Gratitude Friday: My French Teacher

Post by Lauren

This week, my gratitude post goes out to my French teacher at the women’s club.

Celebrating 86

A few weeks ago, I was the only one to show up for Beginner’s French. I took advantage of the opportunity and asked my French teacher, E, if she would instead teach me about living through World War II. You see, E is in her upper 80’s. She was a teenager during the war and has made various references to her life during this time in French class. Even better, she used to be a history and geography teacher so she weaves in references which I happily soak up. She learned to speak English at the American Women’s Club (one of five languages she knows) so pays it forward by teaching French. In her upper 80’s. Wow.

So, as you can imagine, I was thrilled to get an hour with her to learn about this fascinating topic. Here is what I learned:

She was 15 when the war started.

Switzerland was never occupied during the war. However, all Swiss men served in the Swiss army. They were posted through various spots in case they were invaded to defend Switzerland. Her father was posted in the Jura mountains.

She said, “it was difficult to find professors (teachers) because they were all in the army.”

She remembers riding her bike and there were no cars ever on the roads, because the fuel was not available.

After the war, her father told her that her bicycle was given to her so that in the case of the resistance, he was going to summon them to his hidden camp in the Jura. She was to be the messenger on bike back to the village if needed.

She said Switzerland was safe because it was a huge advantage for the Italians and Germans to use the Swiss railroads. They wanted to keep them in order, to not be bombed. The railroads were Switzerland’s saving grace.

Every night she woke up to flights of the Allied. She said they went over Switzerland because there was nothing to fear in that air space.

She saw an air battle when she was playing with her friend in the mountains.

Prior to the conflict, the infamous Swiss Lavaux vineyards had employed French Savoy women to work. When the war started, they could no longer leave France to work in Switzerland as they were occupied and forbidden to cross the border. So the young Swiss girls and teenagers went every day of harvest to cut the grapes and fix the branches. They had no school during these times.

The boys went to the farms as they were stronger.

Her father had bought many acres of fruit trees – pear, apple and cherries. Her mother had hard work while her father was in the army – she made compotes, confitures (jams) with their harvests.

They grew potatoes to keep from being hungry. She told me “we had very little to eat but we were never starved.”

In fact, in the cities, like Geneva, every park was parted so that apartment dwellers could harvest potatoes, since they didn’t own land.

Because this area was French speaking Switzerland, they could take in French children for three months at a time to nourish them. They took a little boy, 5 years of age, from the South of France into their home. They dressed him in her old clothes. She smirked and reminisced that all her village people gave all the French children French-Swiss accents.

They were given cards to allocate how much sugar, milk they could buy so that the rich weren’t advantaged.

“I lived like a normal Swiss girl,” she said, “I had no problems.”

I find myself pretty lucky to have such an interesting lady as my French teacher. My grandparents were a bit older than E during the war, but I never had a chance to talk to them about their lives in that era. All of what I know was through a scrapbook my dear Aunt J made me of my paternal grandparents which detailed their lives including a sampling of letters from their WW2 romance. And I have a snapshot of my maternal grandfather in uniform. Talking to E about this time makes me feel like I know a bit more….and it turn, a bit closer to them.

Bon weekend, everyone!


Swiss Minimum Wage

Post by Lauren

One of the interesting things about Swiss government is that any petition can be put to vote, through a referendum. You just need 50,000 signatures in 100 days for a Facultative referendum and 100,000 signatures for an Obligatory Referendum.

A petition table in Old Town Geneva

Before we left, there was a heated debate about a minimum salary in Switzerland.

Political advertisement for minimum wage change

The party who instituted the referendum was hoping for a minimum salary for full time employees of 4000 CHF / month which is about $60K USD a year.

Wow, that’s a lot for a minimum! Mental note – start seeking Swiss jobs more aggressively!

Equalized in USD but cost of living is not factored in. This would affect these #s quite a bit.

As it turns out, only 40% came out to vote and the referendum was not passed. They hope to revisit it next year.

Swiss Holidays: L’Escalade

Post by Lauren

This weekend was the annual L’Escalade celebration. In French, “escalade” means climb. In 1602, the Savoys (now France) wanted Geneva badly. It was its own republic and not to mention, a free town. The Duke of Savoy wanted to push out Protestantism and make it his capital. So, his army secretly gathered and tried to climb into the city gate with ladders. They were thwarted and Geneva kept its independence. Thus, the holiday’s name.


Geneva, back in the day. Courtesy of wikipedia - escalade-battle-2.jpg


I was originally told that there was a lady was up late at night cooking soup who heard the climbers and dumped her boiling pot of vegetable soup on their heads and their screams woke up the Genevois so they could defend their city. Apparently, this recount is false that she was the initial defender, but she did dump soup on one soldier’s head and killed him. And his screams woke up more people. She also was the mother of 16 children.

And to commemorate the brave Madame Royaume (the soup thrower lady) they have a marmites (chocolate cauldrons) into which they dip marzapan vegetables to symbolize her vegetable soup. How this correlation was made, I am not sure, but I do know that the confectioner’s on Rue de Marché are very grateful.


A typical chocolate display for L’Escalade. I can’t imagine what the big pot cost. Also below are marzipan vegetables.

Nevertheless, the Escalade celebrates Geneva’s victory and all weekend, people are gathered in Old Town, dressed in period attire. We went Saturday to explore.

Every half hour, there were demonstrations on musket firing, cannons, and battle scenes.

Just for L’escalade weekend, they open the Passage de Monetier, a secret passageway that was used during enemy attacks. It was very tight!! They served vin chaud, a hot spice wine that was very handy to keep warm. I don’t recommend having four cups if you want to have a productive Sunday.

Sunday, we went to the grande cortege, or parade. It was really cool and done in the dark so it is by candlelight, to mimic the time of evening of L’Escalade. There was lots of fire involved and thousands of Genevois in costume.


At the end, they do a huge bonfire in St. Peter’s Cathedral.

We enjoyed our first L’Escalade and are glad to live in this city so proud of their heritage!


Swiss political ads

Post by Lauren

Switzerland held elections this past Sunday.

Leading up to the election, political ads have been in full force, covering trams, buses, and about 80% of the Geneva billboards. To be expected, right?

What wasn’t expected by me was the shocking nature of some of these campaigns. For a neutral country, they can be very direct. Particularly, the Swiss People’s Party ones which are fear based to stop “massive immigration”.

Believe it or not, this year’s campaign’s are tame :

Previous years have been a bit more appalling. I did a quick Google search and found some from the last big election in 2007. You really don’t need to know French or German to interpret the xenophobic message conveyed.

For more background, check out the CNN article here on the election results, or a portion of the Jon Stewart show which talks about the minaret topic.

The language divide

Post by Lauren

Switzerland has four official languages. This map below from depicts the portion of Switzerland in which each language is spoken.

A few things to notice:
-The spoken language typically matches what the closest proximate country is. Ex: Geneva is closest to France, so we speak Swiss-French here (blue). This also plays out in the local cuisine of the areas as well.
-Most of Switzerland speaks Swiss-German (yellow) – 64%
-Some portions of Switzerland are bi-lingual…such as the part near Bern where you can tell its shaded in blue and yellow.

It’s really interesting to see the road signs change as you drive into different parts of Switzerland, see below for “exit”. Also, the radio stations change back and forth into different languages as you drive along.

This week, Lady J, S, and I took a little road trip up to Murten, which is just west of Bern, and one of the bilingual areas where 25% speak French and 75% speak Swiss-German. We visited the Old Town and had a nice drink in the main square. When the Swiss-German waitress came for our order, we attempted a little German before she effortlessly slipped into English to take our drink requests. There’s nothing like trilingual waitstaff to make you feel insufficient in life. This happens very commonly in Geneva to Gabe and I, since most Swiss residence know upwards of three languages.

Rooftops of Murten, Switzerland

As if this isn’t enough to keep track of, the languages that Switzerland speaks have deviations to the original versions. Swiss-French is slightly different than French. French people typically think that Swiss French is more sing-songy and its interpreted as being slower or more “country”. Thank goodness I am in the slow part. I can barely understand it as is.

Swiss-German is very different than High German. I have heard that people who know excellent High German have a hard time with Swiss-German.

And still, there’s more! Esther taught us in French this week that every one of Switzerland’s 26 cantons speak a different dialect. There are different words and expressions used in different cantons even though the overall “language” is the same. For example, in typical French, petit déjeuner is breakfast, déjeuner is at noon and dîner is in the evening. But, in Geneva, déjeuner is breakfast, le dîner is served at noon and le souper in the evening. There are also different words for post office box and they use different variations of #s (see my prior post on numbers). And this continues throughout Switzerland.

While we all speak English, I suppose dialect thing is very common in the US, where people speak differently in Boston vs. Chicago vs. Texas. What words have you found different depending what part of the US you are in?

Our very own bomb shelter

Post by Lauren

Switzerland might be the safest country in the world.

It’s a requirement that every Swiss building have a bomb shelter, back from the days of WW2. However, present-day code still requires that new buildings are built with such provisions.

So that means we have our very own bomb shelter. They call it a cave (pronounced, “cah-v” meaning basement ). Actually, we keep our wine and suitcases down there instead of hiding out waiting for disaster.

But good to know that its there in time of need.

So come visit….you’ll be safe.

Happy Swiss National Day

Post by Lauren

Happy Swiss Day, everyone!!! Just to give some perspective, the 1er août (said premiere-oot) is like the equivalent of the 4th of July for Switzerland. They decorate everything all over the city, and of course, everything shuts down in true Swiss holiday tradition.

They even changed the trash bags out in honor of la fête!

We wanted to get the hard-boiled eggs featured below to celebrate in style, but forgot to get them 3 days in advance before all the stores closed for normal Sunday and Holiday Monday.

Based on taking French from two Swiss-French teachers, I actually know some history on this holiday. My AIWC teacher, Esther, loves to teach us little things about history in basic French, which is really appreciated by all of us. So, here goes:

In 1291, in early August, there was no Switzerland. There were constant attacks of other countries wanting to conquer the areas which now are Switzerland. Three independent republics made a pact saying they’d protect each other, which formed the groundwork for the later development of the Confederation Helvetica, or CH.

Still today, all the cantons operate independently, with their own police, transportation, taxation and school systems. There are four different languages spoken in Switzerland, and the canton official language depends on your geography. This system allows different geographic regions to still exercise their historical preferences, but still be a part of the overall country of Switzerland.

Based on this date back in 1291, they have a fête on the 1st of August every year to celebrate this confederation of Switzerland.

We checked out the festival this evening in our city, Geneva, which has quite a big to-do. However, this type of festival takes place all over Geneva in all the little towns and villages. They say you can go out to the mountainside and it is quite a sight to see the bonfires in the distance. S taught me that the bonfires symbolize the communication the towns had with each other as that was their only method back in the day. Therefore, bonfires and lanterns are some of the characteristics of the 1er août fête.

Check out some of the scenes from the fête as well as a video of the huge bonfire in the park!


A few tid-bits of Genève history

Post by Lauren

Now that I am a student, I am learning more about the history of Genève. We actually have some cultural excursions built into our summer French course. On Monday, a professor gave us a walking tour of the area around the University. She said it was the last time she was going to teach us anything in English, so I figured I better report on this one as my facts might get a little screwy in the future when I am trying to digest them en français.

Henri Dufour was one of most important men in Geneva history. He was a Swiss army officer, and engineer and topographer. He helped found the Red Cross along with Henry Dunant.

Our professor said that the windows along Rue de Confederation were designed to maintain the same perspective the entire length of the street. Good to know if I ever decide to paint it!




he population of Geneva doubled by 10,000 in one year in the 16th Century as French and Italian Protestant refugees fled from their countries into Switzerland to escape the massacres. Since it was a walled city for its own protection, they ran out of room and had to go upward. See the different stories and window patterns as you go up?

Note, that in the Reformation, that is why Geneva became the center of commerce and trade – it now housed an extraordinary amount of watchmakers, jewelers, & bankers.

It still be it is harder to find an apartment now in Geneva than back in the day. Current vacancy rate is 0.17% – yes, that is a tenth of 1 percent, not 17%.

Place de la Fusterie and Molard used to be actual ports. Water once was were cafés now are. There were different ports for different goods, like water, food and stone.

Place du Molard, current times

Place du Fusterie, current times

They had to eventually push the Rhone out to make more room for the population. Temple de la Fusterie was a French Protestant Temple after they pushed back the water. Globo Gym is located directly between these two. If only they knew back then.

Pierre du Nitron

We have seen this little rock many a day, but never knew its significance. It was brought in by the glaciers and used to be a place for human sacrifice in the Iron Ages. Later, when the mountain elevations of Switzerland were being mapped, this rock was apparently used as a surveying basis for determining heights for all of Switzerland.

Okay, that is it for now as I need to be a good student and study more French. Au revoir!