Why I’ve lived in French-speaking Geneva and France for nearly a decade and not learned the language

Talking to my psychiatrist recently, we bonded over our shared feeling of feeling unwelcome in Geneva, Switzerland: home of the United Nations and the much-mentioned Geneva Convention treaty enacted to protect civilians, soldier and war prisoners.

He is originally from Algeria and has lived in Geneva for twenty years. I’m from Australia and will soon celebrate a decade of living in Geneva (eight years) and just a smidge across the border in France (nearly two years), so we’ve both had time to observe and consider our experiences living here.

Firstly though, my hypocrisy should be admitted to. It always seemed a selfish and ignorant way of making life more isolated and difficult for yourself if you did not bother to learn the language of the country you had chosen to live in. Why rely on your kids to speak to marketing companies or plumbers for you on the phone? Why always refer to ‘google translate’ on your smartphone? Won’t you be reduced to only socialising with people who spoke your language and missing out on friendships with locals? Surely the opportunities for employment, sightseeing and being part of the cultural life would be worth the effort?

I used to think so. When we first arrived, our daughter was twelve years old and faced three long months of summer holidays before she started her new school. My husband had one week to find his feet before starting work at a UN agency. With English as the working language for all administrative and technical staff, he was in a familiar office cocoon and often returned home at night to find me fighting tears.

Whilst apartment hunting and filling in the summer holiday, we found a student who lived nearby and spent two afternoons a week with her, learning how to count, recite the days of the week, common foods and directions in French. My daughter and I both enjoyed these sessions and found that we could read the most basic advertisements featured on the sides of buses or roadsides.

When school started, I was left to continue to furnish our home, discover the rather tight rules around living in a Genevan-Swiss apartment complex and decipher all the paperwork involved in moving to a different hemisphere.

The unfriendliness of the Genevans was the biggest shock of all. The concierge saw the IKEA truck at the chained-off driveway, saw my efforts to read out from google translate the polite request for him to open the gate, but said ‘Non!’ and slammed the door in my face.

A retired nurse, originally from New Zealand, overheard this exchange and said, ‘it’s his lunchtime. You have to wait until 2pm.’ Considering that it was only 12:30pm and the street had two parking inspectors regularly patrolling it, I ended up persuading the delivery guy to manually drag all the boxes containing bed frames, mattresses, bookcases, sofas, kitchen chairs and kitchen utensils over the chain fence and into the lobby by waving a twenty franc note at him. After he left, muttering in annoyance, they were then dragged across the tiled floor to the lift, one a time, by me, swallowing sweat and tears.

Over time, we expanded from three 22kg suitcases to a comfortable home full of furniture, second-hand finds, pot plants and pantry staples. The apartment was warm, large and in a great location. School was going well and my husband was finding his feet in his position.

I cried. A lot. I dearly wish I could say that the locals became friendlier and my French vocab became larger, but I cannot. The sullenness of the checkout staff at the supermarket and impatience of tradesmen were transitory annoyances compared to the daily snubs doled out by my neighbours.

We had our beloved shelter dog, Milly, flown over from Australia six weeks after we arrived. Our luxury item, if you will. Four or five times a day I’d take her out for a walk and delight in her discovery of squirrels, snow and endless stale baguettes to be snuffled at in the gutters.

Each time we left the lift and walked through the lobby I’d pass a neighbour in our building and utter a ‘bonjour’ or ‘bonsoir’ and get stared through in return. This didn’t deter me; it was best to keep at it until they eventually recognised me as another resident in their building or my determination to keep greeting them. In our eighth and final year in the same apartment complex, at least two thirds of those neighbours continued to give me a stony glance as a greeting. The ones that smiled at me or said ‘bonjour’ back were dog lovers and only knew the name of my dog, not me.

The precariousness of our situation here also pricks at the balloon of joy that life in Europe (Europe…….!!!) should be for an Aussie. We have a ‘carte de legitimation’ because my husband works for the UN. This has been shown to post office workers, bus ticket inspectors, chemists, security and border control officers far more often than my passport. It makes me ‘legitimate,’ or a person that must be endured while she’s in possession of this tiny card. However, if my husband quits or loses his job, we have three months to get the hell out of Switzerland and now, France.

I am a trailing spouse, or ‘epouse’ as it says on the carte de legitimation and UN visitor’s lanyard. Geneva and surrounding France is full of us, mostly women. We are doctors, lawyers, chemists, writers, geographers, scientists, political consultants, accountants, nurses and teachers. None of us can find a job here.

Before you say, ‘but that’s because you don’t speak French you lazy sod,’ you are correct. It is only fair that project management, administrative or research writing jobs be offered to locals first, then EU-ers second. However, many of these jobs are to be found within the UN or NGO environment where English is all that’s required. It seems that you’re exotic and sexy if you apply for a UN role whilst abroad, but if you apply for one when you’re actually in Geneva you won’t get your application acknowledged, let alone considered.

There were friends who tried to learn French. They attended the UN classes, did their homework, found a ‘my language for yours’ partner to converse with. All of them failed the hearing comprehension aspect of the course and eventually gave up trying. “I’m never going to get to the level of being able to understand or participate in a rapid-fire conversation that has slang words and is at the level of the ‘Advanced French’ required for applying for a job putting English books into a database for one day a week,’ my mate Kaye said.

Another mate, Diane, did find an admin job in the UN sphere. She dodged the French requirement by doing the test online with a ‘google translate’ tab open. That lurk has since been discovered and French proficiency is tested face to face.

Jobs I have managed to find here have been via online freelance writing with more ripoffs than successes, local expat groups or through a friend already working at an organization. Not one of the dozens of applications I’ve sent through the online UN system or via private companies have yielded an interview.

Oh wait, that’s wrong. I was granted an interview at the Australian mission for a low-level administrative position. It was the shortest question session I’d ever had, and I was back on the street within ten minutes. Another friend also interviewed for it and was the given the same amount of time. We later found out that the daughter of the then-Prime Minister of Australia got the role. Ah.

After paying over a third of a million swiss francs in rent and the UN reducing salaries by 8% and removing the allowance to help finance kids studying outside of Switzerland, we needed to move somewhere we’d be comfortable in and be able afford to put our daughter through university.

In France, it was the seventh bank that agreed to lend us, non-French and non-EU citizens, money to buy an apartment. With the mortgage covering twenty years and undergoing the legal requirements to transfer our car registration from Switzerland to France and our Australian drivers’ licences exchanged for French ones, the visa authorities granted us a one-year tourist visa.

This visa must be re-applied for three months before it expires and, so far, has resulted in another one-year visa. Part of the requirement is signing a form that states in French that we will never earn a single euro of income while we live in France. This is despite paying council tax, property tax and building maintenance fees. And a twenty-year mortgage.

My future is not here in France or Geneva. While I have learned to feel proud of my efforts to make some friends here and carve out a little but satisfying life for myself, it has not been without losing a great deal of self-confidence and piling on a load of self-defeating guilt.

This attempt to justify my decision is part of the never-ending anxiety and depression that endlessly hums within me. French is only part of the problem, but an obvious one considering my current address. Sympathy isn’t expected or required as there is always the possibility that throwing myself into learning French might have enabled me to feel stronger and more ‘worthy’ of the life I lead. Perhaps. I never thought I’d be the person who’d refuse to learn, to remain unknowing and out of the loop. Is it mental illness or cowardice? Whatever it is, there’s a block there, a helpless sensation that has resulted in attempts to learn only to end up in shameful surrender soon afterwards.

These days I survive by measuring self-worth in terms of going out for groceries so that my asthmatic husband can stay safe at home working. Or doing the recycling, helping someone ‘jazz up’ their written English or greeting a fellow dog walker and talking in broken French about the weather before they revert to perfect English. It is no longer in terms of income earned or technical experience gained. My resume is an erratic patchwork of freelance and chance opportunities, but my little family assure me that I keep the home fires burning. The dog adores me. That has to be enough for now.

My future is not likely to be in Australia, either. The pull is coming from the United Kingdom. We’ve made some great friends who worked in Geneva and moved back and stayed in regular touch, meeting up for regular holidays and get togethers. Together with the British humour, history, scenery and the plain fact that they speak English makes it an attractive place to retire to. Each time we land in Bristol or Edinburgh or Heathrow the tension drops from my shoulders and I feel at home, like I could be a part of the community, to contribute somehow.

That ‘home’ might not be for another few years, so a few days ago, I found myself in my psychiatrist’s office, both of us wearing masks and trying to conduct a discussion from across the room. He told me that in twenty years, he had made only one Swiss friend through his professional and personal interactions. Everyone he socialised with was from anywhere else in the world.

It felt good to say aloud what I’d been thinking — bitterly? lazily? resentfully? — all along. I did not believe that I owed this part of the world anything more than what I had already given and I just didn’t want to learn the language. Disapproval from others is a given, but the relief in saying the raw truth was instant and enormous. This is enough for now.

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