Living Abroad: The Problem With “Best and Worst Expat Locations” Lists

“No place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be.” – Chuck Thompson

I read a post recently that was making the rounds on Facebook about how awful life is in Switzerland for foreigners. This wasn’t, sadly, a shocking post for me to read as I have come across too many of these to count over the last 5 years relating to Switzerland and internationals living/working here. Depending on your life, you may or may not be aware that international/expat-focused websites, as well as reputable news agencies, love to publish annual lists entitled something akin to ‘Best and Worst Places for Expats To Live’. These lists often accompany anecdotal ‘evidence’ positioned as truthful information to support whatever their survey monkey results found. There are some disturbingly common themes in these types of articles and I’d like to confront them head on.  I am a FIRM believer that your experiences living abroad are highly influenced by your own actions and when I come across something along these lines that continues to perpetuate the idea that one person’s take on a short-term assignment abroad will speak true for 100% of the people that move there, I get frustrated, sad and angry.

Switzerland is the fifth country I have lived in. It is not perfect but it has been my favourite place to call home.  It trumps Canada, where I was born, England where, you know, fish and chips are available ALL THE TIME, France where the Eiffel Tower makes every picture look better and the USA where I learned about deep fried cheese curds. It is better than all of that (to me) but it wasn’t Switzerland that made that so, I also had a hand in making this the best place for me.

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This is not the worst country in the world to live…

So, if everything is so great for me in Switzerland, why does it pale in comparison to somewhere like Singapore that often tops the Best lists, or at least rounds out the top 3? Well, it’s easy. Comparing a country like Switzerland where someone will relocate and live in a local community, immersed in a culture and language they don’t know, is unfair vis-a-vis countries like Singapore where people are relocated to a prefabricated community compound. You cannot, and should not, compare the two. Relocating to a compound gives you ready-made friends, already international in nature and most likely aware your arrival is imminent. These pre-fab friends come with insider knowledge that helps you to avoid the pitfalls of international relocation that befall many of us. I have seen Facebook status updates from friends that received welcome gifts from their new Irish neighbours in Malaysia and a welcome basket waiting at the home for friends relocating to Dubai. Whilst we didn’t experience any of that, we did get an offer to use pots and pans from our Swiss German neighbour in case we hadn’t unpacked them yet…same-same but different?!

Now, I’m not about to fall into the trap of saying one is harder than the other and that ALL people that relocate to Asia move to prefabs and that ALL people that relocate to Europe do it solo because it just isn’t true. Local-base relocations are not harder, they are just different and that difference is never accounted for in the Best and Worst lists. Local moves do require more effort to break into a community because you are unlikely to spend your time living on the outside of local life. At some point you must integrate and there in lies the problem with comparisons. When you move somewhere where you know you will never blend in, you give up the hopes of that and settle fully into international/expat life. Expat parties. Expat friends. Expat schools. Expat life. When you move somewhere and WANT to fit in, you are swiftly and painfully confronted with the realisation of how hard it is to make friends as an adult. I have discussed my own failings on this topic here.

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I was definitely lonely at times in Paris…having a dog helped that 🙂

So before you move abroad and before you trash another country online, take a moment to get to know yourself because you will make or break your stay in many many ways. Yes, the culture may not be ‘you’ in the end but there are always silver linings and ways to make things work. Knowing what you are willing do beforehand will help you out. I repeat: You MUST know yourself before you accept a local life assignment abroad. Are you a go-getter? Are you willing to put in hours of effort to make a social life? Are you willing to do EVERYTHING to make your new life work? Or, will you arrive and complain then send an angry article off to be published about how crappy life is abroad? Will you blame the locals for not falling at your feet to become friends with you? Will you expect them to wake up one day and think ‘omg  is that a new American neighbour I see?! We must become best friends!’ (this won’t happen). If you aren’t a go-getter, perhaps think twice before accepting a local-based assignment. Try somewhere that will put you on a compound or near one so your lifestyle won’t change much, just the scenery.

International/expat life is not easy, even though it looks quite glamorous. It has changed me in every single way and I’m forever grateful. However, that change comes from the hard times that challenge you. Expat lists mean nothing about how you will respond to a place, trust me.

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‘Hello, WISCONSIN!’ My old home where almost 20 years later, I still am in touch with most of the amazing friends I made there.

Alas, I leave you with some Forrest Gump mama-style wisdom. Life is like a box of chocolates, it is true. But are you going to be the kind of person that throws the whole box out just because the strawberry creams are hiding in there somewhere or are you going to give it another chance in the hopes that you come across a little slice of heaven? I know what I would do…

 

 

Photo credit: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia

 

 

 

 

Living Abroad: Grief, loss and living far away from ‘home’

Ask anyone living away from their family and/or homeland what weighs heavily on their minds and you will often hear such things as:

-missing out on family events
-not being there for weddings, births, graduations, first steps, etc
-not feeling connected enough to friends and family ‘back home’

Yet, there is one, often unspoken topic that comes to mind too quickly for those of us that have moved thousands of miles from home. We don’t talk about it much but it is there, hovering like a dark cloud, and it remains present from the moment we are first offered or choose to move far away: What if something bad happens?

I know this question is not unique to expats/internationals, but when you have thousands and thousands of miles placed between you and the ones you love, this question can seem unbearable.  In fact, many people have reported to me over the years that they didn’t take an international assignment because of this one very thought. What if something bad happens? 

I can’t say I’ve reconciled this question for myself other than to say I try not to focus on it.  That doesn’t always work and this past August we were smacked in the face with grief as my father-in-law ended his year long battle with pancreatic cancer. We traveled unexpectedly to my husband’s passport country which thankfully, isn’t as far as mine.  The pain of the last 15 years of my husband being abroad surged through his heart…should he have moved overseas? Would he have had more time with his father? Did he miss out on too much? Guilt. Anger. Pain. Upset. Real life.  These are not easy moments in our lives and the impact of realising your what if has become a reality brings a lot of the early emotions of moving abroad to the surface again.

Despite the emotional doubts, my husband can take solace in the fact that his father was beyond proud of his achievements and the life he made for himself abroad.  We met many wonderful people that told us how he often boasted about his children and they knew we lived in Switzerland, loved to ski, etc. To us, that meant that even if we weren’t physically present all the time, we had presence in my father-in-law’s life. It is important to remain attached and communicative with those left behind when we move.  A simple text, phone call, email of photos, social media tag, etc. These are the things that help us pick up where we left off on our next visit. When you only see friends and family once year or more, you have to fill the void with information and tales of your real life. If that gap grows too big, you can feel a painful distance begin to grow, one which is hard to close.

When someone’s life comes to an end, no matter if you lived next door or ten thousand miles away, you will realise there was simply never enough time. Grief does not have a fixed address.

 

 

Photo: Fotolia

 

 

 

Moving to Switzerland? Enjoy These Insider Tips

A while ago* I asked if local internationals/expats in Switzerland would be keen to answer a few questions on life in Confoederatio Helvetica (aka Switzerland).  Switzerland is an impressively quiet country that people often wish to visit/relocate to but it find it difficult to obtain information on. Thus, I present to you, Q&A with people already living in Switzerland. I tried not to edit the responses so some answers may be formatted or phrased differently than others but this is an honest glimpse inside the lives of those that have already made the jump to Switzerland.

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Amazing Lucerne/Luzern by photographer Dominik Gehl

Where are/were you located in Switzerland and, if you wish to share, for how long:
Morges(VD) – 3.5 years
Basel (BS)
Lausanne (VD) – 2 years
Zurich (ZH) – 9 months
Lausanne (VD) – 4 years
Morges(VD) – 2 years
Geneva (GE)

Where are you from originally:
Germany
England
France
Scotland
Canada
USA
Chile

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View of Lac Léman/Lake Geneva from Morges by Jennifer Hart

Have you lived in other foreign countries before moving to Switzerland:
Yes – 5 votes
No – 2 vote

 

What Swiss languages do you use for daily life:
Swiss German
French
Mix of French and Swiss German
Sometimes Italian when I travel to Lugano for work
English tends to be a working language most places, as well

 

What is your native language:
English – 4 votes
French – 2 vote
German – 1 vote
I’m bilingual
Spanish -1 vote
Italian – 1 vote

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Zermatt by photographer Dominik Gehl

Important things (s) people should know when they relocate to Switzerland:
-Cost of living is very high
Shops are closed on Sundays and there are a lot of laws surrounding quiet hours (e.g. no placing glass in recycling bins at noon, no mowing the lawn on a Sunday). Life will be much easier if you try to follow the rules and embrace whatever comes your way without comparing it (unfavourably) to back home.
-Cost. Switzerland is very expensive. Housing, insurances and and food will consume the majority of your budget
-Salaries are higher here than elsewhere in Europe
-Weekends in Switzerland are for enjoyment, not work. There are rules around what you can/can’t do on a Sunday
-It is just as beautiful as you imagine
-Language, cost of living, culture regarding respect towards others, commercial business hours, necessary documentation, legal requirements e.g. driving, permits, communal living regulations
-Public schools are excellent

Favourite place in Switzerland:
-Have not been here long enough to see everything but for now I’ll say Lucerne/Luzern area
-Anywhere along Lake Geneva/Lac Léman
-Gruyères
-Montreux
-Lausanne (awesome restaurants)
-THE ALPS
-Ticino/Lake Lugano Italian area
-Zermatt
-Morges
Lausanne for the street food festival 

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Tulip at the Morges Tulip Festival by an anonymous friend 🙂

Favourite Swiss food:
Raclette (5 votes)
Fondue (4 votes)
Rösti (2 votes)
Gruyères meringues with local cream (Swiss dairy in general)

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Crans-Montana, Swiss Alps photograph by Jennifer Hart

Are/were you happy in Switzerland (these are direct copy and paste answers – extra exclamation points and all):
Absolutely
Very
YES!!
Yes!
Oh yes!! Even with the cost and rules. Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else!
Yes. I am homesick for English food sometimes but otherwise, Switzerland is now home.
YES. Geneva is a bit boring but the rest of Switzerland makes up for it.

Yes or No-you have gone to a Swiss mountain and sang The Hills Are Alive:
LOL not yet
Actually, yes I have. Even took a video
Not an Austrian nun so, no, I haven’t
Ummmm not yet but I kind of want to now
HAHA how’d you know?
No
Hadn’t occurred to me, but I now want to buy an edelweiss shirt and learn how to blow a swiss horn, while riding a cow…
Maybe…

Profession:
Software engineer
CMO
Translator
Writer
Software developer
Mom
Stay at home pet wrangler, occasional mother, professional eye roller and eccentric socially awkward recluse
Nanny
Thank you to all of my contributors. If you’d like to see more photography from Dominik Gehl, check out his Instagram account here You won’t be disappointed!!!

*This, and many other writing projects, were sidelined due to my computer crash swiftly followed by a fairly intense recovery from a brain trauma but here I am, back on track and ready to read, research and write!

Photo credits: Jennifer Hart, Dominik Gehl, anonymous (with permission) and banner image from Fotolia

From the Vault: Confessions From A Kissing Failure

What can I say sometimes other than ‘this expat life is no joke’! I know from the outside people see the glitz, the glam, the travel, the benefits, etc., but from time to time, I think it is good if we all ignore that part for a bit and turn our attention to some of the more difficult moments. Yes, I know, this sounds boring but it needn’t be. In fact, most expats you will meet have a wicked sense of humour and humility. We might not have started out that way but cultural barriers, linguistic errors, removal from what we know and who we know, and multiple social blunders have stripped us of our sense of cool. We learn to laugh at ourselves. With this spirit in mind, I’ve decided that from time to time, I will dig a story out from ‘the vault’ and share with you my sometimes bumpy ride as an expatriate. If you missed my last story on Expat Dating, feel free to check it out here.

Moving abroad presents us with so many moments for growth, personal development and life-altering experiences. But, at some point or another, we all learn that it also presents us with moments of extreme humility. I have spent hours cringing in reflection upon things I have said and done since stripping myself of all my cultural norms and moving abroad.

When you haven’t lived abroad, you don’t realise how much of your life you take for granted. Like, saying hello to people. You know how to do that so well you don’t even think about it. However, when you move abroad, this simple act becomes a challenge you didn’t even know existed.

In Canada, firm handshakes and hugs were the norm depending on how well you knew someone. I’m a hugger by nature and this was totally fine with me. What I’m not ok with? Kissing people I don’t know. So what did I do? I moved to Paris. The land of the two cheek air kiss. I took me years to figure this one out. The when and how and whom of kissing was all too much for me. I never quite knew when someone became a person on your kiss list and, to be honest,  I still don’t. I spent a decade in Paris hoping a French person would offer up their cheek first. Most often this worked well. Sometimes, this was a massive failure.

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Pucker up, foreigners! It’s bisous (kissing) time!

Take my school gate incident. I’m cringing already thinking about it. A mum I had said ‘bonjour’ to for a few months greeted me a bit more enthusiastically one day in order to present me with a birthday invite for my son. Cool! At the end of our conversation, she leaned in for the au revoir kiss. Or. So. I. Thought.

In her world, she was leaning forward to scratch her knee cap. In my world, we were going for kissing. This didn’t end well with me kissing her and her not kissing me. She looked horrified and muttered at the end in painful English “oh, you wish to kiss me…”

Die. Die. Die. Melt. Please floor soak me up whole now!!!!

I made my DH take the kids to school the next morning because, well, once you’ve crossed the ‘we now kiss line’ you MUST ALWAYS DO THE KISS! Every time. Hello. Goodbye. Without fail. Dear lord, I wasn’t ready.

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My favourite kind of cheek kissing 

After some time and move to Switzerland later, I thought I had left the kiss and all its stress behind.

Nope.

Not even close.

We became friendly with our neighbours in the early days here and one day the father passed me in the street and said his ‘bonjour’ and asked how we were settling in. All very nice stuff as we’d only been here a week and having someone know us and check in was comforting. At the end, I saw what was definitely the au revoir kiss lean in and I thought ‘I can do this, I am Parisian’ and went for it.

Only…in Switzerland, the kiss is different. When I thought we were done the obligatory 2 kisses, he kept going. Only, I didn’t. In the middle we met, lips touching and a thousand ‘I hate my life’ thoughts coursing through my soul. I made out with my new neighbour. Week One in Switzerland: check!

How could I get it so wrong???

I rushed home and googled ‘bisous Suisse’ (Switzerland kissing). Dang it all to heck, the Swiss kiss THREE times! Not to be outdone by their Parisian counterparts, they went and added a prime number of kissing to the cultural awkwardness!!

I’m not silly enough not to realise in the grand scheme of life that making out with my neighbour and a French mum are minor blips in life but these are the moments that I swear change us the most as foreigners abroad. We step so far out of our comfort zone that stepping back in seems difficult, if not impossible. Take the hug now, my favourite greeting. On my last trip to Canada I was shocked at how intimate it seemed in comparison to kissing someone on the cheek. Well I’ll be darned, I no longer know which one I prefer…

So, the next time you see me, don’t be surprised if I hug, handshake and kiss you all in one go. Heck, I might even throw in a little dance or two. Just blame it on no longer having an engrained, reactionary culture to dictate how I behave anymore (or the wine).

 

Photo credit: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia

Friday Featurette: Top 5 Expat Locations

A couple Fridays a month I will be featuring another blogger or up-and-coming writer on my site. Stories range from expat life to travel/adventure. If you are interested in possibly being featured, please read the info hereand get in touch!  You may notice differences in terminology, vocabulary and spellings here but I think keeping it authentic to the author’s voice and background makes for a richer reading. 

 

Top 5 Expat Locations
By: Jason Mueller

Moving to a foreign location can be a frightening thought for many people thinking about making a big move that will change their life drastically but if you choose the right country this frustrating process can be very rewarding making all the hassles well worth the pain. For those looking for change, you will not find a better way to mix things up by re-locating to a strange country. There are so many great countries to ship all your goods to and call home. It is hard to narrow it down to just 5, and your perfect country is going to vary from the next persons, but here are 5 great countries for you to consider calling yourself a local expat to.

Switzerland

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There is so much that Switzerland has to offer for expats searching tirelessly for a better life abroad. For starters the food is to die for and places like Lausanne have amazing street food festivals, wash all the great food down with a delightful glass of wine or some on the cleanest drinking water on the planet.   Switzerland is very stable, in fact it has the sixth highest GDP per capita out of all the countries in the world. Great public transportation will get you around on time, if you don’t like to drive then this is a tremendous country to take advantage of and if you do enjoy to drive the roads are in good condition and fun to explore. Immaculate hospitals, brilliant doctors and great benefits make the health care top notch, in fact the Swiss are said to have among the highest quality of life on the planet. The central location will make a great home base to go out and enjoy the rest of Europe. This incredibly safe country makes the list for so many good reason.

Costa Rica

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This is also known as the land of pura vida which translates to pure life, on a typical day you will hear this saying at least 3 times a day, it can be used as hello, goodbye, thanks, have a good day, take it easy or just about anything else, but is really a way of life for the locals and expats living in the Rich Coast. The country has been toted the happiest country in the world due to high wellbeing, high life expectancy and not to mention the tranquil laid back vibe you can’t help but to enjoy when chilling on the beaches, walking in the lush rain forest vibrant with flora and fauna or enjoying the views in the pristine mountains. The locals are welcoming and you won’t have to travel far to meet up with a fellow expat. People re-locate here from all over the world opening B&B’s, hotels, restaurants, tours, vacation rental companies or anything to take advantage of the high numbers of visitors that come as tourists. Of course Costa Rica has a tropical climate keeping you nice and toasty on the beach but is also known for having some of the most moderate weather in the world up in the mountains.

Chile

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People may not know it but Chile is a rapid developing country, South Americas most prosperous and stable country. The emerging economy has the highest state of peace with great economic freedom to keep your soul happy. Chile has a low percentage of corruption and crime making the country very safe and secure so you can save money by not having to worry about security in your office or business. Also the cost of delicious food and other living expenses such as rent is lower than North America giving you a better bang for your buck. Obtaining a visa, work permit or residency is pretty hassle free compared to many other countries. Come enjoy one of the bustling cities or some views of the breath taking Andes.

Mexico

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If you are planning a move from North America this may be your best option because of the close proximity, offering cheap and fast flights back home to visit relatives. The immigration process to get accepted in the country is fairly easy with minimal money needed to get your residency. Sure Mexico has gotten a bad rap from the war on drugs and the other reported crimes but the truth is that in most locations it is very safe and there is a lot of expats to mingle with. But you won’t have a problem making friends because locals are very happy to invite you for a meal of seemingly endless food and tequilas. The cost of living is pretty low for the frugal people out there looking to make their dollar stretch a little further. Mexican food is a desired taste bursting with flavour, if you aren’t a lover of “picante” food then don’t let that detour you as there is a huge selection of restaurants from all over the world.

New Zealand

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The landscape alone is enough to make you want to move to this unique country that offers volcanic terrain on the North Island and snow-capped mountainous peaks on the South Island. Outdoor adventures will keep you active with anything from skiing to surfing, you will never get bored in this adrenaline filled country. Although the average income is a little low the high quality of life will keep you healthy and after all some people forget just how important health is in life. Approximately one fifth of the population are expats, with that being said, it’s clear that the proof is in the pudding. The state sponsored health care is some of the best around with modern health facilities. All the amenities that you are used to will keep you very comfortable, soon you may be calling yourself a Kiwi (what locals are called)

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Jason Mueller is an entrepreneur living in Costa Rica with family from Canada. Since graduating from high school and getting his pilot’s licence, he has lived to travel the world looking for adventure. You can find him onFacebook and Instagram.

 

 

 

Photo credits: Jason Mueller, Jennifer Hart, Fotolia – Vege

Do you live in Switzerland? I want to hear from you!

Grüezi!

Do you currently, or have you lived at some point, as an international in Switzerland? If yes, I would LOVE to hear from you. I am running a short survey to write an anecdotal piece for my blog based on the experiences of people that have upped and moved to Switzerland. If this interests you, please leave a comment with your email OR email me here at: jennifer@domesticblissabroad.com

Cheers!

Photo: Fotolia

Where Are You From? Thunder Bay

One of the most repetitive questions you will be asked as an expat or foreigner living abroad is ‘where are you from?’  I often wonder what it is like for people, such as my husband, who comes from a very recognisable place (you may have heard of it, London UK?). The ease they must have explaining it. London. It comes out, people process the information, understand and move on to a story about London – either they have been there or they wish to go there.

My answer?  Thunder Bay. Not at all the same to my husband’s response. Not even to CANADIANS who should know better but often don’t.

In the past few years I have found myself saying, ‘do you know where Toronto is? Ok well drive 16 hours northwest and that’s where I’m from.’  This is often met with blank stares and questions like, ‘is that even in the same country?’ HA! Same country? Try the same province, even! I often field polar bear and igloo questions and have even been asked if I have ever seen a beach before I left my northern life.

So imagine my delight when last week a video of my hometown started splashing across Facebook.  The video, put together by cinematographer Damien Gilbert, demonstrates the vast beauty and complexities that Thunder Bay offers. People are often confused by me as I am a huge fan of both city life and Jimmy Choos as well as hiking and being in nature. Perhaps spending 2 minutes watching what my hometown looks like, you’ll understand me a bit more. Enjoy!

Thank you, Damien for putting Thunder Bay on display for the world to see. Maybe NOW people will stop asking if I mean North Bay 😉

Photo: Jennifer Hart