Nous avons une maison en Suisse. Relief!

February 20, 2011

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the movie Erin Brockovich.  There is a scene where Erin’s boyfriend George compliments her and says she has ‘really lovely kids’.  Erin replies, ‘Well, I’m sure I’ll fuck them up eventually’.

I am a cynic like Erin.  Alastair and I went to Geneva last week to look for accommodation for when we move in March.  The whirlwind trip was an affirmation that we have made the right decision.  I am excited about our new adventure and, for the first time in years, I feel hope and contentment deep down in my gut.  But, I can’t help worrying that something will come along and ‘fuck things up eventually’ and send me back into the pit of learned helplessness that has become my status quo in London.

The vicar Nicky Gumbel says that life is a series of battles and blessings.  Battle then blessing, battle then blessing, battle then blessing.  My four years in London have been a battle.  I’m soaking up the blessing at the moment but I have become so used to blurred monochrome that I am not sure how to respond to this taste of glorious technicolour.  I feel like an inexperienced bachelor does when he is asked to hold someone’s baby.  He carries it awkwardly under its armpits.  He keeps it at arms length and the baby waves its hands and moves it’s legs up and down like little pistons.  It stares at the man, wide-eyed, and rams its fists into its mouth.  It arches back to examine the ceiling and the man struggles to carry it comfortably as it twists in his hands.  The man thinks, ‘How on earth do I hold this thing?’ and I’m thinking, ‘I feel happy and hopeful and free.  How do I keep hold of this elusive, strange thing?’

People have repeatedly warned me that accommodation demand exceeds supply in Geneva and we would need divine intervention to find a decent home. I slid to the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and, over the past few weeks, finding a roof over our heads became my all-consuming priority.  A French estate agent explained that she could only help me if I ‘produce’ myself in Nyon.  So, Alastair and I produced ourselves there this week and it was a fruitful expedition.

Our move to Switzerland will be a learning experience.  Here are some things I discovered during our 2 days there this week:

1.    I will never ever again drive with Al in the passenger seat.

Initially I was going to Geneva on my own so the hire car was registered in my name.  As part of our endless quest to save cash, we decided not to pay the extra CHF25 to add Al as a driver.  We also  thought the short trip was an opportunity for me to practice driving on the right hand side with Al to guide me.

Alastair says I drive ‘like a moron’ and have ‘no spatial awareness’.  He also says I don’t listen to him, which is sometimes true.  On many occasions, he said ‘Go left, go left, GO LEFT DAMMIT’ as I turned right.  He also kept pointing and said saying, ‘go there’.  I didn’t go there because I was looking at the road and not his finger.

This trip taught me that, when Alastair and I are in the same car, he must always drive.

2.   The Swiss, like most Europeans, are unusually sensitive to cold

I grew up in the humidity of Durban so it puzzles me that I am more resilient to cold than most Europeans.  In Switzerland, every building is heated to roughly the same temperature as the inside of a pottery kiln.  When I walked into buildings, my glasses fogged up instantly and the dry, fetid air made me breathless. Londoners are also wusses and regard cold air with the same horror as they would a deadly cyanide gas so they keep the windows in buildings and on public transport tightly shut.

3. Most Swiss buildings are so clean that you could have surgery on the floor

When you move out of rented accommodation in Switzerland, it is compulsory to arrange a professional clean.  When a Swiss friend explained this, I scoffed and said, ‘No way.  I will get down on my hands and knees and clean it myself.’

‘Julie Julie Julie,’ My friend said as she shook her head. ‘No human being can possibly clean a house to the satisfaction of Swiss estate agents and landlords. If you look at a window and see glass, then the window is not clean enough.’

Apparently a decent professional clean can cost up to the equivalent of a month’s rent.  Gulp.  No wonder people stay put and avoid moving house.

I have learned that Al and I must be spotless from the start and clean our apartment with specialist cleaning materials, such as a toothbrush.

4. Steal?  What does that mean?  Please explain.

As we drove from town to town, we winded past vineyards and orchards.  There were no fences or boundaries of any sort.  I asked Gail, our estate agent, if people steal the grapes or apples.  She frowned and said, ‘Er pardon?  Can you explain? I don’t understand your English?’

I outlined the concept of theft in more detail and Gail threw back her head and laughed.  She said that if you want to take some apples, you are allowed to.  The farmer leaves a box in his field and people put money in it.   No one steals the box either.

I am excited about living in a place where crime is rare and people laugh at the concept of someone stealing fruit without paying for it.

5. I must learn how to parler Français.  Pronto.

South Africa has 11 official languages but everyone speaks English.  English people have complete disregard for other languages and rarely communicate the native tongues.  We bulldoze along in English and if you don’t understand, you must just catch up.

On many occasions this trip, we met people who can’t speak English at all and I was forced to put my pidgin French into practice.  I felt as if there was a thick, transparent layer of soundproof Perspex between the locals and me.  I had so much to say but few people understood me.  I am now inspired to learn French with a vengeance.

This has been a good, productive week.  I feel blessed.  I suppose I can’t always live in fear that something will come along and ‘fuck things up eventually’.  I’m going to embrace these blessings while they last.


What thorns do you keep in your feet?

February 10, 2011

I have recently discovered the author Wilbur Smith and I am devouring his stories.  His books are my new opium.  He’s written about 33 novels and my postman is popping them through the posthole in my door like coins in a winning slot machine.

During part of Smith’s first novel, the main character Sean Courtney grieves for a close friend who died tragically.  His servant, Mbejane, comforts him and gives advice which I thought was so profound.  I even photocopied that portion of the book and stuck it in my journal so I never forget it.

Sean looked back at the water. ‘Go away,’ he said.

Mbejane squatted down beside him with his elbows on his knees, ‘For whom do you mourn?’ he asked.

‘Go away, Mbejane, leave me alone.’

‘Nkosi Duff does not need your sorrow – therefore I think you mourn for yourself.’  Mbejane picked up a pebble and tossed it in the pool.

‘When a traveler gets a thorn in his foot,’ Mbejane went on softly, ‘and he is wise he plucks it out – and he is a fool who leaves it and says “I will keep this thorn to prick me so that I will always remember the road upon which I have travelled.”  Nkosi, it is better the remember with pleasure than with pain.’

I have a habit of stewing in my past and dissecting the bad decisions, relationships and events with my great gift of hindsight.  Enough of it!  I am plucking out the thorns that I have kept in my feet and am skipping into my future, focusing more on the pleasure and less on the pain.


Aliens can never blend in completely

February 3, 2011

I‘ve lived in London for 4 years and we’re moving to Switzerland in March.  I have a British passport and the right to live in the UK but, no matter how hard I try to slot in with locals, I’m still an outsider.  I am proud of my South African accent but it also gives me away as a foreigner and I struggle to blend in completely.  I’ve become a legal alien.

Living in a foreign country puts you on the back foot unless you speak the language with the accent and fluency of a local.  In the UK, I feel less assertive in standing up for my rights.  I thought this was just a self-confidence issue of my own but one of my South African colleagues feels the same way.  We know we can’t whinge and whine and wag our finger too much because the Brits have every right to say, ‘This is how we do things here and if you don’t like it, sod off and go back to South Africa’.

I didn’t realise I was more passive in the UK until I arrived at Johannesburg International Airport in December 2009.  The check in queue for domestic flights to Durban snaked all the way down the concourse.  I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.  Unacceptable!  I must sort this out and jack these people up!’  Off I marched to investigate.  At the front of the line, I saw five SAA staff members huddled together and ‘serving’ one customer at a time.  One of them was engrossed in her cell phone.  Another was yawning.  Another had her pinkie finger in her ear and was bobbing it up and down.

I nominated myself Person-in-Charge and announced to the queue, ‘This is complete and utter madness.’  I asked to speak to the manager.  I insisted they explain why it takes five people to serve one customer.  It probably wasn’t necessary for me to bark and froth at the mouth and I could have been more graceful.   But my point is that I had the courage to stand up for my rights in the way I don’t in the UK.  If the same thing had happened in a queue in London, I probably would have stood there, waiting for someone else to take control just as the deer-in-headlights foreigners did in the check in queue in Johannesburg.

When I am in South Africa, I feel my rights and I act with a confidence and boldness that comes from being on my home turf, on the soil where I belong, in the place that has framed my life story and the country where the people I love live.

The Geneva move is going to be a struggle as I am even more on the back foot because I can’t speak French.  I am learning but I only know words like ‘The grass is green’ and ‘The boy sleeps’ and that doesn’t help me negotiate rentals, coordinate suitable bank accounts or get the best insurance deals.  Every time I phone Switzerland, I feel like a cowering, apologetic Oliver Twist with my hands out begging for their help and advice in English.  ‘Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir’, I say as I kiss up to them.

Switzerland is very strict and rules based and Alastair and I will be obedient legal aliens.  You can’t work on Sundays, must recycle in a certain way and, if you live in an apartment block, you can’t flush the toilet in the middle of the night so I suspect we will diligently coordinate our last wees for 10pm.  We will follow the rules and do as we’re told while we bumble around and find our feet on the unfamiliar Planet Switzerland.