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Permanent Tourist

A personal website by Mark Howells-Mead

Keep Calm and Fit In

I was recently interviewed for the website expatarrivals.com and asked for my thoughts on life as a foreigner in Switzerland. Here’s the transcript of the emailed interview.

About you

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Born in London, I grew up in Hampshire, in England.

Q: Where are you living?
A: On the shores of Lake Thun; in Spiez until recently, and now in the village of Faulensee.

Q: How long you have you lived here?
A: Since the beginning of 2001.

Q: Did you move with a spouse/children?
A: No.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I am a passionate landscape photographer in my spare time, and a holiday to Interlaken and the Jungfrau Region convinced me to give a life abroad a try. I planned at first on staying for a couple of years, to see how I got on, and I’m still here! I’m currently Technical Manager for the web division of a creative agency in Bern.

About your region

Q: What do you enjoy most about your region, how’s the quality of life?
A: Wonderful. The views across the lake are spectacular for someone who grew up amongst the well-packed landscape of northern Hampshire, and I draw inspiration for the creative aspects of my life every day from the view of mountains and villages surrounding the lake. The quality of life is far better in the countryside for myself and my wife than in the city, as we get fresh air, peace and quiet, countless walking paths and wide-reaching views. The capital is only twenty minutes away by car, so if we feel like going out for drinks or to the cinema, it’s only a short car journey away.

Thunersee from Spiezmoos

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: Switzerland is my home now; I came to that conclusion after I integrated myself, learned Swiss German, and saw how many advantages I and my wife have here, compared to a life in the U.K. It’s difficult to be so far away from family, of course. Missing them and having to make a concerted effort to travel for almost an entire day in each direction to see them is about the only continuing negative aspect of living here.

Q: Is the region safe?
A: Totally. I heard from a doctor friend at the hospital in Bern that Spiez is unexpectedly known for occasional attacks amongst groups of younger locals, but aside from that, crime is all but non-existent away from the heavily tourist-populated centres. Now that we’ve moved to Faulensee, where tourists tend to stick to the lakeside restaurants and a percentage of the properties are empty during the week, to be used at the weekends by city dwellers as a second home, I’ve never felt so safe.

About living here

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in the region as an expat?
A: The range of alternatives is wider than one would have in a city. Properties right on the lakeshore are mostly occupied by generation after generation of the same family, so those of us without local roots have to look for properties from “the second row” on. That still offers a wide range of pretty wonderful accommodation though, from the modern white walled, steel trimmed apartments to the older, traditional wooden houses. Just don’t expect a bustling lifestyle where everyone understands your primary language: unless it’s German, of course!

Interlaken itself is very touristy and you’re much more likely to hear English being spoken on the streets than Swiss German; nightlife is pretty much centred around the backpacker community unless your preference is a more sedate, restaurant-based social life. Thun is a more urban environment, being nearer Bern, but I prefer to only go into the city for shopping, as it’s fairly provincial. If you want a more urban lifestyle, then stick to Bern, as it’s more widely populated by a range of nationalities and the choice of nightclubs, bars, restaurants and theatres befits the capital status.

Other mid-sized towns in the Bernese Oberland can be counted on one hand: as well as Interlaken, Thun, Spiez, Gunten and Meiringen are the main centres across the region, with smaller communities and hamlets filling much of the remainder. Away from Interlaken, these centres are predominantly populated by locals, although there are plenty of foreign nationals living in the tourist centres and ski resorts, both on a seasonal and more long-term basis.

Bödeli, Interlaken, Switzerland

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation?
A: The overall quality of rented accommodation in Switzerland is exceptionally high; thanks to the apprenticeship start to most Swiss people’s lives, they are trained to achieve a high standard in their chosen career. One might pay a little more for a flat in comparison with, say, the U.K., but you get a comparably higher quality of living. Rental costs in the Bernese Oberland are considerably lower than in the cities; our rent is perhaps 30-40% lower than an equivalent flat in the capital.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: There’s a joke that there are two things you can count on in Switzerland: public transport, and a bill for any interaction with the country or its officials. Public transport is a big drain on finances, although the quality is well worth the cost. Residents should take advantage of the SBB Half Fare Card, as it entitles discounts on all types of public transport: even boat cruises on the lakes. Living costs are comparable to the south of England, in the main. If there are aspects of life that are more expensive, the higher salary and lower tax rates which one gains in Switzerland usually make up for the difference.

Home by ship on Lake Thun

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: The locals I come into contact with are from a similar sphere to my own, and they’re very welcoming and friendly. The Swiss do have more strictly defined boundaries than British people, though, so you’ll often butt up against the edge of what they feel is acceptable until you get the hang of things.

The further you head into the countryside, the more often you’ll run into Swiss who are reticent or less welcoming of foreigners: not necessarily because they’re foreigners, but also quite simply because they’re not locals. Even visitors from other regions of Switzerland occasionally get a similarly frosty treatment, although any visitor who demonstrates that they can speak the language and fulfil the social niceties will find that the frost can thaw.

We rarely mix amongst ex-pat groups, although it’s not by choice but because we’re so closely integrated with Swiss friends and colleagues. We have friends of many different nationalities, almost all of whom are permanently resident in Switzerland. Ex-pat groups often focus exclusively on their own national lifestyle, which doesn’t really fit in with the lifestyle we’ve developed during our time here.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: Making friends is easier if you live in a city than if you live in a countryside area. My advice would be to seek out a group of people with similar interests to your own – in my case, photography – and get to know them. The British approach of sticking your hand out in greeting and getting to the sociable “du” status as quickly as possible is often viewed as being overtly intrusive, so take it easy until you find your balance with people. I’d also recommend to new arrivals that they start a life in Switzerland by living in a multi-cultural city if they can, and moving out into the countryside once they’ve built up a life and found their feet.

Heading home I, Bern, Switzerland
About working here

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?
A: None at all, despite the conditions being much tighter when I first arrived here. If you have a company or sponsor who is willing to give you a job, and you apply for a residence permit in autumn for the following year, then you’re more likely to be successful in your application.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in the region, is there plenty of work?
A: The region’s finances, which are based around tourism, have been hard-hit by the weak Euro and global recession. I believe it’s starting to pick up again, though. My recommendation, if you want to work in an office-based profession, would be to start off working in a city and move on to a new position in another area if a situation presents itself. It’ll be easier for you in the long term if you choose in advance which canton you’d like to live and work in, as a move between cantons before the end of your fifth year isn’t an automatic process, but one for which you have to gain cantonal permission.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: There is a clearer divide between work life and social life than in the U.K., particularly in companies where the majority of the workforce are all from the same region. Although colleagues may be socially friendly outside work, this may be because they were at school or college together. Outsiders may find it slightly more difficult to make true friendships with colleagues, although once you’re accepted in the company, it’s rare that you’re excluded from collegial activity.

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?
A: No, but I gained a lot of support from my new employer when I first arrived and continue to get great support from family when I need it.

Family and children

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?
A: An international move is always a huge step, and it takes time until you settle into your new life. My wife moved to live with me in Switzerland after I’d been here for a few years, so I could provide the stability and experience of life here. That made it easier for her than it may otherwise have been. It’s important for couples to support each other more closely when living abroad together than may otherwise be necessary.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: I believe schools are excellent and pretty much of an equal standard across the region and canton. Most Swiss children attend their local school, rather than one based on better schooling results, which says a lot about the consistently high level of standards.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare?
A: Expensive! The medical system here is insurance-related system, so everyone has to pay for their own medical care, based on the region where they live and level of care required. As the fees are fairly high, though, the standard is also very high: there are no month-long waiting lists for operations here, but a much more efficient and swift system than one based on a “free” national healthcare system.

And finally:

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Integrate yourself as quickly as you can and learn the language – even if it’s High German or the pure basics. You’ll be resented to a greater or lesser degree by many locals if you don’t make the effort to fit in, which will make it difficult for you to be fully accepted.

Five Swiss