Melissa, originally from Michigan in the USA, moved to Geneva with her Swiss boyfriend. She loves the small, cosy feel of the city and its diverse expat population. Using her experience of the trials and tribulations of being a trailing spouse in Switzerland, Melissa set up her psychological counselling practice where she helps expats cope with the stresses associated with relocating to a new country.
To read more about Melissa's expat experience in Switzerland and learn about her work check out her website at www.wellnessgeneva.com.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Michigan, USA.
Q: Where are you living now?
A: Geneva, Switzerland.
Q: When did you move here?
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: With my then boyfriend (now husband).
Q: Why did you move to Geneva; what do you do?
A: To be with my Swiss boyfriend who I met in the States while studying. Now, I have my own psychological counselling practice, Wellness Counseling Geneva, where I help mainly expats cope with stress.
Living in Geneva
Q: What do you enjoy most about living in Geneva? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: I like that it is a small city, which feels cozy, and that it is so close to the lake and the mountains. As far as quality of life, I think that it is slightly higher than where I’m from simply because the salaries are so much higher. It makes things like travel much easier. I think, too, that people here stop and enjoy life more – either by going for a hike or taking hours to have a meal with friends.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about the USA?
A: The Swiss are quite strict about social rules, which can feel stifling at times. Although they keep lifelong friends, that means it’s even more difficult to integrate with them. Most of what I miss from back home are the relationships – not just my personal relationships with friends and family, but also the general feeling of having a shared culture which is so comfortable and easy, not to mention open! The Swiss can be somewhat closed at first whereas Americans are known for being friendly from the get-go. I’m not complaining – the Swiss can be great when you get to know them! It just takes time.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Geneva? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: The biggest adjustment was being away from nearly everyone I’ve ever known and also learning the language. I hated not being able to communicate what I thought and felt!
For me, the most shocking was the animosity people felt towards Americans. I had never felt that kind of prejudice before. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t necessarily against me, it was a reaction to things that they had seen in movies and on TV that they thought were true. It’s hard to get across to people that what our actors and politicians do and say aren’t how all of us think or behave.
Q: What’s the cost of living in Geneva compared to at home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Well, I think Switzerland is expensive compared to most countries! So it’s definitely more expensive than back home. Everything’s more expensive: the food, the rent, the insurance, the clothes, the makeup, etc., etc. Everything. I try to stock up on some things when I go home. This last time I bought a ton of books – too many to fit in my luggage!
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Geneva? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: Amazing. They are always on time and very clean. There are buses, trams, and trains to get where you need to go. I don’t think it’s necessary to own a car, unless you want to go into the mountains or on weekend trips. But even then, you could always rent one or ride with friends.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Switzerland? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: Very good. No complaints. Since I speak French now, it’s difficult to say if finding an English-speaking doctor is easy or difficult. I hear it’s difficult to find English-speaking therapists, but actually, we have a nice little community, including myself!
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Geneva? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Geneva is generally safe. Of course, it is a city and crime does happen, but generally it’s a safe place to live.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Geneva? What different options are available for expats?
A: Generally very good, but also expensive and difficult to find. There is a housing shortage in Geneva, but it seems most people figure something out.
Q: Any areas/suburbs of Geneva you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: I love the Plainpalais area. It’s young and there’s always something going on.
Meeting people and making friends in Geneva
Q: How tolerant are the Swiss locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: 50 percent of Geneva's population are expats, so I think the Swiss at least tolerate us, and many even like to meet us! The only obvious prejudice that I’ve seen is that Swiss people don’t like when foreigners don’t speak French. They feel that if we want to live here, we should at least make an effort.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Geneva? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Well, I have quite a unique situation in that my husband is from here, so I automatically had a group of mostly Swiss friends who accepted me into their group. Apparently, most expats here claim to have never met a Swiss person, which is funny, but also a little sad because it means they’re hard to access. So I did make most of my friends through my husband at first, but then I started making new friends with people at work and also through taking classes.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats in Geneva? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A: As I said, most of my friends here at first were Swiss, and they continue to be good friends. But I also have many expat friends, so I guess it’s a mix of the two. I try to plan things where we can all go together – many cultures together make things more interesting! Another thing that people may not realize is that even if a person was born here, it doesn’t mean that their parents are from here. Lots of my Swiss friends have different backgrounds; my husband is half French, and our friends’ parents come from all over the world, including Turkey, Egypt, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Lebanon, etc. etc.
I would advise new expats to look for friends not only at work but also by joining classes and clubs. Choose an activity you like, type it into Google, and see what pops up.
I’ve met people through Glocals and MeetUp, which are both online forums which meet in person around specific activities.
About working in Geneva
Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit for Switzerland? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: Somewhat. I came here as a student and then I married my Swiss husband. I specifically remember worrying about my permit when I was a student because I was also working at the same time, which complicated things. I waited nearly 6 months to get it and the laws were changing at the time and if I didn’t get it in time, I wouldn’t be able to work. It can be very frustrating.
I always handled my permits by myself. I think getting help from someone isn’t a bad idea, especially if you don’t speak French. Even the OCP (Office cantonal de la population) that delivers the permits doesn’t always have the right information. In the past when I’ve called, I’ve gotten different answers from each person I talk to. It’s really confusing.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in Geneva? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: The job market here is super competitive. If you’re looking to work in a big organization, you need to have not only the right degrees, but also speak several languages and have international experiences and connections. Most young people start out as interns, usually unpaid.
My suggestion would be to brush up on languages and apply to anything that even remotely resembles your profile. After that, it’s all about networking. Don’t be afraid to contact either someone you know or someone with an interesting profile to discuss what you’re looking for.
More concretely for the job search, there are jobs sites like unjobs.org and indeed.com which offer a ton of opportunities.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Switzerland?
A: I think this really depends on the place you’re working. My experience has been that the workplace is more international than back home, which is both interesting and challenging. I think being respectful of cultural differences and even trying to learn from them is something that will add value to your life.
As a counsellor talking about workplace culture, I would say to set boundaries at work so you don’t get too stressed and run-down. I’ve been in jobs which have expected me to go above and beyond what is even possible which left me feeling completely exhausted. I know that each workplace has different expectations, but setting your own limits in the end will protect both your physical and mental health.
Family and children Geneva
Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home in Geneva? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: Being a trailing spouse myself, I know it’s difficult to come with your partner to another country. In my case, we were coming to my husband’s country, which sometimes made me feel like an outsider. In what I’ve seen with many other trailing spouses, there can also be resentment towards the spouse for putting them in the situation of living somewhere where you don’t speak the language, sometimes don’t have the right to work, and therefore not having the same opportunities to meet people or settle into a new routine. It can all be quite disorienting as you need to build a new identity and are put into unfamiliar situations. Even knowing how to handle insurance bills can be confusing.
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals moving to Switzerland?
A: I would say firstly to be kind to yourself. It takes time to settle in to a new place. Then try to make the most of this experience. Do you like to travel? Then plan a few weekend trips to look forward to. Do you think you’ll miss home? Book your flight for the next big holiday, if you can. Make sure you have reliable wifi so you can also Skype with people back home. Always wanted to learn how to tango? Search for classes in your area and go for it. Want to make going to the pharmacy easier? Try to learn some basic conversational French. You’re not working right now? Sign up for an online course which you would have never had time for before.
Use this time for you. Moving abroad isn’t easy, but it’s one hell of a life experience.
I’m going to be starting a support group for people who are new to Geneva early next year. If you’re interested, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
~ Interviewed in October 2016