Boucs emissaires

William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854.

Although we now live in Switzerland we remain faithful to our former French habits when it comes to watching the news. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, and a monthly subscription to Swisscom, we enjoy access to all the French television channels as well as several from the UK. There are also a few Swiss choices, of course, but except for the odd news program I can’t be bothered. And watching TV in German, even with subtitles, is still a lot of work.

It seems I cling to the familiar at times when things feel new and uncertain. Ever since we moved and I discovered the UK Drama channel, I’ve also been watching old episodes of EastEnders from 1995. It’s funny how a TV soap can take you back. I remember first watching some of those episodes when we lived in Lyon and my daughter was just a baby. Seeing the clothes and hairstyles from another era in your life is oddly reassuring. (And quite hilarious. Phil Mitchell with hair! Ian Beale getting a fax machine!)

Back then I was working as a freelance translator. A fax machine was my life line for receiving work and sending in translated texts to clients. The internet was still new and there wasn’t much available online; I spent a fortune on dictionaries to navigate my way through French texts that were often highly technical. To my dismay, regular dictionaries did not include technical terms and we had no library nearby so I had to invest in specialized tomes to be able to translate texts about electrical gear and high technology.

Back in those days in France my work was just trickling in. So I took on just about anything despite the fact that my specialty was copywriting. I remember on a few occasions reluctantly accepting some interpreting jobs, even though I was only borderline fluent enough to translate live speech. One of my clients, who I think was desperate as her regulars were all off on holiday, explained that it wasn’t the kind of simultaneous translation you see on TV but rather ‘interpretariat d’accompagnement’; meaning that you simply had to translate for someone attending a meeting, so that they understood more or less what was happening. Still, you had to be pretty good and pay attention. No smart phones, no Google translate. And all those dictionaries were too heavy to lug around, although I did bring a few in the trunk of my car for emergencies.

Those jobs were more of an education that any French class could ever be. I remember on one occasion being entirely stumped in a meeting when a term I’d never heard kept popping up: bouc emissaire.

“On va pas chercher des boucs emissaires,” one earnest-looking fellow kept repeating. My client, a nice Israeli man who actually understood quite a bit of French, looked at me expectantly.

I swallowed, then ventured: “We’re not looking for any messenger bucks?”

From a few seats down the table came the sound of choked laughter. Then the heavily-accented voice of a woman, who until then had kept a very low profile, suggested: “I think in English it is called ‘escape goat’?”

Scape goats! Bien sûr. I nodded vigorously, red-faced. Thinking: never again. Translating the written word with the help of dictionaries is one thing. Interpreting is something else entirely. Flying without a net as it were. I vowed from then on to leave it to the professionals.

I was reminded of this incident when watching the news on TV last night. The special guest on France 2 was Gérald Darmanin, the French Interior minister who is in charge of the police. He was being called to account for yet another incident of police violence. A French version of George Floyd (fortunately he survived) in which in a music producer named Michel was severely beaten in his own Paris studio by several cops who didn’t realize they were being filmed by security cameras. The incident further fuels controversy around a new law being introduced in France that makes it a crime to share images of the police for malicious purposes (although in this case no one claims it was malicious).

“Trouver des boucs emissaires, c’est pas ma façon de faire,” Darmanin said in a live interview during which it was suggested that the head of the Paris police should be relieved of his functions. Looking for scapegoats, it seems, is not his style.

I sighed. How familiar it all felt. Yet another French controversy, a new reason for people to take to the streets. Not much ado about nothing but, seen from this side of the border, and with that old chestnut popping up again, it almost felt like home.

How about you? Do you watch TV news?

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?

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?

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?