Life in Switzerland: A Few Things I’ve Learned

I graduate from law school in a few weeks. Whaaaat?!?

That statement sounds odd to me for many reasons: it’s hard to believe that three years flew by like that. It’s hard to believe that I will actually be the proud owner of a JD not long from now. But mostly, it’s hard to believe that spending a semester in Europe has somehow contributed to earning that degree. I’ve worked really hard at my internship, and I have learned a lot of international law-related things. But somehow, when you’re flitting around Europe, it never quite feels like you’re also earning law school credits.

Although, I guess I have to come to my own defense a little bit; I have learned lots of stuff this semester, both legal and  otherwise, and that has to be worth something, right? I may not have ever set foot into Hutchins Hall, but Switzerland was my classroom. And as the semester draws to a close, here is what I know.

There is no such thing as a cheap meal in Geneva. Or a cheap anything, for that matter. We were all warned – repeatedly – about how expensive the city would be, but after spending last summer in New York, I figured Switzerland wouldn’t phase me. Wrong, wrong, wrong. At first, I was appalled on a daily basis by the cost of things here. Now, I’m mostly numb to it and do my best to forget my financial predicament whenever possible.

Swiss trains are incredibly efficient and clean. If you doubt this, cross the border to France and take a train. Making our way to Chamonix, my friend and I were horrified by the French train we wound up on – repeated delays due to vague maintenance problems, screaming children running everywhere, and trash strewn all around (the amount of candy and chip crumbs on the floor was truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and this is coming from a girl who isn’t very tidy herself) (stop laughing, Mom and Dad). You won’t find any of that nonsense on a Swiss train – they are quiet, tidy, and always leave on time. Plus, you can’t beat those views.

I will never be able to eat Hershey’s chocolate again. Like ever. Swiss chocolate spoils you for life. I’m already distraught over the possibility that I won’t be able to acquire Cailler (my favorite Swiss brand, by far) chocolate when I’m back home. As a corollary to this: when it comes to Swiss chocolate, I have learned never to eat anything other than the plain milk variety. Eat it straight up and pure; the chocolate is so good that you don’t need it filled with almonds or toffee or honey or any other nonsense.

The Swiss are unfailingly polite…most of the time. Some friends of mine developed a theory: Swiss people are always polite, unless you do one of two things: you break a rule, or you interfere with skiing. I saw evidence of the truth behind this theory many a time over the course of my semester here, so I’m pretty sure we cracked the Swiss honor code. Follow the rules and let people ski in peace and you will be golden.

Speaking of skiing…it’s a big, BIG deal. It’s what almost everyone I worked with did on the weekends. It’s what a bajillion tourists (give or take) descend upon the country to do. It’s the reason why there are dedicated areas in every airport for ski equipment drop-off and handling (something that never fails to crack me up).

Geneva is a desolate wasteland on Sundays. No, really. I cannot overstate this point; lots of places might be quiet on a Sunday, but Geneva is a straight-up ghost town. Stores shut down, restaurants close, and public transport runs less frequently. If you need something…don’t plan on getting it on a Sunday. And if you’re bored…well, better luck on Monday.

The half-fare card is so, so worth it. As previously mentioned, Switzerland is crazy expensive, and this includes train tickets. However, for 175 francs, you can buy a card that gets you half off all Swiss train rides for a year. Shelling out 175 francs may seem like a steep price to pay initially, but I calculated that it saved me over $300 in the long run. And that was just over the course of me being in Switzerland for four months; imagine how much savings you would rack up over a year.

Greet people with three cheek kisses. Yep, you heard me: don’t stop at two in Switzerland. It feels excessive, but that’s just how it’s done here. I’m so glad I was informed of this right when I arrived in Geneva, because if I hadn’t been, I would have had a couple awkward situations where I totally got it wrong.

The number 8 bus is endlessly entertaining. Bus #8, which goes right past the UN, ILO, WHO, and a million other international organizations, can be a pretty fascinating place to spend your morning commute. If you don’t have a book or iPhone to distract yourself with, play the following games: 1) count how many different foreign languages you hear being spoken and 2) listen to snippets of conversations and try to guess which IGO the speakers work at.

Manor is everything. The Gare Cornavin branch of Manor was literally my go-to stop for everything while in Geneva; it’s a department store, drug store, grocery store, and food hall all rolled into one. My regular Manor routine involved buying my weekly groceries and then stopping by the Thai food counter for some takeout (and yes, the woman who worked there recognized me and always threw in a free chicken satay skewer for being a regular). Plus, the Manor chocolate corner has an insane selection of chocolates. Buy gifts for all your loved ones – and, let’s be real, for yourself – here.

It’s the small cultural differences that are baffling. What I’ve found is that the big differences – the language spoken, the service in restaurants, and so forth – don’t really phase me. But it is the tiny, seemingly insignificant things that puzzle me the most. For instance: why does nobody use the Oxford comma? Why, when I eat with coworkers in the cafeteria, am I the only one who puts ice cubes in her water? Why must I burn my hands on my coffee every day because nobody embraces coffee sleeves? These are the things I cannot comprehend.

You will feel inadequate about your language skills (or lack thereof). You ask “parlez-vous anglais?” and people always answer “a little bit,” only to prove moments later that they speak and understand English perfectly and were just being modest. I curse myself daily for only having very rusty high school Spanish, semi-rusty college Italian, and bits of French cobbled together via Rosetta Stone. Everyone speaks multiple languages here; it’s just the norm. Example: I was in the library at work with a German coworker, and the librarian says, “You don’t happen to read Russian, do you?” And my coworker replies, “Actually, I do.” Perfectly normal. We’ve all got some Russian in our back pockets, amirite?

After four months in Geneva, I won’t pretend to have an in-depth knowledge of all things Swiss. But, considering the fact that, before this semester, my major impressions of Switzerland were: 1) mountains! 2) chocolate! and 3) banking!, I think I have learned quite a bit. Switzerland is not a perfect place and it may not be the most exciting of countries, but here’s one final thing I know: Europe’s capital of neutrality and skiing now has a place in my heart, high cost of living and all.

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