This is a more poetic take on living abroad, written a while back, but posted here today to commemorate the start of the National Write Your Novel in a Month initiative, which is a real kick-start for all those wannabe creative writers out there (we know who we are!).
I am running on the border between France and Switzerland. This scraggly bit of grass could be French and that root I just jumped over might be Swiss. I don’t have my passport tucked into my running tights, so I shouldn’t stray too much onto the Swiss side, but the French side is a bit shadier and therefore muddier… and who can tell where the exact border is anyway? In my many runs through these woods, I have come across deer and wild boar, but only once did I see an old stone border marker from the 19th century. And the borders have been subtly redefined since many times over.
Hard to believe this area was fiercely contested in the past between the Savoyards (on the French side) and the Swiss. It is now so peaceful, just a few runners, cyclists and elderly people walking their dogs. I rejoice in the warm autumn sun, crane my neck to catch a glimpse of the Jura mountains to the left, then automatically turn to the right to see if Mont Blanc is visible today. Shame, too hazy. But it will still be there tomorrow and the day after.
As I jog through the vineyards pregnant with fat grapes, I give myself a mental hug and congratulate myself for living in such a beautiful place. I feel grateful, not smug, even as I boast on Facebook about our perfect mountain view from the balcony. It has taken me more than a year to adapt to my surroundings, but now I wish I could live here forever.
I arrived here with visions of instant gratification and integration. After all, Geneva has a thriving international community, I have lived in many different countries and speak French, English, German, all useful languages in this part of the world. More importantly, I wanted to ‘fit in’ with the local population, meet the ‘real’ Swiss and French people. With my background in social anthropology and two small children going to the local school and crèche, I thought I had it cracked.
However, Geneva is not quite a city of ‘real’ people. It is a city of migrants, attracted by its wealth and opportunities. It is a-buzz with languages and nationalities, so it is possible to never leave the confines of the international organizations and its magic circle of employees. OK, CERN is arguably in the second rank of international organizations, because scientists are just never as important as financiers and policy-makers, but this is still the exclusive club for scientists and engineers, a pinnacle of achievement or an opportunity to launch your career. Geneva is a city of the super-rich and super-leisured, and somehow all this wealth is more visible than in London. If you are happy to exist in an expat bubble, you can certainly do so with impunity in Geneva.
The ‘common’ people exist here as anywhere else, those depressing grey tower blocks in Meyrin are a reminder of that – but it’s not Council estates as we know them in the UK. It’s a ghetto of self-discipline, rules and regulations, where you cannot have parties or even use your washing machine after 9 p.m., where neighbourhood watch means you get reported for hosting friends for longer than a weekend, where communal areas are spick and span, and there is a neat place for everything: bikes, laundry, pushchairs…
Fortunately, we live just across the border in France, where rules and regulations can be waived if you do it charmingly enough. I cross the border several times a day in my battle-scarred Honda Jazz with the steering wheel on the wrong side. My youngest son goes 2 mornings a week to Swiss nursery, 2 mornings to French nursery, while my older one goes to the French maternelle. French government is supportive of working mothers, but I am not French nor in full-time employment, so it’s been a struggle to find a regular crèche place for my youngest. However, the state garderie (nursery) in France is a new, purpose-built, lovely building, and so cheap I cannot believe it, even without government subsidies for low wages. The Swiss do not encourage women with young children to work (although the French-speaking part of the country is not quite as evangelical about this as the German-speaking part), so nurseries and schools have extremely complicated pick-up and drop-off times (no two the same, as far as anyone can tell), to discourage anyone even contemplating part-time employment. Besides, both nations agree that families should have lunch together at home, so I spend most of my time driving from one place to another. That’s why I relish every minute I get to stop somewhere on the border and go for a run.
But why do I say ‘fortunately’ we live across the border…? This might once have been the case, as rents and house prices used to be cheaper on the French side. But now Swiss regulations about owning a house abroad have relaxed and house prices and rents have shot up. This is the second most expensive area in France after Paris, as everybody keeps reminding us. It is nearly as expensive as the South-East of England, where we used to live before. And St. Genis is anything but a pretty, traditional Haute Savoie village. It is probably the place with the highest density of physicists per inhabitants in Europe, but it lacks a cosy campus atmosphere. Instead, ugly concrete apartment blocks were hastily erected in the 1970s to deal with the sudden influx in population. More recently, developers have cottoned on that expats prefer to live in houses which at least create the illusion of a better life, so they have built endless rows of soul-less little houses with postage-stamp gardens. The kindest thing anyone can say about the village is that it is ‘convenient’ for commuting to CERN and Geneva. Most of the families who are staying here for more than 2 years choose to live in more remote, but prettier villages, like Thoiry, Sergy, Crozet, St Jean de Gonville.
Yet I feel sorry for the much maligned St. Genis (current population 8,600, up from 900 in the early 1960s), which has so heroically been putting up with the hordes of barbarians invading it for four decades. It has so many facilities for a place of its size: two primary schools, a theatre, a cultural centre, a library, a sports centre, an athletic track and stadium, as well as shops, restaurants, post offices and no less than three boulangeries/patisseries. As I wait for my children at the school gates, I discover that there are a few authentic local parents after all. Many of them are in far less prestigious jobs than the incoming strangers, and the good proportion of Dads at the gates (so unlike the primary school in the Home Counties that I am used to) indicates that perhaps quite a large number of them are unemployed. How do they feel about ‘these foreign people’ coming and taking their jobs, their school places, using their medical services and so on? They smoke and scowl, but I am determined.
I smile and join in the conversation. The men are mildly flirtatious, the women polite and pleasant, even as they correct my French. Quick aside: French people will always prefer someone who makes an effort to speak French, but their way of encouraging someone struggling with the language is to pounce upon them with the correct grammar or pronunciation, even to the point of making you repeat the correct forms in public until you get it right. But I am not invited to their home, nor are my casual invitations for coffee ever taken up. I join the PTA, I bake cakes and help out at the school fairs and carnival parades.
I go to toddler gym, skiing and music lessons, share snacks and recipes with the other waiting Mums. It’s an uphill struggle, but after about a year, people are starting to open up. I chat with the librarians about my sons’ preferred BD (comic books). I discuss Sarkozy with my physiotherapist. We meet at the sandpit in the park and follow it up with crepes. I have shown commitment, I have shown my desire and effort to belong. I am beginning to gain their trust and acceptance.
So now I can rejoice and relax in this cross-border run of mine, past a hidden chalet straight out of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. I try to breathe regularly, yet also take in all that wonderful fresh air. To last me forever, even after I am gone, in just a few short months. Through no fault of my own, my time in Geneva is strictly limited. So I too will betray my ‘natives’. I too will leave them. Now I can understand their reservations, their unwillingness to make friends. Every time they let one of these passing strangers in, they open themselves up to hurt. These strangers leave, and they leave nothing behind them but memories.