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ZURICH

OPINION: 12 things that surprised me about moving to Zurich

Switzerland's largest city is full of surprises. From cost to climate, here are 12 examples.

The city of Zurich, with Lake Zurich in the foreground, on a beautiful day. Photo by Volodymyr on Unsplash
The city of Zurich, with Lake Zurich in the foreground, on a beautiful day. Photo by Volodymyr on Unsplash
Australian writer Claire Doble tells The Local why living in Zurich has been full of surprises…
 
I’m not going to lie, when I first moved to Zurich I had a bad time of it.
 
While, logically, I could see it was a beautiful town in a stunning country where life is clean, safe, affluent and well-appointed, I was solidly miserable – I’d given up my friends, a great job and the ease of living life in my native tongue for nice scenery? 
 
But nearly four years on, I am much happier. And after talking to a friend who had just moved cities, I started thinking about all the unexpectedly great things I’ve come to appreciate about my adopted hometown of Zurich. So here are the 12 ways in which Zurich has (pleasantly) surprised me.
 
1 Culture shock
 
I moved to Zurich after almost a decade in London, before which I lived in Sydney. They’re all international cities of the world, and I thought moving from one European country’s largest city to another would not be a major change. But it was. It’s subtle, sure, but it’s there.
 
 
Everything from the new language(s!) and points of etiquette, to the way people queued, to everyday smells on the street. Ultimately, I think it’s both eye-opening, mind-broadening and even humbling to experience this, but it wasn’t exactly the fun and easy adventure I had anticipated.
 
 
2. Shopping
 
Shopping is like a national sport in the UK, Australia and the US. In Switzerland, while people love to spend their money, the attitude to ‘hitting the shops’ feels quite different.
 
 
For one thing, most shops are shut on Sundays. There’s less variety and everything is so expensive, even online. It really makes you re-think the amount of time you dedicate to shopping, and you know what? I feel better for buying less.
 
 
3. Drinking
 
Since I already had a young child when I moved here and have had another since, my hard-drinking days are (mostly!) behind me. However, I do highly rate the general Swiss attitude to booze. There’s far less of a cane-it culture here which means you don’t have to deal with idiots falling out of pubs or pissed footy hooligans.
 
Dinner parties and barbecues with mates end at sensible times and leave me with a pleasant buzz rather than feeling complete blotto. Although I do think it’s a bit weird to come out of a stadium rock concert and find all the local pubs deserted!
 
 
Claire Doble in Zurich. Photo: Claire Doble
 
4. Rules culture
 
My community spirit has risen since moving to Switzerland. I often exchange greetings with locals and neighbours. And I’m now the person who politely rinses their wine bottles before trundling down to the communal recycling bins (carefully separated by glass colour and only within the correct hours of course).
 
People will tell you there are a lot of rules in Switzerland, and it’s true, there are. But I find they’re mostly sensible and if you follow said rules, you’re pretty much left alone to live your life your own way. Which gets rid of a lot of silly, patronising nanny-state-type attitudes. Genius!
 
5. The great outdoors and exercise
 
I’ve been a city-girl all my life. Offer me an evening of dressing up and clubbing and I’d take that over a hike and wellness any day. Or would I?  
 
Mountains, lakes, forests, hiking trails: all that nature grows on you, if you’ll pardon the pun. The Swiss population has the fourth-lowest obesity rate in the OECD countries and it shows.
 
Exercise gives you a ‘mountain high’, which is surprisingly fun and addictive; plus I’ve discovered a whole new world of kit in which to show off one’s freshly toned bod. Win-win!
 
 
 
6. Swimming
 
In London, the municipal pools are all tiny and grotty or huge, freezing outdoor lidos. Either way they’re crowded as heck whenever you’d care to go and spookily deserted at other times.
 
In Sydney, there are sandy beaches and a pool on every corner named after an Olympian, but you can’t park anywhere and the transport sucks.
 
Zurich has a nice mix of lakes, indoor and outdoor pools, all easily accessible via public transport. Plus they pretty much all have free-to-use giant waterslides, which I find very exciting (I mean my kids do, ahem).
 
7. The climate
 
It’s easy to get distracted by scenery in Switzerland, but one thing people rarely mention is the excellent climate. I see a lot of blue skies (some longer-term residents dispute this, but I wonder if they’ve lived in London!).
 
And I really enjoy the definite seasons: winter is properly cold and snowy; summers get hot, with weeks of high-20s/early 30s; and just when you’re getting sick of it, it’s autumn and the leaves are turning glorious shades.
 
Also, you don’t get too much damp, due to the altitude, and in Zurich it’s rarely windy because of the surrounding mountains, plus you get some spectacular thunderstorms.
 

Swimming in the middle of the city on a warm summer's day is certainly possible in Zurich

People swimming at Wasserwerkstrasse 89 in central Zurich. Photo by Teo Zac on Unsplash
 
8. Entrepreneurism
 
A funny one. I thought London was the place to put yourself out there but now I’m not so sure. Zurich is probably not the place you’ll become an overnight sensation but I’ve found it’s a receptive environment for people to create and grow their own businesses and become successful. I’ve also found the expat community very supportive of each other’s ventures.
 
9. Can do but it’ll cost you X
 
Once you get over the ‘sticker shock’ of high costs, what I like in Zurich is that everything has its price and it’s fixed. There’s almost no haggling, which means there’s no hassle.
 
When I recently lost my smartphone at the Limmatschwimmen event, it was no problem because a Bademeisterin (life guard) can dive down to look for it, for a cost of 60 francs, if found (It was – yay!). If she hadn’t found it, I could have commissioned the SeePolizei to do a deep-search for 150 francs.
 
 
Organising a party? Here is the price list and there’s no hidden extras. I guess what I’m saying is, yes: everything costs a lot, but at least you know the next person is paying the exact same amount as you.
 
 
10. Money and real estate
 
Another tricky one. No one likes to talk about it, and it’s generally assumed everyone has a fair bit in Zurich, or you wouldn’t be here. I don’t tend to rub shoulders with Zurich’s super-rich, (although I wouldn’t know it if I did: the Swiss are famously discreet), but I don’t get that sense of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ in Zurich.
 
As for real estate, which in my former hometown of Sydney is completely crazy and just about all anyone can talk about, in Zurich, with 71.5 percent of the population living in long-term rented accommodation, it’s mostly a non-issue. What a blessed relief!
 
 
11. Local festivals and traditions
 
Australia has a lot of imported holiday traditions that can feel a bit odd in the southern hemisphere. Christmas turkey in 40 degrees anyone? Halloween at the start of spring? (Shamefully, white/modern Australia has not adopted days of local or seasonal significance from its first nations people, but that’s a whole separate issue).
 
I love that Zurich goes its own way with national days: Sechseläuten marks the start of summer with a giant exploding snowman in the centre of town and winter begins with the beautiful Räbeleichti – where kids parade with candles in carved-out turnips. So much nicer than hitting up strangers for candy!
 
12. Small(er) is beautiful
 
There’s a lot to be said for life in a small-big town (or should that be a big small-town?). And I’m not surprised it’s often the smaller cities that tend to win global ‘Best Quality of Life’ surveys.
 
With a nice mix of international and local festivals, big-name gigs and smaller venues, global brands and local designers, plus some world-class food, Zurich is compact enough that you’ll often run into someone you know, but large enough that you can be left alone. Best of both worlds? I can honestly say that for me it is!
 
Claire Doble is an Australian-British expat living in Zurich and blogging at clairevetica.wordpress.com
 
Would you like to write about your Swiss life for The Local? Get in touch at [email protected]
 
A version of this article first appeared on The Local in September 2017. 
 

OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: If foreigners think the Swiss are unfriendly who’s to blame?

There is a perception in Switzerland that Swiss natives and foreigners just don't really get on. Clare O'Dea looks at why there might be a lack of chemistry and where the blame may lie.

OPINION: If foreigners think the Swiss are unfriendly who's to blame?

I was once on a bus in Geneva, suffering from morning sickness on that particular day, on my way out to Cern for an interview. A man sitting across from me started to talk. Under the guise of striking up a friendly conversation, he kept asking me questions about myself. ‘Where do you live? Where are you going? Are you a student?’

It doesn’t happen to me anymore but young women will recognise this scenario. I felt cornered and it got the point where I had to tell him to stop quizzing me. ‘Typical Swiss,’ he snapped back at me. ‘Cold and unfriendly.’

It’s an easy accusation to throw around, based as it is on a well-known cliché. At the time I was not Swiss. I had only lived here for a few years having moved from Ireland, a nation famed for its friendliness. 

The extra irony is, I do chat to strangers on public transport, when it happens naturally and without an agenda. I’ve had interesting conversations in this way over the years. I became a Swiss citizen in 2015. Am I a friendly Swiss person or a friendly Irish person now? It shouldn’t matter. 

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But the reputation of the Swiss for coldness seems to have staying power. At the very least, the perception seems to be that there is a lack of chemistry between Swiss and foreigners in this country. So is that a fair and accurate assessment? 

When it comes to the romantic side of things. Swiss people marry foreigners in large numbers. In a given year, a quarter of Swiss brides and grooms choose foreign spouses. Presumably some chemistry is involved in those marriages.

My impression is that the main source for the idea of the Swiss being unfriendly is anecdotal. In my early years as an immigrant, I noticed that fellow foreigners enjoyed sharing anecdotes of encounters with unfriendly Swiss people. Integration can be a lonely and frustrating process beset with misunderstandings. But are these stories being emphasised because they confirm a stereotype or because Swiss unfriendliness is a widespread phenomenon? 

Hard facts are hard to come by in this subjective area. Some “expat” surveys back up the idea that it’s difficult to befriend the Swiss. But if someone defines themselves as an expat, does that not mean they are living somewhat apart from the local population?  

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There’s another stereotype, expat. A high-income foreigner living in Switzerland on a temporary basis, whose work life is English-speaking and multinational. The natives are just extras in the movie of their lives, a movie that will continue elsewhere. Is this the best group to be interpreting what the Swiss are truly like? Is this description fair and accurate? 

Of course there are many different types of foreigners and not enough surveys to cover them all. There are the people with Swiss partners, who have the advantage of tapping into their partner’s ready-made network, which usually means more fast-tracked integration.

There are foreigners born in Switzerland – one in four of the population – who grew up with the Swiss and probably have friends for life who are Swiss. How should their friendliness or lack of it be counted? 

Generally speaking, language fluency and time spent in Switzerland are probably the key determinants of whether the relationship between outsiders and the Swiss is successful. Not to forget personality! 

It also helps to put aside any pre-conceived notions about the Swiss when you come to live here. That’s easier said than done. The Swiss are the rich kid of Europe, somewhat aloof in their international relations, while domestic politics has its xenophobic moments. 

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But to view individual people you meet as embodying these characteristics can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a very diverse country, in terms of language, class, politics, regional differences, and immigration background. 

Perhaps I should mention that I have found the Swiss warm, welcoming and kind. Not everyone, not everywhere, not always, but enough people to maintain my faith in Swiss humanity. Compared to the society I come from, they don’t feel social pressure to perform superficial friendliness. And that’s ok because different countries have different norms.    

The British-Swiss writer Diccon Bewes refers to the Swiss as being like coconuts, in that it’s hard to break through their outer shell, but once you do, you have a friend for life. 

Some things are universal. Two ingredients that have made it easier for me to establish friendships are regular contact and common ground. Times where people are thrown together and where nationality doesn’t matter.

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Maybe the issue is that many foreigners first encounter the Swiss through work or officialdom. But Swiss people are like Clark Kent, living double lives. They don’t reveal their true selves at work. Their true selves are in their passions. 

Hobbies are where it’s at. If you find the Swiss at play or following their passions, you will be able to connect with them because you will be like-minded to some extent.

Whether it’s sports, music or some commitment to the community, the Swiss love joining clubs and associations and organising stuff. Unlike work aperos, people don’t rush home after these gatherings. All you have to do is grab your little glass of white wine and join in.  

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