Anglo writer lauds expat ‘brains and brawn’

“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.

Anglo writer lauds expat 'brains and brawn'
Author Diccon Bewes dresses the part after retracing the footsteps of Victorian tourists. Photo: Diccon Bewes

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


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


How Europe’s population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

The populations of countries across Europe are changing, with some increasing whilst others are falling. Populations are also ageing meaning the EU is having to react to changing demographics.

How Europe's population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

After decades of growth, the population of the European Union decreased over the past two years mostly due to the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest data from the EU statistical office Eurostat show that the EU population was 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, 172,000 fewer than the previous year. On 1 January 2020, the EU had a population of 447.3 million.

This trend is because, in 2020 and 2021 the two years marked by the crippling pandemic, there have been more deaths than births and the negative natural change has been more significant than the positive net migration.

But there are major differences across countries. For example, in numerical terms, Italy is the country where the population has decreased the most, while France has recorded the largest increase.

What is happening and how is the EU reacting?

In which countries is the population growing?

In 2021, there were almost 4.1 million births and 5.3 million deaths in the EU, so the natural change was negative by 1.2 million (more broadly, there were 113,000 more deaths in 2021 than in 2020 and 531,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of births remained almost the same).

Net migration, the number of people arriving in the EU minus those leaving, was 1.1 million, not enough to compensate.

A population growth, however, was recorded in 17 countries. Nine (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Sweden) had both a natural increase and positive net migration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Five things to know about Germany’s foreign population

In eight EU countries (the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, Austria, Portugal and Finland), the population increased because of positive net migration, while the natural change was negative.

The largest increase in absolute terms was in France (+185,900). The highest natural increase was in Ireland (5.0 per 1,000 persons), while the biggest growth rate relative to the existing population was recorded in Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta (all above 8.0 per 1,000 persons).

In total, 22 EU Member States had positive net migration, with Luxembourg (13.2 per 1 000 persons), Lithuania (12.4) and Portugal (9.6) topping the list.

Births and deaths in the EU from 1961 to 2021 (Eurostat)

Where is the population declining?

On the other hand, 18 EU countries had negative rates of natural change, with deaths outnumbering births in 2021.

Ten of these recorded a population decline. In Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia population declined due to a negative natural change, while net migration was slightly positive.

In Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia, the decrease was both by negative natural change and negative net migration.

READ ALSO: Italian class sizes set to shrink as population falls further

The largest fall in population was reported in Italy, which lost over a quarter of a million (-253,100).

The most significant negative natural change was in Bulgaria (-13.1 per 1,000 persons), Latvia (-9.1), Lithuania (-8.7) and Romania (-8.2). On a proportional basis, Croatia and Bulgaria recorded the biggest population decline (-33.1 per 1,000 persons).

How is the EU responding to demographic change?

From 354.5 million in 1960, the EU population grew to 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, an increase of 92.3 million. If the growth was about 3 million persons per year in the 1960s, it slowed to about 0.7 million per year on average between 2005 and 2022, according to Eurostat.

The natural change was positive until 2011 and turned negative in 2012 when net migration became the key factor for population growth. However, in 2020 and 2021, this no longer compensated for natural change and led to a decline.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Over time, says Eurostat, the negative natural change is expected to continue given the ageing of the population if the fertility rate (total number of children born to each woman) remains low.

This poses questions for the future of the labour market and social security services, such as pensions and healthcare.

The European Commission estimates that by 2070, 30.3 per cent of the EU population will be 65 or over compared to 20.3 per cent in 2019, and 13.2 per cent is projected to be 80 or older compared to 5.8 per cent in 2019.

The number of people needing long-term care is expected to increase from 19.5 million in 2016 to 23.6 million in 2030 and 30.5 million in 2050.

READ ALSO: How foreigners are changing Switzerland

However, demographic change impacts different countries and often regions within the same country differently.

When she took on the Presidency of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen appointed Dubravka Šuica, a Croatian politician, as Commissioner for Democracy and Demography to deal with these changes.

Among measures in the discussion, in January 2021, the Commission launched a debate on Europe’s ageing society, suggesting steps for higher labour market participation, including more equality between women and men and longer working lives.

In April, the Commission proposed measures to make Europe more attractive for foreign workers, including simplifying rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the EU. These will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council.

In the fourth quarter of this year, the Commission also plans to present a communication on dealing with ‘brain drain’ and mitigate the challenges associated with population decline in regions with low birth rates and high net emigration.

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.