Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Ten things you should know about Switzerland (particularly Zurich)

Whenever I talk to friends and family back home, they always ask "How's Switzerland?" or "What's it like over there?" I usually interpret the question selfishly and answer instead with how I personally am handling Switzerland - quite a different matter.

So, if you have ever asked me that question and realized that I never actually answered it, rejoice! Your wait is over. Inspired by my walk this afternoon, here are 10 things you should know about Zurich and Switzerland:

1. In many ways, Zurich is much like a major city in any other developed country. It has houses, hills, cars, and lots of modern-looking buildings. It doesn't have much of the Old World charm of Paris, Rome, or Milan. It has no iconic buildings as in those cities. But then, it does have this nearby:

View from my backyard (practically). Suck on that, Paris! (just kidding. I love Paris. I might even like it more than Zurich.)
2. The weather here is often terrible. I know I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again - the winter is grey, dark, overcast and absurdly depressing. The flipside of this is that when the seasons change, there is no mistaking it. Spring, which is quite early this year, brings with it blue skies, brilliant sunshine, and to top it off, multitudes of wildflowers in the yard.

Yes, the carpet of wildflowers you were inquiring about has arrived.
3. As might be expected, the Swiss take their outdoors very seriously. Paths are organized, well-marked and well-used, particularly at crossroads. There are benches spaced regularly along many, in case you might want to sit and rest. Very considerate, indeed.

Of course, some people choose to go both ways.
Lovely view, if you don't mind the lurking crow.
4. Zurich has a thing for fountains. Drinking ones, in particular. I went on an hour walk today and encountered no less than five fountains, each one continuously providing a stream of cold, clear (drinkable) water. Delicious!

Fountain #1. Neatly situated at the top of the hill, in case you've tired yourself from walking up it.
Fountain #5, and possibly my favorite because a life-size iron cat statue sits on top of it. Although somehow it looks more like a bear/hippopotamus hybrid in this picture.
5. For such an outdoorsy bunch, the Swiss are surprisingly cold-blooded. They bundle up at the first chill in the air and don't remove their coats until well into April, regardless of what the actual weather is. Today was 19 degrees C (67F) and sunny, yet other than the runners, virtually every person I encountered out for a stroll was in a coat and scarf. I had a fleece that I tied around my waist because it was too warm, and my bare arms drew several raised eyebrows and comments. At least, I think that one lady was commenting on them - she rubbed her arms vigorously at me and then said something that sounded like "shopping." (Note: There is a high degree of likelihood that I misunderstood the spoken part of this interaction)

6. Dogs here are universally well-trained and well-socialized, whether in the city or along nature trails. As a result, they are often not on leashes, yet they still happily pad beside their owners, ignoring trams, cars, bikes, other people, and often other dogs (although they will occasionally give each other a friendly butt sniff before continuing on their way). It's like a scene out of Stepford Dogs and it constantly amazes me.

Dog with owner on the left (no leash), friendly butt sniffing happening on the right (the border collie-ish one looks like it's snarling, but it's not - I watched the entire interaction, it was most cordial - I am just the worst at taking pictures).
 7. Kids are given more independence at a much younger age here than in the US (or the UK, so I've been told). By age 4 they walk to school on their own, and even before that they are given small bikes (without training wheels) and allowed to fall as much as they like. Also, apartment complexes or neighborhoods often provide playgrounds for children that include many 'dangerous' objects such as seesaws, swings, and merry-go-rounds.

The slide goes underground. How cool is THAT? I'm keeping my eye on this to see if adults are allowed in.
How many potential lawsuits can you spot?
8. For such a clean and respectful country, there are ridiculous amounts of graffiti - everywhere. Overpasses, highways, buildings, fences, even dams (below). There seem to be no attempts to paint over or remove it. Admittedly, it does add some color (figuratively and literally) to the landscape.
I don't know what it means, although I am intrigued. But according to Mo Willems, pigeons in general should not be encouraged.
Graffiti'ed dam. And yes, that does say "free willy" on it. Graffiti artists are apparently not without senses of humor.

9. The elderly Swiss population is hard-core. I have seen an astounding number of little old ladies (and men) with their little wheeled carts shuffling slowly along the sidewalk. They may be slow, but they'll get there eventually, and that's what counts. Who cares if it takes 2 hours to cover 200 meters to the grocery store and back? They have all the time they need, and they'll use it. I'm convinced this is a reason for why Swiss are so long-lived (aren't they? I thought I heard this statistic somewhere once. If not, I'll make it up here - Fact: Swiss people live for a long time.)

This lady was making her way up a hill that even I try to avoid walking up at all costs (and I wouldn't have today except I forgot my bus pass).
 10. In general, Swiss advertising is done without the use of celebrities.* It provides a refreshing change from the celeb-obsessed culture of the US. Either that or it's just that my German is still terrible, so I am not aware of any Swiss celebs - but to help prove my point, a question at pub trivia last week (admittedly a British pub) wanted to know who the current Miss Switzerland is - and judging from the reaction when the answer was read, nobody knew (if you're curious, apparently her name is Dominique Rinderknecht).

*Except Roger Federer. Federer is the exception that proves this rule - I have seen his self-deprecating smile stare out at me from ads for chocolate, watches, banks, coffee machines, sports gear, champagne - you name it, he can sell it.

From left to right: fashion, cars, and uh - plates? a museum exhibit? I'm not entirely sure. "But this is only three ads!" you may point out. And I agree. Just take my word on this one, ok?


  1. Margaret,
    I just love your sense of humor! I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees this side of Zurich too.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, MB! As an outsider, it's always fun to notice the quirks and contradictions in a society :) (PS - Hope your new job is going well!)

  2. Your blog posts are awesome, funny and somehow (and I do say this as a Swiss) true :-)