The keyword is functional. The Swiss Army knife is not just a tool but an apt description of a world viewpoint. Like the Swiss Army knife that packs multiple tools in the smallest volume possible, everything is over engineered to the point of perfection. This includes use of time (see the SBB website for the epitomy of travel arrangements), use of land (compare the town plan for any and all villages), use of square footage (not a single square foot wasted in the house plan nor the garden peysage), use of words (no superfluous fiction). This perfection and the expectation of perfection leads to impatience with anything that is less than perfect.

Yesterday on the tram a black woman was sitting in front of me with her two suitcases. An old lady on crutches came on board and wanted to sit, I thought and the black lady thought, next to her. As the black lady was trying to quickly move her suitcases out of the way, the old lady started yelling at her and almost pushing her and the suitcases out of her way: “I need both chairs to put my feet up! These seats are reserved for those with disabilities! I need both chairs!” In her confusion, the black lady said: “Can you please sit down?” but the old lady would not calm down.

Why couldn’t the old lady tell the black lady “can you please give me these two chairs, I need both to put my feet up?” when she approached her? Why would she immediately retort to rudeness? Why couldn’t she wait for an extra second while the black lady was trying to move out of her way? Was it because she was black? The old lady was on crutches. The black lady was sitting in the seats reserved for disabled people. So the old lady was correct. But why couldn’t she be nice about it?

There are a lot of rules. The expectation is that everyone knows and abides by these rules. Swiss people are quiet and reserved and I am always surprised when somebody honks because I am going too slow or if I hesitate for a second more. Oppressed by the rules, they are on the lookout to catch you break them and then yell at you. Are they angry at us foreigners? Are they this impatient with each other?

In our second week here, we were supposed to have a meeting with our relocation agent. A car had parked at our parking spot (it is next to impossible to find a parking spot in the city so you rent a reserved spot) and so we were late to the meeting. When we explained what happened to our agent, her first words were “oh I bet that was not a Swiss person”. (It was.) This prejudiced view of outsiders is common even amongst long term expatriates. Outsiders don’t know the rules and disturb the perfectly tended order.

Suffice it to say, as we conclude our six months on sabbatical, I am happy to be a part of the international community.


Surviving our first month in Zurich

Here is my simple checklist for the first few weeks so far:

  • Housing: It’s a homeowner’s market. There are so few available apartments at any point in time that they know you are in their hands. You can use or other websites to look for apartments but they never responded to us when we used the contact e-mail address/phone number. Probably easier to use an agent, who also uses You make an application, they check your references and if they accept your application then you sign a contract. There are three set move-in, move-out dates. Finding an apartment was by far the hardest part of our move.
  • Registration at the Kreis Buro: You need to do this within 14 days of entry. If you change your residence, you need to change your address again at the Kreis Buro and at the Post Office.
  • Registration at the Immigration office: The Kreis Buro takes an appointment for you, you go to the Immigration Office and they take some information and your picture. Your Auslanderausweis Card will be sent to your address. This takes about 2 weeks – unless they send to the incorrect address like they did for us.
  • Getting a bank account: The banking system is extremely inefficient. We have used mobile banking in different countries so we thought it would be no problem for us. Alas. You need a machine to do e-banking. So, forget about transferring money using your phone while you are waiting for the tram.
  • Getting a phone number: You need your Auslanderausweis card to get a phone number. You can get a prepaid card.
  • Health insurance: There are a few health insurance companies that offer almost an infinite array of variations. It is impossible to pick a global optimum. Speaking with independent brokers is helpful. We spent a few afternoons on this, but I’m pretty sure we did not make the correct choices.
  • Transportation: Zurich is known for its excellent transit system and there are several options for daily/weekly/monthly passes. There is one male clerk at the Stadelhofen station who speaks perfect English and is very helpful to guide you through the various options for your needs.
  • School for children: Our children go to the international school. I am happy with this decision because the international community is always in transit and everybody is in the same boat as “foreigners” so eager to help you out. One book recommended by the fellow parents is “Raising Global Nomads”. More on this later.
  • Clothing for children: Children are outside most of the time so you need a snowsuit or rain pants during recess and school trips.