Possibly the best thing about living in a country that you didn't grow up in is all the people you meet. But of course, meeting new people in a foreign land isn't easy. In international cities like Zurich, however, the fact that there's a large expat community helps a lot. Now matter how you arrived in Switzerland, you're all in the same boat when comes to building a social life.
Expats go looking for each other. Nowadays sites like Meetup.com facilitate it. People often say that the Swiss are hard to get to know because of their reserved ways. While that may be partially true, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that, long before we landed on their (metaphorical) shores, they already had a life. Their family and childhood friends are still here, so it's understandably difficult for them to make time for activities with new mates. When you share social identity of 'stranger in a foreign land' with someone, however, it's easier to bond, and you're all looking to build a social circle from scratch.
As a result, many of my good friends out here are also in possession of residency permits rather than Swiss passports. And, as people bring the different expat friends they've made to the group, I'm making new acquaintances from across the globe all the time. It does, however, mean that you have the same expat-to-expat intro conversation quite a lot.
The standard expat chat
There are almost unspoken rules for how you get to know someone else who is not a native. I think the following conversation structure will be very familiar to most expats, certainly in Zurich. It goes something like this. Comments in brackets are not spoken aloud:
Person 1: Hi, I'm X, nice to meet you.
Person 2: Hi X. I'm Y, nice to meet you too.
Person 1: Where are you from?
Person 2: I'm from England
Person 1: Ah, I thought your English was good.
Person 2: And you?
Person 1: I'm from <Insert country - In Zurich, often Spain, Germany or America>
Person 1: How long have you been in Zurich?
Person 2: <Insert time span - Usually no more than three years, this is a city of transience>. You?
Person 1: Same! Did you come here for work?
Person 2: Yes, and you?
Person 1: I came here because of my partner's work and found a job
Person 1: Great, where do you work?
Person 2: <Insert name of large multinational company, usually a bank>
Person 1: Oh, cool, I've heard of them (but I've no idea what actually happens there)
Person 2: What about you?
Person 1: <Insert name of large multinational company, could also be a medical / pharmaceutical firm >
Person 2: Oh, cool. I think I know the company (but I've no idea what actually happens there). Is that near the airport? (Fifty-fifty chance here. If it's not near the airport it's probably in the city centre).
Person 1: No, it's in the city centre
Person 2: Ah, yes now I know. That must be nice (I knew I should've guessed city centre)
Person 1: Yes, it's great. So, how do you like Zurich?
Person 2: I love it, I'm very happy here. It's so clean.
Person 1: I know! And the public transport!
Person 2: Tell me about it!
Person 1: How do you find the language?
Person 2: OK, my high German is pretty good, but the Swiss German is a challenge.
Person 1: Yeah, it's crazy. I'm learning German at the moment but everyone at work speaks English so I don't get to practice.
Person 2: I totally understand, I have the same problem.
Person 1: Do you ski?
Person 2: No, I don't unfortunately (I really should just learn avoid this conversational awkwardness. At least in March this line of questioning will be over). Do you?
Person 1: Yes (Of course I do, who comes to live in Switzerland and doesn't ski?!)
Person 2: I do like the mountains though. I tend to go and just drink beer and look at the scenery
Person 1: You Brits, you love beer
Person 2: Yes, we do, speaking of which, shall we get a drink?
Person 1: Lead the way
Then of course, the real getting to know someone begins. But don't get me wrong, this unspoken conversational structure isn't a bad thing – it's really helpful for breaking the ice when meeting people for the first time. It gets a bit repetitive when you do it five times in a night, so I have thought about shake things up with my responses (Yes, I do ski, well, I used to, until the gold medal in Vancouver. Everything seemed a bit tame after that…). But I think I'll refrain from any nonsense. I wouldn't want to jeopardise making a new friend. After all, meeting new people is what being an expat is all about.
Mike Stuart moved to Switzerland in 2013 when his better half Zoë landed a job in Zurich.