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.

IMG_2213
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.

226356_7277805410_5365_n
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.

68460_10152196689175411_2085154448_n
‘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

 

 

 

 

The Dog Days of Summer at Dog Beach in San Vincenzo, Italy

As many of you know, I am a big ‘dog person‘ and my beloved Labrador, Leni, is one of the most spoiled dogs around. He has a passport, has travelled overseas and, quite possibly, has been to more countries than many adults. I am always conscious of choosing a vacation that will meet his needs and not see him left for hours at a time while we head off for fun.  So, with this in mind, imagine my absolute delight when I was organising our first trip to San Vincenzo, Italy and I came across the Dog Beach website. Could it be true? Could we really take our water-loving Lab to the beach with us in Italy? It seemed like a clear win-win for our entire family…and off we went!

11046639_10155853445735411_2776114225781198271_o
Found it!!

Dog Beach is located on the Mediterranean coastline of the western Tuscan region of Italy. Just south of the major port city of Livorno, Dog Beach lies on the pristine sandy outskirts of the town of San Vincenzo where the summer days are sunny, hot and long! A trip to the beach for you and your furry friend are practically what the doctor would order as a cure.

11781681_10155854649750411_6327584869167950763_n
Dog days of summer?!

Dog Beach is accessible off the main road, with limited free and abundant paid parking nearby. There is a small entrance fee for your dog, which helps pay for the facilities and a vet available in case of emergency. Dogs run around primarily off the leash but if your Fido isn’t very friendly, you might want to consider keeping him/her on a leash.  Sun beds, chairs and umbrellas are all available for rent.

11886172_10155853445740411_280763640793791604_o

As if all of this wasn’t enough, we were delighted when a guy came by on a 4 wheeler selling gelato (ice cream).  It was only once I approached and asked him what flavours he had did he surprise me with “is it for you or for your dog?”  Yes, they sold all the wonderful flavours one would expect from Italian gelato, and similar dog-safe versions. Our dog consumed his pineapple and ginseng one too fast for me to get a decent photo but as you can imagine, he was thrilled.

11924572_10155861164480411_6747297997799134261_n
Dog-friendly gelato, devoured in about 30 seconds…!

If you find yourself wondering where to go this summer and don’t want to leave your four-legged friend at home, I highly recommend the San Vincenzo region, with daily trips to the Dog Beach.

Good to know:

-Shower/wash stations are available for spraying down your dog at the end of the day. On our last trip, these cost 1€
-A small snack shop is located nearby with sandwiches and cold drinks for sale. Cash only
-there is a dog gift shop where you can buy toys for the beach for your dog, kids and different souvenirs
-if your dog has never been in salt water, watch his/her consumption. It can give some dogs an upset stomach, just be aware
-there is a free fresh water station for filling up your dog’s water bowl
-Bring cash with you as you will need it for everything and hard as I tried, I failed to locate a bank machine/ATM nearby

Most importantly, have fun!! Bring an extra towel or two…!!

 

Photo credits: Jennifer Hart, Dog Beach San Vincenzo

 

 

 

Dîner en Blanc Paris – 2017

I’m lucky and I know it.

I have to start there because I am fully aware that this particular night, in this particular city, draws a lot of ‘but how did you get invited?’ questions and comments. It seems part and parcel with the whole affair and trust me, I’d LOVE to bring everyone I know with me, but it just doesn’t work like that.

What am I referring to? Dîner en Blanc (White Dinner) in Paris.

10462728_10154194894110411_3574638430007090033_n
Cheers from Passerelle Debilly. Dîner en Blanc Paris, 2014.

I think it is important to tell my story on how I came to be invited to Dîner en Blanc in the first place.

Back in 2006, when I was still new to life in Paris, my new husband and I were out for an after dinner stroll through the streets of our arrondissement/neighbourhood. It was on this night that we stumbled across a large gathering of people dress immaculately, in all white, dining on prime rib, pastas, beautiful French confections, all the while sipping champagne from china flutes.

“What on earth was that?” I asked of my husband and he replied, “ah, that is the secret pop-up dinner called Dîner en Blanc. You have to be part of the who’s who of Paris to be invited.”

That crushed me. Couldn’t they just TELL I would bring the fun by merely inviting me? I spent the next few years in search of an invite or a connection to someone invited.

No. Such. Luck.

Fast forward to 2011, I had a client who was invited. I was excited for her but she flippantly said to me “I have to do this white thing tonight…how ghastly!” I wanted to scream I WILL GO IN YOUR PLACE but I held my cool. How was it she ended up being invited in her first year living in Paris when I had been trying for YEARS?!

So, I gave up. I really did. It wasn’t going to happen and I was just going to be jealous once a year of everyone having this magical night in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  It hurt to give up but I surrendered to acknowledging I wasn’t one of the ‘who’s who’ of Paris.

Then, almost as soon as I gave up, I received a random email from someone I had worked with as a marathon training coach. We had a long history of random encounters, from running Santa Claus races in costume together to laughing about mutual friends at a pub night for something entirely different, so random was not new to our relationship. He asked me in a very convoluted manner if I was “in or out” for something happening in June 2013.

WHAT?

Yes of course I was in (I always dive head first).

I asked what it was and he laughed, “I will explain later but you are on the list!”

OMG I’m on a LIST! I did not care what list it was, it was all so secretive and exciting! My husband was more practical asking “what if you signed up to run a marathon you don’t know about??” I wouldn’t listen to him (or pretended not to panic would be more accurate).

Then the invite came. We were cordially invited to Dîner en Blanc 2013 – location and time TBA.

Oh. My. Goodness.

Since that fateful email, we have attend 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and now 2017. The evening never disappoints, no matter how much work it is to bring your dinner, table and chairs with you through Paris.

13346730_10156880730125411_3755188542235685115_n
Place Vendôme, Dîner en Blanc Paris, 2016

I believe part of the magic is still in the details, or lack therefore of. People have all kinds questions about it and I refuse to answer many but I will tell you this:

  1. It is true that the date and location are kept COMPLETELY SECRET to diners. We find out the date a few weeks before and the location only once our designated team leaders have taken us there. We meet first at another location and come together at the last minute to set up, sit down and pop some champagne
  2. In regards to how we coordinate everything if it is all so secretive, we receive a list entailing the exact size and shape of chairs/tables and what is expected of us as diners
  3. We are in charge of our space: that means we must bring our own garbage bags and help clean up after. We leave the location as we found it.
  4. The date changes yearly
  5. The Paris event is ‘almost’ free of charge (change in your wallet could cover your fees) but I have heard that other cities charge quite a hefty fee (could just be rumours…)
  6. It is absolutely as much fun as it looks
  7. We do not automatically receive invite benefits to pass along to other friends, family members, etc (I’m sorry!!!)

So, with that in mind, I leave you with some photos from this year’s event. If you ever find yourself receiving a strange email asking “are you in or out”, I implore you to find your wild side and see what might entail.

For me, this is always a highlight event of the year and I will never take that for granted!

See you in 2018 (date and location to be determined, of course!)

Photo Credit: Jennifer Hart

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.

DKGL3163.jpg
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

IMG_2213
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

DKGL2837
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 

IMG_0820
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)

IMG_5786
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