Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

Our family of four moved to Switzerland during the cold winter months at the beginning of 2014. We packed up all our worldly belongings, waved goodbye to our family and friends, assured them we would be back in 2-3 years and left our quintessential English village in leafy Surrey, an area about 50 km from London. Our two sons were 18 months and 4 years old, so needless to say, our daily life had been a complete whirlwind up until that point. Nappies, potty training, crawling around on the floor playing with noisy plastic toys, juggling preschool pickups around nap times and snacks and, of course, Peppa Pig on repeat. As any parent knows, these days are exhausting, but we figured if we could do it there, we could do it anywhere. So we excitedly embraced this new adventure – once we had confirmed that Peppa Pig aired in Switzerland, of course. That would have been a total dealbreaker.

Swiss Surprise 1: Entering The Correct Country

We flew out of London very early on a Sunday morning and arrived at EuroAirport, ready to meet our relocation expert. No sooner had we dragged our cases (and the four-year-old) off the baggage carousel, we encountered our first surprise. There were two exits. This way to enter France. This way to enter Switzerland. Starting ex-pat life by accidentally entering the wrong country would have been somewhat embarrassing. Still, luckily we exited through the right door, and our three pairs of weary traveller feet and 1 set of pushchair wheels stepped/rolled onto Swiss soil for the very first time.


Swiss Surprise 2 and 3: The Grocery Store

We were driven to our temporary apartment in the city, and once settled, we asked where the nearest supermarket was. I was expecting a “just around the corner” type answer, but we were about to get another big surprise. Shops in Switzerland are closed on Sundays. Coming from a country where you are never far away from 24/7 shopping, this was somewhat hard for our tired and hungry brains to process. We had become so accustomed to being able to pick up virtually anything at any time of the day or night. However, it turned out that there was one supermarket at the main railway station that opened on Sundays, so we walked to the tram stop, hoped we had bought the correct tickets and rode expectantly towards the city centre in search of milk and bread. I felt like the shop should have had a beam of light shining into the sky like the Bat-Signal, to help guide clueless foreigners to its doors. Upon arrival, we quickly filled our basket with just a few essentials, and it was at the checkout that we encountered another surprise. The price of that small basket of everyday items came to roughly what we might spend on a few days worth of shopping back in the motherland. My husband, an accountant, looked at the total, looked at the basket, looked back at the total and then looked at me. I gave him a look that said, “We are trying to blend in with the locals. Just be cool, hand over the cash and don’t make a scene”, but I could tell he was silently questioning whether his salary would allow us to live here for a month, let alone 2-3 years! Switzerland is famous for its high cost of living, but nothing quite prepares you for the shock of that first checkout experience.

Swiss Surprise 4: The Bunker

And those surprises, they kept on coming. Not even 24hrs into our acclimatisation, my husband discovered our next surprise in the basement. While taking our empty suitcases to our allocated storage space, he found what he could only describe as bunker type shelters. On closer inspection, I quickly dismissed my initial assumption of more storage when he revealed the empty bunkers, hidden behind very thick impenetrable looking steel doors and some kind of complicated air ventilation system. It turns out his description was spot on: In the 1960s, Switzerland took the threat of nuclear warfare very seriously and mandated that all buildings should include an underground shelter. Along with several thousand community bunkers built in inconspicuous locations across the country, there is enough space for the whole population to shelter should they ever need to. The individual right to a sheltered space is even enshrined in the country’s constitution. There are also five active nuclear power plants in Switzerland, so the idea is that these shelters could also be used in the event of an accident. Whilst the whole thing sounded all a bit James Bond to us, we couldn’t help but be impressed (albeit slightly alarmed) by the forethought and preparedness of our newly adopted weird and wonderful country.

Swiss Surprise 5: (mostly) Strict Quiet Hours


Just three days later, another surprise rather loudly entered our world. It was 1:30 pm. I had just settled our toddler down for his nap, and my other tiny pride and joy was enjoying a particularly hilarious episode of Peppa Pig. You know, the one where Daddy Pig starts a rock band. Time for a quiet cup of tea with nothing but 4-year-old giggles and hilarious oinks as background noise. I was confident that I could enjoy my cuppa in peace, thanks to another surprise regarding strict ‘quiet hours’ in Switzerland. During the nighttime/lunchtime hours and all day on Sunday, work and noise must stop. You won’t hear any construction work, loud parties or even a hedge trimmer. (Months later, my husband would forget this rule and attempt to mow the lawn on a Sunday… upon reflection, a friendly Apero would have been a better way to meet all of our neighbours all at once, but you live and learn.) Anyway, I digress. Rewind back to Day 3. Our peaceful apartment scene was rather abruptly interrupted when the loudest alarm I had ever heard sounded across the city rooftops. I dropped my tea, ran to the balcony, covered my ears and looked down to see what was going on. Surely there would be panic on the streets! I would take my cues from the locals and then work out an action plan. But to my surprise, all I could see was a totally unfazed octogenarian slowly walking along with her tiny (equally unfazed) dog, a young couple sitting on a bench lovingly feeding each other their sandwich and a five-year-old, alone, wandering slowly back to kindergarten after lunch (another surprise we quickly got used to seeing). I am pretty sure some tumbleweed also blew gently past. No panic. No one screaming and running for their lives. I asked myself if perhaps I was the only one hearing this? Had the stress of moving affected me more than I had realised? After all, my toddler was still blissfully asleep and the 4-year-old had barely blinked, eyes still firmly mesmerised by Daddy Pig playing the drums. After a quick google search, I realised I wasn’t going crazy. In fact, on the first Wednesday of February, Switzerland carries out its annual test of every single one of its 8000 emergency warning sirens. Those sirens are designed to alert its residents of any potential threats such as flooding, fires, and, you’ve guessed it, a nuclear emergency. I breathed a sigh of relief and considered pouring something stronger into my tea to help calm the shock of this particular surprise. Still, I resisted and made a mental note to put this date into my calendar to be better prepared next year (I didn’t, and I wasn’t).

Surprise 6: An Unexpected Gift

Months later, when we had settled into our permanent home outside of the city, I checked our post box one morning and little did I know, but four more surprises were waiting for me inside. Amongst the bills and junk mail, I discovered four small white boxes, one for each of us. What could this be? A tiny sample of Swiss cheese, perhaps? A few squares of chocolate as a tasty and utterly charming welcome gift to the country? I couldn’t have been more wrong. That feeling that I might be in a James Bond movie after all quickly resurfaced. The boxes actually contained potassium iodide tablets for us to take in the event of a nuclear disaster to reduce the possible damaging effects of radiation poisoning. Another Google search followed, and it transpired that every ten years, these are sent to all residents that live within a 50 km radius of one of the nuclear power plants. The leaflet inside told me to store them in a dry safe place and only take them if instructed. I carefully placed them in a high cupboard, and that’s (thankfully) where they stayed.

The months rolled on, and that first summer was glorious. To most people, the weather warming up in the summer months wouldn’t come as a big surprise, but you have to remember that we hail from the UK, where we experience island weather (and not the good kind). We are lucky to see a few weeks of warm temperatures, let alone months of sweltering heat. We took advantage of the amazing outdoor pools, drove south to Italy for a couple of weeks and quickly realised that living in the centre of Europe really does have its advantages.

We were beginning to feel right at home, and the things that initially shocked us were slowly starting to charm the pants off us. It turns out that it is kind of nice that everything is closed on Sundays. With no work or shopping possible, we tend to do more of the fun family stuff. The ‘always prepared’ attitude and the extreme organisation began to feel very reassuring and a nice feeling when you live away from family and familiarity. We will never get used to the high cost of goods, but thanks to Basel’s “Dreiländer” location, we can pop across the border (pandemic permitting) to France or Germany, which is a fun and cheaper option. And we did eventually get used to making sure we exited the shopping mall into the correct country (are you starting to see a theme?). As I mentioned earlier, children walk alone (or with friends) to kindergarten and then school from a very young age. Thanks to considerate drivers and a ‘we all look out for each other’ community ethos, it makes for a safe environment to raise tiny independent humans. I once waited in a queue of traffic for 10 minutes while a local police officer patiently and slowly taught 20 children, one by one, how to cross the road safely. There was no road rage, no honking of horns. Just an understanding that this is important, and everything else can wait.

There have, of course, been many more surprises and cultural differences over the years, but these days the wonderful outweighs the weird. So thank you, Google, for always being there when I needed you. And thank you, Peppa Pig, for keeping my tiny children entertained while we figured things out. But most of all, thank you, Switzerland, for showing us a different way of doing things, and that with an open mind and a fair bit of patience and understanding, even us ‘Auslanders’ can learn to love it too.


By Lala