A Yank in the Land of the Yodel (Part 2)

Last week, we began a conversation with Scott Schamber, an expat who left Wisconsin to establish a life in the mountainous land of Switzerland. Today, we'll conclude the discussion with some remarks on who would be best suited for this Alpine environment, the biggest advantages the country can offer to would-be residents, and ending with some wise words of advice for would-be expats.

To read Part 1 of this interview, click here.

International Man: What do you miss most about living at home?

Scott Schamber: I think the people, to a certain degree. I work with another American here in the office [BFI - a Zurich-area asset management and consulting company] and some other people who have spent some time in America, so the American humor is still fresh for me every day when I come to work. Outside of the office, people are different.

I used to miss some of the foods, but I really don't anymore. Obesity and unhealthy lifestyles have come to Europe too, and while I'm certainly guilty of the occasional McDonald's visit here, my food preferences weren't very good in America, so I'm glad that changed.

I do regret in a way not having seen more of the States when I lived there (even though, because my mom was a travel agent, I got to see quite a bit of the country to begin with.) But I really find myself now when going back, asking myself, "Well, do I want to go back to Milwaukee and see friends, or do I want to visit somewhere?"

Funny enough, after 10 years of living here, that's probably what I miss most of all.

IM: This might sound like a silly question, but have you ever given any serious thought to returning to where you came from, either recently or when you first came over in 2001-2002?

SS: I can clearly say no. I realized pretty quick after I moved here that even if you move back to be with the same people - in my opinion, as soon as you lose a little history with people, things change and it can be hard to connect.

That's not to say I don't miss my friends in Wisconsin dearly sometimes. I'd love to have some of my American friends around, but I really love living in Switzerland.

IM: Are there are a lot of expats living in the area that you're in, being a little bit outside the city? And if so, do you tend to hang out with them?

SS: In my village, it's mostly Swiss. Many were born and raised here. In Zurich, which is about 20 km away, there's more of a mix of people.

My friends tend to be a mix of everybody, but most are not originally Swiss or American either for that matter. When I first arrived, I did hang out with Americans and even joined an American club. However, I also had people warn me, interestingly enough, that I shouldn't just hang out with Americans, which I can understand.

Though I have a core of good Swiss friends that I've met basically through my wife, my other friends are often foreigners as well: German, Indian etc. The people I've tended to hang out with and make friends with are usually from other places.

IM: Very good. We've talked about it at various points throughout the interview, but if you were to distill down what you most enjoy about Switzerland, what would it be?

SS: Probably just the country itself, the mountains… there are so many great hiking opportunities and outdoor opportunities here. We can be in a great place for skiing within an hour by train or by car. There's just so much access.

It is beautiful to travel around Switzerland itself. You have the German, Italian, and the French part all within one country and within a two- to three-hour drive.

Besides, it's very clean and well maintained as well.

Switzerland feels very safe to me. Systems are set up well that I trust. I trust my 5-year-old when he walks to school by himself and crosses the main street, and that he's getting a good education.

The food here is great and I love food in general. The raclette, the fondue, the chocolates, as well as the French and Italian influences. It's a paradise for a gourmand.

The transportation is great. You know when things are running and that you can buy a ticket and hop on trams and buses through the city of Zurich all day and basically get to any front door that you need.

IM: What do you like the least about living in Switzerland?

SS: From what I've said so far, it's probably not a surprise when I say the people - but I want to clarify - it's not the people themselves but the fact that they aren't American. I miss the American humor and how open we are with each other.

Government bureaucracy is another thing. The Swiss don't tend to cut corners, it seems to me, on anything. It's always, "We do it by the book, and that's what we have to follow," whereas in America a lot of times they were like, "Well, we'll make an exception." I miss that a little bit. That sometimes frustrates me, how dotting the i's and crossing the t's is here.

Customer service is another issue. A server at a restaurant here gets paid a lot more than their American equivalent. They don't rely on tips here, so to have somebody that literally just brings you your food or takes your order and isn't even paying attention to you happens a lot more than in the US.

IM: In your mind, what kind of person would Switzerland appeal to, and what kind of person would just hate it?

SS: This might sound a bit cliché, but I definitely think Switzerland is a place for people who like to be private, as I mentioned before. From my understanding, a lot of movie stars and sports stars like to live here because nobody will come running up to you to get an autograph here. People will leave you alone.

I've been sitting at cafes in Zurich and seen musicians that were in town for a concert and nobody bats an eye. They maybe notice that person, but they won't do anything.

Someone who likes basic values, structure and the outdoors will enjoy it here.

Practically speaking, people do a lot more outside than they ever did in Wisconsin in the winter. Understandably, in Milwaukee it was always a lot colder than here in the Zurich area, but I think it's the culture too.

As for who wouldn't like it, that's difficult to say. Perhaps people who are more outgoing and open. The Swiss tend to come across as isolated in the way they act, even though the country itself is very well connected. You can get to Paris by train in 4-1/2 hours now. You can be down in Milan in 2-1/2 to 3 hours. We've driven to Prague and it takes about 8-1/2 or 9 hours.

IM: Fair enough. Now that you've expatriated and you've been there for quite a few years, if you could go back and do it all again, would you do anything different? Any mistakes you'd try to avoid?

SS: I don't think so, because I was lucky enough to have my wife guide me through. She was fully aware of the system, so it was easy for me to come in.

IM: Any parting words of advice?

SS: Be sure you're making the right move for you. We've done conferences, and some of the topics at our conferences have been expatriation, second citizenships or giving up your current citizenship.

The idea, especially in times like these, is easy to entertain. But there's a lot to it. Specific to Americans, giving up your citizenship means that you may have to get a visa to travel to the US again. It becomes a harder process to go home.

If you still have a lot of close family and friends, they have to come and visit you. You're going to lose some contact I think a little bit with those people.

It seems that people tend to think based on principles, "I've got to leave my country. It's going to be easy. Life is going to be grand when I'm sailing on a boat around the world and not having to pay taxes to anybody," but it's really something that you've got to really make sure that it's what you want to do, and that you're doing it for the right reasons.

Also, be sure to do your research. There's so much information on the Internet, there are organizations that you can contact anywhere you might go. People of your home country still get together in a lot of places. There's an English-speaking group here in Switzerland, and it's people from the UK, people from Switzerland, people from all over. There are certainly organizations and information available out there that will let you investigate.

That would be the second key point. Make sure it's something you really want to do and that you're doing it for the right reasons, and to just really look into it and try to know as much as possible about what you're getting into. Visit the place a little bit. Get a feel.

I know not everybody has the luxury of time to spend a couple months somewhere where they're considering going, but it's important to really test out the waters. Talk to people. Read articles like this interview or others that you guys have at International Man to really get a feel if it's something that's going to work for you.

IM: Very good. Thanks.

Tags: switzerland, expat,