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?

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.

Le bon coin

If you have anything to buy or sell in France, there is only one place to do it: Le Bon Coin, popularly known as Leboncoin.

I stumbled on this essential piece of information when we were exploring ways to sell our house. A real estate agent assured me, in the knowing way that French people do, that Leboncoin was ‘l’incontournable’ site for selling properties.

“Le Bon Coin?” I asked, surprised and somewhat appalled. It seemed a little, well, ringard. Tacky. Why would I list my nice home for sale alongside a bunch of old furniture and used car deals of the week?

“Et oui,” he shrugged in that very French way that says, Hey, life is crazy, but who are we to question it? It’s the place where the most buyers go to look for real estate as well as everything else. “Ça marche.”

It turns out Le Bon Coin is indeed a ‘good spot’ for literally anything. From jobs to houses to farm equipment. Along with the odd mammoth tooth and stuffed pony. So you can rent a holiday flat while booking language lessons and car-sharing on the way.

After hearing the same thing from two other real estate advisors and finally deciding to sell our property on our own, we dutifully placed the first ad for our house on Leboncoin. And while we also put the ad in a few other places, they were all pretty useless. Leboncoin was indeed l’incontournable.

The site owes its success to a ‘free’ ad formula with paid options for ‘les petites annonces’ (classified ads). The French love anything free, so that strategy was a good start. However, when you really want to sell something it’s easy to fall into the temptation to pay, either to add more photos or boost the visibility of your ad. And that’s where they make their money.

I dug into the story behind Le Bon Coin and it’s rather interesting. Owned by a Norwegian conglomerate with similar sites across Europe, it started up in 2006. It seems the early success of the concept is being further fuelled by COVID-19 and the growing trend to doing everything online. The company recently bought out eBay in France.

“We sold our house on Le Bon Coin,” my husband confided to the nice gentleman who came over last week to buy our leather sofa. Which we’ve also listed on the site, along with a bunch of other stuff we aren’t moving to our new place. We were amazed when the buyer showed up after driving for two hours and paid the requested 200 euros in cash. Another young couple had come the day before and left with our dining table.

I was also amazed that my ad for our washing machine, which works perfectly well but was purchased in 2008 so is selling dirt cheap, attracted so many potential buyers. Unfortunately they all wanted to come and get it right away and I still have plenty of dirty laundry to keep it busy for another few weeks. So that’s pending. There’s been almost no interest in the tumble dryer though. The French still mostly line dry their washing.

It is humbling to part with your property, whether it’s a home or furniture. There you are with your stuff, the items you live with each day, and suddenly it’s splayed all over a public website. One minute you’re sitting on your sofa enjoying a cup of tea and your favourite show and the next, you have nowhere to sit. And don’t tell this to any potential buyers but I am terrible at negotiating prices. This is true whether buying or selling. Either I demand too much or pay full price without negotiating, or I cave too quickly and take a low-ball offer. The whole thing makes me uncomfortable. I have no problem with money per se, but haggling over it makes me feel slimy and cheap.

The fact is that moving to a new place is an opportunity to streamline: out with the old, in with the new. And we are downsizing so we have no need, or room, for so much stuff. Plus, we’ll have no garden, so we have a whole load of garden tools and equipment going spare. I haven’t tackled that ad yet.

Anyone want to buy a lawn mower?