Friday, 1 July 2011

Reflections on our first 6 months

On the 1st of January, as we lugged our 10 pieces of luggage from our hotel to our tiny temporary apartment, I don't think I had any idea what we'd let ourselves in for. Perhaps that's for the best, or I might have given it a long hard looking at before jumping in with both feet. Fortunately, I didn't have that foresight, and besides which I have a bit of a penchant for chucking everything up in the air and seeing where it lands. It keeps things interesting (for interesting, see scary).

It's a very common experience for new immigrants to any country to be overwhelmed. I have enormous sympathy and respect for those who make far more momentous moves than ours, often in difficult circumstances, and with so little by way of resources and resilience. For anyone to leave behind friends, families, jobs, a familiar language and culture, and trade a much loved homeland for the insecurity of the unknown takes a serious pair of stones. To do it whilst fleeing conflict, persecution, poverty, or worse, and running into the arms of an indifferent and unwelcoming recipient must be terrifying. For so many people, emigration is a life-changing necessity, not a capricious roll of the dice in search of some greener grass. In comparison, I feel extremely fortunate and spoilt.

It's no surprise that a rather under-prepared and over-eager pair of newly-weds would run into a few hiccups getting settled in. For starters, I had no idea what a headache my total lack of German would be, and even Greg's pretty strong German is no match for the impenetrable Schwiitzer Düütch. Of course I can get by perfectly well in a country where almost everyone speaks English beautifully, but there are so many resources, experiences and interactions that remain tantalisingly just out of reach.

I also had no concept of what it's like to be a trailing spouse. Like lots of expats (mostly women), my presence in this country is defined by my partners's job. I thought I would be able to snap up my own inside of 3 months; needless to say I'm still looking. As a woman who has always worked and been financially independent, it's a big challenge to my self-identity to ask for more money for groceries or to get my haircut. I have an inkling of what the women of previous generations might have felt, albeit in a world where the barriers to entry to the workforce are dictated more by my language skills than my gender. I am discounting the view of one recruitment agent, who insultingly insinuated that because I'm a married woman, I am a ticking time bomb of a baby factory, so I'm not a serious prospect in the labour market. I don't seriously believe that the Swiss view of the role of women is limited to the family sphere, or that employers here are that short-sighted, despite the country's chequered history on gender equality.

Cultural challenges of all sizes have abounded. For a start, absolutely everything is expensive. That's partially offset by Swiss wages, but I've become a lot more savings savvy. I have sensed a mentality that, perhaps in exchange for the high prices paid, things are expected to work. Processes and customer service experiences are expected to be startlingly efficient and well-organised, and so they are. In general, the Swiss seem to be courteous and respectful towards others. It's tricky to gauge that because of course my interactions are extremely limited and I can't understand most of what goes on around me. But I have felt very welcome and in many cases people have gone out of their way to accommodate me.

The small things are also quite quirky. It is normal to greet and make small talk with your neighbours. A serious challenge for me, but a cheery "Guten Tag" can go a long way. We are tucked up in bed at 11pm, which is late by Swiss standards, and by then most things are shut and the TV is rubbish if you stay up any later. The shops are all shut on Sundays, so we do our shopping during the week, or forgo the necessary vittles for a Sunday brunch. Nobody queues for anything, although everyone is generally very polite, and that's quite a thing to get your head around. How do you queue jump in a courteous fashion? At the supermarket, you're expected to pack your shopping bags after you've paid rather than before, and woe betide you if you get that one wrong.

Traditional Swiss culture is embraced and made relevant to the modern Swiss in a way that I never experienced in the UK. An affection for Alpine horns, Gügge bands, traditional dress, yodelling, parades and festivals, and a love of Swiss food and drink are highly contagious things. It helps that all of the above are delicious, engaging and a delight to my limited British range of experience. The outdoorsy lifestyle is also very appealing, with skiing, swimming, cycling, walking and so many other things on offer. Of course I'm generalising, of course there are all sorts of Swiss people, and in Zürich there are international lifestyles of all sorts jostling together. Zürich is probably the most diverse and alternative of Switzerland's cities, and that in itself is a blessing for me.

Although it's been quite a whirlwind, we haven't had any major meltdowns. I'm still sane, Greg's still employed, and we're still solvent. We've successfully negotiated such atrocities as finding an apartment, setting up many kinds of insurance, and hauling all of our stuff over from the UK. We've got phone contracts, bank accounts, cable TV, supermarket reward cards and all the other commercial relationships that facilitate daily life. We've got the basics in place, and we're beginning to enjoy it.

Today we have been living in lovely Switzerland for 6 months. It's been a roller coaster ride, characterised by revelations, unexpected discoveries (good and bad), the language barrier, and a surprisingly high level of culture shock. Occasionally I still catch myself thinking 'oh my God, we live here,' as the enormity of it sinks in. But I also find myself smiling about that, and I'm hopeful that we've made a change for the better.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Helen-

    Great post, and I'm hoping I can convince you to share some similar insight with my site, At the moment we're working on improving the Zurich guide and we certainly could use some of your expertise. Any chance you'd be willing to be interviewed/contribute to some content sections. If so, please do contact me at I hope to hear from you.