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?

Ode to my favorite land

Geneva FireworksIt will probably come as no surprise that this is not about France.

After twenty-two years in this country, I still entertain a love-hate relationship with my adopted land.

Nor is it about my homeland. Dear Canada. My fondness for mon pays d’origine grows with each passing year. But if I loved it so much, why did I leave it? It’s like an old boyfriend, one who holds a special place in my heart but is still relegated to the status of ex.

My favorite country is Switzerland. Here’s why:

  1. A great brand
    320px-Flag_of_Switzerland_(Pantone).svgI’m a sucker for smart marketing and the Swiss have got a fabulous brand. That graphic white-on-red cross says everything about them: clean, safe, financially sound. The founding land of the Red Cross and home to all the major international organizations. Beyond the flag, the Swiss Confederation manages to unite the culturally and linguistically diverse citizens of all 26 cantons (provinces) with shared values and a true sense of national pride.
  2. Truly international
    Switzerland is a country with four official languages and shared borders with France, Italy, Germany, Liechtenstein and Austria. Expats abound. Geneva and Zurich are truly international cities.
  3. Swiss trains
    A marvel of efficiency, the Swiss trains are almost always on time and never on strike. You can travel almost anywhere in Switzerland by train and connecting public transit networks while admiring the spectacular scenery.
  4. The hills are alive
    Sound of Music_Julie AndrewsAs a child, Julie Andrews captured my imagination and put a song in my heart with the Sound of Music. When Maria escaped with the children across the Alps to Switzerland, I knew this was the place for me.
  5. Cleanliness
    From the toilets to the streets. People use the garbage bins, recycle and pick up after their pets.
  6. They speak my language
    French, of course. But also English, Switzerland’s unofficial 5th language, which is spoken pretty well everywhere. And whatever language you speak, there is a degree of tolerance for mistakes given that so many people are non-native speakers.
  7. Health and wealth
    Swiss Franc notesThe Swiss have a healthy attitude towards money. Okay, so it’s a country of bankers and they’re rather attached to their Swiss Francs. But I like the fact there’s no shame about wealth in Switzerland. And even the working class makes a decent living. All of which adds up to make Switzerland one of the most expensive countries in the world. (One of the reasons why I live across the border in France.) And non-coincidentally, the Swiss have the world’s second longest life expectancy.
  8. Armed neutrality, not war
    The Swiss have a history of not taking sides. It also means that they work hard to find consensus, holding referendums on every major issue. That’s something I can believe in.
  9. Small but independent
    Switzerland is a small country crisscrossed by mountain ranges. Surrounded by bigger, more powerful countries, they have kept their independence and identity. They are part of Europe but not a member of the EU.
  10. August 1st
    And finally: we share the same birthday. I knew there was another reason I liked working in Switzerland. Any country that gives me the day off on my birthday gets my vote.

Happy Swiss National Day! Happy birthday to me.

Et vous? What’s your favorite country? Adopted or home?

Men with guns

Educ'alcool 01I was out for a run one crisp fall morning when a loud crack pierced the air. I felt the hair stand up on my arms and immediately picked up the pace. Hunting season.

Say what you like about Americans and their far-west approach to gun control: while in the U.S. I have never actually seen anybody sporting a gun in public. In France, on the other hand, I regularly meet men with guns.

Each year in early September, you’ll see them strolling casually through the fields, by the edge of the woods or even along the road, not far from the neighbouring houses. Rifle slung over shoulder, sporting an orange day-glo vest or traditional camouflage gear. Most times they’re accompanied by a trusty hound or two, which somehow restores my confidence. Surely if they’re hunting with a dog, they’ll be careful where they aim?

As a woman alone on a country road, to encounter a man with a firearm is to know what it is to feel fear. Assuming he is not a rapist or a serial killer disguised as a hunter, just the idea of being so close to someone with the visible means to kill you is terrifying. “Bonjour,” I’ll say, pretending to act normal while preparing to do the 100-yard dash.

Then there is the risk of ‘la balle perdue’ – the stray bullet. Every year in the news you will hear of an accidental death, usually among a hunting party that has lost one of its own. Such accidents are generally put down to the inexperience of a neophyte hunter, or to alcohol. They do not seem to alarm anyone but me.

Serious outdoorsmen will defend the hunter as a nature lover, one who is respectful of the laws and understands the importance of not combining alcohol with la chasse. Still, most every village in France has a watering hole called ‘Bar aux Chasseurs’. The men (and indeed, the clientele in such places is almost uniquely masculine) are in there on Sunday mornings with their verre de blanc while most of us are still having our first coffee.

La chasse is dear to the hearts of the French. It’s part of a longstanding tradition of being close to the land, hunting and eating le gibier (game) when the season opens from September to January.

Far be it from me to argue with that, though a-hunting I will not go. I just run a little faster in hunting season. Along with the pheasants and hares and other small and large game. Unlike them, I can stick to the main roads to stay out of harm’s way.

Oddly, another place you often see men with guns is on trains, especially in Switzerland*. Soldiers in full army regalia will pass through the cars looking for a seat, service rifle in plain sight. Sometimes they’re very young and holding a large can of beer. This also makes me want to scream and jump off. Usually I discreetly change cars.

*It’s ironic that the peace-loving Swiss have a proportionately bigger army for their population than any other country and recently voted to maintain conscription – obligatory military service for adult men. Read more about the vote here.