What's the Lake Geneva-area expat experience like?
March 15, 2007 10:39 AM   Subscribe

I'm about to move to Switzerland and need some advice and guidance.

The likely location for my move will be Lausanne. How is it, and the Lake Geneva in general in terms of climate/weather, friendliness, attitudes, etc? Is quality of life as good as advertised in terms of things to do, food and medical care, schooling and knowledge? Can English-language bookstores and shopping be found? How does it compare to Zurich, which was my first choice? Am I going to be forced to live in the canton of Vaud if i'm working in Lausanne as an American citizen on a Swiss visa/work permit, and for how long? What did you have to come to terms with as an American moving there?
posted by arimathea to Work & Money (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've been in Geneva (35 miles from Lausanne) for nearly 3 years and overall have found settling in very easy. Quality of life is good (public transport and general services for example), but the cost of living is high, and I came from the UK so from the US will seem even higher.

Zurich has a bit more of a city feel about it and is the place to go for shops, although I've never lived there. If nightlife is your thing then Zurich is better than Lausanne which in turn is better than Geneva.

As for the general ex-pat scene, there is a lot of it in Geneva / Lausanne due to the international organisations and large companies based here, and it is definitely possible to live here without speaking French and, depending on where you work, without meeting any of the locals. But should you make the effort to move outside of the expat circles, it is a friendly place, although obviously speaking French helps.

There is an English forum here which might be helpful, although most of the members seem to live in the German part. Also, feel free to drop me a line to mail at myusername .com should you have any more questions - be happy to help out!
posted by jontyjago at 11:40 AM on March 15, 2007

I lived in Geneva for a while a couple of years ago, you should have no problems with the language, most people will be able to speak English in the cities. Be prepared for the prices, everything is more expensive there. I did most of my grocery shopping in France, and saved a bundle. Public transit is awesome in Switzerland, and parking is free (no parking meters). The swiss bureaucracy is painful sometimes, it's near impossible to move to another canton as a foreigner because the paperwork takes so long.

If you start missing american junk food, there is an american store near the gare (train station) in Geneva that sells everything that people from europe find disgusting about america (Root Bear, various foods with marshmellos injected into them, etc). I think it's on the rue de Berne, if I remember correctly.

As for weather, it only gets down to -5C in winter, and there's very little snow. Expect it to be grey and windy in winter, but bright and sunny for most of the year. People are friendly, but they keep to themselves a bit more than the french do, but once you get to know them, they're some of the nicest people in the world. Switzerland is an incredibly internation place, you can meet and work with peopel from dozens of countries that speak hundreds of languages.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:43 AM on March 15, 2007

(ha, Root BEER, not root bear)
posted by blue_beetle at 11:44 AM on March 15, 2007

I live near Basel in Switzerland and thoroughly enjoy life here. I would recommend that you get hold of a copy of "Living and Working in Switzerland" by David Hampshire.
posted by booksprite at 11:57 AM on March 15, 2007

you'll love switzerland. it's a bit more organized and expensive but everyone is quite responsive. can you imagine calling the IRS and someone competent actually picks up the phone and tries to help you? that's what you get for paying more...

make sure to travel. everything is so close ... germany, france, spain ...
posted by krautland at 12:41 PM on March 15, 2007

Disclaimer: I am quite a bit biased....and I live in the Zürich area.

Geneva, the city itself, is in a nutshell, stuffy and boring. No wonder since it is ruled by diplomats, bureaucrats, and bankers...

However, for an English speaker it is probably easier to live in the Geneva area than other Swiss regions, though Switzerland in general is quite expat-friendly (bar the xenophobic far right, which you will rarely encounter in person). There are in fact many long time expat residents who barely speak a word of French, though that does limit them to their own little English speaking community. And the Lake Geneva area is a beautiful place - you have the lake, vineyards, mountains, historical towns, ruins, and more, plus a microclimate that makes it warmer than almost all other areas of the country, except for the south. (In light of global warming this may not necessarily be a good thing now.)

You are not forced to live in a a specific canton as far as I know, but you may want to research that formally. You probably cannot, as many Geneva-area workers do, reside in France and commute across the border. Cost of living is cheaper in France.

How you might fare as a foreign resident of Switzerland really depends on your general attitude towards life. On the surface Switzerland is a very easy to live in place - extremely low crime rates, clean air, beautiful scenery, and everything from transportation to mail delivery just works. It's also a great base for exploring the rest of Europe.

However I have heard it said many times that Swiss people in general are rather reserved towards outsiders. This can be true, especially of the older generation. Younger people don't have this problem usually.

Now what about Zürich? While bankers rule here also, it's saved from sinking into the doldrums by a lively student population and arts community, among others. And if you are in your 20s-30s and love clubs and dancing and music it's supposed to be the best clubbing city in Europe by some measures. I think that the atmosphere is generally more open and liberal in Zürich compared to Geneva. Also Zürich is the biggest city in the country (region population: around 1 million, out of about 6 milion total for the whole nation) - though nature is still within easy reach. Cost of living is high, but may be slightly lower than Geneva, though not by much.

One determining factor may be that Zürich is German speaking, or rather Swiss-German speaking. Swiss-German, a spoken-only language (all writing is in Hochdeutsch or regular German), sounds nothing like regular German, but most people understand you if you speak that regular German. Most people speak at least some English too. But anyway, if you have some knowledge of French you might be more comfortable in Geneva, and vice versa.

Some of the drawbacks of living in Switzerland as noted by my American wife: the stores close on Sundays and early on Saturday, and relatively early the rest of the week - around 6 or 8. Most places don't have (or really need, imo, but she disagrees) air conditioning. Few or no ice cubes in cold drinks. Arcane community rules regulate your life, such as when the communal washing machines can be used or when and exactly how to put out the garbage. (Every Swiss-expat blogger I know of has at least one Swiss garbage post.)

Besides the English forum linked by jontyjago, which is very good, to get a feel for how young-ish English speaking Geneva tries to party and get together you may try Geneva Online.
posted by derMax at 4:03 AM on March 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

teach me to preview first...

Lausanne is quite a smaller city, less boring than Geneva (student population), not as lively or as convenient as Zurich. Public transporation and highway access to Geneva and the rest of the country is excellent. You need to be in fairly good shape since it's very steep (sloping down to the lake). All my general comments should apply. Phew.
posted by derMax at 4:16 AM on March 16, 2007

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