Paradise (Apparently): After a year and a half in Geneva
Trying to decide between an international and local school in Switzerland for your children? Maybe Flo can be of assistance, as she describes her decision process after a year and a half in Geneva.
Dante was three and it was time for us to find a nursery for him. We had to decide what kind of place to send him to. Cleancorp paid for my children to go to the International School, but I was not convinced that this was right for Dante. I was of the opinion that a local state school would help him integrate better and grow up ‘normally’, like me.
People had told me that you get very rich, spoiled children at these private international schools. I believe that in school – as in life – you should get to know and learn to deal with people from all social backgrounds, otherwise you risk ending up with a distorted view of reality. I have heard many other people express the same opinion.
Undeniable as all this might be, the Ecole Internationale le Mignon private international school was extremely close to where we lived and my Tunisian and Thai neighbours were both very enthusiastic about it. Their children spoke perfect French and English without any trace of an accent. On top of which, state school lessons finish at 11.30, a disastrous state of affairs if you are a working mother – even if I could not yet be described as such.
By this time Dante was speaking Italian and Dutch fairly well and I was wary of the idea of him having to deal with another two languages, English and French. He was only three and he would find himself speaking four languages. No, it was too much, it was ridiculous. He would just get very confused.
I read up some more on multilingual children and talked with the director of the Ecole le Mignon. The head, who had over 25 years of experience, assured me that the school was full of children who spoke four languages fluently and that this caused them no problems at all. In fact, he went on, children under six have a remarkable ability to learn languages. I found him very convincing and felt reassured. Mindful of my own struggles to learn a foreign language, I reflected that my children were lucky to be able to attend such a school.
I decided to do the guided tour of the international school. This involved a long day observing the children in various bilingual – English and French – classes. They explained the school’s methods to me and pointed out that there were fifteen children to a class, as opposed to over twenty per class in state schools.
I watched the children playing happily and tried to imagine Dante there with them. I started thinking too about how enormously expensive the Ecole le Mignon was and how, if so many families were prepared to shell out so much money to send their children there, it was probably a very good school. In short, there were two possible ways of looking at it:
- It was, in fact, an excellent school, which explained why the parents paid such high fees for their children’s education.
- It was an awful school and the parents were crazy spendthrifts who enjoyed throwing money down the drain.
Common sense told me that the first interpretation was the correct one. It was also worth remembering that we could never have afforded to pay such expensive fees ourselves. We decided to take advantage of the opportunity Cleancorp were giving us and enrol Dante in the Ecole Internationale le Mignon.
I could never have imagined how big an influence this decision would have on the future lives of all our family.
Ecole Internationale Le Mignon is a very beautiful school, along the lines of an American campus, with grass and trees and parkland; it is large but not so large as to be overwhelming for the children, whose ages range from three to eighteen years. Dante’s teacher always spoke in both French and English to all the children. “Tu dois faire pipi? Do you need to have a wee wee?”
This goes for everything: whether asking a question or telling a story, the bilingual teachers always translate.
My son quickly became best friends with an Italian boy, Lorenzo, and a Dutch boy, Alexander. I don’t think this was a coincidence. This way he could speak his ‘mother tongues’. A few months later Dante made two more great friends: Gabriel and Adrian. Gabriel spoke Chinese with his Taiwanese mother and French with his father. Adrian spoke Russian with his mother and German with his father.
These children were only three but completely unfazed by all these languages, and after just a few months my son was happily playing and chattering with them in French. It was incredible – they were only three years old!
As he played, Dante switched languages. He spoke to Lorenzo in Italian and a moment later said something to Gabriel in French. It was like watching a tiny interpreter: he was accurate and effortless. I was astonished at the ease with which these children switched from one language to another.
Their body language was hilarious. When Dante spoke in Italian he waved his hands around, when he spoke French he stayed still. In fact all these children were perfectly reproducing not only the sounds of the different languages but also the accompanying gestures. Dante’s French was perfect, right down to his soft pronunciation of the ‘r’. There was no trace of a foreign accent; he spoke it as if it were his mother tongue. I couldn’t even begin to imitate him. I speak French with a very strong accent. Before the first words are even out of my mouth people ask, ‘Madame, are you Italian by any chance?’
So, after years of study, courses abroad and seven years working in Brussels, there I was speaking French with an unmistakeably Italian accent, while my son, after six months of school in Geneva and a grand total of three years of life, spoke French so perfectly that he often ended up correcting me!
This was a whole new and astonishing world for me. I studied in a state school where the only translation was from Italian into Barese dialect and vice versa. The other mothers seemed more used to it. Many of them had been to similar schools themselves or had grown up with parents from different cultural backgrounds. I, on the other hand, have a mother from Taranto and a father from Bari, so my exotic roots are limited to Puglia.
The real attraction of the Ecole le Mignon are the mothers. They fall into three categories: VIP Mothers, Mothers from Diplomatic Families and Mothers Who Just Happen to Be Here.
I might be seen as a rather unedifying example of this kind of mother. In the mornings I often accompany Dante to school. I am not a morning person and my son takes after me. It takes at least 35 minutes to get it into his head that morning has actually arrived. After a phase of gentle coaxing, I have to resort to threats to wake him up.
We finally make it to school in my trusty blue second-hand Nissan Micra that I bought in Brussels years ago. I park between a Volvo SUV and a Range Rover. After I have taken Dante into the classroom, I always have problems finding my car on account of its being impossible to see behind the enormous vehicles of the VIP Mothers.
I am always scruffily dressed; Alice, still in her pyjamas, is asleep in my arms. I am shouting at Dante and trying to catch him before he runs out into the traffic, when Alice suddenly wakes up and starts crying because she is hungry. In the rush I invariably forget to bring her bottle, so I try in vain to console her. The car journey to Dante’s school takes ten very stressful minutes and when we get there the other mothers always ask me, “Is Alice still in her pyjamas?”
I smile politely and say nothing. I am tempted to reply that it is a miracle I am not still in pyjamas myself.
Read more from Flo – including her definitions of the Ecole mother categories – in Welcome to Switzerland! Paradise (Apparently), available in bookshops and online.
Whether you’re new in town, have lived here for years or are simply curious to discover more about this country with its remarkable people and customs, you'll find yourself chuckling at this southern Italian woman’s attempts to adapt to life in Switzerland.
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