Le Printemps

Spring has come to Switzerland!

It has been a remarkably mild winter here, even for continental Europe – rarely below freezing and very little snowfall in the valleys – but even so, spring is a welcome sight. The biggest change has been the day length…in Switzerland,  dusk starts to set in around 4pm in the dead of winter, and sunrise only comes well into the morning. Now that it is April, it is already staying light after 8pm, and it makes all the difference! The trees and countryside are absolutely mad with birdsong, and the air literally perfumed with flowers. I took a walk today to try and capture some of the beauty of it.

 

IMG_0292A pretty little woodland path near my village. All pretty little woodland paths are equipped with a dog-walking station (plastic bags and repositories for dog-walking convenience) a fountain, and a sign asking pedestrians to stay on the paths, keep their dogs from misbehaving, and refrain from picking the flowers. This is why the little woodland paths are so lovely!

 

IMG_0281The path leading out of my village. I do not know what the purple flowers clinging to the side of the wall are, but they smell as good as they look!

 

IMG_0303Just a little old chateau on the outskirts of the village.

 

IMG_0302More wall-clinging flowers.

 

IMG_0299Reptiles are not the first thing that comes to mind when one says “Swiss wildlife,” but these little guys are everywhere. They are very quick and usually only manifest as a rustling in the weeds at the bases of boulders and walls, but this handsome specimen was kind enough to pose for almost a full minute. I think he was hoping that if he stayed still, I’d lose interest and go away.

 

IMG_0283There are vineyards EVERYWHERE.

 

IMG_0290Another view of my woodland path.

 

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Interlude

I did not realize before I came here that this part of Switzerland is very musical. Thus far, I have heard about three major spring/summer musical events in the region that everyone seems to attend, regardless of the lineup. I was lucky enough to get to attend one of them, the Cully Jazz Festival, last night.

Cully is one of several Swiss towns with names that I like to say over and over to myself whenever I see them on road signs…partly because they are endlessly fun to say, and partly because I need the pronunciation practice. The neighboring towns of Cully and Pully are pronounced in a way that I cannot even figure out how to write phonetically…just know that the double-Ls are pronounced together with a “y-ish” sound that merges with the final y in the word…sort of like the double-L in “tortilla.” A couple other towns I enjoy saying are Ouchy (pronounced “oo-shee” rather than what you say when you scrape your knee) and Niederbipp, which never fails to make me giggle.

At any rate, Cully is by far the most beautiful town I have yet seen in Switzerland:

Cully, Switzerland

Sadly, I did not take this photo, as the festival was at night. However, this is actually a pretty accurate view from the parking spot I eventually found. [source]

Yes, it is breathtaking. And the hills are literally alive with the sound of music, at least in early April when the Cully Jazz Festival comes to town. It is a uniquely arranged event: rather than stages or a central venue, every bar, cafe, restaurant and basement in town opens its doors to small jazz and blues ensembles, who play throughout the night, and concert-goers simply stop in for a listen before heading on to the next spot. Because it’s such a small town, each concert is just a leisurely stroll away, with plenty of wine and food to sustain you on the journey.

It was really fun to spend some time with some new Swiss friends in a social setting, after spending the majority of my time over the last few months immersed in work. I do not know much about jazz, but I truly enjoyed the music and the artists were great performers. I was especially mesmerized by how seamlessly they all switched back and forth between addressing the crowd in native French, to singing with a perfect American bluesy-twang.

I am always conscious of being the annoying person waving their iPhone around at an event rather than enjoying the action, so I only managed to snap a couple of shaky photos, but I thought I’d share them anyway:

Cully Jazz Festival Cully Jazz Festival

The other two major musical events I mentioned earlier are the Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, and the Paléo Festival in Nyon. The Paléo Festival is in July, and I badly want to attend. It is an outdoor festival in July with a reputation for absolutely incredible music, and a carefully guarded lineup that is kept secret until April every year. I am the first to admit that I am no music buff…I inherited my iTunes library from my freshman college roommate, I’m always the last to hear about the coolest new band, and I’ve been known to spend the few rock concerts I’ve attended with my fingers in my ears. But I do know that any music festival that hosts Elton John, the National and the Black Keys in space of a few days is one I want to drop in on.

That’s about all the news from Switzerland for this week, though I am very much hoping to have a positive update on the apartment hunt soon. Stay tuned!

Wash Me!

I got a chuckle out of this today on my drive home from work, and I wanted to share.

Take a look at the grimy car window pictured below…

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Someone has — in typically politically correct Swiss fashion — written “I am dirty!” in both German and English with a finger on this unsuspecting driver’s grimy rear window. With a little help from Google translate, I can help fill in the gaps for the other official Swiss languages:

French: Je suis sale!

Italian: Io sono sporco!

Romansch: Jau hai tschuf!

‘Merica

I went on a little excursion to the nearby town of Nyon today. Nestled amongst the boulangeries and charcuteries and cafés, was the shop pictured below.

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…And what does one buy at an American Market?

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Yep, that looks about right. I managed to restrain myself though…Pop-Tarts have never been high on my list of favorite American foods. Smucker’s peanut butter is actually the thing I miss most dearly in Switzerland…or, I would miss it if my unbelievably thoughtful husband didn’t send me a dozen jars in an industrial-size padded shipping case every few months. The things you do for love!

Un Bagel

Being immersed in a foreign culture day in and day out is certainly excellent blog fodder, particularly when it comes to language. It’s the perfect topic, because as an American expat in Switzerland working at a university, I hear somewhere between two and five different foreign languages spoken around me on a daily basis. While I am definitely getting used to it, it can be a bit disorienting until you get the hang of at least one of them.

Me, most mornings.

So, for the past three weeks I’ve been taking part in a language program organized by the university where I work… I figure I’ll probably become fluent in French faster if I take a more proactive approach than just relying on osmosis.

The program is free, which is great, and also informal, which is even better. The program website provides a social-media type venue for people to post profiles, where they describe their mother tongue and language interests. User A can then match with User B who speaks the language User A wants to learn, and who also wants to learn User A’s mother tongue.  Participants can agree on whatever meeting time or place works best for them; no classrooms, exams or forced “partnering up” required.

This really appeals to me, because the great paradox of learning a new language fluently–at least for introverts–is that other people are necessary to perfect the art of conversation. And yet, letting twisted attempts at foreign words escape my lips in front of another human being is embarrassing and anxiety-provoking. I find conversations with new acquaintances in English difficult and exhausting as it is! Take away my grasp of pronunciation and word comprehension, and I’m experiencing a mild  nightmare–probably ranking slightly above being naked in public and slightly below forgetting to attend an entire semester’s worth of math classes on the terror rating scale.

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I can’t even remember the room number…NNOOOOoooo!

And yet here I am, meeting twice a week with a Frenchman recently moved to Switzerland, who wants to improve his English for his job. It is going surprisingly well, and I have the feeling this may be the key to breaking down the Language Wall in my brain. The Language Wall is that barrier that lies between recalling specific vocabulary words and verb conjugations every time I want to say something, and just opening my mouth and knowing how to speak. I’ve felt myself come so very close to the other side of that wall, only to slide backward again after a week or two of not speaking much or forgetting some key grammar rule. To me, breaking down the Language Wall is actually a lot like being able to see the image in one of those Magic Eye posters. At first you have to strain and concentrate, but with time and practice, the meaning begins to emerge, without you being able to put your finger on exactly when the transition happens.

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A kitten?

Of course, progressing in my acquisition of French is interesting, but equally interesting is observing someone else learn English. My conversation partner is probably at roughly the same level as I am in French, so he has the basics down but finds it difficult to understand if I speak a little too fast or fail to enunciate. The video linked below actually does a fantastic job of conveying how it feels to be on the wrong side of the Language Wall:

Making Language Sound Foreign to Native Speakers

Anyway, I do feel like I am making progress in my French, which definitely feels good. If nothing else, it gives me the confidence to open my mouth and risk making mistakes without so much anxiety, and less anxiety tends to decrease the number of mistakes too.

But that isn’t to say things don’t still get awkward. One day last week I was at one of the deli counters on campus to pick up some lunch. The prepared sandwiches are always pretty good there, so I was scanning the glass case when I was surprised to see some sliced bagels filled with tuna salad. Bagels are not really a “thing” in Switzerland–you can’t buy them in stores or restaurants and I haven’t had one since I left the U.S. I figured I should jump at the chance to eat one while it was in front of me, but I didn’t know if there was even a word for “bagel” in French. So, I looked into the glass case to check the label in front of the tuna bagels, which read “panini.” I thought this was a bit odd, since a bagel sandwich is not really the same thing as a panini, but I just shrugged and figured that this was the closest that the French language could come to describing a delicious bread product with processed meat inside.

When I asked the woman behind the counter in French for one of the “paninis,” she reached to a shelf above the bagels and produced an elongated sandwich filled with ham and cheese. I apologized and corrected her, pointing at the bagels and indicating that this was what I actually wanted to order. “Ah!” she said, looking at me kindly and speaking slowly as though to a child. “Ça c’est un bagel, madame. Voulez-vous un bagel?” I thanked her for setting me straight and paid for the bagel. As I ate it, I reflected that sometimes, learning a new language is not as hard as it might seem…you just have to avoid over-thinking it.

Fribourg/Freiburg

Hello readers! I skipped a couple of weekends and for that, I apologize. The first post-less weekend was due to being ill, and the second–this past weekend–to travel. I went to visit some friends who live in the city of Fribourg (or Freiburg, if you speak German)  which lies about an hour train ride to the northeast of Lausanne.

I took some fuzzy iPhone pictures to commemorate the event, which I will now share with you, dear readers:

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As you can see, it is a city built on a cliff. The newer, modern part–the train station, the clothing shops, the pavement–are all built on top of the cliff. A series of very steep stairs and narrow roads wind down from the top, taking time with them: the further down you go, the older the buildings become. The pavement becomes cobblestone and the shops trail off into barns, and there is even an old monastery with slits for windows. It really was like time traveling, but combined with a nice leisurely walk. Leisurely on the way down, that is…the hike back up the cliff was another story.

I am glad to have traveled a bit outside of Lausanne for once…I’ve been so busy with work and recovering from work on the weekends that I have not done as much exploring as I feel like I should, living in such a picturesque country. I should also seize any opportunity I can to take the Swiss train, which is a lovely experience…especially on Saturday morning when it’s not too crowded, except for skiers in full regalia hitching a ride to their next piste. The trains are punctual, clean and eerily quiet, and the swiftly passing countryside is always conducive to that deep, pondering kind of thought one likes to indulge in every now and then.

Anyway, I hope you will enjoy these images and reflections until I have time to write down some of the humorous/scrappy incidents of the past few weeks… À bientôt!

The Hunt

For a country roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, housing can be something of a problem for newcomers to Switzerland. The housing market in Lausanne–where I am currently hunting for a place to move into when my husband joins me in Switzerland this summer–is comparable to that of New York City. This means that rents and demand are high, supply is low, and anyone in search of a new place automatically finds themselves taking part in an intense, fast-paced and ruthless blood sport.

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OK, I’m pretty sure I can take this guy out, and I KNOW I have a better credit score than the tiger…

But unlike New York City, the vast majority of apartments in Lausanne are rent-controlled, which might sound like a benefit (and in many cases it can be). But controlling rent prices can have the unintended effect of hobbling the natural equilibrium of economic supply and demand. Basically, when rents are not allowed to skyrocket, the market can become numbed to the fact that demand is skyrocketing, and more and more people have trouble finding a place to live. Some Swiss are speculating that housing scarcity was one motivation behind the tremendously controversial and largely nonsensical results of the recent Swiss vote in favor of imposing immigration quotas–a decision that could have significant long-term consequences for Swiss interactions with the entire European Union. But that’s a topic for another post.

At any rate, I happily plunged headfirst into the business of assembling dossiers full of the necessary personal, financial, and legal information to send in response to several promising rental ads I found online. I even went so far as to visit two nice apartments in the area before I the realization of how naive I was being hit me. Most of my co-workers report submitting an average of 50-60 applications before landing an apartment, many of which they share with roommates. Still others advised that it is unrealistic to think that just handing in a complete, timely dossier is enough. The process is fixed, they say, and your application will never see the light of day unless an agency puts it on top of the pile for you (or unless you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who will tell a secretary to put it there for you).

So now, rather than dreamily poring over photos of old city buildings online, I am poring over real estate agency websites. Not quite as romantic or fun, but perhaps a more practical step in the right direction!

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Forget “Gravity” or “Titanic.” Someone needs to investigate the gaping historical inaccuracy of Sex and the City, in which a single, New-York based newspaper columnist with a shoe fetish has a way more fabulous apartment than you.

On the plus side, being in the market for a new apartment has almost limitless social perks. If you mention at a party, happy hour or any other kind of get-together that you are looking, everyone around you will want to share an experience, recommendation or horror story. It practically eliminates the possibility of an awkward silence or an embarrassing French faux pas. In fact, I think my French may actually be benefiting from this experience, since housing is one area where my vocabulary is relatively robust. This is due entirely to the fact that practically every French text ever made has a chapter on “La Maison.” Où est la salle de bain? L’appartement a trois chambres. Le chien dort dans la salle de séjour.

At any rate, I am still optimistic about my chances, especially with the helpful advice and insights of others who have already been through the process. With any luck, by this time next year, I’ll be living here!

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Hopefully I’ll be cooking properly too by then, but one thing at a time.