Life As A New Expat: This Is Not Your Semester Abroad, Girl.

After a whirlwind trip to Paris which I’ll write about extensively later, we’re back in Switzerland. Back to reality. After the heat and chaos in Paris it’s awfully relaxing to be back on Swiss soil, even if the weather here’s been doing it’s best to trick me into thinking I moved to Seattle. It’s been dreary and rainy here nearly every day since I moved in. I think I may have read somewhere that summer is Switerland’s wet season. I hope so, because I really couldn’t take this 365 days a year!

In the last two days I have gotten a lot done in terms of getting settled. My Swiss identification card came in the mail, which finally allowed me to set up a bank account. Now that I have that, I can go ahead setting up utilities and getting my phone squared away. I’m one step closer to be being settled in Switzerland as a legal, working expat and a member of society, not somebody who is sitting in limbo. It’s funny, before I moved abroad I thought to myself that resettling in a European country would be a piece of cake for me. After all, I spent semesters abroad in undergraduate and grad school. I’d backpacked across Europe. If I could deal with sleeping in a train station immigration papers would be a cinch. Right? Oh honey, wrong.

This is not your semester abroad, girl.

Even with all the support I’ve had from school, receiving official paperwork in German that I can’t read is intimidating. Not to mention the hours I’ve patiently pecked away at Google translate trying to make sure I understand all the papers I’m signing. Even if you live abroad as a student for an extended period of time, certain things are catered to you. Your get to bypass the whole immigration thing. Your school is used to dealing with foreigners, so you get certain things translated, explained and adjusted for you without even having to ask for it. You go to museums, restaurants and cultural attractions, where people are used to dealing with confused tourists, you speak the small bit of textbook foreign language you have to people at Kiosks and ticket counters, and you feel great about yourself. I really have the hang of living in a foreign country! You tell yourself proudly. I am the world’s most intrepid traveler! I could move here and fit right in! You have no idea that your path has been smoothed for you, simply by being a student or a tourist, and an English speaking one at that.

When you’re an expat though, you aren’t special. You’re an average working Joe. There’s rules to follow, paperwork to file, and if you screw up there’s a very real possibility that you’ll lose your work permit. In a regular small town, everyone you need to speak to at the post office or the train station doesn’t necessarily speak English. Even in a very multi-lingual country like Switzerland, you can’t rely on the idea that every piece of important information will have an equivalent translated in English.

Everything takes twice as long as it should at first, the post office, the grocery store. You think you’re getting the hang of things because you bought a Diet Coke at a convenience store without having to speak English, then you go to another store and a clerk addresses you with a phrase you haven’t heard yet and you have to ask them to speak English with you. It’s embarrassing sometimes, having to ask people that. It’s humbling too, to know that so many other people in the world have such a grasp on your language and you have barely any on theirs. It’s humbling how apologetic people can be when they try to help you in English and forget a word and apologize to you for not knowing the English word for something when you’re the stranger in a strange land. It’s amazing to see how fluidly people switch between languages here. It almost seems like a superpower, but to them, it’s not a big deal, it’s everyday life. It’s reassuring too, to see how nice people can be, that most people really do care, that most people really do want to communicate with you. Even if you’re a pain in the ass to communicate with.

Now that I’ve had a lot more direct communication with the Swiss, I’ve found that although they are reserved, they are friendly and helpful. Although they have a lot of rules, they won’t chastise you when you accidentally break them, or make you feel like a fool. They’ll smile and kindly explain it. Maybe they’ll make a joke. Just because they’re not going to walk right up to you and shake your hand doesn’t mean they aren’t friendly.

I’m an American, I’m like a Golden Retriever, prancing up to everyone and panting, let’s be friends! Let’s be friends! Europeans aren’t like that. At least not, Northern Europeans. They don’t have a complex about needing to be best friends with strangers right away. They aren’t worried about being liked. At least, not the way we are. You know what? I kind of like it. I liked that when I went to the bank to set up an account today the banker was friendly and professional. He didn’t try to wheel and deal me, or crack jokes, or ask a lot of questions about my personal life in an attempt to make me feel like I could trust him. He was patient, thorough, friendly. I like the forthrightness of people here, I like that I don’t have to size everybody up all the time and wonder what they want from me, what angle they’re working. And I really like that although they are picky about how things are done, they don’t berate you when you don’t get it right. They don’t just assume you screwed up because you are an inconsiderate jackass, the way they would in home. They don’t do the social smile here, they don’t wave when they pass strangers, but they do stop for pedestrians who need to cross the street. I feel a lot more comfortable here than I did last week, or even a few days ago. With every day that passes I am understanding the way of life here more and more, feeling more settled. I know I’m a long way off from feeling at home here, to finding my tribe. But I know I’ll get there.


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