Coup de grâce

My new Swiss resident’s permit states my nationality as ‘FRA’, short for ‘Französische’. It seems odd to be identified by my French-ness as it still feels new. Yet French I am, at least by adoption, and of my two nationalities it is the more relevant in the EU. Being Canadian is my trump card (and yes, I’m taking back that word), one that I play when travelling overseas. Sometimes also in the UK. Yet travel, for now, feels entirely irrelevant.

Like any newcomer to a country I seek out that which is familiar. That means sticking to my old French TV habits most evenings as I get dinner ready. Watching the news on Swiss TV in German, especially with subtitles, is far better for my language learning but hey, we’re all entitled to kick back. So the early evening talk shows on France 5 and the national news on France 2 keep me informed, if not always entertained, about what is happening in my new-former home country.

And it’s not good. In fact, it’s downright depressing. Somehow, having stepped away from the place, I now see all things French in an even darker light than before. Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, to quote the Bard. Not to suggest corruption but rather to point out that the structure is crumbling.

Let’s start with the insanity of closing all ‘non-essential’ shops and services to prevent the spread of Covid19. Define ‘non-essential’. Beyond food and water, to me what is essential right now might mean chocolate, beer, books. To others it could be clothing, live music, exercise, museums, Netflix. If we are talking about anything beyond basic survival, how can a government define what is essential? And more importantly, how can these businesses survive the interminable shutdowns?

Right now all French shops aside from food stores are closed while online retaillers are booming. People are not allowed to go further than one kilometre from home for exercise while, for those who live outside of the cities, the forests and fields beckon. Children go to school while parents mostly work from home. What kind of crazy is that?

I learned on the French news this week that Le Printemps, the grand old lady of the French department store, is preparing to shutter several stores around the country. Management blames it on the ‘coup de grâce’ of the pandemic. Meaning that they were already in trouble, but that confinement has struck the final death blow to these stores.

The government decision to close shops during the prime-time roll up to the year-end holidays seems insane. Not to downplay the dangers of the virus, but with proper distancing measures store closures could be avoided. Masks, hand sanitizing, limited numbers allowed in shops. It’s not rocket science. Here in Switzerland it appears to work. Not risk-free, certainly, but a more balanced approach to saving lives and livelihoods.

Another French talk show last night was all about the profound transformation our society is undergoing with this pandemic. The work-from-home option is probably here to stay, which means that the value of commercial real estate will likely drop. Businesses of all sizes will be affected by this change, not to mention the many that will go bankrupt, leading to more unemployment. The knock-on effects of this crazy year are going to be felt for a very long time.

The photo featured at the top of this post is a bit of a cheat. I took it at the Musée d’Orsay when we were in Paris a few years ago. I don’t know anything about the work shown here but it doesn’t seem to depict a ‘coup de grâce’, which is a final blow delivered out of kindness to end suffering. Instead it appears to be about fighting back and defending against an enemy. Perhaps we should all take inspiration from it.

Qu’en penses-tu?

Mine de rien

I stumbled across an old to-do list the other day and was struck by how much had been accomplished. What seemed almost insurmountable earlier this year has now been largely achieved. None of it perfect, much still to do. As ever.

Some of the big items on the list from early 2020 are not yet boxes ticked. But ‘Sell house’ should be complete this week (fingers, toes and other appendages crossed please!). As to another item, ‘Find new place to live in Switzerland’, this is largely achieved. We didn’t end up buying, which feels like the right move given the current climate, but are happily settling in to our rented home. Getting it just right is a work in progress but if I learned one thing from our last place it is this: don’t rush things. You have to live in a space for a while to know how to make it work. And in the meantime, it is extremely liveable by any standard.

‘Mine de rien’ is one of those French expressions that you don’t learn but comes up in conversation. ‘Without even trying’ or ‘without seeming to have made any big effort’ is my best attempt at translating it. I can’t say this really applies to me as I’ve made no secret of the huge efforts made since we decided to move. At times it felt like we would never get there. Hurdles, frustrations, moments of doubt. Not to mention a global pandemic. Yet somehow things have more or less fallen into place, at least for now.

A ‘mine’ (pronounced: mean) is a face or a look, and it is often used to describe a person’s state of health. To have ‘une bonne mine’ means you’re looking good. ‘Mauvaise mine’ is just the opposite.

I feel like I have a pretty good ‘mine’ these days, despite the stresses of moving and adapting to a new life. The cooler air where we live now suits me, and the water’s pretty good too. It’s softer and, if you believe the local authorities, pretty well perfect in terms of water quality.

We got our new resident’s permits from the Canton of Schwyz the other day. It took a few weeks but the process was entirely Swiss: efficient and painless. We had to pay for the privilege of course, in my case CHF 70, which is sort of a recurring theme. Everything has a cost and it’s very much a user-pay mentality in Switzerland. But you do get what you pay for. I’m eternally grateful to the powers that be for not making me look like an escaped convict in my ID photo.

Perhaps my ‘mine’ is smiling a bit more these days too, which always adds to a healthy appearance. After all, there is much to smile about. We’re healthy (touch wood, not face!) for one thing, although who knows how long we will manage to escape the dreaded virus? We’re careful but we haven’t stopped enjoying life. And when I go to bed at night I feel safer than I ever did in France. Which is not to say that an axe murderer won’t come calling but somehow it feels like we live now without what the French call ‘ce sentiment d’insecurité’. That unsettling sense of insecurity is ever-present across the border, and I miss it not all.

What have you done, mine de rien, of late?

Prendre du recul

Sometimes you need to step back to gain perspective. Look at things from a different angle. That’s the beauty of going to different places. You see things differently. And it can be life-changing.

‘Prendre du recul’, the French expression for putting things in perspective, is helping me see what’s important during this time of transition. To ask: what do you wish for, really, and what can you jettison? And who: the people you care about and the ones you keep up with for form’s sake. What are the things (especially self-imposed) that are holding you back? I know I want less of some things (screen time, self-flagellation) and more of others (physical world, joyful pursuits, real-world connections). And I see how I’ve been turning in circles on certain things, like my current writing project, a novel of which I’ve written two-thirds of a draft but not felt committed to for the past several months.

It’s been a funny old time for me lately. Sort of like being in the Twilight Zone. As we settle in to our new apartment in Switzerland, our house in France sits empty. We’ve left it, but it’s still ours. A cord has yet to be cut.

Since we moved a few weeks ago I’ve felt half way between two lives, the new one chosen and the old one abandoned. It’s not that these two lives are so different. My work is the same as ever, although there are a great may things to accomplish to complete my relocation in Switzerland. I see a lot more of my husband, that familiar face of thirty years but which has been so often absent of late. But it is a different country, a new language of which I know nothing. Even though the locals are mostly willing to help me out with some English. And when they can’t, Google Translate is my guide.

What else is different? No masks around here, although you see the same information signs about the virus and hand sanitizing stations by the entrances to all the shops. Each canton does its own thing and here in mostly rural Schwyz, mask-wearing is not a thing. Unless on trains which is nationally mandated. I’ve worn a mask a few times when shopping and quickly felt like a pariah. I suspect it will soon be dropped.

Yet when we were back in Geneva last weekend, masks were mandatory everywhere indoors. Being so close to the border with France, and with an uptick in cases in Suisse Romande (Cantons of Geneva, Vaud and Fribourg), it was almost like being back in France. Without the endless debate over every last thing the government is doing. (When I heard they were closing all restaurants and bars again in France this week, it felt like another world.)

Last week’s trip had been arranged around our house sale, which then fell through. But we had to go back to the house anyway. Make sure that everything was okay. Pick up the mail and consider next steps. In the meantime one of the buyers has decided to go it alone and the sale may still happen. More on that later.

Besides, it was our son’s birthday. Perspective, again. There were candles to blow out and champagne to be drunk. Which we did in socially distanced fashion outdoors on a beautiful, warm night. Surely the last of the season.

It’s officially fall now and the weather has decided to align with the calendar. The days are cooler and after two weeks of sun it is raining here where I am. I don’t know what it’s doing there where I was. But I suspect that in a little while, this whole period of turmoil, of being neither here nor there, of feeling trapped in the space between life-before and life-after, will be behind us. Not just for me but for this whole, crazy pandemic-plagued world.

A little perspective, it seems, goes a long way.

How are you feeling?

Tomber des nues

I should have known better. All that talk about love in my last post. Counting my chickens. That bottle of Veuve Cliquot chilling in the fridge.

We packed up, sold or gave away the furniture and appliances we didn’t want and the new owners wouldn’t have use for. Even dismantled a solid oak built-in shelf unit in the upstairs room we used as a family room which the buyers wanted to turn into an extra bedroom.

I was about to start writing a bittersweet post about turning the page as we returned to France this week for our appointment with the notary to finalize our house sale.

Then an email popped into my inbox. “We must regretfully inform you that we will not be able to follow through on our offer,” our new buyer wrote. “For personal reasons due to our separation.” She went on to say they were gutted, had so dreamed of living there.

My jaw dropped. You might say I was flabbergasted. Or in French, “Je suis tombée des nues.” Meaning not that I fell from the nudes (‘nue’ being the female form of naked) but from the sky. ‘Nues’ in this expression comes from an old French noun for clouds. So, down to earth I fell, along with all of the time and work in selling our house over the past six months. Kerplunk.

Our appointment was supposed to be today. It was set by the notary, according to the French legal requirement of a two-month waiting period, when the buyers signed the compromis de vente‘.  Today we were supposed to be signing over the deed, handing over the keys, drinking a celebratory glass of champagne before going on to spend the weekend in the area with family.

We’re still going, once we get our breath back. It will give us time to air out the house and meet with some real estate agents. Because now that we live a 3-and-a-half hour drive away, we won’t be selling it ourselves.

All is not completely lost. This time French law should work in our favour, at least financially. Our now former-future buyers had to leave a substantial deposit and that should default to us as compensation.

As well as that bottle of champagne. Because life is short and, anyway, it’s jinxed now.

Cheers to that!

P.S. What do you think of the new blog theme? Feedback please! Hope it’s not too hard to find the comment box.

Tomber amoureux

To fall in love translates perfectly in French: tomber amoureux. Perhaps it is the same the world over.

The expression is apt. ‘Falling’ implies giving up control, abandoning oneself to love. You have to let go, give up a bit of yourself, to love another. Whether it is a person, a place, or a way of life.

My adventure in this country began many years ago, in my hometown Toronto, with a chance encounter in a bar. It led to a long-distance relationship, then my first stumbling steps in French, a wedding in Paris, then, a few years and a young family later, a transatlantic move.

I can’t say that falling in love was what drove my choices beyond that first encounter. Over the years my relationship with France, with the language and its people, has been as often fraught as loving. There has been frustration, connection and (mis)understanding in varying degrees, laughter and learning. But isn’t all love like that? A tapestry of emotions, each thread woven together with passion and patience to ultimately render something that is rich and nuanced, neither perfect nor uniform, but a beautiful whole nonetheless.

I don’t remember exactly when it was but some time early in my life here we visited the region we’ve called home for the past ten years. The lake that stretches between France and Switzerland was on our way to and from the mountains that my Frenchman always managed to convince me to visit on holiday, even though I wasn’t a great skier and at best a reluctant mountaineer. Lake Geneva, Lac Léman to locals, has a wide plain on the French side, an area called le Bas Chablais. I know nothing of geography but I think it was carved out by the Rhône glacier. What it means is that you have a backdrop of mountains on either side and the lake in the middle, which makes for a stunning combination.

“This is more like it,” I said to my husband when we first stopped here. We stayed for a few nights in Thonon-les-Bains, visiting nearby Evian and venturing into Geneva on the Swiss side. There was swimming in the lake, pleasure boats and restaurants on the waterfront. We came back again some years later and stayed in a small medieval town called Yvoire, with cobblestone streets and an artsy feel. I fell in love with the area.

Later, when work offered up a job in Geneva, I snapped at the opportunity. My husband was already ahead of me, having relocated his business and working with clients on the Swiss side. For four years I commuted back to our family home outside of Lyon each week. Then, with both kids moving on to university, we decided to move closer to work. We looked for places to live on either side of the border, flirting with the idea of living in Switzerland. But I wasn’t ready to leave France. And when we found a lot with a lake view in the Bas Chablais, it was a no-brainer. We would build our house here. We were head over heels.

I remember the year we spent waiting for our house to come out of the ground. We’d rented an apartment in a development just behind so that we could walk over and check the construction daily. I felt like a kid in a candy store. Could this magical place really be our home?

After a few years though, the thrill began to dim. I’m not sure exactly when I fell out of love with our house, or the area we live in. But something shifted.

Not the place itself. It is still beyond beautiful. But living on the border means that you are never entirely there. You live daily in the awareness of the contrast between two places — and one begins to feel a lot more attractive than the other. And our house, while I’m proud of having built something so beautiful, needs a lot of love.

Fortunately, I did not have to cheat in deciding to leave it. My first love agrees with me. In fact, I think he fell out of love with his home country way before I did.

What is it about France? When did the dysfunctional side of things begin to weigh more heavily in the balance? Just watching the news the other day and seeing the riots and looting (yet again!) on the Champs Elysée after a win by the football team PSG. I feel beyond disgusted and discouraged.

Like you do when you fall out of love with someone, and their every fault, every flaw becomes unbearable.

Funny there is no expression for that, at least that I know of. In French it is just, ‘on ne s’aime plus.’

Forgive me, chère France.

Perhaps when I leave you, I will be able to love you again.

Bises.