Never once in my wildest dreams did I think I would birth and raise a family in a foreign country, but that quickly became our reality when we moved to Switzerland. We were open to the possibilities of moving to a foreign country and all that comes in that neatly and often times, haphazardly wrapped package. We took the leap, embraced the challenge and now, nine years in and two children later, we are indeed raising a family in a country that is not our own. Who would have thought?
I am an American who lived in six different states before moving with my husband, Robert to Switzerland in 2007. Robert was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California until he moved to the East Coast to attend University. I met Robert our first week of school in 1995. We were married a few years later and have been on an incredible adventure ever since!
After a very rough couple of years, we felt the need for explosive change. We were stuck in a rut of sadness, sameness and longed for our lives to feel fresh and new again. Switzerland certainly delivered when it came to drastic change on every level. We have lived in Basel for nine years and despite how difficult it was to leave the familiarity of home and say good – bye to our dear friends, and family, we have always felt our relocation was one of the best decisions for us as individuals, as a couple and now as a family.
Speaking of family, we now have two children; Noah, our eldest, is seven and in grade two and Tessa is five and just started Kindergarten. Our children attend local schools, speak Swiss German fluently and feel very integrated into Swiss life.
Life In Basel:
Basel is a relatively small city, but it has big flare! With just under 200,000 residents, the city is charming in every way. Basel boarders France and Germany, which makes it quite easy to hop over the borders for sightseeing, shopping or simply visiting.
Our location in the city is ideal because we live in close proximity to the Rhine, making the city even more enjoyable. Many people swim in the river, restaurants are perched over the water and it is not uncommon to see people with a bottle of wine and cheese picnicking by the river. It has a magical feel to it every season, but the summer months make living in this city feel like we live in a beach town. Volleyball games, BBQ’s, and swimming all contribute to a very relaxed atmosphere!
Basel, in my humble opinion is a true haven for families. Whether it is a stroll along the river, a walk to one of the beautiful parks in the city, a trek to a museum, or a slow meander through the downtown, Basel is a walk-able city that has done a tremendous job of preserving green space for everyone to enjoy.
Having Children in a Foreign Country:
Starting a family in your own country is a life-altering event, however, starting a family in a foreign country is at times mind blowing and certainly a bitter – sweet experience. For all the special moments you miss with family and friends gathering around you as you go into labor and then smothering you with their presence once the baby is born, simply doesn’t happen when living abroad. Having that said, there are other experiences that are wonderful, including relying on your partner in ways you never imagined, ultimately bringing your relationship that much closer.
Throughout both pregnancies, I received excellent medical care. The role of midwives is very active in Switzerland and the holistic approach to pregnancy and birthing is one, which resonates with me. When having a complicated delivery with our son, the midwife consulted with the Dr. and together they determined the best course of action for our situation. The mutual respect of both parties was beautiful to witness and we delivered a healthy baby.
When I delivered my son, the standard hospital stay was five days. I was grateful for support rendered by the hospital staff, the lactation consultants and the nurses. As a first – time mother, I cherished my time in the hospital and felt secure, comfortable and more confident upon our departure.
When I delivered our daughter, the experience was very different. After 24 – hours in the hospital, our English-speaking midwife was closing off her rotation. Our new midwife didn’t speak English and thus, I delivered our daughter in German. That was quite the experience, but in the end, all went well. Having a supportive partner during times like those was invaluable! I am still grateful to my husband for being my advocate, champion and essentially my Doula during those special times.
Being Outside A Lot:
Switzerland is the ideal place to spend ample time outdoors. With the Alps just a couple of hours away, we make frequent trips to the mountains. Our children have spent their entire lives hiking in the Alps. We hiked extensively when I was pregnant and once the children were born, we continued. Our love for the mountains was and is still too great to abandon our visits just because we have had children. By including our children in our hikes and adventures, we hope their love for the outdoors lasts a lifetime.
If we are not in the mountains, we can be found hiking on the local trails, or spending quality time in a local botanical garden. We live in a modest apartment on a second floor, so getting outside is essential. Though we have a glorious backyard space, we still take our children outside a great deal.
The Joy of Public Transportation:
As Americans, it was hard for us to fathom life without a car, but when we first arrived in Switzerland, it was just the two of us and we were determined to try a car – free lifestyle. Nine years later we are still a car – free family.
I certainly miss driving in some regards, but with public transportation being clean, reliable and easy to access, we remain committed to not having a car. Perhaps that will change one day, as there are conveniences that come with owning a car, however, at this time, we are quite happy to enjoy the scenery as it passes by from the window of a tram, bus, train, gondola, boat or funicular.
Being a foreigner raising a family in a new country can be tricky at times, but you certainly learn to make keen observations about those around you. One aspect of Swiss parenting I witness very early on was the autonomy given to children. I used to commute via train everyday to work and often noticed a little girl about seven, taking the train alone each morning to school. The first time I saw her, I immediately wondered where her parents were. After continuously seeing her, I realized she traveled alone to school. The Swiss value and nourish children’s autonomy. Children are encouraged to walk to school alone and can often be found at local playgrounds by themselves.
Another aspect of parenting I greatly admire is the lack of public reprimanding or yelling. The Swiss tend to be quiet and reserved and correct children in a firm, yet nurturing way.
When someone recently heard our son speaking English, they asked where he was from. His response was clear and concise, “Switzerland.” The person looked surprised and repeated the question, “I know you live in Switzerland, but where are you from?” My son once again said, “Switzerland.” The reality is, despite his American passport, he identifies Switzerland as his home country. He was born in Basel and is being raised in Switzerland, attends local school, local programs and feels rather Swiss. America is a place that he visits family, but is not necessarily a location that his identifies with as home.
For us, the adults, we feel quite differently than our children. We at times, still feel quite foreign despite our nine years of residing in Switzerland. We still fumble our way through German and may always speak with a notable American accent, but at least we are trying.
We still long for the closeness that only family can bring and the joy of having friends that share a deep history with us, but we certainly relish in our visits with them each time we return home. There is nothing like a hug from a familiar face!
At times, we would like the option of owning a home and land (I have a secret desire to have a small farm), but having that said, we know once we embark on that journey our simple, on – the – move lifestyle will come to an end. I keep reminding myself that one day when we feel the need to slow down and place down roots, that will indeed happen. We never dismiss our return to the States, for in this life nothing is ever certain.
Having all of that said, we are grateful for our life in Switzerland. Our children are receiving a solid education, they can walk to school, our neighborhood is ideal for supporting our needs (grocery store, pharmacy, schools, Dr.’s offices, my gym, the bank, etc.), and our ability to travel around Europe is irreplaceable. We have a high standard of living and an excellent quality of life. Switzerland also provides us with the opportunity to live a very simple life; renting instead of owning, not needing to have a car, walking everywhere, and those are all aspects of life we cherish immensely at this point in our lives.
Raising Bilingual Children:
There are four official languages in Switzerland: German, French, Italian and Romansch, so needless to say, we hear an array of languages everyday. Being situated in the middle of Europe we are lucky to be surrounded by numerous cultures and customs, which truly adds spice to our lives.
As a child and even now, I am in complete awe of people who speak more than one language. To be able to seamlessly flow from one language to the next is incredible. I have always wanted my children to speak more than one language fluently and by raising them in Switzerland that will not be hard to do especially because we have chosen to send them to local preschools, playgroups and primary school. As a parent, I still smile whenever my children speak with one another in German and sigh a humble relieve when they correct my German.
The Swiss value quiet and Sunday seems to be a sacred day of rest for most. We have done our best to adapt to this way of life and try to move slowly on Sunday. For us, Sundays are typically spent over a slow, lingering breakfast followed by a nice hike on local trails. We try to reserve the late afternoon for relaxing at home and preparing for the week ahead.
Falling in Love:
I have equated our initial stint in Switzerland to falling in love. When we first arrived we were completely smitten with Switzerland and wanted to get to know each and every detail our new country.
Early on, we would board a train after working all week, look at each other giddy with excitement and wonder if our experience was indeed real. Believe it or not, we still feel that way after nine years. Each time we visit the Alps, we cannot help but feel a sense of complete wonder wash over us. We adore that feeling and get itchy if we have been away from the mountains too long! The beauty of this country is remarkable and we never, ever take that for granted and do our best to see and do as much as possible.
The Swiss value cleanliness and now, we do too. If we haven’t traveled outside of Switzerland for a while and then embark on a journey, we are often reminded how clean, tidy and organized Switzerland is. Despite having a great deal of “street art” Switzerland’s streets are clean, schools are immaculate and the infrastructure is impeccable. We appreciate that way of life, especially now that we have children.
A Simple Truth:
I must include this piece, for without this honesty, this essay would not be complete. I often feel homeless. Despite my deep love for Switzerland, and my identity as an American, I often feel as though I don’t belong in either country. My heart has embraced the new, yet never fully abandoned the old. I am not alone in this thought I know.
When I am in America I see my country through the lens of a foreigner often wondering if I could ever “do” America again. Despite my questioning, I fall in ease with the familiarity of my surroundings and fall back in love with the friends I have left far behind. I find at times, an awkward silence fill a room when in the presence of family, for we have been gone ever so long now. A choice some may never except fully.
And Switzerland, the harsh reality is, I am not and will never be Swiss. This country, my God, this country has gotten it “right” on so many levels, but regardless of the time spent here, I am uncertain as to whether or not I will ever feel 100% comfortable in this land. Perhaps time will tell.
And for those times when the question of whether to return to our “home” haunts me, I stop and think, “How lucky am I to have that choice?” A choice that is not dictated or forced due to war, poverty or politics. So, I dig myself out of my thoughts and give thanks for all that I have knowing that one day our choice to return home may be one of necessity.
I have often equated our experience of living, working and raising a family in Switzerland as a very rich existence. I do not mean rich in a monetary sense, however, rich with valuable life experiences.
Each day we are pushed out of our comfort zone and reminded that we are living the life of a foreigner. We speak a language we never would have otherwise spoken, we have learned to lean on each other as a family in ways that would not have been necessary in America and most of all, we have lived life in a way that we never dreamed possible. Switzerland has taken life and given it a good, positive shake – up by providing us with the opportunity to live, work, travel and educate ourselves beyond comprehension.
And as for our children, we pray one day they reflect on their lives with a deep sense of happiness. We did our best to teach them the wonders of this world, the power of the natural world, the warmth of a smile, the depths of understanding, the need to at times be brave, the appreciation for embracing the new, yet respecting the old. We hope the languages they speak today stay with them and that they never lose their desire to make the most of this one incredible life! So today, we are incredibly grateful for EVERYTHING!