Over the twenty years that I’ve lived outside Germany, I’ve never seen myself as a migrant. I was first a student, then a mercenary of science, drifting to where the opportunties were, signing with smart laboratories in interesting cities. It worked out well for me, life was exciting, and even though I stayed rather long in some places, I didn’t have permanence on my mind – even when my job in London finally offered it – and I never grew roots.
I left Germany as an exchange student, only to become a regular graduate student within a week. When you spend all day in the lab and whatever is left riding the trails or hanging out with friends, you don't think about migration. As long as you're in status, as immigration language has it, graduation is much more important. How far off is it, and would you please stop asking me how things are coming along?
Once I had reached that goal, I moved to Grenoble – at a time when France started treating citizens of other European Union countries almost like their own. The carte de sejour was a thing of the past and with it the dreaded annual renewal at the Prefecture. I don't remember if I voted in European and local elections, but I think I could have. This didn't make me French and didn't light in me the desire to settle in France, but it made life easy.
A few years later in London I did vote. Don't judge me too harshly, but I helped Boris the Clown become mayor. This didn't make me British, and I didn't need to be. Living in London, not belonging was normal. London is a city of foreigners. Meeting the first British person took me several years. Life in London is transitory, and for me it was good. This was of course before the idiocy (or, depending on where you live, hilarity) of Brexit. When I moved to Switzerland, everything changed.
What changed primarily was my personal life. Instead of a free floater without any responsibilities, I suddenly found myself with wife and kids, almost like a normal, boring family. When things had calmed down – the child born and a flat furnished – I found myself in yet another foreign country but much less at home, the foreignness of my existence forcefully impressed on me.
Switzerland is not in the European Union. Foreigners are different. I have a special identity card that I need to renew every five years. The administration is efficient, but it's obvious that I stand apart. I'm barred from voting in elections or referendums, no matter how much tea I throw into the Limmat (taxation without representation, anyone?). I'm more of a foreigner in Switzerland than I've ever been before.
With my children growing up here and, frighteningly, speaking the local dialect like all their friends, I find this situation difficult to stomach. I live in a country where I plan for a future but don't belong. How's this gonna work out? What am I going to tell me daughter when she asks me whether she's Swiss? Not by birth and not by nationality, but certainly by habit.
Habit counts for something here. For the first time in twenty years abroad, I started reading up on the regulations surrounding nationalization. Habit has something to do with it. The details have already escaped me because it's not relevant yet, but I need to have lived in the country for a certain number of years, somewhere between five and ten, to be eligible for Swiss nationality.
That I would even consider this freaks me out. I'm not a nationalist, but I like my country and feel a sense of attachment. My German passport has always served me well. Why would I want to supplement or replace it? But once our children start going to kindergarten here and then to school, I think I'll need to help them fit in better - and formalize what they already feel like. And before that happens, I'll need to start thinking of myself as an immigrant.