Published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2018, 352 pages.
What does Switzerland mean to most people? Cows, chocolate, banking, cheese and mountains—these were some of the responses Diccon Bewes got when he put the question to 100 non-Swiss people. Yes, Switzerland is all these things but there is so much more to this country.
In his book, Bewes tells you all the things you ever wanted to know about this nation of contradictions. It is fiercely independent yet discreet, conservative yet liberal and creative, and for a pacific country, it exports a large quantity of arms.
Switzerland came into being on 1 August 1291 in a meadow called Rütli above Lake Uri, when three men from three cantons—Walter Fürst from Uri, Werner Stauffacher from Schwyz and Arnold von Melchtal from Unterwalden—swore an oath to always stand by each other. And so Switzerland was born in a typically Swiss fashion: “low key and peaceful, without any bloodshed, beheadings or bullets”. Over the centuries, other cantons joined to make the country what it is today.
Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh (a mix of German and Italian, spoken only by a small percentage). This can make things quite complicated. Geneva, for instance, is Genève in French, Genf in German, Ginevra in Italian and Genevra in Romansh. Children have to learn a second national language in school (and often English as well), and all packaging and signs are in the three main languages. But if you go to the German part of Switzerland, people are more likely to speak to you in English than in French, and vice versa.
The country has its own brand of governance. A system of direct democracy ensures that citizens have the ultimate say on matters ranging from the purchase of military aircraft to whether Switzerland should join the European Union. Politics is not as personality-based as it is elsewhere. The country is run by a group of seven federal councillors, known as the Seven Sages, from various political parties. They head the ministries and take it in turns to be President of Switzerland for a year. There is a lot to be said for government by committee: there are no larger-than-life politicians, and government is run by consensus.
This book is full of interesting information. What saves it from being dry is Bewes himself: a British man who has lived in Bern for many years and is integrated into Bernese life, he is the perfect insider and outsider. He is observant and funny and had me laughing out loud at times.
Every chapter has a Swiss Watching Tip section at the end, meant to help newbies navigate the social customs of the country. These include how to greet people at a party (you have to go around the room and greet everyone individually); mastering Swinglish; and the unspoken rules that govern how you travel (be seen and not heard, and remember to ring the bell on the bus when you need to get off). One of these sections is about the preponderance of red shoes in the country. “If you want to look like a local, then wear a pair of red shoes. It may sound daft, but I have never seen as many red shoes as in Switzerland. Men, women, old, young, posh, scruffy, town and country—everyone seems to have a pair.” This observation is followed by five possible reasons why this is so.
Like Bewes, I’ve lived in Switzerland for many years, and have grown to love this country. There is much in this book that is familiar, but I have also learned a lot from it.
Read the Talking About Books interview with Diccon Bewes.
Buy from Bookshop.org UK / Bookshop.org USA
3 thoughts on “Swiss Watching—Inside the Land of Milk and Money: Diccon Bewes”
Pingback: Travels through Switzerland: An Interview with Diccon Bewes – Talking About Books
Sounds a bit bland. Would you really recommend this book?
I realized that I hadn’t done the book justice, so have added a para towards the end. It isn’t bland: it packs a lot of information, but there is a lot of humour and affection for the Swiss, which makes this more than just a dry and boring account. Would recommend it.