Pros and Cons of Expat life
I was recently back in Wisconsin for four weeks - the longest I've been "home" since I moved to Switzerland five years ago. It was also the first time I truly felt homesick. I mean, I absolutely LOVE Switzerland (check out my recap of the last five years here) and the lifestyle we have, but it was also REALLY nice to be among all my family and friends, in an area where I feel completely comfortable and confident. I always forget how pleasant it is to be in an English-speaking country. Whereas I avoid smalltalk at all costs in Switzerland (what if someone responds with something I don't understand?!), I become Ms. Chatterbox in the States, talking to random people in elevators and in line at the coffee shop. And I don't have an anxiety attack every time I have to drive or park the car - there's just so much space in the US! Life as an expat in Switzerland is certainly amazing, but it also comes with some sacrifices and adjustments.
- Distance from family / friends - don't take this for granted! When you are usually only able to see your family once or twice a year when living abroad, recently having four consecutive weeks was heaven! I could see everyone multiple times and it really felt like we were all neighbors again. This is the biggest sacrifice to living 4,000 miles away. Yes social media makes it easier, but it was wonderful to really spend quality time with my family for once. This gets even harder now that I have a daughter, since I want her to know her relatives too.
- Lack of living space - the majority of the population here lives in apartment/condo style housing. To own an actual house is pretty expensive and the options are limited. In the US we could easily have a 3+ bedroom home, with finished basement, multi-car garage and big yard. That is basically unheard of here. It was so nice to spend time at my parents' homes and actually enjoy a yard - eating dinner outside (with friendly deer!), walking barefoot in the grass and having a nightly bonfire.
- Expensive - not only is the cost of living in Switzerland very high (a hamburger is about $25 and the monthly mortgage payment for our 2-bedroom flat is twice what I paid monthly for my entire house in Wisconsin), but if I want to see my family it is a $1,000 plane ride away (plus rental car!). I try to go home twice a year, but that adds up. Recently in Wisconsin, I was able to buy food (burgers, brats, hot dogs, buns, chips, snacks, desserts, etc) for a party of 18 people for under $50. In Switzerland, that same amount of food would have been close to $200.
- Learning curve- I didn't grow up here, so everything is new and must be learned. The healthcare system, the school system, local laws and customs, location of specialty stores (because there are no Targets or Amazon!!)...it's all different. Add to that a language barrier and I'm completely out of my comfort zone. Yes, I understand basic German, but the Swiss dialect is challenging to say the least and I'm constantly in fear of sounding stupid. It was so nice in Wisconsin to call and make a dinner reservation without having to practice what I'd say in advance!
But despite what we give up when choosing to live abroad, we're also getting a lot too:
- Proximity to other cultures/countries - You just don't get this in the US. Driving to another country is as easy as driving to another state. You're surrounded by other languages and cultures, and for the most part it is seen as a positive thing rather than negative. I love how easily we can travel and experience new things and I love the idea of raising children in such a culturally-aware environment.
- Beautiful location - It's no coincidence that Switzerland (and Luzern) is a top tourist destination. Snow-covered mountains, pristine lakes, historic fairytale villages, a moderate climate (no extreme cold or heat like Wisconsin!) make living here feel like an extended vacation. It's hard to be depressed when you're surrounded by such beauty and nature.
- Work / life balance - I have an entire post on this here. Let's just say that five weeks of vacation, plus about ten national holidays, enforced lunch breaks and part-time work options make it quite a bit nicer than working in the US. Following my 14-week paid maternity leave, I was able to take four additional months of unpaid leave and when I return it will be at 60%...this is pretty much the norm.
- Walkable cities with great public transportation - There's something so nice about being able to walk everywhere - it's so convenient and it's great exercise. Plus I don't have to worry about trying to park a car in the teeny-tiny spots here. Everything I need is within walking distance, or just a short bus ride away - grocery store, restaurants, hospital/doctor's office, parks, lake, hair salon, pharmacy, gym, schools, etc.
In my dream world (aka, if we won the lottery), I'd spend the entire Summer in Wisconsin (NOT Winter) and the rest of the year in Switzerland and traveling around Europe!