Thursday, 18 July 2013

On leaving Switzerland

So I have just finished my au pairing job in Lausanne. I am sitting in the same house, just counting down the hours until my 14:18 train to Milan.

It's been a fantastic last week.

Wednesday of last week I went to visit one of the children's aunts who is off to Mexico soon. She lived in a beautiful country house by a lake, surrounded by fields and cherry trees. The exterior was traditionally Swiss, though the interior was modern and minimalist. I was impressed, though not really surprised, given that the husband was apparently the director of the luxurious coffee company Nespresso. I made them a Victoria sponge which was devoured voluntarily by everyone. I stuck to ice cream, naturally gluten free amaretti and cherries from the garden.

Thursday evening was my idea of hell. Tired, after having only bircher muesli for dinner (delicious, but a little strange as a main meal), I went into town with the mother and children to catch some of the much talked about festival de la cité. It was pretty cool-in theory. There was a lot of street art, performers, food stalls. There were also far too many people and the food and drink prices were untouchable. As a result, I wondered from one crowd to another with the eldest girl and her friend, craving an early night, before finally getting to walk home and go to bed.

On Friday I went to Geneva, did a little bit of window shopping before parting from the mother, daughter and her friend to check out the art and history museum. They automatically thought I was under 18, and I consequentially got in free. Ironic considering tomorrow I will be 22! It was a fantastic little museum, though I only really spent time on the ground and first floors. My priorities were the Egyptian, Roman and Greek archeological exhibits, though I also saw some modern art and design rooms. I don't know the price for a full-price adult, but it is certainly worth a look. The centre of Geneva is surprisingly pretty, considering I had only previously seen the modern shopping end of town and the fountain with my parents, 11 years ago. Afterwards we met up in the centre near some canons, and had a snack at Globus before going home. Globus is a very high end Swiss department store, which has a food hall comparable to Harrods or Selfridges. Whilst most of the produce is of very high quality, I found that the main lure of this capitalist paradise is the presentation; after a while I caught on that not all that glitters is gold. Hartley's jelly, Sharwoods pre-made Indian sauces and Burton's salt and vinegar crisps were amongst the 'delights' in this little treasure trove. I did find some interesting things though, like the delicious pistachio pudding, delicious mangos, pineberries (a hybrid from a strawberry and a pineapple) and plenty of chocolates to sample, I kept finding myself back in that little area incidentally...

I spent Saturday morning at Lausanne market, not buying anything, just browsing the numerous street stalls and wishing I had more need for mangos and gluten free sundried tomato pizza. I also eyed up the rose jam available in Globus, which unfortunately was too expensive. After a nice ratatouille and rice lunch I headed out again, aiming to find a park down by the lake in Ouchy. I eventually found it, read a couple of chapters of 'the help' (which I finished the following day, by the way) and left when the sunlight got too intense. The lakeside area at Ouchy is really pretty and quite quaint. On the way back I indulged at Coop buying a large bar of organic white chocolate with almonds. Delicious. Sunday, as already mentioned, was spent reading. As soon as I finished one book I started the next. Then I had to prepare my rucksack for a couple of days in the Swiss mountains.

We left at around 10:30 the next morning, just the father, the children and I. I was slightly sad about leaving the mother at home, as we always had really nice conversations in the evening, be it in French or English. She lent me two books, both with similar themes but one a work of fiction and the other a sort of self-help book...! The fiction was a best seller called la liste des mes envies by Gregoire Délacourt, which was about a woman who won the lottery, and realized that she did not want the money as she was happy enough without it, though the possession of the money came to cause her greater losses than she could ever have imagined... It wasn't a classic, or by any means a work of great literature, but it was an easy read in French, and quite thought provoking. It reminded me the lightness I feel when I do not feel I need or want anything, and the importance of experience and love in enriching our lives. The other work was something I have just partly read rather, as it was something one can easily dip into- L'art de l'essentiel by Dominique Loreau. I will reserve discussion of this book for another blog post, though I emphasize that it was a really uplifting look at how we can be happier with the bare minimum, without clutter and too much decoration. It is something more people in the Western world should consider when feeding the tumor that is capitalism.

The mountain chalet was perched halfway up a mountain, sandwiched between a pine forest and vivid green open fields full of sweet meadow grass and alpine flowers. That afternoon I chose my room, which had a wonderful view across the valley, and quickly explored a portion of the forest with the eldest daughter. That evening we sat in the living room by an open fire, as it was surprisingly cold up there... We woke up early the next day to walk to the local village (30 minutes down the mountain) to buy fresh cheese from the fromagerie (sérac and cheese for a fondue) and bread (for everyone else, I had gluten free bread...)

After a hearty breakfast (rice crisps, chocolate), we started our walk at 11.30. I had made sandwiches for everyone, packed plenty of ripe and delicious apricots and water. The so-called walk turned out to be a full on mountain climb. The two youngest children were crying by the time we reached the top... I stayed ahead with the very fit 12 year old boy, occasionally stopping to pick wild mint and give him a botany lesson in English, though there were far too many flowers and plants that I wasn't familiar with. The ascent was tough, but the reward at the top was fantastic: we got a view across the snow tipped mountains, down towards the two crystal clear lakes and felt pretty much on top of the world. After a steep descent down to the lakes, we stopped and had lunch in one of the most beautiful picnic destinations imaginable. We then had a drink at the high-up restaurant/hostel chalet which was run by a real traveller. The final descent was also beautiful, through the pine forest, across little mountain streams, offering beautiful views of the landscape and some wonderful flora, including the Alpine rose. We got home and refueled with fresh mint tea which I prepared using the mint we had found in the mountains. We then (at 17:30) had a very early dinner:  sweet honeydew melon and rosti, a traditional Swiss potato pancake. After a final beautiful sunset in the mountains, we sat down by the fire again, listening to music and making a game out of it. The first to guess the song/artist got a point. Whilst I did very well when it came to the Beatles, Tom Waits and oldies from the 1960s, I was not so good at guessing the names of Swiss German songs...

The next morning (yesterday) we had another ridiculously early start. We drove to another local fromagerie which was surrounded by cows with the traditional bells and playful goats. We watched the entire process by which they make cheese, and then the family bought a massive quantity of fresh goats cheese. We had that for lunch with some pasta and more of those delicious ripe apricots. I spent the rest of the day reading (I just started reading the casual vacancy) and waiting to be picked up by the mother. Probably not great for the figure, but permissible considering the intense hike we had done the day before. I left with the mother, after a slightly emotional farewell to the children. I feel pretty happy with the progress the two eldest children made with English, and hope they continue. I would be happy to write to them to keep up the practice. Last night I had a last herbal tea with the mother whilst signing a declaration for tax purposes, and she gave me two beautifully wrapped presents for my birthday. I reluctantly told her I would hold off opening them until my birthday, which is tomorrow. I will send her an email to thank her later on.

We said goodbye this morning. She congratulated me in my progresses in French, said I had a very good accent and rich vocabulary. I feel a little more confident for the next semester in Grenoble. I am leaving this house in less than two hours, and despite knowing that au pairing is not for me, had a wonderful time and another really great experience. I also think I have found some friends for life in this family, and they have already said that they would love to come and visit me both in Grenoble and in Scotland. Le monde devient toujours plut petit.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Half way through my stay in Lausanne...

So this is the beginning of my year abroad. I am happy to be doing something different. Though an enjoyable and enriching experience, I didn't want to spend another summer at a language summer school, and had to decline a scholarship offer for a new school in Recanati. I also felt as though I should spend a little bit of my summer gaining both work expenses and making money instead of spending it.

As mentioned in a previous post, Switzerland is very expensive. Fortunately for me, the minimum wage is also much higher than in most European countries, standing at 15 Swiss Francs per hour, about 11 pounds. As an au pair, my minimum wage is inevitably lower than that, but double the amount my friends are receiving in France and Italy. I have also been able to experience day-to-day life in a busy Swiss household, accompany the family to the mountains, and the eldest girl on her weekly ride. This next week my programme will be slightly more intense, given that the children are on holiday, and I need to keep them occupied so as to allow the father precious quiet time to write his dissertation. This will involve taking the children on picnics, to the cinema, the swimming pool, a creperie in town... I think I will also need to start thinking creatively. Teaching the children about a typical British afternoon tea, baking and eating in the garden? Showing them how flowers can be used to provide natural pigment and painting with roses and violets? Sneakily managing to teach English to the youngest girl who, unlike the other two, does not seem motivated to absorb anything may prove difficult, but not impossible.

During the week I do have plenty of free time between intervals, though often do not feel it is sufficient for a long walk or a rendez-vous with couchsurfers in the park... My weekend time however is almost limitless, the dinner hours being my only constraints, as I do not fancy being hungry and tempted by the extortionate gastronomic delights of Lausanne. Even a petty soup or sandwich could set me back by the equivalent of 10 pounds. 

Though not the ideal job for an independent traveller who wants freedom, I have been able to explore and direct things a little in my way. Two days ago, after lunch on Thursday afternoon I walked briskly down the hill past the by-now familiar Migros and the tempting Durig chocolate shop with the objective to finally reach the lake. I was armed only with my camera phone, but still managed to take a few pictures on the way down, and in the cute little town called Ouchy. There were a few surprises on the way down the hill, like this traditional Swiss chalet which the Swedish author Strindberg apparently stayed in several times:

One kind of expects another mini Monaco-like suburb to waiting at the foot of the hill. I was pleasantly surprised instead to find a quaint street which had a very different character to Lausanne. I like Lausanne, but it is always nice to find a different kind of architecture in the same city. 

Sure, there was still a great number of expensive restaurants and plush hotels, but also a few individual boutiques and cafés which seemed to ooze in real class. Then of course, you are greeted by the great lake and the misty alps on the horizon... 

Aside from my beautiful ride on the lovely thoroughbred Laudan yesterday through an alpine wood, on Thursday I also discovered a "free" yoga class taught near the gare de Lausanne, which is taught by a really great teacher called Rania. I took the eldest girl with me, as thought it would be a good opportunity for her to hear some more English, and her parents wanted her to do more stuff "outside her room". When I say free, it is actually by donation, but Rania says it is for people who cannot usually afford yoga. The school is lovely inside, with relaxing music, free yoga mat hire and a soft smell of incense. It was a hatha class, so the sequence was not so familiar with me, even though the actually postures were similar to those in ashtanga. 

After lunch, I plan to head up to Lausanne to take photos while the weather is nice again. Last weekend I picked the only rainy day, of course. There is a park in the centre which is supposed to be a great place to read and relax when the weather is like this. I also plan to check out the famous chocolate shop, Blondel, and potentially sample some of their produce.

This sounds like the ideal job, right? In theory, it is. I get to ride horses, teach English and practice my French, spend some time in a really beautiful country/town, experience a slightly different culture, and spend my spare time reading/exploring. Whilst I very much enjoy doing these things, there is one aspect  you don't really consider when applying for the job: loneliness. I am surrounded by people, but they are mainly under the age of 13 if not my employers, and whilst I have a good relationship with these people, I feel a distinct barrier; they, like I, need precious family time and privacy at times. If I were here on a long term basis I think I would put more effort into meeting people in the local area, but given that my contract is so short, this seems unlikely... So, 3 Asterisk comics, 2 novels and a half down, and I am just over half way through my stay. Here's to hoping to I will have a successful last week and a half!

Monday, 1 July 2013

Switzerland, an impossible nation

The other night I stayed at the table for a few hours after dinner, chatting with the mother. At a certain point I mentioned that I found it strange that a nation manages to exist with four national languages. Sure, this is very functional in countries such as India where the regional languages and dialects play an integral part in the country's diverse culture, or in Norway and Italy where regional dialects are spoken, yet a national standard is prevalent. Why then, is Switzerland such an anomoloy?

The mother was quick to agree that even amongst Swiss people this difference is startling, and sometimes very difficult. Why? Because with a certain language, often comes a different mentality. It is debatable as to what came first, the attitude or the language, but these differences are extremely evident.   She then explained to me: "I always said I would never marry and Italian or German Swiss boy. The Italians were too passionate, the Germans too rigid. As it happens, I went out with an Italian Swiss and married a German Swiss... Though I still experience problems. We French Swiss are more spontaneous, we like to enjoy life. My husband likes to organize everything, and doesn't like to amend plans. He wants everything done properly and efficiently". In response to that, I asked what language they spoke/speak in. "It's strange, because though I do speak some German, he has never spoken to me in German. German Swiss and French Swiss prefer to speak to each other in English or French, in fact at the beginning we spoke in English before he perfected his French".

In theory, the multilingualism is fully present in the country. Ingredients on shampoo bottles, sweets and cheese are usually in at least three of the four official languages. Announcements in train stations at least use two, usually French and German. In practice, it seems that the localized language area very much favours its own language. In Lausanne road signs are in French, in Lugano they are in Italian, in Zurich they are in German. If two people from the different language zones do not speak each other's language, English becomes the lingua franca. Sometimes food items are only in, say, German, in a supermarket in Lausanne. Aside from an inability to communicate in one national language which is unique to Switzerland, how do the Swiss consolidate their national identity? It is a question I am yet to find an answer to. My only current guess is that aside from cultural ties the country shares a financial unity, the Swiss franc, and its relatively strong and safe position in the world market.

Lausanne is like indeed the real life version of Duroc from Shrek, complete with the dancing singing figurines in the square near St François. It is clean, polished to perfection, no shops give a sense of decay. Supermarkets such as Globus and Manor are furnished with chandeliers, marble floors, and displays of food which range from extremely tempting to ostentatious. Some of the price tags are also quite unthinkable. Who would really pay the equivalent of eight pounds for strawberries? Apparently many people would... I feel a little overwhelmed by these prices, not because I want to buy everything, but because it all seems unnecessary. Take away the decorative shelves and designer packaging, and what do you have? Some regular pasta which you could buy elsewhere at a 1/6 of the price. I know this is hypocritical to a certain extent, as visitors from a lesser economically developed country such as India who visit the United Kingdom are bound to think the same about our national indulgences. Seeing it further up the scale does put some things into perspective though. These people may be rich, they may be able to eat white truffle shavings for lunch and 150 pound headphones on a whim, but they are certainly not happier. They think they will be one day, if they keep working ferociously and setting rigid regimes. I doubt it.

Some people do enjoy themselves though, as I discovered the festival au bord de l'eau which happened during the weekend at the Lac de Géronde. Before arriving at the festival we stopped at a chalet/ranch where we feasted upon three different types on local goats cheese, cherries, apricots and redcurrants. They ate the local homemade bread whilst I had brought my own gluten free bread. Though the idea of an artificial lake sounded hellish to me, the backdrop was beautiful: the snow topped Swiss alps. The lake itself was actually quite charming, and you couldn't tell it was artificial. The children enjoyed windsurfing and going in a pedalo whilst the mother and I laid back and relaxed in the burning sun. Despite wearing 50+ factor suncream I found that my parting was vivid read, and I had a few red lines on my arms where I clearly hadn't evenly distributed the cream. There was a stage from which sounded some repetitive music, and a few food stalls. After baking the sun for a few hours the family suggested we eat there to avoid cooking at home. I opted for a paneer mattar curry at the Indian stall, as did the mother, whilst the rest of the family gravitated towards the pizza van.

I am enjoying myself, though realize that extreme wealth is not for me, and evidently nor is Switzerland. Don't get me wrong-it's a beautiful country with charm and some extreme positive sides, not forgetting the quaint flower adorned mountain chalets supplied with naturally chilled mineral water and surrounded by goats with little bells attached, the abundance of fantastic chocolate and the proximity to and fusion between different European cultures. I do miss the casualness of Italian daily life, the ruined cascinas and more realistic prices.

Pictures to follow later in the month.