expat

I’ve been an expat for one and a half years now, and had never before sat down to clear my thoughts and feelings on living in Switzerland. It’s not my first time abroad. However, it’s the first time that I left my country without knowing when I’d be going back. I didn’t care about not knowing one single soul in the whole country, nor did I care about my lack of french knowledge. I hardly blinked when it came to leave the comfortable familiarity behind and dive into the unknown. I was going to conquer the World (or at least, Switzerland).

The truth is – culture shock hit me deeper than I thought. It’s not only about learning how to copy with different social norms – i.e. learning where to park my bike and where not to (something I unfortunately learned the hard way). Culture shock continues long after becoming familiar with my new life.

Honeymoon

Lavaux, Switzerland

The Honeymoon phase is full of excitement and euphoria. You feel you can grab the World in your hands and do whatever you want. Every day is a new adventure – new faces, a different restaurant, a hidden shop, a cute small side street with boulangeries selling the best baguette you have ever tried. The public transport is reliable, the city is peaceful, clean and safe and people are kind and respectful.

You smile while you walk. Life is good. Actually, scratch that – life is amazing. You are so glad you chose to move and can’t imagine life any other way.

Frustration

Vevey, Switzerland

The shine starts to fade away. You realize that there are actually less than 5 bars where you can go to – either because of the crowds or because of the prices. It’s the fourth time you try asking for a glass of water with your coffee and you receive an arrogant look from the waiter. Maybe even a clueless arrogant look. You’re grammatical mistakes bothers them, and having to repeat the same word 10 times upsets you, too. You go to a hairdresser and come out with a messy cut (that doesn’t resemble a tiny bit what you initially had in mind) and realize that this trend disaster has left you completely broke.

At this point, you start to get familiar with the disadvantages of living abroad. You feel alone and misunderstood, disillusioned, frustrated and angry. Why did you ever even think this move would be a good idea?

Understanding

Water Fountain, Lausanne (Switzerland)

After a while, things start to look brighter – you are adjusting to your new home country. Those things that used to annoy you, are now small and insignificant. You start to see the advantages of having an early start on Saturdays and venture into new activities you never thought you enjoy before. You have set a routine and feel comfortable with it.

You understand the cultural differences with your home country and are learning how to deal with them.

Biculturalism

Sunset in Lausanne (Switzerland)

Although I have adopted some local habits and am adjusting to the new culture, I still don’t feel that I belong here – I feel like a foreigner. I guess the main reason for this is my ridiculous lack of french skills. I truly need to work on that! I envy those that have become bicultural – they are aware of where they came from but have fully embraced swiss culture. They never feel out-of-place.

This phase that takes a lot of understanding and an open mind.

Note: At the point of writing this post, I was in living in Switzerland experiencing the third phase – Understanding. Five months later, I was transferred to London. I have fond memories of living in Switzerland and hope to move back again in the future. Maybe this means that I finally did reach biculturalism – despite my french!

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

You might ask yourself what these bises are and why I’m so concerned about them, anyways. In France, as well as in the Suisse Romande fair la bise is a synonym for cheek-kissing, a mainly European custom that gets very complicated when someone french is involved.

To fair la bise generally involves touching cheeks while kissing the air with an audible smack of the lips. That’s the easy part. Now the real question is: Who to kiss and who not to kiss? And then again, how many of these bises shall you give? There are no written rules – which will lead to many awkward situations. While in Paris people give 2 bises, in some suburbs it’s 4 and in other areas in France 3 (the same as in Switzerland). This can already lead to a lot of confusion – if a swiss and a Parisian meet: how much kissing would there be involved? I often see myself in this kind of complication – the last time being just a few days ago. I flew to Paris for a bank meeting with someone I had been on the phone with for months but had never met before face to face. Since I felt as if I knew him forever, I leaned up to faire la bise, and noticed his confusion, but awkwardly followed my spontaneity (probably to avoid by total embarrassment).

Commonly, women can kiss each other in almost any circumstance (it get’s tricky if you greet elderly people for the first time or if it’s a business meeting). Men, otherwise, only will kiss other men if they are related or are two best friends who haven’t seen each other in a very long time. An exception to this is New Year’s Eve – where everybody seems to get loose (probably a consequence of the all the vin).

So what do you do?

Probably the best guideline is – go for it if you feel like it. In my experience, fair la bise (and specially getting it wrong) break the ice and will more often pull out a smile than a frown.

Have you ever gotten yourself into an awkward bise situation abroad?