Today I thought I’d write about driving in Switzerland. I was originally going to do a post about general transportation in Switzerland, but all my praise of the train system would probably have made it too long, so I thought it best to split the whole ‘point A to point B’ theme into two parts.
Anyway, my experience with driving in Switzerland has been, in a word, ironic. It’s ironic because the U.S. is usually renowned for its long, arduous commutes, but the city I came from was one of the most bike- and pedestrian-friendly in the country, with miles and miles of safe, well-lit commuting and recreation paths. I rarely drove, and when I did, it was only a couple of miles to haul back groceries.
In Switzerland, on the other hand, I am currently living in a small village that is a fair distance to Lausanne, where I am working (about 40 kilometers–more on those in a minute). Public transportation is technically an option but would require a tricky bus/train/tram combination that would be difficult to coordinate and take longer than the drive. So, driving it is…at least for now. Once I am more travel-savvy I am hoping to work out a clever (and affordable) public transport solution, but since I’ve only been here 3 weeks driving is the best short-term option.
The first time I was on a Swiss highway (or auto-route as they are called here) I was first struck by the cars themselves. They are all a distinctly European shape and size. While American cars tend to be composed of rounded edges and over-sized proportions, Swiss cars are very compact and most are distinctly square.They remind me of schools of little fish, and every once in a great while an American-style SUV or minivan will pass by like a wandering grouper, looking bloated and out of place.
The semi trucks and utility vehicles are less intimidating here too…they are required by law to drive no faster than 80km an hour, so they never blast by you in the way that makes my knuckles turn white as I grip the steering wheel on U.S. road trips!
Driving a Swiss car is actually a lot of fun. Mine is small with a manual transmission, so it is very nimble and parking is a snap…even in the tiny European parking spaces. Village streets are incredibly narrow and most drivers think nothing of putting a wheel up onto the sidewalk to make way for someone coming in the opposite direction. I live in fear of shearing off a side mirror every time I drive, but I am getting used to it!
Traffic laws and regulations are another story. I still don’t really think in kilometers, so the 120km speed limit of most auto-routes seems suicidally fast. But most drivers get a little annoyed if I drop down below 110 so I am learning to work the gas pedal with more confidence.There is a different language with respect to road signs…I don’t mean that they are in French, which they are…but the symbols are all different, too. Most are fairly intuitive, although there are still a few I am embarrassed to say I still have to look up when I get home. There seem to be an unusually large number of variations on “please do not go here/do this.” I just hope that when I finally do go the wrong way somewhere, I won’t get snapped by the ever-present yet ever-hidden radar camera…they are sneaky and you never see ’em coming…
This means you! [source]
There is one particular aspect of Swiss driving culture that, in my opinion, the U.S. should adopt right away: roundabouts. There are some of these–usually referred to as rotaries or traffic circles–in the U.S., but in Switzerland they take the place of stop signs, so they are literally everywhere. I was scared at first because I feel safer when there is a big sign telling you to STOP…with a roundabout it’s more about your sense of rhythm, timing, and your accurate perception of how fast the car on your left is hurtling toward you.
Once you’ve got the hang of it, though, it really is much more efficient. Plus, if you have taken a wrong turn (which I do on a daily basis at this point) going back the way you came is no trouble at all…you just swing the whole way around the circle and hope no-one notices you have no idea what you’re doing!
With a 40-or-so minute commute twice a day, I encounter a lot of traffic, so I’ve taken to listening to Swiss radio. I love this. The “Nostalgique” station is my favorite so far, because I can listen to vintage French crooners with a few familiar Beatles songs thrown in. It always makes me laugh to hear the morning talk show commentators and the commercials in French. I may not understand exactly what’s going on, but even if I didn’t know a word of French the gist would be pretty clear…it’s all right there in the tone of voice, the sound effects and the laughter.
I also have found a rock station to program my dial to. It plays the latest hits from the U.S. repeatedly…I sometimes hear the same three songs all the way to work and back. I don’t like Miley Cyrus but sometimes I tune in to get a mental break from all the French. Every once and awhile they will play an American song from the 90s, and that’s when I start singing in the car.