Immigrant or expat in Switzerland

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Recently, I found out that being an expat or an immigrant is not the same. Did you know that? Honestly, I was using these two words interchangeably. But it’s never too late to learn something.

We moved to Switzerland on the 1st of April 2018. At that time, this site was just starting and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Well, I don’t quite know what I’m doing now either, but at least now I realize how many things I don’t know. But the blog has existed from the beginning because I had a feeling: this was going to be the longest journey I was ever part of.

Why did we move to Switzerland?

We moved to Basel due to many reasons. We have decided, mostly after the protests in 2017, to try and find a new life for us in other parts of the world. And I have to admit we did not have a bad life in Romania. Working in IT provided us with a quiet life. Our bubble kept us far from corruption, humiliation and difficult challenges. But the recent years made us question this quietness.

The first shock was at Colectiv. We realized then that our bubble could have enjoyed a night out that evening. At Colectiv, there were some bubbles of some people close to us. Not like close friends, but in the loose circle of acquaintances, so still close enough for us to feel bad. After the unfortunate accident, we were quiet witnesses at the circus that followed: a circus paid with human lives called “They are taken care of like they would have been in Germany!” or “We have everything, we don’t need any help!”. And we remembered how I had to bring adhesive plasters when I suffered a minor surgery, and my husband’s grandmother got the “Take her home, we won’t do anything, she’s 80!” diagnostic. And we also witnessed the holy “Priests don’t come uninvited!” declaration given to people that would have needed moral support when they found out they have lost their children.

Later on, we wanted to get married. And we couldn’t do this at what time we wanted, because the official person that had to get us married was at high risk of spending two hours without performing any ceremonies. Can you imagine that? Out of a two hour time, because of course, they have a short schedule on Fridays, imagine the audacity of them having a gap between ceremonies! Outrageous, I know!

Right after the ceremony, we were informed we should give some flowers to the lady that got us married. I have no idea why. Because she didn’t destroy my ID (a procedure that has to be made to ensure the ID will be renewed, due to the name change)? But I didn’t ask for such a favor. Because she got us married? But this is her job. I go to work daily and no one gives me flowers.

And it wouldn’t have been so bad if our parents wouldn’t have thought we should have done it. We asked them why and the answer was that, out of all the flowers we have received that day, we could have given one flower arrangement to her. I offered to give the one from my mother-in-law. She didn’t like this joke. I didn’t like the idea of giving someone something for doing their job, especially something that I have received as a thoughtful gift.

     Later, news about that doctor, Burnei, started to appear. You know, the one that used to make experiments on children. The guy that was part of all medical institutions and committees, so he couldn’t be the subject of any complaints since he was the one the patients would end up complaining to. We started to seriously worry about our safety. We already knew we couldn’t rely on private health care for serious problems, so our bubble is not bulletproof.

     After that, PSD wins the elections (The biggest left-wing party in Romania). This hurt, of course, but democracy means respecting the vote result, even if you don’t agree with it. But I’m sure no one voted for what was about to happen. No one voted for an emergency ordinance issued in the middle of the night to take corruption and abuse of power out of the criminal law. What came next was a clear sign for us that it was about time to leave. We realized that even people in our closest circles were being influenced by the information provided by specific media channels. We were called “brainwashed corporate workers” by some of our relatives.

     We were also told that expats shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Because they left the country, these people shouldn’t express their wishes about things that happen in the country. And this is sad. Because no one leaves from a place where they’re happy. And of course, the ones that vote, do it to change things for the better. All of us secretly dream of coming back.

In the expat world, it is said that everyone leaves due to one or more reasons from a shortlist: it’s either war, work or love. We didn’t leave for any of these reasons. There’s no war (and I wish it stays like this), work – we could easily find there too, and the love was brought in by us, we didn’t find it here. We left for the sole reason of trying to get a better life for our future children. We wish they won’t get to know the meaning of the word “bribe”, we wish they won’t have three diplomas and be unemployed, we want them to be able to have faith in justice and doctors.

Why did I start writing?

This diary has multiple roles for me. Firstly, as I mentioned, I see this as a very long journey, and it would be a very long story to tell. And this is how it feels even after a year has already passed. I still don’t know how to do basic things you never think of as a tourist. I still visit things in the area where I live. I still spend a lot of time at the airport before leaving somewhere, even though I know the Basel airport by heart and I am aware it doesn’t take me more than half an hour to get from the entry to the gate.

Secondly, I considered this a challenge. And it is if you think we didn’t only change the house, but also the society in which we live, the language we hear, the workplace we go to. Heck, we don’t even take out the trash the same! Since we arrived here, we eat differently, we travel differently, we go to the doctors differently. Everything changes.

And this is a permanent challenge. And, most of all, it’s not a challenge you can take a break from. And this makes you wonder, from time to time, if you have made the right choice. It makes you feel you are always fighting, but you have no idea who or what you’re fighting with or what are you fighting for. Maybe you fight trying to escape the way you were for 30 years? Or you’re fighting to remain unchanged, to stay connected to the identity you are familiar with? Maybe you’re fighting to prove you’re not less than, even if you’re different? Or fighting to prove to yourself you can do it? Who knows? But it’s very clear that, no matter what, you always feel like you’re fighting.

How is it to be an expat or an immigrant?

Sometimes, you miss speaking your language. Especially when you start dreaming in English. Or when you manage to use, in the same sentence, English, French, and German, due to the cocktail of languages you have to use daily. Or when you have already spent half an hour surrounded by people that speak a language you don’t understand, because they don’t realize it’s rude to do so.

Some other times, you would like to call your best friend and go out for a beer. You want to hurry up, in the middle of the night, to get to the hospital where your childhood friend is giving birth. You would like to go to your godparents and play board games until the next day.

At least a few times you’ll get lost or you’ll make a mistake. No matter if it’s a letter that you get and you have no idea if it means you have to give or to receive money, or you cannot find yeast in a supermarket and you have no idea how to ask for it, or you do your laundry on the wrong day because you didn’t know about an unwritten rule, you’re gonna be wrong. And you’ll feel alone, and you’ll feel everyone knows how to do things except for you because you’re not from around here.

For a while, you belong nowhere. You say “home” and you mean nothing by it. Or you mean any of the two places you lived the most. You start getting used to the idea that “home” is where your coffee cup lives, or where you woke up that morning, or at gate 45, terminal 2 in the airport. Home is, in fact, the place where you can find the people you love. So, most of the time, home is only within you.

To be able to overcome these challenges I felt I only needed my husband, a good wine, and a place to get it all out from time to time. And therapy is expensive here. So I decided to write this. I would love, after 30 years as an expat in Switzerland, when I’ll be prolific in Swiss German and I’ll know where the good meadows are in the Alps, to be able to read this blog from the beginning and to laugh because I once ate a large piece of ginger because I didn’t know what it is.

By the way, since I started there. Do you know what’s the difference between an expat and an immigrant? The difference is in the people that see it: this is how you know who deserves your attention and who doesn’t. You are in search of new friends, so you gotta start that filtering early, right?

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