Singaporean mama Nicole Huang tells us about her family life in Basel, Switzerland where they go on camper van trips to the mountains and lakes. At school the focus is on real skills and less on academic skills in the early years.
In our latest Overseas Mama series, Singaporean Nicole Huang talks about her life in Basel with her husband and twin daughters Sienna and Alexis. She shares her admiration for the Swiss education system where kids learn through play and are given small responsibilities from even a young age. Schulweg (‘the way to school’) is an integral part of the school-going experience where kids as young as five years old go to school by themselves. ‘I like how the focus is on real skills and less on academic skills in these short early years as they have their whole lives ahead of them to pick up academic skills.’ Get green-eyed when you hear about their family picnics by the Rhine and weekend trips to the mountains and lakes in their camper van. Nicole says this is her third time that she has moved out of Singapore and every single time, she has developed a renewed sense of appreciation for what we have in Singapore. Read on for Nicole’s insights!
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up in Singapore and have very fond memories of a carefree childhood mostly spent at my grandma’s kampung with my cousins as well as at playgrounds with very little supervision. Upon finishing university in Australia, I returned to Singapore and got into the world of media and advertising.
A decade later, my twins came and I joined educational technology startup Saturday Kids in Singapore to lead their marketing team. In December 2019, I moved to Europe with my husband and kids, first to Austria, and then to Switzerland, where we’re based now. Right now, I work at IWC Schaffhausen and I’m just very grateful for the ability to bring all these aspects of work and life together in such a beautiful country.
Outside of work, I very much enjoy photographing and spending time outdoors. Now that the warmer months are here, my husband and I love to take our campervan (and our twins!) along for camping adventures in the region—there’s so much to explore.
What brought you to Basel, Switzerland? How long have you been living overseas?
The short answer is we moved here for work, and have been here in Basel for 1.5 years now (2.5 years in total in Europe). Both my husband and I left our jobs in Singapore at the end of 2019, having decided to relocate the whole family to Europe. We would first use Austria as a base since that’s where my husband is from.
We both wanted to get out of our comfort zone in Singapore and were up for a family adventure/sabbatical. I personally also believe it is through change and doing things that make us uncomfortable that would help us grow, learn and relearn. Since there’s never a good time, we ended up leaving when our rental lease was up. This was, of course, before we knew about Covid-19 and two months later, the world started locking down. Our joint job search spanned from the DACH region (Germany, Austria, and Switzerland) up to Denmark and our pact was: the family would follow the first person who finds a job. We ended up in Basel for my husband’s job in October 2020 and we’ve been here ever since!
My office, though, is in Schaffhausen, which is more than one hour away from Basel. While we now have to partly return to the office, I’m really thankful for a flexible work arrangement (Covid-19’s silver lining!) that has enabled us to both work full-time and juggle the kids’ schedules without any additional family support. There have been a lot of bumps and unknowns along the way but as always, looking back, we have no regrets. We love the experience of living and working in Europe, and it would not have been the same had we just come here for holidays.
Favourite aspect about living in Basel?
Being able to take our campervan out on a whim for a weekend camping trip to the mountains or the lakes down south when the weather is good. There’s a lot of logistics to work around and so little space in the small campervan for the four of us but we still love it. We love the outdoors and we are surrounded by amazing nature here.
And the worst part?
Nothing major, perhaps just wishing that we are an hour closer to the Alps because a lot of our weekends are spent driving in that direction! Basel is situated in the northwesternmost part of Switzerland, relatively flat and it takes about 1.5 hours to drive south to get to the mountains.
How do you think parenting in Basel differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
What I’ve seen first hand is with regard to kindergarten and Primary 1 kids. In general, the ecosystem seems to give every single party i.e. kids, teachers, schools, and parents more room to breathe without any one party putting too much unnecessary pressure on the other. The focus is on letting kids learn through play (in its truest form and not just a tagline) as well as learn to be independent.
In this ecosystem, dirt is good, there’s no such thing as bad weather (only bad clothing!), and the tiniest of age-appropriate responsibilities are given to kids from a young age. For instance, kids are expected to take care of their own belongings at the garderobe (dressing room) as well as change into their respective weather-appropriate gear by themselves. I like how the focus is on real skills and less on academic skills in these short early years as they have their whole lives ahead of them anyway to pick up academic skills.
In addition, compared to Singapore, the Swiss education system has a unique concept of “schulweg”, or the way to school. Across the country, most kids attend kindergarten or school within one kilometre from their homes and you would see kids as young as five years old going to school by themselves. The traffic police is involved in educating kids about traffic rules and parents are highly discouraged from driving their kids to school. Schulweg is an integral part of the school-going experience in Switzerland where children acquire traffic skills, discover their surroundings, and learn independence. I’m especially impressed by one of my children’s kindergarten friends who started cycling to school by herself in all weather conditions when she turned six.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
Pre-kids, I spent close to a decade working at media agencies in regional roles based out of Singapore, including a two-year stint in New York City in between. Those days were often long, but extremely fulfilling and fun, spent with some of my best colleagues who have now become friends.
After Sienna and Alexis came along, I wanted a change in perspective and more flexibility, and I spent a year or so freelancing before landing a full-time role at Saturday Kids which I loved. Then came the move to Europe where I ended up taking a year off to resettle and re-establish myself professionally. Now I consider myself very lucky to be in a job and company that I really like and where I can continue to grow professionally despite not being fully proficient in German (still working on it though!).
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Basel?
It depends on your definition of “kid-friendly”. Most places here are very chill, I can’t speak for fine dining restaurants since we’ve not been to any!
If you are looking for a place to eat with a big playground, the restaurant at Tierpark Lange Erlen is quite popular—which also means it gets very crowded during weekends. The playground is pretty awesome, and if you’re lucky, there’s the occasional bratwurst and gelato pop-up stands in the warmer months.
Top five places in or around Basel you would recommend to parents travelling with kids.
OK here goes…these are mostly activities suited for the warmer months!
Tierpark Lange Erlan – Find a bicycle rental and cycle along the Wiese until Tierpark Lange Erlen. Let the kids run loose at the big playground (lots of climbing in true Swiss style) and enjoy something to eat either at the restaurant I mentioned earlier (or the pop-up stand if it’s there). If you still have time, the animal park is free to enter.
Fondation Beyeler – Take Tram 6 and head to this world-class art museum with a gorgeous garden all year round. Twice a year they hold a Family Day during which there would be tons of fun activities for kids. Apart from that, there are also regular kids’ activities you can sign up for. After the museum, take a short walk to Naturbad Riehen, a natural swimming pool designed by renowned Basel-based Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, for a refreshing dip.
Schützenmattpark – A lovely big park in the city close to Zoo Basel that has many playgrounds for all ages. It is a great spot to chill and relax while the kids run around. Large green lawns as well for games, picnics, and grills!
Picnics by the Rhine – A picnic anywhere along the Rhine is great on a sunny day. There’s a nice spot by Roche-Turm with a small shallow bay which is nice for kids.
Nature trails – Drive to the mountains outside of Basel, take a cable car ride up to the top, and go on a nature trail with the kids! In fact, many of these trails have themes and are designed for kids to have fun (think treasure hunt!). Some trails also have grill spots along the way – firewood is often provided so just bring your own food and firestarters, and you’ll have a delicious grilled lunch with a very scenic view. Plus it’s fun for everyone! Try Fruttli Trail at Melchsee-Frutt and Saaniland at Gstaad.
Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?
To them, Singapore and pandan cake are synonymous so ever since we moved here, I’ve had to learn how to bake one from scratch! We have tons of photos and photo books around the house from their first four years in Singapore and it really helped to remind them of their early years there.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Basel
– for a child:
For a child that is, say, six years old or older, I think a children’s version of the Swiss Army knife like this one from Victorinox could be great for little outdoor explorers, boys and girls alike. It’s a very common gift here for young kids, used under adult supervision of course!
– for a mama friend:
Frankly, I have yet to find a gift that’s 1) not too kitschy, 2) not a book (still a great option though), and 3) not chocolates. Perhaps a Wickelfisch? It’s a waterproof swim bag that keeps clothes and valuables dry, and somehow functions as a float while you swim in the Rhine (or anywhere really). A great summer essential for their next visit to Basel.
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
All the typical challenges around not having additional family support definitely ring true but also knowing that their childhood’s cultural point of references will be very different from mine. Since so many of our memories are linked to food, songs, and places, how does one keep ‘Singaporean-ness’ alive when one doesn’t grow up there?
On raising multilingual children …
I think it helps to start small, keep it fun, and integrate the language in everyday use. We find the one-parent-one-language approach useful. At the moment, Alexis and Sienna speak English and German fluently. German is the primary language in schools here and Swiss German is also very common. With Mandarin, I’ve gradually switched to using that now as the primary language when it’s just me and them. Their comprehension is fine but we are a long way away from them conversing confidently in Mandarin.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?
Sambal for sure. I love that tagline from The Coconut Club, “Emergency Sambal- open in case of bland food or conversation” and am looking forward to bringing back a few of those! For the kids, we love to stock up on books about Singapore in Chinese and English. There is a really lovely Chinese bookstore at Bras Basah called Maha Yu Yi. Alexis and Sienna love Japanese artist Toshio Iwai’s 100-story home picture book series, translated into Chinese, beautifully illustrated and full of details. The other independent bookstores that I like include Hook on Books and Littered with Books.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
Definitely ginger pork—very thinly-sliced pork tenderloin with thinly-sliced ginger cooked in fragrant sesame oil. In Singapore, our wonderful helper used to cook this dish which we all loved and now mastered. It’s on regular rotation and definitely a hot favourite not just for us but also for our entire extended family in Austria!
What’s the one thing you would miss about Basel if you moved away?
First thing that comes to mind would be the woods in our neighbourhood where I love to do my runs all year round, especially in winter and especially when it snows. That said, I think it’s less about a specific thing but more about the memories attached to places, events and moments here.
What is the first thing you do each time you come back to Singapore?
No surprises here since I even dream of hawker food so you’ll find me at a kopitiam eating my favourite mee pok tah with extra chilli and black vinegar.
What do you dread most if you are moving back to Singapore?
This is the third time I’ve moved out of Singapore and every single time, I develop a renewed sense of appreciation for what we have in Singapore. It always seems more illuminating when you are living abroad than when you are at home – so I would dread it if I lose that perspective one day after moving back, but hopefully not!
How do you think Singaporeans can benefit from living overseas?
I think we all learn a lot more about ourselves when we live overseas. When living in a foreign country, where many things are new, we tend to develop a more acute awareness of everything around us and of ourselves. Living overseas also helps one to see Singapore from new perspectives and in my case, my Singaporean identity seems to grow stronger every time I move abroad.
Check out our other Overseas Mama pieces: