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1 year in Switzerland

Note: This was originally published 2015-December-16. I have kept the text as it was to keep the original spirit – I am adding this to the website 7 years later and after another 7 years have lost the same spirit.

I followed this up with posts after 2 years and after 5 years.

I am in my late 20s and have spent most of my life, other than a few years in Australia, in various parts of England. Six months ago I moved to the town of Solothurn in the German part of Switzerland to start a new job (I hadn’t heard of it either, though it is a beautiful place in a good location so all worked out well). My work is all in English, but obviously the world around me isn’t. Though I have managed to surround myself with friends, a housemate, and a girlfriend who all speak fluent English.

The Move

Surprisingly easy. As I was finishing my PhD write up my supervisor got an email from my current boss advertising the job, I applied and got it. Being an EU citizen and having a unique skillset made it all absurdly simple. I just signed the job contract, flew over and showed a copy of it to my prospective landlord (possibly not needed but it certainly helped speed things up and get approved (didn’t hurt that it said Dr on it)) and then that and the rental agreement to the local community/government (to get a residence permit which is required as an EU ctizien working here for over 3 months) here to prove I had a right to stay (though EU has free movement here, but still need a permit even if it is just a formality), then setting up a bank account and insurance went fairly smoothly too.

My only concern was finding accommodation in a very short period of time with no idea how anything worked. I quickly learned that Swiss rentals tend to be unfurnished and flat sharing isn’t all that common here (compared to other places) so I was a bit worried that I would end up all alone in an empty flat which would be rather depressing. Thankfully I managed to find a shared flat through so I slotted into an already kitted out flat with an English speaking housemate who has since explained many things about the country to me.

My previous German language experience

3 years of German up to GCSE level at school in England (should have been 5 but I lost 2 years in the middle due to moving to Australia for a while) which was over 10 years ago and I have a C to show for it (though given I lost so much time that isn’t too bad).

As some of you may know foundation level GCSE German is not the most challenging thing in the world, as I recall you could probably have passed just by picking the closest sounding word in English. I swear one part of the reading exam was joining pictures to words, with such hard words as Schwimmen, Campen…. Since then other than a few half hearted attempts whilst briefly in Vienna (when the locals just spoke back to me in English anyway) I had not used it until this year. Suffice to say I could introduce myself and tell people I had a black cat named Tiddles, but not much else (and even the bit about the cat is a lie).

I got the job with a few months advanced knowledge, but in the 3 months before starting I was travelling Australia and New Zealand whilst frantically trying to get my PhD thesis submitted and viva-ed in my brief window back in the UK, so other than a few basic words from phone apps I learned almost nothing in the run up to the move.

Learning/using German

I have written about my experience learning German in more detail and have listed the resources that I have found for Swiss German on other pages.

Some people pick up languages with speed and grace, I am not one of them. But I am staggering my way into it. My aim has been vocab and brute force communication, so long as I can get my point across I don’t mind losing points for grammar (for now).

Working and living here obviously brings many new words into my daily vocab and provides plenty of motivation. I have also been using Duolingo, local papers, Netflix (German audio and subtitles are common on most shows/films here) among other means to pick words up. A course would be very useful but I have been having issues finding one that has a suitable level and good reviews (given the off putting high prices).

To go from only a vaguely remembered foundation to fluently fitting in is obviously not going to happen quickly. Especially when working a full day during the week and charging around trying to see as much of the country as possible at the weekends. If I am being generous with myself I would say my skills are now on B1 (at least going with the rough description on wikipedia), but would not come off that well on a written exam though.

It is hard to try and seriously use or learn German all the time. The main problem is feeling so limited. Sort of like having your fingers tied together or trying to work with oven gloves on – everything becomes so much harder and more awkward. It is a catch-22 of ‘not using German because my ability is limited, but my ability being limited by not using it enough. The other problem is being surrounded by people who speak English. Making it far too easy to revert back to it, though work would be rather slow and impossible otherwise (I suspect I have done more for the English of the people around me than they for my German). By far the best interactions are when I am out at the weekends and a non-English speaking German or Swiss person tries talking to me and we have to work our way through in German.

The other issue is how tiring it is. Many whole company meetings are in German and whilst I don’t need to take an active part and can translate through the presentation on my phone these drain me for the rest of the day.

Getting complacent once you understand the way things work is far too tempting. Getting about and living daily life becomes easy even without the language, and the idea of trying to slowly learn something so complex gets very daunting and off putting when it no longer seems essential. I know people who have lived here for years and speak less German than I do now, relying on the fact that anything important in life will probably be doable (just about anyway) in English.

I am still pushing on. But the process is very much a series of ups and downs. Sometimes I feel like I have learned lots and absorbed everything, or talk to someone and do so flawlessly, but then other times it all comes crashing down and nothing makes sense and I find myself staring gormlessly at someone saying something very basic to me.

Communicating with the Swiss

So yeah Swiss German….. I swear I thought the first people I heard speaking Swiss German were actually Eastern European tourists….. In my first week I strode to the local market confident that I at least knew numbers, nope, not in Swiss German anyway. It helps to know that it confuses Germans, and that some parts like Wallis confuse the life out of other Swiss too (for the unaware). Though it has been growing on me, I am very fond of the endless words that end with -li (meaning little).

The Swiss are very patient and tolerant with language. Especially if you show that you are at least trying with theirs. Most will quickly switch to high German when they hear me speak. Many will just go straight to English, or run off to find someone else who does before I can even try and carry on in German. I have had the odd good natured “you will need to learn German while you are here” but not one person has gotten impatient or annoyed with my over anything language based yet (even when slowly setting up a bank account). Most tend to praise my German skills, which I am not sure if they are just being polite or I am impressive for the average English person (not hard) or learner in the time frame.

In short the Swiss are lovely people.

English humour and mannerisms cause some confusion. I have gotten quite a few puzzled stares and been told that I don’t need to apologise for things when I stick a standard English ‘sorry’ at the end of statement. Literal translations do not always work; when being offered something “I am good thanks” does not mean “Thank you for the offer but I am ok”, but “I am amazing”, that got some odd looks. Absurdist jokes and sarcasm sometimes fly over their heads, but generally the only communication barrier is my own German.

Just to add to the fun I live near the rostigarben (the German/French language/culture border), so French speaking places are only 20 minutes away. My French is about on the level that you pick up from watching cartoons with stereotyped characters… My Italian is even worse, though that part is a fair way from me (but very much worth a visit). Though it seems the Swiss are often (but not always) likely to know English as a 2nd language rather than another of their official ones, which rather surprised me.

Culture Shock

Generally not too bad. Though while not as big as moving to say Asia, but the small differences are endless and confusing/interesting.

The lack of memorials and references to wars, but the military conscription, defensive bunkers and practice ranges everywhere is especially odd being so backwards to the UK. Having a nuclear war ready bomb shelter in my basement is a nice if rather strange touch. It feels almost like a more polite version of North Korea in some ways.

Another strange one to observe is how Swiss fill up trains with the sort of precision and repulsion that electrons fill orbital shells. And how for a country of people who are normally so polite it is odd that coats and bags are almost always placed on the seat next to them, rather than in the (very underused) racks above.

Life in Switzerland

Living here is so far utterly wonderful (apart from the prices, and the fact that the shops close bloody early, and on Sundays cities feel like you stepped into 28 days later, and the fact that it is impossible to tell most of the coins apart in a hurry….). It isn’t perfect but the quality of life is very good.

Despite moving here not knowing anyone within a 1000km I have not felt very alone. I have picked up friends and acquaintances, and I am happy to be by myself part of the time. Though mostly I have been too active to really notice it. Working during the day, having a housemate at home, learning German, correcting my thesis, and spending most weekends jumping onto trains to try and see as much of the country as possible has kept me pretty busy. I have also moved country before and am used to living in a different continent to my family so that also helps.

Most people I know and socialise with here are Swiss or German which helps to understand the place, language and culture better.

The transport system does sometimes experience a cock-up, but mostly it runs beautifully and everything is so well synchronised and connected that getting to almost anywhere is no problem. The GA pass which lets you jump on almost all trains, buses and boats without a ticket is utterly fantastic, and not bad value considering you have the entire country open to you (and how expensive the tickets are normally).

“High quality but expensive” pretty much sums the place up really. Especially with food. The cheese and chocolate are of course fantastic. As is the wine, turns out the Swiss make loads of it, but keep it for themselves (especially in Valais).

For a small country there are so many amazing places. Varied cultures, no (major) wars to destroy everything, and the lively terrain means almost every part has something worth going to see. Some areas are rammed with tourists, but only in very small spots and it is amazingly easy to find yourself alone in a valley – even a few minutes from from busy cable cars. I have seen more it than some of my Swiss coworkers – nothing motivates you to see somewhere like it being new and only temporary.

Fog seems to be a way of life here in the flat land during Autumn/Winter. Often days go by with no sun and very limited visibility which can get abit depressing. You can at least go up to easily escape the cloud and take in the views which are rather awesome.

The main thing I miss are food items. Particular English food items are almost impossible to find, and getting more exotic foods is generally harder than it was back in the UK. You can get English things here, but at even more horrifically expensive than the normal Swiss prices.

The Swiss and the English language

English is very prevalent in Switzerland. Shop names and adverts are often English, or a mix of languages. Bit odd sometimes, but in a country with 4 languages having an ‘exotic’ separate neutral one makes sense to save writing everything down 4 times.

Swinglish where the Swiss use English words, but in a totally different sense makes life interesting. Beamer here is a projector, which can lead to some confusion if you are used to beamer being slang for BMW….Tip top is widely used here, which surprised me, and surprised the Swiss back who thought it was their own term.

This Swiss sometimes do not think things through. The big music festival in Luzern is called The Blue Balls Festival. Though it could be worse, the Italian part in Tessin has the Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi transport service. Or FART for short, which has a service that leaves the bottom of Switzerland….

There is also the highly unfortunate Wankdorf just outside of Bern. Even more so that it hosts the national stadium where The Young Boys play with balls (no really). Though my favourite name is Bitsch and the announcements you get for it on the train.

A few resources:

  • English author who posts about Switzerland and has written several very interesting books on Switzerland and the Swiss
  • short overview of Swiss German