Dr. Vriesendorp is a Dutch, English-speaking psychologist, located in Biel. She completed her clinical psychology training at Wright State University, School of Professional Psychology, in Ohio and her Post-Doctorate Fellowship at McLean Hospital, part of Harvard Medical School in Boston. After working in clinics both in the United States and the Netherlands, she then moved to Switzerland. Here she became a Swiss Certified Psychologist (FSP) and built up her private practice. Her areas of expertise include cultural adjustment, stress, burn-out, eating problems, trauma, anxiety and depression.
When did you arrive in Switzerland and what was that like?
I remember visiting Switzerland in the late 1990’s. I was enamored by the beauty, impressed with the organization and the cleanliness, and charmed by the quaintness of both the town and rural settings.
Returning later with the intention to settle, I continued to appreciate and enjoy the touristy aspects, but at times also felt intense loneliness and disconnection. I experienced Swiss people as friendly and warm yet distant. It was exhausting not understanding the language, the social rules, and being told (directly or via non-verbal reactions) that what that I did that was different, strange or funny (“luschtig”). Everything took longer (having to listen to phone options several times, pantomiming my requests, talking in circular manner because I did not have the exact word in German). Having to rely on my husband for most important things I had previously done myself, was frustrating. Luckily, my husband having had his own “living abroad” experience was very supportive and understanding. I learned a lot about myself.
Where are you from originally?
Oh… I always laugh and say that’s a long story! I am Dutch originally, but was raised an “island girl.” Born in Curacao, I then grew up in Bermuda. It was a very colorful community – in culture, race and nature – even the houses were pink and turquoise! Later, we moved to the US, where I attended high school in Denver, Colorado. For my college and professional studies, I lived in Ohio, briefly in Texas, and finally landed in Boston, where I met my husband. We later moved to the Netherlands and then Switzerland. So, I have an odd blend of European, Island and American influences on my identity.
What are some of the things you enjoy about living here?
Without a doubt the lifestyle and the nature. I love that the lake, hills/mountains, and “city” are all within walking distance. Being able to move around easily by bike, bus or foot gives a more relaxed and mindful rhythm to my day, as well as, a better connection to people and places. I love that my children are encouraged to be independent, such as walking to school alone. In general, the Swiss culture invests intentionality and thoughtfulness into everything be it services, products and connections. Here long vacations are the norm, organic food is in regular supermarkets, rituals exist for everything, and any small occasion calls for an “Apero” – the option for socializing with food and drinks without extensive preparation or social obligation. It sometimes slows things down but also allows for a “live-able” work/family life, incomparable to most other places I have lived.
What do you find challenging?
I previously mentioned the slow to open nature of Swiss people. Together with the Swiss fondness of “papers” confirming your completion of the “correct” way of doing things. This means that when you do NOT have these papers they seem to have difficulty placing you. I have had to initiate and create a lot for myself to build a life here. I sense a cautious attitude, leading to slow implementation of change. For example, the traditional gender roles still assume that mothers are at home most of the time, which makes being a working mom somewhat difficult. I’ve never lived in a country where school children went home for lunch. Since I’ve been here, I have seen a lot of changes, such as the lunch program at school and diverse subsidized vacation options for children. Thankfully, now after 15 plus years, I feel very connected and supported here, both in my personal and professional life. I value my international and Swiss friends. One of the few things I continue to miss are English cultural events, and perusing in an English bookstore… oh the joy of stumbling across an interesting read!
What is one thing about your native culture that you wish you could access here in Switzerland?
The more warm, open, spontaneous and curious interactions between diverse people in public. I grew up in a setting that people greeted each other on the street even if you didn’t know one another. You chatted, joked and more openly shared your opinion be it at the cash register, on the bus or just in passing. Here contact outside of the family and friends circle is often more reserved and distant, as well as, restrained to “safe topics.” The strong and often unspoken social rules, make it harder for non-natives to gauge how to respond or to share cultural differences. I often felt too loud and outspoken here in Switzerland and miss the diversity of people from my former communities. I am glad that Biel is more diverse than other areas of Switzerland. Speaking another language and having a bilingual family is common here. The city is small enough that diverse circles can overlap in day to day city and/or school events. I am fortunate to work with a diverse clientele and enjoy the richness of my friendships far and near.
Do you have any words of wisdom for new arrivals?
Settling here does not mean giving up your history. It is an opportunity to learn how to be YOU, and how that WORKS for you in this new culture. Be aware of what and who is important to you. What are your interests, hobbies, foods, rituals and relationships that keep you sane and connect you to your history? I recommend you find even small ways to stay connected with some of them. You may need to work hard to make it happen. At the same time, be curious. Try to find a few places you go to regularly so you build a sense of familiarity and connection here in Switzerland… a favorite café, path/walk, grocery store, view, activity, etc. Connecting with a sub-group in the community helps – an English-speaking club, a fitness class, a church, neighborhood, etc. Try to make at least one close Swiss connection. My experience is that although the Swiss often are cautious and may not initiate themselves, they are open and curious on a one and one basis. Once a close connection is made it is typically warm, caring and loyal!