Vu

When my kids were young and went to school in France, they would regularly submit for inspection a little book called ‘cahier de correspondance’ or ‘carnet de liaison’.

This method is a pillar of the French educational system. From the time they learn to write, this ‘cahier’ or notebook is the official mode of communication between teacher and parents (although it may now be going digital).

The child is the official channel through which all communication passes. In the earliest years, the children might even be made to copy down the teacher’s instructions for the parents as part of their school work; later, the cahier becomes a record of assignments, grades and other, often important information, sometimes even disciplinary notes from teacher to parent, hand-written, glued in or free-floating paper. It is up to the student to show the book to their parents, or other responsible individual, and sometimes obtain a signature on either end to prove that the information has been seen or ‘vu’.

“Vu,” I would duly write on my children’s cahiers, to prove that I was aware that class would end early on such-and-such a date, or that an event would take place to which parents were invited (a rarity in French schools). Or that my son had been caught playing a video game in class (GTA, hardly an appropriate theme, noted the prof) and would I be so kind as to ensure the offending Gameboy was not brought to school in future?

Naughty Maxence stuck his tube of glue up his neighbour’s nose.

Oddly enough, our budding delinquent grew up to become a teacher himself. May he inflict similar irony on the parents of his own students.

One might think this mode of communication would be highly subject to error, accidental loss or pages mysteriously vanishing. Oddly, it’s not. French kids only have to suffer the wrath of teachers and parents who have not been shown vital information once or twice to learn the lesson. And parents are quickly trained to ask their children if there’s anything to be ‘seen’ in the cahier early on the weekend, rather than to discover only late on Sunday that a special assignment must be completed for Monday morning.

I ‘saw’ many funny things during those years. Somewhere in a memory box, I have kept these precious records of my children’s school careers. And one day, I promise myself, I will dig them out and have a laugh, and probably a cry, as I remember some of the ‘perles’ (pearls) from those days.

‘Vu’ is also the name of a popular brand of wipes for cleaning eyeglasses. This TV commercial and the oft-heard phrase, ‘Vu, ah, j’avais pas vu!” was part of our family lexicon for years.

I still keep some on hand. You never know when your glasses will fog up.

What have you ‘seen’ lately?

Dies und das

It’s been a weird few weeks, leading me to skip a post or two (I’ve been doing that a lot lately — corona fatigue anyone?). A series of public holidays in May plus some erratic weather has left me not sure if I’m coming or going. Hence a post on ‘this and that’ (dies und das) because I am still trying to get my head around German (or German into my head).

The crickets have been chirping away in the fields for a month now and yet the weather remains cool. Who knew that spring crickets were a thing? Yesterday the sun came out in all its glory and I went for my first bare-arm and bare-legged walk of the year, despite a chill wind from the north. I watched as the paragliders circled down from the mountain above, enjoying the vicarious thrill of flying.

My daughter’s birthday is on Sunday and I’m feeling sad that it will be the second one she celebrates without us. She’s across the Channel in the UK and had originally hoped to come to visit for a couple of weeks. Sadly, it’s not going to happen now and probably not until later this summer. And although Madeline is a front-line worker as a practicing veterinarian, she has not yet qualified for a Covid vaccine. Her age group is coming up soon in the UK where the NHS is taking a strict age-related approach to vaccination. But she would have needed multiple negative PCR tests to travel and to make matters worse this week France announced a 7-day quarantine for visitors from the UK due to the Indian variant.

In other news, it seems that Switzerland has pulled out of talks with the EU on various bilateral agreements. This article from the BBC (me loves the Beebs!) explains it better than I could. I have no doubt we will get there in the end but things take time in Switzerland and, like every other country in the world, there are politics. The Swiss value their independence and refuse to enter into any arrangement that compromises this, so they’re sticking to the existing if outdated agreements for now. Still, it felt like disturbing news for us as EU citizens living here.

We finally have our Covid shots scheduled for June 12 here in Schwyz, where it seems we’re not exactly ahead of the pack. Oddly, my husband and I have two separate appointments, at different times and locations, with mine an hour away in the furthest corner of the canton at 9 pm on a Saturday evening! No idea which vaccine we’ll get but probably either Pfizer or Moderna as Astra Zeneca is still not approved in Switzerland. My son, who lives in Geneva and is somewhat at risk due to a chronic illness, got his first shot of Moderna a week ago. He reported fairly strong side effects of fever, chills and headache for two days. You may recall that we all had Covid just before Christmas, so the first shot is the one with the greatest impact. Fingers crossed!

After that I think we’ll be ready to make travel plans. But where? All I know is that a beach will be involved, and preferably an ocean. I’m not keen on flying for now simply due to the shifting requirements for various tests and the additional delays that will inevitably entail. Besides, the news of the Ryanair plane being forced to land in Belarus this week only added to my reluctance. I can only imagine the panic on board that flight and in the hours that passengers were held in Minsk. Greece has called it a state-sponsored hijacking and there’s no doubt Lukashenko is one scary guy. Here’s hoping that dissident blogger Roman Protasevich survives his custody.

So maybe we’ll drive. Brittany is on my bucket-list and I’ve been away from France long enough now to start looking forward to a holiday on its coasts. There’s also the train that can get us to Italy. I have fond memories of a ferryboat we once took from Venice to Porec, Croatia.

It seems insane to be worrying about where to travel when you live in such a beautiful place. I’m looking forward to getting out for a paddle soon. Maybe we’ll just stay home for the summer after all.

What’s new with you?

Der wind

It’s not often a new language throws a gift at you: wind is one of them. It’s the same word in German as in English, and one which is easily pronounced: vint.

I’ve been struggling with pronunciation in my on-again, off-again efforts to learn German. For some reason I assumed it would be fairly easy (famous last words, aka story of my life). Seriously, I never understood what people meant when they said German was ‘guttural’. I always found the language nice and easy on the ear. What I didn’t realize was just how hard it would be to get the ‘ch’ sounds out of the back of my throat. At least without sounding like I’m choking. Ich probiere (I’m trying) but it’s a work in progress.

So along comes ‘wind’. Which, like weather (‘wetter’) is easy enough for an English native. And how der wind does blow around here!

I’ve posted before about the winds when we lived on the French side of Lake Geneva. They can be nasty but also nice.

It seems we’ve done it again — moved to a place that’s just as windy. It’s complicated around here by the looming mountains, and the corridors of lakes in between, around and through which various winds whistle their merry way.

Last week we had a sudden rise in temperatures, from 12 to 25 Celsius in the space of the weekend. Unfortunately this came courtesy of the Foehn, which means ‘hairdryer’ in German. Now this wind is known all over the Alpine region as a hot blast of air that dries everything in its path. Do not be misled: there’s nothing ‘fun’ about it.

Except that around here the wind whips up the lake into such a frenzy that it is quite something to watch. From our apartment we could see the dramatic whitecaps and on Sunday afternoon I found myself going out for a walk to see it up close. And quite a spectacle it was.

There were crashing waves, screeching seabirds and a few brave souls looking ready for lift off. There were little clouds of mist blowing across the water that my phone camera couldn’t capture. The whole thing made me feel like a kid again, when I used to believe that if I ran and jumped high enough, I might just take off.

Sadly I remained grounded.

And the next day, as is its wont, the nasty Foehn brought clouds and rain that lasted all week. Now we need a good cold ‘bise’ to sweep them away.

I suppose I like the wind as it keeps things from getting too dull. Here in conflict-free Switzerland, the wind is refreshing as it stirs things up. In France, it always felt like yet another drama.

How about you: wind or calm?

Going for the gusto

I don’t know about you but I’ve been itching to get away. A change of scene, a bit of pampering. Living in Switzerland means there’s always something different around the corner. So off we went for a few day’s escape to Ticino.

I found a fabulous hotel by the lake in Lugano that offered a 2-night package and also accepted dogs — at a price, but what the hell: if you’re going to go for it, you might as well go for the gusto.

The amazing thing about living here is that two hours south almost feels like a different country. Italian is spoken and it really does feel a lot like being in Italy. At least a cleaner, more well-heeled version. (I suppose that’s also how Geneva feels for francophiles.)

First we drove south through the Gotthard tunnel. At 17 km long it is world’s longest road tunnel. It was also under construction on one side so there was 2-way traffic in the ‘tube’. I was thankful that husband was driving.

After that, we were in Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton. We stopped for a picnic in its capital, Bellinzona. Known for its three castles, it’s a pretty town with a medieval feel. The sun was shining and we were off to a good start.

Although I can see why this place was empty.

A short time later we arrived in Lugano. We had been here before but never to this grand old lady of a hotel. The boys were welcomed like royalty, with two plush dogs beds and bowls set up in our room.

The Covid-19 rules in Switzerland now are that outdoor service can be offered in bars and restaurants, as well as indoor service to hotel guests. We took advantage of both. A perk of booking our package was dinner in the hotel’s Michelin-star restaurant. Now, normally I am not that kind of foodie; I like real food in reasonable quantity, not multiple courses of molecular cuisine. But what a thrill to sit down and be served after endless meals chez nous!

I took the wine option with my menu which meant a different glass with each course. There was not enough food to soak up the sea of wine that just kept coming, but who’s complaining?

In addition, we had a floor show. Not really, but one of those real-life cliché moments when you want to pinch yourself and say ‘Is this for real?’.  As we sat in our well-distanced corner table in the elegant dining room, in walked a couple out of central casting. He: an older man, flush faced and silver haired. She: a young woman of certain timeless assets, decked out in a form-fitting dress and needle high heels with bejeweled anklets. A word floated into mind, one I hadn’t heard in years: ‘La bimbo‘.

I’d heard the expression used years ago in France on a television news report about someone whose name escapes me — Pamela Anderson perhaps, or Loana from French reality TV. Any one of a certain type of woman — blonde, buxom and playing arm candy to an older man with a healthy bank balance. It seems the meaning of bimbo has changed over time. It started out as Italian for a young boy, morphed into a derogatory term for a brute (male) before hopping the gender divide to be applied to a particular breed of female. Barbie is the term most commonly used in some countries to describe such women.

Anyway, here we were with food and (too much) wine, being entertained by life imitating life.

“Perhaps she’s his daughter,” my husband pointed out.

“They’re holding hands,” I replied. But he was right: I shouldn’t judge. Theirs could be the June-December romance of the century. Or at least the weekend.

I ended the meal with a row of half-finished glasses and no other excuse to feel unsteady as I tottered out of the restaurant on my flat heels back to our room.

The rest of the weekend was wonderful, though the weather clouded over. We took a funicular to the top of Monte San Salvatore for the view and did a lot of walking in Lugano. We discovered a fabulous shopping street with little cafés and amazing produce. I will never look at a salami again with the same innocence. Plus, an excellent shoe store to which I am already planning a return trip. (It only takes an hour and a half by train.)

P.S. We saw the couple again the following night at dinner and once again I scored a ringside seat. She was definitely in command. He sat there looking like a spoiled little boy who had been given a bigger birthday party than he was ready for while she (unfortunately out of earshot) held forth while eating and drinking with gusto.

Do you long to get away? Where to?

L’étranger

One of the things I love about where we live now is this: ‘La place des Suisses de l’étranger’.

Switzerland is a small country, yet one in ten Swiss people live abroad, making it the country with the highest population of citizens living beyond their borders, whether permanently or temporarily. The square dedicated to the Swiss diaspora just happens to be in Brunnen. You can read about it here (in several languages, bien sûr).

They call this group of citizens abroad, the ‘Fifth Switzerland’. The other four are those who speak the official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansch (although the latter is only spoken in the Grisons or Graubünden canton). Not to overlook all of the foreigners who live in this country, representing a quarter of the population, and whose default language is English. Making my native tongue a sort of unofficial official 5th language.

The square itself is a dramatic piece of land built up by a local landowner on recovered ground in an area known as the ‘Wehrihaggen’ from 1906. It was officially acquired by the Swiss foundation, Stiftung Auslandschweizerplatz, on the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation in 1991.

It’s a windswept, open space surrounded by the panorama of lake and mountains. Somehow this geographic setting perfectly symbolizes the relationship with the Swiss and other lands. Open to the world, yet firmly anchored in their place.

Perhaps this is why I feel at home here. Despite the language barrier, the ongoing lack of social contacts due to coronavirus and a certain sense of detachment that comes from moving country. There is less a sense of being a ‘stranger in a strange land’ than I used to feel in France, even after so many years there.

Or it may be that I’ve just gotten used to feeling like a stranger. I’ve now been away from my home country almost as many years as I lived there. And, as I’ve posted before, it no longer feels quite as much home as it once did despite the people, family and friends, to whom I still feel so connected.

Et toi? Where do you feel most at home?