New Road, New Town, New Life.
It would sound cliché if I made it up, but our apartment actually IS on Route-Neuve (New Road) in a part of Fribourg called Neuveville (New-town). We’ve been here for three weeks, and apart from some bureaucratic annoyances, our transition has been going exceptionally well. Fribourg is – from my current Swiss-phoric perspective – the perfect balance of Old World charm and modern convenience. One old part of town clutches precariously to a cliff, other old sections spilling from on high all the way down to the beautiful green Sarine River, spanned by numerous bridges at various elevations. Fading but persistent signs painted on stone walls announce boulangeries and taverns of centuries past and present. Cobblestones, churches, abbeys, monasteries, convents and charming brasseries all abound. On the hills and pastures that surround Fribourg, cows, sheep and goats graze with a pleasant soundtrack of cowbells, doing their best to compete with the church bells that ring all over town every quarter hour (but to our amusement completely uncoordinated with each other). It sometimes feels more like a movie set than a real town… but it is all genuine. The lower parts of town have a small village feel to them; walking home from dinner the other night, we stumbled upon an outdoor movie being shone in the square, with neighbors drinking wine, cooking and eating “raclette” (delicious hot cheese served with potatoes, pickled onions and cornichons), and kids running around enjoying themselves. It was right out of Cinema Paradiso… but in this case, my sons ran into kids they knew from school, who welcomed them with big smiles and kind words. I was on cloud nine.
And yet, just up the hill from our apartment (and by “hill,” I mean 167 VERY steep steps… if someone happened to count them) is all the modern convenience one might need: a shopping mall with department stores etc. (including an H&M with kids’ clothes), train and bus stations, post office, etc., as well as twice-a-week farmers’ markets. Our apartment – a sublet from a post-doc who is in Canada for the year – is really well-located. On the edge of the charming parts of town, we are a 5-10 minute walk (UP!) to the “real” grocery stores and train station. The two-bedroom/one bathroom (well, “showerroom” to be more specific) apartment is very small (by our standards), but it is a very good deal (key for us in this expensive country!), has a good view, and the kids are 1/3 mile (less than .5km) from school. It also looks down on the soccer field where they both play with the local football club.
The best part of the last three weeks has been how well the school has worked out. They are going to local public school, all in French. Their background in French consists of a French tutor coming to our house all last year, three times a week for an hour at 7am. The 11 year old has a decent foundation; the 9 year old… well, he didn’t “take” to it quite as well, so he really has his work cut out for him. The Swiss system of dealing with non-native speaking immigrants is truly excellent, especially with some recent local changes in how the city implements the law. Apparently, the old way was to segregate the non-native speakers in a separate class/school until their ability was up to par, and then they were mainstreamed. Now, they mainstream them right away and just provide them additional tutoring in French (in our case, it sounds as if it will be about 6 hours a week). For me personally, I strongly prefer this, as it gives them a fighting chance to make real friends AND learn the language more quickly, in my opinion.
As the first day of school approached, I became increasingly anxious (and therefore sleepless). Would the other kids bully my own? (I had heard that this can be a problem in Switzerland, where the teachers can tend to be more laissez-faire about this, more “let them work it out on their own”) Would one or both boys come home for the two-hour lunch and refuse to go back to school? Were we in for months of misery? At the first drop off, Fritz (11) became quiet and nervous, while Ernest looked utterly miserable. I was in knots waiting for them to come home for lunch. Lo and behold, they came home chatty and happy and even wanted to go back to school early to play! While they are still finding their way, they have remained happy to go to school and insist on getting their early. The older boys play soccer, rugby or basketball every chance they get, and Fritz seems to fit in just fine. Ernest has been joining in the blacktop sports sporadically, while at other times plays tag or plays on the playground. The kids at their school have been generally very kind thus far. What a relief to have a positive start.
PapaHatch has been taking an intensive three-week French language course. In the afternoons, he heads to his office at the University of Fribourg to work… unfortunately, we have both had to spend an inordinate amount of time on “Bureaucratie/Bürokratie II.” I don’t think this would be any easier in any country, but the incompetence in certain sectors (primarily getting cable/internet installed at home) has been astounding. Other major time-suck misadventures:
* getting registered in the Canton (taking a bus for the first time about 15 minutes away), which wasn’t that hard in the end (because I was armed with a thousand documents including certified copies of birth and marriage certificates, a thousand exactly-proportioned official photos of each of us, etc.)… but I sure wasn’t expecting to hand over $575 in cash. Oh, the nearest ATM is a half-mile away? No problem, I will just sprint there and back. Oh, my ATM card decides not to work at that precise moment? No problem, I will try my AmEx, for which I had randomly requested a PIN number… success! (alas, at 3% surcharge). [annoying side story… I was very pleased with my non-smiling (as per instructions) official photos, but they took another photo of me that I thought was just for the file in which I look like a convict. Of course, THIS is the one that appears on my official ID card. SIGH.]
* transferring our iPhones to a Swiss number while preserving our U.S. numbers (complicated smoke and mirrors maneuvers involving Google Voice, Skype, a Swiss cell phone company and – most frustrating and time-sucky – coordinating T-Mobile and Apple). Literally probably 15-20 hours dealing with this issue alone.
* securing Swiss health insurance (required for all) and then finding a doctor who is accepting new patients before certain crucial medications run out.
* opening a bank account here, which is quite difficult these days for U.S. citizens (thanks dodgy tax dodgers!)… not impossible, but suffice it to say we wired $5k to our new account here (so we can buy a car for the year), only to be informed that our account can’t really be accessed until we submit additional documents, thereby trapping our money for at least another week.
I will say, while it is exhausting and at times demoralizing dealing with so much bureaucracy, in general, we have been very impressed with the vast majority of Swiss personnel being competent, friendly and truly wanting to help. Even the incompetents at the cable companies have at least been friendly and wanting to help… two out of three is better than it could be.
I write about these challenges to illustrate that as lucky as we are to have this truly wonderful opportunity, it does take quite a bit of preparation, work, kindness of friends, acquaintances and strangers, time, perseverance AND luck to pull it off. I will emphasize though that I am literally filled with wonder at the beauty here. I feel as though we could not have landed in a more perfect place for us.