Reflecting on a year of living in Switzerland

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This month marks one year since I arrived in Geneva with absolutely no idea what to expect. It’s insane how quickly everything happened: seeing a Swiss number pop up on my phone on a morning in late June 2019 and feeling my heart seize up; waiting outside the Swiss embassy in Washington on a breezy, green summer day; my Lyft driver helping me carry boxes of stuff into the post office so that I could mail them to my parents; a layover in Frankfurt with the longest bus ride ever from one terminal to another; and finally the bus ride from Geneva airport into the city, taking everything in: wait, they have suburbs here too? Why are there so many ugly concrete block buildings? What is Migros and why is it everywhere?

So much has happened in one year. I got to know the beautiful country of Switzerland by train. Visited Amsterdam for the first time and had a personal portrait session with a local photographer. Discovered new sights in Paris and London. Visited my family in Xinjiang and ended the year in Thailand. Got checked out at the emergency clinic and stuck with a 400-franc bill. Took my first international work trip to Indonesia and may or may not have gotten the coronavirus, accidentally causing a small commotion at the Istanbul airport. Started my first meetup group and brought my French level up to A2.

And, of course, there was the pandemic. Or I should say there is the pandemic. March and April now feel like a long, dark, cold nightmare from which we have been granted a reprieve, but it still feels like there is no end in sight. In March, I began curating a board on Getty Images dedicated to Italy, then the epicenter of the virus in Europe. I will never forget these surreal, haunting images: the worker in a hazmat suit spraying down an empty St. Mark’s Square in Venice. The masked shoppers queueing outside grocery shops. The police enforcing border checks and blockading churches. The people singing and clanging pots and pans from balconies draped in homemade rainbow andra tutto bene posters. How quickly we accepted that this had become the new normal, that there was no going back.

And the coronavirus unraveled all the wounds, peeled back all the inequalities that we had barely managed to keep hidden behind a loincloth. How horribly we treat frontline workers, praising their essential nature and paying them minimum wage in the same breath. The vulnerability of Black and Indigenous communities, left behind by a society that has failed them for centuries. In wealthy Geneva, too, thousands of people, many undocumented, lined up on the weekends for the food pantry. We are reopened, but not recovered: every day, I walk past empty restaurants and shuttered stores, offices closed for the foreseeable future, buses full of tense masked faces. My coworkers with children are still struggling to balance full-time childcare with working from home; for many, there is no balance, just barely hanging on while their mental health crumbles. One cried in front of me as we ate lunch together from a distance, and it pained me that I could not reach out and give her a hug, the thing we need the most right now.

It is, again, surreal that I am here. A year ago, I was working for a scrappy civil society organization in DC, making do on a small salary and just able to afford the minimum payment on my student loans. I lived a 10-minute stroll from the White House and traversed downtown DC by foot every day to get to work. Now, I pay the equivalent of USD 2,400 for a one-bedroom apartment (seriously, what the fuck) and take the bus into a sleepy little village on the banks of Lake Geneva, passing farms, trees and snow-capped mountains in the background. I can take a bus and end up in France. I was able to fully transition off anti-depressants about three months after I moved to Switzerland; they say that you can’t escape who you are, but in my case, the change in scenery was exactly what I needed to become healthy again. And the bread here is really good.

I have one more year left on my contract, which may or may not be renewed. The future has never looked more uncertain. But one thing I’ve learned since moving here is to chill out and let things happen at their own speed. I often see someone sitting by themselves at a cafe, a cigarette in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Man, woman, young, old, the attitude is the same: I am cherishing this time to myself; in this moment, it is as though I have all the time in the world.

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