Avoid Making Assumptions: Lessons as an Expat in Switzerland

Beautiful Switzerland

Evening storm with sunlight reflection. Lac Lemàn

Evening storm with sunlight reflection, Lake Geneva

“It is a bitter-sweet thing, knowing two cultures. Once you leave your birthplace nothing is ever the same.”  Sarah Turnbull

Relocating to a new country is like having your first baby. You can imagine your future as a new parent but you can not really know until your child arrives. The same is true of relocating to a country in which the language, culture and customs are indeed foreign. This enormous transition can be quite an emotional roller-coaster but never fear, you are up for the challenge! Where ever you have relocated, the pros and cons were probably weighed at length and the pros won. So when challenges occur, focus on what brought you to your new location. Remind yourself of the positives and laugh about minor frustrations.

It has just been over a year since I relocated to Lausanne, Switzerland for the adventure of a lifetime with my wonderful husband. As all humans, I often forget the lessons I have learned . . . one being it is best to avoid making assumptions because often ‘things are not as they seem’. During this first year in Lausanne, I have been reminded (often with a dose of embarrassment or hilarity) to avoid making assumptions. Here are a few interesting and funny stories in which I have been reminded to check things out with someone local or observe longer before making an assumption since we see only a small portion of the whole truth.

The Crows

The street we live on is the pathway to the public High School also known as a ‘gymnasium’ in Switzerland. Daily, teenagers walk up and down this side street to go to school. Already assimilating as a Swiss resident, I noticed in horror for several days that all kinds of trash was scattered in the street by a trash can and in an adjacent park and in front of our flat.  My assumption: those teenagers were making a mess in our quiet village Pully! Shortly after my assumption regarding the culprits of trashing the neighbourhood, I was sitting on our balcony and I was humbled to see the true culprits . . . large crows! The crows were taking out one piece of trash at a time, eating what they could and then scattering the trash all about our little village. Oh no, really? I laughed so hard at my silly assumption!

Our friendly culprits

Our friendly culprits

Community Laundry Customs

Our apartment community washer/dryer. Pully, Switzerland

Our apartment community washer/dryer. Pully, Switzerland

Community laundry facilities are common in Switzerland. My husband and I asked our relocation company and our leasing company several times exactly what the laundry procedure was in our building.  We received no response after multiple inquires regarding the laundry procedures via email and in person. SO, after a week I decided I needed to wash some clothes! My assumption was that I could use the washer and dryer if no one else was using it (like our original flat in Lausanne) and that the laundry card I found in the laundry room was for everyone’s use.

In a few days, a tenant and the landlord came by our flat to express their anger and outrage regarding my use of the laundry facilities. It ended up that I used someone else’s paid laundry card and washed clothes on someone else’s designated day of the week for laundry!  A huge faux pas in Swiss culture to say the least.  I have to say that it felt like a bit of a set up for failure since we made more than a concerted effort to find out the procedure for the laundry in our building. But perhaps the local tenants, landlord and leasing company ‘assumed’ that we should know how this system works. Now I know my designated laundry day and I never, ever stray from this day!


Naked feet at Lac Léman

Naked feet at Lac Léman

Who would know that if your are old enough, young enough or really any age that you can simply change into your bathing suit with no cover. I have witnessed several individuals changing or drying off in various stages of nudity. My assumption: Swiss are socially quiet and rule oriented which is mostly true; however, when it comes to swimming and sunning things are a little bit different than in the States.  So, when you least expect it you run into some form of nudity while someone is either changing or sunning around the lakes or pools Switzerland. The majority of younger girls (10 and under) do not wear bathing suit tops just their bottoms as it I think should be. My adult daughter always wanted to swim without a top when she was a young girl. She would have fit in perfectly in Switzerland!

Remember in your daily life . . . avoid making assumptions. We only see a small portion of the total reality and more often than not ‘things are not as they seem’. Patiently observing often allows us to see more truth than we could have imagined. Traveling the world or relocating to a new country is a fantastic opportunity to accept a different culture, relax and enjoy the ride! It is, after all, the journey that brings us true joy.

The long and winding road that leads me to your door

“The long and winding road that leads me to your door” Paul McCartney.

Helen H. Thomas, Licensed Clinical Social Worker providing E-therapy services via http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/name/Helen_Hobart_Thomas_LCSW_Fort+Worth_Texas_197844

You express your own divinity by being alive and by loving yourself and others.”
― Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom

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The Zen of Parenting Teenagers; Part II

The Art of Being There but Not Being There



As promised, Part II of The Zen of Parenting Teenagers will add some ‘how to’ to asking fewer questions of your adolescent and using active listening to support your teen emotionally. Before discussing the practical skills of active listening, the fascinating topic of adolescent brain development and its troublesome effect on communication with adolescents will be reviewed quickly.

      Knowledge regarding adolescent brain development has exploded since the early 1990s due to the ability to scan brain activity through Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI).  It is now known that the human brain continues to develop into the mid-twenties. The last part of the brain to fully develop is the frontal cortex, the CEO of the brain controlling logic, critical thinking, reasoning, filtering  and impulsivity. Research has revealed that the teenage brain is wired quite differently than an adult brain and that an adolescent brain is still ‘under construction’.  Adolescents have much more difficulty calming their emotions and they often misread facial expressions (Spinks, 2002; Powell, 2004).

     All this talk about adolescent brain development is to encourage you to have sincere empathy with your teenager while at the same time setting the firm yet loving boundaries they desperately need.  Diligently determine to refrain from taking anything personally that comes out of their mouths. Now the ‘how to’ of active listening Zen style.


     Refrain from Asking Questions   When tempted to ask questions call on your Zen parenting powers and remember to listen more than you speak. Little words and phrases to encourage your adolescent to continue talking like . . . hmmm, wow, interesting, I am listening, any more, I see . . . will encourage open communication.  To facilitate communication with your teen, try sitting side by side rather than face to face.  Engaging in an activity  with your teen such as running, baking, shooting darts, painting, playing cards, kicking a soccer ball, scrapbooking, rebounding basketballs, etc. can open up a space for your teen to talk with you.

     Stay in the Here and Now   Teenagers live in the here and now.  Reflect verbally what your teens immediate concerns are by paraphrasing or summarizing what they have just told you minus lectures about the future, down playing the significance of their current circumstance or trying to ‘fix’ their situation. The action of reflection in active listening is exactly what it sounds like: mirroring both verbal and unstated emotional content for your adolescent. You can start reflective statements with phrases like:

Wow, it sounds like . . . . .

I think I understand what you just said, you are. . .

I think what I heard you say is . . . .

     Validation of Emotional Content   It may be new to you to think of all human emotion as being equal; however, emotions just ‘are’. One emotion is no better than another. Our emotions assist all of us in our decision making. In trying to understand and validate your teenager, remember you do not have to agree with their emotional response. In fact, you might be completely confused by some of their emotional reactions. When you are able to validate your teen’s emotions you are leading them to a calmer state and toward the executive functioning portion of their brain. Guessing what they are feeling is quite alright because they will certainly let you know if you are incorrect! Try to increase your repertoire of emotional words beyond the basic sad, mad, happy, etc. A few lead in phrases for validation of emotions are:

If that happened to me I might be (insert emotion) . . . . .

It seems like that could have been (insert emotion) . . . .

I can understand how you might be (insert emotion) . . .

     Now you are well equipped with the practical “how to’s” of asking fewer questions of your teen and listening more . . . Zen Style!   Be patient and kind with yourself as you practice your new skills. Listening with a true desire to understand is perhaps the greatest gift we can give anyone, including your amazingly wonderful adolescent. For inspiration, read the poem The Empty Boat by Chuang Tza @ http://divinevirtuosity.blogspot.ch/2011/05/empty-boat-chuang-tzu.html.

Move and the Way Will Open                    

Yin.Yang_Zen Proverb

Helen H. Thomas, Licensed Clinical Social Worker providing E-Therapy @ http://www.etherapi.com/therapist/688/profile


Spinks, S., (2002). One Reason Teens Respond differently to the World:Immature       Brain Circuitry. Frontline.

Powell, E. (2004). Studying Functional Differences in the Adolescent Brain may Provide   Evidence that the Nervous System is Responsible for Behavior. http://www.serendip.edu.

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Tips to Surviving the First Year as an Expat/Trailing Spouse


Jump In!

Lake art. Vevey, Switzerland

Lake art. Vevey, Switzerland

You may be on an expatriation of limited duration or an indefinite time; however, the truth is that no one knows certainly what the future holds. The fact that you are living in a different country from the one in which you were raised is a testament to this reality. Sometimes an employment assignment continues for longer than expected or is cut short unexpectedly. Therefore, jump all the way into your new home and location.  As a child, I moved often in the United States with my parents. Exasperated at one point, I asked my Mom in a sarcastic manner “well, how long are we going to live here . . .two years?”.  Her wise response, “you will only be happy if you act as if you will live here for the rest of your life”.

     Relocating to a new country can be like trying to get into the cold water of Lake Geneva also known as Lac Léman (I currently live in Lausanne, Switzerland on Lake Geneva) . . you finally just have to jump in and go all the way under . . . then your body adapts relatively quickly to the cold temperature! This is especially true in building a support system and friendships. You could spend a lot of time tip toeing, standing at knee level and miss out in the joy of really connecting with new friends and colleagues.  Without those new connections, you might feel like you are as John Prine would say “drowning in a half an inch of water” (www.facebook/pages/john-prine).  In her insightful book , The Space Between Us: Exploring the Dimensions of Human Relationships,  Janet Josselson states that “from the beginning of life to the end, we must be held, or we fall”. Building a support system in your new location will help you keep standing tall.

Learn Survival Phrases ASAP


     If you are relocating to a country with a differing primary language, learn survival phrases as soon as possible. If you are the trailing spouse or partner chances are you will be out and about trying to conduct business in the local language . . . a daunting task! Making a true effort to speak the local language goes a long way.  Begin first with the basic phrases such as “hello”, “good-bye”, “thank-you”, “please”, “excuse me”, “I don’t understand”, and “do you speak English” (German, French, Italian, etc.)?” Check out these excellent free websites for basic language learning :http://www.survivalphrases.com, http://www.radiolingua.com, or http://www.lingq.com.  These are excellent resources to begin the process of learning survival phrases.

     You will find that conducting business in person is far easier than on the phone. Remember, communication is only 7% words, the remainder is tone of voice, facial expression and gesturing. Time to sharpen your skills in the real life game of “Charades”!

Live in the Heart of  Your New Location

Place St. Français, Lausanne, Switzerland

Place St. François, Lausanne, Switzerland

     We humans are highly dependent on one another, so living in a remote area can prove to be a disaster for an expatriate especially if you don’t know many people if any! If you are relocating from the US, you may find yourself in a much smaller living space and the four walls may start to move in on you. Getting out each day and being around people (even complete strangers) will help keep your mood up. When you are closer to the center of your new town, village or city, you can get a true sense of your new location. If you ever feel lonely, which is bound to happen, you can find a coffee shop, buy a brew and people watch.  Once you are established with a strong support system and an understanding of transportation, the culture and the native language you might consider living more remotely.

Make New Friends but Keep the Old; One is Silver and the other Gold

View from our balcony in Pully, Switzerland.

View from our balcony in Pully, Switzerland.

You can’t wait in your corner of the Forest for people to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”  Winnie the Pooh

     Finding ways to make new acquaintances and possible friends quickly is extremely important when relocating anywhere but especially to another country. Almost every major city will have expatriate groups for you to consider joining (http://www.glocals.com, http://www.expatica.com, or http://www.internations.org). In these groups, you will find other individuals in similar situations which may cause you to bond rather quickly. Your spouse’s or partner’s place of employment will must likely have support for you and suggestions about integrating into your new location. This is a time to take some chances and socialize with all types of people. Perhaps finding an organisation  with whom you could volunteer or you might be able to find a place of worship which caters to expatriates if this is an option for you. You might meet someone in your similar situation at the market, a yoga class or an intensive language  course . . . ask your acquaintance to go for a coffee, a walk or lunch . . . be respectful yet bold!

“We’ll be friends until forever, just you wait and see!” Winnie the Pooh

     Through wonderful technology, you can keep in contact with you friends and family easily. Others may disagree, but I believe that keeping contact with your friends and family from your originating home is certainly helpful. You don’t want to let communicating with friends from your originating home to take the place of meeting new people; however, talking with your friends and family who already know you well and love you can be extremely comforting during this wonderful  yet undoubtedly stressful transition. Friendship includes the connecting feeling of being understood and understanding someone else. . . ahhh, sweet validation! In addition, you may be returning to your originating home and you will want to keep those contacts strong.

Unable to Work? Focus on What You Can Do

     Many trailing life partners are college degreed with successful careers who make the choice relinquish their current position to support their partners in an expatriation. According to a recent article in the New York Times, in 2011 only 15 % of trailing spouses where able to find employment in their new location. Language barriers, difficulty with licensing and obtaining work permits all make securing employment in the trailing life partner’s field elusive to say the least.

     If you find yourself in this position, what next? Time to be creative! Start with thinking about what you might have dreamed of doing if you only had the time. After you are settled in your new location, you will have time to focus on fulfilling some of those dreams. No one can stop you from writing. Is there a topic or two that have been rolling around in your brain? Learning a new language is challenging and of course, will be exceedingly helpful. Maybe you want to try an art class, engage yourself in a new sport or volunteer. You might be able to start an on-line business that has no restrictions. Like me, you may long to return to your career; however, utilising your time during your expatriation for something positive and rewarding will help you live in the moment.

Stay Close to Your Co-Conspirator


     A transition of this magnitude can either bring you closer to your spouse/partner or have the opposite effect. Hopefully, you can reflect on previous successful transitions and realise that some of the most heightened transitional times in your relationship have actually brought you closer as a couple. The first year of marriage, domestic moves, job changes, addition of pets, birth of children, death of loved ones often add a new level of depth to our relationship with our partners. Bravely ‘standing in the fire together’ while painful at the time creates a bond that can not be broken. T. Barry Brazelton, M.D. and Pediatric Psychologist states: “anything you really appreciate was hard work, it did not come easy.” You can look back with joy at your victory shouting “we made it through that crazy first year as expats together!” Relocating to a new country will require effective team work, brain storming together for solutions and significant mutual support.  Being honest with your partner about both your personal struggles as well exciting adventures in a new world will keep your love real and alive.

     Of course, although the transition is significant, the spirit of adventure makes this transition completely worth it. It has been proven that experiencing new food, new scenery, new activities, new friends and even the most challenging, a new language all greatly improve brain functioning. Being open to a different culture and a different way of life will enrich your life in ways you never expected.

Bring Your Pet!


     This is the day of my arrival to Lausanne with my Grace. Although it was a little scary to bring our dog, Grace, I am so glad we did. All the things you love about having a pet are accentuated during an expatriation. A pet can bring comfort when you have had a rough day, feel lonely or simply out of sorts. If you have a dog, you will be out walking or running him or her providing opportunity to be around people. In public, dogs are a topic of conversation and you can practice your new language skills and/or charades!

Gratitude and a Moment of Zen

     Finally and most importantly, staying positive during your adventure as an expatriate. One way to stay positive is to keep a daily gratitude journal. Simply write what you are grateful for that day and the smallest things are the most important.  In the words of Winnie the Pooh: “Sometimes the smallest things take up the largest portion of your heart.” You can also journal about your favourite memory of the day. It is also okay to process any negative feelings or events that may have happened through writing or talking. This will help you to move forward to a more positive state of mind.

     Find your moment of Zen which can be something really strange or funny that you witness.  It can also be a really wonderful, serendipitous moment. One day I saw an accordion player in Lausanne, Switzerland wearing a bear outfit . . .  oh là là. . .my moment of Zen! There is a musician who is often in our town square of Pully, Switzerland who plays the song, Moon River, which you may know from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This was my parent’s love song and always makes my heart happy. . . wonderfully serendipitous.

Bear clad accordion player. Lausanne, Switzerland.

Bear clad accordion player. Lausanne, Switzerland.

Helen H. Thomas, Licensed Clinical Social Worker providing E-therapy via http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/name/Helen_Hobart_Thomas_LCSW_Fort+Worth_Texas_197844


“You express your own divinity by being alive and by loving yourself and others.”
― Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom

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