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?

Speaking in tongues, bis

I’m borrowing this title from a post I wrote way back in the early days of this blog. Hence the ‘bis’ which as you probably know means ‘encore’ or something added, as in another address of the same number. Let’s call this one 2013 bis.

My first tongue — mother, naturally — came to life early on and was unstoppable. I was a talker from the most tender age. Family lore has it that my younger brother never said much because I did all the talking for him. I must have tired of this after a while though, or been scolded into silence, because as I grew up I became a lot more selective about who I spoke to, preferring to retreat into silence in social situations until sure of my footing. Then you can’t shut me up.

When I began learning la langue de Molière a few decades later, I quickly learned to think carefully before speaking because, well, the French don’t let you get away with much. Eventually French became more or less second nature and I stopped worrying about making mistakes or using words that don’t technically exist. Ce n’est pas oblig!

My third tongue I suspect will not be as fluent as the previous two. I am a lot older, if only occasionally wiser, going into this linguistic adventure. But far less afraid.

I have begun what they call a semi-intensive course of German A1 level here in our town: two hours twice a week. We are a group of six beginners: A Greek woman who works as a chef, a Czech woman whose boyfriend plays soccer on the local team, two Portuguese guys both of whom are called André (what’s the chance of that?) and a single mother who is a Tibetan refugee. And moi, the doyenne (elder) of the group. They are all half or perhaps even a third of my age.

On the first day the teacher asked us how long we had been in Switzerland (English is the default language, lucky for me). When I said I’d only just moved here, he seemed surprised. I explained about living near Geneva and working in the French-speaking part of Switzerland since 2007.

“So you’ve actually been here much longer. Geneva is also in Switzerland,” he reminded me. Yes, but…!  I thought but didn’t manage to articulate. My tongue had decided to retreat into my head out of respect for the teacher’s superior knowledge.

I guess he had a point, but it does feel like moving to the German-speaking part of this small but complex land here in Central Switzerland is like moving to another country.  

“And have you taken German lessons before?” asked the teacher. I shook my head. No. Nein!

“Ah, so this is your first German class?” I nodded dumbly, thinking: Yes, I am a German virgin.

Thankfully by then my tongue was well and truly silent.

I suspect my third tongue will give me trouble, as have the other two. But hopefully by the time I start wielding it I’ll have a few more words in my vocabulary than Ich spreche kein Deutch.

How about you? Do you feel comfortable speaking in tongues?

Grüetzi!

There you go. My one word of Swiss German. Which rather conveniently suits the circumstances. Its means ‘Greetings!’ in local parlance.

The situation should start to improve next week when I begin a 7-week language course to kick-start my German communications skills. I have no ambition to become fluent as I am in French but at least I should be able to function better without relying quite so heavily on Google Translate.

It has taken a good month to feel like we have well and truly landed here. Things are still falling into place, and the transition is not without its ‘hics’ (see, I still think in French: hitches, catches, problems). But despite some moments of doubt and the huge emotional turmoil of moving, I am feeling at home enough here to want to introduce you to our new  town.

View from our balcony

Brunnen, in Central Switzerland, is part of an area called Ingenbohl, population around 9,000. It is just next to the bigger town of Schwyz, which is the capital of the Canton of Schwyz. Our canton, as I now think of it even though I’m still waiting for my official residence permit, is one of the founding cantons of Switzerland. The Swiss federal charter signed back in 1291 is on display nearby in Schwyz.

Brunnen is famous for a few things. The most notable for English speakers is that Winston Churchill spent his honeymoon here. Not a particularly romantic reference but perhaps an indication of its appeal for tourists. Because if most of Switzerland is postcard perfect, this place has it going on in spades.

So now to what really drew us here: the scenery. Brunnen is at the funny bone on the elbow of the Vierwaldstättersee, the German name for Lake Lucerne. This oddly shaped lake has several crooks and arms. Essentially what is means for us is splendid views to the mountains all around and two branches of the lake. It also means access by the famous Swiss steamboats to various destinations around the lake. You can even go to Lucerne, although it’s not the fastest way to travel it is certainly the most scenic.

Last weekend we took advantage of both the nice weather and our son and his partner’s visit to take the boat across the lake from Brunnen to Treib and a funicular up the mountain to Seelisberg. Then we walked down. It was my kind of hike: all the views and none of the pain. We were able to see up close the church that is visible way up high on the mountain across from our balcony. It felt like a fairytale, but then again it feels that way here a lot of the time.

Brunnen itself has a lot to offer, more of which I’ll be sharing in the weeks to come. It even has a small language school where I’ll be able to attend German classes in a group of six beginners. (At least for now, as it seems the virus is keeping a low profile around here…)

And in a positive turn of events after last month’s unexpected hic, it looks like our house sale in France will finally go through at the end of this month. That champagne will come in handy.

What’s new in your part of the world?

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?

Carte postale

The postcard-perfect view from our holiday rental in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.

We stayed for a week just steps from Staubbach Falls, the highest free-falling waterfall in Switzerland at 297 metres. The falls attracts a steady stream of visitors daily who climb the hundreds of steps up to the lookout point on a rocky ledge behind the falls.

It is amazing to wake up each morning to this view, and to go to sleep with the backdrop of water rushing down from the glaciers.

It seems that the name ‘Lauterbrunnen’ can be interpreted to mean ‘clear spring’ or ‘many springs’ or even ‘noisy springs’. My vote goes to the latter version. Below us was a road that goes to the Jungfrau campground, with a pretty constant flow of traffic. And just across from was a lovely church spire. The bells chime every 15 minutes between six in the morning and ten at night, and every hour on the hour all night long. That means that if you’ve just fallen asleep, exhausted from a day of cycling or hiking, there is a good chance you’ll be woken when the church bells chime out twelve strokes at midnight. One, two and three a.m. seem much lower-profile but are still enough to waken the light sleeper.

Among the tall tales Swiss rental owners will tell you: “Pretty sure the church bells stop at night.” When you point out that they don’t, the reaction is: “Why would they bother you? We don’t even hear them anymore.”

I did not acclimatize to the church bells but still managed to get a good night’s kip with ear plugs and sleeping pills. Not ideal but at the moment I need all the rest I can get. And in between times they were rather pretty…

Now we’re home for another week’s stay-cation before getting back to work and gearing up for our move in a month’s time. I am beginning to panic slightly at the daunting to-do list, so news from this blog may be sporadic for the next few weeks. Please bear with me: I’ll be back soon with a revamped identity and more cross-cultural adventures.

Here’s to ‘clear springs’ to you all until then!

A bientôt…