Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Don't make eye contact with him, Mum

She's right. If I look up and happen to lock pupils for a millisecond I'll end up getting a French accordian serenade all for me which isn't something that's going to make the trip into the centre of town on the jam-packed number 16 tram any more pleasant.

Buskers are not only on the streets here - playing publicly-available upright pianos chained to fountains for the summer music celebrations or dragging double bases and violins to ATM entry points - but also on public transport. I think we've heard exactly three French-classic songs (whose titles escape me) over and over and over again.

The offender then walks up and down the aisle with his cap. "Bonjour Madame, sil vous plait Madame.... Bonjour Monsieur, sil vous plait...." Only once have I seen one woman hand over a single franc. Most of us look down, jam in ear pieces if we have them or stare determinedly out of the window. We all want to get somewhere and enforced entertainment isn't part of the ticket cost.

"But hey," I poked Sapphire, "we know know how to say The Finger in French now - la doigt!"

She rolls her eyes but also laughs. These are little victories that we share with each other to make the unfamiliar an amusement instead of intimidating. The sun shines through the glass onto her hair. "So should I give La Doigt to the next guy who plays his accordian?"

Rubbing my chin whilst also keeping an eye on the telly screen that lists each stop, I pretend to consider it. "Well, it could mean that Geneve Hopital finds itself with a patient who is begging for a particularly challenging object to be removed from a part of themselves not often seen in polite company but if you're willing to risk it and have the results posted up on Facebook, then go for it."

Baby steps. Find your joy. Think about the positives. Cliches all but boy, they've worked for me this week. I had to laugh when a neighbour informed me that the above sign - a dog in a circle without a line through it meant that they were NOT welcome.

"Oh, I thought that this was the part where dogs could play."
"Red is no, madame."

Ah. This was good to know before our beloved dog Milly arrives and we lodge ourselves further in the concierge's bad books. Every time I've tried to cram a few more IKEA boxes into the communal (and tiny) recycling bin he's been nearby; pretending to sweep the foyer but really watching me through his one good eye, suspicious of this loud Australian ignoramus who doesn't wear make up or heels and parades her big bags of les ordures far too publicly and far too often.

Sapphire and I have quizzed each other over counting to twenty, then a hundred; followed by key body parts and days of the week and are both eagerly looking forward to our next lesson. It serves more than one purpose - it's something that we can do together that will benefit us and gives us two entries in the diary every week until school starts. Outings, moments of time and then recuperation at home; a home that gets something extra in it from every visit outside.

Any English we hear out in the street is immediately noticed. Our eyes meet and we smile - someone else is here. The familiar stands out a mile amongst the indecipherable. Sapphire described it well this morning as we exited Coop store with blankets and towels bundled in plastic bags. "It all sounds like noise until you hear something you can understand."

Oh and whatever you do, don't buy the enticingly-titled 'picnic eggs' in dozen packs. They're hard-boiled and you feel like a right gonzo when they bounce off the side of the frypan instead of willingly cracking open for the start of a breakfast omelette.

Wee glimpses for sure, but the scratchings of a new life are emerging.

Friday, June 24, 2011

In three months time.....

I’ve been crapping myself every day.

Now there’s an introductory sentence you’d probably wish I hadn’t written, right?

But it’s true. Moving to Switzerland has utterly thrown me. Yes, off course – as it should considering the change in seasons, time zones and countries – as well as off line (struggling to find the energy or will to write) and well, just off.

Sapphire is struggling too and summed it up the other day when she said, “Mum, Dad, when I smile you know it’s just fake because I’m trying really hard, don’t you? The only time I really laugh or feel happy is when we watch some ‘Raising Hope’ episodes on the iPad.”

All I could do was hug her in response because I feel exactly the same way.

And I hate that I do; hate that I haven’t the strength or energetic positivity to see this experience for what it truly is; a rather challenging settling-in period. My Melbourne-based brave words and dinner party bluster about it being a fantastic experience for travel and new culture now clogs the back of the my throat; a lingering effect of the cold we all got on arrival here. No amount of coughing will clear it and every time I try to speak I have to Ah-hem several times which tires me before trying to ask, “Je suis desolee – parlez vous Anglais?”

The morning crap-fest is the first reminder that I’m frightened of being here and unable to relax. I’m afraid to fully examine how I’m coping or how Sapphire sees me deal with new and puzzling situations as her sole companion and source of entertainment. I can’t remember the last time I laughed without considering it first or being aware of the smaller person observing me as I did so.

Once the toilet is flushed, hands washed and body showered, things improve. Firstly, we’ve moved into our apartment which is roomier than our little Melbourne house. It echoes with emptiness that IKEA furniture can’t yet soften but is a haven from the challenges I don’t always want to face outside. Language, traffic, prices, loss of direction.

Sapphire got the dream room she wanted but the realities of a bunk bed and desk combo are quickly revealed when trying to put a fitted sheet on a mattress only two feet from the ceiling as the metal support structure holding things together creaks and wobbles. “It’s not home yet Mum,” she cries later that night, “I hate it here.” She sobs so hard that my chest thuds in sync and I don’t want her to see that my eyes are filling up too: I’m supposed to the strong one.

I stand on the floor about a foot below her, feeling useless, my arm stretched out to hold her hand. “It’ll get better love, you’ll see. In three months’ time….”

I’m sick of saying that, to her and to myself.

And yet we’re able to buy groceries without any unfortunate incident, smile at our fellow neighbours in the lift and correspond to a French teacher via an expat website. Lessons start next week and all niggling repairs have been completed by varying Swiss tradies that don’t speak a word of English. A hearty “Bonjour” and pointing to the offending powerpoint/cistern/wall vent seems to suffice.

We decide to take our lunch down to the shared garden because it’s a sunny day. The concierge dashes over and all I understand is ‘sun’ and ‘eat’ but it’s clear that we’re not allowed to sit on the grass or eat there. It’s all for looks, not actual use. I feel like kicking him in the nuts and ripping out a rose bush as I stalk by but instead I smile, gather up the plates obediently and walk back upstairs with Sapphire. “He thinks he’s important, doesn’t he?” She squeezes my hand and comforts me as my mouth wobbles slightly.

Money Schmoney as we venture back out again and wheel our two nanna shopping carts the shopping centre and buy airlifted US and UK magazines in our hunger for something to read, sewing gear in anticipation of the machine arriving in an eagerly anticipated tea-chest and a selection of supermarket chain paint brushes, canvases, sketch books, pencils and acrylics. “Why don’t you create your own pictures for your room and help me do something for the lounge?”

For the first time I see a real smile in Sapphire’s eyes.

We’re going to a BBQ for fellow Aussies tomorrow night and are off to a tour of the United Nations on Sunday.

Love Chunks has just walked in the door and is already messing with the wireless control box so we’ll have UK telly and news available soon. The fridge is full of nanna-carted food and Sapphire’s first two works are drying on the parquetry floor as she runs a pre-dinner bubble bath.

It’s long past time for me to count my blessings, but how come tears are still so close to the surface?

Saturday, June 11, 2011


My hand always rests – no, tightly grips - onto the top left-hand-side of my bag now when I’m out in the street. This only serves to make it look more obvious that I’m a tourist and not a particularly confident one.

Despite this, we achieved two huge wins this week – a place at the English-speaking International School for Sapphire and a home. A home!

The relief is huge but the disappointment that both were our second choices is also there buzzing in my head lurking, threatening to sour things. The waiting list for the city campus was so long that the coordinator told us that it was ‘nearly impossible’ for Sapphire to get in when school resumes on 1st September, but there was a space at the Founex campus, at La Chataigneraie. It’s a fair old commute unless we secure her a place on the school bus at an additional cost of three and a half thousand francs (and that's only if I can contact the bus coordinator to explain my location and situation. The power here seems to rest with the providers of the services, not the customer. We are to grovel and hope that they will decide to help us it seems).

“I don’t want to go there, we went last week and I hated it. It’s stupid.” My relieved smile faded when I put down the mobile phone. Ticking one huge thing off our ‘this is our life now, not a holiday’ list wasn’t going swimmingly. Her head was buried in the two enormous, uselessly-squared European pillows that have cricked all our necks. I decided it was best to leave her for a while, have a shower with the ridiculously short hand-held hose and rinse out some knickers in the bath at the same time……

“Mum, you were right. I’m just…… scared. I don’t want to go to high school….” We hug and talk and cry a little. What kid does look forward to joining the big, grown up kids who look like adults?

Our home isn’t the one we ached for; Karen’s place a block away from Love Chunks’ work and fully-furnished. Modern, inviting, fully set up. She recommended us and only us to the land agent as lease-breakers need to find their replacement or pay extra rent. We had the right paper work – the official Letter of Attestation for LC’s employment, specified monthly salary declaration and copies of our passports.

“Sorry Monsieur, but the regis has concerns that your salary is marginal for this rent,” she sniffed when he rang to inform them that we’d been offered another apartment (three bedrooms instead of two) at the same monthly rate. “I suggest you take it.”

So we have. Orange seventies tiles, two bidets that are likely to have boxes placed over them in order for some surface storage area, a balcony, dog-friendly, large shared garden and heating included.

What surprises me is how people yank out the light fittings when they move, leaving bare wires hanging from the ceiling. Same goes for curtains too. What’s the likelihood of their new home having the same sized windows?

Setting up this bare space should be exciting. That’s what I keep telling myself, but the sheer enormity of the expense involved has taken most of the joy away. Everything – EVERYTHING is twice the price and I feel the skin on my face dry up and tighten with anxiety at the price tags in front of me. I’ve never paid AUD 1799 for a much-smaller washing machine but the thought of rinsing and wringing more loads by hand in the bath isn’t an enticing one.

The expat sites are full of ‘Leaving Geneva – everything in our flat must go!’ adverts but the curse of a little city with big rents is that no-one has transport or the ability to move things, so the triple-seater sofa or big Pax wardrobe that ‘must be dismantled to get through the door’ is a liability not an asset.

Food is doubly terrifying and may even work in my favour because my appetite has dwindled. Paying CHF 9.90 for a ham and cheese sandwich ($11.14 AUD) and upwards of CHF 50 per kg for meat is …….. How do people live here? What on earth do they do? Tinned tomatoes and pasta have become regular dinners for us via the double hot plate in the hotel room. The most affordable meal we've had so far has been lunch at IKEA.

My guts are in continual churn mode as I see our travel allowance and personal savings rapidly dwindle to nothing. Never did I think that we’d be sitting on our pushed-together single beds, LC and I, hugging each other and wondering very seriously just how we’ll be able to afford to not only live but have some form of fulfilling life here. An enormous challenge awaits.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Side. Bright. Looking for it.

The tea cup-sized Maltese terrier on the counter next to us was a cute - albeit brief - distraction from looking at the crowd of people waiting impatiently for their turn to be buzzed in through the glass doors.

The dog's owner was busy with an issue of her own, her orange leather jacket matching both her skin and the long, diamante-studded cowboy boots she wore.

Once let inside, the room everyone wanted to get into was dim and plain; a river of tangled electrical cords and double adaptors on the scarred vinyl floor between the high counter and the computers.

LC and I stood there uncertainly. "Parles vous Anglais?"
"A leetle beet," he smiled.
My eyes filled up with tears - not for the first time that day. This time however it was with gratitude, so I guess it was a first.

My husband started again. "My wife had her wallet stolen about an hour ago....."

It's been a hell of a week. Culture shock, exhaustion and uncaring bureaucratic restrictions have all kicked in, reminding me very clearly what an ungainly and quite literally foreign person I am in such a place, just as I thought it would. What I didn't take into account was my real - not theoretically imagined - reaction to it.

Or Sapphire's. The past few days have seen a stranger inhabit the body of the child that I thought I knew. This person is furiously angry and uncooperative and has said hateful things. On paper we all know that this is classic lashing out due to a lack of power and an understandable build-up of resentment and fear. And yet to be part of it shreds me inside and LC is just as stricken.

Saying 'sorry' a few hours later seems to be her modus operandi and it is hard for me to accept this when I'm still hurting and raw. "I feel frightened," I whispered to LC, "because I feel that my daughter is gone." What is happening to us?

At lunch when I'm too fatigued to be the grown up and let things slide and she is sulking angrily, I announce that I'm going for a walk and will meet them at the hotel later. My handbag is slung over my chest with the zips close to my body and under my hands. I can't help the way I look but I can try to not make things too easy.

The walk soothes me a bit. The sun is shining on my burnt neck and both locals and tourists are in abundance. Eating, shopping, strolling and posing for photos. The tourist centre is in the enormous post office but contains about three brochures. I give in to the thoughts that I'm ashamed of: For the so-called Home of the UN, why is nothing in English?!

With a brochure in hand but not likely to be deciphered I cross the lake and admire a medieval clock tower. Several people are also taking photos of it and I join them. The cobbled alley is bursting with people and outdoor restaurants - how do they afford the prices? what sort of jobs do these people have? where the hell do they all live? - and note with amusement that one of the busiest shops is Uggs Australia.

I take a deep breath and slow down. I know we'll get through this. I know that Sapphire is struggling with many more worries than me. How could she not be afraid of starting high school, let alone one in a new country? How can she not feel anxious as she joins us in our search for accommodation when we get frequently disoriented in the streets? How can she not feel lonely, stuck with just her parents when her friends are on facebook eight hours and half a world away?

Things'll get better with every day that passes. First a home; then a school place. Then French lessons.

Now though, a hat or my nose will burst open like an overripe tomato and make me the first skin cancer candidate of Switzerland.

H&M is across the road so I'll pop in there for a look around and....

Oh no. My bag is wide open. My wallet is gone.