When thinking about Switzerland the common stereotypes certainly come to mind. While many are true, some are way off the mark, and the reality is markedly different from the images a lot of outsiders have. Yes, there is the beautiful Alpine scenery and winter and summer sports fanatics have no shortage of activities in which to indulge. Switzerland’s economy is heavily steered by the banking and financial structures. Let’s not forget the expensive and luxurious watches and chocolates.
The country is much more complex than a lot of people realize when they first become an expat Switzerland. You will be considered a stranger for a long time because welcoming hugs and instant bonding are not the norm. In fact, it has been said that it takes even longer for the country to get to know you than it does for you to get to know the country.
There are even culture shocks within the country itself depending upon which region you are in. North, east and central Switzerland are the German-speaking cantons (states) and vary wildly from the French-speaking cantons in the east and the Italian-speaking ones in the south. Naturally the cultures, economy, history, climate, politics, architectural and education systems are all very different. Even with the complex nature and the striking contradictions, there is a lifestyle in Switzerland that a great many people are attracted by. It is a lifestyle that is wildly popular with the ten million annual tourists as well as thousands of expats who make Switzerland their home.
Switzerland’s health care is mandatory, and one has three months after entering the country to get this sorted out. However, the health care system has a very high reputation and is extremely efficient.
Education in Switzerland is a bit disorienting for expat parents. Each canton is responsible for education in that area. While there are kindergartens in almost all but the remote areas, there is no state-run preschool. A common complaint is the lack of childcare for those children too young for school. The educational standards are high, but the practice of “streaming” of kids (students being divided by perceived abilities rather than ages) can be a huge surprise and adjustment for parents. The idea that junior can kind of skim his way towards his future to later in life find his way isn’t an ideal that holds favor in Switzerland. More than 70 percent of children have trained in vocational schools, with only a minority of students achieving University educations. There is a good choice of private schools in Switzerland, many which offer American-based, British-based or International-based educations. They are expensive, but a lot of expats make sure to have this included within the relocation package offered to them by their employers.
What is really interesting is the banking and the way most Swiss handle their finances. I mean, we are all aware of the famous Swiss bank accounts. (Yes, you can have one, as a resident, but not a checkbook, which is hardly used anyway.) However, at the end of the month, the post offices are full of the Swiss, paying their bills in cash!