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Expat Life in Switzerland

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

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!



28 Responses to “Expat Life in Switzerland”

  1. Victoria Corby Says:

    Sounds very unlike France in some ways. There’s a thing known as the Bordeaux half hour (and I expect it exists in other parts of France too) where by any appointment, any show will start up to half an hour late. That includes meeting with the bank manager! And it seems that your average Frenchman regards rules like when you’re allowed to operate your chain saw as something for sissies.

  2. Penny L Says:

    How interesting.what fascinating account of life in Switzerland. Now I want to know what you were doing in California!! Love Penny L in Dorsetxx

  3. Katy Says:

    Heh, I’ve been living in Glasgow for 15 years and am still not considered a native 😉 Anyway, thanks for the interesting insight – I used to love the Chalet School books when I was a kid (which I’m sure are entirely unrealistic, although they were set from the 1920’s onwards, so not entirely modern) and I’ve always meant to go and see the areas in both Switzerland and Austria where they were set, they sounded somewhat idyllic!

  4. Rebecca Says:

    Hi from a fellow blog hopper! I’m inspired! I’ve been in France for 16 days and am hoping to get to where you are in Switzerland (“You’re one of us!”) someday. I have a long way to go, but every day there’s progress and every day I love it more. I moved from San Francisco – where in California were you?

  5. Steve Says:

    I was lucky enough to spend six months in Switzerland washing dishes in a hotel when I was just 17. I have always promised myself a return trip as all I really saw was the inside of a kitchen.

  6. Janine@thegoodlifefrance Says:

    great blog and describes perfectly the Switzerland I know and remember from my working days in Geneva – my colleagues used to heat their swimming pools in the dead of night and very secretly as it was not considered ecologically sound to do so and the Swiss are nothing if not environmentally friendly! My neighbour is French he comes from a village 8 kms away from the one where I live now and he lives with his wife who was born here but he tells me the rest of the villagers consider him not to be a “local” – I think I have no chance! Been good to “hop” with you today.

  7. Stephanie Says:

    You’ve been expatting for even longer than me! Time flies doesn’t it. You sound very integrated into local life. I’m very impressed that they wanted you to get involved in local politics. But if committee meetings in Switzerland are anything like meetings in France then I can understand why you didn’t want to get involved!
    Thank you for taking part in the blog. I hope it’s been fun.

  8. Julie Says:

    I have dreamed of living elsewhere, even though I love where I live. This was a wonderful post, Helen. Thanks as always for a peek into your beautiful world….

  9. Pam E. - Las Vegas Says:

    Helen – Very interesting post. I enjoyed reading about your life in Switzerland. My husband and I hope to visit your country some day soon.

  10. Elaine Says:

    Hello Helen! The Ex-Pat Blog Hop is such a great idea! As always, your post has lifted me away from the mundane and given me lots of food for thought. I was sorry to hear about your friend’s battle with cancer, and glad to learn of your daughter’s school success – you’re having some real highs and lows, aren’t you? Good that you have crafting to help keep you on an even keel 🙂 I loved your Hopscotch and your SIL socks by the way – fabulous! Thanks for the links to the other Ex-Pat Blog Hoppers – I’ll enjoy taking a look at them later this evening 🙂

  11. Mary Kay (Out and About in Paris) Says:

    Grüezi – from one Swiss to another! Even though my husband is Swiss-Romand, I started my expat life in Zurich and still have friends in the region. Your comment about having one washing day per week brought back memories that I had tried to surpress – but back in the day, we had 1 day every two weeks. Since we were both working full time, it wasn’t the most ideal situation to have to spend Saturday doing laundry and shopping before the stores closed for the weekend. Having said that, Switzerland is a wonderful country and Swiss men make great husbands.

    I haven’t heard of Lina Button but will see if I can find some clips of her songs on YouTube.

  12. Linds Says:

    I loved reading this. In a way I am an ex-pat too of a different sort, aren’t I – but the language stayed the same. I honestly do not understand why some groups of ex-pats stay exclusively together – it is hard, but so worth it to make friends with locals and lead a British way of life. I am not in Africa any more!

  13. Sabrina Says:

    I think you’re so right. Being married to a local gives you an insight into the culture and a way to connect with people many other expats don’t get. But it still does take a lot of work I can imagine – especially with the language. I’m from Germany and moved to Texas a while back. I wouldn’t call myself Texan though 🙂

  14. Liz Kay Says:

    Enjoyed your Swiss life history and it’s fantastic to hear how you’ve integrated. I’ve lived for 15 years in Brussels, where it is almost impossible to go native due to the heavy EU presence! (having a dutch multilingual husband and trilingual kids doesn’t help, they giggle too much at my accent in any language). I persevere when possible, and long for the day when we can move to our beach house in France, where I believe I could really become french -> you have to have your dreams!! I write about my experiences there on
    I’ve really enjoyed blog hopping, and hope this is the first of many! Good luck with your’s….

  15. Julia Stagg Says:

    Found you through the blog hop and I have a bookcase rammed full just like yours! There are never enough hours in the day though, are there?

  16. Jacqui@FrenchVillageDiaries Says:

    Hello from a fellow blog hopper. I always say when I can sit in a cafe and understand the conversations going on around me I will have got the French language. My son hates me to speak in French, parents are embarrassing, foreign parents even worse!

  17. Will Says:

    Snowy winters and hot summers – sounds like Canada. Like you, being close to so many countries of interest is a benefit we are looking forward to. However, having trouble mastering a second language I really admire anyone who can speak and understand many more (Elizabeth’s french abilities are far superior to mine). I hope the multiple linguistic abilities will wear off on my two young children. Will come back and visit more often.

  18. Kathy E. Says:

    What a wonderful post today! I really appreciate you giving us all a view of what life is like in Switzerland. Thanks so much for sharing. And thanks for your music give-away… I hope luck rolls with me!

  19. Kathy Says:

    Sounds like you have found home! Your quilts are beautiful!

  20. barbara Says:

    really loved your post, i think everyone is interested in how everyone else lives no matter where they live . enjoyed it very much

  21. Chris in South Jersey Says:

    I lived the expat life with a major difference: I had the cushion of an american military base to fall back on. I spent 16 of the my 20 years in the Air Force in Europe bouncing between the Azores and Germany. My preference was to live in the local community and try to assimilate as much as possible, my philosophy being that if I wanted to live among a bunch of Americans I would have stayed in the States. I picked up enough of the language to get myself into trouble but I could function. I would go back to the Azores or move to Switzerland at the drop of a passport!

  22. diane stanley Says:

    Thanks for a taste of what it’s like to be an expat. I want to be an expat American living in France or Belgium…that’s what dreams are made of

  23. Elisabeth Says:

    Hi Helen,
    So nice to hear that you’ve become “one of us”. I’ m Swiss and moved to a small village in Cambridgeshire six years ago. Even though my husband and love it here we are thinking of moving back to Switzerland next year as we would like our daughter to go to school there.
    I will be at the Fat Quarterly retreat in June and look forward to meeting you.

  24. Vanessa Says:

    I didn’t get time to drop by yesterday but had the leisure to read your great post today and enjoyed your insights into expat life. Your initial struggles with the language remind me of my own forays into French with only ‘O’ level. I quickly decided to take classes and now, after 15 years of hard work, I consider myself just about fluent. Like you, though, I’ll never get rid of the accent!

  25. Vreni Says:

    Interesting insight into life of an expat in Switzerland (although I agree that you don’t really qualify for that term anymore). I’m so glad to hear that you feel completely at home there and that you feel accepted in your adopted country. Not all the comments of other expats in Switzerland are quite as favourable.

  26. Annabella Says:

    Oh this looked like great fun!

  27. Kathryn Says:

    I am way behind with blog reading and trying to catch up. Glad I didn’t miss this post – fascinating!

  28. Wendy Says:

    Hi Helen, I’m further back in my blog reading than the last poster by weeks but I just had to comment. What a great post! I’ve fantasized about the expat life (though I doubt it’ll ever happen) and it’s really interesting to get some insight into what it’s like moving to and adjusting to another country with a foreign language. Culture differences always fascinate me! Thanks for sharing your story!