2019 version here.
Biggest milestone: Left my sublet and got my own apartment in Geneva. As a bonus, I got a signed letter from my work affirming my contract would be renewed for two years. I don’t know if that means I’ll actually end up staying in Geneva through 2023, but it’s nice to have a bit of stability during these times.
Firsts: Signing a formal lease in Switzerland and navigating this whole apartment rental process in French. Founding not one, but two social meetup clubs in Geneva, though we ended up shutting down pretty quickly. The abrupt shift to working from home full-time. Possibly contracting COVID when I went to Indonesia for work in February. Working with a career coach.
New places visited: In Indonesia: Bali, Surabaya and Jakarta. In Austria: Salzburg and Hallstatt. In Italy: Parma and Cinque Terre. In Switzerland: Lucerne, Neuchâtel, Bellinzona, Lugano, Lauterbrunnen, Basel, Vevey, Epesses, and Grindelwald. After the COVID outbreak, I stayed close to home this year, only travelling to countries that border Switzerland. The last plane ride I took was in early March, returning to Geneva from London.
Number of train trips: 12-ish.
Favorite Swiss things: Fresh mountain air; it’s so good for the soul, people are trying to sell it in cans. The ability of (some, not all) Swiss people to switch seamlessly between French and German. How when you’re at the supermarket and you only want one soda or one ice cream cone, you can rip open the packet and just take one instead of the whole thing. People taking their dogs on buses.
Things that still frighten/confuse me: Tiny elevators. The distasteful politics of some of the right-wing parties here: putting the economy before human lives isn’t just a thing in the United States. The insanely loud street sweeping machines at 7am on Mondays (on the other hand, the streets are also mostly clean, so I’d say it’s worth it). Trying to pronounce the French word for street, rue. I try to approximate it by applying extreme pressure on the back of my throat to form a strangled hwu, but it doesn’t feel quite right.
Things/people from America I miss the most: My family, whom I have not seen for a whole year. Buying ibuprofen at any store over the counter. Diverse, well-stocked Asian supermarkets in major cities (the closest one to me is in Lyon, France, which is two hours away by train). Decent Thai restaurants, especially the dish pad kee mao (drunken noodles in English), which I have not been able to find anywhere in Europe for over a year now.
Things I do not miss: In the spring I was looking at news coverage of the pandemic in the US and immediately recognized a Trader Joe’s store on 14th St NW in DC that I used to frequent. There was a long line stretching out of the door, and the customers were all wearing masks (or, in some cases, bandannas tied around their faces; there was a massive PPE shortage then) and looking stressed and scared. The image almost didn’t make sense; it was familiar and foreign at the same time. I remember that Trader Joe’s, how it was filled with hand-painted murals and creative, punny signs made by local artists, how the checkout line snaked through the wine aisle, how the store managers wore Hawaiian shirts and the cashiers rang a bell when they were ready for you. I also remember what it was like, living in DC and feeling constantly surrounded by the anxiety, the impending sense of doom, the heartache. Add a pandemic on top of that, and the weight seems almost unbearable. I feel lucky that I got to leave when I did.
Lowest moments: When I got a letter that threatened to send the police to my apartment, which resulted in my moving out. Being the only person working in August when all of my coworkers took long vacations at the same time, and thus being left alone to deal with a lot of crap. It was a major culture clash moment for me — as an American, I was mad at other people for taking the vacation that they were entitled to take! People in Europe work to live, not live to work. I am trying to embrace that mindset, too.
Biggest challenges: Cabin fever, restlessness and isolation from working from home. This was really difficult in March and April. By the time winter rolled around, I had gotten a bit more used to it, but some days it still feels surreal: so I’m just supposed to sit down at my desk in my living room, open my computer, and sit here and aimlessly and silently answer e-mails all day until it’s 5:30pm? In the office, I can go upstairs to the canteen to make an oat milk latte. I can walk around the back garden and listen to meditation guides. I can nudge a coworker and say, “hey, wanna grab lunch?” This year has taught me that I’m not cut out to work from home full time. I’m not that much of an introvert.
Achievements: I got my French level from zero to B1 in about a year, with major thanks to the conversation teacher that I’ve been chatting with on Skype since May, and to all the phone calls that I had to make and answer in French. The régie. The carrelage (tiling company). The delivery service from Ikea. The Internet service provider. I used to be terrified of making phone calls in French, and now it’s just another thing to get through.
Most important lesson learned: To ask for help. An important breakthrough I’d made in therapy last year was that it is okay to be vulnerable, to be a turtle that is willing to turn around on its back and show its belly to other turtles that it trusts. This was the year I really put this into practice. When I was depressed from being stuck at home alone in the spring, I asked if I could occasionally still go into the office to work. I got permission to do so. When I was terrified that I was going to be somehow evicted from my apartment, I reached out to my friends for help and was offered so many couches and spare beds to stay on. When I felt lonely at home under confinement, I called friends and chatted them up. When I was sick, I asked friends to drop off medicine.
In return, I was a helper, too. I served as a sympathetic ear for many people who cried in front of me. I learned to listen and focus on being in the present, putting aside my instinct to jump in and start offering advice. (It’s the way my brain is wired, to be practical and prescriptive, but sometimes people just need to be heard.) I also made small contributions in the area of inclusion, encouraging my all-white team to consider other perspectives and experiences. We filled a role in which all of the top candidates were women of color. We put informal quotas on our events: no all-white panels; no manels; no panels in which white people are given more airtime to speak about a Global South country than actual people from that country.
A couple of special shout-outs (to people who probably won’t even read this because they have lives, haha, but worth noting):
- M, who called the city government on my behalf to sort out my messy apartment situation, even though she was in her third trimester and had spent the previous night in the hospital;
- K, who would randomly call to check on me during confinement, who brought me ibuprofen and ramen and a tabloid magazine when I was sick, and who came with me to the walk-through inspection for my new apartment;
- K, who shared with me a delightful local perspective into Indonesia and who spent ages walking around Surabaya in the rain with me, trying to find a store that sold masks;
- S, my childhood best friend who got engaged this year (!) and who is wise beyond her years when it comes to mental health;
- G, who is always up for a tea and a gripe session, and whom I hope to see performing onstage next year;
- D, my French teacher who is super chill and has taught me so much about Switzerland.
So, so thankful for these good people and many more. Here’s to a safe, peaceful, and hopefully no longer socially distanced 2021.