It’s end of April on the calendar, which means that really warm days are coming soon (though you wouldn’t be able to tell by today’s gray and rainy situation) and it also means that I am now over 120 days into this expat ride. In the beginning, I clung to staying only in Zürich because I wanted to develop a routine and a comfort zone, and I was learning so much on a daily basis that it already felt like I was on an adventure. But this past month, it was finally time explore more of the country.
On Easter weekend it felt as if all the locals abandoned the city, and instead, I was bumping into tourists slowly walking around with maps and phones in their hands. We decided to do it half-half. We spent a day also being tourists (that’s when these pictures were taken) and then, spontaneously decided to do it like the locals and chase the sun in the south of the country, in Lugano. I think most of you followed my excitement at being on a Swiss train journey for the first time, famous Gotthard tunnel and all, and of course I will write about Lugano because it deserves a blog post of its own, but what I do want to say here is how much more I learned about Zürich by being away from it.
Zürich in the Swiss context
Contrast is a crazy thing. If you arrive in Zürich after Paris, it feels small and tranquil. If you arrive in Zürich after Lugano, it feels big and busy. I know it sounds silly but we get used to what we see – even if we subconsciously know something, it just doesn’t become as evident until we experience it. For example, of course, I knew that all of Switzerland is not like Zürich, but I really had to see it in order to understand it. I had to see the small villages spread out between the mountains, the green pastures, the winding roads. I had to see the jump in the scenery before and after the Gotthard tunnel – from gray and pointy mountains to green and rolling hills. I had to hear more and more Italian as people were boarding the train at the southern stops. I had to see the sun shining above the palm trees on the same day that I left a wall of rain in Zürich.
Already as the train pulled away from Zürich HB, I saw the many railway tracks spreading into different directions, and I started to feel Zürich’s role as a hub. Then, standing on Monte San Salvatore and seeing Lugano’s mostly warm colored, low rise buildings, I realized that there are no high glass towers, no highways or transportation roads cutting through the city, no glamour of Paradeplatz and no crowds of Bahnhofstrasse. Lugano blended in perfectly into its surroundings, tucked into a bay of the lake between two “Montes” (San Salvatore and Bre). Here there was no hanging out with the swans, no crossing bridges or seeing a clock tower every 100 meters. If it wasn’t for the Swiss flags and the presence of COOP, I wouldn’t even be able to tell from a first glance what country this town belongs to. By contrast, Zürich has that city pride – the impressive buildings and the famous streets, the airport, the business of it, all connecting into the idea of Zürich as a city, as a canton, as a hub of activity in the country.
Coming back late at night to Hauptbahnhof I caught myself with the thought that I am really grateful to be in a place that has the big city energy, the small town comfort and is just a two-hour train ride away from a little slice of southern paradise.
Feels like life
I remember two years ago, when I just moved to Paris, we were still in a long-distance relationship with my boyfriend and he came to visit me for a weekend. We wanted to do a short trip to see more of France so we rented a car and drove to Normandy. The beaches of Etretat were stunning and worth the 5-hour traffic ride there and the late night drive back. What I will never forget is when our little Fiat entered the roundabout at Arc de Triomphe and I felt like my life was a movie. Was I really in a car coming back home from a trip and the home is Paris? It felt surreal that the lights of Champs Elysees that flashed in the side window were my life now. I remembered this feeling because this week we were driving back to Zürich from south of Switzerland and I had a deja vu – again my boyfriend at the wheel, again a small Fiat rental, again returning late at night from a trip and driving into the city. But there was no Arc de Triomphe this time, instead, we were on a highway along Lake Zürich, lights on the opposite side dotting the hills and reflecting in the water. And it occurred to me that while Paris felt like a movie, Zürich felt like life. This may sound strange – but when you are an endless expat, you realize that your experience is sometimes a series of fabulous but disconnected events, and in between, it’s very rare that you feel the simple comfort of a home.
The thing with home is that you never have great expectations of it – you don’t need to. It’s just a place where you feel like yourself. I realized that when I lived in Paris because I always had expectations of it – of how Paris should be, of how I should be in Paris, of what my life there should be like. It always felt like it needs to be a grand experience, like I was playing a character and I was missing out on something if I didn’t go out every night, didn’t attend every festival, didn’t explore a new quartier, didn’t visit a new museum, didn’t go to the local market, didn’t try a new resto, didn’t stop by for a glass of wine after work with all the other chic smoking Parisians. In some way, I think it was exhausting and taking away from just living life. Like constantly playing a role, I couldn’t find a moment where I would just be. I only understood that when I returned to my other adopted home, Helsinki, and immediately felt at peace. It didn’t have half the attractions of Paris – but it had enough to enjoy and appreciate life and I was happy there. The pressure was off and I could again focus on work, on my hobbies, on my friends, my research, etc.
And this brings me to Zürich. I mentioned before that I had all the reasons to be resistant to this move. It was because of what I described above. I was scared to give up Helsinki and end up with another Paris experience, where I would always have to reprove myself and still feel like I’m on the outside, and though externally it would seem fabulous and internally feel amazing at times, it just would not feel like home. I didn’t know anything about Zürich aside from the fact that it was the biggest Swiss city, that there are a lot of banks here, that it’s expensive, that salaries are high, that mountains are close – you know, surface level things gathered from articles and comments of others. So when I arrived here, I tested it. While looking for apartments, I never took public transit to appointments, instead I walked everywhere so I could see and feel as much of the city as I could. Even as far as from Wipkingen to Wiedikon (to be fair it was summer). I wanted to find faults with it early on so I wouldn’t be caught by surprise later. A kind of expert expat self-protection. But I didn’t find anything. I just slowly realized that more than a city to visit, this is a city to live in.
And now, after four months of living here, I feel like my spidey senses were right. It’s a place where I can build a home, and, more importantly, it’s a place where I want to build a home (I just wish I could learn German as fast as Neo learned martial arts in the Matrix). There is still so much more to explore and to understand, but my early 120 days feeling is that while Zürich is not all of Switzerland, I’m really happy that it’s my Switzerland 🙂