A woman sits on a park bench and studies Canadian geography so that she can pretend she isn’t American. A mother nags her daughter in bad German, reminding her daughter to take her “breasts” (Brüste) on a hike instead of her brush (Bürste).
These are just two of the scenarios played out in short videos produced recently by the Zurich-based Action Together Zurich (ATZ) group which boasts 300 members including US expats, Swiss people concerned about the US political climate, and a small number of people from other countries.
The videos, which feature US and Swiss volunteers, take a humorous look at the pitfalls of being an expat. All are based on real-life experiences and all have a very serious message: they are designed to get US expats to register to vote in the all-important US midterm elections in November.
“The reaction to the videos has been overwhelmingly positive,” ATZ cofounder and executive board member Alexandra Dufresne tells The Local.
“We were worried Swiss people wouldn’t understand the humour. But they totally get the play on words. And the fact that we had a Swiss director for the videos and Swiss comedian Eddie Ramirez on board [for the Canadian mittens sketch below] also probably helped,” she says.
The reaction from Americans living in other countries has also been heartening. “Expats everywhere understand the difficulties with language and cultural misunderstandings,” says Dufresne of the campaign which has even received attention from USA Today.
The crucial importance of the midterms
A teacher of US law who has lived in the canton of Zurich for the last 20 months, Dufresne says many people don’t understand just how crucial the midterms are.
The vote will see all 435 seats in the Congress and 35 of 100 Senate seats contested. The Congress is a key part of the checks and balances that protect the US political system and the midterms have a special role in maintaining the separation of powers, she explains.
“Arguably the midterms are more important than the presidential elections because congressional districts are small and your vote counts more. Your member of congress is also directly accountable to you, and you may even know that person,” she explains.
And while expat participation in midterms is traditionally low, there is a lot of interest in November’s vote.
“Everyone I know is focused on the midterms, partly because of the possibility Donald Trump could be impeached and because the Democrats could take more seats in Congress limiting the executive’s powers” Dufresne says.
The ATZ was founded in early 2017 over concerns about Donald Trump. But Dufresne stresses the campaign to get people to vote is strictly non-partisan.
“At lot of people have a vague sense they should vote but need to be engaged in the conversation,” she says, explaining that the video campaign links to a registration website.
“The process of registering is not seamless, but it’s not onerous either,” she says.
Positive experiences of Switzerland
On a personal note, Dufresne says she has found the experience of living in Switzerland fascinating.
“People here always want to talk to you about the United States and Donald Trump – even strangers on the tram: it’s the third or fourth question they ask,” she says.
“Then there are my students, of course. Teaching US law to Swiss students you get some great questions. They all want to know how Trump could have been elected.
“I always thought Europeans would be arrogant about Trump but people here know the potential dangers of right-wing populism and they are compassionate,” she says.
“I enjoy talking about these issues. Switzerland and the United States are very different but both countries take democracy very seriously. There are a lot of parallels between the two constitutions and there’s a lot of mutual respect.
“For many Swiss people it is concerning to see what is happening in the United States,” Dufresne says.