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Interview with Tanya – an American expat living in Zurich

Updated 29 Aug 2011

Tanya - an American expat mom living in ZurichTanya Deans moved from California to Switzerland six years ago when her husband took a position at a Swiss bank. She spends as many weekends as possible in the Swiss Alps, and has visited over 50 mountains in Switzerland with her husband and two young sons. She writes about her experiences on her blog, Zurich Moms and Tots, a chronicle of the kid-friendly activities in and around Zurich, particularly in the Swiss Alps.

For more information read the Expat Arrivals Switzerland country guide or read about more expat experiences in Switzerland.

About Tanya

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: I grew up in San Diego, California and lived in San Francisco, California for several years before moving to Zurich.

Q: Where are you living now?

A: Zurich city, in the Enge neighbourhood.

Q: How long you have you lived here?

A:  Six years.

Q: Did you move with a spouse/ children?

A:  I moved here with my husband and 18 month old son.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?

A:  My husband accepted a position with a bank here in Zurich. Although the company covered our relocation expenses, the position was a local contract, meaning we didn’t get a typical expat package subsidising schools, rent or trips home. Before moving to Zurich, I was working part-time as a software designer and became a stay-at-home mom when we relocated.

About your city

Q: What do you enjoy most about your host city, how’s the quality of life in Zurich?

A:  I enjoy living in Zurich because it has a lot of the benefits of a big city, without the big problems of one. I live in a quiet, leafy-green neighbourhood in Zurich city, but I can hop on a tram and be “down town” in five minutes for shopping or dining out. While I take full advantage of the safe, clean and punctual public transportation, I can also easily walk to most everything I want to do in Zurich: my children’s school, the shopping mall, the local farmer’s market, the lake, the woods, etc. My children have access to many beautiful and clean parks and playgrounds, filled with potential playmates. The city provides many services specifically targeted to children and families, including lively community centres in most neighbourhoods and a wide variety of sport classes and holiday camps. When we need a change of pace, we can easily escape the city and within an hour or two, be in a quintessential quaint European village or on the top of a world-famous mountain.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?

A:  I miss the food the most. I came from San Francisco, which is famous for its food culture. We used to eat out at least five times a week, all sorts of cuisines at the low and high-end. It was a big part of my life, and I miss it a lot. This is not to say that food is terrible in Switzerland. It’s just generally not good value. You can easily spend 18 CHF on a hot dog and fries and 100CHF per person on date night at a decidedly average restaurant.

The upside to the food situation is that many expats learn to cook at home more, which can be healthier and save more than a few rappen. It takes more time and effort, but almost every expat I’ve known is thankful for this lifestyle change that they wouldn’t have necessarily chosen on their own. I know I am.

I also miss the shopping, particularly on the internet. In general, products in Switzerland are high quality and expensive with limited variety. You can usually get what you need, but often not what you want, exactly when you want it. Most expats get used to this over time and happily find they just spend less on extra junk they don’t really need anyway. But we also indulge in shopping sprees during trips home to the US and have friends and family bring back things we’ve ordered online. We also shop in bordering countries like Germany and France, for lower prices and wider variety (of course, subject to customs limits).

Q: Is Zurich safe?

A:  Compared to other big cities, Zurich is very safe and clean. This is a town where people routinely leave their bikes unlocked, baby strollers parked outside shops, and send six-year-olds to the corner store to get milk. If you accidentally leave your purse on the bus, it’ll probably show up in the lost and found with all your money still there. As a woman, I feel quite safe coming home late on the tram and walking through the city alone. As a parent, I don’t feel like I have to hover over my kids every minute.

Kindergarteners are practically required to walk to and from school unattended, as it encourages independence. Even 10-year-olds routinely take public transportation to school and extracurricular activities. Most parks and playgrounds in and around Zurich are kept clean enough for your kids to run around barefoot. Of course, you should always exercise common sense and be aware of your surroundings; this is not a fairytale land, outside the real world. But in general, you should feel as safe in Zurich, if not safer, than from wherever you’ve come.

Living in Zurich

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Zurich as an expat?

A:  This really depends on your needs and wants. I prefer living in the city because I like being close to the action and being able to walk or easily ride public transportation to everything. But many expats I’ve met are concerned about moving to a “big city” and want to live in a quiet community outside the city. I understand this desire, but it’s also important to consider the following points.

First, Zurich is not a “big city” like Paris or London or New York. It’s quite small, less than 400,000 people living in the city proper. Most neighbourhoods are very quiet with lovely parks and tree-lined streets. There are so many benefits to living in the city that you might consider giving it a try, even if you don’t consider yourself a “city person.”

Living outside the city doesn’t mean you’ll get a single family home and a garden. There are very few properties like this at any price range. You will pay less outside of Zurich and you will get more space for your money. But you won’t be replicating your sprawling American-style suburb lifestyle.

The smaller the town, the less people speak English. You might happen to pick a town with a lot of English speakers, but perhaps not. In the city, I hear English all the time, all over the place. Before I could speak any German, I could get by in English at almost every shop in my neighbourhood. I bump into English-speakers all the time at the park, the lake, in shops downtown and have made long-term friends this way. This is bad for improving my German, but good to counter the isolation expats can feel in foreign environment. But if you want learn to Swiss German more quickly, a small town is good way to go.

The smaller the town, the less services you’ll have. For example, many of the communities surrounding Zurich shut down at lunch time for a couple hours and close up shop early. If you want to grocery shop at 7pm, you’ll have to drive to a bigger town.
All that said, the small communities outside Zurich can be very nice, with rolling hills, picturesque farmland, and often views of the not-so-distant Alps. These towns are usually well-connected to Zurich by public transportation, so the city is never that far away. If possible, it’s best to try to talk to some expats already living in the communities you are considering before choosing a place.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation?

A:  Before moving to Switzerland, I thought I’d be living in a charmingly rustic chalet. In stark contrast, most Swiss apartments tend to be boxy and modern. In San Francisco, I was used to very old, impossibly cute buildings and I found the modern style of Swiss homes rather sterile and unwelcoming. But in time, I’ve grown to appreciate the Swiss style, particularly things like floor heating, roomy cellar storage, and frequent renovations that make sure everything works well in my rented apartment. The Swiss pride themselves on cleanliness and I found our apartment in excellent condition upon moving in.

Q: What’s the cost of living in Zurich compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A:  I moved from San Francisco, which also has a high cost of living. But it was even more expensive here. We live in the city, which means our rent is about 30 percent higher than a similar property outside the city. While produce and most pantry staples are reasonably priced, meat is ridiculously expensive. Most people simply adjust to eating less meat and save steak for special occasions. Eating out is very expensive and not good value. Home goods are more expensive, and I would recommend bringing everything you need with you, instead of selling or storing it back home and buying new things here. Over-the-counter medicine is both expensive and often not available over the counter. Stock up and bring a good supply with you.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?

A:  I have found the locals friendly, but reserved. Americans are famous for their open friendliness with strangers and it can feel a bit lonely when this is not reciprocated in the same manner. I have a few good Swiss friends, but my very closest friends are expats from English-speaking places. It’s certainly possible to have close Swiss friends, but you might have to work a bit harder to make that happen.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?

A:  I was lucky to have a toddler around to help me make friends. When I first moved to Zurich, I joined a few playgroups and made some great contacts and friends that eased my transition to Zurich. I made a point of visiting parks and swimming pools all over the city and often made friends simply because someone overheard me speaking English to my child. Expats love expats. You instantly have something in common and it’s kinda like summer camp, you both suffering through the same aches and pains.

Working in Zurich

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?

A:  My husband got a B permit for our family through his company. But as a spouse, I was not permitted to work unless I got my own work permit. After 5 years, we got a C permit and I’m now allowed to work.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Zurich, is there plenty of work?

A: There have been a lot of layoffs in the news lately, especially at the banks. But as I have not looked for work myself, I can’t offer any specific observations. However, I do see a lot of expat entrepreneurs starting up small businesses from home. Expats tend to have a consumer sensibility lacking in the Swiss culture and find niche markets just waiting to be filled.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?

A:  Every company is different, but in general, I’ve observed that the Swiss culture values a healthy work/life balance and that Swiss companies have policies that reflect this. Many companies give 4-5 weeks vacation, and expect you to take it. My husband’s company required that he take two weeks off in a row every year, while in the US, it was difficult to take one week off. Certain jobs require travelling and long hours, but it seems that 60+ hours work weeks are not the norm here as they seemed in the US. I also see many more dads at the playgrounds and schools than I saw in the US. I think this is partially due to the flexible part-time arrangements that many Swiss companies support. I know quite a few parents (both moms and dads) that work part-time (80%, 50%, 30%), allowing them one or more days or afternoons at home with their children.

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?

A:  Yes, and I was satisfied with the move. But I wished our relocation consultant was more helpful. She helped us rent our apartment and complete our official documentation, but our transition was rougher than it needed to be. It would have been nice to have a little hand holding at the beginning. For example, we didn’t have a phone or internet for the first two weeks, which made it difficult to do everything, like find an electrician to install lights, figure out where to get groceries after 6pm (tip: gas or train station!), where to buy a litter box for our cat, etc. To be honest, some tears were shed those first two weeks as we struggled to settle in.

Family and children in Zurich

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?

A:  We’ve each had our challenges adjusting to our new life here. My husband has had different challenges than I because he is dealing with the Swiss work culture, while I’m focused on domestic and school issues. We often joke together about culture clashes and things we miss about our old home. But we’re both very glad we moved here and plan to stay long-term.

Q: Did your children settle in easily?

A:  Fortunately, my son was so young that he settled in right away and has been very happy here. Small children make friends easily and usually don’t let the language barrier get in the way of a good time. I joined both English and German-speaking playgroups right away when we moved, which helped us both make friends and not feel so isolated.

Q: What are the schools in Zurich like, any particular suggestions?

A:  My children attend local Swiss schools, with which I’m quite satisfied. I like that my son is immersed in Swiss culture, has friends in the neighbourhood, and is learning German (both Swiss and High German!). Some expats complain that Swiss schools start academics too late (particularly reading and math) and focus too much on play-based learning. I don’t agree and I have been pleased with my son’s progress so far (he just started 2nd grade).

My main advice is that if you intend to send your kids to a local Swiss school, get them as much exposure to German as possible, especially playdates with Swiss friends and German TV, music, and books. I’ve been told that kids learn language best through experience, by being in situations where they have to speak and understand German, where their native tongue isn’t an option. It’s tempting to stick with your English-speaking friends because it’s easy and fun. But I wish I had done more of this to help my kids develop stronger German earlier.

For local schools, children come home at lunch and don’t have school on Wednesday afternoons. As a stay-at-home mom, I like this arrangement so I can check in with kids during the day and we have opportunities for more after school activities and playdates. For working parents, the schools provide before and after school child care and lunch programs. The cost is scaled based on the family’s income.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Zurich?

A:  I have received excellent healthcare while in Switzerland, particularly with the birth of my second son. I’ve never had a problem getting access to a doctor or specialist. But the medical culture is different here. Based on my experience and stories from friends, doctors here are more cautious about medical intervention than US doctors and often favour homoeopathic alternatives, which can be frustrating for an expat. One example is the reluctance of many hospitals here to administer epidurals (but not at Hirslanden – so many expats go there that they cater to them). I’ve heard story after story of women requesting epidurals but the hospital staff delaying and delaying until it was too late. I’d recommend searching until you find a doctor that shares your medical philosophy and being very clear and firm about your opinions to avoid this frustration. Lastly, most doctors speak English even if the receptionist or assistants don’t.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?

A:  I recommend coming to Switzerland assuming that you will like it and trying not to compare it to your old life. Some things will be better and some things will be worse. Unhappy expats are constantly wishing Switzerland was more like “home” and resent the everyday inconveniences of living in a foreign land. Happy expats learn to laugh at the bad, enjoy the good, and be thankful for this unique experience.

Lastly, get out into those Swiss Alps. This is the best thing about Switzerland and they make it so easy for you to enjoy it. Don’t wait. Go to the mountains your very first weekend in Switzerland to remind yourself why you’ve left your home, your family, your country. You may have come for a job, but it’s also your chance to experience new, beautiful, exciting things and make memories that will last a lifetime.

~ Interviewed August 2011 

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