Moving to Geneva: Separating Fact from Fiction

Rainbow at the Jet d'Eau in Geneva, Switzerland

Like most people moving to a new city, I tried to do my research before coming to Geneva. By research I mean gathering as much second-hand information as possible, from hounding folks who used to live there to reading every blog post and book I could get my hands on. I had an inkling that all this research would, in the end, probably only prove slightly useful — after all, I found that to be the case when I moved to New York. In the end, you always find your own way, whichever city you pick as your new home. But until you finally set foot in your new city, you're likely to be afflicted with the moving scaries.

So while I realize that telling you about my experience might only end up being a tiny bit useful for you, I'll do it anyway because packing and moving to someplace you've never been is nerve-wracking, folks! Other people's stories won't always help you find your way, but having an inkling of what to expect can soothe the moving scaries. So without further ado, let me share what I've found to be fact versus what I've found to be fiction now that I've moved to Geneva.

"You'll get by with just English."

Umm, not quite.

"Parles-vous anglais?" I hopefully asked a régie (real estate agent) on the phone, who none too delicately replied in French that no he did not and why should I expect him to when I spoke neither French, Italian nor German. Fair enough. I soldiered on in my limited French and even tried Spanish when he claimed he understood that, but eventually he gave up and handed the phone to a colleague who could speak some English. Scenarios like this are perhaps what people mean when they say you can get by in English. You can get by playing charades with the Swiss and most other people in the world, but do you really want to?

I would urge you to take some French classes, binge on Duolingo and install Google Translate on your smartphone to smoothen your transition. It might be different if you have a relocation firm and a highly competent Francophone secretary handling everything for you, but if you're moving as a regular person, it can be a challenge. From the infamous régies to the delivery guys to the telco company, English is not always an option. My French is somewhere around kindergarten level but it has been better than nothing, so do study up!

"Finding an apartment is a nightmare."

Sadly, this is closer to fact than fiction. Good apartments are in short supply in Geneva and free apartments generally have several applicants in line. If your work is demanding, you might want to use a relocation agent because finding an apartment is time- and attention-consuming. You will have to make an appointment to see each place and depending on the circumstances, you may view it with an agent, have to coordinate with the existing tenant, or pick up the keys from the régie to view on your own. Viewing times can be terribly inconvenient and you may find yourself running back and forth to work while looking at apartments at 9am, 2pm and 7pm.

As a new arrival, you may find the document requirements confusing. For example, an attestation de non-poursuite stating that one is free from outstanding debts in Switzerland is typically required for an applicant's dossier, but a new arrival should obviously not have any outstanding debts if new to the country, right? Sure, but get the document anyway to have all bases covered. With competition so high for apartments, any little miss can take you out of consideration. Also apply for as many apartments as you can because chances are, most will not even bother to call you back, let alone give you the apartment. I put in a total of six applications and got one acceptance, one rejection and nothing but the sound of crickets from the rest.

As frustrating as it all can be, luck will eventually smile on you. I was on the verge of a breakdown when we finally got the news that our application was accepted for an application we loved. Even better, we ended up with a landlord who speaks English perfectly and manages the building impeccably. The process can be a nightmare but it's not unrealistic to think that you can end up with the apartment of your dreams ( ... well, if your dream apartment is one with a spare bedroom, a view of something more than a wall and sufficient sunlight for a window sill herb garden ... if you're thinking private jacuzzi, maybe dream on or live in France!).

Foie gras salad at Les 5 Portes in Geneva, Switzerland "Everything is SO expensive."

On The Economist's Big Mac scale, Switzerland tops the list for most expensive burger in the world, so there's definitely truth to this statement. After a decade in New York, however, I have gotten used to paying exorbitant prices for things so expensive is relative.

Compared to New York, apartments are cheaper with a 2-bedroom in lively parts of the city running between CHF 2500-2800. With the CHF almost one-to-one with the USD, this is a far better deal than New York where a studio in Brooklyn Heights can run up to USD 2500 these days. Note, however, that renters must put away 2-3 months worth of rent in a special bank account that is still under the renter's name but linked to the landlord. This serves as a guarantee and will only be released by the bank at the end of your rental contract after the landlord has ensured that the apartment is intact and in move-in condition for the succeeding tenant. This will significantly affect your liquidity, so watch out. In some cases, you can sign up with a company like Swiss Caution, which will put up the guarantee for you for a fee. As of this writing, however, international civil servants residing in Switzerland on a carte de legitimation no longer seem to be eligible for this service.

For furniture, however, even Ikea prices are comparatively more expensive here. So if you have furniture that you love and a relocation package from your company, bring as much as you can to Switzerland. Check your electronics, however, as most of them will likely not work because Switzerland uses 230V while America uses 110V. Some electronics, like computers and cellphone chargers, work from 110-230V so those can easily still be used here, but I would advise you to stock up on Swiss adaptors beforehand.

Eating out can be exorbitantly expensive in Geneva so tread carefully. I am forever scarred by a CHF 60 lunch that consisted of two glasses of fresh orange juice and two salads made with regular pantry ingredients (feta, olives, sundried tomatoes and olives). On the other hand, while I am still incensed by that CHF 24 salad, I have come back repeatedly to Les 5 Portes, which serves a salad worth every franc of its CHF 28 price tag. This "salad" is topped with seared and terrine foie gras, and many other scrumptious things. If you choose well, there's high quality food worth its price to be found, but you must seek it out!

Parc de la Grange in Geneva, Switzerland
"Stores close so early and don't open at all on the weekends! It's so inconvenient!"

Yes, it was an annoying transition for me, a 10-year New York resident used to strolling into the bodega to pick up coconut water at 3am, to contend with Switzerland's shopping hours. It took a couple of weekends of burning a hole through our pockets by having to eat out for me to learn to always keep my fridge and pantry stocked. Indeed, grocery stores generally close by 7pm on weekdays, 6pm on Saturdays and all day on Sundays. While grocery stores in the train station and airport are open 7 days a week and up to 10pm on weekdays, it can be like the Hunger Games in there on Sundays so I avoid it, if possible.

I would never admit it to my trusty Brooklyn bodega guy but the truth is, now that I'm used to the idea, I am starting to enjoy the relaxation forced upon you by Sunday store closures. We're still nesting so we tend to use most of our free time going to the stores to buy stuff for our home, but because they are only open for so long (and on some days, not at all), we're forced to let it go and just enjoy ourselves in the evenings and on Sundays. I have to say, there are definitely worse things in life than being forced to relax at home or sit in the park with a book because nothing is open.

"Apartment rules are crazy! You can't flush your toilet or take a shower after 10pm. And you have to do your laundry during an assigned time slot, which could be 3pm on a Wednesday!"

This had me mildly terrified about living in Geneva, given my nocturnal bathroom using habits. But when I asked my AirBnB host upon arrival and my landlord a month later if this was true, both looked incredulous and mildly insulted by the question. I received replies to the effect of, "Of course you can flush and shower after 10pm. Who on earth gave you the idea that you can't?!" That being said, we have noticed that when our upstairs neighbor empties a full bathtub, it sounds like it is raining above our bedroom, so we try to be conscientious about our evening bathroom use. Because most of the buildings here have been around for decades, sound travels easily. The Swiss are very conscious about keeping noise levels down in order to live harmoniously in tight quarters, so we try our best to do the same. But they're not so considerate that everyone holds it until daybreak, so fear not.

As for laundry, it's true that buildings have schedules for their common laundry room and you could be given an inconvenient slot. Ours would have been 7pm on Fridays, for example, if we had chosen to take it. But most apartments are also set up to have a washer/dryer installed so you can make your own decisions about when to do your laundry. Having said that, you can imagine that the sound of your spin cycle going at full throttle would cause a fair amount of noise and vibration for your downstairs neighbor. So again, be considerate and don't do laundry late at night, or better yet use the delayed start timer on your machine so your laundry gets done while you and your neighbors are out at work. While it may seem annoying think about your neighbors all the time, you will appreciate it when you realize how comparatively more peaceful it can be to live amongst the Swiss.

La Barje in Geneva, Switzerland "It's so boring there."

To paraphrase Monsieur Forrest Gump, "Boring is as boring does." You could live in a city as vibrant, crazy and hectic as New York and still be bored if you choose to stay in your apartment watching Netflix. You could also live in a city touted as boring like Geneva and never be bored if you take advantage of everything at your fingertips.

It can be "boring" if you're looking to discover a new cocktail bar every weekend; not so if you're looking for a different hiking trail every seven days. It can be boring if you're looking for clubs with bouncer-guarded lines; but if you're looking for gorgeous bars on boats or right beside a beautiful river, you'll always be able to find a seat there and you won't be bored at all. Geneva will never entertain the way New York or London does; it will entertain as Geneva can, and that is not a bad thing at all. All else fails, it is laughably easy to travel out of Geneva, with the airport just a 10-minute train ride away from Gare Cornavin, the main train station.

Flying over Lac Léman, Switzerland "It's a big adjustment but you will grow to love it."

On our last family trip, my uncle told me, "I love traveling but the best part is always coming home." I remember finding that strange because I have always enjoyed traveling and most of the time dreaded traveling back. On my most recent trip to Ibiza with J, however, I finally felt it. I wasn't necessarily raring to leave paradise, but coming home with my guy to our home in a city we now felt extremely comfortable in really was something to look forward. It might have been a combination of finally traveling without saying goodbye to J, the ease of travel between the two cities, or simply finally having a home to call OUR own. I don't know what it was exactly, but at that moment, I was grateful for Geneva and how it has allowed us to build our first home together. Slowly but surely, I am falling in love with our new city.

Bonjour Genève !

Lac Léman/Lake Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland

A little over two weeks ago, I started a new chapter in Geneva. After nearly a decade of living in New York, I picked up and moved to Europe to get a leg up on my career and to finally be in the same place as my love. It has been a pretty big change of pace, to say the least. At 8.406 million, New York City's population tops that of the entire country of Switzerland by 325,000 — nearly twice Geneva's population of 188,000. So I spent most of my first few days wondering where everyone was until I realized this is everyone.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Like the swans on Lac Léman, I find myself sailing through daily life with minimal aggravation. After years of choking subway morning commutes, I can now calmly walk to work. On the days that I use public transportation, I always have a comfortable seat and a peaceful ride. At work, everyone says a polite "Bonjour" or "Bonne soirée" when we cross paths, and the men hold doors and ensure that I enter the elevator first — gracious behavior I'd largely forgotten in the daily New York rat race. When I go out with friends and colleagues, there's always ample room — whether it's at a lakeside terrace, a bar on a boat, a trendy cocktail bar or a popular fondue spot. The city is incredibly compact so even when nights out run late, we can always walk home. No power tripping bouncers, no shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, no pricey cab rides. The struggle is over, it seems — for the fun stuff, at least.

Rebuilding a life, however, takes time. I arrived with my passport and contract, and had to rebuild everything from there. We forget about it after staying in one place too long, but it's all the little boring details that make us a "real" person (though paradoxically, all on paper): a bank account, a functioning debit card, a residence permit. Day by day, with each piece of paper signed, sealed and delivered, I am starting to feel more and more like a real person again. With God's grace (and the infamous Swiss Régies' blessings), I might even have a proper address soon! In the notoriously difficult Swiss housing market, one can only hope.

In the meantime, I soothe the relocation stress with bread dipped in melted cheese and swills of Swiss wine. And day by day, I find little things to love in our new home.

Boat and Jet d'Eau on Lac Léman/Lake Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland
Swan on Lac Léman/Lake Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland
Bateau Genève in Geneva, Switzerland
Paddle boarding on Lac Léman/Lake Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland
Bâtiment des Forces Motrices in Geneva, Switzerland
Reformation Wall, Geneva, Switzerland
Poppies and flowers in Geneva, Switzerland
La Petite Reine in Geneva, Switzerland
Fondue from Bains de Paquis, Geneva, Switzerland
Cave Ouvertes, Geneva, Switzerland

End Scene, New York


I started watching Sex and the City again at the beginning of this year. It seemed appropriate; I was going through my KonMari purge and sifting through all the things I've accumulated over the course of the past 9 years, which felt very much like a re-assessment of my New York life. After I got over my initial annoyance at Carrie and crew's man-driven neuroses (what a difference in my personal perspective 18 years makes), I dove right back into the entertaining New York dating scene pastiche cobbled together in this series. And as I watched Carrie fall in and out of love and stumble through life in this maddening yet beautiful city, I said goodbye to my own version of a somewhat similar past. I thought at first that I was just bidding my single life farewell as I started my new life with Johan. Little did I know that I would soon be saying goodbye to my other great love.

Just as I was watching the final season of Sex and the City, I received some life changing news: I landed a job in Geneva, one that I have worked so hard to get and that significantly changes the trajectory of my career. I was thrilled to have finally cleared what once seemed to be an insurmountable hurdle — but my prize came at a cost. Claiming it means this could be my final season in my beloved city, New York.

My love affair with this city is one for the books. It's where I came to know myself and where I learned all the incredible things the world has to offer. I've been here for nearly a decade yet never tired of this fast-paced, ever-evolving city. This is the city that sets the standards for the rest of the world, and it has truly set the bar high for what I consider to be the best city to live in. While I am filled with excitement for this next stage in my life, I am also sad that my New York story is coming to a close. But, as I should have learned by now, I should never say never. I could fall in love with another city or we could find ourselves circling right back to New York in a few years. After all, life has always had a funny way of surprising me.

But one thing is for sure: You're going to be a tough act to follow, New York.

Loving Old Las Vegas

It wasn't my first trip to Las Vegas but somehow this time it felt new. Ironically, it might have had to do with our fascination with finding relics of Vegas past. Away from the strip, we found some of what made the Vegas of old so spectacular, intriguing and glamorous. 

We spent a warm February afternoon exploring the Neon Museum, a boneyard and final resting place of sorts for the retired glittering lights of the Strip. The clam-shaped lobby itself is a relic, once the lobby of the 1961 La Concha Motel before it was taken apart and rebuilt where it stands today. The boneyard holds towering remnants of old Las Vegas: the Stardust, the Moulin Rouge, the Riviera, the Golden Nugget, the Stardust, the Sahara and the Aladdin — some peeling, some shattered, but all somehow retaining some of the pomp and pageantry they once imparted. Visitors can visit the boneyard on guided tours and hear about all the stories behind these once flashing lights.


We also visited the Mob Museum, which recounts the history of the mafia throughout the US and specifically in Las Vegas. The story begins with the mass migration of large groups of Europeans fleeing war and famine to the US, back when the Five Points was contested ground among the gangs of New York. It goes on to the Prohibition Era, which turned "nobody's into wiseguys." Artifacts displayed include tommy guns and bags with false bottoms used to smuggle alcohol flasks. The rise of gambling and the mob's role in it is also delved into, of course, as this is Vegas after all. It was interesting to see how Sin City sprung up following the construction of Hoover Dam, which brought scores of men to the area who needed to unwind with booze, gambling and women during their downtime. The exhibit also goes into how the law eventually caught up with the mob, as well as how the public remains transfixed by this underworld. It was fascinating to explore every floor and look back on this bloody yet completely intriguing era.


To celebrate a special night, we paid a visit to the Golden Steer, which is not a museum but a veritable Las Vegas institution. In a city where you can't throw a poker chip without hitting a steakhouse and where something old is constantly being torn down for something new, the Golden Steer has managed to stand strong since 1958. Its tufted read leather banquet seats have seated the most famous figures in recent history: Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Joe DiMaggio and Muhammad Ali. The steakhouse's late owner, Joe Kludjian, would tell stories of how mobster Tony "The Ant" Spilotro and FBI chief Joe Yablonsky used to glare at each other from across the room. On the Thursday night of our visit, we were all mere mortals in the room but to me at least, the air felt thick with history. We ordered a bottle of beautiful Shiraz and started with the Caesar salad for two prepared tableside in the style of a bygone era. For our entrees, we ordered filet mignons, which were cooked to perfection. We had planned on ordering one of the spectacular flambéed desserts but the Golden Steer had other plans for us. They surprised us with a sparkler-lit slice of chocolate cake, which we enjoyed tremendously. For that night at least, with me clad in diamonds and fur and he dapper in his suit, we felt some of that old Las Vegas glamour and magic, and we will always remember it fondly.


Me and KonMari


"The process of assessing how you feel about the things you own,
identifying those that have fulfilled their purpose,
expressing your gratitude, and bidding them farewell,
is really about examining yours,
a rite of passage to a new life."
- Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
(Image via Urban Outfitters)

I have long fancied myself as someone detached from possessions. Between my big move from Manila to New York nine years ago, and my subsequent tour de Manhattan before settling in Brooklyn Heights, I was under the illusion that I was traveling light and constantly discarding the unnecessary. It took reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and following the steps laid out by Maria Kondo, guru of joy-sparking minimalism, for me to confront the uncomfortable truth: I had in fact dragged a tremendous amount of mostly useless excess baggage all across New York over the past 9 years.

Learning to Let Go

The basic premise of the method which has come to be known as KonMari is that you should only keep what sparks joy in your life. Kondo asks you to go through your possessions by category in a prescribed order, starting with clothes then books and so forth until you end with mementos. You must hold every piece in your hands and assess whether it brings you joy. If the answer is yes, it stays; if the answer is no, you must thank it for the purpose it served in your life (keeping in mind that the purpose could simply be to teach you what does not work for you), and then let it go.

The book includes testimonials from KonMari believers testifying how this exercise led to life changes as radical as quitting an unfulfilling job or even getting a divorce, which I at first thought was a hard sell. As I went through the exercise, however, I began to understand how such big life changes could come out of this process. KonMari is very much a paradigm-shift; the habit of letting go of what doesn't suit you can work just as easily for shoes as for men. Once you start thinking this way about your possessions, you just may start applying it to the rest of your life. After all, taking on the gargantuan task of tidying up your life is not really just about the things themselves ...

What kind of life do you envision?

At the beginning of the process, Kondo asks you to picture your endpoint—not just a clean closet, per se, but visualize what a joy-sparking life looks like to you. I remembered how happy I was when I first moved into my apartment; it was perfectly tidy and I was always ready to have guests over for a cocktail. But as work, graduate school and our long-distance relationship took over, my apartment became my very last priority. Things started piling up everywhere and before I knew it, it was a bonafide mess. Having a friend pop in to quickly use the bathroom became embarrassing; forget ever hosting a cocktail party again!

But with grad school finally done and dusted, and our relationship transitioning into a new phase, I could now re-examine my vision. Yes, I could bring my apartment back to pre-grad school, cocktail party-ready tidiness, but I also had to re-imagine it as our home. I dove into KonMari knowing that I needed to clear up the clutter of my past to make room for my future. That goal motivated me to discard clothes, shoes and accessories so ruthlessly that by the end of the process, the things that bring me joy fit neatly into one closet and two drawers, leaving my husband-to-be plenty of room to settle in.

Examining your choices

One of the things I learned from KonMari is that deciding what to keep and what to discard is ultimately about taking an honest look at the choices we have made. This tendency to avoid examining, learning from and accepting our bad choices is largely why we accumulate so many things we don't particularly like. Even though we know that something is not quite right, we still try to live by the choices we've made, ignoring what that ultimately costs us. For possessions, that could mean draining our bank accounts by purchasing more storage solutions, upgrading to bigger homes or renting extra storage units. Wouldn't it be so much cheaper to let go of those pretty but painful shoes that you never wear than to buy even more shoe racks for your unused quasi-treasures to gather dust in?

I realized that the same thinking applies to our personal lives, too. I sorted through my belongings while watching old episodes of Sex and the City, which is not Kondo-approved but nevertheless felt appropriate as going through my old things was akin to seeing reruns of my past life. Looking at my past through KonMari lenses, I couldn't help but think about the decisions I had made back then and how, had I stubbornly stuck with a choice that was not entirely right for me, there would not have been room for Johan to come in. Just as discarding a ho-hum pair of shoes will free up closet space for your dream pair of Louboutins, letting go of relationships that don't serve you well will leave space for the right person to come into your life.

You deserve better (not necessarily more)

We tend to think that having more will bring us more happiness, but KonMari taught me otherwise. Throughout the years, the things that brought me joy had gotten buried underneath an avalanche of "meh." I kept thinking that I needed more because I could never seem to find anything to wear despite having two overflowing closets. I grew to despise doing laundry because there was never any space to put the clean clothes away. Getting rid of all that excess allowed me to rediscover my favorite things, and having no so-so fallback items ensures that I use the things that I love much more frequently.

I guess that's one of the gifts of KonMari: it forces you to take stock of what you have and how much room you actually have in your life to enjoy any of it. When I was confronted with just how much I had, I realized that there was no way I could enjoy every single one of my possessions. And after I had pared everything down to the things I truly loved, I realized that I still have more than enough. People who have suffered a huge loss tend to say that it took losing everything for them to realize what truly mattered. In essence, that's what KonMari does, but in far less dramatic fashion. You have control over what you keep and what you let go. You don't have to lose it all to find out what truly matters to you—you just have to let go of the things that are weighing you down.

Epilogue

I'm halfway through my KonMari process, having sorted through my clothes, jewelry, books and cosmetics. The changes I've made have already improved my life considerably. Getting ready and doing laundry is a stress-free affair because everything has its place and I can see exactly just how much I have. Seeing my things displayed in a way that allows them to shine brings joy to my everyday routine (this jewelry organizer is pure joy). I gave away about 3/4 of what I owned but have not felt a moment of anxiety over the things I've discarded since I let them go. There's a lightness that comes with freeing oneself from guilt and bad choices. I'm motivated to continue the process of ensuring every part of my life sparks joy.