The difference between traveling and living somewhere


When I told friends that I was moving to Switzerland, many of them said, “Oh, I’ve been there. I took a train one time from [somewhere] to [somewhere]. Yeah, beautiful country.”

And to be honest, I’ve used that “oh, I’ve been there” routine a time or two myself. I’ve been to lots of places. Istanbul? Of course. Lima? Yep. Cape Town? Loved it. Nagoya? Never left the airport, but a great place!

In fact, I’ve been all over the world and have worn out a few passports in the process. Lucky me.

But there’s a difference, I am coming to see, between passing through and living somewhere. Having a beer in a pub in Zurich on a pleasant spring evening and then heading for Italy the next morning, as one of my friends did recently, is not the same thing as seeing Switzerland. It’s not a bad thing to do, spending one night and then moving on, but it’s not the same thing as getting to know a place.

I realized this morning as I was walking the dog around the neighborhood that I now live here. These people are my neighbors. Their habits and ways of doing things are (slowly) becoming my own habits and ways of doing things. Their language is also (slowly) becoming my own language. I am registered, I pay taxes, I buy groceries, I whisper “grüezi” to people I meet on the street.

I live here. I am not passing through with only three more countries to see before heading home.

When I interviewed for the position I now have – pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zurich – I was asked more than once, “Do you have any international experience?” And of course, each time I was asked, I proudly said, “Yes, lots.”

Not a “pants on fire” kind of lie, but not completely true either.

“International experience” is not a well-worn passport. It’s an ability to adapt, adjust, learn, get along, speak a new language, and more than anything else live somewhere new.

In spiritual terms – you knew I would get here eventually – one could make this same distinction. When I ask people about their spiritual lives, I get a lot of “yeah, sure” answers, as if taking a train one time or having a beer in a pub makes one fully knowledgeable about the spiritual life.

To have faith is much like living someplace new. To do it – and to do it well – requires that one stay awhile, learn the language, get to know the people, be patient, live with the frustrations, and get registered.

To have faith is not to live out of a suitcase. It means to unpack and settle in. Buy groceries. Walk the dog. Learn to say “good morning.” And then say proudly, “I live here.”

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.


4 Responses to The difference between traveling and living somewhere

  1. Susan Davis April 25, 2014 at 6:40 am #

    I find there are three stages of living outside your passport country.
    1-Everything is beautiful stage (Honeymoon)-‘ look at that view, oh- the food is so unique. Isn’t everything so charming?”
    2-The fault finding stage (Rebellious)-‘Why do they do it THAT way, when THIS way (my way) is so much more reasonable. You will experience upsetting moments.
    3-The Acceptance stage (Transformation)- when suddenly you realize you are doing it THEIR way and have forgotten YOUR way of doing things. It usually hits when you return to your passport country for a visit and notice and dislike the way your own people do things.
    Trying to explain all of this to your passport-country people usually makes their eyes glaze over and they change the subject. Your friends will accuse you of becoming critical. It’s an odd transformation, this ex-pat life, but you will not be the same (in a good way), ever again. I think it should be a world requirement for every person in all countries to do service and live in another country for at least two years. Wouldn’t that change our world views?

  2. Doug April 25, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    “Passport country” is a term for the U.S. that will take some time, I must admit.

    Interestingly, the PCUSA’s retirement seminar for mid to late career clergy used your formula for the the transition to retirement – euphoria, depression, acceptance. Must be how human beings are wired to cope with dislocation and change.

    I hope you’re enjoying Cambridge.

  3. Bob Sadowski April 26, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

    glad to hear you are happy with your new home/life. Russ is fitting in here and is a no nonsense kind of guy, Ben is Leaving us so changes are brewing but we needed some changes to move forward. Be well my friend.

  4. Mandana Sharifi April 27, 2014 at 8:10 pm #

    You are blessed to enjoy such GOD’s natural beauty! :0) Mandana

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