How can you guarantee social disgrace in Switzerland? What is the Interlaken Dash? And why are the Swiss a bunch of coconuts? A book by a British expat explains all.
In Swiss Watching, Diccon Bewes offers a “light-hearted but informative” guide to Switzerland, his home for the past five years, and its inhabitants.
The 42-year-old former travel writer, now manager of the Stauffacher English Bookshop in Bern, tells swissinfo.ch how he got the idea for the book.
“I’d love to say that I’d been planning it ever since I moved here – but I’d be lying. And now that I live in Switzerland I never lie, of course...”
In fact the germ of the idea was sown at the Geneva Writers’ Conference in February 2008.
“I was thinking about writing a novel, but out of curiosity I signed up for the travel writing workshop, and the first group exercise was to write about a culture clash,” he said (audio interview attached).
“I wrote about one of my first weeks in Switzerland when it was Heidi week at McDonald’s. That for me is what Switzerland is about nowadays: using Heidi to sell an American corporate brand. That passage has barely changed.”
The other 300 pages are a mixture of potted politics and history, travel writing and social anthropology (otherwise known as people watching) – all written in a witty, wry style familiar to anyone who has read any Bill Bryson. To listen to an excerpt, click on the audio.
“It’s the real Switzerland behind the clichés, beyond the stereotypes. Everyone knows about Swiss chocolate and Heidi and everyone thinks they have an idea about the Swiss being rather conservative and rather dull and humourless,” he said.
“So I hope it’s an insider’s view of Switzerland but written by someone who can have a perspective and notice all the little things which for me are interesting – like the 1,000-franc ($870) notes!”
Indeed, anyone who has lived in Switzerland for a while will find themselves nodding and smiling at the many sharp observations: the Eurovision Song Contest – the “only time foreigners can vote in Switzerland”; Rivella – “the Marmite of the fizzy drinks world”.
Why are there so few home makeover programmes on Swiss television when British channels are groaning with them? Because few Swiss actually own their house.
And the Interlaken Dash? Interlaken – “the Clapham Junction of Switzerland” – is where mountain-bound city-dwellers have to change platforms – and have about five minutes to negotiate ski-wielding crowds doing exactly the same thing...
Every chapter concludes with a “Swiss Watching Tip”, such as how to behave on a Sunday or how to meet and greet Swiss (at a drinks party, to avoid social disgrace “what you should do before anything else, and that includes getting a drink, is introduce yourself to everyone, regardless of how long it takes”).
Bewes says he had three readers in mind: expats living in Switzerland who want to know more about the country; fans of travel literature who may never visit Switzerland, and Swiss people themselves.
“A lot of Swiss people read in English – and they’re very curious what other people think of them,” he said.
Swiss Watching is often very funny and thoroughly researched – many footnotes lead back to swissinfo.ch – although some non-Brits might be thrown by pop culture references such as Vicky Pollard, Ronnie Biggs and Dad’s Army.
Also, it isn’t that critical. “For me there’s not a lot to be critical about, although I tried to put in the bits that I thought were annoying rather than horrendous like the bureaucracy. That drives me nuts.”
As he notes in the book, “Swiss red tape makes all others look pink”.
“And the exclusion of foreigners and immigrants for 12 years [until you can apply for a Swiss passport] – you have no rights for 12 years essentially,” he said.
“So I included stuff which I as an outsider view critically, but I try not to make the criticism harsh, because I don’t want this to be seen as a hatchet job. A lot of things about Switzerland are really good. Popular democracy and a coalition government are great ideas.”
He admits however that Switzerland has its faults. “A lot has to do with part of society being quite xenophobic as the minaret vote showed [in November 58 per cent of Swiss voted to ban the construction of minarets] and part of society being very conservative about some things. But then the gay partnership law went through without a problem...”
Bewes highlights other surprising Swiss contradictions, such as being neutral but also being a massive exporter of arms.
“I think these are the kinds of things that unless you live here, you don’t know about Switzerland. I had no idea that Switzerland makes so much money from exporting death. They’ll say ‘they’re not used in war’, but if Pakistan is your number one customer, those weapons aren’t lying around in Islamabad in a warehouse,” he said.
“It’s nice in a way they’re so naive, in other ways they’re really disingenuous. It’s like the whole stuff about Nazi gold – which I didn’t go into in depth because it’s been done in many books – but it showed that the Swiss do pigeonhole things.”
Another example of Swiss pigeonholing he gives is how the Swiss fiercely guard their privacy.
“Many of my Swiss friends never socialise with their work colleagues – there’s no Friday evening down the pub like in London,” he said.
And this is why the Swiss are like coconuts. It’s not because they are small and hairy and you want to throw things at them. Rather, it’s hard to break through their outer shell and into their private sphere. But once you do, you have a friend for life.
English-speaking societies on the other hand are peaches – every stranger is a potential friend – although British people, he admits, are possibly more like pineapples: a little prickly at first but easier to get past than a coconut shell.
“And after all, pineapple and coconut makes a great piña colada.”
Diccon Bewes grew up in Hampshire. A degree in International Relations from LSE and an 18-month world trip set him up for a career in travel writing, though he took the scenic route via bookselling.
After ten years at Lonely Planet and Holiday Which? magazine, he decamped to Switzerland, where he is now manager of the Stauffacher English Bookshop in Bern.
Swiss Watching is his second book. In 1997, he co-authored What Happened Where, an almanac of 20th-century events.