On Being an Expatriate & Filet de Perche

Becoming an expatriate was exciting. Being an expatriate was exciting, fascinating and fun. It was also challenging, frustrating and nerve-wracking. There is more than one kind of expatriate and not all are created equal. There are the backpacking will-work-for-food expatriates. They are on their own, left to their own wiles and devices to find a job, a roof and everything else. At the other end of the spectrum are the executives. Shipped overseas by their companies, they are gently guided on their journey. From finding a house to making a dinner reservation, every twist, turn and bump is smoothed out for them.

Lucky me, I more or less fell into a job so I was one up on the will-work-for-food types.  My luck held and I found a studio apartment in a couple of hours; an almost unheard of feat in Lausanne. The decor was akin to a 1960’s no-tell motel but the view was incredible. My good fortune lulled me into believing that living abroad would be a snap.

My first few days as a bona fide Swiss resident were full of fun and very romantic. Not lovey-dovey romantic but adventurous, wow this is so cool romantic. Sitting on my little balcony while the moon rose over Lausanne’s 13th century Notre Dame Cathedral was like a dream come true. My walk to work took me by an equally ancient church. I drank white wine from funny little glasses while admiring the view of Lac Léman and the French Alps. I wandered through the old town and found the farmers’ market, charming cafés and trendy boutiques. Life was a series of interesting discoveries.

My head didn’t stay in the clouds forever. After a glorious week in la-la land, reality hit. I discovered that many simple facts of life had changed. In my new expatriate life, pizza was eaten with a knife and fork. I wore size thirty-seven shoes. The bus was never late. My building had at least thirty studios but only one washer and dryer. There was not a single laundromat in Lausanne. And the supermarket was always closed when I was free to shop! I discovered that je ne savais rien (I knew nothing). I was often confused. My new Swiss colleagues just shrugged and advised, “On fait comme ça en Suisse.” (That’s how we do it in Switzerland.)

I was plagued by silly little problems, ridiculous really. It took weeks to get a phone. It sounded simple. Go to the post office, fill out a form and hand it to the guy at the counter. He promised service in three to five days. After three days I got a postcard with my new number. I checked the phone; no dial tone. Five days; still no dial tone. Ten days. Three weeks. My colleagues shrugged. Eventually, someone mentioned something about a deposit. WHAT DEPOSIT!?! The form didn’t ask for a deposit. The guy who took the form didn’t ask for a deposit. Somehow I was just supposed to know that foreigners had to put down a deposit. Back to the post office, I plunked down 300 francs. Twenty-four hours later, voila! A dial tone! Then a new problem revealed itself; who to call? Except for work, I knew next to no one.

As could be expected, before long I received a bill or two and of course needed to pay them. I asked around. To my horror I discovered that bills were paid with cash at the post office. I began to think that the post office was the center of the Swiss universe. Anyway, off I went with a fistful of francs, stood forever in a glacially slow line and eventually handed over the invoices and money. Too many months later, I learned, purely by chance, that the bank would do it for me. By mail. No line.

…and of course there was more, how to open a bank account, how not to get a credit card, buy health insurance, get a credit card, buy a car and on and on and on… it took more than a decade but I finally figured it all out. Just in time to move to California and learn how to do it all over again!

Bon appétit!

Filet de Perche Meunière

A Lac Léman specialty, Filet de Perche Meunière will always remind me of warm spring and summer evenings and long, lazy dinners with good friends under the stars. Enjoy!

Serves 6

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
2 pounds fresh lake perch, skinned and filleted
Olive oil
6 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup white wine
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Lemon wedges

Mix the flour, salt, pepper and paprika together. Lightly dredge the perch filets in the flour, shake off any excess.

Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat; add a little olive oil to the pan. In batches, carefully place the fish fillets in the pan and cook a few minutes per side. Remove the fish from the pan and place on an oven proof platter; set the platter in a warm oven while you cook the remaining filets.

Make the Meunière Sauce: Reduce the heat to medium and melt the butter in the skillet. As soon as the butter starts to bubble, whisk in the white wine and lemon juice. Cook for about 1 minute, swirling the pan once or twice.

Remove the fish from the oven and pour the sauce over the fish, sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately with lemon wedges.

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One Year Ago – Chicken Provencal

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15 thoughts on “On Being an Expatriate & Filet de Perche

  1. Hi Susan,
    I went to Switzerland as a young man back in 1964 and stayed for two years. Lived in Yverdon les Bains a short train ride from Lausanne. I had a friend who worked for Nestlé in Vevey and we would meet up on a Wednesday evening come rain or shine. This was where I first encountered pizza (the first pizza restaurant opened in UK the same year) and of course the famous and fantastic filets de perches. I was using the internet to see if I could replicate this lovely dish without having access to the perch of lake Geneva. Any ideas?

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    • Anthony – Thanks for stopping by. On more than one occasion I heard the rumor that much of the perch served in and around Lac Leman was actually from Canada. I don’t know if it is true … but it does suggest that you can enjoy perch from other lakes. You could also try tilapia. It won’t be the same but hopefully you will enjoy it. I hope you had your pizzas at Boccalino in Ouchy – it was my favorite pizzeria when I lived in Lausanne. Take care – Susan

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    • HA! Dad – you will never forget that lunch on the island. The dollar was at an all time low – making an expensive restaurant even more so. But c’mon – the view and the company were more than worth it! Love, S.

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  2. hello Susan, I was about to write more or less the same as Jennifer, you need to come back…. we really improved a lot 😉 !
    Come at least to pay us a visit !
    Ciao !

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    • Corinne, It was just as confusing when I returned to the US. After 17 years everything had changed! And since I am an American, everyone assumed I knew what was what! I can hardly believe that it is almost 10 years since I left Switzerland! Not sure when I will be back next. You should come and see me! Ciao, Susan

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  3. So where does the global family with trailing spouse fit into your expat definitions?? A few things have changed here in Switzerland…low cost apartment furnishings have gone from 60s to IKEA, can use ebanking as well as cash at post for bills, and phone/Internet service available at Swisscom. But stores still not open when you need them, apartments still share washing machines and buses have yet to be late!

    We had no expat relocation package when we moved, but fortunately one of John’s efficient colleagues helped all to do almost all we needed to in one afternoon. No kidding: health insurance, bus/rail passes, registration, phone, internet, learning travel routes and moving into our apartment in four hours. Those Swiss Germans get things done!

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    • Jennifer – You fit any way you want! After all those years it was just as hard moving back to the States. Not sure if it was reverse culture shock or after being gone so long may it qualified as new culture shock. For the first six months, it seemed like every time I turned around I had to make another decision. None of them were difficult – there were just so many of them! And so many choices! Take care, Susan

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  4. I can most fully vouch for Susan’s expat life, as I have shared much of it with her. Indeed, more than a few of those evenings spent on the lakeside dining on filet de perch and drinking a local chasselas or fondant wine were shared together. Not to mention risotto in Tuscany searching for Suzanne’s charming hand-made plates. Susan will NEVER forget that little excursion. . .By the way, she is most definitely Susan not “Sue”. And, yes, the Post is an amazingly omnipresent in Switzerland. You can even buy computers and phones there now.

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  5. You know, Sue, I’ve been reading an awful lot about your ‘supposed’ expatriate days in Switzerland. But see not a spec of proof! Why not pop a couple of old photos in with your stories, I am sure I am not the only one eagerly wanting to see pics of your overseas adventures. And that can mean something as simple as you in line at the post office, or a sweeping view of the Alps behind you and some friends skiing. An old shoe on a pavement, a rusty chair in an outdoor cafe’. You did take pictures back then, didn’t you? Or did the post office have to develop those too? And as per all government-run operations, you are still waiting for the prints?

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