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Obsessive about order: one of the first things an expat will discover as he or she settles into life in Switzerland is the way in which, with almost military precision, the Swiss citizenry complete tasks- from the mundane, to matters of life and death. American expat, and long-time resident, Helena Bachmann takes a closer look ...


A few months ago, my husband and I were walking along Lake Geneva, when we spotted a small area covered with plants branching out in different directions. It struck us that these shrubs were allowed to grow freely, without anyone trying to untangle or tame them into submission.

"I bet you the Swiss are just itching to sculpt these bushes into poodle shapes," my husband observed.

We both marvelled at what we assumed was the only patch of untamed "wilderness" in the whole of Switzerland, and certainly in an urban setting. So accustomed have we become to rivers made to flow straight, hedges being cut with a ruler and perfectly paved roads running through forests and over mountain peaks, that the sight of vegetation growing without any human intervention was truly stunning to us.

After all, not leaving anything to chance--or nature--is a typically Swiss characteristic.

So clean it sparkles

It's no secret (though certainly something of a revelation to people coming here for the first time) that the Swiss like their little country to be well-organised, neat, manicured and managed with meticulous--not to say "obsessive"--precision.

Sometimes, in their efforts to achieve all of the above, they go overboard in almost comical ways.

The other day I was driving by the bus stop closest to my house and was astonished to see a cleaning crew at work--and I don't mean just one person sweeping or picking up trash. Four uniformed workers on ladders were washing the glass wall and roof, scrubbing the bench and the sidewalk with a soapy liquid, and sucking up dust with some kind of contraption that looked like a vacuum with a brush stuck on the end.

They had a truly impressive array of cleaning machines and other supplies, which were probably all of Swiss invention. When they finished, the bus stop and adjacent areas were so pristine, you could safely eat off the polished surfaces (although why anyone would want to, I don't know).

Personally, I thought that bringing in a whole crew of cleaners, heavy equipment and products to clean a bus stop--whose total area doesn't exceed five square metres and which isn't used by more than 10 people a day--was a tad excessive. Still, it's nice to know where some of my tax money is going.

At that moment, I remembered something a visitor from Italy had once told me when she saw one of those ubiquitous sweeper vehicles that suck all the dirt off the streets.

"In my town," she commented, "we just put the trash in the street and when the wind blows, it sweeps it up."

I could just imagine 7.5 million Swiss shuddering in disgust.

Image is everything

You don't have to look far or long to see examples of Swiss punctiliousness. Likely, they abound in your own community, taking many different shapes and forms. One of them is the communal dumpster, where townsfolk can get rid of all their recyclable and non-recyclable trash.

In my town, it is open on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, as well as Saturday mornings, and is regulated by precise opening and closing times.

Once you arrive, you immediately see that there is no room for confusion or error: everything is organised in a super efficient way. Big signs tell you what is and isn't allowed in a particular bin: one is for "regular" paper, but not for paper bags; another is for paper bags, but not for newspapers; yet another is for carton boxes, but not for cardboard.

Municipal employees make sure everything proceeds smoothly--and it does.

People dispose of their trash in an orderly manner, patiently sorting and throwing it into assigned bins. Amazingly--especially considering the volume of refuse brought in--the whole area is immaculate. Whether this is a reflection of meticulous organisation or the highly disciplined citizenry, the fact remains that the recycling area is an apt representation of Swiss fastidiousness at its best--or worst, depending on how you look at it.

This kind of mentality spills over into other aspects of Swiss life as well. A few years ago, a foreign discount chain was supposed to open in my town. The municipal authorities, however, refused to allow it on the grounds that a store selling "cheap crap" (a loose translation) was not compatible with the town's image of picturesque quaintness portrayed on its postcards.

The store was eventually allowed to open, but not in its original prime location. Instead, it was relegated to the industrial section on the outskirts of town where it is hidden from general view by trees and other buildings, so as to not infringe on the aforementioned "image".

"Swissicized" to the core

To tell you the truth, the longer you live in Switzerland, the more likely you are to get sucked into this pedantic mentality. It becomes an integral part of your thinking and behaviour. You see someone throwing a cigarette butt on the sidewalk? Surely, that person must be a foreigner from a country with lesser cleanliness standards and no respect for public property, because no true Swiss would ever commit such a shockingly uncivil act.

Before you know it, you start noticing--and getting irritated with--dirty streets and unkempt spaces in other countries.

Now, every time I go abroad, I notice uncut grass, weeds, chipped paint on the buildings and potholes in the streets. I also notice what I commonly refer to as a "weird" smell. Mind you, nobody but the Swiss, or those of us who have been "Swissicized" by virtue of living in this country for a long time, notice that smell.

I have become so entrenched in the Swiss mindset that the patch of untamed shrubbery growing in my town now bothers me. In fact, I am seriously thinking of taking my gardening shears and sculpting it into a poodle.
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Title Annotation:only in switzerland
Author:Bachmann, Helena
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Feb 1, 2011
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