This post is pretty snarky, so please bear with me and try to read it all the way to the end.
I went to see a movie last weekend. Before the previews start, there’s an ad featuring a close-up image of the torso of a reclined woman wearing a dark brown bikini. She has one arm raised over her head, revealing her armpit, and the other hand is holding an ice cream bar. On her left breast there’s a light brown smudge that looks like spilled chocolate ice cream, until you look closer and realize it’s a palm tree. This ad has preceded every single movie I’ve watched in Switzerland, the whole time we’ve lived here. I can’t believe it. You’d think that by now they would have changed the ad, particularly since it’s so awful.
Recently, I made a special trip to the Migros because I knew they carried milk from grass-fed cows. ( I usually shop Switzerland’s other supermarket chain; but the food they sell is pretty much identical.) I have started fermenting kefir in my kitchen, and I wanted to feed it with this super-healthy milk. Well, guess what? It’s UHT. Hello? Why bother going to all the trouble to do the grass-fed milk thing if you’re going to zap the living daylights out of it? It just doesn’t make sense.
Yet another day, smelling freshly baked sourdough at a bakery counter in a grocery store, I asked whether they could slice it for me. The woman behind the counter looked at me like I was crazy. She pointed to the packaged, sliced “American” bread that has so many preservatives that it won’t grow mold no matter how dark and moist an environment you provide. Two feet over the border in France they sell sliced fresh bread in the Carrefours. What’s with Switzerland? You’d think they’d love a slicing machine! It’s like a big multi-bladed Swiss Army knife! I hate slicing bread! I’ve stopped eating bread altogether in protest.
Then last week I was babysitting my friend Matt’s bookshop downtown, and I picked up a book written by Susan Tiberghien, the leader of the Geneva Writer’s Group. This was the one book of hers that I hadn’t read. I opened to a beautifully-written vignette about the Sacred Sunday Lunch with her French in-laws. She recounted the protocol that had to be followed, the things that could and couldn’t be talked about, the tradition. And I felt overwhelmed with a sense of irritation. How could she bear it? Why didn’t she just tell them all to take their tradition and shove it?
The answer was that she couldn’t because it was a different time and because she’s just not that kind of person. And I knew that.
My irritation has even seeped into Gydle lately. Remember the stupid Swiss start-up that wouldn’t take my offer of free editing? Or my comment that Steve Jobs wouldn’t have had a chance here? I had written even more that day, about the fact that you, my beloved blog audience, can’t read the magazine I translate because they don’t put any content online. In the 21st century. But I cut that part out before posting.
Why the judgment-passing? What’s my problem?
My first thought was hormones. It feels a lot like PMS. But it has lasted far too long for that.
I told my running buddy, who is Swiss and infinitely patient with me, that I thought I really needed to take a trip to the US this summer. I just need to be able to go into a grocery store and find a damn can of chicken broth, I said (in French). She agreed that it sounded like a good idea.
Then I was preparing the Gydle birthday blog post and it hit me: We’ve been here 7.5 years.
That’s longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life. We lived in Davis for 7 years, then Baltimore for 7 years, and then we moved here. See a pattern?
Yes. I am in the throes of the seven-year itch.
We moved here largely because I love Switzerland. We had spent an idyllic sabbatical year here in 2003-2004. When we moved back to Baltimore, there were so many things I missed.
In retrospect, the sabbatical – with its otherworldly, bubble-like quality, was a bit like shacking up.
When we moved for good in July 2004, we sold our house and got rid of everything we didn’t absolutely need; the rest of it came over the ocean with us. We left nothing behind to attach us to the US, except family. We settled in with gusto, loving the hiking, the language, the high-quality food, the high-paying job, the functional public transport, the safe, clean cities, the civilized way people lived and interacted. We re-found the friends we’d made on sabbatical. I got a job. We laughed off the eccentricities and coped with the things that were profoundly different.
In retrospect, moving here permanently was a bit like getting married.
The thing is, I still love Switzerland. I hate having these irritated feelings and I hate hearing myself say these negative things. But as in any meaningful relationship, there are things that just grate. Small, unimportant things. The toilet seat. The fingernail clippings in the sink. The wine bottle corks in the silverware drawer. The underwear on the floor.
I ventured my new theory to my running buddy on our next run. Absolument! she exclaimed. She said that seven is ubiquitous in mythology and the human psyche. The seven days of the week. The seven wonders of the world. The seven sages of the bamboo grove in China, the seven sages of Greece; the seven hills of Rome and Constantinople… the list goes on.
Among numbers, seven is special; it’s a double Mersenne prime (since 23 − 1 = 7). It’s not my favorite number; it’s too sharp. It seems unstable to me, wobbly on that one foot, it looks like it could topple. In my synesthetic world, seven is black. We discussed all this, most of it largely beside the point – which is why running with a friend is so much fun – and we decided that my irritation was indeed symptomatic of a seven-year itch.
I also mentioned my recent revelation of how wonderful parsnips are. T’as besoin de racines, she said. You need roots. You know what? She’s probably on to something there.
The French expression for homesickness is mal du pays. In the same way sea-sick is mal du mer, this translates literally as country-sick. But notice it doesn’t specify which country is making you feel sick.
I wonder if other ex-pats have experienced this? How do they get through it? If I compare it to my marriage, which has survived three seven-year cycles, there are some definite similarities. So far, I’ve been able to get over the little stuff and see the bigger picture. It’s often said that the things you love most in a person are also the things that end up driving you the craziest. Why wouldn’t the same be true for a country?
The only problem is that I can’t tell Switzerland to lighten up. I can’t tell them to stock liquid chicken broth and sliced fresh bread in the supermarket in the same way I can ask my husband to please stop leaving the pear stems in the kitchen sink. Switzerland doesn’t care. She isn’t going to listen to me. Switzerland is like a big huge honey badger that’s going to eat her bee larva no matter what.
So what should I do? Taking a break is probably a good idea. But I can tell already that knowing these things go in cycles, that I’m caught in a archetypal human thing here, is very reassuring. I can be a bit more objective. It’s not my business to judge things Swiss. It is what it is. It’s their country, their heritage, their land. I’m the outsider here. Maybe our relationship will make it through this rough patch, maybe it won’t, but either way, me being irritable that it’s not more like the US is like me being irritable that Marc isn’t my dad. Both of them are wonderful; but as Yoda would say, the same person, they are not. And in all honesty, I wouldn’t want them to be.
I am lucky to have had the opportunity to live in both these countries in one lifetime. Scratching an itch just makes it worse. I should just commit to living deeply, wherever I happen to be.
Are any of you ex-pats? Have you experienced this?
Or do you think it might just be hormones after all?