During the years I've spent working with the expat community here in Switzerland, I've noticed quite a few different types of expats. No one can tell in advance just how the experience of moving to a new country will change them and very often our expectations of place and self turn out to be entirely different from the reality of living in a new culture and country. Of course, it is also to be expected that people change during their overseas assignment too and someone starting off as a Nervous Nelly may just end up being an Eric Expatriate! So, taking a whimsical look at the characters I’ve come across, the main players seem to be:
1. Nervous Nelly
Nelly is one of the most common kinds of expat – and sometimes one of the most difficult to spot! Cheery and seemingly in control by day and in public, she finds it difficult to maintain a positive approach when home alone and worries constantly about fitting in to her new community. A kind and caring person, she really doesn’t want to upset anyone but is terrified of breaking the “rules of the house” that she has heard so much about.
Food shopping is something else that she just hasn’t got the hang of yet but luckily her husband travels frequently and can always bring her back the “must haves” from home. She worries so much about making mistakes in the local language that she has become almost mute outside of the house, and is very nervous of her children picking up the new lingo in case they say something she can’t understand. And of course what she would do if there were an accident just doesn’t bear thinking about. No, all in all, Nelly is not convinced that this relocation was a good move and she really hopes that they will be able to go back home soon – hopefully before the Marmite needs replacing again!
2. Clare and Clive the Culture Vultures
In some ways Clare and Clive revel in the strangeness and foreignness around them so much that you almost forget what their own nationality actually is! They are always the ones ready to try any new food, any new word, any new experience and seem to have become almost allergic to anything even remotely resembling home and Life Before Relocation!
Their favourite phrase is “no, no, no, my dear - it isn’t wrong/strange/foreign/odd – it is just different” and after extended exposure to their inexhaustible enthusiasm one occasionally begins to wish that they would develop just a little of Nelly’s nervous ways!
3. Helen of the Higher Power
Helen is a good soul although looking back over her long and varied path of life, she can’t help but be astounded at how many coincidences and strokes of fortune have led her to this place of “now”. After her Gap Year and stint with the Peace Corps, she thought she might like to tour for a while with a soul band but then she met her partner and was whisked away on the tails of his upwardly soaring career in international trading and has now found herself all at sea in a strange land. As happy to meet a local as someone from home, she wanders through her expat experience absorbing the vibes of those around her and waiting for the next wave of fate’s hand to point her in the next right direction. Listen carefully and you may hear her chanting her favourite manta of “What does this mean and where is my place?”
4. Gung-ho Gordon
Gordon couldn’t believe his luck when he was offered an overseas post. Mouldering and festering in the back corner of a high-rise office block on an anonymous street in a chaotic city, he dreamed daily of escape to the better life – the sun, the wine, the women, the salary! Ah the pleasures of the expat life didn’t need to be explained to him! At the first whiff of a transfer he packed his bags, sold his flat and was at the airport, ticket in hand, before you could say “stock market crash” or “horizontal reshuffling”.
5. Oliver Oil
Oh yes! Oliver is a happy chappy. He’s on his way up the career ladder, is where the big bucks are to be made – and hey! what a lifestyle. Car and apartment paid for by the company - and not some crummy old Ford Fiesta mind you, oh no, nothing less than a 4-wheel drive Mercedes – or perhaps a Jeep Cherokee if it must be! Settling back into his over-sized, imported Italian soft-leather armchair, he sips an imported beer, flicks through the satellite channels on his new wide-screen TV and occasionally remembers to pat his newly-acquired, high-maintenance blonde, lithe, local girlfriend.
Have a chat with him and ask him about his new life. Local culture – not something that really bothers me man, too busy raking it in you know (cue: lurid wink). Local language – let me tell you, anything that’s really important gets said in English, got it? Local food – found a pizza delivery in the first week so no problems there! Culture shock – get real man – what haven’t I got here that I had back in the city?
6. Martin the Military Man
You’ve met them on holiday, now meet them overseas. The move was planned with military precision from the word go. Everyone labelled his own boxes, everyone was responsible for deciding what was moved and what was stored – thus avoiding any recriminations on arrival. That 6-year old little Sally packed only her Barbies and none of their clothes is of course sad, but the girl’s got to learn!
The whole family knows that they are only here for a while – be it a year, two years, three at the most – so Martin isn’t encouraging them to settle in too much so as to lessen the wrench when they are moved on. Not much point in learning a lot of the language either as they’ll only be mixing with their own type and after all, aren’t ones family ones best friends really? Conversation round the dinner table often contains the phrase “Chin up and don’t worry, when we get back home, everything will go back to normal”.
7. Enduring Emily
Emily didn’t real want to relocate but her husband was given a “go or leave” deal and so here they are. After all, at his age it wouldn’t have been so easy to find a new job at home although she wouldn’t have minded if he’d just looked round a little before saying yes. Ah well, they’re here now and there’s no going back so might as well try to make the best out of it. Although she does wish she could just pop next door to Sheila’s and have a bit of a chat over a cup of PG Tips. But mustn’t moan – after all any job is better than none and the scenery is very pretty.
She reminds herself daily that a woman’s place is beside her man, and after all if she weren’t here then her husband wouldn’t still have all the comforts of home. It would be nice if the shops stocked proper washing powder and self-raising flour though.
But she really shouldn’t complain and after all, as she tells herself daily, she got through the Blitz, so she can surely get through this, can’t she?
8. Bob the Builder
All the world needs is a little more tolerance, a little more understanding, a little more inter-cultural empathy and then world peace will be a mere step away. Bob is on a mission - to set an example to his co-workers, his family, his friends in his own country and of course the locals in this new and strange land, and get everyone to realise that that we are, in fact, all the same under the skin.
Of course building bridges is never easy when there are language difficulties, cultural differences and a lot of bad feeling left behind by the idiot that had the job before him – but Bob knows he has been sent to this destination to construct new channels of communication and to facilitate a better understanding of the ways of the world and he has always known that he has exceptional skills in the areas of communication and mediating so it should be a piece of cake really. He can’t help thinking though that everything would proceed much more smoothly if the locals would only trouble themselves to learn English. Such is the cross he has to bear …!
9. Larry the Local
There is nothing that Larry doesn’t know about his chosen land. He’s been here far longer than your average expatriate, speaks the lingo and even cooks local food at home these days! He’s been everywhere, seen everything and of course has plenty of photographs to show you over a glass or two of the local brew. He’s an expert on culture and customs and as he is very proud of his knowledge, will make sure he shares it with you at every opportunity!
The political and social problems are clear to him – as are the solutions but of course local government just isn’t organised in a way that gets things done but if he were ever to be elected, well then there would be a different tale to tell! He is fond of the sound of his own voice and his own opinions (which are, of course, always right) and sadly, doesn’t often notice the offence he causes by rubbishing someone else’s culture. The day you hear Larry asking himself “Where have all the neighbours gone?” is the day he may just have realised that he has been a tad too pretentious for a tad too long!
10. Eric Expatriate
Eric has been around for a while, and whilst he wasn’t sure what to make of the place when he first arrived, it has grown on him slowly. In fact, he has really come to think of it as home now.
Whilst he can see that things aren’t entirely perfect here, he can also see that his original homeland is far from a desirable destination – be it the weather, the politics, the politicians or the crass commercialism, he can see many advantages to bringing up his children in a gentler culture.
He most likely didn’t move to Switzerland with a view to staying here indefinitely but the recent changes in work-permit regulations at least now leave him with the option of staying should he be unfortunate enough to loose his job. His children seem to be getting an excellent education at the International School and have certainly come out of their shells since their arrival a few years ago. Of course, his wife joining the local Women’s Group and making a few really good friends also helped him to find a way into the community outside of the office – and since opening their home to their neighbours shortly after their arrival (that was such a good tip from their relocation agent!) they really haven’t looked back and have definitely become part of the local Swiss community as well.
So yes, all in all, Eric must say he is happy. He made the move, expanded his family’s horizons, allowed new and different experiences into his life and looking back now over the past few years, he can hardly recognise himself as that Nervous Nelly who boarded the plane on that dark, cold morning long ago.
A word from the author: the characters described above are in no way intended to be descriptions of anyone known to myself either now or since I came to Switzerland 10 years ago. I have exaggerated the tendencies of different people in an attempt to inject some humour into what can often be a very tense situation. Any direct likeness to any expatriate in the area is completely coincidental.
This article was written by Nicki Auf der Maur of Le Concierge Expatriate Services GmbH an escapee from British weather and British Rail for XpatXchange.