I’m starting a new parenting series today: a view into what life is like for parents around the world. My first parent is Thien Lan Weber, a French-born Vietnamese professional (and blogger!), who, after living in Australia for 12 years, recently moved to Zurich, Switzerland, with her husband, Emmanuel, and their two sons (aged three and six). The couple are both originally from France (Thien Lan from Paris, Emmanuel from Nancy in Eastern France). Says Thien Lan, “Call me a Parisian (although I look Asian) but don’t call him a Nancy boy though!”
Their current home is Gockhausen, a cute village in the mountain surrounded by the woods, but only a 15 minute drive from the city centre. A big change from their old home on Sydney’s Eastern suburbs, where they lived close to the beach.
Thank you so much Thien Lan for sharing your amazing insight into life as a parent in Zurich.
A climate change
The first thing people said when I moved from Sydney to Zurich was: “What a change!” Indeed, the climate is not the same. Captain Obvious would say it’s much cooler here. In fact when we arrived last September, the summer was unusually long and the weather was mild up to Christmas. Mild here means above zero degrees. But here are a few things I like about this climate:
- Less wind, so much less wind, which means a 15 degree feels much warmer than winter in Sydney where the breeze coming straight from Antarctica chills me to the bones
- Snow! The kids discovered snow last month. It was magical. In particular when Frozen the Disney movie is so popular.
- Ski. We discovered a very child-friendly ski resort just an hour drive away from where we live. The kids have been twice so far and my 6-year-old is making amazing progress. He can go down a small slope by himself and avoid a few obstacles. Much easier to pick up than surfing.
- No running barefoot. Sorry Aussie friends but that habit of yours (well, some of you) grosses me out. In fact it’s the opposite here: kids (and grown up alike) take their shoes off before entering someone’s house and change from snow boots to slippers when they enter school.
- Shopping! Great excuse for me to buy a whole range of clothes I didn’t have back in Sydney. Lucky I got given Ugg Boots as farewell gift. I can’t live without their comfort and warmth. But I got to buy lots of knitwear and a super cool down jacket that protects me up to minus 5 or 10 degrees Celcius, woohoo!
The inconvenience of this new climate though, is:
- Rugging up the kids: long sleeve polo shirt + jumper + down jacket + beanie + gloves + warm socks + snow boots. I gave up on the scarves thanks to turtleneck jackets. My 3-year-old had two months of why-do-I-have-to-wear-a-jacket type of tantrums. Then they often forget their beanies or gloves at school, just more hassle to your everyday life.
- Less opportunities to play outdoor BUT eventually, as long as it’s not raining, I’m happy to get them to rug up and play outside in the woods or at the small playground in front of our house.
The Swiss want their kids to be autonomous from a very young age. Kids walk back to school by themselves from the age of three or four. I see small groups of pre-schoolers learning how to cross the street. My six-year-old goes to school by himself, it’s only three minutes walk through a bit of woods over a wooden bridge. So picturesque! But that’s my biggest pride so far and that’s why we chose to live in this village.
Most building blocks comprises of a small playground with either swings or slides, so it’s very convenient for kids to play outside and have play dates without making a mess at home.
We also love our nearby lake. We went for a swim a couple of times in September and the water and the air were around 20 degrees Celcius. For 3 CHF(4.3AUD) you have access to a beach with manicured grass, change rooms, lockers, ping pong tables, water play and playground, access to the Lake via rockstairs or via waterslides, diving board and a few platforms further in the lake from where you can swim to and take a breathtaking view of the coast.
The mountains are also wonderful. Not just for skiing but as landscape background. Beautiful with snowy tops.
Learning to share facilities
For the first time ever, we need to get used to sharing a washing machine and dryer with strangers. In most buildings you have one set of washing machines and dryer to share among all the tenants with a roster on when you can wash your clothes, i.e. once a week plus weekends if needs be. With the kids playing in muddy snow it’s not always convenient. Lucky my husband is very organised so he plans it all ahead. I know I’m lucky, he takes care of the washing. And I also bought more pants to get through the week so we need to wash our clothes less.
Cleanliness and convenience for kids
All playgrounds are clean, maintained and have toilets. Café and restaurants toilets are all spotless too. Sometimes they have change tables. Sydney wasn’t too bad for that but Paris is outrageous.
Following local customs
The Swiss society is known for abiding by rules and being very clean. When we spilled a Coke on the floor at Maccas we felt like we had to clean it up, straight away. Stairs and common areas in your building are spotless and neighbour watch is extreme.
While everyone being strict on following rules keeps everything clean and safe, it can also get annoying when taken to the extreme, such as an old lady I noticed who recorded all the license plate numbers of the cars parked in our street one day. From what I’ve been told, she is annoyed that our street is being invaded by non-local parents who drop off their kids at the school.
Location, location, location
We love our proximity to France and the rest of Europe. The whole point of the move for us was to be close to family and being only three-and-a-half hour drive from Nancy, we get to see my in-laws quite often. And from Nancy I can hop to Paris which is only one hour and 20 minutes away by high speed train (and leave the kids with their Grand Ma so I shop and dine freely). Zurich is also three-and-half hour drive from Burgundy with its world famous wineries and Michelin Star restaurants. Further down the region we can visit my former-dorm mate and best friend from university who also has two boys and so similar point of views about life, career and education although we have been 20,000 km apart for all these years!
Exposure to culture
Museums are free to kids, and all have clean toilets, free cloakrooms and lockers, and no crowds at all! There are also many old castles you can visit and learn about the history and customs of the area in a fun and interactive way. Farms organise arts and crafts activities like pumpkins decoration contests and candles making.
What we eat
Affordable organic fruits and veggies and Cordon Bleu (chicken schnitzel with melted cheese and ham inside) is a national dish. The kids love it.
On the downside, Sashimi is extremely expensive. Switzerland is not exactly know for its coast and fish market. A visit to a Sushi train cost us 200 CHF ($279 AUD) for us four on our second day in Zurich. Never again! We shifted to cheese instead: fondue, raclette. As long as we don’t mention sashimis to the kids they won’t ask for it. Lucky we’ve got a nice Vietnamese joint 10 minutes drive. It’s 20 CHF = 29 AUD for a bowl of pho, which is pretty cheap lunch according to local standards.
There are also no babycinos in Zurich! And kids’ meals are around 15 CHF with free cordial drink, although I found a nice café that makes you pay as many CHF as your child’s age.
Picking up the local language
The challenge for us is to learn two new languages. The local language is Swiss German, which sounds like Dutch, but the written language is German. It’s hard for the kids to learn German and maintain English being enrolled where they are at a French School. Fortunately, the French system starts at three years old so the little one goes to school full time and half of the week is in German. The six year old has 45 mins of German, four times a week, and for me, I enrolled in intensive classes to refresh my seven years of German classes, forgotten after almost 20 years of not practicing.
A challenge with not speaking German yet is needing to enroll the kids in activities in languages that they do speak – either French or English. We are fortunate enough to have after school activities organised by the French school almost every day. Wednesday afternoon is free though so we have to find our own. We live eight minutes walk from a pony club so I enrolled my six-year-old. Although the instructors could speak English, my son didn’t bond much with the experience, the local kids (all girls), nor the ponies to be honest. We also tried English-speaking football and that was better.
To keep up swimming classes our only choice is German-speaking classes, but for music where my son’s motivation is really not there yet, I don’t want to ruin it by choosing the local classes in German. My strategy will be to start with asking one of the French teachers that he absolutely loves to show him a few things on the guitar. It’s a big disappointing to have to choose this route because the local music school is subsidised by the city and is well structured, reflecting the long arts tradition in Europe. I didn’t have the luxury to have a private teacher when I grew up in Paris and took lessons at the Conservatoire with lots of exams, hard work and competition.
Making new friends
Only the language barrier is preventing us from meeting friends with the locals. However, the French school network is very tight and helpful, Facebook groups like “mum’s and mum’s to be in Zurich” works wonders with replies within the hour to any question you might have, small or big. And I discovered many other English speaking networks which all about sharing and helping each other.
Thien Lan Weber is a French born Vietnamese professional with 15 years consumer marketing experience in Blue chip companies. She is also a mum of two boys and recently stopped corporate work when she relocated from Sydney Australia to Zurich Switzerland for family reasons.
She now follows her passion writing a blog with restaurant reviews covering Zurich and France. Her style is all about practical tips like dining out with kids or career shifts for working mums. She’s currently refreshing her German, helping some Mumtrepreneurs with their marketing, takes time to play the piano and helps her eldest son when he’s stuck in his Skylanders video games.
You can follow Thien Lan’s adventures as an expat in Zurich on her blog, http://www.thienlan.me. You can also find her on LinkedIn.
Christine is the editor of Adventure, Baby!