Un franchouillard

He said it himself: Je suis un franchouillard. A derogatory term for an ‘average’ French person, that midde-class ‘Français moyen’ with all its preconceptions. Yet there was nothing average about Bernard Tapie. His death this week after a long battle with cancer was perhaps the only average thing he ever did.

Yet even that was exceptional. Tapie’s friends, from the world of entertainment and sport, politicians and media personalities, united in saying that he was a fighter, one who never gave up. Until the end he was climbing stairs to stay fit. Even when cancer turned his voice into a whisper, he was outspoken about his battle with the disease. And when he and his wife were victims of a brutal break-in to their Paris home earlier this year, he hid nothing of their shock and the injuries suffered in the attack.

It was shocking to see this once-powerful man reduced to an obviously feeble state. He showed humility but no shame, and I admired him for that.

The Paris-born Tapie was loved and hated by the French in equal measures. The son of a working-class family, in the 1980s he became the symbol of the successful businessman, le self-made man. He made his fortune buying up failing companies, the most famous of which was Adidas, and turning them around. He also owned sports teams like L’Olympique de Marseille (OM). (As an aside, I know nothing of football beyond how important it to those that follow it. Living in provincial France, you were either a fan of L’OM or L’OL, Lyon’s team.)

But Bernard Tapie was much more than a businessman. He was also a politician. Some have called him a French Trump, although I think he had more integrity. But here’s the twist: he ran as a socialist. Possibly nowhere but in France would a figurehead of the free market stand for a party on the left. Yet this is what happened when Tapie became a protegé of President François Mitterand and a deputy in the Bouches-du-Rhône department. A firm opponent of the far-right Front National, Tapie went head to head with party leader Jean Marie Le Pen on a televised debate over immigration.

This was in 1989, after we were married but still living in Canada, so I followed from afar. But I came to understand that it was groundbreaking. Why? At the time, the main political parties did not believe that the FN should be given a voice on national television. But Tapie argued that someone had to stand up to Le Pen and call him out on his lies publicly.

He later became a government minister but his political career ended early when his legal woes began, mostly over the fraud around the sale of Adidas by Credit Lyonnais. The complexities are beyond this post but the case dragged over for 26 years and court appeals were still ongoing at the time of his death.

What I find most intriguing about Tapie was his resilience. After going bankrupt, being ineligible for politics and banned from football, he returned to his first love: the arts.

Bernard Tapie began his career as a singer, but despite his obvious talent (and changing his name to ‘Tapy’) it was not to be. Yet he never gave up on his artistic ambitions completely. He continued to make singing and acting appearances throughout his career, also hosting TV programs. He later took to the stage, performing notably in the French version of the play, ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’.

The news of Bernard Tapie’s death this week at the age of 78 came as a shock. Somehow it seemed he would survive his battle against cancer, like so many others he had won. He was larger-than-life. An upstart, a renegade, one who reached great heights and lost it all. He was completely original; you couldn’t make him up. You could love him or hate him but you couldn’t be indifferent. And that, perhaps, is what made him quintessentially French.

Salut Bernard.

Dies und das

It’s been a weird few weeks, leading me to skip a post or two (I’ve been doing that a lot lately — corona fatigue anyone?). A series of public holidays in May plus some erratic weather has left me not sure if I’m coming or going. Hence a post on ‘this and that’ (dies und das) because I am still trying to get my head around German (or German into my head).

The crickets have been chirping away in the fields for a month now and yet the weather remains cool. Who knew that spring crickets were a thing? Yesterday the sun came out in all its glory and I went for my first bare-arm and bare-legged walk of the year, despite a chill wind from the north. I watched as the paragliders circled down from the mountain above, enjoying the vicarious thrill of flying.

My daughter’s birthday is on Sunday and I’m feeling sad that it will be the second one she celebrates without us. She’s across the Channel in the UK and had originally hoped to come to visit for a couple of weeks. Sadly, it’s not going to happen now and probably not until later this summer. And although Madeline is a front-line worker as a practicing veterinarian, she has not yet qualified for a Covid vaccine. Her age group is coming up soon in the UK where the NHS is taking a strict age-related approach to vaccination. But she would have needed multiple negative PCR tests to travel and to make matters worse this week France announced a 7-day quarantine for visitors from the UK due to the Indian variant.

In other news, it seems that Switzerland has pulled out of talks with the EU on various bilateral agreements. This article from the BBC (me loves the Beebs!) explains it better than I could. I have no doubt we will get there in the end but things take time in Switzerland and, like every other country in the world, there are politics. The Swiss value their independence and refuse to enter into any arrangement that compromises this, so they’re sticking to the existing if outdated agreements for now. Still, it felt like disturbing news for us as EU citizens living here.

We finally have our Covid shots scheduled for June 12 here in Schwyz, where it seems we’re not exactly ahead of the pack. Oddly, my husband and I have two separate appointments, at different times and locations, with mine an hour away in the furthest corner of the canton at 9 pm on a Saturday evening! No idea which vaccine we’ll get but probably either Pfizer or Moderna as Astra Zeneca is still not approved in Switzerland. My son, who lives in Geneva and is somewhat at risk due to a chronic illness, got his first shot of Moderna a week ago. He reported fairly strong side effects of fever, chills and headache for two days. You may recall that we all had Covid just before Christmas, so the first shot is the one with the greatest impact. Fingers crossed!

After that I think we’ll be ready to make travel plans. But where? All I know is that a beach will be involved, and preferably an ocean. I’m not keen on flying for now simply due to the shifting requirements for various tests and the additional delays that will inevitably entail. Besides, the news of the Ryanair plane being forced to land in Belarus this week only added to my reluctance. I can only imagine the panic on board that flight and in the hours that passengers were held in Minsk. Greece has called it a state-sponsored hijacking and there’s no doubt Lukashenko is one scary guy. Here’s hoping that dissident blogger Roman Protasevich survives his custody.

So maybe we’ll drive. Brittany is on my bucket-list and I’ve been away from France long enough now to start looking forward to a holiday on its coasts. There’s also the train that can get us to Italy. I have fond memories of a ferryboat we once took from Venice to Porec, Croatia.

It seems insane to be worrying about where to travel when you live in such a beautiful place. I’m looking forward to getting out for a paddle soon. Maybe we’ll just stay home for the summer after all.

What’s new with you?

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!

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.

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?