Monday, 12 September 2011

Well that was short!

When I was researching whether I wanted to take a six month contract in Switzerland, I discovered a post on the infamous English Forums from someone who'd been in the country just six months.

He listed the positives as... well that the scenery of mountains and lakes is quite pretty.

The negatives were a seemingly endless list of bullet-points, which I won't bore the reader with here. Suffice to say the cost of everything was top of the list, with petty bureaucracy, silly rules, long working days and the country seemingly closing down after 9.30pm even at weekends being near the top.

I would add that the transport system is excellent (although expensive once you veer outside the Zurich Zone 10 and want to travel around the whole country).

I would also add that once you've seen one carbon-copy pretty lake with cable cars and mountains, you've pretty much seen them all. Zurich, Lausanne, Brunnen, Montreaux ... meh! I've seen them all and they're pretty indistinguishable. Travel a little further to the South of France and see a variation on the theme, but with far more character that DOESN'T look like a model railway toytown charicature.

I meant to update this blog with reports of some of those visits, but really they would all have been much of a muchness, and I haven't had time with the crazy day job and all.

That being said, this post is being written after I've left Switzerland. My departure has been rather hasty. Working for one of the big Swiss banks, the cutbacks I'd been told I'd be immune from just three weeks ago, and which at interview I'd been assured wouldn't happen, hit my team and I was 'saved' by being moved to another team that had nothing to do with the contract I'd signed up for and the skillset I have and came out to Switzerland to use.

Last week's devaluation of the Swiss franc, meaning a further reduction in salary when take-home pay is way below that in London, mainly because everything in Switzerland costs 2-3 times as much as it does back home, was the last straw. I quit the bank. I quit Switzerland.

Switzerland may be pretty, but it's over-priced, bland and xenophobic.

Will I be back, should another more lucrative and appropriate contract be offered me in the future?

Errrm... no!

Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Top of Zurich

All of my Zurich tourist guides are full of 'Walking Trips', 'Museum Excursions', and 'Things to Do in Zurich' that basically involve nothing more than exploring the Old Town stretch of land between the Central Station and the Lake.

Bizarrely, not one of the guides I have mentions Uetliberg, or The Top of Zurich as it likes to be known, even though it's a very short train ride from the central station and just inside that crucial Zone 10 region that the cheapest Zurich travel pass gives you access to.

UPDATED 2nd July 2011: Oops! Uetliberg is NOT inside Zone 10 after all. It's just outside and it seems I travelled illegally. You need to purchase a ticket for Zone 55 and the train crosses Zone 54 on its way there. Examine the map below carefully and read the Comments section below!

Featuring the most inspiring views of the Lake and the City (hence its 'Top of Zurich' nickname), with picnic park, children's playground, seemingly endless tourist-oriented restuarants and the obligatory tourist kiosk it's hard to understand why it's been excluded from all my guides. Even if you're only in Zurich for a couple of days it surely warrants a visit?

If you look up to the wooded mountains from pretty much anywhere in Zurich you may well have spotted two towers high up on the horizon. These mark the location of 'The top of Zurich'.

Top of Zurich landmarks, clearly visible from anywhere in Zurich

The tower on the right is some sort of communications tower

Communication Tower at Top of Zurich

The triangular tower on the left is a viewing tower that affords the best photographic opportunities if you're into panoramas - IF you don't die of vertigo before you get to the main viewing platform (You'd think that several years of bungee jumping and sky-diving would have cured me of vertigo nausea, but apparently not!) There is a viewing platform on the main road, but the view of Zurich and the Lake are obscured by trees so it's worth the climb up the tower if you're up to it.

Climbing tower for the best views of Zurich City and Zurich Lake

The best way to get there is by the S10 train which leaves from one of the lower platforms of the Central Station every 20 minutes. The trip takes about 25 minutes as it's a slow, gentle ride up to the heights, with the train often having to co-ordinate a single track line with trains coming the other way down the mountain. As it approaches the final destination, the train lets out a whistle to let other trains know it has right of way.

The kids travelling on the train I was on seemed to love this, shrieking every time the whistle sounded, to such an extent that I couldn't help wondering if it would be loud enough to cover up the sound of a large slap, or the sounds of a small weight tumbling down the mountain after being ejected from the train!

The train itself is comfortable, bordering on luxorious compared with British trains, with plenty of seats available even on the busy, hot Saturday I made the trip.

Locations on Zurich City ZVV map

Arriving at the station you're immediately greeted by a tourist kiosk (a small tray of 'pommes frites' will set you back CHF7.50 which is about UKP 6) preceding two paths leading up to the 'Top of Zurich' itself - one is a gentle wide road for those with pushchairs or prams, the other is a quicker, steeper, narrower path with steps. It's about a 5-10 minute walk up to the main viewing area. For the disabled or old there is a (free?) mini-truck transport system to get you up to the main viewing area - think 'taxi's from the 1960's TV show The Prisoner' and you've pretty much got the gist of them. The lazy may be able to blag their way onto one of these - I didn't try, but it looked like others had!

Uetliberg Station

As you approach the two paths you're greeted by a plethora of signs. The area attracts a lot of hikers (apparently undertaking the trip by walking is a pretty tough test of stamina) and bikers, so it's hard to know who the signs and their timings for different areas of Zurich are aimed at. There sure are enough of them!

Signs and timings - but are the timings for hikers or cyclists?

More signs and timings - but are the timings for hikers or cyclists?

You might be wondering what all those 'dining' symbols on the different signs mean. I think they're a subtle way of alerting you to the fact that you're going to see one restaurant after another as you climb towards the viewing point, all offering beer and food at what can best be described as 'tourist prices'.

Aside from the non-stop exhortations to visit this restaurant or that one, the walk through woodland is very pleasant, with a shaded picnic area to one side before you reach the main viewing area which is over-run with restaurants and open-air stalls and seating areas. The Swiss also seem to be obsessed with an animal that looks like it was created by crossing a deer with a giraffe!

Walk up to the viewing area

Picnic Park area just before the viewing platforms

The view from the pyramid tower is truly stunning, although it's a shame that the explanatory plaques that try and highlight the areas of interest have had a visit from the grafitti morons that seem to plague every country.

Alas no photo can do the view justice (even clicking on the link below for a bigger version doesn't help much as these photos were all taken with my iPhone, not a decent camera) so you need to go check it out yourself.

I'd be wary of visiting 'The Top of Zurich' in Winter when it's been snowing because of the steep climb, but in Summer it's glorious and highly recommended.

View of Zurich and the Lake

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Lost in Translation

This week the Swiss authorities made available a new English-language 'Welcome to Switzerland' brochure.

Front cover of 'Welcome to Switzerland' brochure

It's like one of those ghastly corporate 'Our Employees' brochures intended for shareholders: All photo's of smiling, attractive people covering all the basic stereotypes, emphasising again and again 'cultural diversity' and 'respect for the individual'. Which would be tolerable I guess, if only there were some actual real content in the thing.

Maybe that's a bit unfair because on every page there is one important piece of advice that is repeated again and again: the requirement to 'learn the local language if you want to survive here'. It's no doubt an important point for those intending to stay long term, but it's rammed home with all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer.

The question is: which ruddy 'local language' are we supposed to learn? In Geneva you're screwed if you don't speak French. In Zurich, German is the major language, but at times it feels more like Italian is running it a close second. English is definitely a no-no (other than in the office where it's by far the predominant language). The best, busiest, and most affordable restaurant near work is Italian and none of the staff there appear to speak German, English or French. They seem resigned, if not overly enthusiastic, to gangs of non-Italian speaking Brits invading their space to gesticulate at their toasted pancetta's or whatever they're called.

In my 'self-serviced accommodation' today the kitchen was packed with lively conversation, as it usually is on the few trips I've made there. But it's Italian conversation, not German. I feel like a ghost, as if the mere fact I don't speak Italian or German makes me invisible. A brief 'Morgen' is completely ignored. I guess it's not just London or New York where people are rude!

With work hours so much longer here, it's hard to want to spend what little free time one has back in a classroom, learning a dull, harsh-sounding new language from scratch. And it's not High-German mind, but Swiss-German. Which is apparently different enough to cause problems even for the Germans here. People talk a lot about the better quality of life in Switzerland, but forget to point out that the Swiss actually refused to reduce the 'standard' working week from its 42-45 hours compared with England's 37-40 hours when a vote was taken a few years ago.

Last night around midnight the 'No noise between 10pm and 7am or you have to leave' rules of my accommodation were broken by a half-naked, six foot plus, bald and extremely intimidating German speaker, who accosted me as I was crossing the corridor from the loo to my room. I'd heard someone shouting in loud German earlier, but unfortunately hadn't realised there was someone high on drugs or drink lurking in the corridor area.

I've no idea what the torrent of loud German abuse I got meant, abuse which only got louder and more threatening when I garbled my usual "Sprechen ze English?", and resulted in loud bangs and kicks at my door for about an hour or so afterwards. I am not sure at this stage whether my inability to understand what was being shouted is a blessing or a curse.

The 'Welcome to Switzerland' brochure starts off its 'cultural diversity' marketing pitch with the story of a Swiss train conductor from Africa, who followed his girlfriend to Switzerland. Apparently he spent a year trying to get a job and failing. So he wised up, spent a year learning the language (Swiss-German) and hey, presto! a job as a train conductor was miraculously offered.

Front cover of 'Welcome to Switzerland' brochure - the story of an African immigrant

It seems there's no choice but to learn German, even if in my workplace all I hear are English accents that show a range of Northern England geographical locations that I've never heard in London. Outside the workplace English is definitely a no-no. Much more so than in Germany or France, in my experience.

But German lessons (just like everything else here) are not cheap, and represent yet another 'hidden expense' of living and working in Switzerland.

Hopefully I'll find out the most cost-effective way to learn the language at the Town Hall 'Welcome to Switzerland' event being held on 7th July. Until then it's a case of 'Morgen', 'Sprechen ze English?' and shouting more loudly than usual whilst waving my hands in an exaggerated fashion.

UPDATE (Comments seem to be broken with an infinite loop when I or anybody else tries to post a comment. Thanks Google (not!)

Comment from Laurent Bugnion (via Facebook comments which DO work):

Ah Ian... My wife comes from Malaysia, and never had an issue finding people talking English here. She works in English, and while (after 11 years living here) her German is not bad, she often engages in English in local businesses. Never an issue in Zurich!

As for me, I moved here in 95 with not a clue about how to speak Swiss German. I had good notions of Hochdeutsch. I was always met with smiles and patience from people I talked to. It took me about a year and a half to understand enough Swiss German to be able to enjoy conversations with friends in bars, but it certainly never prevented me to function in everyday's life.

BTW standard working week here is 40 hours. Some firms go to 41 hours but with flexible hours, so you can work more one day and take free the next. This is pretty standard in firms here.

Comment in reply from me:

Your experience is different from mine, but it's early days yet. Certainly there are lots of ex-pat English-speaking groups, but based on past experience they tend to be too obsessed with the 'home country' for me to have rushed to socialise that way.

One thing I have noticed is how self-effacing the Swiss are about their English if they DO speak the language. A couple of times when I've asked a Swiss person if they speak English I've been told 'No. Only a little bit', only to be met with almost perfect English and a strong vocabulary.

The 'Working Hours' came from the ex-pat 'Bible' Working in Switzerland (essential reading for English speakers, available from Amazon). I have to say my own employer's working hours contradict those you've quoted and confirm those I've given. The official week is 42 hours and we have to clock up that time as a minimum. Of course, because I work in IT hours worked tend to be higher than that, but I think that's not a Swiss problem, it's a worldwide one and 'goes with the territory' :-(

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Getting Started: Town Hall Registration and Opening a Bank Account

Town Hall Registration document and Swiss Bank debit card

Town Hall Registration

The first thing you need to do when arriving in Switzerland to work is register at the local Town Hall, assuming you have an address you can register at.

By law you have to register at the 'Canton' Town Hall within 8 days of arriving.

The Swiss registration document you get - an A4 print out with a stamp on it - is the starting point for other essentials such as being able to open a Swiss current bank account for your salary to be paid into.

Be warned that this piece of paper doesn't come cheap (nothing does in Switzerland!) and you will have to hand over the princely sum of CHF 85 (UKP 65) for this sheet of A4 paper (which will have to be paid again if you move, which involves a new registration).

The process of registration is relatively straightforward, but allow yourself a couple of days before starting work to get everything sorted out, as places like banks and town halls only tend to be open during working hours. I was lucky in that I had a Swiss umbrella company to help me through the Town Hall process, which can initially look very intimidating if you can't read or speak German.

As I indicated in an earlier blog post, the tax you pay depends on the 'canton' in which you live.

There is also a 'religious tax' that will be deducted from your salary if you specify ANY religion when asked.

The trick is to insist that your religion is "None"! I've been surprised at how many of my work colleagues didn't know about this additional tax that comes into play if you're a bit naïve and specify 'Church of England' or 'Catholic' when asked what your religion is at the registration process. It's worth reading a book like Living and Working in Switzerland (regarded by most British ex-pats as 'the bible' on surviving here) BEFORE you come out. It will help you work out the nuances and many rules and regulations of a country that seems totally obsessed with being as bureaucratic as it's humanly possible to be.

For your initial registration you will need a couple of passport-sized photographs, your passport itself, the names of your parents (even if no longer alive), and some sort of proof of the address you are going to be living at. As well as 85 Swiss Francs in cash.

The address you give will be printed on your registration document and needs to be one you can be reached at. You will be asked to sign a declaration that you have no criminal record, and apparently the reason you're asked for your parents names is to check their criminal records as well, which seems a little excessive.

Other than that it's pretty straightforward, and the staff at the Town Hall I went to spoke very good English.

If my experience is typical you will queue for 10-15 minutes, and then spend 10-15 minutes answering questions and filling in a quick questionnaire with the help of a member of staff before being presented with your sheet of A4, folded in half in a plastic wallet that is your 'local' identity card. Don't lose it because if you do there is an extortionate charge to replace it! I THINK I was told that a more formal registration document, with a photo, would be sent to me in a few weeks, but honestly can't remember the specifics and nothing's arrived yet. I'll update this post if/when a better photo id card arrives. As a result of registering I received an invitation to attend an evening session on "Living and Working in Switzerland for English speakers" (on July 7th - full blog report to follow!) which arrived about a week later, and the Swiss do seem very good at trying to acclimatise foreigners. The Town Hall is worth visiting if my local one is typical, because it had an English guide to 'What's On' in the area, as well as internet addresses for useful stuff that's in English.

Once you have the A4 registration document with the Town Hall stamp on it, you have enough to open a Swiss bank account - assuming you have some money to open the account with!

Opening a Swiss Bank Account

I'm amazed at how many of my British colleagues haven't got around to this basic step yet, even after being out here a couple of months. They are having their salaries paid into a UK bank account, meaning that they're paying extortionate bank 'wire and foreign currency conversion' charges twice: once to get their salary across to the UK in sterling, then again to change currency back to Swiss Francs in Switzerland where they need it.

I found opening an account very quick and easy: I just walked into a branch of Credit Suisse (one of only two banks I've seen out here, the other being UBS) and the whole thing was dealt with in about 10 minutes.

There are several types of account you will be offered, if my experience is typical.

The Basic Current Account costs 30CHF (UKP25) a quarter (which is automatically debited from your account every 3 months)

The Basic Current Account gets you a debit card, online banking, an optional savings account, a folder containing information in your chosen language and a nice pen too!

You will be given a little credit-card sized sticker for your wallet with all your bank details on immediately so that you can give your employers your bank account details within minutes of walking into the branch.

When you open the account you also choose what language you want to receive all correspondence in (you can choose to receive only electronic communication if you don't want snail mail). That being said, I have had one or two pieces of bank mail that have arrived written in German, despite most being in the requested English.

If you want a credit card you need to open a Silver account, which is the next step up from the basic account, but to upgrade to this you need to have a long-term work permit (at least a year) which I didn't have at the time I applied, and at the time of writing I still don't know if I've got the short-term 6 month permit that has to be renewed every 6 months (which is no good for getting a credit card OR a mobile phone contract) or the longer 5 year one that's really what's needed. My Swiss 'umbrella company' employers tell me that they have no way of telling until it's issued which one I'll get, but that they always try for the 5 year work permit on the basis that they want people to stay beyond their initial six month contracts.

The downside of the fast bank account allocation process is the wait time for the debit card that will allow you to use ATM machines to withdraw the money you've paid in. I was told this would take 'up to 10 days' although apparently it was delivered just 5 days later (to the serviced accommodation company who sat on it for another 4 days).

The Swiss Maestro debit card that the banks issue is also a lot less useful than a UK debit card.

You'll notice from the photo at the top of this blog entry that there is no embossed card number - it's printed in a small font at the bottom of the card, along with the bank account details. Further clues as to the uselessnes of this card are the lack of the usual security code on the back next to the signature strip. Trying to use this card for any sort of online transaction seems impossible eg Easyjet quite deliberately specify 'UK Maestro Card' in their payment options. The general concensus from other ex-pats seems to be that the Swiss debit cards are pretty useless other than as a way of retrieving your salary from an ATM machine. You are probably going to want to get a Swiss credit card at the earliest opportunity.

One thing to be aware of is that the online banking side of things is very security driven, although bizarrely the debit card and its PIN number were NOT sent by registered post. Nor was the hardware RSA key required to use online banking. But the password for online banking used in conjunction with the hardware RSA key IS sent by registered post - and that means a delay in being able to get hold of it if you're not at home when the postman calls. The online site that allows arrangement for collection of registered mail from a nearby post office (only open weekdays, and closed for long lunch breaks) requires not just an address, but a phone number - awkward if like me work haven't got your desk phone number sorted out and won't have for a week or two, quite aside from needing to arrange to collect it during hours when you should be at work.

More annoyingly, the debit card that is sent isn't what the Swiss call a 'Cash Card', which seems to be the main way of paying for things here - think of something like an 'Oyster Card' that's used to pay for relatively low cost items.

The staff canteens at my work place will only take Cash Card payment not cash, but despite being told I could buy a Cash Card for about 20 CHF (UKP 15 - ouch!) all of the places I tried said they no longer sell them.

The bank-issued Debit Card is NOT a 'Cash Card'

So although I had been told that when it arrived my debit card would be a 'Cash Card' too, the accompanying letter makes it quite clear it isn't and that if I need one (well, duh!) I'll have to order one online. This involves more expense (Welcome to Switzerland!) at 15CHF (about UKP12) as well as the hope that it will arrive in the post without you having to re-arrange delivery because you're not at home to receive it.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

My New (Business)Home (for the next 4 months)

You may be wondering "Why 'for the next 4 months' if your work contract is for six months?" The answer is one of cost. As I hinted at in my previous post about Serviced Accommodation there are often hidden surcharges to renting in Zurich, and one of these is a penalty surcharge that applies if you don't rent for at least four months (at least in the case of this particular landlord, Businesshome).

General advice from other ex-pats was that I needed at least 2 months, and preferably three, to be in with a chance of finding more permanent accommodation that might be cheaper or suit me better. But Businesshome have a 'short term' surcharge that (from memory) starts off at about UKP180/month and decreases for each additional month you commit to upfront, until it reaches zero if you commit to four months.

In fact, based on my experience to date (tomorrow will be the clincher, based on what happens with the wash facilities on my first 'early start' working day!) I'm likely to extend my rental contract to six months now that I've had a chance to experience living here. It's very convenient for work, with the only down-side of the bus service (which is superb, like most public transport in Switzerland) being that it doesn't run on Sundays, which is going to make return from the occasional 'save my sanity' weekend trips to the UK difficult/expensive.

Yesterday, I spoke to two other residents who've been here four months and six months respectively, and they are more than happy, which is always a good sign. As they pointed out, it's a lot of hassle to move (especially with new deposits to be found BEFORE you get any old deposits back) and it's nice not to have to do any cleaning here!

I have been very impressed with how clean the communal areas are. One or two residents have left things in a pretty disgusting state at times in the WC and the kitchen sink, but each day, including Sundays, a cleaner shows up and makes it all look good as new a couple of hours later.

In my serviced accommodation post, I mentioned there were photo's on the landlords' web site of the communal areas and also of a typical room. Conspicuous by its absence is any photo of the outside of the building. You can probably guess why, looking at my photo below.

The accommodation is less than inspiring from the outside: another bland, concrete office blog. What the web site also omits to mention is that the block is on a busy main road, with the accommodation rooms being on the third and fourth floors of the building, above a 24 hour garage (other floors have small business units). I am having to adjust to sleeping with a fair amount of road noise after living in a quiet road in London. Those housed on the other side of the building tell me it's a lot quieter there.

Outside appearance aside, I think things improve dramatically once you step inside the building. A large entrance with wide marble steps leads past the mail boxes, and the private office of the landlords. They lead up to the first floor foyer with a rather bizarre sculpture, as shown below. Two small lifts and the main stairs are then housed through a door next to the sculpture display area.

Shoe Sculptures
'Interesting' sculptures in the main entrance lobby.

The third floor houses 20 rooms, the laundry area and the kitchen and lounge area. The fourth floor, where I'm living, houses 20 more rooms, mens and womens' WC and shower/sink areas and the cleaner's stockroom area. Security is good: as well as the security door on the main building there is a locked door to each floor, as well as to each room.

As you enter the third or fourth floor security door (or peer through the reinforced glass) you're immediately greeted by a generous (wasted space?) corridor area which seems to be air-conditioned as it's always nice and cool - if only the same were true of the rooms (which on the road-facing side get hot and humid very quickly - my only real problem with the room).

Room corridor
The main corridor with rooms off each side.

The rooms themselves are spacious (more spacious and brighter than these photographs indicate) with large windows that have motorised shutters at night, and rather silly net curtains that are much too narrow to section off the whole window area.

The furniture is clean and modern and includes a generous wardrobe and bookcase and a nice wide bed. Wireless internet connectivity (an optional extra, but a relatively cheap one at just UKP12 a month) seems reliable and relatively fast.

Bed, Desk and Chair with one of two large windows

Bed, Wardrobe and Fridge

Bookcase and single light fitting

They seem to have missed a trick with power sockets though. There's a single cluster of four by the desk, only one of which can be used if you're using a Swiss/English adapter (Power sockets are a subject for a whole different blog post. Euro 'world traveller' plugs won't work here and didn't work in my temporary B&B, where they did in the Movenpick Hotel I used on my quick 'reccie' visit!).

There is an extra socket near the front door, meant for the fridge - except it's too high up the wall for the ridiculously short lead that the mini-fridge comes with. Doh!

All-in-all though I can recommend the accommodation. The cleaners work hard, and the communal areas are very nice. There's even an outside decking area on the back of the building outside the kitchen with barbeque gear and picnic tables and chairs.

'Serviced accommodation' is also a neat way of meeting other people new to Zurich as everyone congregates around the kitchen/decking area in the evenings and at weekends, although German and not English, is definitely the default language. Some of the signs and rules are displayed in German and English but many are in German only, so I find myself wandering around with the iPad and Google Translate trying to work out what the rules are. Apparently if you break a rule (such as no noise between 10pm and 7am, no use of the kitchen between 10.30am and midday) you get one warning and then you're out!

Serviced Accommodation in Zurich

Accommodation in Zurich is:

  1. very difficult to find
  2. incredibly expensive

It was 'interesting' how in my case initial informal talk with the Swiss 'umbrella' agency was all about how accommodation costing about 1000CHF/month (UKP750/month) would be 'easy to find'.

When I arrived in Zurich in person on a 'reccie' tour this story subtly changed to a suggestion that I probably needed to spend around 2500CHF/month (UKP1900/month) for somewhere outside Zurich if I wanted something reasonable that would encourage me to actually stay for the duration of my contract!

Lesson learnt: Beware false claims of cheap, easy to find accommodation in Zurich!

On my two day 'reccie' trip to Zurich the Swiss 'umbrella' agency suggested two possibilities for accommodation. One was CHF1800/month, the other CHF2500/month (with an additional 100CHF/month surcharge if I wanted internet access)! Suddenly I was looking at rent of just slightly under UKP 2000/month for a studio apartment outside Zurich with internet access and additional travel costs likely on top. Ouch!

Oddly </sarcasm>, nobody had bothered to mention that sort of figure for renting a basic studio flat when trying to hook me with talk of a UKP100/day increase in my daily rate!

I was also warned that the cheaper accommodation at CHF1800/month was in the city's 'Red Light' district, so was probably best avoided as it might be rather noisy!

This all turned out to be rather academic anyway, since both of these appartments had 'already gone' by the time I responded the day after being told about them!

Lesson learnt: Accommodation is snapped up very quickly. You need a lot of time and dedication to find good accommodation.

All of this was a pretty terrifying experience to someone who'd not realised the real cost of living and working in Switzerland! London is famous for being expensive but at these prices it looks positively bargain basement! And that's assuming you can actually convince a landlord to take you on!

Lesson learnt: The UK-based salary figures the agencies use to hook you, based on artificially high exchange rates, is meaningless in terms of helping you understand the costs of actually living in Switzerland.

Most ex-pats advise starting out with "serviced accommodation". This is a single, furnished room, rather like a hotel room or student dorm, where the bedding and towels are cleaned fortnightly (or weekly if you pay extra) and you have shared access to a kitchen, laundry facilities (through use of a laundry card that has to be topped up with cash by staff you have to find!) and perhaps shower and wash basin facilities. Some 'serviced accommodation' will offer a private sink and shower in the room, but I wasn't able to find any of this type that were available.

Communal lounge area in very nice serviced accommodation
'Community' lounge area in one of the more up-market 'Serviced Accommodation' offerings

There are several reasons why serviced accommodation is a good idea for your first couple of months in Switzerland:

  • Most accommodation requires a deposit of two to three months rent as well as a 'cleaning' deposit that mean in total you're looking at an outlay of several thousand pounds before you get your first pay cheque! A lot of serviced accommodation will let you get away with just one month's advance rent deposit (on top of your first month's rent and a 'cleaning deposit' of about UKP200) meaning less money to find upfront.
  • Most 'serviced accommodation' will accept credit card payment, where private accommodation won't, so that if your cash flow is bad you can always 'max out' your credit cards instead (although I wouldn't advise this!)
  • Your first four weeks in a new job and a new country are likely to be pretty manic in just getting up to speed with the basics. The last thing you need is the added stress of trying to find accommodation, which typically requires a LOT of time, all sorts of references, Swiss paperwork and competing with other interested parties in a market where demand seriously exceeds supply and it all boils down to who the landlord takes a particular shine to.
  • 'Serviced accommodation' is furnished. Most other accommodation is unfurnished which can mean significant additionaly outlay just for the basics before you even get your first pay cheque.

On a two-day 'reccie' trip I was lucky enough to be the first to contact someone offering 'serviced accommodation' to become available in June at a basic rate of CHF850 (about UKP 650) a month which seemed like a real bargain compared with other accommodation offers I was seeing.

Amazingly it was not only 'cheap' but also in a very central area of Zurich. It seemed that maybe if you're quick and have the time to follow up quickly cheap accommodation can be found. I responded within 2 seconds of the ad being placed on an English language Swiss forum on a weekday afternoon. 20 minutes later seven others had applied asking to take the room!

One thing to be extra careful about is that the tax you pay, deducted automatically from your salary, is determined by the area you live in! So you need to look into what the local 'canton' tax is and how it will impact your take home pay before choosing somewhere based solely on the 'upfront' advertised rental rate.

And also bear in mind there are a whole load of additional costs that suddenly come into play on top of this 'basic' rate!

I would also argue that cheap accommodation such as I viewed is not conducive to a long stay in Zurich, just as the 'umbrella' Swiss agency had warned me.

When I viewed the 'cheap' accommodation (which is impossible to do if you aren't actually in Zurich, burning up money in a hotel or B&B) it proved to be in a very busy and noisy (but popular and central) area called Staffucher. Imagine the embarrassment of having to tell people something that sounds suspiciously like 'Star fucker' every time they ask you where you live!

The room itself was directly next to a tiny kitchen area that serviced quite a lot of rooms, and had no airflow so that it was like walking into a hot, humid sauna. The furniture was extremely basic and rather battered, with a very basic single bed that also looked well past its 'Sell by' date - you get what you pay for (in Swiss terms, if not expected UKP exchange rate terms)!

Much higher quality accommodation is available if you're prepared to pay more, and my Swiss 'umbrella company' agency (UK companies aren't allowed to trade here so you typically become a salaried employee of a Swiss 'umbrella' company that the UK agent sorts out for you) suggested this company which shows photo's of very modern, clean rooms for a monthly rent that the Swiss 'umbrella company' agency told me were about CHF1200/month (UKP 905/month).

Of course that wasn't the whole story. "Compulsory" extra's like tax, electricity and cleaning soon add up and my final rental came to CHF1505.05/month (UKP 1150/month). That's a lot of money for a single room and shared washroom facilities, but is actually fairly reasonably priced for Zurich.

Lesson learnt: Basic rent rates advertised are not what you'll end up paying. Additional charges for taxes, electricity, cleaning etc will invariably be added onto the 'headline' rate used to attract potential customers.

One thing to watch out for is the English descriptions of optional additional charges that can be confusing. I wasn't prepared to pay what appeared to be an extra CHF40 (UKP 30) a month 'optional extra' charge just to be able to receive mail, but it turned out that this was for a specific mail box in the entry hall and that even without this option I can receive mail using the accommodation's main address.

I DID pay an extra sum for a 'mini-fridge' in my room given the heat and humidity here when I visited. However it only became clear when I moved in that the central kitchen (on a different floor to my room) actually has half a shelf in one of four fridges allocated for my personal use. And 'mini-fridges' near your bed are noisy when you're trying to get to sleep at night, so that was a bad investment!

Lesson learnt: Make sure you understand each 'optional extra' available for your serviced accommodation, as contract and web site descriptions can be short, incomplete and confusing.

If you follow the web site link and look at the photo's you'll see some very nice 'communal' areas to this particular serviced accommodation (I'll post my own photo's in a separate blog post from this one), and I was relieved to find they are extremely respresentative of what you'll actually find (which isn't always the case!)

However, what the web site doesn't tell you is how much sharing of those 'communal' facilities goes on. You can see three showers and wash basins, but nothing that tells you there are FORTY rooms across two floors in the complex.

Three sinks on each floor, shared across 20 rooms
Three sinks - but how many rooms have to share them?

Competition for those 'communal' resources may be problematic if you don't research specifically how many people have access to them, and at what time!

Lesson learnt: Ask how many rooms in total are available in the complex offering serviced accommodation, and ask about the specifics of the room being offered in terms of location within the complex (eg next to noisy communal area? facing noisy road? facing the sun with no ventilation? etc)

I should add that I feel I got very lucky in my own 'Serviced Accommodation' choice (which was suggested by the Swiss 'umbrella' company). More on that, with photo's, in my next blog post!

Welcome to Living and Working in Switzerland

My "Swiss adventure" all started with a fairly innocuous recruitment agency call when I was 'between contracts':

If I could get you an extra £100 a day on your daily rate, would you consider working in Switzerland?

Well, duh! £100 a day extra? That should cover a cheap B&B and a cheap flight home every weekend, right?

Well, no! Unfortunately not.

I should have known better of course. It's not like I'm unfamiliar with the old maxim about recruitment agency reps: "How can you tell when a recruitment agent is lying to you?" (Answer: When you see his lips moving.)

But in my naivety I thought I was pretty experienced when it came to knowing the pitfalls of working abroad. After all, I've previously worked contracts in Ireland, Germany, the United States, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Switzerland should be no different, right?


It's different.

Very different.

Which is part of the reason for kicking off this blog to document 'my Swiss adventure' in something approaching real time.

I won't bore you now with the specifics of why, knowing what I know now, my advice to anyone getting an agency approach like the one I got would be to just hang up the phone as quickly as possible (assuming your interest in working in Switzerland is purely to pay the bills).

This introductory post isn't the place for that.

But money isn't the 'be all and end all' of living and working in Switzerland of course.

And that's part of what this blog will hopefully be documenting over time.