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'For Indians, the silence in Switzerland can be deafening'

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'For Indians, the silence in Switzerland can be deafening'
Ashley Arthingal with the family of his Swiss friend Robin Fasel (left). Photo: Author supplied.
21:00 CET+01:00
When Ashley Arthingal left India for the very first time to study in Lausanne for a year, he felt like a visitor from another planet. Here he reveals what has surprised him most about his time as an international student in Switzerland.

Don’t talk to strangers – unless they’re Swiss!

Indian parents have a unique way of raising their kids which includes making us perform customary dance routines for visiting guests or stuffing a spoonful of sweet yoghurt in our mouths on exam days for good luck.

But there is one unwritten rule that every Asian kid has to obey: ‘Don't talk to strangers’.

For me, it took a while to hesitantly respond to every "Bonjour, Ça va ? Bonne Journée!" ("Hello. How are you? Have a good day!") hurled at me by almost every random stranger on the street in Switzerland.

In fact, the first time someone greeted me with the customary "Ça va?" and a wide smile as I was walking back home after 11pm in Lausanne, I looked up and down the street to see if I was in some lonely street or sketchy neighbourhood.

I found it difficult to comprehend why this burly Swiss guy wanted to have a conversation with me. If it was India and some stranger enquired about your well-being on the street, it would either mean he was trying to sell you some Ponzi scheme or he wanted to rob you of every last penny. Plus, if you tried greeting everyone in the crowded, hot streets of Mumbai, where almost 22 million people reside, you would lose your voice by the end of the day.

Why did the Indian cross the road?

Any Indian will tell you that, more than any ‘Breathtaking Swiss Sights’ as listed by TripAdvisor or any of those renowned travel websites, the most alluring sight in Switzerland is the adherence to traffic rules.

The first time I walked on a Swiss footpath (that much-coveted space us Indians associate with dwelling places for hawkers selling all sorts of fast food, gadgets and livestock), I marvelled at the beauty of the rare and exotic phenomena described as ‘lane discipline’ and also learned that vehicles can be driven on the road without honking.

Traffic Swiss-style.

While I was gazing in wonderment at this new way of life, a sleek Lamborghini Gallardo stopped just before me. When the cool looking driver smiled and motioned to me to cross the road, I realised that I was standing on the edge of a zebra crossing. The smile that the driver gave me as he allowed me to move along at my own sweet pace was all the welcome I needed. After all, I come from a continent where crossing the road amid moving traffic is considered a ‘skill’.

Hello, Silence, my new friend

At the top of the list of ‘Unusual things that make you miss home’ for Indians in Switzerland would definitely be noise.  

In India, there is always noise, whether its machines whirring, neighbours yelling , babies crying, vehicles honking, dogs barking, political victory parades or religious ceremonies (and that’s just on Tuesday at 10pm). Sound is synonymous with sleep in a crowded city like Mumbai.

Diwali festival celebrations in Mumbai in November. Photo: AFP

In Switzerland, though, the silence is deafening. It took me a while to sleep through the silence and not get startled and run to my balcony to see what was happening whenever I heard the mere sound of my neighbours walking and conversing with each other.

Livin’ – with- a- Locaaaaa

It was a bit of a mental challenge when I had to prepare myself to live with a German roommate that I had never met in my entire life (barring a few WhatsApp conversations).

It felt like more of a challenge as I had never lived with anyone apart my parents and my wife. However, from the day my housemate Lavinia Jonietz arrived it felt like a whole amount of crazy town, from making German dishes to laughing till we snorted, to brushing off blond hair stuck on my socks.

Ashley with his German roommate Lavinia. 

The education in using a dishwasher and a washing machine, separating garbage for recycling, vacuuming the right way and living life in an organized manner shall be with me the rest of my life. In a similar manner, my roommate's horror and shock at seeing me eat with my hands, and her trying my spicy food and yelling bloody murder, will stay with her.

Becoming Swiss

You realise you’ve turned Swiss when you rush outdoors when the sun is out and say things like "Ahh, it’s 8C, it’s a warm day today".

Back in Mumbai, people start wearing bomber jackets and warm clothes when the temperature goes south of 20C.

Also, you realise you’ve become way too Swiss when you see a train where all the seats are full and there are few people standing and you mutter "Damn, its too crowded" and your Swiss friend and German roomie look at you quizzically and reply: "You’re saying that?!"

Commuters at a suburban train station in Mumbai. File photo: AFP

Get, set….Raclette!

My first weekend with a Swiss family, which happened thanks to my classmate and friend Robin Fasel, was really a fascinating one .

My initial scepticism vanished when I was treated to such warm Swiss hospitality and the equally warm and fascinating Swiss cheese dish known as raclette.

The weekend in Fribourg thought me many things: not all Swiss are on time, not all Swiss like cheese and, most importantly, family values and respect are universal and transcend race, language and nationality. The experience had me smiling throughout my journey back to Lausanne without me even saying cheese.

Ashley (back row, just left of centre) and fellow students try their hand at curling. 

Ashley Arthingal is currently studying for a Master of Advanced Studies in Sport Administration and Technology at the International Academy of Sport Science and Technology (AISTS) in Lausanne. The program is open to 35 students around the world every year. 

 
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