I’ve always found satisfying answers to most of my pressing questions between the covers of books. Unsurprisingly then, when nine months ago my husband’s job unexpectedly moved us to Switzerland without knowing much about it, that’s where I searched for clues about our seemingly vague near future.  

Btw, if we haven’t met before: hi, I’m your typical over rehearsed traveler. My holiday prep routine kicks off with studying a destination guidebook to killjoy. However, this wasn’t that kind of a quest.  

As Liz Gilbert says in Eat Pray Love, “Traveling-to-a-place energy and living-in-a-place energy are two fundamentally different energies”. It was an existing dose of the latter that I compellingly sought, a human sense of what could be.

So, here is where I’ve been getting my basic Swiss culture education.

HEIDI by Johanna Spyri

Yep, I said it. I turned to a fictional character that was created to instill virtuous ideals in the minds of kids for emergency assistance. What can I say? That was the only Swiss person accessible to me at the time. I didn’t think Roger Federer would return my panic induced email if I sent him one.

Besides, I have watched the cartoon as a child, but never actually read the book. Why miss an opportunity to check a children’s classic off my list?

I picked up a couple of copies from the nearest bookstore in Abu Dhabi and gave one to my sister’s twins, who wanted to know where aunty Shaikha was going.

And explain where aunty Shaikha was going Johanna Spyri’s heavily autobiographical tale (sort of) did. Nearly a decade and a half later, her inherent love for the natural beauty of her Swiss village formed a steppingstone over my anxiety of such blind change.  

It painted my imagination with a visual of a beautiful mountainous countryside, flower furnished meadows where a whole lot of friendly animals grazed all day! A storybook place I perhaps wanted to see with my own eyes.

See, this is how children’s books really work…

A TRAMP ABROAD by Mark Twain

Settling in a new country is the kind of a bitter pill best chased with a swig of overstated wit.

Which eventually lead me to consuming massive amounts of Mr. Twain’s humorist realism. He’s been down these exact slippery slopes; he’ll know what to laugh about first, I figured.  

By the time I put this travel literature essential down, there were a couple of things that I knew for sure:

  • I am never going to want to voluntarily learn German
  • It’s all going to be an uphill climb from here, literally speaking.

SWISS WATCHING by Diccon Bewes

“There’s got to be someone out there who knows how to do this better than I’m doing it”, I pondered as I dragged my cracked spirit home right after my first public confrontation. You don’t just get refused service at your local bakery if you’re saying and doing all the right things, right? …. right???

I get the sense that Diccon Bewes begs to differ. As I hurried through my first self-hosted book club read, I gradually drew the conclusion that a decade of living in Switzerland is bound to inflict the side effect of redefining a person’s deep-rooted notions of societal rights and wrongs.

Coming to think of it – expat life anywhere in the world can do that to you I suppose!

Hello culture shock!

Good thing I’ve developed a taste for British sarcasm laced truth in my past life. Mainly that’s what got me to the last page without screaming “GET ME OUT OF THIS MINARET BANNING, GOLD HORDING, ONE BIG XENOPHOBIC FODUE RIGHT NOW”. At least not out loud.

To cross or not to cross the cultural bridge this book laid ahead of me? That is a question I naturally ask myself every single day.  

SLOW TRAIN TO SWITZERLAND by Diccon Bewes

Clearly on a roll and impressed by the thorough research style showcased in his first book, I went ahead and read Bewes’s second. Indeed, there was more where that came from.

This time he traces the lost and found memories of one brave Victorian lady, Miss Jemima, who joined the first package tour to Switzerland with the visionary man who dreamed it. An engaging account of the joys that have been luring people to the country since the birth of mass tourism, assisted by no other than Thomas Cook.  

More importantly it’s a reminder of the sheer power of a good story. Because if that girl was able to scale the Alps mostly on foot, in a crinoline dress, in 1863, perhaps there is a chance I would sooner or later catch a good connection on one of the world’s most efficient transportation networks.  

SWISS LIFE: 30 THINGS I WISH I KNEW by Chantal Panozzo

So many warnings in this one. Some I’m probably slightly late to consider, but l am definitely relieved to know that I’m not the only one who finds the Swiss shared laundry rooms the scariest place on earth.

I’ve been reading through the blog that inspired the book lately and praying to God (at Iftar time) to either gift me this woman’s patience or her fresh perspective. Can’t escape the fact that having the right attitude towards in-your-face type challenges goes a long way.

On the other hand, I feel like this book circles back to my proposed theory (shared in a previous post) on how telling a personal story is an act of generosity awaiting fulfillment. In this case I am grateful to be on the receiving end.

Still on my Switzerland reading list:

  • Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
  • Beyond Chocolate: Understanding Swiss Culture by Margret Oertig-Davidson
  • The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond by Stephen O’Shea
  • The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Swiss by Paul Bilton
  • Coming Out Swiss: In Search of Heidi, Chocolate, and My Other Life by Anne Herrmann

Have you read any of these books before, or have a suggestion on other useful resources on the subject?

Sharing is caring I remind you.

Love, 

Shaikha 

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