We met in Phibsborough, in Dublin, during the summer heatwave of 1995, the year Clare won their first All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship since 1914.
Ronan and two of his friends from Ennis moved into the house next door to me on the North Circular Road. He worked in residential care, and I was nursing in Mater hospital’s intensive care unit. After taking a degree in marketing by night, I switched to pharmaceutical sales, then medical devices, which is how the opportunity to relocate to Switzerland came about.
The relocation trip went well, and we decided to try Switzerland for a year, which became five years, and now, almost 20 years on, this is home
We had just bought a house near Killaloe, Co Clare, so when I told Ronan about the proposed transfer of my department to the French-speaking part of Switzerland, I hadn’t really considered that we might actually go. However, he immediately suggested we visit Montreux to see what we could be missing.
The relocation trip went well, and we decided to try Switzerland for a year, which became five years, and now, almost 20 years on, this is home.
We spent our early years here getting to know Switzerland, showing visiting family and friends around, learning to ski, eating a lot of cheese and chocolate, and working.
I had transferred from Limerick to Montreux along with department colleagues, so not a lot had changed for me work-wise other than location. Ronan’s social care qualifications, however, weren’t valid here, so he had to change career. Luckily, having recently completed a master’s degree in management, he was eligible to teach and soon found a job in hospitality management education with the company he still works for today.
Around my 40th birthday, I left my job in international marketing and set myself a goal to finally become fluent in French. I had done a million French courses over the years but they had never really clicked for me, so I looked around for a practical, skills-based language programme.
I almost signed up for a diploma in wine appreciation but at the last minute a new canine qualification caught my eye. I threw caution to the wind and signed up to study dog breeding, grooming and kennel management in French for a year. The first weeks were tough, with no one at the training centre speaking English, but they were very patient with me, and eventually, things began to sink in.
As the year progressed, I could see a definite gap in the market for the type of boarding service I had always wanted for my dogs. We travelled frequently and had a wonderful minder who looked after dogs in her home, but we could never guarantee her availability, particularly at short notice or peak times such as Christmas.
Typical large-scale boarding kennels work well for many, but not for our rescue dogs, and I wanted a quieter, low-stress environment for them. So I decided to create what I had always looked for and began searching for a location for a luxury dog hotel.
Word of mouth about our dog hotel spread rapidly among the large expat community locally. To this day, we have never needed to do any form of paid advertising
Now, 18 months on, I had found the perfect premises, obtained the necessary qualifications, permits and permissions, and persuaded Ronan to move from our comfortable, low-maintenance village life to an old farmhouse with a derelict outbuilding halfway up a Swiss mountain, on a steep, narrow boreen.
Ronan had been working full-time since our arrival in Switzerland, which gave us a stable income while starting up, but the project was daunting nonetheless.
Renovations took three years, but we finally achieved what we planned and business is booming.
Word of mouth about our dog hotel spread rapidly among the large expat community locally. To this day, we have never needed to do any form of paid advertising. Expats need services like ours since they travel a lot without a family network locally to take care of pets in their absence. Over the years we have evolved into a “club” facility where the same dogs come to stay frequently and, as a result, know us and each other very well.
Setting up a business in a foreign country and language is challenging. Like any hospitality-related business, dog boarding is labour-intensive and time-consuming. Our busiest times are school holidays, so we work seven days a week at Easter, summer and Christmas, but we wouldn’t change it for the world.
Thankfully, Ronan loves dogs as much as I do and his help is invaluable in the evenings and weekends.
During quiet times, we return to Ireland to catch up with family and friends or they visit us here thanks to direct flights from Dublin to Geneva or Zurich.
We feel fortunate to have had the chance to move to Switzerland. We miss a lot about Ireland – the Atlantic coast, Guinness, friends and family – but we love being in mainland Europe. We live in the vineyards below a ski resort, swim in the local lake every day in summer and can reach Milan, Paris or Venice by train in a couple of hours.
Being self-employed and spending all day with dogs at home in a beautiful Swiss mountain forest is a joy and I am forever thankful that Ronan persuaded me to give Switzerland a shot “for a year”.
I encourage anyone to do the same.
Aileen Woulfe and her husband Ronan Fitzgerald are Irish expats living in Vaud, Switzerland, since 2004. Both are natives of Co Clare, Ronan is from Ennis and Aileen is from Bunratty.
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