10 Things I Learned After Living in Switzerland

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Time goes so fast indeed.  I remember how I would constantly remind myself that I won’t be able to stay long in Switzerland.

Three months was enough.  Then I got a job.  Okay, two more months. Then came six more, then a year, and least than I expected, I was able to live in Switzerland for surprisingly four long years!

I took that giant leap out of my comfort zone.  Since then, things have never been the same again.

Away from my home country, living in Switzerland has taught me a lot and changed me in so many ways.  True enough, you’ll get a better understanding of yourself and what surrounds you, once you expand your horizon.

There’s actually a wealth of life lessons I can take with me, especially now that I moved to live in another country.  And there are things that Filipinos back home can also learn from the people of the Alps.

So here are my top 10:

1. Plan ahead and be on time.

The Swiss take punctuality seriously.  Not only being on time is a way of respect to others, but also because time is gold.  If you arrive late, you will hardly expect to be squeezed in as a next priority but instead, your appointment is cancelled.  What is even more surprising, if you’re availing a service (say, a visit to a hairdresser) and you totally missed it, you still had to pay for it, simply due to the lost time the other person had allotted for you.

Every shop closes as early as 7PM and almost nothing is open on Sundays.  For somebody like me who worked on a 9-to-5, there’s definitely less free time for shopping.  While in the Philippines, we can shop after work as stores are open up to 9PM, and we still even have Sundays to do it so.  It really took me some time to fully get used to this, so I’m pretty sure that the way I manage my time has never been this better since then.

Plan ahead and be on time.
Photo from wikipedia.org

Trains, trams and buses arrive and leave on-the-dot. Public transport is very efficient, and the beauty of it is of course, I can expect to arrive to my destination on time – only if I keep myself on a certain schedule!  Unless you live in Zurich or Geneva, missing your ride means that you have to wait for 30 minutes, or even an hour, until the next one arrives.

I have experienced the true consequences of being tardy in a few times in Switzerland, so let this be a friendly reminder.

2. Keep it clean and take care of the surroundings.

Switzerland is a very clean and green country.  They really live up to the postcard-like beauty of their surroundings, as there’s a lot of untouched nature that they carefully protect.  The people feel a deep bond to their mountains and lakes.

Nature trips and hiking are their most favorite past time.  Actually, it’s just a matter of stepping outside from where we lived and we could already enjoy walking around the unspoiled nature.  There’s over 60,000 kilometers of hiking trails all over the country.  Signposted in yellow, you can never get lost. I’m glad that I was able to enjoy this kind of outdoor leisure.

Keep it clean and take care of the surroundings.
Photo from wikipedia.org

This country is also one of the top recyclers in the world.  The way of separating and collecting waste differs in every town.  In most cases, there are strategically located containers, as well as collecting areas (called as déchetterie), that are designated to every waste such as glass, plastic, cans, paper and cartons, textile, chemicals, electronics, worn out furnitures among others.

Other remaining materials, mostly spoilt food, are put in special bags that are meant to be collected and processed.  All trash is incinerated by modern incinerators, which produce only minimal amounts of air pollution and even provide energy for homes.

It may have been an extra chore, but I got used to it quickly.  You’ll see the advantage of doing it anyway.  You’ll definitely not see a lot of street litter along the way.

Oh, another pretty thing, drinking water that comes out of Swiss taps is as pure as bottled mineral water – and hundred times cheaper!


 PHOTOS CAPTURED IN SWITZERLAND - Click on the image to enlarge

3. Spend money wisely.

Living in Switzerland doesn’t come cheap.  For all we know, Zurich and Geneva are consistently top notchers every year in Mercer’s Cost of Living survey.  For most leisures and services I would conveniently enjoy in the Philippines, it goes with a hefty price tag that you’d really think twice.

During my first few months, I would easily get flabbergasted on every unreasonable price I need to pay for; mostly on the same product or kind of service I’d get back home in a fraction of a cost.

Let me give you an idea...
CHF 1,500 decent studio (30 sqm) monthly rent = 70,000 PHP
CHF 1,100 one-year gym membership = 51,400 PHP
CHF 120 for hair salon services = 5,600 PHP
CHF 150 for full body massage = 7,000 PHP
CHF 65 for 1-hour taxi ride = 3,000 PHP
CHF 40 for a laundry detergent = 1,900 PHP
CHF 20 for a plat du jour exclusive of drinks = 900 PHP
CHF 13 for a McDonald’s meal = 600 PHP
CHF 6 for a local beer = 300 PHP
CHF 3 one-way fare, local transport = 140 PHP

A friend of mine once advised that I should refrain from converting francs to pesos.  It somehow helped for some time, but I still ended up doing the math.  Though there’s actually something positive that this situation brought in.  Given that it would cost me 4 swiss francs (200 pesos) for a pack at that time, I eventually gave up cigarette smoking for good.  Big high five for me!

In the end, we were able to find smarter ways on how to make the most out of our Swiss salaries.  Luckily we lived near the French border, so we’d normally do our grocery shopping and dining on weekends over there.  Whenever I get a chance to visit other European countries, I’d take some time to do some personal shopping.  Otherwise, I’d also wait for season sales that happen twice a year – one starts in July and the next in January.

When finally I’d be in the Philippines, I splurge on things that are outrageously expensive in Switzerland – that means, hailing a cab to go to a spa salon and enjoy a full body massage!

4. Switzerland is the closest state in the world to a direct democracy.

When it was drafting its own constitution in 1848, Switzerland actually looked to the US constitution, which also defined the fundamental political and governmental principles in the earliest constitutions of the Philippines.  But unlike in the US when most laws are made and voted on by representatives, any Swiss citizen can put a law forth to a vote of the people.

Photo from wikipedia.org

About four times a year, Swiss citizens vote on national referendums, policies and ballot initiatives.  They also have the right to propose any constitutional amendment, as long as it does not violate human rights or international law.

From the Swiss experience, we can all learn that representative democracy can do much better if it includes comprehensive and citizen-friendly methods of participation. In Switzerland, the most important – but relatively few – issues are decided by the people, important and more numerous matters by parliament, and the least important but very numerous issues by the government. That’s what they mean by democracy.
– (Bruno Kaufmann, President, Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe)

While I find Philippine election as more of an entertainment spectacle when we elect officials on how rich, charismatic or solely popular they are, the Swiss politicians on the other hand, get elected more because of their competence, and the platforms of their parties they represent.  Even more, it is in their political culture that most politicians keep a lower profile than their counterparts in other European countries.

5. Respect people’s privacy and make common courtesy.

Switzerland is a land full of secrets.  Swiss banks for one, are notoriously known for keeping their rich clients’ finances.  The Swiss people in general are very private.  They have a smaller circle of friends, limiting only to the ones they feel closest with.  They do not overly share some personal details of their affairs; and neither they pry into the affairs of neighbors or co-workers.  Even further in Swiss media, you’ll come across in most newspapers and TV shows blurred images of individuals, private properties or confidential identification such as car license plates.  Unless the person is a public figure, the names of those who are involved in the news are also not even mentioned.  All is for the sheer purpose of protecting one’s privacy.

Respect people's privacy and make common courtesy.
Photo from wikipedia.org

The Swiss are extremely polite and you’ll definitely be pleased to get into the habit.  In Switzerland, it is customary to greet people you pass by with a cordial Bonjour (in Swiss French) or Gruezi (in Swiss German), even if you don’t know them.  Expressions like “thank you” or “my pleasure” are used most of the time.  The one that I even like the most is, when car drivers stop for pedestrians so they can cross the street safely.  Whenever I’m in the Philippines, I had to remind myself that the norm of crossing the street is different compared to Switzerland.  The cars are indeed, the kings of the road!

6. Learn the language.

Learning a language can be very challenging but once you fully grasp the knowledge, living a life in another country will get a lot easier and more rewarding.  It’s a very important factor to help you integrate in your new society.  It will make you feel confident in making new friends especially with the locals, and in getting new opportunities.

There are three official languages in Switzerland – French, German and Italian.  Oh, make it four; the other one is called Romansch.  It is of Latin origin with heavy influence by German vocabulary and syntax that is spoken by nearly 1% of the Swiss population who is primarily living at canton of Grisons.

Cartoon taken from expatica.com .
Cartoon taken from expatica.com .

If you happen to live in the Swiss Romandy where Geneva is its most populous city, you should learn Swiss French.  Swiss German is spoken widely at the east, north and center, while Swiss Italian in the south.

It was a pity somehow that I didn’t spend much time and effort to polish my French, because both at work and at home, I speak English most of the time!  My French proficiency is somehow midway, and perhaps even dwindling now since I moved here in Belgium and we live in the Dutch-speaking side.  Luckily, Belgium is as multilingual as Switzerland, where French is also widely spoken.

For now, I want to focus on learning Flemish, and once I become more fluent with it, I’ll get back to re-learn French.  I’m fascinated over polyglots (my husband is one and that explains then) and I’m dying to be one!  So, I guess I’ll enjoy this challenge.

7. Socialize with locals and other nationalities.

Asians in general can be too shy especially towards foreigners. I’m actually used to be one of them.  That was before I left my home country, let myself go and opened my mind to see a different way of life.  I can still be a bit shy sometimes (apparently intrinsic), but I’m actually more confident now and more interested to mingle with people from other countries.  Not only you can share the same interests and hobbies, but also you can get a glimpse on their different cultures and perspectives.

8. Bayanihan is alive and kicking.

The word bayanihan is a Filipino word derived from the word bayan meaning town or nation.  It literally means “being a bayan,” thus referring to a spirit of communal unity and cooperation, accomplishing tasks which are usually difficult when done alone.

Bayanihan (1961-62) by National Artist Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco

It is amongst the most favorite subject of many Filipino artists because this old tradition manifests what bayanihan truly is.  This happens when neighbors help a relocating family by getting volunteers to carry the whole house and literally move to its new location.  Long bamboo poles are placed lengthwise and crosswise under the house (traditional Filipino rural houses are built on stilts), and then with this frame, the men can carry the entire house.  All in happy and festive mood, the moving family expresses their gratitude by hosting a small fiesta for everyone.

The bayanihan spirit is probably a unique trait of every Filipino, as it shows a concept of helping one another most especially in times of need without expecting anything in return.  The old tradition of transferring people’s houses is still alive in rural areas.  Even in modern days, the bayanihan spirit still lives on.  Yet I really thought it’s a dying trait in modern times, because I’ve always been self-reliant and independently living a bustling life in the city.  Indeed at times too, I find it difficult to ask for help (not because it’s a lack thereof, it’s just really me).

When of course I took the challenge of living in an unfamiliar territory with no certainty ahead for me, the familiar Filipino faces I’d come across with had become my source of refuge.  And as if I was destined to meet the right people along the way; for without them, I wouldn’t be where I am now.  True enough, we did help one another without expecting anything in return.

It’s a beautiful trait of us Filipinos, no doubt about it.  Likewise I’m grateful for meeting fellow kababayans (countrymen) in Switzerland who helped and guided me in so many ways.  You know who you are.

9. Eat (and drink) like a local.

Just a week after I arrived in Switzerland, I found myself rummaging for something to eat.  Not because there ain’t any, but I was craving for something familiar – a taste of home.  Asian restaurants, kebab joints, McDonald’s and Starbucks were the only places I found that could satisfy me during my early days in Geneva.  I was constantly relishing on rice and that grand Americano coffee.

Fast forward to 2015, I am now a Filipina who relishes on cheeses and chocolates like a Swiss; flirts on fine, delicate wines like a French; drinks beer with fries topped with gallops of mayonnaise like a Belgian; finishes loads of pasta and the entire pizza like a true Italian; sips on espressos more, and now eats rice less, once or twice a week!

Once you are away from home, take this chance to explore other cuisines and you’ll never, ever eat the same way again…

10. Keep an open mind and stay positive.

I think this is the most important lesson I learned and it always remain handy wherever I go.  It’s a different kind of life here, so it’s better to be flexible and adaptable to change.  Whatever challenges that come along the way, focus on the better things to come.

Living abroad – away from home – opens new experiences and opportunities that help you grow as a better person.

WHAT’S YOUR STORY ?

Have you lived away from your home country?  How is it like living in another land?
What are the lessons you’ve learned?  What is your advice for those who seek to live abroad?

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