UK diplomat’s advice: ‘Go out and meet folks’

Tom Matlock, Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy in Bern, arrived in Switzerland this year following postings in South Korea and Sudan. While sharing typical expat concerns over the high cost of living and restrictive Swiss shopping hours, he tells The Local that new arrivals should make an effort to form friendships.

UK diplomat's advice: 'Go out and meet folks'
British diplomat Tom Matlock enjoying the Swiss Alps with wife Kate.

You haven’t been in Bern for very long. How are you settling in?

I arrived in July, from Sudan, which was quite a big change. I’m settling in very well. Everyone’s been very welcoming, both in the embassy and outside. 

Are you getting to know people?

Yes, we have done. It’s different from the previous posting, which was quite a difficult environment. Naturally people are pushed together as expats living in a place like Sudan, whereas here you have to get out and make more of an effort because people here have very much their own lives. But we’ve already got a few friends that we have made here through mutual contacts, which has been great.

Including Swiss friends?

We actually had some good Swiss friends on our posting to Sudan and they’ve introduced us to a few people. I think it always helps when you arrive if you are able to have introductions, because getting to know people on your own initiative is always harder.

How did you prepare for coming here?

My circumstances were slightly unusual in that I came in at very short notice. I only knew that I was coming about two weeks before I arrived. So the preparation time for me was quite short, particularly because I had to pack up all my belongings in Sudan and finish off my work there. I didn’t have as much time to prepare as I would have liked. 

Since I arrived I’ve tried to read up as much as possible but also to talk to people. I find that’s the best way to get to know a country, to get out there and meet with people, be it people I come into contact with through work — people in the Swiss government — or going out and exploring the country and talking to people in different parts of Switzerland, or talking to my colleagues here in the embassy.

How much exploring have you managed to do?

Quite a bit. We’re only going to be here for a year so rather than say, "we can do it next year",  we’ve set out to try to explore as much of Switzerland as possible. We’ve been to a lot of the ski resorts, including for hiking in the summer. We went to Engadine and we’ve been to the Jungfrau area quite a lot as it's not too far from where we live. And we’ve been to Zermatt and the Verbier area. We love to go hiking and skiing, and now that winter has come we’ve already spent a couple of weekends on the slopes.

So the outdoors is one of the things you are enjoying most about living here?

The outdoors is definitely one of those things. My previous posting before Sudan was South Korea, both places that are very interesting but very, very different from the UK. So it’s nice to be in a country that is very similar to the UK in a lot  of ways.

Going into shops and recognizing products on the shelves was probably the best thing for me so far. That and the public transport. We travel a lot by public transport and it’s fantastic, much quicker than driving in most instances.

Is there anything you’ve been struggling to adapt to?

The early closure of all the shops! And the non-opening on Sundays. I’ve turned up a couple of times to try and buy a bottle of milk or something to find the shop shut. I’ve adjusted now to that but it was a bit of a shock.

And also being told that I couldn’t do my recycling on a Sunday. One of my colleagues had been fined for doing so, and I was warned quite early on not to try and recycle on a Sunday. 

What advice would you give to your successor?

Things are expensive here, that’s one thing we’ve found. But just get out and explore and do as much as you can. If you worry too much about the cost of things you’ll never do anything.

And it’s possible to explore Switzerland without spending huge amounts of money. But getting out there and seeing as much of the  country as possible would be my top advice. 

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