The Swiss Onion Trick, or Thoughts on Integration and Repatriation

Last week when Coco was sick, I did the old onion trick. I sliced an onion in half and placed the two halves, cut side up, in the corners of Coco and Theo's room on the floor. The onions absorb all of the toxins out of the air and pull the sickness away from your children. This is what everyone does when their kids are sick, right? 

My friend Johanna, who lives in Switzerland, sent me a message on Instagram remarking how funny it is that we can be a world away from each other, and yet our lives can be completely parallel. So I hopped on Facebook (for the first time in many months) to see what she meant. I saw that her kids were sick, too, and she had written a post that said, "Taking integration to a new level: Putting a chopped onion in your sick kid's room and hoping this old wive's tale will actually work..."

Mic drop. Old wive's tale? Taking integration to a new level?

The onion trick is not an old wive's tale; it totally works. And I had certainly never thought of putting cut onions in my sick child's room as having anything to do with integration.

But, I guess when I stop and think about it, I cannot say that I got this idea anywhere but from the Swiss. And when I think about it a little more, my mom never put cut onions in my room when I was sick as a child. Did yours? Maybe this isn't what everyone does when their kids are sick.

In all the articles I've read on repatriation, many of them point to the length of time one has spent abroad as an indicator of how difficult it will be to return home. But another, bigger indicator, even more important than time, is the degree to which one has integrated into the local culture. I began to suspect a while ago, as I delved into my research on repatriation, that J and I had integrated in Switzerland to a very high level without realizing it. But because I was unaware of the ways I had integrated, I couldn't say what they were. It may sound trite, but reading Johanna's post was an aha moment for me. Suddenly, I had one very clear example of how we had integrated fully and without realizing it. I mean it actually is of some significance that I am here in the US, enlisting Coco's help to put cut onions on the floor of their room before bed.

I still don't feel completely normal since returning from living abroad. Sometimes if Theo or Coco wake me up at night and I can't fall asleep again right away, I'll read articles or essays about or by others who have been through the same thing. Last night was one of those times and I came across an article from BBC Capital entitled, "The problem with being a long term expat." One paragraph in particular really stood out to me:
"Many people start to repatriate when they want to settle down and have a family,” says London-based career performance coach Nikki Thomas, who spent two years working in Hong Kong. “It is the idea of bringing their children up in the same country [where] they were born, and giving their child the same passport – their identity. It’s also that you see your homeland through rose-tinted glasses after you leave, and as the generations get older you want to be ‘home’ for your parents.”
Bingo. It's pretty easy to feel foolish for having left Zurich and for having never recognized the extent to which we were integrating but when I read that, I see it in a whole new light. I felt guilty living far away from family in Zurich. I felt like it couldn't be forever. I felt like it was important to raise Coco as an American and it's comforting to know lots of other expats have felt those same things, and acted on them too. Maybe it's not as foolish as it is natural.

But the article goes on:
The problem is that those glossy expectations may not measure up to reality. The world keeps moving while you are gone. Expats too often underestimate the transformational aspect of living overseas for an extended period. “Living and working abroad can change the employee and their family members profoundly, and in a way they could never anticipate,” says Jenny Castelino, director of intercultural sales and account management at Cartus.
Sigh. We really didn't have the faintest idea what we were getting ourselves into moving abroad. It's not easy feeling the pull to be near family, disillusioned by our 'glossy expectations' and profoundly changed in ways we never could have anticipated. I was genuinely surprised to see that Snopes gave the onion trick a fat red X for "False." Can you believe that?! (Don't answer that.) But it doesn't matter. I'm still going to keep doing it.

(Illustration via Ryo Takemasa)


  1. Ha! Yes. The onions. That and homeopathy, which has no basis in science whatsoever. But I have my little bag full of Weleda bottles and my son was born at the Steiner birth house. Ha!

    I too struggled so much living abroad after the birth of my son in Switzerland. With my two year old it felt like a big adventure, then my son came and I was like--holy crap, these kids won't identify as being American at all. I had a really hard time with that. Everything came pouring down on me: sticky Southern summers spent catching lightning bugs, baseball games, Thanksgiving, the Real Santa Claus (ha!), on and on.

    I often think had we traveled to Switzerland when my son was two and daughter five, that we would not have come back. The hormones of raising a newborn just did me in. I was taken off guard because I basically left home at 18 to live in Europe, traveled a bunch and never really got homesick.

    I think our story there is not over, so I am content now with my life in the US. I can imagine its harder for you guys, with one of you not being Swiss so the door not remaining wide open.

    Repatriation is literally the worst.

    1. The Homeopathy!!! I have loads of Globuli from Weleda still and I SWEAR by the Omida Hustensirup. Incredible. (But I also loved going to France and buying real medicine and today in Target I made a mental list of what I would buy in bulk to take with us if we were to go back because saline solution can't always cut it).

      It's so nice to know you can relate to what I'm saying here. And I love your description of everything pouring down on me. I completely felt it. Those pangs of nostalgia hit hard and deep. Sigh.

  2. This isn't the same, but I also always have a weird unsettled feeling from living on opposite sides of the country. My family is on one side, my extended family on the other, and we're now somewhere in between. I love where I live but don't feel quite settled, as though there will always be a move on the horizon (and there may be). Not sure if thats just the way it will always be or whether I should strive to somehow resolve it. Advances in travel, I tell ya! Creates a whole new conundrum for relationships/community. ~K

    1. Feeling unsettled is the same whether abroad or here and I'm so glad you brought that up. It never feels good to have the sense that something is temporary. I really want to go all in and settle and feel like we can invest in "real furniture" and put time and money and love into building something just right. Is that what you crave, too? It's impossible for me when I think we might be leaving. It really is hard to live like that! Total conundrum, indeed! xx

  3. I stumbled upon this blog recently and really resonate with what you've posted about repatriation. My family of four just returned to the US after five years in Canada. Both my kids were born there (oldest named Theo actually!) and both my husband and I really connected with the culture in so many ways. We moved back for similar reasons to what you described and did miss home while up there... Though now that we're back in the US, I miss Canada and am grieving for our life there! Nothing is ever perfect and there is always something/someone to miss, no matter where we are. Repatriation has really driven that point home for me. Overall I'm glad we are in the US (despite Donald Trump) but we will probably end up abroad again someday!

    1. Oh, good luck with your repatriation, Laura! It's a long and confusing process. For the longest time I could only describe it as feeling unmoored and adrift. I still feel that way, but less. It takes time. Focus on the positive. It sounds silly, but it really does help! Thank you so much for commenting!!! And have you joined the I am a Triangle group? I wrote all about it here: xoxoxoxo


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