As soon as you arrive at the Zurich Airport you will be directed to a shuttle to the main terminal and during the short ride subjected to typical Swiss sounds like the alphorn, jodeling , cowbells and yes, the muuhing of a cow. When you exit into the shopping centre like terminal you are immediately greeted by gigantic posters of watches worn by such local celebrities as Federer and Piccard.
The Swiss are known for their punctuality, their cleanliness, their politeness and yes, they do have humour. If the train is a minute late then it’s due to a nuclear disaster or a major calamity of that order. The train is never late and it leaves exactly on the time posted. Large white clocks on every platform tell the exact time, synchronized with all the wristwatches of the passengers, who can be counted on to check their Omega’s, Rado’s or Tissot’s for possible time shifts the second the train pulls into the station.
‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’ as the proverb claims and the Swiss are proud of their clean neighbourhoods and regard with utter disdain anyone who dares to litter or not properly recycle. I saw stainless steel public waste bins no bigger then a fire hydrant being emptied by a vacuum on wheels commandeered by a driver. Puzzled I watched this operation and concluded that the waste goes into an underground cavity so as not to spoil the perfect landscape of the lake side park.
If you happen to be in Switzerland around Easter you will be absolutely flabbergasted by the amount of chocolate on display, especially at the iconic chocolate stores like Sprüngli on the Bahnhofstrasse. Bunnies and eggs in all sizes an colors, toys, houses and entire miniature towns in chocolate. The Bahnhofstrasse is among Europe’s most expensive realestate and home to the headquarters of the big banks like Credit Suisse, Swiss Bank Corp and Union Bank of Switzerland, all clustered like temples around the Paradeplatz.
Besides chocolate, watches and Swiss Army knives let’s not forget the cheese, available in a myriad of tastes and dexterity from the soft Vacherin to the Parmesan like Sprinz.. Cheese in Switzerland is synonymous with food and is about half the prize it is here in Vancouver as is the wine and the spirits. Think: ‘no taxes’ and therein lies the rub. Whenever I’m in Switzerland I could live off bread, always fresh and delicious, cheese, the air dried cold cuts and wine. Switzerland, In the southern and western cantons the Swiss produce over a million hectolitres of wine on about 15’000 hectares of vineyards, evenly split between reds and whites and they drink most of it themselves. Only 2% of the country wide production is exported. In addition Wine and spirits from all over the world are also available in all grocery stores, except in the Migros, Switzerland’s biggest cooperative retailer, founded by Duttweiler, a staunch 20th century socialist with a non-profit philosophy.
You will encounter men and woman in military garb, usually on trains or the trainstations, often with semi automatic riles flung over their shoulders. No, it’s not the 3rd world war; it’s just the ever vigilant and present Swiss Army. All young Swiss men are conscripted and women can volunteer but may soon be conscripted as well. A resent referendum to abolish conscription failed by over 73%. Initially there is a 20 week long service which is then repeated for 3 weeks every second year until the age of 35. Yes, the Swiss have the best equipment from guns to tanks, fortifications tunnelled into the mountains and jets that have to train in Norway because they would be across the border by the time they reach top speed.
Switzerland is a postcard vista almost from every vantage point. From the minute your plane approaches the perfectly outlined, agricultural carpet, interspersed with quaint little toy towns and patches of forest and the massive, snow covered alps on the horizon until you actually hike along one of the thousands of well marked trails through the alpine meadows which are called alps. They enchant with an abundance of colourful flora, the sounds of the cow bells echoing off the imposing, 4000 m high alpine peaks in front of you. Maybe you will even hear an alphorn, the communication tool of an age without cellphones and internet. At the zenith of every accessible mountain top or alp there is of course a rustic chalet or restaurant and no matter if you’re skiing or hiking you will always come across an inn or an alpine hut, offering fresh bread, cheese, air dried meats, bier wine and maybe a glass of kirsch or grappa to spice up the day.
You can always find the Swiss in those places, playing Jass, the national card game, or laughing and loud at the latest joke of which there is never a lack of. The Swiss are a tolerant, polite and good natured lot, greeting each other with ‘grüezi’ all day long, honest to the bone and funny with a dry, self-depreciating kind of humour that often gets misunderstood because it can also be quite cruel. They are a serious minded people but don’t take themselves or anybody else for that matter all that serious. If you try to say something in their obscure language they will laugh and slap their knees asking you to repeat it for their amusement which they display without shame, making you cringe and forget about trying to speak their lingo. They all speak English anyway, along with French, German and several other languages. No need to speak ‘schwyzerdeutsch’.
Proud of their independence, forged over centuries of warding off the enemy from the Habsburgs to Hitler they remain an island in the midst of the European Union, unwilling to join after several plebiscites. Throughout their history they had to rely on workmanship and innovation since they don’t have any raw materials which means an educated workforce, specialized trades like watch- and toolmakers, chocolatiers or bankers. They elect two houses of representatives which among themselves choose the seven ministers who head up their departments and elect one of the seven as president, an office that is mostly ceremonial and bequethes no special powers to it’s holder. There you have it: Switzerland in a snapshot.