Xenophobe's Guide to the Swiss

Xenophobe's Guide to the Swiss

by Paul Bilton

ISBN: 9781906042509

Publisher Oval Books

Published in Literature & Fiction/Humor, History/Europe, Humor & Entertainment

Are you an AUTHOR? Click here to include your books on

Sample Chapter


Nationalism & Identity

The physics of fear

The laws of physics decree that the bumble bee cannot fly. Similarly, by the laws of economics, the Swiss should not be doing so sickeningly well. A land-locked nation, with a home market smaller than London, speaking four different languages, no natural resources other than hydroelectric power, a little salt and even less fish, no secured markets for their products through colonies or being part of a trading block, they should have come to earth with a bump long ago. Instead of which, the Swiss are the only nation to make the Germans appear inefficient, the French undiplomatic and the Texans poor. The Swiss franc is a better bet than gold and the Swiss economy more solid than the granite face of the Matterhorn.

The Swiss rank amongst the top three highest per capita incomes in the world. But take consolation, they don't enjoy it one bit. The Swiss claim, as they have done since the formation of the original three-cantonal alliance in 1291, that their success is only a temporary state of affairs and it will all shortly end in tears. They stubbornly refuse to believe they are doing well and will even dispute the figures that prove it. So, like the poor donkey chasing the carrot, the Swiss pull their collective cart along ever faster, chasing the goal they passed years ago.

Perhaps it is blissful ignorance that keeps the bumble bee airborne. For the Swiss it is anything but ignorance that keeps them flying so high – it is the fear that they will one day lose everything they have worked for.

A federal case

Switzerland is a federation of 26 cantons, three of which are divided into half cantons. (Half a canton is better than none.) These cantons are like miniature countries: self-financing, raising their own taxes and spending them as they want – from their own courts and police forces to education and even driving tests. Historically some were once sovereign states and many still believe they are.

The cantons comprise nearly 3,000 totally independent communities, each making its own decisions about such things as their welfare systems, gas, electricity, water, local roads and even public holidays.

Who controls this recipe for disaster? On the one side the federal government, and on the other the Swiss public with their unique and powerful direct voting system. By being balloted on every conceivable issue every three months, the Swiss dog actually appears to wag its own tail.

Only after digesting the diverse and independent nature of the Swiss federal system and the differences in language, culture and tradition of the country can one begin to understand the often bandied expression 'the Swiss don't really exist'. However, here they are, hidden in the centre of Western Europe, in a land which bears an assortment of names – Schweiz, Suisse, Svizzera and even Switzerland. The folk who live here try very hard to persuade you that they are not 'the Swiss', but rather Zurcher, Berner, Vaudois, Luganesi, Genevois – the list is as long as the number of valleys. They have in common a red Swiss passport and the same determination not to be like the inhabitants of the next valley. In their determination to be different, the Swiss are remarkably alike.

Three's company

Röstigraben (which loses something when translated as 'fried potato ditch') is the expression coined by the Swiss media for the imaginary north-south divide between the French-speakers, and the German-speakers. Rösti (pronounced rersh-tee) is the potato dish beloved of the Bernese and seen by the rest of Switzerland as symbolic of the slow, solid, dependable but starchy Swiss-German mentality. In their turn, the French-speakers refer to the 'Outre-Sarine', i.e. those over the River Sarine or Saane, the river that flows down the fried potato ditch, implying that those who live over the river in German-speaking parts are beyond the pale.

The other divide that runs east to west between the Italian speakers and German speakers is called the Alps.

The three-way pull between the Teutonic, Gallic and Latin has all the potential discord of Belgian or Canadian divisions, not to say those of Northern Ireland or even formerYugoslavia. Occasional cracks have shown in the Swiss armour like the independent-minded separatists of the French-speaking part of Canton Berne, who voted themselves a new canton, Jura, in 1978, but not before they had thrown a bomb or two.

Differences are apparent in thee quarterly Swiss ballot. The German-speakers vote for the status quo and are strongly for environmental protection. The rest of the country, including German-speaking Basle (which has only been Swiss for 500 years), vote more radically. The secret of Swiss unity is that the population has few gripes and a ready solution for any complaints with their voting system. More realistically, not to say cynically, any Swiss frictions are quickly oiled away by the best lubricant known to mankind: money.

How they see themselves

The Swiss have a healthy belief that whatever originates in their own country, and preferably their own area, is the best, particularly the people. Thus, if the supermarket offers Italian strawberries at half-price, the Swiss will still buy locally grown ones in the firm belief that theirs are vastly superior.

They will rarely have a good word to say about their fellow countrymen. Town-dwellers scorn their country cousins as prehistoric and naïve folk, while they in turn treat town-dwellers with deep suspicion for being too flash and smooth for their own good.

There is also intense rivalry between Swiss towns. With its international airport, high-tech industry and smoothly efficient financial sector, Zurich regards itself as the only world-class Swiss city. But, as the inhabitants of Berne are more than pleased to point out, Zurich is not the capital.

The Berners find the Zurchers too much like the hard-nosed bankers of that city. Both the slow Berners and the slick Zurchers look down on Baslers. Perilously close to France and Germany and home of Switzerland's smellier industries, Basle is thought of as being contaminated by these influences and therefore not quite Swiss-German. Baslers get their own back with their sparkling humour and will take every opportunity to pull the collective legs of their fellow cities. Hundreds of Baslers and Zurchers, both firmly convinced that they live in the best place, commute daily to each other's cities rather than move house.

Geneva, like Basle, has a reputation of being 'not quite Swiss'. Every day thousands of French pour across the border into the city to work, and a fifth of Geneva's residents has English as its first language. Clearly Geneva loses out to smaller Lausanne in the Swiss-ness stakes.

Similar rivalries are played out between the Ticino towns of Lugano and Locarno – easily confused by tourists but worlds apart to the Ticinese. But both have a brake on their antagonism by having to bow to Bellinzona, which, though smaller, is their cantonal capital.

How they see others

The Swiss, if happy with their strawberries, are always plagued by doubts about most other things. The biggest of these is that someone else might have thought up a better way of doing things. This leads them to look longingly over into the next valley and from there at every other nation on earth.

After much national soul-searching, Switzerland finally joined the United Nations in 2002, but membership of the EU and NATO still lie a long way off. Officially, this is because it would compromise their unique democratic system and Swiss neutrality. Unofficially, the Swiss feel that they are not worthy to join such august organizations, staunchly clinging to their independence and the Swiss franc. The people voted no to the EU because nobody was able to convince them that there would be any great advantages in joining a poor man's club. But they are constantly racked with worry, wondering if they made the wrong decision.

They have a long-standing love affair with America. This is because the USA is everything that Switzerland is not. America is vast and uniform. Switzerland is small and diverse. The Swiss imagine Americans to be freewheeling extrovert cowboys roaming unhindered over immense tracts of unspoilt land, while they themselves labour under a strict bureaucratic system and social codes that place heavy burdens of responsibility on every citizen's shoulders. The wildest thing that a Swiss can do is buy an American car – and many do.

The British are admired for conquering half the world and not feeling guilty about it; and then losing it all again and not feeling a failure. The Swiss still see them as tea-sipping gentlemen despite the hordes of British football hooligans rampaging through the stadia of Europe.

The Germans are openly disliked for being so confident, not to mention being able to speak German so well. At the same time, the Swiss are secretly jealous of German confidence. The French take the collective Swiss breath away with their charm, sophistication and savoir vivre. And the Austrians are convenient neighbours who take the butt of many jokes.

While the Swiss adore everything from other countries in small doses, it should be noted that there is a big difference between 'things from other countries' and 'foreign'. The Swiss have trouble with defining what is Swiss, so it is clear that they will also have problems defining what is foreign. Almost 21% of the resident population of Switzerland is foreign. You need Swiss parents, or a Swiss partner, or to be an artist, better still a rich artist, or have lived at least ten years in the country before you can be considered for citizenship.

This non-Swiss fifth of the population has provided the other four-fifths with the perfect alibi for everything that is the slightest bit imperfect. When service is poor in a restaurant, gardens are untidy, neighbours are noisy, cars are dirty, clothes not quite the latest fashion, the favourite scapegoat is saddled with the blame. With knowing looks, the explanation is proffered that the offending parties are not Swiss; they are not even tourists who are allowed to do whatever they want, but Ausländer – foreigners.

How others see them

They tend not to. If the bumble bee's gravity-defying act represents the prowess of the Swiss economy, then the chameleon's ability to change and blend into its surroundings illustrates how the Swiss are not seen by others.

The French-speaking Swiss are hard to differentiate from unusually pernickety French. The Italian-speaking Swiss are easily mistaken for slightly starchy Italians. And the German-speaking Swiss can often be overlooked as being somewhat sedated Germans.

The culture of the Swiss is diverse, so they do not have a ready caricature. Tourists demand cuckoo clocks to take home, so the Swiss are happy to accept Swiss francs for them, but in reality they are far too kitsch for Swiss tastes and originate in southern Germany. It is true that the Swiss army is issued with knives; but not the tourist version complete with scissors, tweezers, toothpick, nail-file, corkscrew and horse-hoof stone extractor.

The Swiss are very image-conscious and care passionately how they are seen by other nations. They firmly believe they are subject to constant inspection and criticism by the rest of the world. They do it to themselves, so they reason, others must be doing it to them too. Thus they are devastated when Switzerland is confused with Sweden as it often is on the grounds that both are neutral, begin with 'Sw' and have snow. Even Switzerland's capital city is a 'Trivial Pursuits' question. It is not Geneva, nor its biggest city Zurich, nor even, as more than one tourist has thought, Interlaken, but Berne.

Such misconceptions are not helped by the liberal use of the name 'Helvetia', which causes confusion among young would-be stamp collectors. Its origins lie with the locals being called the Helvetii by the Romans. Swiss cars bear the nationality plate CH. This stands for 'Confoederatio Helvetica' i.e., 'Swiss Federation' in Latin – the Swiss opting for neutrality rather than choose one of their own languages.

Perceptions of the Swiss as being dull, while at the same time displaying a talent for ruthless efficiency and a limitless capacity for hard work, are uncomfortably close to the truth. The clichéd impressions of high mountains, watches, cheese (with and without holes), chocolate bars and gold bars are genuine.

But ask anyone in Zurich where the gnomes are and you will earn blank looks. The same applies if you want to buy a Swiss roll – no Swiss has heard of it.



Mountain mind set

The Swiss are unable to override their origins as a tough, mountain people. Though about 70% of the population work in financial services (banking, etc.), insurance and tourism, some 25% in industry, trade and crafts, and less than 4% in agriculture, today's Swiss have lost none of their ancestors' grit and determination.

Eking out any kind of existence from farming vertical slopes requires a special kind of character, not to mention massive farm subsidies. It's a lonely life on a mountain farm where relationships with others are more difficult to cultivate than potatoes. Swiss farmers are tough, independent, hard-working, resilient, well-prepared for every kind of natural disaster and, above all, staunchly conservative. These characteristics are shared by Swiss town-dwellers, who go about their daily lives as if they too were farming a lonely mountain cliff.

The educational system does not encourage individualism. Add to this the natural introversion of an essentially mountain people and you can see why the Swiss remain deeply suspicious of those who display great self-confidence and who are articulate in public.

The terrain of their land exerts a big influence – mountains dominate the landscape and the Swiss mind-set. Their thinking tends to be isolated and valley-like – always worrying what is over in the next valley and whether the grass there is greener.

It is generally recognised that farmers are the world's greatest complainers. And the Swiss farmers are no different. Nothing is ever right for them. When it is not too dry for their crops, then it is too wet for them. The prices they obtain for their produce are never high enough. The non-farming sector of Switzerland was quick to latch on to this characteristic and so produced a nation that is never satisfied with its lot and is in constant pursuit of unobtainable improvement.

The Swiss have perfected the negative mental attitude so that it works positively. They have the happy knack of seeing the downside of any situation. Not for them the happy-go-lucky attitude that says 'It'll all come out in the wash'. They would much rather avoid getting dirty in the first place. Müller's Law, the Swiss version of Murphy's Law, states 'Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong – but we will be more than prepared for it'.

Don't be happy, just worry

The Swiss feel that there are too many people in this world who, instead of working hard and preparing for the next disaster, are having a good time. So they have taken on their shoulders the burden of being sensible for less responsible nations – i.e., the rest of the world.

The diversity of the Swiss people is apparent in the degree to which they worry. The German-speakers do little else. The French-speaking Swiss are great visionaries and philosophers with noble thoughts and global dreams. They worry that their Swiss-German compatriots do not share these dreams. The Italian-speaking Swiss have a terrible tendency not to worry nearly enough. Fortunately they account for less than 7% of the population.

Living in a self-governing community with continual demands to make life and death decisions about your country's future means there is no place for frivolity. One is supposed to worry continuously and prepare for all sorts of disasters that may overwhelm the world at any time. Thus, no building may be constructed without a nuclear shelter in the cellar. The rest of post cold-war Europe relaxes, while the Swiss, in theory at least, are stocked up with provisions to survive a nuclear winter. Once a year citizens are treated to a testing of deafening alarm systems that would be used in case of flood, nuclear attack, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc.

Only a Swiss government would concern itself about a small matter like running up a deficit. Only a Swiss government would devise a plan to counter the national debt problem by raising taxes. Then only the Swiss people would vote to actually pay more tax to eliminate their budget deficit.

The Swiss are the first to acknowledge that they are too serious and too preoccupied with rules and regulations. But, when it comes to the crunch, they cannot help themselves and, falling impotently under their own spell, they carry on worrying.

Excerpted from "Xenophobe's Guide to the Swiss" by Paul Bilton. Copyright © 2013 by Paul Bilton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Thanks for reading!

Join BookDaily now and receive featured titles to sample for free by email.
Reading a book excerpt is the best way to evaluate it before you spend your time or money.

Just enter your email address and password below to get started:


Your email address is safe with us. Privacy policy
By clicking ”Get Started“ you agree to the Terms of Use. All fields are required

Instant Bonus: Get immediate access to a daily updated listing of free ebooks from Amazon when you confirm your account!

Author Profile

Amazon Reviews