After 13 years in London, Michela Mantani moved to Switzerland with her husband and two small children.
ichela, who is Italian, and her British husband, Matthew, met when they were both students at Keele University. “Matthew had a part time job delivering pizza – the night that he delivered a free slice of chocolate cake to my halls of residence, I knew it was love!”
The couple settled down together in London and stayed there for over 13 years, but when their two sons came along they felt that the time was right for a change of scene. “We loved London, but we wanted to raise our children in a smaller, calmer city and we also wanted them to experience life outside the UK.”
Michela and Matthew considered places as far flung as China, but ultimately decided that they wanted to stay in Europe. “I lost my dad three years ago, and my mum suffers from MS and is in a wheelchair,” explains Michela. “I felt that I wanted to stay as close to Italy as I possibly could, so that I could visit my mum and my sister more often.”
When a job opportunity in Switzerland came up for Matthew, it seemed like the perfect solution. “We’d read about the quality of life there and the beautiful scenery, and everyone said that it was a great place to raise young children. And, of course, it’s so close to Italy. We jumped at the chance.”
Three years on and Michela and Matthew are very much settled in French-speaking Geneva. “We love the beautiful scenery, and the excellent schools and healthcare. We also love the fact that we can drive anywhere in Europe without having to book flights months in advance. We can set off for the weekend on a whim – just pack the car and go, as my parents used to when I was little.” Michela has even started a blog about her experiences as an expat in Geneva – genevafamilydiaries.net.
However, there are a few small cultural differences between London and Geneva which have required some adjustment: “Here the customer isn’t king at all, so sometimes you have to learn to navigate difficult situations. There’s no trade on Sundays – all shops, and nearly all restaurants, are closed. It’s hard to get used to in the beginning, but slowly you start to appreciate the different pace of life.”
Michela and Matthew have also found the language to be more of a barrier than they had anticipated. “Everyone told us that, as English is widely spoken in Geneva, it’s easy to get by as expats even if you’re not fluent in French. But the truth is that if you want to enjoy life in Geneva to the full, and make the most of everything the city has to offer, you really do have to speak and understand the language. It was easy for the children to learn – they picked it up at school and nursery, and it came naturally. The same cannot be said for Matthew and me! We sometimes struggle a bit – our children find it very funny and love to correct us.”
Since arriving in Geneva, the family has grown by one member. Unlike her older brothers, two year old Elsie was born in Geneva. This means that Michela is able to compare and contrast the Swiss maternity care with the care available in Britain. “I had two amazing natural birth experiences in London – both at the birth centre at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital. The midwives there are fantastic, and they do an amazing job. I think, though, that the main difference in Switzerland is that the hospitals here are not understaffed and, depending on what health insurance you have, you can give birth in one of the gorgeous private clinics, which look more like five star hotels than hospitals. They looked after me very well when Elsie was born – the food and care was amazing.”
In fact, Michela’s third birth experience was more complicated than her previous two. Elsie was breech until the very end of the pregnancy and, as Michela was keen to have another natural birth and avoid a caesarean, her Swiss gynaecologist suggested a manual inversion. “I had no idea what a manual inversion was, and I spent long evenings googling it. It sounded scary, and I was trembling with fear when we arrived at the hospital. When you’re under stress all of your language abilities go out of the window, so I wasn’t very responsive when the Swiss midwife chatted away nicely, but she knew that she had to take my mind off the task ahead and help me to relax, and she did.”
“Both the doctor and the midwife were brilliant. They managed to turn my little girl, and I can’t thank them enough for trying out all of the options, rather than pushing me to have a caesarean.”
One other, more difficult, aspect of Swiss life, according to Michela, is finding appropriate childcare, particularly for young children. “Swiss society is more traditional than British society, and they generally expect mums to stay at home with the children until they start school. The government offers fiscal incentives to allow families to look after their children at home, and there are fewer nursery places than you’d expect, especially under the age of three – though this issue is being looked at.” Michela has, however, found that the Swiss approach to parenting has a positive side too: “There is less pressure on mums to be the perfect wife, career woman and mum. Mums here seem to be a lot more practical about it – they understand that having kids requires sacrifices, and they accept that. They slow down, take care of the kids until they’re older and don’t compete with each other as much.”
In addition to the childcare challenges, there are things that Matthew and Michela miss about their old lives in the UK. “We miss our closest friends, the people who had been like a surrogate family to us and seen us through thick and thin, since our days at university. And we miss London, of course. There’s no place on earth with the same vitality, flurry of activity, and so many family-friendly places and events.”
“I also miss the shopping – there’s nothing like the British high street – but I make up for it whenever we go back to London to see friends. Occasionally we miss the food, too – we get mad cravings for a Sunday roast with mint sauce! The children are more Swiss now, though, and prefer cheese fondue, raclette and chocolate.”
And, at the end of the day, the fact that their children are so at home in Geneva, means that Michela and Matthew feel happy there too. “The best thing about the move has been seeing the children settle in so well, pick up the language with ease, and fit in well with friends at school. It’s much easier to learn a language when you’re young, and it’s a gift for life. They’re also great skiers, which is a joy to behold at such a young age.” Thanks to this combination of happy children, great surroundings, and proximity to Italy, the family are planning to stay put for the foreseeable future: “It all depends on the work assignment – but we would like to stay, so fingers crossed!” ✿