Pas de Racines

I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) lately to make time to speak French with my husband, who is perfectly bilingual. Unfortunately, learning a language is much more effective when it is forced, so these voluntary conversation sessions are usually doomed to either end before they begin (sorry, I don’t have time now – I’m filling out forms for the Swiss government!) or fizzle out after I slip back into English for the fifth time (can you slow down a little? I don’t know that word. Can we watch Breaking Bad tonight?) You get the idea.

Recently, we discovered that going for a walk while trying to speak French works better…it’s still hard to make time to do, but once we’re on a roll it’s easier to stay on track. Sights and sounds of the city provide basic-vocabulary conversation fodder, and arriving back home provides a formal end to the session.

The last time we were on one of these strolls, we came across an unusual sight, as shown in the photos below:

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At first I thought it was just an overrun green space in the center of a city square, but then my husband remarked, “il n’y a pas de racines.”

“What?” I said.

Il n’y a pas de racines – there are no roots. The living plants and soil have been bundled up together on top of the pavement.”

I looked closer and saw that he was right…none of the plants were actually growing out of the ground. They had just been plopped there–all messy and tangled and searching for the sun with their upturned faces–in the middle of Lausanne.

I looked at those plants and I thought to myself, “I know just how you feel.”


A Little Swiss Humor

This should give a chuckle to all the cat-people out there.

The bus advertisement below is for Les Services Industriels de Lausanne, a local utility company. The ad reads:

“With gas, we provide heat and comfort. It’s up to you to manage the rest.”

I am willing to bet anyone with cats has experienced this dilemma! I hope we can get a cat soon. As a side note, it turns out that ads are a really great way to strengthen language skills, because they’re usually illustrated, simple, and often use puns or plays on words. Nothing makes me happier these days than being able to ‘get’ a joke in French!

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The 13 Stages of Understanding Foreign Plugs

Step 1. Bring out your antique sewing machine to hem the curtains you just bought for your new Swiss apartment, all of which are roughly 3 feet too long for the windows.

Step 2. Realize that the sewing machine plug, having been manufactured in the U.S. along with the rest of the machine, won’t fit the Swiss electrical socket in the wall. Briefly consider hemming the curtains with Scotch tape.

Step 3. Remember that you have a spare U.S.-to-Swiss plug adapter lying around somewhere. Locate it and affix it to the plug end of your sewing machine cord.

Step 4. Plug into wall. Hold breath, and then switch machine on.

Step 5. Watch as sewing machine light comes on, and motor whirs happily when pedal is pressed. Voilà!

Step 6. Proceed to sew. Notice that the bobbin winder spins much more efficiently than usual and that the sewing machine light seems more intense than usual.

Step 7. Chalk it up to your wild imagination.

Step 8. Think that maybe you smell burning, and might be able to see wisps of smoke coming from the sewing machine light.

Step 9. Chalk it up to your wild imagination.

Step 10. With a sharp popping sound, simultaneously fry your sewing machine and blow a fuse in the dining room.

Step 11. Sit in the semi-darkness and Google international power plug standards.

Step 12. Realize that U.S. plugs have a 120-volt electrical potential, while Swiss plugs have a 230-volt electrical potential, and that therefore, a transformer is needed to safely use the handy-dandy plug adapter.

Step 13. Sew the rest of your curtains by hand, and begin saving up for a new sewing machine.


I’ve been told that one of the biggest perks of living in Europe is that seeing the rest of the world is easier than it is when living in the U.S. Even though Switzerland is not an E.U. country, it is still very easy to hop on a train for France, Italy, Germany, Spain, etc. with minimal expense or administrative hassle. It’s also easier physically: just two hours in an airplane taking off from the Geneva airport can take you to a place with an entirely different language, cuisine, currency and political system.

This proximity to adventure is a born traveler’s dream, but of course, as a scrappy one, I have not yet taken advantage of it…I’ve been much too concerned with mastering life in Switzerland itself! But recently, I was given a little push outside my new little country when a friend of my husband’s (a Swiss) married an Estonian woman…in Estonia.

I admit that before this year (and perhaps still) I definitely fulfilled the American stereotype of geographical illiteracy. I didn’t know Dubai from Dubrovnik and would have humiliated myself in an attempt to pick out Estonia on a world map. I certainly couldn’t have told you the name of the capital (Tallinn) or the  fact that it has over 1,500 islands. I could not have told you that Estonia is an absolutely beautiful country, both in terms of cities and countryside. I could not have told you that the food is incredible, relying heavily on various kinds of smoked fish and flavorful vegetables, and that the language sounds complex and lovely and is a close cousin to Finnish.

I am sorry this post is not longer but I am a bit pressed for time back here in Switzerland…if the moving company is to be believed, all our belongings will be arriving in a shipping container from the U.S. (via Rotterdam and Bern) tomorrow! Oh, to have chairs and tables and shelves again…I can’t wait.

I hope you will enjoy a sampling of some of the photos from our trip. Just click on any photo to enter the gallery!


Dangerous Liaisons

In the French language, a liaison is defined as ” the pronunciation of a latent word-final consonant immediately before a following vowel sound.”

As an example, take the phrase “vous avez,” which means “you have” in English. In general, the word “vous” is pronounced “voo.” However, when “vous” comes right before a vowel sound, a liaison is formed with the following word and you must say “voo-zavay.” This is done to avoid awkwardness, because without the liaison you would have to say “voo-avay,” which is more difficult to say, especially in rapid speech.

If you say it loud enough, you’ll always sound…American [source]

The previous example is of a proper liaison; however in French, various words are frequently squished together in normal conversation in other patterns that can be difficult to keep track of (see also: elision). Even if a foreigner knows all the vocabulary words in principle, he or she I may not understand a spoken sentence at all because each word shares sounds from the word that comes before, after, or both. Of course, this happens in English too…and probably just about every language to some extent, because native speakers converse rapidly and enunciate less than non-native speakers.

I experienced an interesting example of this challenge a couple of weeks ago. My rental agency had made an appointment with a painter to come into my apartment early one morning to paint over some water damage in the kitchen. About an hour into the procedure, I told the man that I would have to leave for work soon, and asked if he was almost done. He said he would need at least another hour to finish up, and asked if I could leave him with a key to the apartment, so that he could lock up when he was done. I agreed, and as I was leaving, he called after me that he would leave the key in the “bottelette.” I understood him up until the word “bottelette,” which was unfamiliar. I asked him to repeat the phrase, which he did, and I still didn’t understand what he was talking about.

At this point I was already rattled from several minutes of French conversation before my morning coffee, and too embarrassed to ask for more information. So, rather than doing the sensible thing and telling him that I didn’t understand, I nodded in agreement and fled the apartment. As soon as I got to work, I pulled up Google Translate, and then Google, but I could not find an explanation for this word. Botellette? botelet? battelette? batelot? No imaginable spelling of the word I thought I had heard yielded an explanation.

A bottle? A boot? A tiger? [source]

Finally, afraid I would never see my apartment key again, I called my husband in the U.S. and asked him what on earth a “bottelette” was. He paused.

“You mean, a boîte aux lettres [mailbox]?”

Curses! I immediately saw that I had once again failed to recognize one long French word as several smaller ones stuck together. Later that day, I indeed found my apartment key nestled in with my mail.

Another valuable vocabulary word (and life lesson) gained!

Chez Moi

I’ve been sitting on an “Apartment Hunting in Switzerland” post for quite awhile now, but have been too busy to give it the attention deserves…due to the all-consuming activity of Apartment Hunting in Switzerland! Now that I have finally obtained an honest-to-goodness, brick-and-mortar, monthly-rented apartment of my own, I can finally sit back and reflect on the whole process…or at least, I can sit cross-legged on the floor against a wall and reflect on the whole process, as none of my furniture will be shipped over from the states for another couple of months.

It sounds uncomfortable–and indeed it is–but I kind of enjoy the challenge of seeing how little I can live with for two or three months. Can I sleep on a hard surface and make do without a microwave? It turns out that yes, I can…I’ve just developed a bit of a limp and a bad habit of staring at simmering pots of water, coaxing them to boiling point with my hungry gaze.

Yep. [source]

Anyway, the first thing I can report about my apartment-hunting experience in the Swiss canton of Vaud is that I have developed a very handy mathematical formula that you can use to determine how long it will take you to find an apartment here, if you ever need to. Ready? First, take a piece of paper and write down your anticipated rent range, your annual income and your ideal square-footage. Got it? OK now crumple up your paper and throw it away, and add 3.5 months to whatever time estimate you already had in mind.

Of course I’m being facetious, but the point is that the real estate market here is intense and not necessarily rooted in logic. It’s competitive like job-hunting in a recession is competitive: no matter how brilliant your application looks, scoring the big offer is most likely going to be down to a combination of luck, good timing and knowing the right people. I had none of those things when I started my apartment search, and I am so grateful to have finally stumbled upon the first two. I should also add that I had the invaluable help of a professional consultant, whose services I was able to access via the university that will be employing my husband. She was able to help me navigate some of the darker aspects of Swiss apartment-hunting, such as identifying one or two scams and telling off would-be slum lords attempting to take advantage of a clueless foreigner. As I said – invaluable.

For awhile, I was too depressed to keep count of how many apartments I applied for/visited, but it was well over 20. That number may not seem too high, but more than once we were on the brink of signing a contract when the rug was pulled out from under us, making the number of failures seem even greater and more unfortunate. BUT…whining and lamenting aside, I could not be happier with the outcome of the hunt, and I am grateful that the wait has been so worthwhile. Our new place is a 10-minute walk from the Lausanne train station, it has two small terraces and 1.5 bathrooms, and the windows are huge and bursting with light. There is a dishwasher — a first for me — and oodles of closet and shelf space. Heaven!

Having moved into one of the country’s major cities, I finally feel like I am living in Switzerland properly now. I hear the sounds of the city and see the people going about their daily business…I see the buses on their daily routes and watch the garbage men collect the neatly sorted bins. I read the French advertisements for Swiss products, like Stimorol gum, Rivella soda and Swisscom cell phone plans. I take walks in the two nearby parks (plus a jaw-dropping botanical garden) and see the birds, meticulous gardens and happy families. Summer is a great time to settle in to a new apartment in Switzerland…everything seems alive and conducive to a fresh start.

There is a “Peep Show” quote for every life stage and situation. True story. [source]

On the logistical side of things, I must admit that not having furniture and belongings to worry about at first has been a bit of an advantage, because the administrative requirements for moving to an apartment in a Swiss city are rather all-consuming. Here are some of the things I’ve had to attend to in the past few weeks:

  • ‘Announcing myself’ to the city – a process that involves two trips to the city’s bureau of administration, a dossier of every key document I own (marriage license in two countries, passport, visa, work contract, etc.) and an exorbitant fee.
  • Registering with roughly a dozen different utility and communications services, some of which I already know I will not use, but must pay for anyway because it is the law.
  • Changing my official address on every Swiss piece of information I own (visa, driver’s license, insurance, car title, etc.)
  • Itemizing and estimating the value of everything I own–and everything I anticipate owning once our belongings arrive from the States–in order to obtain mandatory insurance policies against every sort of disaster one usually tries not to think about.
  • Dealing with people who mistakenly believe I am stealing the parking place in front of the apartment, for which I in fact pay a monthly fee. Apparently, due to the high population densities of Swiss cities, parking is so sacred that a new car on the block can be the target of some pretty disproportionate responses, including a lady scolding me in French and reporting me to the city judge, and a man blocking my car with his SUV and damaging my wheel hub.
  • Making appointments with repairmen and overseeing their work, since a Swiss rental agency won’t let you move into an apartment unless it is in tip-top shape. This is a blessing and a curse, because it means the apartment is absolutely lovely and amazing and perfect, but it also means that if it is anything less than lovely and amazing and perfect when we move out, the rental agency will know who to bill!
  • IKEA (self-explanatory).

Most of the items on the above list have been taken care of, or are almost all taken care of. For the last week or so I have actually begun to relax just a bit…which is good, because next week I am flying to the U.S. for the most important stage of this entire, crazy venture: bringing my husband (and our stuff) HOME! To say that I am excited would be like saying Swiss chocolate is pretty tasty…it would be a massive understatement.

As I am on the brink of being fully moved and installed in Switzerland, I have been reflecting a bit on my eight (!) months here. Despite the difficulties and adjustments, even I – the most anxious of travelers – can see that it has been very fruitful and full of successes. If you can tolerate another list in the post, I’ll share some of these here:

  • Becoming a real French-speaker…not quite fluent yet, but definitely conversational!
  • Becoming comfortable and capable in Swiss culture, and beginning to feel at home.
  • Establishing myself in my new career and learning how to excel in it.
  • Meeting new people from more different nationalities and backgrounds than I have encountered in the rest of my life so far, even in college.
  • Learning to love little things about Swiss life that you don’t necessarily read about in the guidebooks. For example, manicured single-species lawns are not nearly as big here as in the U.S…instead, the cities are dotted with patches of tall native grasses, wildflowers and natural shrubs. As country girl, this makes me feel at home and acts as a buffer against the concrete trappings of city life.

I hope there will be many more things to add to this list as time goes on. Of course, if I say this out loud I will probably receive three or four thick envelopes from the Swiss government in my mailbox tomorrow, but I will go ahead and say it anyway: I think the hardest part of moving to Switzerland is over. Now I can actually begin to experience it!