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Schools in SwitzerlandWelcome to Zürich!  You have just been assigned to one of the best places to live on Earth, according to long-time Zurich expat Sandy Opravil - who leaves nothing to chance in this chock-full article on moving to this terrific city. 

By Zurich, we mean the Zürich Metropolitan Area (ZMA).  You have to remember that this place goes back to Roman times when most municipalities were not very large.  Despite the big dot on the map and the boldface type, Zürich itself is actually quite small with only about 350,000 inhabitants.  Therefore, since it includes the neighbouring communities, the ZMA can be loosely defined as Aarau, Winterthur, Rapperswil, and Zug.  Draw a circle encompassing these four cities and you’ll have a reasonable commuting area for working in Zürich.

Many people have the idea that Switzerland is still like it was when this editor moved here in 1983.  We had access to six TV stations which broadcast only when they thought something was interesting.  Sundays were devoted to taking long walks, playing cards, and knitting.  Stores closed over lunchtime.  Shared laundry rooms were a hotbed of conflict.  It cost $3.00 per minute to call the States.  Everybody smoked, even bicycle riders (while they were riding the bike). 

And they really did roll up the sidewalks at 10pm.  These myths are perpetuated in a popular book called “Living and Working in Switzerland,” which has not been updated since it was written in the early 80’s.  You may be given a copy of this book before moving here.  Read it with a big grain of salt.

But Nowadays...

We have access to over 200 television stations in a plethora of languages that run 24 hours.  There are about 20 English stations, and Swiss stations often show the most popular series in English if you have a dual language TV.  Stores are mostly still closed on Sundays but every train station and the airport have Sunday shopping; in fact, both the Zürich main train station and the airport now have malls attached to them. Supermarkets stay open during the week till 8pm. 

You can call the States, the UK and even New Zealand for less than CHF 0.05 per minute if you sign up for a free access code. In 2010, the law banning smoking in public buildings was passed.  And those rolled up sidewalks?  More about the night life later.

Currently, about 30% of the local population is non-Swiss.  That stat does not take into account people who have a Swiss passport (and may be duel citizens) but not a drop of Swiss blood.  Although we do have some vocal right-wing conservatives who have a penchant for hanging up politically incorrect signs and forbidding minarets, this truly is a very international community.  

Language

The local language is Swiss German (Schweizerdeutsch), but there are people who have lived here 20 years without speaking it.  You really can get by speaking English although you unquestionably miss out on a lot of good experiences if you don’t at least try.  If you can, get to a class and learn some survival German before you get here. Check out www.word2word.com for some free online classes.   Then, help your children with their German homework and learn it yourself while you’re at it.  Making an effort goes a long way with the Swiss.

 So, what makes this place so good that it has been named #2 best quality of living city on the planet  (www.mercer.com/qualityofliving)?  It’s hard to know where to start.

Quality of Life

First and foremost, Switzerland is just naturally beautiful.  It’s a country of mountains and lakes.  In summertime, it is incredibly green.  In wintertime, it looks pretty much like a Christmas card.  OK, it can get windy and rainy sometimes and there are some years when it’s very foggy for long stretches, but that’s mostly in the valleys.  (In case of extreme fog, take the train to Arth Goldau and then the cog wheel train to the top of the Rigi mountain.  You will be above the fog in no time.  Bring sunscreen).  But as we know, humans can mess up even the most beautiful of places.  What are the Swiss doing right?

Transportation

Start with accessibility.  Remember the ZMA borders? From each and every one of those towns, there are at least 4 trains per hour that will get you to downtown Zürich in about half an hour.  All public transportation here – the trains, trams, and buses - are safe, clean, and unbelievably punctual.  If that schedule says the train leaves at 14:08, it will leave exactly at 14:08.  

Within those aforementioned parameters, all of the communities are connected by a system called S-bahns.  These are commuter trains and everybody takes them.  Once you get to your destination, there will be buses co-ordinated to the train schedules.  Regular train service generally runs from 5:00 a.m. till around midnight but on the weekends, there are night commuter trains at 2:00 and 4:00 a.m.  In Zürich, the main station is often busier at 2 a.m. than it is at 2 p.m.  The public transportation is so good in this country that there are people who never buy a car.  There’s even a website (www.sbb.ch)where you can type in your address and the address of your destination and it will give you an exact schedule of how to get there by public transportation. 

Housing

The one big glitch in all this paradise is housing.  Within Zürich city and in the area between Zürich and Rapperswil (both sides of the lake), housing is very scarce and very expensive.  Finding a free standing house or even a semi-detached in this area can not only be daunting, it can be close to impossible.  Be prepared to move into a house or apartment that is noticeably smaller than you’re used to.  

For this reason, the areas in the directions of Aarau, Zug, and Winterthur are becoming increasingly popular.  All of these areas have international schools (for more information about schooling in Zurich, see Schooling in Zurich>. The lake communities of Zürich have traditionally been the stronghold of the international community, but that is changing.  Winterthur area has beautiful rolling hills, Aarau area is a valley peppered with Habsburg castles, and Zug is a lovely town located on its own lake and it is a tax haven.  

For a good look at the Swiss housing market, click on www.homegate.ch. This is the most popular real estate site and it is used by all local people looking for a house or apartment.  It is so popular that often apartments listed in the morning are leased before noon.  You’ll need to have a German/English dictionary handy since this site is only in German.

Dotting the i's

From an infrastructure point of view, getting set up here is fairly simple.   Rental apartments and houses are required by law to be clean and ready to move into.  If something is not working, the landlord is required to fix it at his cost.  All units have fitted kitchens and bathrooms.  Many have washers and dryers.  Most already have phone, TV, and internet connections built in.  You just have to let the provider know when to hook you up.  

After an easy two hour trip to any bank, you will be set up with your accounts, your debit card, and your credit cards.  You do have to register with your local community within 10 days of moving in.

We would seriously suggest hiring a relocation specialist for two days to help you do the following: 

  • read over rental agreement & do move-in inspection,
  • register with the community,
  • switch driving licence & buy highway sticker,
  • connect phone, TV, & internet,
  • organize mandatory health insurance,
  • purchase public transportation passes,
  • visit the bank. 

It is really nice to have someone who speaks German and English help you out with these things.  But after those two days, you should be up and running.  

Shopping

Shopping here is fantastic.  Zürich used to have a reputation for being very expensive, but prices in London are generally higher.  If you stick to the Bahnhofstrasse, our main shopping street, you will definitely find some very pricey options.  Every major designer is represented here and visiting the specialty shops makes you feel like a princess.  Downtown Zürich is destination shopping.  But don’t forget the parameter towns.  Aarau, Winterthur, Rapperswil, and Zug are all beautiful towns from the medieval ages that have preserved their historical areas for pedestrian zone shopping.  They are great towns to take your visitors to.

Many people, when they first move here, gravitate to the two big department stores, Jelmoli and Globus on the Bahnhofstrasse, to buy food because you can find ingredients from around the world, albeit for a shocking price.  These stores are great for special occasions and for luxury ingredients.  

Groceries

For everyday needs, however there are many ways to get around going broke.  Most newcomers think that there are only two supermarket chains, Migros and Coop.  They are dominant to be sure, but the German chains Spar, Aldi, and Lidl have moved in to provide some healthy competition.  There is also Otto’s which has great prices on things like shampoo and laundry soap.  

But the fun really begins when you start getting to know the neighbourhoods.  There are scads of Asian markets where you can buy every sauce, spice, or special ingredient known to man at a fraction of the price you would pay on the Bahnhofstrasse.  The Turkish community seems to have cornered the vegetable market.  The produce is very fresh and lower priced than in the supermarket chains.  And every town has weekly farmer’s markets with stalls filled with luscious vegetables, artisanal cheeses, specialty meats, organic jams, and fresh flowers.  There is even a specialty foods market in the Zürich main station every Wednesday except during December when it is pre-empted by the Christmas market

Clubs

To help yourself navigate the endless possibilities, get in touch with the American Women’s Club ( www.awczurich.org/ ).  You don’t have to be American and you don’t have to be a woman to participate in their yearly Living In Zürich (LIZ) course.  The course takes place every year in autumn but their LIZ guide is on sale all year long and is a lifesaver.  It’s 400 pages of everything you need to know written by people who have already been through it.  Whether you need an English speaking dentist or want to find out why you can’t find “Sahne” (German for cream) in the supermarket, the LIZ guide has the answer.  Another excellent source of information is the internet based x-pat x-change (www.xpatxchange.ch/ ).  It’s completely free of charge and is updated constantly.   

In fact, Zurich is loaded with expat organizations, especially English speaking clubs and groups ranging from the Yahoo expat chat to the Swiss British Chamber of Commerce.  The Zürich International Women’s Association has a good website with lots of activities to get your social life started.  The easiest way to get a complete list of organizations and read some fun articles is to subscribe to “Hello Switzerland” which is a magazine written for expats by expats.  It is sponsored by a relocation agency (so it’s free!) and has lists of every English speaking organization at the back of the issue.  To get your copy, click on www.helloswitzerland.ch/ .  

Recreation and Entertainment

Depending on how active you are, there is easily an English speaking event, ranging from English stand-up comedy to madrigal singing, taking place every day of the week in the ZMA.  And don’t forget that most of the English speaking schools have very active parents’ associations (we’re assuming that since you’re reading a schools guide, you have children who will be attending school).

Recreation and entertainment  in the ZMA are phenomenal.  You could eat out every night and never stop discovering new great restaurants.  In the city, there are about twenty movie theatres that show movies in the original language (usually English) with German and French subtitles.  

Zurich has a world class opera and symphony but is also a stop for every major popular band that’s touring.  The museums house everything from fine art to watches to a woolly mammoth.  City festivals range from the medieval “Sechseleuten” where a 3 meter tall snowman effigy is burnt to chase away winter to the “Street Parade” which annually draws a million techno-music lovers to our streets.  

In summer, there are jazz festivals, marathons, carnivals, fan zones, fireworks, and Swiss Independence Day.  In winter, snow sports – and all of the après sport activities – rule.  Remember, you will be living within two hours of the best ski resorts in the world.  For those less sports-minded, winter is the season for formal dress balls and galas. For the more casually inclined, there are plenty of clubs and they stay open till 4 a.m. on the weekends.  And you can go everywhere on with public transportation, in the worst case a taxi, so having a glass of wine isn’t a worry.

Moving to Zurich? You lucky dog.

Truly, this once staid fortress of serious secret finance did something wild in the last 15 years.  It got hip!  It got fun!  It got open and lively.  And it throws its arms open and welcomes you.  We want you to like it here.  Welcome to Zürich!  

by

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