For the last several years, my wife and I lived in Switzerland. Living and working abroad had always been my dream, and when the opportunity came along, I took it.
In addition to my (more than) full–time job, we traveled, we made friends from all over the world, and I even learned to speak a new language. Our 20-year-old Volvo station wagon took us to every country in the European Union, every major city, and every cathedral, museum and concentration camp we had ever considered visiting.
Now we’re back in western Michigan, where we both grew up, but where we haven’t lived in nearly 45 years.
We were told that repatriation would be more difficult than adjusting to life abroad. But that hasn’t been the case. We love it here, having vacationed at Lake Michigan most of the summers we lived away. Plus, it’s nice to hear English spoken most of the time.
Returning, though, has opened our eyes to a few things. Here are three, but first a caution.
Too many comparisons would be unwise because the two countries are so vastly different. Switzerland has fewer than 9 million people; the U.S. has more than 325 million. Switzerland is tiny compared to the U.S., with a land mass roughly equal to Vermont and New Hampshire combined. From our home in a village near Zurich, we could reach any part of the country in less than three hours.
Still, I have been amazed by a few things. Church, for example.
In Switzerland there is a state church, supported by a voluntary tax. Most villages have a lovely and well-maintained church with a prominent steeple and a bell which rings every hour of the day and night, and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. In spite of the church’s high visibility, however, few people attend on Sundays. Baptisms and funerals are among the few reasons to go.
In the Holland area, by contrast, there are 170 churches serving a population of nearly 34,000 people. These churches are supported by their members, not by taxes. (Because of limited space, I won’t get into the tax advantages that both churches and church members enjoy.) Last Sunday morning, there was even a traffic jam in downtown after the 11 a.m. service ended. I had never experienced traffic like that in Holland, not even during Tulip Time or Hope Collage graduation weekend. You won’t be surprised to learn that there are never church-related traffic problems in Switzerland.
And then there are grocery bags. After the first visit to the grocery store in our Swiss village, we learned to take our own bags. For convenience we usually kept a few in the car. After a while I thought nothing of using the same bags over and over to carry our groceries home.
With something like 79,000 tons of plastic debris floating in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii, occupying an area three times the size of France, you would think that Americans would be clamoring to re-use their grocery bags and demanding a way to eliminate the terrible waste. Reusing grocery bags would be an easy place to start.
And finally, language. I was required as a condition of my work permit to learn the local language, even though learning a language later in life is extraordinarily difficult. But language learning in Switzerland is difficult for another reason. Whenever I would start a conversation in German, the restaurant server or the person in the checkout line would inevitably respond in English.
Why? Because Swiss children are required to learn English at an early age, even though English is not one of the four national languages, and they love to practice (or show off) with native English speakers. In addition to English and German, most Swiss (in the Zurich area) also speak Swiss German and French. (The other national languages are Italian and Romansch.) We found this virtuosity with languages everywhere we traveled and felt embarrassed that we sometimes struggled to speak clearly in the one language we claim to know.
One of my goals, since our move, has been to learn the language I hear fairly often around me — namely, Spanish. I often found it helpful in Europe, especially when I struggled to be understood, when someone responded to me in English. I would like to be that same warm and welcoming person by learning a new language.
Those are a few of the observations I’ve made after living abroad. I’ve got more.
— After several years of living in Europe, Douglas Brouwer recently retired and now lives in Holland, Michigan. Contact him at [email protected]