Moving to Geneva: Separating Fact from Fiction

Sunday, August 07, 2016

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 idea 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 apartment that 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 artichokes). 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 to. 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.

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  1. Thank you for the insights! This was so interesting to see that some quirks are typical of other countries besides my own! I live in Barbados where everything is expensive, closing hours are still early (some supermarkets open on Sundays now) and finding a place to rent can be stressful. People make it seem like it's only here or the other Caribbean islands that these things happen but it's good to hear about similar challenges elsewhere!

    1. Wow I would not have known that about Barbados! Yes, it is definitely challenging too in many parts of the world, even here in Switzerland. Happy to commiserate with you lol!