I have heard several different people comment, independently of each other, that in Swiss society there is often an expectation that one will simply ‘know’ how things are supposed to be without having to be informed in any formal way. This is absolutely true. Some things you can read about in the guidebooks ahead of time to prepare yourself, but some things just ‘are,’ and the Swiss tend to expect you to figure it out on your own. So many of my trans-Atlantic phone calls to my husband include the phrase “But how was I supposed to know that??” after my latest embarrassing transgression.In Switzerland, you are supposed to just ‘know’ that you are only allowed to do laundry one day a week at certain times in apartment buildings, per the schedule posted on the wall in the laundry room (which, incidentally is called a buanderie in French and is currently my favorite word to say). You are supposed to just ‘know’ that you may not mow your lawn on a Sunday, or you can get into legal trouble with your village due to the noise violation. You may not, under any circumstances, put your feet up on the seat across from you on a Swiss train, or risk being scolded by the attendant in front of the other passengers…and as I have found, no one will tell you this in advance – you simply have to wait until you unwittingly do it for the first time.
I might also add that you are also supposed to just ‘know’ that Swiss men (who are all subject to mandatory military services) practice their target shooting from time to time in the Swiss countryside, and that if you hear a series of loud bangs, that it is not a car backfiring…you are actually in real danger of being shot! I won’t tell you how long I went jogging amid the bangs last weekend before I turned around and started sprinting for home, but it was much longer than someone who was aware of this custom would have done!
Most recently, I made a Swiss mistake that infuriated me beyond the rest.
Yesterday was Friday, and I drove into work like any other day and parked in the usual underground parking garage. I spent my usual 8.5 hours at work, and then headed over to the gym. On the way, I noticed that people were setting up several large stages and sound equipment on the university campus where I work — there was clearly some end-of-semester music festival going on that evening. On the way back from the gym — sweaty, thirsty, and smelly — I walked quickly to the parking garage to get into my car and drive home, looking forward to the hot shower that awaited me…only to find that for some reason, the garage door would not open. It is operated with a motion sensor and usually just takes a few good hops to get activated, but no amount of jumping or waving would budge the thing. I became aware that the parking area — usually overrun with cars leaving the campus at this time of the evening — was eerily quiet. Walking up to the main building above the parking garage, I found everything wrapped up in red striped tape and the doors chained shut.
As I watched hordes of students in the distance making their way towards the stages with bottles of wine and boxes of beer in hand, I started to realize with a sinking feeling that this was another Swiss situation where I was supposed to ‘know’ that the campus would close down today to host this concert. Furthermore, I was supposed to ‘know’ that I would not be able to access my car after 4pm. I was stranded!
This would have been a minor problem if I lived in Lausanne, but my current living situation is nearly 40 minutes away by car. I called the university help line and argued with the woman on the other line, both in English and French (let me just note here how hard it is to be righteously angry at someone in a foreign language…oh, that’s what you think! Well let me tell you — sorry, could you please repeat that? No more slowly please, my verb conjugations are a bit weak…) and she was frighteningly unmoved by my plight. The garage door would open for no one, regardless of whose car was trapped inside. Those were the rules, didn’t you know?
To make a long and frustrating story short, I had to take a metro, a train, and a taxi — and spend over 50 CHF — to make it back to my village at around 9:00pm. I have yet to retrieve my car, so I anticipate having to do it all over again on Monday morning…all because of my very Swiss mistake.
It is certainly times like these where an American might — hypothetically of course — become upset and use profanity to describe the Swiss and their rigid way of doing things. But it is also important to remember that this rigidity and rule-obsession contribute to Swiss society’s order, cleanliness and prosperity, regardless of the personal inconveniences it can bring.It is still frustrating, though, and it made it really, really tempting to ride the train with my dirty, smelly, gym-sneakered-feet up for the entire trip.