Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Four Books You Should Read About Switzerland

The Frau is a reader as well as a writer. And naturally, to acquire new insights for her writing, she enjoys reading about the current place she calls home. Below are four must-reads for any expatriate in Switzerland (three of which armchair travelers will appreciate as well).

By John McPhee

“Switzerland does not have an army. Switzerland is an army.” This is a quote from La Place de la Concorde Suisse and also sums up why any expatriate in Switzerland should read it. The text, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, demonstrates how the Swiss army sums up Swiss life. There are also facts the Frau learned that made her laugh: did you know that Swiss German men who misbehave in the army are assigned to a Swiss French battalion as punishment? Did you know that most Swiss bridges are ready to explode at a moment's notice? Oh. And don’t be put off that the book was published in 1994. Since most things never change in Switzerland, it is still very relevant today.

By Diccon Bewes

What makes the Swiss tick? As most people who are living in Switzerland have discovered, there’s a lot more to the country than cheese and skis. Part information, part observation, this bestselling book is a must to anyone wanting to find out more about the little landlocked island we all call Switzerland. The book answers big questions about neutrality during World War II (hmm, see book above) as well as little ones, such as what the heck is Heidi Week at the local Swiss McDonald’s?

By David Hampshire

Already have that Swiss Army knife but still feel like you need another survival tool? This book will answer questions about permits, unemployment, apartment contracts, buying a house in Switzerland, and more. Even though the Frau has been in Switzerland for almost six years, she still sometimes finds herself referring to this book to confirm her suspicions concerning many Swiss procedures (and also because she is kind of a nerd like that).

By Paul Bilton

Big laughs usually come from little truths. And this tiny book is full of them. Get to know the Swiss with something they are not usually known for: humor. Then, for even more insights into why you may find the Swiss a little strange, be sure to read the Xenophobe’s Guide to the Country You Are From.

Enough of what the Frau thinks. Do you have any books on Switzerland to recommend?


Hattie said...

Have you read Epstein's Once Upon an Alp?
Still very funny.

Chantal said...

Yes. Also a fun read, thanks for mentioning that book.

Martin said...

Chantal, regarding your book reference „La Place de La Concorde Suisse“ and your statement „Since most things never change in Switzerland, it is still very relevant today.“ please let me make some corrections (actually, the book is quite out of date!):

- The book was published the first time 1983/84

- The latest edition is from 1994 (you stated it correctly), almost 20 years ago

- Since 1989, somehow coincidentally related to the fall of the wall in Germany, but also already initiated by the political will of the Swiss population, the Swiss Army has undergone quite dramatic changes since then!

- The current personnel has been reduced to currently 174'000 active soldiers, or 2.3% of inhabitants (USA: 1.5 Millions or 0.5% of inhabitants)

- Defence spending (2010):
CH: CHF 3.9 billions - USA: CHF 615.7 billions
-- per capita:
CH: CHF 500 - USA: CHF 1888
-- in % of GDP:
CH: 0.7% - USA: 4.7% (almost 7 times as much as in CH)

(check this out: http://20min-blog.ch/infografik/Timelines/militaerausgaben/militarausgaben-2/verteidigungsausgaben-pro-kopf-2009/)

In order to give you a brief idea what has happened since 20 years ago, let me sum up just a few things:

- 26.11.1989: 36% of the voting citizens said yes to the abolition of the Swiss army.
The fact that the fall of the wall in Germany did happen on 10th November didn't really influence the result of this initiative (public referendum), since the initiative had been started years ago in order to take part at this time!
This high approval was quite a surprise those days! Therefor, even though the initiative was rejected (abolition of the army), it was taken seriously by the politicians and therefor the parliament started a re-conception of the army in response to this vote!
This kind of reaction to votes is actually quite Swiss specific. I.e. even though when you loose a vote, it can result in changes supporting your original intentions to some extend. The fact that the Swiss army has undergone so much change since then is quite a good example for this!

- Army personnel force around 1995: 400'000 (before: 600'000), later reduced to 360'000 (more than 55% reduction until nowadays)

- Defence spending 1990: CHF 5.6 billions; inflation corrected: $ 7.1 billions (almost 50% reduction until 2010)

- A lot of bunkers and shelters have been sold to private people and institutions. E.g. they turned them into secure computer server plants, private shooting training centres (you can't hear them shooting means no disturbance of the public), or even hotels.

- The public shelter in the Sonnenberg, a small mountain (hill) next to Luzern has been closed since 2002.
This shelter was intended to host up to 20'000 people and would have included the two highway tunnel tubes going through the same hill (actually the sleeping area for the sheltered people). It also included a totally functional hospital, a command post, and a radio station. Being built between 1970-1976 for CHF 40 millions (not inflation corrected).

- Even though military service is still mandatory, since 1996 you can do civilian service. Civilian service is an alternative service for men fit for military service and women admitted to military service, who are unable to perform military service due to conscientious objection.
Civilian service was accepted by a public vote 1992 with 82.5% yes votes.
Before that so called „Militärdienstverweigerer“ (military service conscientious objector) would always have to face to be sentenced to prison for at least 3 months. The highest peak was in 1984 with 788 men rejecting military service due to conscientious objection.

I mean, you cannot really say that there is nothing happening, do you!?

Chantal said...

Hi Martin,

Thanks for your input and all the great facts you added here, it is very useful. I did not mean to imply that absolutely nothing has changed--as you pointed out, much has changed regarding the army.

My point was mainly that one of the most interesting points to an outsider--and one that hasn't seemed to change--is how a country that claims to be neutral and interested in peacekeeping can be so prepared for war.

Hattie said...

One thing I learned in Switzerland is that you can't say anything about the military. Not that you can in the U.S. either!

Chantal said...

I was actually pretty surprised that the Swiss government let John McPhee hang out with the Swiss Army and write about it like he did.

Anonymous said...


you would perceive me very much the wrong way, for the case, you want to say that I am a pro-military person. In fact, I am not, not at all (1993 I voted Yes about the abolition of the Swiss army).

I just tried to correct three things by providing facts (in contrast to hearsay, repeated bear false witness, repeating outdated clichés ):

1. The book Chantal is referring to as still up-to-date, is just very much out of date, actually.
2. I also tried to erode the constantly wrong perception among expats that there is no change. Actually there is, but probably in such a smooth, but steadily way, that people with a rather superficial/brief observation would eventually not become aware of it.
3. I also tried to erode the very wrong perception that Switzerland is much more militarised than most other countries. Compared to USA, it is definitely not: the per capita expenditure of the US army is almost 4 times as large, with respect to the GDP the US government even spends 7 times as much as they do in Switzerland. - Ok, this is quite "new" (as I showed a development over the last 20 years … what just supports the previous point), nevertheless very wrong nowadays. And I add: a rather quite smart development.

-- Martin

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