Right now, as this is published, I’m in Switzerland. I used to live in Switzerland, in fact. I was a student and I had a compulsory year spent studying in a region that spoke my language, which was French (and Spanish, but we don’t talk about that). I never fancied the Riviera or Paris but I did fancy the mountains and as the French Alp universities wouldn’t take me for various reasons, I applied for Switzerland and spent an academic year in Suisse Romande.
I write monthly posts about my adventures/travels on my main blog, I Am A Polar Bear.
But this isn’t about travels. This is about being at school.
Switzerland has four official languages, French, German, Italian and Romansch, and my school was set up to teach French to Swiss speakers of the other three languages. A decade ago, when I was there, those Swiss students were outnumbered 10-1 by international student. Off the top of my head, I can think of three Swiss students in my year and I can only name two of them.
We studied hard. We were doing French grammar at 8am on a Monday. We were streamed – we were put into three ability groups. I was in the top group in Orthographie, the middle for something else (Phonetics? Vocab? Surely not Written or Spoken Expression?) and the bottom for grammar, so I was inconsistent. My great friends Jemma and Angela were a group below me for Orthographie and whatever the something else was but it’s worth noting that they came out with better exam results than me and better French because I spent all my time travelling and they spent all their time studying. Well, most of it… I got my degree nonetheless and I’ve never used it so it doesn’t really matter.
In the class called Spoken Expression, we took it in turns to give a short presentation during each lesson. The first person had Powerpoint slides. We learnt in that lesson that the projector and the wifi were both unreliable and from then on, everyone used overhead transparencies like we were back at primary school in the dark ages. I’m sure I’ve still got mine somewhere, I just don’t know where. I have a reputation for being a shy, quiet person and it surprises people that I can stand up and speak in front of largeish groups. It’s something you get out of a language degree – you have to present in a language you don’t speak terribly well pretty regularly. We chose our own subjects. Roman infamously did farming statistics, which went down in history as the most boring presentation ever. I put his notes in my scrapbook. Ivan did white water rafting – he didn’t strike me as the white water rafting type at all. I fell in love with him a bit that day. His French was terrible, mine was pretty bad, I speak no Russian, he speaks no English and I could hardly understand a word of his presentation but he was so passionate about it and although that’s such a cliche, it was difficult not to get caught up in it. As for me? My first semester I did… I think I did caving. My second semester I definitely did the good old London Routemaster. That was a mistake – too many words in it that I don’t really understand in English, let alone trying to to translate them into French for an audience who don’t understand at all. How do you explain synchromesh in everyone’s second language? I also gabbled that one – got a twenty minute presentation done, questions & answers and all, in well under ten minutes, which doesn’t help with understanding.
We didn’t listen in Civilisation – otherwise known as History. The history, mainly, of the Industrial Revolution but in French. That exam didn’t go well. All our exams were spoken with the next victim sitting at the back of the room trying to revise last-minute – a really stupid practice, now I think about it. What happened to revolutionise everything towards the end of the nineteenth century? I sat and sweated and stared and tried to figure out what on Earth I was supposed to say and at last I tried… “the steam ship?”
I suppose I didn’t get as much French out of that year as I should. But I fell in love with phonetics, I giggled at the Wednesday afternoon computer lessons – early version of learning from an app, I suppose, except that the teacher remotely logged-in and watched you for a few minutes before moving on. I will never forget the words appearing on my screen, one letter at a time so slowly, after I’d got the same sentence wrong over and over again: “il faut un accent” – and I learned a lot of independence (as will happen when you want to travel and your friends want to study (and for a few weeks, to avoid you because they think you’ll disown them, because they clearly don’t know you at all)).
I’ve been back to my little city just once since then. The used English bookshop has gone. The stadium is finished and dwarfs everything. Our favourite cafe has gone. Our favourite bar appears to have gone, but that may just be me failing to find the right street in the warren-like city centre. And I am Swiss. Part Swiss. A little bit Swiss. Well, I lived there for a year.