My annual Christmas letter


Dear family and friends,

Life in Switzerland isn’t much different from life anywhere else. I get up in the morning, walk the dog, shower, dress, and leave for work. At the end of the day I come home again.

I used to do all of that in the U.S.

What’s different here, clearly, is that everything is new. New and exciting, mostly, but also new and exhausting, new and puzzling, new and … sometimes I just want to turn on the TV and watch a little Downton Abbey. Well, no, sorry, not that.

After the first year of living here, I realized that I was tired – not because my work is so demanding, but because expat life is by its very nature stressful, especially at the beginning. Do I leave a tip in restaurants? (No, or maybe a little, not always clear.) Why do I need to change from summer to winter tires? (Because driving on narrow mountain roads in winter is a lot different from driving on the flatlands of Illinois, Florida, and Michigan where I have spent much of my life. And also there may be a fine for not having the right tires on the car.) How come even a trip to the grocery store requires careful planning? (Well, first of all, you need to remember a two franc coin to unlock a grocery cart, and then you need to remember your own – reusable – grocery bags. Otherwise, you have to turn around, go home, and start over.) Is there anything at all that is the same? (No, but the trains do run on time, and there is something comforting in that. I look forward to my train rides each day to and from the church office.)

I am learning a new language too, of course, and my work permit requires me to reach a fairly high level of proficiency in a relatively short amount of time. But it’s not the language learning that I find tiring, although maybe I will give a different answer tonight after I get home at 10:00 from my language class. (My kind and patient teacher, Frau Zopfi, teaches the entire hour and 15 minutes in German, so there is no opportunity to check email or browse the Internet.)

I am no longer the class clown I once was, but am still the slow learner I always was.

What’s really and truly tiring is navigating each day in an unfamiliar culture.  Here’s a tiny example: I smile a toothy smile and say a cheery “Guten Morgen!” to my neighbors as I walk the dog in the early dawn, and from the smile and the awful accent and the high German, they size me up pretty quickly as an American, a foreigner, an “Ausländer.”  I learned quickly that addressing people I don’t know requires a certain amount of formality. It’s not that the Swiss are an unfriendly people, it’s that Americans tend to be gregarious by nature. And that, I’m afraid, usually comes off as insincere and superficial.

Last spring I took a break from my blog to give myself some time to get acclimated to this new culture. I even wrote a book about the experience in order to sort out my feelings and reactions, especially as I experience all of this in a multi-cultural church. (Watch the Eerdmans fall list for 2016!) I wouldn’t say Susan and I are now fully integrated into Swiss culture, but we are moving as fast as a couple of old, gray-haired  people from the U.S. can. And most days we enjoy living here, though Susan I’m sure would give her own, slightly nuanced answer. After 38 years of marriage, we still do not think alike on very much. It’s funny how that works.

Susan spends Thursday afternoons painting with an artist-friend at a studio in Zürich. She meets most Fridays with a group of women from our church. She cooked five turkeys in our tiny Swiss oven and fed a bunch of lonely Americans (and others) at our church’s Thanksgiving dinner last month. She has traveled (without me) to London and Provence and Berlin. And together we spent a week in Amsterdam back in July (where I made considerable progress on that book I mentioned) and then last week in Paris for a couple of nights around her birthday. She is getting around – not only on the trains, but in our car as well. We both joined the local gym last fall and now find ourselves exercising with other seniors, something I was sure I would never do.

When Susan goes out, she speaks English with a German accent, thinking that this will help others to understand her. I speak German with a pronounced American accent, and people sometimes burst into laughter when they hear me. Her approach always seems to work better than mine.

My work at the International Protestant Church of Zürich continues to be an extraordinary experience, one I will savor for the rest of my life. I sat in the congregation yesterday and witnessed the most culturally diverse children’s Christmas pageant that I could ever have imagined. English was spoken throughout, true, but in such a wonderful variety of accents. One of the magi was unquestionably from the U.K. Another was from Africa, but a former British colony. The third dropped his microphone on the floor and was hard to hear.

But they all traveled a long distance to get to the manger, as we all have.

Cultural diversity at the church shows up each day in countless other ways and has been a wonderful – and sometimes maddening – experience. I learn and grow and do my best to understand, and in it all I marvel that Christ’s church could have so many, vastly different expressions. In church life people work hard to understand each other, to be patient, and to figure out what it means to be the church at this time and in this place. It’s not easy, but it never was.

Susan and I look back across the ocean with longing, because of course our two daughters and their husbands and one very beautiful granddaughter live there, but we also look back with incredulity. People sometimes ask us if Donald Trump really has a chance. At first we laughed at the question and said, “Nein.” But now the truth is, we don’t know what to say. “It’s a mess,” we say, and it is. And speaking of a mess, we read about the gun violence, and from a country – an entire continent! – with very little, almost none, it is shocking and deeply troubling.

We pray for our country, we pray for our family, and we pray for you. Two thousand years ago a hope was born into the world, and it is to that hope that I cling today – not to politicians or to political parties, but to a baby who was called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.


Doug and Susan (and of course Sammi, who doesn’t know what a good life she has here)

(Photos: That’s from a nice little coffee shop in Paris, and (bottom) the Eiffel Tower was visible from our apartment at the American Church in Paris where we stayed.)



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.

, ,

16 Responses to My annual Christmas letter

  1. Sandy Steffen December 14, 2015 at 9:37 am #

    Wishing you, Susan & Sammi (lucky dog), a very Merry Christmas and Happy, Healthy New Year! Love, Sandy & Cliff

  2. Barbara Keith December 14, 2015 at 9:55 am #

    I had tears in my eyes as I read your message. We all miss YOU and SUSAN back at “1st Pres”! Your message brought back many happy memories of your time here in Fort Lauderdale. HURRY BACK HOME!!! WE ALL MISS YOU! Barb & Tom Keith

  3. Marianne Nestor December 14, 2015 at 10:09 am #

    I really enjoy your reflections. You and Susan are certainly having many new experiences.
    Love hearing about your early morning walks with Sammi.
    Sure do miss you. Have a Merry Christmas. Marianne and Robert Nestor

  4. Mandana Sharifi December 14, 2015 at 10:32 am #

    Merry Christmas Doug, Susan and Sammi! Mother and I wish you health and happiness and we miss you and your fun and heart warming sermons. Stay safe out there and say hi to Rudolf for me! ?

  5. Laurie Fuller December 14, 2015 at 11:06 am #

    Merry Christmas Doug to you and your wonderful family (oh the four legged one too). I wish for you to be happy over there and know with me I will always be forever grateful to you for being my minister for just a few years at 1st Pres. when I decided to return to church and you have restored my faith in God and I cant wait to celebrate baby Jesus birthday! God Bless

  6. Sue Brandon December 14, 2015 at 11:20 am #

    Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. We continue singing God’s praises in the Cathedral Choir at First Pres – Ft. Lauderdale and joined the Messiah Sing-in with the Master Chorale Friday night at the “Pink” church in Pompano Beach, FL. Glory to God!

  7. Lee and Mary Twombly December 14, 2015 at 11:57 am #

    So good to hear from you Doug. And talk about honest and candid! Refreshing and alarming to receive an European view of the states from a ‘statesman’. Christmas blessings to you and all.

  8. Bill Polkowski December 14, 2015 at 12:13 pm #

    Merry Christmas, Doug, or should I say “Froehliche Weihnachten und ein Gutes Neues Jahr!”? Did I get that right? Other than being unable to type an umlaut? It’s been well over fifty years since I’ve studied German. I fell in love with a petite, attractive assistant professor from Berlin, which did wonders for my German. Once in class I made the mistake of addressing her as Du. She feigned a girlish embarrassment. Had I been more courageous I would have replied, “O Margareta, Ich bin mit dir ganz verliebt!” As if all was tongue in cheek!

    Doug, you’ve always been a good writer and it has been a pleasure to keep up with you on your blog.

    • Doug December 18, 2015 at 12:02 am #

      Merry Christmas, Bill! Thanks for the kind words. It’s hard to get used to the formal and informal pronouns, but then it’s hard to get used to lots of things in German grammar. I’m glad you wrote. I’m forgetting, “Did you marry that assistant professor?”

      • Bill Polkowski December 18, 2015 at 10:33 am #

        Doug, no I didn’t! Married only once, and that to Mary. We’ll celebrate our 50th in June. My crush on Margareta had to remain a secret one.

        I’ve always enjoyed German, though. I’ve liked the graphic nature of the language–they make even more graphic what is graphic in English–Wolkenkratzer (cloud-scratcher) instead of skyscraper. I recall being in a class at Michigan sitting next to a German-speaking guy. The teacher used the word “freckles” and he, puzzled, asked me what it meant. I happened to recall the German word “Sommersprossen”–summer sprouts.

        I did co-officiate in Biberach (about 30 miles north of der Bodensee, as I recall) the wedding service for my brother and his wife Gisela. I told the German pastor that I planned to read the Scripture in both German and English. He was skeptical. He asked me to read in German, and then said I read very well and offered to trade off with me, each of us doing part of the wedding service. Of course, I did the address to the couple in English. In fact, I understood very little of conversations in southern Germany. I felt better when at the reception a man from Hamburg said that he didn’t understand the people–they weren’t speaking German. You’re probably not getting the high German version of the language, though the grammar may be the same.

        From your blog, it sounds like you’re enjoying your time in Switzerland. I know that you had mentioned once that you wanted to do a pastorate abroad so I wasn’t surprised by your leaving Fort Lauderdale. I was disappointed when you left Ann Arbor, but I know it was a good change for you. I do miss our conversations.

        Grace, peace and joy!


  9. Marion Robbins December 15, 2015 at 12:45 pm #

    I closed my annual Christmas letter with these words: “We continue to pray for peace in our cities, in our country and in our world.”
    Thank you, Doug, for your message of HOPE!

    • Doug December 19, 2015 at 5:01 am #

      Am glad we’re praying the same prayer, Marion! Keep praying.

  10. Jean Boesch December 19, 2015 at 4:01 am #

    Fantastic account,Doug, thank you for sharing your life here with us.

  11. Kelley December 20, 2015 at 9:59 am #

    Don’t know if you remember my daughter and me, but we sure remember you! My friend Rob Pavlov remembers you as well. We miss you!! But hope you’re doing well and continue to learn & thrive in your new home. Happy Holidays with much love, Kelley Alles & Mary Kearney

  12. Kathy Bostrom December 23, 2015 at 4:03 pm #

    Bless you and Susan. You write beautifully and I look forward to reading your new book! Christmas and New Year blessings to you and yours. Love, Kathy and Greg

  13. Leslie Wells Rambin January 3, 2016 at 8:23 pm #

    Doug, I so enjoyed reading your heartfelt message. You describe so beautifully your life in your new surroundings. I hesitate to use the term your new home because so very many of us still want you and Susan to think of Florida as your home. We all miss you and wish you the best of everything 2016 has to offer. Stay safe and warm.
    Love, Leslie Wells Rambin