Settling In With The Swiss - Tips and hints to help you get along with your new Swiss neighbours
Controversy over making citizenship easier to obtain for 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants continues to rage in Switzerland. Opinions are many and feelings are running high on both sides of the debate. We hope that the following, light-hearted look at Swiss ways will help even the most nervous newcomer get the most out of their Swiss experience:
1. Introduce yourself!
When moving into a new neighbourhood it is traditional to introduce yourself personally to each of your new neighbours. The easiest, cheapest and quickest way to do this is simply to go and knock on all their doors on the evening of your arrival and say hello! Don't worry about getting in a mess with the local language - just a few words and a warm, apologetic smile will take you a long way and you'll be amazed at how much effort your new Swiss neighbours will put in to trying to speak to you in your own language.
If the thoughts of knocking on strangers' doors is too daunting, you could try inviting them all to a house-warming aperitif at a fixed time - say the Saturday after you move in from 17.00 - 19.00. You don't need to feel obliged to serve anything more than drinks and snacks and if the majority of your neighbours are Swiss you will find them all arriving punctually and thus release you from the task of making awkward small-talk with individual people!
2. Be punctual!
Switzerland is a land of punctuality - trains run on time, clocks on church towers are correct and even buses are rarely more than a few minutes off schedule even when your village is chopped up by road works as ours presently is! It is not unusual for a Swiss friend to call you and let you know she is going to arrive at seven past rather than on the hour as arranged - and even if you come from a country where an appointment "on the hour" can take place anywhere between "00" and "30" calling in advance to warn of even the smallest delay, is a good habit to get into when arranging to meet up with Swiss friends.
3. Learn some of the language
Whether you have relocated to a German, French, Italian or Romansch speaking area of Switzerland it is a really good idea to try to learn some of the local language. No one expects you to be fluent after a year of living here, but with just a few phrases and odd words - plus of course a lot of smiling, hand-waving and body-language - you will quickly win new friends and most likely be introduced to friends of friends who speak your mother-tongue.
Joining a course at a local language school is of course also a great way of meeting others who are in the same boat as you and with whom you can exchange your horror stories as a new arrival and later words of wisdom as an old-hand!
There is little more frightening than the glare of an elderly Swiss lady or an over-zealous youngster who catches you putting your empty wine bottles directly into the bin or tipping the left-overs of last night's dinner party into your bin bag instead of into the compost! Woe betide anyone who thinks nothing of throwing their old newspapers straight into the kitchen bin instead of tying them neatly into bundles and putting them out for collection on the (well in advance) designated days. An especially evil look is reserved for those caught mixing cardboard in with their old papers or - heaven forbid - putting socks with holes in the toes into the old clothes' collection! And finally, just when you thought no one was looking as you slung your aluminium cans with the labels still on into the appropriate receptacle, up pops that long-time, ever vigilant local resident to point that not only did you not remove all the corks from your wine bottles before winging them into the bottle bank but that you are also not supposed to do it on a Sunday morning!
It's enough to put even the most determined new arrival off but once you've got the hang of separating, folding, removing labels, flattening and extracting air you'll (honestly) wonder what all the fuss was about and will almost certainly retain your new found habits when you eventually return home!
5. Be considerate!
Everyone has heard the tales of rental contracts which prevent you from using the toilet or having a shower after 22.00 or before 06.00, or from cutting your lawn between 12.00 and 13.30 during the week, or from doing your washing after 19.00 and never on a Sunday! However, when you consider that the majority of Swiss homes are apartments and that there are often elderly people, teenagers, babies and young professionals living in the same block, it also becomes possible to view these "restrictions" as "considerations" which, like many other rules and regulations, are designed to weed out extremes and promote an environment in which many families with different needs, ways of live and cultures can live peacefully together.
You'll soon get used to peaceful Sundays with not a lawnmower to be heard, quiet lunchtimes when you can hear nothing but the chink of knives and forks as people sit down to their main meal of the day (all the kids come home for lunch here don't forget!), and sound nights' sleep without being woken up by your upstairs neighbour's churning toilet cistern at 4am! I must admit though, that even after being resident here for almost 10 years I still haven't got used to the "no gardening on Sunday" rule and am frequently shouted at by cyclists as I weed and dig on the Sabbath even though I never use any loud machinery - honest!!
6. Clink before you drink!
Whenever you are served an alcoholic drink expect to wait until everyone has been served and someone has raised his glass in a toast and you've clinked glasses with everyone present before you have a taste! Also don't forget to make direct eye contact when chinking glasses and to address your chinking-partner by name. The person to lead off with the clinking and chinking is usually the host or perhaps the eldest male present. Under special circumstances - perhaps when you are gathered to celebrate the eldest male's birthday - someone else may start the round but it really is the height of bad manners to take even the smallest sip before all the clinking has been completed and can cause great confusion.
If you are invited to a traditional Swiss wedding keep an eye on the poor bride and groom as they make their first round of all the guests, clinking and chinking with every person as they go until they've greeted everyone by name, looked everyone in the eye - and only then clinking with each other and taking a (by that time) very well-earned sip!
7. When in doubt, err of the side of formality!
In all the official languages of Switzerland there is a formal and informal way of speaking. It is par for the course to use the formal style when speaking to people who you know as Mr and Mrs and the informal style when you are on a first name basis.
There are of course exceptions which can cause great confusion to a newly arrived foreigner - for example up until I became officially engaged to my husband, my to-be in-laws addressed me by my first name but used the formal style of spoken German. I thought this was perfectly normal until trying to do the same at a fairly high-brow dinner party and causing a whole bunch of people who had been speaking to each other formally for years, to have to switch to using the informal style of speech as I had insisted that they were welcome to call me by my first name!
Needless to say, if you have been speaking to someone using the formal style, and are invited to switch to using the informal style, it usual to have a toast to that effect and the whole clinking, chinking, looking in the eye procedure outlined above then applies!
8. Expect to shake hands and kiss people a lot!
Everyone is used to shaking hands with new and old business acquaintances but how many new arrivals expect to shake hands with their new friends and neighbours every time they meet? At a party, would you expect to greet all your old friends with a handshake and three kisses? Most likely not, but here in Switzerland this is very much the norm and great confusion is caused when this little ritual isn't carried out!
However there are a few rules to help the bemused new arrival - for example a man greeting a male friend would expect to shake hands but not kiss, a girl greeting a male friend would expect to shake hands and give and receive three kisses (on alternate cheeks), two female friends meeting would possibly shake hands but would certainly kiss - but I have yet to figure out when a Swiss person expects to be hugged as part of a greeting!
9. Keep within your allocated parking space!
There are two things guaranteed to rankle the Swiss faster than you can say "Eiger, Monch und Jungfrau" - one is parking and the other is washing (see point 10). Given the limited amount of space for parking it is understandable that some of the designated areas are not overly large! However, you really should try to keep within your allocated space in the garage of your apartment block and not leave your car standing with any of the wheels on or over the painted lines. We have had many a frustrated Expat on the phone unable to understand his Swiss neighbour's dissatisfaction with the way he's parked his imported 4-wheel drive! Bearing in mind the width of many imported 4-wheel drives, it is almost impossible to park them without having one or more tyres touching or crossing the painted lines - and this to the Swiss is simply not on! The solution suggested to one of our clients following a heated discussion with his neighbour: "Buy a smaller car or learn to park properly!"
10. Don't overstay your welcome in the laundry room!
Many apartment blocks have shared washing facilities - a washer and drier in the "Waschküche" for use by residents of the block on a rotating basis. Two systems are in place - one whereby you simply sign your name on a calendar hanging in the laundry room and thus allocate yourself a block of time for getting your laundry done - and the other whereby specific washing times are allocated to specific apartments.
The problems with both of these systems are readily apparent but most of the time things run smoothly. The cardinal sins of the washing room however must be (in reverse order of severity):
a. Not removing all your bits of fluff from the drier when you've finished;
b. Leaving your garments in the drying area when they clearly dried out several hours if not days ago:
c. Doing your washing outside of your pre-allocated time! The punishment for this final sin is a visit from the next person on the list and the evil eye for at least a week!
But all in all life in Switzerland is not so complicated. Most customs and traditions spring from having to live in fairly confined spaces within hearing distance of other families. Basic consideration, politeness and awareness of others go a long way to getting along well with the Swiss - and once they have taken you into their hearts and homes you can be fairly certain that you have made a friend for life.
Article complied by Nicola Auf der Maur of Le Concierge Expatriate Services GmbH