The Pace of Life

This is going to be a short post. The reason that it will be short is that it is very late and I only have a few minutes to write it, and the reason for that has to do with the pace of life in Switzerland. This is a difficult topic to generalize about, because obviously different regions, towns, families and individuals all have preferred habits and customs when it comes to things like when to wake up and go to bed, when to eat meals, when to work and when to relax. But there are definitely some patterns here that I thought it would be interesting to comment on.

Switzerland as a nation is known for its efficiency, and this is no myth. Everything–from trains and buses to meetings and store closings–are always on the dot. Organization and precision are a way of life (by way of example, I will say that a parking garage bathroom I used last week was so airy and spotless, the grout between the tiles was sparkling white).

But this efficiency seems to be the result of a paradox, because the Swiss never seem to be in a hurry. For example, in my experience thus far, the cooking of a typical evening meal is a leisurely, social affair that is spread over several hours. The meticulous preparation phase ends with an aperitif to kick off the meal, which itself usually lasts several hours and has more than two courses. Lunch breaks at work extend well into the afternoon, and only party poopers (or introverted, clueless Americans) leave weekend social events before midnight. Accordingly, things get going a bit later in the morning here than in the U.S…for example, if you try to buy anything in a store before 8:30 or 9am you will probably be disappointed.

Much of this tendency to stretch things out seems to stem from social custom. Not spending a significant amount of time conversing over food and drink, eating at one’s desk, considering an invitation to a social event optional, or leaving said social event early all seem not only bizarre, but rude in Swiss society. It is an implicit norm that is enforced only by looks of surprise and disappointment if you begin checking your watch.

As a restless and fairly introverted person (not to mention a complete early bird who is 90% asleep by 9pm) these cultural norms are going to take some getting used to. I’ve already shifted my internal clock somewhat, getting up closer to 7 so I can stay awake until midnight, but the social expectations are more difficult to meet–particularly when most gatherings are conducted largely in French. This is where the true scrappy attitude comes in handy: I may be falling asleep in my drink and not understanding a word you’re saying, but by god I’m here and I’m integrating, dammit!

On another note, these reflections have helped me understand why some of my favorite American foods are not available here. Fancy trail mixes, granola bars and peanut butter are hard to come by simply because the Swiss do not really snack or eat on the run…they eat meals, and they eat them together. As inconvenient as this is for me personally, I really do admire these traditions and I hope I will be able to adapt to them!


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