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Living in Switzerland: Expatriate Articles and Resources
2013 Expatriate Writing Contest 3rd Place Winner

Bus Stops in Switzerland

Ruin atop Baden, Switzerland.
Ruin atop Baden, Switzerland.

On a bus ride home, I’m lost again. During my first full workday in Switzerland, I’d survived emails, office forms, and speaking German for eight hours. My brain moves like syrup, stretched thick with new words, not always the ones I need. I don’t have the words to order curtains for my picture window, let alone remember my bus stop. Hazy directions are an inconvenience at home, but getting lost overseas creates a helplessness I’m not used to, one I don’t know how to fix. I look out the window to find the Limmat, the glacier green river that showed me the way this morning, but it’s nowhere in sight. 

In the Pacific Northwest, I’d grown up with a smaller version of the Limmat, a creek weaving cold and fast between the trees. With its rainy murmur as a backdrop, Mom and I stayed up late in the kitchen, newspapers filled with unknown lives spread in front of us. Mom’s grandfather came from Germany, giving me a reason to study German in high school. I practiced hard to learn the secrets of this language, from gendered nouns to verbs so independent they sometimes waited until the end of the sentence to show up. Later, Mom told me about another ancestor from Switzerland. “She was a doctor,” she said with a smile far away as her distant relative.

The day I left America to work in Switzerland seems just as remote, though it’s only been a couple of days. For the plane trip, I brought too many carry-on bags and one built-in friend, my black and white cat. I dove into the terminal’s open mouth, the cat carrier at my side, before I could change my mind about a yearlong assignment in a Swiss office. The higher the plane climbed, the thicker the clouds. In the middle of their dense shapes, I searched for Mom, who died two years ago of a heart attack and no goodbyes. A year later, my marriage faded just as fast. I grabbed the nearest Sky Mall shopping magazine; shoeshine gadgets and a staircase for pets were sure to clear my mind.

Working abroad was a dream job, but all I could think of were friends I’d left, the house I’d leased, and my cat, somewhere in the pressurized hold below. After restless sleep and orange juice from a rumbling cart, dawn arrived one green hill at a time, each saucer-shaped valley filled with homes and a church or two. The small buildings I saw from above housed more unknown lives: co-workers, neighbors, and friends I’d yet to meet.

An American co-worker had warned me living abroad wouldn’t be easy at first. “The first month is the worst,” he said of his own experience overseas. He must have seen my face fall, because his tone changed, eyes and voice brighter than before. “After that month, you’ll be just fine. You’ll never forget it.”

For now, it’s remembering I’m most worried about. The bus thunders down a road lined with endless lace-curtained windows and flowerboxes bursting in springtime purples and reds. Unlike the long plane ride across an ocean, there’s no Sky Mall magazine and no time for looking back. I search for my stop in the towns flashing across the reader board at the front of the bus, names like Ifany, Schellenacker, and Wil. In the neat architecture outside my window, we pass apartments and homes, but nothing close to my mint-green stone building set against the hills. We rush by businesses and grocery stores instead, their vegetable bins filled with white asparagus or Spargel, a seasonal specialty.

My stomach rumbles in time with the bus, an afternoon route stretching to ten minutes instead of the seven minutes it took first thing in the morning. The bus must be the same one I’d ridden to work, though I stare harder at the street signs to make sure. Black letters blur too fast through the thick window, words revealing nothing. The elusive Limmat hides in the valley below. It’s like losing the car in a sea of parked look-alikes, something Mom and I did on a regular basis. I start to smile, but stop after a look at the bus driver and his unyielding expression. I try to capture his attention again with a more persistent gaze, an icebreaker to ask for directions, but he has eyes for curving asphalt alone.

***

That morning, I’d climbed the steps of another orange bus, its arrival honed to the second, and claimed my place by a window. Once the bus started rolling, German, French, and Italian words drifted from the conversations around me. I’d planned to watch for landmarks outside, but the hillsides and house fronts lulled me into a daydream instead. The rural landscape probably didn’t look much different from the countryside Mom’s ancestors knew and left—maybe they had favorite rivers, too. I grinned like an Auslanderin, or foreigner, but the faces around me stayed like Mom’s, emotions in check over their morning papers.

Seven minutes later, we arrived in Baden. Most of the bus passengers stood up in a single motion, not crowding but coming close. The bus driver pulled to a stop in front of the station. Once the door folded inward, commuters dressed in gray and black formed an urgent line to go down the steps. We stepped off the bus and past another line of commuters waiting to get on. In the middle of the bus crowds, a man swept the stairway with a tight straw broom. He didn’t look up at everyone breezing by. He was already at work, his office the one we scurried through each day. I walked faster, hungry for my office route.

In street-side bins, workers spread out vegetables with smells of fresh soil and rain. I turned down Badestrasse, a pedestrian walk, and slipped into the closest bakery. Lemon and raspberry pastries lined up next to cookies topped with powdered sugar. Gingerbread men touched hands.

Old Town Baden, Switzerland.
Old Town Baden, Switzerland.

Gruetzi,” said the woman behind the counter.

Gruetzi,” I said, returning the Swiss greeting. My eyes wandered from her starched white dress to the pastries surrounding her.

The woman, her posture shifting, looked back at me with polite reserve. “What would you like?” she asked in Swiss German.

The shop crawled with customers by this time and no time for indecision. I reached deep for a Swiss persona, organized and assured. “I’ll have a croissant, please.”

The woman, maybe realizing my accent was a stranger’s, softened her glance. She handed me a small bag with the pastry I’d chosen and collected the Swiss Francs I set in front of her.

On the street, I unwrapped the paper from my croissant and bit into its buttery tail. The second bite reached the center and its surprise of chocolate. Spilling crumbs along the way, I stared at dates of 1435 and 1512 scrolled above arched doorways. If I stayed here long enough, I wouldn’t see them, just as I stopped seeing Douglas fir and hearing the stream behind the house where I grew up. I finished the croissant and searched for the Limmat, which split the city of Baden in two. Yesterday, through a fog of jet lag, I’d crossed a wooden footbridge with my new boss, who’d shown me how to reach the office. There’d been a fountain and some red flowers, but more than that I couldn’t remember.

I looked around for a stranger with an open expression, someone I could ask for help, but most commuters had either found their workplaces or looked too intent to be bothered. Every time I opened my mouth to ask a question, I couldn’t find the words, English or German. The sun rested behind a church spire and the river, for the moment, kept silent.

***

Though the bus driver’s unflinching eyes warn me to sit still on this late afternoon ride, I decide to walk the aisle. His glare intensifies the closer I come. I ignore protocol and grasp seat backs along the way with extra firmness until I reach the driver. Stopping just behind him, I wait, preparing to use my best German, just as I had with the woman at the bakery that morning.

“Could you please tell me, is this the last stop in Tuergi?” I make sure to use the formal “you” rather than the familiar one.

The driver sniffs. “I can’t understand you,” he says in Swiss-German dialect. His face stays straight ahead.

My cheeks redden. “Tuergi, Tuergi. I need to get to Tuergi, please.”

The bus rolls forward without a change of speed. The man turns and stares. “Tuerrrrrgi,” he trills in perfect Swiss. “Tuergi is back there.” He gestures to the flower-lined road trailing behind us.

I don’t realize I’m asking for a region rather than a bus stop, and that I’m pronouncing it like a Thanksgiving “turkey” instead of the deeper German vowel it requires, Tuergi. He doesn’t know where I live, much less what I’m asking.

Clenching the metal bar in front of me, I stay beside the driver. The unforgiving bus rolls on, the river we follow nowhere in sight. A mistake made, there’s no turning against the current. I glance back and wonder what the other Swiss passengers think of our exchange. Their conversation stays quiet and neutral, pronunciation perfect and destinations known. We’re kin, but it’s been too long. I’m an American, used to plain vowels, strip malls, and driving by myself.  

The bus driver looks straight ahead. Neat hillsides, the same I’d seen from the plane, arc and dip beside us. They swallow me again, dense and impenetrable as the language barriers I face, social nuances evasive as whispers.

I stare harder at the driver. “How will I get back? By foot?”

The driver pulls the bus over and turns to me like I’m a mosquito. His words slap. “Cross the street and catch the other bus going back. “Schnell, schnell!”

I freeze and stare. It’s my first “hurry up” in German, a textbook dialogue come to life. Lugging my bag, I leave the bus and listen for the river. Before I can reach the shelter, the orange bus I’m supposed to catch speeds by, city-bound and late for no one, its diesel engine mumbling disapproval until it disappears. A few steps later, I reach the sign with its list of scheduled stops—another bus will come. The sun touches flowers pouring from nearby window boxes, the Limmat murmuring unseen beneath the hillside.

***

Although no closer to reaching the footbridge on my way to work, I discovered another landmark, the fountain. Instead of cascading water, the moat surrounding the red flowers sat motionless and clear. A man in hip boots and an orange vest stood in the middle with a wrench in his hand. I envied him for having found his goal, a body of water that didn’t elude him. Walking in slow steps towards the fountain, I practiced the words I’d use to overcome my latest loss. He stopped working long enough to look at me.

“Excuse me, but could you tell me where the bridge is?” I enunciated every German word to match the precision around me.

The man pointed with a wrench in his hand. “You’re actually very close, just down the hill and to your right. You can’t miss it.” He chose another tool and refocused on the fountain, the Auslanderin assisted and forgotten.

I stumbled down the hill to a narrow bridge where cars squeezed by in both directions. Morning traffic drowned out the sound of the river below. This wasn’t the yesterday’s wood-covered footbridge, long timbers echoing each step.

On the other side, I climbed the sidewalk and scanned the white-walled businesses surrounding me. Nothing looked familiar. America had probably seemed just as strange to my Swiss ancestor when she first arrived, from its landscape to its words. I had a foothold in German, enough to read the storefront signs naming every business but my own. The light sweater I wore stuck tight against my skin and my face warmed. If I didn’t find the office soon, I’d have to walk back to the bus station and start over.

I searched one last white wall before turning around. A blue sign tacked on the stucco surface spelled Sonnenbergstrasse, or sunny mountain street—my company’s street address. A few blocks away, my company’s logo stood out against the side of a building. I stared, so grateful for this well-known graphic in an unfamiliar place that I took a picture of it. The footbridge I'd been looking for spanned the river a few paces north. The Limmat’s ice-green water chattered, its sound close to laughter.

***

From my perch on a bus shelter bench, the sky turns a deeper shade of blue. Once home, I’d climb the steps to my apartment, straight to the fourth-floor doorway with its diamond-shaped window. Past the thin mattress and a corner cabinet, I’d open my balcony to nothing but hills, topped with clouds where I’d find Mom and her Swiss doctor.

The next bus pulls up fifteen minutes later. The commuter crowds are gone, leaving a near-empty bus. It’s already after 7 p.m., and I should’ve reached my apartment 40 minutes ago. I climb into the bus with a smile, which fades after the first few steps. There, perched in the driver’s seat, is the bus driver who dropped me and my bad pronunciation off in the opposite direction. Either his route is circular, or he’s followed to straighten my path. Unlike my morning encounters with more tolerant Swiss, this bus driver pushes me to exactness.

He takes up the smile where mine left off. “You didn’t go fast enough,” he says in Swiss-German.

I slump into a row several seats back and think about the schnell he’d given me earlier. “No, I didn’t go fast enough.”

His nodding fools me into thinking I’m forgiven. I grasp my bag and move a few seats closer to the front. “So, is the next stop Wils?”

“It’s Wil, certainly not Wils.” I’m wrong again, but his tone softens this time and the fierceness of his brows loosens.

“I understand,” I say. “Thanks for your help.”

He nods again in time to the slowing bus, stopping at what I hope is my apartment building. After the last step, I turn around to see if he’s looking my way, but the bus already curves around the next corner, back to a route that doesn’t vary.

Past the bus shelter, the street flattens. My grip tightens on my bag; this roadway doesn’t slope enough to be home. I’d still chosen the wrong stop. Hope follows the driver and his bus thundering back to town. I heft my bag, think of someone to call, and start walking back to town in the afternoon’s last rays. Between rippling hills, the Limmat sighs.

A few blocks later, a gray building stands in front of me. White letters on a blue street sign spell my street name of Neumaettlistrasse, or little fields, in careful script above my head. The bus shelter I’d left that morning waits at the side of the road. Up the hill and past the neighborhood store, I bounce up the fifty-six stairs of my mint-green apartment complex, my feet memorizing each step. 

Inside, my cat’s purring almost drowns out the sound of the river, roaring on its way from the Alps to Zurich. The phone rings with a co-worker’s invitation to dinner. Light through the open balcony darkens while I consider what to wear—there’s still time before my friend arrives. The green hills tumble across one another, distant yet familiar.

Living Swiss

Getting Around

Swiss Trains and Buses (SBB): You can't go wrong with Swiss transportation service, which is the epitome of efficiency. The service includes routes to numerous destinations, whether city centers or mountain vistas.

Biking: Switzerland offers numerous biking routes, whether crossing a dramatic mountain pass or taking a leisurely ride from the city and returning by train.

Cultural Notes

Languages: Switzerland, by virtue of a central location and distinct regions, offers languages that include German, French, Italian, and Romansch. Note that most German speakers use a dialect known as Swiss German. While many Swiss speak fluent English, a few basic phrases in German or French will open doors and build rapport. 

Working in Switzerland: Long-term work in Switzerland requires a work contract from an employer along with a Work Visa Permit.

Favorite Destinations Near Zurich

Baden: Famed for its thermal baths, which are believed to contain restorative powers. Baden, (located a 20-minute train ride from Zurich) is undergoing its own resurgence with preservation and remodeling of historic hotels lining the Limmat River.

Uetliberg: This mountain, accessible by tram from Zurich, offers hiking trails and a mountain bike option. Your reward after an hour-long climb is a sweeping view of the city. A railway 10 minutes from the summit is also available.

Jucker Farm: Visitors to this family-friendly farm can pet animals, hike the lakeside trail, and enjoy local foods at this working farm about a half-hour outside of Zurich in Seegraeben.