Il faut écrire

It’s been months since our move from France to Switzerland and I am still dealing with the administrative details. Some things were relatively simple. We cancelled the services associated with our house when it was sold, paid our final bills and did not have the mail forwarded. The reasons for this were two-fold: a) it was ridiculously expensive, and b) by the time I got around to it, we were already in Switzerland; in order to validate the request with the French post office online, you had to first receive a code in the mail at the address in France. I’m sure many letters were returned to sender.

When I first arrived in France years ago, I learned the hard way how to deal with administrative matters. The dreaded ‘démarches administratives’ could only be accomplished in person or, a défaut, in writing. “Il faut écrire,” my late Belle-mère advised me, after I complained about waiting forever to get through to someone on the phone only to be told I had to apply in writing. I believe she knew the address of every major administration by heart. Thirty years on, little has changed.

Sure, in the meantime the world has gone digital and services are available online, even banking. And even in France. But in order to do anything official, like change an address or your bank details, you still need to send an old-fashioned, hand-signed letter by the post. God save us.

In some cases, the whole letter must be hand-written. Manuscrite. I had to write an entire epistle in my school-book French in order to transfer the money to repay the mortgage on our house. Such is the lot in life of the person with neat hand-writing, however rusty. Husband could have done it more readily in French but his chicken scratch is nearly indecipherable.

The absolute worst example of this is ‘la Securité Sociale’, the French health and old-age pension system. To be honest, I kind of let that one drag on. Partly because I knew it would be sticky — my situation as a self-employed person working in Switzerland means I must deal with a special ‘caisse’ or fund of the SS. (Abbreviation mine, but somehow so fitting!)

Also because, especially in times of COVID-19, I wanted to make 100% sure I was covered in Switzerland before I cancelled things in France. Somehow that took until the end of the year, during which time I did get the dreaded virus, thankfully not requiring any major medical attention. And in the meantime I ran into a bit of a hiccup.

Switzerland, like France, has socialized medicine but the state only covers the basics. Which means that if you get seriously ill, you’re covered, but for all the rest you’re out of pocket. In order to get full health coverage here you have to apply to a private company for complementary insurance, which costs but does offer peace of mind. I was granted the basic coverage right away, as that is a given, but for the rest, they needed my family doctor in France to fill out a health questionnaire. The request was made in November and I am still waiting. We lived in the Haute Savoie in what is known as a ‘désert médical’, with few GPs. My doctor was one of the last ones in our area. Now he is busy transferring his practice to a new specialty: laser therapy. I get it. Burn out happens and he’s entitled to switch to a money-making occupation. What I don’t get is why I’m still waiting. I’ll spare you all the details but he has the form, we did an online consult to go over the questions. After two months of silence, I even sent a request to the Conseil des Médecins (licensing board). In the meantime, no complementary insurance.

However, what that meant was that I forgot about cancelling my French Sécu (unofficial abbreviation) until I realized I was still paying for it. This week I went online but couldn’t find the right way to declare my change in situation. So I phoned. A nice person eventually answered, and informed me that I should have filled out the S1005 form within a month of my move. Oops. That I would need to write a letter, fill out the form, send in a ‘justificatif de domicile’ (proof of residence). Yada yada yada. The wheels are in motion.

All of this reminds me of something I saw online a few years back. ‘Les perles’, or the best-of funny moments from things people had written to the Securité Sociale. This one will make you smile if you understand French:

Mon mari est décédé, je fais comment pour le retirer de la caisse?

Translation upon request.

Il y a un an

Many years ago when I worked freelance for Euronews, I used to love translating and voicing the pieces called ‘Il y a un an’. ‘One year ago today’ offered a brief look back at the news from the same day the year before. I’m not sure why I liked them so much. Perhaps because it was the recent past and I remembered living those moments when the events in the news had happened. Somehow this made it easier to translate. Perspective is everything.

And as I’ve posted in the past, I like to look back.

This time last year we were about to put our house up for sale. The task before us felt daunting. To sell a house in a market that was uncertain due to a breaking news story about what was still being called the ‘Chinese virus’. To find a new place to live, in a different country, then arrange the international move of our household. We were already working in Switzerland, but still, our home was in France. Switzerland is not part of the EU and there is a border with formalities on customs and taxes, healthcare and licence plates.

If hindsight is 20/20, then in retrospect I am grateful that we could not see what lay ahead. That the year ahead would be one of fear and lockdowns, social distance and isolation. That a vaccine would be found but in the meantime, lives and livelihoods would be lost. That we would personally get COVID-19 and be fine (thankfully) but that a year on as a society we would still be struggling to deal with the virus.

A year ago today, there were no masks. I remember being an early adopter of the idea, cutting up an old t-shirt and wearing my make-shift mask to go shopping. The French were suspicious, and resistant. There were rumours of government conspiracies. I felt like a pariah. But it didn’t matter as a few months later, PPE became de rigueur. We were stuck indoors except for essential shopping and a 1-km radius for exercise, one hour a day. If we left the house we had to carry a signed and dated piece of paper with us.

Yet somehow we stuck to the plan. Sold our house, arranged our move. Found a place to live across the border, a little outside of where we’d initially looked but way beyond our expectations in many ways. We made our move, got through all the administrative formalities. Took care of a million other details. And here we are.

Looking back, I’m amazed by what we accomplished. I’m also pretty sure that if we’d decided to wait for greater certainty, we would not have made the move at all. And while I feel some nostalgia for where we were last year at this time, I am glad we did not wait. For us, it was the right move at the right time.

I guess sometimes it’s better not to look too much before you leap.

Where were you a year ago?

Hope springs

A ray of hope is springing in my heart today. Not only has the Swiss council announced its decision to gradually lift confinement measures — shops will reopen from March 1st and outdoor activities will begin to get back to normal — but the weather has gotten decidedly spring-like.

I went for a walk as the sun began to set, going uphill for once rather than down to the lake. I wanted to see as much of the sky as possible. It paid off, as the little road that goes up the mountain from behind our apartment led to a path through the woods back down to town. So not only did I get this view, I discovered a new route for short hikes.

Most of the snow has melted, seemingly overnight. The birds were busy and I even saw a bee and clouds of gnats. This is quite the contrast to the -12 C temps we had on Sunday. And even though I’m not fooled into thinking that this is indeed the start of ‘Frühling’ (Spring) a month ahead of schedule, nor the end of the pandemic, it feels like a much-needed sign.

It’s not unusual to find rushing streams and babbling brooks around here. In fact, in my on-again off-again efforts in German, I have learned that Brunnen, the name of the town where we live, actually means spring or fountain.

It does a body good to get out, breathe the air and be reminded that all of our human problems are nothing to this world we live in. The seasons change to their own rhythm. Nature does its thing. All our cares will soon be washed away in the rains, or lifted in the clouds that float across the sky.

Hope springs.

At least until the sun sets.

How about you? Do you feel hopeful?

Wie geht’s?

How are you?

How are you?

Comment ça va? I mean really, how are you doing?

Thinking about this most common form of German greeting makes me realize something. No one asks me that anymore. Or hardly anyone. It seems that between people staying home, working remotely and not seeing one another, and our move to a new place where we’ve hardly been able to meet people, there is little opportunity to ask each other how we are. That strikes me as sad.

That’s aside from every email that begins with a wish in which the sender hopes this message finds me well, in good health, etc. It seems now that we are either dying from coronavirus or we are all fine. But there are so many nuances of how we can be. Perhaps a little sad. Tired. All Netflixed out. Needing something to look forward to. Or alternatively: feeling like a happy dance. A tipple. Joyfully pursuing an activity that makes our hearts sing.

So how am I? Not too bad (a very Canadian response) all things considered. Healthy, gainfully occupied with my freelance life. Yet longing to get out, to go places, see people, connect. And this Covid-thing is starting to feel like living in a perpetual groundhog day alternate reality where you live the same day, every day. The future has officially been cancelled.

And yet. A few signs may indicate that a shift could be happening.

I saw a couple of reports on the news that were not pandemic-related. In France, they are beginning to talk about climate change again. I’d just been wondering, not so long ago: whatever happened to the planetary emergency? And voilà! Here it is again, back from beyond. Not to be glib, I do realize it’s important. Just not as important when everyone is worrying about imminent death from a mutating virus.

I’m also itching to plan a holiday. I’m talking about a real vacation where you go somewhere completely different, preferably involving nice weather and the sea. Where you kick back and think about all the things you’ve done to deserve it. And I’m not alone. This blogger perfectly sums up the dilemma for me. And I sense it will not be long before I bite the bullet and book something.

So that’s how I am. How are you? Really. Tell me.

Avoir du pif

Alas, I do not have a French nose. More Churchill than De Gaulle, it remains too round and stubby to be considered at all Gallic. Yet over the years I have acquired a little bit of a French nose in the sixth-sense department.

‘Avoir du nez’ or ‘avoir le nez fin’ describes the ability to suss something out intuitively, to feel it in the air. Other variations include ‘avoir du flair’, referencing the hunting dog’s ability to pick up on a scent. And my favourite, ‘avoir du pif’ — ‘pif’ being colloquial French for the sniffer.

Gégé – Gérard Depardieu

The nose is everything that defines the French: fine wine, perfume, flavour and taste. And yet, le nez is not, in my view, the most attractive part of the French anatomy. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, somewhat overdeveloped.

I’m going to go out on a limb (if not a long nose) here and say it: the French, as classically beautiful as so many are, do not have discreet noses. Could this be that the appendage has grown in size along with its importance in French life?

Serge Gainsbourg

This instinct of ‘smelling’ someone also seems to explain the curious way that French people have of sometimes taking an instant dislike to each other. There is even an expression to describe this: Je ne peux pas le sentir. Literally, I can’t ‘smell’ him, used to describe someone you can’t stand. Another variant is: Je ne peux pas le voir. So when you can’t smell someone, it becomes an affair for all the senses, meaning you can’t see them either. When this is the case, the individuals in question (experience shows that this feeling is always mutual), are able to circulate within the same space as if literally blind to one another.

Pierre Niney

I’ve been rewatching Season 4 of the cult series Call My Agent (‘Dix pour cent’ or 10% en francais) since it reappeared on Netflix. The show is a study in interpersonal relationships in French life, with all the star cameos as a bonus. The relationships between the characters in the show are bang on — so true to the way I’ve observed French people behave throughout my years in the country. Toute l’amérique has recently woke to brilliance of this series, as detailed in this article in Vanity Fair. Not coincidentally, a few of the actors are blessed with excellent examples of le French nez (in every sense of the word).

Laure Calamy

On the other hand, I have become entirely allergic to nose jobs. Just as there is nothing more beautiful than a face that entirely assumes the magnificence of its pif, there is little sadder than she who has felt the need to doctor it. You can always tell: the mouth is too wide, the eyes too far apart for the tiny perfect nose sculpted by the surgeon’s knife. I see them everywhere on American screens, and British ones too. In France this is, happily, less prevalent.

Camille Cottin

Among all these famous French noses…whose do you prefer? Or is there anybody (and their nose) that you absolutely can’t ‘smell’?