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?

L’argent du beurre

I hated butter when I was kid. Not so much the taste but the greasy, slimy nature of it. It seems this was an acquired dislike. One of my first memories, which is probably only a memory of a story I was later told, was of reaching my hand into the butter dish and having it slapped away. So began my aversion.

Later in life the sentiment dissipated as I discovered the flavour and richness that butter brings. At first I could only enjoy it as a topping on popcorn, when cooked into something or as a scant scraping on toast. Unfortunately for my cholesterol count, I now like a bit of butter on warm bread (very un-French, other than at breakfast) and add liberal doses of le beurre to everything from sauces to omelettes to veg.

I must admit we’re rather spoiled for butter around here. French butter is heralded by many for its superior quality. The only other butter which might possibly be better is Swiss. Just think of all those alpine pastures with the cows grazing on grass.

There are three kinds of beurre: doux (sweet), demi-sel (semi-salted) and salé (salted). There is even the kind with little salt crystals for those who enjoy the taste of salt explosions. The best butters are churned (‘barrate’) to separate out the buttermilk (‘babeurre’).

There is a French expression which seems particularly apt to me these days: “On ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre.” Literally this means that you cannot have both the butter and the money you make from selling it. Which essentially translates to the English expression, “You can’t have your cake and it eat it too.” Or have it both ways.

Looking for a new place to live means confronting this reality head on. You can downsize and have the same space. You can’t live in or near a town without having some noise. You can’t enjoy a mountain view without having to climb some hills. You can’t enjoy the advantages of good transit connections without have a train line or highway nearby.

When we decided to sell our house and move to something smaller on the Swiss side, we knew we wouldn’t have everything we wanted. So we set a few guidelines for our search. I was prepared to compromise on many things but not on a certain quantity and quality of space.

It has been a bit of a journey. Along the way I learned a few things, or re-learned them:

1. Shit happens. COVID-19 happened. The best-laid plans are nothing in the face of a pandemic.

2. You must stay true to what you want but keep your mind open to unexpected opportunities, go off the path and explore a little.

3. Pictures and online visits are all very well for a first impression but you have to actually see a space to get a feel of whether it’s right for you.

4. Things will eventually fall into place.

And so they have. Against all odds, only one month after lockdown was lifted in France, it seems we have found buyers for our house, and a new place to live in Switzerland. Neither of which quite fit the initial ideas of what we thought. But both feel right. More on our new place soon. I’m too superstitious to share details before we have signed on the dotted line.

In the meantime, there will be butter. I will definitely not be selling but enjoying it.

How do you like your butter — sweet, demi-sel or not at all?

Inégalité

This was going to be another post about my life between France and Switzerland, and the latest developments in our new home search. But then things in the world went sour and I just don’t have the heart for it right now. To talk about such things as the world explodes with injustice seems a little, well, tone-deaf.

For most of my life I rejected the idea of privilege. Even as a kid, I remember being told I was fortunate. To think of all the starving children in Africa when I wouldn’t, couldn’t finish what was on my plate. To be grateful for having two parents, a stay-at-home mom and a father who left for work each morning carrying a briefcase. For being able of body and sound of mind.

I rejected outright the guilt that came from this accident of birth, which struck me as entirely unfair. I hadn’t asked for any of it. To be born in Canada to parents who had enough to feed us and have a nice home. Appearances can be deceiving, I would say. My so-called lucky white middle-class family struggled in different ways. Besides, there were so many other people who had so much more.

I never accepted being identified by my race, gender or whatever other labels people threw at me. Catholic. Blonde. North American. Single or married. You don’t know me, who I am or what I think, I raged, whenever I felt seen through such filters. Don’t judge me by your standards!

In return, I did my best to do the same, to see the person before the skin. No racist or gender stereotypes for me. Which was, of course, delusional.

The first time I heard the words ‘Black lives matter’, my reaction was true to form: “What? Why only Black lives? All lives matter!”

Many years ago, I lived in a well-to-do suburb and a bastion of white privilege outside Minneapolis. In Edina, people of colour were rare birds indeed. But in the twin cities (Minneapolis-St.Paul) the racial divide was extremely evident. You could draw a line between the rich and poor, white and black parts of town.

Coming from Toronto, a city that defines itself on diversity and what we then called the ‘cultural mosaic’ (as compared to the American ‘melting pot’), the reality of segregation, of outright racism, was shocking. I knew it was wrong but I didn’t know what to do about it. They were formative years for me, in my early to mid-teens, and a time of huge social unrest in the US. I remember the Kent State shootings as the first time my eyes were opened to the terrifying power of the state and how it could be turned on its citizens.

Now I see ‘Black Lives Matter’ differently. All lives can’t matter until Black lives do. White privilege is real. Acknowledging these truths doesn’t make us any less valuable as human beings. On the contrary.

I’m not sure exactly when the shift happened. It has certainly been gradual. Perhaps my eyes started to open while watching a Netflix series called ‘Dear White People’ that portrays a group of black students at an elite, mostly white university. Recent events in the US, culminating in last week’s murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, made me realize that the issue of race, which I had naïvely assumed to be a thing of the past, is still very real.

And not just in the US.

In Paris yesterday, demonstrations turned violent when 20,000 people gathered to protest against racism and police violence.

“Demonstrators voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter protests and demanded justice for Adama Traoré, a young black man who, like Floyd, died while in police custody in the Paris suburbs in 2016.”

Racism is different here in France, but it is still racism.

Inégalité — inequality — is real. So are poverty and hunger, as the long lines for aid from our food banks attest.

It’s okay to feel guilty. It’s okay to feel outrage. It’s not okay to act like it is normal or acceptable.

How are you feeling?