During an evening bike ride along a gravel path surrounded by nothing but the natural beauty of the Swiss countryside, I stumbled upon a sort of makeshift shop. My curiosity made me stop for a closer look. For sale was a random and eclectic assortment of goods including costume jewelry, neon colored hair scrunchies, clothing, diapers, hats, umbrellas, stuffed animals, DVDs, and fresh baked bread just to name a few. I looked around for the owner but all I could see was tall grass sprinkled with wild yellow flowers. I spotted a small box with a few coins inside and a note which I deciphered must instruct one to leave money in the box for what you buy.
“Interesting …” I said aloud to myself and then I smiled. Of course the owner isn’t around, this is Switzerland no one steals here. I have often encountered situations where the honor system is utilized.
As I biked home I thought about how that little stand pretty much represented Swiss culture as I had come to know it having lived as a local for five months in the past two years. And what a refreshingly kind culture it is. Based on my experiences, I can say with confidence that a typical Swiss as honest, polite and considerate.
I remember feeling quite shocked the first day I arrived in Switzerland. Tom drove us to his new apartment, parking his car inside a secure garage shared by fifty other people. I was completely shocked to see his snowboard and all of his kitesurfing gear propped against a wall in front of his parking spot. “You just leave all your gear out all the time?!” I exclaimed, completely baffled as to why he would do such a thing being that his equipment is worth about $2500. He assured me it was safe and no one would steal his stuff. I, an American, found this extremely hard to believe.
He was consistent in his trust of his neighbors, which I later confirmed were in theory all strangers, by also leaving his expensive mountain bike in the shared bicycle storage room without locking. Given this pattern of complete trust, I shouldn’t have been shocked to learn that he and his roommate never lock the door to their house when they go to sleep … “But we are home …” Tom explained, finding it silly that I requested he lock the door before we went to bed. He humored my distrust anyway.
I tried to explain that in my country it is not as safe and there are many dishonest people and that sadly theft is quite common. I told him of the many times I have heard of someone breaking into someone’s car for something trivial and I am certain if you left expensive items unsecured, there is a high probability they would disappear within minutes.
The longer I stay here the more trusting I have become within the safety of the Swiss border. I do find it interesting that the Swiss leave their trust at the border. Whenever we have traveled in Italy or Germany I have noted that Tom is more mindful of not leaving items in the car and certainly not leaving the car unlocked as he often does in his own country. I somehow find this fascinating. That cultures can be so different in countries that are so close in proximity. It really does make me wonder about how societies and cultures are established and also elicits my inner geeky historian. I want to understand!
I have found that it is hard to separate the experiences you have at home from what could happen in other countries. Use Thomas and myself for example, no matter where we travel in the world I always feel more vigilant and distrusting than he seems to be. Our cultures are so different and we each carry these differences with us abroad. I think we do a good job of balancing each other out in this way. I have learned to relax a little more and he has learn to be a little more cautious.
In addition to being honest, I have found the Swiss to be very polite. I was reminded of this recently when I embarrassed myself at a wedding in which I behaved in accordance to American customs. In Switzerland when a bride throws her bouquet, Swiss girls stand still and politely wait to see who fate has chosen to be the next wed. No one jumps for the bouquet except for this ridiculous American girl.
My American friend Nicole recently visited me and I shared with her my observations of the Swiss culture. I had literally just finished telling her that I think the Swiss are the most considerate people I have ever met in the world when she herself witnessed what I said to be true. We were enjoying a Rappi Gold beer at a picnic table by the lake when a tall dark haired guy about our age approached us. I immediately tensed up and found myself to be on the defensive expecting him to try to flirt with us or ask to join our table. I was enjoying catching up with my friend who I hadn’t seen for a while and just wanted to be left alone.
He surprised us both when he said “Hi ladies, I was wondering it you would mind if my friends and I were to turn on some music at our table over there. We promise not to turn it up to loud but if it would bother you at all please let me know and we will turn off the music.” We told him it was perfectly fine to play some music and that we would actually quite enjoy and thanked him for asking. We watched in aww as he walked away and asked a few others sitting nearby most likely the same question. “SEE! That is exactly what I am talking about!” I proudly exclaimed. We both agreed that in America no one would ask such a considerate question and most likely would turn up the music way too loud.
Often I have felt frustrated by the opening hours of stores in Switzerland. Most stores close by 7 and all are closed on Sunday. When I aired this frustration to Thomas he didn’t agree with me and provided a different perspective. He was happy that shops closed early as he wouldn’t want shop workers to have to go home late to their families and he was glad that everyone could have a rest day on Sunday to spend with family and friends. This was a very considerate perspective which made me feel quite selfish at the time for desiring to be able to get what I want when I want it … which is very American of me. I have since changed my attitude about this and it really isn’t a big deal most of the time, you just know you need to get your shopping done earlier or on a Saturday.
I just reread a post I wrote last year when I visited Switzerland for the first time … Rapperswil my new home away from home. It was fun to be reminded of my first impressions of this country , most of which have turned out to be consistently true the more time I have spent here.
I would like to think the Swiss have been a good influence on me and that I too have become more honest, polite and considerate. It is unfortunate there are so few Swiss people in this world!