Trying (and failing) to get help as an English speaker in a francophone region

Photo by Thomas de LUZE on Unsplash

Recently, I grew increasingly angry that I still hadn’t gotten back my security deposit from a sublet apartment that I’d vacated back in November. I decided to look into legal options.

The most obvious (and let’s face it, only) option was to contact Asloca, the Swiss tenants’ association serving the francophone region. In exchange for a 70-franc annual membership, they provide legal advice over the phone for anyone who’s trying to face off against an exploitative landlord.

So in January, I submitted an application via their website to renew my membership for 2021. No response. Thinking that it might have fallen through the cracks during the busy start of year, I filed another application. February arrives, and still nothing.

It was then that I began to think about the bigger implications of this. How could I call Asloca for legal advice in the first place if my French wasn’t up to par? I could make appointments and briefly describe my feelings and state of mind, but that was it. I needed someone who actually spoke French to call for me.

My friends were not an option. I might be uniquely stubborn in this regard, but I’d never ask a friend to help me out like this unless it were a true emergency, like the time I had a heart murmur in December 2019 and asked a friend to call the urgent care clinic. I think it’s a lot of labor to ask someone to take on, to help me navigate a potential complex legal matter without compensation, especially given that most of my close friends here are married with young children. There’s so much room for awkwardness: I’d have to make the ask in the first place, making it difficult for them to say no. I’d offer to pay them, but they’d never accept. And then I’d have to prod and nudge them if they forgot to follow up. I’d have to thank them endlessly and feel forever indebted to them, in an uncomfortable way. Whereas if it were a paid transaction, I could pay a professional for their time and be done with it.

Another option I ruled out was freelancers or just paying someone’s nephew with cash. Switzerland is really strict about taxes; even your cleaning lady who comes around once a week is considered an employee and has to be declared and taxed accordingly. I just don’t have time to deal with these extra legal hurdles, and I want to do things by the books.

I started looking for companies that could do this type of thing. You’d think there would be a sizeable market for this — helping English-speaking expats navigate life in a francophone world, holding their hand as they first settled in, handling the tough language stuff on their behalf. And there are — but they turned out to be a huge bust.

I contacted four services in total. I won’t name them here, since none of them have wronged me or anything, so it’d be petty to do so. But I am pretty dismayed at how quickly each option fell apart.

1. A bilingual services company: This was a small operation that specializes in being a French-English intermediary for legal and personal issues in France. According to their website, they can translate documents, interpret for you in person, and make phone calls on your behalf. The rates were very affordable. I emailed them in the morning to ask for help. Silence. Then, at the end of the work day, they emailed back with apologies: they were too booked up with doing official translations and did not find making phone calls to be an effective use of their time any longer. They also shared the names and contact info of two other businesses that were still offering this type of work. So while this was disappointing, they were quite professional and courteous, and I could see myself using their services if I ever needed them to translate a legal document.

2. “Raquel”: Raquel, first name changed for her privacy, works for a France-based company that seems to mostly help English-speaking expats with maintaining their pools, but somehow also has an administrative service. She came recommended from the first company I had contacted, and her rates were also quite reasonable at 39 euros per hour, billed in 10-minute increments. It has, however, been very difficult to communicate with her. It took two days to respond to my initial outreach. We then signed a brief agreement to work together, and I asked her to make the call to Asloca. It has now been four business days, and she still hasn’t called them. I’m not even bothering to follow up with her at this point. I feel like if I did, she’d be like, “Fuck you, your 39 euros are pennies to me. I’ve got real clients to deal with.” And she’d be right, I suppose. (Update: It has now been seven business days without word from Raquel, and in the meantime I’ve already gotten my security deposit back, soooo I guess we’re done.)

3. “Jane”: Jane was the other recommendation from the first company. She seems to be an independent business owner who specializes in helping English-speaking expats deal with immigration, paperwork, all the stuff they need to navigate in France. She responded quickly to my initial outreach, saying that she’d be happy to help and asking for my phone number so we could have a quick chat. I supplied it — and received a response from her in early February, saying that she could book me in for an initial consultation call for late May. My jaw fell off. I honestly wasn’t sure if she was trolling me. I did not respond further.

4. A Geneva company: Recommended by a coworker, this is a concierge-type company that specializes in helping expats. I reached out, and they sent me their package options, the cheapest of which was 600 francs per month to retain their services. I might have found this helpful when I first moved to Geneva and didn’t have any relocation or language support from my work, but for a couple of phone calls, there’s no way.

In summary, I’m pretty disappointed. I guess I can understand: if I’m not a corporate client who can pay the big bucks, then people aren’t going to give me their time of day. It’s literally not worth the value of their time. And I think the biggest lesson for me is that I can’t rely on other people to help me. If I’m living in a francophone country and trying to call someone in French, I have to do that on my own. And if my French isn’t good enough, then it’s my responsibility to get it to a place where it is good enough. Anyway, I’m in Lingoda classes three times a week now, so I’m learning a lot. I’ll be okay.

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