My Swiss myth – die Schwiizer

Two cervelat, the national sausage, being cooked over a fire

die Schwiizer = them Swiss folk

The Swiss people I talk about here refers to Swiss German people, for the simple reason that they were the portion of Switzerland’s population that I got to interact with and observe the most. There may be some traits shared by all Swiss people, whatever language they speak, however I’m certainly not qualified to muse on that. So please keep that in mind; when I wrote this post I was all wrapped up in talking about “die Schwiizer”, forgetting completely that I had only been lucky enough to be a fly on the wall in one of Switzerland’s cultural climes.Β  [For those who don’t know about the country’s diversity as I didn’t before making my first Swiss friend, there are four language/culture groups: German, French, Italian and Romansh.]

From what I’ve read and heard about people’s impressions or assumptions of Swiss people, I oddly feel that what I have to say may be controversial.

On the whole, to me, they were calm, friendly, natural people.

One of my favourite Swiss people of all time is my guitar teacher, Stefan. He is in his 40s, big burly guy who almost always wore a plain black t-shirt, bald head. Very quiet manner but his eyes always seemed to be steadily assessing you. Like he was trying to figure you out but… not “trying” at all. Pure rock and blues man, he goes in for the “old” stuff and doesn’t know many of these new bands today. He has quite a slow, unrushed pace. Always offered me coffee. Never worried about the time, never checked his watch to say the hour was up or anything, and often we could go about an hour and a half to two hours. He would say that I could stay and keep practising in the shop even after the lesson had ended. He’s not trying to persuade anyone. He suggests, considers, listens. He had just the nicest voice too. He advised me to keep finding new guitar teachers every now and then, to alternate private learning with learning from mentors. Books, listening to music, going online. He said using all of these was good. And he would always lightly remind me “it just takes time, it doesn’t come like that”. πŸ™‚ I later found out that he was in the process of possibly buying a building so that he could run a vegetarian restaurant where he could also have people come in to do gigs. (He’s like, secretly one of my heroes. I mean… I’m not vegetarian in the slightest, it’ s not about that. He was just so thoroughly lovely and patient and genuine and gentle-spirited.)

I don’t think Swiss people are reserved. I think what people think is reserve is actually them being careful while they’re paying attention to you. I think with me at least it could be partly language-related – they’re making sure they understand me and then can properly formulate what it is they want to say. But even without the language hump, i think it’s just… trying to be considerate and wanting to respond in a genuine way. So they take some care when they listen to you, to know what they will say in response.

I chatted once with a girl from France who was working in Switzerland, in the French-speaking portion. She said that the Romande (=french-speaking Swiss) are firmly of the opinion that Swiss Germans are “cold”. She didn’t agree at all with this, and I don’t either. I found them quite warm actually. I mean, it’s not an effusive warmth. They’re not like the old woman in a cafe in Donostia (Basque Country) who patted my back after she entered, commenting on how I must be cold sitting in the doorway like that. Or like the sweet Italian woman on the bus who rested her hand on my shoulder and stroked the top of my arm after I tried to figure out what it was she was asking me and how I could help her with her problem. But my experience is that more often than not they’re quite ready to be helpful, and… I dunno, I didn’t find them hard to talk to.

This reminds me of my experience of another people who have a reputation for being unfriendly, New Yorkers. I received a lot of kindness, interest and help from people in New York, my overall memory of them is a really happy one. But if I had been scared off by the first piece of help and advice I received, which was delivered in an impatient- and intolerant-sounding voice, I might have missed the genuine concern for my safety she had and I might extrapolated even worse things about New Yorkers from this “attitude”. That they were straight-talking, brusque, and waste no time in saying exactly what it is they think or asking something they’re curious about, had nothing to do with coldness. Similarly, that Swiss Germans have a strong, deeply ingrained sense of social etiquette doesn’t mean that they are cold. Taking off the wrapping is the best bit πŸ™‚

Whatever the definition of cold is I never felt socially rejected there, that they couldn’t be bothered talking to a stranger or didn’t accept me as I was. A few people randomly talked to me on the train or on the street. Had no experiences hinting at racism, and only one skeezy guy experience. The other guys who did hit on/compliment me were quite lovely and respectful about it. It was remarkably freeing to move around Switzerland if I think about it, I was so much just “a person”. I wasn’t made aware that I was a foreigner or a girl or a young person or an Asian or a Westerner.

Honestly, I had never dreamed of going to Switzerland. Of all the places I imagined myself travelling to, Switzerland was not one of them. I had been there once before, for exactly one night. I saw little more than the hostel and train station and airport of Geneva. Well no I did walk around a little bit in the neighbourhood that evening, and.. wasn’t particularly inspired. Buildings and rich people having dinner and big cars. I can’t remember if it was before or after this one brief stay, but I think the reason why I was never interested in travelling there was because of its perceived slickness. Literally, how I defined Switzerland in my mind was: chocolate, snow-capped mountains, and wealth. All of them status symbols really πŸ˜‰ I’m not always sure where I fit in but it seemed like the land of the gleaming wealthy would not be a candidate. I think I thought… it’s so self-contained, so efficient, so insulated, so perfect. It doesn’t need me to visit it. I think I did imagine that it was a “cold” place, and that the people would be coolly efficient and perfect, I mean… I think I even imagined so far as that a Swiss person walking by you on a street would appear to be gliding by, and if you reached out to touch them your finger would bounce off cool, silvery steel. And they would keep walking by, not stopping to look at you or notice you or anything. [Refer to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Os5ihedyH8 to get a visual of what my imagined Swiss person looked like, not to mention it’s one of the best videos and songs ever.]

I’m kind of insane.

What’s interesting is that this seems to be completely opposite the image my mum had of the country. “Heidi fantasies” is what she calls it. What sucks is that… I think she got a lot closer to the truth than I did.

And while I paint a rosy picture now, and do feel a real affectionate attachment to the country, I have to admit that during the first few weeks I felt quite restless in Switzerland. I was desperately searching for its soul and felt like I was coming up way short. Not knowing, not being able to feel or recognise what really made Switzerland what it is, or WHY it was… bothered me. I couldn’t relax and wondered… maybe it really is boring or maybe it really is nothing more than efficiency. I didn’t want to believe this because… the language for me is one clue that Switzerland and Swiss people aren’t what they are perceived to be. It’s so lively and made for the people and stubborn in itself that I couldn’t see how a cold or boring country could have this.

So, what changed? Probably me πŸ™‚ I stopped looking for it. I think the open air guitar-learning in beautiful places helped a lot too, because it stopped me thinking and let me just be wrapped up in where I was. And… playing the guitar in those places seemed like the perfect thing to do in them. My favourite moments were also the hikes. I think… some things must have sunk in as I was hiking.

What changed was that I stopped trying so hard.

So where is Switzerland’s soul then? For me, it is in its nature. (Actually… I find this to be true for most places so there is a decent chance this reflects a personal predisposition). But I think what’s particular about this for Switzerland is that it’s not just that it’s in nature alone, but its in the very reciprocal relationship between human and environment. Swiss people simply love and use their environment. Whether or not they are workaholics (and even the workaholics are entitled to 4 weeks vacation by law, many even get 5 from their workplace), when they have time off they go hiking or cycling the mountains, doing some sort of watersport on their lakes or rivers.. There are rings of stones all over the place so that people can make a fire to sit beside, hold their cervelat over and have a leisurely chat. They climb, in winter they ski or snowboard. It’s very….. wholesome, and very wholehearted. They seem to know and appreciate what they have, and that the best way to show this is to get out there and enjoy it. One of the most common brands of tourist you’ll come across asΒ  you wander around Switzerland, taking walks and hikes through mountains and valleys, is the retired, grey-haired Swiss couple. (Or pair of friends or quartet.)

Switzerland’s soul is also in a quiet getting on with things. They’ll do something for the simple reason that they want to (and think that it’s a good idea); there’s no doing things for effect. They are never putting on a show for someone else, they’re not seeking attention for attention’s sake. Or at least if they are, they do a good job of camouflaging it πŸ™‚ I don’t yet understand how this can be so, how they can be so down to the bone quietly pragmatic, but a lot can actually be felt and seen from this humbleness. I think the humbleness is what makes it easy to not see anything there at all, to overlook the really amazing attributes of the country and its people. Apparently even many Swiss people take these for granted.

The down side? Well, I don’t fear the perfection of Switzerland’s success and prosperity anymore, as I used to in my silver days. I fear the perfection of being so normal and well-adjusted. They are respectable in their jobs, family life, the way their abodes look. They have sensible goals, a level-headed view of life and other people in the world. They know how to settle down into this well-running life, and seem like they genuinely wish for nothing more.

I guess this doesn’t really sound so bad. It’s just that I wonder, are they never egotistical? Just plain weird? Do they somewhere deep down have (what they think are) wildly novel ideas that they get excited about? Secret deviances? Do they have dreams that are really dreams, i.e. dreams that have some dreamlike quality and are not simply rational, life-stage appropriate goals? I wonder this because deep down I don’t feel like people are normal and that something has to give when the truth doesn’t find a way to get out somehow. (Of course I also wonder this because my preference is not for cosy conformity and I’m not a fan of normalcy, which are both completely my own issues.)

There have been instances where I’ve seen a breaking away, the prime example of which is Erscht Ouguscht (The first of August), Swiss National Day. Basically, Erscht Ouguscht = FIREWORKS. Everywhere, set off by everyone, 4 year olds included. Swiss manners don’t apply on Erscht Ouguscht, or if they do they have been perverted to support an inverse world. In the regular world you do not flush your toilet or have a shower after 10 o’clock at night, particularly if you live in an apartment building, so as not to disturb the peace of your neighbour’s night. In inverse Erscht Ouguscht world, you do not complain if fireworks go whizzing by narrowly in front of your face or above your head. Fireworks may be as big, as loud, as numerous and go on for as long as you can make. It is, a war zone. I still doubt that you would find a celebration involving fireworks in any other country that is as wild and chaotic as what happens in quiet, neutral, polite little Switzerland on their national day.

Stepping aside from this one day, I also can’t deny ever having seen weirdness in Swiss people. What I think is that it comes up more readily in the older ones. Or maybe they get a special dispensation πŸ˜‰

Above all, it seems that what Swiss people know is that there is a way to get things done, that some paths are simply more effective. They make efforts to avoid wasting time and energy in their endeavours.

So even if a Swiss person is weird, they will still have this sheen of well-adjustment because they don’t want dysfunction in whatever it is they want. Maybe they want to cycle around a lake with a beehive on their head wearing a candy cane spandex bodysuit. They’re still going to make sure that they will cycle the best route and have the beehive attached so that it’s not going to come flying off, and that the bodysuit fits comfortably and that it’s made out of a composition of materials that will allow their body to breathe and not trap heat. And that there will be people around to watch them at least part of the time.

The question for a given people in the end is “what do you value above other things?”, this goes some way to explaining their behaviour and “systems”. For the Swiss… I would like to suggest that what they value is comfort, and that this is the basis for all their rules. Their rules help them to get the most out of something (not just water, but the clearest, cleanest water; not just quiet and calm late at night but no noise from the neighbours!), and essentially is related to keeping a high standard of living. They would sacrifice some freedom and rampantness to be able to be able to live safely, to work well when they need to, and to relax and play well the rest of the time.

Switzerland’s soul is not so elusive. You just won’t find it if you want it to come rushing out at you “hey hey look at me I’m Switzerland!!” because… that is precisely not Switzerland.

A big reason why I have such affection for the place is because… it feels natural. The rules in human society do get annoying and can seem silly. But… what they’ve managed to retain is a free natural environment, or freer than you’re going to see in most other developed countries. It’s the freedom like that expressed by old people when they start on “when I was young” – the sort of place where you could just run around outside until it got too dark, go biking with your friends, wander through a forest on your own. As I took a walkΒ  down a tree-lined path by d’Aare on my first jet-lagged, heavy-eyed day in Switzerland, one of the first pieces of information to strike my brain was:Β  ‘God, it smells so good.” Congrats and hopp to Swiss people for that. Really, you deserve it.

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