Opinion: What I’ve learnt from living in Switzerland
Moving country can be head-scratching at times, a revelation at others. After four years in Switzerland, The Local’s Editor Caroline Bishop reveals what living here has taught her.
It’s possible to have a strong national identity without being able to communicate with your countrymen
Switzerland may have four national languages but don’t expect everyone to speak more than one of them. One of the most surprising things for me on moving to Switzerland was how stark the linguistic division is between the French and German parts. Around the Röstigraben you’ll find everyone will speak French in one village and German 2km down the road, some without knowing a word of their neighbouring village’s language. There are exceptions of course – in bilingual cities such as Freiburg/Fribourg and Biel/Bienne plenty of people speak both. However many on both sides of the Röstigraben find it easier to learn English than another Swiss national language, as evidenced by the recent war over languages in primary schools.
Nevertheless, don’t assume that because Swiss people can’t always communicate with each other it means Switzerland is a divided country. One French-speaking Swiss friend assured me she feels resolutely Swiss, identifying with her fellow Swiss in the German part – even though she speaks little German – far more than her neighbours over the border in France. In fact, assuming a lack of Swissness is one of the things that Swiss contributor Lara Salis told us annoys her most about foreigners.
Living in a multilingual society enriches your life
A sign in German, Italian and Romansh. Photo: Philip Newton
Having said all that, a country with four national languages inevitably promotes pride in multilingualism, and many of its politicians lead the way by speaking several languages (even if that has led to hilarity at times). And since there are a whopping two million foreigners in Switzerland – a quarter of its resident population – there are plenty of people who speak several languages. In fact one recent study found that foreigners in Switzerland are more likely than the Swiss to speak two of the country’s national languages.
Though I spoke a decent level of French when I arrived here, in my country I’m in a distinct minority by speaking any foreign language at all. I’m from Britain, where language-learning is shamefully underpromoted in schools. What British policymakers don’t seem to understand is how amazing it is to be able to communicate with someone in another language: it opens you up to new experiences and different jobs, it gives you a better understanding of other cultures, and it helps you make more friends.
Something I love about living in a Swiss city is the ability to sit around a table with friends of four different nationalities and all speak the same language. I enjoy going to an exercise class and hearing the instructor swapping easily from French to English – and everyone in the class understanding both. I love hearing my friends switch from French to English to German in the course of one conversation. That just wouldn’t happen back home.
There’s so much more than city life
Why stay in the city on a Sunday? Photo: Christian Perret/Swiss Tourism
At first I found Sundays in Switzerland pretty dull. The shops are shut, few restaurants and bars are open and the streets are near-deserted. But once you follow the Swiss and head for the hills, a whole new world of Sundays opens up. Skiing, snowshoeing and tobogganing in winter; hiking, sailing and swimming in summer; open air thermal baths year-round – Switzerland is a fabulous place for outdoor fun and if you don’t embrace it, you’re missing out. The only foreigners I know who moan that Switzerland is a boring place are the ones who never leave the cities. During my time here I’ve learnt to ski, I’ve understood the rules of curling (though I never quite discovered how to stop falling over on the ice) and I’ve learnt that walking down a mountain isn’t always easier than walking up.
If you grow up hiking and skiing, you’ll maintain that fitness for life
The good thing about all that outdoor activity is that it gets you pretty fit. However, being a city person in my previous life, I don’t have the innate fitness that many Swiss have had from an early age – and that’s been severely shown up since I arrived here. During my years writing about Switzerland I’ve been lucky enough to go on some great hiking trips throughout the country and a lot of the time my guide has been a retired Swiss man in his 60s or 70s who leaves me gasping in his wake as I, several decades his junior, struggle to keep up.
Cultural history is something to be proud of
Fighting is a natural behaviour for the Herens cows. Photo: Stephan Engler/Swiss Tourism
Speaking of trips out of the city, rarely a weekend goes by that there isn’t some kind of cultural festival or traditional parade here. Alpine cattle descents, cow fighting, folk festivals, carnivals, wine festivals, harvest festivals... at any time of the year there’s some event to go to in the Swiss countryside. The Swiss are proud of their heritage and do their best to celebrate their traditions... with several glasses of Swiss wine, of course. Joining in is one of the best things about living here – and it’ll help you understand your adopted country a little better.
Direct democracy works...but takes a looong time
The Swiss political system is fascinating – once you get your head around it. Discovering that any citizen can propose a change to the constitution if they get enough people to back them up was a revelation. Understanding all the steps it takes for that to come to pass took longer to figure out. Eighteen months to gather signatures, another year or two for the government to put it on the referendum calendar, then up to three years after the vote to discuss exactly how to implement it... things move slowly here, but they get done eventually, with sometimes surprising results. The referendum system is the reason Switzerland banned the building of minarets, turned down the offer of more annual leave and a guaranteed basic income, scuppered the government’s planned tax reform and pension changes and caused a diplomatic crisis with the EU...
Stereotypes have some truth, but they’re not all there is to know
Photo: Stephan Schacher/Swiss Tourism
Yes, there’s plenty of cheese and chocolate here. Yes some people are incredibly rich and taxes are pretty reasonable. But there’s so much to Switzerland that’s surprised me. I didn’t know, before I came here, how late women got the vote at federal level (1971!), or that the country has a dark period of recent history that the government in 2013 officially apologized for. I didn’t know that people in one canton still vote on important issues by putting their hand up, or that the Swiss don’t like to ski after Easter (as I was told by someone sitting next to me a ski lift on a perfect April day when I wondered out loud why the slopes were so gloriously empty). Sometimes, when you’ve hiked through an alpine pasture to the sound of cowbells before stopping at a mountain cabin for a fondue, Switzerland certainly lives up to the clichés. But it’s not only that. Not at all.
Health shouldn’t be a business
I don’t have many major gripes about Switzerland but, coming from the UK where healthcare is free at the point of care, the Swiss health system is one.
I find it bizarre that Switzerland has over 60 private health insurance companies all offering the same compulsory basic health insurance policy (LaMal) at different prices. I find it scandalous that you can pay thousands of francs a year for your insurance cover and still have to pay the doctor when you go for a check-up, due to the 300-2,500 franc excess. And I think it’s unfair premiums are a fixed fee not a percentage of salary, meaning it’s a drop in the ocean for the wealthiest and pushing 20 percent of income for others (the UK’s National Insurance, which contributes to the National Health Service, is calculated as a percentage of income).
What it’s taught me is that in Switzerland, healthcare is a business. Unlike Britain’s NHS, it’s not free at the point of care, which means some people here don’t go to the doctor because they can’t afford the bill (surely leading to greater, more expensive problems down the line), and many families struggle to pay for insurance that doesn’t always stump up when you need it to. The NHS was founded on the principle that healthcare should be available to all, and is based on clinical need, not ability to pay. Though Switzerland is lauded as offering some of the best healthcare on the planet, what’s the point if you can’t afford to pay for it?
Swapping edgy for safe isn’t such a bad thing
Lausanne's lakeside Ouchy district. Photo: Christof Schuerpf/Swiss Tourism
Moving to Lausanne from London, I was expecting a big change in pace. At first it was hard to adapt, and I admit to still missing the buzz of a fast-paced city. ‘Edgy’ isn’t exactly a word associated with Switzerland; ‘safe’ is the keyword here, with the country regularly being named among the safest places in the world to live. Switzerland’s famed neutrality has long kept it out of global conflicts – noisy cowbells and late-night clothes washing are the main source of battles here. It may sound quaint and a little dull, but with world events as they are, swapping edgy for safe doesn’t seem such a bad thing right now – and if things really turn disastrous, at least Switzerland is well equipped with nuclear bunkers.