Today I’m taking part in something that’s new for me – an Expat Blog Hop – hosted by Steph over at Blog in France – you might want to check it out, there are all sorts of interesting articles being written today by people from well, all over!
So here goes…
Expat life in Switzerland….
I guess in theory I’ve been an expat of sorts for most of my adult life. I left the UK at the ripe old age of 25, spent 2 years in California and then moved to Zürich in the German-speaking part of Switzerland in 1991, 21 years ago.
When I first came here, not only did I not know anyone except for my soonish to be Swiss husband, but I could barely manage more than the ubiquitous ‘ja’ and ‘nein’ in German. Even after months of language classes and having more or less mastered proper High German, I was absolutely none the wiser with gutteral, unpronounceable Swiss German. So although I could read the newspaper I couldn’t hold a conversation with anyone Swiss without necessitating them changing into High German, which lots of people hate.
It took a couple of years more, by which time I was working as an accountant in Zürich, and functioning pretty well in German on a daily basis, before I remember sitting on a tram and realizing that I could actually understand what people were saying around me. Somehow I had absorbed the language by osmosis!
Although I am now fluent in both languages – and indeed work as a translator – my children still beg me not to speak Swiss with their friends – an English accent in Swiss is apparently too much to bear!
So what is it like to live here – in this idyllic little country right in the middle of Europe?
I love it here and would be very loathe to decamp anywhere else. As most people know, it’s clean, efficient, well-organized, very beautiful and with skiing in the winter and lakes to swim in in the summer as well as beautiful historic cities and magnificent countryside there’s a lot to do. It’s a stone’s throw to Italy, Germany, France or Austria – not that we take advantage of this as often as we should. The winter’s are cold and snowy, and in Zürich at least tend to be a bit grey and foggy too; summers can be wet, but often are hot and sunny and perfect for swimming and sunbathing at one of the clean and picturesque lakes. Unemployment hovers around the 3% mark and we have one of the highest standards of living in the world. Sounds good? Have I tempted you?
Some things do take some getting used to – it is very organized. Lateness isn’t tolerated and if you live in an appartment, woe betide you if you want to take a bath after 10pm, do your laundry at a time other than on the one day a week when you are allocated the laundry room in your block, hang your washing out on a Sunday, or make any noise at all between 12 and 1pm.
The school system is excellent, but very tough. Switzerland generally only comes behind Finland in Europe in the quality of education. That said, about 70% leave school at 15 and take apprenticeships or college courses specifically aimed at the job market. Whether working in a bank or office, in a shop or in a trade, they receive an excellent education. Being fluent in multiple languages is a must – without fluent English moving anywhere in the business world is difficult and it isn’t unusual for people to be happy switching between 4 or 5 languages. At school there are a minimum of 3 – on top of Swiss, which is spoken by the population, but isn’t really a written language.
Those who manage to secure one of the highly sought Gymnasium places face a tough road to gain their Matura. Upwards of 30% will fall by the wayside and go on to do other things before they finish. The Matura is therefore extremely highly valued and gives automatic university entry to any course in Switzerland, with the exception of medical sciences.
So how is expat life here?
There is a lot going on for expats, with various very active club, churches and international schools in the Zürich area. On the whole true expats manage to live their lives in a little expat bubble, speaking English (or whatever their language may be) and mixing predominantly with their countrymen.
To be honest I don’t consider myself an expat anymore. Being married to a Swiss makes life a little different I guess. I took Swiss nationality almost 15 years ago and have become totally integrated into my local community, to the extent that I’ve even been asked to stand for public office (but didn’t!). My friends are mostly Swiss and I’ve always been active in my village – I helped start a PTA in my community and was it’s president for several years, sat on the board of the local football club and have generally been active with volunteer work. I run my own business and to be honest, I don’t feel like a foreigner here anymore. It actually feels more foreign when I go back to the UK to visit.
Integrating took a fair bit of effort, the most significant of which was to really learn the language. Without fluency, integration really isn’t a possibility. The Swiss are a reserved race, but are more than delighted when foreigners make the effort to learn their language.
One of the most rewarding experiences I had took place a few years back when I was chairing a meeting at the local primary school, where we were discussing how to get the foreigners in our ‘gemeinde’ to integrate and get more involved. There was a fair bit of moaning about people not making the effort and then I raised an eyebrow and mentioned that I was a foreigner myself and I was an example of someone who did make an effort. The members of the committee were a little taken aback by this, until some bright spark piped up ‘but you aren’t a foreigner, you’re one of us’….
So there you are….I guess I’m Swiss now!
PS Please leave me a comment to let me know you’ve stopped by. I’ll send a CD by my favourite young Swiss singer – Lina Button – to whoever’s name gets drawn out of the hat! Lina is from Frauenfeld and went to school with my friend Mel’s daughter. Her songs are in English – and she’s great!!
You might want to check out some of the links below too!