What I Regret From My 2 Years in Switzerland

Lavaux, Switzerland

There are a few things I regret from my two years in Switzerland – like, not putting more effort on learning how to snowboard, or not going more often to the gym. Not practicing ice skating, because I didn’t dare to go by myself. Not traveling more around the country. And, also, not socialising with more Swiss, but limiting myself to the expat community in the area.

But there’s one thing I regret more than anything of the above:

Not learning enough french to call myself fluent

The Reasonable Explanation.

Two years in a french speaking location, and I’m not fluent. Embarrassing? Maybe. But let me share my ridiculous excuse reasonable explanation. Before moving to Switzerland, I wasn’t too much into french. At University, I gave it a try – but there was something in its silent vowels and consonants that I found a bit fishy. I never thought I could have as much grammatical errors as I had during french class. If the teacher would have counted -0.5 points for every mistake I had made, I’m pretty sure I would have had a -20 as my final exam grade. I’m grateful that our system only allowed teachers to grade us between 1 – the best – and 6 – the worst. Management instructed them to give an overall grade to the pupil. I’m quite sure that my french “r” had something to do with me passing the subject.

And then, there was the easiness of working in an international company, in a latin-american team. I never used french at work – not even when talking to french banks. I wasn’t forced into it. Instead, I was helped out of any trouble by a swiss colleague (who also speaks spanish). Whenever I had to write a formal letter to, say, apply for an apartment or demand a housing insurance, she was there to write it for me.

After one year making my way through the french part of Switzerland with little more than 40 words, I thought it was time to give french another chance. But then there were the unreasonable course timetables in any of Lausanne’s academies, which seemed to assume that those who want to learn french are anything but full-time employees. My variable work schedule with the increasing number of business travels didn’t go well with pricey regular group lessons.

That was when I discovered the language courses by Rosetta Stone, and practiced whenever I had time to do so. Ok, maybe not whenever I had time – as I had to share this time with blogging, traveling and socializing; but I did practice al least for one and a half hours twice a week from February until July 2011 – 6 fruitful months.

I did improve from my 30 words vocabulary during these two years (specially when I started using Rosetta Stone) – but by no means can I call myself fluent in french. Not even intermediate.

Why I regret it (so much).

There’s a very simple reason for french being on the top of my biggest regrets – I don’t have the verbal capacity to defend myself when I was attacked in french. Even at the end of my stay, I could form sentences that made sense and expressed my desire or needs – but I couldn’t find the words that would help me out in a confrontation.

Picture this. The day before I left my apartment, a moving company was taking down and wrapping up my furniture and packing all of my belongings into big boxes that, at the end of the day, would take a ride all the way to the UK. I had to be there all the time – in case they needed access to the basement or doubted of whether I wanted to take an item with me or could live without it for 19 days. The door to my apartment was wide open.

I was sitting outside on the balcony, trying not to disturb their efficiency (and accidentally tanning a tiny little bit), when I heard a female voice in my living room.

I went inside expecting to find the local representative of my relocation agency. Or, at most, someone from my current real estate agency, who wanted to keep an eye on what I was doing. Instead, I found a mid-aged lady followed by an older woman with a walking stick inspecting my apartment.

Me: “Excuse me, can I help you?” Great Start. There are 2 strangers in my apartment and all I can ask them is if I can help them – maybe a cup of tea?
Lady: “Oh, I believe you are the agent. Nice to meet you!” and reaches out her refined hand
Me: “Oh, no. I live here. This is my apartment. What do you want?”
Lady: “I saw an announcement to rent this apartment in the internet, called the agent, who told me to come by and take a look. He even gave me the code for the entry door, downstairs. I’m looking for an apartment for my mother, you see.”
Me: “That’s not possible. This apartment is already rented. I personally searched for the next tenant. He signed the contract about 2 months ago.”
Lady: smiles and says “Well, you don’t decide on this but the agent does” while she walked outside to my terrace, “Oh look! What a pretty view.”
Me: “Madame, this apartment is not in the market. Would you please leave my private property?” Wow. Just so much power and conviction in those words. I’d feel threatened.
Lady: “I demand to see this apartment!”
Me: “Excuse me?! You are in private property and you can’t demand anything. I demand you leave my apartment.” There. I just remember the french word for demand.
Lady: “It was the agency who sent me here. This is none of your business!” Wow. So now I don’t even have rights in my own house.
Me: “They are not the agent of this aparment”
Lady: “Yes they are.”

I considered grabbing her arm and dragging her out. Instead, I called my real estate agency and asked them to talk with the crazy woman who wouldn’t leave my apartment.

I knew I was right. I knew she was completely wrong. And still, I couldn’t make my point with enough conviction to make her leave ashamed and with her tail between her legs.

The Final Take.

So, after the lady had spoken during 10 minutes on my phone, with my real estate agent and my anger kept escalating soon reaching uncontrollable levels, I had the same thought bouncing in my head – Language courses should have a master class in biting back. After all – isn’t it us, the expats struggling with local language, that are so often taken advantage of? I bet that lady would have left my apartment in less than a minute if this had happened to me in Spain.

It’s language dominance what gives some people power and this feeling of being right against a foreigner. There are few things more frustrating than precisely that – understand the rude attitude but being unable to respond adequately to it.

And so I made a decision: it doesn’t matter if I am not in a french speaking country any more, I will still continue my course with Rosetta Stone. Hopefully, after completing all five levels and with a little help from some french-speaking friends, I’ll be ready to confront anyone who wants to fool me for being a foreigner.

Do you have any regrets from your life abroad?

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22 thoughts on “What I Regret From My 2 Years in Switzerland

  1. i spent six months in dubai and never got around even during weekends thibking i’d be there for a couple more years but an unexpected opportunity in another coubtry came and i had to leave immediately. now t’s got me thibking and wondering if i will ever have that chance to go there again.

  2. Holy crap! What a crazy story about the woman in your apartment! I COMPLETELY know how you feel when I am yelled at by an angry Bavarian and I can’t quite come up with anything witty and perfect to say in German! It can be pretty motivating to learn though…lol.

  3. Having read this post and severals comments, seems like i need to keep up on my french. been here in Switzerland for 6 years, i can’t say i’m fluent. normally i said to people i got a “français Coop, or français Migros” you know, good enough to shop around, but not dealing with administrative stuff. yeah, i have my little travel agency company, my colleagues are my friends who speak english to me, so… guess what! my french improved but broken grammar. somehow, i’m gonna have to take course, our business is up and running, i need to engage.. great post, love it… buena suerte en Londres

  4. I wish I spoke French as well. I have never lived in a French speaking country but have travelled through France quite a bit (and am there currently) I would love to speak French fluently but fear it is beyond me.

  5. You don’t need to know any languages to push rude people out the door! Take them by the elbow and shove them out. It’s still your apartment until you move out.

    But enough of that. You’re in London now?!? Let me know if you want any tips 😉

  6. I was just thinking about this as well. Even though I speak French well there are situations I don’t put up a big enough fight thanks to the language barrier. Most times I’ll just shrug and cope with it on my own. This is really a crappy aspect but on the flip side, while my attitude towards foreigners in the US was never particularly rude or disrespectful, I am just that much more compassionate to them as they fumble over their English. Don’t even get me started on phrases like “This is America, we speak English here.” My blood just starts to boil! I’ll spare your comment section the elaborate bitch fest! But I think continuing your language studies is a great idea! 🙂

  7. I know how it goes! I’ve been in Spain for about 18 months now and still am not fluent enough to argue effectively either. I teach English, speak English at home and Spanish classes through the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas are only in the afternoons, two towns away…when I’m working :-/ It’s so frustrating! I’ve compensated by listening to podcasts, studying via textbooks on my Kindle and engaging in Spanish with anyone who’s willing to listen, but it’s slowed my progress. My goal this year is to do intercambios. I have learned that learning languages is an incredibly personal thing and that no two people learn at the same rate. My mom teaches English to refugees and told me it can take up to TEN years to master a second language. Try not to beat yourself up–you already know English in addition to Spanish, so you should be proud of that!

    Anyway, wanted to share this with you: http://www.labelleinfrance.com/2010/07/essentialfrenchlanguagetools/ It’s from a fellow expat blog that I enjoy reading and I hope you’ll find it useful!

    Hope your move to London went smoothly! Take care!

    1. It’s amazing how difficult it can be sometimes to learn the local language in a foreign country. I’m still sure that the best way to learn is probably to get yourself a local novio! 😉

  8. Oy that would have been an extremely tough situation for me to handle… I’ve been here en Suisse for nearly 2 yrs now and sadly my French is abysmal – I tried classes at the university – twice to no avail – I think being in a class where the majority of students were native romance language speakers was difficult for me because everyone else was already at such an advantage for learning the language leaving me trailing far behind. I’ve tried a tandem program too but that didn’t work out either b/c I’m not at a level high enough to actually sustain conversation. With work and home being in English, it doesn’t leave much opportunity to practice. I do have Rosetta Stone, but haven’t gotten past level 3 yet. Will be very curious to see how to goes for you! Ha who ever would have thought it was so difficult to learn a the language when living in a foreign country? Maybe I should make this my resolution for my year 3 en Suisse, to actually become somewhat competent at French 🙂

    1. Seems like a pretty good resolution to me! I hope to complete all 5 levels after one and a half years – I still have a lot to go… I understand what you say about tandems – I tried them too! But when my level isn’t even conversational, it was really frustrating for both. I think it’s a good way to practice once you have a good base though!

  9. I really regret not improving my French with an intensive course when we lived in Paris as well. I had enough from high school to get around and could have easily squeezed a class into my exploration schedule but I just didn’t. On our next expat stint I’m determined to learn the local language.

  10. Oh I feel your pain!

    When I first met my (Chinese-Canadian) husband, I thought my English was good. It was better than most French, for sure, but I was far to be fluent. I just didn’t know that. Besides, I was used to British accent and I had a hard time understanding his North American slang.

    I could make myself understood and he wasn’t picking on my English (probably because he had to learn it from scratch when he moved to Canada). Little by little, my English improved. But for the first few years (yes, years!!) we were together, I couldn’t argue in English for the life of me. I would invariably end up crying out of frustration.

    So yes, I feel your pain.

    This lady was way out of line. In doubt, in French, throw some “putain, mais merde quoi!” et shrug 🙂

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