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Exceptions to the rule Stereotypes influence each of us, probably more than we even know: from caricaturised portrayals of the “bad guys” in films, to what we believe ethnic food should taste like. And of course, living among the Swiss, we see cultural quirks and paradoxes every day. The locals must get a kick out of watching us try to understand them …

By Helena Bachmann | When most of us Westerners think of China, we conjure up the tastes and smells of sweet and sour chicken or crispy beef in pepper sauce. And, of course, those ubiquitous fortune cookies with scraps of paper inside exalting us to “Respect our elders” or “Follow life’s path and see where it leads you”. The Chinese are probably laughing like mad at our gullibility – as well they should. After all, how silly are we to believe that food invented specifically to suit Western palates is “authentic” Chinese, and that those platitudes in fortune cookies are real bits of Confucius’ wisdom. The point here is this: we often judge other nations by commonly held stereotypes, only a small portion of which may actually reflect the country’s true spirit, cultural nuances and various idiosyncrasies. I don’t know about China, but in Switzerland the quirks are often specific to linguistic regions. Generally, those who speak Schwyzerdütsch are considered to be more persnickety than French and Italian speakers. However, it is fair to say that many peculiarities of thought and behaviour spill over from one geographical area to another, making them Swiss, rather than regional, oddities. A case in point is my cow story. It happened in Canton Vaud, but it could have occurred anywhere in Switzerland.

Holy cow! Though the Swiss are reputed to be humourless, amusing things sometimes do happen here … albeit mostly by accident. This story has all the components of a typically Swiss tale: cows with bells around their necks, rolling hills and a breathtakingly beautiful Alpine meadow. In the midst of this bucolic setting, come I in my brand new Toyota Prius. I got the car just two days beforehand, and my husband and I decided to take it for an inaugural spin through the Jura hills. As soon as we arrived on Mont-Tendre, we found ourselves in the midst of what we can only call a “mad cow” invasion. First, a cow chased us for a good stretch down the hill, and then another one positioned herself across the road and refused to budge, staring at us provocatively. We were in a precarious position, being confronted by a bovine with a bad attitude. We sat there for maybe 10 minutes until the beast finally moved to the side of the road. Slowly and cautiously we inched forward, but as soon as we moved two or three metres, the cow lunged onto the road, scratching and denting the car.

It’s no bull The next day I went to file an insurance claim. I filled in the form explaining what happened and drew a little diagram showing the position of the car in relation to the cow, and how the impact occurred. My husband told me: “They’ll never believe

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this. We’ll be the laughing stock (no pun intended) of the entire insurance office.” But that’s not what happened. This was, after all, a Swiss insurance agent, and he (very seriously) assured me that being hit by a cow (or a goat) was a totally plausible explanation. Who knew? However, this is not the end of the story. A week or so later, an American friend who just moved to Switzerland and settled in a small village, was driving to a meeting one morning. Suddenly, she came to a screeching halt because a herd of cows was crossing the road – very slowly. Some even sat in the middle of the path, swatting flies with their tails. She could have sworn one of the cows actually gave her the finger. My friend was getting nervous because she knew she’d be late and would have to offer an explanation. If she told the truth, who in his right mind would believe her? But when she explained to her boss the reason for her tardiness, he was very understanding. “Of course,” he nodded. “This is a normal thing.” The moral of these stories? The Swiss are very trusting, especially when the stories involve livestock. Both of these explanations would have insurance agents and bosses in other countries (certainly in the United States) snickering sarcastically and saying “Yeah, right. Are you pulling my leg?” But in Switzerland, the honour system is still deeply entrenched. If you say the cow ate your homework, the Swiss have no beef with that.

Quintessential quirks After you live here for a while, you begin to notice some typical Swiss characteristics, which range from maddeningly eccentric to endearingly odd: punctuality, hard work, efficiency, reliability and frugality. The diligent Swiss plan ahead, leave nothing to chance and prepare for all kinds of eventualities, be it a natural disaster, a market crash, or a locust invasion. These are some random quintessential Swiss quirks and paradoxes I’ve often come across: • The Swiss are a peace-loving nation and often mediate international disputes. Yet, they’ll fight and beat each other like mad after hockey and football games. • They are reputed to be cold and distant, but they insist it is not aloofness – just their sense of discretion. They say they respect other people’s privacy, which is why so many celebrities choose to live here (Really? The rich and famous don’t come here for the tax benefits?). Yet, they don’t hesitate to stick their noses into other people’s affairs when they think rules are not being followed; my Swiss neighbours are the first to point out when my grass needs cutting, but will complain if we mow it on a Sunday (the only day working people can do yard work).


• They are great recyclers, sorting the trash into appropriate categories and disposing of it in an environmentally correct way. Yet, if they show up at the communal dump 10 minutes before the official opening time, they’ll be turned away.

If Confucius had lived in Switzerland, he would probably sum this up in an appropriately philosophical way: “Travel far, but carry a Samsonite.”

• They are thrifty, but expect goods of the highest quality. A Swiss acquaintance recently arrived at Geneva airport after a lengthy trek through South America. Her hair was braided, she wore a Bolivian poncho and carried a tattered backpack. Not surprisingly, she was pulled over by the customs officer, who asked for her passport. “What, you are Swiss?” he exclaimed incredulously. “So why don’t you have proper luggage on wheels, like everyone else?”

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Exceptions to the rule