June 7, 2012

Expat still votes as an American

Posted in Between Us column, Politics, Travel at 9:15 pm by dinaheng

An estimated four to six million Americans live abroad. This is one in a series of interviews with American expats, who offer a unique perspective on the world, and a look at life outside the United States that guide books could never capture.

David Balmer cast his vote in the California Presidential primary for President Barak Obama, voting absentee from Wohlen, Switzerland (a town near Zurich) in the European country where he’s lived for the last 23 years.

A former California resident, Balmer fell in love with a Swiss woman who was learning English in San Francisco, just down the street from the bed and breakfast he was managing at the time. When she returned home to Switzerland in 1989, he went with her and the two married.

The marriage didn’t last, but the couple had five children, and Balmer has since remarried. He and his second wife have a nine-year-old son, and the expat American is proud to call two countries home. For in today’s global village, the world is connected in ways large and small.

“Switzerland is very interested in the U.S. election,” Balmer says. “The Swiss did, and still do, like Mr. Obama. They get a bit nervous with the extremely religious, conservative movements trying to get into the White House, so there is lots of interest. There is also lots of skepticism right now with the whole financial situation with the United States and the European Union (E.U.).

“Switzerland is not in the E.U. They voted against it, which turned out to be a very good decision. Switzerland is amazingly stable and secure. With the strong Swiss Franc (stronger than the U.S. dollar) and the Euro getting weaker, you would think that Switzerland would have big troubles, but it’s not. The country mainly exports its goods, so this should all really be hurting, but nothing really bad is happening yet. There’s very low unemployment here.”

Balmer initially worked as an aerobics instructor when he entered the country, then joined Swissair in 1990, going through an unofficial apprenticeship to learn the airport business in the cargo arena. Today, he works for Schneider & Cie AG, a Swiss logistics company, as an air freight operator.

He says Switzerland is a country that enables its citizens to work, offering apprenticeship programs to those who can’t go to college, and maintaining a level of benefits for all that would amaze Americans.

“An amazing moment came when I got that first job with Swissair,” Balmer remembers. “I sat down at a desk and signed a contract that offered me four weeks paid vacation, insurance, extra money for a child, and a 13th paycheck before I even started working. I did not have to prove anything or invest time for two years before getting two weeks unpaid vacation.

“This security is something that American workers should also be getting. After 10 years with Swissair, I had more than $200,000 pension money. I think you get the picture.”

He says that family members in the States are worried about financial cuts in education, public services, retirement funds, and medical insurance, but those kind of problems don’t exist in Switzerland.

“People here pay taxes and those taxes are used effectively and efficiently,” Balmer says. “Every country has its conservative right, or Tea Party. Here it is the SVP Party. Those party members may be a bit extreme against foreigners and crime, but they are also wealthy business owners, employing hundreds of workers.

“Their businesses also have to offer the minimum of four weeks paid vacation, a 13th paycheck, three months full pay after getting fired, etc. They have to offer these wonderful things because it is the law. It is laid in cement, part of the country’s foundation, and that really feels good.”

The cultural differences are many, he says, starting with seeing topless women at the pools and edges of lakes. But alas, he adds, in the 1990s that practice ended as information about sun exposure and breast cancer spread.

“I see it once in awhile now, but only when the woman’s lying on a towel,” Balmer says, with a smile. “They don’t get up and walk around anymore like it was completely normal. Other cultural differences? There’s the old buildings and history. The precision of this small country with its 8 million people. Trains, trams, buses, etc. take you everywhere and are on time.”

All this occurs, he notes, in a country where Germans, French, Italians and Austrians meet and interact with the Swiss, speaking four different languages. Balmer now speaks German (the majority language in Switzerland) fluently, as well as English.

How hard was it for an American to fit in this mosaic? Balmer says he spent much of his childhood moving from place to place with hippie parents who took their large family across America, forcing him to constantly make new friends wherever they went.

“This whole journey has been an amazing experience; better than college, or anything else that I could think of,” Balmer says. “Could you imagine just leaving your home for a foreign country, starting a family, working, raising a family and never, ever returning? It was absolutely unexpected, but my upbringing and my extremely social ways were completely designed for such an adventure.

“I was so fascinated by Europe from the get go that I had very few worries about my decision to stay. I am a professional at fitting in, making friends with everyone, regardless of color or religion. I take great pride in that quality. I’m home now in this country. My kids are here, and I would not be happy leaving them behind. This is where my heart is now.”

If you’re interested in visiting Switzerland, Balmer recommends checking out the canyons of Bern, Chillon Castle in Montreux, Lake Lucerne, The Matterhorn, and more. “My favorite restaurant in Zürich is an Italian pizzeria called Cucina (www.cucinarestaurant.ch). Second would be the fantastic vegetarian family restaurant Hiltl!, right by the world famous Bahnhofstrasse shopping area.”

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