A Yank in the Land of the Yodel (Part 1)

About a month ago, I was in Switzerland and had an opportunity to share a meal with the team at BFI - a Zurich-area asset management and consulting company specializing in helping foreigners access the Swiss banking and insurance system. Over lunch, I got to know Scott Schamber, the Head of their Client Advisory Team.

It turns out Scott is an American expat who first moved to Switzerland 10 years ago after falling in love and getting married to a Swiss national.

"Marry a local" is definitely one of the more innovative ways to get into a country and even though, in this case, it wasn't a specific strategy but happenstance, Scott's is an interesting story focused around an interesting area of the world.

International Man: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Scott Schamber: I'm from the US and came to Switzerland 10 years ago at the age of 29. I come from a small family and, for that reason, family reasons didn't hold me back. It was certainly more a case of just leaving lifelong friends.

In fact, my family life started here - I was married in this country and my son was born here as well. It was my wife who got me to move to Switzerland. Prior to meeting her, I had no intention of ever leaving Milwaukee, where I was born and raised.

My wife was born here [in Switzerland], although her family is actually from Prague in the Czech Republic originally. Her father came to Switzerland in the late 60's during the revolution. He was a Swiss-trained doctor and because, at the time, they needed well-trained professionals in his field, they gave him citizenship. His wife came with him.

My wife was born and raised here in Switzerland, so she's Swiss by her original citizenship, but she is also an EU citizen as well.

IM: Right. Now you work for the asset management and international planning consulting firm BFI. How did you end up with them?

SS: Basically, the first full year I spent here from 2001-2002, I just did some small jobs. They were in German, so I spent a year going to intensive German classes nearly every day to try to get myself up to speed as quickly as possible.

My wife, who is trained as a computer programmer, had a well-paying job which afforded me the luxury of being a "Hausmann", as they call it here (staying at home, cooking, cleaning, doing all the home stuff)… but then I saw the job offer for BFI.

BFI was interesting to me because my jobs in the US had been very customer-oriented. When I saw that I could do something with Americans - using the English language for the most part - it was a clear fit for me. I'm lucky it worked out.

IM: Very good. Most of our readers probably know Switzerland as a place to store wealth and perhaps as the home of international organizations like the WTO or the WHO… but what about things like demographics, culture, and language? Who is the average Swiss person, away from the stereotype?

SS: That's really hard to say. From my understanding there are 7.5 million people here in Switzerland, and supposedly 1.5 million are foreigners (many of which come from Germany and the surrounding countries.) There's Americans here. There's people from the Balkans and ex-Yugoslavia countries, Turkey, etc.

What I can say is that it seems people in general here - and nothing against where I originally come from in the upper Midwest - but people here just seem to be a lot more educated and worldly. They have a better idea of what's going on in the world. They care, of course, about what goes on in Switzerland, but they're also interested in what's going on in Germany, Europe, Asia, Africa, etc.

IM: So is it safe to assume that the average Schweizer is not living on a mountain like Heidi and her grandfather?

SS: Well, not quite. There certainly can be those types of people, typical to the Heidi story, living in the mountains - the farmers or people who don't get to the city much, or the ones who stand out when they are in the city.

IM: Specific to language, Switzerland has four national ones: German, French, Italian and a unique dialect called Romansh. With many of our readers being native English speakers, can an expat from one of the English-speaking countries get along well in Switzerland without knowing German, French, or Italian?

SS: Yes, they certainly can, particularly when you stay in the larger cities. My mother, who moved here from the US two years ago, initially took intensive German classes, but decided after a few months that she was fine getting away with English and what she had picked up in German school. In two years she's doing well, even though we live outside of Zurich by about 15-20 km [9-12 miles]. I do have to say that outside the major cities, it is somewhat more difficult to find English speakers.

IM: Good to know. Considering Switzerland's reputation as a place to store money, and as someone in the Swiss money business, what differences have you noticed between the Swiss system and the one in the US?

SS: My impression is that it's cheaper and, technologically speaking, slightly more advanced in the US than it is here.

But having said that, there are some quirks. For example, nobody uses checks here. When I moved here this was the first time in my life where I ever exclusively did electronic payments. All my banking is done online.

For investments in general, one tends to have a relationship either with a banker or an asset manager, to the point where you go and visit with them and you can make the decisions. The anti-money laundering rules are stricter here in Switzerland in regards to personal banking than the US. But there's also still privacy, in spite of the UBS-type stories that have been out the last few years.

I tend to laugh when I think about threats from the US to blacklist Switzerland because they're not providing information. Most people don't realize that Switzerland probably does more than anybody in the entire world to know who their investors are and know where the money is coming from.

IM: It seems to be common knowledge outside the US that the US itself is the #1 tax haven in the world. Just don't tell an American that.

SS: Right, exactly. That's absolutely true.

IM: In terms of cost of living as compared to Milwaukee, how cheap or expensive is the cost of living?

SS: It's certainly more expensive than in Milwaukee. In fact, we use every trip back to the States as a good excuse to come with a half-empty bag to buy clothes and other things.

The classic example I tend to use is a pair of Dockers khaki pants. Here in Switzerland it's going to cost 100-120 francs [about USD $105-125] or maybe even a little bit more, whereas in the US you can get three pair for the same price. Even though the quality here might be a bit better, it's not worth three times the price.

Buying property is another good example. I have what can be called a "side-by-side" house. Including a small piece of land that takes only 20 minutes to cut the grass on, you're looking at 750,000 Swiss francs [about USD $785,000]. Where I come from in the US, you'd be looking at maybe $150,000 to $200,000.

Gasoline is more expensive. A year ago or so when Americans were paying $4 a gallon for gas, friends were emailing me to complain about that. Since we pay the equivalent of $6-7 a gallon, I didn't have much sympathy.

Come to think about it, virtually everything is more expensive.

IM: You mentioned earlier that your mom moved two years ago from the US to live with you. Was that a difficult decision for her? What prompted her to head overseas?

SS: The decision wasn't difficult emotionally as the last remaining close family we had passed away in 2006. It was a big problem financially as my mother is one of these baby boomers that doesn't have a lot of retirement saved up.

To live here, we had to prove she could support herself. We worked it out of course.

IM: How is she fitting in?

SS: Very well, compared to how I feared things might have gone. My mother is a very outgoing person and not afraid to talk to people, even when she doesn't understand them.

She's made some friends, which isn't easy. Something all of us foreigners tend to agree on is that it's sometimes hard to make friends with Swiss people in Switzerland. But once you get in with them, you have friends for life.

IM: I'm curious, what did your friends think about your original decision to move to Europe and away from Wisconsin?

SS: It was a mixed reaction. Some people were concerned I was moving far away and others encouraged me. But no one said I shouldn't be doing it.

IM: How often do you return home to the States?

SS: Until my father passed away in 2009, I was usually getting back for pleasure every 9-12 months. Nowadays not so often for pleasure, though business takes me back every so often.

I would love to go back more, but Europe offers so many new traveling opportunities. It's hard to say, "Hey, I want to go back to Milwaukee for two weeks every year," when there's opportunities all around me.

IM: What are some of the biggest day-to-day differences between the life you lived in the Midwest and the life you live now, taking into account, obviously, you're married now and that tends to change things.

SS: Language is still a big difference. It can be frustrating. You run into situations where it's not as easy as in the US.

The people are really different here, too. Years ago, I was waiting for my wife to get done with her job and I decided to go to a little bar not far from where she worked to have a quick beer. I ended up choosing a place in the middle of two people.

In Milwaukee or many places in America, within 5-10 minutes I would have been talking to one of them. In this case, the guy on my left pulled up his newspaper to cut himself off from me, and not five minutes later the woman on my right did the same thing. So I'm sitting at a bar with two people that are holding up their papers, with me sandwiched in the middle. That's pretty typical.

The fact that Switzerland is an island, in my opinion, reflects a little bit sometimes on how the people act and think here. They seem to be islands in themselves until you get to know them. In the US I had a large number of friends that were not close, but were people I could see all the time and be from different walks of life. Said another way, here in Switzerland I think you have fewer friends, but your friends are closer.

Americans are loud but also friendly and outgoing. For Americans it's nice - and a lot of Europeans tell me this, too - that they love to go to America because the people are so friendly. To me that's one of the big differences. You can walk by people here and easily catch eye contact with them and not say "Hello" or "Good day" or anything, unlike in the US.

There's a certain anonymity to living here in Switzerland. If I don't want to go out and be friends with my neighbors, I really don't have to and nobody thinks anything of me. Sometimes that's nice. I guess maybe because I'm older now and I have a family, I don't mind being to myself a little bit more. That's completely possible here, without people looking at you funny. It would be tough to pull that off where I'm from. Another difference is that people use public transportation a lot more here. (And things actually run on time.) In general, people are more punctual here. When you say something starts at 8, they're there at 8 and things get rolling. You generally don't have to wait for people to arrive late.

IM: I remember being in Zurich last summer and waiting for the Strassenbahn [streetcar]. It ended up being about a minute late and people were staring at their watches and looking all around as if saying to themselves, "Where's the train?"

SS: Exactly. They get really upset, which I used to make fun of when I first moved here. Now, I'm part of that group. I'm going, "The train is two minutes late! This is a travesty!"

[To read Part two, click here.]

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