I’ve got bees and a bit of Honey

April 30, 2011

My new life in Switzerland is calmer and brighter than my London one.  The pace of my existence has slowed to a happy trot.  I know I should soak up this peace because who knows how long it will last.

I have a problem though.  Anxiety, depression and cynicism are my habit and I can’t shake off this default setting.  Why can’t I settle down and relax?

These days, life is laying very few genuine worries in my path.  So, I have created some land mines of my own.  They are self-focused and self-inflicted and not at all important in the big scheme of life.  These little stresses manifest in a series of ‘bees in my bonnet’, that drain both Alastair and me.

Bees in my bonnet

These bees include learning French, finding my dream job, making Swiss BFFs (best friends forever) and setting up a ‘Garden & Home’ house on the cheap.  An idea, a bee, dive bombs into my brain and buzzes around.  It flaps its wings and bounces against the walls of my skull and I have no choice but to give it my full attention.  My bees are distracting so, when they sweep in, my life focuses fully on removing these darn annoying fixations.

For example, I looked around my new lounge and thought, ‘this room feels like a fish tank.  It needs curtains’.  Curtains then became my all-consuming priority for the next few days.  I couldn’t think of anything else.  While Al was at work, I popped my measuring tape into my pocket and goose-stepped from shop to shop.  I poured over websites and investigated options.  I spent ages down in our storage cave in the basement, with my head buried in boxes and my bum in the air, as I searched for my old curtains from Johannesburg days.  I stood in the centre of the lounge, gazing and gazing at the window frames, wondering whether eyelet curtains are better than pleats.

On many evenings, I lay on my back in bed, staring at the ceiling.  Alastair leaned over and whispered, ‘What are you thinking about my love?’  I replied, ‘The curtains’.  He sighed and rolled over and bit his pillow.  The curtains gave me two sleepless nights.  There was a lot to process – Where can I get the cheapest curtains? Cream or brown?  Do my Joburg curtains look tacky?  Are they too short?  Will Marks & Spencer deliver to Switzerland?  Do the Swiss charge customs fees?  Where can we get a 5.6m pole?

Don’t even get me started on my French fixation.  Learning French is like having constipation.  The sentences are in my head and I am desperate for them to slide out but they don’t budge.  This bee will be around for a while, I can tell.  One Saturday Al said, ‘This French obsession is getting too much for me’.

Poor Al.  I don’t mean to be a nag but often I need him to help me kill my bees.  I am dependent on him for the manly aspects of house set up, such as drilling holes for the curtain rod.  I got under his feet and he eventually said, ‘You have a bee in your bonnet and are not going to rest until this is done, are you?’

Once the curtains were up, Al sighed and said, ‘There.  Are you happy now?’

‘Yes.  What’s missing? Plants! Shrubs or flowers? Where can I get plants?  When should we get them?  Can we go to the nursery now, like right now?’  A new bee replaces the dead one and the cycle of meaningless angst and busyness continues.

I’m Julie “Honey” Surycz

Before we moved to Switzerland, people warned me it would be difficult to make friends.  We braced ourselves for Saturday nights at home – just me, Al and Loneliness.

Sometimes low expectations are worthwhile because they create the chance for pleasant surprises.  It turns out that opportunities to build friendships are falling out the sky, like manna from heaven. We can’t wait for relationships to develop organically so I’ve been bold and shameless in my quest for friends.  I’ve advertised for a French friend online, we’ve signed up at a club that organizes outdoor activities; we’ve joined a church and a home group.

Meeting new people here is similar to online dating clubs.  Blind dates always have an underlying subtext because you check the other person out with long term intentions and wonder, ‘Is this someone I can spend the rest of my life with?’  I’ve had similar thoughts when meeting new people here.  I wonder, ‘Has this person got friend potential?  Is this someone I can hang out with, confide in or call in a crisis?  Can I possibly spend the rest of my life with them?’

I feel as if I’m Honey in the movie Notting Hill.  Honey is Will’s (Hugh Grant) whackjob of a sister.  She has big, goggly eyes and feathers in her air and, when she meets the movie star Anna for the first time, she gushes, ‘I genuinely believe we can be best friends.’  And from that moment on, they are best friends (in her mind at least).  I feel the same way when I meet someone I like here.  I want to say, ‘I connect with you.  Can we be best friends now?’

It is very easy to form a rapport with people if you ask them about themselves and then listen attentively.  Last Sunday, we went on a hike organized by the online activity club.  I bounced from person to person like I was a host at a party and I asked people about their jobs, life, hobbies and families.  One guy even asked if I was an undercover reporter.


I’ve just given Al an outline of my latest post and he said I don’t just get one bee in my bonnet at a time.  He said I get swarms.  So there you have it, from the horse’s mouth (so to speak).


So Swiss

April 20, 2011

I’ve been in Switzerland for a month.  I couldn’t bear the busyness, anonymity and aloofness of Londoners any longer and the endlessly damp grey skies created a lid, a manhole cover over my life.  I feel I’ve been set free.  When I picture my time in London, The Black Dog appears in my mind and barks in my face with her hot, smelly dog-breath.  I am so, so, so glad I am here and not there.

Priority One – Job

Operation Job has been under way for a week. On Monday, I made my first trip into Geneva to meet a recruiter.  The meeting and commute took about 3 hours but the excursion sucked up a full day’s worth of my mental energy. The first time I use public transport in a foreign country, I feel as if I am jumping on a moving roundabout and I stress out, wondering if I have the correct ticket, for the correct train going in the correct direction. I spent the entire journey alert as a meerkat, jerking my head from left to right to confirm the scenery was as expected.  In the end, I landed up in Geneva and not Zurich, as I had feared.

It rankled me that my interviewer was at least six years younger than me.  I have this ingrained expectation that if I am on my knees, with my lips fastened to an interviewer’s backside, then they should at least be a few years older than me.  If a person is younger, I feel it automatically makes me their superior and they should prostrate themselves before me, as Std 6s used to do when I was in Std 10 or as first year articled clerks did when I was finishing my training contract at PwC.  I suppose the reality is I am 31 and I can’t look down my nose at anyone younger and wonder, ‘What the hell do you know about life?’

The interviewer said it would take between 3–6 months to find a decent job.  I once described to a friend that job hunting is like lying on a surfboard in the middle of the ocean, waiting for the perfect wave. He scoffed at me and said, ‘Julie!  Don’t wait for waves to come to you.  Go out and make them yourself.’

I am clinging to the traditional, familiar job-hunting route like it’s a safe and consolating teat.  To make my own wave, I must develop an entrepreneurial flair.  My new plan is to focus more attention on being a passionate, independent businesswoman and less on the hoop jumping required by the conventional job route.  Al paid me CHF5 for cutting his hair, which is a start.

Priority Two – Weight Maintenance and Self-Control

In my favourite movie of all time, ‘Julie & Julia’, Paul Child says to his wife Julia, ‘If you can’t decide what to do with your life, think about what makes you feel alive.  What do you enjoy doing most of all?’  She answers, ‘Eating.’

Job-hunting is the pits so I break my day into segments – breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner.  Food is the best incentive and eating is one of the highlights of my day.

The food in Switzerland is of a vastly higher standard than the UK and South Africa.  I have gnawed my way through rosti, citron cake, ladyfingers, chocolate madeleines, mushroom pancakes, lemon yoghurt, grape biscuits, tuna pate, soft oozing cheeses, hard nutty Swiss cheeses, kiwi and banana yoghurt, croissants, pain au chocolats and breads of all types.

My favourite food here is bread.  Every day, I trot off to the supermarket and buy myself a steaming, fresh-out-the-oven baguette.  I eat breads with butter only because it is sacrilege to spoil it with anything else.  The crust is crispy, hot and fresh and it often paper cuts the roof of my mouth.  Sometimes I spend the afternoon with a thread of flesh dangling into my mouth cavity.  It is worth it because biting through the crust gets me to the fluffy, yeasty cloud of dough below it and this sends me into gastronomic ecstasy.  Breads here have no preservatives because a loaf lasts no longer than 12 hours.  The next morning, the remains are hard enough to crack someone’s skull or smash through a window.

My Irish friend Trish grew up on a dairy farm.  Every morning, she held her cornflakes under a cow’s udder and squeezed out some warm milk like the animal was some kind of urn.  She told me that few people understand the pleasure of drinking and eating food that is so pure and so fresh.  I never understood what she meant, until now.

Priority Three – The House

Our coffers are empty so setting up our house has ground to a halt until the end of the month.

During the first two weeks here, we put our heads down and grafted.  Every night, we crashed into bed like felled oaks.  We spent hours and hours building up flat pack cupboards, beds, bookshelves and chairs from Ikea.  Al was the furniture magician and I was his assistant who passed him screwdrivers, his drill, drill bits, cloths, nails, screws and drinks.  Our massive bedroom cupboard was the most difficult item of all to build.  It was hot, strenuous work that forced my poor Al to strip off his layers until he was left drilling in his underpants.

Priority Four – Assimilate into Swiss life

As I have said before, the best way to integrate myself into Swiss life is by learning French.  Since my last blog, I have joined the local library for children aged 2 – 16 years old.  I have a selection of 8 French books that include ‘Mimi falls in love’ and ‘The vampire in the family’ but my favourite is the one about Oui Oui (Noddy).

I have joined a bilingual church in Lausanne, where I can learn about God and practice French simultaneously.  On Friday I popped to France for some cheaper groceries and, in the meat aisle, I struggled to find any lamb among the boeuf, porc, saucisse, veau and poulet.  I also couldn’t remember the French word for ‘lamb’, which made it difficult to ask for help.  At church on Sunday, we sang ‘Saint saint est l’Agneau de Dieu’.  The English equivalent was displayed on the screen too (Holy, holy is the Lamb of God) and I made a mental note that lamb = agneau.

I am becoming more familiar with the quirks of the Swiss. Expats roll their eyes and call any unusual behaviour ‘so Swiss’.  My most recent discovery is that they are excessively polite and formal.  When I make phone calls about our house, furniture deliveries, TV, internet or permit administration, I always ask for a person’s name as a reference.  I wondered why the Swiss have such odd first names such as Boum or Grappin or Tonso.

It turns out that I have been calling companies and saying, ‘Hello please may I speak to Surycz’ and ‘Hello Surycz’ or ‘Surycz, where’s my couch?’  Now I know that people give surnames only and want to be called Monsieur Grappin or Madame Surycz.  My French teacher explained that that this is ‘so Swiss’.

Lunch time!  I’ve rationed myself a hot brioche with a slice of Emmentaler.  So Swiss!

The cycle of life = sprint, sit, wait … sprint, sit, wait … sprint, sit, wait

April 12, 2011

Being jobless gives me extra time to think about things.

I have plenty of time to navel gaze and sit at my desk and stare out of the study window and contemplate the meaning of life, world peace, global poverty, nuclear fallout, earthquakes, civil unrest, war – you know, the every day kind of stuff.  I also think a lot about my own life and what I am going to do with it in Switzerland.

Sometimes thinking leaves me as exhausted as a 9am to 5pm slog at work.  Thinking is like putting my foot on the accelerator while the car is in neutral.  It sucks up my fuel and then I feel I haven’t achieved anything with my day.

When I think about my life, it is as if I’m having a conversation with about 8 children at the same time.  These 8 people are my alter egos, the different sides of me, who sit at the back seat of my brain and vie for my attention while I am trying to drive my life.  There’s the Shy Julie, the Confident Julie, the Afraid Julie, the Fun Julie, the Pessimist Julie, the Optimist Julie, the Risk-taking Julie and the Depressed Julie.

My thoughts behave like energetic toddlers so I have learned to belt them tightly into the back seat of my brain.  If I don’t do this, the different Me’s go feral.  They are easily agitated, they regularly fight with each other and love to shout their opinions at me.  The Afraid Julie may start an argument with the Confident Julie and the next minute all hell breaks lose.  I can’t see the road in front of me because I am so distracted by the chaos in my head.

I often turn around and hold my index finger up.  The Me’s look at me, wide-eyed as I say, ‘Enough!  Me’s, listen to me!  Shut up!  Sit still – I am driving, not you.’  Once they’ve calmed down after some good, old-fashioned discipline, I can concentrate on the business of driving my life with a clearer, quieter head.

The only ones who don’t have to be pinned down in the back are the Confident Julie and the Optimist Julie and, more and more often in Switzerland, I’m allowing them to poke their heads through the gap between the front seats and we chat.

One of the things I and the Me’s in my brain think about a lot is patience.  I really need more patience.  I recently read a fascinating discussion between great Christian men Pete Greig, Graham Tomlin and Brenton Brown.  Did you know that waiting is one of the primary experiences of the people of God?

I don’t wait well.  Now that I am in Switzerland, I have said to God, ‘Right, I’m here.  So what’s next?  What do you have in mind?  Let’s get on with it!’  I am positioned and ready.  On your marks, get set … but nothing’s happening.  There is silence in the heavenly realms and no one has boomed ‘Go!’ or laid out any sort of direction or action plan.  Now I am waiting in the take off position, wondering what’s potting and where I should go.

My favourite theologian, Graham Tomlin, wrote a commentary and said that it seems as if God takes his time with most things.  God even took his time over creation by taking 7 days to put things together instead of doing it instantaneously. Waiting and patience is built into the very account of creation itself.  Graham writes, ‘It seems to me that in God’s economy, a process and how things are done are every bit as important as getting the thing done in the long-term. God is more interested in the kind of people we are and become, rather than what we achieve.  Having said that, creation does have a direction in scripture.  It not an aimless circular meandering process, but it does work towards a goal of the new heavens and the new earth and therefore, it wouldn’t be entirely true to say that God has no goal or focus in what He does.  So the destination matters, but how we get there is as important as that we get there.’

At the moment, I am scouring the internet for vacant positions, contacting recruiters and applying for jobs.  I am craving some sort of busyness but am not sure what I want to be busy doing.

My other Christian hero, Pete Greig, writes, ‘There are scriptures about urgency, times when God seems to move fast: Elijah sprints, Christ condenses His ministry into three short years, and right back at the start 6 days to make everything is a pretty efficient use of a week even for God! But, of course, he also spent 30 years as an artisan, delayed visiting Lazarus’ tomb, and seems to be taking His time right now on the whole Second Coming thing too. In my experience, sometimes He seems to be requiring me to sprint and, at others, to sit and wait.  So the question stops being efficiency and inefficiency and becomes trust and obedience.’

My words of the week are: trust and obedience.  Sometimes things go slowly and sometimes they move quickly. This time last year, I would never ever in my wildest dreams have imagined I would be living in Switzerland.  This move has been a sprint from Dec 2010 to March 2011.  Now, I wait.

Zet, honest coins and a good feeling down there in the guts

April 6, 2011

Alastair is now back at work and, for the time being, I am a housewife.

Every morning, I drop Al off at the office.  I sit in the car park with the engine running and wave to him as he walks into his building, bouncing his satchel that contains the lunch I’ve made him.  The day lies ahead of me like a blank canvas.

I have two key priorities: 1) Learn French and 2) Find A Job.

Learn French

Every Sunday when I was about 6 years old, I watched a TV programme called ‘Zet’.  Zet was a kind-hearted, hairy, human-sized creature that spoke gibberish.  He relied on a group of human friends to interpret his ramblings.

When the Swiss plumber, electrician, furniture companies and so on, can’t get hold of me on my cell phone, they leave messages in French.  I call these voicemails ‘Messages from Zet’ because they are impossible to understand.  Today I had a missed call and I replayed a message from Zet over 10 times before I clicked that our settee is arriving tomorrow.

I’m harping on about French because it’s an essential skill if I want to decipher messages from Zet and integrate myself into Swiss society.

I took a trial French class at the local Club Ecole Migros.  It is the language school affiliated to the Swiss supermarket chain, like Pick n Pay in South Africa or Tesco in the UK.  I hated their style.  I felt I had a barcode plastered to my forehead and was strapped to a conveyor belt that chugged along towards the check out.

A bored Migros clerk made me do a test that supposedly determined the best level class for me.   They chucked me in a group that far exceeded my ability.  The teacher was unsympathetic and forced me to answer complex questions.  She stared at me as she waited for my response.  I stared back at her.  We both waited and waited.  At one point, I thought the only way I can get out of this is if I start to cry.  I wondered if I was in some sort of dream or parallel universe where I had been reincarnated into a 12-year-old schoolgirl.  It was the longest two hours of my life.

I didn’t help the situation because I left my cell phone on and at one point it rang like a foghorn. I couldn’t turn off my fancy new phone but it stopped ringing as I was about it smash it against the wall.   The teacher gave me a death glare and barked something in French and I thought, ‘I am never coming back here again’.

I found a new school where the teacher is nicer to me.  I feel I have the French mental capacity of a four year old.  When my teacher asked me what I did this weekend, I said, ‘I walk.  I sleep.  I eat.  I read’.

Last week, I fancied myself too much and thought I could negotiate delivery times with the washing machine shop in French.  Alastair and I waited and waited at home the whole of Wednesday afternoon.  They came in the morning when we weren’t there.  We still have no washing machine and I paid the price for my French overconfidence by washing Al’s undies by hand.

Find a Job

A global recruitment agency, with an office in Geneva, explained I couldn’t talk to their finance consultants because they only ‘deal with people electronically’.

‘But you are a recruitment agency.  Aren’t people your business?’ I asked.  Apparently, people are their business but they deal with the jobless by email only.  When I heard this, my will to live drained through my body down towards the soles of my feet and it was replaced with a thick, sticky despair.

JK Rowling once gave a speech to Harvard graduates and she said, ‘Given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21 year old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a checklist of acquisition or achievement.  Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two.’

Nice sentiment.  The reality is that to recruitment agencies and most prospective interviewers, who you are is, in fact, a checklist of acquisition and achievement.  Your CV is you.  People decide whether to toss you aside or grant you an interview based on the words on this paper.  My future career and a big part of my life is dependant on my CV.  The complex, multilayered person that is Julie is reduced to two typed pages.  Because of this, I have developed a Pavlov’s Dog reaction my CV.  Every time I look at it, I feel light-headed and nauseous.

Sometimes I wonder how companies have the audacity to expect a human being to perform the teeth grinding, soul corroding tasks that they list on jobs specs.  In spite of these tear-inducing jobs, many people (like me) find it impossible to high jump over the entry criteria of well-known companies.  The irony is that some of the dumbest, bang-your-head-against-a-brick-wall imbeciles I ever worked with were staff at a Big 4 professional services firm with supposedly ruthless entry criteria.  More Valium for me please!

God made us in his image and that must mean we have capacity to be dynamic, versatile and creative like him.  I struggle to picture God knitting me together in my mother’s womb, waving his magic wand over me and pronouncing, ‘Julie, my child.  I have great plans for you, plans to prosper and not to harm you. Now go forth and be a  … “back office treasury credit clerk”’.

There is a scene in a Wilbur Smith book where the main character, Mark Anders, asks his car salesmen boss whether peddling motorcars ‘feeds his soul’.

Dicky replies, ‘It’s not a case of enjoying it.  I mean nobody really enjoys having to work, do they?  I mean, it’s just something once does, you know.  One is lucky to find something one can do reasonably well where one can earn an honest coin, and one does it.’

Mark replies, ‘Tell me Dicky, what is most important, the coin or the good feeling down there in your guts?’

Dicky then says, ‘Take an old dog’s advice, when you say your prayers at night give thanks that you are a good motor car salesman, and that you have found that out.  Just do it, old son, and don’t think about it, or it will break your heart.’

The coin or the good feeling down in the guts?  Why is it one or the other?  Why do so few of us get to experience both?  Why do so many of us think about our jobs and it breaks our hearts?  C’est la vie.  I don’t know the answer.

What I do know is that doing a heart-breaking job in Switzerland beats doing a heart-breaking job in London and I must be grateful for that.  Here, when I get home from work, I can put on my dress made of old curtain material and skip into the mountains because, the hills at least, are alive with the sound of music.