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.