5 things I will miss about Switzerland (and 3 things I won’t!)

One week today I will be back on Scottish soil. Friends, colleagues and roommates are asking how I feel about this and I really am feeling mixed about it. While I am looking forward to seeing my friends and family in real life rather than via a skype screen, I really have overall enjoyed my time in this little country. Here are some things I’m going to miss…

  1. The scenery – there aren’t many places where you pass lakes, mountains and darling little towns and villages over the course of a couple hours on a train. While Scotland is also beautiful, it’s going to look a bit flat after seeing so many Alps.
  1. The chocolate – I have learned to appreciate good chocolate in smaller quantities. Will Cadburys and Galaxy be as nice as I remember them after a year of Frey, Cailler, Läderach and Lindt?
  1. Water fountains – this is a bit of a random one. The weather has been a lot nicer in Basel than I’m used to in Glasgow so having fountains on every street with drinking water has been a Godsend. High quality as is everything Swiss, of course. I’ve not had to buy a bottle of water all year! All the fountains in Scotland have anti-freeze in them.
  1. Rhine swims – where else can you literally float home from placement when it’s too hot to do anything else? I’m not going to be jumping in the Clyde anytime soon though.
  1. Freedom from student life – while full time work can be exhausting it’s been lovely having evenings and weekends to relax and explore the places around me without the constant nagging feeling I should be studying. Now I’m going into final year so from September I will have no free time until the middle of May. Bring it.

…and 3 things I won’t

  1. The rules – things in Switzerland are done a certain way. From not being able to buy a twelve month public transport ticket because it’s July and not January to preparing my paper recycling a certain way, I look forward to things being a little bit simpler back at home.
  1. My roommate’s clarinet practice – I know, I know, I’m a hypocrite. In the past my parents, flatmates and neighbours have had to put up with my screeching – be it violin or vocal warm-ups – but I will be very happy if I don’t hear Faure’s Pavane for a long time. He sounds a lot better than he did when I arrived but it was a very small apartment.
  1. The prices – I cannot wait for cheap slightly less extortionate take-away coffee. My Swiss Francs just kept disappearing before my eyes. There also seemed to be an admin fee for everything.

I thought of more things I would miss than ones I wouldn’t miss which I take as a good sign. Just a few more days of placement to go and then it’s time to pack up and say farewell to Basel!

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20 things people say after hearing my Scottish accent on my year abroad

  1. “Are you Irish?”
  2. “Are you American?”
  3. “Are you English?”
  4. “Do you find it more annoying being called Irish or English?”
  5. “Oh you’re Scottish? I have Scottish relatives!”
  6. “Oh you’re from Scotland! Do you know my aunt such-and-such?” (There are over 5 million in the population you know.)
  7. “But Scotland is England isn’t it?”
  8. “Why do you have so many names for where you live?” (Scotland, UK, Great Britain etc.)
  9. “So…the referendum!” (Scottish referendum)
  10. “So…the referendum!” (EU referendum, more recently)
  11. “Why did Scotland vote no?”
  12. “Switzerland is independent. It’s worked well for us!”
  13. (From a UK expat) “That sounds like a very very northern accent. You’re one of those independence folks!”
  14. “Why do you hate England?”
  15. “What exactly is haggis?”
  16. “Do people really wear the kilts?”
  17. “Do you play the dudelsac?” (German for bagpipes)
  18. “Are you speaking normally to me?” (Coming from Perth my accent is not particularly thick so my answer to this question was yes. I used Glaswegian visitors to demonstrate)
  19. “I would love to visit the Highlands some day.”
  20. “Scotland is a beautiful country.”

Swiss German for Dummies

While living in Basel I quickly learned my high school German wasn’t going to get me very far. Not just that my work place was working in German and not English like I assumed, but it’s not actually what they speak. German-speaking regions of Switzerland don’t actually speak High German. It is the written language so I could still understand newspapers and sign etc. but the spoken language is actually Swiss German (“Schwyzerdütsch”) and it is quite different. Even with my best German accent most people preferred to speak to me in English than in High German. It’s different for a reason. They’re Swiss, not German.

As is often the case with a year abroad you develop your language skills through picking things up by ear and that was certainly the case here. Here are some basic phrases and tips that will make you sound less like a tourist.

(Please note there is no official spelling for Swiss German words since it is primarily a spoken dialect that has taken on a life of its own so I apologise for my phonetic spelling. I learned all this by ear like I said.)

  1. To greet someone, don’t say „Guten Tag“, say „Grüezi“ “Salou” or „Hoi“. Greeting the Swiss is very different from their neighbours auf Deutschland.
  2. Before noon, say “Guten Morge”, not “Guten Morgen”. This is an example of why Swiss German is often described as High German with a heavy accent/muttering.
  3. Similarly, drop the first syllable of “Entschuldigung” and say “Schuldigung” to apologise. Alternatively, just say “Sorry” with an emphasis on the second syllable (“Sorreeeee”). Initially I thought this was people speaking English on my behalf but I soon noticed locals saying it among themselves.
  4. The “ch” constanant is soft. If you are Scottish or have ever attempted a Scottish accent you’ll be able to put your “occccccchhhhhhh” sound to use. When telling a German person what I am studying I would say I was a “Kemie Studentin”, but to a Swiss person I would say I am a “Ccccccccccchhhhhhhhemi Studentin”.
  5. Before tucking into your meal, say “En Guete”, not “Guten Appetit”. Variations include “Guete”, “A Guete” and just a nod to those sitting at your table.
  6. After work, it’s not „Schönen Abend“, it’s „Schönen Oba“. I definitely know the translation for this phrase because one colleague in particular, who was very keen to practise his English/assumed I knew nothing, would go round the whole lab at the end of the day saying “Schönen Oba” to everyone then get to me and, in what felt like a patronising manner to me, say “Nice evening”. Sure, I’m not fluent, but my German isn’t THAT bad!
  7. To thank someone, say “Merci”, not “Danke”. With French-speakers in neighbouring cantons and France there was bound to be some cross over. Most interactions at the supermarket involved a mixture of the two, but a truly native Swiss will say “Merci wiermal” at the end of the transaction.

Here is one more example of just how different this language is: to ask for three croissants in Germany you would say “Ich möchte gern drei croissants”. A local Basler would say “Ich möchte gern droo Weggli”.  Even the numbers are different! As much as you’d expect to hear different dialects in any country you go to, I think Swiss German is even more extreme than someone from Edinburgh trying to understand a Shetlander! Hopefully these tips help should you ever find yourself exploring Switzerland.

Viel Glück und viel Spass!

(Good luck and have fun!)

11 tips for saving money in Switzerland

Switzerland is expensive. You’ve probably heard this before. Seriously though, I would make a withdrawal at the cash machine of an amount that might have lasted me a week at home and find myself out of cash within a couple of days. It just disappears.

Now I got pretty lucky with what is probably your biggest expense in Switzerland – accommodation. I managed to find an steal of an apartment. Sure it had no lounge and wasn’t the biggest bedroom in the world but I was paying less rent than I had been in Glasgow! I was expecting to pay at least double that. I didn’t mind too much because it was in a nice area by the Rhine and I really only used the apartment for eating, sleeping and skyping meaning I could spend what I was saving in rent on travelling!

It is possible to be a savvy saver in other aspects of Swiss life though. Here are 11 tips for saving money in Switzerland.

  1. Want an Erasmus grant? Don’t go to Switzerland. In January 2014 the Swiss voted to tighten their immigration policy and as a result Erasmus stopped funding Swiss exchanges. Both ways. I was just about to start filling in the grant application form when I was told this. Luckily being on a paid placement I wasn’t as out of pocket as people just going to study in Switzerland might be.
  2. Do your research. Scour the guidebooks, internet and quiz locals for where the cheapest accommodation, public transport, supermarkets and restaurants are. For example, in one restaurant in Geneva I got two tapas plates and a glass of wine for CHF 30 (£20). The next day I studied my guide book and got literally half a chicken, a generous portion of potatoes, salad and a glass of wine PLUS dessert for CHF 22 (£15) somewhere else!
  3. Get the monthly/annual ticket. The Swiss public transport is supposed to be one of the best in the world. If you’re a tourist it’s a bit of a scam with the prices of some day tickets but as a resident you can take advantage of buying in bulk. For example, a day ticket for my region (Baselstadt and Baselland) was around CHF 17 (£11.60). A young person monthly ticket was CHF 50 (£34, I’m going to stop converting prices now). It’s a no brainer. If you know you’ll be travelling further than your local canton regularly consider a half-fare or a GA travelcard. I bought a 1 year half fare card for CHF 175 which then gave me 50 % off all future train fares (and some bus and boat fares too) in Switzerland. I made back my money in just a few trips and have probably saved hundreds of Francs.
  4. More train ticket deals. Buying advance tickets for specific trains and keeping a look out for special offers can save you a ton of money. CHF 24 single to Milan? Yes please.
  5. Consider living/shopping across the border. Basel is right on the Swiss/German/French triple border and a number of my colleagues commute internationally daily or at least go over the border to do their food shopping.
  6. Restaurants really are just a treat. When my parents came to visit for the first time they asked where I had been that was nice and I had honestly spent just over a month in Basel and hadn’t eaten out once. You’re doing very well if you can have a meal out with someone for CHF 50. This was a big change from fortnightly trips to Pinto/Spoons in Glasgow. I found a couple of semi-affordable places that have a typical Swiss menu for taking visitors to but apart from that I’ve steered clear of eating out. I only made an exception if I was on holiday, if the place had a specific local dish I wanted to try or if parents were visiting (and paying!).
  7. Always ask for a student discount. Most museums and modes of transport (cable cars etc.) offer some sort of student discount. I made a huge saving by taking out health insurance (compulsory for Swiss residents) with a company that gave student exemptions, SwissCare. I was paying per quarter what others were paying per month. Most student discounts tend to be few francs off a museum fee or something but it’s still very satisfying to make a saving in Switzerland.
  8. Free coffee. Starbucks is about double the already extortianate price it is in the UK and coffee tends to come in small cups everywhere else. Head to a mobile phone shop like Sunrise or Swisscom with a simple question and take advantage of the coffee machines for customer use while you wait!
  9. Look out for freebies. About once a week there’s some sort of give away in larger train stations like Basel SBB. Orange juice, sweets, milkshakes, pasta sauce, a towel, even Lindt chocolate around Christmas and Valentines Day!
  10. Learn to like beer. CHF 5 for 100 ml of wine, CHF 10 for a G&T, I had to say good bye to my usual tipples. Beer is often cheaper than water. It makes you seem more like a local too! Don’t forget to say “Prost!” to your companions before taking your first sip.
  11. Buy a picnic for the lake/river/Alpine views. It’s really not worth paying the restaurant prices. Besides, what could be more Swiss than some bread and cheese with a view of the Alps? You can also drink alcohol in public so buy your beers in the supermarket and enjoy the scenery.

Sometimes you just have to stop thinking about it. It didn’t take long before I got tired of gasping at every price, converting it to GBP then gasping again at the exchange rate every time I bought something. It’s Switzerland. It’s expensive. That’s just how it is. If you’re in a paid position, lucky you. Salaries are higher than the rest of the world for a reason. Every once in a while don’t focus on the money and just enjoy yourself.

How does one move to Switzerland?

This is the very question I asked myself after Christmas in 2013. I had just secured the placement at the end of term which was a huge weight off my shoulders. Now there was the small matter of actually sorting things out for life en Suisse like accommodation, travel insurance etc.

Thankfully the company I am working for were very helpful and carried out the majority of the paperwork regarding a work permit so I don’t have much advice in that area. All I did was send some photos and a copy of my passport to HR. I can at least detail the other elements I organised myself…

Accommodation

My employers suggested I live in Basel rather than Liestal, the town where the plant is actually located, because there would be more to do in the evenings and at weekends. I had already fallen in love with the city via a quick Google image search so I was perfectly happy to do so and commute via train like they suggested. They directed me to the university’s personal ads page where I posted my own advert saying I was a female student looking for 12 months accommodation in Basel from July/August. The earlier you do this the more time you have to shop around and find the best option for you – plus if you’re as over-organised as I am it will keep you from worrying.

Pretty soon I started to get a few responses and this was when I started to get an indication of Swiss rental rates. CHF 650 (£450) per month, CHF 850 (£587) per month….for student lets? Yikes. Switzerland really is expensive as they say it is! Eventually a German architect got in touch offering me a room in quite a central part of Basel for CHF 450 per month including bills. It seemed almost too good to be true. After some more e-mail exchanges and seeing some photos I decided to go for this steal of an apartment.

Flights

There were a few options for flights for me. There is a direct EasyJet flight from Edinburgh to Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg EuroAirport or I could fly via London/Paris/Amsterdam with a combination of British Airways, KLM or Air France. Once I knew how much I was planning to take with me I did some sums and worked out it wasn’t much more expensive to fly with KLM with one extra hold bag than with EasyJet with two. Interestingly enough it was about £100 cheaper to fly from Glasgow than Edinburgh, even though it’s technically closer! The usual “don’t book on a Sunday” and “try to fly during the week for better deals” tips come into play here.

Insurance

I took out an Endsleigh Gap Year insurance policy which covered possessions, health insurance and travel insurance for any flights that started or ended in the UK (i.e. the important ones for getting there and back!). I took out a fairly basic policy because I knew I wasn’t going to be doing a lot of skiing or dangerous activities. I haven’t had to use it so far.

I later learned that the health insurance clause in this policy wasn’t sufficient to cover the compulsory health insurance all Swiss residents of more than 3 months have to have so I later took out an additional policy with SwissCare, on the recommendation that it was the cheapest around. They offer exemptions for students and those working on placement or apprenticeships. I was told to expect to pay CHF 250 per month. With SwissCare I only had to pay that per quarter. Health Insurance can be sorted out during your first 3 months so it doesn’t need to be top of the priority list.

Also regarding health, I stocked up on medicines like hayfever tablets and pain killers. Us lucky Scots can get them on prescription for free or for 20 p in supermarkets. I have since found out a box of ibuprofen costs CHF 12 (£8) from Swiss pharmacists so I’m very glad I brought supplies.

Documents

I made copies of my passport, birth certificate, insurance documents, EHIC card and university SAAS funding certificate. The last one came in very useful for proving I was a student to get various exemptions. Regarding the EHIC card, although Switzerland is not part of the EU it can still be used to get you a “discount” if you ended up in a Swiss hospital without insurance. Thankfully I never needed to use it. Besides, it would probably have been cheaper for me to fly home to be treated anyway.

I also prepared a separate folder of university documents such as my placement guide book and the distance learning module I was going to be carrying out while on placement. A couple of general textbooks made it into that pile as well just in case I needed them for reports or reference.


In general my move to Switzerland was fairly simple. As a single student with no furniture to her name, moving into a furnished room with bed linen provided, I only really needed to pack my personal possessions. Other expat blogs can help with details regarding moving furniture, cars, enrolling children in school etc.


After arriving in Switzerland

Once in Switzerland all I had to do was register in my canton (county, in this case Basel-Stadt) within a fortnight of arriving in order to get a residence permit. This just involved filling in some forms at the Justice and Health department building for which I required my passport, my employment contract and proof of residence. I had a slight hiccup with the last item on that list because my landlord was so informal he said he didn’t need me to sign a lease! Luckily the authorities had a make-shift lease form he could fill out to prove I wasn’t sleeping on the street. I was initially given a paper permit, much like a temporary driving license, which would tide me over until my purple plastic L-permit (valid for 12 months) arrived a week later. Of course, there was an admin fee (around CHF 25 if I remember). Typical Swiss.

Money

So that I wasn’t carrying around hundreds of francs before my first payslip I set up a UK Post Office Travel Money Card. It’s like a pre-loaded credit card which is accepted anywhere you see the Mastercard symbol. It was really simple to set up and allowed me to keep track of the balance and top it up from my UK account as needed using a handy iPhone app. I could have asked for an advance on my first month’s salary but I was happy enough using my savings while I found my feet.

Setting up a bank account involved a similar process but I found only the local Kantonal Banks would take my paper residence permit so if you’re wanting to shop around – it’s Switzerland, there are plenty of banks! – wait until you get your full permit. I was only looking for a basic student account so I wasn’t overly fussed and actually got quite a good one from Baselland Kantonalbank which included a debit and credit card with student discounts. I actually made the mistake of registering in the Basellandschaft bank rather than the one in Basel-Stadt which are not the same company. I live in one canton (Baselstadt) and work in another (Baselland) – kind of like living in Aberdeen and working in Aberdeenshire. This worked out ok for me though because it was easier for me to get to Baselland branches during the limited weekday opening hours from placement.

So I guess that is how you set yourself up with the basics for life in Switzerland!

Better late than never!

I am now almost ten months into my year abroad…perhaps I should make a start on this blog! Hello there, or as the German-speaking Swiss say “Gruezi”!

I set this up before I moved but I decided to try a daily photo blog on Blipfoto instead. Feel free to have a look but make sure you come back here!

Now that I’m getting towards the end of my time abroad I am beginning to reflect on my trip: what I’ve learned, how I’ve changed, what the best parts have been etc. and have decided that you can’t really sum up a year abroad very well in 365 or so individual posts on a daily blog. So I have resurrected this abandoned blog in an attempt to document the year in a more succinct manner and group certain themes together like food and trips I’ve made.

Just as an intro, I am a 4th year medicinal chemistry student in my penultimate year of an integrated Masters (kind of like a bachelors and masters degree rolled into one) at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland. This year involves a 12 month placement in the chemical industry and I have been working for a smallish pharmaceutical chemical plant near Basel, Switzerland. Basel is pharma-central so when I say small, I mean only 100 or so staff in comparison to the giants like Novartis and Roche who have thousands of personnel working in the city.

In my free time I have been exploring Switzerland and its surrounding countries, mainly alone but its been fun!