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independence and refuse to enter into any arrangement that compromises this, so they’re sticking to the existing if outdated agreements for now.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?

Going for the gusto

I don’t know about you but I’ve been itching to get away. A change of scene, a bit of pampering. Living in Switzerland means there’s always something different around the corner. So off we went for a few day’s escape to Ticino.

I found a fabulous hotel by the lake in Lugano that offered a 2-night package and also accepted dogs — at a price, but what the hell: if you’re going to go for it, you might as well go for the gusto.

The amazing thing about living here is that two hours south almost feels like a different country. Italian is spoken and it really does feel a lot like being in Italy. At least a cleaner, more well-heeled version. (I suppose that’s also how Geneva feels for francophiles.)

First we drove south through the Gotthard tunnel. At 17 km long it is world’s longest road tunnel. It was also under construction on one side so there was 2-way traffic in the ‘tube’. I was thankful that husband was driving.

After that, we were in Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton. We stopped for a picnic in its capital, Bellinzona. Known for its three castles, it’s a pretty town with a medieval feel. The sun was shining and we were off to a good start.

Although I can see why this place was empty.

A short time later we arrived in Lugano. We had been here before but never to this grand old lady of a hotel. The boys were welcomed like royalty, with two plush dogs beds and bowls set up in our room.

The Covid-19 rules in Switzerland now are that outdoor service can be offered in bars and restaurants, as well as indoor service to hotel guests. We took advantage of both. A perk of booking our package was dinner in the hotel’s Michelin-star restaurant. Now, normally I am not that kind of foodie; I like real food in reasonable quantity, not multiple courses of molecular cuisine. But what a thrill to sit down and be served after endless meals chez nous!

I took the wine option with my menu which meant a different glass with each course. There was not enough food to soak up the sea of wine that just kept coming, but who’s complaining?

In addition, we had a floor show. Not really, but one of those real-life cliché moments when you want to pinch yourself and say ‘Is this for real?’.  As we sat in our well-distanced corner table in the elegant dining room, in walked a couple out of central casting. He: an older man, flush faced and silver haired. She: a young woman of certain timeless assets, decked out in a form-fitting dress and needle high heels with bejeweled anklets. A word floated into mind, one I hadn’t heard in years: ‘La bimbo‘.

I’d heard the expression used years ago in France on a television news report about someone whose name escapes me — Pamela Anderson perhaps, or Loana from French reality TV. Any one of a certain type of woman — blonde, buxom and playing arm candy to an older man with a healthy bank balance. It seems the meaning of bimbo has changed over time. It started out as Italian for a young boy, morphed into a derogatory term for a brute (male) before hopping the gender divide to be applied to a particular breed of female. Barbie is the term most commonly used in some countries to describe such women.

Anyway, here we were with food and (too much) wine, being entertained by life imitating life.

“Perhaps she’s his daughter,” my husband pointed out.

“They’re holding hands,” I replied. But he was right: I shouldn’t judge. Theirs could be the June-December romance of the century. Or at least the weekend.

I ended the meal with a row of half-finished glasses and no other excuse to feel unsteady as I tottered out of the restaurant on my flat heels back to our room.

The rest of the weekend was wonderful, though the weather clouded over. We took a funicular to the top of Monte San Salvatore for the view and did a lot of walking in Lugano. We discovered a fabulous shopping street with little cafés and amazing produce. I will never look at a salami again with the same innocence. Plus, an excellent shoe store to which I am already planning a return trip. (It only takes an hour and a half by train.)

P.S. We saw the couple again the following night at dinner and once again I scored a ringside seat. She was definitely in command. He sat there looking like a spoiled little boy who had been given a bigger birthday party than he was ready for while she (unfortunately out of earshot) held forth while eating and drinking with gusto.

Do you long to get away? Where to?

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!

La zone

There’s one in every town. A run-down area, poorly frequented, with graffiti on the walls.

In France, such areas are rampant in the periphery of most bigger cities — areas known as ‘les cités’ or ‘les banlieues’ or simply ‘la zone’.

Here in Central Switzerland, they are almost unheard of. Amidst the pastoral landscapes, the worst we get is the odd run-down farmhouse or a few less attractive apartment blocks. But we do have an industrial zone.

It seems the bountiful natural resources of water and rock from lake and mountains once made for quite a going concern in cement-making. But the massive complex to the east of town by the aptly named ‘Industriestrasse’ is no longer operational.

On a recent walk along the river, I spied the tell-tale spikes in the ground that indicate a new building will be going up. If you look closely at the above photo, you will see them on the right: tall, thin metal poles that are planted on a site to indicate the height and approximate spread of a new building application. From what I can gather, it will be a large mixed-use block of apartments and shops.

It’s not the only activity in our industrial zone. Ingenbohl has quite a few of what seem to be metal or tool-making shops and various other warehouses and industrial activities. All of which nestle happily together next to the fields where cows and sheep graze. There is a big milk processing plant called the Schwyzer Milchhuss. Just down the road is the Felchin chocolate factory.

It was one of things that attracted us to the area — among the more obvious things like the majestic views. You get a sense of living in a real working town, not just a fairy-tale postcard by the lake.

As much as I miss having a few English-speakers around, the density of expats in some of our neighbouring cities make them less than appealing. I can even understand how the locals might resent so many international types, who invade their schools, take their jobs and don’t bother learning the language. I’m certainly guilty of not managing more than a few words in German, but I am trying.

The tag in the above photo translates as, ‘The day has 24 hours and they go by like seconds.’

Truer words.

Do you have a ‘zone’ where you live?

Il faut écrire

It’s been months since our move from France to Switzerland and I am still dealing with the administrative details. Some things were relatively simple. We cancelled the services associated with our house when it was sold, paid our final bills and did not have the mail forwarded. The reasons for this were two-fold: a) it was ridiculously expensive, and b) by the time I got around to it, we were already in Switzerland; in order to validate the request with the French post office online, you had to first receive a code in the mail at the address in France. I’m sure many letters were returned to sender.

When I first arrived in France years ago, I learned the hard way how to deal with administrative matters. The dreaded ‘démarches administratives’ could only be accomplished in person or, a défaut, in writing. “Il faut écrire,” my late Belle-mère advised me, after I complained about waiting forever to get through to someone on the phone only to be told I had to apply in writing. I believe she knew the address of every major administration by heart. Thirty years on, little has changed.

Sure, in the meantime the world has gone digital and services are available online, even banking. And even in France. But in order to do anything official, like change an address or your bank details, you still need to send an old-fashioned, hand-signed letter by the post. God save us.

In some cases, the whole letter must be hand-written. Manuscrite. I had to write an entire epistle in my school-book French in order to transfer the money to repay the mortgage on our house. Such is the lot in life of the person with neat hand-writing, however rusty. Husband could have done it more readily in French but his chicken scratch is nearly indecipherable.

The absolute worst example of this is ‘la Securité Sociale’, the French health and old-age pension system. To be honest, I kind of let that one drag on. Partly because I knew it would be sticky — my situation as a self-employed person working in Switzerland means I must deal with a special ‘caisse’ or fund of the SS. (Abbreviation mine, but somehow so fitting!)

Also because, especially in times of COVID-19, I wanted to make 100% sure I was covered in Switzerland before I cancelled things in France. Somehow that took until the end of the year, during which time I did get the dreaded virus, thankfully not requiring any major medical attention. And in the meantime I ran into a bit of a hiccup.

Switzerland, like France, has socialized medicine but the state only covers the basics. Which means that if you get seriously ill, you’re covered, but for all the rest you’re out of pocket. In order to get full health coverage here you have to apply to a private company for complementary insurance, which costs but does offer peace of mind. I was granted the basic coverage right away, as that is a given, but for the rest, they needed my family doctor in France to fill out a health questionnaire. The request was made in November and I am still waiting. We lived in the Haute Savoie in what is known as a ‘désert médical’, with few GPs. My doctor was one of the last ones in our area. Now he is busy transferring his practice to a new specialty: laser therapy. I get it. Burn out happens and he’s entitled to switch to a money-making occupation. What I don’t get is why I’m still waiting. I’ll spare you all the details but he has the form, we did an online consult to go over the questions. After two months of silence, I even sent a request to the Conseil des Médecins (licensing board). In the meantime, no complementary insurance.

However, what that meant was that I forgot about cancelling my French Sécu (unofficial abbreviation) until I realized I was still paying for it. This week I went online but couldn’t find the right way to declare my change in situation. So I phoned. A nice person eventually answered, and informed me that I should have filled out the S1005 form within a month of my move. Oops. That I would need to write a letter, fill out the form, send in a ‘justificatif de domicile’ (proof of residence). Yada yada yada. The wheels are in motion.

All of this reminds me of something I saw online a few years back. ‘Les perles’, or the best-of funny moments from things people had written to the Securité Sociale. This one will make you smile if you understand French:

Mon mari est décédé, je fais comment pour le retirer de la caisse?

Translation upon request.