Every week I talk to a Belgian who moved abroad and built a new life there. This week Roel tells us about moving to Switzerland.
1. Hi, Roel! Please quickly introduce yourself. Tell us who you are, where you’re from, where you moved to and when/why you moved.
My Name is Roel Van Doren, I was born and raised in Genk, Limburg. I married Hilde Demullier and am a father of two sons, Ralph (16) and Madu (14).
We started our adventure in 2000. I work for an international company which is active in process automation. After 10 years in the Belgian office in Diegem, I was ready for an international adventure. Our first stop was Leicester in England, about 150 km north of London. In 2004 we moved further west, to St. Louis in Missouri (USA). In 2008 we wanted to live closer to our family and friends again, that is how we arrived in our current ‘home country’, Switzerland. We live in Zug, a picturesque town located by the Zugersee, between Zurich and Luzern, at the foot oft he Alps.
2. What did you expect from Switzerland and life there before moving? Did those expectations hold up?
After two previous experiences abroad (England and the US) we knew that there would be surprises. Nature, the tranquility, the cleanliness… fully matched our expectations, but ‘life as it is…in Switzerland’ was slightly different from what we expected. The (local) language, the education system, and the integration into the local community have been challenging.
3. What’s the biggest difference between life in Switzerland and life in Belgium?
The education system, which is fundamentally different. The grades that students get in the 2nd semester of the 5th year and the 1st semester of the 6th year, determine which field of study they get to choose after their primary education.
Students have to get a minimum of 5.25 on 6 (yes, on six) to be allowed to enroll in the regular study program. Only 15% of pupils succeeds at doing that, which obviously causes a great deal of stress. A lot of parents even choose to hire ‘Nachhilfe’ ( a tutor) to help their children be a part of that prestigious 15%.
The other 85% starts at the Sekundar or the Real, study programs that are entirely different in their organization compared to the study programs in Belgium. The majority of these students at 16 start an education that partly consists of working (in a Lehrstelle) and partly consists of studying, this has both advantages and drawbacks of course. The big advantage is that Switzerland has the lowest youth unemployment rate in the whole of Europe. The disadvantage is that a lot of young people get pressured into making a career choice at such a young age that it usually results in retraining for another occupation at a later age.
4. What’s the best part about living in Switzerland?
Nature, the cleanliness and the tranquility of Switzerland. We love to take long walks, go cycling or go skiing and those are the things you can’t get enough of in Switzerland of course. We live only 45 minutes away from the ski slopes and are able to walk into the mountains from our front door. Those experiences are priceless of course.
Safety isn’t an issue here in Switzerland. Our sons, who have grown up and are already teenagers, are used to going to school by themselves from early childhood. They have become really independent by now.
5. What do you like least about living in Switzerland?
All the regulations, there are little rules for everything here and those aren’t always clear to expatriates. You will get a fine for mowing your lawn on Sundays and you can’t hang your laundry outside to dry on Sundays either. Empty bottles can’t be thrown in the public containers on Sundays, because of the noise and in a lot of apartments people are not allowed to flush the toilets, run the washing machine, and so on (noise pollution). Foreigners jokingly call this ‘lecturing finger’ of the Swiss, the Swiss version of the Mexican Wave :-)
Speeding offenses are no joke here. A fine is never far away. If you were driving much too fast, you’ll be paying a percentage of your wage and/or you’ll have your driving license withdrawn for three months without a second thought. This does bring as an advantage that traffic is really safe around here.
The language was a big adjustment as well. Although German is the official language in Zug, the main language actually is ‘Swiss German’, which can best be compared to a ‘West-Flemish version’ of German. So, it is very hard for us to understand it (speaking it is even harder). Our children have already fully mastered it, but I’m still struggling – understanding it is one thing, but it’s the speaking part that I find seemingly impossible. This makes integrating into the local community a lot harder of course.
6. What do you miss most about Belgium?
The things you can’t move… family and friends. It’s a lot easier for us now, living in Switzerland, than it was when we were living in the US, to visit them. But still, it’s a 7-hour drive. This means that you’re always going to miss some of the important events. Although we’ve formed strong friendships everywhere we’ve lived, the connection you have with family and childhood friends is something very special.
7. Is there something about Belgium that you don’t miss at all?
The traffic jams around Brussels. I live only five minutes away from the office now and with traffic jams, if there are any, it takes me about six minutes to get there :-) In Brussels I used to be stuck in traffic one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening, and this while I only had to do 25 kilometres.
8. Do you think you’ll stay in Switzerland? Or is there a chance you’ll move abroad again someday?
When you’re an expat, working for an international company, you never know what the future holds. Meanwhile, we’ve already had the opportunity to live in four different countries. We would love to stay here for a while, but we don’t know yet what we’re going to do when we’re done with our careers…
9. Do you have any tips or advice for other Belgians who consider moving to Switzerland?
Switzerland is a land of many extremes, something you maybe wouldn’t expect based on vacations in this beautiful country. This country has a really lovely side, but life here can be difficult sometimes. It isn’t easy to integrate into the local community. Luckily, Zug has an extensive international community, which compensates for a lot.
Before moving here, you’ll have to make sure the financial aspect fits. Switzerland is a (very) expensive country, especially now, given the current strength of the Swiss franc.
10. What are some tips you would give to people who are traveling to your region/city? Things they should visit or eat?
Zug is located in between Zurich and Luzern. Both cities are well known among tourists, but Zug has a lot to offer as well. The Zug mountain displays a beautiful environment for walks or a Sunday morning Jazz brunch on a boat in the Zugersee is always a lot of fun.
Culinary-wise, Switzerland doesn’t have much to offer, however, Zug is known for its Kirschtorte, a pie with cherry liqueur. There are thousands of cherry trees on the Zug mountain.
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This interview was done by Paloma García Miranda, a talented Master’s Student of Business Communication who’s helping Sofie out here on WonderfulWanderings.com.