Tag Archives: France

Relocation Blues

It's time to pack up again...

You may have noticed (I am flattering myself that someone is waiting for my blog posts with bated breath) that I haven’t been writing much lately.  That’s because we have been experiencing the highs and lows of relocation decisions, anxieties and excitement.  Ah, yes, I do not just coach others about moving abroad, I also happily take my own advice and medicine!

From summer onwards we will be moving as a family from the UK to Geneva, Switzerland, living on the French side of the border.  We expect to stay there three years, but life has a habit of surprising us, so we are prepared for anything.

I am calling this the ‘relocation blues’ (although perhaps it should be ‘blues and pinks’, because there is a lot to celebrate and enjoy, as well as much to mourn and worry about).  Over the next few weeks, I would like to write a mini-series charting our own personal relocation journey, as well as providing other examples and ideas or tips which might be useful to others about to embark on a similar experience.

I was thinking of the following topics:

1. To Be or to Be Elsewhere:  The Decision

2. Persuading Your Followers

3. The Househunt

4.  Education Systems

5. Portable Careers

6. Drowning in Admin

Are there any other topics that would be of interest to you?  What would be most useful or most fun to find out about?  It doesn’t have to be specific to Switzerland or France, since so many of the challenges of moving with a family are similar, regardless of continent.

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And now for something completely different…

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.

View of Geneva's 60s blocks

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.

Children's Carnival in St. Genis Pouilly

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.

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World Cup fans

For the first time in his seven and a half years of life, my older son is showing interest in football.  More than just a slight interest, he is in the throes of World Cup fever – as are most of his little classmates.  Every night he is allowed to watch the beginning of a match before bedtime and he is rapidly developing into that annoying kind of armchair footballer who comments on every single action (or lack thereof) and believes he could do everything better himself.

But the World Cup is problematic in our household not because some of it takes place past bedtime, but because it is not immediately obvious which team or teams we support, either individually or collectively.  Typically, the World Cup season is the time when we revert to our primal tribal instincts and support the country we consider home.  My husband has a clear-cut choice: he supports Greece.  He was amused but also slightly annoyed when our son told him that he personally wouldn’t support Greece ‘because they don’t stand a chance’. But why would Greece be home to our sons?  Despite their name, appearance, the fact that they speak Greek with their grandparents and occasionally with my husband, they only go there on holiday, no more than a family who owns a holiday home in Cyprus, say!

So my older son started off supporting England, which also helps him fit in better with his school friends.  My younger son doesn’t know or care, except that he quite likes an Italy T-shirt he has inherited from a cousin.  They are also a bit confused as to whether they should care about Switzerland or France (we lived on the border between these two countries for nearly two years).

For me it’s more complex, as Romania (my country of origin) did not qualify, nor did Austria (where I spent most of my childhood).  I am British now, but I do feel more ‘British’ than English (which is perhaps one of the luxuries that you do have when you become a British citizen later in life).  I would have no qualms about supporting a GB football team, but ‘England’ seems too parochial.  The other country I feel close to is Japan, but not close enough to seriously believe  they have a chance of going much further and therefore supporting them to the end.  Because isn’t that what national and nationalistic football is all about?  Loving your team so much that you believe they are the best, against all evidence to the contrary?

So I make no claims to originality and support Brazil – one of my favourite countries in the world, although I only ever spent two weeks there.  I mix it with capoeira, samba, Caetano Veloso, Jorge Amado, although they are not all playing on the field…  at the same time!

As for my son?  Well, maybe he is a global citizen after all, as last night he announced that he wants Germany to win.  When I asked him why (after all, he has virtually no connections with Germany), he said that he wants them to equal Italy’s four wins of the World Cup.  ‘And next time, Italy can win it, so they are equal with Brazil’.  Fairness, in the end, trumps national sentiment…

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The delight and pain of coming home

‘Why did no one warn us how hard it would be, coming home?’  my friends moaned.  They have just returned to Romania after a long stint in the US.  While out there in Washington DC, they could barely find a kind word about America.  They hated the food, the schools, driving everywhere, the ignorance about Europe, the superficial cheerfulness, the lack of hospitality…  The list went on and on.  They idealised their home land, played its music, read its stories to the children, met to swap recipes for traditional dishes. 

Now they are back in the motherland, they are being reminded every day of the good things that they miss about the States.   They struggle through the small and great frustrations of Romanian society that they had somehow lost sight of during their stay in America.

‘Reverse culture shock’ is a very common phenomenon for expats when they do finally return home.  You might expect it if you had a wonderful time abroad (perhaps you were studying or enjoying a prolonged vacation or starting a completely different lifestyle).  But for people who were not particularly happy abroad, it often comes as a complete surprise.  They were so looking forward to returning home, but home has changed and moved on, and so have they.

After nearly two years in France (well, one leg in France, one in Switzerland, straddling the border as we were in Geneva), we were relieved to exchange rented accommodation for our lovely house and garden in the UK.  The children and I hadn’t found it easy to adapt initially to our lives there (I couldn’t work because of childcare issues, and the children spoke no French at first).  And yet, it was funny to see the little things that each of us missed most about our lives abroad.  My elder son missed the croissants and frites.  My younger (who could not remember a pre-France life) missed the sandpit and was surprised that everybody spoke English around here.  Both of them missed the lifts in our block of flats.  Personally, I didn’t miss that one a bit, as it was the smallest lift in the world, not even designed for a mother, a toddler and two shopping bags!  I missed hiking in the mountains and the winter sports, all just 15 minutes away by car. 

And my husband, for whom we all m0ved out there?  Well, he had lived in the perfect expat bubble, with everyone at work quite international and able to communicate in English (and if they couldn’t, dear wife would handle that).  So no,  he doesn’t miss anything at all about Geneva.  Except maybe the occasional fondue.

And I got to thinking that perhaps for some expats there is no such thing as ‘reverse culture shock’, because they never actually went beneath the surface of the society they were living in.  They are just ‘long-term tourists’ perhaps.  And they can move happily from one posting to the next, as long as they have their immediate creature comforts.  It’s debatable whether that is good for them or for the organisation they serve in the long run.  Perhaps progress and true understanding of other cultures is only possible when we experience some discomfort.

Have you experienced reverse culture shock?  If yes, what was most challenging:  the small everyday matters or the major differences?  What do you wish you had known before going back home?

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