From England to Switzerland

In March 2009 the Deakin-Radkov family moved from Berkshire to Basel, Switzerland. Now living just over the border in Alsace, they give us the low down on Swiss/French life.

ndrea and Stoyan had two boys under two when they moved from Twyford to Switzerland. Stoyan had been offered a job with a large pharmaceutical company, and, although Andrea was nervous about leaving her own job as an in-house lawyer, they made the decision without too much trepidation. “It seems strange now that it wasn’t more of a big deal, but we saw it as a temporary thing and we kept our house and rented it out. The timing felt right – I had a 23 month old toddler and a two month old baby, and I wanted to spend more time with them.”

In the months before the move Andrea was, understandably, more focused on the arrival of her second son than on the relocation. But when the family arrived in Basel, reality hit. “For the first few weeks we were placed in temporary accommodation by Stoyan’s company, while we looked for somewhere to rent. The main language in Basel is Swiss German – think German, with a Dutch accent. I hardly spoke to anyone for two months, apart from Stoyan, my children, and the Argentinian relocation agent who was showing us round places!”

“When the novelty of feeling as though we were on holiday wore off, I started to feel isolated. It was certainly a challenge to look after the boys on my own, with no family or friends nearby to help out, and have a chat. My phone bill from calling home was astronomical!”

Finding somewhere more permanent to live was also a challenge, as Swiss property prices are very high, but eventually Stoyan and Andrea began to settle in. “We found a spacious, modern maisonette in an expat community. There were plenty of people to talk to, and our children quickly made friends with the English-speaking children in the neighbourhood. We also discovered that Baslers are amazing polyglots, and most people working in the centre of Basel can speak Swiss German, High German, English and French fluently.”

Eighteen months later, the people renting the family’s home back in England made them an offer on their house, which prompted Andrea and Stoyan to look for somewhere to buy. “Most people here live in apartments, but we were determined to find a house and garden of our own. After a lot of searching we bought a really lovely house just over the border in France.”

Though the family now officially live in France, they are just a five minute drive from Basel, where their eldest son, William, now 5, goes to school, and Alexander, 3, to pre-school. “William spent a year at the local Ecole Maternelle, but, although he picked up some French, he didn’t enjoy being the odd one out; and we weren’t keen on the large class sizes, and the fact that the children had to come home for lunch. We decided to put him into a private school in Basel – the Swiss International School. It’s a bi-lingual English and German school that follows the curriculum of England and Wales, and the Canton of Zurich. It’s great, because it means that if we move back to England, William will slot back into the school system.”

Earlier this year, Andrea gave birth to the couple’s third child, Arabella, and, having had her first two children in the UK, she experienced Swiss maternity care for the first time. “Giving birth in England was okay, but having a baby in Basel was amazing!”

“The medical services are covered by compulsory private insurance. During my pregnancy, I thought that it was more medicalised, because I had a lot of scans and check-ups with doctors. However, for the birth itself, they had a much more natural approach. I was in a pristinely clean, modern and well-equipped hospital, with English-speaking doctors, nurses and midwives. On arrival, I was taken to an enormous delivery room, with relaxing scenes illuminated on the walls and lavender scent pumped around the room. I was given camomile tea, acupuncture and massage by the midwives, and Arabella was born in under three hours, without drugs or intervention.”

“After the birth, I had a lovely big room to myself, with a private lounge. The midwives came every few hours, to change Arabella’s nappy and help with breast-feeding. They also brought me pots of special herbal tea, to aid recovery. I was given a menu card every day to choose three course meals, which were delicious, and they had a night-time crèche, so that I could get some rest.”

In addition to top-notch maternity services, there are many things that Andrea and her family appreciate about living in Basel. “It’s more old-fashioned and traditional than in England. It feels safer on the streets, and children are encouraged to be independent and to walk to school on their own – even at five. There are cute little traditions, for instance, in Swiss state kindergartens, the birthday girl or boy stays at home and their classmates and teacher walk in procession to their house, pulling a wooden cart. They then collect the birthday child from home and pull them in the cart to school wearing a crown.”
“We love the slower pace here, and the more outdoorsy lifestyle. Weekends are for families to spend together, often engaging in outdoor pursuits – cycling, hiking, walking, skiing, playing in woods, building campfires and having barbecues or picnics. There is a wide choice of parks, green spaces, public swimming pools and playgrounds, all maintained to a high level of cleanliness.”

“Basel, and many other Swiss cantons, host family-friendly festivals all year round. The Fasnacht Carnival in February is a lot of fun, but the annual Autumn Fair (Herbstmesse) is our family’s favourite. For two weeks, fairground rides suddenly pop up around the city, and hundreds of pretty wooden huts transform one of the old squares, Petersplatz, into the style of days gone by, selling all sorts of regional fayre, from food, to wooden toys. Raclette – melted slabs of cheese with boiled potatoes – is divine on a chilly autumn day.”

The family are also able to take full advantage of their enviable geographical position, right at the heart of Europe. “We feel very lucky to have breathtaking scenery on our doorstep: Zurich, Colmar and Lucerne are just an hour away, and Interlaken, Neuchatel, and Montreux, on Lake Geneva, can be reached in under two hours. Northern Italy is only a four hour drive.”

However, despite the charming markets, and plethora of outdoor activities, there are some downsides to life in Basel. “From time to time the Swiss go overboard with their rules and regulations. This is a place where the playgrounds have opening hours, and they are strictly observed: 10-12 in the morning, 2-7 in the afternoon. Woe betide if you want to cut your grass after 7pm on a weekday, or 6pm on a Saturday – there will be a letter in your post box explaining the neighbourhood rules. Dig your garden on a Sunday, and you might find yourself explaining what you’re doing to the police!”

“People are deadly serious about nosing about into other people’s affairs and passing judgment. It can ruin the atmosphere in what is otherwise a really nice place to be, and it’s one reason that we were glad to move to France – though quite a few people in Alsace have the same mentality.”

Andrea has also discovered that a more traditional approach to life can mean that childcare options are limited. “We’re really short of choice on schools and childcare. It’s very common for one parent, usually the mother, to stay at home and look after young children, and to be around for lunches and to juggle differing timetables for older children.”

However, for the time being, at least, the pros of life in Basel seem to outweigh the cons, and the family are making the most of their time there. “Basel is a very pleasant place to bring up your family – clean and safe, and close to the mountains and lakes. There’s peace and quiet, and a slower pace of life. It’s a world away from the hustle and bustle of the UK, yet only an hour and 20 minutes on a plane, so you can easily get back whenever you need a dose of Britishness. We love our house, and the lifestyle, and we expect to stay put for the next few years.”

If you’re off for an overseas adventure, or you know someone who’s made the leap, and would like to be featured in our expat series, then get in touch: