Mon. Jul 15th, 2024

It is Swiss National Day, a country-wide holiday to celebrate the founding of the Swiss Confederacy. The day is welcomed heartily by a nation that possesses enviable amounts of national pride: a 2012 Credit Suisse survey found that 86 per cent of them felt good about where they came from.

On the ground, this is demonstrated by the number of people indulging in traditional pastimes: for every UK morris dancer, you’ll find a Swiss alpine horn player, boulder thrower and yodel choir. Switzerland’s high standard of living is also rightly celebrated. Even taking into account the cost of everything (a pint is about £5.50 and a supermarket sandwich around £6), the Swiss have the highest wealth per adult in the world. Immaculate supermarkets sell local, seasonal food and (paid-for) healthcare is exemplary.

There is more to the country than banking and Heidi

It hasn’t always been this way. In the 19th century, much of the population was impoverished and many moved abroad in search of work – some of the poorest were paid by their own communities to do so, offloaded to another country in a classic display of Swiss practicality. Perhaps that’s why they’re now so keen to hold on to what they have.

One thing in particular makes ‘Swissness’ more nuanced than it might at first seem: four national languages tied to distinct identities (German, French, Italian and Romansh, a Gallo-Romance language largely spoken in the southeast of the country). The French- and German-speaking Swiss have traditionally treated the Italian speakers with scorn. An enlightening online essay from the Federal Department of Home Affairs  – written with typical candour – admits that, as recently as the 1970s, “they were belittled as intruders with no place in Swiss society”.

The Swiss are understandably protective of their pristine mountainous landscape CREDIT: Getty

Though that’s changed, a cross-country trip will reveal some interesting day-to-day differences. The German Swiss, for example, are happier than most with casual nudity (on full display in some of the lakeside public baths) and the French Swiss really do love cheese (witness the annual, raucous Bagnes Capitale de la raclette festival near the ski resort of Verbier). Meanwhile, a relaxed, holiday feel means Italian-speaking Switzerland in the south has been labelled the ‘sun room’ by the German part of the country.

However, two universal truths unite the country. One is its famous neutrality, official since 1815, and the other is a dogged need to make and follow rules.

There are rules on how to tie your recycling together, how to park your car in a space and even – if you live in an apartment block – when to do your washing (generally when the rota allows and never on a Sunday). It makes the country run like clockwork and helps keep the environment spotless – great news for the Swiss, who love nothing more than taking some wurst to the top of a mountain and grilling them in situ on a super-clean communal barbecue.

Being a nation of passionate law-abiders helps keep the country safe, too. Children as young as five often walk to school by themselves in the Zurich suburbs while World Population Review placed Switzerland 131st out of 136 countries by crime rate.

With this in mind, you can see why Swissness isn’t dished out to any old resident – citizenship is notoriously hard to get.

Zurich, one of Switzerland’s major cities, is famously spotless CREDIT: Getty

It’s not as simple as being born in the country. Foreigners generally have to have lived there for 10 years and speak one of the official languages fluently before even trying. And woe betide you if you attempt to become Swiss without fully embracing Swissness.

In 2017, Nancy Holten, a resident since she was eight, had her citizenship turned down twice by the local canton because she’d campaigned against cows wearing heavy bells round their necks as well as the traditional Swiss pastime of pig-running.

“We do not want to give her this gift if she bores us and does not respect our traditions,” said the president of the local branch of the Swiss People’s Party at the time (though they later gave in on Holten’s third attempt).

Challenging the status quo isn’t something the Swiss embrace. Shops are still closed on Sundays and smoking in restaurants was only banned in enclosed public places in 2010 thanks, in part, to direct democracy, which makes law changes arduously slow.

As you might imagine, the rules, regulations and lack of rebellion can feel a little stifling to some – and so when the Swiss let go, they really let go. Among the country’s most hedonistic celebrations is Zurich’s Street Parade, the world’s largest techno party which brings scantily clad dancers, DJ stages and crowds in their thousands to the cobbled streets in what was devised as a demonstration of love, tolerance and freedom. That’s the thing about the Swiss, sometimes they really surprise you.


By Lala