I was selected among the yearly 3% of the population in Switzerland to do a questionnaire about some stats; not a full census, just a few questions about housing, education, personal transport.
Not only the questionnaire is well implemented on the web (and I could have easily done it on a smartphone), it was pretty quick and painless… and at the end I was treated to a nice page of infographics explaining why my involvement is important, because statistics help making informed policy decisions, and so on. Again, very well made page, nice infographics, enthusiastic but professional tone… all in 4 languages, obviously (Italian, German, French and English… no Romantsch, strangely)!
This is one of the small ways this country delights me: bureaucracy… that WORKS! Amazing.
This specific post is an oddity mostly because I’m Italian, I realize.
If you have interacted with any of us for any length of time you know we tend do care about food. And I mean A LOT.
So, when moving to Switzerland, food was not particularly high in my list of reasons: I mean, we live a stone throw from the Italian border anyway, we can go for groceries in Italy, and so on.
What I didn’t expect was… many foodstuffs are actually better in the land of cheese and clocks! And no, I don’t mean cheese, either.
You see, Switzerland has this strange (from a European citizen POV) status: it’s in the middle of Europe, but without being part of the EU. It has free movement of citizens according to Schengen’s treaty, but not of goods. One of the many consequences of this is a slightly more protectionist internal market, with many brands, company and products that are present in Switzerland but not elsewhere.
And not just that: the confederation is trying to maintain a healthy agricultural sector, both with actual handouts (or tax cuts) to farmers (especially in the mountains) and with limits on import. This is especially true for a few products like milk and meat, which have higher prices (sometimes a lot higher) than in Italy. While this can suck, it also translates in a much more liveable farming business, stricter health and quality of life rules for cattle (mass cattle farming is illegal in Switzerland). Another aspect is that some products have pretty small production numbers (often because there are explicit limits set from the confederation, but also simply because there’s only so much farmable land to go around), so they tend to go on the internal market: an unexpected consequence of this is that for example fruits can be harvested knowing they’ll only travel a few hundreds of kilometres at most… so they are actually picked up when ripe! Mind boggling I know.
All this foreword about international trade to say what? Well, that meat, milk, butter, and even chicken are surprisingly good here in the Confederation!
I can actually find apricots and peaches (Peaches! Sometimes even nectarines!), generally from the Vallese Canton, that are ripe and tasty, ALMOST like those I used to eat directly from the tree when I was a kid.
Roasted chicken is an actual Swiss specialty (they use some kind of marinade and then cook it to perfection).
And butter! You see… all the milk cream in Italy (almost all of it) goes into Parmigiano making (and for good reason: Parmigiano has a huge market and nets better prices), but this means it’s really hard to get real butter in Italy. There is a product made in a different way (not by churning milk/cream) that can be legally called butter but let me tell you, as someone who saw the light after buying Swiss real butter… it’s not the same thing.
It’s not like this is some special exclusive of the Swiss, but… boy do the Ticinese love their cars! Since moving here, I got used to see much more often a number of car types that are… not so common in Italy.
Among them are…
Vintage Cars: for a while there’s even been someone who parked in the same spot in front of the mall where we often eat lunch several different vintage, perfectly restored cars. We think this is actually a garage owner advertising his skills and/or catalogue (see: that’s what the pictures in this post are).
Sporty and/or custom cars: there’s a clearly above-than-average presence of cars with custom parts, odd colors, custom wheels and giant spoilers… not to mention, slightly less flashy cars that are still waaay overpowered, especially if you consider how speed limits are actually lower than in Italy, and much more strictly applied. I often refer to a certain kind of car as “hot-wheels-like”. But even more apparently innocent station-wagons often can reveal themselves as Skoda Octavia RSs (a sensible family car that goes to 100Km/h/60Mph in little more than 6 seconds).
4WD and offroaders: Switzerland is very mountainous, and many people live high up in the valleys (where it tends to snow a lot), so… it makes sense. Still, it’s sometimes odd noticing just how many all-wheel-drives cars are around. Not to mention, the venerable Steyr-Puch Pinzgauers! These small vehicles of ’60s Austrian origin can be 4 or 6WD, with small wheels and very low centers of gravity: they are workhorses that people with vineyards built on steep hills like a LOT.
American cars! Yeah, they’re rarer now, but they are still far more common than in Italy! By “American cars” I don’t mean Ford, but the stereotypical US muscle-car, some big pick-up trucks (I saw an Escalade in a mall’s lot and it was almost comically oversized with respect to everything nearby), and (I swear) even an old giant station wagon with wooden panelling on the sides, possibly a Buick? (I think they stopped making them 60 years ago in Italy). It’s less odd than it would sound when you consider how, especially in the past, the Swiss had to import cars anyway (Switzerland is not in Europe, after all), plus there is no national industry to protect.
…and big, pretty pricey cars in general. It is true, after all, that wages are generally way better here: Audis, especially the smaller ones, are everywhere ’round here. Not that Inner-Swiss (especially the many of Italian origins) sneeze at Alfa Romeos: I see them on the highway, with the Zurich, Bern and Luzerne plates, going down to Italy for the weekend 😀
I know helicopters might be a rather common sight in the US (according to your pop media, every local TV in urban areas has at least one traffic helicopter, plus maybe one to follow police chases), but believe me… where I grew up, I only ever saw a helicopter up close once a year during they cycling race “Milan-Sanremo”, because they were doing aerial shots and the race passes right in front of my parent’s house.
Even after moving near Monza, you only ever saw several helicopters when the Formula1 was in town: VIPs coming and going from Milan Linate airport to the racetrack, once a year.
Here in Ticino… it’s odd. It seems like helicopters for “blue collar” tasks are more common.
There’s a company, imaginatively named Eliticino (it’s Elicottero in Italian, vs Helicopter in English), whose choppers I see pretty often: they are used to move heavy loads up and down high hills and mountains, or to-and-fro in places with little in the way of roads, almost always flying around with some 50 meters of steel cable dangling from the aircraft. One time there was one a few meters above the building in front of where I work: it was acting as a crane to put the glass-cleaning gear on the building. I mean… a job you’d expect from a normal crane, not a flying one (the building is like 6 stories, not a skyscraper).
Oh and we often see one of their helicopters (with the black and white livery) “parked” in a grassy field enclosed by the on-ramp of the highway: they have a chain-link fence and gate, they cross the road and go eat their lunch at the mall nearby. Then they’re back to work. It’s… odd.
Bonus: Switzerland is very mountainous (duh, I know), so heli rescue is very important. Many people here (I might even say MOST people) have a Rega membership: it’s the non-profit org that comes to your rescue if you are stuck on the Alps, but also if you crash your car on a small road up the hills, or you get lost while looking for mushrooms in the woods. If you are a card-carrying member, you get a big discount on a (not small) part of the fee (that is generally not fully covered by health insurance).
Oh and they have really stylish full-red-with-white-cross liveries (the Swiss flag).
There are no “vanity” license plates in Switzerland, just like there are no vanity plates in Italy.
See, in Italy, the way I grew up with, the license plate is tied to the specific car for its entire life: when a new car is bought it gets a plate, and it stays with that VIN forever, even if the car is sold, until it gets officially destroyed (there is paperwork involved). If your license plate is stolen, you are in a world of trouble: issuing a new one is a hellish (and costly) procedure.
In Switzerland, on the other hand, the license plate is personal: it gets issued to a person, and only linked to a car while one owns it. More than that: the plate is mounted in a way that makes it fairly easy to remove it, and the law allows you to have one set of plates for more than one vehicle (you just need to inform the DMV-equivalent of the switch IIRC)… you can even get a discount on your vehicle tax if the second one is of a different class and gets secondary use (classic example, using the same plate on your car and on your RV/Camper that you use only for vacations and trips). When you sell your car, you keep the license plates, and put them on your new car (or you hand them back).
But… what about vanity plates?
Well, technically Switzerland has no vanity plates, but there is a sort-of-exception: plate numbers get reused all the time, and are originally issued progressively, with the exception of very low numbers. Plates with 4 digits or less are the Swiss (or at least Ticinese) vanity plates: they are sold at annual auctions by the DMV (the few that become available) and very low numbers can cost A LOT (like… 5 digits lot).
I heard that “TI 1” (Ticino’s number one plate) is on a Rolls Royce in Lugano. Spiffy cars often have very low digit counts on the plate, or some special number: I know a man in a nearby town gifted his two sons with 83 and 85 (or something like that… the years they were born). I remember seeing TI 7777 on a fleet car of a Casino.
So yeah, they managed to invent a way to make something exclusive when it was fairly prosaic.
Bonus oddities: licenses can’t be sold privately. It’s yours for life, but you can inherit them. Five digits licenses can be exchanged between two willing parties if they convene at the DMV and pay a small sum (I have no idea why). And finally… yes, people did find a way to circumvent the prohibition on selling licenses, in a very Swiss way. If you have, say, a 1984 Ferrari GTS (Magnum PI’s car), and you paid for a special license (1984), you create a company which owns the car as its only asset and then… if needed, you can sell the company! The license goes with the owner… which is the company, not a person. Yes, that’s a LOT of effort for a number on a couple of metal plates.
Oh and a final oddity: did you know? License plates are searchable on the DMV’s website, and you get name and address of the owner. Madness! Luckily, you can ask for it to be unlisted for privacy reasons (und I diiid!).
This is kind of a follow-up to the post about the tendency of the Swiss to estabilish personal, real-human to real-human relationships when interacting with institutions and companies.
Sometimes this translates in people being very trusting of your word (another thing we Italians tend to notice as odd), sometimes… Sometimes you get an email from your ISP, and instead of the usual super fake stock photo of some random young and good looking guy (more often, girl) depicting your “generic customer services rep”, you get this:
I mean, I can’t tell for sure, it might still be a stock photo, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to discover this lady actually is one of the people that will answer your calls. It’s a small thing, but… they didn’t choose the run-of-the-mill young-and-pretty (and fake) image: this is an older lady, and certainly not a model. A nice change of pace.
Switzerland has a deep connection with Brutalist architecture (after all, the movement is considered to have its roots in LeCourbousier among others), and while by and large Brutalism has mostly died down around the world by the early Eighties… Not so much in Switzerland! Or, at least, here in Ticino (the Italian-speaking, southernmost Canton).
I mean… Mario Botta, famous starchitect, has his studio less than one km from my house, and boy does he like the geometric shapes, the stark lines and the naked concrete. And it’s not just him: the propensity for the use of naked, unpainted concrete in very rational-shaped buildings is alive and well around here.
But, you might think, how is this a “Swiss Oddity”?
Check again the opening photo. I drive by it almost every day. Fancy, uh? You’d think it was some office building, or modernist house. But no…
It’s the tractor garage of a farm! A fancy, super modern, brutalist tractor garage.
To compound the oddity, the farm is part of the Canton’s Agronomy School and Farm (translating roughly) and its main building, on the opposite side of the road, is a 1700s villa.
This story needs a short preamble: I’m attending an evening course for adults set up by my Canton on how to do your own taxes here in Switzerland (and some of this topic is worth an oddity post on itself), and the teacher (a smart young man who works for the Taxation office by day) was explaining how you can deduct some expenses, and specifically the ones to go back and forth to your job.
Now, Switzerland likes to encourage people to use public transportation, so you can deduct the cost of the annual ticket, or even a hefty 700 CHF for a bike. Yearly! But sometimes it can’t work out: you can explain why you need to use your car, and, assuming the Taxation Office agrees with you, you can deduct a sum per Km of your daily commute.
Our teacher went on to explain that they use Google Maps, or ViaMichelin, to plot the shortest road path between your home and your workplace, and use that (which makes sense), but then as an aside added, to an old lady asking about it (and here’s the kicker)… “Oh yeah, we used to have an official Federal document that allowed to calculate the distances between towns… but it was dismissed years ago! It used to tell you the distance from bell tower to bell tower”.
I was this close to burst out laughing: is there anything more… European than measuring distances that way? The missing bell towers from pictures of US towns is one of the things that I had not noticed consciously for a long while… but when you do, it’s really glaring. There are some obviously, but they tend to be really short, square and made of wood. Here, and in most of the continent I’d say, they really are an element of the basic fabric of territory: the kind of parochial “my town is better than yours” is called “campanilismo” (campanile is the Italian word for bell tower)!
And on the other hand, the idea of making such a system the mandated federal standard I think is the kind of adorable/quaint/odd that warrants this story a place in my “Swiss Oddity” collection.
Got it! No, it’s not a Swiss passport (that’ll have to wait another 10 years at least), even if the cover is almost identical: it’s a semi-humorous book of “Swiss Italian” language.
I think I talked about this already, but tl;dr, Italian from Italy and Italian from Ticino (the main Italian speaking canton), where I live, diverged a bit, for various reasons, and it leads to rather funny moments of incomprehension (and laughs, sometimes).
This is a book written by two Ticinese gentlemen (who are not primarily writers) and its name plays on the Italian word for Dictionary, turning it into a “Swiss Dictionary” portmanteau (Svizzionario).
On my town’s local facebook group a guy posts: “I’ll give away this semi-new weed-whacker for free to whoever comes to pick it up.”
I say I’m interested, if it’s still available… the answer is “Sure! Come pick it up from my garage whenever you want, it’s open! In so-and-so road, up the path with cypresses, where the road ends.”
Ok, to some of you USicans who live in rural areas it might
not sound so strange, but believe me, the notion of “don’t worry, pick
this thing from my garage at your leisure, I’m not ever closing it” is
super bizarre to my Italian-born mind. 😀
Addendum: some American friends remarked how, with their “Castle Doctrine”, they would never risk something like that because it’s a nice way to get shot. Happy to report that I got the weed-whacker and I didn’t get whacked (ha!): Switzerland is one of the countries with the most guns among private citizens… but it is also one of the safest countries in the world, with negligible numbers of gun-related deaths.
Bonus Swiss Oddity: the weed-whacker, in italian ‘decespugliatore’ (literally, bush-remover) actually has a name in Swiss-Italian (not present in Swiss-German or Romand aka Swiss-French): the “Zekiboy”.
I don’t know the etymology of the word, but nobody in Italy has ever heard of it… nor in the rest of Switzerland. Like several other swiss-italianisms, it is probably a corrupted form of some dialectal pronunciation of an early brand, or some strange nickname for the tool.
That’s it, 40 bucks for the whole year. There are no toll booths anywhere(1): you must buy a sticker called the Vignetta with the current year on it (they are sold at pretty much every gas stop drugstore) and put it on the inside of your windshield. That’s it: the police mostly checks at the end of January (when the previous year sticker expires) and especially near the border… but this is like most things in Switzerland; the rule is there, and they do check… and if they find you on the highway without your sticker they are not amused. It’s a 300 bucks fine, plus the 40 to buy the sticker. On the spot, or you can’t leave.
Anyway, it’s neat (and much cheaper than Italian highways), only… the friggin sticker is designed to stay stuck and break in tiny messy pieces if you try removing it, as an anti-tampering device: last year it took me a lot of time and swearing to tear it away little piece by little piece, covering my fingers in glue, and then cleaning up the mess of glue on the glass. The devilish thing.
So this year I learned a True Local™ trick: Swiss DIY stores sell a small sticker removal kit with a magic spray that does something to the glue, turning it into a jelly-like substance, plus a handy razor blade with a handle to pry it from the glass and a sponge to soak the excess spray. Best 10 francs spent in a while, worked like a charm.
(1) not entirely true: there’s some toll booths on tunnels, including the super pricy one going to the Italian enclave of Livigno from Canton Graubunden… but it’s a private tunnel, after all.