03 March 2011

Four-Letter Word for Switzerland

I donʻt mean it as an insult, though some people might consider this rather mamby-bamby praise, but because of some recent encounters, a certain four-letter word keeps coming to mind when I want to describe the people of Switzerland.

For example, a few weeks ago as I was rushing to French class, I stopped at the sidewalk window of a tiny tabac in downtown Neuchâtel and asked the lady behind her barrier of candies, gum and cigarettes for her smallest, cheapest bottle of water. She smiled, and said that I could find the cheapest, smallest bottle of water at the big grocery store next to her little shop.

Then, earlier this week I finally dragged myself to the cantonal bureau of transportation to turn in the paperwork for my Swiss drivers license. I thought I had crossed every "t" and dotted every "i," but feared Swiss microscopic bureaucracy, and fully expected to be turned away because I'd neglected to obtain Franz Kafka's signature or supply my family history for the last 5 generations.

And sure enough, even though it hadn't been listed in the documents I had to supply, the lady asked me for my carte de sejour, which proves I'm allowed to live here in Chocolateland. She probably thought I was having a heart attack as my eyes bulged and my lips moved, trying to find a socially acceptable alternative in French to "MERDE!" (SHIT!). Because, by bizarre coincidence, the day before, I had turned in that card to another bureau in order to renew it.

You might reasonably expect that that's when Madame's eyes glazed over and she recited a rote speech about me coming back when I had everything in order. But no. She received my news as though I had just presented her with an interesting puzzle. She asked to which communal office I had presented my papers. Then she looked up their phone number and called them to confirm they had my Permit B card. They apparently found it right away, so she put through my drivers license application toute de suite.

Nice, n'est-ce pas?


  1. In our living in or visits to Switzerland over 30 years we have often found the kind of help you are experiencing, and I've been very touched with the small (but very big to me at the time) kindnesses. I hope that I've remembered them all.

  2. I think that is part of the "wonder" of living here. You never know which of the two extreme responses you will get. It keeps life interesting, at least.

  3. I'm with you, bobbieliz. I walk around on a little cloud after these little acts of kindness, especially since my French is so bad, and I'm usually stumbling along, no doubt making stupid errors which are ignored by whomever is helping me.

    Kimberly, I have to say that I haven't (yet) gotten an extreme reaction of the negative kind. Maybe I need to spend more time in Schweiz-Deustch. Do you think it's true, as I sometimes read, that this part of the country is more stern (rhymes with Bern)?

  4. My experience with Swiss bureaucracy has been very positive until now. I've experienced similar treatment as you described. Perhaps, these acts of kindness are really part of what we call Swiss efficiency.

  5. Hi Diana. Glad to know you've experienced the same. Do you live in Suisse-Romande or in Scheiwz-Deutsch?