As promised, something different from recipe or hotel reviews, an outtake from expat life.
The last thing I probably needed during the early days of my heavy cancer diagnosis was a first date, so naturally, I would have to have one. After ending things with Jack, my first real Swiss boyfriend, at the end of last year, I was searching for a better connection. So as part of my new year’s resolutions and pre-diagnosis, I signed up for Match.com. The app was proving to be frustrating, but I paid upfront for three months of boyfriend shopping and wasn’t going to flush that money completely down the toilet, even given my new set of circumstances. I wasn’t sure who was going to want this hot mess express that is my current reality, but I gave the app the occasional glance because of the sunk cost I was facing. That’s where I met Max. He was cute, said the right things, and was looking for something similar. The banter we exchanged was very fun, so I agreed to meet him the following week. This was despite learning that he had a bird. Max was a seemingly successful single man with a bird. I had cancer. Ok, so we both had things to work on. My birding brother even told me that he would never own a bird because they are loud and dirty. ‘Man with bird’ was never a red flag I thought I would run toward, but it’s already been such a strange year, why not.
Exhausted, with dark circles that tell my tale of a sleepless week coupled with a new, short haircut that makes me feel not like myself…here we are. My new “look” feels so foreign to me. There’s really nothing like wearing your troubles on your face. A bit more me, I rocked my usual first date uniform of skinny black jeans, a long cardigan that skims the body (while hiding the thighs), and flowy tank top that shows just a peek at the girls who were causing me so much trouble. Tonight, this fail-proof ensemble was now also showcasing part the bandage covering my recent port-catheter surgery. Nothing like a tempting reminder that I get a giant needle shoved into my chest on the weekly. It wasn’t the cutest, but hopefully he wouldn’t ask about it.
I figured that I’d meet him for a quick glass of wine as things were likely not to go anywhere as with most first dates and that would be that. However, our first date plans grew quickly from a walk by the lake and a glass of wine to his insistence on dinner and securing the perfect reservation for us. This level of effort and planning was fairly adorable so I gave in, knowing that my new state made the whole “eating” thing instantly more awkward. I needed to make sure this dinner plan worked for my new pregnant lady-like diet of no cold cuts, uncooked eggs, unpasteurized cheese, or raw anything including fruits and vegetables. Thank God the Swiss are into cooked cheeses.
I decided I had to tell him in advance about my diagnosis, not only because of my strange dietary requirements, but also it would give him a chance to run at the news if he was going to. My immunity was so low that I thought I’d ease into it by asking him if he’d been vaccinated which felt like a super fun, new, ‘hey have you been recently tested for any STDs’?.’ Fun, responsible, conversations worthy of a big breath hold. At my Covid vaccination inquiry, he laughed it off and asked why. I spilled the beans, though first blaming it on a friend I was helping- that I didn’t want to bring Covid to her immuno-suppressed self. Later, I fessed up that friend was me. Like a true gentleman, albeit an unvaccinated one, (he was very French like that) he told me the cancer diagnosis didn’t bother him and that he’d take a Covid test prior to meeting me. Although, he asked me not to use the word “cancer” because it had really negative energy. Ok, maybe he’s right on that, the “diagnosis” it would be. He did take a Covid test, sending me a photo as thankfully, it was negative so we could meet. So, this is what chivalry looks like during a pandemic with a cancer diagnosis.
With the negative Covid test, visions of sharing fondue and kissing at the end of the date without fear danced in my head. We met and it was fun. Really fun. We saw a gorgeous sun set from the lookout point of my town’s castle and went for a short walk by the lake before returning to the castle’s wine cave restaurant for a huge cheese board followed by more cheese- raclette this time…and a bottle and a half of a nice white wine. Thank goodness for the Swiss and their hot cheese and flavorless boiled potatoes- about the only thing I could eat.
I ask Max how he ended up living in Switzerland from his native Paris and more recent move from the south of France. Expecting an answer like ‘work’ or ‘family’, I’ll never forget these words, “It’s too dangerous for my bird to get on a plane. She could die.” He had to move within driving distance…for a bird. (Don’t birds fly?) WHAT. I prod a little more into this shocking response to my question and was met with, “you’ll understand when you meet her.” I guess I shouldn’t have thought, ‘great, he likes me!’ and focused more on how one has a first introduction with a bird. As I was wondering what I was losing in translation, I vowed to remember this hilarious conversation so I could recount it to my friends. Unfortunately, that would be it for the bird conversation this evening. I would just have to meet ‘Tara’ myself. Ok, fine. If that isn’t a hook for a second date (or to run quickly), I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. (Everything?).
We continue to talk about big life sort of things and somehow have real conversation in two broken languages. Him speaking to me in English and my responding in very mediocre French. He tells me a Gandi parable about animals in the jungle and gives each one a different voice, complete with animal sounds, in his recounting. It is adorable and I don’t think he realizes it which really is the best. We talk about being slightly outside the married with kids’ box of our peers and I think we come to an agreement but it’s hard to confirm in these two different languages. Either way, the conversation is so much better than generic work or siblings, or Swiss mountains…or cancer. It’s a real conversation- refreshing! Thanks to the cave-like setting of this castle fondue restaurant, we have no help from Wi-Fi and Google translate to further our discussion. Later as we are being ushered out of the restaurant for their closing time, it seems clear we were both exhausted by this language exchange and decide to call it a night.
He drives me home and pulls chocolate bars from his pocket during the quick trip. (He’d sweetly inquired about my favorite kind in advance). “Here’s one, eat this now.” A second one appears from his jacket pocket, “and another one for later” … and a few minutes later… “another just in case.” It occurs to me that these have been in his pocket for our last four hours together which might be more amusing than this chocolate magician act itself. This date just keeps getting funnier and funnier and I am eating it up- and not just the chocolate.
We are at mine a few minutes later and he leaves the car running and pops out to open my door, since I’m not expecting this and I beat him to it. Like a real gentleman, he offers me his arm to walk me to the door and says he is going to kiss me. I am all for first date kisses and testing the chemistry, though first date kisses do not seem to be the norm here. (A friend once told me if you get a kiss, they are ready to sleep with you. Not a slow slide like in the states). I think our date must have gone well for him too (though not that well), and receive only French man cheeky air kisses in return, the same as the greeting. He drives home and texts me goodnight when he arrives. I’m floating, happy above this surprising good night.
…Until the bird videos.
Over the weekend I recount this story to friends as well as my French professor (in French). They all demand a second date in order to continue this amusing story. We must learn more about this man and his bird! At these requests, I am able to turn our conversations away from pesky things like our potential compatibility towards getting to know Tara, a large blue and yellow macaw. After several photos of her, I agree that she is beautiful, a babe of a bird. I ask (in French) if I can please hear her speak in French because somehow the idea of this is much funnier than a bird speaking in English. He replied, clearly annoyed, or maybe just being French, with “Absolutement, non. Je ne controle pas cela.” Absolutely not, I don’t control this. Damnit. This bird probably knows more words than me, I say. He jokingly agrees.
Despite this sudden heat about Tara and her talents, his (or her?) ego must be stroked, because that’s when he introduces me to the Titis. That’s right, there are MORE BIRDS. I receive video, after video of these tiny song birds singing. He likes to wake-up to the sweet sounds of these Titis. There’s ‘Black Titi’ and ‘White Titi’. It turns out that these birds aren’t as intelligent as Tara, so he calls them both Titi. Ouch, poor Titi’s! Since he calls them “Black Titi” and “White Titi” why not give these things unique names? I should have asked this, but decide against poking the
bear bird. He must feel I’m into it?, her?, them? as I proceed to receive unsolicited bird photos for the rest of the day. And a few of his apartment for some reason. The unintelligent Titis sleep in his bedroom from the looks of things. Really, that’s all I need to know.
This ends the way you think it would- we don’t agree on the Russia/Ukraine conflict in a big way so I never meet Tara or the Titis. As odd as this whole experience has been, it makes me ponder in a very Carrie Bradshaw way, ‘are unsolicited bird pics the new unsolicited dick pics? Or is this just dating in Switzerland?’