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January 13, 2012


You Know You’re in Switzerland When…

by Anne Paddock

My great-grandmother was born in Soulalex, a village located in the French-speaking canton (similar to a US state) of Valais (section 23 in the map below) in Switzerland.  Located literally on the side of a mountain, Soulalex was a small farming village a hundred years ago when she left and immigrated to Illinois in search of a better life. She was 16 years old.

 While living in Switzerland, I went to Soulalex several times maneuvering hairpin turns up a mountain whose steep slopes are still farmed.  The village is still small and I enjoyed walking the same roads that my great-grandmother also walked upon years ago. The local cemetery was filled with headstones engraved with her family name:  Crettex.  By most accounts, my great-grandmother was a strong, feisty, and determined woman who worked hard to give her US born children a better life. Understandably, Switzerland holds a special place in my heart.canstockphoto1500656
Four years of living in the French-speaking region of Switzerland allowed me to better understand the culture of one of my ancestors, which is quite different from the rest of the world’s countries. With affection, humor, and an appreciation for efficiency and personal responsibility, I offer the following glimpse into Swiss culture.  You know you’re in Switzerland when…..
  • Trains leave and arrive on time; the cars are clean, the bathrooms immaculate, and the cafe car has fresh, delicious food and a great cup of coffee;
  • Dogs are allowed on trains with owners by purchasing a canine ticket;
  • One must choose the “proper” train car that applies (i.e. smoking, non-smoking, first class, tourist, quiet car- no children or cell phones, please) and if you make a mistake, you will be reprimanded by the nearest Swiss citizen;canstockphoto21029639
  • There is no litter on the streets of Switzerland; people put refuse in trash cans;
  • 96% of everything is recycled. Residents are responsible for separating recyclables: glass (clear, green, and other), plastic (clear, white, and other), aluminum cans, newspapers, magazines, nespresso mini coffee filters, yard waste, etc.  Large towns and cities have recycling centers open every day but smaller town centers are open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The whole family loads up the car and takes the recyclables to the center. All recyclables must be placed in the proper area or risk the wrath of the recycle czars who watch residents like a hawk;
  • Dairy cows are still escorted down the mountain and through towns to warmer plains in the Autumn;iStock_000024422332Small
  • Taxi’s may not take you anywhere if you have more than 2 suitcases (especially in Zurich);
  • ski patrol is virtually non-existent and the idea that skiers have to be in control is not enforced. Ironically, the skier assumes the risk for participating;
  • Everything is closed on Sunday except train stations, ski slopes and rest stops on the highway (note: you will feel like a loser having dinner at the restaurant rest stop on a Sunday night); Sunday is considered a day to spend with the family so car washing, housekeeping, or anything that may disturb a neighbor is prohibited;
  • Stores stay open until 8:00 pm for late shopping only one night a week;
  • Swiss moms are welcome to work (they’ve only been allowed to vote since 1971) but must register their nanny with the commune (town hall);
  • Meal times are strictly defined with lunch from 12:00 – 2:00 and dinner from 7:00 – 9:00;
  • Dogs are allowed in restaurants and they really do behave because the Swiss take the training of their dogs very seriously;
  • There are hotels that accept dogs but not children;
  • Low fat milk is 2% and it tastes like cream;
  • Waterfront property is used as farmland and not its highest and best use (because the Swiss consider land’s highest and best use to be farming to maintain Swiss self-reliance);canstockphoto15271503
  • The Swiss will pay more for Swiss made goods rather than pay less for a product grown or made in France, Spain, Germany, China or the US;
  • There are no customs papers in triplicate to fill out upon entering the country; the Swiss want people to be free to bring their money in although they would prefer if most depositors would promptly leave and do their banking from afar;
  • The three largest grocery store sections are devoted to yogurt, chocolate, and cheese;
  • Cheese cellars are abundant throughout the country;canstockphoto5689460
  • Horse meat is sold in most grocery stores;
  • Fruit tastes like real fruit and tomatoes are downright sublime;
  • speeding ticket is based on one’s personal income; not the infraction;
  • The Swiss allow 4 km (2 mph) over the speed limit before ticketing speedsters;
  • Every home has a “safe room” to protect and feed the family in the event of a nuclear fall-out (blame this on the historical behavior of the volatile border neighbors);
  • Young children can safely take a train to school unaccompanied;
  • It’s an insult if anyone says “You ski like a German.”
  • People wait in line and take their turn;canstockphoto6113689
  • Seniors (70 years plus) are every bit as active as young people;
  • The Swiss German consider themselves the most efficient and look down upon the Swiss French and Swiss Italian, but the Swiss German and Swiss French both look down upon the Swiss Italian; The Swiss Italians don’t care – they’re enjoying life (but not as much as the Italians across the border);
  • Rental cars obtained in Switzerland are prohibited from crossing the border into Italy (better to not tempt the Italians to steal the car);
  • Parking garages and lots generally do not have attendants. The parking ticket must be inserted into a machine by the entrance/exit, stairs, or elevator. The fee is then displayed and money must be promptly inserted into the machine. Once the full amount is received, the ticket will spit back out and you have 10 minutes to exit. Upon leaving the garage, the ticket is inserted into the machine causing the gate arm to rise;
  • The Swiss believe things will get worse and consequently can’t be too happy or optimistic;
  • Movies have intermission half way through the film;
  • Children go to school an average of 225 days a year;
  • Clocks are even made out of flowers (and they are accurate);canstockphoto19786330
  • Children still go home from public schools mid-day for a proper lunch;
  • Drivers of convertibles will have the top down on a 50 degree sunny day;
  • Every village has a clock that rings on the hour to remind residents of the time and not to be late;
  • Grocery carts require a 2 CHF (Swiss Franc) coin to use. After placing the coin in the slot by the handle, a chain is released. Upon returning the cart and inserting the chain from another cart, the coin is returned;
  • Shoppers must bag their own groceries;
  • Insurance can be bought for virtually anything;
  • Owners of televisions and radios must pay an annual tax to the government;
  • There are virtually no ATM fees in Switzerland; the Swiss figured out long ago that ATM processing and internet banking is infinitely cheaper than processing checks;
  • No one uses a checkbook;
  • All chimneys must be cleaned by a professional chimney sweep (he doesn’t look like Dick Van Dyke) that is sent to your home; regardless of whether or not the fireplace has ever been used; A bill for 75 CHF is then sent to the resident for payment;
  • Coffee is always served with a small chocolate or cookie; and
  • Gas costs about $8 per gallon.
To this day, I find the difference in cultures remarkable but helpful in understanding why a country operates as it does.  The Swiss run a very efficient country that is relatively safe from outside influences and it’s a country that can be a true delight to visitors but don’t forget to keep your sense of humor.
  1. Dec 6 2015

    Hi Sonja: What was her name?

  2. Sonja
    Dec 6 2015

    Upon searching the name crettex from soulalex i came upon your page. My husbands great grandmother was also crettex from the same place. How cool is that! She immagrated to,canada

  3. ShethP
    May 15 2014

    Less crowded, definitely! I look forward to my trip there… I’m keen on visiting the mountains and going skiing, maybe? Let’s see… Thanks so much for the heads up!! 🙂

  4. May 15 2014

    Hi Sheth…thanks so much and so happy you enjoyed the post. If you’re visiting Switzerland for the first time, decide if you prefer city life (Geneva, Zurich) or less crowded areas (Zermatt, Gstaad, St. Moritz, etc). If you’re a sports enthusiast, there is so much to do – skiing, hiking, biking, etc. Take the trains, go to market days, indulge in some chocolate, and enjoy your stay!

  5. ShethP
    May 15 2014

    This was really interesting to read! I’m impressed. Good to learn things from someone who has experienced Switzerland firsthand. 🙂 Any tips for someone who will be visiting the country for the first time?

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