Who wants to be a foreigner?

As the tram rolled past
the glistening lakeshore on the one side and the impeccable, clean-cut designer
buildings on the other, I felt grateful to be witness to so much beauty, but I
also felt that familiar pang. The one I get when I need to function in a place I
don’t know; when I’m on my way somewhere but not really sure if it is the right
way or if it will get me there on time; when I’m convinced that everyone around me is staring, as I’m trying to figure out how something works. It’s the ultimate foreigner feeling –
and a feeling that I had better get used to since I am about to become a
foreigner once again.
My older son and I just
spent a weekend in Zurich. I was attending a long-planned (actually, before I
even knew we were moving to Switzerland) two-day Writers’ Workshop and thought
it would be a great opportunity for him to get another taste of the
city that will become his home by the end of the summer (for practical reasons, I
could only take one child with me and he won our unofficial “lottery”).
We have been to Zurich a
few times already, but always as tourists, visiting friends. This time we were
approaching it with a different perspective – that of the resident. As I was
sitting in the tram wondering if I would make it to the workshop’s opening
session on time – not doubting the unquestionable punctuality of Swiss public
transport, but my own orientation skills –, it occurred to me that I am not
looking forward to those first few days, weeks, months that are coming, when I will
be feeling my way around the unknown edges of my new life.
Whereas many people I
know would consider exploring and getting to know a new place an exciting
project, I would much rather have all the information already saved on my hard
disk (brain). Given how severely inept I am in matters of orientation, functioning
in new places is a challenge to say the least. I am relatively uncomfortable
with uncertainty in general, but geographical uncertainty is a big thing. Also,
I feel infinitely intellectually challenged when I don’t know how things work.
My degree of helplessness approaches that of a four-year-old child when I need to do things such as buy a
bus ticket or figure out where to validate it.
I don’t mind being a
foreigner – it has a certain charm, not to mention many advantages – but I like
to be the informed foreigner. I have decided that my way of confronting this
foreigner rite-of-passage is to surround myself with as many “locals” as
possible. Whether they are other (more experienced) foreigners or genuine
born-and-bred locals, these are people who can answer my (not-so-brilliant) questions
patiently and, if needed, take me by the hand and point me to the right direction
when I’m lost – figuratively or literally. This should help ease the growing pains J.
How do you deal with the
practical aspects “foreignness” when you have just moved to a new place? Is it
challenge or adventure for you?
Have a great week!


  1. Anonymous

    being a foreigner is an essential part of my identity: I'd feel lost if weren't regarded as a foreigner…and I love the challenge of finding out how things work in a different environment.

  2. Anonymous

    I always forget to sign: it's Aglaia 😉

  3. Anonymous

    I am like you- Prefer to know what I am getting into rather than exploring! I think that it is age and impatience and time pressure which leads me to like to be informed-

    I will always be a foreigner anywhere and I dont mind this but I hate walking around in the dark! How I deal with it: I need to explode at times so I go out dancing! Then I buy stuff from Marks and spencer (stuff I dont need) and Lebanese food and then I am fine!

  4. The great thing on any of our moves (so far 5 times) was that I could send Evelyne ahead and she would do all the necessary things. Like finding the perfect house, talking to the right people and planning everything – from school to cleaning person. She's a "write it down and execute" type.
    My approach is different: I go there and smell around. And "keep discovering". She would make us function and I would show her interesting buildings with an angel on the top of the roof or a cellar with rare seafood dishes or the right jazz venue.
    You can consider me the "execute and then write it down" type…
    Love your blog.

    1. You guys are the perfect – relocation – match!
      My problem is that I would like to have a "write down and execute" person doing all the basics, instead of being (by necessity) that person myself 🙂

  5. Lisa

    Two things this weekend made me realise that after 9 months in Zurich I'm definitely not a stranger. Friends from Vienna came to visit this weekend and on Sunday we did a whistlestop tour of central Zurich. While giving them to low down on Bahnhofstrasse on the tram a guy next to us asked me how long I had lived here as I sounded extremely knowledgeable. Then while walking down Limmatquai two English speaking backpackers stopped me and asked me how they could find their hostel and I actually knew where to direct them. I suppose the six months I wasn't working were put to good used learning about my new home city and surroundings. I feel much more settled here than we did in Vienna after nine months. Our friends commented on how friendly they felt Zurich was and how they can't wait to visit again.

    1. Now, that's very encouraging! (though you probably have a much better sense of orientation than I do 🙂
      Why do you think there is such a difference with Vienna?

  6. I love moving from one place to another after a certain period of time and getting the opportunity to jump right in to an alien environment where I know nothing (after the UK I went to Geneva then Jordan then the Netherlands and now I am here in Zürich), get the chance learn all about a new culture, see new places etc. I guess it is harder though once you have a family.

    You can get tons of useful info from either looking on englishforum.ch or glocals.com. Glocals is an online expat community and the members organise all sorts of diverse activities each week. Once you have established yourself here, you may not the feel the need to use it, but in the beginning it can be a valuable tool for meeting people and getting to have a lot of fun in the process.

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