Living in Switzerland – 8 Quick Learnings

Whilst you can read up in advance of arriving in a country, there are things you only learn over time. Three years into our cheesy adventure, here are 8 eye-openers that living in Switzerland has brought to light. 

Living in Switzerland - 8 Learnings

"Quoi?"

1. What time?

When dealing with Swiss folks (this doesn’t apply to more lackadaisical expats), an agreed meeting time is not an approximation. Instead it’s the time by which your friend or colleague will have already been waiting 5 minutes for you to arrive. Although they won’t tell you that.

2. Big kids

Push scooters (AKA trotinettes) are not just for children. At least not here, as everyone uses them. This is particularly true in our town of Lausanne, perched as it is on the side of a steep hill.

Saunter around the town centre and soon enough you’ll be sped past by a rapidly descending grannie, silver mane-a-flowing and jowls-a-flapping, with one heel on the back wheel for safety braking.

Tourists, watch your step.

3. How much?

From what I can ascertain, the chances of finding a small house for sale in Suisse Romande for less than six figures are slimmer than those of the Swiss footie team winning Euro 2012. Much slimmer.

Such a purchase is our rough long-term plan (and I do mean long-term), but even if we head out of town, away from the spectaular views of Lake Geneva and onto the more cost-effective plateau beyond, we are still looking at more than six figures for a relatively small 3-4 bedroom newbuild house. You simply don’t see many such properties for under one million Swiss Francs (that’s around 693,000 GBP or 808,000 Euro as per today’s exchange rate). Stings doesn’t it?

(We’ll save the bewildering world of Swiss double mortgages for another time…)

4. Going up

Sometimes me and her indoors drive half-way up a mountain, right up until the quality road stops, in order to indulge in a little lazy hikery. Then often as not, we are overtaken in the car park by one or more geriatric Swiss types on pedal bikes, working off their birchermüesli. The pensioners around these parts are nothing short of bionic. It must be the air.

5. Ding, dong, wrong

Tinkly dinkly cow bells, you know the ones (see pic above). Think Heidi… think Milka Cow… think cast iron bells of surpringly huge proportions, strapped around the necks of des vaches, clanging away morning, noon and night.

A mountainside institution they may be, but I put it to you that these bovine ringers are not in fact cute, but quite cruel.

Why? Well how would you like it dear reader? They’re loud. Dangerously, brain-wobblingly loud. And the din never ends unless Mr/Mrs Moo makes like a statue, falls asleep, or leaps into the nearest gorge to make it stop.

Maybe you’ve heard of tinnitus – that maddening high-pitched ringing in the ears caused by, amongst other things, over-exposure to loud noise? I’d wager that Swiss cows are afflicted by this in their droves herds.

Ask people with a proper case of tinnitus about their experiences and they’ll often tell you they sometimes feel like it’s driving them mad, literally. So surely nature’s finest milk makers can be driven nutso too? I feel for them, I really do.

6. Selective control freakery

For a country that often feels packed to the brim with rules and regulations, the one area les suisses seem surprisingly unconcerned about is that modern British bugbear: Health and Safety.

While it’s true that if you stop on the hard shoulder of the autoroute, you are legally obliged to plonk your red safety triangle 50 meters further back up the road, and that if you have a baby then some cantonal authorities send you on a First Aid course specifically with your mini-me in mind, if you head into the hills where all sorts of plunge-inducing mishaps might occur there’s not a cone or a cordon to be found.

You’ll get regular and helpful yellow route signs for sure, but should the path you’re following veer close to a mile-high cliff face or breathtakingly deep ravine, with nothing between you and a splattery end but some tufts of grass and possibly a Swiss chap perched eating his sandwich, then you’re on your own.

The concept seems to be that the higher your altitude, the less warnings of impending death you’ll be bothered by. The self-preservation is down to you.

7. Reassuringly calm

Friends and family members who are still of a mind to go partying have often remarked to me and the missus that in terms of madcap after-hours debauchery Switzerland is, well, somewhat on the quiet side.

I don’t mind a bit.

I’m totally okay with safe and serene. It means I don’t need to feel apprehensive about, or even avoid, heading into town centres of an evening for fear or youths looking for places to rest their fists or deposit their puke.

Nor need I perturb myself with visions of multi-car pile-ups and Dubai-style road racing madness, so common in our last expat stomping ground. (The more friends you have who have lost friends to flaming car wrecks, the more this last point feels an important one.)

In short, I’ve found my pace. Born to plod.

8. Steve Martin you’re an evil man

On a lighter note, I’ve recently learned that if you have watched Mr. Martin’s movie The Pink Panther then it is impossible to live in a French-speaking region without collapsing into fits of giggles every time a local says the word hamburger.

In case you’re even more out of the loop than I, this social affliction is the fault of this scene.

If anyone knows any mental exercises I can apply to help avoid such embarassing breakdowns, please let me know.

Driving in Switzerland: an update

Re: my last Rules of the Road post, I have now delicately raised the issue of roundabout etiquette over lunch with Swiss colleagues and I can report that this apparent lack of indication is not in fact a result of continental complacency. Not at all.

The difference instead is educational. Unlike Brits who must indicate their intended direction on entering a rondpoint, Swiss drivers are taught only to indicate as they leave the circle.

I know. Figure that.

Whilst I find this a curious approach – raising as it does the possibility of Mr. Swiss Driver tootling around and around said tarmac island indefinitely should his indicator be kaputt – if that’s the local way then I consider myself – as they might put it back in Yorkshire – learned.

It also means the end of my one-man re-education campaign, which had previously involved driving straight into roundabouts in order to come bumper-close to Mr. Turning Swiss to advise him on the error of his ways. Sad maybe, but that’s the cost of European integration right there.

Rules of the road

Every nationality it seems has its own particular approach to driving. And while this topic is admittedly the clichéd fallback of the uninspired travel writer, le homme suisse is genuinely an interesting case. As generally speaking he’s actually a most excellent driver.

Not for Monsieur Suisse arDon't worry about the damage, worry about the fine.e the urban scrapes of the Italian motorist, nor the risk-defying autobahn antics of Herr Deutsche.

And our Swiss chauffeur generally drives more slowly, more considerately than his French-speaking neighbor just the other side of the border.

Mr Swiss’ voiture is likely newer, with less dents (if any), and I would hazard a guess he gets by with less motorized bumps and bashes each year than all his European cousins.

But he does have his moments. And they can enliven the arteries of the uninitiated Brit.

So here follow a few observations from three years of driving in Switzerland:

1. Pedestrian crossings are holy

Unlike many European countries in which you take your life in your hands every time you try to cross the road, Swiss pedestrians are like cows in India – sacred. (Providing they are crossing at an approved spot.)

In fact, if a Swiss pedestrian so much as glances towards a striped yellow crossing from within leaping range, you’d better be prepared to break, if not start slowing straight away. For know this – they will hurl themselves bonnet-wards without a second thought.

Les anciens in particular assume that you’ll follow the letter of the law, as presumably everyone has done for decades before, so don’t even expect them to look and check. They won’t. They’ll just totter across like your route was a little extra pavement.

In short, if you’re not on your toes, you’ll quickly be on someone else’s.

2. If it’s in front, it rules

To my mind the most crucial Swiss driving lesson: if someone is in front of you, they will do exactly what the buggery they want. And they’ll expect you to let them.

You could be panning it down the motorway 30- or 40kph faster than your sloth-like neighbor in the slow lane, but when it comes time for him to finally overtake the truck or tank he’s behind (literally, as there’s plenty of military in Switzerland relative to its size), he’ll pop into your path without so much as jetting you un oeil (throwing a glance). Cue some serious brake hammering on your front and some equally serious tremoring on your heart’s.

The same applies, more bizarrely still, at roundabouts. Which is a result of many Swiss drivers being seemingly oblivious to the function of those little stalks either side of the steering wheel that make the side lights flash on and off.

Really. I’ve very rarely seen a Swiss driver indicate. Even less often when heading all the way around a rondpoint. I have however seen their faces more closely than I’d planned after I assumed they were heading straight through and pulled out into their path. I’m not sure who was more aggrieved. They’ve even pipped their horns at me on occasion – an illegal act except in case of emergencies, of which I’m guessing taking liberties at roundabouts is one.

3. Remember your tires

Now then, every car in Switzerland comes with its own set of extra tires for winter. These aren’t the chain-ensconced spheres you may be thinking of, but simply tires with slightly deeper treads that work a treat when temperatures plummet and everything turns white.

It’s up to you to pop these on – or pay a garagiste around forty Francs to do so – around October or November time, lest you skate your way into an automotive crunch, your insurance company thumb its nose and the resulting monstrous bills be yours to pay.

Come April it’s back to the more fuel-friendly summer versions and you’re on your way.

4. What speed can you afford ?

Our last rule is not so much an observation of Monsieur’s roadcraft but a financial tip for those planning to drive in La Suisse. Calculate how fast you can afford to go.

Break the speed limit here and you won’t receive points on your license as you would in France or the UK. Instead you’ll pay. And you’ll pay plenty.

The amount you will be fined will be based on two factors: how far above the speed limit you were rocketing along, and your monthly salary. This wallet-squeezing ratio is why you might occasionally read in the news about a supercar owner, often unknowing foreigners, being fined mindboggling sums for attempting to break the sound barrier as they careered past Cossonay.

Which is really a waste, as the surrounding countryside is lovely to look at.

I’ve almost been party to this punishment myself actually, after some local law enforcers noticed me rattling through a tunnel on my way to a meeting (speed limit 100kph, actual speed 140kph – my one-time Swiss speeding offence and a continual source of dinner party shame).

My second mistake was trying to have the subsequent road-side conversation in French. The result of which was, well, not much… the only thing I understood with any degree of certainty was that I was knee-deep in la merde.

I did raise a smirk from the purple-faced officers at one stage after I got my adjectives confused and tried to pass my annual salary off as my monthly wage. This faux-pas became quickly obvious however when two bewildered gazes at my scratchy old Fiat Punto suggested they didn’t believe a man of such apparent means would choose to drive a vehicle with such, erm, caractère.

But after all that, in distinctly un-Swiss hip-hop style, I got off on a technicality after the Police speed recorder malfunctioned.

Très bien!