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A Swiss Watching A-Z of Switzerland

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“Guest blogger and soon-to-be LA visitor, Bern-based Diccon Bewes, will share some of his fun observations about Switzerland through the eyes of a British expat. Diccon’s stories remind us “Auslandschweizer” about our homeland’s quirkyness – and offers a “Swissness Manual” for non-Swiss friends trying to figure out why we Swiss are sometimes… …quirky.

Save the date: on Thursday, June 23rd, Diccon will be at the Beverly Hills Hotel for an evening hosted by the Chariman and Board of the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce. Come join us, have fun, and take home a signed copy of “Swiss Watching” (email SwissCenterLA@gmail.com for pre-purchase opportunity at a special price)” M:)

Thanks to the lovely people at Helvetic LA, I have a chance to introduce you to some of the many intricacies and oddities of Swiss life. And there are many. So many, in fact, that I thought I’d start with the basics – a crash course in all things Swiss, from A to Z, that was one of the most popular posts from my blog last year. Next time, I’ll get down to details. And there’s nothing the Swiss like more than attention to detail.

A is for apple. Ever since William Tell shot one off his son’s head, the humble apple has been the unofficial national fruit. Switzerland grows over 276,000 tonnes a year, more than the UK, and certainly has endless ways of cooking them.

B is for bureaucracy. Swiss red tape makes all others look pink. The Swiss love pieces of paper, which is just as well as there is a piece of paper for everything. An application for almost anything needs at least three different ones, all stamped and signed by the relevant bureaucrat.

C is for canton. Switzerland isn’t really a country; it’s 26 countries that give a good impression (to the outside world) of being a single entity. Each of the 26 cantons has its own laws, flag, parliament, taxes, number plates, and police.

D is for draughts, aka the source of every illness known to man. The Swiss hate draughts more than they hate the Austrians. Houses are hermetically sealed, train windows kept shut on even the hottest of days, and every stiff neck or cold is blamed on a draught. That famously healthy Swiss fresh air should only be enjoyed outside. With a scarf and without wet hair.

E is for Emmental, where the cheese comes from. A lush green valley near Bern, Emmental is synonymous with Swiss cheese in general, even though it’s just about the only one with holes.

F is for fondue. Switzerland’s gift to the culinary world is more than a cheese-and-wine party in a pot; it’s a national institution. Of course, most Swiss only eat fondue when there is snow on the ground but restaurants are happy to sell it to tourists all year round.

G is for Gotthard. It was control of the Gotthard Pass that gave birth to Switzerland in the 13th century. The wiggly road remains at the heart of the nation’s psyche, even if the Swiss are currently digging the world’s longest tunnel right underneath it.

H is for Heidi. It says a lot about Switzerland that it has a fictional five year-old as a national icon. Created by Johanna Spyri, the little girl from Graubünden has been delighting children and promoting Switzerland since being published in 1880.

I is for island. On a map, Switzerland may look like a landlocked country but it is in fact an island. At least it is in the minds of many Swiss: surrounded by the EU, cut off by its mountains and almost never going with the flow. Welcome to the landlocked island!

J is for Jungfraujoch, the pinnacle of the Swiss railway system. Literally. At 3454 metres up, it’s the highest railway station in Europe and has been since it opened in 1912.

K is for knives, of the Swiss Army variety. The little red penknife is a standard-bearer for Swiss design, but it’s not just for soldiers; hardly any Swiss man leaves home with his trusty tool to hand. But the knives used by the Swiss army are actually big and green.

L is for languages. Switzerland has four national ones – German (64% of the population), French (20.5%), Italian (6.5%), and Romansh (0.5%). Swiss Germans have their own spoken dialects, referred to collectively as Schweizerdeutsch, with German itself used for anything written or official.

M is for mountains. Over 70% of Swiss land area is made up of mountains, mainly the Alps but also the Jura. And with 48 peaks over 4000m, Switzerland is the Roof of Europe. All very scenic but it doesn’t leave much space for the population to live in.

N is for neutrality. Switzerland doesn’t take sides, and hasn’t done so for centuries. Instead the Swiss sit on the fence and stay out of their neighbours’ wars. Being neutral isn’t always easy but it can be easier than making a decision.

O is for on time. Late is a four-letter word in Switzerland where punctuality is a way of life not an abstract concept. Maybe it’s because of the watch industry. Never being on time wouldn’t exactly be the best advert for a country that makes some of the world’s best timepieces.

P is for politics. Switzerland is a people’s republic, thanks to direct democracy. That means a referendum every three months, the right to challenge any law, the chance to initiate new legislation – all adding up to the people having more power than politicians.

R is for Röstigraben. The imaginary line, which gets its name from Rösti a fried-potato dish more popular with Swiss Germans, is more than a linguistic divide between French and German speakers; it’s often visible in social policy, European issues, way of life and sense of humour.

S is for Swiss. In a multilingual country using the English adjective is often easier. So the national airline is called Swiss, the phone company Swisscom, the national lottery Swisslotto, and there are private companies like Swiss Life or Swiss Re.

T is for Toblerone. Cailler may be purer and Lindt pricier but there’s one brand that stands out, purely because of its shape. The triangular chunks from Bern are for many people (especially duty-free shoppers) the embodiment of Swiss chocolate.

U is for UBS. There are an awful lot of Swiss banks (328 different ones), but they rarely get a good press, what with secret accounts and black lists. Banking in Switzerland is more than the headlines, it’s about trust and stability, something which UBS is re-learning the hard way.

V is for victory, though it’s ages since the Swiss had one of those (except in skiing or tennis). But Switzerland wasn’t always so anti-war. It used to invade, kill and conquer with the best of them. Then it gave it all up for peace, and the chance to make money from letting others do the fighting.

W is for William Tell. He’s probably more myth than man but thanks to a German play and catchy bit of Italian music, Tell became a Swiss national hero for fighting the dastardly Austrians. These days he’d be called a terrorist and asked to leave the country.

X is for xenophobia. Not everyone in Switzerland is Swiss (21% of the population are foreigners) and not everyone who is Swiss is happy about that. Cue the nasty side of Swiss society: black sheep posters, minaret bans and long waits for citizenship. Luckily not all Swiss agree or vote for the SVP.

Y is for yellow. Everyone knows that Swiss trains are fab, but what about the Postbus? The ubiquitous buses have 783 routes to reach the parts the trains can’t, and a famous three-note horn taken from the Tell Overture. And they are yellow.

Z is for Zurich. Not the capital but the largest city, and the face of urban Switzerland: compact, efficient, cosmopolitan, exciting. At least that’s what its inhabitants think; the rest of Switzerland sees them as brash and arrogant. Or maybe they’re talking about the Germans who live there.

And if you’re wondering what happened to the Q, well there is no Q in Switzerland. Or more precisely no queue. For such a polite society, the Swiss can’t queue. They may shake hands at every possible opportunity but when it comes to waiting in line, the gloves are off, particularly when waiting for transport. 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. Getting off a tram can be a battle against the tide of humanity getting in, even when there’s enough time and space for all. After six years in Switzerland, I’m still struggling to overcome my (very British) innate desire to form an orderly line. It’s a daily battle.

Written by swisswatching

January 15, 2013 at 9:00 am

Posted in Little Switzerland

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Of Sundays and other holy-days

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“Guest blogger and soon-to-be LA visitor, Bern-based Diccon Bewes, will share some of his fun observations about Switzerland through the eyes of a British expat. Diccon’s stories remind us “Auslandschweizer” about our homeland’s quirkyness – and offers a “Swissness Manual” for non-Swiss friends trying to figure out why we Swiss are sometimes… …quirky.

Save the date: on Thursday, June 23rd, Diccon will be at the Beverly Hills Hotel for an evening hosted by the Chariman and Board of the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce. Come join us, have fun, and take home a signed copy of “Swiss Watching” (email SwissCenterLA@gmail.com for pre-purchase opportunity at a special price)” M:)

Public holidays in Switzerland can be a minefield for unsuspecting visitors – and expats. It’s all down to holidays being mainly holy-days and so can pretend to be Sundays. And Swiss Sundays are still special.

Today is Auffahrt. At least it is in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland; elsewhere it’s Ascension or Ascensione. Whatever you call it, it’s a public holiday to celebrate Jesus going home. Before I came to Switzerland, I was a bit hazy about the exact timing and meaning of Ascension Day, mainly because it isn’t a holiday in Britain. We have the much catchier name of Early May Bank Holiday, which does exactly what it says on the packet. But in Switzerland, most public holidays are still linked to religious festivals, so I discovered that Ascension Day falls 40 days after Easter, and is the moment when Jesus ascended heavenwards – which in German has the unfortunate name of Auffahrt. It can’t have been much fun up there for Mr Christ. Given that Heaven as we know it is essentially a Christian concept, it would have been empty back in 33AD as there were as yet no dead Christians. And not even St Peter to welcome you through the Pearly Gates, as he was still down on earth fretting about having betrayed Jesus three times in one evening.

In Switzerland, public holidays count as Sundays, at least in terms of what’s allowed and what’s not. So that means no shopping, no DIY, no recycling and no mowing the lawns. And since public holidays are classed as Sundays, it follows that the day before them are Saturdays (even if they are not), when shops have to close earlier than normal. For example, yesterday was a Wednesday officially but was actually a Saturday in shopping terms because the next day was Ascension Day, which is a holiday, ie a Sunday. So this week is rather odd: essentially it’s Monday, Tuesday, Saturday, Sunday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And because Ascension Day is always a Thursday, many people make a bridge by taking a day off for a four-day weekend. The shops are open, but many offices aren’t.

But when the day before a holiday is actually a Sunday, then it clearly can’t be a Saturday, since Sundays take precedence. This only happens for the date-related holidays, such as Christmas, New Year and Swiss National Day (1 August), which wander through the week. Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and 31 July are thus logically always Saturdays, except when they fall on Sundays, when they stay as Sundays. Got that? The thing is that even if you live here, you tend to forget that the day before a holiday is a Saturday, meaning that the shops shut early. Just ask my friends who ended up at the convenience shop in the petrol station at 6.30pm on Wednesday evening, looking for food.

At least Ascension Day is recognised by all the cantons. There’s nothing worse than planning a day-trip somewhere, only to get there and find that that canton has a holiday the next day, so everything shuts early. Sorry, there is something worse: to get there and discover everything is shut because it’s a holiday. It happens. All the time, because this is Switzerland, where cantons decide their own holidays, so some have more than others.

The best canton to live in is Ticino, the Italian-speaking one south of the Alps, and not just for the food. The rest of Switzerland may cast aspersions on the Ticinese work ethic, or lack thereof, but it’s surely no coincidence that this is the canton with more public holidays than any other. In addition to the seven recognised nationally, the Ticinese get another eight to enjoy. That’s fifteen in total. They need to celebrate events like Epiphany, St Joseph’s Day, Labour Day and the day of Sts Peter and Paul, the canton’s patron saints. I wonder how much flats are in Lugano; maybe I should move there and get almost two more weeks off work?

Written by swisswatching

June 2, 2011 at 3:44 am

Posted in Little Switzerland

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Counting in Switzerland is not as easy as 1-2-3

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“Guest blogger and soon-to-be LA visitor, Bern-based Diccon Bewes, will share some of his fun observations about Switzerland through the eyes of a British expat. Diccon’s stories remind us “Auslandschweizer” about our homeland’s quirkyness – and offers a “Swissness Manual” for non-Swiss friends trying to figure out why we Swiss are sometimes… …quirky.

Save the date: on Thursday, June 23rd, Diccon will be at the Beverly Hills Hotel for an evening hosted by the Chariman and Board of the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce. Come join us, have fun, and take home a signed copy of “Swiss Watching” (email SwissCenterLA@gmail.com for pre-purchase opportunity at a special price)” M:)

Last time I started with a crash course in all things Swiss, from A to Z; this time we take a look at numbers. After all the Swiss are a nation of bankers, so numbers are really, really important to get right.

Counting in a foreign language should be simple. Even if you are linguistically challenged, you can probably stretch to un, deux, trois from memories of school French. Or uno, dos, tres if you’ve ordered beers in Mexico, and you might even manage eins, zwei, drei from countless war films. But this is Switzerland, where nothing is that easy.

The issue is not the four national languages, which are rarely used together unless you happen to be playing multi-lingual bingo. The real issue for number novices is how the Swiss use their numerals. In English numbers, such as a phone number, are generally given one digit after another: 021 364 7958 (all Swiss phone numbers, including mobiles, are ten digits) is said as ten distinct numbers with a slight pause between the three groups; a Swiss person would say that same number as zero twenty one, three sixty four, seventy nine, fifty eight. Not too difficult to follow in English, but in German, numbers are all backwards: zero one-and-twenty, three four-and-sixty, nine-and-seventy, eight-and-fifty. Try writing that down as someone is saying it and you’re bound to get a wrong number. Literally. You have write the 0, then leave a gap and write 1, go back to the 2, jump over to the 3, over again to the 4, back to the 6 and so on. Perhaps this numerical leap-frog is a way of breaking up otherwise scarily long German numbers. That 364 would be written as dreihundertvierundsechzig, which is quite a mouthful.

The Swiss way of saying phone numbers may sound odd, but at least as far as the languages go, it’s logical. The same can’t be said for the emergency numbers. In a country where everything is organised to the last millimetre, how is it possible that each emergency service has its own number? That’s federalism taken to ridiculous lengths. You have to ring 117 for the police, 118 for the fire brigade and 144 for an ambulance. What happens if dial the wrong one by mistake? And if you need a policeman and a fireman, do you have to ring twice? It would be laughable if it weren’t so serious. Plus the fact that directory enquiries is 1818; no surprise then that the fire service sometimes get callers asking for the number of the local pizzeria.

Making things more complicated are the local variations on normal numbers. Until I came to Switzerland I thought I could count in French and German. To show that they are really Swiss and not some French province, the people of Romandie have their own versions of 70 to 99. In the bingo example above, the frankly ridiculous quatre-vingt-huit would be huitante-huit in Switzerland. Easy once you know. As for Swiss German numbers, they were the cause of one of my more embarrassing expat moments. A new-ish friend was giving me his mobile number, patiently saying each number in turn, but in his Bernese dialect. The last three digits were 896, which sounded something like achty-noony-sechsy. All I heard was ‘afternoon sex’. Unaccustomed as I am to being propositioned in the vegetable aisle of Co-op, my face went as red as the tomatoes behind me. Apart from my blushes, the other outcome was me learning Swiss numbers asap. The one that still makes me smile is five: in Bern the ugly German fünf becomes füüfi, which brings a little white poodle to mind.

But there are even bigger number problems than that. The Swiss, like most other Europeans, use a comma for a decimal point so that my book costs 29,90 francs. To complicate things further, an apostrophe is used to replace the comma in numbers over four digits, eg it might sell 1’000’000 copies. Then, if it were to sell a thousand times that number (ie 1 plus 9 zeros), in Switzerland that would be a milliard; a Swiss billion is a million million (1 plus 12 zeros). That means it’s scarily easy to mistranslate numbers, and that much harder to become a Swiss billionaire. Such a hurdle hasn’t stopped a fair few of them achieving exactly that status, something I can only dream of, once I have counted sheep in German to fall asleep.

Written by swisswatching

May 5, 2011 at 2:11 am

Posted in Little Switzerland

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