I had the honor of interviewing Carolyn Davenport Moncel, who is an African American woman living in Lausanne, Switzerland. Carolyn grew up on the Southside of Chicago, and she has great memories of growing up there. She works as a Communications Officer and Social Media Manager with the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, Switzerland and enjoys her work immensely.
Carolyn has written three collections of short stories — “Encounter in Paris,” “Railway Confessions” and “5 Reasons to Leave a Lover.”
When I asked her if she would be willing to share her journey of living abroad with our readers, Carolyn, without hesitancy, agreed! I learned so much from her, and I hope you do, also.
Carolyn, please share with our readers what it was like growing up in Chicago’s Pullman area.
I grew up in Maple Park, which is a community that borders the Morgan Park, Roseland, Pullman and West Pullman neighborhoods; between 115th to 119th streets (north to south) and from Halsted to Ashland streets (east to west). I know these days, people talk a lot about violence on the South side, but for us, that really wasn’t the case; primarily because most people had no clue that the numbered streets could actually go that high and still be within the city limits.
In a lot of ways, that neighborhood will always be home for me. It’s where I learned how to ride my bike, and roller skate. It’s the place where I jumped through backyard sprinklers and built snowmen. It’s where I learned how to cross the “big street” (115th) to get candy and pop. It is where I played sidewalk games, jumped rope and caught lightening bugs during the summertime. Everyone knew everyone else; heck, sometimes your classroom teacher was also your neighbor! Any adult at any time could and would reprimand you for wrong doing. It was a working-class neighborhood, but it was a quiet and safe one. Whenever I am home in Chicago, I have to stop and visit the people who still live on that street because they also are a part of my extended family.
You were very specific in stating that your neighborhood was called “Maple Park.” Why?
I think my need to be specific comes from both my parents and their neighbors. They took such great pride in that neighborhood from a historical point of view, and they never let us kids forget it. Given Chicago’s history of racial segregation, it wasn’t rare that a neighborhood would be comprised of all African American residents. However, it was a rare thing that a neighborhood would be constructed – from the ground up – specifically for African American homeowners and their families. My parents were among those original residents from 1962, and most (if not all) of the original male homeowners were also World War II veterans. Regrettably, my father passed away only after ten years of living in our house, but my mother lived in our house for nearly 45 years until her death in 2006. My brothers and I still own that house, and a good number of our original neighbors still live on that same block.
What schools, churches did you attend?
From kindergarten until eighth grade, my two brothers and I attended Holy Name of Mary Grammar School, a school run by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the oldest order of African American nuns in the United States. Later in high school, my brothers attended Mendel Catholic Prep in the Pullman neighborhood, and I attended Elizabeth Seton High School in South Holland, which, sadly, will be closing at the end of the 2016 school year. I guess we’re what some people call “cradle Catholics” so my family also attended Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church.
What do you miss about Chicago?
I totally miss the food, like a good deep dish pizza and really good homemade soul food. However, I also miss the people of Chicago most. There is something very special about us. No matter where I am in the world, I can always spot another Chicagoan and our recognition of one another is instant. I miss genuine politeness, which might sound strange to some, but compared to a lot of places in the world, Chicagoans are surprisingly polite, nice and neighborly. I think it’s because we are a city of neighborhoods and where one grows up tells a story. Last summer when I came home, I accidently took the wrong Metra line back south. Trying to figure out how I would reach my destination without having to turn around, at least five people (both black and white; both young and old) stopped and offered directions without ever being asked.
I also miss convenience and the ability to do almost anything at any time of the day or night. The notion of having a 24/7 grocery store or pharmacy is non-existent in
Switzerland, so whenever I’m home, I take advantage of the little conveniences whenever and wherever I can.
Were there any early life indicators that you would create a life abroad?
Yes and no! I’ve always loved reading stories set in other countries. When I was kid, my piano teacher would tell me all of these awesome stories about traveling throughout Europe as a young African American woman during the 1920s. Later in high school, I had this really young and quirky English teacher who had backpacked all over the place as well. Both of them made it clear to me that I could and should try to see the world when I was older so I guess the desire to do so just stuck. I always wanted to travel, but I never really thought that I would. What I had not planned on was meeting and marrying a French guy from Lyon in Chicago of all places.
How did you come to select Lausanne, Switzerland?
I think Lausanne chose us! Already for about five years, we had been living in Courbevoie, a suburb just outside of Paris. While France was nice, I think my husband had anticipated something different when he returned home after living abroad himself for almost ten years. So when he received a job offer to transfer to an office in Switzerland in 2007, he took it and I was happy to take on the new challenge of a different country. For about six months we tried having him commute weekly from Switzerland while the girls and I stayed in France. Then, we realized that it would be more practical for the entire family to move there instead. We selected Lausanne largely because it was close enough to Geneva but the living expenses were a bit cheaper and there were bigger apartments available. Plus, our side of the lake is prettier. Also by living inside of Switzerland instead of in a French border town meant that I could work inside Switzerland also, which was an important option for me.
How welcoming did you find Switzerland?
I found Switzerland to be quite welcoming but a lot of work. A lot of people who move here receive help from corporate relocation companies. However, because my husband was already a native French speaker, we were on our own again. Experience gained from moving to France from Chicago helped us to understand what not to do. Once we got going, it was pretty easy. Calls to utility companies and the school district before arriving proved to be quite helpful. In fact, it was the school administrators who helped me plan the move so the girls would not miss a beat at school. Utilities were already working by the time we arrived. I already had a job, and I’d had spent some time visiting my husband prior to the move so I basically knew my way around Geneva at least.
My neighbors were super nice and one of them is like our surrogate daughter. I’ve made friends with a lot of people from virtually everywhere on the planet either through work or hobbies. I will admit that sometimes it can seem quite difficult to make friends with the Swiss. However with time it gets easier. I once asked a Swiss friend why it’s so difficult to befriend them and she said that the Swiss find it rather impractical to invest time in a friendship that could end up becoming a transient one. I think there’s a lot of truth to her statement because people do come and go a lot and it’s easy to lose track of them. The Swiss seem less likely to befriend someone who is only going to be living in the country a few months or a couple of years. But once your Swiss friends realize that you might be staying for a long time, they warm up.
Outside of work, what types of activities, hobbies, and cultural interests are you engaged in? When I’m not working, writing or hanging out with my kids, I spend a crazy amount of time binge watching television shows. Recently, I watched five seasons of Game of Thrones. I know that I’m late to the party, but it takes at least a half-year to get American shows so this is a great way to catch up. Also, I spend a great deal of time working on genealogy. About five years ago, I partnered up with one of my cousins stateside to divide up the research. She handles searching for the living while I work on finding the dead! In my life, the one constant has always been storytelling, and genealogy is also a form of storytelling. In the course of eight years, I have met dozens of new relatives – both back in the US as well as in Europe.
Has life in Lausanne manifested anything for you (e.g. career, social life, etc.) that could not happen in the States?
I think so. The quality of life is much different in Switzerland than in the United States. Chicago is a very diverse city, but if I had not moved, I don’t think I would have ever met so many different people from so many different places from around the world. I would not have been exposed to communicating with people speaking so many different languages. I don’t think I would have thought about traveling to so many different places, and there are still a bunch of places requiring passport stamps. But, it’s the quality of life here that gives me a bit more freedom to do more things. For instance, we have much more vacation time available and while you may work very hard throughout the year, we are also mandated by law to relax and take vacation time. That extra time affords me a chance to do things like write, travel and use more flex time to hang out with my children.
Photo Caption: World Famous Maison Cailler Chocolate Factory
What is the expat community like in Switzerland (size)? How about the African American expat community?
Surprisingly there is a sizable expat community in Switzerland in general. I don’t know the exact number but it’s noticeable, particularly in Geneva. There are many groups available. My favorite of course, is the Geneva Writers’ Group. However, the African American expat community here appears to be a lot smaller than say in Paris, but I could be wrong. The high number of expats overall makes sense when you consider that about 70 percent of the population living in Geneva is not Swiss. Because huge organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organizations and tons of other multinational corporations are based in Geneva, most of the workforce comes from someplace else so many people often work and speak in English in Geneva. Switzerland has four official languages: French, German, Italian and Romansh. Yet, there are lots of French-speaking Swiss who do not speak German and vice versa so the common language for communication often reverts to English.
What is the best thing about living in Switzerland? Any down sides?
It’s a great place to raise children. It’s a family-friendly place. It’s green and clean. Services are quick and efficient; public transportation is outstanding, however there are a lot of rules to follow. For example, in most apartment buildings, you can only do laundry on assigned days and Sundays are often off limits. There are very specific rules regarding sorting and recycling garbage, which is good in theory, but if you get it wrong, you will be fined. The education system is terrific no doubt, but the system doesn’t necessarily encourage kids to think outside of boxes. It takes a really long time to understand legal and tax information. Even something as simple as your phone bill is mired in hidden economic implications. No one ever tells you anything so you have to ask a lot of questions and you have to know what to ask. For example, you may think you’re getting a really good deal on your cell phone package, but native Swiss people would know better, so as an outsider, it can feel like you’re being ripped off at times, and guess what? You often are! All in all, there are a lot of opportunities to work in Switzerland if you have the right skills, but it’s not the easiest place to work if you want to start your own business as an American specifically or if you are a woman with small children. Childcare is extremely expensive and just like in France, the school day is organized for children to come home for lunch for long stretches of time, with half or full days off on Wednesdays. Thankfully, there are no Saturday classes like in France except for optional catechism. If you are not native Swiss and do not have family living nearby to help with childcare, it can be extremely difficult. Thankfully, I’ve always managed to work from the home office and on the days when I would have a childcare crunch, I could bring my daughters with me.
There is this idea that Europe is racism free and that Black women are embraced. Is that true or does racism rear its head in different ways?
Some places may be less racist or jingoistic than others, but personally, I don’t think there is anywhere on the planet that is racism free. In Europe in general, I think racism rears its ugly head in many different ways, and when one does experience it here, it’s mostly manifested in the forms of various micro expressions or weird questions like, ‘So how did YOU come to live here? ‘, as if your being black and living outside of the United States is some sort of anomaly or basic impossibility. Ironically, when situations like these have happened to me, the questions were usually posed by fellow Americans. Europeans will ask about your ethnicity or family origins, but the questions are often posed purely out of curiosity. Usually the questions are not meant to be malicious.
So for me, I find that I’ve experienced less racism in Europe in general than in America. This is the case not because I am a black or a woman, but because I happen to be American. No one outside of the United States adds a hyphen to our nationality. We are American pure and simple. This notion of being American can backfire, though – like during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but usually being American trumps everything else. Right or wrong, you find yourself moving in the world differently, but it also means that from to time, we need to check our “exceptionalism” card and take a good look ourselves in the ways in which people of other nationalities view us.
If, unfortunately, one happens to be a person of Arab/Muslim descent or a person of African descent directly from the continent of Africa itself, discrimination is real, blatant and looks very similar to what we may see back in America. However, it does not end there in Switzerland. It’s almost worst to be from the Baltic regions of Europe than to be African or Arab/Muslim. Truly racist people in Switzerland – and there are some even though they are considered a minority – seem to fear people from places like Albania or Serbia the most.
Photo Caption: Billboard at Gare Conavin in Geneva Is An Example of How Racism and Jingoism (Extreme Patriotism in the Form of Aggressive Foreign Policy) Manifests Itself. Political Notes in this photo basically says, “Finally Guarantee Our Security. Vote ‘Yes’ To Send Back Foreign Criminals.”
NOTE: The Ultra Conservative Party (UCP) is conveying that all foreigners, especially black ones are criminals (white sheep is kicking out black sheep).
Do Social Services Exist in Switzerland?
Yes, social services exist but on different levels. For instance, families with children do receive a monthly stipend for each child to offset the cost of living. It’s terribly expensive to live here – from the cost of rent and food to healthcare and entertainment. To give an idea, healthcare coverage is required and every individual must have coverage or face fines or deportation. The average cost of healthcare for a family of four is around $1,000 per month. A family meal at McDonalds might cost $20 back in the US, but here in Switzerland, that same meal would be almost $60! Thankfully, families do not have to pay for a really great education. Primary and middle schools are free. High school costs about $600 per year and the price could be lowered based on need, and the average price for college at the local university is $1,200. We could never do that in the US. However, there are some down sides to social services as well, like unemployment. If you become unemployed, you would receive 80 percent of salary for up to two years, but after that, there are no extensions. Finding help thereafter could be tricky and render a person homeless. There is also minimum wage so there is a minimum amount of money one needs to make in order to get by.
What career paths are prominent in Switzerland?
I think there are many career paths available. However, the most important skill to possess is the ability to speak an additional language besides English because that opens up a lot of possibilities. That means if a person is planning on settling near Geneva, it’s a good idea to take classes in French or German lessons if one is planning to settle near Zurich or Basel. Having really good computer skills – particularly in software programming, testing or digital content management are always good. A background in finance – particularly within the banking and insurance industries would be a plus as well.
What attractions would you recommend?
One would think after eight years of living here that I would have seen all there is to see. To be honest, I am still discovering new things every day. Here are some basic tips. Geneva is a great city to live and work but the nightlight and restaurants are in Lausanne. Checking out great restaurants in itself is a great attraction. Try Café Grancy near where I live in Lausanne. Any of the brunches served at the hotels by Ouchy are always great. The best part of all of this is that you can eat just as well in a tiny little restaurant as in a swanky one. Speaking of Ouchy, definitely take stroll along the lake’s boardwalk. It really is the most beautiful side of Lac Leman or Lake Geneva, and plus there is view of Evian. A 35-minute ferry ride can take you to Evian where you can drink the water for free. Additionally, I love the Guyere area. Go there to learn more about the cheese and if you a fan of the Alien or Predator movies, check out the Musée HR Giger and restaurant. If you love Swiss chocolate, don’t miss Maison Cailler, where you can tour the chocolate factory and museum and sample the chocolate.
Photo Caption: Ouchy Boardwalk in Lausanne During Winter Time (at the edge of the famed Lake Geneva)