After a arduous, cold, grey winter spring finally arrived in the mountains,
but it took its own sweet time getting here!
During our favorite mountain hike, the local farmer passed us on the dirt lane; he stopped and opened the back gate of his livestock truck. Then we watched spellbound, as a herd of cows raced across the verdant field in a moment of serendipity.
Have you ever seen cows run?
The herd acted as if they’d arrived at summer camp. The calves romped with joy like children let out of school for the holidays.
Rich grass, clean air, wide open spaces!
The desalpes, the famous folkloric parade of cows coming down the mountain in autumn is a well known Swiss celebration; however, few people witness the inalpes when cows come up to the Jura’s green pastures for the summer season of fine grazing.
As we hiked, we could see across to the far side of lake where the grey veil of winter lifted, revealing the majestic Alps etched against a heartbreaking sapphire sky. The mountains, in different shades of slate, appeared to bow down to Mont Blanc, the queen bejeweled in her sparkling white crown.
Daffodils waltzed in the wind, leaf buds popped open, buttercups shot up, forsythia burst into golden flame and dogwoods danced in their lacy, white petticoats. In valley below us, the lemon yellow rape seed contrasted with green wheat fields. Grape vines like gnarled, old arthritic hands reached toward the light. Pink and white blossoms exploded on the apple and cherry trees.
Under a splash of spring sunshine, blessings unfolded around me. Balancing with sticks, stumbling for footing, knees grinding like bad transmission, I was grateful to still be upright and walking. In my heart, I was dancing.
Ever suffered from anxiety when stuck in a plane circling above the airport unable to land at your final destination?
For the past two years, we’ve hovered in a holding pattern above our home-to-be, held hostage in our “virtual” plane.
Endless delays, countless lies, and pointless meetings have gone nowhere. So we wait and wonder, growing ever more alarmed about what could go wrong next.
If you remember our situation, we unwittingly became trapped in a quagmire. We signed a contract with a reputable Swiss Company, but the promoter then subcontracted to another smaller one. As a result, no one is fully in charge.
Doom foreshadowed our endeavor from the get go. Three triplex homes were to be built on the side of a mountain. Ours was the first home scheduled to be finished.
“There’s a slight problem,” the project manager confessed months later, “your building, on the higher level, has to go up last. Unfortunately, the civil engineer explained the mountain could collapse on the other two buildings without a restraining wall built first.”
Duh? Even I could have envisioned that scenario.
Next major problem; the prefab walls, ordered from Slovenia, took 18 months to start being delivered to Switzerland. The walls, finally installed late this February, lacked the roof. Nor was the building fully sealed.
Consequently, when snow melted and seeped in from the terrace, our living room turned into a pond. Water streaked the upstairs bedroom walls and puddles formed where the rain and snow leaked through the tarp, which blew off of the frame of the unfinished roof.
Even more incredible, the wrong staircase was installed in our unit. One of the workmen pointed out to us that each wooden plank step was clearly labeled 2C, which is the building below us. How did our house 1C end up with 2C’s stairs?
checking the floor plan
How can you screw up assembling a house that has step-by-step building instruction, like a paint by number kit!
Then there is the landscaping. Nine months ago, our neighbor met with local authorities to inspect the safety of the half a dozen trees that loomed over our building. At that time the authorities clearly marked the trees that were to be removed in red paint before the builders broke ground on the foundation.
Unfortunately those trees are still standing.The project manager, who failed to show up at the original meeting, now mandates that the $6000 removal cost must come out of our pocket because he wasn’t present (ie. failed to show up) at the said meeting when the decision was made.
We flipped out when one architect confessed the building was not up to code. All windows were 30% smaller than Swiss regulations required; consequently, none of the buildings would pass inspection.
Can you even replace windows cut within prefab walls made in Slovenia?
wrong size window
Sure, one can cope with smaller windows, but not when the resale value of the house is diminished by a couple hundred thousand dollars because a three bedroom house will be listed as one bedroom due undersized windows.
Finally, six months after asking for a costs’ summary, we received our proposed Excel spreadsheet. Half of the figures were wrong. Either fixtures were counted twice or calculated using the wrong unit prices in the formulas.
As we meet with co owners, builders, architects and lawyers, the nightmare continues. Impuissant and deceived, we lost all confidence in the builders and any hope of a positive solution.
If the building company minimized the window size by such an alarming margin, what else have they fleeced us on?
A lawyer wisely advised, “Drop it! Chances are if the case goes to court, which can take years, you would most likely lose because contracts are designed to protect builders.”
“Pick your battles!” another friend in the business told us. “At the end of day you want a place to live?”
We don’t give up!
We throw another log in the wood burning stove trying to heat our rustic Heidi Hut and keep fighting.
So many people, who know of our dream to build a house in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland, keep asking, “How is the new house coming along?”
What could go wrong? A home that builders promised to finish last April that I called, “our plot” remains like it sounds - a hole in the ground (well in our case a chunk carved out of a mountainside).
The building area resembles a construction site with rocks, dirt, foundation, a crane, but no roof, no walls, no windows. The plans sold to us showed a beautiful complex of three triplex homes housing 9 different families.
Each of the 9 owners-to-be has been promised a June 2022 delivery at the very latest.We now have been given 3 floating dates depending on the buildings. The only positive outcome of this mess is that we have gotten to know our future neighbors. Over irate, disgruntled coffee klatches, we rant about the lies we’ve been told and the alarming lack of progress.
No one in their wildest dreams could fathom this kind of screw up in a country as well organized and efficient at Switzerland where hardly a train runs late.
Part of it may be due the international nature of living here.
To fill you in on the background, the property, owned by a Scotsman who lives in the chalet above the land, bought it for peanuts 40 years ago and sold it for a fortune. At first, he put a credible Swiss architect firm in charge with whom buyers signed contracts.
For unknown reasons, the Scotsman took the Swiss company off the project and put a small construction company in charge where everyone speaks Serbo-Croatian.
“You’re in trouble!” my Serbian friend laughed and explained, “They work on Serbian time, everything will always be late.”
The Scotsman signed a different deal with the original Swiss architect company to oversee the end result, but no longer have any role in the day to day operation. Consequently, the small builder oversees his own progress.
Yet the Swiss company, who retains a 15% cut on all additional costs, legally must assure that the project is completed. With 3 different entities involved in the deal, responsibility has been passed hand to hand like a hot potato. No one communicates to the buyers what is really going on.
The results: one building has siding and a roof, but no interior finishing, another building has a foundation, ground floor walls, and a third of the siding on the second floor, and our building remains a cement foundation.
We were supposed to be the first structure built until engineers decided that our home, on a level above the other two, must be constructed last to keep the mountain from collapsing on the other two.
See why we are worried?
By renting our rustic chalet in the same village, we can easily check on progress or lack there of. At the end of September, in a meeting with all 3 parties, they promised my husband that our home would be ready by the end of April 2023. Our neighbors, in building two, were told they would be in theirs by Christmas 2022, but winter is coming and when the first snow falls all work stops.
When we walked by the premises recently, we were alarmed to see partially finished buildings, an idle crane, but no workers or building supplies on site. We surmised that the builders ran into major delays in attaining the prefab wood siding panels ordered from a company in Slovenia.
How insane is this scenario?
A friendly Scotsman sells a piece of land to a reputable Swiss architect company with whom we signed contracts. Then the switcheroo - a Serbian building company, owned by a British firm in London, takes charge of construction with materials ordered from Slovenia. Global efficiency ?
As the clock ticks, the tab grows greater with owners paying more on all interior fixtures due to price increase. Owners are also paying rising interest rates on Swiss bank home loans. We paid extra American (as well as Swiss) taxes on our “virtual” home. We also pay a rent and storage fees for a full year longer than budgeted.
Right now, no ones lives in their “dream house” except a local gang of druggies, who discovered that the site is a great place to hang out and get high.
Surviving in our rustic little chalet chiseled out of the side of the Jura Mountains, a few miles from the French border, is challenging as we adjust to living in the 1800s.
In the morning I shiver under my duvet, while Gerald cleans out ashes and then starts a fire in our burning stove, which holds two, foot long logs at a time and provides our main heat.
From the outside our chalet looks cute, but inside I feel like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Nothing fits. I bump into furniture and hit my head on low hanging beams. The Swiss were short especially at the turn of the century.
A stone wall divides the main room, the size of box car, into a kitchen and living area. Our refrigerator is the size of one like in a college dormitory. Ditto for the freezer squeezed under the stairwell.
Fortunately, we have indoor plumbing at least downstairs. Our water closet, the size of a telephone booth, is as cold as an out house. If you perch too long on the porcelain stool, which feels like squatting on a block of ice, you end up chiseling icicles from your bottom.
The staircase, so steep and narrow, must be navigated sideways and leads to 2 bedrooms. In our bedroom, the antique armoires are too narrow to hang things, so I rolled up our clothes and stored them in baskets under our bed.
Knotty pine walls and a wood beamed ceiling make it cozy. Two shuttered windows overlook the little red train track, where a 2 car train shuttles workers, skiers, hikers up and down from the mountains to Nyon in the valley.
The other room upstairs, used as a make shift office, has a bunkbed piled with junk awaiting our move. Between the rooms an open area with a ladder, gives access to an attic that we never enter for fear of stirring up ghosts or wild animals.
Upstairs, lacks plumbing. I cannot safely navigate the stairs a dozen times a night to the bathroom. Instead, I use a porta potty balancing on a crate in the closet sized nook at the top of the stairs. The seat, sized to accommodate a toddler’s butt, is so tiny, I fear I’ll tumble head first down stairs every time I pee.
Like in Laura Ingall’s Little House on the Prairie, in order to survive the winter, a local lumberjack dropped a truckload of timber outside our door. We stack 3 cords, a ton and half, of wood in precise neat piles like Jenga blocks. Now I understand why Swiss make wood piles so tidy. It’s to keep them from rolling down the mountainside.
Chores are endless living in the past century. Like laundry. I wash 5 articles at a time in our miniature machine. Then like pancakes on a griddle, I flip socks, long johns and t-shirts on racks in front of the wood burning stove.
We don’t have a phone line or TV, but we can access Netflix - limited over here - so we watch any international series available. We followed Scandinavian murder mysteries, Spanish dramas, Italian comedies. Last night, so desperate for entertainment, we tuned into an Egyptian soap opera with French subtitles.
But when I wake up in the morning and throw open my shutters, the view of sun rising above the evergreen covered mountainside is inspiring.
A year ago, after our realtor sent photos of our place to his client list, we sold our house in two days, before it even went on the market. Of course, it sold immediately! It is the perfect house, which makes me wonder why we decided to leave it.
We found another place just as fast. After visiting only three houses and talking to two builders, my husband announced, “We must decide. I hate shopping! I don’t like dithering around.”
“Gerald we aren’t talking about buying a pair of shoes! This is a house. We need to be sure what we are doing?”
But when was I ever sure what I was doing? Our reasons for moving from our old house… too big, too many stairs, too much yard. So what do we do? Build as big of house, with as many stairs, in the middle of a mountain.
We signed on a new place, not yet built in St. Cergue, Switzerland in the Jura mountains. Since our new house, a triplex like apartment, will not be ready until July 2022, we are living like vagabonds.
To make thing more complicated, we are guests in this country. I am American, Gerald French. We scramble to figure out details like how many days we could spend in the states without losing our C residency permit allowing us to live in Switzerland. Even harder to negotiate was how long we could hang out in America, especially since Gerald as a “foreigner” is required to leave the US within 90 days of entering.
What started almost as a whim, snowballed into a major life change and my head is spinning, still unstable from my brain surgery almost 2 years ago.
Is it from brain injury or circumstantial, from trying to pack 23 years of living into a dozen boxes and start over again on a mountaintop in my mid 60’s?
Where has my common sense gone? How did I get so caught up in my husband’s middle life crisis? Does everyone my age feel this urgency that time is running out that we must rush to do all the things we dreamed in our youth.
Nothing is working out as planned.
What can I be thinking moving into the mountains with my bad back and worn out knees, where every step out the door requires going up or down? There’s no pain-free level ground here.
Fortunately my husband, like a little kid with a new project, is in his element dealing with the architecs, builders, bankers, realtors and notaries. His enthusiasm and expertise keeps me going, because I am lost.
Our biggest mistake was buying a “virtual” home, which builders promised would be ready by June 2022. Last fall, the project manager met with my husband and told him that our house would be finished earlier, by April or May 2022. Then in December, we received an alarming email saying that we wouldn’t get the key until probably the end of December 2022 but June 2023 at the latest. Or if you read the contract’s fine print, it “clearly” states that the very latest deadline would be 14 months from finishing the foundations date, which could mean June 2023 as they started several month later than expected. Anyone following here ???
What went wrong?
In the meantime, we stack another load of wood to heat our “temporary” rental place, a medieval chalet the size of a trailer. To keep from going crazy, we go out everyday. We wander our around our new village, walk by our “plot” and worry.
Why haven’t they broke ground the foundation of our building yet?
The past 6 months have been a blur of pain, disappointment, anxiety, uncertainty and ongoing rehabilitation. I have been off line, out of touch, and unable to write due to doctors orders. I had to refrain from using my upper body while retraining muscle memory.
I am lost. Unbalanced mentally and physically.
My sister will remind me I have been in an existential crisis since age 13, but this time I am really floundering. The parameters measuring my identity disappeared. Studies by Bruce Feiler in his book “Life is in the Transitions, Mastering Change at Any Age,” upended previous beliefs that defined age in stages as popularized by Gail Sheehy 1970s best seller “Passages.”
Transitions never existed in a linear, set pattern, but our chaotic lives are more like a kaleidoscope of constant change. We go through 20 or more transitions in a lifetime and major ones every 3 to 4 years.
For stability we all need to have at least one of three things.
I lack all three. My purpose used to be teaching, coaching, writing, raising a family. My basketball teams and family were my connections; the international school was my community. But my children outgrew me, as they should, I retired from teaching/coaching and my family remains 4,000 miles away.
This summer, though I was so grateful to see loved ones, I felt as displaced as ever, at odds with my body, emotions running rampant due to the lingering after effects of brain injury.
As with any long term recovery process, setbacks, disappointments and false starts prevailed.
The skills I once performed effortlessly disappeared. I relearned how to do things for myself - drive long distances, pack the car, buy groceries, fill the tank, mow the lawn.
I have been working so hard to recover from traumatic brain injury after a bad fall that wreaked as much havoc with my spine as it did my brain. Once stateside, I spent 6 months, moving between families’ homes in Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin and underwent intensive therapy for my back and shoulders.
Back track 9 months. Last April, we sold our house outside Geneva Switzerland and bought a place in St. Cergue in the Jura Mountains. The only problem - the new virtual house was not built yet. No worries, realtors assured us only a few months delay. Further snafus in building means we will remain without fixed domicile for another year.
Mid January we returned to Switzerland and landed back in time in our “Heidi hut.” a rented, rustic chalet, chiseled out of the mountainside and heated only by wood burning stove.
I feel completely uprooted, a stranger in my body, living in a foreign place, surrounded by people I don’t know.
Without a permanent address it is hard to feel grounded.
During my lowest point, at age 26 after my career ending car accident abroad, I thought I had nothing left to give, but I never gave up believing and went on to teach and coach and raise a family. In retrospect, I can see that I still had a lot left to offer and learn from others.
But now what?
This time around, in a later stage of my life without a real home, our rootlessness existence makes it so much harder to reinvent myself, accept my limited options and admit my loss of autonomy.
Yet, every morning when I throw open the shutters, the sun sparkles over the snow-covered mountain top daring me to step out the door on the next adventure.
So here we go…
“One day at a time…remember all that lies behind you,
Believe in all that lies ahead”