The seven-year itch

3387985048_436dcb9375_mLittle things have been bugging me lately.

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?

Photo Credit: xjara69 via Compfight cc

14 thoughts on “The seven-year itch

  1. It’s hormones and the fact that jelly beans are filling the US supermarket aisles in time for Easter. I’m itching to leave Portland after 13 years and go back to Davis so maybe we’re just a restless lot. When you do come to the US make a detour to Portland…Margaret and I are excellent tour guides.

    • You’re so right Ellen!! If there’s one thing the Swiss don’t do, it’s jelly beans. But they do make an awesome chocolate bunny. I would love to come to Portalnd and see you guys. Maybe I’ll finally make it this summer. I’ll keep you posted!

  2. Very humorous…your grief gave me a chuckle…humans wouldn’t be human if we didn’t fluctuate and gripe every once in awhile! It’s like ying/yang…like waves up and down….you can’t be happy without being unhappy. You cannot enjoy a place forever without encountering its irritating quirks. Bottom line, humans would be unhappy with being happy all the time…..griping allows us a chance to use our minds to compare, investigate, conjecture, plan, solve or debate these annoyances! I suggest a bar of dark chocolate and a strong drink and a prayer to ground your soul! Come to think of it—that’s why I take to the Sierras and do a power hike to drain my brain of annoyances! I would love to hike in Switzerland someday! See? We’re never happy with what we have! Now I am laughing at myself! Take care, Andrea in Davis…another crazy place…

    • While I was writing the post I was amazed at how little and insignificant all those gripes are. You’re right, though, that it’s a human thing. I should investigate the neuroscience of griping. What’s it doing for us? Chocolate, Bailey’s, hiking – those are my preferred chill-out methods, too. Probably somerthing neuro going on there, too. Enjoy Davis! I griped about the heat and the rice stubble burning and the smell of rotten tomatoes while we were there, but there are also some good memories; it’s a unique place, you’ve right about that!

  3. Not easy to accept – and befriend – what cannot be changed. I soooo hear you. Some postive bits for you: the Migros just put out Easter jelly beans ( they’re even pastel in green plastic grass! ), the full moon is waning, if you can get a Cutco bread knife then I bet I can show you a technique which will make you want only YOUR thicknessof bread, and – most of all – I’m glad you’re on this side of the pond. But that ad at the movies has got to go! You asked for advice- hang tight and write, write, write. Please? Because you are making a difference with your words. Really. So there.

    • Migros jelly beans? Thanks but no thanks. They’re just not the same. Sniff. But you’re right about the bread. I need to think of it as good, much-needed uppor body exercise. Write on!

  4. 7 is not only sharp; it’s also gray. I know a guy who gets divorced and re-married every 7 years, like clockwork. Your invitation to visit is always open!

  5. You don’t need 7 years to get irritated with expat life from time to time. I shake my head in wonder often at our respective host countries. Take a trip. Like over the border to visit me! We’ll while away an afternoon at a cafe, reading and writing. What say you?

    • Sounds fantastic! I can go to the Carrefour and buy some sliced bread while I’m there! There isn’t much better than an afternoon reading and writing, particularly with a friend in a cafe. You’re on.

  6. Hi Mary – everything you say rings true. I was a very well paid web marketeer and I offerred to help my local independent cinema with their website because their auditorium was always so empty. They kindly refused my help. It is no suprise to note that probably the best known entrepreneur – Nicolas Hayek of Swatch – was not Swiss.

    IMHO, the Swiss are not risk takers. They are too comfortable to move from their traditions into the zone where entrepreneurship flourishes. Take my next door neighbour with the CD shop. He has days when he sells nothing. He just hangs on hoping that things will change.

    I have come to the conclusion that the Swiss refuse to believe the maxim that if you are not expanding you are going backwards. This has benefits, a stable society for one. It also means that if you have an idea you should run with it as your Swiss competitors will react slowly to you.

    • Amen. No, they are not risk-takers. I often try to understand it in geographical terms. They’re in a mountainous, landlocked country. They’re kind of physically penned in here, often in tight, narrow valleys. They cannot see long, extended distances without a mountain blocking the horizon, they are not on a coast, open to the ocean and the rest of the world.

      When I was working at EPFL, I would have lots of ideas, most of which were dismissed for various reasons, such as “it won’t work,” “nobody would read it,” “that’s not what we do,” etc. I went ahead anyway with many of them, but it was such a struggle on my own. I finally threw in the towel. I hear the same story from so many other people. And don’t get me started on the school system or we’ll be here all day. I’d say you’re right about running with ideas. Just don’t run with scissors.

  7. I’ve found Swiss risk-takers are more appreciated beyond Swiss borders. example: Bertrand Piccard

    Those that take risks here in Switzerland are usually foreign-born and breed.
    example as mentioned by Matt: Nicolas Hayek

    Geography influences us, just like society does, and I think we can get bogged down anywhere. But I have noticed there are little spots throughout the world where the natural energy of the place corresponds to my own energy. I don’t know why.

  8. Je ne suis pas une ex pat américaine, mais une fille d’immigrés espagnols, enfin: GALICIENS. Cela crée la différence. Quand je suis arrivée ici, avec mes 14 ans, je ne pouvais pas imaginer de rester au-délà de mes 18 ans. Là, je serais adulte et pourrais partir vers mon ElDORADO, mon pays de Cocagne. Puis, j’ai grandi, j’ai vu tout ce qui ne me convenait pas là-bas: mentalités étriquées, esprits conservateurs et renfermés, racisme primaire, manque d’ouverture, de modernité… Ici, je ne trouvais pas non plus ma place. Je me sentais flotter, dans une sorte de no man’s land de l’appartenance. Aujourd’hui, je suis encore entre ce va et vient, je n’ai pas l’impression d’avoir des racines éternelles ici, mais je sais que je n’appartiens plus à là-bas…. alors, à quoi j’appartiens?

    • that’s the thing. It’s like you say, a strange no-man’s land. I grew up in the US so I feel my roots more strongly there, even though there are some things that bug me there, too. But I wonder about Brendan and Luc, who have mostly grown up here. Where will they feel at home? Have we condemned them to a life of floatation? Maybe that’s not such a bad thing in an increasingly global world?

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