The driver held open the door as she stepped into the car, which would take them to family and friends waiting to celebrate the birth of their now two week old son. She looked back at the 19th century cottage they had owned for just three months, imagined her fledgling family growing there and sighed contentedly; settled with a family, her dreams were fulfilled. Her new husband turned to her and smiled: “I have great news; the company is moving us to Switzerland.”
Each relocation story is unique in its own measure of trials and tribulations; but having gotten over the shock of leaving family, friends and often beloved family pets behind, would-be expats tend to become extremely optimistic beings. As Tom who has been living in Zurich for the last two years sheepishly admits, “It was as if we had the chance to start over. All the things we didn’t do at home, we were going to do in this new country. We didn’t go to the gym, and now we would go regularly, we would socialize, we would travel and see all manner of things, and of course as soon as we arrived, we would learn the language – we figured we’d probably be fluent in about a year!”
As Tom found out, the reality is usually quite different. After getting over the excitement of the move – often even before the last of the boxes are unpacked – a new reality sets in. The working spouse is busy finding his/her feet in a new job and often struggles to find the time to help the rest of the family adjust to their new life. There are many things that must be organized, setting up a home, insurance, schools, etc., but says local relocation consultant Maya Kitchen, “The biggest problems new arrivals face are the invisible rules of the new culture and the perceived unfriendliness of the locals.”
Invisible rules are connected to things like, but not restricted to:
• forewarning other tenants before having parties (best you invite your neighbors)
• not making noise, including housework after 10 pm
• sticking to apartment house laundry rosters
• know when, and in what bags you must put out your rubbish and how to recycle
• and of course not to be forgotten, in Switzerland, the Sunday rule of silence
She points out that when thinking about how locals view you, it is important to take a step back and imagine if a Swiss family moved into the house next door in your country. If they did not speak your language, but spoke to you in theirs and expected you to understand, sent their children to a different school specifically for foreign children, and seemingly flouted the unspoken rules of your community, most probably you would not be very welcoming. Like it or loathe it, this is how you could be seen. If you want to get to know your neighbors – as difficult as it may seem – the onus is on you to make the effort.
Maya says: “It’s important to know that Swiss people typically are not unfriendly, just very reserved. They definitely wait for the foreigner to make the first step. A heart-opener is to greet the locals with a smile on your face and in their own language ‘grüezi’ – show them you are interested in learning.”
The impact of relocation can make or break your marriage. The unhappy trailing spouse is still cited as the main reason for unsuccessful international postings, and for those postings that are successful some statistics cite marriage failure in this group as high as 60% depending on location. Traditionally the wife, but more and more frequently husbands find themselves leaving jobs, family and friends to follow partners who have a foreign job opportunity. This partner does not have the routine or support of a work environment and colleagues to help them adjust. They are usually the ones least supported in the move, but yet are most in contact with the local culture. If jobs, and for that matter marriages are to thrive in this environment the working partner must find a way to support their spouse in their adjustment. Intensive languages classes are essential, as is quickly establishing a network of new friends and interests, as culture shock and feelings of loss can be extreme for this group. Highly recommended reading are books by Robin Pascoe, well known for her books on living as an Expat wife – especially ‘A Broad Abroad’ which, rather than being a how-to book, is original empathetic and honest advice for married women who have found themselves catapulted into a foreign culture.
And don’t be fooled into thinking your children will adapt easily to the relocation. Studies have shown that children tend to do badly in school in their first year of a new posting; they will be missing their friends and all of the things you are missing, as well as picking up on your anxiety and discomfiture. If your kids are in an international school be aware that there can be new pressures there too. For example, in her recent ‘TED talk’ Elif Shafak, a renowned Turkish novelist, talked about how she found she had unwittingly become the unhappy representative of her country’s headlines (which included a Turk’s attempt to assassinate the Pope) in her international school class in Madrid, which she says felt like a miniature United Nations.
Moving to a foreign country is an exciting challenge. It expands your mind and boosts your career, but do not try to diminish the impact of relocation on your family. Being aware of the possible pitfalls enables you to make decisions, which will strengthen your family and help them to adapt and make the most of what ‘can be’ their wonderful new life in Switzerland. Join local international clubs – there are many in the area – and take up hobbies as a family as soon as possible. This will give you the opportunity to meet new people, especially look to those who have been living in the country for a while. These expats have settled in, are comfortable, relaxed and happy in their environment; many of the people you first encounter may also be relatively new to the area, and so are often not a great help in succeeding to integrate and overcome one’s own homesickness.
Finally, if you are wondering what happened to the young family from the first paragraph; the couple have been happily divorced for twelve years, the baby is now a handsome 19 year old who considers himself Swiss, and the wistful young woman, is the older, wiser and successfully integrated author of this article.
Written By Krissy Jackson – Executive Business Coach
Resident in Switzerland since 1996