Friday, December 13, 2013

Fixing What Isn't Broken

In many countries, a state of disrepair is the necessary prerequisite for the commencement of repairs.  Not so in Switzerland, where labourers of all descriptions frequently occupy themselves with work that, to the non-Anthropologist, seems totally unnecessary.  Why? 

First, the Swiss love work. It is labour itself that is virtuous, not necessarily the finished product; brow sweat is a Calvinist harbinger of heavenly rewards, so tearing up and re-paving a walking trail is always a good idea (because of the tearing up and re-paving, not because of the trail) that hardly needs further justification.

Second, though, the Swiss enjoy being masters of their own fates.  Not for them the Gallic shrug or Mediterranean sigh (despite rather a large part of the population being French- and Italian-speaking); the Swiss seek to steer the course of affairs with a zeal that may be surprising from a small, land-locked, neutral country.  The tension between this half of their personality and the Romantic half is a dynamic that explains much in Switzerland, and certainly gets played out on its lawns every summer.

Waiting until a pavement is cracked or a railway tie worn out entails a degree of idleness and passivity that the Swiss cannot tolerate; fixing what isn't broken therefore asserts a satisfying dominion over the forces of entropy, and presents a valuable opportunity to do hard work.  


Monday, November 11, 2013

Citing Verse on The Side of Your House

The anthropological observer of Switzerland's small towns frequently notices ecclesiastical messages painted in imposing Gothic script on the sides of old-fashioned farmhouses. Why?

Importantly, scripture is never written on the stark lines of contemporary steel-and-glass numbers, nor the stucco of working-class apartment buildings: it inevitably appears on posh wooden chalets.  This is because the tidy rural farm is a perfect storm of Swissness: it is where Protestant virtue, wealth, and hard work converge.  

Buying an expensive grey car is something the wealthy Swiss does with some reluctance, but the cow-studded countryside is where he can finally be a bit showy.  The Swiss have maintained an admirable connection in the popular imagination (one which might, in some places, appear quaint) between hard work and success.  Boasting is quite un-Swiss; the writing on the wall therefore thanks God for your (obvious) success while simultaneously (and subtly, blamelessly) advertising to your neighbours that your wealth is the natural, God-given result of your hard work.

We recall that Weber's famous identification of the Protestant Work Ethic wasn't a century old before Fukuyama declared the end of history.  History has not ended in Switzerland, where hard work and virtue are the muscular, tanned arms forever dangling the organic local carrot of progress just beyond easy reach.  

If, as John Cleese once remarked, it is the goal of every Englishman to go to his grave unembarrassed, it is surely the goal of every Swiss to go to his grave a wealthy, hardworking farmer.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Wearing a Moustache

The current cultural moment attaches quite an ironic cachet to vibrissae of various styles, to the extent that self-consciously ridiculous moustaches adorn the faces (and tattooed fingers) of millions of men who even a few years ago wouldn't be caught dead with hair on their upper lips.  Not so in Switzerland, however, where the pushbroom remains an entirely straightforward - even slightly earnest - option for young and old, one almost totally immune to the whims of fashion or irony and ultimately perhaps the staid Helvetian cousin of the freewheelingly continental Van Dyke.  

Why do Swiss men wear moustaches so enthusiastically?  

I have no idea.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Wearing Serious Boots

The Swiss take their footwear seriously.

While Canadians, for instance, wear their rather cavalier relationship with nature on their flannel sleeves ("sure, I had to drive through a snowstorm, but only for a few hundred kilometers!") the Swiss strap on steel-shanked mountaineering boots the moment the pavement ends.  Why?

The Swiss are famously fond of the outdoors, and have an eye-watering variety of stunning landscapes at their disposal. Still, they remain wary of nature, struggling to reconcile their Romantic spirit with their Calvinist one.  This, we have already learned, is why the Swiss will cut an acre of grass to Master's-green quality but studiously leave an uncut 'wild patch' in the middle.

So it is that the Swiss are keen to head to the hills often and energetically, while wearing boots for their Sunday walk that many seasoned alpinists would consider overkill on anything outside the Himalayas.  The Swiss draw a Romantic's sustenance from immersing themselves in the awe-inspiring landscapes of the Alps, but need to engage with them in a way that maintains a clinical distance and preserves the triumph of Swissness over the forces of entropy.  

Serious boots are therefore a perfect compromise: they allow the wearer to pass through chaotic landscapes without altogether succumbing to them; to leave a literal footprint of the protestant work ethic on the sublime hillsides of romantic Helvetica.  

The fact that such boots are expensive and require expert fitting merely sweetens the deal.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Buying a Coffee Machine

While the Scandinavians drink more of it than anyone else, and the Italians and Turks have taken coffee culture to rare heights, the Swiss have put their own stamp on the morning brew and turned the process of buying a coffee maker into a confounding tunnel into the heart of Swissness.  How?

It goes without saying, at this point, that among the keys to Swissifying a process are to make it perfect, regulated, elaborated, and potentially very expensive.  The clear-eyed and decaffeinated anthropologist, however, recognizes immediately that buying a coffee machine in Switzerland is a cultural rite of passage.  van Gennep tells us that rites of passage require the initiate to leave their old life behind and endure a period of liminal bewilderment before emerging, reborn, into the world.  

So it goes with the search for a Helvetian percolator.  In a country where perhaps 4 varieties of potato chip are on offer in the average grocery store, beholding the chromed infinitude of the coffee machine aisle can be dizzying.

Upon leaving the comfort of your tidy, quiet home, you are thrust into a perplexing netherworld of coffee-related miscellanea: only when you have considered the wattage you'll want, only when you've decoded the on-board grinder settings, only when you've wrestled with the pros and cons of capsule-based brewing, only when you have come to terms (emotionally or otherwise) with paying more for a coffee maker than you did for your first car, and figured out not only how to finance the machine but how to install and operate it - only then do you emerge from the initiation and, to paraphrase TS Eliot, return to Switzerland and see the place for the first time.

And so it is that only once you have bought a Swiss coffee machine, in Switzerland, can you truly be Swiss.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Spraypainting the Walls

American historian and erstwhile ethnographer of things Swiss Henry Trotter asks, "what's the deal with all the graffiti in Switzerland?"

It is true that the Swiss have a yen for spraypainting walls, brightly and often, with an alacrity that surprises those who assume them to be forever preoccupied with tidiness and perfection.  And, to answer Trotter, it is precisely because of this obsession with tidiness that graffiti is the most transgressive thing a young Swiss rebel can do.

With unemployment hovering around 3% and a government keen to spend money on skateboard parks and internships, Swiss youth find relatively few catalysts for angst compared with many in their global cohort.  Just as the original Punks adorned themselves with the detritus of polite society (including, most famously, safety pins) the better to distance themselves from bourgeois nicety, so the unpainted wall presents an absolutely irresistible temptation to the Swiss nihilist: defacing it strikes at the heart of Swissness . 

In their inimitable way, the Swiss mainstream seems to tolerate this form of vandalism with a magnanimity that the non-Anthropologist doesn't expect.  There are two reasons for this.

First, Swiss graffiti artists are still Swiss, after all.  Their work is invariably quite painterly and - in its own tidily rebellious way - respects a street decorum (note that signs and handbills go untouched in the above picture) that makes it easier for everyone to live with.

Second, and perhaps more important, graffiti is a very important social purge valve.  As pragmatic conservatives at heart, the Swiss realize that, when their youth need to rebel, spraypainting is infinitely better than the alternatives.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Having a Smoke

The Swiss, despite all their vigorous healthiness, are surprisingly keen consumers of carcinogens: fully 27% of Swiss adults smoke, compared with only 17% in the USA and 20% in Australia. Why are the Swiss so fond of cigarettes?

I have no idea.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Thinking about Indians

For a landlocked nation in the heart of Europe with no history of colonization or imperial foreign adventuring, the Swiss have rather a large soft spot for the Aboriginal peoples of the Americas.


First and foremost, Romanticism. The Swiss, as we know, have a wide and deep romantic streak that predisposes them to think in idealistic ways about indigenous life and its imagined independence, vigor, and spontaneous, unpretentious perfection.

Second, the idealized image of the North American (but, interestingly, almost never Central- or South American) 'Indian' is one which captures many values the Swiss hold dear. The perfect Indian lives in harmony with nature (most Swiss begrudgingly live in cities), and tidily divides his time between between the hard (but satisfying) graft of a life outdoors, and a quiver of altogether perfect Freizeit pursuits.

So it is that images of dubious indigeneity crop up everywhere, from Winnetou ice cream bars to this outstanding ad for Kytta:

The slogan, roughly translated as "An Indian Knows no Pain," would be remarkable if it were true, and would surely surprise North America's native peoples and their health care providers. Further, whether or not an 'Indian' feels pain surely has nothing to do with the efficacy of this antiphlogistine ointment; one who knows no pain ostensibly buys no pain relievers. Instead, it tells us a great deal about the people at whom the ad is directed, and for whom the 'Indian' is both the embodiment of a romantic ideal and a Baudrillardian simulacrum of the sort of life that many Swiss wish they were leading.

The Swiss love the Indian because he is quite possibly more Swiss than they are.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Buying a Bag

How to explain the ubiquity of a particular type of handbag in Switzerland today? 

The luggage-minded Anthropologist cannot help but wonder why it is that when the Swiss need a bag, they reach for a Freitag. Sure, style plays a part, as does patriotism, which is a force never to be underestimated in Switzerland (Frietag bags are actually made out of the industrial sinews the country itself, from the hides of trucks which have spent their lives plying Swiss highways and feeding the Swiss economy; their wearers might just as well carry sacks made of Swiss sheepskin and cow tendons). But then many things fall in and out of fashion, and alongside the Frietag bags are a number of similar, and equally popular bags which are decidedly non-Swiss, including increasingly popular models by The North Face.

The secret lies, then, in something rather deeper in Swiss culture with which this style of bag resonates: an artful blend of rugged outdoorsyness and smooth modern minimalism. It is two crucial aspects of Swiss identity fused, and turned into an appealingly expensive and discreetly visible accessory.

This combination is a powerful one, and offers such vast appeal that it lies behind many of the country’s best-sellers.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Not Cutting the Grass

Despite their famous zeal for tidiness and organization, the Swiss often seem surprisingly reluctant to cut the grass.  Why?

At its heart, this reluctance is a product of the uneasy relationship the Swiss have with urbanization.

It is important to remember that until relatively recently, Switzerland was rather poorer than its neighbors and very sparsely populated.  It was only a boom at the end of the 19th century that massively grew the population and the economy out of its centuries-long pattern in which agriculture dominated and the chief export was mercenary soldiers.  Its subsequent growth into spectacular wealth needs little belabouring here.  

The Swiss have left behind their pastoral idyll with equal measures of success and reluctance.  For many, the well-oiled hum of the country's massive urban economic engines drowns out the Arcadian symphony of old Helvetica in a perpetual reminder of all that has been lost.  Marching boldly into the post-industrial future is something of a mixed blessing, and urban life a necessary evil that even the most oppidan Swiss engages with a wistful sigh and a look back at the rolling, grassy meadows of the past.

Therefore, the unkempt lawn overtaking the park or encroaching on your neighbor's windows is not simply a dandelion-choked thicket.  It is a time machine.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Being Insured

Why do the Swiss have more insurance than any country on earth?

Not only do the Swiss hedge their lives with a vast network of bomb shelters, they also hedge their paper, with more dollars of insurance per capita than anyone else on earth.  Bicycles are regularly (and well) insured, as are printers and dogs.
The national obsession with insurance points up two different though not necessarily opposing aspects of Swissness: pessimism and perfectionism.

Today’s Swiss have by virtually any measure achieved one of the highest standards of living of any people in human history.  They remain convinced, though, that it will all fall apart soon enough.  Depending on your feelings about the relative fullness of glasses, you may consider this attitude commendably pragmatic or intolerably cynical; regardless, it is entirely Swiss.

Their native perfectionism means, though, that even in their pessimism the Swiss do things right.  Confronted with the possibility of losing everything, the Swiss neither bury their heads in the sand, nor crack open a crate of whiskey and unplug the phone. 

Instead, they call their broker.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Building Bomb Shelters

By Swiss law, every dwelling built in the country since 1968 must have a bomb shelter able to withstand a blast from a 50 megaton explosion at a distance of 700 metres (by way of comparison, the Fat Man bomb detonated 600 meters above Nagasaki measured only 21 kilotons), stocked at all times with 3 weeks of rations, water, and other supplies. Why? 

Switzerland has no nuclear weapons and no enemies – not having fought a war in 500 years does have its diplomatic benefits – but has more shelter space per capita than any country on earth. The law came into effect during the worst of the cold war, and Switzerland – uncomfortably close to the German heartland that would probably have been the central battleground of a NATO-vs-Warsaw Pact land war – wisely decided upon a strong defense.

This is actually an old Swiss strategy: the Alpine Redoubt or Schweizer Alpenfestung – the retreat to the mountains. This should not be confused with surrender, since before they gave up on war Swiss mercenaries were the most feared in Europe (and continue to guard the Vatican to this day). The shelter mentality is rooted in a firm belief that the Swiss are as comfortable in the mountains (literally in them) as anyone, that the hills have always provided for the Swiss and been a natural barrier against millennia of invasions, and that when things fall apart, the hills will provide again. 

Still, the logic of the bombshelter can appear paradoxical, since it presumes that a nuclear holocaust so horrific that it destroys everything not buried underground in a reinforced concrete bunker to nonetheless be worth surviving. 

The shelter mentality, however bemusing to the non-anthropologist, is simply the practical extension of a fundamental piece of Swissness: the view that Helvetia is a place where hard work, a beautiful environment, and an admirable social order have created a singularly wonderful way of life – one worth maintaining even after the rest of the world has been destroyed. 

Who would want to emerge into such a world and face the horrors of trying to create a new life? The Swiss.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Not Doing It Yourself

In many countries, taking on small household tasks without professional help is not only cost-effective and at times pleasant, it is a marker of self-sufficiency and ultimately social worth.  Not so in Switzerland.  Why?

An Englishman whose fan belt breaks or whose drywall needs replacing is likely to make a trip to the shop, invite over a friend, and start bashing away at the problem.  For the Swiss, the first recourse is almost invariably to call in a professional.  As usual, there are a host of explanations for this, some with more explanatory power than others.  Swiss homes are notoriously difficult to work on – the solid concrete walls require hammer drills with diamond-tipped masonry bits just to hang a picture, and the inconsistency in the colours of electrical wiring is surprisingly, and dangerously, un-Swiss.

More important, though, is the Swiss attitude toward expertise. The Swiss education system does not produce generalists: students are streamed from an early age and most careers involve a long and in-depth combination of formal training and internships. The result is a remarkably skilled population who are uniquely well-prepared for their station in life, whether butcher, baker, or cardio-thoracic surgeon.  

The other result is that the Swiss often regard most endeavours outside of their own professional and Freizeit bailiwicks with wariness.  Further, Swiss perfectionism means that 'good enough' is never just that, and that plasterwork or car washing must never be approached in a casual manner, but instead be attacked with the vigour and expertise that the journeyman earns through years of careful training. 

Surely, then, re-wiring a light switch box is something best left to the professionals?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Being Romantic

The Swiss are not famous for being particularly amorous, but they are tremendously Romantic. Why?

Note that this is not 'Romanticism' in the sense of 'being inclined to lovemaking,' but rather the classical sense of a predisposition (despite their famous reputation for cool precision) to emotion, adventure, and above all a rejection of the collective and rational in favor of the personal and subjective. 

This is not surprising, however, to the anthropologist: although the romantic hero is often imagined as Byronian, the movement originated with the German Sturm und Drang defiance of the petty imposition of enlightenment rationalism on the hearts of dreamers everywhere. German Switzerland is a ironclad redoubt of this brand of Romantic thinking: it shapes everything from their government to their gardening.

It is perhaps the medical anthropologist who finds the richest ethnographic soil in Teutonic Romanticism: what the empirical, Enlightenment-tainted doctor of Great Britain calls "chronic congestive heart failure," the German condemns as 'Herzinsuffizienz.' The insufficient heart is clearly a problem of the highest significance in so Romantic a culture, threatening as it does to undermine the very nexus of the patient's connection with nature. Lynne Payer reminds us that German-speaking doctors are, indeed, the only ones in the world who regularly medicate their patients in order raise blood pressure values that elicit applause from doctors almost everywhere else.

We therefore discover another crucial lens through which to understand the Swiss, another factor to hold in our heads when confronted by the apparently inscrutable: Romanticism.

Whether any of this makes the Swiss especially adroit lovers is anyone's guess.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


What do the Swiss have when they don’t have work? They have Freizeit.

Of course, in German all nouns are capitalized, so the upper-case ’F’ here should not be a cause for concern. It is visually important, though, especially for the non-native speaker of German, and the word itself is just slippery enough in translation to be more compelling still. A compound word that is transliterated as “Freetime,” Freizeit eludes simple translation. The English language is not nearly as free and easy with compound words as the German, where any number of words or phrases even loosely related are gladly turned into words as eye-watering as 

das Vierwaldstätterseedampfshiffsfahrtsgeselschaftskapitänsmützensternlein, 

a word that in English is a rather long and almost independent clause: "The star on the hat of the Captain of the steam ship, on the Four Woods Lake": 

Therefore for Anglophones, “free time” is cheapened by its construction: the position of the modifying adjective “free” suggests that this is only one of many modulations of time: before we know it, it will be “work time,” “quitting time,” “commuting time,” “dinner time,” and “bed time.” 

Surely this is roughly what the prophet of Ecclesiastes had in mind when he intoned that ‘To everything there is a season’? 

Not so for the Swiss-German speaker, for whom Freizeit is an island entirely unto itself, requiring entire wings of department stores and subsections of websites to be devoted to it. In fact, in Switzerland life seems to be divided into Freizeit and Everything Else; Arnold van Gennep has warned us of the psychic dangers of dichotomizing the universe in this way. 

And so perhaps with Freizeit we arrive at another fundamental rich point of Swiss semiology; the irreducibly untranslatable. 

Who understands Friezeit, understands Swissness.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Trusting People

When riding Swiss trains, the passenger is expected to punch her own ticket before boarding. A conductor may never check, but woe (and substantial fines) betides the Schwarzfahrer who is caught. Equal parts carrot and stick, the widely-used honor system in this country gives us a unique insight into Swissness. How?

Much critical ink has been spilt following in the (large) intellectual footsteps that Bentham and Foucault left as they wrestled with the panopticon.  (The panopticon is a perfect prison, in which a central guard tower surveys the cells arrayed around it like spokes from a wheel’s hub. Importantly, the prisoners can’t know if they’re being watched at any particular moment, and as such essentially police themselves.)

Appropriately, the symbol on those Swiss ticket stamping machines is not a thumbs-up or a smiling conductor.  It is an all-seeing eye:

Is Switzerland a panopticon writ large?  

This is perhaps too easy an assessment. Instead, we might say that the honor system appeals to the Swiss love for small government and limited intrusion, and allows them to feel morally upright at least once daily.  These are closer to the heart of Swissness than a love of omniscient authority. When a Swiss bookshop sends you a paperback in the mail along with an invoice, they enjoy trusting you enough to wait for the payment. You, in turn, enjoy being trusted.  

It is, in fact, a magical phenomenon – it is reciprocal exchange, but delayed just enough to make it alien to modern capitalism. Marcel Mauss reminds us of the power that delayed reciprocity has to strengthen social relationships; the Swiss honor system is therefore neither a quaint economic anachronism nor a concession to efficiency: it is the glue that holds Swiss society together. 

Still, it is hard to stop feeling followed by that eye.

Friday, May 3, 2013


It is often said that Switzerland is a hyper-efficient country, though this is not entirely true.  It is more accurate to say that the Swiss are perfectionists who love work.

Where Americans, for instance, might be said to have embraced the potential of technology to eliminate labour, the Swiss are more interested in its ability to elaborate labour. In other words, Americans double their productivity in tribute to Henry Ford, while the Swiss put their shoulder to the wheel for Calvin.

The goal in Switzerland is not to be without labour; this is not only unproductive but immoral. In many parts of the world there is a trend to de-formalize work, to work from home, to dress more casually; in Switzerland the opposite is the case.  Indeed, more than once Swiss voters have actually held referenda to refuse longer holidays or shorter work weeks.

This baffles outside observers, but only those who are not anthropologists of Helvetican Quotidianity.  

We are reminded of Nestor the Chronicler’s account of the arrival of the emissaries of Christianity and Islam making their respective cases to Vladimir the Great for theirs to become the state’s official religion.  Vladimir’s response was that Islam’s prohibition on alcohol would be fatally incompatible with the Russian psyche, his people’s position on the sweet hereafter being substantially more flexible than their position on vodka.  Russia has been Christian ever since.

And so it goes with the Swiss, who can no more become idle than Vlad the Great’s people could become teetotal. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Buying a Car

There are three types of cars in Switzerland: black cars, white cars, and grey cars.  Why?

Even a brief trip in Switzerland affords a motoring-minded observer the chance to note that Swiss cars are almost entirely monochromatic while the rest of the world has gone KodaChrome.  This is not because colours are verboten; rather, it springs from Swissness. 

At the core of Swiss motoring is the complicated relationship the Swiss have with their own (considerable) wealth.  The Swiss are not particularly ashamed of being one of the wealthiest peoples on earth; however, they eschew the bedazzled wardrobe of the Russian oligarch and the rococo masonry of the Italian nouveau-riche.  The Swiss are every bit as consumerist as any other wealthy nation, but their watchword is always discretion.  So it is that the keen-eyed anthropologist sometimes notices that the plain-looking gentleman sitting opposite her on the bus is wearing a $30 000 wristwatch. 

Therefore, the car presents a dilemma for the wealthy Zurich banker: clearly an expensive car is called for (and readily affordable), but how can one buy a fabulously expensive vehicle which does not, as Eco says, “narrate its own vanity?” 

Well, for starters, you don’t buy a red one.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Staring at People on Trains

In many cultures, staring at people is a guilty pleasure: we learn, as children, to obey the unwritten social rule that staring is rude. The social contract, alas, comes before our own curiosity. Not so in Switzerland. Why?

The answer is not that the Swiss are rude. First, they aren’t. Second, the very definition of ‘rudeness’ is so contextually contingent that cross-cultural comparisons of politesse inevitably degenerate into anthropological parlour games. Why, then, is carefully regarding fellow users of public conveyances so popular in Switzerland? The Swiss stare to ensure their very survival.

It is important to remember that Switzerland has been neutral since 1515; the effect this position has on the Swiss national character is hard to overestimate. Nor is it a ceremonial or technical neutrality – it is in fact a policy of Nietzschean independence writ large. 

A small country in the midst of large and warlike neighbors, Switzerland has for many years relied on a citizen’s army to defend its borders. Domestically, an army of lace-curtain police defend the social order every bit as carefully: by keeping an eye on one and all, the Swiss ensure that all is right with their world. You are also stared at when you litter in the street, or neglect to tie up your recycling correctly; the Swiss collectively agree to enforce a broad and intricate set of social regulations that ensure their uniquely lovely way of life remains intact. 

Therefore it is not simply an impertinent pensioner or curious carpenter who stares at you on the train: it is the whole of Switzerland.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


It is often said that recycling is a way of life in Switzerland.  This is misleading.  It is more accurate to say that the Swiss have taken the now universal (and truly, age-old) practice of re-processing waste into new material, and made it Swiss. How?

First and foremost, recycling has been systematized. Second, it has been made into work.
In many cities in the world, recycling is a fortnightly process of divine judgement, separating one’s spent goods into two different containers bound respectively for the eternal damnation of the landfill (or, more vividly, the anaerobic hellfire of the gasification plant), and, in the second pile, for the meritorious reward of a second life of renewed productivity via the recycling plant.  In short, you put your stuff into a bin and leave it on the curb every other Tuesday.  Not so in Switzerland.  

Here, the recyclable is distinguished from waste, but also further subdivided into a pantheon of characters with names, to paraphrase Barthes, like Teutonic gods: Dosen, Alu, Karton . . .

Glass is lugged up the street to the large central collection bins, as are tins.  Some plastics can be returned to bins in the supermarket, though even here, plastic soft drink bottles are sorted separately from plastic milk bottles.  Paper and cardboard have to be tied – only with the approved gauge of string – into symmetrical bundles, the dimensions of which are also centrally mandated.  These are then stacked into tidy piles and collected by municipal authorities, though not on the same days.  Other plastics are returned to local recycling depots with baffling hours. 

Is this a way of life?  And if so, what kind of life is it?

Someone call an anthropologist.

Nordic Walking

Why has Nordic walking taken the hillsides of Switzerland by storm? 

Nordic walking, for the uninitiated, is a form of brisk walking assisted – or encumbered – by a pair of poles of the sort normally used for Nordic skiing.  (This is what gives Nordic walking its name, though it is worth noting the sport is comparatively less popular in sporty, easygoing Scandinavia – and the slight frown of patriotic disappointment this arouses here in Helvetica: why is it not called Alpine Walking?)

Nordic Walking of course owes some of its popularity to sheer novelty: Switzerland has long believed in the Calvinistic merit of what Barthes called “the morally uplifting walk” through the mountainside, so it took a clever entrepreneur to discover a new twist on bipedalism, which has been with us unchanged for eons. 

And yet the appeal is more firmly rooted than this.  Nordic walking succeeds through craftily grafting a few key elements of Swissness onto what is an outwardly simple activity.  Walking is made Swiss through adding high-tech paraphernalia, adding an element of complexity and a set of regulations, and most of all through simply making it more work.  (This is work, of course, in the physiological sense: Nordic walking brings a higher metabolic cost than ‘regular’ walking, though the implication of the Swiss love of productiveeconomic work is also germane.)  Being perfectionists, the Swiss have also become enamoured of a new way of walking that requires perfecting technique.  Re-learning to walk at the age of 40 is precisely the sort of challenge that appeals deeply to the Swiss.

Ultimately, Nordic Walking emerges as a pastime virtually custom-designed for the Swiss – one resting on the bedrock of traditional Swiss vigor and adorned with the potential for high investments of cash (in complicated gear) and time (in perfect technique).  

The more apt question, then, is why its arrival took so long. 

Friday, February 22, 2013


Welcome to HowToBeSwiss, a website devoted to the anthropology of everyday Swissness.  

Through the tried and tested field research techniques of classic anthropology, we help you decode the mysteries of Swiss culture.  

Learn more about our resident anthropologist, Mike Callaghan, by clicking here.