Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

End of classes

with one comment

Just before Christmas past, I finished my third and final semester of classes.  The current semester, my last before graduation, is devoted to writing my thesis (called mémoire in French). Two years of study in a foreign country was always going to flash by, but the end of classes was an unexpected “last call.” Thesis writing will be the last gasp of my student life, perhaps forever. No more cycling to class, chatting with classmates, reading on a variety of subjects and choosing my work topics based solely on my interest. More than anything, I have enjoyed the intellectual freedom to study the topics that sparkle for me. Indeed, a career counselor would probably scowl at the scattershot range of course titles I followed: food security, the Turco-Iranian world, the East Asian Miracle, development economics, political sociology, possession vs. property systems… tell me if you can pull a common thread from these subjects, because I can not see one.

The three semesters have passed doubly fast in that they consisted of only 14 weeks each. I have spent 19 months in Geneva and studied for only 42 weeks!

Grade-wise, my recent semester was my best. More than anything, I feel as if that is down to learning how to write social science papers. A shock during the first semester was that my Bachelor of Commerce degree had not prepared me at all for academic work in the social sciences. I realised in retrospect that I had never learned to read academic journal articles, nor structure a seminar paper. Case studies and business plans (and whatever else we did – review financial statements?) were feeble preparation for choosing a research question, defining a methodology, reviewing the literature, etc. Eileen was very helpful during that first semester, reading my first paper and asking me such questions as: “I just read 4,000 words – what is your point?”

As I was learning to write academic papers, I was also learning to write in academic French. I was enrolled in French immersion throughout my schooling in Canada, so am adept at writing test responses and summary-type essays. I have lived for a limited time in France and Switzerland, so I can comfortably write emails and text messages to friends and colleagues. But an academic paper required not only that I learn the specific vocabulary of my topic, but also incorporate argumentative and reference style elements that do not exist in other forms of expression. These elements include expressions such as “en revanche,” “étant donné que” and “cependant,” expressions that are the French equivalent of the Byzantine vocabulary used by the architect character in the movie “The Matrix:”

On the balance, structuring an academic paper came easier than improving my French writing style. It was not so much the grades that suffered in translation – a quick calculation shows my French work yielded grades on average 2% lower than my English work – but more the sense of control and personal style. I feel as if I structure arguments well and in English I augment this with control over a range of vocabulary, grammar and style elements that can complement the underlying argument. In French my range is much more limited such that my delivery feels deliberate and dry, as if I am writing the label of a cereal box. A direct comparison is impossible, but I suspect this combination – strong structure in both languages, but a style shortcoming in French – is why I received equivalent grades (professors mark more on content than style), but still felt as if my French papers were less enjoyable to write and read.

This is not to say that I am upset, as I see definite progress, only that passing as an almost-native French speaker in any form of expression is a long process. I decided from the beginning that I would write papers and tests in the language of instruction of each course. That worked almost perfectly into a 50-50 split, so I have had some excellent practice. Two big exercises in written French remain: I will write my thesis in French, as well as a subsequent journal article.

I can’t imagine anyone is interested in reading these for language or content, but here are some examples of my submitted papers in both English and French:

Aquaculture in Vietnam

Singapore’s dependence on foreign labour

Quotas individuels dans la pêcherie du flétan du Pacifique

Transition agraire en Ouzbékistan et au Kirghizstan

Unlike with the written, I am disappointed with the progress of my oral French. During the first few months I felt as if I made real forward strides, but my trip back to Canada last summer began a noticeable regression. I am certainly not complaining about the trip (it was to marry Eileen!), but it was an English-only trip, followed by an English-only end to the summer in Geneva. Eileen and I have not made enough of an effort to speak French to each other at home, and in the fall, when I was busy with schoolwork, I did not make enough of an effort to meet up and converse with my francophone friends. I am very aware now when I pronounce a word poorly (the other day it was fourrure) and when my speech is interrupted by a halting rhythm or by correcting my mistakes, and it seems more frequent. I am probably too hard on myself, but there is some objective regression: last week, during a discussion with our friend Hélène about Eileen’s noticeable progress in French, she quipped that my French, by contrast had… and she made a downward sliding motion with her hand.

French aside, we have enjoyed a beautiful winter in Geneva, perhaps better described as an early spring. By my memory, we have had only one stretch of the dreaded bise, the bitter wind that blows at 40km/h+ down the lake from the northeast, ripping through clothing and causing the temperature to plummet by 10 degrees. It leads to amazing ice shapes on the lakeside from the waves crashing ashore and freezing before hitting the ground. Here are a couple of examples of those formations, shot at Bains de Pâquis:

After that brief cold snap, we have enjoyed a bizarre stretch of blue-sky days with temperatures above 10 degrees. I am a man of leisure until my upcoming trip to Vietnam, so I have used the sunny days to wander around our neighborhood, shooting whatever catches my eye:

We also spent a sunny day in Château d’Oex for its annual balloon festival. We went last year, but it was cold, snowy and foggy and the balloons could not fly above a certain ceiling due to overhead fighter jets protecting the fancy people meeting at Davos that weekend. Nonetheless, enough balloons flew, if only for a short while, to make it interesting. This year was the inverse: warm, sunny, blue sky and grounded balloons. A number of balloons were up when we arrived, but by the time we found a viewing area, they were all grounded due to wind. Here are some mostly balloon-less photos of the balloon festival:

This next photo of Château d’Oex village shows the downside of our early spring in Switzerland: the ski slopes are bare.

This Friday I leave for Vietnam for three months of research for my thesis. I found a spot on a pre-existing inter-university research project, so the general topic and geography were pre-determined: family rubber farming in the Mekong region of Cambodia and Vietnam (click here for the rarely updated project website). My rough topic within the project, and the subject of my thesis, is: “the place and outlook of family farms within the rubber supply chain of the province of Binh Phuoc, Vietnam.” I will write in French, and yes, the subject sounds equally clunky when translated.

Binh Phuoc is approximately 130km north of Saigon, on the northeastern edge of Vietnam’s Mekong region and is adjacent to the Cambodian border. I spent six months working in Cambodia a few years ago and have also travelled there a couple of times, but this will be my first trip to Vietnam, so I am excited. I have found that working in a country is a richer travel experience than simply holidaying, so this is a perfect introduction to Vietnam. Not to mention the opportunity to finally collect a few bills of Vietnam’s amusingly named currency: the dông.

I am plugging through the arrangements. There are some uncertainties associated with a research project in Vietnam, but they are minor compared to the prospect of being away from Eileen for three months. Prior to this, our longest period apart was the six or so weeks between my arrival in Geneva and hers. I suspect my research activities during the day will keep my engaged, but I do not look forward to evenings without Eileen. Of course, the parting is easier for me, as I am leaving for something exciting – it is much harder on Eileen. We “celebrated” her birthday a few days ago on February 6th, but despite my presents and efforts, it was a muted celebration as we were both sick and she is dreading my departure (no one to fold her laundry). Nonetheless, I managed that night to shoot the latest of many great photos of my wife, so instead of being only sad about leaving Eileen, here is an excellent image to remember why it is difficult to be apart from her:


One Response

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  1. Kris,

    As usual it is a joy reading your great updates from Geniva! I can’t believe you are almost done your program over there- the thesis will be a interesting and new challenge for the many reasons you state above. The experiences of learning how to read and write in the proper academic world resonates well with me as i am also just starting my final business project (thesis alternative) which will conclude in June!

    I hope you and Eileen are doing well, your time apart will no doubt be very tough, but will only strengthen your bond in the long run. Do you have plans when you are finished your thesis? Tash and I may try to travel over there early in the summer- we would love to spend some time with you guys if it worked out! Please email me and let me know! 🙂


    Tyrell Mara

    February 8, 2011 at 16:47

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