Newcomers to Basel often don't fully appreciate is that due to its location in the north west corner of Switzerland, the local citizenry nip in and out of France and Germany on a daily basis.
It is not unusual to drive into Basel every day for work and drop children at Swiss pre-schools, playgroups or international schools but also to have another child at school in France, to drive to the hypermarkets and recycling centres in France, and then to go to the garden centres, DIY stores, baby supplies shops, farm shops and soft-play weekend birthday parties in Germany.
It is also completely the norm for people to speak to each other in sentences cobbled together with French, German, Swiss German and English. So what exactly is it that draws so many ex-pats to pop back and forth across borders as opposed to living in the centre of Basel?
Houses and neighbourhoods
Families looking for more space and privacy, bigger houses to rent or buy or private gardens get much more for their money on French soil. Some prefer a French-speaking community to a Swiss German one.
The local villages close to Basel are typically fairytale Alsatian. Think chocolate box half-timbered houses, window boxes stuffed with heather in various hues of purple and lilac or vibrant geraniums in the summer. Of course, looking pretty on the outside might be fantastic for your photo album but not necessarily the most practical option for family living space. Most older houses in this region tend to have significantly slanted "eaves" and this can be a problem if you have any large or bulky bedroom furniture.
But if you prefer modern, light airy spaces, fear not as there is also a plethora of new houses built or being built in the area as the French prefer to buy new. Many older properties in some of the villages are not connected to mains sewers etc and need renovating.
Some of the large villages have pretty centres with pharmacies, post offices, town halls, schools, supermarkets, bakers and delicatessens. Others are so small there is nothing there at all except a small town hall and a little school. Expats really mix in here with the local people...there are no gated communitites or ex-pat apartment blocks of the sort you would find in Basel.
Language skills do however play a key part in how well you'll be able to intergrate and you are likely to need at least one school-educated French speaker in the house. There are many bi-lingual families- Brits, Americans, Chinese married to French or French speakers. Many people have French lessons which can be arranged in the village (ask at your local town hall "mairie") or in one of the language schools in Basel (especially if their companies or their husband's/wives companies are paying!).
Ex pats meet via the Facebook or Pinterest page of Basel Childrens Trust a group similar to the UK's NCT (their French arm has its own group which meets once a month or so) or 'Expats Alsace'. Americans can find out where to buy Reeses or share a Thanksgiving blow-out at 'Americans in Alsace'.
Food shopping is a delight in Alsace- certainly compared to Basel, which after a while you might find to be a bit limited in choice compared to what you are used to at home and certainly extortionately expensive for many items including meat and baby products.
In Alsace you can visit one of the several hypermarkets offering an abundance of choice and cheaper prices (a week's shopping for a family can be significantly cheaper than the UK eg the same price but in euros instead of pounds).
Favourite French hypermarkets include Hyper U in Sierentz, Carrefour in Ile de Napolean close to Mulhouse and a couple of choices in St Louis Geant Casino (typically called just Geant by ex-pats) and Le Clerc.
Sierentz and Carrefour are in mini shopping centres that also have fantastic boulangeries on site, Poulaillon in Sierentz and Paul at Carrefour (as well as other useful shops like hairdressers, florists, chemists, dry cleaners etc).
The enormous Hyper U also has a great cafe serving lunches and dinner as well as snacks pastries, sandwiches and salads. Paul and Poulaillon have small cafes at the Carrefour site. You will also have no problem finding staples like Mcvities Digestives, Heinz Baked Beans & tomato soup, Kettle crisps and even Gü chocolate pots in the hypermarkets should you so desire [Editor's note: Don't hesitate, just buy if you see them. Best ready-to-go range of chocolate puddings on the planet; the hot soufflés are phenomenal].
You'll be spoilt for choice with the selection of fresh fruits and vegetables on offer plus seafood, meat counters and delicatessens (the celery remoulade is delightful). If you haven't done much home cooking before, believe me you will learn. Ready meals are far from the order of the day here....cookbooks and aprons at the ready!
You WILL need a car though. There are no Basel-style trips on the tram here and people don't tend to use the buses that often, although there is a dedicated Distribus bus service - albeit with limited routes- that goes along the larger border villages and briefly in and out of Basel.
As everyone knows, food and flea markets are synonymous with France and Alsace is no exception. In this region, there is a food market every Saturday morning in St Louis that is definitely worth a nosey. Huge choice, fruits, vegetables, pates, sausage, meats, smoked meats and smoked fish. Competitive prices and good produce. They also serve a few hot cooked dishes if you want to take some lunch home with you.
Place de l' Europe has a fleamarket every third Sunday in the month. Most of the villages have fleamarkets one or two times of the year especially between spring and autumn; just look out for signs for "Marches aux puces" or "Brocante".
Of course, one cannot write about Alsace without adding a note on the fabulous Christmas markets or "Marchés Noel". Not to be missed, these markets are a way of life here. Atmospheric and seasonal, they are perfect to get you in the mood for Christmas with copious cinnamon & gingerbread delicacies, warm pretzels, crepes, white sausages, spicy warm winter wine "vin chaud" and beautiful Christmas decorations for sale.
Try the markets in Mulhouse or Colmar, but it's worth a day out to go a little further afield to Strasbourg where the whole city is taken over by a series of beautiful markets (about 1hr 20 mins drive each way). Even the small villages usually have their own mini fairs and markets going on from time to time, usually with involvement from village schools and sometimes with tents set up for some hearty sausages, beer and wine. Well worth a visit.
If you keep up to date you will find there are any number of local markets and festivities going on in this region, some particularly well known such as the wine & grape festivals. Hagenthal le Bas has quite a famous one every year, others more obscure- like the Cabbage festival in Hegenheim!
Where to live
Some of the most popular villages for ex-pats who want to live close to Basel include Hegenheim, Hésingue, Leymen, Huningue, Hagenthal le bas, Hagenethal le haut, Blotzheim & St Louis.
Further out the following villages are also popular- Folgensbourg, Muespach, Ranspach le bas, Ranspach le haut, Attenschwiller, Sierentz. Driving round is invaluable if you possibly can and should be easy enough given the proximity to Basel. If possible try to go both on the weekend and in the week. If you only go on Sundays everywhere will just seem deserted. There are also some good resources on the internet.
Popular estate agents used by expats in the area include Le Rosenberg in Hegenheim, Staub Immobilien, Lohr Immobilien and Logicimmo (see useful websites at the end of this article).
Internet, phones, tv
In terms of setting yourself up with internet, landline and mobile phones things couldn't be simpler. As in the UK, in the larger towns every high street has at least one or two internet provider shops -most ex-pats go to the Orange shop in St Louis to get set up. You will be all sorted with your router in a week or so.
How about getting English TV and satellite TV? There are several local companies able to assist with this- it is a good idea to ask your estate agent (immobilien) to get an appointment set up for you unless you are a confident French or German speaker (most specialists around here are bi-lingual).
As for banks, your estate agent is likely to recommend Credit Mutuel in St Louis for mortgages. Credit Agricole is in St Louis and HSBC is in Mulhouse (France). Some of the branches in smaller villages will not be able to offer many deals so always go to the bigger towns and cities. Customers also get discounts on insurance and other things too.
Banks are sometimes able to offer mortgages in Swiss francs if preferred. One thing to note- banks are closed not only Saturdays and Sundays but also every Monday (along with some shops)
If you need workmen or a handyman that as in most countries it is sensible to use word of mouth for reliability. Join Expats Alsace group on Facebook and ask for recommendations, although of course neighbours and the local mairie should also be able to help you and even your local estate agents should be able to help with names. Most people are friendly and keen to assist.
If you have children under the age of three you want to send them to a local creche or playgroup then it is paramount that you factor this in when you are deciding where to buy/rent in Alsace because only a handful of villages have these facilities. You will end up having the children at home with you or you'll have to commute into Basel for daycare/playgroups.
This is easy enough if you don't mind driving, and many people do it although do note that it will be expensive (for more information, read Basel: Expat survial guide for the under-fives). You'll need to put your child's name down as early as possible for a place.
Hésingue is a very nice village for expats and the local pre-school right in the village centre offers full and half days subject to availability. Les Petites Bouilles even translates its website into English and German which is very unusual.
Another pre-school in Hagnethal le bas is Tom Pouce in rue Overdorf 68220. Telephone 03.89.68.15.99 or email: [email protected] for more information.
There are usually some registered child minders in every village and you can get a list from your local Mairie but many are booked up for years in advance. For baby sitters, try neighbours and the Mairie or someone should be able to help you out via the Basel Childrens Trust or through Expats Alsace.
Health insurance is compulsory, but you have a choice whether to pay just for French health insurance or for tri-frontiere insurance giving you the ability to choose whether to receive medical care in France, Switzerland or Germany. As a Swiss worker, you can opt to take Swiss Health insurance Swica, but this will be hiked up if you are a French resident (and it is already very expensive for a family, even in Basel). Opinion is divided as to which is best to do.
Some people are firm believers that Basel hospitals are probably best. If you have the choice and a serious situation, the local hospital in St Louis is not that big and you may find yourself being flown to Mulhouse or Colmar for specialist treatment in a bigger hospital.
However other ex-pats are perfectly happy with using the French hospitals and have no desire whatsoever to go into Basel and pay the hiked up medical insurance costs (you may even have to pay an upfront deposit if you need to be admitted to hospital, depending on your choice of insurer).
There are some good English-speaking French family doctors to be found dotted around the larger villages, especially in St Louis.
From age three, children can start school - the petite section- at the local ecole maternelle. Typically for young children aged three to four, school will be available every day except Wednesdays from around 8am- around 11.20am, although school will soon be introduced on Wednesdays as well.
To obtain a school place you will need to register at your local Mairie and provide evidence from your family doctor that your child has received his or her required vaccinations.
Most children walk or are driven to school with parents, grandparents or childminders. Schools start at age 3 in ecole maternelle. Age 6-10 is ecole primaire, age 11-15 is college and lycee is 16-18. Parents who are committed to integration into the local language and culture are particularly pleased with the schools in Hegenheim, Hésingue, Leymen and Folgensbourg.
Parents have to be quite strict about getting their children to adapt to the French language and serious about becoming fluent themselves, ensuring that French becomes used at home every day. One parent said "only French children's TV is allowed in our house anymore".
The interesting thing about the state schools in this region of Alsace is that many offer an immersive bi-lingual education French/German from primaire (around age 6) such as villages of Hegenheim, Folgensbourg, Blotzheim so there is a good chance your children would be be able to become fluent in both these languages if you are staying put for a length of time.
English as a foreign language is not taught here until college. State schools in France do not serve lunch, so unless you have been lucky enough to get your child a place in Periscolaire (which does) in your village (or with a local child minder in smaller villages), you will need to go and collect your children at the end of morning school (around 11.20am), take them home for lunch, return them to school a couple of hours later and then pick them up again at the end of the day (usually around 4pm). Not ideal if you are wanting to work or go out for the day!
At college age, most children in the local villages go over to Hegenheim to attend College des Trois Pays which also offers a bilingual (French/German) programme.
For older children, the lycee is located in St Louis: Lycee Jean Mermoz
There are no English-speaking international schools in this region of Alsace, so if the French school system isn't for you and you are set on an English medium international education you will need to go into Basel -- perfectly possible and many do it (click here to read Basel: International Schools Guide)
Local private schools
A couple of well-known French private schools in the area cater for young people from college age upwards, offer English and are extremely popular with ex-pats. They cost only a fraction of the fees of the Swiss private schools. Both are Catholic schools, but you do not need to be Catholic to attend.
At both schools, children can do a German-French program, or opt for English and German as language courses. Ecole-Collège des Missions in Blotzheim reportedly has a good parents' association and fun clubs and is not too much of a pressured environment studywise.
The other well-regarded academic school is Dom Bosco in Landser. For serious hard workers, Landser is about half an hours drive away from Hegenheim and a very long day for the children- many kids take the early bus at 7am from the surrounding villages and are not back home until almost 12 hours later. The atmosphere is serious by all accounts. Children have an obligatory study session each night before they go home to get their homework completed.
One parent recommends it may be a good idea to start off at College-des-Missions as it has a shorter day and less pressured environment for college, then switch to Landser for lycée. Ecole-Collège des Missions feeds Landser and will prepare them for the more serious workload at Landser later on.
A few useful websites