This week I got something done that I’ve dreading for quite some time- the much hated Swiss “Grundreinigung.” See, when you hand over an apartment here, you are expected to leave it clean. Not “Besenrein” (=broom clean), but CLEAN CLEAN. They give you a checklist that includes removing the faucets and decaulking them, polishing the baseboards, cleaning and replacing the filters and general moving parts, repainting, and just generally scouring between every possible crevice that exists. They’ve got you, too, because deposits are normally 3x monthly rent, which for me was almost 4,000 CHF, and you sure aren’t getting that back if you leave it Besenrein. It took me SEVEN HOURS after my subtenant left to get it cleaned, and that’s just for my tiny studio. Next time I am definitely paying someone to do it. It costs around 1,000CHF, but man is that a lot of work and time. Our current much larger apartment gives me literal hives even thinking about doing that level of cleaning.
All this was just the latest stage in my ponderings, though, about the process of moving to a new country. There is a pretty well established literature about the stages of adjustment to a new culture (see the graphic below. I don’t know how scientifically rigorous it is, but you see this type of graph everywhere.
There was a honeymoon period for me with Switzerland for sure- everything is great and perfect and heavenly and there’s Alps!- and then a minor dip as I got frustrated with the fact that I couldn’t even navigate minor interactions in German and generally had no idea how to do anything from buying fruit at the grocery store to figuring out health insurance. Then I made friends, I became familiar with the rhythms of Swiss life, I felt like I had things Figured Out in my life in Zurich.
Then I started dating Benno and moved to Baden. MAN, do I now relate to the whole second dip of “confronting deeper cultural/personal issues.”
In a way, I realized I was living a very specific type of life in Switzerland. I was learning German, but the bulk of my socializing was being done in English. It was just a fun hobby, really. Sure, I had lots of local Swiss and international friends, and often met their parents or friends on the weekend, and traveled all over the country, but the people I met living in Zurich and in big cities in general are systematically different from people on the countryside. They are used to dealing with foreigners, and generally their lives are not such a different shape from my own life in Boston or NYC.
All of this has culminated in a (for me) extremely unexpected sense of culture shock since moving to Baden. It also coincided with my illness and moving in with Benno and an extremely stressful time at work, so perhaps part of it is that I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to deal with these changes. The problems I have been having are utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things- run ins that would normally roll off my back. But I was just so freaking unexpectedly FRUSTRATED ALL OF THE TIME.
A few petty examples- since taking my new job and setting up shop more semi-permanently in Switzerland, I decided I needed to start doing all my medical stuff in the country I live in. I started with contact lenses. I attempted to set up an eye test FOUR TIMES- I won’t bore you with the details, but it was a combination of their incompetence and my lack of understanding of the medical system here. Each time I lost a little work time and patience. Finally the last time I walk out frustrated and decide that I am going to set up an eye appointment RIGHT NOW come hell or high water. I had all of one weeks left of contacts anyway. The first shop I call in Baden had a receptionist that just COULD NOT understand my accent (in my own defense, I regularly navigate much more difficult situations in German, and Benno said I was perfectly understandable. She just didn’t seem to be able to understand any kind of accent that wasn’t Swiss). I’m getting more and more frustrated, Benno hears my struggles and comes and grabs the phone and sets up the appointment. Meanwhile I have embarrassingly dissolved into tears. It just sucks to sometimes feel like I am a child instead of the full blown competent PhD holding adult that I am. (Note: I was able to have the eye test immediately and the doctor had NO TROUBLES conducting the entire examination in German with me. It was literally just this receptionist).
Another evening I was really tired from work and the lingering effects of my illness and went out with Benno and another Swiss couple. It was the first time that Benno had met this friend’s new SO and they all kept switching to Swiss German without realizing it. This is common in the countryside, especially among older people- they probably haven’t spoken High German since their young schooling. I still don’t understand a lot of Swiss German, and in particular have troubles with the dialect from Benno’s area, and that night I was too tired to even try to keep up or keep asking to speak high German. Sure, they could have been more careful to include me, and usually Benno’s friends are, but it’s just hard. Imagine speaking basically a foreign language without slang 100% of the time with your oldest friends or family. Naturally you would fall inevitably back into old habits. They were making a lot of jokes as well, and Swiss humor can be very dark and different from American humor. I just felt very…foreign.
I could go on, but there have been a whole sequence of these minor frustrations writ large. Part of the reason I can write about this clearly is that I now see the way forward- clearly I must learn to at least understand Swiss German in order to live the kind of social and independent life I want to live. Period. The rest of it will come.
There are some pros to the rose-colored glasses with my new(ish) country being off. I can still say with certainty all the things that I love- the fact that I still think it probably has the most natural beauty per square inch of anywhere I have ever seen, the efficiency, the generous work-life balance, the general sense of cosmopolitan internationality. The cappuccinos and cheese.
But like any country, there are negatives. Efficiency can also translate to rigidity. Swiss German is a nightmare to learn. Emotions are more subdued (whether this is a positive or a negative might depend on the foreigner :P). They make you clean your apartment like a crazy person. But I still do love this country, and I love my life here. It’s just starting to take a shape I never expected.
In my positive coping upswing, I have implemented several changes. Benno and I have labeled items around the house with post-its with their Swiss German name. I can practice the word for mirror while brushing my teeth (=”Spiegu”). We’ve also started having two Swiss German dinners a week where I speak High German and he speaks very slow Swiss German to me, and stops to answer all my questions. It’s really helping!
This entry is an attempt to keep it real with myself and the four people reading this blog about what moving to a new country is really like, or at least what it’s like for me. I’ve always felt like the best things are worth working for, though, so for me this is all part of a larger satisfying process of integrating into a different culture.
It’s (mostly) not all chocolate and cheese.