Monday, June 20, 2016

How do you feel about U.S. policies after living abroad? Disappointed.

Moving Abroad: It can change your view of your own country’s policies. The Frau speaks from experience. When she lived in Switzerland and experienced Swiss policies personally, she was constantly contemplating and comparing them with her homeland’s. Her overall conclusion? The U.S. has a lot of catching up to do in its compassion for its people.

Lady Liberty…as seen from a road in France.
Take paid leave. The Frau never considered how important it was until she had her daughter. Sitting on the couch in her Swiss apartment seven weeks after giving birth, tears flowed constantly. She was sometimes still in pain and was also having problems feeding her daughter, who, at six pounds, still couldn’t seem to gain weight. The Frau couldn’t imagine going back to work at that point. And with Switzerland’s 16-week maternity leave (14 weeks of it were paid), she didn’t have to. In fact, by law, she couldn’t. Forever grateful for giving birth abroad, it made The Frau wonder why the U.S. is still questioning paid family and medical leave. And it also made her feel that her own country, as the only high-income country in the world not to grant paid family and medical leave to its citizens, was grossly behind in its compassion for its people. She was glad (but also, in a way, very sad) that another country treated her better as a new parent than her own would have.

Then there was healthcare. In Switzerland, health insurance is mandatory, offered by privately owned companies, and never tied to employment. The fact that health insurance is independent of work means that when someone in Switzerland loses their job, decides to try being a freelancer, decides to stay home with their children, or heck, decides travel the world for half a year, they have the ability to do so without worrying about a loss of healthcare coverage. When The Frau was laid off from her job as a copywriter in Switzerland in 2009, she never had to worry about losing her heath insurance (or paying for it, since Swiss unemployment pays a minimum of 70% of your salary for 18 months). The Swiss healthcare system gives its people a freedom that The Frau, like many Americans who have stayed in unfortunate jobs due to health insurance reasons, had never experienced.

Finally, guns. The Frau didn’t like being surrounded by so many guns in Switzerland (the Swiss are 4th in the world in guns per capita—behind the U.S., Yemen, and Syria), but they were a part of the Swiss military and civilian responsibility, so she learned to accept them.

Switzerland has similar freedoms to the United States concerning gun ownership. Like Americans, the Swiss have gun ownership rights and the right to carry them in public. Switzerland had one mass shooting in 2001, which killed 14 and injured 18, but even after that, an anti-gun referendum failed to pass. According to a piece in Time by Helena Bachmann which sited government figures, violent crime in Switzerland is 10 times less than it is in the U.S. Maybe it helps that in Switzerland, heavy machine guns and automatic weapons are banned. Another idea a more compassionate America could adopt.
But enough about how The Frau feels after living abroad. Here’s a piece The Frau wrote for VICE last week about how other Americans feel about their own country's gun policies after living abroad.


Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Living in Switzerland: It Changes Your Respect for Your Personality

One of the first things The Frau noticed upon moving to Switzerland was how quiet the Swiss were. They were quiet on public transport. In the office. And even on the streets.

Once, The Frau and an American friend even got yelled at for being “too loud” while talking with one another at a tram stop in Zurich—even though they were only talking in normal American voices.
Swiss_National_Park
Quiet, peaceful Switzerland.
A great place for American introverts.

It took awhile for The Frau to realize this, but a quiet and reserved culture like Switzerland does something really amazing for quiet and reserved people: it allows them to be themselves—especially in the workplace.

Those who live or have lived in “loud” America might understand this to a larger degree. Because if you’re an introvert in America, you are told from a young age that something is wrong with you. Never mind that about 50% of the population is just like you. Quiet is taught to be loud in America. Because in the U.S., loud is rewarded in both work and life.

So at any time, there are a lot of introverts pretending to be extroverts in America. The Frau used to be one of them. But after moving back to the U.S. after living in Switzerland, The Frau learned that her personality should be respected too. So now, as she recently wrote about for Salon.com, she is an unapologetic introvert.

Has living in Switzerland (or another culture) made you realize something good about your personality?



Monday, May 02, 2016

The American public transportation system. It makes you want to drive.

Yodelers. There is something wrong with the American public transportation system. It's so good (insert sarcasm) it makes you want to drive.

But then, you don’t want to drive, because then you sit in endless traffic (because everyone else has come to the same conclusion that their public transport system won't work for them) and then you have to pay $30 to park, and then you can't even find a place to park.

Ok, ok. Maybe The Frau got spoiled by Switzerland. But based on all the Americans complaining about traffic, commutes, and lack of public transport options, maybe, just maybe, The Frau has every right to complain.

New York's La Guardia Airport, for example, DOES NOT CONNECT to New York's metro system. Imagine a European city not connecting its major airport to its train or subway system. It's just unthinkable. 

Well, the La Guardia example meant that it cost The Frau over $100 to get to a friend's house in a taxi. Americans pay the price for their lack of public transport every time they have to drive and park or take a taxi. It's insane.

The Frau’s sister recently had to change apartments in Boston. She now lives 6 miles from work. Sounds good, right? But to get to her office via American public transport, it takes her…drum roll…90 minutes.
There are no extra rides when you need them in the U.S.

This is not a joke. This is how broken the American transportation system is.

So The Frau’s sister tried driving. Took 45 minutes and cost $27 a day to park. But on days there is a baseball game, the parking garage kicks you out at 4:30 p.m. Even though you are required to pay $27 for the DAY. 

Desperate, The Frau’s sister tried biking to work. Took 45 minutes (wow, faster than public transport!) but the route is along busy roads and doesn’t feel very safe nor will it work during half the year in the snow.

Now let's go to another American city: Chicago. Compared to Boston, Chicago’s transport system is amazing. As amazing as a transport system is that doesn’t connect major train stations with other forms of transport can be, that is. As amazing as a transport system can be that can take you 15 miles in 20 minutes, but then take 45 minutes to go the last 1.5 miles of your journey. Will Chicago ever consider bus-only lanes? That is the question.

Needless to say, The Frau misses Swiss public transport. Seeing the Gotthard Tunnel getting ready to open on June 1 does not make this any easier.

See, it took the Swiss 17 years to build a 35-mile long tunnel through a mountain. In comparison, it took 70 years for one Chicago suburb just to repave 10 miles of their roads. Yes. Supposedly this summer, after 70 years, the suburb next to the one The Frau is living in will fix the pothole-ridden roads and The Frau might be able to bike down the street again.

Oh, America, there’s a reason The Frau works from home.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Dear Frau: I’m moving to Switzerland and I have questions

Welcome to another edition of Dear Frau. It's kind of like Dear Abby, but with an international twist. If you have questions about life in Switzerland, don't hesitate to contact the Frau and maybe your little Frage will be in the next edition of Dear Frau.


Dear Frau,

I loved reading your columns. I’m gravitated by your love and positivity of Switzerland and not trying to hold onto all US things and attitude, especially while living there. The majority I have spoken with advised me to take 50+ boxes of Mac & Cheese. My family doesn’t eat that stuff and in the land of cheeses, why not boil some pasta and make a sauce with some local cheese.

I’m an anxious person and I’ve been trying to do as much research as time allows, but I’m going in circles trying to prepare for our move (sell off stuff electronics and stuff won’t use upon our return, decide what to put in long term storage, and what new items to buy all the while trying to prep our house to put on the market) and make decisions around what to send over. Some expats I have spoken with gave me advice about all the US things we can’t get in Switzerland or that may be much more expensive, especially things our kids may need or want. Maybe telling you about myself and my desire would be helpful. 

Moving boxes in The Frau's Swiss apartment
My life can be summed up as a Midwestern mom of two small children desiring a minimalist lifestyle so the family can slow down and enjoy traveling the world. Right now I am living in an oversized home, collecting too many things (I could be a borderline hoarder similar to a mom in the Depression Era because I went from making a great living to becoming a stay at home mom and feel like I have to save money, reduce, reuse and recycle. Also, I’ve never liked being wasteful.), driving a minivan, cleaning all day but have nothing to show for it, and feeling like I have no time for anything. I always thought I would travel the world and be free of material burden and not live like the “Joneses”, pun intended. I want to start fresh and have a real Swiss experience, as I would love to become fluent in French and live like Europeans. 

We’ll be living in a small town between Geneva and Lausanne. From what I gather, it’s the country even though I consider vineyards and a view of Lac Leman and the alps as luxury. We will be living in a smaller modern home, which is completely different from our US style so most of our current furniture won’t fit or work well. Although I desire to become a minimalist, the planner in me wants to have a surplus of items on hand to make my family’s life smoother and calm my fear of not being able to get it until we return to the US for holidays or may have to pay an arm and a leg to ship.

So...that was my novel. Here are my questions:

We will have a 40 ft. container to send our belongings from the US to Switzerland at no cost. What would you send over vs. buying there?

The Frau also was able to send a 40 ft. container from the US to Switzerland at no cost. She sent everything she couldn’t or didn’t want to sell in the US. Because here’s the reality, Yodelers, as The Frau learned—when three years in Switzerland turned into 8.5—you never know where you’re going to go next. Paying to store things when you can ship them for free makes no sense. Were there boxes The Frau shipped that never got opened in 8.5 years? Sadly yes. Are there boxes in her big, fat American basement now that haven’t been opened since she moved “home” 1.5 years ago? Yes. Fact of life and of moving.

What are your recommendations on how to adjust quickly after settling in? I keep 
hearing the ‘wives’ get depressed and miss family once the boxes are unpacked.

Keep busy. Busy is an American thing after all! But The Frau doesn’t mean busy as in busy work, but busy in having a purpose. This could mean anything from finding a job to starting a blog that will document every fountain in the city of Zurich. It could also mean taking a language class or joining a club. Anything to keep you from sitting at home wondering what the heck you just did with your life! 

How do families save money when everything is expensive?

Ok. Here’s the great Switzerland myth, and one that The Frau has written about for the Wall Street Journal if you want more info. Yes, Switzerland is expensive. But the salaries are also some of the highest in the world. The Swiss have enormous purchasing power both at home and abroad. Everyone should be so lucky.

Look. This is a cliché every Swiss brand wants you to believe—but in general, you do get what you pay for. Swiss trains are expensive, for example, but they also provide timely, efficient service and crisscross the entire country, which is more than any American train service can claim. The extra few francs are well worth it and won’t affect those making Swiss salaries.

Some things in Switzerland are amazing values—these include public swimming pools, ice rinks, nature playgroups for toddlers, Swiss produce (try to find a tomato that actually tastes like a tomato in the U.S.—you can’t find this at any price in a grocery store).

Most people who move to Switzerland are surprised at how much money they end up saving.

Tips on grocery shopping and cooking? I realize food prices are high and the kitchen
appliances are smaller. The refrigerator in our new house is almost the size of a 
college dorm fridge. 

As an American in Switzerland, you have to change how you shop. Grocery shopping is an almost daily event in Switzerland. This is for many reasons—small refrigerators, lack of basements, ability to carry things if you don’t own a car, fresh breads, and the ripeness of produce, which is sold ready to eat and without the preservatives found in American foods. Buy some Swiss strawberries and you’ll be lucky if they last a day before molding.

How did you work around not having the conveniences we have in the states? i.e., 24 
hour grocery and pharmacy, large washer and dryer, giant fridge and deep freeze, 
drive-thru, lots of storage space, etc…

It takes awhile, but you learn to adapt to the new way of life. You have to plan a bit more to make sure, for instance, you have food for Sunday, but you get used to it and then you realize how pointless it is to make retail workers work all night. There’s just no reason for it.

Sharing a washing machine and dryer can be a pain, but you also learn how to deal with that. The Frau never was able to clean the lint from the dryer properly, according to her Swiss neighbor, but that’s just something else she learned to accept.

What type of vehicle(s) do you recommend to accommodate a family of four that’s safe 
and has good resale in 3-5 years? I keep hearing smaller is better. My kids will be 4 
and 2 yrs. when we get there so we still need car seats and a stroller.

The Frau has no idea. Her idea of a good vehicle is no vehicle. The Swiss life allows one to live without a car so that’s what she did. However, she would recommend buying one second-hand from another expat who is leaving the country asap and desperate to sell it. That's probably the best way to get a good deal. Maybe some others can comment on this below?

Are European car seats slim to accommodate smaller vehicles? Is it better to take over US car seats? 

In general, European cars are smaller. US and European car seats have different regulations so they have different models. These are also good things to buy second hand from other expats.

Are European strollers sleeker? If so, where can I purchase one?

The Frau had two strollers. One small, cheap $20 collapsible one from the U.S. for city trips, and one heavy-duty mountain stroller (she bought a TFK model from Germany). She recommends buying strollers in the U.S. or in Germany. Swiss mountain strollers can cost upwards of CHF 2000. Not a joke. The used market for Swiss strollers is insane as well. People want CHF 250-500 for their USED stroller.

How did your family survive the summer heat without air conditioning?

We bought fans and we sweated. Again, you get used to it. It was an excuse to jump into the lake during lunchtime at the office. Everyone from The Frau’s office was at the lake. It was fun. Of course, the heat was less fun when The Frau was pregnant, but now she hates American air conditioning for its wastefulness. Wearing a sweater in the summer is ridiculous too. The Frau learned to live with weather, something Americans don’t do. For example, Swiss children never don’t go out to play—if it’s raining, you dress them in complete rubber outfits. And they play. Outside. Weather is not an excuse not to go out in Switzerland.

I may be interested in working part-time. What’s the best way to find a professional but 
flexible position?

Finding a job is about making connections--no matter where in the world you are looking for one. It’s about who you know, even if at first glance it appears you know no one. Get on LinkedIn and see who you know who knows someone. Ask at your current office if they can connect you to someone in Switzerland—The Frau’s did by sending her resume to NYC and then NYC sent it to someone in Zurich. And that’s how The Frau eventually found her job. Submitting blindly is not the answer. 

And make sure your resume is prepared for Switzerland—which means things like including a photo and your birthdate and nationality at the top. Almost all jobs in Switzerland—from top management to law to engineering can be negotiated for part-time work. It’s one of the best things about working in Switzerland—often you can work as much or as little as you would like but still keep up your career.

I would like our family to travel on weekends within Switzerland and to nearby countries but don’t know where to start. Any advice on where to go and what to see?

Start with the next town over and go from there--that's what The Frau used to do when she had her GA (Swiss Train Pass). Also: The Frau is currently working on a Swiss insider travel guide that will be out (hopefully) next year. But until then, yes, cross big things off your bucket list. The Matterhorn. The Aletsch Glacier. Hike from Preda to Bergün. But also go to the little villages. Find the organic farm store in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes the best travel experiences are the unexpected ones.

Any other advice?

Read this blog. Read other blogs. Read books about Switzerland. Connect with groups on Facebook. The more you know about a place, the easier (and sometimes admitedly harder) it becomes. Enjoy your time as an expat. Accept the Swiss for who they are. You won’t change them—but, as The Frau discovered and wrote about in her book on Switzerland, the Swiss just might change you.

Can you help our Midwestern friend with her questions or do you have a different opinion than The Frau on something? Leave a comment. Vielen Dank, mitenand.

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