Swiss Watching: Inside the land of milk and honey
All travel book should be written this way. Hilarious observations you can only get from people watching. No amount of Youtube can show you these.
The book notes here are scrambles of facts. Read this if you’ve always wondered about penknife, cheese, chocolate and Rolex.
One: The landlocked island, How some mountains made a country
Swiss can appear unfriendly to outside world. Surnames are used and private details are not shared.
Americans are like peaches.
British are pineapples - a little prickly at first.
Swiss, they’re akin to coconut shells.
Partly to do with the Swiss dislike of small talk, but also because for them it’s a pointless conversation.
Brit, coming in from outside: ‘Brrr, it’s so cold out today.’ Swiss: ‘It’s winter.’
When living space is in short supply, private space is even more important.
Most foreign tourists head for the mountains of central Switzerland.
Swiss head east for their holidays: Engadine in the canton of Graubünden and Switzerland’s only national park.
Apero & how to socialize
A drinks party, or Apéro, is one of the best places to get to know the Swiss.
It’s all about saying hello. At any gathering in Switzerland, every guest’s first duty is to go round and greet everyone. Faced with a crowd of people, most of them strangers, you might be tempted to lurk in a corner until you spot someone you know, or wait for your host to make the introductions. Bad idea. What you should do before anything else, and that includes getting a drink, is introduce yourself to everyone.
This custom is possibly the real reason most Swiss people are punctual. It’s much easier to stand around chatting or drinking and so make all the newcomers come to you.
As a host of anything other than a sit-down dinner, you have to provide food that can be eaten easily and quickly; after all, guests need one hand for a glass and the other free for shaking.
Just as there are various words for hello– Grüezi is the Swiss norm.
With friends, the handshake is supplemented by three cheek kisses (right–left–right) and a ‘How are you?’.
Jokes are something to share with friends and family, not for strangers or business meetings.
Leaving a party is, in effect, the same process as arriving but in reverse.
Two: Stepping back through time - how 700 years of history shaped the nation
There are two great national passions: walking and attention to detail.
Lucerne is possibly Switzerland’s prettiest city and most visited. At the final leg of Lake Lucerne, there’s Lake Uri or locally it’s known as Vierwaldstättersee.
The Swiss flag is still square, one of only two national flags to be that shape; the other being that of the Vatican City, home of the Swiss Guard.
If you want to look like a local, then wear a pair of red shoes.
Three: In the land of cocks and crosses - how religion still divides the Swiss
The best canton to live in is Ticino, the Italian-speaking one south of the Alps.
Visit almost any Swiss town or village and there’s one quick way to tell if the church is Protestant or Catholic: look up and see what’s on top of the spire or tower. A cockerel eans it’s a Protestant church, a cross means it’s Catholic.
Swiss Protestants are in the less-is-more camp when it comes to interior décor.
Zurich is the cradle of Swiss Protestantism.
Swiss cities are relatively statue free, unlike their European counterparts, which are littered with stone or metal likenesses of past heroes. This is undoubtedly helped by the fact that the country hasn’t had any monarchs and emperors.
Also due to Swiss modesty and unwillingness to show off.
Neuchâtel is apparently the place with the best spoken French in Switzerland, and also has one of the prettiest old towns.
Swiss are among the world’s most ardent recyclers.
Rubbish is only collected if it’s in the official pre-paid bin bags (in Bern the bags cost about £1 each) or in normal bin bags with the proper sticker.
The most extreme form of recycling in Switzerland, though, has to be the graves. Visit a Swiss cemetery and the vast majority of the graves will be less than 25 years old.
Most graves are rented for 20–25 years.
Dying is a big deal in Switzerland, not least for the broadsheet newspapers, which have whole pages dedicated to the dead.
For many Swiss Germans, Geneva is their least favourite city. It’s due to language. In common with most of the French-speaking part, almost every one of Geneva’s inhabitants refuses to speak German.
Forty years ago over 98 per cent of the Swiss population was Christian; today it’s just over three-quarters. Part of that decline is due to the growth in the number of Muslims. Over 11 per cent of the population now lists no religion as its faith.
Sundays in Switzerland are still sacred.
From 5 on Saturday afternoon to 9 on Monday morning (or even 1 p.m. in some places) shops remain shut and shuttered, so that town centres take on a Mary Celeste air.
The only exceptions are train stations and airports.
In most of German-speaking Switzerland, for example, the last two Sundays in Advent are designated as shopping ones.
In many residential buildings you aren’t allowed to do your laundry on a Sunday, or clean your windows, or do any DIY, while moving house is a big no-no.
Public holidays also count as Sundays.
There’s no such thing as a free holiday in Switzerland, i.e. no holiday replacement.
For the Swiss, Sundays are about rest and relaxation. They love seeing a film, going to church, being with family or going for a walk. Or maybe indulging in a bit of culture. Most museums open, though many close on Mondays to make up for the stress of having to stay open all weekend.
Four: Ask the audience - how the people control the politicians
Collecting signatures is the first step towards a referendum, the basic tool of the direct democracy system.
Each community is almost like a mini-republic.
As capital cities go, Bern is one of the prettiest around.
It was no surprise to the Bernese that in 2007 their city was rated one of the world’s slowest for pedestrians.
Albert Einstein came up with the Theory of Relativity while he was living and working here.
Swiss still hold certain stereotypes: a blond boy in lederhosen for Germany, a black-haired boy in a stripy top for France, and a red-haired boy in shorts for Britain.
To the Swiss, the British are all well-spoken, redheaded tea drinkers who make funny films and good music but can’t cook or deal with snow.
Being born in Switzerland doesn’t count (unless at least one parent is Swiss): second-generation immigrants, known as Secondos, are still classed as foreigners, as are their children and grandchildren.
You can apply once you have lived in Switzerland for 12 years20 (compared to five in the UK21) and even then it can take up to two years, and cost thousands of francs, to become Swiss.
The two largest immigrant groups are from Italy and Germany.
And let’s not forget that Switzerland was the first country in the world where the people, rather than parliament, voted in favour of gay civil partnerships.
Spontaneity is not a Swiss trait, be that dropping by on friends unannounced or making a decision that hasn’t been discussed to the nth degree.
For all its drawbacks, however, the Swiss political system is perhaps the best example of true democracy in action.
The voting process is different from most countries. If you don’t like a candidate, then cross his (or her) name off the list.
You can accumulate votes. Give your favourite candidates a better chance by voting for them twice.
As if that weren’t enough, it’s possible to create your own list using a blank voting form.
Turnout in Switzerland is not very high, hovering below the 50 per cent.
This could be down to voter fatigue, not only from trying to work out the system but from being asked to elect.
It might also be because general elections rarely achieve much.
Five: Wealthy, healthy and wise? How money makes the Swiss tick
Switzerland, where smart casual is a way of life, the only men to wear suits are bankers, lawyers and politicians (and not even all of them).
Invitations almost never state a dress code because that would break two cardinal rules: you are implying that you don’t trust your guests to come dressed properly.
Trust and privacy are paramount in all things Swiss, particularly when it comes to banking.
You don’t question someone’s actions because they have given their word that they’re all above board.
Alongside the big two (UBS and Credit Suisse) are 319 others.
In Switzerland the tax system is essentially the same as the unmanned farm stalls you see all across the countryside, where customers pay the right price for the produce they take. It’s all about honesty. There is no pay-as-you-earn (PAYE) system for Swiss tax.
The income tax you pay is based not only on what you earn but on where you live, with each community setting its own rates. Keep the same job but move house to another town, even within the same canton, and the tax will be different.
It’s payable on capital as well as income, so if you’re unemployed but own land, you could still have to pay tax.
The upside of this is that there are all sorts of legal means to lower your tax bill. Having a mortgage, painting your house, taking the train to work, giving to charity or perhaps the best, eating lunch. If you’re employed, you can claim 15Fr a day because you have to eat lunch away from home.
The government trusts the taxpayer to tell the truth.
This aversion to mentioning money includes not putting any salary details in job adverts.
Switzerland is part of the Schengen area, where there are no border controls, and signed up to the free movement of people, meaning that EU citizens can live and work in Switzerland and vice versa.
“Nazi gold” summarizes why Swiss feels uncomfortable about the Second World War.
Swiss red tape makes all others look pink. They love pieces of paper.
Job applications don’t just need a CV and letter, they need copies of all relevant qualifications and work references.
You sometimes even need to prove that you are unmarried, have no parking fines…
Among all the many papers that every Swiss person needs, some of the most important are for insurance, another Swiss obsession.
Unfortunately, high insurance premiums don’t make the system any cheaper. Every visit to the doctor is charged per minute and drugs cost more than abroad.
Supermarkets are not allowed to sell medicines, not even painkillers.
Pay in cash
Most Swiss pay the old-fashioned way, in cash. Perhaps that’s why they have such big notes.
Swiss notes are rarely tatty or crumpled. They are seldom stuffed into pockets but are treated with care, folded neatly into four or tucked carefully into a wallet.
Then come the 15 security features that make it one of the best-protected currencies.
The favourite security trick is invisible to the naked eye. Two tiny sections contain a mini-biography of that note’s notable person. In four languages. It’s written in such small script that it’s only visible with a mega-microscope, or on the Swiss National Bank website.
With typical attention to detail, each note is 11 millimetres longer than the one beneath it.
Having the notes all the same width also means that they fit more neatly into a wallet.
To the Swiss mind, it’s illogical to pay on credit when you can pay now in cash and keep control of your finances. And if you can’t pay now, then don’t buy it. You rarely see ads for buy-now-pay-later or interest-free credit.
Some people rent the same flat all their lives, but that’s seen as a risk-free, sensible option not a waste of money.
To buy or not to buy is a question the Swiss ask about lots of things but rarely houses.
You sometimes see what looks like four anorexic Martian spaceships sitting in vacant plots of land. These giant wooden or metal tripods show the dimensions of any new building, with their height and position corresponding exactly to that of the proposed building.
Gift-wrapping is free, even on Christmas.
The Swiss live long and prosper. They are one of the healthiest and wealthiest nations on earth, where an average life expectancy of 82.3 years, second only to the Japanese.
Two fat ladies eighty-eight is translated into “zwei dicke Frauen achtundachtzig, deux grosses dames quatre-vingt-huit, due grasse donne ottantotto.”
In German, numbers are all backwards.
You have to ring 117 for the police, 118 for the fire brigade and 144 for an ambulance.
Swiss people use a thumb rather than index finger for number one.
Swiss have their own versions of 70 to 99.
The Swiss, like most other Europeans, use a comma for a decimal point, so inflation might be 3,4%.
An apostrophe is used to replace the comma in numbers over four digits, so this book might sell 1’000’000.
Swiss millard is 9 zeros. Swiss billion is million million (12 zeros).
On time: Half seven ‘Halb sieben’ actually translates as 6:30.
Many Swiss tend to use the 24-hour clock.
Six: War and peace - How neutrality and militarism can co-exist
43 per cent of Geneva’s population is not Swiss.
The Red Cross (IKRK) pops up a lot on TV.
Muslim countries objected to the cross, so as early as 1877 the Red Crescent was recognised as the alternative.
Lake Constance is shared with Germany and Austria, with the borders somewhere mid-water.
At one spot, the one with the best view of the lake below, there is even a little park named in his honour, complete with a large sculpture.
It is a highly militarised country, with uniformed soldiers a common sight in trains and towns.
From the age of 20 a Swiss man must complete 260 days of compulsory military service,12 either all at once or in annual stages.
Then he remains in the reserves for a further ten years.
Defence annually eats up over four billion Swiss francs, 8 per cent of the national budget.
When a Swiss man is away on his military service, the government pays 80 per cent of his salary.
Each soldier gets his own rifle and two uniforms to keep at home.
Switzerland has by far Europe’s highest rate of gun suicide.
Everyone has access to a nuclear shelter. For most people it’s in their cellar, as almost every Swiss building has a cellar.
Most house a laundry because most Swiss don’t own a washing machine.
Precisely 13.30 on the first Wednesday in February the siren system is tested.
Perhaps the worst side of Swiss militarism is the export of weapons.
Switzerland exports more arms than Israel, has the world’s fourth highest gun ownership rate and spends more on swords than ploughshares.
On a daily basis you are faced with gaggles of capital letters, as every noun begins with one and then almost everything is reduced to its initials.
A lorry is known as an LKW, short for Lastkraftwagen, whereas a car is a PKW, or Personenkraftwagen. Thankfully, the more obvious Auto is also used.
Trains (and timetables, merchandise and tickets) are emblazoned with nine letters: SBB CFF FFS.
G, which becomes hard in German, so changes from gee to gay.
If I say ay I mean A but the Swiss mean E, which I pronounce as ee but for a German speaker that’s an I.
I now clarify if German or English letters are being used when spelling out loud, especially with people.
In German Y and J are oop-see-lohn and yot, but then a J becomes a Y in speech.
On a Swiss keyboard the Y and Z are swapped over, Z being used much more in German and French than English.
Seven: Made in Switzerland - How Swiss products have conquered the world
Swiss import what they need, create something out it, then export it for profit, helping to make the Swiss economy one of best.
The penknife’s initial popularity was largely down to American GIs taking them home after the Second World War.
Ten things you never knew were Swiss:
- Division sign
- Stock cubes
- Aluminium foil
- Electric toothbrush
- Toilet duck
- The Birdie Song
When it comes to time, flexibility is rarely an option.
My favourite watch shop is Christ, which is far more affordable than Gübelin.
When you decide on your child’s name, it has to be approved by the civil registrar.
Perhaps the biggest annual event is Carnival, or Fasnacht. It’s the one time when the Swiss really let their hair down, wear outrageous clothes, get ridiculously drunk and generally behave like the rest of Europe.
Most Swiss children walk to school, often unaccompanied.
The tastiest season is autumn when the Swiss go wild for anything with pumpkin, venison and chestnuts.
Eight: The hole truth - How the cheese is really made
Cheese is where tradition and technology really do come together.
The origin of Emmental cheese: Langnau.
On most maps Langnau appears followed by i.E. which stands for Langnau im Emmental.
The best thing Swiss supermarkets sell: hard-boiled eggs, cooked, cooled and ready for just such occasions. They’re even called picnic eggs on the packet.
While Emmental is the archetypal German-speaking Swiss cheese, Gruyère is its French-speaking counterpart.
Fondue is Switzerland’s gift to the culinary world.
Only tourists eat fondue when the thermometer hits double digits.
Equally shocking, no doubt, is having to watch visitors break the three cardinal rules of eating fondue:
- your fork should never touch your tongue, teeth or lips
- don’t drink anything fizzy, especially sparkling water
- the bottom of the pot is encrusted with a layer of cheese. Never leave ‘la religieuse’ uneaten, but don’t take it all for yourself. For most Swiss it’s the best part
There are two big supermarket chains in Switzerland and between them they account for almost 90 per cent of Swiss grocery shopping: Coop and Migros.
Migros is cheaper and more down-to-earth competition.
Coop sells alcohol and tobacco, Migros doesn’t.
Migros shuns many multinationals, preferring to have own-brand products and local produce.
Tilsiter, the silky Tête de Moine, has its own special knife to shave it into delicate, curly rosettes.
Appenzellerland; few people outside Switzerland have. But within the country, it’s famous not merely for its unique cheese.
Swiss people eat an awful lot of Swiss cheese: an average of 15.9 kilograms per person each year.
There is a much stronger reason why the Swiss eat so much locally made cheese: they are fiercely protective of their country, its traditions and everything it produces.
Swiss strawberries or cherries may be twice the price of Spanish imports.
Becoming a good guest
When it comes to eating with the Swiss, there are three crucial factors to being a good guest: the invitation, the present and the participation.
A Swiss invitation means that the guest pays nothing.
Going Dutch in Switzerland is only an option when both parties have agreed to meet for the meal, rather than one inviting the other.
Move up to an Apéro and you could take a bottle of wine (preferably Swiss) or some flowers.
Guests do not help in Swiss homes. Never set foot in the kitchen, never refill drinks, never clear the plates from the table.
Swiss Mother’s Day is always on the second Sunday in May and it’s a big deal. Gifts consist of giant bouquets, pot plants, gaudily wrapped packages or pristine white cake boxes.
Nine: Where the chocolate comes from - How there’s more to Swiss food than fondue
Vevey has a chocolate factory for visiting. It does have one other claim to fame: it’s the last resting place of Charlie Chaplin.
Broc, the home of the oldest brand of Swiss chocolate still in production today, Cailler. It’s the best chocolate because of using real milk, not powdered.
Coop Prix Garantie chocolate comes second overall. It’s a quarter the price of its rivals.
For them it’s not only a breakfast staple, it’s also a snack lunch, a light supper or a quick way to fill the odd gap. In Switzerland muesli, or Birchermüesli as it is generally known, is the Martini of foods, to be eaten anytime, anyplace, anywhere.
Swiss German habit of ending words with -li.
There swiss favourites that might be hard for foreigners:
- Rivella, a soft drink made from milk serum.
- Marmite of the fizzy drink.
- Aromat, an all-purpose seasoning made by Knorr.
It may look like any other sausage, but to the Swiss it’s the national sausage, revered and devoured in equal measure.
Cervelat is a prerequisite at any barbecue.
The intestine traditionally used for the skin being banned by the European Union.
Fruits and veges
Every third apple is grown in the eastern canton of Thurgau.
Ask for the menu and you’ll end up with the dish of the day rather than a large piece of cardboard.
Salad in Switzerland is not just a predictable starter but a source of endless fascination at the dinner table. And it’s all down to a lettuce leaf.
Swiss salads tend to have whole leaves.
There’s a Swiss etiquette of eating whole leaves.
First, you get a firm hold on a single leaf with your fork. Then, using your knife, carefully fold each side of the leaf into the middle.
Once all four sides are folded, you have a small, manageable parcel that can be eaten elegantly.
What we call French dressing (oil, vinegar and other optional extras) is Italian dressing in Switzerland.
The typical Swiss way of eating a mixed salad is also a lesson in cultural norms. They don’t mix and match but take a little from each at a time.
Swiss eat early. At home most Swiss have finished eating by 7.30.
Do not, under any circumstances, just raise your glass and say a general ‘cheers’ to everyone round the table.
When Swiss people say cheers (or zum Wohl in German), it isn’t a three-second communal affair. Like almost everything else in Switzerland, it’s a deliberate procedure based on age-old traditions.
Each person must clink glasses with every other person, must make direct eye contact followed by that person’s first name.
No one should take a single sip until everyone has finished toasting everyone else.
En guete (bon appetit)
Do not let one morsel touch your lips, do not even lift a fork, until the host has led everyone is saying En guete (or bon appétit or buon appetito).
When the stranger next to you on the bench starts his sandwich, you say En guete;
When the bill finally arrives, you can just put down the right money in cash and walk away.
Ten: Climb every mountain - How trains and tourism go hand in hand
You can find out an exact timetable for any trip anywhere in the country, even if it means using three or four different types of transport.
Enter any two points into the SBB website and up comes a full itinerary. You can buy one ticket to cover the whole journey.
International trains are integrated into the national timetables.
To offset high prie of train tickets, for 165Fr (about £110) anyone can buy an annual railcard that gives half-price fares across the entire country.
Three return trips between Bern and Zurich and it’s paid for itself.
There’s an annual pass that covers the whole country. Known as a GA, short for Generalabonnement.
The only exceptions are most mountain trains and cable cars, which are merely half price with a GA.
Dogs must pay half the standard fare, or at least the owner must, and be accompanied; no Lassie adventures allowed.
Bikes also need tickets for trains.
The platform numbers for every train are set once a year and printed on the timetables.
There are two reasons the Swiss come to Interlaken. One is to change trains. It is the Clapham Junction of Switzerland,
The other reason is one of Switzerland’s best tearooms. In a country that loves its coffee-and-cake breaks, there can be few better places to have one than Café Schuh.
This is the Lauterbrunnen Valley, one of the most dramatic in Switzerland.
The pleasant thing about driving in Switzerland is that everyone seems so polite. Road rage is not a Swiss concept.
At bus stops, train platforms and cable-car stations it’s a free-for-all. Scrum down, elbows out and every man, woman and child for themselves.
When places are limited, such as in cable cars, the only ones waiting in an orderly fashion are the tourists, who’ll probably end up not getting in.
Know where to park. Street parking is colour coded with lines painted around the spaces. Stick to white and you’ll be alright, though blue will sometimes do.
If you see a space with CAR painted on it, do not park there as, despite evidence to the contrary, it is not a space for cars.
When traffic lights are present, as a pedestrian you should wait for the green man before you cross, even if there is no traffic.
Perhaps such confusion is down to a Swiss zebra crossing having yellow stripes, not white.
Eleven: Seeking Heidi - How one little girl is a national icon
The area of Graubünden known as ‘Heidiland’ in tourist-board marketing speak.
Switzerland is as fictional as Heidi, a place that exists because its people believe in it.
Being an atypical nation doesn’t mean that it has no identity, more that it’s harder to identify. Perhaps that’s where Heidi comes in.
Heidi is in fact the perfect personification of the Swiss nation: loving and giving to her nearest and dearest but wary of foreign complications,