From orderly Switzerland to the chaos of Nepal

Never content to be in one place for very long, naturalized Swiss citizen Billi Bierling divides most of her time between the capitals of Switzerland and Nepal. She feels at home in both places.

This content was published on August 5, 2018 - 11:00 (the interview was conducted in writing) You were born abroad, yet you are Swiss as of this year. How did that come about?

Billi Bierling: I have lived in Switzerland since 2001 and even though I love my home turf of Bavaria, becoming a Swiss national was quite important to me.

I have worked as a communications expert for Swiss Humanitarian AidExternal link since 2006. In this job, I represent the Swiss government in many different countries and it always felt odd doing that as a German. It also required a lot of explaining! Switzerland is also where I live, work and pay my taxes. 

As a Swiss resident with a C permit I had a lot of rights but was never allowed to take part in popular votes on things that also concerned me. Now I am able to do it and can enjoy Switzerland’s direct democracy to the full! You have lived for 17 years in Switzerland. What kind of relationship do you have with the country?

B.B.: Switzerland has had a huge influence on my life. Here I learnt how to be a journalist, I met wonderful people who will stay with me for the rest of my life and I learned how to become a professional communications expert.

But it was not all rosy. I also had to endure some traumatic experiences such as a long-lasting injury I sustained when I broke the neck of my femur after having contracted a stress fracture from running. This injury took me out of action for at least two years which was tough for me as I am addicted to sports.

However, an amazing surgeon, the great Swiss health system and my wonderful friends helped me get through it. And my father died of a heart attack when we went for a run together on the banks of the river Aare in Bern in 2006. But all in all, Switzerland has certainly changed my life for the better.

The points of view stated in this article, especially about the host country and its politics, are the interviewee’s points of view and are not necessarily in line with’s position.

End of insertion When did you start to feel Swiss? Why are you interested in Switzerland?

B.bB: I think in my heart of hearts I will always be Bavarian. Having said that,  Bavaria and Switzerland are both Alpine regions and I have never considered myself very different from the Swiss. 

I have always felt closer to the Swiss than let’s say to the people from Hamburg in northern Germany. Being a mountaineer, I love the big peaks and there are plenty of them in Switzerland! How did you get the job with the humanitarian unit of the Swiss government?

B.B.: When I was still working for I interviewed the then head of Humanitarian Aid, Toni Frisch. After the interview, I asked him whether journalistic skills were also needed in the humanitarian world.

He very kindly explained to me how the system of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid UnitExternal link worked. I grabbed the opportunity, applied and was recruited. Where exactly do you live at the moment, what's your life like and what's the food like there?

B.B.: I have been coming to Nepal for the past 14 years where I work for the Himalayan DatabaseExternal link, which was founded by the late Miss Elizabeth Hawley in 1963.

During the expedition season in spring and autumn, I am based in Kathmandu where I interview climbers about their expeditions. The details are fed into the Himalayan Database which is a very useful resource for climbers, journalists, researchers and everyone else who is interested in the Nepal Himalaya.

After doing this job for five years, I really wanted to know what it was like to climb these high mountains, and so I scaled Mount Everest in 2009 followed by four other of the 14 8000m-peaks: Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu and Manaslu. What do you prefer about Nepal to Switzerland?

B.B.: Even though I love the order and tidiness of Switzerland, I also appreciate the absolute chaos of Nepal, and the fact that everything is possible. No matter whether you need a dentist appointment within a few hours or have to have something fixed – it will get done without costing the world.

I have taken broken shoes and tattered rucksacks from my friends back home to Nepal to have them fixed as our craftsmen often refuse to repair old stuff. The Nepali people are innovative and resilient. They can cope without electricity for hours on end, the bad pollution in the capital Kathmandu or the fact that some of the main roads are worse than the worst dirt lanes in Switzerland. What's your impression of Switzerland from abroad?

B.B.: The Swiss have a very good standing wherever I have been, especially when I am on mission for Swiss Humanitarian Aid. The Swiss are highly appreciated for the good quality of their projects as well as the fact that the country is generally neutral.

On my last trip from Kathmandu to Afghanistan, where I was facilitating a workshop for Swiss Humanitarian Aid, I travelled with my spanking new Swiss passport and I have to admit that I felt a little bit proud! Do you sometimes feel like a stranger, or are you well-integrated?

B.B.: I think a European never completely integrates in Asia and as a blond woman, you don’t really blend in. However, I have very good Nepali friends and as much as I feel at home in Switzerland, I certainly feel at home here too.

My main language in Nepal is English, but I also speak Nepali and even though I am not completely fluent, it opens doors and the hearts of the people. Which cultural differences are the hardest for you?

B.B.: The spicy food! After all these years, I’m still not used to the hot food and I love cooking my own European-style vegetables at home without chili!

The lack of personal space and the fact that Nepalis generally don’t say “I’m sorry” is also challenging. You can literally be knocked off your push bike by a motorbike and the motorcyclist will just look at you and drive off. 

I also wish the Nepalis would sometimes be a bit more proactive and fight for their rights. I mentioned the bad roads earlier and even though I somehow admire the Nepalis for just dealing with it, it would also be good if they put their foot down and demand more from the government. What’s the best part of your day-to-day life abroad?

B.B.: My total freedom! I love being able to organise my own day. I don’t have to go to an office like I do when I work at SHA Headquarters in Bern during the winters. I really enjoy my work there, but the fact that I don’t have the freedom to work during my own chosen hours is hard for me.

But please don’t think I don’t work when I am in Kathmandu. I actually put in more working hours than when I am bound to an office. Do you participate in Swiss elections and votes? Via correspondence or e-voting?

B.B.: Since I became Swiss, there have been two votes. Unfortunately, I was unable to get my postal voting papers in time for the first one.

It really upset me as I hated to miss my first opportunity to take part in this great system. For the second vote, which was on the abolition of the licence fee for public broadcasting, I was in Bern and I was very happy to be able to cast my vote. What do you miss about Switzerland?

B.B.: The clean air and Nussstängli (nut sticks)! I usually have them with my almond milk coffee in the morning and I always make sure I have a large enough stock to last me for at least a couple of months.

I also used to miss Swiss cheese but since I started living a vegan diet three years ago, it’s moot.

Billi Bierling

Billi Bierling, 50, was employed by the English service of in the early noughties. She divides her time between Switzerland where she works for the Humanitarian Aid Unit of the foreign affairs ministry, and Nepal where she contributes to the Himalayan Database. She continues to work on a commission basis for as a translator and reporter. 

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