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.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Don't Blame Americans For Being Fat. But The Swiss Have No Excuse.

Ok, Yodelers. The Frau has determined that how a culture takes care of their pools and how they swim in these pools says a lot.

As she wrote in Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known, Swiss people are hard to swim in a pool with. For some reason, every person in a Swiss pool can’t wait to swim right into your space. The Frau was always having collisions with people when she swam in Swiss pools. 

It’s so interesting, because an American pool can be very crowded with swimmers, but somehow no one runs into one another. Maybe everyone is more polite in the U.S. Or maybe they have more sensitivity to personal space. Or maybe they’re just more worried about lawsuits. The Frau is not sure what it is, but Americans are much more pleasant to swim with.

A crowded, but pristine Swiss pool
But, on the flip side, American pools are not pleasant. American pools, when they're actually open and accessible, are very dirty by Swiss standards (but then again, so is the entire world). In Switzerland, pools are cleaned at least every three weeks. The Frau is convinced that the pool she swims at in her American town is maybe cleaned once a year. That’s being generous, Yodelers. It’s really gross, but there aren’t many options other than gross unless you want to pay the price of a small mortgage every month to swim at a private club.

Unfortunately, recreational facilities are, like everything else in the U.S., up to Swiss standards only if you are willing to pay obscene amounts of money–and possibly drive miles to get to them. Unlike in Switzerland where spotless examples of recreational facilities are everywhere and for everyone, recreation is only for the well-to-do in America and only if you are lucky to live in a location where they exist. Everyone else is fat and without options.

It’s quite sad that Americans don’t invest in recreational facilities like the Swiss do. (But then again, American governments don't invest in much of anything except themselves and war these days…roads, public transport, schools…everything is suffering…why not recreational facilities too?)

So. Can you blame Americans for being overweight? If it costs four times the amount to go to a decent pool in the U.S. as it does in Switzerland (even more if you consider that most Americans make less money than the Swiss), maybe we shouldn’t blame Americans for being fat. Maybe we should blame the lack of investment in public recreational facilities instead.

What do you think?


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