"Daily Life in Zurich" Integration Course
When you move to Zurich, the city hands you two things:
An invitation to a Welcome Happy Hour at City Hall.
A pharmacy voucher for anti-radiation pills, in case the nuclear power plant outside the city explodes.
So, Raunaq and I collected our pills (and promptly lost them in the move from our temporary apartment to the permanent one) and showed up to the packed Stadthaus for our free drinks. There was presentation simultaneously given in multiple languages, an unexpected city tour, a very generous spread of food and wine to break the ice while you network for friends, and information on all the different resources the city provides to new folks like us.
Which is how, just before the holidays, I became an official graduate of an integration course called “Daily Life in Zurich.” It was a weekly class provided by the city, intended to teach new residents the basics about living in Switzerland - history, culture, politics, insurance, health care system, education system, and the like - all through the context of being a woman. They offer 10+ languages, provide childcare, and it’s quite cheap (only 60 francs), as the course is heavily subsidized by the Zurich taxpayers. If you complete 13 of the 16 courses, they reimburse the 60 francs in the form of a voucher for German lessons.
Throughout the 16 weeks, I went back and forth on whether I thought the course was helpful or a waste of time. After the first few classes, I was describing it to Raunaq as the “most useless-useful class I’ve ever taken.” The information was interesting and relevant, but the teacher was terrible with time management and we would often stay on a single point for far too long, and rarely get through the bulk of the day’s module.
I was describing it to Raunaq as the “most useless-useful class I’ve ever taken.”
She was very lovely and knowledgeable, but couldn’t keep on track. There’d be a topic, like managing finances, that would get someone chattering, and then we’d be off to the races, all sharing stories or recommendations. She’d frantically reign everyone in during the last 15 minutes to get on schedule, and then like clockwork end each class with a “whoops, well, we’ll finish this up next week.”
But then, slowly, I realized that was the true meat of the class - those conversations. It was not just fun, but incredibly insightful, to have a weekly meeting with a group of women, none American other than myself, to talk and share our collective experiences living in Zurich. Expectations vs. reality, losing your identity, difficulties in finding a job, Swiss sexism and gender inequality, cultural differences, getting utterly confounded by Swiss German, how to meet new people and build a community, all the Swiss social faux pas we’ve made, and lots and lots of talk about raising children in the city (I’d say over ½ of the women in class were mothers). All these issues, and so many more, organically sprouted from the PowerPoint presentations and scheduled course topics.
While I was learning about the three pillars of Swiss social security system and the reason why Kindergarteners are encouraged to walk to school by their little selves, I also had a forum to crowdsource the best way to tell neighbors about an upcoming house party (it’s an art) or fume about the fact that Swiss employers expect a headshot, age and marital status on your resume. These discussions, I found, were just as important as getting through the slides each week. It put context around the things I was experiencing on a daily basis. I felt a little less alone in what I didn’t understand and what I was trying to figure out. And slowly, that “useless” part of the useless-useful class dropped off entirely.
Upon reflection, it brought my personal experience of being an expat and immigrant into sharper focus.
The course also included field trips to supplement what was being taught. We all were able to sit in on a Zurich parliament meeting at Town Hall, tour the historical old town with a specific focus on women’s role in founding, climb to the top of St. Peter’s famous clocktower (which isn’t open to the public), and visit the trash incinerator plant at Hagenholz! I know that last one might not seem that interesting, but remember the multitude of ways Zurich residents are required to deal with trash and recycling? It’s fascinating to see how it all works together.
And, no, they do not offer an identical course for men. Yes, I have lots of thoughts on this. In fact, the course and subsequent discussions sparked a few separate threads that I plan to explore in future posts. Namely, my thoughts on:
Subtle and not-so-subtle gender disparity in Switzerland
Becoming Swiss and the expectation of integration
The Swiss sense of community
Upon reflection, it brought my personal experience of being an expat and immigrant into sharper focus. I wondered if there was anything similar offered to new residents in the United States. I certainly haven’t come across integration courses anywhere else - ever. I thought about how useful it could be if there was, what attitudes could be shifted, what perceptions could be expanded. And then I imagined how different the American political and cultural climate would need to be for it to work.
To that point, no one has once yelled at me that “you are in Switzerland, you should be speaking German!,” when I respond in English to the grocery store cashier. No one has told me to go back to my own country, shithole or otherwise. The police don’t stop me and ask for ID when I’m walking through town, for proof that I belong here.
Zurich, and the country, expect you to learn all of these things, to essentially learn to be Swiss.
I moved knowing absolutely nothing about Switzerland, nothing about the culture or politics or customs or language. Zurich, and the country, expect you to learn all of these things, to essentially learn to be Swiss, but they try to make it welcoming and accessible. It’s not perfect. I can’t compare Zurich’s approach to new residents with how things work in Bern or Geneva or Lucern - every canton is fiercely independent and unique. And I don’t necessarily like everything that I’ve learned. There are plenty of issues and flaws that I’ll touch on later. But ultimately, this Daily Life in Zurich course is one way they are making integration attainable, and I personally feel one step closer to feeling like a local having completed it.