Thursday, August 22, 2013

Home in Switzerland

It still feels strange sometimes to ponder the fact that I live in Switzerland. As in, actually live, settle, permanent residence. I'm not here temporarily, my husband isn't here on an assignment for a set amount of time. This is it. Whenever that thought meanders through my brain, I get the urgent feeling that should be doing more to make my life here. Find a career, buckle down, get-up-and-go. Despite how I still feel occasionally, this is not a surreal dream.

A dream in which I am a constant foreigner. And, frankly, always will be. B and I could live here for forty years, have kids, raise them here, buy a house, and still I would be an Auslander - not Swiss. In a few years, B will fulfill strict requirements and be eligible to apply for Swiss citizenship, if he desires. But even then, he would likely be viewed as foreign by the 'true' Swiss. His looks channel his Italian grandfather, including dark hair and easily-tanned skin. He is comfortable in High German, but does not speak Schweizerdeutsch. These traits mark him as 'other.'
My family's German and English heritage means that I blend in with the crowd (and unfortunately seem to attract inquiries about directions, stores, and even occasionally random conversations on the tram), but opening my mouth immediately betrays me. Our (hypothetical) children, perhaps, would fit in. They would likely learn German, both High and Swiss, from playing with other children, absorbing languages and dialects like the sponges that children's brains are. But they would still be the children with the American mother. At a writer's group meeting I recently attended, an older American told a tale of her teenage son who was so Swiss that he admonished her for vacuuming during lunch (noise-causing 'work' such as this is forbidden in most apartments and neighborhoods after 10 pm, on holidays, Sundays, and sometimes from noon to 1 pm) and laughing too loud in a movie theater. "Man," I thought as we Americans shared a laugh, "that will so be me."

I am ambivalent when I think of this future. It is exciting in some ways - to live one's life in a culture not one's own. Switzerland offers so many things: travel, languages, an excellent standard of living, amazing transportation options, gorgeous scenery, efficient recycling, and little of the wealth disparity present in the US. It is also alienating, simply because it is not mine. I did not grow up within it, and I never know what is safe to assume I understand.

Sometimes I miss how much easier it was in the US. Language barriers wouldn't prevent me from switching fields or finding a job. Stores would be open on Sundays, I would understand the road signs, I could have a 'normal-sized' refrigerator and a slow cooker.

And now, an unexpected job opportunity has presented itself, making moving back to the US a real possibility. What to do? A question I still haven't answered (and won't for several months), but I have been surprised that as I spent time mulling the decision, I recognized within myself a reluctance to leave Switzerland. My new home. Z├╝rich has become familiar, even as I still feel foreign within it. I don't feel comfortable here - yet. It is the 'yet' that is the sticking point. Adjusting takes time, and I know I am still in the process. My German won't always be this awful, I won't always be unemployed here. Given time, I will grow my circle of friends, find my niche.

Living in the US would perhaps be easier for me, but is it better? What should B and I be prioritizing? B has never lived in the US - although he would not have a language barrier, Switzerland is as familiar as it gets for him (yes, even more than Lima, which from all reports has drastically improved/changed in the 13+ years he has been away). We would be leaving his cultural bubble to return to mine. Even as I yearn for the familiar comfort, I somehow feel a hesitation in rejoining it.

Have you ever faced a decision that would affect practically every basic aspect of your life? How did you approach it?


  1. Hi there;

    Yes, choosing to stay here after my husband's expat contract ended - and going on a local contract - was a big decision. The difference is, I am a good deal older than you. I have 3 adult children back in the States, the youngest being 27.

    I totally understand how you are feeling right now. This is a great place to live.

  2. I know exactly (minus the job opp/prospect of moving back right now) how you feel. After a couple of weeks back in the US, I was surprised and relieved how happy (& again, relieved) I felt to be back in Switzerland. Moving here has added a lot of richness in my life - but it certainly hasn't made my capital L life easier.

    Hope to see you tomorrow at writers' group.

  3. Dear Margaret,
    I am Rania, katy's friend.
    You, my dear, have been bitten by the 'bug of an international-home.' For a while, I felt the same like you did (a Lebanese, who loved living in the US, married to an Italian)and I had to come up with a diagnosis for my situation that you beautifully described above:)
    I am guessing that from now on, you are lucky because you will never be fully home, no matter where you live. That said, your luck is in the same fact that you are having a unique experience that not many people have had the luxury of living. You can be in two different countries and have the opportunity of calling them home, even if this happens for a limited time.
    In this time of questioning and analyzing, you need to remember that whatever you decide to do, your decision is a good one. You are in a win-win situation. If you choose to stay in Switzerland, it is certain that you will eventually find a good job, wonderful friends, and have a fulfilling life with your husband, (kids) and visiting family and friends (I know.I do). If you choose to go back to the US, you will take the time to readjust and then excel using the opportunities that only the US can offer.
    In your post, you mentioned having kids, and my only advice to you is to decide before they are born where you want to be in the next ten years or so.
    Four years ago, I decided to stay in Italy and be the foreigner with an Italian citizenship. And to prove you right, my 2 year old son understands the romagnolo dialect while I still ask for a translation... It is actually a wonderful challenge.

    Good luck making a decision Margaret :)

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