Integration is a long journey

I was invited to talk to a journalist about my experience of integration in Switzerland, the interview was then published in the Sonntagszeitung and received a lot of attention. It was important to me to show that international residents are keen in integrating and that there is a lot more that connects them to locals than that divides them, obviously the journalist chose what to include in the interview and what not, but overall the sentiment is correct. I have translated the interview into English so that you may read it to.

(Written by Chris Winteler, Photograph by Stefano Schröter)

Charlie Hartmann (54) knows the expat life from her own experience: The British-born expatriate has lived and worked in many countries. In 2000, she moved to Switzerland – and felt unaccepted despite all her efforts. To make it easier for newcomers to settle in Switzerland, she founded the counseling center The LivingIn Association as well as the Lili Center in Lucerne, a meeting place for people from all over the world. Her guidebooks “Settling in Lucerne” and “Settling in Zurich” are designed to help expats feel at home in a new city.

Apparently, expats do not feel welcome in Switzerland. According to the latest survey by “InterNations Expat-Insider,” one in four expats surveyed describes the Swiss population as unfriendly, and more than half have difficulty making friends locally.

That doesn’t surprise me at all, I hear that often. And I have experienced it myself: The Swiss don’t wait for foreigners, they already have a circle of friends, and they have a full program. They also lack spontaneity: “Come over for a drink!” That hardly exists here. A meeting often has to be arranged weeks in advance.

The term “Expat” usually refers to highly qualified professionals who are sent abroad by their employer for a limited period of time. They usually stay for one to five years. Is that your definition as well?

Today, probably a quarter of expats are still brought here by their employer. And the times when the employer organized and even paid for the apartment are over for most of them. The majority come to Switzerland for love or study and have a local employment contract. Many stay longer than five years, some even forever.

In fact, according to the survey, 76 percent of expats are satisfied overall with their life in Switzerland. What is particularly appreciated?

The quality of life here is great! The landscape, the mountains and lakes, the nature and the clean air are unique. In addition, the security and political stability are very much appreciated.

In 2000, you moved to Switzerland with your husband from Lucerne. How did you experience the new start here?

It was difficult. We moved into the in-laws’ house in Engelberg, my husband continued to travel on business, and I was often alone. I felt a certain mistrust in the village, at that time there were not many foreigners living in Engelberg. The fact that I already knew some Swiss German hardly helped – I encountered a closed society.

What did you do to become part of the village community?

I made an effort, I was active in several clubs and gave English lessons to the children in the village. But I always had the feeling of not being accepted. That’s why I made the decision to help other expats settle in Switzerland.

They are keen to highlight the common hardships faced by expats – even where they belong to the privileged class.

What I hear most often is, “Help, I’m lost.” You have to imagine, these people leave everything behind, friends, home and professional environment. Many come with the expectation that they will be just as successful here as they were before. That rarely comes to pass. They all have a desire to feel safe and at home here and to be part of society.

Expats, however, have a reputation for preferring to live in their international bubble. Is this just a prejudice?

These expats certainly exist, but they are a minority, they stay for two or three years and then move on to Singapore or somewhere else. The Bubble offers a protection because you are among people who understand you and don’t judge you. But you risk getting your heart broken over and over again: You make friends – and have to move on again. None of my closest expat friends live in Lucerne anymore; they all moved on.

Your advice on how and where expats can best connect?

The Swiss are very active, and they love their clubs. A common hobby can help to make acquaintances. It is important to be open to new things. This requires a welcoming counterpart.

You led an expat life for many years, what was your recipe for quickly feeling at home in a country?

Actually, I’ve been an outsider since I was a child; as an Englishwoman, I grew up in Corsica. I was always the foreigner, and that has shaped my life. With my husband, I have lived and worked in England, France, Germany and the USA. In ten years, we moved eleven times. In each place, it was important for me to find my bakery, my café, my store, so that I felt comfortable in my closest surroundings.

Where was it easy to settle in, where more difficult?

If you already know the local language, it’s certainly easier. In San Francisco, I settled in relatively quickly. Californians are very open-minded and helpful; for example, I was spontaneously invited sailing. In New York and especially in Frankfurt, people were less open, it took longer. Because: It takes two to tango! It always takes two.

What does it take to succeed, especially in Switzerland?

I can quickly see who will make it and who won’t. People who are willing to learn the language, understand the culture, make an effort and know that integration doesn’t happen overnight have good chances. Those who don’t want to adapt don’t stand a chance.

Are there any characteristic differences between men and women in terms of ideas and wishes regarding life in Switzerland?

Women in particular have the need to make new acquaintances, they need a network. Loneliness, the feeling of not belonging, is widespread. During the pandemic with the travel ban, women suffered particularly from isolation. Mental health is currently our biggest concern, our most important programme.

Ten years ago you founded the community centre The LiLi Centre in Lucerne. What is the idea behind it?

Every newcomer needs help with integration. We are a contact point for all kinds of questions. From “Which school should I send my child to?” to “Where can I get my mushrooms checked?” Among other things, we offer conversation courses in German or help with job integration, for example by explaining what a letter of application in Switzerland should look like.

Do you apply differently in Switzerland than abroad?

Oh yes! A CV in England or the USA is limited to education and professional experience. No photo, no gender, no date of birth, no marital status, no nationality. Because the employer should not be influenced by appearance, age or other personal details.

Zurich in particular benefits from the large number of international employees, but there is also growing resentment. More than 10 per cent of the city’s population say English is their main language. In some restaurants, people are even served in English. The mayor of Zurich, Corine Mauch, recently said that she expects expats to learn German.

That goes without saying. Language is the key to a country’s culture and the first step to making local friends. I also advise everyone to learn the most important words in Swiss German. It makes a difference when you say “Grüezi” in the bakery, it’s a sign of respect.

Some Swiss people are bothered by the fact that expats speak English to them quite openly. Why do they take this for granted?

Certainly out of habit. But also because they know that the Swiss are linguistically adept. After all, it’s not that easy to practise German because the Swiss speak English straight away.

So are the Swiss adapting too much?

Yes, perhaps. It’s meant nicely, but they could calmly say, “try it in German”. On the other hand, I think officials could try a little harder. If you’re new in town and need information over the phone, it would be really helpful to be advised in English.

In the Zurich municipalities of Adliswil and Wädenswil, expats cause hot heads because they drive their children to the International School and cause traffic jams. Why is taxi service so common among expat parents?

The Swiss are lucky to live in such a safe country that children can use public transport or walk to school. In England, the USA and even more so in Latin America, this is unthinkable, the fear of muggings, kidnappings or traffic accidents is too great. The expats have to learn that the children do not have to be accompanied here.

Wouldn’t it also make sense for integration if these children attended public school?

Agreed, especially since the public schools are excellent. Our daughter now attends the Kanti and is perfectly trilingual. But I also understand why some families choose an international school, especially if they only want to stay a few years.

You have been following the issue for many years. How has the relationship between expats and locals changed over the years?

I notice that theyounger generation of Swiss people is more tolerant to foreigners today. However some expats told me they felt watched and controlled. There are so many rules and customs in Switzerland. It’s often little things that are taken for granted if you were born here. But if you are new to the country, you have to get used to them.

What are you thinking about?

Litter is the big issue. The first lesson for newcomers is how to dispose of waste correctly. You don’t have to pay for rubbish bags abroad. Recently, an American woman told me that she had disposed of a plastic vinegar bottle with the PET bottles, and was harshly reprimanded by a Swiss woman. You know, when you feel foreign and a bit lost, such a reaction can be formative.

The Swiss are often perceived as over-correct

for the Swiss, there is only one right way to do things. It would be nice if they were a little more forgiving and patient with the newcomers. I would be happy if they were generally more open and interested. But it’s probably a typical Swiss quirk that people hardly ask and are reserved.

You wrote the guidebooks “Settling in Zurich” and “Settling in Lucerne” to help expats find their way around Switzerland and get to know the customs of the Swiss. Will there be more to follow?

The “Zug Edition” will be next, and other cities are planned. The book is a guide to finding one’s way around in the new city and making use of the diverse offers. Last but not least, it should ensure that foreigners and Swiss live together harmoniously. It’s not that difficult to integrate, but you simply have to know certain habits of the locals.

For example?

Punctuality is enormously important. Swiss people come even earlier than agreed. If you are invited at 6.30 p.m., it means 6.30 p.m.. And you have to take your shoes off. I only know that in Japan. So I usually take slippers with me – and check the socks. (laughs)

In your experience, what do the Swiss not like at all?

Noise! Children’s noise, radio noise, Swiss people can’t stand noise. You have to be quiet before 7 a.m. and after 10 p.m., between 12 a.m. and 1 p.m. and on Sundays in Switzerland. Noise is the third most common reason for quarrelling with neighbours after the laundry room and the rubbish bag.

Your tip for being a good neighbour?

You have to know the house rules. It certainly helps if you briefly introduce yourself when you move in and perhaps organise a small aperitif. In the stairwell you should say hello. But here too: It takes both sides. Inviting each other for a drink is certainly never wrong.

When is integration in a new country successful?

Integration is more than just mastering the language; it is not enough to belong to a club. Rather, it is a sense of well-being, the feeling of being at home and accepted in a place. That takes time, integration is a long journey. I have arrived in Lucerne.

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