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

 

 

 

 

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

Things I’ve learned about living in Switzerland thus far…

I’m going to go out on a limb and say I cannot be the only person who really didn’t know much about Switzerland when I moved here. I mean, I knew about Rolex, Cartier, the Alps, Heidi, The Sound of Music and cheese but apart from that, what did I REALLY know about this place? Embarrassingly, very little.

No clichés here!
No clichés here!

To the Swiss, I am sorry. To everyone else, feel free to ask questions if there is something you’d like to know.

So, I decided to compile an early list of things I have learned thus far.

1) This country is GORGEOUS! I mean, I knew that coming in but to be here daily with Mont Blanc standing in all her majesty across the lake, I feel like Switzerland never fails to take my breath away. In addition, the rolling hills of vineyards, the lake, the cities…it is all so beautiful. However, I encourage that you don’t just take my word for it, you should visit it. For more information on travel here, check out the MySwitzerland website. It is amazing portal of information.

View from our bedroom window...Lac Léman with Mont Blanc across the way
View from our bedroom window. Lac Léman with Mont Blanc across the way

2) Switzerland is expensive. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You think you’ve heard that before but aren’t a lot of places expensive? Yes, they are but not like this. The price of things here set my brain on fire the first month and I was coming from Paris where a box of Kraft Dinner/Mac and Cheese would set you back about $10CDN($7US) but there are two things here that help with that. Salaries here often more than make up for the price and the price adjustments that started this summer to combat the Swiss Franc inflation cap disappearing is making a big difference. So, when you DO come here, remember it is just going to be expensive and the Swiss really don’t care that ‘back home’ things cost a lot less. It’s not endearing to hear that over and over!

3) To combat number 2, I have discovered some amazing places to shop and ways to work the system. My favourite on the top of the list is Aligro. Aliwhat??? Aligro. This is Switzerland’s answer to places like Sam’s Club and Costco. The membership is free, the benefits are amazing. If you live here or are planning on a move here anytime soon, bookmark Aligro and check it out. You can thank me later (and a big thank you to my running buddy for pointing me in the Aligro-direction).

4) Cow bells are EVERYWHERE! So, we live in a pretty happening mini-city but you can imagine my surprise on a recent run when I heard all this clanging and chiming up ahead. It sounded like a group of people practicing how to ring a church bell. What was it? Oh, it was the local cattle hanging out that had recently returned from their summer grazing period in the mountains to the warmer and less harsh environment near the lake. So, the dog and I are learning to run to the sound of cow bells now and I really like it. It is almost hypnotic. Also, I have learned the reason for the bells coincides with the liberty the cows have to roam. Since they are not cooped up in factories or confined to small spaces, the cows often wander off on their own and can get lost. The bells act two-fold at this point. 1) it helps the farmer to possibly hear what direction the cow walked off in and 2) it helps hikers, VTT/mountain bikers and joggers hear if a cow is potentially going to cross their path. Cows rule here, us humans just have to go around. No one wants surprise face-to-face with a lost cow! The bells are an appreciated warning.

Well, hello there!
Well, hello there!

5) I knew this one before but I just wanted to reiterate it here: there is no such thing as Swiss Cheese (i.e. the stuff you see in cartoons where the cat is trying to catch the mouse). It is called Emmental after the amazing area it is from. There is, however, an abundance of amazing cheeses here which I am happily testing out.

6) Efficiency is really, truly not just a stereotype, it is a way of life. My biggest complaint of our 10 years in Paris was the inconsistency and absolute disorderly conduct in which everything was apparently run. Ask any expat in Paris how they feel about a trip to the local préfecture and watch their body language change and their eyes roll. It’s a make-work project at its finest. Here, I could cry with how efficient it is and maybe, just maybe, I have once or twice already. I doubt I would appreciate it as much if I had moved from somewhere else that handled things with a degree of effectiveness but I did not and for that I say I even MORE grateful when I go the local commune with a problem and leave 20 mins later with the problem solved and a ‘bonne journée’ from the person serving me. It’s the little things, y’all!

7) The people are NICE. Before moving here I was warned by people and by countless hours of research online that the Swiss are guarded and unfriendly. I am happy to report I haven’t seen that. They have their way of doing things and it is very very much governed by the need for this to be succinct and controlled but that works for me. I’d rather know where I’m standing than not. We moved in and received flowers, cupcakes and a box of apricots (because they are very Swiss and were very ‘in season’ at the time of our arrival) from our neighbours. My children have been thanked by our neighbours for being helpful with carrying back the communal compost bins and I have been thanked for keeping our garden/lawn looking nice. Our elderly neighbour, a Swiss German now living in Suisse Romande, even asked if I needed help with learning how to plant in extremely rocky soil. She actually also asked if I needed to borrow anything like pots or pans before we had fully unpacked. So, maybe the unfriendly Swiss are coming but they haven’t come my way yet and this post IS about what I have learned so far…

8) The wine is great. I don’t need to go too deep on this one as I have already posted about it here but it is something I have learned so it is worth the mention again.

9) There is a LOT to do here. I mean a crazy amount. I was a bit worried at first that we would have to buy heaps of expensive gear to get our lives established here since were are on of THOSE families that likes to do a lot of adventurous things together. However, they have it sorted out, folks!! Since kids grow every single day I was really worried about buying ski gear every year. No need. We went to Francois Sport in Bremblens and got on the rental scheme. You can rent skis/poles/boots for both downhill and cross-country (as well as other sports like snowshoeing, sledding, etc) for an ENTIRE SEASON and just return them at the end of the year. If your kid grows mid-season? No problem, bring the gear in and exchange it for free. Everything the juniors got was brand new, never been used and is costing us a whopping 100CHF per kid for the season. They also do the same with adult stuff so you can either rent for a season if you can’t afford to buy, don’t want to buy or like being someone with brand new kit every single year. They have it sorted.

Juniors and their rental gear!
Juniors and their rental gear!

10) This one is personal but so is this blog so I will post it. I have learned that after countless years of moving, soul-searching, trying out different lives and trends, I have found ‘home’. I don’t know what it is but the very first day we arrived I felt a weight off my shoulders I didn’t know I was carrying. I have the mountains, the lake, the beaches, the city and a happy family. We are all so happy here that it kind of stings when people say ‘make the most if it while you are there’ or ‘Let’s hope Mr H keeps his job’. Moving here wasn’t a lark. It wasn’t a rash decision. We chose this and had chosen it years before it happened. Mr H negotiated his permit to be one that was not attached to his job and allowed us to stay no matter what. We chose this and we continue to choose it every day. I choose it when I get up and head out to get muddy with the dog on a run along the lake. I choose it when I put on heels and head out with Mr H for dinner. I choose it when I pick up my kids from school looking the happiest they have ever looked. We are allowed to choose this so I hope people accept that means there will be no ‘going back’ to someone else’s idea of what home should be for us. It’s a hard thing for some to accept and we’ve already faced ‘commentary’ on this but we are here and we plan to stay. It wasn’t an accident that brought us here. It wasn’t ‘just a job’. It was a choice to live the life we wanted to live.

Rosé by the lake on a hot summer day.
Rosé by the lake on a hot summer day (Mont Blanc in the background).

So, there you have it.  I can’t wait to see what else I learn along the way but for now I am a very happy student on Swiss life.

Photo credits: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia