Beyond Cheese and Chocolate – On Swiss Stereotypes

Posted on April 27, 2010


When approximately ten months ago I announced to my friends and family that I was moving to Zurich, Switzerland, I was greeted by the usual Swiss stereotypes. ‘It must be squeaky clean and full of green spaces’, one friend commented. ‘I love Swiss Chocolate!’ another one exclaimed enthusiastically. ‘Send me some when you get there.’ My parents were simply grateful that I wasn’t going to go to South Korea or Japan, as I had previously wanted. ‘It’s only two hours away’, my mother said, breathing a long sigh of relief. ‘I’ll try and come visit’, my dad said. ‘I love nature’. 

Precisely because of the fact that Switzerland and Malta were so close, before boarding that plane bound North, I had had no expectations. It’s Switzerland, for god’s sake, not Afghanistan, I had found myself thinking – True to some extent, but so deceiving on many others. Why? Because now, 10 months after the day I touched down on Swiss soil, I know clearly that what I had thought to be a familiar place was not familiar at all. I discovered that the land of chocolate, cheese, friendly smiles, impeccable service and picture perfect views is the land of the tourist. The land of the immigrant is something else entirely. I discovered strange things, seemingly ridiculous things, and things which were only skin deep. The following are my thoughts and impressions of what it really means to live among the Swiss (in Zurich, in my case). 

Transport  – This stereotype is not an exaggeration: Zurich is truly the epitome of efficiency. Public transport is frequent and consistently on time. Having said that, it is also ridiculously expensive, even when compared to somewhere like London. What I find especially unusual (except for the fact that I feel unmistakably lighter after taking money from my pockets to purchase a train ticket) is the fact that there are no barriers to pass at railway stations and you don’t have to show your ticket to the driver when you get on a bus. Here, it is simply expected of you to make sure you have purchased a ticket valid for the whole of your journey and that you have validated it at one of the orange machines on train platforms, trams and buses  in case it needs to be.  Technically, tickets have to be checked by people employed to do the job, but this rarely happens on buses and trams and not always on trains. In my case, along my journey from Zurich to Oberglatt Station (20 minutes away), I have never been checked other than at roundabout 9 or 9:30 in the evening. 

Taxes – In Zurich, you seem to have to pay for absolutely everything.  Public toilets are usually coin operated, rubbish needs to be disposed of in special garbage bags with a hefty tax added to their price (and will just not be collected if you fail to do so) and owning and using a bicycle requires you to pay for a yearly licence as well. Unless you have your own private parking space, parking in front of your own house will soon cause you to receive a bill by the government asking you to pay a monthly fee. If you’re wondering how this can happen, it’s simply because there are government employees who patrol residential streets at night and check number plates. If your car is found in the same locality three times then you are issued a bill. Furthermore, this fee is only valid for parking in that particular town or village  and not in others. 

Socialising – Swiss are notoriously hard to befriend. Neighbours in rented accommodation tend not to socialise, but this does not mean that they do not keep an eye on you. Failure to abide by the rules will send angry neighbours your way and sometimes even the landlord himself. 

Language – For a country so dependent on tourism, Switzerland is surprisingly nonchalant towards non-German speakers. At the Zurich main station, brochure stands scattered around are almost always only in German, with English ones relegated to a tiny tourist office at the far end of the main hall. Even very famous tourist attractions will sometimes have websites only in German. When it comes to announcements at railway stations and on trams concerning delays or route changes, they will also almost always be delivered exclusively in German (unless they are for international trains). Menus in restaurants usually do not have an English version (unless the restaurant is part of a hotel), and when stepping into a supermarket or a pharmacy it gets even more complicated. Medications do not have leaflets in English, but only in German, Italian and French, which are three of the four official Swiss languages. Products in supermarkets will have descriptions in German, and then sometimes also in either French or Italian. If you’re lucky, you will find all three, but English is practically nonexistent. So while it is true that most Swiss can communicate at least on a basic level in English, it is not true that you can survive comfortably without knowing the local language, unless you are prepared to remain oblivious to the details of the products you buy. In my case, I manage somehow by reading the Italian labels, since I know Italian very well, and by trying to decipher the French ones in the absence of the former, because I studied a little bit of French at secondary school. Applying for work permits and immigration documents will be tricky as well if you don’t know German or have no one to help you. All the papers I had to fill were in German, and despite the fact that my partner consistently specified that I did not speak it, subsequent letters from the immigration were also always in German. 

Immigration – Overwhelmed as they have been in recent years by the ever growing influx of immigrants from European and non-European countries, some Swiss in Zurich are a bit uneasy around foreigners, especially if they think that you are taking their valuable jobs and delivering a service of lesser quality. Swiss pride themselves in the quality of their products and services and they are keen to hold on to their reputation of high standards. For this reason, Germans living in Switzerland are often viewed with disdain, and while you will hear a Swiss claiming this with a bit of humour and a smile, there is often a darker and more serious undertone. Most Swiss will tell you that the best country in the world to live in is Switzerland, and it is not uncommon to see the Swiss flag displayed proudly outside residences. While immigrants from Italy, Turkey, Eastern Europe, India and Asia have already reached their second or third generation and new immigrants keep flooding in, they are only really accepted when they adopt the Swiss language (Which is Swiss-German, rather than German itself) and Swiss values. In fact, considering the large percentage of non-Swiss population, it is surprising that Zurich is still unmistakably Swiss, and nowhere close to the multicultural urban space of places like London and New York. Conformity is the key point towards acceptance. 


Health care and Military service – For a country which is so wealthy, it may come as a surprise to hear that there is no government-sponsored health insurance and that you are obliged by law to pay for a private one yourself, where premiums are expensive and do not necessarily cover all your medical bills. On the other hand, the Swiss government still spends billions on compulsory military service for men, who are obliged to train for 6 months at around the age of 20 and then for 6 more times for a period of 3 weeks (unless they are able to pay a hefty fine or can qualify to do social work instead). I sometimes wonder who exactly may be as stupid as to wage a war against Switzerland, unless of course, somewhere deep in the mountains, the 100-year-old Heidi and Peter finally set their herd of goats against the Swiss and place themselves as king and queen. Added to that, I have heard from many sources that the Swiss military service, especially after the first 6 months of training, is a joke. Here is an example of what a bored Swiss soldier ended up doing during the actual service. 


Appearance vs. Reality – Below its skin of apparent perfection, Zurich faces many of the same issues of other larger European cities. Train windows are vandalised with meaningless scratches, and the buildings and infrastructure along the railway tracks are covered with graffiti.  The city is so clean and efficient not because the citizens themselves are particularly so, but simply because there is an army of workers at the end of the day that cleans and fixes things up. While the Swiss are hailed for their diligence when it comes to recycling, this is often connected to the fact that garbage disposal is so expensive that it makes much more sense to separate waste and dispose of it freely at recycling points. 


The Bottom Line – The Switzerland I and many other expats moved to is not the Switzerland of travel guides and postcards.  It is definitely an orderly and safe place, but a difficult one to feel at home in unless you have your own expat circle to fall back on in the beginning. Some foreigners live here for years before feeling accepted and some leave without being able to say that it had ever happened. In my case, I am still here scratching my head in confusion but valuing the though experience of reshaping preconceptions and trying to understand (even if I may not ever share the beliefs of) the Swiss-Germans. 



– Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @


Posted in: Expat Talk, Zurich, Zurich