Rough week, French-wise

December 23, 2013

I’ve had a rough week French-wise.  I was sheep-dipped in it because we had a leaking pipe in the basement, a delivery of heating oil, a broken boiler, a sky-high (and incorrect) tax assessment and two shocking customer service experiences that I took to the next level.  We received a few surprise invoices that needed further explanation and I acted as translator for a friend who moved house.  Sorting out personal admin in French takes 10 times longer and I am now mentally exhausted.

The week was intense but it ended off on a positive note with a reasonably fluid conversation with a new neighbour.  The only blip was when she asked me what my daughter’s name is and I replied, ‘16 months’.  Oh well.

images-29I know I harp on a lot about speaking French in this blog but it is a big part of my life. Imagine trying to coordinate a plumber or query an incorrect invoice while you are bound and gagged.  That’s how frustrating it feels.  Or you could imagine it like this.  Ever been constipated?  Some days expressing myself coherently feels as if I am trying to push out a big, fat verbal poo.  Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, nothing meaningful comes out.  It takes extreme effort but I will say, those random times when you do succeed, it is deeply satisfying.

My tough week started off last Thursday with Megan’s concert at crèche.  I knew other parents would be there and I suspected I might have to chitchat to a few of them and this required preparation.  I struggle with unstructured, spontaneous social conversations especially in groups.  The day I can have a decent social conversation in a group will mean I am fluent.  It’s a long way off.

DownloadedFile-8I prepped a few questions in my head such as ‘Where do you live?  How old is your child?  Does he/she like the crèche?  Where do you work?  What do you do?  Are you Swiss?’

Sometimes I enjoy French-only situations that force me to practice.  Lately I have spent so much time speaking French during the day that I am mentally drained and can’t cope with anything extra.  That is why cell phones are blessings.  I warded off chats with strangers by clinging to my iPhone and tapping away at it in quick, squirrel-like gestures.  I bet people thought I was dealing with a major crisis at the office whereas I was actually deleting surplus photos.

Then I thought, ‘Julie get a grip.  Go and talk to someone.’

I approached a mom of a girl in Megan’s class and I fired my questions at her.  ‘Where do you live?  How old is your child?  Does she like the crèche?  Where do you work?  What do you do?  Are you Swiss?’

Last Sunday we went to a mentally-draining charity brunch.  I don’t know what I was smoking when I bought the tickets.  It was probably on one of my good French days and I was not intimidated by the thought of sitting with random strangers at a big French-only picnic table.  Alastair hated it.

Speaking of Alastair, he has been taking lessons for over a year.  His grammar is improving and our teacher said he is a maestro at conjugating verbs.  His spoken French still hasn’t progressed beyond Bonjour, Merci, Je voudrais un Euromillions pour 3 francs and Je ne parle pas bien francais.  He is also good at d’accord, which means OK.  He says OK like a true Frenchman.  He is also a pro at the informal ouais that is a derivative of oui and means yeah.  While I talk in French, Alastair contributes little but does his best by hanging at my side, nodding and saying ‘Yeah ok yeah ok, ok.’

DownloadedFile-7I wish Alastair had more confidence in his abilities.  Many of my expat friends are the same and I think they see learning a language as a distinct before and after experience.  Often my English friends say things such as, ‘One day when I speak French, I’ll do this or that’.  Beginners seems to think that one day when there is a full moon and the wind is blowing in a certain direction, they will have a Freaky Friday experience and wake up and miraculously start speaking French.  ‘Quel surprise!  Je parle francais!  Ooh la la!  Am I speaking French?  Yes! Oui!’

My French teacher says Alastair may improve if he is immersed in the language and is put in a sink or swim situation that would force him to expand his French repertoire.  That’s why I signed us up for the charity brunch – I felt he could do with a little push, as one pushes someone into a swimming pool.

The bureaucratic brick walls and the unbelievably shit customer service in this region means that I am constantly challenged.  My bad French week reached a dramatic crescendo when COOP (a big supermarket chain here) delivered 3000 litres of heating oil and forgot to reopen a valve in our tanks.  Our heating stopped and we had to call in an expert during the night.

images-43The following day I rang the company to explain their error and the first person I spoke to slammed the phone down and another repeated ‘It’s not our fault, it’s not our fault’ as if he were autistic like Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man.  Eventually he screamed, ‘FOR THE ELEVENTH AND LAST TIME, IT’S NOT OUR FAULT.’

It is situations like that that make me rise up like a phoenix out the ashes.  I spoke back to him in the most kick-ass French ever.  When I didn’t know some words, I just made them up – like le valve and la lid.  I didn’t give a toss.  I’ve told people that the best way to jump in and start speaking French is to get really, really angry.  It is when you try too hard and think too much before you speak, that you struggle with that awful verbal poo.


La Soupe is back

December 17, 2013

Last year I wrote a blog about a weather phenomenon that hits the Lake Geneva area during the winter.  It is called La Soupe or The Soup.

It’s back.

La Soupe has been hovering around for the past 4 weeks and shows no signs of disappearing any time soon.

When the weather cools down, there is a difference between the temperature of the water in the lake and the air around it.  It creates a layer of cloud that covers the water and surrounding areas like a thick, icy blanket. The fog lies along pavements and circles itself around trees and buildings.  It sprawls over rooftops and pours into every open space.  It pushes down on to the ground and, for someone like me that has weather-dependent moods, it feels as if it is pushing on my chest too.

One friend said that her patio door doesn’t seal properly and she watched the mist seeping into her lounge.  It reminded her of the Dementors in Harry Potter.  Overcoming the grey is a constant daily challenge.  Even the most positive, chipper people suffer La Soupe-induced blues.

This is a picture of the fog.  I took it outside Megan’s crèche. Sometimes you can’t see more than 5 metres ahead of you and I find it disconcerting driving in such conditions with my precious cargo in the back seat.


This year I haven’t been suffering as much as before.  It turns out that our new house is at 770m and is above the layer of cloud.  What a random stroke of luck!  All my friends are struggling down in the cloud and I wake up every morning to blue skies and bright sunshine.  When I drive down the hill to town, I hit the fog and then descend down into it, as if I am a going under water for a while.

It is also warmer up here by us.  The clouds invert the temperature so it feels cooler below them than above them.  In the past I have gone on day trips up higher so I could get above and beyond the cloud.  Now there is no need.  When we bought the house, we didn’t realize this would be the case so it is a surprise bonus and does a lot to compensate for the anxiety I have been feeling as we hemorrhage cash on renovations and other odds and ends that pop up when you buy a home.

This is a picture of my village on the same day I took the photo outside Megan’s crèche.  You can see the layer of cloud in the distance.


Living higher up in the countryside away from it all has its pros and cons.  Winters are usually colder and more icy.  There is a lot more snow and it takes longer to trek down into town.  I’ve noticed my friends prefer for me to visit them than for them to endure the extra 8 minutes it takes to come to my house.  I now have the upper hand and I have been inviting people round for fog-free playdates.  I’ve been dishing out sunshine as one hands out sweets to kids.  Some for you, some for you and here’s a little bit for you too.  Long may it last!

Training with Obama

December 13, 2013

I had the most amazing pilates teacher when I lived in Johannesburg.  When I have more time, I am going to train as a pilates instructor because no one I know does pilates like her.  Anyway, I digress.  She had an exciting week.  She was at the gym in Johannesburg on Tuesday and she saw Barack Obama before he went off to Mandela’s memorial.  He was on the treadmills and did some weights.  Cool hey?  How exciting!  I love meeting famous people!

Picture 7

Picture 11

An intervention

December 9, 2013

I love writing.  It relaxes me and I enjoy carving some meaning out of words.  I can’t draw, I can’t paint, I can’t design and I can’t sculpt but I wish I could.  I’ve always wanted to make something pretty, something tangible that I could hang on the wall.  If someone asked, ‘Where did you get that beautiful painting?’ I’ve always thought it must be satisfying to say, ‘Actually I made it.’

images-32I’ve since realized that writing is a form of art too so my blog is my stab at it.  I don’t care if anyone reads what I write or not – I just like doing it for me.  My blog is my graffiti on the wall, my way of scratching a mark in cyberspace that says, ‘Julie was here.’

The thing I love most about writing is that it organizes the inside of my head.  It helps me process and decide where I stand on certain issues.  It helps me make sense of the world around me.  For example, I’m trying to understand some of the paradoxes of being a parent – like how you can be blissfully happy but also so intensely fearful and protective at the same time. It is only through writing about these issues in my journal or in a blog that I can manage and understand them.

It’s busy up there in my head. I love navel-gazing and daydreaming and I have a ridiculously overactive imagination.  This is why I need to keep my thoughts in check.  I can’t let them get out of hand.

DownloadedFile-5My thoughts remind me a bit of undisciplined kids in a classroom at a rough, inner-city school.   I am the innocent, young and relatively weak teacher that tries desperately to create some law and order but the kids tend to stomp all over me.  This is not good because the bullies, such as Fear and Anxiety, need constant discipline and strict boundaries so they don’t go wild and wreck havoc.

I have multiple conversations going on in my head at the same time.  Some of my thoughts ruminate on the state of the human race.  Some ask deep questions such as, ‘How can I ensure that nothing bad ever happens to Megan?’  Others shout out that we need to discuss sleep training or work out a strategy for stopping breastfeeding or establish a position on discipline.  Then some thoughts are asking what we should have for dinner and others want to know what we are doing over the weekend.

The kids are constantly demanding my attention, shouting out about this and that without putting up their hand or waiting their turn.  Sometimes, up there in my head, the thoughts have their shirts hanging out and laces undone, they’re sitting on tables or just roaming around.  They throw paper airplanes and bang on desks.  It’s hard to concentrate over the constant hum.

When I write a blog, it’s my way of saying to all these voices in my head – ‘Enough!  Calm down!  Sit down!  I said SIT DOWN.  Be still and wait your turn.  I said, SHUT UP’.  Once my thoughts and ideas are quiet and sitting nicely with their hands in their laps and their eyes focused on me, I ask, ‘Right, which one of you would like to say something?’  And then I say it through my fingers.

So if I enjoy writing so much, why then do I so little of it?

I have almost no free time during the day.  I estimate I have an hour to myself in total.  What do I do in that time precious hour of Me Time?  Nothing substantial, which is what I am cross about and why I am writing about it now.

I surf the internet in a vegetative trance.  I don’t respond to emails because even that feels too much effort.  I watch The Good Wife and Downton Abbey.  I read the latest on the Kardashians.  I check out Facebook and look at the holiday pictures of old acquaintances I haven’t seen in 20 years and probably won’t see ever again.  I watch random video clips.  I read interviews with my favourite authors.  I check out the news.  I don’t spend more than 5 minutes on any one thing and I find that, after behaving like this for so long, I have developed the attention span of a goldfish.  I’m like Dory on Finding Nemo.

images-29Every day, I beat myself up about how I wasted that hour of free time and have nothing worthwhile to show for it.  The problem is that sharing my computer with the internet is like trying to do something alongside a 150 piece marching band.  It is hopelessly distracting.  Now you may wonder why I don’t just quit.  Tell that to a druggie or alcoholic – just quit!  It’s not that easy when you are an addict.

I need an intervention.

In our church building, there is a dishwasher.  You cannot wash the dishes between 11am and 1pm, which is when the “government” turns off power that leads to the dishwashing circuit.  The town commune turns off power to all heavy-duty equipment such as dishwashers and washing machines around lunchtime every day.  This happens in many big, old apartment blocks throughout Switzerland too.  I don’t know how they do it but there is some bureaucratic honcho who controls the switch to all these plugs.  Apparently this started years ago and forced people to take a break for lunch.

DownloadedFile-3Some people find these interventions draconian and too police-stateish.  I love it!  For people like me, who have no self-control, it is just what we need.  When shops aren’t open on a Sundays, we are forced to something more meaningful.  When businesses are shut from 12h00 to 14h00 or when the power goes off every lunchtime, it forces you to plan ahead and perhaps do something more constructive.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.  It sounds silly but I am dead serious.  I wonder if Switzerland would consider turning off the internet for an hour or so every day?  I must ask.  It would be so helpful.  I could actually start and complete something in the same sitting.  It would be amazing!