RTE Pinoy meals at the train station Geneva

A triumphant journey of a Filipina

The canton of Vaud and Geneva in Switzerland is home to about 5,000 Filipinos, according to the Philippine Permanent Mission in Geneva. That sounds like a big enough market for a ready-to-eat (RTE), home-cooked style Filipino food and beverage (F&B) business. But as they say, in a traditional F&B setup, it is always about location, location, location. And what better location could there be, to cater to hungry Filipinos on the go, than the Gare Cornavin or the Cornavin (train) Station, a convenient take-off-point to Geneva’s city-center with a connection to any other Swiss or European city.

Perry Ramirez of chA chA Food Corner at Gare Cornavin, Geneva, Switzerland

chA chA: The Filipino food store at Gare Cornavin

At Cornavin Métro Shopping, a floor down from the street level of the Cornavin train station in Geneva, you can satisfy your craving for Filipino food. Though the spot is not marked by an ‘x’ on a map, it would be hard to miss. The Philippine flag would be waving at you from a distance and as soon as you approach the store front, you would be greeted by a familiar smile from Perry Ramirez, co-proprietress of chA chA and the Filipina behind this food stall.

From what we’ve heard, this shop is not only frequented by our overseas Filipino workers living in and around Geneva. A number of Philippine public servants and diplomats alike have stopped here on their way to international meetings and conferences, presumably somewhere in Nation, for their fix of Filipino fare.

Here, our kababayans can have a taste of home with empanada or siopao for as low CHF 4 (P224 at an exchange rate of CHF 1 : P56). Filipino desserts like sapin-sapin, cassava cake, puto flan, biko, and maja blanca are sweet delights at CHF 6 (P336). A pares meal or rice paired with your favorite ulam (loosely translated as "viand") such as adobo, laing, or tulingan, and even your favorite -silog trio, the longsilog (longganisa, sinangag, at itlog or, sausage, fried rice, and egg) can be had for CHF 12 (P672). So with CHF 18 (P1,008) you can expect a complete Filipino meal, that is, a serving of rice, ulam, and dessert good for one person. If you would like to save a bit more, you can do what most of the Filipino patrons here do, buy a "solo ulam" (meaning, just a full order of viand good for two without the rice) for CHF 15 (P840), cook rice at home and split the cost.

High Cost of Living in Switzerland

At this point, if you are reading this from Switzerland, you would probably be delighted to learn of this Filipino find because other meal options could just be so much more expensive. But if you are reading this from the Philippines, I bet you would have been focusing on the parenthetical marks with the peso cost conversion that shows how much having a single meal in Switzerland may cost. But that is just the reality of it. Our fellow Filipinos may be earning good money here, but their cost of living in Switzerland is also very high.

Depending on which statistical data source you look into, you will find that Switzerland would always be on the top three spot, if not the number one spot, in the list of countries with the highest cost of living.

If you think earning a living here is just “peanuts,” do know that a snack of peanuts here would set you back P280 (CHF 5), that is more than half the P537 daily minimum wage in the Philippines (and that is the Metro Manila rate; daily minimum wage is even lower outside the Metro and for agricultural workers).

But even knowing that it will not be a walk in the park, still our kababayans continue to take their chances and embrace the hazards and difficulties associated with life overseas for that shot at being able to provide a good life for the families they leave behind.

A Filipina’s journey, part 1: From nurse to domestic helper

Perry's overseas journey began in Saudi Arabia in 1985 where she worked for almost three years as a professional nurse for well babies before returning to the Philippines. What made her decide to leave her nursing profession in Saudi was the insufficiency of the pay. She was not a direct hire but only under a sub-contract then and not earning that much. So she decided to just come home and be with family.

But being one in a struggling family of 10 children, the dream of a good life not having been quenched by her initial attempt, she aimed next to find greener pastures in Italy. At that time, to live and work in Switzerland was not in her plans. But as luck would have it, she was denied an Italian visa. Her agent from the Philippines helped her get to Switzerland instead. That was 30 years ago, in February of 1992.

It was not easy in the beginning. Perry knew not a soul in Switzerland and she could only hang on to faith as she prayed for signs and provisions.

Nung una halos bagsak ang mundo ko, kasi nga nagtratrabaho ka as a professional tapos bigla kang bagsak as a domestic helper. Unang hawak ko ng vacuum cleaner, talagang naiyak ako. Pero naalala ko yung mga utang kong naiwan sa Pilipinas, at yung kagustuhan kong maihaon ang magulang at pamilya. Gusto kong mabago ang buhay namin, at ipinangako ko na hindi maranasan ng anak ko at ng magiging anak ng anak ko ang hirap.

Looking back, with all that she had to endure and the sacrifices she had to make, still she counts herself fortunate and grateful to have eventually landed good jobs. In 1992, she became a housekeeper for Kathy Lee-Brynner, the fourth and last wife of Yul Brynner (famous for his portrayal of King Mongkut in the stage musical, "The Kind and I"). She was at their service for about one year and eight months. In 1994, she moved on, still as a domestic helper, for a rich Italian employer.

But it was through Filipino cooking that Perry found the employer who would truly understand her plight. One day in 1996, for an anniversary celebration at the church she was attending, Perry cooked bopis, a Filipino dish made of finely chopped pig innards cooked in onion, tomato, garlic, pepper, and spice. It was then that she met a Filipino diplomat working at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). She went on to work for this kababyaan as a kasambahay for almost 11 years, from 1996 to 2007.

Though it may seem that Perry took two steps back career-wise, it was only to prepare herself to leap forward. While she worked as a domestic helper, she set her eyes on attaining Swiss citizenship, a goal which at that time could be achieved after 12 years of residence in Switzerland (note that with the Swiss Citizenship Act of 2018, this requirement has been reduced to 10 years). With the help of her former Filipina employer, she prepared what she needed to cover all the bases: She secured a studio apartment, maintained a bank account, got a valid Swiss insurance coverage, put her legal documents in order, learned French, and adapted to the Swiss life. And from the moment she became eligible, literally the day after completing the 12-year residence requirement, she immediately applied for citizenship. The whole application process took about 17 months for Perry.

One of the most thrilling moments of her life in Switzerland was the day she received that call from immigration, setting a schedule for a house visitation and an interview that was expected to be conducted entirely in French. It was a good thing that Perry has an aptitude for language learning. Even then, she never left anything to chance and still bought a book to prepare for the French interview. Et voila! She passed and had her oath-taking in September 2010. Through all this, Perry still proudly declares: “I may have a red passport, but I am still 110 percent Filipino.”

A Filipina’s journey, part 2: From domestic helper to entrepreneur

After years working as a domestic helper, Perry wanted to give herself a “promotion” in life. She thought of enhancing her cooking skills and of putting up an Asian store. So she studied again and took a course in Home and Gastro Formation which, according to her, is somewhat similar to the Hotel and Restaurant Management (HRM) course in the Philippines. Including training, it took her two years to complete (from 2015 to 2017).

A couple of chance encounters and seized opportunities later, she found a business partner, and the chA chA Food Corner and Perry the entrepreneur were born. Her packed lunch and dinner concept designed to be in sync with the regularity of rhythm of the trains at the station, was well received not only by Filipinos ploughing the Cornavin station in Geneva but also by other Asians and non-Asians alike.

Perry turned 62 on the April 5 and I found her still at the store, working instead of having a birthday break.

Perry Ramirez at chA chA food stall, still working on her 62nd birthday (April 5, 2022)

With her dedication and hard work, she has truly come a long way. Now, she hopes to help inspire others to achieve the same.

Sa mga nangangarap mangibang-bayan at makikipagsapalaran, unang-una kailangang matibay ang iyong dibdib na makipagsapalaran. Manalangin sa Diyos, magtipid at maging masinop. Kailangan talagang mag-save. Ipunin mo ang pera para kahit anytime kang umuwi, ready na.

When asked about the upcoming elections, this is what Perry has to say:

“We came here with one aim—para sa pamilya. All my earnings in 30 years have all gone to the Philippines. Kahit sino pang mamuno, gusto ko lang maging maganda ang buhay ng bawat Pilipino.”

National election in the Philippines will take place on May 9, 2022.

Itchie Yap is a creative writer based in Europe. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Join her advocacy in supporting the Global Filipino community and share her stories.