Friday, November 26, 2010

Staying positive is key

When I first moved to the Swiss Alps back in 2002, my city friends told me I was crazy. They said that I was not only limiting myself professionally, but also socially, intellectually, and culturally. I stubbornly told them that living in the mountains, close to nature, and with so many outdoor activities  was healthy for me and my family. I explained that I wanted my children to experience walking to a country farm school every day and growing up without the materialism of the cities. I also wanted my children to get to know their family roots and neighbors. Not to mention, I wanted them to become fluent in German and Swiss German.
Living in the boonies. (Photo: Lisette Prince)

I have to admit that there were times since our move, when I joined my city friends in questioning my decision to live in the boonies. Thankfully, those moments of self-doubt were few and far between and only became really apparent during bouts of loneliness.

You see my problem during my first few years in Switzerland was that I lacked friends. It has often been said that Swiss women--like their French counterparts--are not the warmest people on the planet. They rarely, if ever, invite strange new neighbors into their homes for coffee. And, I was too shy to invite them. So, for the first four years living in the Swiss Alps, I didn't make one single Swiss woman friend. And this contributed to feelings of loneliness and uncertainty.

The strongest moments of self-doubt arose whenever I was confronted with what I perceived as prejudice, xenophobia, 'small-minded' negative thinking, fundamental Christian extremism, and less than adequate education. It was during such times that I would start thinking about moving to New York.

One day, I had a discussion with a British and American couple about Swiss education.

"What? Your kids only go to school half-day?" asked the husband. "How can they learn enough in just four hours a day?"

They were outraged when they learned that high school or Gymnasium  is not mandatory in Switzerland and that two thirds of all children follow a vocational path after the ninth grade. After that discussion, I found myself googling private international schools in Switzerland and in Florida. But, a Swiss friend reassured me.

"Don't worry, Diana," he said. "To get into a Gymnasium, children have to make it into secondary schools. If your daughter gets into secondary school,  she'll get a better education than in any private school."

Ever since then, I've prayed that my children will make it into secondary school. If they don't get in, I don't know what I will do.

In the meantime, I've addressed the lack of intellectual and social stimulation in my life. I've made friends with English-language women. I have come to realize that we share similar experiences and outlooks on life in Switzerland. They, too were thirsty for intellectual and social stimulation. So, we started a book club. At first, the ladies were dead-set against starting something too organized for fear of becoming another typical Swiss Verein  or Association. They'd had enough of negative rule-mongers. So, we decided against having a name; it would sound too official.

Nearly two years have gone by and our book club membership has grown to 19 people. Some women have shown an interest in being in the book club but don't want to read the books, showing how isolated a non-Swiss woman can feel in Switzerland. We've created a "social" category for our book club to take care of those cases. There exists a small tug-of-war between some of us who would like a bit of structure and others who want to keep it loose.

We keep it positive, and I think that's what matters most.

And strangely, since the beginning of the book club, I've noticed that my Swiss neighbors have warmed up. Perhaps, they've sensed a change in me. Perhaps, I smile more. Perhaps, I've warmed up. Perhaps, I've stopped caring about what they might think of me. Whatever it is, they now now invite me into their homes for coffee. In turn, I reciprocate. Small steps...


  1. I don't know how I ended here, but I read this post and I wanted to make a few comments (I'm swiss, went to school here).

    I think the numbers are actually lower. When I was in Gynmasium (late mid 90s), barely above 10% were doing so. I think it has increased up to 20%, but it's low compared to other countries.

    But, as a swiss, I think it's a good thing. Look at France, where the goal is that everyone has a "baccalauréat": they had to keep lowering the level and if you want to get into a good university, you have to do a prep school... In Switzerland, if you have a matura from any public school, you can get into ETH, EPFZ and any other universities, which are all good to excellent and well placed in worldwide ratings.

    That said, not going to gymnasium/university is a good thing too. Many of my friends went through apprenticeships or professional schools and have good positions, interesting jobs, competitive salaries. That's actually something I like about Switzerland: you don't need a fancy degree to get a fancy job. Another comparison with France: if you have a manual profession there, even if you have responsibilities and experience, you'll always make half or less of what an engineer would do. I know that, because I almost had a position in France and we compared salaries for my bf - who left mandatory school at 15 and did an apprenticeship and makes a good living here. They values high degrees some much that anything else is devaluated.

    Also, over the last 10 years, there's been an interesting evolution: now more and more professional schools degrees are recognized as bachelors, which makes it easier to get a university degree later on if one wants to. Fachhochschule are excellent and you don't need to go to the Gymnasium.

    Anyway, my comment is a bit lengthy, but I wanted to give another perspective and reassure you that your kids don't need a Gymnasium matura to get a good education.

    On another topic: Half days of school? Really? That's interesting and it's probably an "Alps" (or Kanton?) thing. In any swiss cities, kids go to school full time. That would make sense though that historically kids would go to school only half days in the country to be able to help around at home. Maybe that's were it comes from?

    I grew up in Geneva and in the 80's already you could drop your kid at school at 7.45 am and get them at 6pm, with their homework done. While nowadays, in some swiss places, it's still not possible to get your kids to eat lunch at school supervised... One of Switzerland's weirdnesses.

    And I'm not sure I'd be able to live in the Alps... I'm impressed by your choice!

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  3. Dear M'dame Jo,

    Thank you for comments, which I find very reassuring!

    To answer your question about half days of school: children have school from 7:45 to 12:00 every day. They return to school on two afternoons for arts and crafts and sports (1:30 to 4:00). Supervised lunches are only available at our Secondary School (i.e. 7th grade and higher).

    Needless to say, this has turned me into quite the "Hausfrau". I must say, I have come to enjoy this tradition and seeing my kids at lunch.

    I do worry, however, that the educational level in the Alps is perhaps not as high as in the cities. It could be an unfounded worry, but one nonetheless.

  4. Well, I obviously can't tell about the educational level where you are. But maybe having - I'm assuming - smaller or more homogeneous classes actually helps rising the bar? I wouldn't be surprised.

    And also, if the level is lower, your kids would still be able to enter any gymnasium/university with some catching up to do, but no doors would be closed.

    (I don't know what happened with my comments and the weird error messages I got.)