My Many Language Lovers

Having just read a post on a friend’s blog describing his learning Spanish like a love affair, I was struck at how apt an analogy it was. It got me looking at the language-learning process from a new perspective. I started reflecting on my own various linguistic affairs and dalliances and realised when it comes to languages I’m a bit of a hussy.

When a language catches my eye/ear, I like to give it a go, commitment-free, see how it feels on my tongue and decide if it is a prospect for further pursuit. Therefore, I am about to do something I would NEVER do about my actual love life: I’m going to outline here my relationship with every language with whom I’ve ever had an affair, no holds barred, all the gory details included…

My old man: English. Of course we have to start with the langue maternelle. He’s been with me all my life, and no matter how hard I try I’ll never be able to escape the clutches of the one who has influenced me the most in my life, who determined who I am today and continues to dominate my every thought. He’s my point of reference for every other language, and I love and hate him. I love him because he is so much a part of me, yet I hate being in his grip; and it really is an inescapable one. EVERYONE knows him.

My current lover: French. Romantic and exciting, we’ve been together long enough for me to have a good understanding of him, but not long enough for me to be bored. I’m learning new things about him everyday, and he’s opened me up to a wealth of culture and literature I would not have been able to experience without him. He’s a challenge, intoxicating, charming and oh-so-beautiful!

The one that won’t leave me alone: German. Something just never quite worked with us. I dedicated four years of my life to him, and on paper, we were a perfect match (full marks in my German GCSE). People often complimented my pronunciation, and I found him very appealing: a handsome, refined sort of fellow. But he was too aloof, always just out of my reach. I worked hard but in the end we just weren’t fusing; I had to let him go. Yet now he is constantly popping up everywhere I go, I can’t escape. Though a part of me wants to start things up again, I don’t think we really have a future.

My childhood sweetheart: Chinese (mandarin). My first-ever love, the first language I learned to speak, my origin and my destiny. Somewhere along the line, we just grew apart. My current husband, English, got in the way, and became a far bigger presence in my life. I still long for the days when I could speak Chinese fluently, and now I regret having neglected him. We can build on our foundations but we’ve wasted a lot of time apart. Every time I hear his melodic tones I feel my heart soften; something about him still feels like home.

The (much) older man: Latin. He was so old he was positively a relic; dead, even. He was filled with the wisdom of the ages, but we were very stop-and-start. I renewed my liaison with him twice, each time full of hope for us, but in the end he was just too old for me. He enriched my relationships with other Romance languages, but wasn’t relevant enough for my modern life. My peers regarded us with a mixture of incomprehension and admiration. I am still full of respect for him, but I needed someone younger, with more validity and, well, life.

The one(s) that got away: Chinese (Cantonese and Hubei dialect). This was a strange relationship because I was completely passive. I understood, but I could not speak. Over the years, I didn’t bother to cultivate my understanding, and of course no man likes to be under-appreciated. He left me, and I let him go without a fight.

The Fling: Ancient Greek. We had some serious chemistry. For two weeks last summer we had an intense entanglement, but then it burned out pretty fast when we tried to carry things on here in Lausanne. It was fun while it lasted, but I wasn’t willing to commit time and energy to someone I didn’t like enough. Ultimately not The One.

The one that could have been: Italian. I entertained the idea of pursuing him instead of French at university, and was even offered a place on a course, but in the end Frenchie won. We got together briefly for a week in Italy but both parties knew it was temporary; just for convenience. He’s dashing and seductive, but doesn’t really fit into my lifestyle. I admire from a distance.

The accidental affair: Japanese. I never really intended to start anything with him, yet a brief period in my adolescence watching Japanese dramas and listening to J-Rock gave me a surprising level of comprehension. I found him cute and endearing, but he elicited a vague feeling of guilt when I thought about my other, and first, Asian love: Chinese. I owed it to my family honour to focus more on my first love, the one they approved of.

The sexy new prospects: Spanish and Portuguese. I fancy them both, but friends have warned me against two-timing them; being so similar they are very easily confused. Spanish always danced vaguely in my consciousness, as many of my friends have had long-term relationships with him, but I never really considered him a real prospect, until I fell in love with Latin dance and Latin culture. Suddenly, Spanish took on a whole new sex appeal. A vague obsession with Brazil similarly awakened a powerful attraction to Portuguese. These two guys breath warmth and passion, cultures completely different to what I have known and the thrilling prospect of South American adventures. Spanish and I have a date this Thursday, and Portuguese…well, we’ll see.

Advice for a newbie exchanger

The spring semester has started and along with eye-wateringly early classes and sporadic sunshine comes a great wave of new exchange students. It seems like mere days ago that I was mournfully waving goodbye to some truly great friends made in semester one. Yet here is a whole bunch of innocent, fresh-faced, new meat on the Lausanne exchange student social scene, bright-eyed with the heady excitement of their first two weeks in a new country.

We’re still a highly diverse bunch of course, though there seems to be a pronounced prevalence of Québécois this time round. This is a welcome thing (more francophones = more French than ever being spoken at parties!), as the Québécois accent is quite fascinating, not to mention their system of swear-words. There is also a large number of Germans here, who seem to favour Switzerland; no doubt due to the fact that Switzerland is one of the few other European countries which can match in terms of advancement, cleanliness and economy.

I think back fondly to my first few weeks here, of the excitement and confusion, but find I’m pretty happy to be settled, an old hand at all this Lausanne malarky. These sweet new things, once they find out I’ve been here a whole semester, naturally have questions. I’ve lined up a few of the more common ones here, and my responses, which were of course given in a much more sensitive manner in person…

What’s your name/where are you from/how long are you here for/what are you studying/what’s Classics? Have given the responses to these questions so many times that I have started reeling them off as soon as I catch a stranger’s eye, just to save their breath, and hope they will do the same, to save mine. Got a funny look from the guy who just wanted to know where the toilet was.

But where are you really from? Oh god not that again

How do you speak French so well? Well, firstly, it depends on what you mean by “well”. I’ve been getting a lot of compliments lately but far from reassuring me, they are always (always!) followed by, “because English people normally don’t speak French at all…”

How can I improve my French? Well deary, the first step is to stop speaking in English all the time. So, don’t go to exchange student parties, chuck all the English-speaking friends you’ve just made…in fact, turn your back on me right this moment and go find a Swiss/French/Québécois person to speak to. It’s the only way…

Is it expensive in Switzerland to go out/shop/live life in general? By asking this question you are demonstrating that you are either a) blind or b) trying to block out the truth and desperately searching for reassurance. In vain.

Is clubbing good in Lausanne? Last semester I literally passed over the threshold of a boîte once. So I’m probably not the best qualified to tell you.

How much do you spend in a month on average on food? *Cries*

Why is it, like, so hard to get by in shops and stuff when you don’t speak French? Don’t they know English here?? *Cries*

Can we speak in English? Non.

The “Feed Me!” Files 4: Fat Tuesday

Today is Pancake Day! Or, Shrove Tuesday. So what is it actually for? As with most Christian festivals these days, the real meaning gets a little lost amongst the other, more decadent (fun) concerns. Shrove Tuesday, or mardi gras as it is known in French (meaning literally “fat Tuesday”), is the day of indulgence before Lent starts, which is the period of abstinence between now and Easter Sunday.

Typically around 40 days long, this period is one of religious self-flagellation (not literally…I don’t think), in which you are supposed to give up one vice until Easter. That is why typically back home people overindulge on pancake day, deprive themselves for 40 days, then overindulge again once Easter Sunday rolls along with all those chocolate Easter eggs rolling around alongside it.

This period of denial is supposed to correspond to the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert whilst being tempted by Satan. I suppose the equivalent these days would be endless adverts everywhere for chocolate, if that is what you have chosen to renounce. Other typical things to give up are smoking and alcohol, and even (though this probably only ever happens in fiction), sex.

So today I’ll be whipping up some pancakes for my housemates. Real, thick, English ones, too, none of this thin European crêpe business. They will be accompanied by generous lashings of butter, lemon and sugar (though not necessarily all at once), and devoured. This is the English way of celebrating Shrove Tuesday: fattening up, unlike in Brazil. Maybe we should consider shaking off some of the calories with some samba dancing, as they are doing at the carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

Last year I tried and failed spectacularly to give up sugar. It’s a real challenge, 40 days! I have similarly lofty ambitions this year, but even I am not really deluded enough to think I can be successful, especially as my birthday falls in this period. Are you going to be giving something up for Lent this year, and if so, what?

To love one’s country

Nationalism. Where I’m from, it is almost a dirty word. To be nationalistic is to be proud of and dedicated to one’s country. It is often associated with fanaticism, prejudice and rejection of other nations. Switzerland, though not necessarily all of the above, is beyond doubt a nationalistic country. It’s every policy seems bent on preserving Switzerland and keeping everything as Swiss as possible.

There are good and bad points to this, but one thing that I have noticed about the Swiss attitude is it does not denigrate other nations. It is highly concerned with itself, it’s true, and keeping Switzerland pure and protected, yet I don’t get the impression that the Swiss spend much time looking arrogantly down their noses at and mocking other countries. Unlike other nearby places (naming no names here) which seem to almost make a sport of it. We would simply like to be left alone, please, and we’re happy, seems to be the Swiss mentality.

Anyone who’s seen a UDC poster will get an idea of Swiss nationalism at its extreme. It’s not a pretty sight. Foreigners trying to find employment here, particularly non-Europeans, are obstructed at every step with solid doors which open willingly for Swiss, less willingly for other Europeans, and barely ever for anyone else. I have a friend who, though non-European herself and continuously frustrated in her attempts to secure internships, thinks this is a good measure, that it protects the country. Otherwise anyone and everyone would come into Switzerland and ruin it; this way, they ensure only the crème de la crème are allowed in and can make a contribution to the country, maintaining those (highly Swiss) high standards, according to her.

The distinctive square, red Swiss flag with the central white cross is omnipresent. It flutters from rooftops – I can see one right now as I look out my room window – and graces a huge majority of products (100% Swiss-made! Swiss quality!), from supermarket groceries down to the sachets of sugar that come with your tea in McDonald’s. Seriously. Some find this disturbing, though there must be great comfort in this for the Swiss themselves, to have such a strong sense of their own, well, Swiss-ness.

Switzerland’s reputation for quality and efficiency has not been unjustly earned; it’s no wonder the people don’t really want to leave. It’s a little oasis of calm and affluence in an otherwise troubled continent. The place is so peaceful it’s nigh on impossible to feel stressed here, even when disaster strikes; just take a deep breath and escape to the mountains for some re-equilibration, and get in touch with those bucolic roots.

Yet what does it mean to be Swiss? The idea of Swiss identity baffles and fascinates me, and will probably be the subject of my final-year dissertation. The country is not only divided into regions by the four official languages spoken, but within these regions there are further divisions into cantons, all of which have fiercely distinct identities and even differing laws.

Much legislation is decided on a cantonal level, meaning that a canton just next door could have very different policies. There is also, naturally, inter-cantonal rivalry. Here in Lausanne, for example, they’re not huge fans of Geneva; “too French”, apparently. Yet despite these marked dissimilarities within this one tiny nation, there is still a great emphasis on an overall national identity. “We’re SWISS!”

Mind-bottling.

The Language Files 8: The pot calls the kettle… “un black”?

It’s been a while since we’ve had a language file. I’m pleased to say that in general I am feeling increasingly at ease in French (I’m purposely blanking out an oral exam I had on Greek religion here…). Constructing sentences, anally retentive insistence on grammatical perfection considered, is getting easier. One thing that no grammar book can teach you, however, is how to be P.C. As in, politically correct. As in, how not to offend people.

Not (thankfully) that I have made any major cultural boo-boos, but one thing that has surprised me is racial terms. Specifically, in French, if you are referring to a black person you call them un black – “a black”. You don’t say une personne noire, i.e. “a black person”, as I just did in English. It’s taken some getting used to. In fact, the French word for black, noir, is a dodgy one when describing people, and carries a high risk of offense. It is much safer to go with the English “black”.

Two things spring up immediately which make me think, HUH? Firstly, black? Why the adoption of the English word? Bizarre. It has become more acceptable to use an English word for a word which exists already in the language and means exactly the same thing. Secondly, what happened to the word noir to make it so undesirable? Naturally, as an English speaker, any French word has a nuance of class and chic, so my viewpoint is slightly blinkered; it sounds prettier than the English equivalent if anything. It certainly isn’t an out and out offensive term like the other N-word no-one likes to say (except some black people themselves, but that’s a whooole other post…)

Good luck to you in England if you refer to “a group of blacks”! But it is acceptable to say that in French. In fact, in French, you can make a noun of any race and it’s perfectly acceptable. Un Français, la Méxicaine, ces Chinois…. Well, in English sometimes the same thing just doesn’t work: “I was talking to the French”…the French what? Man? Woman? All the French in existence? In other cases, it seems acceptable, “I was out with the Italians” (as in, a particular group of Italian people). Other times it smacks of disrespect: “that Japanese over there”. It works with some races, not with others.

How tricky it is to navigate the perilous waters of racial labels! It is unspeakable to refer to someone as “coloured” in England but in South Africa it is the name of a race. Yes, I was surprised when I first heard that there is an ethnic group called “Coloureds”. Though I know it’s acceptable there, every time I hear it, ouch! I can’t help flinching inside.

A lot of people seem to have a problem when I refer to myself as “yellow”. They often protest, “but you’re not yellow…you’re more white than some white people!” But then white people aren’t really white are they? I’d say many err on the pink side. (Incidentally, you can’t say un blanc – or indeed un white – in French. I digress.) Just as black people would probably be more accurately described as “brown”, but it’s just what we say, n’est-ce pas? Yellow, therefore, is the colour I attribute to myself as an Asiatique, but it doesn’t seem to have entered into everyday language. Is it offensive? I haven’t a clue. I don’t think so, but then I never have anybody refer to me as yellow, except for myself, and fellow yellows (ha! That rhymes…), and mostly with a heavy dose of irony.

I could go on. It’s a touchy subject for some, and elicits naught but indifference in others, but it’s something that we here, in a multi-national community on an increasingly globalised planet, should all be aware of. I’m personally still bewildered…un black? Really? Where did that come from, I would love to know!

In defence of Valentine’s day

Roses are red

violets are blue

I love V-Day

and so should you!

I have always loved Valentine’s day, since a young age. True, I’ve been single for the majority of the ones that I’ve lived through, but that never stopped me enjoying it. So it doesn’t quite trump Christmas, but still, what could be nicer than a holiday simply celebrating…love?

Too often Valentine’s day is met with a groan and a “not that crap again!” It seems to me that most singles lament the holiday, either slipping into depression or becoming bitterly defiant, organising singles events and coming over all anti-Valentine’s. But why? We shouldn’t begrudge others’ happiness, it doesn’t reduce our own. And that’s provided they are happy; the last time I was coupled up on Valentine’s day it wasn’t actually that pretty… Plus it’s probably those same bitter singles who are the first to jump on the Valentine’s bandwagon if they happen to be with someone and rub it in all their single friends’ faces. Something not quite right/balanced about that…

Then there’s the whole Valentine’s-day-is-a-commerically-driven-money-trap argument. True, but then aren’t all holidays nowadays anyway? Sure, you don’t need to choose one particular day of the year to show you love someone, but then surely you don’t need to exchange gifts at Christmas if you’re a good Christian? But it’s still kinda nice to do, n’est-ce pas? Get in the spirit of things, people! (And don’t be so damned stingy!)

Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure this is the first Valentine’s I am spending outside of the UK, at least in my memory. Valentine’s day is certainly a thing here in Switzerland. There are tasteful red, pink and heart-shaped displays in most shop windows, though it is slightly less of a bombardment than it is in England. No doubt a reflection, once again, of a calmer consumer environment.

So this year I will be sporting some red lipstick for the occasion and soaking up the love in the air like a dummy, and you should too (well, not necessarily the lipstick part if you’re a bloke, obviously; unless you fancy it of course…). I’m totally in love right now anyway, with this bonny country known as Switzerland, so I’m in the right place this Valentine’s. Today all buses in Lausanne’s front LED signs have a heart shape and read “les amoureux”. How cute can you get?

Today, show your friends and family some love, not just your other half. Oh, and bonne St-Valentin!

An International Education

Much as I love to study (hem hem), being on exchange has become more about getting a thorough instruction in the university of life (yeah, I said it). Rubbing shoulders with students from all around the world has given me a far better international education than any textbook ever could. Just in the past week I’ve been privy to snippets of an insider’s life in Armenia, took a crash course in Polish drinking ritual during a fondue party, and sampled some truly splendid (if incredibly oil-rich) home-made Columbian cuisine.

Though I came here to learn French, and take in a bit of Swiss culture, I think I’ve actually learned much more about other cultures. Like I said, reading about countries and customs is all very well but it’s all just words on a page. Speaking with real live people who talk with animation and emotion about their homelands is the best way to learn about a country.

Plus, it’s just quite fun to see the numbers of countries from which people you meet come racking up. The more unusual the place and/or circumstance, the better. I had never met anyone from Azerbaijan before, let alone danced Argentinian tango with them, until last semester. I had to look up the Cape Verde islands on google maps after meeting someone from there because I was clueless as to where they are located.

Once, I found myself at an all-Romanian party (just…don’t ask, no idea why), taking part in their traditional dance, and also for some reason performing the tango in front of a load of strangers (again, don’t ask). Mixing mulled wine and rum sounded horrific to me, until I saw how my German coloc did it, melting a huge cone of sugar into it with some special apparatus probably only found in Germany; it actually tasted pretty good.

It’s been a rather bitter pill to swallow, but I’ve learned that American English is far more widespread in the world than English English, and I’ve come to accept (almost) that my Received Pronunciation is frequently going to be met with blank stares in the international crowd. Adaptation, not articulation, rules when trying to communicate effectively!

All this exposure has made me realise, despite the multicultural-ness of London, just how much there is out there, and how little I know of it all. It’s nigh on impossible to know about even half of the cultures on earth, and it is important to never assume you do. One shouldn’t make the grave error of thinking that, for example, eating at an Indian restaurant means, even slightly, that you know the first thing about Indian culture.

What I’ve learned from this is that there is no “one way” or “correct” way of living and being. However it is wrong when you assume your own way is the only way, superior to everything else, which is worthless or pointless. It’s also made me realise that one new culture is not enough. I want to live them all!

Studying: Swiss Style

Exam results have just been released and students all over Lausanne are sighing with relief or commiseration at the denouement of the month-long period of épreuves. I personally am pleased to report that I passed everything; no mean feat in Switzerland, where the pass mark is 4/6 (roughly 66%), a jump up from the English minimum of 40%, meaning you need at least a 2:1 across the board.

With all the inter-cultural exchange, food tourism and absurdities that I report and comment on, the subject of university itself (kinda the reason I’m here) has been a bit neglected. So here’s a beginner’s guide to uni in Switzerland.

Lausanne has two universities: Unil (University of Lausanne, where I am) and EPFL (which, if you care or understand, stands for École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne). EPFL is a prestigious technical school, for engineers and computer scientists, mathematicians, etc. Or, as most people (including EPFL students) like to describe it, full of geeks, and mostly male ones. Unil is where one can study the arts, medicine, business, etc. It has a more equal male-female ratio, and a herd of sheep on campus. The two institutions are next door to one another and share residences, a sports centre, a tandem program and social events.

Though EPFL is much smaller than Unil and I have technically nothing to do with it, I find myself constantly surrounded by students from there rather than my host uni. The statistics are skew-whiff on this, I can’t explain it; maybe the fact that I’m just a big closeted geek myself contributes to my mysterious affinity with EPFL-ers. Though nothing could tempt me to go and study in the terrifying Rolex building on their campus (yes, they have a Rolex learning centre; could you get any more Swiss?). The floor slopes crazily, the building is transparent, massive and completely open plan. I can’t think of a more stressful studying environment; I take my books from their library and run.

Swiss universities (at least in Suisse Romande – the French part) are all equal. Très démocratique. They are all regarded on the same level. No Ivy League, no Oxbridge élite. As long as you succeed in your exams, you are pretty much guaranteed a place at university; there is no such thing as a shortage of places. Isn’t that amazing? This is possibly partly because, as we all know, university is not for everyone, but the Swiss seem to actually put this philosophy into practise. Let’s face it, a lamentably large percentage of UK university students probably don’t need to/should not be there; you don’t need to be failing a degree in order to binge-drink after all. So the Swiss who do choose to progress to university generally take their studies seriously.

Once you get to uni, it’s a little disorientating for an English student who is used to having a timetable made up for him, control over which is minimal on the student’s part, and if he is lucky will include modules he picked and managed to get a place on. Here, it is unheard of not to get a place on a module you want to study, though it means you may end up sitting on the floor if you chose a particularly popular one. You get a grace period of about three weeks in which you are free to test out modules, commitment-free, before registering for them, and you can tailor-make your own timetable. Somewhat confusing at first, but ultimately gratifying.

All classes are optional. Imagine! It really is learning en autonomie. But the Swiss, as the stereotype goes, are rather serious, so of course they attend their classes. It’s just us lazy, undisciplined foreign students, who can’t hack 8:30am starts, that let the side down…

Alpine Madness

A trip to Zermatt: the ultimate, idyllic, picture-postcard Swiss experience. In the shadow of the world-famous Matterhorn mountain, with the jingling of horse-drawn carriages and battery-run vehicles (because all cars are banned; a completely car-free town, imagine!) and a population made up virtually exclusively of locals and rich snow-sport enthusiasts, Zermatt is pretty special.

Unfortunately my friend and I didn’t organise to do any skiing – oh but that didn’t stop us somehow ending up right in the middle of a ski piste halfway up a deserted mountain, half-frozen, ski-less and helpless, stumbling down for miles in shoes that were not even designed for snow, let alone ski slopes. But more on how we ended up in that ridiculous situation later.

Zermatt is pure magic.The train ride there alone was worth the price of the ticket. Switzerland happened to be covered in snow the day we set out, and from Visp we caught the Matterhorn Gotthard railway which took us right through the Alps. The jaw-dropping views of ravines and mountains dotted with pine trees and wooden chalets, all blanketed in a thick layer of sparkling, untouched snow had us ooh-ing and aah-ing all the way to Zermatt while we basked in the warmth of the train’s central-heated interior.

In the town, thanks to the car ban, we saw only pedestrians, horses and their curious taxis. They resemble milk carts, except for being battery run and surprisingly aggressive, rushing up behind you with an ominous whirring sound as you walk through town. As Zermatt is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, there was of course the usual language confusion. What to speak? Neither of us spoke German, my French friend was hesitant to use French and I felt rather ridiculous speaking in English; most people spoke all three in any case.

We took the funicular train up to the 3,130m-high Gornergrat station. The ride again was just spectacular, the train climbing steadily up the mountain and through the clouds, picking up skiers on the way, who would whizz back down via the slopes (a bit like we would do later, sans skis…). And there was the Matterhorn, in all its eccentrically-shaped glory, lording it over the surrounding glaciers and smaller mountains.

Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to have our soup in the outside seating area of the restaurant at the top of Gornergrat because that was when we really started to feel the cold. Our water bottle froze. A light layer of glittering, powdery snow had settled on us without our noticing.

Descending on the train, my friend was set on seeing some igloos that were halfway down, so we got off at the first stop. The man working at the station was astonished to see us descend, especially as we were not in ski gear, and asked us why we had got off, as there was literally nothing there. We explained we wanted to see the igloos, so he pointed us in the direction and we set off down the ski piste. My first time on a real ski slope, without an actual ski in sight. It was halfway to the igloos that I realised I no longer had any sensation in my toes. It was when we got to the igloos that we realised that there was not a soul around.

We had been so hoping for something hot to drink at least. Fortunately there was a very pleasant young man working there who popped up and even more fortunately still had some hot chocolate left to sell us. It was while I was getting the money out of my purse that I realised that my ungloved hand was covered in a thin layer of ice, and my friend’s hair had frozen solid. I cannot describe to you how cold I was, I have never felt anything like it in my life. The bloke kindly opened up the igloo bar just for us, to defrost a little bit. The bar was actually really cool; if only I hadn’t been struggling to breath in the cold air and trying to regain feeling in my feet, I might have appreciated it more.

Then there was the descent to the next train station. We were literally halfway between the two, and we certainly preferred to descend than to climb back up again, so he showed us the way. I could see it in the near distance; it looked doable. But then we started actually going down. This piste was rather a lot steeper than the one before, and we literally slipped, staggered and careened our way down the length of it, laughing uncontrollably and with repeated cries of “putain!” At the station the thermostat told us it was -21°. Minus twenty-one degrees. Not surprising I couldn’t feel my toes, I’m amazed I could feel anything.

Was that ordeal worth the brief glimpse at a forsaken igloo? Like hell it was! How stupid could we get? I was this close to frostbite! But now that it’s over the recollection is so hilarious I can’t help but chuckle every time I think of it. How do I manage, without fail, to get myself into the most awkward situations? The rest of the trip passed reasonably calmly and happily. Apart from sprinting through the town at the end of the trip in order to catch our train back home. But apart from that it was chilled – literally. The thermostat at ground level, though not quite as cold as -21, remained firmly sub-zero.

Nobody (or nowhere) is perfect

Having been educated all my life, up till last September, in England, means I was always instilled with an acute critical function. The English education system, especially from A-level onwards, encourages constant, objective questioning and analysis as opposed to blind learning of “facts”, or that which is presented as such. Teachers (in my experience at least) generally like it when you criticise or raise questions, especially unanswerable ones, as it shows you are thinking the right way. Every view, comment and argument expressed must be explained, backed up, then challenged with conflicting ones.

Why am I blathering on about this? Because it is this ingrained way of thinking which commands me to always look at the other sides of things; to never just accept things, to never take anything at face value, even if something seems obvious, even if I want to. While I write many lovely things about Switzerland, and sincerely too, I realise that I practically never write anything negative, and the well-nurtured critic in me stirs uneasily. So, here are some, gulp, detached critiques of this country I so love…

Switzerland is an odd little place, and in many ways probably the closest one can get to a “perfect” country. It is wealthy, and peaceful – no threat of war here. The people are on the whole relaxed and contented; even the chavs are non-aggressive. Things are ordered and always of high quality; it’s so advanced that even crossing the border to holiday in France is jokingly (sort of) considered as going to a “third world country”. Switzerland is breathtakingly beautiful, and the standard of living is superior.

Yet, Switzerland is not perfect. Idyllic though life seems in many ways, racism is rampant, crime is on the rise and living costs are just ridiculous for someone not earning a Swiss salary. It’s also kinda, well…boring. Don’t get me wrong, I am not bored of being here by any means, but it is fairly placid as a country, nothing really happens here. Having just spent a few weeks in London, the contrast is all the more evident. Switzerland is not very exciting. It’s good for banks and watches, not so good for art or eccentricity. On the plus side there is very little drama (Riots? Not here! Too messy), but if you’re searching for thrills and quirkiness, cutting-edge culture, artistic innovation and high energy, I wouldn’t come here.

Everything closes SO. EARLY. Supermarkets: closed by 7pm. Don’t even think about doing anything on a Sunday because nothing is going to be open. It feels like life grinds to a halt at 8pm. Naturally there are clubs and bars, which actually stay open later than their English equivalents, but of course you need to pay a bomb to enjoy them.

Then there’s food; we all know how important that is to me. Restaurants, being largely extortionate, are not frequently an option for me; even McDonald’s is a bit of an extravagant treat. I don’t doubt there is a wonderful Swiss food culture, but if you’re not living with a Swiss family, you don’t get to see much of it because most people cook at home and eat with the family. This is actually a wonderful thing, but dude, sometimes you just want something quick, cheap and satisfying (get your minds out the gutter!).

The Swiss are very pleasant, polite and humble, my favourite thing about them. No matter how wealthy, they consider themselves paysans (farmers) at heart. The focus is on the individual, not on their familial or social background; the class snobbery so entrenched in British culture is not to be found here. On the flipside, the Swiss can also be reserved and distant, serious and even a little stiff. They are not exactly closed-minded but neither are they hugely open; fairly sheltered in their untroubled petite Suisse, there is a definite wish to stay in their comfort zone. A relatively privileged, contented lifestyle for the majority of the population is hardly a bad thing, but it can detract somewhat from one’s curiosity, adventurousness and spontaneity.

I feel vaguely like I have committed high treason in writing the above. My head tells me to see these things but my heart is still in love with this place, and I am ever grateful to have the chance to live here. As I look out of my window at the lightly snow-dusted landscape, with its trees and pretty buildings and not a skyscraper in sight, I can’t help feeling, despite myself, a highly Swiss sense of contentment.