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INDIA

‘For Indians, the silence in Switzerland can be deafening’

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.

'For Indians, the silence in Switzerland can be deafening'
Ashley Arthingal with the family of his Swiss friend Robin Fasel (left). Photo: Author supplied.

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. 

For members

CHRISTMAS

Your complete guide to Switzerland’s best Christmas markets in 2019

Christmas is just around the corner, which means its just about time to don a winter hat and get a hot cup of Glühwein. Here are the ten best Christmas markets in Switzerland.

Your complete guide to Switzerland's best Christmas markets in 2019
The Christmas market in Montreux. Photo: Depositphotos

Every diverse region of Switzerland celebrates Christmas with its own cultural tradition, and there's no better way of experiencing these differences than by visiting a local Christmas market. 

While some run for almost a month, others only last a weekend – so make sure to get in while you can. 

Interlaken

Photo: Interlaken Tourism

The Christmas Market in Interlaken is built around the massive Ice Magic skating complex (3000 square metres), which features five rinks all linked by runways.

If you're not confident on the ice, fear not. You can sign up for skating lessons and, bringing a taste of Scotland to Swiss markets, there is also a curling lane available for booking. 

Of course, there's also more than 100 stalls to browse and a chalet-style restaurant to enjoy. The market runs from December 14th until 22nd, but Ice Magic opens on December 14th (running into the new year). 

Montreux

Photo: Montreux Noel

Now in its 24th year, the Christmas Market in Montreux is known for its grandeur and spectacle. Stretching along the lake promenade (which is, of course, specially lit up for the occasion), the market offers thousands of gift ideas for grown-ups and children alike.

New attractions this year include a 3D light show, craft workshops for kids, a gourmet area and an open-late bar. Or just stick with the classics and visit Santa Claus, enjoy the carnival rides then wash it all down with some tasty grub and Glühwein.

Runs from November 21st to December 24th.

Basel

Photo: basel.com

The Christmas Market in Basel is said to be the oldest in Switzerland, and the people living in the city are well known for getting into the festive spirit with lights and decorations.

No wonder, then, that there are not one but three Christmas Markets to enjoy there. Basel's offering is known as one of the biggest and best markets in Switzerland and was recently voted as the 8th best in Europe – so naturally there is a whole lot of fun to be had.

The children's railway, craft workshops, the delicious Basel Läckerli (a hard, spiced type of biscuit) and performances from the Basel Music Academy are just some of the reasons you might want to stop by. The markets run from November 28th until December 23rd. More information can be found here.

Einsiedeln

Photo: Christof Sonderegger/Swiss Image

Einsiedeln might be small, but its Christmas Market is known as one of Switzerland’s best. As well as offering 130 stalls, the market is said to be the home of the world’s largest nativity scene – with a whopping 450 colourful figurines telling the story of the birth of Jesus.

The stunning backdrop of the Benedictine Einsiedeln Abbey and its twin spires adds to the fairy-tale feeling and the nearby gingerbread museum really puts the icing on the Christmas cake (gingerbread is a local speciality).

You'll have to get in early to catch it though; it runs from November 30th until December 8th.

Zofingen

Photo: Weihnachtsmarkt der Sinne Facebook Page

Like Einsiedeln, Zofingen isn’t the biggest. But its “Christmas Market of the Senses” is worthy of a mention for the remarkable way it offers guests a sensory experience. 

The market provides more than 200 stalls within the cosy old town setting, as well as a section just for “medieval” wares – and there’s a support programme to keep you entertained too. Short and sweet, the market runs from December 6th to December 8th.

St Gallen

Photo: Photo: St.Gallen-Bodensee Tourismus

The Christmas Market in St Gallen is another popular one – and for good reason. During advent, the city is lit up by 700 stars, covering the streets and the stunning medieval abbey district.

Guests can enjoy an advent tour of the city and a concert within a UNESCO World Heritage site cathedral. The market features a selection of handmade products and, for any carnivores out there, the region’s traditional sausage is well worth trying.

The St Gallen Christmas market runs from November 24th until Christmas Eve. 

Bremgarten

The medieval town of Bremgarten in Aargau hosts one of Switzerland’s bigger Christmas Markets, with more than 320 stalls filled with trinkets and delicacies to browse.

It is well worth a visit if only so you can say that you've been – but be warned; the Bremgarten market is popular and is usually very, very busy as it takes place only on one weekend.

In 2019, the market will take place from December 5th until the 8th. 

Willisau

Photo: Christkindlimärkt.ch 

Flying perhaps a little under the radar, the Christkindlimärt in Willisau, canton Lucerne, is nonetheless a bit of a favourite with locals.

The romantic old-town setting and the daily performances compliment the festive feeling and there’s a packed programme to keep the kids happy.

Don’t miss the yodelling Christmas concert, and make sure you try some Ringli – a sweet local delicacy that's a bit like a very crispy doughnut.

Running for just three days, the Christkindlimärt opens on December 6th and closes on December 8th.

Ticino

Photo: Ticino Tourism Facebook Page

Ticino is always worth a visit but perhaps even more so when it’s Christmas time.

Featuring a market inside a UNESCO World Heritage site castle, a massive (2000 square metre) ice rink in Locarno’s Piazza Grande and all the usual festive fun with a distinctly Mediterranean flavour, this one is not to be missed.

Dates vary in different places, so be sure to triple check before you head in. Some only run for a short period of time – with the market in Locarno open for just one day (December 8th). 

Yverdon-les-Bains

Set in and around the town’s stunning medieval castle, the Christmas Market in Yverdon-les-Bains is a mostly traditional affair that is notable for being a little more relaxing than some of its peers. You’re unlikely to have to fight your way through the crowd here, giving you more time to enjoy a few drinks and soak up the Christmas spirit. The stalls mostly feature regional produce (including local beers) and there’s also an ice-rink to enjoy too.

Bern

For more than 30 years, Bern's Christmas Market has aimed to offer guests what it calls a quiet and sensitive take on Christmas markets. Featuring arts and crafts of the “highest quality”, the market is set in front of the imposing Munster cathedral and runs from December 1st to December 24th. It also runs entirely on renewable Swiss energy. 

Neuchatel

Photo: Artisanalesdenoel.ch

Neuchatel’s Christmas Market has been dubbed Switzerland’s “largest indoor market of craft-creators” and organisers put a particular emphasis on showcasing the region’s craft and culinary specialities. Plus, the fact that it is indoors means you won’t have to worry about the weather. The market runs from December 8th to December 16th.

Morges 

Photo: Morgesmarchedenoel Instagram

The Christmas Market in Morges isn't the biggest but it does win points for its historic qualities as it is set in and around a castle that dates back to the 13th century. This year, the castle grounds will be home to 20 chalets that surround a large tented restaurant area. There will also be a healthy selection of artisan stalls and attractions to keep children interested.  

Lucerne

Every year, Lucerne's Franciscan square in the heart of the city's old town is converted into a winter wonderland full of colourful wooden houses. Nestled away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, the market is rightfully known as being one of Switzerland's most attractive.

With around 70 stalls to enjoy and a variety of entertainment for children, the market runs from December 5th to December 22nd.

Lausanne

Christmas in Lausanne is like nowhere else. “Traditional but extremely modern” is the tagline they like to use and they certainly back it up. The annual festival of lights sees installations set up all over town, and even though they sometimes have very little to do with Christmas, they do help boost spirits. 

Markets in Lausanne are actually held in three different locations, each with its own style. There's lots for the kids to enjoy, a nice selection of local craftwork to browse and, of course, lots of wine. Markets run between November 20th and December 31st. More information on locations can be found here.

A version of this story was originally published in November 2018. 

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