Tall American Squeezes into Small Country

Whenever I step aboard the return flight to Switzerland, I feel like Alice in Wonderland falling through the hole into the land of miniature. I have an 8-hour flight to transition to what awaits on the other side of the Atlantic. I squeeze my 5’10” frame into compact seats designed for dwarfs. I eat baby-sized servings with doll-sized spoons on a mini tray.

In the Geneva airport, I tower above Europeans while lugging baggage twice as big as and three times heavier than theirs. Not all expats are hoarders, but like many of my compatriots living overseas, I bring back as much of the homeland as possible, hence my bags are laden with Tootsie Pops, cake mixes, chocolate chips and other American staples.

When the taxi pulls up in front of our twin house, my husband leans out the window to announce, “Oops, honey, I shrunk the house.”

Switzerland is a “petite” country; the price of real estate is premium. There are no sprawling ranch homes or suburban mansions here. Our yard is the size of a postage stamp. Surface wise our ground floor is no bigger than an American garage. But we are lucky we have four floors stacked like baby’s colored building blocks. It’s great! This way I don’t need a gym membership; my home is a StairMaster.



Our kitchen is three-square meters. The refrigerator is smaller than the mini bars in most American hotels. The fridge, stove, and sink are within an arm’s length, so I can remove foodstuff, sauté veggies and wash dishes simultaneously. But I rarely do any one of the three. It is a one-butt kitchen, and I am always the first volunteer to butt out.

Europe has a different scale of measurement and I am not talking metric here. Cupboards are more like the size of American drawers. Walk in closets? Forget it. My sister’s Barbie wardrobe was bigger. Appliances are also more compact. Our microwave fits in a kitchen cupboard. The washing machine holds five articles of clothing or the equivalent of two American sweatshirts.

But there are benefits. The streets are so narrow that when you’re riding through the village, you can reach out and shake hands with your neighbor opening her shutters.

You also learn to be less wasteful especially now that we pay for every sack of garbage, two dollars for an 8-gallon bag.

dining room

dining room

Size is relative. By European standards our house is of a standard size. I am used to the different dimensions for the most part, but whenever I return from the wide-open spaces of the Midwest, I suffer from reverse culture shock.

For years, I was tempted to live into my sister’s spacious basement in the Chicago ‘burbs. Then they bought a new mega refrigerator! Now I am considering moving into one of the compartments there. I’d have first dibs on leftovers and my brother-in-law is a great cook!


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Posted in family, humor, social view, travel.


  1. And let’s not forget that it takes two hours to do a load of laundry! The washing machine cycles to the right five times, pauses for 15 seconds, then cycles to the left five times, pauses, and so on. Thanks Pat, now I’m not missing my old haunts as much as before I read your blog! Ha! You know I’d give anything to come back…for a visit! Give me my wide open spaces any day.

    • Oh yes, forgot to mention the 2 hour wash cycle! But no where on the planet holds more spectacular beauty per square kilometer than my “petite” country.

  2. I had to smile when I clicked on the photo of your kitchen. The two folding stools at your bar looked familiar…why? I just bought two of the same IKEA made stools at a local Goodwill store. We Americans just don’t keep items. Fortunately for people like me, who love thrift stores, we are beginning to get into the reuse, recycle mode.

    • Peggy, every room in our house was furnished from IKEA or the secondhand shops of Paris.The Swiss don’t usually recycle furniture and it is usually cheaper to buy a new appliance than to pay for repairs. They like everything to look new and clean and tidy.

  3. Small compartments aside? Pat is a fair princess living in a Switzerland Fairytale, complete witH her very own palace & prince charming-see, it’s all relative:)

    Happy Pre Valentine…

  4. How funny, Pat! I remember my son, after the Band’s trip to Ireland last year, saying that country “feels too small to hold me.” Now I see what he meant! He said the people are tiny (compared to our six-foot-tall giants); the public buildings like restaurants are tiny; everything is tiny. We Americans don’t fully appreciate our wide-open spaces, do we? Guess travel is educational in more ways than just seeing new scenery!

    • I love your son’s line. When I first moved to Paris, I felt like a bull in a china shop everywhere I went! It seemed like I was always bumping into someone or something with my gangly, long limbs and I had to duck through a lot of doorways.

  5. Ha ha. I enjoyed this one Pat x it struck a chord with me as I am now living in ‘wide open spaces’ Australia. Everything here is so big!!! Imara (UK size 9 feet) can easily find shoes here. Australians have big feet apparently. Why is that? Did we send out all our tall convicts here back in the day? The Swiss have some huge mountains to make up for their miniature lifestyle I guess…

    • Can’t wait to hear all about your Australian adventures..I am sure you have made a cosy, little nest for the girls in those wide open spaces of the Land Down Under.

  6. I am highly jealous – openly jealous – and did I say highly jealous? I wouldn’t care if I lived in a postage stamp, as long as I could travel/live in Switzerland (and other areas of Europe). I miss traveling to Europe, but life has bogged us down here in the States. I long to feel the carefree feeling of learning about other cultures on my own time. Perhaps someday (although I hate that- who knows what will happen tomorrow?) so I’ll keep hope in my heart. Thanks for this wonderful post. Charming, funny and wonderful.

    • Cathy, if it makes you feel better, the expat life is not as glamorous as it may appear. For one thing, the cost of living in this little piece of paradise is so high that I work my butt off trying to pay the bills. But whenever tourists come to visit, I see my countryside anew and marvel at its beauty. Since I work in an international school even though I don’t travel around Europe a lot, everyday is a new cultural experience. Let me know if you ever get back over here!

  7. Oh my. I do know what you mean. Everyone focuses on the French diet for why French women don’t get fat. What they should look at is the teeny, tiny tables and chairs, and the minuscule public restrooms. French women don’t get fat because there isn’t any room for a fat lady out in public.

    There’s much to be said for it, but I’m afraid that no matter what I’ll never really understand the European washing machines. Why bother?

    • Yes, Chloe, I have often thought the same thing, the French can’t get fat or they won’t fit in the country! I developed a bad back from ducking through doorways. ha

  8. Your living quarters may be small, but your life experiences are huge!
    Thanks for a little glimpse into the European lifestyle.
    We have a television show here in the states, HGTV House Hunters International, that often shows Americans learning they have to downsize when they move overseas.
    By the end of the show’s half hour, most eventually realize that the trade off for size is the amazing culture and public areas they’ll exchange their accustomed square footage for.

    • Yes, it so true, Bonnie. We take the view and cultural experiences for granted until family and friends come visit and then seen anew through their eyes, we are enchanted all over again.

  9. Love your post, Pat! My son has lived abroad for about six years and he has never had a clothes dryer. He’s used to it, but I think that’s one luxury I would have a hard time doing without.

  10. My niece lives in the UK and when she visits or someone visits her, chocolate chips, coffee syrup, decaf/reg Dunkin Donut coffee goes back! I laughed when I read you bring chocolate chips too!

    • When I first moved to Paris, you could only find ONE breakfast cereal,cornflakes. Now there are dozens. I was also thrilled when Diet Coke made its way overseas. I used to haul maple syrup and peanut butter, but now I can find those too. You would that living in the land of chocolate, someone would have thought of introducing the idea of chocolate in chips form.

  11. I loved reading this. My husband and I have an 12 hour layover in Zurich on our way to Africa, and you’ve gotten me so excited! Any suggestions of what to see/do would be greatly appreciated, thanks! Let me know if you want me to bring you some chocolate chips!

    • Thanks Lois! I live outside of Geneva, so I really don’t know Zurich that well, but the train from the airport will take you directly downtown to main station (Hauptbahnhof) which is next to the lake. You could stroll by the lake or right outside the train station take the Bahnhofstrasse, which is the Champs Elysees of Zurich. You could go to the Paradeplatz to see headquarters for all the big banks, which is a scene in spy movies you may have seen. Also just south of the Bahnhofstrasse there are little, narrow streets which are in an old district with cute cafes. Most people speak English, so you could ask directions. Have a great trip!

  12. Hi Pat, This reminds me of visiting my daughter’s host family in 1995 while she was a college exchange student in Granada, Spain. Indeed, everything was scaled down in size , like the tiny twin bed I slept in and it took some getting used to. I even spent an overnight in Zurich on my back home. Once again you have enlightened and entertained us with your descriptions..I especially liked “butting out of the kitchen” LOL Keep your delightful stories coming. I’m addicted to them:-)

    • Did your daughter enjoy her stay in Spain? Is she using her Spanish in her work? We got all of our beds at IKEA because they make longer ones…perfect for my tall family.

  13. My AFS students have wanted to take home food from the US (Jaume from Spain-Oreos and Gui from Brazil-peanut butter) that they didn’t have in their home countries…of course they would have loved to take Buffalo Wild Wings and Portillo’s fare as well, but that was a bit trickier! My Jaume’s family in Tarrega, Spain had a spacious home, but they did the daily shopping and had so many fresh things–I loved it!

    • Sheila, that is so interesting that your AFS students wanted to take home American goodies. Kids at my school always want me to bring back American candy. Nerds are always a fav request.

  14. That’s what I realized after having spent some time in the US; the average American would get absolutely claustrofobic when having to live in a country like Switzerland or the Netherlands; even people in really bad areas in Flint or Detroit will still live in detached houses (albeit in a sorry state) with a garden around it. Owning a detached house here means you have a substantial income to begin with.

  15. Oh and try travelling those eight hours when being 6’1″ like me, and I’m only slightly above average height for a Dutch male 🙂

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