On Waking up in Wonderland

What 5 tips would I give to a future expat? 1. Learn the language 2. Be open to try new things 3. Respect traditions 4. Stay in touch with loved ones 5. Be patient with yourself and others … blah blah blah. Click to see what I really think. Dear Auntie SAM: What 5 tips […]

“How puzzling all these changes are! I'm never sure what I'm going to be from one minute to another.”-- Lewis Carroll, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

What 5 tips would I give to a future expat? 1. Learn the language 2. Be open to try new things 3. Respect traditions 4. Stay in touch with loved ones 5. Be patient with yourself and others … blah blah blah. Click to see what I really think.

Dear Auntie SAM: What 5 tips would you give to a future expat?

Generally speaking, I prefer to spend my time on fun & frivolity; but I can be quite studious when I think it’s necessary. As an example, when my husband was asked if he would consider moving his family here for work, studying felt necessary.  

I printed out sections from a Google map of Basel and taped them together. Then, I located every bookstore, fabric store, coffeehouse, porn shop, and garage in Basel – thinking that would tell me something about the quality of a neighborhood; because it would in the USA.

Additionally, I read every English blog I found that was about being an expat in Basel. I read many on expat life throughout Switzerland. And, I read a few books about „The Swiss“ as well.

Can you guess how much all this work prepared me for life abroad? It’s difficult to quantify, but I’d guess close to zero. The way cities developed in the USA simply does not translate to Basel. Anecdotes & generalizations didn’t help much either.

If anything, all my research did was stock my cupboard with stereotypes, prejudices, judgments, and fears that, since I’ve been here, I’ve heard repeated to me almost verbatim by several apparently equally studious expats. I give us credit for our efforts, but repetition does not make things true.

The fact is, re-reading «Alice in Wonderland» would have been more useful:

  1. Begin at the beginning, and when you get to the end: stop. When I first arrived, I started learning a new language and the cello. I also started Auntie SAM Presents. And, I had to figure out why the ketchup was with the tomato products and not with the condiments as I expected. Which activities I was still doing 6 months later? Mostly, trying to understand how to better navigate the grocery store. Learning how to live in a new culture takes time & it is the foundation of everything else you can do. Don’t rush it or sully it with too many diversions. You’ll be surprised just how long mastering the basics will take.    
  2. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast! The Tragedy of the Commons was drilled into my head at university. Essentially, I was taught that my government couldn’t provide nice things because the masses would ruin it. A few trips on Basel’s very clean trams had me running back to my textbooks to see if I’d misunderstood the theory. Rather than rely on knowledge, from then on, I opted to believe in a fairytale: that things would run with the oft-rumored Swiss efficiency. Miraculously, more often than not, they did. Huzzah & thank you to some Swiss stereotypes — though, be careful with this one because:
  3. If one drinks too much from a bottle marked poison, it is certain to disagree with oneself sooner or later. Stocking my cupboards with stereotypes was poison. Believing people who repeat these things: also poison. Drowning one’s fears or boredom in food or liquor (even under the guise of “trying new things”) is poison. This, perhaps, is the most critical tip: to be successful as an expat, one must be braver than, perhaps, you’ve ever been in ways you’ve likely never been. Trust yourself, but challenge yourself, and choose wisely.     
  4. It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then. If you can imagine waking up without a social identity, you can imagine what it is like to be an expat. In some ways, this allows for a greater freedom of expression; in other ways, this is devastating. Either way, regardless of how much you try to rebuild the life you had, maintain your relationships, or be who you were “back home”; “you” are no longer “you”. And you must figure out what you’re going to do about that now. Which seems contrary to:   
  5. Speak in French when you can’t think of the English [or German] for a thing — turn your toes out when you walk — and remember who you are! As expats in Basel, we’re lucky. I assert we live in the most socially progressive city in Switzerland. As such, and in my experience, most people try their best to communicate. It’s not uncommon to see fully grown men wearing dapper suits conveying deli orders with “sign language” that would make a monkey blush. But, because everyone is being polite, the people behind the counters smile knowingly and cut the requested amount of sausage. It’s true: we all lose ourselves in the process of integrating. But, if you remember we’re all just people trying to get along in life, you’ll do just fine here.   

By the way, every week, I’ll drop a few suggestions for fun things to do in & around Basel. This week, I’m looking forward to WEDNESDAY, 7 JAN, when I’ll host another life model DR. SKETCHY’S ANTI-ART SCHOOL drawing session with a beautiful freak called PORCELAIN at SUD (Doors 7pm; drawing from 8-10). Then I’ll be hopping over to KUPPEL for some amazing punk-rock karaoke with BITCH QUEENS — See you there! XO 


  1. where were you in 2005? Who would have thought that Alice in Wonderland would be more insightful than those „living abroad“ guides. Great blog, 🙂

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