Tanya: Moms: Tots: Zurich
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Zurich, etc.
I moved from San Francisco to Zurich in 2005 with my husband and then toddler. We weren’t particularly looking to move abroad. But when the opportunity came, we didn’t think twice. We’d try it for a couple years and if it was horrible, we could always leave. It turned out great and we have no plans to leave.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I luckily found a great English-speaking “moms and tots” playgroup when I first moved to Zurich. The moms would regularly share family-friendly outings and travel tips. I offered to blog for them so we could keep track of all the good ideas. Gradually, I was the only one posting and the Moms:Tots:Zurich blog became a personal project.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
Since I focus on hiking with kids in Switzerland, I often recommend the Toggenburg Tone Trail, that has over 20 interactive musical installations along the trail to help keep kids motivated. The Pizol Heidipfad trail is another classic theme trail with lots of play equipment along the trail and signboards telling the Heidi story. I tend to take visitors to my personal favorite, Stoos, which has dramatic views and a classic Swiss landscape, but isn’t as crowded or as pricey as the more famous Swiss peaks.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Zurich differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Switzerland is a relatively soft landing for a first-time expat, since many people speak English here and it’s a Western culture. However, the small differences had a larger impact than I expected. The people here are kind and helpful, but not as friendly as I was used to. Often I interpreted this coldness as judgment, but later realized it wasn’t personal, just a cultural difference. With a toddler in tow, I had to interact with and rely on strangers every day, particularly with getting my stroller on and off the trams. Although people understood my broken German, I often felt the fool, when previously I felt confident in most aspects of my life. Now I had to gear myself up just to leave the house and accomplish simple tasks, like grocery shopping. The first year was difficult and a little lonely; we sometimes wondered if we did the right thing. But gradually, I found friends, established routines, improved my German, and almost 10 years later I feel very at home here.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Zurich? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I knew very little German and nothing about Switzerland before I came here, but we survived and even thrived. Knowing more German certainly would have helped, but honestly, I learned much faster when I had to use German every day in real situations. I think the most important thing to prepare is your attitude. Expats do well that come prepared to learn and immerse themselves in the experience and culture, instead of trying to replicate their old life in a new place.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
It’s an old joke among expats that the Swiss have no respect for queues. If there’s a line, they will cut into it. It drives U.S. and British expats crazy! I was 8 months pregnant and waiting with my toddler in line at a small grocery in my neighborhood. A woman waited briefly behind me before walking around and cutting directly in front of me. I thought I had adequately blocked the line with my stroller (anticipating this kind of thing) but I had left a small gap. I usually give the evil eye and complain later to my friends. But this day, I had had enough and in my loud voice, I confronted the woman and said in my terrible German that “I was first. Go to the back. I was first!!!” She wouldn’t look at me and everyone else was staring at me with confused looks, as if to say “What does being first have to do with anything?” I accomplished nothing and slunk home in embarrassment. Later my German friend laughed at me, saying how funny we Americans are, getting so upset over queuing. She said the Swiss don’t think of it as “cutting” in line; the cashier is responsible for determining who is next, regardless of where people are standing. It’s tempting to judge other cultures as “wrong” and try to teach them to your “correct” way of thinking. But this is useless and the first lesson every expat should learn is that other cultures just do things differently and just roll with it, at least with the small stuff.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Zurich?
- It helps to make contacts in your new city before coming. You need people that can acquaint you with your neighborhood, quickly plug you into various social networks, and give you the benefit of their experience. The faster you have expat friends, the happier you’ll be.
- Buy and bring any big bulky items you anticipate wanting/needing in the foreseeable future, things that won’t fit in your single suitcase when you visit home. It’s no secret that in Switzerland, prices are heavily inflated and the selection is limited. If I were to do it again, I would have loaded up on the following: crafting supplies, kitchen gadgets (non-electronic), better furniture, home decorations, cute shoes, specialized sports equipment (e.g. baseball gloves). It’s not that you can’t buy most of these things here, but you might not find exactly what you want and you’ll pay double for it.
- Make sure all your loved ones have a good webcam and have practiced using Skype, multiple times. It’s so frustrating providing long distance tech support for poor Grandma who’s having trouble with a video call. I’ve found that unfortunately, we just don’t stay in touch with friends and family that aren’t comfortable with technology.
How is the expat community in Zurich? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
There are many expats in Zurich, from all over the world, and in many cases, the common language between them, regardless of mother tongue, is English. So it’s easy to find others in the same situation with whom you can communicate. Expats love to swap tips and horror stories; our shared experience creates an instant and strong bond. I’ve heard that it’s easier for expat parents to find friends, as children are an obvious common denominator and it’s easy to strike up conversation at the playground. I was happy to find good English-speaking playgroups when I first came, where I developed friendships that I still maintain many years later.
How would you summarize your expat life in Zurich in a single, catchy sentence?
The best thing I’ve ever done that I never knew I wanted to do.