Travel Guide | Switzerland

Tips for staying with relatives abroad… and keeping the harmony.

Even though they’re family, play your cards right and your stay won’t lose it’s charm.

By Johanna Pilverdier, Humber College, Canada

As a college student who is looking for those unforgettable travel experiences, it can be frustrating when a lack of money, inexperience, or cautious parents threaten to remove all hope of traveling in the first place. Having to budget may make you turn to connections within your own family.

I decided to travel to Switzerland this spring because I needed a job and I already have family and citizenship over there. Hospitality is a great and important part of their lifestyle and so I knew my weekends would be spent in many a second-cousins-daughter-in-law’s-brother’s home. That’s just the way it works. And I also knew that those who know my parents would very likely invite me over for coffee as well.

The question is, what to do with these well-meaning relatives? They are so eager to invite and sometimes forget that, whereas they would have a lot to talk about with your parents, the conversation may not flow as well with you− a member of the next generation. A language barrier may be part of that as well. When I spoke of my frustration with losing my French over the years, people always insisted I was perfectly fluent, but making conversation was much easier by the end of those five months. And so those first visits were full of halting sentences and made up ‘frenglish’ words, resembling a real-life Taboo game. But the kindness of your hosts can only do so much to help: What to do? What to talk about? Where to go? And how can you manage an unwelcome invitation?

Here are a few helpful tips that might help:

1. Show interest.

In their eagerness to get to know you, conversation may easily become a one-sided speech about you and your life. This type of conversation tends to die quickly once you’ve run out of things to say and so it is best− not to mention, courteous− to ask some questions of your own. “But I barely know Aunt Ruth!” you may wail. Well, you’re getting free room and board for the weekend, as well as a visit, so I suggest you make an effort to get to know her. Research. Skype your parents the night before and ask about your host/hostess. The top three important questions: how they’re related to you, exactly (I’ve gotten confused before); their professional life (or if they’re retired− hobbies, interests); and how many children they have and their names.

2. Visit an attraction with them.

This is the greatest idea for those who would rather see the sights but can’t avoid familial obligations. While a museum or shopping with a family and little kids is probably a bad idea, some sort of scenic hike or camping can be fun. Especially if you’re the outdoorsy type. Sometimes getting out of the house opens people up, even if it’s just an after-dinner walk around the village.

A hike we did this April with my host family. It was nice being out of the house for for a while and we really got to know one another better over that weekend.

A hike we did this April with my host family. It was nice being out of the house for a while and we really got to know one another better over that weekend.

3. Help out.

Sometimes it’s easy to feel at home, chilling on the couch with some relatives once you feel you know them, but make sure to help out. I fell into the awful habit of the ‘no-work-weekend’ mentality a few times while visiting close friends and kicked myself afterwards. Taking your plate to the dishwasher is a no-brainer, but asking what needs doing is considerate. Most moms will happily oblige, allowing you to peel a few carrots or cut up some lettuce before sending you back to the living room. A very small price to pay for being warmly welcomed back into a home a few weeks later.

4. Games!

Games are the perfect way to bond with others and they can easily cross cultural barriers even before language barriers. Whether cards, Wii or Blokus, they tend to be universal. In fact, games you’ve never heard of tend to be the ones you fall in love with and bring back in your suitcase with you (Christmas gifts!). Games push teamwork, cooperation and communication, so usually it’s a great idea for these visits. Sports and hobbies can also provide a refreshing perspective of your host family and the culture, so encourage them to show you what they’ve got.

5. Find some way to say thank-you.

I was going to say that this one is a sort of cultural-dependent sort of thing,  but no− it’s welcome no matter the country. Bring a thank-you gift. Usually it’s fine if you bring a good-sized something the first time (cookies and/or flowers) and you’re set for the next few visits. I tend to leave it if it’s just getting together for an afternoon, but thank-you notes, candy or soap/other Etsyish items will always be appreciated.

6. Communicate well.

This one is slightly obvious, but have a cellphone and use it. I arrived in Switzerland with no cellphone because my plan didn’t work outside of Canada and it took me a long time to get another one. Fill your contact list with names and numbers before you leave and then ring them up when you get there (or earlier than that, if you’re really organized). Arrange your weekend plans through a series of phone calls and a reasonable amount of time ahead of the planned date. Calendars fill up quickly so don’t expect people to forget earlier engagements to let you come over the next afternoon. Emails and text messages can only get you so far, by the way. I found that the most miscommunications and problems happened because of unanswered or misinterpreted emails. Just get them on the phone, live. Notify them of any delays or cancellations as soon as possible. It’s incredibly rude to let them know you can’t come at 6 p.m. when supper’s already on the stove. This tip is really common courtesy, but I understand some cultures are more relaxed about this. Planning ahead can only be a good thing!

Johanna Pilverdier

ITTO | 1 story

I'm currently living in Toronto, Canada and doing a TEFL program. I had the opportunity to live in Switzerland for five months last year, as well as visit England and spend a weekend in Italy (wish it had been longer!). I hope to share what I learned from these experiences, especially from a solo-traveler-on-a-budget's point of view.

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