Noisy neighbours

Here in Brunnen, the hills are alive with the sound of sheep bells. The tinkle and cling of their bells is much prettier and more musical to my ears than the clang of cow bells. These freshly shorn sheep are our nearest neighbours right now to the west of our apartment building. They are a curious and sometimes noisy lot who seem to enjoy staring at me when I go by with the dogs.

We are gradually discovering the burgeoning spring season here in Central Switzerland. It’s a lovely time of year as the grasslands get greener each day while the mountains still have quite a lot of snow. The temperatures are up and down — hot in the sun while still near zero in the early mornings and evenings. Wild flowers are out in force yet snow is called for early next week.

On the downside, some of the more surprising and far less pleasant noises than these nosey neighbours include the constant roar of motorcycles going by on the road below. It seems that the Swiss are big bikers, and all it takes is a holiday and a bit of sun to bring them out in force around the lake.

There are also church bells — not too near, thankfully, but still within hearing range of us every hour and on 15-minute intervals, 24 hours a day. The jury is still out as to whether I will get used to them enough to be able to sleep with the windows open. Air conditioning may yet be my saviour.

And in the meantime, I decided if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Meet our newest resident, the Koo Koo clock. I’ve almost got used to his hourly chirping (a sensor ensures he is quiet when the lights go out).

The noisiest of all our neighbours are the helicopters that are often put to work clearing dead trees off the mountains above. They also serve to transport patients to hospital in case of medical emergencies. One happened just this week and I found myself glued to the balcony watching the mesmerizing spectacle of the chopper landing, waiting for the ambulance, loading the stretcher and flying off again. I don’t know what the unfortunate neighbour had, or why he couldn’t have gone to the local hospital in Schwyz. It may be that Covid cases were out of control or that a more complicated medical speciality was needed in Zurich, which is an hour away.

I hope I never need them, but I’m sure glad they’re around just in case! (Also glad I picked up the dog’s poop right there in that field an hour earlier!)

Easter seems to be a big thing where we live now. Much to my delight, the tradition here is the Easter bunny, not those silly ‘cloches’ they have in France. This post from the early days of my blog tells the story of the French Easter bells if you’re interested: https://francesays.com/2013/03/31/quelque-chose-qui-cloche/

Wherever you are, may the Easter bells ring for you in the kindest of ways. Here’s to rebirth, renewal and the joy of a new season!

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?

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’?

Boucs emissaires

William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854.

Although we now live in Switzerland we remain faithful to our former French habits when it comes to watching the news. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, and a monthly subscription to Swisscom, we enjoy access to all the French television channels as well as several from the UK. There are also a few Swiss choices, of course, but except for the odd news program I can’t be bothered. And watching TV in German, even with subtitles, is still a lot of work.

It seems I cling to the familiar at times when things feel new and uncertain. Ever since we moved and I discovered the UK Drama channel, I’ve also been watching old episodes of EastEnders from 1995. It’s funny how a TV soap can take you back. I remember first watching some of those episodes when we lived in Lyon and my daughter was just a baby. Seeing the clothes and hairstyles from another era in your life is oddly reassuring. (And quite hilarious. Phil Mitchell with hair! Ian Beale getting a fax machine!)

Back then I was working as a freelance translator. A fax machine was my life line for receiving work and sending in translated texts to clients. The internet was still new and there wasn’t much available online; I spent a fortune on dictionaries to navigate my way through French texts that were often highly technical. To my dismay, regular dictionaries did not include technical terms and we had no library nearby so I had to invest in specialized tomes to be able to translate texts about electrical gear and high technology.

Back in those days in France my work was just trickling in. So I took on just about anything despite the fact that my specialty was copywriting. I remember on a few occasions reluctantly accepting some interpreting jobs, even though I was only borderline fluent enough to translate live speech. One of my clients, who I think was desperate as her regulars were all off on holiday, explained that it wasn’t the kind of simultaneous translation you see on TV but rather ‘interpretariat d’accompagnement’; meaning that you simply had to translate for someone attending a meeting, so that they understood more or less what was happening. Still, you had to be pretty good and pay attention. No smart phones, no Google translate. And all those dictionaries were too heavy to lug around, although I did bring a few in the trunk of my car for emergencies.

Those jobs were more of an education that any French class could ever be. I remember on one occasion being entirely stumped in a meeting when a term I’d never heard kept popping up: bouc emissaire.

“On va pas chercher des boucs emissaires,” one earnest-looking fellow kept repeating. My client, a nice Israeli man who actually understood quite a bit of French, looked at me expectantly.

I swallowed, then ventured: “We’re not looking for any messenger bucks?”

From a few seats down the table came the sound of choked laughter. Then the heavily-accented voice of a woman, who until then had kept a very low profile, suggested: “I think in English it is called ‘escape goat’?”

Scape goats! Bien sûr. I nodded vigorously, red-faced. Thinking: never again. Translating the written word with the help of dictionaries is one thing. Interpreting is something else entirely. Flying without a net as it were. I vowed from then on to leave it to the professionals.

I was reminded of this incident when watching the news on TV last night. The special guest on France 2 was Gérald Darmanin, the French Interior minister who is in charge of the police. He was being called to account for yet another incident of police violence. A French version of George Floyd (fortunately he survived) in which in a music producer named Michel was severely beaten in his own Paris studio by several cops who didn’t realize they were being filmed by security cameras. The incident further fuels controversy around a new law being introduced in France that makes it a crime to share images of the police for malicious purposes (although in this case no one claims it was malicious).

“Trouver des boucs emissaires, c’est pas ma façon de faire,” Darmanin said in a live interview during which it was suggested that the head of the Paris police should be relieved of his functions. Looking for scapegoats, it seems, is not his style.

I sighed. How familiar it all felt. Yet another French controversy, a new reason for people to take to the streets. Not much ado about nothing but, seen from this side of the border, and with that old chestnut popping up again, it almost felt like home.

How about you? Do you watch TV news?