Anglo writer lauds expat 'brains and brawn'

Emily Mawson
Emily Mawson - [email protected] • 15 Oct, 2014 Updated Wed 15 Oct 2014 15:02 CEST
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“Outside expert” on Switzerland and English expat Diccon Bewes followed in the footsteps of the Victorians for his latest book Slow Train to Switzerland. As he tells The Local’s Emily Mawson, if British tourists transformed the country then, international expats play as important a role now.


Writer Bewes was standing on the Rigi massif in Central Switzerland watching the sunrise and thinking that not a lot had changed.

Dramatic mountain panoramas – tick. Quaint hamlets strewn among meadows – tick. Fields of grazing cattle with jingling bells – also, tick.

But something wasn’t quite right: he was the only person up there, on a summit that by 1900 had room for 2,000 guests to stay overnight.

Bewes was following the itinerary of Englishwoman Miss Jemima Morrell, who went on the first conducted tour of Switzerland in 1863, organized by travel agency pioneer Thomas Cook.

“In the Victorian era, going up Rigi to watch the sunrise was one of the things to do,” explains the 47-year-old author of the bestselling insider’s guide to Switzerland Swiss Watching (2010).

“Nowadays, people go there for day trips, so I didn’t have to share my sunrise with anyone else. It has all come full circle really."

Using Miss Morrell’s travel diary, purchased online from a second-hand bookshop, Bewes recreated the Thomas Cook tour for his newest book Slow Train to Switzerland — which is being published in French and German editions this month.

While retracing the route — on “slightly comfier trains” than the Victorians had — he noticed that, if the landscape hadn’t really changed, the local population had.

“Switzerland was one of Europe’s poorest countries 150 years ago, with beggars in every village,” the full-time writer says.

“Poverty in Britain was urban, but in Switzerland it was rural," he says.

"People lived off the land and didn’t have much money. Miss Jemima writes about children begging for food and women trying to sell things.”

With the arrival of British tourists, which Diccon describes as a kind of friendly conquest that was mutually beneficial, everything began to change.

For the first time, there was a financial reason to build train lines into these picturesque but isolated villages.

“It meant that Switzerland developed and the British fed their love of travel,” Bewes says.

“It was a sort of peaceful invasion by the middle classes.”

International brains

These days, Switzerland still welcomes tourists in their droves – and resorts such as Grindelwald, home to no more than a few houses and herds of cows in Miss Jemima’s day, have grown to cater to them.

But for Bewes, the international community who settle in the country are also important in shaping it.

“International brains and international muscle are filling a gap in the Swiss economy,” he says.

“Expats provide a workforce, labour or brain power that is lacking in Switzerland — either because the population is not big enough to cater to these needs, or because they are not qualified or do not want to do certain jobs.”

He adds that the decision by Swiss voters in a February referendum to curb EU immigration was the wrong one, with Switzerland’s dependence on imports and exports, and the numbers of foreign workers crucial to the success of the economy.

The immigration curbs were pushed by the Swiss People's Party (SVP), a right-wing nationalist party.

“I don’t think it was a helpful vote at all,” he says.

“The sad thing is that the SVP’s anti-immigration agenda brings distrust, which isn’t helpful in any society.”

Even Bewes, originally from Hampshire, has felt unwelcome due to the anti-foreigner messaging.

And he is the example of a well-integrated expat, having lived with his Swiss partner in Bern for nine years, learned German, worked for five years in a bookshop and researched the country inside-out for his three books.

“It makes me feel uncomfortable if I get off the train and see one of the anti-immigration posters in the station,” Bewes says.

“And if I feel that as a white Christian who can speak German, how does it make you feel if you are a black Muslim living and working here?”

Home in Switzerland

However, Switzerland is home, he says — or as much as it ever can be.

After studying international relations at the London School of Economics, he worked as a travel writer in London and came to Switzerland to live with his partner following a long-distance relationship. 

“As an expat you’re caught between two places: neither one is not home, but neither one is home either,” he says.

“Here I do feel at home, but as soon as I step out of the door I have to change languages.”

For expats in similar situations, the “outside expert” (so-called for his musings on the Swiss) recommends learning the language – “whichever one you happen to have around you” – and making friends with Swiss people.

“Join a club so that you meet people in a social environment,” he suggests.

“A lot of Swiss people distinguish between work and home, so you may never get to socialize with someone you meet in the workplace because you are labelled as a colleague.

"As soon as you have friends that are local, you feel you are settling in.”

With promotions and book signings for Slow Train to Switzerland continuing, Bewes is also working on his next book – Around Switzerland in 80 maps, set for publication next September.

But there are moments like his morning on Rigi, when he can stop for a while and collect his thoughts —  even he is never on anything like a slow train.

Bewes will be holding book signings and readings across Switzerland in November and December.

Check dates and find out more at




Emily Mawson 2014/10/15 15:02

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