Well I made it through my first week at work in one piece. Bonus. I’m absolutely exhausted (I’m really not used to this full-time work malarkey, never mind with a 3-and-a-half-hour total commute added to each day). And a bit grumpy (nostalgically remembering what a jammy life I had before, working three days a week from home in my jogging bottoms). But mainly, it’s just fine.
A new job in a new country has, however, made me feel funnily foreign. All over again.
Foreign in France
Foreignness is a feeling that has faithfully followed me around over the last two years, floating away from time to time but always finding me again to bite me in the backside whenever I start to believe that I’m no longer a stranger here.
Going to the doctors in France was a whole new experience for me and my poor children, but it’s one we got used to (the darlings now know to not moan too much about being ill, lest their pants get whipped down before they can say “Calpol please Mummy…“). Now I don’t bat an eyelid when I get charged 26 euros for a consultation, safe in the knowledge that finally – after two whole years of being here – I’m officially in “the system” (a privilege not to be sneezed at), and will get that money back without having to complete three different coloured forms in triplicate and send it to three different agencies who are only open for three hours a day three days a week. And not at all in August. And, even better, after two years of forgetting I would have to pay the doctor each time, and scraping around in my wallet at the end of each visit for enough 10-centime coins to make the fee, I have even got myself a chequebook. I know, a chequebook! They still exist!
Then there’s getting my hair cut – something I avoided for a whole two years because the fear of foreignness (and more accurately, of a dangerous miscommunication during such a delicate operation) was just too great. I asked Alpine Papa for a translation of key terms such as “layering”, or “swept fringe”, or “don’t you dare cut it too short, lady, or I’ll sue your ass”. He was useless. Eventually the sheer weight of my hair won out and I got it all hacked off to the desired length by making sawing motions with my hand at about chin height. It worked. Ish. (Though I did have to make do without layers for quite some time.)
Going to the supermarket has always been the fun bit of foreignness in France: joyfully wandering through endless aisles of stuff that I have no idea what to do with (pigs’ trotters anyone?) and stuff that I certainly do know about (two years here and I’ve still not sampled every chocolate flavour they’ve got in my local Carrefour. I am trying). And while it took me a good 6 months to work out which brands were premium and which were budget (shopping trips took forever as I stood for hours in front of displays of washing powder, desperately looking for a logo I recognized…), that’s ok because, let’s face it, it’s worth it when you find gems like this:
Anyway, the feeling of foreignness slowly wore off a bit and, given that I tended not to leave the house too much and converse only with English people, it was mainly fun. But now I’m a ‘frontalier’ – I live in France and work in Switzerland – and the feeling of foreignness has increased fourfold.
Foreign as a frontalier
Firstly there’s the getting to work. London was my home for many a year, and I could pretty much travel the tube system with my eyes closed (and often did on a Friday night after a few too many, but we won’t dwell on that). And while I was terrified of my local mountain roads when we first got here – nothing could have been more foreign for me to start with – I was soon zipping up and down them in all weathers, without a thought to the fact that they tend not to go in much for safety barriers round where we live.
But now it’s all new again. The bus stop names in Geneva mean nothing to me and I have no idea where anything is – Concorde is not near Aeroport, Bel Air is nowhere near Petit Bel Air, and there are at least 16 stops that start with the letters ‘Ver’, meaning I have to be VERy careful to get on the right bus going in the right direction after a long day in the office.
I get lost every time I set foot outside. Literally. People laugh at me quite a lot about this, constantly telling me how ‘tiny’ Geneva is. They seem to forget that I live in a village with three main(ish) roads, surrounded by mountains (it’s hard to lose your sense of direction when the navigational choice is either up or down, or away from that big mountain or towards it). I therefore get rather flummoxed (understandably so, in my view) when faced with grid systems of roads (which all seem to be named after ancient “famous” people I have never heard of) and nothing higher than a three storey building to navigate by. I feel frustratingly foreign as I turn a corner and yet again find I have walked in a big circle (and still not found the office).
And I’m back in an environment where I don’t know what shops to go to, what brands to look for, which coins to use. I long for those piddly euro pieces that all look the same to me, as now I’m even less sure whether I’m handing over the equivalent of fifty pence or fifty pounds for my sandwich (actually, it doesn’t matter whether I’m handing over fifty pence or fifty pounds as I get the impression that neither will buy you much of a sandwich in pricy Geneva…)
Foreignness reigns supreme inside the office too. In an office of about 20 I think there are at least 10 nationalities – American, Swiss, French, Portuguese, English, Austrian, Russian… the list goes on. I love it – this multicultural, multilingual, multinational environment is genuinely something I get excited by; that’s not just something I say in interviews. The best bit though is that, to my workmates, I’m the foreign one – not only am I English but I also live in France. They can’t get their heads round my enormous commute (which I’ve started to play down a bit – i.e. lie about – so they don’t think I’m totally weird), and they think it’s absolutely hilarious that I whip out a fresh baguette and some stinky mountain cheese at lunchtime (though I think I might have to stop doing that, because it really does stink, and I’m starting to get a name for myself…).
This feeling of foreignness is fun and frightening and frustrating and fascinating and will one day be gone, I’m sure.
Until then, I’ll just concentrate on finding out where all the letters are on my Swiss computer keyboard are so I can keep you posted about how Alpine Mummy is faring in such foreign climes. If you don’t get an update soon then check the Geneva bus routes, as I’ll probably have been travelling round in circles for days…