Bureaucracy with a human face

On the left sign, under the canton colors, the names and direct phone numbers of the employees.

One of the things I noticed coming to Switzerland as an Italian, and something that really surprised me, was how personal the relationship with the “bureaucracy structure” tends to be.

Most of the times in Italy one dreads the prospect of interacting with bureaucracy at any level, because it always feels like you are going against a Brazil-like faceless leviathan that not only you can’t relate to, but will screw you up if you did anything remotely wrong, losing a ton of time in the process (assuming you don’t get a fine, too). Many institutions barely have a public contact phone, and it generally goes to a call-center that is either always overloaded (and you get endless horrible hold music) or basically unmanned (the phone rings and rings and rings… And nobody picks up). Or both! Like, you get past the IVR and then the call goes to an unmanned phone. And you will probably interact with different people each time, never really getting to know the person that’s working on your case… The person you are interacting with is probably not the one, either.

Here in Switzerland, the names of the people that work in public offices is written on a sign by the front door, with their direct phone number and email. Yes, really.

Taxes? If you are Swiss, or have been living here for a while, you get to do your own taxes (and there’s a free multiplatform software to help you, my Italian and American friends! And yes, it works quite fine on Linux too!), but that’s not all. You are assigned a “tax person” from the Canton, and they will be your single point of contact: they are the person that will check your filing, will ask for clarifications if you wrote something that doesn’t check out, that you can call if you have doubts about some deductible or another, or whatever. Again… Yes, really!

The whole feeling is much more… Human. And, yes, quite odd.

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.

A “Swisstalian” dictionary

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.

The “Svizzionario”

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).

(this is a repost of an older g+ post)

Well, Switzerland is famous for clocks right?

A recent ad I received in the mail. It’s… quite a thing.

Oh yeah, it’s a clock. Like a cuckoo clock, but chopper themed.
Bask in the details.

When the hour strikes, the garage opens, the choppers roll out, with realistic sounds. Oh and lights. And weights in the shape of pistons.

Why? I have no idea, but you can have it for a measly 200 bucks (plus shipping and handling).


(this is a repost of an older g+ post)

Swiss Trust

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.

Anyway… it’s funny 🙂

Highway Sticker

Swiss highways cost 40 bucks.

The 2018 vignetta

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.

(this is a repost of an older g+ post)

Silence is golden…

“Silent Electric Woodchipper
Automatic feeding, no vibrations.”

…’cause just because you need to dispose of the body, it doesn’t mean you can be a nuisance to your neighbours!

The Swiss take avoiding noise and disturbing your neighbours very seriously: and if one calls the police on you because (say) you are using a noisy lawnmower on Sunday, rest assured they will come and fine you.

(from an ad found in my letterbox)

(this is a repost of an older g+ post)


Swiss people love flying their flag.

This is something an Italian notices right away when crossing the border with the Confederation: the square (important!) red flag with the white cross is everywhere. Especially private houses.

Now, this might not sound that odd to my USian friends, ’cause Americans love to fly the old red-white-and-blue but as noted many times it’s super rare in Italy. Basically only official buildings have flags in Italy.

Here, instead, I received a booklet advertising a flag company, where you can buy flags in 3 different grades of cloth of growing quality, carabiners, poles, ropes, and even special flag-cleaning products to wash them! And they don’t just make the red Swiss federal flag, obviously, but one flag per Canton (which is to be expected)… but also for each single Municipality, City and other local institutions! Plus, whimsical Swiss flags featuring super-swiss things like Cows, Edelweiss, and so on.

It’s still odd to me, but mostly harmless 🙂

Swiss Flags, Canton Flags, City Flags! Flags Flags Flags!

Oh, if you zoom the pic you can see a bonus oddity: the text says “Attenzione, bandiere in azione!” which, if you know Italian (or use Google Translate) seems to say “Warning! Flags in action!”… which is not what it means. This is one of many “Swistalian” bits of language: “Azione” (action) actually means “on sale” ^___^

(this is a repost of an older g+ post)

The Tallest Building in Switzerland

That’s a LOT of grains…

I just learned that Switzerland’s third tallest building is… a mill grains silo.

A 118 meters tall (130yds) reinforced concrete grains silo in the middle of Zurich’s old industrial zone, which is now mostly office and residential buildings.

It’s the tallest grain mill in the world (unsurprisingly) and holds 30 thousand tons of various grains divided in 45 smaller containers.

It’s… odd. 🙂

(this is a repost of an older g+ post)

Swiss Confetti

Something that’s probably not that well known outside Switzerland is how much the Swiss just love Carnevale (we’re talking Brazil or Venice levels of passion): in Ticino where I live, not only a couple of the bigger cities have officially sanctioned Carnival celebrations with decades of tradition (and official nicknames, like Bellinzona’s Rabadan), but many (most?) of the smaller villages (comuni) have their own.

Costumes, parades, revelry, eating and drinking in the streets… and confetti. Obviously: can’t have Carnevale without confetti (coriandoli, for my Italian speaking friends), right?

But! Something the Swiss are famous for is, instead, how precise and detail oriented and organized they are.

Well… let me show you how they sell Confetti…

Swiss Confetti bags

…neatly packed in separate colours!

Now if you want to buy multiples and then mix them in a disorganized mess, suit yourself, but it’s out of our hands!

A Swiss Oddity

I’ve been living in Switzerland for three years now, and as an Italian immigrant I still find stuff that catches me off-guard. The fact I’m living in Ticino means there isn’t an immediate/constant feeling of being in a foreign country (we share the language… well, mostly).

But here and there the “swissness” (swissitude?) shows, and catches me by surprise, or makes me smile, or leaves me with this odd sensation of “strangeness”.

These posts started as a Collection on Google Plus, but since the platform is sadly closing soon, I’m moving them here. I will repost some here, to save them from oblivion, and add new ones.

It’s an amused and generally good natured (even when I make fun of the Swiss) look at my adoptive country, as seen by someone coming from outside.

Enjoy the Swiss Oddity.