Location, location, location

Do we feel more foreign
in some places than in others?
Writing last week’s post
about how I feel that, at this stage in my life, Zurich is a good “fit” for me, made me
think about all the other times that I changed cities and how easy or
difficult it was for me to feel at home there. I have often wondered what it is
about certain cities (or towns or countries or communities…) that makes them
more welcoming; that makes it easier for a newcomer to adjust and feel comfortable. Why did I have a hard time adapting in some locations, while in
others, I felt at home relatively fast?
Putting aside for a moment subjective elements, such as personality, stage in life or family structure, I believe that there are
some key elements that are important, even if each of us may “weigh” them differently.
For instance, it matters if a city is international and familiar with foreigners. It is harder to feel foreign in places like New York or London, which
are full or foreigners, than in a small village in Greece, where (at least
until a few years ago) there are hardly any foreigners to be seen. A community that is used to having foreigners be part of it (and not just tourists)
is more likely to be receptive to new foreigners. Let us also not forget that an established international community is a valuable resource for newcomers. Zurich is
one-third foreigners. Even in our little community, I walk around and hear
English spoken. The bilingual pre-school is just around the
Language – or rather the
flexibility and tolerance of the hosts towards others speaking their language – is another
key factor. I feel less of a foreigner because I am able to communicate. I do
not speak Swiss German (and am very apologetic about it), but I have yet to
find someone who will not speak to me either in German or in English – and
that, not begrudgingly.
Size also matters. A
smaller place may be more accessible and easier to learn to navigate, at least
in the beginning. That was certainly my experience with Zurich. Even more, being part of a compact, relatively
self-contained community (the town where we live), helped me adjust much faster.
Infrastructure – particularly one that is open and accessible to foreigners – also plays a
role. Being able to take advantage of a well-functioning public transport system
increases your flexibility to get to different places – and getting places keeps you from feeling isolated. But it’s not just mobility. A reliable health care system makes
you feel more secure. If you have children, the public education system and the
opportunities available within it matter a lot. All that (and more) makes life less
stressful. So does safety,
particularly if you have children. It is a big deal for me to be able to trust
that my school-age children can walk around safe and to not worry constantly (the Greek mom that I am) when they go to school (or music lessons or soccer practice…) by themselves. Not to mention, it is a big deal for them, too J.
Last, but not least, I find
it easier to feel at home in a place where the culture is compatible with my culture, even if it is not similar to it. I consider myself less of a foreigner if I “get”
the people around me and feel that they also “get” me. I don’t have to be
best friends with them, but not feeling like a total alien helps.
I’m not there
yet in my new “home,” but I’m working on it.


  1. Anonymous

    What??? so all the Greek tragedy of a few months ago about how terrible Zurich would be was for nothing? 😉
    I'm glad to read that you feel at ease in your new home, you're a good portable mother, you..
    big hug from all of us

    1. It was all part of my plan to keep expectations low – and see how it worked 🙂

  2. Anonymous

    I believe that you can feel most foreign in your the surroundings you have been in for many years: you are with your family but nobody really is listening or speaking your language!

    yes, some locations make you feel more foreign than others but sometimes it is your state of mind, confidence, insecurity, how you feel on that particular day which make a person feel more foreign in a certain place at a certain time… but, I am still answering these questions: what is a real home? Do we need a real home?

    1. Absolutely. State of mind can play a big role here. It can make you feel at ease in the least foreigner-friendly place or a foreigner in your own home. Sometimes I wonder if it is easier to manage our own state of mind than our external environment 🙂

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