License Plates

There are no “vanity” license plates in Switzerland, just like there are no vanity plates in Italy.

Well, kinda.

The car of the Neighbour of the Beast!

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!).

Stock Photo Rep?

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.


Look at those stark reinforced concrete walls!

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.

From Bell tower to Bell tower

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia (CC-BY-SA)

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.