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How the Swiss are moving back to the mountains

Logo https://stories.swissinfo.ch/how-the-swiss-are-moving-back-to-the-mountains

Intro

Two-thirds of Switzerland is mountainous, but many people leave Alpine regions since jobs are scarce. Could the digital revolution change that? Meet people who have found ways to live in the mountains thanks to modern infrastructure. 

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On holiday at my uncle’s on the Alp in the 1980s
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My family comes from the Swiss mountains, but I grew up in the centre of Zurich, near the opera house. That sounds pretty glamorous.

But life in the city of Zurich was not glamorous in the 1980s. Families avoided playgrounds and parks out of fear that their children would step on an HIV-infected syringe.







On holiday at my uncle’s on the Alp in the 1980s
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Every morning before we left the house, my mother would clear the stairs of used condoms from prostitutes and the paraphernalia of syringes and small spoons from drug users. The open drug scene earned Switzerland international headlines and led to an urban exodus. Those who could moved to the countryside.
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The author on the Alp in 1985
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Our holidays in the Alps stood in stark contrast to our life in Zurich. We camped, baked snake bread over the fire, hiked through the mountain wilderness, ate homemade cheese at my relatives’ Alpine hut, took a dip in the freezing cold water of the well or swam in crystal clear mountain lakes, and played hide-and-seek among the ruins of stone houses in a car-free but dilapidated hamlet. For me, mountains were the epitome of idyll, nature, community and freedom.

But I also noticed the challenges of mountain life. While my high school and university were right at my doorstep, my cousins from less populated areas had to leave their homes at an early age to study or do an apprenticeship in a foreign language. Only a few of them returned home afterwards.

The author on the Alp in 1985
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Today, Swiss cities have become more attractive and are better places to raise families. Drug use is barely visible, the parks are clean and have become trendy meeting places, and the quality of life is high while crime is low.

But when the fog turns the Swiss midlands into a depressing landscape for weeks during the winter while the weatherman predicts sunshine in the mountains, when I get annoyed by the crowds in trams and buses and when I can hardly bear the noise of the traffic, then I start to wonder why I don’t live in the most beautiful place in Switzerland: the Alps.

Like many Swiss, I secretively dream about a life in the mountains, but it is hard to find a proper job there. Mountain dwellers mainly earn their living working in agriculture, tourism and hydropower, which are not exactly my forte.

But digitalisation is currently revolutionising our entire working environment. Thanks to the internet, we can work from anywhere in the world. We visited people who are living proof that digitalisation and modern infrastructure have let them live and work in the mountains.




























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Portraits

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Co-working to the rescue?

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Mountain dwellers have high hopes for digitalisation. They try to use new technologies by launching apps for tourists, digital platforms and fibre optic internet. Many mountain villages have opened co-working spaces and hope for customers from the lowlands. One example is the “Mia Engiadina” mountain hub in eastern Switzerland.

Will co-working be the salvation for mountain regions? We give it a try on a visit the co-working-space in the town of Scuol.

On its website, Mia Engiadina offers a package. For CHF60 ($60) you get accommodation for one night, admission to the co-working-space as well as snacks with local specialities. It sounds tempting. I click on the offer.

I immediately get a friendly e-mail promising that arrangements would be made.

A few days later, I receive another mail. “We have tried to find a suitable accommodation for you. However, as the date requested is in off-season, our offer is somewhat limited. One possibility would be to stay at the Hotel Gabriel in Scuol, but the rate is above your indicated price range.”

In other words, we would have to spend CHF 140 per night. This exceeds our budget.

A friendly gentleman at Mia Engiadina recommends looking for a holiday flat on AirBnb and signs off with Cordials salüds da Scuol, which means “Kind regards from Scuol“ in Romansh, Switzerland’s fourth national language.

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We finally manage to book a hotel for CHF80, board the little red Rhaetian Railways train and head for the mountains.

Admission to the co-working-space is CHF20 per person per day. Coffee and drinks are included.

The interior is very chic. The furniture is made of light pine wood which lends a strong smell to the space, and the room is decorated with red-checked cushions, furs and candles. There is a meeting room, a telephone booth and a rocking chair.
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It’s also remarkably quiet up here. The atmosphere reminds me of my university years when I was studying in the library.

Several people sit and work at tables and there are two staff meetings in the morning. That day, it seems as if Mia Engiadina had ordered the entire staff to the co-working-space that day to avoid giving the impression that mountain co-working is unpopular.

A few pensioners with their laptops seem to be real guests. I overhear a telephone conversation. “I will be on holidays for two weeks,” a gentleman says, and hands over ongoing business to one of his employees by phone.

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In general, the space is well-used and is even outgrowing itself, say the staff. The co-working venue will soon move to a new location with more room. “We were positively surprised by the huge interest,” says Chasper Cadonau of Mia Engiadina.

The organisation’s target groups are tourists, holiday flat owners and companies that send groups of employees to work on projects in the mountains. “For the latter, we offer packages including hikes, food tastings and the like,” Cadonau says.
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Architect Chasper Cadonau is also a “returnee” to the mountains and tells his story.

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In the end, we were productive at the mountain co-working space. I would love to work like this all the time, in peace and with a view of the Alps.

But we won’t be back anytime soon. Our jobs and families are in the “Unterland”, as the German-speaking mountain dwellers call the Swiss lowlands.

For this reason, those who we spoke to on our journey agree: mountain co-working will only revive Alpine regions if the Swiss working environment undergoes a significant change and remote working becomes the rule, rather than the exception.

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Tips and advice

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Our conversations revealed that generalists usually don’t stand a good chance of building up a livelihood in the mountains. It’s better to specialise in a certain field and even become self-employed.

They also agree that you need the guts to give it a go! “Just do it,” Martin Hoch told me. “You won’t lose anything if it doesn’t work out and you have to go back after a year.”
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Summary

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They took a chance

Documentary filmmaker Reto Caduff and journalist Simone Ott lived in big US cities for almost 20 years. They have now moved to a village in Glarus with a population of 500.
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The scattered settlement of Filzbach lies on a high plateau above Lake Walen. At the entrance of the village at the edge of the plateau is an enormous house. The view of the lake is spectacular. This is where Simone Ott and Reto Caduff live.

The married couple lived in the US for almost 20 years. At first, Reto lived in New York and then moved to Los Angeles with Simone. Initially, the two were looking for a holiday flat for occasional trips to Switzerland, but then they found this house which was built by an artist as a studio in the early 1900s. In Zurich, they would not have found a three-bedroom flat for the price of this house.

They liked the house so much that they moved back to Switzerland for good. But it wasn’t the only reason for their return. “For the middle class, Switzerland is more attractive than the US,” Ott explains. “Here, the son of a cleaning lady shares a school bench with the daughter of a bank director. In the US, the rift between rich and poor is getting bigger. I could not imagine growing old there.”

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The house of Reto Caduff and Simone Ott was built by an artist as a studio in the 1910s.
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Digitalisation played a big role in deciding to move since they’re free to work wherever they want. Simone Ott works from home in online marketing. Reto Caduff is a documentary filmmaker and manages a publishing house for photography books.

“I work with modern technologies like Skype, WhatsApp and Vimeo. It enables me to view things and discuss them with others,” says Caduff. “I gave up my office in Zurich. I work from here now.” Every so often, he goes to town for a meeting. The commute takes about an hour and 10 minutes. “We always joke about it because it takes less time to get from here to Zurich than it took us to get to the beach from our house in Los Angeles.”

Caduff does most of his work from home. Sometimes, his colleagues come to see him in Filzbach. “We have to shoot on-site, but the prep work can easily be done up here. We’ve even cut films here and laid out photographs for a book in our living room. That’s pretty cool. It’s easier to concentrate far away from the hustle and bustle of the city where you go out for lunch and it’s half past two before you know it,” Caduff laughs.

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Digitalisation is also important for their private lives. “Social media and Skype make it easier to stay in touch with our friends in the US,” says Ott. They read the New Yorker and other international media on their iPads.

“Apart from digital media, online shopping is important to me,” says Ott. “It allows me to buy things from New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Berlin. It enables me to bring the big wide world to the mountains.”
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Simone Ott serves us spring water – it comes directly from the tap up here. After our chat, she takes the dog for a walk. Life in the mountains has many advantages. Why don’t more Swiss people move there?

“The Swiss are extremely territorial,” Caduff explains. “They stay where they grew up, or they move to Bern, Basel or Zurich.” Mobility as it happens in the US does not exist in Switzerland. The Swiss are more of a commuting society. “I don’t know whether we would have moved up here, had we not lived in the States. You perceive Switzerland differently from abroad and see the advantages of the mountains – the pristine landscape, far away from the overdevelopment of central Switzerland.

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Like many eastern Swiss, climate scientist Jan Sedlacek studied in western part of the country. After graduating, he worked in Canada and Zurich for a few years and started a family. Today, he manages a Zurich-based company with 10 employees from the Engadin valley.
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Christina Sedlacek serves us cheese, sausages, bread, raw vegetables and melon. The children aged 12, 10 and eight come home for lunch every day, just like their dad Jan Sedlacek.

His commute takes about 60 seconds. He shares an office with his father in his parents’ house which is a stone’s throw from their apartment.
This is rather unusual. “Most newcomers commute to work to the city, and only four or five people from my school year returned to the Engadin,” Sedlacek explains.

Sedlacek’s background is also rather unusual. His father is Czech who fell in love with a woman from the Engadin and moved here. He now speaks Romansh.

Jan and Christina Sedlacek lived and worked as researchers in Canada for a few years and later moved to canton Zurich with their children. Going back was not easy. “Winters in Zurich are hard to bear. There is little light and a lot of fog,” Christina says. Winters in the Engadin are significantly colder, but at least it’s mostly sunny.

Staying in Zurich would have been the easier option from a financial and organisational point of view. However, the Sedlaceks wanted to return to the Engadin and wondered how they could make a living.

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Together with a friend from Zurich, Jan set up a company that analyses and processes big data for telecommunication companies.
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The ten employees at Jan’s company work in Zurich, while he works in the mountains. Every two weeks or so, he spends a day in Zurich to attend meetings. All other business is done via Skype.

The Engadin has good infrastructure. The Sedlaceks don’t even need a car. In the nearby town of Sent, there are several grocery stores and the next town, Scuol, is a 15-minute bus ride away. Only one thing is missing: “Fibre optic internet would be great,” says Jan who relies on a fast connection.

Through data analysis, measurements and forecasts, Jan identifies potentially faulty devices for big international customers. His company is highly specialised and globally competitive, despite the high Swiss salaries. It already made a profit in 2016, the year it was founded.

It did not take long for Christina to find a position as a biology teacher at the Academia Engiadina in Samedan. “Most families up here have working mothers,” Jan explains. Even though people up here work a lot, they are not stressed.”

The Swiss work more than the Canadians, and people in Zurich strongly define themselves through their work. “It is much more relaxed up here than in the lowlands,” Sedlacek says. “It’s almost like in Canada.”

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Jan Sedlacek: “This village is a big playground. You can rely on someone to look after the children.”


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Going skiing during your lunch break and working again in the afternoon – that’s possible in Sent. The Sedlaceks can ski all the way to their front door.
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Andrea Koch is a passionate climber and ski mountaineer. A tunnel allows her to live in the Valais mountains and commute to work in Bern. But it wasn’t the only reason for her move.
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Andrea Koch and her partner moved to the Valais for their love for the mountains and the outdoor opportunities. Their hobbies are ski touring, hiking and mountaineering. They used to have to travel by car or public transport to the mountains. But now, she says, “From my house, I can hike in all directions or go to our local mountain for snowshoeing or ski touring.”

Thanks to the Lötschberg base tunnel, which was opened in 2007 and has significantly cut the trip from Valais to Bern, Andrea Koch can commute to work. She is an agricultural assistant for the Swiss Working Group for Mountain Regions.

So the stage was set, but the deciding factor for the move was another one: “We came across an advertisement by chance for a reasonably priced flat,” Koch explains. “We would have never thought of moving here, had this particular estate agent not skilfully advertised this flat on various digital channels. We were not really looking for a flat.”

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Without digitalisation, they could not have imagined a move to the mountains. Koch can only cope with this one-and-a-half-hour commute because she can do her emails, plan their weekend outings or do other time-consuming activities on her laptop on the train.

Digitalisation has also facilitated their integration in the mountain village. Several village associations have set up WhatsApp groups where mountain dwellers exchange information and organise village fairs as well as voluntary work. “The hurdle to write a message via WhatsApp is relatively small. The information flow is better than doing everything by post or telephone,” says Koch.

Being newcomers, they often seek information on the municipality’s website and social media. “This is where we learn things which we would normally never find out from each other. It creates trust.”

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On WhatsApp, the villagers arrange to plough their gardens together.
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Tipps

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Travel journalist Martin Hoch and his wife Sara are originally from Basel. They travelled around the world for eight years, and now they are back in Switzerland. They were looking for the most beautiful place and ended up in Surselva in canton Graubünden.
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The 38-year-old travel journalist and blogger set up his own business. He manages a gallery in the nearby town of Flims.

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Martin and Sara Hoch have seen the world. For nearly a decade, they moved from place to place, worked as diving instructors, refurbished a guesthouse and slept on a sailboat or in a converted van. They popped back to Switzerland for a few months at a time to earn money working for pharmaceutical companies Roche and Novartis before it was time to set off again.

In the countries they lived in, they noticed that the locals did not live in the most beautiful places. Instead of living by the sea or on a picturesque hill, they preferred to live in grey suburbs or polluted industrial areas. “Many don’t have a choice,” says Hoch. “But being Swiss, we certainly have a choice.”

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When they returned to Switzerland, they asked themselves: Where shall we go, where is the most beautiful spot in Switzerland?

The answer was: in the mountains!

There was only one question: How will we make a living?
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Martin Hoch set up his own travel blog. As this does not pay the bills, he also writes travel reports for different media outlets as a freelance journalist.

For these reports, he usually works with friend and photographer Nico Schaerer, whom he met during a trip around South America. Together they identified a niche in the market: they sell the best photographs as large-format fine art prints via an online gallery as well as in two locations in Flims and Zurich.

Martin and Nico use various materials. They print the photographs on high-quality cotton paper for museums, or on acrylic glass. The giant photographs can be up to 14 metres high and are sold to private as well as business customers.

The gallery is a success and it’s growing. Martin Hoch is currently receiving many orders. His wife Sara wanted to set up her own business as a web designer, but she shifted to tourism and will soon start a university course in environmental engineering.

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Whether by car or public transport: the journey from Flims to Zurich takes less than two hours.
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Their freelance existence is only possible because of digitalisation. “I can produce and dispatch my products from anywhere,” says Hoch, no matter whether he’s working on articles, photographs or the design of individual issues of the travel magazine Transhelvetica in his role as chief editor.

Compared to Basel where Martin and Sara used to live, the cost of living in Laax is lower. “Taxes and health insurance premiums are much cheaper than in Basel,” says Martin. “Up here in the mountains, there are also fewer opportunities to spend money on shopping or going out for coffee.”

But since it’s a tourist destination, rents are not cheap in Laax. The couple solved this problem by buying a flat which, due to the current low mortgage rates, has actually lowered their cost of living. “At the beginning, our income was only half of what we had in Basel, but we still ended up with the same amount after deducting our expenses,” Martin explains.

When asked what was required to work in the mountain, he responds, “It’s a mix of technical possibilities and partners who are willing to take on the challenge of cooperating the modern way, regardless of where you are.” Given what could be possible today, Swiss employers are still relatively reluctant to allow remote work. “It’s so simple. You often only need a telephone number and an e-mail address.”

What makes things easier in Switzerland is the fact that the distances between mountains and cities are short. “You can easily get to Zurich for one day,” says Martin. It’s not even a two-hour drive.

When he talks to his friends from the lowlands, they are often concerned about his prospects. “You have to ask yourself what’s more important: the perfect job or an environment in which you feel comfortable,” he says.

Martin and Sara have found their solution. “The quality of life is extremely high up here in the mountains,” Martin observes. “At the moment, I don’t want to leave.”

Whether by car or public transport: the journey from Flims to Zurich takes less than two hours.
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"I take my dog for a walk for two or three hours every day and use the cable cars and hiking trails.” Martin Hoch also likes the wellness facilities at the area’s five-star hotels.
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“The locals are super nice, but we don’t often mingle with them. We live a sort of expat life in our own country. Most of my social contacts are from Basel, Zurich or abroad.”
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Sandra Schneider from canton Basel Country went on holiday with her parents to Ernen in canton Valais in 1973. When she returned as an adult, she bought a holiday home. In 2017, she set up a company in Ernen which supports global companies in implementing VAT requirements in their IT systems.
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We visit Schneider on a sunny spring day. The cherry trees are in bloom. A light breeze is sweeping through the flower meadows around Ernen.

We hike out of the village and up the Galgenhügel, which means gallows hill and owes its name to a well-preserved execution site that saw its last execution in 1764.
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The gallows in Ernen is visible from afar. It is Switzerland’s only gallows that still has its three original pillars, albeit no connecting beam. Sandra Schneider shows us other highlights in the village.

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Schneider knows where to find thyme near the gallows. In spring, she picks it, dries it and uses it to season her meat dishes. On weekends, she attends an herb course where she learns how to pick herbs and cook with them. One type, for example, can be kneaded into your bread dough to make herbal Alpine bread. “Something like this is only possible in the mountains,” she says enthusiastically.

She also enjoys other mountain activities such as cross-country skiing, downhill skiing and hiking. Because she works freelance, she has the advantage of working on Sundays and going skiing during the week when fewer people hit the slopes.

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It’s quiet in Ernen. All you hear are cowbells, crickets and the splashing sound of the fountain.
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Schneider and her partner bought a chalet in Ernen. Since her partner retired, they have spent several weeks in a row there, and she also set up her business that advises other companies on how to deal with value-added tax when doing international transactions. Having a business based in Ernen gets you better tax rates than in canton Basel Country, she says. “And everything is much less complicated and more pragmatic here in Ernen.”

Schneider gets a lot of business, mostly from people she knows from her former professional life as a consultant with a large auditing company and other big firms. “The Swiss like doing business with people they know and can trust,” she explains.

Specialising her business has proved to be a springboard. Companies prefer to outsource work to a specialist rather than training someone within the company. Schneider thinks that it’s best to acquire local know-how and specialise in what is needed in the region as digitalisation also means that women from India or Singapore can generally do the same work.

A combination of commuting and working remotely is the future and offers a chance to move to the mountains. Such jobs will be the norm in the Swiss working environment in the long run, she thinks.

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