“She took a step and didn’t want to take any more, but she did.”
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Expat life is not merely about moving physical locations. It is not merely about setting up a new house, sending the children to a new school or learning a new language. It is about continuing to live our daily lives, but in an entirely new manner. Try searching for freshly-baked bread in Singapore at 6am, or finding Kaya Toast in a Swiss cafe! For halva-puri on a Sunday morning, paan and kulfi-falooda, there is always home. But home is only once-a-year, or twice, if you’re lucky. The rest of the year is spent in a home away from home, in the country you reside in, the one you change every few years and get to know nearly as well as home, but only until you bid adieu once again.
After a year in der Schweiz and several failed attempts at writing this piece (they all came out as pathetic rants of a grown,spoilt woman wallowing in self-pity) many melt downs, tears and frustrations, we would think life has come full circle; but it hasn’t. Infact, it’s not meant to, really, we are meant to keep moving to the next best thing life offers, or just the next thing. From English-speaking Singapore to German-speaking Basel; from year-long 30-degree temperatures to month-long 30-degree Summers, from ‘can one lah’ to ‘ist gut‘; moving continents has been an experience in “change” management, leaving me wondering whether Barack Obama knew what the phrase actually meant when he embarked on his presidential campaign!
I would like to say that moving was the best thing that happened to me.OK , my nose just grew about 5 inches. Delete. Moving has brought about a noticeable change in my daily schedule and changed our lives for the better. OK so it is down to 3 inches now. I shall keep trying. Moving to Basel has been a huge, monumental overhaul of my life as I spent it in Singapore for 4 years, Pakistan for many prior to that. Now it is back to my normal-nose. That’s better!
Moving from Sing to Swiss has thrown me back to school-days and brooding over Math puzzles. The ones that the smart girls would figure out, but I never would. The ones I would continue to attempt, pencil and paper in hand, crossing out one wrong solution after another until someone else in class shouted out the correct answer. The ones where I would tell myself that the next time, I will be the first to shout out the correct answer. And though I was completely at a loss as to how to solve these non-solvable problems, I would follow the advice of my older sister to “Keep At It!”. This became the golden catch-phrase for me, as I went on to cruise my Math at high-school. Now, before this becomes an article on my relationship with Mathematics, which it isn’t … really, it isn’t … I would like to explain I was just drawing a parallel to a similar situation in der Shcweiz. Yet again, I was at a loss as to how to solve the problem, which, this time was me and my challenges in settling down in a city where green mountains, fresh air, chocolate and bread are as intrinsic to one’s existence as Chicken Rice is in Singapore, and Biryani is in Pakistan.
Yes, you heard me right – green mountains, fresh air, chocolate and bread (correction, freshly baked bread) that magically appears on the shelves every morning at the corner store and every store, fresh milk and cheese. (Swiss cheese is supposed to be the most superlative in the world).
So, what was the problem? Do I need to get my head examined?
Which normal, rational, self-respecting human being would have a problem dealing with that? I couldn’t get my head around it. A place that dreams are made of, which the entire world longs to visit, what a popular Facebook post is made of i.e. Switzerland! How many ‘likes’ do you reckon I got for that post? (Close to 100 I think)
Yet, here I was, pining for the comforts that Singapore gave me: the tropical climate (where I didn’t have to cover every bright and colorful piece of clothing with a practical, drab coat), the unplanned but oh-so welcome date nights at familiar weekend spots like Dempsey Hill (or any hill, heck, even a non-hill but a marina or cinema or Thai restaurant), the spontaneity of addressing a passer-by in English (as opposed to training myself in sufficient sign language and very badly pronounced German words, forget communicating with my son’s teacher, road signs, email, snail mail or rushing my sick child to hospital in the middle of the night where the medic and I couldn’t understand each other!)
I missed the friendships, the sense of familiarity, the neighbors, the local cafes, the buzz of people breathing life into a city, and a condominium where friends just happened without me having to look – in the lift, at the pool, at the kids’ schools. I missed. I missed. I missed.
And so, here is a list (full marks to those of you who figured out what it would be) of 10 things I have learnt on moving to Switzerland, because, well, though I learnt a lot in Singapore, I never got the chance to write about it before it was time to move again:
Go green like never before! Every country has a different way of getting rid of their garbage! In Switzerland, do as the Swiss do and recycle, recycle, recycle! InSingapore, you throw everything down the rubbish chute – plastic bottles, glass, paper, cardboard, tin cans, plants. In Switzerland, you recycle. And if you don’t, you get a hefty line or two in your post-box as a reminder
Learn the Language
There is simply no other way. They say if you learn a foreign language, you will have a second soul; so do yourself a favour and get a back-up soul! There are language schools littered across the country, just waiting for you to utter your first Hallo and Schonnen Tag (have a good day). If you have a pre-schooler at home, consider going local with schooling. With German in school, and Urdu and English at home, this is the perfect age to pick up many languages.
Say Hallo to a Stranger
When was the last time you actually greeted a passer-by in a big city? In Basel land, the countryside away from main Basel city, strangers do not pass each other without a greeting. So, re-learn the art of courtesy and friendliness and say, Hello, Have a good day, or Good evening. (Point number 2 above will be handy here.)
Rules Not Meant For Breaking When Driving in Switzerland
Yes, Switzerland follows a right-hand driving rule, as opposed to Singapore and Pakistan so practice, practice and practice; and, remember to keep within the speed limit. 30 means 30; if you go above that, the camera will catch you, and rememebr that story about the fine in the mail box? It will happen, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Neighbourhoods are Communities
Remember your growing up years when your mother didn’t know where you were all afternoon until dinner time? Those days are back in Switzerland, in fact, they never left!
Local neighbourhoods are communities, and children own the streets. Kindergarten children walk alone, yes, alone … to and from school. That’s how safe the neighbourhoods are, and how close the communities are. Even drivers look out for school-goer crossing the road unsupervised. Children certainly are precious, and if there’s one thing that has endeared this country to me, it is their child-friendly neighbourhoods, built with concrete table-tennis tables and mini play-areas on every corner
My Right to Smoke
Yes, strange to follow the previous point up with this one. In Switzerland, it is common to see children playing at the playground while mothers chat at the other end over a cigarette of two. This doesn’t mean you have to start smoking, but the Swiss believe in personal freedom and the right to exercise it.
(Gentle Note: this personal freedom does not extend to recycling in points number 1 or driving above the speed limit in point number 4.)
My Desi Store!
You will discover many desi stores that sell Pakistani mangoes in the summer, Rooh Afza in Ramzan and parathas, Basmati rice and Shan masala all year round! Yes, they are smaller than in Singapore, but they cater to your basic needs, so you don’t have to fill up those suitcases with packed spices from home. And you get to enjoy mango season minim the flies. (But remember to recycle that mango peel in the compost bin instead of throwing it down the garbage chute!)
Love at first Bite!
Don’t look for Thai noodles where you should be luxuriating in the land of bread and cheese, for heaven’s sake! Green tea is now hot chocolate – maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s the culture – but somehow, hot chocolate and warm cheese and bread just go better with a chilly breeze, travelling in a Swiss train across winding mountains, and cafes amidst rolling green hills. It is just meant to be love at first bite. So don’t resist it. In Switzerland, eat and drink as the Swiss do!
Learn to Love Again
It can happen again, though it will take time. I confess I am not entirely there myself, yet. Some people are generous at heart and embrace their new home and country with open arms; some, like me, take their time with Butter Gipfeli (croissant), the lone Spanish street singer at night, the snow-capped mountains, the roadside cafes, the street festivals. You will learn to love again, this time, in a new language, with new people and new surroundings. It will not be the same, but then again, it is not meant to be. It will be quite foreign, yet strangely familiar … when language, race, culture and places will matter less, when you decide to pick yourself up and move with the changes life has offered you – again and again, and yet again …
And of course, Number 10 is none-other-than my favourite catch-phrase that has followed me all the way through childhood … Keep At It!
“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”.
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist