A Year and a little bit in Switzerland

Posted on 06.06.2015

Of all the things I have ever done I think moving to Switzerland is by far the most daunting and yet rewarding. I have always wanted to live abroad ever since we first went on holiday as a family to France and I discovered I could talk to the locals. I realized that ambition last year. I really wanted to reflect on that experience and I think this makes an excellent re-introductory blog post (for the first one I cheated).

So, Switzerland. Let's get started. A quick forewarning that some of the links below will be in different languages.

There are plenty of places you can go on the internet to read about the political structure of Switzerland so I'll just summarize it briefly. Prior to Napoleon, Switzerland was divided into cantons that were essentially different countries. The Canton of Geneva (basically Geneva city and surrounding environs) even had its own currency called the thaler. After the invasion by France and the subsequent defeat of Napoleon most of the political structure that came with France left with it - except for the Swiss Confederation. The Cantons are all members of the Swiss Confederation and law and policy are made centrally - but Cantons still hold significant individual power.

The missing piece of the puzzle are the Communes, small fairly autonomous regions under the authority of the cantons. These are effectively like giving each town or area its own authority down to the postcode level - for example the commune "lausanne" encompasses postcode areas such as 1001-1005.

That all sounds quite theoretical but it becomes practical almost as soon as you arrive. Citizens of Switzerland have triple nationality - they are "from" a given commune, in a given canton in Switzerland. Similarly, whenever they move they must register in their new commune and they then become citizens of the new commune, in effect.

The same rule applies to foreigners. So when I went to register at the commune I discovered that I needed to provide a birth certificate. In addition, my passport was issued by the Identity and Passport Service so my "location of issue" says IPS. This caused no end of confusion in the registration office as my official documentation did not technically identify where it was issued. I was able to salvage the situation by explaining that the UK government likes nothing better than to rename government departments, which was met with quizzical looks to say the least. Nevertheless, eventually I had a form saying I was a bona fide member of my commune.

What you're not told before you come is that it is very difficult to do anything without a residence permit - a "permis B" or your "ausländerausweis". Luckily many services will take an attestation form from your commune, but many others will not.

The next step on our journey through Switzerland is of course getting a Swiss Bank Account. While telling your friends and family that you have a Swiss Bank Account is quite amusing the reality is somewhat more mundane. Firstly, there are roughly five types of bank in Switzerland. These are:

If you're still with me, let's focus on the sort of private banking we'll be doing in Switzerland - we'd call it a current account in UK. The two major shocks for me in Swiss banking were the lack of Visa Debit cards (here they're maestro cards and if you go a smaller shop or a cheaper shop they won't process Visa Credit. The Maestros work everywhere). The second shock was interest rates - given extremely low inflation in Switzerland, interest rates at the time of writing are all sub 1% and haven't been over 2% in a long time.

I deliberately omitted a step in the process of arriving in Switzerland - accommodation. Certainly around the Lausanne/Lac Léman area, finding a flat to rent is very difficult. There are around 50 applicants per flat and it isn't unusual for the process to take several months. Applying requires sending in a dossier complete with salary statements, extracts from your credit history, CV, motivational letters and so on. The deadline is usually 11am the day after the group visit - you need to move.

Visits to apartments are likewise unusual. The visiting process is simple: open the doors and let everyone come in and look around. It's like the open house visits you see in US TV programmes, which is suprising to a Brit because we book appointments and the agent shows us around individually. No need for that here - there's so much demand for low cost appartments that estate agents really do not need to promote their service. They're the gatekeepers. I cheated and used a chasseur d'appartement - a paid service who help you with the whole process. They were really great - but you do pay for it and my service at least was exclusively available in French.

Speaking of French I should deal with languages in Switzerland. Officially, Switzerland has four national languages. Cantons make their services available in the "official language" of the region - for the Suisse Romande region (Swiss French) that's Neuchatel, some of the Jura, Basel, Geneva, Vaud Cantons and Lower Valais. Almost everywhere else is classed as Suisse Alemanique (Swiss German) and the change from French to German is abrupt in official terms. The Canton of Ticino speak Italian as their official language and Romansch is spoken and officially recognised in one of the eastern cantons.

I refer to the languages as official because in practice I would say that English is very much an unofficial language of Switzerland. Many services, including government ones, can be accessed in English due to the huge number of expats living here. English effectively forms a lingua franca, since so many of said expats have it in common.

If you're aware of British politics at all, our membership of the European Union is currently a contentious issue and various political parties took lukewarm stances on the issue during our latest election. Immigration is often cited as a major issue in the UK and if you're unfortunate enough to be forced to read the Daily Mail you'll know that "foreigners coming over here" is a popular refrain and "immigrants" is a dirty word. Of course, the Daily Mail won't be happy until a time machine is invented to take us back to the 1950s, an era in which people behaved appropriately and before convenient methods of international travel were available.

Anyway, Switzerland is very much not part of the EU, although it has adopted a huge number of bilateral treaties with the EU and is a part of the schengen zone. Furthermore (and I note I am not saying this is a consequence of the schengen), as of 2004 Switzerland has the second highest percentage of foreign born residents in the world at an amazing 23.6%. Compared to a figure in the UK of less than 10%, this is astounding. Let's put that into perspective: in Switzerland, nearly 1 person in 4 is not Swiss. In the UK, less than 1 person in 10 is not British.

The same refrain (foreigners are ruining our country) is used here but you have to marvel at the difference. In Switzerland there really is a significant number of foreign-born residents. More tellingly, membership of the EU was a borderline rejection (49% of voters) whereas the 2014 adoption of legislation in Switzerland to exit the Schengen, reintroducing quotas in immigration, was accepted on an extremely narrow margin of less than 1% (less than 51% in favour). It's incredible that which such a foreign presence the Swiss are broadly accepting of a foreign presence (the Swiss voted for the details of this arrangement, not necessarily against immigration. A more more drastic measure was soundly defeated at over 75% against).

It makes you wonder what, exactly, us Brits are concerned about with regards to free movement.

Let's keep going on this front. Switzerland is famous for direct democracy and another startling fact about Switzerland is that it is difficult to name who is in charge of the place. That's because the President of Switzerland is a rotating "chairmanship" of the Federal Council; Federal Councillors are elected from the Assembly (united parliamentary body) which is comprised of the national council and the council of states. The cantons send two members each to the council of states and vote in members in proportion to the national council.

There are party political politics involved in Switzerland, but to a lesser extent than just about anywhere else I have seen. Party strength is determined by proportional representation within the cantons, who are also proportionally represented in the national council. Party strength is actually calculated as a proportion of the overall vote but in practice this closely matches the cantonal result.

However, unlike in the UK or the US or even France where voters have one chance in four or five years to vent their frustrations out on their politicians, Swiss political parties and even individuals with sufficient signatures can table a motion for a "votation populaire" (popular vote). You can, for example, find this years' votes on the Swiss Parliament Website. Actual Swiss citizens (not you, you're an immigrant!) get a booklet describing what the referendum is in party-neutral language (actual language depends on what you subscribe to, I guess) and then advice and views from all parties that want to be represented are provided too. You then vote by post - according to my Swiss friends finding actual polling stations these days is pretty touch.

There is actually a form of open air voting in Switzerland - the Landsgemeinde. I've heard that it still happens in some of the more remote, traditional areas of Switzerland.

Ok so I can't actually participate in any of this so let's move on.

It occurred to me after several months in Switzerland that in spite of getting on the train with what looked like young people I hadn't seen anyone going to school - in spite of the fact there was an awful lot of noise at around 8 in the morning at what clearly was a school nearby. I wondered if the Swiss actually did any kind of schooling at all - until my Swiss friends helpfully pointed out that the Swiss system has some unique aspects. It seems that uniforms are a peculiarity of the UK educational system - apparently Swiss students do not wear uniforms. Moreover, there are lots of schools around - at least two within five minutes' walk of my flat. The Swiss it seems believe in smaller, more local schooling. These two facts combined explained why I couldn't identify the mass exodus that is the school run in the UK.

I only have exposure to EPFL as a university in Switzerland and only as an employee resident on their innovation park but I wanted to use education and EPFL in particular to segue into an aspect of Switzerland I have not gotten used to. Architecture. The EPFL campus is built on straight lines, exposed steel girders and could generally be mistaken for a wasteland battleground from tomb raider if it weren't for the views. It's SwissTech Convention Center is a concrete monstrosity and that's one of the nicer parts of the campus. This architectural problem is not limited to EPFL; an interesting fact about living in Lausanne is that it is very difficult to get an unobstructed view across the lake grom the ground. The tower blocks are typically ugly; much of the modern building is simply square, hugely utilitarian and pretty much soulless. Old Lausanne and the old town in Geneva amazing character - if you wanted to feel like you were in an old French city, these would be great places to visit. New developments look like more expensive versions of what we have as university halls of residence in the UK.

I'm not saying there aren't towns in the UK (oh hey Milton Keynes) where architecture is in need of work, or where houses look like they came out of a model-life mould (oh hey new housing development). There are some beautiful little towns around Switzerland (Morges, Geneva old town, Montreux to name a very few). But can we fire all the architects? Thanks! Also, forget bricks. There are no bricks here.

EPFL however more than make up for this by their social media presence who have an obsession with taunting UNIL about the presence of their ducks. Top marks for a world class university allowing its staff to have a sense of humour.

Let's get to a little bit more of daily living in Switzerland. Firstly and most importantly in my view, Switzerland continues that age old european tradition of making cities feel totally and utterly abandoned all of the time. Shops never appear open, often an untrue state of affairs but nevertheless amusing to a Brit. More practically however shops, including supermarkets, close early, usually by 7pm in the week and in canton Vaud by 6pm on saturdays. There is no Sunday shopping here - the Swiss do not consider Shopping Is A Valid National Sport! Or I Will Inflict B&Q on the whole family cause I love them! as valid ideas - I feel they've got a very good point. All of this means that what you cannot do during the week must be done on a Saturday.

I could go on and on about health insurance and Doctors and recycling and telephone spam and the myriad of charities that show up at the local shopping centre or 1st August (get the Swiss flag out and get the fireworks out!) and other weird facts I found - however I think you get the picture by this stage. If you're interested in a particular aspect, chances are high I'm a specialist by now. Instead I'll give you some observations from the field.

Firstly, in the spring and summer months there are quite a few beggars in Lausanne city centre. You will probably not hear about poverity in Switzerland but I get the feeling it is an issue here. This may explain graffiti as a rebellious streak - this is discussed in Swiss Watching (see the end of the post) and I'm inclined to agree. Life is expensive here.

Secondly, you will not see ostentatious displays of wealth by the Swiss. At all. The fast cars tend to be driven by the expats in Geneva, or such is my impression at any rate. That is not to say there are not rich Swiss - undoubtedly there are - it just seems at least to me that they do not flaunt it.

Next up, much is made of Swiss efficiency, but I'm convinced it is more a no-nonsense practicality particularly amongst the older generation. I missed my stop on a train and needed to take a detour via a different station - the guard on the train simply issued my ticket for a different day. I also bought tickets for the wrong day once and was able to get a cashier to correct them simply by explaining the situation nicely. This would never happen in the UK.

Finally, the best bit last. All of the Swiss French are amazed when they realize I speak French and am not in fact either from "the German part" or from France and they're equally amazed that I have not lived in France. I've been told several times straight up "we need more people like you" and that's a great thing to hear when you've been working for years to work out if it's an à or a de after the verb...

That was far longer than I intended. I've tried to explain some of what I've learnt whilst living here about Switzerland and how the country works. I hope to post some more interesting anecdotes in the future.


If you came here looking to read more - I'm not the first person to write about being an expat in Switzerland. There is a huge collection of useful expat blogs provided by "a humourous guide to Switzerland". If you want to read an expat's book on Switzerland you can try Swiss Watching, an excellent read about Switzerland or if you prefer to do it in French, La Suisse expliqué aux etrangers (available from the larger La Poste stores or bookshops) - this is less light-hearted and more a direct explanation but is nevetheless useful as a reference and the french is not difficult to read if you are beginning to learn.