A year ago, I moved to Switzerland. Cue the yodelling, cow bells, and chocolate fountains.
The country boasts almost everything I consider essential in an ideal society. Almost. The fact is, Switzerland isn’t a country for young, career-starting expats. Switzerland is our layover; we only stay for as long as we need to.
Now I, like many other bright-eyed twenty-somethings, firmly believed I could buck this trend and committed myself to integration. I studied German. I prescribed to a diet of coffee and cheese. And I invested my time in the outdoors. The big three: language, food, and culture. What could possibly go wrong? First, Swiss German isn’t the same as German. Second, turns out I can’t eat dairy. Third, rollerblading isn’t as easy as kids make it look.
The fact is, integration is mostly superficial. It’s taking part in things that the locals do. But what’s the point in any of it if you don’t have any friends?
How do you make friends when you’re an adult?
Before you think I’m being dramatic, Switzerland has been voted “the worst place to make friends.” And from personal experience, one does not simply “approach people and chat” in Switzerland.
For me at least, the problem is also exacerbated by the fact that I lived in the home of hospitality for two years. I became accustomed and infatuated by the US culture of talking to everybody. Bad day? Your cashier will offer you advice! Lost? Just ask for directions! Lonely? Go to the local coffee shop! Atlanta taught me how to be an extrovert, spoilt me with human contact, and showed me what community looks like.
Fast forward to Switzerland and I came to believe that I was the problem for my non-existent friend count; maybe I’m too loud? Too young? Too foreign? Then I was convinced that the privileges of being a student had spoilt me. I mean, if you’re in a class of ten, that’s nine potential friends off the bat. So then I turned to the fountain of knowledge and googled: “How do adults make friends?” (cue tiny violin). Armed with a wealth of tips and tricks, I did what adults do: go to bars, join clubs, visit new places. But then those endeavours also turned up empty. Everyone was either older, spoke no English, or was simply disinterested. It turned out the twenty-somethings had already filled their quota of friends, and I was too late to join the club.
There’s a difference between travelling somewhere and living there.
To keep myself motivated and occupied, I’ve resigned to acting like a perpetual tourist. I enjoy the sights, experience new things, and talk to other foreign people. All of which are great when you’re on holiday and you have the promise of people waiting for you when you get home. But technically, I’m already home.
Let’s be clear, this isn’t a damning criticism of the lack of community in Switzerland because it certainly does exist. The problem I’ve encountered is that you need a foot in the door. For expats without a Swiss connection, that door is almost always closed. So the young expats close our own doors, band together, and dream of the day that we can leave.
Of all the things I’ve learnt in this past year, my Swiss experience has made one thing abundantly clear; community and friends are what make a home, and without it, there’s nothing compelling you to stay.
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