Lhney Steiner, American, was born in 1974. She grew up in central New York State, Finger Lakes region. She lives in the Canton of Neuchâtel since 8 years, is married and has two kids.
She worked for a big MedTech company until 2014 and the, she started up her business L’Atelier du Fromage Sàrl.
How was your arrival in Neuchâtel ?
We felt welcomed here from the start. Our experience in Neuchâtel was actually different from our friends’ experience who move to larger cities and struggled to integrate. After a couple years, a few of our friends left – but we have made life-long friends here.
We are happy to live in this beautiful place where we were welcomed with open arms. We moved here not speaking any French. It is challenging. But that being said, there is always someone around to help you. And there is enough English out there to mix the languages and at the end of the day, you work through it. The openness of the people to help you in those situations was amazing. And it is not just your co-workers who could feel obligated to help you. Sometimes complete strangers, would see that you were struggling with something and would offer to lend a hand.
Even the commune was very helpful. It is a very small one with 2000 inhabitants – Gorgier. There are very few expats living there, but everything worked smoothly anyway. Once a Municipal Employee noticed that a letter from the canton had the wrong address. She remembered that we had moved apartments — it was in the same building but the apartment letter was different. Such a tiny error could cause a delay in the Post. So, she made a copy of it, translated into English and sent it to us to ensure we received it promptly. In fact, we received her translated copy before the official document arrived from the canton. She went above and beyond when she could have ignored it. I don’t think we would get that level of service in other countries. People were committed to us to have a good experience here.
Was is easy to integrate in the Canton of Neuchâtel ?
I remember one story, just to give you an example of how we felt welcomed. One of the neighbours had an Apéro and invited us with a handwritten card in French placed in our letterbox. The next day they knocked on the door to make sure we understood the French. The night of the Apéro, we were late because my husband and I were working long hours. What do we do? We knew that punctuality is important to the Swiss and we were 30 minutes late. At the time, we did not understand the etiquette. Do we show up late, or do we not go at all? What would be less rude? Just as we were deciding ok let’s go, there was a knock on our door. It was our neighbour making sure that we knew to come.
We made Swiss friends since first arriving in Neuchâtel. 80 % of our neighbours were Swiss. We were the only Americans. Everybody spoke French and variant degrees of English, German, and many other languages. At the beginning, we worked traditional American hours, which impacted our ability to study and learn French. I would work 12 hours in the office and I would eat my lunch at my desk, which is totally not Swiss. At home after dinner, I would work another 4 hours. We still manage to have social life here thanks to the rich offering of the Canton: restaurants, museums, theatres etc. And now that my French has improved, we feel even more integrated living here.
How is it living in the Canton of Neuchâtel with a family ?
After living here for 4 years, there was no doubt that we would rather have kids in Neuchâtel than in the USA. This is where we wanted to raise our family.
Several of our Swiss friends have their children attend pre-school in a Montessori environment. Some families then switched to the public school, at age four, when they started their first HarmoS. One family decided to keep their child in Montessori. What is great about Neuchâtel is that you have choices. You can have both private and public school experiences. For us, we chose to put our children in a Montessori system at an early age, 2 years old, two mornings per week. The Montessori school is interesting for us because it is bilingual. We wanted to have the bilingual school because we speak English at home. Although I had a French speaking part-time nanny, we wanted to have a French-speaking school environment to reinforce the language and to socialize with other children. So for us, it was the right decision to start her in the Montessori system. Montessori is child-directed: they can pick and choose their activities and have a lot of autonomy to express themselves. That’s fantastic and we love that, but at the same time it may not always meet your goals as a parent. As a mom, I want my children to learn French so they can integrate and have French-speaking Swiss friends. In Montessori it’s difficult to ask the teacher “Can the French speaking teacher spend more time with my daughter”. That’s not always possible. If the child prefers speaking English because she is more comfortable with it, the Montessori program accepts that.
We also heard great things about public schools, so we decided to try it starting first HarmoS. We were nervous about moving to the public school system because we had no experience with it. We were very happy with her Montessori school and loved the strong science component to her education at such a young age. We were also unsure what the new school was to going to be like. But once she transitioned to the public school, we started to see the type of things they were doing and learning. It was clearly the right decision for us. They do more at age four in public school in Switzerland compared to when I was five in the US schools. The way of learning is fun. Children do not realize they are learning because it could be in the form of a game where they are acquiring new skills. The sports activities are incredible. Through the school program, our daughter who is finishing her first HarmoS, will have 3 months of swimming lessons with a certified swim instructor. Then there are the field activities like La Toree, which was an incredible experience for my daughter with the older children helping the younger ones. My daughter is also learning about recycling and gardening. We are very impressed with the public school education here. Our daughter loves school and we could not be happier!
How was your experience in the Canton of Neuchâtel as a professional ?
We originally moved to Neuchâtel for my career working for Johnson & Johnson, but three years later the division eventually moved to Zug. I decided to leave the company for two reasons. We already fell in love with Neuchâtel – we had our friends, our network and I did not want to move to another Swiss city. I was also pregnant at the time, and we decided to stay in Neuchâtel and raise our family where we had established roots.
Now I have decided to start a local business with a Swiss friend (Johana Eidam Vautherot from the Val-de Travers region) as my business partner. From an outsider looking in, I think it is exciting for an expat to start a business in Switzerland, in a French speaking canton. Johana and I launched a very Swiss company, called L’Atelier du Fromage in September 2018. We are a club to discover the artisanal cheeses of Switzerland. We offer a monthly box of carefully selected artisanal cheeses delivered to your home. Each month we explore a different Swiss canton and search for the “hidden gems” only sold in that particular region. We focus on the small local fromageries that create their specialties from local milk. Many of these fromageries are family businesses that are passed down from generation to generation. The cheeses smell and taste of the terroir that can be found nowhere else. We are fortunate to spend the time with passionate people, proud of their work, proud of what they produce every day. We are honored to tell their stories and to share their creations. We want people to learn, share, and discover the beautiful cheeses made in our beautiful country. Through L’Atelier du Fromage, we are the link between the small cheese dairies and cheese lovers.
For my husband, it is very convenient to be located in Neuchâtel because he is traveling around Switzerland and other countries. Neuchâtel is centrally located and he can fly out of Geneva or Basel or Zurich. So he has more opportunity to pick his flights. Everything is about 90 minutes to get to.
What were the biggest challenges ?
The biggest challenge was the language, but they are so many resources to help with that. We took private classes.
A second challenge perhaps is the variety and availability of services. In the USA, you have delivery of everything available, such as dry cleaning and take-out food. Of course, shopping is open late at night and on Sundays too. But we have learned to schedule efficiently. We now much prefer to enjoy Sundays with family and friends at the lake or in the mountains. We have a better quality of life now.
Finally, I think that even though we lived here for eight years, there is always cultural adaptation and learning. At the end of the day, we are still Americans. You cannot get rid of that. We are caught between US and Swiss worlds. I give you an example: in Montessori, you can simply drop off your child anytime within a 30 minutes’ window. It takes 5 minutes and you can rush off to your next appointment. In public school, you have to wait for the teacher to come and pick up the children. In my American mentality, this is such a waste of time. Now, I actually enjoy it. It is my quality time with my child walking hand in hand to school. These are special moments. This makes me slowdown from my busy schedule – and I also have the opportunity to meet the other parents. Those cultural adaptions help us learn what is to be Swiss — and we love it here even more. By the way, we hope to become Swiss nationals in 2-3 more years …