It feels surreal to put it in writing, but my expat life in Switzerland is officially in the rearview. I’m currently plopped right in the middle of life-limbo-land. I’m between jobs, I’m between apartments and I’m temporarily hanging out in America visiting family and waiting for my UK visa to come through so I can start my next big adventure.
Transitions such as these are by nature messy and emotional. I’ve officially exited a life I loved, a life that very much felt like a life in progress. I don’t live in Zürich anymore. I’m not going back to my old job. There are probably a good many people I’ve hugged goodbye for the last time, and I’m not sure exactly who those people are yet.
Four years is both a long, long time and a flash in the pan. For everything I’ve accomplished, there are a half dozen other things I never got to or would have done differently. I don’t believe in regrets but I do believe in learning from my challenges. So here they are, a mess of the top things I’d do differently if I got chance to do it over again!
I Should Have Travelled Less
A dream come true, kicking back in Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert.
You read that right. Living as an expat put me in contact with some amazingly well-travelled people who encouraged me to push beyond the Central-European travel bubble and really go for my dreams. The fact that flights to remote spots in Europe, Africa or Asia are shorter and much more affordable from Zürich than they ever were from home suddenly placed a lot more of the world within my reach. And reach I did. Iceland? Awesome! Bali? You betcha! Jordan? Heck yeah!
The dark side of constant international travel is that it occasionally left me feeling both physically and emotionally jet-lagged. I spent so much time travelling that sometimes Switzerland felt like the place where I happened to live, work and make money, nothing more. I wish I’d relaxed about the passport stamps and just spent more time kicking back at home doing normal people things. Maybe if I hadn’t spent so much time being an International Woman of Mystery I would have discovered a little more of that community feeling I was craving?
Then Again, Maybe I Should Have Travelled More?
Even though I’ve shoved enough dang Toblerone into my gob to feed a small starving nation, I’ve never visited the chocolatey mountain peak that people most readily identify with Switzerland. Beyond the Matterhorn, I’ve got a list as long as an Alphorn of cool Swiss places I’ve never seen. I’ve barely even touched French and Italian speaking Switzerland, and I’ve only been to one place on this nifty little list of the 11 Most Beautiful Places in Switzerland! Wie schade!
Okay, okay, maybe I shouldn’t beat myself up so much. Instead of casting my Swiss travel next wide, I cast it deep, getting to know Central Switzerland pretty well. I spent a lot of time kicking around in the Jungfrau region, got to know all of the best day trips around Luzern and spent a good deal of time scoping out the bars and clubs that put a grease spot on Zürich’s squeaky-clean reputation. I just wish I’d pushed myself to get to know all of Switzerland a little better.
I Shouldn’t Have Been Such A Workaholic
When this is what your classroom looks like some days, it’s easy to become obsessed!
The old saying, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”, is only partially true. As an expat it was easy for me to fall down the work rabbit hole because my job provided an instant sense of purpose and community in the midst of the unknown. I count myself as tremendously lucky that for four years I got to do what I love in an idyllic setting with amazing students and co-workers. In the end though, your job can’t love you back and you are responsible for securing your own proverbial oxygen mask. For four years I allowed work to push everything else I loved to the margins of my life and there were times when it was less than healthy. Next time I need to do a better job of looking at the big picture.
I Shouldn’t Have Been Such A Weenie About Speaking German
I took the lessons! I watched Adventure Time auf Deustch! I even figured out how to make a doctor’s appointment in German! But I never crossed the bridge over to the Land of Casual German Conversation and for an extrovert like me, that means I always felt a little lost in Switzerland. I should have sucked it up and joined a damned conversation group. It would have helped so much.
I Should Have Done More Theater
There were a million excuses, most of them having to do with my job. I missed out on so much by not truly integrating into an arts community in Switzerland. Had there been more theater in it, my life in Switzerland would have been more sustainable in the long term. Sure, the language barrier, my professional obligations and my travel dreams were all real factors to consider but in the end it was my responsibility to nurture my own creativity. Next time, no excuses!
I Shouldn’t Have Spent So Much Energy On Dating
Zürich just wasn’t ready for this jelly. Photo credit to the fabulous Fernwheh Tale Photography.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman of a certain age must be in search of a boyfriend, right? And even more so a woman of a certain age abroad. The comments began in the months before I expatriated and never quite subsided: “You’re going to meet a guy over there and never come back!” It’s as if people want to help give me and my life abroad some kind of higher romantic purpose… because having a kickass time living in a foreign country isn’t meaningful enough!?
The tough thing about being a single expat is that at one time or another… we all buy into it too. Shouldn’t I find someone to enjoy this experience with? I’d think as I’d absently troll Tinder for the thousandth time, hoping somebody I shared genuine interests with would emerge from the blur of Banker Wanker profile photos that all somehow managed to display the expensive champagne, the watch that costs a month’s salary and an unsmiling face! Why not!? I’d think. Crazier things have happened!
The thing is… deep down inside I knew I wasn’t going to meet Mr. Right in Zürich. In fact, I wasn’t even going to have fun with Mr. Wrong, because (sorry, not sorry) guys in Zürich aren’t really much fun. Now that I’ve left I am so, so relieved that there wasn’t a cutie on the scene complicating my decision. So why did I sweat dating so much at the time? I should have saved the free time and the lipstick and done something I actually enjoyed. Starting a theater company, learning German, getting back into a gym habit. All of those things would have been more rewarding than making forced conversation with a stranger in an overpriced bar.
Love is not a universal language. Check out my dating advice for expats!
I Should Have Taken Better Care of My Health
Sometimes I feel like most of my Swiss experience was seen through the haze of a chronic sinus infection. I used to get annoyed when my mom would preach, “If you don’t have your health you have nothing”, but mom was right. If I’d taken better care of myself I’d have had more energy and doing the things I love wouldn’t have felt like such a herculean task. I’ve learned my lesson. Next time, health comes first!
Read about my bizarre journey through the Swiss Healthcare system here.
I Shouldn’t Have Worried So Much About The Future
It’s the sneaky little voice in the back of every expat’s head, This is great, but what next? I’ve written before about how living abroad can make the natural cycle of love and loss we all experience in life feel sped up. This feeling can sometimes leave us scrambling to make sure we aren’t left in the cold.
Sometimes that invisible, plan your next move or get left behind, mentality can be overwhelming. It’s great to have a life plan but especially when life moves so fast, it’s essential to sit back and enjoy it. I’m a firm believer that the future can’t be engineered. I should have had a little more faith in my ability to recognize the right opportunity when it came along because, in the end, that’s exactly what I did. So why worry about it?
I Need To Get Better At Goodbyes
When this is the view, can you blame me for having trouble letting go? A lazy day with friends at the Lido Badi in Luzern.
I never thought I was bad at saying goodbye. I believe firmly that true friendships aren’t dependent on time or place to survive. To me, saying a formal goodbye to someone is saying, “So long Charlie, you’re not a part of my life anymore!” So I simply said goodbye to people as if we were going off on summer vacation. If I don’t make it final, it means I could walk back into your life at any moment, and I like that.
The thing is, some people find my way of saying goodbye blase and dismissive. To some people, it might have looked like I just didn’t care enough, that perhaps, they didn’t make the kind of impact in my life that I made in theirs. This is so not true. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, I have met so many angels and teachers on my journey through Switzerland, each one whispering the right thing in my ear when I needed to hear it most. Everyone I met there taught me so much simply by being themselves and being present in my life. It is a gift of kindness I can’t quite fathom and can never repay.
I’m not always sure what I’ve done to deserve the kind of friends that have managed to wander into my life, but I am goddamned lucky to have all of them. Goodbye doesn’t even begin to express what I have to say. If I ripped off that band-aid before I left, it would have unleashed a river of emotion I was powerless to control. I would have wept my way through my last two months, wept my way to the way to Zürich Flughaven with my four giant bags and a dismantled bike in tow, wept my way across the Atlantic and onto the humid tarmac of Logan Airport, left a river of tears down route three to my parent’s house, heck, I’d still be crying now. And let’s face it, nobody needs to see my ugly-cry face for that long.
Someday I will find a happy goodbye medium between being cool like Fonzie and cracking open the Hoover Dam. Until then, I’m saying it in writing and from a safe distance; Switzer-Friends, I am a braver, kinder and better person because of you, and I love you to the moon and back. You are utterly irreplaceable. Thank you.
So… how do YOU handle finishing a life chapter? Tell me all about it in the comments!