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!

Le Musée Olympique

Thanks to a visit from a college friend (who now lived in Madrid, but only had to take a two-hour EasyJet flight to visit me in Switzerland…yay for living in Europe!) I became much more familiar with the city of Lausanne over the weekend.

It’s funny how tourists often get to see more of the cities they visit than their inhabitants…when you live in a place, you tend to wear down the the same paths to the same places day after day, only discovering the city as a whole over time. But as a tourist, you can see everything all at once, and that’s what I did with my friend last weekend.

My legs still ache from climbing the steep Lausanne hills for hours, but touring around on foot allowed me to piece together the parts of the city I’d already seen into a coherent whole. I now feel like I have a little map of Lausanne in my brain…which is excellent news for me, since my natural sense of direction is non-existent. That is not just self-deprecation – I have been known to get quite lost even in cities I’ve inhabited for years.

Frodo Baggins

This is the fourth time I’ve passed that Rite-Aid…I may never see the Shire again. [source]

At any rate, the highlight of our walking tour was the Olympic Museum. Lausanne is actually home to the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee, and the Museum and its sculpture garden are designed to preserve and commemorate Olympic history.

My friend and I never made it past the sculpture garden, as it was such a beautiful day and we didn’t feel like parting with the lovely weather and gorgeous view of Lac Léman below.

Enjoy the photos!


The sculpture garden had many different styles of art, each representing some type of Olympic sport. This is obviously men’s soccer, though I can’t tell if he’s attempting some kind of horizontal kick, or pretending to be injured.


The view from the Museum down to Lac Léman.


Abdominal muscles. Not technically a sport, but definitely an art form.




Fencing! My favorite sport, as a former fencer myself. The title of this piece is “Allegory of a Fencer,” but – except for the lack of protective gear/clothing – it looks pretty literal to me!


Relay running…



This was my favorite sculpture of all. I don’t think he represents a sport, but possibly an anonymous spectator?


More of the amazing view…



One final tidbit from our tour day…I feel that any blog about Switzerland can’t ignore one of its most famous products: Rivella. I introduced my friend to it while she was here, and I was inspired to get some for myself.

Rivella is a delicious carbonated drink, 35% of which (I am not making this up) is whey. As in cheese curds and whey. It sounds disgusting but tastes like heaven (there is quite a lot of sugar in it, which might have something to do with it).

Rivella tried to introduce the drink in the U.S. but it was met with complete disinterest by Americans (I guess we tend to prefer our sugar unadulterated). According to the Wikipedia page, it is now popular in the Netherlands. Wherever it catches on, it will always be quintessentially Swiss, and as the label suggests, is best enjoyed with snow-capped mountains in the background.


Global Anxiety

They say that moving is one of the most stressful life events, and I agreed with that statement long before I moved to Switzerland. As it turns out, moving abroad is in a stress category all its own. According to the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, which assigns values to stressful life events according to their power to adversely affect one’s health, I am on the brink of keeling over and succumbing to a stress-induced coma (ironically, this would probably make me even more stressed, due to incurring the costs of Swiss medical care).

Drastically changing up your daily routine, employment, financial situation, and social interactions is stressful no matter how you cut it, but trying to do it all in another culture is like trying to thread a needle while wearing a baseball glove: it’s all familiar stuff, it just takes longer and is more frustrating. Acclimating to life in another country is even more difficult if you happen to have the sort of personality that is prone to anxiety, over-thinking, perfectionism, obsessive-compulsiveness, introversion, and researching relocation-induced stress on the internet.

According to the author of this 2008 article in The Guardian, “health and happiness are largely predetermined by your personality type, which means that if you are introverted or prone to anxiety you may need to take extra precautions before starting a new life overseas.” If only I had read this article six months ago! As it is, I am experiencing all the common symptoms of stress during my adjustment to life in Switzerland: insomnia, upset stomach, and persistent researching of stress-induced illness on the internet.

So, I’ve created a list of reminders to help me keep things in perspective when the going gets tough, and when all I feel like doing is buying some peanut butter at Wegman’s at 11:30pm on a Sunday (which is more often than you might think):

1) You cannot control everything, so don’t try. Despite what the anxious mind would have you believe, this is not a defeatist attitude – it’s practical and efficient. When settling into another country, a lot of the necessary bureaucratic procedures take months and are very costly. In these cases, timeframe and expense are entirely out of your hands, so it is pointless to worry about it.

2) Patience is a virtue. When you are in transition and everything seems up in the air, all you want is to fast-forward a few months until everything is settled into a routine and you know what the heck you are doing. But in reality, it is best to let this process play out naturally – even chaotically.

I recently discovered the importance of this point during our apartment search…each time I toured an available apartment, I was instantly ready to submit an application for it, regardless of whether it actually met our criteria for size, rent, location, etc. I just wanted to check ‘find a place to live’ off my list as soon as possible. But last week,  we finally secured an apartment that meets all of our criteria – and wildest dreams – thanks to the continued insistence of my husband that we wait for the right place to come along. More details on the new place to come!

3) Sometimes, it’s just gonna suck. You can’t pretend you’re not going to get into scrapes…embarrassing situations, bureaucratic nonsense, miscommunications and unscrupulous businesspeople are inevitable at one time or another, no matter what country you are in. But when things get tough, just put your head down and get through it because…

4) It’s all worth it.  Stress or no stress, I wholeheartedly believe that moving to Switzerland was the best decision for me. In only six months, I have made new friends and learned a ridiculous number of new things, and my experiences have challenged me to be a stronger, more flexible person. As Calvin’s dad would say, I am building character! Apart from that, there are things I genuinely love about this country – the food, the gorgeous cities, the mountains, the cultural emphasis on quality-of-life – that make the growing pains totally worthwhile.

In closing, I wanted to share this image of a lovely rainbow (arc-en-ciel) which I took driving home from work yesterday. Though I am not superstitious, I felt like it was a harbinger of good things to come for my life in Switzerland.




My Very Swiss Mistake

I have heard several different people comment, independently of each other, that in Swiss society there is often an expectation that one will simply ‘know’ how things are supposed to be without having to be informed in any formal way. This is absolutely true. Some things you can read about in the guidebooks ahead of time to prepare yourself, but some things just ‘are,’ and the Swiss tend to expect you to figure it out on your own. So many of my trans-Atlantic phone calls to my husband include the phrase “But how was I supposed to know that??” after my latest embarrassing transgression.

Family Guy

Huh? [source]

In Switzerland, you are supposed to just ‘know’ that you are only allowed to do laundry one day a week at certain times in apartment buildings, per the schedule posted on the wall in the laundry room (which, incidentally is called a buanderie in French and is currently my favorite word to say). You are supposed to just ‘know’ that you may not mow your lawn on a Sunday, or you can get into legal trouble with your village due to the noise violation. You may not, under any circumstances, put your feet up on the seat across from you on a Swiss train, or risk being scolded by the attendant in front of the other passengers…and as I have found, no one will tell you this in advance – you simply have to wait until you unwittingly do it for the first time.

I might also add that you are also supposed to just ‘know’ that Swiss men (who are all subject to mandatory military services) practice their target shooting from time to time in the Swiss countryside, and that if you hear a series of loud bangs, that it is not a car backfiring…you are actually in real danger of being shot! I won’t tell you how long I went jogging amid the bangs last weekend before I turned around and started sprinting for home, but it was much longer than someone who was aware of this custom would have done!

Most recently, I made a Swiss mistake that infuriated me beyond the rest.

Yesterday was Friday, and I drove into work like any other day and parked in the usual underground parking garage. I spent my usual 8.5 hours at work, and then headed over to the gym. On the way, I noticed that people were setting up several large stages and sound equipment on the university campus where I work — there was clearly some end-of-semester music festival going on that evening. On the way back from the gym — sweaty, thirsty, and smelly — I walked quickly to the parking garage to get into my car and drive home, looking forward to the hot shower that awaited me…only to find that for some reason, the garage door would not open. It is operated with a motion sensor and usually just takes a few good hops to get activated, but no amount of jumping or waving would budge the thing. I became aware that the parking area — usually overrun with cars leaving the campus at this time of the evening — was eerily quiet. Walking up to the main building above the parking garage, I found everything wrapped up in red striped tape and the doors chained shut.

As I watched hordes of students in the distance making their way towards the stages with bottles of wine and boxes of beer in hand, I started to realize with a sinking feeling that this was another Swiss situation where I was supposed to ‘know’ that the campus would close down today to host this concert. Furthermore, I was supposed to ‘know’ that I would not be able to access my car after 4pm. I was stranded!



I actually do look quite a lot like this after the gym. [source]

This would have been a minor problem if I lived in Lausanne, but my current living situation is nearly 40 minutes away by car. I called the university help line and argued with the woman on the other line, both in English and French (let me just note here how hard it is to be righteously angry at someone in a foreign language…oh, that’s what you think! Well let me tell you — sorry, could you please repeat that? No more slowly please, my verb conjugations are a bit weak…) and she was frighteningly unmoved by my plight. The garage door would open for no one, regardless of whose car was trapped inside. Those were the rules, didn’t you know?

To make a long and frustrating story short, I had to take a metro, a train, and a taxi — and spend over 50 CHF — to make it back to my village at around 9:00pm. I have yet to retrieve my car, so I anticipate having to do it all over again on Monday morning…all because of my very Swiss mistake.

It is certainly times like these where an American might — hypothetically of course — become upset and use profanity to describe the Swiss and their rigid way of doing things. But it is also important to remember that this rigidity and rule-obsession contribute to Swiss society’s order, cleanliness and prosperity, regardless of the personal inconveniences it can bring.


Now stop that! It’s too silly. [source]

It is still frustrating, though, and it made it really, really tempting to ride the train with my dirty, smelly, gym-sneakered-feet up for the entire trip.


I am beginning to realize that Swiss cities are a bit like princesses in a medieval fairy tale – each more beautiful than the last. I spent the day today in Bern, accompanied by my husband, who is here to visit me for about a week before heading back to the U.S. to finish his postdoc. He’ll be moving here to Switzerland permanently at the end of this summer. This happy event is clouded somewhat by our difficulties finding an apartment that is a) affordable, b) available, c) suitable, and d) not owned by a landlord who operates entirely illegally. But that is for another post!

Anyway, Bern. The capital of Switzerland! It is about an hour’s drive from Lausanne, and my first German-speaking Swiss city. Actually, although the official language in Bern (which is situated within its own canton) is German, many Bern inhabitants speak the dialect Swiss-German. I really do not know a word of either, and so was not able to communicate much during my visit. Of course, as usual, most of the people I encountered spoke perfectly fine English, but the longer I live in Switzerland, the worse I feel about resorting to it. I really do need to learn a few words of German and/or Swiss-German! I’ve been so focused on French, but in reality, less than a quarter of the population of Switzerland is French-speaking. I did learn that “Grüezi” means hello in Swiss-German, though, so at least that is some progress!

I hope you’ll enjoy this photo tour of my afternoon in Bern.

IMG_0320This is a photo up the main street of the old city. The archways that line the street on each side are called “arcades” and they are essentially sheltered sidewalks that contain myriad shops and restaurants. Thus, Bern is a great place for shopping on a rainy day, but as you can see, we didn’t need to worry about that on our visit.

IMG_0344The  city is bordered by the River Aare…but don’t get excited; as far as I know, it was named by German-speaking Swiss, not pirates.




You may have noticed that a rather ferocious bear symbol decorates the flags of Bern (left). Though the etymology of the name “Bern” is disuputed, legend has it that the founder of the city promised to name it after the first animal he killed while on a hunt. In honor of this event, the city of Bern keeps a famous “bear pit” or Bärengraben that actually houses real live bears, and is a popular tourist attraction to this day. The photo on the right is one of the rather cuddly looking inhabitants of Bern’s Bärengraben.


IMG_0335I can’t be sure, but that looks an awful lot like an honest-to-goodness chocolate factory on the left there!


IMG_0324 The Swiss Parliament building, which happened to be hosting a farmer’s market in its courtyard.



Hey, who’s up for a grammatically unorthodox hot-dog? Only 6 francs, and it comes in its own baguette!


IMG_0343I’m planning on tracking down and hiring the architect of this building someday, just so you know.


IMG_0359One final item of interest: I got to visit Albert Einstein’s house! Many people know that Einstein – who was actually German by birth – spent his most productive scientific years as a patent clerk in Switzerland. That patent office happened to be located in Bern, and the apartment that Einstein shared with his wife and children is still intact. For just 6 francs you can visit his sitting room, complete with parquet, furniture, old photographs and clothing. So now I can say that I’ve seen the spot where, conceivably, Einstein gazed out onto the busy street below and puzzled over relativity.