A is for Ausländer

(This is one in a series of essays I’m writing about my life. A specific kind of autobiography, I guess. The rest of these essays are here.)

My first visit to Switzerland was on holiday over a decade ago, when I was a little jaded by life in the south of England. Although I’d been taking photos for a number of years, photography had only started to become a proper passion a couple of years earlier, when I’d begun taking landscape photos in the Lake District. A visit to the Jungfrau Region had me hooked on alpine views, so I took the plunge to find a job and give life abroad a try.

Switzerland was the first country I’d visited for which I had felt a real draw; from the legendary efficiency and tidiness to the dramatic landscapes around every corner. My first true experience of life abroad was the interview with those who would subsequently become my bosses.

One was a big fan of all things British, and (as I later observed) very keen to be able to show off that his company had won an additional foreign employee. The other boss was to become both a mentor and bane, speaking only very broken English and subsequently becoming one of the biggest influences in my adult life so far.

After getting the job and moving to live here, it was made clear to me that I’d committed not just to working for the company, but also to becoming a proper resident. From the first day, living and working in Switzerland was very hard work. It was expected that I should learn the language as quickly as possible and to integrate myself to the Swiss way of life.

Meetings at work were held exclusively in German, with only the most critical parts of the discussion being translated briefly. Being that the office was deep within mountain territory, at least an hour away from what I’d even begin to describe as a city, many colleagues wouldn’t speak English with me. I was reduced to battling through with a mixture of my first German phrases and alternative attempts to convey my meaning in French.

Without this additional language, I doubt that I would’ve made it past the first few weeks, as those who could understand it could at least translate for others.

My clearest memory of my time in this job, where I toiled long hours and built a tremendously solid base for my then burgeoning career as a web developer, was that I was made to feel as though I should leave my nationality behind. This is no aspersion on those colleagues who have since become friends: they were amongst those who didn’t make me feel that I should forget my upbringing.

The insistence that I shouldn’t speak in my mother tongue was one which came from colleagues who were unable to speak English. They were very reticent about showing how little of my language they spoke. I’ve since learned that this is a common trait amongst the Swiss: a natural but over-emphasized urge to avoid embarrassing themselves, demonstrated by the ubiquitous phrase “I shame me for my English”.

The reticence to meet me half-way was one of the main reasons that I was able to learn the language quickly and adapt to life in Switzerland quickly.

By being immersed for up to twelve hours per day in an environment where I was almost exclusively amongst German-speaking Swiss, I had no choice but to work hard to fit in.

It’s thanks to this “trial by fire” that I integrated so fully, so early on. It’s thanks to this “trial by fire” that I’m still here. Rather than being able to sail along without much effort, my efforts made hesitant locals accept me more readily.

Despite being integrated – and by that, I mean fluent in the local dialect and knowledgeable about local and national practices – I am still a foreigner and always will be. This affects many aspects of my daily life, be it the time which I feel is normal to start my day in the office, the occasional unfulfilled yearning for a Sunday visit to a garden centre, or a longing for an appropriately-striped, weed-free lawn.

Irrespective of whether I successfully apply for Swiss residency and gain a Swiss passport, I will always be British. The first twenty-nine years of my life ingrained me with a British heritage and formed my world view. The following twelve years have broadened my horizons and widened my view through many new experiences.

My heritage continues to dictate how I interact with people in the U.K., and the historic events and contemporary media play the largest part in my views.

More recent experiences dictate how I interact with people in Switzerland (and to some extent, the rest of Europe), and enable me to see both sides of the playing field with an unbiased view.

A long-term life abroad means that I have become a foreigner in both the land of my birth and in the country which I now call home. I have no idea of the benefits of a building society account over a bank account, and I have only the most sparse knowledge of the political system in Switzerland.

As time goes on, it’s more likely that my knowledge of the Swiss way of life will increase, whilst the comparable knowledge of the British way of life diminishes.

If a friend in Britain asks for tips on places to visit in Switzerland, I can provide an almost limitless and detailed list. If a Swiss friend asks for the same information about Hampshire, or London, then the list is much shorter. Not because there is less there, but because I am decreasingly aware of what the current state of these places is.

This shift in knowledge or experience doesn’t mean that the affinity with Britain diminishes with time. I am asked occasionally whether I feel “more Swiss” as time goes on. The answer remains the same. I don’t feel Swiss at all, because I’m not Swiss. Having a residence permit or passport of an adopted home doesn’t change my heritage.

I am in tune with life here in Switzerland, and I feel that the quality of my personal and professional life is streets ahead of what it would be if I were in the U.K. That’s no criticism of life in the U.K., but a statement based on my personal situation and of nearly thirty years of experience before I moved away.

We only get one run through our life and it makes sense to get the most out of it. I have this life thanks to the upbringing and education which my parents enabled me to receive. Through a period of hard work and learning to settle in a different country, I built on that to achieve what I have now.

Being a foreigner, or Ausländer, is only how other people classify me and what affects my life for better or worse makes me who I am today. I am just a person, formed in character of those experiences which have led me to where I sit today.