The Dubious Hausfrau: The pros and cons of Swiss life

The Dubious Hausfrau: The pros and cons of Swiss life

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Swiss life is not all perfect but if you turn the stumbling blocks into stepping stones it's not all bad either, writes expat Tatiana Warkentin.

I know some people are shocked to find that sometimes living in the land of Swiss chocolate and scary efficiency isn't all it's cracked up to be. Even if you can see a Swiss mountain range from your balcony. But there are pros and cons to living anywhere in the world, and Switzerland is no exception.

Interestingly, by far one of the most searched terms that brings people to my blog is 'pros and cons of living in Switzerland'. I actually had someone tell me they now read my blog because they googled pros and cons of living in Switzerland before they moved here. In my first post on this topic, I realised I barely scrapped the surface. I touched on cost of living, everything being closed on Sundays, and the distrust some Swiss have of foreigners (but not all Swiss). But there is so much more to living in this country and some of it sucks and some of it rocks. So here is a fuller list, combining my first post with some additional points on Switzerland's pros and cons.  

Pros and cons of living in Switzerland

Pro: You make friends from all over the world.

Here is a quick sample of countries that our friends call home: France, Spain, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Italy, Bosnia, Greece, Romania, England, Poland, Scotland, India, Australia, and Madagascar. It's truly brilliant. I have learned more about geography in the 2.5 years we've been here than I ever did in school. Now I know how to toast in at least four languages, sing Happy Birthday in about five languages and I've tried more kinds of country-specific distilled alcohols (like moonshine) than I care to count. The reason we have a lot of non-Swiss friends? In part because of where my husband works but also because there is a huge expat population here. Seriously, you can't throw a rock without hitting an expat (or a new kind of cheese you've never heard of).

Con: It's hard to make Swiss friends.

It took about 2.5 years to actually make any Swiss friends. I have roller derby to thank for making Swiss friends and I seriously love the Swiss friends we have made – and not just because they could tell me which mountain range I can see from my balcony. It's not that the Swiss are like the Mean Girls of Europe or anything. They are very friendly and very nice but they can be very insular. I've been snubbed because I don't speak Swiss German (I speak high German), and I've gotten odd looks when I say I'm a writer who works from home who doesn't have kids or a dog. And it's not because they're trying to mean – they just don't know what to do with the weird, high-German speaking Canadian with no kids, dog or a job they comprehend.

Pro: You're so close to everything that people dream about seeing.

The husband and I are both from Manitoba. His home town of Pierson is a four-hour drive from my home city of Winnipeg (that's 362km). Yes, four hours of driving and you're still in the same province. Okay, sure, 20 minutes from his hometown is the American border and nearby is the Paris of the Prairies (in Saskatchewan province) – but it's no actual Paris. But here only a few hours' drive away is Milan, Luxembourg, Belgium, Paris, Strasbourg, Salzburg, Lichtenstein and Stuttgart. Other places are a quick, cheap flight away. John and I flew to Nante France for a weekend for less than CHF 200. We've also flown to London, Poland, Italy and Germany all for pretty cheap because it's all so close.

Con: You're so far from everything that matters most.

We haven't seen my husband's siblings in almost two years, nor our godchildren. We have a niece we've never met. John and I realised that if we make it home in December our goddaughter will be halfway through second grade and our niece will be close to a year and a half old when we meet her for the first time. Even being far away for the little things matter. When I'm sick and my husband is away, my mum's best grilled cheese sandwiches (aka grouchy sandwiches) are 7,000km away. My parents have to settle for worrying about me over the phone. When I told my best friend I became head coach of team Switzerland I couldn't hug her. As much as I love being so close to so many awesome things, the price of that is being so far away.

Pro: We eat better here than we ever did at home in Canada.

The chocolate, the pastries, the cheese, the seasonal food, the local food, the fondue, the beer, the wine, and everything with melted cheese. I'm also talking about healthy food, and quality too – my goodness if our Canadian friends could see how we eat they would be shocked, especially considering I'm known for bacon nachos. Here, we don't eat much processed food but eat seasonally and locally. And not because it's trendy like it is at home – that's just how the Swiss eat.

Con: Sometimes you would kill for something from home.

People are shocked when I get excited about cupcakes or donuts. Here's the thing – fresh pastries and all the yummy awesome food is normal for us now. They're not a novelty anymore. What is a novelty is poptarts. We currently have a rain barrel of peanut butter and a case of KD in our cupboard that makes us happier beyond words.

Pro: The Swiss have this wonderful connection to the outdoors.

Even those who grew up in the city have an outdoor connection, and it's reflected in the kempt hiking trails, the maps of skating trails and biking trails, and the fact you see people outside on every single nice day – even in winter. I've never seen a crowded hiking path before I moved here.

Con: I hate being outside.

My idea of 'outdoorsy' is drinking outside. I've learned to (kind of) like hiking but it's mostly because of the alpine huts that serve beer along the hiking trails. Plus, I don't ski. I like the idea of skiing, though probably because of the chalets that serve boozy hot chocolate and raclette. But I'm learning. I've made it my summer goal to finally go floating in the river like we've been told to do since the day we landed in Switzerland. Yes, Manitoba friends, we have a river that is safe to swim in.

Pro: I'm starting to understand Swiss German.

I can't speak it but understanding is getting a lot easier. It's only taken 2.5 years but it's better than nothing.

Con: I still get funny looks when I speak high German.

But that's not my problem.

Pro: I can budget like nobody's business now.

You need to budget in expensive Switzerland. I've got Gail Vaz-Oxlade's budgeting jar system down to a science. We spend very little on non-essentials. Hell, we don't even own a microwave (to me it's a non-essential item). We eat incredibly healthy because bad food is expensive. We operate almost completely with cash now, so we can keep better track of our spending. And I've become very good at beating all the elderly ladies who grocery shop in the afternoons to the 50 percent discounted meat.

ConSwitzerland is expensive.

Let me throw some numbers at you. Compared to Canada the price of rent is 81 percent higher. The cost of groceries is 47 percent higher. The cost of eating out is 64 percent higher. For a family of three to go to McDonald's it can cost upwards of CHF 30 or 40 (that's CAD 32 to 42). Right after we got here I spent close to CHF 50 on four small steaks. Let me just point out this is a mistake I have never repeated.

Pro: Sunday is strictly a day of rest.
 
A whole day set aside to relax and not worry about getting stuff done, spending time with friends and family, checking out museums and doing other cool, life-enriching experiences. Where has this been all my life?
 
Con: Everything that isn't a museum, place to eat or in the train station is closed on Sundays.
 
As someone who ran a lot of errands on Sundays when we lived in Canada, this really bugged me when we first got here. We had to make a lot of trips to the train station in those first few weeks thanks to my lack of remembering things aren't open on Sundays.
 
Pro: Swiss food variety doesn't disappoint.
 
Switzerland has: chocolate that is better than Toblerone and Lindt (they give that to tourists apparently), 450 varieties of cheese, 200 kinds of bread, amazing/cheap local beer, cheap wine and a focus on eating seasonally and locally that should be an example to the rest of the world.
 
Con: I miss some of my favourite items.
 
I can't get any of the following items here: cheerios, brown sugar, Sailor Jerry's rum, mint chocolate, anything that isn't an After 8, Twizzlers, and big jars of peanut butter.

Pro: Not all Swiss are bias towards foreigners.
 
When you first arrive in Switzerland, you're inundated with horror stories about Swiss attitudes toward foreigners. But some Swiss are genuinely excited to meet a native English speaker (someone to practice their English with). Just like biases in other places, it's only a few bad apples ruining it for everyone else. But it also helps we're Canadian, and universally people think we're pretty okay – at least, no one has a strong opinion about us. Plus I speak German, so I'm seen as someone who is trying to integrate.
 
Con: There is a bias against foreigners.
 
So it can be hard to find apartments if you don't go through a rental agency. It can be hard to find jobs if you're a trailing spouse (like me), either because of your permit status or the strict Swiss hiring quotas for foreigners. It can be hard to meet locals, especially if you don't have kids or a dog. I've had friends whose children were told that certain kids from school weren't allowed to play with them because they weren't Swiss. Foreigners are seen as highly suspect. 
 
So it's not all great, but if you turn the stumbling blocks into stepping stones, it's not all bad either.
 

Reprinted with permission from The Dubious Hausfrau.

The Dubious Hausfrau

Tatiana Warkentin is the writer/blogger at The Dubious Hausfrau. She moved to Switzerland from Manitoba, Canada with her husband in 2011 so he could take a job with a special department of the UN and she could make writing a career rather than a hobby. Her goal as the Dubious Hausfrau is to make trailing spouses think, "Oh good, I'm not the only one!" When she isn't writing she is an explorer and adventurer, finding time to hike, kayak and learn how to make truffles at a Swiss chocolate factory. 

Thumbnail credit: Markus Lütkemeyer

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