Friday, March 16, 2012

Confessions of a former expat

I lived for rather a long time in Switzerland. Having been bitten by the proverbial travel bug in my teens, it had always been something of a life’s goal of mine to live abroad. I’d finally given up on my quest when I was unexpectedly offered a job with a small UN agency in Bern, the country’s capital. I heard about the job through a former colleague and exchanged a couple of emails and my resume with the manager in charge. They hired me sight unseen without even bother to interview me. How could I possibly turn it down? Switzerland was never my favorite German-speaking country. But the job chose me, not the other way around, and a month or so later I found myself in Bern looking for a place to live. Soon thereafter I met my future ex and what was supposed to be a one year stay turned into ten years. I came back to Texas a few years ago without any regrets.

I once read that only about 2% of the world’s population ever lives outside their country of birth. This is a shame, really, because there’s nothing like living abroad to expand your horizons. You get a rare opportunity to see your country and culture as others see it, and this can be a humbling experience. As an American, it also made me appreciate certain things that I always took for granted. Things such as air conditioning, Mexican food, being able to shop on Sundays, comfortable dwellings with spacious rooms, Target, huge bookstores full of books in English--the list goes on.

In Switzerland, business hours are for the convenience of the merchants, not the customers. During the week, the stores - that’s grocery stores, pharmacies, bookstores, department stores, everything - close at 6:30. They’re open on Saturdays until 4:00 or occasionally 5:00 and not at all on Sundays. Many larger towns and most cities have late-night shopping once a week. In Bern it was Thursdays until 9:00. I seldom left work before the shops closed and I don’t miss having to plan an entire week’s shopping in advance and rushing to fight the crowds on Thursdays to try and get everything the spousal equivalent and I needed for the week.

On the other hand, there are quite a few things I miss about Europe. Trains and viable and convenient public transportation systems spring immediately to mind. But I think the thing I really miss most is the cities. I like being able to get from place to place on foot, and European cities have character and an often quirky charm that we don’t find much over here. It’s not that there aren’t chain stores and ugly big-box retailers in Europe. There are plenty of them, but they haven’t taken over like they have in the US.

Most European cities have preserved at least part of their old towns (Paris is a notable exception), which almost always originated in the middle ages or earlier; I can think of several off the bat that go back to Roman times. Bern is not the most bustling of metropolises. But its old town is nothing if not picturesque. In fact it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of the buildings in the old town--or their foundations anyway--date to the 1400’s, although the facades are mostly later, thanks to a “modernization” campaign some time in the 1700’s. Mozart would recognize Bern. He stayed there with his father in 1762, although that it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression on him.

Now that I’m back in the States I’ve noticed that a lot of new urban development seems to be trending toward the walkable cities model. I live about a five-minute walk from one of these. Of course, there’s no history behind it and it looks pretty much like any other urban development of its kind. Still, it’s a step in the right direction and it’s nice not to have to drive to get there. More on this subject later.

1 comment:

  1. My dream is to live in Europe. I just need to get off my lazy butt and make it happen.