And it’s not new. As far back as the 19th century the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky ranted in a letter home from Geneva about what a “stupid, dull, insignificant, savage people” the Swiss were.
“The general lack of danger, deprivation and unpredictability in Switzerland could be used to make the case that the people are boring,” writes Irish-Swiss author Clare O’Dea in her new book, The Naked Swiss – A Nation Behind 10 Myths, which examines if there’s any truth to such clichés.
There’s no denying Switzerland is safe, runs like clockwork and is a tad rule-bound. But is it really that dull living here? The Local spoke to O’Dea and discovered six ways in which the country is a lot livelier than many people assume.
1. Wild customs
From burning effigies to boisterous processions featuring masked figures and whip-cracking to drive out winter demons, the Swiss have more than their fair share of wacky traditions. Chienbäse, the torch-lit procession that takes places in Liestal in the canton of Basel-Land during Lent is famous for its huge torches and bonfires. But O’Dea’s favourite is the Rababou, the burning of an effigy in Fribourg during carnival week. “You have a bunch of people gathering round an enormous fire – it’s a very pagan kind of experience, and very thrilling,” she tells The Local. In fact carnival is the time when the Swiss really cast off their reserve, dressing up in wild costumes and partying like crazy. If you want to see the Swiss at their least Swiss, this is when to do it.
The Rababou in Fribourg is “very thrilling”. Photo: Swiss Tourism
2. Summer festivals
Festivities don't just happen in the winter months. Switzerland has one of the greatest densities of open-air festivals in Europe. Think about the world-renowned Montreux Jazz Festival, the Paléo rock festival in Nyon or the mammoth Frauenfeld hip-hop festival. Not to mention the Zurich Street Parade, the biggest techno event in Europe where a procession of ‘love mobiles’ brings hundreds of thousands of ravers onto Zurich’s streets every August for a massive party.
Ravers invade Zurich every August for the biggest techno festival in Europe. Photo: streetparade.com
3. Great sex lives
Talking of love, recent studies have found the Swiss top the charts when it comes to sexual satisfaction. The Durex Research Global Sex Survey of 2012 found 70 percent of Swiss were very happy with their sex lives, ahead of their Austrian and German neighbours. Thirty-one percent spiced things up with sex aids. How’s that for boring?
4. The great outdoors
Swiss street life is at its most boring on Sundays when the shops are shut, but the chances are people aren’t indoors but outside enjoying the fabulous countryside. While skiing is the sport that most people associate with Switzerland, the national pastime is walking and there is a wide network of hiking trails, says O’Dea. Another summer obsession is with swimming, in lakes and rivers as well as open-air pools. And thrill-seekers will find plenty of outdoor activities to set their pulse racing: river rafting, canyoning, base-jumping, paragliding and slacklining to name but a few. That’s a lot of danger packed into a small country!
The Swiss are partial to an extreme sport or two. Photo: Swiss Tourism
5. Relaxed drinking culture
Walk into any Swiss café mid-morning and you’ll find people already enjoying a glass of wine. The Swiss have a relaxed attitude towards alcohol and enjoy frequent after-work apéros but, says O’Dea, there’s nothing like the messy public drunkenness you see in Britain or Ireland, her homeland. It might not come as a surprise that the French and Italian Swiss drink more wine than their neighbours in German-speaking Switzerland whose preference is for beer.
6. Quirky people
While Switzerland is low-key in terms of nightlife and doesn’t have the equivalent of a London or a Paris, the richness of the experiences you can have here – whether it’s enjoying nature or a cultural event – means it isn’t boring, O’Dea believes. And that goes for the Swiss themselves, too. “They are interesting people who lead interesting lives,” the author tells the Local. Even though Switzerland still has echoes of its traditional conservative side, it is still quite a free society. That freedom allows people to be eccentric and creative – like the weather prophets of central Switzerland who use observations of mice and ants to predict the weather, or Erich von Däniken, the author of several books alleging aliens were involved in early human culture. “A huge number of people believe in quirky things like angels and healers,” says O’Dea. In fact a 2014 study by the Swiss Statistics Office found that a staggering 58 percent of women and 37 percent of men believed in angels and supernatural beings watching over them.
Clare O’Dea’s book “The Naked Swiss” is published by Bergli Books.