I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien
I’m an Englishman in New York
Sting, ‘An Englishman in New York’
Six months and four days ago I boarded a Swiss Air flight from Heathrow and arrived in Steinhausen, Switzerland at the start of the Ryrie Family Big Adventure. The one where we become expats. The combination and contradiction of our emotions on that flight was both confusing and exciting. It is all too easy to get swept along in the here and now, but I figure that this six month anniversary is a good time to take stock and reflect a little.
When we first started researching Switzerland as a place to live, not just one to ski in (not that we’ve actually done that I hasten to add), we drew a bit of a blank as to what it was actually like here. I mean we could go on the HSBC Expat Explorer and find out loads of statistics about cost of living, proportion of nationalities resident, random hints and tips but we could find nothing about what it was actually like to live here. We kept coming across weird laws, like you’re not allowed to wash the car or hang the washing outside on a Sunday (both true). Everyone we spoke to would say how lovely/beautiful/quiet it was here, but this was all based on business or ski trips. Everything we have been through in the past six months has, by and large, been with eyes wide shut. Our naiivity at times embarrassing, at others entertaining, but always a reminder for the seasoned expats of how they were on their first move abroad.
Switzerland, or maybe that should be Zug because Switzerland is such a diverse country; the German speaking areas are totally different to the French speaking, which in turn is worlds apart from the Italian speaking. So, in fairness, this post will be confined to the German speaking, Catholic canton of Zug and I have to say it confuses me. It is full of contradictions and enigmas that I can’t quite get my head around.
In my post on the Luzern Transport Museum I said that I felt that Switzerland (as a whole) should be the most developed of developing countries considering the amount of big business that operates here, and the amount of wealth that is generated. But, it isn’t. The local town of Zug has a delightful old town but the main shopping area feels run down and slightly lacking in enthusiasm, dominated by Coop City and the Metalli Centre. I have been used to UK retailing, the supermarket crammed with products from all over the world, sold at prices that are, sometimes ridiculously and unfairly, low – great for the consumer, rubbish for the producer. The stores are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and if you can’t be bothered to go out online shopping is the back up. Swiss supermarkets are the opposite, food is more often than not locally produced, fresh produce is seasonal and locally produced, prices are consistently high, there are products that are not available (currently I am trying to find tinned salmon), or are priced way beyond the realms of common sense (though when the kids were poorly I did succumb to buying a small bottle of Ribena). The supermarket was the scene of the most terrifying experience of my life and even now, six months on it still causes me palpitations. I now visit three different supermarkets to do a weekly shop to get the best value, and most importantly, all of the ingredients I need to cook with. As we live in a Catholic canton the shops close early on a Saturday and are shut all day Sunday. I have been spoilt in the UK by Frome’s fabulous Independent Market and the wonderful array of independent shops selling unique products. There are pockets of independent shops in Zug, Luzern and Zurich oh, and a very good fruit, veg and flower market in Zurich. But I am yet to find something that rivals the quality and diversity of Frome’s artisan offerings, I guess it is still early days.
Six months ago we arrived in high summer, no one else was here (or so it felt as ‘everyone’ disappears every holiday period) and the mosquitos were out in full force despite it being a wet, rainy summer (now that was something I really wasn’t expecting, mosquitos, in Switzerland?!). The scenery here, just like the weather, can be spectacularly good, or spectacularly bad. When the mist comes down you can go days without seeing the sky let alone the local mountain range. Dampness seeping into your soul. When it’s clear the views across the Zugersee over to the Italian Alps are to die for, awesome in their majesty, your spirits soar into the clear, crisp air like the Red Kites that circle above us.
The Swiss are polite, but not friendly (and terrible at queuing). It has taken me six months to have a conversation beyond “Gruezi” with any of our native Swiss neighbours. Ok, I know that I am not the most forthcoming of people, but even Steve, who is Mr Amenable Nice Guy and who will talk to anyone and everyone, hasn’t got beyond a “hello”. I have been told that the Swiss are like coconuts, hard to crack but once you do they will be loyal to the last, friends for life. As I haven’t met many I won’t comment too much on the Swiss character suffice to say that the Swiss wave (one wagging finger) tells you when you have done something wrong and not realised it, and seems to be regularly given for a multitude of unknown sins. This self-policing does mean that it is a safe place to bring up the children. Local kids, as young as four, are seen walking to and from school, by themselves, wearing their high vis jackets and lugging huge backpacks. Pedestrians have right of way on the roads so these youngsters know that cars will always stop for them.
The language here in the German speaking part, is actually hit and miss. It is a hybrid of all four of the country’s official languages. You might get Swiss German, or High German, with a bit of French or Italian thrown in. Most people can speak English, but many will refuse to do so over the telephone (for example calling for doctor’s appointments). It has allowed our children to discover a whole new world. Their tongues rolling foreign words around, giving them a new method of communication, and one which Mummy and Daddy still haven’t got to grips with. Food packaging is always in German, French and Italian, so we can just about cobble together an understanding of what it contains and what to do with it! It is the language, more than anything, that continuously reminds us that we are living in a melting pot of cultures and identities. The International School expat community doing its bit to add to the global village that we now find ourselves a part of.
The cost of everything is astonishing but I haven’t seen a single homeless person (yet). Our monthly rent is three times the cost of our mortgage back home. The local taxes are bewildering, and even if you do get to grips with them they change between cantons. The police have zero tolerance for everything; you will be fined if you go even 1km over the speed limit, you will be fined if you leave your engine running while waiting for the kids at school, you will be fined for not showing your road tax sticker – even if you have bought it but forgot to stick it onto the windscreen and left it in your handbag (yes that actually happened to one of Steve’s colleagues). The health care is superb, you can always see a doctor (or paediatrician for the kids) on the day you need one, but the cost of health insurance is extortionate.
There are over 400(!) varieties of cheese in Switzerland although I can’t find a decent cheddar. Raclette, a local speciality, is essentially a Swiss version of jacket potato and cheese and is delicious and warming. This and fondue are leisurely ways to enjoy meals that are packed with fats, salts and carbohydrates, and yet I haven’t seen any obese Swiss people. Perhaps this is because sport and outdoor activity is a huge part of Swiss living. Skating, skiing, hiking, swimming, cycling – the list goes on because the Swiss seem to do it all. Weekends dedicated to family activities that not only keep you fit but also give you the family bonding that builds a strong family unit. This has been one of the major changes that the Life of Ryrie has embraced. As the shops are closed we spend most Sundays doing something, getting outdoors, spending time together, enjoying each others company.
Switzerland (Zug) is not a marmite place to live. At the moment I don’t love it or hate it… It is not extremely good or extremely bad. I do have days where I feel like a legal alien which is more to do with our expat identity than the country we are living in but on the whole? Well, it is ‘nice’. Being an expat? Well, that’s a whole other matter!