Episode 3 – Meet Sabrina from Canada. Yes, Canada!

Hello everyone and welcome to the Meet the Locals series on Lost in Switzerland. In this episode, I’m talking to Sabrina from Kelowna, Canada. I met her back in 2009 when I was travelling through Australia. She’s the editor of this blog and a good friend of mine.

Now, you might be wondering why I’m interviewing a Canadian in a series called meet the (Swiss) locals.

Two reasons.

  1. Sabrina’s parents are both Swiss and she’s been to Switzerland several times in her life.
  2. She recently moved to Switzerland and set up camp in the beautiful city of Lucerne.

My Canadian friend Sabrina recently moved to Switzerland, her parent's home country. In this episode, I'm talking to her about her first couple of months in Switzerland, what she struggled with most and what advice she has for her fellow visitors.

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Sab, thank you so much for sharing your view on Switzerland with us. After all, this has been your home for over three months now so I’d say you definitely classify as a semi-local. Before we dive in, please tell us a little bit about yourself. What brought you to Switzerland in the first place?

Hey Seraina and readers. Thanks for inviting me to share my experience as a newcomer to Switzerland. Like you said, both my parents are Swiss. I was born and raised in Canada, but I have dual citizenship which gives me the unique opportunity to live in Switzerland without a visa.

I recently finished university. I wanted to start a new chapter of my life and challenge myself to learn my parents’ native tongue. After a long time spent specialising in European history, I decided to pack my bags and go and see some of the places I’ve only read about. Switzerland was calling my name to set up base. It’s a country I have citizenship in, but also a place I’ve visited many times. However, I always felt disassociated from Switzerland due to language barriers. I wanted to change that.

Lucerne with the famous Kappellbrücke

What can you tell us about your time here in Switzerland so far?

Since I’ve been here, I’ve had some really unique and eye-opening experiences. I try to explore a different area of Switzerland every other weekend to get a grasp of this stunning country.

The first and biggest challenge has been the language barrier. My mother tongue is English and I didn’t learn German growing up. I think I’m in the same boat as most Swiss tourists in that way. For me, one of my first priorities was to dive into learning German. However, that doesn’t help me much in the French, Italian speaking or Romansh speaking part of Switzerland.

I’ve also realised how diverse this country is. There are 26 Cantons to explore, from the farmlands of Appenzell to the warm, Italian lifestyle of Ticino to the ski slopes of St. Moritz and Engelberg. That’s a lot of selfie opportunities.

The food in each region is just as slightly but noticeably different as the dialect, but the people across Switzerland are generally nice and incredibly helpful.

Italian lifestyle meets Switzerland in the Canton of Ticino.

Italian lifestyle meets Switzerland in the Canton of Ticino.

When you think back to your first week in Switzerland, what memories stick out most? What were the first things you noticed were different from Canada?

The first things I notice whenever I come to Switzerland is how efficient the Swiss are. And how clean everything is. Actually, it’s still a little overwhelming.

Public transport is one of the best examples. In Canada (and other countries I’ve travelled to), public transport just doesn’t compare. For example, Canadian bus stops have graffiti all over them and often stink, and when the bus schedule says 9:17 am, it actually means anytime between 9:15-9:25 am. The Swiss are notorious for being punctual. And a little impatient. If the schedule says 9:17, you’d better be there on time.

I had a funny experience with my aunt the second week I was here. She met me at the train station and we caught the bus back to her apartment. However, because my bag slowed me down, we watched our bus pull away and drive off without us. Right on schedule. The next bus left fifteen minutes later. But still, my aunt made the international tutting noise for disapproval and stomped her foot. Apparently, in Switzerland, thirty seconds late is still late.

"The Swiss are notorious for being punctual. Apparently, in Switzerland, thirty seconds late is still late." - Sabrina

“The Swiss are notorious for being punctual. Apparently, in Switzerland, thirty seconds late is still late.” – Sabrina

That sounds very Swiss. But believe it or not, we do have delays sometimes. You’re right though, they don’t compare to other countries. Now, is there anything you found, and maybe still find, weird or confusing about Switzerland?

This is a great question. I find it so weird that a lot of Swiss are closed off when it comes to meeting new people. They’re polite, and not especially rude, but it’s very difficult to make a connection with people here without an “in”. Like knowing a mutual acquaintance who introduces you.

The weirdness of it is that you constantly see Swiss people chatting or laughing together on the street, in cafes or on the bus. They’re obviously very social. Just like people from other countries. But it’s like they hold you at a great distance and don’t want to get to know you without a reason. The word I would use to describe the Swiss people is “suspicious“. 

The first things I notice whenever I come to Switzerland is how efficient the Swiss are. And how clean everything is. Actually, it’s still a little overwhelming.

That’s not to say all Swiss people are arrogant, mean or rude, but rather that they don’t like superficial relationships. They’ll happily help you in a work context – by bringing water to your table in a restaurant for example. But if you don’t have a tangible reason for speaking to a Swiss person (“excuse me, this just fell out of your pocket!“), they’re usually fairly standoffish.

Here’s a personal example: on my fifth day in Switzerland, I got off the train at Zurich main station and immediately started that awkward dance with a stranger when you both walk in the same direction. I smiled at her, laughed at the situation and apologised like the Canadian I am. But she just glared at me and stopped walking so I could get around her.

Oops, too Canadian 🙂

I’m sorry to hear that Sab. I hope next time you do the awkward-stranger-dance it’ll be with someone with a better sense of humour. But during these past months, I’m sure you’ve learned a lot about the way Switzerland works. Is there anything you wish you’d known before you came here?

You know, I was a little cocky before I arrived in Switzerland. I thought to myself, I have a university degree, I speak a universal language, I’ve worked in the administrative industry for ten years and I have a Swiss passport. How hard can getting a job be? I was not prepared for so many rejection letters.

I wish I’d known exactly how efficient Switzerland is before I came here. It can be a slight downfall for tourists in this regard. For example, many stores and restaurants in Switzerland close or close partially at different times during the day or week. A restaurant completely closes its kitchen and only serves drinks and pre-made treats between 2-5 pm. And many stores (including grocery stores and apothecaries) close early on weekdays and are totally closed on Sundays.

The fact that stores are closed on Sundays might catch some visitors by surprise.

Funny you mention that. When I went to Canada, that was one of the things that shocked me, too. But the other way round. Shops that were open on Sundays and late in the evening were completely new to me. Anyway, when you prepared for your trip to Switzerland, what resources did you turn to?

I’ve learned that the Swiss Community website is an excellent resource. It has everything from Swiss news to politics to fact and figures about specific Cantons or cities as well as tourism contact information. That’s very helpful whether you’re a tourist or an expat.

Swiss Info is another fantastic source for tourists or non-German speakers. This website provides up-to-date information about news and events in Switzerland.

Another interesting article on Swiss Info is a list of the annual best-and-least-liked Swiss companies based on their contributions to society. Also known as: which companies you as a tourist should support to keep the Swiss tourism industry alive.

I didn’t know about these sites. I’ll definitely check them out. Thanks, Sab. In general, what advice would you give someone who’s planning on visiting Switzerland for the first time?

I have two suggestions:

  1. Don’t let the Swiss mentality get you down. The Swiss are direct and sometimes impatient. On the other hand, they can be friendly and open. Just remember, it’s not you… it’s the culture.
  2. Here’s what my helpful local librarian told me: “You foreigners never learn German before you come to Switzerland. It doesn’t make us want to help you.” A little direct, but still true. If you learn even a little German (or French or Italian), the Swiss will be much happier to help you. It shows your respect for their culture and their language(s). Even if you only learn basic phrases like “where is the toilet?“ or “I would like the Schnitzel and French fries, please.”

That’s a great tip. Even if learning a whole new language for a trip is a little over the top, learning some basic phrases goes a long way anywhere in the world… For the time you’re here, do you have a bucket list of places you want to visit or things you want to do?

I absolutely do have a list of places to see and things to do.

  • I can mark this one off my personal list, but I highly recommend the Abbey in Einsiedeln. The Abbey is a Benedictine church that dates back to 934 and has some amazing architecture inside. The detail and colour of the ceilings with their mortar work and elaborate art are reminiscent of Versailles Palace in France (and just about made me as a history major cry with happiness).
  • I’ve also done this one, but I recommend checking out the village of Brunnen. This is the beautiful place where Winston Churchill and his wife had their honeymoon. It’s nestled on Vierwaldstättersee (or Lake Lucerne) with a great view of and access to the Rütli. The Rütli is where the oath for the Swiss independence is said to have taken place by farmers in 1291. I haven’t walked the Rütli yet, but I plan to revisit next August 1st, the national Swiss holiday.
  • Another point on my bucket list is eating traditional Raclette. Like you’d expect in Switzerland, it’s a cheese meal that’s often eaten with gherkins or pickled onions or capers. The three steps to eating Raclette are: melt your own cheese; pour it over potatoes; season with curry powder, salt and pepper or Raclette seasoning.
  • The last thing I want to do is quite cliché. I want to go skiing in the Swiss Alps. I’ve heard St. Moritz, Davos and Engelberg are the best (and most expensive) places to ski. I’m dreaming of a full day of champagne powder, a night in a Swiss chalet, making a snowman as it gets dark, hot chocolate and frosty cheeks, and a big ‘ol Christmas tree in the lobby.

(Note Seraina: If you stay at the Youth Hostel in Davos, Valbella or St. Moritz, you receive a free ski pass for the time of your stay.)

The Abbey in Einsiedeln dates back to 934 and is well worth a visit.

The Abbey in Einsiedeln dates back to 934 and is well worth a visit.

That sounds like the perfect winter day in Switzerland. I might actually join you for that 🙂 Before we get to an end, there’s something else I’m curious about. What do you think is people’s main concern when they come to Switzerland? Is there anything you’d tell them to ease their worries?

I’m fairly sure money is everyone’s main concern when it comes to Switzerland. After all, it’s one of the most expensive countries in the world. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit Switzerland if you’re on a budget. There are definitely ways to get around the money problem. I’ve utilised several tips below while living in Switzerland without a job.

  • Many hotels (and hostels) offer free public transport cards for the duration of your stay. You may not think this is much, but transportation here is expensive. You can pay up to CHF 4.- for an adult to travel one way within a single city. Ouch. So yay for 2-in-1s!
  • Another great idea to save money is DeinDeal, Switzerland’s version of GroupOn. It’s basically like Amazon for discounted items and experiences. But it’s only in French or German. However, Google Translate offers a free Internet Browser plugin for foreign language situations just like this.
  • Prozentbuch is another fantastic way to save money. They offer 2-for-1 discount booklets for nightlife, leisure and eating out. The participating cities are currently limited to Basel, Zürich, Lucerne and Bern and the website is in German again.

(Note Seraina: Solothurn, Thun, Olten and Zofingen offer those booklets as well. They’re called “zwei für eins” – which means 2-for-1 in German – and can be bought here.)

Bern is one of the cities that take part in the "Prozenzbuch" discount booklet programme.

Bern is one of the cities that offer the “Prozentbuch” discount booklet.

What’s been your experience in Switzerland in terms of language barrier? We have four official languages here and English isn’t one of them. Have you had any problems at all or do you get by speaking English ok?

I live in Lucerne, which is very touristy and many people speak English here. Not everyone does, but you can usually get by without another language. It definitely helps to know the basics, though. Like I’ve already mentioned, the Swiss appreciate the effort.

One of the most difficult language barriers I’ve encountered is Swiss German. I started learning German almost immediately when I came to Lucerne, but of course, I’m learning the universal High German. Swiss German is a language of its own and I’m in no rush to learn the local dialect.

I recently went to the Italian speaking part of Switzerland and had a really hard time travelling in Ticino. Although many Ticiners speak German, they speak a sort of pigeon-German with Italian words thrown in. And even in the larger town of Lugano, I was surprised by how few people spoke English. Just a heads up. 

The first and biggest challenge has been the language barrier. My mother tongue is English and I didn’t learn German growing up. I think I’m in the same boat as most Swiss tourists in that way. 

Before I moved to Switzerland I taught myself the German basics with the free language app Duolingo. What makes this app better than others is that they use immersion techniques. They test your pronunciation and speaking, recall, and spelling among other things. They also show you your fluency level. I highly suggest you give this app a shot to learn some German basics.

If you visit the village of Ascona in the Ticino, learning some words in Italian will go a long way.

If you visit the village of Ascona in the Ticino, learning some words in Italian will go a long way.

Duolingo is a great app for learning a language. I’ve used it on several occasions and it’s proven to be a great help. And that’s us almost done here. Do you have any last words you’d like to share with my readers?

I hope this information encourages you to explore this tiny but beautiful and diverse country. There are so many varieties of food, religious and political history and diverse languages to expose yourself to.

Further, Switzerland is known for its cheese and chocolate, banking systems and skiing opportunities. So if you like food, money or sports, why not give Switzerland a try? There’s something here for everyone.

Thank you so much for your “inside-outsider” insights Sab. I’m sure this has been helpful for people who are planning on coming to Switzerland. 

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