On a sunny and unusually warm day in January, my son, daughter and I exchanged goodbyes with our wonderful neighbors and friends. Moving day had at last arrived after weeks of planning and preparing. Our house contents and the children’s treasures had been carefully crammed into ninety-nine boxes, loaded into two moving trucks and were already on route to our new home. For the three of us, it was time to board the train to Zurich.
Departing from Chiasso, we waived ciao to the familiar Lake Lugano with bittersweet smiles. As the train got further and further from home, our hearts were a bit heavy. In seven years we had found so many wonderful friends and had hit the jackpot as far as the neighborhood we were leaving behind.
When we first moved to Ticino, we didn’t have the best start in our new neighborhood. We had a cultural mishap and inadvertently offended our neighbors. It all started with introductions, or the lack thereof. Whereas in the United States and Germany, anytime we moved, our new neighbors would come to introduce themselves and even bring gifts, in Switzerland this wasn’t the case.
When we lived in Massachusetts, I remember receiving lovely gifts of bread, brownies and one particularly delicious blueberry pie. Near Frankfurt, Germany, five years later, our neighbors invited us for a lovely lunch the very first weekend we moved in, and this became regular get-togethers for the families.
In Switzerland, after we moved, several weeks passed and we hadn’t met any of the neighbors at all. I had heard a lot about Switzerland and challenges surrounding friendships from other expat families. We were told that the landscape was beautiful, the food would be delicious, and that it was practically impossible to make friends with anyone local. We were warned to connect with expats or risk feeling very isolated while living in Switzerland.
How do you look forward to moving to such a beautiful place thinking you might feel lonely? While I had initially refused to believe that was true, a few weeks into our Swiss life I was feeling quite worried. It turns out that the food is delicious, especially if you like chocolate and bread. The mountains and lakes are breathtaking, but contrary to what I had been told, people in Switzerland are very friendly, kind and generous. Becoming friends or friendly just involves a few special steps and knowledge of local customs.
Through a quick and much-appreciated cultural lesson from one of my children’s kindergarten teachers in Ticino, we learned that it was indeed somewhat true that Swiss people are reserved. However, this was mainly in the sense that it was expected and necessary for us, as the newly arrived family in the neighborhood, to take an active lead in facilitating introductions. Once we apologized for our mistake with some flowers and invitations for tea, we started to interact and get to know our neighbors.
Back to our latest moving day: as the train curved by the beautiful Lake Zug, my children and I started planning how we might introduce ourselves to our neighbors this time around, armed with a better understanding of Swiss customs and a few years of experience.
Just as soon as our kitchen was more or less unpacked and ready for use, we baked a few batches of chocolate chip cookies and set off to meet the neighbors. We rang doorbells, paying attention to the timing so we wouldn’t disturb the Mittagsruhe (“midday quiet”: a time between 12:00 and 14:00 when it’s not polite to make noise or disturb your neighbors) and gifted cookies to the four homes closest to our own.
An alternative to baking something as a means to introduce yourself, it is also polite, based on Swiss customs, to host an open house or garden party for your neighbors. In such an event you may choose to offer refreshments such as coffee, tea, wine and finger foods in your home, flat or garden. Of most importance, as we learned the hard way, is that as newcomers, we take the first step towards making introductions to our Swiss neighbors.
If you hope to connect with your neighbors but feel a bit reserved about randomly ringing doorbells or hosting a small party, leaving a handwritten card with a short introduction is also considered polite. Along with that introduction card you might want to leave a small gift such as tea, candles or artisan chocolates from a local store. Chocolate chip cookies seemed to have worked well for us, as we have settled well into our new home and have once again struck gold with a lovely new neighborhood.
By Ariadne Brill
Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. Originally from Brazil, she has lived in the United States, Germany and now calls Switzerland home. Ariadne has an M.S. in psychology and works with families and teachers, offering consultations on child development and positive discipline. Connect with her via the Positive Parenting Connection website, Facebook Page and on Twitter.
Illustration by Albina Nogueira
Albina Nogueira has been a primary school teacher since 1992, and a writer and illustrator since 2006. She currently lives in Switzerland and teaches Portuguese. She is also the author of Letters to Grandparents and Hairdresser. To find out more visit: http://albinanogueira.blogspot.ch/ or see her books on Amazon.