Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ding Ding! Round Two!

We made it!  It's past the one year mark for both Nick and I and we are gearing up for year two.  No one went to jail (aside from the visits to a few medieval dungeons), there weren't too many tears (aside from those shed when we realized we missed the last night train in a tiny village and might have to walk three miles through the pitch black forest - yes...there is a reason it is called THE Black Forest), we learned a lot of seriously valuable lessons (such as how much a locksmith in Switzerland costs. You really don't want to know; just don't ever, ever lose your keys.  EVER!), and there was no want for amazing adventures.

First, I have to apologize for the recent radio silence.  It has been a crazy couple of weeks.  Like many job seeking tag-a-long spouses of scientists here in Switzerland, I threw my hat into a lot of rings and finally something came up.  Ich mache jetzt richtige Kohle!  Well, not really, but the cash comes in handy for traveling and language classes.  Tack this girl's work hours on top of class hours and holiday bonanzas and it is suddenly understandable why I haven't been able to keep our apartment up to the "Swiss" standard.  Oh well.  Too much outside to see and do.

In celebration of our anniversary, Nick and I decided to put together a Top 10 list of thoughts and/or tidbits of advise for those arriving in Switzerland for the first time, moving here or just those who might be interested in what a look back at the past year for a couple living abroad is like.

So gehen wir los!

1) Learn the hellos and goodbyes.  This should be the first this you learn, right after how to read a train and bus schedule. In Switzerland, people say hello differently depending on if you are saying it to one or more people.  For one person, the traditional greeting is "Grüezi!" This basically means "Greetings!".  If you are saying hello to more than one person, you should say "Grüezi mitteinand!" which is roughly "Greetings everyone" but literally more like "Greetings together."  Mix it up and you'll definitely stand out as a greenhorn...or be taken as rude.  Learn, memorize and repeat constantly on transportation, hiking trails, bathrooms, etc.

Goodbyes are also a bit tricky in Switzerland.  Throughout Europe, it is customary for friends to say goodbye with a "kiss" on each cheek.  In Switzerland, it is a left cheek, right cheek, and left again.  This is extremely important to remember!  If one person only goes for the two kiss and the other goes for the Swiss third...well, your going to catch it right in the kisser.  Weird.

Two more short notes on this topic:

- When sitting down at a restaurant for a meal, it is considered polite to wish your eating companions "En Guete" or "Bon appetit". This includes the folks from a nearby table who you might not know or have ever spoken to.  They will most likely wish you the same.

- Say "Zum wohl!" to cheers when drinking wine or on formal occasions.  Say "Prost!" for throwing back a pint with pals at the pub.

2) Save a copy of every official document/receipt/warranty/policy you receive.  Deep down, I despise actual paper paperwork, but as a librarian, I can appreciate the respect for order.  The Swiss love it.  The cliche about orderliness and the expectation for accurate file keeping is not a joke.  If you visit a Swiss (or German) home, they will most likely have an extraordinary collection of neatly organized binders for everything.

Oh? So you don't like filing and keeping track of documents.  Too bad.  Get some folders.

3) Buy a laundry drying rack.  This is the one thing I absolutely insist that anyone who lives here should buy immediately. You'll thank yourself when you see how tiny the washers and dryers are.

4) Get used to being an outsider for awhile.  The Swiss are the first to admit that they have a reputation for being a bit cold.  However, we've found that the Swiss are actually quite friendly and tend to be extremely helpful, but they need a bit of time to warm up to you.  Like, a year.  Yeah, our neighbors just started talking to us.  It's normal.  We realized really quickly that, as Americans, we tend to really want to talk to strangers, spend time with new people and ask a bunch of questions.  All these qualities I have really learned to appreciate in my own culture, but are a bit aggressive or seem insincere in other cultures, whether or not they are meant to be.

The best way to become part of the in-crowd?  Join a club and get involved.  In Switzerland, like in Germany, clubs are a huge part of life. There is a club for everything.  They are instantly built-in networks that can help you make sense of life abroad fast.  Once you have a network, work it and pay it forward.

Not sure where to get started on...well, anything?  Try The English Forum.  You're welcome.

5) Follow the rules.  All 1+ million of them.  The Swiss love rules almost as much as paperwork.  There are extensive rules for trash and recycling, rules for the public transportation, social norms for parties, grocery shopping, politeness that can be quite different from home.  Watch what other people do and imitate; if in doubt, ask.  Failing to do so could result in a fine or ticking off your neighbors.  There is no shortage of stories from ex-pats having the police called on them for not following the rules, or even just being suspect of not following the rules.  I can respect the mentality behind the rules - I've been told that with so many people living so close together, if everyone follows the rules, it functions.  Like beloved Swiss clockwork.  Don't be the faulty gear in the giant Swiss watch.

6) Learn the language.  So this statement isn't quite fair.  Switzerland has four national languages. Plus, dialects can vary not only from canton to canton, but from city to city.  My advice is to learn the most widely spoken language for the canton in which you learn to a conversation level. To deal with the dialect issue?  Learn the standard version of the language, i.e. learn Standard (or Hoch) Deutsch first.  Then you can add in regional sayings as you are comfortable.

There are people who are able to live here for years only speaking English.  This is much easier in the bigger cities, such as Zurich or Geneva.  Although it is possible, I feel as though these folks are only getting half (if that) of the experience.  A whole new side of a country opens up to you when you understand and can communicate.  Plus, it shows to native Swiss folks that you are willing to put in the effort to assimilate and become part of it all.

7) You'll get over the sticker shock.  Eventually.  Quality is revered here, but you'll pay for it.  The Swiss are very proud of their swiss-made products, and honestly I can say that I feel that their buy local approach is a very solid foundation for their steady economy.  Luckily, for some items, we live close to the German border and are able to pop over next door for a little economic relief.  That being said, if you are inclined to shop across the border,  be aware of the Zollkontrol and know exactly the quantity you are able to bring back with you.  Also, keep those receipts!  Not only are they what the customs agents will ask you for when checking you, you can also get the taxes that you paid in Germany back if you take your receipts to the border and fill out the ever-present paperwork.

8) Get Haushalt/Privathaftpflicht insurance.  Especially if you are renting.  While it is usually not required, what might be considered normal wear and tear in other countries could cost big bucks in Switzerland.  You as the occupant could be held responsible.  It also comes in handy if you lock yourself out of your house (*see intro).  If we had know at the time, it would have paid for itself in that one little key slip up.

9) If you are here for a year, spring for the GA travel card and never ever spend a weekend at home. It would take a lifetime to see everything here, so you had better get started.

10) Don't lose yourself.  You can spend massive amounts of time trying to achieve ultimate "Swissness" to fit in.  In reality, you never truly will.  We are American and while we are enjoying experiencing new cultures and customs, we still enjoy the cozy Thanksgiving, American Santa Claus, having a good chuckle when we find things in the grocery that are marketed as being "American" that we have never seen in our lives, and getting together with fellow English speakers to discuss our experiences.  Don't worry, if you don't find them, they'll find you.  We are a jolly, friendly, enthusiastic and warm bunch - which is the quality I have come to truly treasure in my own culture.

To wrap up, I'd like to wish everyone the merriest of holidays.  If you are here in Switzerland, feel free to send me a message, say hello, suggest a coffee meetup.  If you are abroad, when are you coming to visit?