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expat, home

Fit for the soul

 

Sometimes you have to let a place surprise you.
When you move to a new place, it makes sense to go prepared. If you are a bit on the nerdy side like I am, you don’t leave much to chance. You do your homework diligently: you research, you read, you ask around, you join clubs and forums, you watch movies about the place you are supposed to call your new home. You learn about the environment, the culture, the people, their language and traditions, the way
they think and behave. In your mind, you have a pretty good idea what to expect. You also have a pretty good idea who you are: what suits you and what doesn’t, what fits with your personality, what you are comfortable with and what puts you off. You are not a novice.
But then – not every time, but sometimes – something unexpected happens while you make the transition. Just as you are starting to settle in and get to know the place, you find that not everything fits your well researched, painstakingly formulated expectations. You may have done the math, but reality surprises you.
That happened to me in Switzerland. I did not expect to love it here. I was realistic about how much of a cultural “fit” was possible between my Mediterranean soul and a country
where one can go weeks, sometimes months, without catching a glimpse of sun. The cultural contrasts were too big. How can someone who comes from a place where people are temperamental, chaotic and moody, and where nothing is predictable, feel at home in a country where the culture is characterised by “a passion for rules, deadlines and quality” (not my quote, but among the many similar ones on Swiss culture that can be found on expat websites such as this one: http://www.expatious.com/guides-categories/expats-abroad/)?
One of my “rational” expectations had to do with rules: I was convinced that I would feel constrained by the much stricter way rules are followed here. But in fact, instead of growing annoyed by them, I noticed that rules were growing on me. As I was driving back from a doctor’s appointment the other day, I noticed that it had taken me 45 minutes door-to-door to go through an elaborate examination and the ensuing consultation. Then it occurred to me how much I actually enjoy the neatness, precision and passion for perfection with which almost everything is done in this country. A lot of it has to do with the fact that everyone, without exception, feels compelled to follow some simple rules. So the rules that I was dreading have freed rather than constrained me. By removing several potential sources of friction from my daily life, this passion for order – which may not be part of my native culture – has made that life so much more enjoyable and satisfying.
This is just one example of an assumption being proven wrong. There were several more. Those experiences have taught me that, while you should always do your homework, you should also be prepared to part with your cherished, preconceived assumptions and associations – if needed. You should be open to being taken by surprise by your new experiences. After all, isn’t this kind of flexibility an essential survival skill for those of us choosing to live the nomadic life?
Has a place ever taken you by surprise?

Let it snow

While I lived in Vienna, I was always self conscious about my German. Even though it was relatively fluent and accent-free, I would never be mistaken for a local; as soon as I opened my mouth, everyone knew. I believed that, in order to get things done or to be taken seriously, either I had to ask for help from a “local” or switch to English. So that’s what I did for eleven years. I never felt that I could be myself in that language and that was a major component of my foreignness.
Then we moved to Zurich. Since I do not speak Swiss German (yet), the next best choice for communicating was “High” German – that same language I was self-conscious about. My Swiss interlocutors clearly speak it better than I do; strangely though, I don’t feel as self-conscious as I used to. High German is not the language everyone grows up speaking here, and for me, that evens the playing field. I have yet to feel the need to resort to English. Who would have thought?
There is also the weather. Having been raised in a Mediterranean country and moved to Austria from California, of all places, I have had a hard time adjusting to Central European winters – and that’s an understatement. Vienna had too much snow, too many days (and weeks) with sub-zero temperatures for my taste. When we moved to Zurich, I was expecting more of the same. No one told me that, during my first winter here, snow would be so much part of the daily landscape for weeks in a row, that waking up to a winter wonderland day after day would eventually have no impact on me whatsoever (part of me still hopes this winter is unusual, but probably it isn’t). Compared to Zurich, Vienna looks almost Mediterranean. Do I like that? Not one bit. What did I do about it? I decided to buy a bigger snow shovel for my driveway and a more sophisticated ice scraper for my windshield. Who would have thought?
And then there is the bigger picture. After growing up and spending a big part of my adult life in big cities, I was in for a shock when I moved to Vienna: it felt so small! It took me years to get used to that. And now, I moved to Zurich, which is even smaller than Vienna, without even blinking. Who would have thought?
Is all this proof that one can get used to almost anything? That everything is relative? Or could it be that, with every move, I am becoming more adaptable and more open, more skilled at doing “the foreigner thing;” that I consciously choose to see the big picture and let go of all the little and not-so-little things that have made me miserable in the past; that I’m becoming good at the “if you can’t change it, embrace it” sort of thing?
I have not overcome my snow aversion for sure, but I have learned to live with it. And I do enjoy speaking German without feeling self-conscious – even when I’m back in Vienna.