A guide to the six stages of the immigrant experience

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Integration is a long road, with many twists and turns along the way. There’s always going to be some conflict in the mind of an immigrant; after all, this is a complex relationship with a lot of psychological wheels turning behind the scenes. For some people, a new country is like a step parent. They will never forgive the newcomer simply for being who they are. Bearing in mind that it’s not the same for everyone, here is my guide to the six stages of the immigrant experience, based on my 13 years in Switzerland.

Stage 1, Honeymoon: This will only happen if you have come to live the country under positive circumstances. If not, skip to Stage 2. This new start may be daunting but it is fundamentally an adventure for you. You waltz through the early weeks and possibly months (days if you are unlucky) in a state of hyper observation, mostly noticing the charming things and the positive differences – the street markets, the architecture, the trams, the cleanliness, the landscape. You will be discovering new tastes, sights and sounds, picking up phrases of the local language. It’s the perfect time to sign up for a language course. Enthusiasm is the order of the day. You’ve had no time to miss people at home. You may in fact be busy with a steady stream of visitors, keen to share the excitement of the new start.

Stage 2, The First Wobble: It might be a harsh word from someone in officialdom, a work or parent-teacher meeting where you felt out of your depth, or a bolt of loneliness brought on by an important event missed back home. Something will set you off on the first round of doubts, and the gloss of everything being new and different will suddenly disappear. Constantly learning and adapting is tiring. Is it possible this has all been a terrible mistake? The first wobble may be followed at any time by other wobbles in the future, varying in severity from a cold to a serious dose of flu. I hope you’ve got a good immune system. From here you will transition somewhat unhappily into …

Stage 3, Reality Bites: Just like that, the novelty wears off, you are faced with the realisation that life still has to be lived, in all its tedious repetition, with or without picturesque walks, cobbled streets and Christmas markets. There are days of work to get through, bills to be paid and housework to be done. From a promising start, you hit your first wall with the language learning. Fluency seems more unattainable than ever.

Stage 4, Frustration: All those things you found charming at the beginning start to get on your nerves. You adopt a hypercritical frame of mind: Why are they speaking like that, behaving like that? Oh, how much better [insert the thing(s) you miss] is back home. Linguistically, culturally and socially, you are still (still!) an outsider, and that’s discomfiting and humbling. The effort required to lose your outsider status is so great that it seems easier just to take refuge in negative judgments. Warning! Some people get stuck permanently in this phase. Don’t let this happen to you.

Stage 5, Transition: This is the point where everyone who might come to visit has already been at least once. Most will not come again. You have missed weddings, births and funerals back home. By not being there to share the fun and the tears, you have grown apart from people in your home country. There’s an unavoidable sadness in that, which can overshadow the new life you are trying to build. But it doesn’t have to. Because something unexpected is happening at the same time. Opportunities arise to support other people, or receive support, in the place where you live. New friendships are being tested and getting stronger, as you accompany people through marriage break-ups, illnesses and the challenges of child-rearing. Around this time, the language starts to flow. It might never be perfect but you’re making a decent go of it. Many logistical things that took effort before are now second nature. What’s that you notice around you? Could it be a community? Some days you feel a strong sense of belonging. You start to create your own traditions, favourite places to go and things to do. You are close, very close.

Stage 6, Comfort Zone: How do you know when you’ve reached this stage? You might notice, arriving back from travelling somewhere, that you feel the relief that only comes with returning home. Or, you might throw a party and realise the guest list would probably be shorter in your home country. You will be part of a community – people you can rely on and who can rely on you, from the small things to the major emergencies. Whether it’s through culture, sport, work or chance, you will have found like-minded people who share your values or passions. You will feel a bond with your familiar environment. The streets, the fields, the mountains, the well-worn paths will have become yours through use and experiences lived there. You catch yourself thinking or speaking like the locals. You dare to use the word home again.

We can’t get far in life without community. My experience, once I got over my first few wobbles, was that new communities were waiting with open arms to take me in. Whether it was the other students in German class, my in-laws, my work colleagues or the people in my neighbourhood. Many years later, I am still finding new communities, such as the small writers’ group I joined in Bern this summer.

This is why my book, which aims above all things to be fair, is written from a position of affection for the Swiss. My adopted country is not perfect, and I have highlighted some of those problems in The Naked Swiss. But there is so much here that is positive and admirable.

The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths was a challenge to write, but a good challenge. My hope is that it will spark a conversation and some reflection among the Swiss and foreign residents here. If we can bring out the best in each other, the future is bright.

What stage of the immigrant experience have you reached? Have I left anything out? And, what I am most curious to know, what comes after the comfort zone? I’d love to know what’s around the corner!

Clueless in Paris, London or New York

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I am eighteen years old and living alone in Paris. It is my first time away from home. The cash I brought with me covered one month’s rent but only a fortnight of living expenses. Pay day is two weeks away and my first credit card is eight years in the future.

For now, the Irish pub that promised to hire me full time is only able to give me three shifts per week – working from 5pm to 2am. My French is not good enough to look for another job. No, that’s just an excuse. I could work as a chambermaid but I am not brave enough to go knocking on hotel doors. Next year I will have the courage, but I don’t know that yet.

There is an older man who comes to the bar every night and has taken a rather unsettling interest in me. He wears a loose-fitting white linen shirt and his beard is patchy. One afternoon, walking through Les Halles on my way to work, he appears from nowhere, hands me a poem written on white card, and scurries away. The handwritten poem mentions swans and breasts. I am mortified but I sense that he is harmless. In this instance my judgment is right.

The bar manager gives me money for a taxi at the end of each shift. Grubby and tired, I walk out of the side street and turn right towards the rue de Rivoli. Later I will adopt the habit of stopping for a blackcurrant sorbet in one of the late-night cafes, but for now I need the money for proper food. So I walk home through the streets of Paris in the small hours, still amazed at the fact that it can be warm at night.

This flash memoir is inspired by Áine Greaney, a transatlantic Irish author living on Boston’s North Shore. Last week I came across an extract from Greaney’s compelling memoir, where she describes her experience as a young emigrant leaving Ireland for the United States in the 1980s. That’s what got me thinking about my first shaky steps towards (short-lived) independence in a foreign land. Greaney’s account, published in the online journal Numéro Cinq and taken from her book What Brought You Here?, takes us to Dublin in 1986 on the day when the young Mayo woman is on her way to the American embassy for her visa interview. After thirty years in the United States, the homepage image on the author’s website is an airport departure lounge.

Pass the lawnmower

I have read numerous articles about helicopter parenting, but I was surprised to discover that there is a new mutation of this syndrome – lawnmower parenting. These are the parents who clear all obstacles from their children’s path, the ones who drive university admissions teams to drink.

It’s easy to laugh but the more I think about it, the more I understand how difficult it must be let young people stand on their own two feet. When you could save them so much trouble! I was singularly unprepared for my stay in Paris and I can’t imagine ever letting a daughter of mine take off like that into the unknown.

When I was young it was normal for our generation to conceal our private lives from our parents, fill out our own forms and make our own plans. We neither expected nor wanted them to be involved in everything we did, let alone make decisions for us. The time for being close could come later. This independence meant facing risks and problems, and it was how we learned resourcefulness.

But in the new family, bound together by open communication and the sharing of feelings, we now have parents who cultivate a close and equal relationship with their kids. This has to be a good thing, until it becomes too much of a good thing. Like good servants, parents anticipate their children’s needs, helping them to negotiate their way through puberty (now celebrated, when it used to be dreaded), providing practical support and advice when the youngsters become sexually active (as opposed to never EVER mentioning the word sex), and taking on the project of finding the best studies and career path. There is no divide between your world and their world; everyone is on the same team. But where in this osmosis-type relationship is there an opportunity to cut the apron strings?

I’ve interviewed people who were sent away from their family home, or children’s institution, at the age of twelve to work. This was not uncommon in Switzerland and Ireland in the bad old days, when fostering, especially in rural communities, was based on paying your way with hard work.

Young Swiss people between 16 and 18 years of age are now likely to be sent away on all-expenses-paid language-learning trips, staying with host families. From the moment they set foot on foreign soil they are in the care of parents just like their own.

I was talking to a cousin of mine about this recently. After completing a one-year secretarial course in Dublin (we’re back in the 1980s), she moved to London with a friend to start her working life at the age of 18. She told her parents she had somewhere to stay but the two girls had no fixed plans and just enough money to pay for a few weeks of cheap accommodation. Proper preparation would have meant more time saving and making arrangements but they were young and impatient for a new life to begin. Luckily they found jobs quickly, overcame the challenges of the new city, and their parents were never the wiser about what a precarious start they’d had. The whole adventure would never have happened if the parents hadn’t trusted in the girls’ abilities in the first place.

I’m off to see Brooklyn tomorrow. I enjoyed the book, although I found it a little quiet. Academy Street, another story of Irish female emigration in the 1950s, had a much more powerful current to it. So many novels, for both children and adults, deal with the arrival of a young person in a new place. I don’t think that story ever gets old. When was the first time you had to manage alone away from home? Was it ultimately a positive experience? I hope so.

The importance of being Swiss

The boat is full
The boat is full

My husband picks his way through the crowded hall. It’s late and many people are sleeping but I am keeping watch over the children, waiting for his return. He kneels beside me and shows me a cereal bar in the inside pocket of his jacket. The little ones will have something to eat in the morning.

We huddle together, sharing the blanket. After a while I turn and search his face for information. His eyes do not meet mine. I wait for him to share his news. Here we have all time in the world.

“I heard something,” he finally whispers. “There’s going to be another resettlement contingent. Brazil has offered to take a small number of Swiss. There are 18 places on the boat tomorrow.”

I can hardly hear the last words he speaks but I know what this means. It is the news we have been waiting for, the news I have prayed for and dreaded every minute since we arrived in this godforsaken place.

“Did you put the names down?” He covers his face.

“Tell me you put your names down.” He nods.

He cannot speak so I say the lines for him. “You have to take this chance. There is no other way. As soon as I can I will follow you, find you. We have to think of the children.”

That night I dream of our old home in Switzerland, forever out of reach now in the contaminated zone. We are sitting around the table, talking and laughing. I can see the delicious fresh food and the happy healthy faces of my children and I feel blessed. I reach out to touch the cheek of my youngest but where there should be soft, warm skin there is nothing, only air. Trying to control my panic, I feel for the dishes and glasses, sweeping my hands up and down the table. Nothing. What terrifies me the most as I claw the air where my loved ones should be is that I cannot tell if I am the ghost at the table or if I am the only one left.

***

A piece of flash fiction there for the weekend, inspired by an important step I took today. After almost 11 years in Switzerland I have finally applied for citizenship. I could have done it any time since 2008 but I’ve waited until now. The question I’ve been asking myself is – why?

One thing is I’m not alone. Only a tiny percentage of the foreigners living in Switzerland (including second and third generation immigrants) who would be eligible to apply for naturalisation actually do so. The reasons for that reluctance are complex, like everything in this country, but to some extent it’s a standoff.

The non-Swiss are eyeing the Swiss as if to say: “I may be here but I’m not one of them.” Meanwhile the Swiss are holding up a sign in the four national languages: “You may be here but you are not one of us.”

There is some serious bridge-building needed in Switzerland right now and a terrible shortage of engineers. I would suggest bringing in some EU workers but I’m not sure that would go down well.

Yes Switzerland is multi-cultural, but it’s a place where identity matters. Identity matters to me too. Up to now I’ve always thought of myself more as an emigrant rather than an immigrant, as a way of holding on to the person who left Ireland in 2003.

I don’t mean I haven’t integrated; I’m as integrated as a piece of bread dropped in a fondue pot. What I mean is I was afraid I would lose something important by becoming Swiss. Now I feel differently. The long stay in Ireland last year helped. It reminded me that Ireland will always be there and I will always be Irish.

But my life is here now and I want to participate more in Swiss society and, most particularly, I want to vote. Don’t take the story too seriously, I am not applying for citizenship in case I become a refugee at a future date following a nuclear meltdown (there is a nuclear power plant nearby by the way, we get sent iodine tablets in the post every few years, just in case).

No, it’s just that after years of being a very welcome outsider, I am ready to take my place now among the Swiss on equal terms.

Switzerland and the foreigner thing

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After last Sunday’s vote in Switzerland to curb immigration from the European Union, I feel compelled to write about what a discouraging signal this sends to foreigners in this country. Having lived here for a decade and contributed the fruits of my labour to this country for that time – my work output, my taxes, my social security contributions, a thousand supermarket trolleys full of produce, not to mention three new Swiss citizens, I can safely say that Switzerland has enjoyed a substantial net gain from me.

And I’m no exception. The most recent OECD report on migration in Europe showed that the foreign population as a whole are net contributors to the rosy economy in Switzerland. Foreign women have bigger families, filling schools that would otherwise be half empty, with the future workers, footballers and leaders of Switzerland.

And then this campaign begins, peddling the idea that all the problems of the country, literally anything that is bothering the long-suffering natives in their daily lives, is down to this “uncontrolled” influx of people from the EU. Your train carriage is crowded? It’s because of them. You have to wait at the doctor’s? It’s their fault. Your rent has gone up? Obviously those pesky EU workers again. Urban sprawl offending your eyes? You know we wouldn’t have that without these outsiders.

The level of scapegoating would be laughable if it wasn’t hurting people. The debate has got to the point where there is no problem, present or future, that cannot be pinned on bloody foreigners.

And they lapped it up, or at least 50.3% of those who voted on February 9th did. The people have spoken, as is their right, but do they realise what they have said? Did they act to fix a real problem or was this just a way to score a cruel point, to hurt their neighbours?

To understand the result you have to know a little bit of background on how the vote came about. What you are seeing at work here is ‘direct democracy’, the purest form of democracy known to mankind, as I am now tired of hearing.

The Swiss political system has a very special role for popular petitions. Under the initiative system, any citizen may call for a vote on any issue or challenge a parliamentary decision providing they collect at least 100,000 signatures in support of their cause.

Well we all have our pet peeves so that’s great. Of course your average citizen doesn’t have the resources to gather 100,000 signatures but sometimes groups of citizens who are passionate about something get together and pull it off. More often this tool is used by well-organised and well-funded lobby groups and political parties. The gold medal in this category goes to the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.

This particular vote, dubbed “Stop mass immigration”, was brought to us by the Swiss People’s Party. With about a quarter of the popular vote, it is a fairly easy task for the party to gather so many signatures. What they do with this power is to focus on the social blight of foreigners.

For the past twelve years, EU citizens have been free to live and work in Switzerland, without any red tape, just as Swiss citizens have enjoyed the freedom to work and settle anywhere in the European Union. Known as the ‘free movement of people’, this agreement is one of the core principles of the EU and puts Switzerland on a par with EU member states.

It makes it easy for workers to follow work, Swiss retirees (for example) to move to Tuscany or Provence, and people living near borders to have access to the hinterland around them. You could see this as a win-win situation, or you could see it as an affront to your national sovereignty.

As a result of Sunday’s vote, the Swiss government now has to pull out of this agreement with the EU and return to a quota system of work permits, last used in 2002. Never mind that Switzerland has had a pretty good ride since then, helped in no small part by the easy working and living arrangements with its biggest market, i.e. every country surrounding it for as far as the eye can see.

Of course life will go on. Employers will find a way to hire the people they need and the people who are looking for work and prepared to uproot their lives to another country will still come to where the work is.

But the bitter taste will remain. Painted as the problem-makers, come here to rip the country off and make life difficult, we will continue to keep our heads down and work hard but the affection that was growing in our hearts for this nation is flickering and may be snuffed out. And that is the greatest loss of all to Switzerland.

Act II, Scene 1: Return to Switzerland

Home away from home
Home away from home

When there is a scene change in a play, the lights go down, the stage hands scurry in and skilfully whisk away the furniture and props, replacing them with whatever is needed for the new scene. The backdrop changes. The audience waits expectantly. A moment before, the actors were in a sunny garden having a tea party; now we find them on a battlefield, in a kitchen, a schoolroom. And the action continues.

The scene has changed for me again and the action continues. Yesterday I drove to work in the pre-dawn light and returned home at dusk. It was all so familiar, driving along the Swiss motorway, the Alps, crowned with pink-tinged clouds, providing a beautiful, distracting backdrop, the news headlines in German and me concentrating on the words, the road, the scenery.

When you move countries there is no such thing as a gradual change. You emerge from the plane and that is it. The dreamlike state of travelling is over and you have left the other behind, utterly. I’m amazed at how quickly I have adjusted and fallen back into this new/old life. The big goodbyes of last week seem a million miles away, or 1,200 kilometres to be precise.

Having had the luxury of spending so much time with Irish friends and family, it is frustrating to have to revert to long-distance communication again and to think in terms of future visits. The main consolation is that I now have the luxury of spending time with Swiss friends and family and making the most of this wonderful place.

Belated season’s greetings to everyone who follows this blog, as well as to new visitors. You may be pleased to hear that I will have less to say from now on about me the emigrant (you’ve been very patient!) and more to say about me the writer. Assuming I can keep up the momentum, in 2014 I will be blogging more about my novel and other writing themes. Thank you all for your presence and positive comments throughout the year.

Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh go léir.

10 things to love about Switzerland

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I’ve been dwelling a lot lately on what I’m missing out on by not living in Ireland anymore so in the interests of positive energy I’ve put together a list of 10 wonderful things Switzerland has to offer.

1. The Alps: They take up almost two-thirds of the country’s landmass and play a big part in national consciousness and history. Whether you are sailing up in a chairlift over green meadows in a warm summer’s breeze, hiking over a glacier or swooping through a pine forest on skis, any visit to the Alps brings breath-taking moments where you just can’t get over the sheer beauty of it all.

2. Languages: For a language nut like myself, Switzerland is a fascinating mini Tower of Babel. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of cracking Swiss German, completely impenetrable the first time you hear it, even to Germans. Living in a town on the French-German language divide, there’s a lively mix of both cultures; people in my neighbourhood switch between the two languages effortlessly. How do you say hello in Switzerland’s fourth language, Romansh? Allegra!

3. Public Transport: Switzerland demonstrates what public transport should be. The service is frequent, reliable and synchronised, and can take you anywhere. Amazing that the Swiss still feel the need to have five million cars for eight million inhabitants.

4. Location, location, location: Imagine living in a place where in a couple of hours you could visit Germany, France, Italy or Austria. That place is Switzerland. Coming from an island on the edge of Europe, I still get a thrill when I stand in Zurich station and see destinations like Milan, Vienna, Warsaw and Prague on the timetable display.

5. Egalité: Go to an ice hockey match and you’ll see how strongly the Swiss feel about their local identity. People are very attached to their canton and recognise each other’s regional accents straight away. On the other hand there is no such thing as class-related accent and children of all backgrounds are educated side by side in state schools.

6. Built to last: Here’s something that amazes me. There are farmhouses in Switzerland still standing that were built in the 13th century. Not forts or castles but simple farmhouses. This surely is a sign of a great country. For more on that subject here’s a story I did about Switzerland’s oldest house in canton Schwyz: http://bit.ly/ddypTP

7. Traditions: With a huge variety of traditional celebrations and rituals still thriving, Switzerland is all about continuity. Carnival is massive, people spend half the year preparing their costumes and rehearsing with bands. The things people celebrate here feel authentic. Instead of Santa Claus, children wait excitedly for a visit from St Nicholas in early December, a man dressed as a bishop who goes from house to house giving out nuts and chocolate.

8. Waterways: For many people water is about boating and fishing – for me it’s swimming. Switzerland has a wealth of beautiful clean, accessible lakes and rivers. The water warms up by mid-summer and you can walk in without getting a heart attack. The beaches are well kept and there are numerous public pools built on the lake and river shores. So far I’ve swum in a dozen different Swiss lakes, each experience unforgettable – dozens more to go!

9. Cheese: I’m completely hooked on the national cheese dishes raclette and fondue. These melted cheese meals are an institution here, part of the weekly menu all through the winter. I can’t decide which one I like the most so I just have to keep eating them both until I make up my mind.

10. People: One in five Swiss marries someone from outside the country. Like many foreigners in Switzerland, you may start off loving one Swiss person but for those of us who stay and make the effort, the rewards are great. The Swiss I now count as friends are fun-loving, kind and generous. They make me feel at home.

It’s been a good exercise for me to count my Swiss blessings. Have you ever done the same for your adopted home?

Post visit stress disorder

One thing my family does quite well is emigrate but the experience has changed fundamentally through the generations. When my grandmother’s siblings emigrated to the US in the 1920s and 1930s, they knew they would only cross the Atlantic once. Visits home were unheard of for most long-distance emigrants of that era. When my uncles emigrated to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, the trip back to Ireland was still expensive and they mostly came back once a year – until they found English wives and then less often. Even my older cousins who emigrated to the US and London in the 1980s baulked at the price of phone calls and visits were infrequent.

I can only imagine to what degree they suffered homesickness and loneliness in their new homes. Ultimately they were forced to let go. For better or for worse they built new lives for themselves.

Mine has been a very different type of emigration. Ten years ago I left Ireland to come and live in Switzerland and now new family ties keep me here. The trouble is I haven’t left Ireland behind, I can’t and I don’t want to. All the time that I’m forging a new life here for myself, I’m carrying around an ailing version of my old one. Through email, phone calls, skype and texts and regular visits I try to keep up contact – but it is an imperfect and fractured kind of contact. I try to stay close but people are having crises I know nothing about and I am having a crisis I never get to explain.

The truth is I come back from visits to Ireland like a bag of cats, suffering from a kind of post visit stress disorder. Instead of being happy that I got to see one aunt, a friend who lost his mother at Christmas, my niece and nephews, my mother and sisters, and a college friend back from England (all in three days!), I am tormented by guilt and regret over the other people I didn’t get to see or speak to, some of whom I didn’t even tell I was coming (more guilt). The long visits are even worse because we all have the mistaken impression two weeks is a long time. Arrangements add up and people say “sure we’ll see you again before you go” and next thing I know I’m squeezing in appointments like a greedy doctor and I’m using my mother’s house like a hotel with free babysitting.

I like to imagine that one day, when my working life is through and my children are established in their own lives, I will end up in an old folks’ home with my sisters, close cousins and friends. We will hang out on the porch, enjoying warm Irish summer evenings (it is a fantasy) and we will talk, talk talk. We will finally get to catch up on all those missing years and belatedly support each other through every past triumph and disaster and all the humdrum days in between. If I find myself feeling nostalgic about post visit stress disorder – not impossible, I can develop nostalgia for almost anything – all I’ll have to do is book a flight back to Switzerland.