THREE YEARS in Switzerland.
Technically the anniversary was in late January, but it took me a while to gather my thoughts and wrap my head around this. To be honest, I don’t have an exact date on which I celebrate because moving was a process – should I mark the first day I came here? The day I moved into the apartment? Or when I got my resident permit? Or maybe it’s the day of the flight from Helsinki to Zurich, when I closed the door for the last time on my beloved studio in my Northern home and flew two monster suitcases to Zurich, with a layover in Frankfurt and a flight so bumpy, so terrible, so emotional from FRA to ZRH that I became a scared flyer for the next two years, but Zurich officially became my only home?
Since I don’t have an exact date, I go by my feelings and it now FEELS as what I think three years feels like.
If you’re curious for what Year One felt like, you can find that blogpost here. But if you search for “Two Years in Switzerland”, you won’t find it. Because I didn’t write it. Because two years in it was so hard, so busy, so emotional, draining, with so many questions and insecurities in my head, and I had so much on my plate.. that there was no space within me to sit down and face everything that was going on and share it. So this is where I’ll start.
The journey from Year 1 to Year 3, in my mind, is the hardest for an expat. Because in Year 1, you are still excited, new and forgiven for not knowing things, for missing home, for being different. But once Year 2 rolls in, the shiny “just moved” wears off a little and people start having expectations of you, and worse, you start having expectations of yourself – “I should be good at this now. My German should be better. I should have friends by now, shouldn’t I? Why am I not doing as well in my career as my friends/colleagues/rest of the world?” the list goes on.
Year 2 and 3 is a constant challenge and growth. For me, alongside beautiful trips and discoveries and the success of this blog, which brought amazing people, events and experiences into my life, there were struggles at work, there were struggles health-wise from constant stress and anxiety, there was missing friends so badly that I flew to see them despite being scared of flying because I just needed to be around “my people”, and there was a constant, big, scary question of “Who am I in Switzerland? Who will I become in this country? Can I be happy here in the long term?”.
When you move, you rarely move for an exact precise amount of time and stick to it. Many people that moved to Switzerland told me they planned to stay for one year and that was ten years ago. It’s not a straightforward process or step-by-step. It’s.. a wiggly line 😀 ..like a dance between who you are, the opportunities that come your way, and the everyday life that takes over – the next thing you’ve danced for a few years.
If I could write out how the process in Switzerland has been for me, I would say that in between all the happy moments and fun adventures, it’s been like this:
Year 1: excitement, admin, discovery, hope
Year 2: questions, anxiety, discovery, worry, hope
Year 3: questions, knowledge, understanding, more informed hope
Of course, it’s different for everyone depending on when in your life, and for what reason you move, but universally I’d say, the beginning is always fun and the middle part is always hard.
So how does it feel three years later?
Well, It starts to feel like home. I mean really like home. Not just that your name is on the door and your 4G works everywhere, but you start to find ways to be yourself – at work, with people, on the street, in your house. You start to do less pretending or trying to be someone else – someone more Swiss or more European or more like others in Zurich.. you start to know the country and understand the language, while at the same time owning the fact that you’re different and it’s OK. You start to see if there is a path here that you can take that will make you happy while being yourself.
Many of you ask me, is it hard to move to Switzerland? Is it hard to build a life here? The answer to that question is so dependent on your personal circumstance that I’m hesitant to give a blanket answer. But if you want one, then – yes, It’s hard. But not that much harder than it is moving to other countries. Actually, I found that all the admin is so efficient, that there are so many other expats in Zurich, and that there is enough information in English and enough international jobs (in banking, pharma, etc) that you don’t feel like an alien. I found it much easier in that sense than when I moved to Paris for example (this is a whole other adventure story :D). Switzerland is a ridiculously well-functioning, organized, and accessible country in terms of getting around and getting things done. So good actually, that once you’re used to it, it’s hard to accept anything else (they call this “the golden bubble”). It’s beautiful, it’s clean, it’s safe.
But it’s true that it takes time to make friends. The country itself is so diverse from canton to canton that it’s not easy to find connection points and integrate. What someone would tell you about their life in Zurich could be vastly different from a life in Geneva. Many would say (even the Swiss themselves) that people in Switzerland are closed off and hard to get to know.. I’d say it’s true… but it also depends. The Swiss in the French part think that the Swiss in the German part are closed off. But the Swiss in Zurich think they are much more open than the Germans. I lived in Finland and compared to Finns, the Swiss are open and invade your space.. but for someone who grew up in Brazil it probably feels like no one in Zurich smiles.. Depending on where you come from, you will have a different experience.
Does it get easier, now that I’m three years in? Yes. It does. Time works its magic. People know you for long enough that they start to open up, there become more touch points, interests in common, you start to have shared experiences and that creates something to talk and laugh about… and also, importantly, I think, as you start to become more like yourself (coming out of your shell so to speak), you start attracting the kind of people you can really be friends with. Because in the beginning you’re just alone and want to be friends with anybody and that’s hard.
Why did I want to write this post? I get asked these questions a lot and I can’t answer all of them but I want to promote and establish one thing: being an expat is a PROCESS. Living and integrating in Switzerland is a PROCESS. There is no perfect finish line, no set levels like in a video game – it’s individual, it’s hard, it’s exciting, it’s work, it’s growth… it’s one big adventure and it changes your life. And also, just because it’s one of the most beautiful and coveted places in the world, doesn’t mean it’s always easy and shiny.
Three years in, I learned three things:
(1) you have to be able to find humour in the process because if you take everything very seriously it will eat you up
(2) Switzerland really is a coconut (that’s cultural lingo for tough on the outside, soft on the inside), it doesn’t crack on first try, and also an onion, you have to peel several layers before you start to get to the core – it takes time and patience. Someone also wrote me it’s like a marriage, and that’s true! After the honeymoon with its beauty/mountains/amazing quality of life, you gotta put in the work to make it work
(3) you have to learn to love yourself and appreciate yourself and have fun with yourself for doing this crazy journey. There is enough pressure out there from everything else, and since you moved you are on your own – no mom/dad/sister/brother/best friend to tell you that you are wonderful, loved and doing great. So you have to become that person for yourself.
And if that’s still hard for you, and you’re an expat in Switzerland going through the process, then let me be the one to tell you – You are awesome. You are doing a hard thing. It’s a beautiful country that comes with its own ups and downs – like everywhere else. Learn, breathe, love yourself and enjoy the ride. At least that’s what I’m trying to do. x