Sarah in Geneva: "There is a high concentration of expats"

Expat interviews
  • Sarah in Geneva
Published on 2014-01-08 at 00:00 by team
Australian expat, Sarah settled in Geneva with her husband 3 years ago to develop their careers. They are enjoying their life in Switzerland...

Why did you decide to move to Geneva?

Many young Australians have a dream to live and work overseas. Europe is appealing for so many reasons, particularly travel related, and so many Australians, including many of our friends and colleagues, decide to move to London for a few years. My husband works in international development and I work in finance and we also had the idea to live and work overseas. We settled on Geneva as our destination of choice as we could both develop our careers there and satisfy our love of travel.

How was the moving process?

In one word, it was hard. Obtaining a residence and work permit was time consuming, more than 3 months, and because we were launching out on our own there was no support in terms of relocation of belongings, finding an apartment etc. We basically stripped down our life to 2 suitcases and 5 boxes as the cost of shipping from Australia to Switzerland is extraordinarily expensive. It was also an emotionally challenging and stressful experience, moving so far from family and to a continent we had never visited before.

Did you face some difficulties to adapt to your host country (language, culture, do's and don'ts)?

The Swiss culture in general is a more formal society. Interaction between people and developing friendships with the Swiss can be quite difficult as they tend to be more reserved and quiet and always needing to follow the rules. Geneva is a particular part of Switzerland where there is a high concentration of expats and an even higher percentage of non-Swiss residents. We very quickly and easily met other English-speaking expats which made the adaptations rather small in comparison to say if we had moved to Africa or Asia.

How did you find a job in Geneva?

I was working for Ernst & Young in Australia and requested a transfer to the Geneva office after we had made the decision to move. Fortunately there was a position available and I was able to start working straight away. I spent two years with Ernst & Young in Geneva before searching for other opportunities. I found my current job through a recruiting agency and it took only a few months to find the perfect job. I am fortunate that there are many finance opportunities in Geneva however my type of visa (non-EU) and language proficiency (limited French) would have been the two biggest limiting factors in finding a job. My husband, on the other hand, has endured two long periods of unemployment. We had expected there to be many job opportunities for him also as Geneva is the choice of head-quarters for many UN agencies and non-government organisations. Unfortunately, the majority of available jobs consist of short term volunteer positions and it has therefore proven to be much more challenging sector than expected.

Was it easy to find a place to live?

Finding jobs and apartments in Geneva is the biggest challenge any expat will face. The most recently reported vacancy rate for apartments is below 1% and us expats are to blame! Large companies are entering into long term rental contracts to support their international staff and the constant demand from other short-term expats means prices are very high. We were searching for an apartment for 12 months before one of our applications was successful and this was only because we were put forward by friends leaving their apartment. In retrospect we should have used a relocation agent, of which there are many, and although it costs at least one month rent, you do get to the front of the queue.

What surprised you the most in Geneva?

The cost of living. Geneva and Zurich are continually ranked in the top 10 most expensive cities in the world in the annual listing by The Economist. Taxes are low in comparison to Australia however that means you have to pay more for everything; rent, health insurance, transportation, groceries and so on. When we moved here in 2010, the price of most goods and services were 30% more than in Australia so it was a huge shock. Now after 3 years we don't even blink an eye when we fork out 10fr for a sandwich or 20fr for a medium size pizza.

Is it easy to meet new people in Geneva?

As I mentioned above, we found it very easy to meet other expats but difficult to meet the "locals". With so many international organization and companies here it means there are lots of clubs and activities where you can make friends. We have met very few local Genevoise or Swiss people but we are slowly developing some friendships with some Genevoise couples.

Could you please share with us something you like about Geneva and something you don't like?

Absolutely 100% the best thing about living in Geneva is the lake and the mountains. The lake is surrounded by mountains (the Jura and the Saleve) and the views are always breathtaking and amazing. We thoroughly enjoy hiking in the mountains Summer and skiing in Winter and swimming in the lake in the Summer is definitely a highlight.
The most disappointing thing about Geneva is the lack of variety of shops and restaurant. There is an extremely small selection of stores, most of which are overpriced, and very limited shopping hours i.e. no night shopping and closed on Sunday, including supermarkets. We spend a lot of time walking up and down every street in all areas of town in search of good quality restaurants and affordable shops which is completely different to Melbourne that has a huge cafe/restaurant culture.

A common belief about Switzerland which wasn't right:

I don't know if it is Australia's lack of knowledge in European geography but the most common question we get when we're back in Australia is "Do you speak Swedish?" and then once they realise their mistake ask "Do you speak Swiss?". So for starters, Switzerland is not Sweden, they are not even close geographically and the languages are significantly different. Plus, Switzerland has not one, not two, not even three official languages. Switzerland has four official languages, being Swiss German, French, Italian and Romansch, and obviously none of which are Swedish. Then there's the whole thing about Swiss private banks and banking secrecy. The "no-questions-asked" anonymous bank accounts are a thing of the past. With the ever increase fiscal probity from nations like the US, France and Germany, Swiss banks may still attract plenty of money, but they can no longer guarantee secrecy.

What do you miss the most from Australia, your home country?

Our families are the main thing we miss from Australia. We have travelled back to Australia once since coming to Geneva and have received very few visitors here because of the distance and cost of travel. We also miss the cafe/restaurant culture in Melbourne and being able to "stumble" upon a cool new coffee house or restaurant rather than sitting at the same one every weekend.

Which advice would you give to people wishing to settle in Geneva?

Firstly, Geneva is a more like a small town so don't come expecting a big vibrant city; it has a bigger image than its reality. It is, however, a great place for quiet living and centrally located for easy travel to the rest of Europe. Secondly, persevere through the tough apartment search process and cost of living shock as it really is a great place to live, especially in the summer.

Why did you start your blog, Cheese and Vegemite?

For me, blogging is like a modern day diary. It is a way to gather and express my thoughts on what I am experiencing whilst living abroad, to record our activities and holidays and all the things in between.

After living for 3 years in the country, do you still feel like an expat?

Yes, and to be honest I think we always will. We have certainly done our best to make a "home" here but Geneva's personality is not one that ever lets you fully in or to settle down. Our friends are all expats as well as most of our colleagues and with so many people coming and going from Geneva it is difficult to envisage living here and not feeling like an expat.

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