretty sure the church bells stop at night.” When you point out that they don’t, the reaction is: “Why would they bother you? We don’t even hear them anymore.”

I did not acclimatize to the church bells but still managed to get a good night’s kip with ear plugs and sleeping pills. Not ideal but at the moment I need all the rest I can get. And in between times they were rather pretty…

Now we’re home for another week’s stay-cation before getting back to work and gearing up for our move in a month’s time. I am beginning to panic slightly at the daunting to-do list, so news from this blog may be sporadic for the next few weeks. Please bear with me: I’ll be back soon with a revamped identity and more cross-cultural adventures.

Here’s to ‘clear springs’ to you all until then!

A bientôt…

Se faire la malle

You know that feeling you get when you’re preparing to leave a place? It’s rather strange and unsettling. Everything seems so impermanent and when it’s time do the things you would normally do, you wonder, why bother? Yet it can be sort of liberating. You can stop caring about certain things because, well, tomorrow you’ll be somewhere else.

Just this week I learned a new expression in French that perfectly describes (at least to me) the feeling I have at the moment: ‘On va se faire la malle.’

Meaning: we’re packing our bags. Taking off. Literally, doing ourselves a trunk. Or a bunk. I got the full sense of it here on my favourite website for contextual translations of French expressions in English.

It made sense. I knew that ‘une malle’ is a trunk. Remember those? My grandparents had one in their basement. Something you packed on a steamer when you travelled overseas. It seems the origin of the French locution can be traced to 1935 and is associated with prisoners planning their escape from jail.

It always amazes me when I come across an expression I’ve never heard before. After so many years in France, you’d think I’d have heard them all. But no. The French language is rich with such turns of phrase and there are many yet to learn.

‘Se faire la malle’ is my mindset at the moment. Not just because we’re gearing up for a major move in just over a month’s time, but because we’re going on a holiday. Just for a week, and nowhere too far away. In fact, because it’s nearby and the risk of infection is fairly low, we’re going on holiday in Switzerland.

How original, right? The same country we’re moving to. Although we may be forgiven, I think, given how lovely it is and how much there is to do and see. There will be time for travel in other years. For now, we’re heading to the Bernese Alps near Interlaken, and a little town called Lauterbrunnen.  

Many, many years ago, shortly after graduating, I took my maiden trip to Europe. I was a young woman on my own, and nervous about travelling in foreign lands. So I signed up for a Contiki tour out of London. We were a group of mostly single tourists from North America, the UK  and Australia. For several weeks we went through France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland. We stayed overnight at a campsite near a town that I remember thinking had to be the most beautiful place on earth: Lauterbrunnen. I only hope it lives up to the memory.

And while I am planning my own escape from France, I think it will not be long before I am dreaming of returning to it. There is nothing more attractive than something that is both familiar and unknown, something loved yet just out of reach. I’m fairly certain that as soon as I’m living in Switzerland, holidays in France will have a new appeal. And I’ll be attentive to keeping up my language and continually exploring new linguistic turf en français.

What’s your favourite French expression?

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Distanciation sociale

Something always gets lost in translation when the French adopt an English expression. This is true for ‘social distancing’: ‘la distanciation sociale’.

First, the words: as the illustrious Académie Française points out, the term is evocative not so much of physical distance as that between social classes. Hence, the preferred use of ‘distanciation physique’ (physical distancing), among the ‘gestes barrières’ (hygiene measures) to protect each other from coronavirus.

Second, the distance: here too something is lost. About a metre, actually. Everywhere else in the world it is suggested that people stay 6 feet or 2 metres (approximately) apart; here in France the recommendation is ‘at least’ one metre. Although, to be fair, the WHO only recommends one metre (not that the WHO has been much of a reference throughout this pandemic!)

The problem is that even one metre’s distance is pretty well impossible to maintain in France. Everything from sidewalks to shops is smaller in France.  The average density of people in most public places is also higher. And the French, well, like to touch each other. When greeting someone you know or are meeting for the first time, a handshake or double-cheeked kiss is virtually obligatory. For years I’ve had to fight my innate standoffishness and learn to be more physical with people. Now, I’m happily unlearning it.

Savoyard social distance: 3 wheels of raclette cheese

Even at the best of times, pre-COVID-19, I find the close proximity of my fellow countrymen disturbing. Often when shopping I’ll stand back from a swarm of shoppers and wait until the crowd has cleared before making my selection.

Just the other day I identified myself as a non-native — if not a pariah — by over-reacting to someone who did not respect social distancing rules. All of the very small shops have signs on the doors saying no more than 1-2 customers should enter at one time. When I went to the bakery early one morning, I didn’t bother wearing a mask. I was going to be in and out, the woman serving would be behind a plexiglas barrier. Like the few other customers at that early hour, I waited in front of the door. But when I was inside about to order my bread, two other people came in behind me. One even came right up next to me and asked the clerk if she could pick up her order. I turned on heel and went outside, mumbling about social distancing. Then I waited for the shop to be empty again and went back in, shooting daggers at anyone who dared to join me.

Socially distanced Italians

If only people would wear masks. Some do, myself included, at least most of the time. But while we don’t have the extremes of our American cousins demonstrating against the wearing of masks, many people here just quietly ignore the guidelines. Or wait until they’re forced to wear a mask in order to enter public spaces or use transportation.

Which creates a whole new set of problems. Sadly, ignorance knows no borders.

Philippe, a bus driver was viciously beaten in Bayonne, southwest France, on Sunday by four thugs when he insisted they wear masks or get off the bus. He is in a coma and all over the country, vigils are being held and transit workers are walking out. I am horrified that people would do this and pray that he pulls through.

What’s your experience with social distancing?

Où?

This is Brunnen, in central Switzerland. It is the view off the terrace of what will soon be our home. We move in September.

If you’ve followed along for a while, you will know we spent some time searching for a new place to live. We knew we would move across the border to Switzerland from our current home in France, near the border by Geneva, to consolidate our lives around husband’s workplace in Zug, between Lucerne and Zurich. But it wasn’t easy deciding exactly where. For months, many of them in confinement, we scoured the ads for places to buy or rent. But there was little on offer that satisfied our criteria, or produced the longed-for effect: un véritable coup de coeur.

In the end we chose to rent, a bit far from our initial target area. Because, well this. An amazing view of the mountains — and Lake Lucerne, if you look closely. It is spacious and modern and has most of what we wanted. And a couple of things we didn’t.

That road, for example. It was the one sticking point. I had sworn we wouldn’t take a place that overlooked traffic. But it’s just far enough away, and with little traffic outside of business hours. With the windows closed you can’t hear anything; when they’re open, depending on the weather, it can be a bit noisy during the day at least. We decided to take the leap. We’ll only be renting, so we can always move. Besides, on the upside, roads mean connections. Z Frenchman can take the train or drive to work in about half an hour.

Image: Wikipedia / Tobias Klenze / CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Some of the advantages of our new location: a ten-minute walk to town — and no hills! — which is small enough to feel like a village but big enough to offer shops and a train station. There’s a direct local train to Lucerne, which takes 50 minutes, but means you can go into the city car-free. And it’s only a few minutes from Brunnen to Schwyz, with trains and connections everywhere in Switzerland.

Out of all the places we saw, there were three where I was able to ‘me projeter‘. All had one feature in common: they were built into a hill. This is quite common in Swiss apartments, at least the nicer ones. They are terraced, or stepped into the hills, taking advantage of the natural geography to create what feel more like homes than apartments. Large balconies with the best views. And it’s great to have the solidity of that mountain behind you, according to fellow blogger and feng shui expert, Colin Bisset. The energy just feels right.

The lakefront is gorgeous, with cafés and restaurants, swimming and boats. It is part of Lake Lucerne, or what the Swiss call the ‘Lac des quatre cantons’ because its odd shape touches four different cantons. We’ll be in the canton of Schwyz, but very close to several others.

As for the title of this post: very little separates ‘where’ (où) from ‘or’ (ou) in French. Just an accent. Yet their meanings are entirely different. Or are they? There is always an ‘or’ involved in ‘where’. You can’t be in two places at once, and we’ve chosen to be in Switzerland starting in September. And just as the accent makes all the difference to the meaning of this little word in French, so will the accent, or the language in general (German) make a massive difference in our lives. More on that later.

So that’s us. Where will you be this summer?

Mettre les points sur les i

“Nothing is certain except for death and taxes.” Not even the origin of this quote, variously attributed to Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain. It holds truer than ever in times of pandemic and the property market.

You have to enjoy dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s to be a notary. Les Notaires de France are the legal eagles responsible for officializing over all property transactions. We are currently going through this for the fourth time. Yet, like the pain of childbirth, each time I forgot what a long and drawn-out process it is.

When you sell a house in France, the buyer must also pay what are called, somewhat erroneously, notary fees. Only a small piece of the pie actually goes to the notary; most of it is paid to the tax man — the local, departmental and federal governments. These transaction fees and taxes are added to the purchase price, increasing it by 7%.

The seller, in our case us, pays the real estate agency fees. This can take 5-7% off the net purchase price. For this reason we chose not to sell through an agency but to handle the marketing and selling ourselves. Thus no fees. Given that we only built our house less than ten year ago, and took out a substantial loan to finance our project, we wanted to make the most of our sale.

The sales process takes place in multiple steps:

  1. Find a buyer (during lockdown, extra fun!)
  2. Agree on a price (significantly less than the asking in the French market)
  3. Contact the notary and arrange an appointment (thankfully they getting back to normal and we didn’t have to wait)
  4. Gather many documents (if lucky) or search/pay to obtain lost documents
  5. Sign the ‘compromis de vente’ or sales contract
  6. Wait 10 days in case the buyers change their minds
  7. Wait 2 months for the local authorities to hem and haw, just in case they might want to appropriate the property
  8. Sign over the property deed

If all goes well, we will be done by early September.

I have decided not to wait until then to break out the bubbles but to celebrate each step along the way. Life is too short, and things just take too long. Besides, champagne flows pretty freely around here. Vive la France!

Have you ever dealt with a notary or had a painful property experience?