Chantal Panozzo | February 1, 2016 | Vox
I was halfway through a job interview when I realized I was wrinkling my nose. I couldn’t help myself. A full-time freelance position with a long commute, no benefits, and a quarter of my old pay was the best they could do? I couldn’t hide how I felt about that, and the 25-year-old conducting the interview noticed.
“Are you interested in permanent jobs instead?” she asked.
“I could consider a permanent job if it was part-time,” I said.
She looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language and went right back to her pitch: long commute, full-time, no benefits. No way, I thought. Who would want to do that? And then it hit me: Either I had become a completely privileged jerk or my own country was not as amazing as I had once thought it to be. This wasn’t an unusually bad offer: It was just American Reality.
Now that I’m back, I’m angry that my own country isn’t providing more for its people
Before I moved to Switzerland for almost a decade, American Reality was all I knew. I was living in a two-bedroom apartment making $30,000 a year in a job where I worked almost seven days a week with no overtime pay and received 10 days of paid time off a year.
In other words, for the hours worked, I was making minimum wage, if that. The glamour of this job was supposed to make up for the hours, but in reality, working every weekend is a ticket to burnout — not success.
My husband and I were so accustomed to American Reality that when he was offered an opportunity to work in Switzerland, we both thought about travel and adventure — not about improving our quality of life. It hadn’t occurred to us that we could improve our quality of life simply by moving.
But without realizing it, or even asking for it, a better life quality came to us. And this is why, now that I’m back, I’m angry that my own country isn’t providing more for its people. I will never regret living abroad. It taught me to understand another culture. And it taught me to see my own. But it also taught me something else — to lose touch with the American version of reality.
Here are seven ways living abroad made it hard to return to American life.
1) I had work-life balance
The Swiss work hard, but they have a strong work-life balance. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average Swiss worker earned the equivalent of $91,574 a year in 2013, while the average American worker earned only $55,708. But the real story is that the average American had to work 219 hours more per year for this lesser salary.
Which brings us to lunch. In Switzerland, you don’t arrive to a meeting late, but you also don’t leave for your lunch break a second past noon. If it’s summer, jumping into the lake to swim with the swans is an acceptable way to spend your lunch hour. If you eat a sandwich at your desk, people will scold you. I learned this the hard way.
“Ugh,” said Tom, a Swiss art director I shared an office with at a Zurich ad agency. “It smells like someone ate their lunch in here.” He threw open the windows and fanned the air.
“They did. I ate a sandwich here,” I said.
Tom looked at me like I was crazy.
“No. Tomorrow you’re having a proper lunch. With me,” he said.
The next day, exactly at noon, we rode the funicular to a restaurant where we dined al fresco above Zurich. After lunch, we strolled down the hill. I felt guilty for being gone for an hour and a half. But no one had missed us at the office.
Lunchtime is sacred time in Switzerland. When I was on maternity leave, my husband came home for lunch to help me care for our daughter. This strengthened our marriage. Many families still reunite during weekdays over the lunch hour.
Weekends in Switzerland encourage leisure time, too. On Sundays, you can’t even shop — most stores are closed. You are semi-required to hike in the Alps with your family. It’s just what you do.
2) I had time and money
The Swiss have a culture of professional part-time work, and as a result, part-time jobs include every benefit of a full-time job, including vacation time and payment into two Swiss pension systems. Salaries for part-time work are set as a percentage of a professional full-time salary because unlike in the United States, part-time jobs are not viewed as necessarily unskilled jobs with their attendant lower pay.
During my Swiss career, I was employed by various companies from 25 percent to 100 percent. When I worked 60 percent, for example, I worked three days a week. A job that is 50 percent could mean the employee works five mornings a week or, as I once did, two and a half days a week. The freedom to choose the amount of work that was right for me at varying points of my life was wonderful and kept me engaged and happy.
When I took only 10 days for a trip to Spain, my colleagues chastised me for taking so little time off
Often, jobs in Switzerland are advertised with the percentage of work that is expected. Other times, you can negotiate what percentage you would like to work or request to go from working five days a week to four days a week, for example. There is normally little risk involved in asking.