Home Moving to Switzerland Integration This idiot’s expat survival guide
Last update on December 10, 2018

We explain how to survive the highs and lows of being an expat.

One fateful morning in June your significant other bursts into your bedroom way too early in the morning to announce they have just received a job offer in Switzerland.

After shock and the desire to throw up wears off you find yourself excited, over the moon, amazed and… terrified.

“We don’t know anything about being expatriates!” you cry. Not yelling or shouting… you say this actually crying because that’s how scared you are.

This may or may not be based on actual events.

There have been days in the last two years where I’ve felt like I’ve got this whole expat thing nailed! Like the day we got bank accounts or the day John was approved for a credit card or the day I was able to understand one sentence of Swiss German. I was totally winning at being an expat on those days. Other days, I wanted nothing more than to hide under a rock until this whole expat thing was over. Like the time I was so depressed I didn’t leave the house for four days right after we got here. Or the time where we both had to accept we would not be there to say a final goodbye to our grandmothers. Those days… not so much winning.

I’ve always felt my little corner of the interweb served a larger purpose then just hearing myself talk. I’ve always felt it’s my small way of letting some other expat out there know that it’s okay. Sometimes doing this is stupid and sometimes it’s the best thing to ever happen to you. Either way, you can do it and whatever is going on you’ll be okay.

With that in mind I want to give you my guide to surviving this expat thing that expats would understand.

Learn something small about your host country

If you’re from Canada and you find yourself among Russians, always know the score of the final score of game eight of the 1972 summit series. (Psssstttt….that was six to five for Canada. Thank you Grade 11 Canadian History teacher!!) This will immediately make you the best friend of any Russian you might meet. No, really. What will make you like family though is knowing that the deliberate injury of Kharlamov by Clarke in game six changed the course of the series and may or may not have been the reason Canada ultimately won. These two pieces of hockey wisdom has made me many Russian friends (my husband works with a lot of Russians).

Learn to say cheers in as many languages as possible

Here’s a link for ‘cheers’ in 27 languages. Also learn the cheers etiquette for your particular culture. In most parts of Europe you’re required to make eye contact when you clink glasses. This took us by surprise. We’re Canadian, so when you clink glasses you’re more concerned about not spilling your drink. So to avoid the possibility of seven years of bad sex make sure you find out if you need be glaring at someone while you say, “Prost!”

When you’re an expat you’ll get some of the best mail ever

Seriously. And people say letter writing and sending packages is a dying art, it’s not. Here’s the thing, those boxes and bubble envelopes will contain things you want to cherish, save for a special occasion, savour. Like, I don’t know, Ketchup flavoured Old Dutch chips. Be honest with yourself and just devour that bag as fast as possible. There’s no shame in that. Because that taste of home can turn around any bad day. Whether you make your poutine gravy now or later either way it’s going to be gone so you might as well enjoy yourself rather than squirreling it away for a ‘special occasion’. As far as I’m concerned someone sending you cool mail is a special occasion.

Talk about the lower side of things

When we moved to Switzerland, because the husband works for an UN organisation, people got it into their heads that our life is nothing but dinner with diplomats and drinks with people who are saving the world. It’s not. Sometimes it’s sitting at home on a Friday night watching hilarious cat videos. Sometimes it’s yelling matches about stupid things like shoes or laundry. Sometimes it’s being homesick, annoyed at your new country, struggling to get a handle on your new life and feeling like you live on the moon. Sure, you want people to think you’re having the time of your life, and you are, but sometimes a little honesty will remind those you left behind that you’re not on vacation, you’re trying to learn how to live somewhere else.

Homesickness happens. Feel it. Don’t repress it

If you repress it then one day it’s going to explode over the silliest thing, “The way you passed me the butter this morning has made me think this is not going to work out!” Cue tears and gnashing of teeth. Just feel it, acknowledge it and move on. 

Get a really good long distance plan

We chose our phone company based solely on the fact they offer free calling back to Canada.

Smiling and nodding will get you pretty far

So make sure you do plenty of it.

And finally…

But remember you’re not alone and take time to sit back, sip some wine and be in awe of surviving this long without a) giving up b) losing your mind and c) how friggin’ awesome it is to live where you are.