Life in the Box: Swissness

swissness-tv-smI’ve just returned from my third-ever trip to Europe, and I’m ready to update the world on how the Swiss are different from us Americans.

You see, I discussed all this with an expert on Swiss culture, a man named Diccon Bewes, a British native who wrote THE best-selling book about that country, “Swiss Watching, Inside the Land of Milk and Money.” His book includes inside information on such varied topics as “How Swiss is Heidi?,” how to correctly circulate at “Apero” (drinking) parties, and what dirty WWII secrets Swiss people really don’t want to discuss. You’ll have to read his books to answer those questions.

diccon-smDiccon joined our small tour group for a few days that included a heavenly Cailler chocolate-tasting stop, many miles on quiet electric-powered trains, a too-quick trot through old-town Interlocken, and an overwhelming vertical meander through a cavern featuring an indoor waterfall. 

waterfallwalksq-smThere’s no doubt that he knows a lot about Switzerland and its people. During our three days with him, he was mobbed by a tour group that had seen him on a National Geographic special, he was interviewed for a travel blog, and he was queried by BBC radio. He’s got a following!

waterfallsq-smI can’t help but compare our Midwest states to the small “inland island” of Switzerland.  As far a size goes, our states are almost all bigger than their country. Three Switzerlands would fit inside either Iowa or Illinois.

waterfallsignsqare-smThe Swiss population is about 8 million, the same as Illinois minus Chicago. Switzerland’s biggest city, Zurich, is only about the size of Iowa’s largest city, Des Moines (in the 300-thousands.)

Think about taking Illinois’s entire down-state population, squishing up all the corn fields into mountains and packing everyone together along river valleys. That’s Switzerland.

So, back to some of my findings from listening to Diccon… may he pardon me for any errors or over-generalizations.

swiss-il-compare-smThere are some similarities between Switzerland and our Midwestern states. Like us, Switzerland has a big investment in agriculture. While their rock-filled mountain foothills don’t support much in the way of corn or soybeans, they do okay with cows, goats and hay. Switzerland also grows a lot of grapes along steep southern outcroppings.

But these businesses couldn’t survive without their nation’s decision to supplement their growers’ income. Switzerland has decided to support family farms and locally sourced foods. America has taken to supporting corporations, factories and trucks instead.

swissfarmviewsq-smIn rural Switzerland, where tourists expect buildings to look “Swiss,” you will see mono-culture construction, whether it’s old chalets or newer apartments (they must be called “flats” for a reason). Surely everyone doesn’t want a window-box with geraniums, but that’s what they have. Swiss people who really want to flaunt their differences plant pink geraniums instead of red ones. If I lived there, I think I’d get tired of it real quick.

DSC_0686-smThe Swiss love tradition and conservation, but with four languages and strong ties to the cultures of France, Italy and Germany, differences of opinion are to be expected. They work hard to build consensus before making changes—it’s very hard work with 26 individual “Cantons” or states. Despite this, they have chosen to be world leaders in both technology and ecology.

  • They have been able to agree on expensive, long-term projects including:
    The new Gotthard tunnel for high-speed trains, to “revolutionize” delivery of goods between northern and southern Europe. Trains instead of trucks. According to the BBC, it is the world’s longest and deepest tunnel, and has been in the works since 1992. It opened in June 2016 to much fanfare.
  • It’s no coincidence the Large Hadron Collider was built in Switzerland with their love of precise instrumentation. This Lake Geneva miracle took 20 years to build, and has already advanced science into a new realm of understanding fundamentals of the “glue” that holds atoms together.
  • They are in the process of getting rid of their nuclear plants and going to all hydropower. Their abundance of waterfalls is not just for tourism anymore. (There are some downsides, of course. See my links, below.)

DSC_5834-smWe saw so many crystal-clear rivers in Switzerland, it was amazing. However, the Rhine and the Rhone have had checkered (industrial-pollution-wise) pasts. See below. And, just like in America, there are those people who will throw just about anything into a river or lake. See divers’ article, below.

Americans can’t seem to come to consensus on anything these days. I feel many have stopped trying.
Even though there are large groups of American people who desperately want to conserve the environment, would love to expand renewable resources, would prefer to support local farmers, public transportation, and encourage tourism by saving historic areas, in my lifetime there hasn’t been a great deal of movement as far as state and National governments are concerned. It’s been more like the mythical beast with two heads.

two-headed-monster2-smOne head nods happily in the breeze, where the Midwestern wind-turbine industry has sprung up; the other head holds its nose and counts its gold coins as it allows industrial-sized portions of pig poop and fertilizers to fill our rivers all the way down to the Gulf. We know how to stop this pollution, but haven’t had the political gumption to pass the laws needed.

The Swiss show off their crystalline blue-green glacial waters. Americans can’t swim in the Florida blue-green algae. Our practices would appall them.

I wonder how the land-locked island of Switzerland can be so different from the land-locked, agricultural Midwest. Why can’t we be like them, and agree that the need to expand profits must not run over the need for clean water and air? Switzerland, which parenthetically has no shortage of money,* has made a better choice.    

nancy heather brown author

Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and the world of ideas both inside and outside the box. 


Diccon Bewes’ books and blog. He’s a great writer and thinker, and fun, too.

Amazing waterfall inside a mountain Trummelbach Falls.

*Okay, they had their first budget deficit in 9 years during 2015.

Photos of clear Swiss River from the bottom of the river upward.

What divers are finding in Swiss lakes.

Hydropower drawbacks.  

History of chemical industry misuse of waterways starting in Switzerland and spreading across the world.

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