Life in the Swiss Alps: Staying positive is key

Life in the Swiss Alps: Staying positive is key to life abroad

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Diana Oehrli reflects on her decision to move to Switzerland ten years ago and how a positive attitude has helped her build up a life here.

When I first moved to the Swiss Alps back in 2002, my city friends told me I was crazy. They said that I was not only limiting myself professionally, but also socially, intellectually, and culturally. I stubbornly told them that living in the mountains, close to nature, and with so many outdoor activities  was healthy for me and my family. I explained that I wanted my children to experience walking to a country farm school every day and growing up without the materialism of the cities. I also wanted my children to get to know their family roots and neighbors. Not to mention, I wanted them to become fluent in German and Swiss German.

I have to admit that there were times since our move when I joined my city friends in questioning my decision to live in the boonies. Thankfully, those moments of self-doubt were few and far between and only became really apparent during bouts of loneliness.

Life in the Swiss Alps: Staying positive is key

You see my problem during my first few years in Switzerland was that I lacked friends. It has often been said that Swiss women--like their French counterparts--are not the warmest people on the planet. They rarely, if ever, invite strange new neighbors into their homes for coffee. And, I was too shy to invite them. So, for the first four years living in the Swiss Alps, I didn't make one single Swiss woman friend. And this contributed to feelings of loneliness and uncertainty.

The strongest moments of self-doubt arose whenever I was confronted with what I perceived as prejudice, xenophobia, 'small-minded' negative thinking, fundamental Christian extremism, and less than adequate education. It was during such times that I would start thinking about moving to New York.

One day, I had a discussion with a British and American couple about Swiss education.

"What? Your kids only go to school half-day?" asked the husband. "How can they learn enough in just four hours a day?"

They were outraged when they learned that high school or Gymnasium is not mandatory in Switzerland and that two thirds of all children follow a vocational path after the ninth grade. After that discussion, I found myself googling private international schools in Switzerland and in Florida. But, a Swiss friend reassured me.

"Don't worry, Diana," he said. "To get into a Gymnasium, children have to make it into secondary schools. If your daughter gets into secondary school,  she'll get a better education than in any private school."

Ever since then, I've prayed that my children will make it into secondary school. If they don't get in, I don't know what I will do.

In the meantime, I've addressed the lack of intellectual and social stimulation in my life. I've made friends with English-language women. I have come to realize that we share similar experiences and outlooks on life in Switzerland. They, too, were thirsty for intellectual and social stimulation. So, we started a book club. At first, the ladies were dead-set against starting something too organized for fear of becoming another typical Swiss Verein  or Association. They'd had enough of negative rule-mongers. So, we decided against having a name; it would sound too official.

Nearly two years have gone by and our book club membership has grown to 19 people. Some women have shown an interest in being in the book club but don't want to read the books, showing how isolated a non-Swiss woman can feel in Switzerland. We've created a "social" category for our book club to take care of those cases. There exists a small tug-of-war between some of us who would like a bit of structure and others who want to keep it loose.

We keep it positive, and I think that's what matters most.

And strangely, since the beginning of the book club, I've noticed that my Swiss neighbors have warmed up. Perhaps, they've sensed a change in me. Perhaps, I smile more. Perhaps, I've warmed up. Perhaps, I've stopped caring about what they might think of me. Whatever it is, they now now invite me into their homes for coffee. In turn, I reciprocate. Small steps... 

with permission of
Life in the Swiss Alps.

Daughter of a Swiss mountain guide and American photographer, Diana Oehrli grew up in Switzerland, the South of France and in New England. In 2002, she moved to Switzerland and fell in love with mountain life. With her two children, she now lives in a 300-year old farmhouse above the villages of Gstaad and Saanen, where she is working on a novel and on her blog

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2 Comments To This Article

  • Brendan posted:

    on 22nd December 2012, 12:05:53 - Reply

    Now you know how two thirds of the parents feel in Switzerland. These fears for your children go a LONG way to explain pervasive negative thinking here. Your childrens' future, their professional, financial, status and self-esteem issues are all at stake during that test in sixth grade. We brag about "my son the doctor" and not "my son the washing machine repairman". If your highest dreams for your children are office worker, salesgirl, waitress or bike mechanic, move here, because they have a 70% chance of becoming true..
  • Barbara Wolfensberger posted:

    on 13th December 2012, 09:56:51 - Reply

    I have lived here for 20 years, and know how you feel. Actually, all the kids automatically go to secondary school (sec A, B or C) or they can take the test to go to the Gymnasium in sixth grade. You can also take the test after the second and third year in secondary school. Some kids are ready later, some are ready earlier. I never thought of it but you are right, there education actually stops at 16 if they choose to do an apprenticeship. Many parents around where I live don't expect their kids to go to the Gymnasium, especially if they did not go themselves. That is sad because many of these kids are very talented and would do well if they were encouraged. God Bless, and viel glück!