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How To Integrate Into Life In Switzerland

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie, with another episode of the Expat Focus podcast. What challenges have you faced in trying to settle into your new home abroad? Did you find the integration process easy, or, was it quite difficult? How do you go about fitting in as an expat in a country like Switzerland, with four official languages, a bunch of unwritten social rules, and locals who have a reputation for being a little bit reserved?

British expat Catherine Nelson-Pollard lives in the Swiss town of Nyon, where she runs the website livinginnyon.com. She’s got some great tips to share, that will help make your new Swiss life just a little bit easier. And most of them apply to life in other countries as well. Of course, if you have any questions, or want to share your own integration experience after listening to this episode, head over to expatfocus.com, where you’ll find links to our Switzerland forum or Facebook group.

Catherine, you’re a freelance writer, and a broadcaster. You run the site livinginnyon.com, which is essentially a local news site and a directory. And I’ve also discovered online that you co-host a monthly podcast, and you’ve contributed to a local guidebook. How did you come such an expat information hub for where you live in Switzerland?

Catherine: [laughs] Well it’s a little bit by default, and a bit of serendipity, as you know these things can sometimes happen when you’re an expat. I have to say, though, this is not my first country living abroad. I’d lived in South America for over 6½ years, in Chile and in Uruguay, and prior to that I lived for a short period of time in other European countries. So, when I moved to Switzerland, I sort of roughly knew what expat life was like, and I wasn’t exactly brought to the country kicking and screaming, because I knew there would be a good standard of living. We moved here from Scotland.

But, still, it was a new country, and it was starting all over again, which is never easy, and the first few weeks it is, you always get that little bit of a shock, you know, what am I doing here? Well, I, we came to Switzerland due to my husband’s work. But because I’d lived in other places, I, I knew what to do to help myself integrate, and pretty soon after I’d been living in the town of Nyon, which is a really lovely, pretty town, along the side of Lake Geneva, or Lac Leman as we say here in French, I, I knew that to help my own integration there were certain things I had to do.

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So when, when I felt I got to know quite a lot, a few Swiss people, knew the town a bit better, I suddenly found myself sitting in cafes, advising other expats what to do over a coffee, and where to go, and what to [unclear 00:02:53], and I thought well, the, you know, the obvious step to do this is to put this all online. So that’s when I started my website, livinginnyon. And, and I really only did it just as some sort of, something to do while I was looking for work. But then, someone actually approached me and said, you know, would you like to place an advert on there? I’d never thought of monetizing it, and, and then it sort of, you know, sprung from there.

Carlie: So what is it that typically brings foreigners to Nyon?

Catherine: Well, Nyon’s only about 20 minutes on the train from Geneva, and Geneva as you probably are aware is that it’s full of international organisations, not only the UN organisations such as, you know, the World Health Organisation, the World Meteorological Association, lots and lots of UN organisations. So with that brings a lot of expatriate staff.

But there are also big companies here, Proctor & Gamble, and there’s sporting organisations, the international headquarters of the European Football Association, UEFA, that’s in Nyon, so that in itself brings staff from all over the world. And there are quite a lot of small start-up companies, trading companies, and there are American companies, British companies, just outside Nyon.

There’s a small village called Etoy which has a big business centre with Chiquita, the banana company, used to be there, and there used to be Google, all, all sorts of different companies from across the world, come to Nyon. And I, for various reasons, they either come to Geneva or Nyon, and they come to Geneva but then some people choose to live in Nyon but work in Geneva, or vice versa, because it is so easy to get to the airport, it’s a brilliant transport hub, so in a couple of hours, just under, just over a few hours you can be in Paris on the TGV, or in an hour you can be in London, and, and the airport is a very easy airport to get in and out of. So I guess, it, it’s a great transport hub, and it’s very convenient. And it’s also a very beautiful part of the world.

Carlie: I know you’re really passionate about integration and making sure you do do all the right things to acclimatise to your new home. And obviously everyone’s level of culture shock is different when they move somewhere new, as you said, you’ve lived in other international cities before, some people might be moving abroad for the first time, but, to a country that’s very similar in culture and values to their own. What aspects of life in Switzerland, in your experience, take the most getting used to for expats?

Catherine: There are lots of myths going around Switz-, before you arrive, saying [laughs], you know, if I can say there’s funny ones, like, oh, if you live in an apartment, you can’t go to the toilet after 10 o’clock at night, ‘cause if you, if it makes a sound and then it disturbs the neighbours before, I mean, that myth has been going around [laughs] for a long, long time!

Carlie: I’ve actually read that myth, because I was looking to move to Basel at one point, and I read about these crazy apartment laws, about, you know, there’s a roster for when you can use the washing machines, and, yeah, you can’t have a shower late at night, and it really freaked me out! [laughs]

Catherine: Well, to be honest, these, these little rules tend to be in some of the older apartment buildings, where, you know, sound does travel, and there can be, you know, a few strict rules about, you know, making sound from above, you know, I follow quite a lot of comments on, on some of the many Facebook posts for expats in Switzerland, and it is pretty tricky for families with young children when, you know, they’re running around, to you know, try and stop their kids making too much noise, particularly if it’s a parquet floor, to, you know, to not to disturb the, the people underneath. And that can be tricky, I have to say.

But on the whole, most Swiss apartments, if you are living in an apartment, are very well insulated. And that 10 o’clock rule doesn’t always apply. However, having said that, you know, if you choose to have a party, and the party goes on after midnight, or the night, or the time that’s allocated when you should really essentially stop making noise, it has been known for your neighbours to, to call the police, and, and bring the police in to stop the party. And, yes, there are still rules about using the washing machine in, in the laundry room downstairs, and I, I have to abide by that here where I live, and I’ve been doing that for 17 years. Because you tend to get very big washing machines down in the basement, and obviously you have to take it in turns to use them.

So, yes, the, some of those, some of those rules still apply. You’re really advised not to cut your lawn on a Sunday, hang out washing on a Sunday. Essentially Sunday is a very sacred day, not necessarily for religious reasons, but it’s a day when you do family stuff, or you do stuff that doesn’t involve any retail shopping, pretty much everything is closed, so there are no big department stores open, and the only shops that are open tend to be in tourist areas, or in the railway stations. So Sunday is a day of going out into the country, skiing, hiking, getting together with family. So, if you’re used to rushing out and getting everything you need with your big supermarket shop on a Sunday, beware [laughs] before you come to Switzerland!

Carlie: I actually found a similar thing when I moved to France, and before I moved here, I’d only lived in big cities in, in Australia, and then I moved to London, and I was used to that, you know, 24 hour convenience of retail and transport. I said to my boyfriend, but I wanna go to the hardware store on a Sunday, I wanna go to the supermarket and get some milk, I wanna do things, and he said, well, why shouldn’t the people that work at these stores have a day off to spend with their families? Why should they be working so you can do this stuff? And it was just that different mentality that, that took a while, actually, for me to get used to, and I’m guessing it’s the same in Switzerland.

Catherine: It is the same in Switzerland. And, you know, after a, after you’ve been living here for as long as I have, you actually get used to it, and you really appreciate it, because it, you know, the streets are quieter on a Sunday, and there’s not as much traffic on the roads. And you actually really begin to appreciate it, and you think you know what, if I didn’t get that pound of sugar that I needed, or, or yeah, or something maybe that’s a bit complex, ‘cause there usually is a tiny, tiny little shop near a railway station where you can get the basics, then, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just wait till Monday. You know, it, it’s not the end of the world.

Carlie: Catherine, you live in Nyon which is a French-speaking part of Switzerland, but obviously there’s the Italian-speaking part, and the majority of Switzerland speaks German. What differences exist when it comes to language in Switzerland, and how does that change people’s experiences?

Catherine: Yeah, well it, it can be different. I mean, there is a fun word here that they use, called the röstigraben, the rösti as you probably know is a potato dish which is very popular here in Switzerland. The röstigraben or the rösti curtain or the rösti ditch, means it’s this sort of fictitious line that separates the German-speaking part from the French-speaking part, and, you know, the comments I’ve given have really been based on my experience living in the French-speaking part.

But over in the German-speaking part, things can be slightly different. I would say that they’re probably a little bit stricter on some of the rules on apartment living. My perspective, coming from a French-speaking part, is obviously very different from someone that maybe lives in Basel or Zurich. And it can vary also because the country when it has referendums and votes, the German-speaking part does tend to vote a little bit different to the French-speaking part on some of the major issues. So maybe there’s a slightly different sort of process there.

And, I mean, on the whole, it’s a great country to live, but there are slight differences, and I think the difficulty would probably be is when it comes to learning the language, because you get Swiss-German, you get German, you get slightly different dialects in different parts of the country. And I think that’s when it becomes a little bit tricky. Here in the French-speaking part, on the whole, the French is the same across the entire part of this country. There are certain variations in numbers. These are small little quirky things. Whereas if you go into the Swiss-German part, then you’ve got a whole different ballgame on languages. And, and that does actually make it a lot tougher.

Carlie: How does that factor in when you need to decide what language, or languages, to learn as an expat in Switzerland?

Catherine: Depends where you live. There are lots of very good websites here in Switzerland that explain the different kind of languages that are spoken in the different parts of Switzerland. Then I think before you move here do your research, just to double-check that you’re not learning the wrong kind of German, or you’re not, there isn’t a town that’s on the border that speaks two languages and you learn one, and it would’ve been better if you learnt a second one…

Carlie: What a disaster! [laughs]

Catherine: Well, yes, but equally there are some towns where it was literally split down the middle, and you speak French on one side and German on the other, or, or Swiss-German on one and German on the other. So, I would say, double-check. You know, when I’ve been t-, we were talking about all the rules and regulations, there are lots of fun traditions in Switzerland, depending where you live.

I live in the French-speaking part, but there are lots of lovely customs and cultural activities in the German-speaking part as well, apart from Carnival. But every canton tends to have a day or a couple of days where there’s either some kind of parade, or there’s some tradition where people get dressed up, or there’s [unclear 00:12:44] music bands, fantastic bands, that dress in crazy costumes, that parade through the streets. So, it’s not all rules. There are certainly lots of fun traditions and customs that you can find, across the whole of Switzerland, which you can, you know, explore on that Sunday, on your, on your day off, and the weekend.

Carlie: What about when it comes to socialising? I know here in France people don’t tend to, well, in my experience, have much to do with their colleagues outside of work hours. So when you’re an expat, how do you go about breaking into those social circles where you’re living, and actually making friends, I guess?

Catherine: Well, you have to make a bit of an effort. It’s very easy to go to your international organisation and point your car up the motorway, park up, chat with your English-speaking friends, and then drive home, and switch on to the BBC, or, or American news, or whatever you’re used to. And, that makes life easier. So you have to make more, a bit, a bit of an effort. So I would suggest that every now and again, if you are driving to work, then maybe take public transport, mix with some other Swiss, find out how the, how the system works.

And the public transport is so brilliant here in Switzerland, I cannot, you know, go on about it enough, because everything is inter-connected, the buses link with the trains. There’s a brilliant app that can, you know, get you across the entire of Switzerland, and it all works. So, on, on that respect I would say go for public transport anyway, but, but when you come home I think you’d really, you have to make an effort if you want to mix with other people outside your expat bubble. So, either buy your local newspaper on a regular basis, even if your language skills aren’t that great at the start.

You will understand a little bit, and then, if you see an article in a local newspaper about, say, something that’s happening in your area, whether it’s a tree being chopped down, or a new ferry service starting on the lake, or something, you will tend to then feel a little bit more, oh, that’s happening here, that’s happening in my place, oh, I didn’t know that, and then suddenly you feel more of a link to the place. And then when it comes to meeting other Swiss, you have to make the effort in a way, they’re not gonna come knocking on your door. Some of them do, my, one of the first people I met in, where I live here in Nyon, knocked on my door and said welcome, would you like to come over for a drink? But not everyone does.

So, I would say the key to this is join a club or do some volunteering. In general, the Swiss don’t tend to do the after-work drinks as much as, say, we Brits do, or Australians do, or Americans do. You go to work, you do your work, and when you go home, you then go out again at night, to some kind of club. Here in Nyon I think there’s some-, a ridiculous amount of clubs, something like 160, some, different kind of clubs where you can either go biking, or play chess, or do some kind of volunteering.

Carlie: I was gonna say, these aren’t night clubs. They’re, they’re community-linked activity groups.

Catherine: Clubs or organisations, exactly. So, whether you are interested in music, or whether you are interested in sport, or whatever, join a local club. I know that it might be tough at the start, you know, and maybe, you know, you’ll struggle a bit with the language, but if you keep at it and make the effort, once you’re in that club, and you know, once they start doing activities, where, or even just a walking club, then you will feel a link to the place.

A long time ago I interviewed some expatriates who were very keen cyclists. And they were determined they didn’t want to join an expat cycling club, so, they knew a race was coming up through the town that they were living in. So they sat with a pen and a paper, and they wrote down the, they looked at the backs of the jerseys of the cycling, the cyclists going up the hill, and they wrote down the name of all the different Swiss cycling clubs that were cycling up this hill, and then they contacted them, and said hey, we’re cyclists, can we join, even though we don’t speak much French, and they were welcomed into this cycling club. And then later on, one of the guys, the guy from the couple was then invited to be a voluntary fire-fighter, and he really felt that by doing this, he was linking in to the local society.

Now it’s not easy because sometimes, as you’re well aware, Carlie, that expatriate postings can sometimes only last for 2 years or 3 years. And you might think well, you know, I’m only here for 2 years, I don’t have the time to do this. But if you think you’re going to be here longer, give it a try, give it an effort, and then you’ll feel more of a link to your town. Yeah, and obviously keep in touch with family or whatever, don’t cut them off completely, but, make a bit of an effort, join a club, or do some volunteering.

There are lots of great music festivals here in Switzerland, lots of film festivals, and they’re nearly always looking for volunteers, whether it’s to, you know, man the gates, or do some clearing up, or welcome people into the theatre, you know, if you do a bit of volunteering, that’s another way of maybe linking in to the local community. I am talking about being in a, you know, in a, quite a large town here, and, and I’m referring just to clubs and associations in small towns and big cities in Switzerland.

I do appreciate that if in your very small, tiny Swiss village, and maybe you’re the only expat in the, you know, up in the mountain, it might not be as easy. But keep at it, you know, it’s just too easy to give up and say oh well, I don’t speak the language, and I’m not gonna bother. And I think that would be sad, because if in a year or 2 years’ time you are then sent on somewhere else, or you move home, you might regret the time you hadn’t spent trying to integrate a little.

Carlie: Do you think it’s easier for families? When you have kids to put in a local school, and you’re, you’re making those connections, or hopefully, that way?

Catherine: I think it probably is, because you have an instant connection with the parents in the playground, and, you know, with all the related things that go on with the schools. But I, I wouldn’t, you know, just because if you’re a single or you don’t have children, I, I wouldn’t let it put you off. I mean, there must be some link that you have, whether, you know, you’re a dog walker, or if you don’t have a dog, then you know, do you like tennis? You know, the local tennis club probably, you know, is delighted to have new members.

You know, maybe there’s a music group that needs a new violinist, or maybe there’s just somebody that wants to do French exchange, or language exchange. There’s a small group here in Nyon that simply do 15 minutes of language, you know, you do 15 minutes and [unclear 00:19:23] do 15 minutes of French, completely free. If you’re living somewhere, and there’s absolutely nothing that you think you, you fancy, and think well I, you know, I don’t, I don’t play tennis, or I don’t do this, then, all I can say is, start your own club! Just put a little notice, or something on Facebook, saying, hello, I’m whatever, I’m interested in that, would you like to meet to chat, or go for a walk, or do something? Start your own. It take, it takes a bit of initiative. But, but do it. Go for it.

Carlie: What are some common misconceptions about Swiss people?

Catherine: Well, I find the Swiss people friendly, and, you know, some people say oh, you know, they can be a little bit cold. I think the thing is, what you have to remember when you arrive in Switzerland, that courtesy and politeness are, are very important. When you go into a supermarket in Britain, and you, say you’re looking for the, a certain kind of flour, you’ll go and say, you know, excuse me, where’s the flour for that? And then the shop assistant will take you to the flour and whatever. Here, if you approach a shop assistant and you go, excuse me where’s the flour?, you must always, always say bonjour at the start. If you don’t say bonjour to them, you’re not starting off the conversation in a polite way. If you don’t do that, then they can seem to be a bit cool and abrupt. They will answer you in an equally sort of, oh it’s over there! Because you haven’t done them the courtesy of saying bonjour to them, they haven’t treated you with the same kind of respect.

It’s a tricky one, because, you know, you would argue well, why does the shop assistant still be polite, but it’s, the, you have to remember you just don’t barge in with your loud ways. Remember you’re to be courteous.

You know, when you get into a lift, an, an elevator here in Switzerland, most people will say bonjour to you, even if you’ve never met them before in your entire life. It’s this common courtesy. When you clink glasses, as you’re giving a toast, you must look the other person in the eye, and say, you know, santé or whatever. So it’s this, these little, small courtesies that you need to remember, that will really smooth your way.

They can be quite direct in some of their answers, I must admit, you know, they’ll just tell you the answer. They’re not embellishing it. So, if you do say, oh do you not have that?, they will say no, it’s not in stock. That is the answer, it’s the correct answer. Whereas we in Britain might say, or in Australia might say, oh look, I’m terribly sorry, but we don’t have some, we’ll try and get some for you another day. But the Swiss will maybe give you more, like, no, it’s not in stock, full stop. And that takes a bit of getting used to.

Carlie: I had this funny experience, going into a restaurant in Australia with my French boyfriend, and saying hi to the lady who was gonna seat us at the table, it’s like hi, how’re you doing, yeah great thanks, how about you, had a good day, you know? And later he said to me, oh do you know her? And I said oh no, not at all! And it wasn’t till I went back to Australia that I realised how much I miss just that, that small talk, that banter with a shop assistant, or someone on the street, talking about the weather, you know, have you had a good one? I don’t speak that much to people in France anyway, because my language skills are still developing, but also, I don’t really hear that banter or the opportunity for that banter with people like I did back home.

Catherine: That is certainly something that I noticed, there is a difference here. You know, I’ve been going to the same supermarket branch for 17 years, and, although I recognise the faces of the regular supermarket staff, and they probably recognise me, there has never at any stage been any further communication and, you know, we don’t know each other’s [unclear 00:23:06].

Carlie: Chat about your weekend plans! [laughs]

Catherine: Not, no, no no no. And that is something that’s just part of what it is over here. I mean, they will prob-, if some listeners, they might be screaming, saying hey, but I, you know, I’ve got a really friendly shop assistant, and we chat about the day, it may be in a small village. But in general, I think that is something you do have to prepare yourself for. That’s, you know, it’s a small price to pay, for I would say living in a country that works extremely well.

There’s a reason why, you know, that Zurich or other Swiss cities, or Basel, keep coming up on the quality of life index. Because outside the offices and outside the, all the rules, there’s lots of things provided by the government and by the local councils, to enhance the quality of your life, whether it’s the barbecues down by the lake, or whether it’s the exercise runs that are put through the, the cities. Or whether it’s lots and lots of free cultural events.

Carlie: What should expats know about living costs in Switzerland?

Catherine: It’s pricey! The cost of rent is high, the cost of health insurance is high. The cost of goods in the shops are high. The [unclear 00:24:13] shock as people tend to call it, when they come from other countries, really hits them hard. And it can be hard if you’re bringing up a family. But then don’t forget that salaries are higher. So that, the higher prices are taken into account. I would say if you’re going to be in Switzerland just for a few years, try if you possibly can not to keep comparing prices with where you’ve come from. Because every time you have a cup of coffee, you say oh my goodness me, that cost me 6 francs, 7 francs, you know, I could get two [unclear 00:24:42] of coffee for this in wherever, it’s just gonna keep spoiling your enjoyment every time you go out. Um, so just accept it.

You might not be able to eat out as much as you can in other places, but, just accept that prices are higher, because the staff need to earn the higher, higher wages, because the, you know, their rents, they have rents to pay as well. And just, you know, think well, bite your tongue, pay the price, and, once you start doing that and accept it, then I think you’ll enjoy the country a lot more.

Carlie: When it comes to integrating into Swiss workplaces, are there any particular things to note about how your daily worklife will be, and how to interact with your colleagues?

Catherine: Repeating again, the courteousness, saying hello, shaking hands, you know, being polite. Not necessarily doing so much chitchat. Being prepared for being made to have a proper lunchbreak [laughs]. This sounds a little bit trivial, but, I know lots of people who, you know, are used to having a sandwich at the desk and press, pressing on with work. Whereas here lunch is the big thing. You tend to have a big lunch rather than a big dinner. So you have lunch at work with your colleagues, and that’s the time to chat to colleagues.

You go out to either to a restaurant, or to one of the canteens if you’re working for a big organisation. The food is very very, it tends to be very very good in the, in the Swiss canteen in an office or a company. And that’s when they take a good hour off to have a proper lunch. And that comes as a bit of a shock, I, I’ve heard from quite a few expats saying oh my goodness, you know, I’m just used to pressing on, but this is the key part, don’t miss those lunches, because that’s when all your colleagues will go out and chat. There was at some stage some legal requirement that you take a decent amount of time away from your lunch.

And you know, my husband has been told off many times by his, well, his previous boss, you know, that he wasn’t getting out and getting some fresh air at lunchtime. And you know, when you look at that, and you then combine it with the fact that, you know, things are closed on a Sunday, it’s all to do with the quality of life, it’s the quality of work-life balance. Um, and that’s working for Swiss companies, you know. If you’re working for an international company, then they might have different intern-, internal ways of doing things, but certainly working for a Swiss company, lunch is the thing!

Carlie: It’s a thing here in France as well, I think I was told early on when I started in a, in an office, that I wasn’t allowed to eat lunch at my desk like I, you know, had a habit of doing in London and in Australia. And I really appreciate the right to disconnect that France has when it comes to looking at work emails and text messages after hours, and you’re not obligated in most cases to have to be in work mode when you leave the office for the day, and I think that’s a really good and healthy thing.

Catherine: Living in different countries and being an expat, you begin to realise some of the things that really work. And if you end up going back to your own home country, you can maybe take some of those things with you if you can. So, you know, my advice is always, try not to dwell on the negative things, some of the things that are beginning to annoy. We all go through those periods, you know, you know expat life has a kind of a honeymoon period, then a dip, then it goes back up again, and you reach a plateau, and then it goes up.

We all have those moments and think well, goodness me, what on earth am I doing here? But if you just keep focusing on the negatives about living abroad, you’re not going to enjoy your time there. And, you never know how long you’re gonna be there, you know, a case in point is one of the first countries I was an expat was in, was in Chile. And, we thought we had lots and lots of time to do stuff, and get to know more Chileans, and travel, and then within 2 years we were sent somewhere else, so, do what you possibly can in the first few years, because you never know how long you’re going to be there.

And I’d also say, try not to whizz back home for holidays for 2 to 3 months, you know, the long summer periods, because the more you keep whizzing back home, you’re gonna keep losing that connection you have with the country you’ve moved to.

And if you can then, you know, discover the country you’re in, and then show your friends that are visiting or your family that are visiting, then you’ll take a little bit of pride in the country you’re actually living in. Rather than going home and then just moaning about it. It’s just switching mentality, I think.

And I think if you learn to really appreciate where you are living, and then, for however long you’ll be there, then you’ll leave with, you know, I’ve done it, I’ve enjoyed it, and I made the most of my time there. And try your very best to integrate while you can.

Carlie: That’s it for this episode. Expatfocus.com/podcast is the place to go for more chats like this one, on all aspects of life abroad. You can also find us on your favourite podcasting app. If you like what we do, please leave us a review, and I’ll catch you next time!

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