Settling into Switzerland

As well as multiple languages, there are other things I’ve had to get used to in Switzerland. Some of these I knew about from previous visits, while others came as a not so pleasant surprise. And some may be general European things, while others are more particularly Swiss; I can’t be sure, not having spent much time in any other country. For example:

The sacred lunch hour (not to mention Sundays, holidays and vacations). I already knew this, but it’s probably the thing I find hardest to get used to, especially after living for years near 24/7 New York City. Don’t try to get any business or shopping done during the lunch hour (or Sundays, or the entire month of July), because with the exception of some essential services, EVERYTHING SHUTS DOWN. Yes, for 2-3 hours in the middle of the day, you have to sit at home and twiddle your thumbs. Or cook and eat lunch, I suppose. It’s nice in a way, but also extremely annoying when that might happen to be the only time you have to do an errand or make a phone call. Things were even more restricted for a while, of course, but even in more “normal” times I’m still always taken aback when I make plans and then realize I cannot carry them out. Argh.

No checks. Now this surprised me. In Switzerland, land of banks, you can’t write a personal check. Instead, the person who wants you to pay them gives you THEIR bank information, and you fill out a little form and send them the money that way. I find it weird, but I suppose it’s just the same thing in reverse.

This cow has nothing to do with this post, but it wanted to be inserted anyway.

Kissing. Also something I knew from previous visits, but still find uncomfortable. When you meet close friends and family, you have to kiss them three times on the cheek, left right left. That’s if you’re a woman. If you’re a man, you do this with women but not with other men. We’re having a pandemic-break from this now, and I must say I find it a relief. It takes forever when you’re in a group and everyone has to go through all the permutations. And I don’t even really like the American custom of hugging everybody in sight, so this is even worse.

Working at the grocery store. When you get fruits and vegetables you have to weigh them yourself and print out a ticket with the price. I kept forgetting this at first and it was embarrassing to get to the cashier and be told I had to go back and redo my produce. I’m pretty well in the habit now though. You also are expected to bag your own groceries at lightning speed while the next person is waiting (at the regulated distance of course). I’ve taken to using the self-checkout whenever possible so I’m not under so much pressure.

The mosquitoes are terrible. There are often shutters on the windows here, which are picturesque, but don’t keep out the bugs. And there are definitely lots of hungry bugs, just like in New Hampshire, but no screens to protect us from them. I really don’t get the anti-screen prejudice; it would make summer a lot more pleasant.

It rains a lot. In our warming world last winter’s precipitation was mostly rain rather than snow, and there was a lot of it. There were some weeks when I missed Seattle as a relatively dry spot. In the summer, as well, it can be very wet — and stormy too. I just learned that Switzerland has some of the most violent thunderstorms in Europe, and one has to be aware when boating or mountain hiking that deadly storms can come up out of nowhere. Flash flooding is a problem too. Vorsicht!

Fortunately it does not rain ALL the time.

Names. I’m used to thinking of my name as being my first name. Here, though, when you’re asked for “Name” on a form it means your last name, and the “Vorname” is just an afterthought. I’m always filling them in the wrong way around. Also, people introduce themselves or answer the phone with just their last name (“Widmer!”) which seems  abrupt and military-like to me.

Numbers. I’m okay up to ten, but after that it’s a struggle to think which language I’m in and which way around to say which digits (Quarante-et-un, Ein-und-vierzig.) And when writing numbers, you have to remember that the 1 is written with a long up-stroke, which means that to avoid confusion the 7 has to have a little cross-stroke. It seems like a lot of unnecessary extra work to me, but if you don’t do it then your sevens will be mistaken for ones, and that can cause problems — like when I applied for my driver’s license and my birthdate got misprinted. Oops.

Your age is public knowledge. Until I had to apply for a job here, I didn’t know it was expected that you put your birthdate on your resume or CV, which would be illegal to ask for the US. In newspaper articles, subjects are routinely identified by age (“Anna Müller, 43”) so it seems people are not sensitive about this.

None of these may be particularly important or troublesome, but added up they can be quite disorienting. It makes me realize how it’s the little things that help us to feel at home.

What have you had to get used to in your travels or living abroad?

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8 thoughts on “Settling into Switzerland

  1. It is the little things! I experienced what you’re talking about with lunch hour, especially on a Sunday and during the month of July, which is when we were there. We had tours scheduled for the first Sunday after we arrived on Saturday, us for an art museum and my brother’s family for a cheese-tasting tour, and neither of those things were open. You’d think the tour company could have checked.

  2. Oh, yes! The no-screens thing must be generally European, and I know it well. And Danish numbers are the very devil. (Many Danish numbers go by the score, so that for example 64 is said 4-and-three-score, except they did a shortcut for the score part so it sounds like 4-and-threes. 54 is 4-and-half-threes.) I think the thing with writing ones is a Germanic habit? It often winds up looking like a little narrow tent.

    This was long ago, but I had a hard time adjusting to how much more nicely everyone dressed. A sloppy California kid, I lived in jeans, t-shirts, and old sneakers — which is still true. Nobody was impressed by those sneakers. (The local punk kid wore a brand-new Iron Maiden t-shirt tucked neatly into his nicely pressed jeans, and wearing anything with holes in it (punk-style) was unheard of.) Since it was a small town, everybody knew who I was and what I was doing at every moment, and my sad shoes were actually reported to my host mom as being unacceptable.

    I do not envy you all the kissing; I have never gotten the hang of cheek-kissing, and I’m not even a hugger.

    I sure miss a lot of things, though! I might need a nice praline Ritter Sport now. (“Quadratisch. Praktisch. Gut.” Best ad slogan ever!)

    1. My husband has always been much better dressed than me! I think things have become more casual here in the meantime since he moved away and returned, and holes are not unknown to the younger generation. But the older people still keep to those standards.

  3. Haha the kissing thing is not Europe-wide – You’d be found very odd if you started kissing everyone here in the UK, especially three times. You might kiss family and very close friends on the cheek but only once. 😅 I’m glad you are settling in alright otherwise though. 🙂

    1. Continental Europe, I should say. Of course the British would not be so effusive! 🙂 I believe the 3-times thing is Swiss whereas in other countries it may be only twice or even once. Perhaps in acknowledgment of the three (major) languages?

  4. Hello Lory, I am catching up on blogs after being off for a couple months. The produce thing I think might be a European thing – I remember being rescued from the same trouble when I went to buy produce (with a local friend) in Portugal. I’m trying to think of what I had to adjust when I lived in Japan but it’s hard to narrow it down, haha. Although as a foreigner I didn’t have to totally adapt to the work culture, I always felt a bit awkward leaving ‘on time’ while other teachers continued to work for hours. Did you take the photos of the cows? I love them! It certainly looks like nice when you have a break from the rain. Hope all is well you this month.

    1. Nice to hear from you Jenna! Oops, no I did not take these pictures – I was trying out the free photo library from WordPress. I should put that in the caption.

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