1 August 2016

Douglas Brouwer - Expat in Zürich, Switzerland

Douglas Brouwer - Expat in Zürich, Switzerland

We’ve had the chance to talk to Douglas Brouwer, 63, an American expat who has moved to Switzerland with his wife. Mr. Brouwer who has been living there for more than three years, now works as a Presbyterian minister. 

Read more about his experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?

A: I was born and raised in Michigan and spent much of adult life in the Midwest.


Q: What made you move out of the USA?

A: As I approached the end of my career as a parish pastor, I started to think of ways to stay fresh, to remain challenged, and to avoid going on “auto pilot.” Moving to Europe and leading a decidedly multicultural church seemed like a challenge!


Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: I work in Zurich and live in a village called Meilen, which is a 12-minute train ride from Zurich. Ethnically, I am Dutch-American, so living in the Netherlands would have been fun, but the opening that I found was in Switzerland, not exactly a bad second choice.


Q: How long have you been living in Switzerland?

A: A little more than three years.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family? If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?

A: I came to Switzerland with my wife and left behind two daughters who are both married and working in the U.S.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?

A: I do. I just became a grandfather for the second time and returned a few days ago from meeting my new grandson. My mother turns 90 this year, and I plan to fly over for that as well. In addition to 2-3 visits per year, I make extensive use of FaceTime, Skype, and social media.


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: It’s not terribly difficult to get along in Switzerland. It is a western country, and most of the people speak English. Culturally, the differences were not great. Now that I’ve been here awhile, I am noticing subtle but profound differences, which are mostly fun to understand.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in Switzerland? How did you manage to find a social circle there?  

A: Because of the nature of my work, I had a built-in set of friends. On the other hand, too many expats decide to live in a kind of bubble and never get to know the local population. They are reserved at first, but my wife and I have come to know several people in our village who will be long-time friends. If we had children, that would help. Having a dog is certainly a way to meet people. But simply striking up a conversation in a store, at the dry cleaner, or in hair salon works as well.


Q: How does the cost of living in Switzerland compare to your home?


  • Q: How much is a cup of coffee?

A: Everything is much more expensive here, including coffee. Starbucks coffee - the most basic option – is the equivalent of $3.50.

  • Q: How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

A: Lunch entries are around $20.

  • Q: How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

A: I typically eat out at lunch time only – and save expensive restaurants for special occasions!

  • Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

A: I don’t smoke, but wines are reasonably priced … from $10.


Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in Switzerland?

A: Due to changes in banking laws, Swiss banks think that dealing with Americans is more of a headache than it’s worth. If you land a job with a bank, I imagine you will have no problem. For others, like me, the easiest option was PostFinance (in Switzerland the post office is also a bank).


Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?

A: The Swiss are very particular about immigration matters and require a great deal of paperwork. It is easier to enter from a European Union country than from the U.S. In addition to the work permit and visa, there is the added complication of registering with the local government. The good news is that Swiss bureaucrats are friendly and helpful. The bad news is that the all of the fees can be annoying.


Q: Would you say that healthcare in Switzerland is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?

A: Healthcare in Switzerland must be among the best in the world. Employers do not provide health care. Everyone must purchase his/her own policy. I have made use of a family doctor and an emergency room, and in both cases the care was outstanding – equal to or better than the U.S.


Q: Did you secure a health insurance in the USA or Switzerland? What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?

A: We purchase an option to cover travel back to the U.S. I would recommend that. It’s not expensive. We also have the most basic kind of policy, and that seems to have worked well, despite the deductibles.


Q: What was the most memorable about the packing and moving process to Switzerland? Which was the mover you chose and how was your experience with them?

A: I don’t remember anymore the name of the mover, but our experience was smooth. My best recommendation is that you will probably need less than you think. You can always buy furniture and appliances here. Plus, expats who leave are eager to unload what they own before they go.


Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a new expat?

A: At the beginning, it’s tough adjusting to a new culture, no matter how friendly it appears, simply because everything is new. So, going to the grocery store, for example, can be stressful, and that low level of stress continues for the first six months to a year.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Switzerland?

A: I really like getting to know a culture that’s different from my own. Beyond that, it’s quite a good learning experience to view the U.S. through other eyes, especially through the most recent election. The negative sides of living here, I believe, have to do with children. Expats who stay longer than a couple of years discover that their children consider this new country their home. (Many of them end of staying because of their children.)


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?

A: Oh my, the outdoors is unbelievably beautiful. Skiing or snowshoeing in the winter, hiking in the summer, local festivals – all of it is wonderful!


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: I think the travel itch has now been scratched. If I were younger, the answer might be different.


Q: What tips will you give to expats living in the country?

A: Be flexible, enjoy the experience, don’t be afraid to ask for help, relax and enjoy as much as possible.


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about Switzerland?

A: When I first decided to move to Switzerland, I read several blogs. One of my favourites was onebigyodel.com by Chantal Panozzo. She still posts even though she has moved back to the U.S. I got to meet her at an Expat Expo in Zurich and signed her new book, Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known.