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My Switzerland Experience
What do you think of when someone mentions goodchocolate, watches, the Alps, cows and cheese? You might think of Switzerland,but these things don't give the whole picture because they say nothing about theSwiss people. Last summer I got a real taste of Swiss life and self-reliance whenI spent six weeks with a host family in the Bernese Alps.
After muchpreparation and many last-minute errands, my departure time arrived. Needless tosay, I was pretty nervous. All I knew about my host family was that it consistedof two parents and three kids: an 18-year-old girl and two boys (15 and 10). Iknew I was staying in a place called Erlenbach in central Switzerland. Although Ihad read about Switzerland, I really didn't know what to expect.
Now,let's back up for a second. I am not an incredibly outgoing person. Like many, Iam loud and energetic around friends, but in class I'm shy and find it hard tospeak up during discussions. Traveling to a foreign country to live withunfamiliar people would be difficult for anyone, and not many choose to engage inthese programs for fear of unfamiliar things and being away from home. For me,homesickness has never been an issue, but I did have reservations. Doubts likeWill my host family like me? What if I hate them? What if I get lost? What if Ican't understand anyone? plagued me. But I put aside my anxiety and boarded theplane for Zurich.
My host father picked me up at the train station anddrove me to Erlenbach, a beautiful mountain village. On my application I had notspecified whether I wanted to live in the country, a city or suburb, but I likethe outdoors. Arriving in Erlenbach, I knew I couldn't have asked for a bettersetting. There was one store, a bakery, a church and something most Swiss townsrequire: a train station.
I couldn't have asked for a better host family,either. They made me feel like part of their family. I don't have brothers orsisters, so living with three kids was quite different, but I genuinely enjoyedhaving siblings.
One of the best things about living with a host familywas not feeling like a tourist. I wasn't traveling around Europe seeing the majorsights; I was immersed in a different culture. I participated in my family'sday-to-day activities, whether helping pick berries in the garden or going tofriends' houses.
While many aspects of the Swiss culture are similar toAmerica's, there are lots of differences, too. The trick for me was to keep anopen mind. Sometimes I caught myself thinking, What are they doing? For example,my host family (and most Swiss) left their windows open - without screens - allthe time. At first I thought, Oh my gosh, all the bugs are going to get in andeat me alive. Why don't they close the windows and turn on the air? But then Irealized there weren't many bugs and I really enjoyed the fresh air. My hostfather also couldn't get over the fact that my family has three people and threecars while they have one car for five people, which is typical. The environmentin Switzerland is a lot cleaner, too.
Probably my biggest shock was thelanguage. I expected the Swiss to speak German, but they spoke a dialect calledSwiss German, which has hardly anything in common with German. I couldn'tunderstand when my host family talked to each other. The Swiss can understandGermans, but Germans cannot understand the Swiss. At times I was very frustratedbecause my three years of German did not help, but I reminded myself I was inSwitzerland, and my bad mood vanished. Anyhow, many people knew and wereextremely willing to speak English.
While there, I participated in aweek-long mountaintop community service project with nine other girls from NewZealand, America, Japan and the Netherlands. There was no plumbing (thus noshowers), but it was worth being dirty. The ten of us helped a shepherd build andwiden trails for his cattle, haul firewood and clear pasture land. It was noteasy, but I enjoyed every minute of my stay in the house above theclouds.
I became more self-reliant as a result of my six-week stay. Myhost parents worked a lot, so if I wanted to go somewhere, I had to take thetrain by myself. Sometimes I would visit Americans I met on the plane to Zurich.I had to trust myself to make the right decisions, and react and respondappropriately. When I landed in Switzerland, I carried my cultural baggage: mybeliefs and ideas shaped by the United States. Conversely, I did not want toenhance any stereotypes Europeans had of Americans.
I found Swiss peoplevery open-minded, much more so than Americans, probably because Switzerland is asmall country permeated by many cultures. The Swiss were very friendly andtreated me kindly; I hope they would say the same about Americans.
Havingan open mind was essential to my successful cultural experience. I didn't want tothink, My way or the highway. Also, being okay with failure was imperative, as Iput myself on the line every day. If I messed up while trying to speak German, sowhat.
Signing up for a cultural exchange was probably the biggest risk Iever took, but it was also the most rewarding. I don't want to say it waslife-altering, but living in Switzerland did change my perspective on the UnitedStates.
I still keep in touch with my host family via email. I hope toreturn and stay with them for a year, which they have encouraged me to do. When Ileft, I promised I would return to Erlenbach. There is more to Switzerland thancheese and watches.