Swiss Surprises

Story by Emily Albert


Switzerland is probably one of the most bizarre and paradoxical places I’ve ever been – you’ll find you need to bend your mind a bit to “think Swiss”. But it’s very much worth it for the cheese, for the trains, and for the stern and weathered Swiss who aren’t really so stern at heart after all.

  1.     Sure, as a tourist, Swiss prices seem outrageous… $13.65 for a Big Mac and fries?! But keep in mind that the average MacDo worker makes $18.90 an hour. They also usually get at least an hour and a half for lunch. Anything less than that would be inhumane, according to the Swiss!
  2.     Though the legal drinking age is 16 for beer and wine and 18 for hard liquor, you can’t buy alcohol past 10 pm. But what happens if you run out or if you didn’t plan far enough in advance? Well that would just be outrageous! How un-Swiss!
  3.     The Swiss love red shoes! Watch the people at any train station or park and you’re bound to see at least one pair. Maybe they’re a subtle way to rebel against conservative Swiss society and fashion. Or maybe someone just imported too much red leather—who knows? But among men and women alike, there will always be a pair of funky red kicks in the closet beside their hiking boots.
  4.     The Swiss practice direct democracy. That’s right, there is a referendum for every law that goes through, and in some towns this is still done in town-hall style in an open public space, like a market or a central courtyard. And get this: in the small Swiss-German town of Appenzell, the right to vote is still proven by wearing a traditional sword on the waist!
  5.     For a rather traditional nation, there are many quirks that contradict its reputation. One of my favorites is that the public vending machines on all of the train platforms sell condoms, pregnancy tests, and hemp tea.
  6.     There are fresh, mountain-fed water fountains in nearly every town. They were originally built for horses, but continue to provide icy-fresh hydration for the avid Swiss hiker, or for the town locals (who essentially have to hike everywhere they go anyway.)
  7.     The Swiss don’t do debt, period. The majority of Swiss don’t have credit cards, and if they do, it’s almost always just one. And even wilder, the majority of Swiss people don’t take out mortgages. They would rather rent a small apartment their entire life than take the risk of owning something they can’t currently afford. Very prudent, indeed.
  8.     Tiny Switzerland, smaller than the state of West Virginia, has four official languages. Study abroad at the University of Lausanne and you’ll be speaking French; study at University of Lugano in the Italian region of Ticino and you’ll be speaking Italian in no time. But don’t be fooled—it may sound and taste like Italy, but it will feel Swiss. The ferries will arrive on the minute, there won’t be a piece of litter in sight, and you wouldn’t dare call a Ticino native Italian.
  9.   The Swiss nation is made up of 26 cantons—like U.S. states or Canadian provinces—but its legal and political system is more like the union of autonomous city-states in Ancient Greece. That’s one of the reasons they don’t feel the need to join the E.U.—It’s like a mini E.U. in itself! How can they be represented in the E.U. as one nation, united, when they themselves are so distinct in culture and value from region to region?
  10.   You can break the law by showering or doing laundry past quiet hours. Yes, I’m serious.

This story appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Baedeker.

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