What Does “Neighbourhood” Mean to an Expat?

Expat Corner: Our Swiss Neighborhood

The idea of neighbourhood is based around the geographical boundaries of a community. It is lodged in space and time. We, too, appear to be lodged in space and time, but with our international connections, preferences and our love of the Internet, how well do we sit in the Swiss Neighbourhood?

As adults, we seem to have far less of an idea of what our local neighbourhood is than our children do. My daughter could tell you what “neighbourhood” means to her: it is our communal garden, the big street heading up the hill, and the sneaky children-only shortcuts between buildings (that no adult would dare take). It is the scary dog that barks at the fence and the huge tree in front of the school that is excellent for climbing; it is her best friend’s house; it is the flowers that tumble down the bank and the chickens who greet us on the footpath.

Ask an adult what it means and we become less sure, especially as expats/foreigners. When we look at our neighbourhood we don’t see the space and place, instead we see the people. If we have trouble relating to those people or speaking to them in the local language, then we can feel disconnected from the landscape in which we find ourselves living and disconnected from the neighbourhood.

Instead we make our own “neighbourhoods” based on our interests, language and culture. Our neighbourhood can stretch to the whole town, especially if our school of choice is international rather than local. With the broad reach of the Internet, our neighbourhood widens to expats in this country and friends and family back in our home countries. The concept of “neighbourhood” loses its geographical boundaries and becomes “community”: a community of choice rather than of geography and birth.

This is marvellous and highly liberating. We live in a global society where friendships and connections stretch around the world (and “stretched” feels about right some days!).

We are, however, in danger of missing out on the moment. We can walk straight across our local neighbourhoods without stopping to notice all the wonderful and tiny things that happen there – all the characters and the stories to be told. Your neighbourhood may no longer be located in time and space, but there is no getting away from the fact that your body is! Find things to appreciate or to make you wonder, or things that boggle your mind. Observe the rhythms of the people and the land. Allow them to observe you in return! You never know, they might just say, “Hi!”

By Tammy Furey

Tammy is a coach, educator, writer and blogger who lives in St. Gallen, Switzerland with her husband and daughter whilst attempting (badly) to speak German, fold her paper recycling in the correct manner and finish writing her book (www.thegratitudepapers.com). Visit her at www.fureycoaching.com

Illustration by Lara Friedrich

 Lara has been a freelance illustrator for Mothering Matters since early 2013. She is in her third year of University (majoring in Psychology) where she’s currently working as an assistant in a research project in pedagogy. Lara is also an assistant translator from German to English for various fiction books, and also works as a demo singer for the songwriter Kate Northrop. 

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8 thoughts on “What Does “Neighbourhood” Mean to an Expat?

  1. I’m constantly fascinated by the tension between real life and the online world – thrown into much sharper relief due to the fact of being an expat, I feel. So, while some of our nearest and dearest might be the farthest away, it’s still so important to seek that connection to a local place that we can physically touch, see, smell, hear and taste life on a daily basis. Great article!

  2. So true, I live here, but it took a looooooong time of walking around these streets to start feeling as though I am in my neighborhood. I was excited for a big new construction project in our village because I could look back and say, I saw that before it was here and instead there was something else. Now I hear little voices all over town calling to her, classmates saying hi, and I have met some parents and the market clerk chats with me. It is still a bit strange as my German is still barely passable. But it’s interesting to me that this is the backdrop of my girls’ childhood and it has a whole different level of meaning for them.

    • That is exactly what inspired me to read this article Tara: seeing how our neighbourhood was a whole different experience for my daughter. This is her childhood and is forming part of her inner landscape. She knows where all the cute cats are and all the scary dogs, all the shortcuts (private or not!) and all the wild places. Although I have mixed feelings about the way children walk so early to school, it does embed them in the land and community here which is rather lovely.

  3. It is so relieving when finally you settle in your neighbourhood.. for me that was the moment I started to feel here at home and stopped crying when visiting my home country.

  4. Interesting how we perceive this term differently.
    I grew up where I live now after being away for a few years in-between.
    Well, as a full time working girl what does “live” really mean? I slept here. I left in the morning for work and came back late-ish. I didn’t participate in community events.
    One of our neighbours found out by coincidence that I am my Mom’s daughter. My Mom is a major networker in town, she knows everybody, and everybody knows (and loves) her. So my neighbour told her “I had no idea this was your daughter. They live so secluded!”
    Now as a Mom neighbourhood / community has taken on a different meaning. I guess now I can say I LIVE here.

    • I have often said how grateful I am to have moved here as a mum. Having a child forces you (in a nice way!) to interact with your location. Suddenly you find yourself walking at the speed of a snail (often pausing to look AT snails!) and hanging out at playparks that you would have otherwise just rushed past! Later playgroups, kindergardens and schools help you feel part of that community and land. It is an amazing process!

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