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.

L’argent du beurre

I hated butter when I was kid. Not so much the taste but the greasy, slimy nature of it. It seems this was an acquired dislike. One of my first memories, which is probably only a memory of a story I was later told, was of reaching my hand into the butter dish and having it slapped away. So began my aversion.

Later in life the sentiment dissipated as I discovered the flavour and richness that butter brings. At first I could only enjoy it as a topping on popcorn, when cooked into something or as a scant scraping on toast. Unfortunately for my cholesterol count, I now like a bit of butter on warm bread (very un-French, other than at breakfast) and add liberal doses of le beurre to everything from sauces to omelettes to veg.

I must admit we’re rather spoiled for butter around here. French butter is heralded by many for its superior quality. The only other butter which might possibly be better is Swiss. Just think of all those alpine pastures with the cows grazing on grass.

There are three kinds of beurre: doux (sweet), demi-sel (semi-salted) and salé (salted). There is even the kind with little salt crystals for those who enjoy the taste of salt explosions. The best butters are churned (‘barrate’) to separate out the buttermilk (‘babeurre’).

There is a French expression which seems particularly apt to me these days: “On ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre.” Literally this means that you cannot have both the butter and the money you make from selling it. Which essentially translates to the English expression, “You can’t have your cake and it eat it too.” Or have it both ways.

Looking for a new place to live means confronting this reality head on. You can downsize and have the same space. You can’t live in or near a town without having some noise. You can’t enjoy a mountain view without having to climb some hills. You can’t enjoy the advantages of good transit connections without have a train line or highway nearby.

When we decided to sell our house and move to something smaller on the Swiss side, we knew we wouldn’t have everything we wanted. So we set a few guidelines for our search. I was prepared to compromise on many things but not on a certain quantity and quality of space.

It has been a bit of a journey. Along the way I learned a few things, or re-learned them:

1. Shit happens. COVID-19 happened. The best-laid plans are nothing in the face of a pandemic.

2. You must stay true to what you want but keep your mind open to unexpected opportunities, go off the path and explore a little.

3. Pictures and online visits are all very well for a first impression but you have to actually see a space to get a feel of whether it’s right for you.

4. Things will eventually fall into place.

And so they have. Against all odds, only one month after lockdown was lifted in France, it seems we have found buyers for our house, and a new place to live in Switzerland. Neither of which quite fit the initial ideas of what we thought. But both feel right. More on our new place soon. I’m too superstitious to share details before we have signed on the dotted line.

In the meantime, there will be butter. I will definitely not be selling but enjoying it.

How do you like your butter — sweet, demi-sel or not at all?

A vendre

Would you like to buy a house in France? Ours is for sale. It’s a new build, bright and modern, overlooking a lovely view of the lake and mountains.

It’s what we call in French ‘une maison à ossature bois’. A timber structure or a wood frame house. It’s designed to let in the light, and the views, which perfectly suits our location near Lake Geneva. We fell in love with the idea after spending a summer holiday at a cottage in Canada. It had a similar structure, and when it came time to look for a new home, we discovered a builder in our area who specializes in this type of structure. And then we lucked into our lot. Just the right size for us, big enough to have a pool and a garden but not a massive amount of land to look after. And those views!

What did I learn after building this house? You can have too many windows. As beautiful as the views are, sometimes it feels like a fish bowl. And we’ve spent a fortune in window coverings. Also, with the rising temperatures, there is a definite greenhouse effect. Last year we had air conditioning put in upstairs.

And then there is the location. I truly love living by a lake, and in the country. That is not up for grabs. But as I work from home and we are at least half an hour from the city, it does feel isolated at times. It would be nice to be nearer a bigger town with a few shops and services.

Also, I realize that I could happily live in about half the space. And that if I have access to greenery nearby, I don’t need my own garden. In fact, there is little point in having a garden if you don’t want to spend your time caring for it. Which neither of us really does.

I never imagined we’d leave this house. It was just ten years ago that we decided to sell our first home near Lyon and move to the Haute Savoie. Back then we were both working in the Geneva area and commuting back and forth each week. But things change. I got laid off from my former full-time position in pharma communications just as we were breaking ground. Husband now works on the other side of Switzerland in Zug, a 3-4 hour drive. He’s away most of the week while I work freelance from my home office. As much as I enjoy having space around me, this house is too big for one person.

So, we’ve decided to sell our house and downsize. The breaking news is that, after almost 30 years in this country, I will be moving away from France. We won’t be far. Just across the lake, a few hundred kilometres east. Where they speak a different language, and a funny dialect to boot.

But first we have to sell our house.

A suivre.