Advice about Moving to Europe

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Living in Europe vs. Bay Area

Oct 2014

I would like to hear from parents who can offer perspectives on raising children in the Bay Area vs. Europe.

My husband is European and I am a Bay Area native, and we have always lived in Berkeley together. Our baby is about one year old, and we plan to have a second child. I am certain that my husband will have the chance to take a job in Europe in the future, and we will face the question of whether or not to move. Most likely it would be to a major city in Germany, Switzerland or Austria - in other words, countries with free childcare, free college, excellent benefits and high quality of life.

Although I've lived abroad before, and love to travel, a part of me that is resistant to moving away from the Bay Area, because all my family and friends are here. I have an established career that would have to end or shift drastically if we moved. Plus there is a new language to learn and a new life to get used to. Not to mention that the Bay Area has many fabulous charms that I would miss a lot. But in spite of those things, I can't help but think that our quality of life would be so much better in Europe, even when putting aside uncertain factors such as salary and exact location.

In Berkeley, we both work 24/7 for the slim chance at ever affording a home. Our weekends are non-existent, we rarely take vacation, and we feel guilty every time we spend money that could be saved towards the down-payment on a house. I work from home because daycare is so expensive, and someday we'll have to decide on public vs private schools for the kids.

For those of you who have lived in Bay Area and Europe - am I being idealistic in assuming that life in Europe would be better for a young family? At the very least, that we would have more work-life balance? And perhaps even a better life for our children? I would love to hear your thoughts/experiences!

Mamma wants best for her family

I'm Swiss and am temporarily in the bay area, so I'm hoping I can give you some clarity with respect to my own country. Switzerland was, in fact, recently voted the best place to grow up ( and I think part of it is well deserved. However, your expectations don't sound entirely realistic. It's true that Swiss people generally do take paid vacations, and that schools are great, public, and free (college is more like $1000/year, but that's almost free compared to here - but they were at some point discussing adding out- of-state tuition for foreigners, so you should check on that maybe). Childcare however is - as far as I know - MUCH more developed here. I haven't heard of free childcare in Switzerland (but I've become a mom here, so maybe I just don't know?) and in general, gender roles are much more traditional in Switzerland than in the bay area. The overwhelming majority of my friends had stay-at-home moms (in the 1990s- 2000). Real estate too is much more expensive in Switzerland than it is here, and renting is more common than here, I think (I'm no expert, and I have no idea what your profession is so it may or may not be affordable for you).

Don't get me wrong - I love life in Switzerland and I hope to go back there sometime myself with my family, but I think there are a few specific expectations that may not be entirely realistic. I've just written what went through my mind reading your message, and haven't researched my claims very deeply, but maybe it can give you an idea on specific questions to look into. All the best! Michele

Hi there, I lived in Lugano, Switzerland from ages 11-16. The town is relatively small---no Zurich or Bern. I went to boarding school there, but the school had a lot of 'day students' (who lived in Lugano and attended our school, too) whom I was friends with. I often hung out with them, went to their houses and saw how they lived as locals. I also traveled extensively through Europe--mostly Switzerland, Italy, France and Spain. I loved it there. The air was cleaner; there was no traffic (this was in the late 90s but I hope it's still like that today), public transportation was a dream, and everywhere you looked had an amazing view of the lake and mountains. That said, I currently live in Berkeley with my partner and three school-aged kids and I don't think I would prefer to live in Europe, or at least in Switzerland. Here's why: I prefer to live in a place that is conscientious about race/class/gender/sexuality dynamics. I am full Filipina, though I was born in the US. I remember growing up in Switzerland feeling very odd that I wasn't white. I also wasn't as affluent as most of the people who went to my school or even the day students. I guess what I'm trying to say is there was a lot of privilege in the community I lived in during those years that seriously alienated me. I didn't attend public schools while I was in Switzerland so I can't speak for their curriculum, but here in Berkeley I do love how my daughter, who is at BAM, learns a lot of social-emotional skills and they have conversations about privilege and equity. As a woman of color, it's important for me to be in a community that recognizes and respects differences. My kids are bi-racial, and I want them to grow up in an environment where they won't feel ashamed (like I was) about their heritage. I don't want to make any assumptions about your racial/ethnic/class background, but I'm just offering a bit of my experience. It could be different in a bigger city; I honestly can't say. Best of luck to you! Chesa

Yes, living in Europe with a family is less stressful than the Bay Area. We lived in Paris for nine years and had both of our kids there. We were so used to the near-free, top-notch healthcare, full-time daycare for $200 a month, living without a car, amazing public transit and trains, and 7 weeks vacation that we didn't really 'get' that all of that would be gone in the Bay Area! I can't speak for all European cities, of course, but in Paris, there is bigger sense of collectivism and less of the competitiveness we feel in the Bay Area, ie everyone uses public healthcare, most people use public school (though private school is affordable and becoming more popular), and fewer super-rich and super-poor people. In France at least, people are much more social, in that you have friends over a lot for big meals, the pace of life is slower, you go on vacations to the seaside with friends etc. I found parenting in the Bay Area vs. France much more isolating, competitive, and no one has time to hangout because they are so 'busy'. We've been back nine years now, but I still feel it was a mistake to come back in a lot of ways. We've burned through so much money in the Bay Area just to stay afloat and worked 50 weeks a year, evenings, weekends etc. We had much more of a family life in Europe, whereas here we work, drive to soccer and birthday parties on the weekend, and then work some more! The one big downside? the job market in Europe can be tough. If your husband gets a good job, I say go for it. Your life will be so much less stressful - and it's Europe! Paris, at least, is located such that you can travel to London, Barcelona, Amsterdam etc on the weekends and take short flights to Prague, Istanbul, Rome and more. Geez I sure miss the travel! Here you fly for hours and you're still in the US expat no more

This is the poster who lived in Paris for nine years. One thing I forgot to add is you probably won't miss the 'charms of the Bay Area' much. I was born and raised here, so I missed my family (though they loved to visit), but I did not miss the Bay Area at all. European cities have amazing food, culture, public transit (no more hours stuck in traffic), architecture, museums etc. Plus, most European countries are far more liberal than the US, and most people are left-leaning and interested in politics, culture, books, films, travel etc. If anything, the Bay Area will feel provincial to you once you've lived in Europe. Good luck with your choice! expat no more

I currently live in Denmark with my husband (who is a Danish citizen) and our baby daughter, and we are likely relocating to Berkeley for my husband's work. Although I haven't raised kids in Berkeley, we did live there for a few months while I was pregnant so I have some familiarity with the area. You mention that you have lived abroad, so I apologize in advance if I am telling you stuff you already know but I'd like to offer you what I see as the major pros and cons of living in Europe with a young family. As with all things, there are trade-offs. As a super liberal New Yorker, I think I idealized Denmark (and Europe in general) before moving here. The reality has been quite different. Also, in some ways it is possible to generalize about Europe and in other ways it really isn't. One of the biggest differences between the countries, and one that will have a direct impact on your life, is their immigration policies in regards to non-European spouses of European citizens. It's actually harder than one might think to move to many countries in Europe even when married to an EU citizen and you will most likely have to be a temporary resident for some period of time (often 5 years) before becoming a permanent resident. There may be language or financial requirements as well depending on the country. So then, on to the pros and cons. I would say the major pros are, as you suggested, a better work/life balance and not having some of long term struggles and stresses with saving for college and retirement. Also, there is paid parental leave, more affordable childcare and decent public healthcare. However, it is a bit of a myth that Europe has 'free' childcare, healthcare, and education. Here in Denmark for instance (and I am pretty sure in Germany as well) we do have great public daycares that are subsidized but we still pay around $600 a month. That doesn't sound like a lot, but you have to consider that we also pay the highest tax rate in the world (like 60 %). We also have to pay for our prescription medication and things like physical therapy out of pocket. Both Denmark and Germany have supplemental private health insurance. And remember, that's on top of exorbitant tax rates. Also in Switzerland, like Denmark, everyday purchases are significantly more expensive. You will have less spending money, you will have fewer possesions, you will buy a lot of used goods. Which isn't all bad. But it will likely not be easy buy a house in any major city in any of the countries you mentioned (except for maybe Berlin). I would say the biggest shock for me about Denmark was that many Danes actually send their kids to private schools and those provate schools are subsidized by the governemnt. This is creating a bad trend of schools in immigrant areas becoming ghetto-ized. Which brings me to the major cons of living in Europe: there is a palpable and growing anti-immigrant sentiment. As an American, it won't be directed specifically at you, but you will very much be affected by it regardless. Especially if anyone in your family isn't white. Europe is not a great place to be a minority at the moment, in my opinion. If you appreciate the diversity of the Bay Area, you will find Europe lacking (except for maybe, again, Berlin). Also, you mention that you would likely have to stop work or change your career. Because most women in Europe work, the standard of living is based on two-income households. You might find it hard to get ahead with only your husband working for an extended period. Anyway, I could write all lot more but it's late here in Denmark:) If you want to ask me any questions directly I'd be happy to answer as best I can. corrie.